Top 50 Albums 2007
By The Staff
30 :: M.I.A.
It almost seems redundant to add another word of criticism—praise or scorn — to the slagheap of prose written about Kala, one of the year’s most polarising albums. Still riding a wave of hype surrounding her debut release and the endless curio-pieces on her upbringing, her musical connections, her cultural curating of the Third World, and her strength of conviction…well, let’s face it: Kala is, at least generally, more of the same. But just like Arular (2005), Kala is an unexpected assault on the senses, its specific concoctions surprising and intoxicating cultural gumbos that drag familiar and diverse influences together, creating a politically motivated album you can still dance to. Dismissed as limp and unfocussed (which it isn’t), praised as a revolutionary vision of music without frontiers (which…it also isn’t), Kala is most importantly a document of someone translating the dichotomies of ethnic identity while deftly employing an embarrassment of musical riches largely ignored by the Western world.
Except “Jimmy,” which is still trite sub-Boney M shit. Let’s make no bones about it.
29 :: Jessica Rylan
Origami’s an image often used to describe music composed of delicate angles, and if we’re to place Jessica Rylan’s oscillator-opus Interior Designs in that tradition, let’s say it puts the listener at the very center which the paper folds around. These are the messy insides of the miniature swan, its form imposed from the outside (and wryly commented on by the album’s title track, an absurd blues hobble that seems to say, “here’s the ugly, beautiful root of it all”).
Turns out the view is, yes, insular, but also a host to lively contradictions, structured irregularity and a flair for paradox probably looking logical enough on the exterior but from within leaving your ears to run up/down Escher stairs. Rylan’s oscillators cartwheel, backflip, skip ahead, lag behind, and eagle-talon twirl with each other, yet do nearly all of this in one linear voice; the sound is given dimension through a twisting of tones but it remains unilateral. This is Rylan’s puzzle, a bouquet of Moebius Strips made of sine waves. Once you’re in this labyrinth, trying to extricate yourself becomes the adventure, and it’s an adventure that’s equal parts fun and befuddling.
“Extraordinary” will have your ears playing paddle ball with loud tones representing the music, its relationship to you determined by a string that can’t for one moment stay the same length; you and I both would fail at that game so it’s a good thing that Rylan’s doing all the work for us. “Timeless” compacts what sounds like canned wind from a Kurosawa film while allowing gusts to escape increasingly as the track progresses; it’s like Rylan trapped a storm cloud in a tea kettle and set up a mic to record the kettle’s last assignment. “Phantasia” is Matrix code getting scattered by the storm kettle’s blow, and you’re still playing paddle ball. So, just when you think it’s impossible to escape the other side of this looking glass, Rylan gives those rickety rails of “Interior Designs” for you to follow. Follow where? Well, that’s another adventure.
28 :: Shining
Grindstone is a record at war with itself. The most iconoclastic, genre-less album of the year, it subverts transcendence as readily as it embraces it, making a Rock record that does everything that Rock shouldn’t do. Any prog band of the last four decades can do Bach fills, but Shining do it in a way which seems to tear apart the fabric of the song itself; even the first three tracks of power metal chords and thundering double-kicks are still completely turned upside-down by flute solos or baroque harpsichord interludes, themselves often layered like whole suites. While it sounds jarring, what’s really remarkable is how actually beautiful these sections are, irregardless of — hell, because of — the violence that always looms around the corner. Shining fully inhabit these spaces, making music that’s both celestial and kitsch; like John Zorn’s original Naked City (1989), they slyly reference film and television soundtracks and pulp fiction without ever sacrificing emotional power or unpredictability. Like, it’s ok to love “Psalm” in that same giddy way you loved Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts (2001) (or at least like the first three times you heard it), since Grindstone never milks it; the moment when the track slows down out of nowhere like the battery’s dying is hilarious, but also somehow never really interferes with the power of the track as a whole.
And somehow the way these songs are pulled apart by avant-garde jazz and modern composition techniques makes the Rock moments that much more gratifying. Listen to “Stalemate Longan Runner,” which begins with skittering free jazz rhythms, then coalesces into a full-on speed metal assault only to break apart again at its end: Shining treat huge epic rock as one more compositional device. In this way they make a project out of alignment and divergence using the monolithic thrust of metal as a stark contrast to the multiplicity of progressive jazz.
27 :: St. Vincent
If Feist wasn’t enjoying the year of her life, it wouldn’t be a long shot to see St. Vincent playing on Letterman and nominated for Grammys. Marry Me is a tremendous debut, perhaps the year’s finest: the project of Texas-bred Annie Clark, it’s full of equal parts gnashing-teeth guitars and porcelain-smooth vocals. Clark handles both the fuzziest of rockers (“Your Lips Are Red,” which could pass for a recent Liars tune) and the prettiest of ballads (the darkly comic title track) with aplomb. Though the songs are filled to bursting with production, it’s her voice that often wrestles the spotlight from the frantic guitar work. Gifted with a range that spans the deep octave of the title track to the high-pitched jazz warbling of “What, Me Worry?” Clark shares both Feist’s nimble delivery and much of her charisma.
But there’s a wryness and humor to even the darkest of these songs that’s absent from too many of her peers. “What, Me Worry?” references Alfred E. Neuman’s famous expression while casting herself as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, all “clicking heels” and disappearing. Even the album’s title, she claims, is a nod to a running gag from Arrested Development. The title track itself, ostensibly a swooning piano ballad — “Marry me, John, I’ll be so sweet to you,” she begs—works in D’Angelo-like behind-the-beat claps and an R&B slow jam-ready rhythmic base under its fluttery vocals. Toward the end of the song, she sings “We’ll do what Mary and Joseph did / Without the kid.” Blasphemous? Maybe. Clever? Sure. But above all, Marry Me is an album that subverts expectations and revels in its wit. That Clark earns her laughs without sacrificing the impressiveness of the album’s very serious musicianship is the sign of a great musician. A Best New Artist, even.
26 :: Phaoahe Monch
Despite its descent into maudlin bullshit for its final quarter—“Trilogy” can eat me—Desire is absolutely delicious. The aesthetic is gorgeous: Monch and his coterie of producers fuse some early 1970s soul and funk onto contemporary hip hop in a way that, perhaps even surprisingly, sounds fresh. Meanwhile, Monch is Monch, which is to say that Monch channels your entire existential existence on the cusp of every enunciated syllable, and it’s basically up to him whether he bites that shit off or blows you back out into the world. Seriously: cadence, flow, illness—it’s like rating the aesthetic design of a nuclear bomb. But we already all knew that, and the bigger thing here is that Monch is back on form, back on top, and just plain back, rockin’ high in a fairly lame year for hip hop like the genre doesn’t exist without him and his unpretentious dictionary apocalypse stylistics ringing like a clarion call: fields, streets, and music. Monch tells us the way in or out is to speak, and to speak better than anyone else. But he does that without telling us that’s what he’s doing; he doesn’t need to, because he’s that fucking superb.
25 :: The Field
From Here We Go Sublime
The fact that From Here We Go Sublime has excited both electronic music fans and fringe listeners suggests that Axel Willner’s simple celebration of nuance and patience has weight. Its tracks unfold like expanding puzzles, each successive sample or synth line revealing unforeseen, astounding depth to each track, cluing us in to just a bit more about their ever-progressive structures, each piece a linear journey beginning with restraint and ending with the kitchen sink. At moments the ascent is logical; at other times, it’s fascinating to witness the tracks devouring themselves. But if casual listens allow one to slip into mellow personal nooks, close attention proves that the Field uses minimal concepts only as a guiding perspective; these cuts are all loaded with precise, astonishing detail. Consequently, From Here We Go Sublime shows that Willner’s interest lies in the magic of personal interaction with sound. This is the retreat from the clubs; it wants to take the party home to intimate roots: back to your apartment with your closest friends, back to one room, back to you.
24 :: Islaja
Though Ulual YYY never once admits marriage to any singular impetus (except for being the most difficultly gorgeous album you never heard), its condensation of backwards production — thrush’d mastering, an indiscernible high-frequency din, field recordings and soundbytes captured through a telephone receiver—ages Merja Kokkonen within the walls of, say, Daptone Records and then throws her onto the top of a baby grand. She is singer, band, and sepia photograph, and acting as any undusted find of basement tapes, Islaja’s total seems both tragic and coy, like reels pieced together from recordings from different rooms. “Kutsukaa Sydãntã” could end up a soul sample if only the piano could stay together and “Pete P” could be a single if its ghoulish lurch in the chorus wouldn’t cause so much vehicular manslaughter; this record is like a big game, like that exquisite corpse game where tentacles and smudges lace all the goofy silences between Kokkonen’s voice into a serious whole. But by the time the organs and accordions have assembled, Ulual YYY has sidled into bird tweets and rustling leaves, allowing the rest of us time and space to imagine the pieces that passed and draw up our own corpse. Who knew music criticism could be so much fun?
23 :: Radicalfashion
2007’s most curiously titled artist, Radicalfashion manages to outdo all of Max Richter’s output in one album, perhaps because where the latter’s attempt at fusing classical and electronic music often comes across as overly melodramatic, Odori is fragile, hushed, and intimate — if no less melancholy. Bookended by what may be the loneliest sound ever created—something like large drops of water falling in a huge basin within a vast, empty warehouse—Odori makes minute details sound epic, and full-bodied Romantic flourishes sound restrained. The latter typically comes in the form of “Moonlight Sonata”-esque piano that sounds like it couldn’t possibly be from this era, but with haunting and expressionist electronic cushioning, like the deep gasps for air and metronome clicks that accompany the gorgeous “Shousetsu.” Radicalfashion’s aesthetic is coherent enough that Odori flows seamlessly, even shifting from the downtempo jazz at the end of “Thousand” to the haunting “Usunibi,” where electronic drones fade in and out, hinting at a build-up then regressing into complete silence.
And yet this isn’t really an ambient record: “Ballet” is weightless but full of rhythmic, flowing movement, just as its title suggests. “Shunpoudoh,” with its cut-up vocal symphony, falls somewhere between Prefuse 73 and Steve Reich. Whatever it is, it’s delicate sense of restraint and tangible intimacy are summed up in “Photo Dynasmo,” where heavily-processed vocals seem to be saying “Here…here…right here”: this is a distinctly human voice calling out from within a finely-executed digital tapestry.
22 :: Kemialliset Ystävät
Kemialliset Ystävät’s self-titled album is a noise record less by virtue of its harsh sounds—though they’re definitely there—then by the sheer madness in the way the sounds are piled on top of each other. In isolation, most of the elements—tinkling glockenspiels and xylophones, chanting vocals, squeaky woodwinds over bedroom electronics—suggest you’re in for something like a Mum record, when in reality it’s more anarchaic than Black Dice. The slower pieces sound like twelve Pink Floyd records playing at once, while tracks like “Superhimmeli” sound like any current krautrock-obsessed dance group put through a random effects generator. The thing is mixed together beyond the boundaries of good taste; tracks that could be grave chamber pieces are assaulted by wild oscillations and visceral drones that tickle the spine and make it nearly impossible to actually think about what’s going on. In the end, Kemialliset Ystävät achieve what so many free-folk acts fail to, which is to make a record as unhinged as free jazz, while still rooting it in basic folk patterns. While most bands end up being slaves to these simple progressions, here they’re almost completely damaged: it’s baffling to think that closing track “Himelli Kutsuu Minua” is based on one of the simplest blues/folk progressions imaginable, considering how far the band stretch it.
Still, whatever justification I can make for Kemialliset Ystävät as high art, it’s also a record that acknowledges itself as drug music—hell, the band’s name translates as “Chemical Friends”—and the proof really lies in how consistently disorienting it manages to be. The various disembodied voices that dot the record—like less melodic outtakes from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981)—are a Terence McKenna wet dream of shamanistic channeling, but the beauty is that amid the dense electronics and acoustic rattling they sound less like they’ve been thrown in the mix so much as excavated. And yet even the murky, underwater electronics and giddy, high-pitched oscillations sound like some ghostly, ancient presence; mixed in a way that maximizes their instability. And through all that, the album never feels unnecessarily complex or random: it feels laboured over, just in a way that never sacrifices the overall effect to melody or structure. An album you don’t so much listen to as feel in your body, Kemialliset Ystävät is one of the most genuine psychedelic records in years, an acid-folk head trip that Syd Barrett would’ve never seen coming.
21 :: Aesop Rock
None Shall Pass
If you don’t like Aesop Rock then that’s your problem, pal. Well, alright, it might actually be a pandemic of the world you live in. But it’s yours specifically as it applies to Aesop Rock, so stop your mewling.
This is true because haters commonly cite that fact that his voice is a monotone groan and his lyrics are ostensibly nonsensical. This accusation can be somewhat accurately leveled at Aesop. His lyrics don’t really work as a tidy narrative, but even neophyte music fans should have long ago realized that this criticism is facile. We don’t demand coherence from our music.
If we did we would be constructing a silly self-made prison of rationality, where “Jack and Diane” (1982) would be one of the most satisfying songs you’d ever heard. Do you want to live in a world like that, reader? Do you? Of course you don’t. Sometimes it’s enough that the assembled words sound cool. This alone would put Aesop at the top of his game, because most of the shit he spits on this album is objectively cool as hell. Empirically cool. Cool in a vacuum. (ex. “Blood turns wine / When it leak for police / Like, ‘That’s not a riot, it’s a feast’ / Let’s eat”).
It would be easy to say that this music is good despite the fact that it doesn’t have denotative meaning, but that’s not the truth. Aesop Rock flirts with sense. He darts in and out and between innumerable narratives. He beguiles the listener with a hint, with the impressionistic sense of a moral (even an ardently-felt-well-articulated one) that we just can’t quite get the two sides of our head to close completely around. This does not mean that they do not exist.
There are any number of morals, narrative threads, vignettes or cultural observations to any number of Aesop Rock tracks. The problem is we’re just not used to a lyrical mind dexterous enough to hurl them at us twelve at a time, each in a couplet, and cloth them so elegantly in subversive metaphor. Ian Bavitz took his artistic namesake’s body of work, ran it through a document shredder, lit it on fire and spent years honing his voice to mimic the dry crackle of its writhing. These are the fables of the new millennium, and they make about as much sense as the world with which they are concerned.
Hence, not liking Aesop Rock is a form of denial.