Features | Lists

Top 50 Albums 2007

By The Staff

Super Furry Animals

Hey Venus!

(Rough Trade)

2007 featured something that the music-buying public hadn’t witnessed in nearly ten years: a Super Furry Animals record that wasn’t met with rapturous praise upon its release. (Gasp!) Part of this was due to a somewhat questionable marketing scheme that only allowed for a “digital” release in the States. North Americans can’t buy a hard copy of Hey Venus! at the record store until January, which resulted in it being completely ignored by several media outlets (and does their label really think they don’t have fans in the U.S./Canada? WTF?).

But perhaps the somewhat lukewarm reception to Hey Venus! is more easily explained by the fact that relative to recent SFA releases it’s downright modest, less than 40 minutes and brimming with the type of jaunty, three-minute pop songs that the band has shown minimal interest in since Radiator (1997). Actually, I’d say its just what they needed, an antidote to the uber-grim Love Kraft (2005), a record that while good, took effort to listen to and suggested that these guys might finally be starting to take themselves a bit too seriously. What SFA have sacrificed in epic sweep they more than make up for in sheer listenability, with speedy songs like “Into the Night” and “Neo-Consumer” being easily digestible on the first take but still capable of revealing powerful hooks over time.

All of the Super Furry hallmarks remain; they’re still obsessed with widescreen, Spector-esque production and lush harmonies, not to mention a newfound obsession with the hammer dulcimer. But unlike Love Kraft or even Phantom Power (2003), you can simply put on Hey Venus! without having to think too hard about it, which needn’t be an awful thing. Gruff Rhys and co. are good enough to not have to swing for the fences every time.

David M. Goldstein

Times New Viking

Present the Paisley Reich

(Siltbreeze)

For lovers of blissed-out, white noise garage pop, 2007 was a treasure trove of unexpected 7-inches and mp3 transmissions from all corners of the internet. Bands like Los Llamaradas, Blank Dogs, and Psychedelic Horseshit bowed down at the altar of Velvet Underground sonics, ’80s New Zealand fuzz, no-wave, and lo-fi. Much of this resurgence comes thanks to the revival of Siltbreeze Records — which, as founder Tom Lax claims, was revived specifically to put out the first record by Times New Viking: 2005’s sloppy, charming, awesome Dig Yourself.

Indeed, Times New Viking sounds sort of like a hissing greatest hits cassette of bands the label once championed. They have since parted ways — singing with Matador late in 2006 — but the band did put out one final album on Siltbreeze early this year, Present the Paisley Reich. I was sold on the album from the clanging drums that conjur hazy recollections of Surfer Rosa’s (1987) “Bone Machine.” Although there is some common spirit shared with those early, urgent, can’t-really-play-our-instruments-but who-cares Pixies recordings, the band ultimately has more in common with the sloppy nihilism of ’80s underground, which they mix with an ear for uber-sincere pop melodies straight out of Postal Service-type pop.

The band excels in burying boy-girl vocals under a miasma of trebly guitar bliss and paper-thin drums, with percussive keyboard riffs that call to mind the accidental grandeur of the Clean, as well as the effortless bliss of early, clumsy Malkmus. Despite all the beautiful fuzz, there are obvious pop songs here too: the anthemic “New Times, New Hope,” the overly dramatic yelps of “Teenage Lust!,” and the epic “Love Your Daughters.” The defining characteristic of all these songs is an intense earnestness, buried beneath those garbled lyrics and glossy sheen of fuzz and grime; the band just can’t hide it’s exuberance and desire to rock yer socks off. As such my favorite songs by them will always be the rushed, slipshod ones that barely last a minute and feature the band stumbling over itself to get out their glorious messy pop. Present the Paisley Reich is a sloppy, drunken kiss to all the great fuzz pop bands of ever, and easily one of 2007’s best.

Clayton Purdom

Shugo Tokumaru

Exit

(P-Vine)

Say, October-ish, Shugo Tokumaru stepped out of the Oink-less ether and rewarded the stiffening cockles of our hearts as only a mild-mannered Clark Kent could, with the most unabashed, self-contained music he’s made yet. In fact, CMG died a little inside when Shugo was unable to get us, we had hoped, a cover of “For Reverend Green” in time for our Fantasy Podcast. Busy, what with scoring top ten sweet on a, ahem, cover of “Young Folks” and all. But Shugo, being the explicitly gracious guy that he is, might just record it sometime next year because, power fistpumps aside, we dearly want to hear what kind of rockcandyhump of melody that’ll turn into.

Still, the gravest injustice to CMG and to 2007’s elite ranks of segmented sunshine pop was in how difficult it was for Exit to seize a North American audience; only available through the very un-English P-Vine Records, Shugo’s third record casts his amoebic voice into a populist pond, assimilating Western pop cues (spaghetti, folk, Vegas lights, and, um, klezmer) into something too innocent or unscathed for kitsch. Can we truly believe in a record that ostensibly gives us everything we want without the campy luggage? Because Exit came out of nowhere, literally, and built of everything continues as nothing: can’t buy from Amazon, can’t look it up on Allmusic, won’t find it yet on iTunes even though three singles have been “released” with complimentarily lysergic videos. Couple that with Shugo’s unintended condoning of the Western way: can’t read Japanese? Just steal this shit from somewhere.

And I hope we all get that familiar pang of guilt because, hands down palms up, the simplest success of Exit is how — bristling with unadorned melody despite all the instrumental wonk — Shugo puts to shame the Field Musics and the Of Montreals based on how labored they seem in comparison. “Button” is only as “Button” does, sail rigging knocking against a dock of organs, splashes of movement existing because they move; its happy chorus is an inertial spread that includes, radially, the “Parachute” jig on acoustic guitars meant to sound like banjos or the banjos meant to sound like treefrog hindquarters rubbed laterally together through the closing of “Wedding.” If every bit of Exit seems to be nonsensically spinning, it’s because Shugo’s gotten to the point where he’s got to make his own orbits. He’s doing all the work for us.

Dom Sinacola

Bright Eyes

Four Winds EP

(Saddle Creek)

The sound of Bright Eyes gets less strange and more accomplished with every passing album. On the heels of the critically adored I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (2005), the Four Winds EP (and follow-up full-length Cassadaga) is the closest Conor Oberst and crew have ever coming to sonically deserving that New Dylan tag he’s always been sidled with. So why did people stop paying attention? It’s also the closest he’s ever come to sounding like the Counting Crows, but I digress. Without the trademark self-indulgent bullshit that Oberst feels compelled to open every album with, Four Winds is a concise document of an evolving musician.

Filled with shades of Blonde on Blonde (1966), it’s a traditionalist folk-rock album that draws on producer/band member Mike Mogis’ considerable experience with the genre as the frontman of forgotten group Lullaby For the Working Class. For perhaps the first time, Oberst doesn’t sound like he’s forcing anything. For fans of harder alt.country (or maybe just me), I’m Wide Awake often felt like an invasion, authenticity-granting Emmylou Harris backing vocals and all. With Four Winds, he’s settled into a sound that feels anything but artificial. He’s grown up as a singer, no longer as prone to that deal-breaking emo-waver; likewise, his songwriting has expanded beyond the confines of his own broken heart. It’s stirring to hear him deal with political issues on the title track, just as it is to hear him deal with his own missing direction on “Tourist Trap” — one of the best songs he’s ever done — without slipping into typical sad-sack mode. Dude may have Blood on the Tracks (1975) in him yet.

David Greenwald

David Thomas Broughton

David Thomas Broughton vs. 7 Hertz EP

(Acuarela)

David Thomas Broughton is on the fast-track towards making one hell of an album. It’s been EPs and collections and the 2006 CMG Fantasy Podcast covers since his debut The Complete Guide to Insufficiency (2005) laid the striking blueprint; this EP/mini-album/side project/whatever-we’re-supposed-to-call-it may be his finest work to date. Here Broughton’s flushed ache of a voice and acoustic guitar and their looped selves are embellished all too aptly by the strings of the 7 Hertz posse, resulting in music that feels simple yet titanic, intimate yet sweeping, a host of revelatory moments occupying the span between those poles.

“Weight of My Love” and “River Outlet” are monolithic bookends. The former’s ten minutes eviscerate a love ballad; it grows and churns and echoes itself before falling upon a solemn resolve, of course. I mean, who has a love that’ll weigh more than DTB’s? Nobody, that’s who. The twenty-two minutes of “River Outlet” are gripping and astounding; the three-chord repetition at the heart of the track becomes a mantra around which the arrangement clusters and then unfurls, depicting the spell Broughton’s falling under. With his final utterance of “my mind is an open sky” the song’s wisp of a funnel cloud touches down with the ocean whirlpool below and becomes a hurricane. Although that core progression is technically a descent, its totality amounts to an ascent into oblivion. Mind = blown.

So, almost inevitably, “No Great Shakes” and “Fisted Hand” feel like lesser reflections of their neighbors; luckily, the minute-long “Jolly” cuts through the center of this collection like the slight and charming wink that it is. It’s as if David’s telling us not to take all this too seriously, that he’s just warming up — an attitude that’s probably the only real reason this is being marketed as a “whatever” and we’re not counting an hour of music as one of the year’s official full-lengths. But if vs. 7 Hertz is just some stretching, I’m shaking at the thought of David Thomas Broughton getting his game on for really real.

Chet Betz

Leonard Cohen

Songs of Leonard Cohen / Songs From a Room / Songs of Love & Hate

(Sony/BMG)

Classic buyer’s remorse: I don’t know why the label put out these re-issues: maybe it was just that time to cash in on Ole’ Man Cohen, you know, send a couple of engineers into the archives, re-master some shit, find some alternate takes. Throw together some liner notes and touch up the artwork. For whatever reason they put this stuff out (It is, after all, like the 40th anniversary of the debut record.), it seems to me that, beyond any logical corporate moves, re-issues, at their untainted core, are intended to help or even encourage us to reconsider an important artist. Approaching these three albums from that angle, I find myself a changed man absolutely blown out of my bunker, fully stoned from the Kool-Aid. Like any number of classic artists, Cohen was one of those people I had listened to and respected – perhaps out of obligation — but for one reason or another had glossed over in order to throw my eggs in the Bob Dylan or Lou Reed basket, thinking I had heard enough smarty-pants, edgy lyricists to get through a lifetime.

And you know what, I’m really glad I ignored Cohen for this long. If I hadn’t put this love affair off, I would have been possibly denied my greatest musical moments of 2007. That act of discovery is touching, reinvigorating, and an essential part of the musical experience. When you stumble upon an artist, not by way of some snarky music site, dinosaur print magazine, or some unbearable music-head at the bar, but just because some charming re-issues showed up on your lap, it’s akin to the musical gods gently lifting your heart from your chest and taking a life-changing bite out of it, infecting your soul with the elevated knowledge encased in their saliva. Like, OK, I finally “get” it.

What is there to really say here? If you already know Leonard Cohen, like the way I know Dylan and Reed, then heck you’re content that someone still cares and, I dunno, maybe you’ll get a kick out the alternate versions of “Bird on a Wire” and “The Dress Rehearsal Rag.” If you’re a relative virgin like I was, then why should I ruin the initial infusion of startling, meek awe? At least: imagine a songwriter that designs his music as intimately as he can, at times uncomfortably so with the basest means possible. The arrangements range from sparsely picked acoustic guitar and loping bass to the sweet swell of strings and the carnival-esque pounding of drums. The lyrics and their earnest delivery are stunning, much more approachable than anything you read in the Pynchon-aping Cohen novel Beautiful Losers. If that description doesn’t work, let me put it in more concrete terms: consider those contemporary New York music intellectuals, the Walkmen, stripped of their fierce electric gear and forced to play with wooden noise and practice amps and made to rely on the directness of thoughtful lyricism and beautifully simple songs and you’ll get a sense of what you’re in for. Ultimately it makes me wonder why the Walkmen didn’t cover one of these records instead of Pussycats. Hamilton Leithauser, I sure hope you’re reading this.

Andre Perry

Danny!

Danny! Is Dead EP

(Badenov Record/1911 Music)

Here. Go read Clay’s review because methinks you may have stepped over it. Plus, Danny! raps enough about himself, so precisely mind you (over every sample [sue me if this EP, to me, recorded quickly like a Christmas gift basket of nuts and teas, half-expected but always welcomed more than a demo cheese log or B-side card bouquet, works like a cleverly laced series of breaks; pockets of cool, comfortable witticisms all with the same purpose in mind] like a guy totally in love with himself and every tic of what he’s creating on his own) that he moves absurdly, even cartoonishly, past the point of arrogance into ridiculous indulgence. Soon, it’s true, we’ll all be on Def Jux’s jawn.

Dom Sinacola

Hot Chip

DJ Kicks

(!K7)

A definitive party mix, you just knew Hot Chip’s contribution to the DJ Kicks series was going to be fun. An endearing jumble of classic funk, old school rap, Motown and techno, the mix conveys the genuineness (and nerdiness) with which Hot Chip curate and testify to their love of music. Eccentrics like Tom Zé and crate-diver’s treasure Wax Stag share seamless moments with populist dance anthems like New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle” and Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out.” This is one of the more coherent — and consistently good — listening and dancing experiences of the year.

Andre Perry

Grizzly Bear

Friend EP

(Warp)

In a recent discussion of this EP, a friend who’s presumably never heard In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998) called Grizzly Bear’s Yellow House (2006) a “landmark album.” I don’t know if I quite agree with that and I gave the damn thing an 86%; still, they’re easily one of the most fascinating new bands of the last few years. Friend continues in the vein of its predecessor, cloaking the band’s arching harmonies and chunky guitar lines in reverb and rustic sepia-tones.

“He Hit Me (And it Felt Like a Kiss)” – a Phil Spector cover – is even better on record than it was live, all sparse subtlety until the inevitable climax the band’s become so good at. The same sense of experimentation that informs the group’s live performances is at work here: drummer Christopher Bear’s funky chops on Yellow House’s “Little Brother” were a highlight both on stage and in this electric version. With 10 tracks and 43 minutes to play with — almost as long as their LP! — one wonders why the band didn’t just make this a true follow-up, but then they couldn’t have included three covers by their — forgive me — friends. CSS’s “Knife” is the farthest removed from the original, an electro-pop take that’s reminiscent of the Postal Service; it’s a tribute to the band’s songwriting sensibilities that the song works removed from its dusty linen and shoved into slick plastic. As a record that’s half odds-and-sods, half new material, Friend may not be a landmark, but it certainly stands out.

David Greenwald

Sin Ropas

Fire Prizes

(Shrug)

Chet Betz has argued that Fire Prizes takes the Everybody Knows this is Nowhere (1969) sound straight to the 21st century. That’s some crazy, potentially hyperbolic shit to be writing, if only ‘cause there are few bands that don’t suffer in comparison to Crazy Horse. Still, Betz is dead-on. Tim Hurley and Danni Iosello don’t sound like Neil Young and his cadre circa ’69 (that’d hardly make sense), but they take that exploratory vibe and reckless, inspired technique and make its modern applicability extraordinarily clear.

Which is all to say that Fire Prizes is one of the best albums of 2007 (and 2005), and that, despite being nearly impossible to find even with a sort-of-release here in the States earlier this year, you should be doing everything in your power to find it. This is the best Sin Ropas have managed to date, which makes it pretty much on par with the best that Califone has managed, which, if you’re paying attention to modern music in the last five years, makes this indispensable. The fiery, glorious freak-out of “Crown to Stutter” alone makes the record, but the entire back half of the disc finds Hurley at his strongest as a songwriter. It’s the album that some of us have been waiting years for, and it does not disappoint.

Peter Hepburn