Top 10 Albums of 2007: As told by Jameson

Well, here it is ladies and gentlemen. The moment we have all been waiting for. An entire year of (great) music smashed into one ten minute long blog post. I spend all year talking about whether new albums I listen to "have a shot at my top 10 this year", and I will spend all of the next few years mentioning that these albums "made my top 10 in 2007" anytime they come up in passing conversation, as if my list is the definitive reference for all that was great (musically) in 2007. This is no litmus test though. There are plenty of 2007 albums that will not be mentioned below that certainly deserve to be. Wilco's 2007 release, Sky Blue Sky, is arguably some of the most accessible (classic) rock music they have ever made, certainly a "back to basics" effort for Tweedy and company. Ryan Adams' new album, Easy Tiger, is one of his most focused efforts to date, a (dare I say) tight example of alt-country pop from start to finish (well sans rocker "Halloweenhead"...which I hailed as both the best and worst song on that album at different points throughout 2007). Some bands released albums in 2007 that were just a few songs off: Bright Eyes' Cassadaga is 11/13 brilliant, Stars' In Our Bedroom After The War is about 10/13 theatrical indie-rock triumph, and Fall Out Boy's Infinity On High is 9/14 pop-punk grandeur (too bad the wheels fall off on the album's last 1/3). None of these albums, along with many other greats, made the cut though. Only room for the best (where "best" = how Jameson feels about you at the end of the year). So without further delay, here they are: the top ten albums of 2007, as told by Jameson.

10. Les Savy Fav - Let's Stay Friends
The last time Les Savy Fav released an album, I was a senior in high school (October 2001). In the six years since that album's release, Les Savy Fav frontman (showstopper), Tim Harrington, battled a demobilizing case of writer's block. Lucky for us, he fought through the endless hours of frustration spent in a room littered with index cards containing lyrical ideas on them, and managed to put together the band's best album yet. Let's Stay Friends is at times hardcore, and other times poppy, but it is always rock and roll. Album opener, "Pots&Pans" sounds huge and showcases the band stating that they are not to be counted out just yet ("This is where it stops, and this is where it ends, let's tear this whole place down and build it up again, this band's a beating heart and it's nowhere near its end"). From there, the album kicks right into overdrive as "The Equestrian" takes us back to that hardcore, angular rock that Les Savy Fav is most known for. This grainy brand of rock and roll reappears several times throughout ("Raging In The Plague Age", "Slugs In the Shrubs", "Kiss Kiss Is Getting Old"), and holds the album together as a cohesive unit. Mixed amongst these splintered rock numbers, Les Savy Fav weave in and out with a variety of approaches. Sonically, "The Year Before The Year 2000" sounds like Bloc Party, "What Would Wolves Do?" is reminiscent of the Strokes, and album standout "Patty Lee" finds Harrington's usually coarse vocals transformed into a falsetto over a memorable guitar riff. While the aforementioned bands may be more popular, Les Savy Fav sounds better than any of them. Maybe that's because they sounded like this when those bands (along with myself) were still in high school.

09. Iron & Wine - The Shepherd's Dog
Iron & Wine's first album, The Creek Drank the Cradle, sounds as though it was recorded in Sam Beam's bedroom on a tape recorder. Lo-fi defined, the album consists of Sam Beam's voice, an acoustic guitar, and some brief touches of slide guitar and banjo. In the five years since this debut release, it is safe to say that Iron & Wine have expanded. Beam ditched the lo-fi sound on his spectacular follow-up to Creek, Our Endless Numbered Days, and along the way picked up a band. While the band created some subtle accents on Our Endless Numbered Days, the album still maintained that singer-songwriter feel. On The Shepherd's Dog however, it sounds as though Beam has picked up a circus. While this progression was somewhat hinted at on the Woman King EP and the tag-team EP he recorded with Calexico (In the Reins), I don't think anyone was quite prepared for the exuberance that Iron & Wine displays on The Shepherd's Dog. The album opens (almost in a nod to The Creek Drank the Cradle) with a somewhat hollow sounding guitar for the first 15 seconds, and then the drums kick in over an array of scatterbrain piano, followed by a bevy of strings and horns. From here on out, the album flows seamlessly through a cornucopia of sounds. Derek Miller's Stylus review described The Shepherd's Dog's sound as "a kaleidoscopic work of roots music with a junkyard musical palette". This pretty much hits the nail on the head. There are so many different sounds coming out of the speakers during the album's 50 minutes, that I couldn't even begin to touch on them all (partly because I wouldn't know how to describe them). The Shepherd's Dog does not sacrifice quality songwriting for uniqueness though. Sam Beam's masterful imagery is still the album's strongest suit amidst this bounty of instrumentation. A consummate wordsmith, Beam takes yesterday's vernacular and applies it to contemporary affairs, once more building a remarkable album on the strength of his songwriting. Five years after the release of The Creek Drank the Cradle, Iron & Wine have proven that while you may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, if you give him big enough yard, he might just amaze you with what he already knows.

08. Broken Social Scene Presents Kevin Drew - Spirit If...
In case you were not aware (or unable to read the album's jacket), Kevin Drew is a member of Canadian supergroup, Broken Social Scene (he is often credited as a co-founder of the group). Broken Social Scene started as a group of friends making music, and about 20 members later, the band has made quite a name by taking relatively simple pop songs, and turning them into orchestral rock vignettes. As one may have guessed, Spirit If... sounds a lot like a Broken Social Scene album. Drew's BSS cohorts make appearances all over the place, and this collection of (mostly) acoustic songs show their presence with waves of fuzz, interimitten blips, and crashing glass throughout the mix. Recorded over the past couple years, Spirit If... is a collection of Kevin Drew solo songs though, so the album is certainly Drew's baby. As a whole, Spirit If... is a pretty even medley of mid tempo songs, with the occasional rockers ("Back Out on The...") and slow builders ("Gang Bang Suicide"). As a songwriter, Drew contributes moments of brilliance amidst mouthfuls of dense verse (see: "Lucky Ones"). The album is of no shortage of off-beat hooks though (exhibit A: "You are too beautiful to fuck" in "Tbtf", exhibit B: "They say size doesn't count, but my heart is a house" on "Gang Bang Suicide"). Drew's wide-eyed romanticism framed in these relatively sparse (by Broken Social Scene standards) arrangements creates a warm blanket over the entire album, and this intangible ability to cultivate such a glowing sense of familiarity is perhaps the album's strongest suit. Spirit If... closer, "When It Begins", embodies the album's theme of camaraderie with what sounds to be a one take group singalong, lamenting the end of the album. Drew and company imperfectly sing that "it's gonna be really hard when we get to the end", clearly mourning not just the album's literal end, but more significantly the completion of the recording process. I guess that's what happens when you get your friends together, you never want it to end.

07. The Arcade Fire - Neon Bible
Last time we heard from the Arcade Fire, thematically, their focus was very personal. 2004's Funeral was a collection of eccentric epics about individual struggles in the face of adversity. On Neon Bible though, Win Butler and company expanded their scope (dare I say, "went political"). Touching on everything from a religious regime in America, to the war in Iraq, and notably the American public's startling dependence on television (essentially all media) to tell them how and what to think (hence…Neon Bible). The band's sound has expanded as well to fit these grand motifs. Where Funeral teetered that line between unrestrained passion and over-the-top melodrama brilliantly, Neon Bible disregards that the line ever existed. Swelling with brass, strings, and (the always ominous) organ, Neon Bible sounds like it was recorded in an abandoned church (which is appropriate because it was) with about 30 people playing at once. The result is high-octane, controlled chaos that sounds like a dark rock and roll symphony. Both sonically and thematically, Neon Bible flows seamlessly. From start to finish the songs all just contextually make sense, and it would be difficult to imagine them standing alone (or anywhere else for that matter). The album really listens like a good book. All that and I didn't even have to mention Bruce Springsteen.

06. The White Stripes - Icky Thump
Many hardcore White Stripes fans were disenfranchised by Jack and Meg's 2005 foray in country and marimba, Get Behind Me Satan (sidenote: I actually enjoyed Satan quite a bit...although I can't remember the last time I listened to it). Additionally, in the time since Satan's release, the Whites both moved out of the gritty city that molded that classic Stripes sound (Detroit), and Jack has started a marginally popular rock band, The Raconteurs. Needless to say the Stripes' future hung in the balance leading up to their 2007 release, Icky Thump. Rest assured though, order has been restored. With perhaps their heaviest record to date, the candy cane siblings (cough*ex-husband and wife*cough) have managed to take all that is great about the Stripes' past efforts, and mold them into one cohesive record on Icky Thump. There is vintage Stripes garage rock - "You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You're Told)" -, there is the oddly successful cover - "Conquest" -, there is a little bit of country - "Effect & Cause" -, and there is a whole lot of heavy rock - "Bone Broke", "Little Cream Soda", "I'm Slowly Turning Into You" - . The album is a jagged collection of some of the most focused White Stripes material since White Blood Cells, and I would argue that Icky Thump is the most solid (start to finish) album the Stripes have ever released as a result. With Meg White anxiety attacks leading to cancelled tour dates, and Jack White working on "multiple" side projects, the Stripes future is once again uncertain. While I would hate to see it happen, as a pretty hardcore Stripes fan, I think Icky Thump would be a fitting swan song.

05. LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver
Prior to 2007's Sound of Silver, LCD Soundsystem was seen as a great band that made electronic dance music with indie appeal. I would say that is still a pretty fair assessment of James Murphy's outfit, however, Sound of Silver feels bigger than that. It is one of those albums where you keep waiting for the lull, and it just never comes. One track after another starts out as a simple frame, and then builds into this thick, pulsating epic by song's end. All LCD Soundsystem reviews touch on the fact that band mastermind, James Murphy, leans heavily on his influences. While these influences are certainly prevelant (and vast), Sound of Silver is unmistakably the work of one (very talented) man. Silver bumps, beeps, and blips from high to low over the album's 56 minutes, but always sounds smooth, never forced. The greatest development here though is Mr. Murphy's songwriting skills. Whereas prior LCD Soundsystem efforts came off as scatterbrain with clever lyrical spikes, Sound of Silver finds Murphy showing he is deeper than anyone else in the genre. This is most notable within a three song stretch in the album's heart ("North American Scum" -> "Someone Great" -> "All My Friends"). In this 20 minute sequence, Murphy gets patriotic without getting ignorant (what a novel idea), laments the loss of a loved one, and bitches about the harsh realities of growing old. Pretty heavy subject matter for "dance music". That's just it. With Sound of Silver, Murphy has managed to transition from electronic dance phenom to indie music master. Perhaps he's lost his edge, and all for the better. It looks like 2007 will be known as the year LCD Soundsystem dropped all the descriptors, and started being recognized as simply a great band.

04. Okkervil River - The Stage Names
In 2005, Okkervil River released an indie-rock classic. Black Sheep Boy, was a dark, dejected opus roughly framed on the life of ill-fated folk musician, Tim Hardin. The album's ambitious descent into the world of self-depricating rock and roll was universally hailed, and Okkervil River made their place in indie-rock history for it. Fast forward to 2007's The Stage Names, and Will Sheff and company did the best possible thing any band can do following up a great album: They did not attempt to make Black Sheep Boy II. While thematically the album is still fairly depressing, musically, The Stage Names is considerably lighter than BSB. Album opener, "Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe", discusses how the real world is anticlimactic in comparison to the movies, and (ironically) bursts at the seams while doing so. "You Can't Hold The Hand Of A Rock And Roll Man" is a honky-tonk, rock and roll romp which details the less-glamorous side of life on the road. The album's crowing moment though is Stage Names closer, "John Allyn Smith Sails". A biographical track told from the mouth of a deceased John Berryman, "John Allyn Smith Sails" manages to effortlessly interpolate the Beach Boys, "Sloop John B", into the song's (and album's) climax, ending The Stage Names in perhaps the most uplifting/comedic moment to appear on any Okkervil River album. Like I said, Okkervil River chose not to re-create Black Sheep Boy in 2007. In the process, it appears as though they have created yet another indie-rock classic.

03. Menomena - Friend and Foe
In April of this year, I purchased a high quality stereo system. I (ironically enough) bought it from a place called Jamieson's Stereo. This is one of those places where the people working there are so intense about "the sound" that you find yourself blankly nodding along as they demo different speakers for you, asking "Isn't it amazing how much better these $1,000 speakers sound in comparison to these $800 ones?". They sit you in these specially made "listening rooms" that are supposed to mirror a room in your home (as long as you have a room in your house that resembles George Lucas' personal screening room at the Skywalker Ranch), and turn the speakers up to a level that no (sober) person would ever feel comfortable listening to. To "enhance the personal listening experience", they will ask you to "get a CD from your car". If you persist that his copy of Queen's Greatest Hits I should suffice, he will insist that, while he agrees Queen has released some rather "lush sonic arrangements over the years", you still need to listen to "your own stuff" on the speakers before making the purchase. The enthusiasm was appreciated, but all I kept thinking was that I couldn't bring in a burnt copy of the Hold Steady's Separation Sunday (my "own stuff") into the same place where people my dad's age were simultaneously demo-ing multi-thousand dollar "home theatre systems". What would suffice though? What album would impress this 40 year old audiophile, that has probably forgotten more about music than I will ever know? As I sat there, and heard every single sound from Friend and Foe's herky jerky, rock and roll symphony of a first track, "Muscle'n Flo", crisply laid out for me on those three foot tall Klipsch speakers I realized a few things: 1) The rear speakers (the front speakers are blown) on my 95' Honda Accord and the three inch tall computer (factory) speakers that came with my Dell have been doing my music no justice over the past few years, 2) I was about to drop over a grand on a stereo (and oddly enough, my dad would interpret this purchase as a writ of passage into manhood), 3) This Menomena album is fucking brilliant.

02. Radiohead - In Rainbows
The most common criticism I have heard of Radiohead's seventh album, In Rainbows, is that "any band could have made this album". Almost as if we have come to expect Radiohead to produce albums only capable of being made in outerspace. In Rainbows is definitely a more sparse sounding incarnation of Radiohead, but it is by no means any weaker as a result.

In fact, I felt the band's previous album, Hail To The Thief, was at times bogged down by the band trying too hard to make the album sound "complex". In a welcome gust of fresh air, In Rainbows finds Oxford's finest (for the most part) putting away their laptops and returning to their guitars and drums. What we are left with is a smoky collection of simmering, guitar-based tracks that are as bare as anything the band has put out since The Bends. Interestingly enough, on an album that finds Radiohead's (semi-insane) leader, Thom Yorke, using his voice as an instrument more than any other Radiohead release, Mr. Yorke has also managed to put together some of his most "straightforward", even soul-bearing, lyrics (Example 1: "How come i end up where i started, how come i end up where i belong?", Example 2:"This is my way of saying goodbye, because i can't do it face to face, so im talking to you before it's too late"). The emotions always felt like they were there, but prior efforts displayed it more in Yorke's inflection rather than his dictation. This less obtuse form of songwriting humanizes the album, perhaps making it more accesible to those alienated by the band's exploration into the dense "Man vs. Machine" theme seen on Radiohead's last few albums. Another improvement upon its predecessor is In Rainbows' length. Clocking in at just over 42 minutes (ideal album length), In Rainbows leaves listeners satiated, but wanting more, something that the rather dense (57 minute), Hail To The Thief, fails to do (in my opinion).

Prior releases aside, In Rainbows is a tight example of Radiohead proving that whatever angle they take, they will emerge with a consummate, cohesive album. In Rainbows is unmistakably a Radiohead album, but sounds nothing like anything the band has put out before. No matter what Radiohead does, they manage to sound both fresh, and like themselves. Critical darlings because they manage to maintain their identity, all while breaking the mold of what everyone expects them to do. In the meantime, bands everywhere are just trying to keep up, or even emmulate Yorke and Co. (Coldplay anyone?). The imitators just fall flat though, drowning vanilla, acoustic ballads in a pool of electronic drum loops and flat computer blips. Sure, any band could have made In Rainbows, but no one else did.

01. The National - Boxer
As 2006 came to an end, everything seemed to be falling right into place for you. In the aforementioned year you graduated from College (a stage of your life that you enjoyed thoroughly, but were admittedly "tiring of"), and seamlessly transitioned right into a shiny, desk job (a livelihood you believed in your heart of hearts was perfect for you). It was almost as if at the end of college, instead of thinking (honestly) about your future life, you decided to turn the light out, say goodnight, and not think about it for a little while. After all, there was a lot going on, and there was no reason to try to figure out everything at once.

Everyday, showered and blue blazered, you made your way to that white collar wonderland. Always out to impress your superiors you did everything that they asked you to do. Sure to underline everything, and double-check it twice, you were a professional in your beloved white shirt. Work required quite a time commitment from you too. Your office started to feel more like home than your apartment (you certainly spent more time there). You'd come home late from work and be mistaken for a stranger by your own friends. Even you couldn't keep track of everything falling through the sky. Half awake in a fake empire, it was just another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent life of an adult.

One day, you wakeup, and it is spring. You are using two weeks of vacation time to study for exams (work-related of course). You're young though, they say it doesn't matter, and besides, you're shooting up the ladder. However, you start to think about things. You are falling out of touch with all your friends. You think about them somewhere (without you) getting wasted, and you hope they're staying glued together. It feels like you hardly know them anymore, but you still have arms for them. Your mind is racing like a pro now. Is this really what you want? It doesn't mean a lot to you. Not long ago you were young and had the world in front of you, now that feels like a million years ago. You tell yourself, "this isn't working." You're dumbstruck.

In the midst of this haze of false pretenses, you happen to remember you had a girlfriend. In the process of losing touch with all of your friends, you managed to grow more and more reliant on her for all things social. Rather than being reminded of your youthful past (and how unnurtured you have left it), it was just easier to forge ahead with your (soon-to-be friendless) future. Putting blinders up was so successful in your professional life, it would have to carry the same fate in your personal life.

She (gracefully) dragged you around from the end of her coat all winter, but on this fateful spring day (when all this thinking started) you also realize that you have made a mistake in your life. It seems as though everything you love is lost in drawers. You want to start over, you want to be winning, way out of sync from the beginning. You realize something you have always known, but is suddenly clearer. This girl is special, and now you want nothing more than to show her how much you appreciate her. All you want to do is hurry home to her, put on a slow, dumb show for her, and crack her up. Unfortunately, the damage is already done, and this message ends up getting lost in translation. Your newfound enthusiasm turns into suffocation, and you overdo it.

In what is already a dark time, you lean on the wall, and the wall leans away. The floor drops out on you, and you are going down among the saints. "Does she really think she can just put it in a safe behind a painting, lock it up, and leave?" "She might need me more than she thinks she will." Time passes, and it doesn't really get any easier. You can hear the sound of her laugh through the wall. She has moved out though, and you just keep hoping she knows her way back around.

You slowly accept your newfound fate, and try to proceed with life, but she keeps changing her fancy mind everytime you decide to let go. You think to yourself, "She was always weird, but I never had to hold her by the edges like I do now." The two of you start to talk again. You make up excuses to see her: "I've got two armfuls of magazines for you, I'll bring em over." She backs her way in as well: "Let me come over, I can waste your time, I'm bored." It wasn't particularly romantic, but life rarely is. You are honest with her. You tell her that you miss going wild and bright in the corners of front yards, getting in and out of cars. You miss being deviants. Basically, you miss your younger years when things were not so complicated. You both agree that you don't want to be apart, but that you can't stay here. You say, "We were starting to stay the same, and we can't stay that way."

In an uncharacteristic move, you two decide to leave it all up in the air. For the first time in a long time, you decide to just live your lives in the present. Do what feels right for the moment because that is the only certain feeling you know. It is refreshing. Everything you used to believe is diving off the balcony.

In one year, not a lot appears to have changed, but everything seems different. The passing of 2007 has altered your outlook on things. You're still working that office job, but you know now that it should not define you. You may not get to see your friends that often, but you recognize that you cannot survive without them. You are seeing that girl again, but enjoying it now instead of always planning for later. You understand that the minute you fall into a routine is when you start to take things for granted, and that is the minute you have lost control. You realize life isn't like the movies because the movies skip over all the small stuff, and it is that small stuff that ends up defining our lives. I guess everything counts a little more than we think.

- Jameson


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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow, man. I'm still convinced you could make a decent living as a writer. But while you decide how to best live in the present and take control of your future, I think I'll go out and buy "Boxer."

- Tim

Michael said...

just got around to reading your review of Boxer (i don't have the internet on my computer and your site is exceedingly hard to find without the address). Anyways, damn Jimmie, I got chills reading this. I'd say it's the best thing you've written thus far and it is the reason that I refrained from writing any comments on my top ten. Kuddos!! And I completely agree with your uncle. Keep up the good work.