Best of 07': Part Two

Here's the second half of my top 10 favorite albums of 2007...

5. Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam
I think I've listened to "For Reverend Green" more than any other song this year. It's wonderfully grainy, and the vocals display Animal Collective at the top of their game. Technically, the singing is rather poor; but it manages to be raw and feral with childlike sincerity and spirit, and I just feel that life-affirming tingle when I hear the singer's ferociously cathartic screams. And this is just one song I'm talking about; many critics have cited the opener, "Peacebone," or Strawberry Jam's centerpiece "Fireworks," as the song of the year. The album may seem like group's usual sound, but is that really an issue when that sound gets better with every release? After listening to Strawberry Jam, the handle "Animal Collective" seems quite apt for such mastery of that balance between the savage and civilized. I'll be looking forward to their next LP.

4. The Field - From Here We Go Sublime

Minimalism seems like such a compositional cop-out. One of the difficult things about composing/songwriting is linking together ideas in a manner that sounds effortless, coherent, and intelligent. That's what's meant when something sounds "inspired." There's not much of a challenge if all you need to do is cook up a musical nugget that can be drawn out for several minutes. That's why minimalism is often boring. But Swedish artist Axel Willner, with the stage name "The Field," manages to avoid this pitfall with From Here We Go Sublime, a work of techno-minimalist glacial goodness. Every idea he dreams up does not warrant a change. They're strong enough to stand alone for quite a while. And not only does Willner seem to know this, but he's mastered the right timing for the shifts when they do come. They're subtle, with just enough wit to keep your interest, not only in the development but with their respective foundations. The music isn't immediately gripping, but it's certainly not boring. For lack of a better word, it's just...chill, and this is how The Field avoids both saturating the listener with too much of a good thing, and diluting itself with time and repetition. Extrapolating this over ten tracks, it's no surprise that this is one of 2007's most consistent albums.

3. Jens Lekman - Night Falls Over Kortedala

For some reason, Jens Lekman always feels like a guilty pleasure. There's that crooning baritone, the lush orchestral samples, and the occasionally cringe-worthy lyrics of a hopeless romantic. Blend them together and you get a plate of concentrated cheesecake. And like an image conscious teenage girl ("this will go straight to my thighs!"), you know it tastes great, but after consumption comes regret. On opener, "And I Remember Every Kiss," Lekman sings "You get a gun and you name it after a girlfriend" as the strings soar to the heavens, and I think "pff, what the hell does that mean???" But I love it. Somehow, Mr. Lekman manages to make all the drawbacks of his music, paradoxically, not drawbacks at all. It's delightfully cheesy, and has a very classic feel. Lekman's previous release, Oh You're So Silent Jens, had some great tracks, but a lot of filler; the 17-track compilation easily could've done with 7 or so less. But there is not a poor moment on Night Falls 12 songs. During the course of this semester I must've played at least half of them during my DJ shift, and many of those more than once (especially "Shirin"). There's plenty of cheesecake to go around.

2. Radiohead - In Rainbows

Okay, okay, I know that every music critic ever is on Radiohead's nuts. And I know In Rainbows is one of their weaker releases...but we're talking about, arguably, one of the world's greatest bands. "Mediocre" for Radiohead is still quite good, and relative to everything else, this is one of 2007's best. One of my friends mentioned that their choose-your-own-price marketing revolution may have distracted people from the quality of the music itself. I think he meant this in a bad way, but I think of it as a challenge. When you buy something, you almost feel pressured to test your product, to scrutinize it and decide if you got your money's worth. When something is potentially free, any notion of exchange has vanished. You don't feel the need to justify your investment. In Rainbows must not only deal with this, but it must grab the listener from the your-price-tag novelty and say "Yeah, it's cool but I'm worth noticing, too." And I think it meets this challenge. Opener "15 Steps" is nothing special at first, but as soon as York sings "One by one....," it hooked me immediately. Many of the songs follow the same trend; they don't immediately catch your ear, but they all have at least one climax, that "moment," that you'll want to hear over and over. The middle of Weird Fishes/Arpeggi, and the last minute of "Jigsaw Falling Into Place," in particular, come to mind.

It's been said that Radiohead has more or less "played it safe" this time. Compared to Kid A, In Rainbows is not exactly artistically courageous. But in addition to the aforementioned trend, there are a couple things I've noticed in the songs that make this LP distinctive in its own right. For one, there's a much greater focus on rhythm. In the past, I've heard people accuse Radiohead of having little of it, and they're right. Save a few songs, there's not much on their past six albums you can tap your foot to. But In Rainbows has much more pulse. Not only does this become obvious on the opening two tracks, but even the slower tracks (i.e. Nude, All I Need) have a prominent cadence. Furthermore, melody is subdued for a greater focus on mood. The songs here don't have a sing-along quality; in fact it's difficult to recall the vocal melodies. While Yorke still sings, he steps down from center stage to blend as an instrument with the rest of the band, allowing an atmosphere to envelope the listener. This effect is enhanced by thicker textures. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi, for example, is probably their most polyphonic song to date, and there's a surprising amount of strings in the latter half of the album. None of these changes are bad things; they're just different. What's interesting is that the third track, "Nude," is nearly a decade old. Radiohead have played that song live since the OK Computer era, when it was also known as "Big Ideas." And it doesn't sound out of place at all. To be fair, they've changed the song a lot since then, but I think that's a testament to both the brilliance of music and Radiohead's creative skill; the song has been vastly modified stylistically to fit the overall delivery of the album, but it has still maintained it's compositional core. I confess I do like the older version better, but it's still intriguing to think how something can sound so familiar and yet so alien. And that's kind of how In Rainbows is. It's a more accessible Radiohead, but it's certainly not a throwback; they've still got some tricks up their sleeves.

1. The Twilight Sad - Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters

I don't get people. This album got solid reviews during it's release (8.6 from Pitchfork, 4/5 from AllMusic, B+ from Stylus), and I haven't seen it on any of the end-of-year lists I've read. Does the album not age well? Are they too Scottish? Or am I just retarded?

Anyway...despite my frustration, I think The Twilight Sad are the best new artist of the year, with the best album of the year. They've created their own sound with shoegaze and folk, weaved with pent-up frustration and the vast, beautiful night sky. Their instrumentation, with the shimmering guitars and yearning accordion on "That Summer, at Home I had Become the Invisible Boy," is demonstrably gorgeous. The song titles are long-winded, but it's clear The Twilight Sad wants to evoke visceral images, for they execute it remarkably for such a young band. On "Last Year's Rain Didn't Fall Quite So Hard," not only does the music sound like rain, but downright oppressive rain, beating down the vocals, which can only emerge cross-faded in the isolated distance. Like the band name itself, everything on Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters is melancholic but radiant, executed with both grace and aggression, capturing the emotional range of anyone who's...well, human. "Mapped By What Surrounded Them" and " I'm Taking the Train Home" pack a one-two punch as the album's zenith, but there's not a bad song on here. One of my few complaints, however, is that the album is only 9 tracks long. And I know The Twilight Sad has more to offer. Their 5-track, eponymous 2006 EP contains two songs that were not included on Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters, which is a shame because they're both phenomenal. If you like Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters, be sure to get those two songs.

Ironically, the lyrical content primarily revolves around the troubles of being a kid and growing up. But this isn't anything I relate to at all; my childhood kicked ass. But then again, I didn't grow up in a broken home, which I would assume is a primary conflict in this album (just look at the cover art). So obviously, the reason I love this album is not because it resonates with me thematically. The music is stunning enough in its own right. So maybe those who can relate will like The Twilight Sad even more.....or maybe not if it hits too close to home. I say you take the risk. This one should not be overlooked.
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