Monday, December 31, 2007

More year-end lists + surprises of 2007

There was no shortage of great music released in 2007, but it did seem like a weak year for memorable singles. It was the year of "Umbrella" and "No One" and "Big Girls Don't Cry" (note the song quality heading rapidly downward) and "Irreplaceable" (now we're reminiscing about the spillover from 2006). Rihanna had the summer jam that seemed to stay ubiquitous throughout the entire year, so in the long run "Umbrella" sticks out as the Sound of 2007, not so much by its quality, but by getting noticed when there wasn't anything else to challenge for the crown.

More than ever, Best Tracks of 2007 lists are leaning more toward what the title says -- tracks, not necessarily singles. In past years, songs like "Hey Ya" and "Crazy" topped polls in a laugher, and the response ranged from passive nods of agreement/understanding to outright applause. This year, it feels more like there was a concerted search to identify some song, any song that could meaningfully challenge "Umbrella". Cue the Pitchfork list stocked with plenty of album tracks, including some that are ranked ahead of actual singles from those albums.

In 2000, Spin magazine named "your hard drive" as its album of the year, and their choice was met with what we can diplomatically term "polite ridicule". Yes, it's a huge copout to print a year-end list and not choose a #1. It's also stupid to publish a prominent music magazine, where one expects to see intelligent and non-trivial criticism, and make a non-insightful comment that can be summed up as simply "the internet is important". Even if there was a good point lurking beneath the ridiculousness, it was simply an obvious, uninspired take on things (no, Spin's attempt to justify it in hindsight doesn't make the decision any better at the time it was made). Nevertheless, it's been seven years, and "your hard drive" is reaching progressively higher levels of influence when it comes to shaping not only individual music tastes (obviously) but also in defining the "hits" independent of whatever MTV or radio might be playing. At one point, "you" compiled the album of the year by downloading your favourite hits, but now the internet is so entrenched in musical culture that "you" choose the hits yourself.

I tried hard to identify ten singles I truly cared about, but it was an impossible task, particularly when there were so many non-singles that meant infinitely more to me this year. Shoehorning something like "No One" or Gui Boratto's "Beautiful Life" onto the list and not including "Windowsill" because it wasn't a single? I couldn't do it. Unfortunately, I will admit up front that these decisions led to a fairly boring list. There is a a lot of overlap with my album choices (lists are boring when there isn't enough variety) and the inclusion of obvious, if indeed fantastically great, mainstream artists (Justin Timberlake, Nelly Furtado) is hardly distinctive. I made a point of including as many singles as I could, hence the inclusion of "Beautiful Girls" when it probably wouldn't crack the top 25 if I fairly and honestly ranked all tracks from 2007 as equals. So, in all, this list doesn't deserve a fancy graphics-laden rollout, so here it is, along with some brief comments:

Top Ten Tracks of 2007

1. Jichael Mackson, "The Grass Is Always Greener"

Mind-warping track that only gets better once the Chris Issak samples come in.

2. Arcade Fire, "Windowsill"

All of "Neon Bible" is building toward this track, and I have no idea why I'm the only one who knows it.

3. Nelly Furtado, "All Good Things (Come to an End)"

Best Chris Martin song ever?

4. Panda Bear, "Bros"

Most joyous track of the year.

5. Justin Timberlake, "What Goes Around ... Comes Around"

Another great single from an album that finally won me over in 2007, with a fantastically sexy and engrossing mini-movie/video to boot.

6. Rihanna, "Umbrella"

You may have heard this song once or twice.

7. Go Team, "Doing It Right"

"Sesame Street Theme 2007"

8. Low, "Violent Past"

Far and away the best track on an otherwise uninspiring album.

9. Substance and Vainqueur, "Resonance"

It's like they never left (except less awesome than before they did)

10. Sean Kingston, "Beautiful Girls"

Fun summer jam. Isn't it weird how "Stand By Me" makes a comeback in 21-year intervals?

That was the list I finalized in mid-month and sent off for the critics polls. But all month, I've been imbibing lists and catching up on music that I didn't pay close enough attention to during the year. Every year it's the same thing. All the supposed best music of that year gets unceremoniously pushed aside the second after the ink has dried on your own year-end list because you've been playing the hell out of that music all year and particularly in the previous few weeks and you're bored shitless of all of it. Then you cane the hell out of albums and tracks that you discovered too late in the year to warrant inclusion on your list, or simply stuff that you discovered while browsing through everyone else's lists. Then you question which of these albums and tracks should have made your list, had you known/heard about/appreciated them earlier, which is an interesting exercise that probably deserves a year-by-year personal breakdown, which I'll get to if I ever get around to completing the year-by-year look back on my actual year-end lists that I promised to work on in January(incidentally, to anyone who actually might care about it, the project became derailed not because of laziness, but from indecision about the best way to quantify the review process. If that doesn't make sense now, then it will if I ever get around to completing it).

So here are some December 2007 surprises (an incomplete list):

Spoon, "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga". Spoon's "less is more" approach to music is very much at odds with the music I normally like, particularly in regards to indie rock. Guitar/drums/piano songsmithery that hangs the melodies out to dry -- it's not really my thing unless the music is unbearably depressing. Spoon didn't hit on any kind of newfound magic formula here, except that the tunes are exceptionally good, particularly "The Underdog" and "Finer Feelings". The former catches you from the start, trumpets blazing (literally), and the latter gets hookier as it progresses, straight through to the finish that arrives far too soon.

Of Montreal, "The Past is a Grotesque Animal". Although capable of greatness in fits and spurts ("So Begins Our Abalee" was one of my fave tracks of 2005), Of Montreal tend to bore me over the length of a whole album. There are only so many tinny, lo-fi dance dance beats and smart-ass lyrics a person can take ... or so I thought! With this epic track, Of Montreal not only rock ass with twelve captivating minutes of simple yet infectious beats, caustic lyrics that spawn a million spiraling verses, and a cooing chorus that you hope will never end -- oh no! it's more than that, it's "This Corrosion 2007"!!!

And you know what ... I *still* haven't heard the entire album, just a (very good) track here one month, a(nother very good) track there in a different month. But "The Past is a Grotesque Animal" was the tipping point. I messed up by not believing the hype sooner.

Black Kids, "I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You". This popped up on Pitchfork's list, and along with a bunch of other songs on that list that I wasn't familiar with, I dl'ed them and road-tested the bunch on my iPod. This kind of music-sampling arrangement is perfect for producing those magical, revelatory moments when you get blown away by a spectacular song by a band you've never heard of while you're standing on street corner or sitting on a train. *This* is what the Go Team need to sound like in order to jump from being party kids making rough-and-tumble sugary anthems, to being full-fledged Bomb Squad/Spectorian teen-opera makers. A shoegaze Go Team, I mean, that's such a simple and obvious combination to make, but the best ideas are always the simple and obvious ones that nobody else was smart enough to come up with.

Friday, December 21, 2007

It's December 15 December 21, so that can only mean one thing:


The list has been in the can for a week (since before December 15, naturally), it's this post that is embarrassingly overdue. The combination of a few factors (incl. hectic, self-imposed deadlines at work; new apartment) not only figured into my tardiness, but created the welcome feeling of a tidy conclusion followed by an imminent new beginning. These are the sorts of feelings that one should, but rarely does have heading into a new year.

In terms of the variation in quality (or the "quality standard deviation"), this is the most closely matched Top 10 I've ever done. For #4-#9 in particular, you could have picked the order by drawing names from a hat and I wouldn't have argued too strenuously with the results. The #1 album was a late bloomer like no other from past years -- mildly appreciated during the spring but never considered to be a great, or even very good album, mostly ignored over the summer, and coming on strong over the past couple of months as the brilliance of each and every song (even the very short ones) became evident to me.

I hate all-encompassing year-end statements, but it's hard to shy away from certain changes in the industry that will, in the not-so-distant future, come to define 2007. Music sales continued their downward plummet (which isn't news) and the year's best-selling album might not clear three million sold in the US (which is news, sorta). The year's biggest sellers are the Josh Groban holiday album, the soundtrack to High School Musical II, and "Daughtry". Again, we have a novelty record that was bought exclusively by women over the age of forty, a tie-in to a TV-movie/phenomenon by Disney, and an American Idol reject. None of these can be thought of as "conventional" star-making models for musical success. For decades, the formula has been: artist gets noticed by A&R men after years of work (this even applies to Britney Spears-type teen stars), label puts out record, everybody buys record on account of massive radio/music video exposure. There's been a shift in the notion of who can sell records and how to market those artists to the consumers. The crucial role of television in all three examples (for Groban, it's the Oprah endorsement) is obvious.

The retailing shift is now complete, with Tower Records shut down for good, Wal-mart entrenching its spot as the #1 music retailer (which it has been for a few years now), and Starbucks developing into a recording and retailing force, to name three examples. Exclusivity deals and cross-promotional tie-ins have led to the retailers taking a sizable role in deciding who the stars are, rather than simply selling the records of the most popular artists. Wal-mart played a big part in returning the Eagles to the top of the charts in 2007, if there was any doubt as to that chain's continuing power and influence in the music industry. Again, that in itself is not new, but there is surely a causal link between the now-entrenched retailing shift and the "star-making" shift. *Some* records sold quite well this year, they just weren't the ones that the industry was expecting, and several others that were supposed to be massive turned out to be duds. [It can be said that 50 Cent's "Curtis" was one of those flops, but then again, the "Curtis" vs "Graduation" throwdown turned out to be a huge success, for it was only the second time in chart history that two new releases sold over 600K copies in the same week. The only other time was in 1991, with "Use Your Illusion" I and II.]

Basically, I'm not sure that anyone knows how to market music anymore. I sure as hell don't have any idea what will sell in 2008. The internet is still an untapped marketing resource that nobody knows how to deal with. The TV writers strike has brought this issue into sharper focus, given that the biggest point of contention is the issue of internet revenues. Everyone knows that the money will be there, both sides want a piece of it, but nobody has any clue how to package and sell the product. Whoever can figure it out successfully is going to make a hell of a lot of money. In music, we're seeing sales breakthroughs by people with an eye and an ear for cross-media marketing, and I see no reason why that won't continue.


The Angelic Process, "Weighing Souls With Sand"

The tremendous swarm of guitar noise this band makes must be heard to be imagined, and if all metal records sounded this overwhelming, I'd have to give up listening to some other genres to make room for more Angelic Processes.


Paul Hartnoll, "The Ideal Condition"

If he wants to, Hartnoll can trot out tunes like "Please" and "Nothing Else Matters" all day long, using a succession of famous guest singers and riding the formula into the UK Top 40 whenever he wants. On the other hand, if that was Hartnoll's long-term plan, then he could have filled up this entire album with songs like that, instead of devoting at least half of "The Ideal Condition" with highlights from his probable audition tape for future soundtrack work. "The Unsteady Waltz" is begging to be thrown into a Wes Anderson movie, and it's this type of effort that fills me with curiosity as to what Hartnoll will do next.


Stars of the Lid, "And Their Refinement of the Decline"

The phrase "floating on a cloud of titties" was invoked on ILM, which is pretty much all the description you'll ever need regarding this album. So how does an album that consistently reaches such ecstatic, blissful, lofty heights for two hours rank "only" at number eight? SOTL make beautiful, mood-altering music. It's nice. It's too nice. "Nice" doesn't stir up fanboy admiration, it doesn't bring out the passion I feel for my favourite records. I crave basking in their aura when I play their records, but in between listens, I don't crave their records, if that makes sense.


Sean Kingston, "Sean Kingston"

My favourite bite of harmless pop in 2007, it's been dismissed this as juvenile, watered-down reggae by people who seem to have missed the point (dissing J.R. Rotem's occasionally amateurish production, or the way the album is compressed to all hell, comprise two much more relevant points). It's supposed to be a fun album, a summer album, one that Will Smith might have made if he'd been born in Miami instead of Philadelphia. "Sean Kingston" is to reggae what Justice's "Cross" (2007) and Vitalic's "OK Cowboy" (2005) are to house, to name two recent albums that were highly praised by people with widely diverse tastes in club music, to the point that they practically became the token dance music album on most non-dance music critics lists. In fact, there is and always will be albums like these performing well in year-end critics polls, because many critics enjoy consensus and even feel inclined to reach consensus on the canonic way to have fun.

The Vitalic and Justice albums are light, flimsy, but ultimately enjoyable albums of music that make no serious attempt to represent the vanguard of house music. Sean Kingston's album bounces energetically through one's speaker system, requires no listening brainpower, and puts forth a series of fantastic summer jams -- almost any one of which could be released as a single.

With all the year-end poll results flooding in, there's been a lot of talk about reasons for the success of MIA and LCD Soundsystem. It is said that each of them fares well in the difficult high-wire act that is condensing one genre of music and selling it to fans of a different genre, i.e. James Murphy makes indie music more palatable for dance music fans (and vice versa), while MIA saves indie fans the trouble of catching up on what's new in reggae and certain Eastern musics. What is this horseshit? First of all, will anyone claim that Sean Kingston is doing anyone a favour by dumbing down reggae? His beats are even more kicking than the wack, wannabe-highbrow crap that MIA churns out, but you don't see anyone claiming that Sean Kingston is a creative force, do you? As I've already argued, Sean Kingston is not a creative force. Neither is James Murphy, but he makes entertaining records, bordering on great sometimes. MIA makes astonishingly bad records with the occasional decent track.

At times like these, I worry that writers care more about writing than they do about applying self-consistent theories to the music they write about. Sometimes, there are discussions about an article in a noteworthy publication, such as the New York Times, where people become incensed that the author dared to dumb down the topic a little bit. I tend to err on the side of the Coles Notes version in situations like these. The writer is penning the article for non-specialist readership, so I can tolerate a bit of creative licence in the interest of presenting the relevant background information in a succinct way that doesn't disturb the narrative flow of the rest of the article. Many others disagree, by which I can conclude that a writer can't dumb down his subject and still produce good art, but MIA can.

Don't get me wrong -- it's plenty possible to make a dumbed-down record and still be fiercely creative. Lily Allen did it just last year, working in exactly the same genres we're discussing here. But sometimes I feel there's a gaping logical disconnect between the language of music criticism and the music that is being criticized. MIA is supposed to be a genius, whereas Sean Kingston is called a fat loser teenybopper, even though critics will readily admit that both are trying to do the same thing.


Panda Bear, "Person Pitch"

"Person Pitch" is the next-level shit that The Beach Boys "SMiLE" probably resembled when it was first conceived, that is, if it had been conceived and recorded in Brian Wilson's bedroom (or sandbox) instead of in pricey LA studios. Wouldn't the actual "SMiLE" have been a million times cooler if it had been recorded Panda Bear style, in a bedroom on a tiny budget, most of which could have been spent on harmony arrangements?


Arcade Fire, "Neon Bible"

I had serious reservations that their formula (dream big, sound big, mythologize everything) wouldn't hold its own for a second go-around, and I definitely wouldn't have bet the farm that they'd multiply their fame many times over. I definitely didn't foresee them actively spearheading the return of Springsteen to the circles of indie, fluidly sucking in fans, critics, and magazine covers along the way. Whether all this will seem embarrassing a year from now remains to be seen, but Arcade Fire are a band that's best enjoyed in the moment, and 2007 provided plenty of opportunity for experiencing that.


Horseback, "Impale Golden Horn"

You can overdose on almost anything. You can have too many minimal techno records, too many stoner rock records, or too many fluffy ambient records. I can never have too many records that sound like, e.g. Fennesz at his blistering best. Horseback has his own take on guitar drones", opting not for the coarseness of Fennesz, but a more mellowed, stoned stare, closer to SunnO))) minus 85% of that band's testosterone. The final track, "Blood Fountain", with it's gentle pulse and piano-led melody, nicely fills in the void left behind by six years without a new Labradford record.


Matthew Dear, "Asa Breed"

In a future universe, where minimal techno rules pop radio, we'll look back and say that Matthew Dear was the Ramones.


Explosions In the Sky, "All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone"

Their past albums are marred by nagging flaws, particularly the band's reliance on long interlude segments that presumably build up to a noisy, dramatic crescendo. The noise blasts can't possibly live up to what those slowly-building interludes suggest, particularly when I find myself losing the plot midway through each slow section. But "All of a Sudden ..." is seamlessly cohesive, flowing by in a brisk 40 minutes, its volume rising and falling it's way through a fascinating narrative that is not unlike a three part symphony. First, the big brash overtures ("The Birth and Death of the Day", "Welcome Ghosts"), a slow middle third ("It's Natural to be Afraid", "What Do You Go Home To"), and the uptempo, blowaway ending (kicked off in the opening notes of "Catastrophe and the Cure"). If the album has a flaw, it's that the middle third tends toward their old, meandering habits ("It's Natural to be Afraid" can't justify it's 13-minute runtime), but it works in the context of the whole album, as the calm before the closing storm.


Eluvium, "Copia"

Is there a better combination of triumph and melancholy than the stately closing track, "Repose In Blue"? And just to prove that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, couldn't you say the same thing about the best moments on the EITS album?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The stream-of-consciousness "In Rainbows" review

This is the time of year when the year-end lists start rolling in and curiosity gets the best of me. I start rushing around, desperately tracking down anything notable that I really ought to hear before the year runs out. "Notable" covers a lot of ground, everything from music I didn't even know existed until this month (Six By Seven got back together and released an album? Whoa) to bafflingly overpraised cack made by unoriginal charlatans (MIA, I'm looking at you).

And then there's Radiohead. Normally, I simply step back and stay out of the way whenever they release something, avoiding almost all the discussion and allowing the mountain of hype to build up all around me. Eventually, much like a dog run that you never bother to clean, all that shit builds up so high that you finally have to clear it out once "In Rainbows" starts landing in the top ten on every magazine and website's Best of 2007 list. So I'm going to listen, finally, to the new Radiohead album.

Much like the "Kid A" exercise I did a couple of years ago, this is essentially a real-time review. I don't really have the time (OK, the inclination) to give Radiohead any more time than the bare minimum. Call it half-assing it if you wish, I call it "visceral". It's like reality TV -- unscripted, premeditated, totally unhinged! I haven't heard a note from this album, at least not knowingly. I barely skimmed most of the album reviews. This isn't liveblogging, but trust me when I say that I'm writing these words before I hear the music. I'm fully prepared to look like an idiot for writing this smarmy introduction should the album turn out to be astonishingly good. Needless to pay, I paid $0.00 for my copy of "In Rainbows". Lead-in music: Sean Kingston's bitchin' self-titled album.

"15 Step". So I do know this much: they're back to doing more freaky experimental stuff after rediscovering guitars on "Hail to the Thief". Where there's smoke, there's fire, Radiohead version = when you have Radiohead trying to be experimental, you have Radiohead trying to sound like Autechre. Except that Autechre weren't known for breaking into freaky space jazz in the middle of their tracks. Hey, that's one good track in the books!

"Bodysnatchers". Thom Yorke's voice isn't suited for singing along to sludge rock. Otherwise, I've got no complaints: this isn't too far removed from kind of music the Warlocks should be making these days, that is, if they had ever been bold enough to dig themselves out of their acid hazes and try something new. The Pitchfork review for their new album was so horrible that it scared me away from even wanting to heard it, but then again, Pitchfork has always hated the Warlocks with a passion.

"Nude". This may as well be a fairly uneventful strum through something from Acetone's backcatalog. But Acetone were always more enchanting live than they were on record, so I can see this track working beautifully in the middle of a long live set.

"Weird Fishes/Arpeggi". There's something proggy about these echo-y tracks where the guitars sound like jazz pianos, and I don't mean that in a good way. Have Radiohead ever done something really loose and jammy, I'm talking 15-20 minutes long? I'm wondering if they could pull it off.

"All I Need". They've gone from stealing from Autechre and Miles Davis, to Spacemen 3, to Acetone, and now to Bowery Electric's "Lushlife". That's quite a downward slope. That bass screams "we just wanted a cool-sounding bass sound and nothing more". The track starts to redeem itself by brightening into a piano and cymbal-led wall of sound. You know what Thom Yorke's voice *is* suited for? Wailing his way though multiple repetitions of a song's title while barely being audible above the music.

"Faust Arp". You know what Thom Yorke's voice isn't suited for? Trying to channel Nick Drake.

"Reckoner". The smooth, laid-back intro makes it official: this album is "Radiohead: live at Red Rocks". The singing ruins whatever good vibe I might have had. This track and the last one seem to force in a string section where it wasn't needed, presumably to sell the drama and emotion of the track. Note: the singing is prominently featured on both "Reckoner" and "Faust Arp". Coincidence? I think not.

"House of Cards". Oh great, liberal use of echo. Is Thom Yorke into reggae now? Is King Tubby the new Warp? "I don't wanna be your friend, I just wanna be your lover". I think my dick just locked itself into a cocoon for the winter. I'm hearing a lot of Verve, c. 1993 on this track (along the lines of "A Man Called Sun"), right down to the gently rising guitar squalls that are definitely Nick McCabe-ish. And what do you know, Verve reunited with McCabe this year and sound a lot like their jam-it-out, early incarnation (as opposed to the Ashcroft-dominated folkstrumming singer/songwriter wankery that slipped its way onto "Urban Hymns"). Coincidence? Perhaps not.

"Jigsaw Falling Into Place". It's the indie rock song. On the bright side, this is reminding me to check out the new Spoon album before the year is out.

"Videotape". Time to put away the bong and smell the paranoia instead. This is the kind of doomy minimalism I can really get into. Pounding piano, off-beat knocks and frittering hi-hats, ghostly voices, all of it has made me sit up and start paying closer attention. This track, all by itself, has redeemed the second half of the album.

Well, the first two tracks delivered plenty of twists and surprises, but it went downhill rapidly after that. Once they settled into the soft rock stuff and brought Yorke's voice to the fore, things dragged heavily and didn't fully recover until the very end. Still, there are four or five really good songs here, which is two or three more than I expected to hear going in. Sure, my level of scrutiny is raised when it comes to something like this, but for a band that's always lauded for being fearless and trying out new things, whose albums seem to make top ten lists out of habit as much as merit, I think I feel justified in holding Radiohead to that standard.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Spice Girls Reunion II -- Live in Vancouver

Idolator collected some reviews and a youtube vid from the Spice Girls' Vancouver show -- the first gig of their comeback tour and their first performance as a fivesome in nine years.

Stuart Derdeyn of the Vancouver Province loved the show.

David Sinclair of Times Online can be somewhat cynical about Spice Girls Inc., but never to the point where it interferes with his fanaticism toward their music, or their ability to put on a great show.

Jane Stevenson of Sun Media harbours some petty resentment toward the Girl Power Mothership, but didn't let her jaded half overcome the enjoyment experienced by her "I know fun when I see it" half. Choice quote: "And the hits-heavy set list was so cleverly choreographed and the Spice Girls energy was so infectious that their lack of vocal chops was hardly noticeable." A reunion tour featuring some old hits? Excitement on stage? Nah, say it ain't so! The whole review reads like someone approaching the concert not with an open mind, but with a blank slate. She seems genuinely shocked to have witnessed a well-organized, energetic concert full of songs that she forgot she used to like (and songs she didn't know she liked -- yes, Jane, the SG's all had passable solo careers!)

Jeffery Simpson of Metroblogging Vancouver wins the "I Can't Believe It's Not 1997" award. Offhand reunion tour dismissal? Check. Pithily invoking ten-year old catchphrases? Check? Claims of Spice Girl corporate sell-out status? Check. Complete refusal to ascribe any artistic worth to the songs or to the individual talents of the Spice Girls themselves? Check. Choice quote: "They might not be artists, but the Spice Girls are clearly performers." Actually, there are far too many choice quotes to share here. Line by line takedowns, firejoemorgan-style, aren't really my bag (exception: Tim Hecker review in eye a few years ago. eye magazine in general, come to think of it. OK, NOW magazine too).

I can't help myself, choice quote II: "Nobody is going to call this great music, classic earth changing music, any more than someone is going to call the Teletubbies great drama, and yet it's fun. Sure when these songs were popular and preventing the new U2 video from appearing on Much Music ...". Man, when are U2 FINALLY going to get the airplay they deserve? Squeezed off of Much Music to make space for a bunch of dancing girls and their sexy videos! You go, Jeffrey, way to stand up for the little guy in the face of the unstoppable corporate behemoth!

You also have to love the delicious irony -- completely lost on Jeffrey and his self-proclaimed elephant's memory -- that the U2 songs he's mentioning were part of that band's mega-sellout, McDonald's-stooging, America-loving, wannabe biggest tour ever; complete with Vegas-staged, "making of" documentaries that were filmed and broadcast BEFORE THE TOUR EVEN BEGAN.