TOP 10 ALBUMS OF 2007
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.
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?