2007, You Had A Lot To Live Up To...

by Sean McCarthy

Starting at 1967, rock music has had an amazing year when the year ends with ‘7.’

Look at the track record:

1967: The Beatles’ Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Velvet Underground’s Velvet Underground and Nico, Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced?, Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

1977: The year punk broke -- The Clash’s self-titled, Talking Heads’ Talking Heads: 77, Elvis Costello’s My Aim is True, Telveision’s Marquee Moon, The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.

1987: U2’s The Joshua Tree, Prince’s Sign ‘O’ The Times, Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, R.E.M.’s Document, The Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me, The Cure’s Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me and Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction (even though that album didn’t break it big until 1988).

1997: Radiohead’s OK Computer, Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind, The Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole, Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out, Bjork’s Homogenic, Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, The Verve’s Urban Hymns and Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly.

Sure, music critics may balk that these albums needed the element of time before we judged them as classics, but Dylan’s Time Out of Mind was instantly regarded as the artist’s best work since Blood on the Tracks, OK Computer was hailed as an instant masterpiece and when The Joshua Tree came out, well, it was treated as nothing less than THE album to restore the transcending power of rock music.

So, what about the class of 2007?

If critics say there’s no way we can ever get those types of uniform classic albums again because of the Internet and fractured music tastes, I merely point to 1997. The Internet was as significant part of people’s lives as it is today (minus the social networking sites). Despite both people’s fractured tastes in music and the Internet, that year produced a crop of music every bit as equal and significant as 1977 and 1987.

If critics say there’s nowhere else an artist can go musically that hasn’t been done before, I can only point to the releases of M.I.A.’s Kala, Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam and Of Montreal’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? for fiercely original material. Hell, even Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black had to be given points for going back to the ‘20s instead of reverting back to ’60s and ‘70s nostalgia.

Still, at the end of 2007, I can’t help but feel like a too-spoiled kid at Christmas. I open at least 15 great gifts: “Spoon’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga!,” Kanye West’s Graduation!,” “Of Montreal’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer!” But once all the gifts are opened and listened to, I can’t help but have a slight hollow feeling inside. Great albums, but not much when it comes to albums that knock you on your ass and make you a naïve believer in the power of rock music – with the possible exception of two albums (see my top two choices).

Even if you were disappointed about the absence of an industry-altering album a la The Joshua Tree or Never Mind The Bullocks Here’s The Sex Pistols, there were plenty of albums to grab your attention in 2007. With that, let’s get on with the honor roll for 2007:

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10. Spoon -- Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

It may not grab you as strongly as Kill The Moonlight, but then again, what does? The music is as scaled back as always, but nothing on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga sounds like a retread. Britt Daniel sounds like he’s perpetually battling a sinus infection, but his inaudible howls, such as on “Japanese Cigarette Case” are quickly becoming as recognizable as Cobain’s scream or Tori Amos’ wail.

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9. The National -- Boxer

If Interpol sounded like a Joy Division rip off, then more than a few Joy Division fans may find The National to be an Interpol rip off. Their loss. Boxer, The National’s third album, is brooding without ever wallowing in self-pity. Matt Berninger’s sinister baritone voice may not be the most threatening in rock, but combined with Bryce Dessner’s guitar and Bryan Devendorf’s drums, the combination is chilling in songs like “Mistaken For Strangers” and “Start a War,” a sonic equivalent of a dying relationship.

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8. Panda Bear -- Person Pitch

Noah Lennox’s band Animal Collective released a mess of an album with Strawberry Jam this year. For those put off by the disjointed, sludgy murk of Strawberry Jam, Person Pitch was as welcome as a spring day in the dead of winter. It’s nearly impossible not to think of the Beach Boys, especially with the opening track “Comfy in Nautica,” but instead of aping Pet Sounds, Lennox opts to take the best elements of The Beach Boys, mainly their intense, layered harmonies, and provide a fresh take on psychedelia.

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7. Ryan Adams – Easy Tiger

“Here comes that shit again…” Ryan Adams sings (or threatens?) on “Halloweenhead,” a frontrunner for the award for “Dumbest Song Title of the Decade.” For a while, Adams’ prolific nature has generated almost an equal amount of genius and groan-inducing awfulness on his last 54 albums. But with Easy Tiger, Adams gets somewhat sober and more importantly, an editor. “Everybody Knows” and “Rip Off” manage to be heartfelt without a hint of corn. Even “Halloweenhead” manages to charm the ears after a few listens.

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6. Wilco -- Sky Blue Sky

It’s not challenging. It plays it safe. Indeed, once you hear the final track, “On And On And On,” chances are you’re not going to be blown away. But to take the advice from one of the tracks “Please Be Patient With Me,” Sky Blue Sky may eventually be mentioned in the same sentence as Summerteeth and Being There as fan favorites. Guitarist Nels Cline walks away with the M.V.P. on this album, creating guitar riffs so rich you don’t mind giving songs a sixth or seventh listen to fully appreciate.

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5. M.I.A. -- Kala

The opposite of Sky Blue Sky. M.I.A. seemed to be channeling the early ‘90s, from the outrageous day-glo outfits to the incendiary politics of Ice Cube and Public Enemy in their prime. U.S. immigration may have forced M.I.A. to go international to record Kala, but the result was a total reflection of M.I.A.’s sound, a mix that has no international boundaries. Bollywood, The Clash’s “Straight to Hell” and Aborigine rappers are only a part of the chaos that is Kala. It may not be the most cohesive album of the year, but damned if it wasn’t the most exciting.

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4. The Arcade Fire -- Neon Bible

Neon Bible peters out toward the end. But that’s only because the band storms on with four amazingly epic tracks. Few bands could make Funeral, yet alone create a respectable follow-up, but The Arcade Fire succeed on their sophomore album. The church organs are still intact, as is Win Butler’s overdramatic wails, but Neon Bible manages to stand out due to its Springsteen-like combination of stadium-worthy anthems and vivid first-person narratives.

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3. Jarvis Cocker -- Jarvis

Okay, this came out last year, but it wasn’t released in the States until this year. “Running The World,” which was my award for “Song of the Year” last year, may be buried 25 minutes after the final track has ended, but Jarvis has enough material to tide you over until that last hidden track. The album harkens back to the modest solo albums released by artists in the ‘60s. Cocker manages to continue to find new ways of expressing sexual frustration and romantic longing in “Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time” and “I Will Kill Again.” And just when you think you can predict his pattern of pessimism, he makes a song like “Loss Adjuster” where he reassures you “everything is gonna be all right.” With Jarvis, he makes you believe in that statement.

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2. LCD Soundsystem -- Sound Of Silver

Hard to believe people still make albums with only nine songs on them. Thank God. Each song on Sound Of Silver seemed like a track that you couldn’t skip over, no matter how much you wanted to hear “North American Scum” or “All My Friends.” More so than any album released this year, Sound Of Silver was an album that genuinely felt like the soundtrack of a quarter life or midlife crisis – from the euphoric highs “Watch The Tapes” to the bummed-out disintegration of relationships (“Something Great”).

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1. Radiohead -- In Rainbows

Hail To The Thief may have been a return to guitar-oriented rock for Radiohead, but In Rainbows marks the return of the band’s ability to make an album that floors you in terms of its quality. If the opening track “15 Step” sounded too much like Amnesiac-era Radiohead, “Bodysnatchers” was the track that sucked you in and kept you riveted to the low-key finale of “Videotape.” What we got in the middle was Thom Yorke’s latest infatuation of Marvin Gaye-like soul (“All I Need”) and lyrics that were mercifully free of abstraction (the “I don’t want to be your friend, I just want to be your lover” opening to “House Of Cards”). The fact that the songs on In Rainbows have managed to eclipse the hype surrounded the way the album was marketed is a testament to the quality of the album, easily their best since Kid A.

Close calls

Bruce Springsteen’s Magic, Modest Mouse’s We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, Iron And Wine’s The Shepard’s Dog, Band Of Horses’ Cease To Exist (docked a notch because the lead singer really, really sounds like the lead singer for Supertramp) and Kanye West’s Graduation.

Songs of the Year

10. “1, 2, 3, 4” -- Feist: Thanks to a six-month blitz of iPod commercials, I doubt I will ever be able to finally get this song out of my head.

9. “North American Scum” -- LCD Soundsystem: As nihilistic as anything off of Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero, but a helluva lot more fun.

8. “Boyz” -- M.I.A.: The equivalent of a gender studies essay set to some of the sickest beats this side of the Bomb Squad.

7. “Stronger” -- Kanye West: The fact that Kanye West can still make songs about himself sound as fresh as “Stronger” speaks volumes for his talent. Bonus points for turning future generations onto Daft Punk.

6. “Keep The Car Running” -- The Arcade Fire: Bruce Springsteen joining the Arcade Fire on stage to perform the best Bruce Springsteen song of the year was a YouTube highlight this year. The song itself is destined to become the soundtrack to many-a-road trips, especially road trips taken for the sole purpose of getting the hell out of the place you currently are stuck in.

5. “Rehab” -- Amy Winehouse: Amy Winehouse may have lured in the Josh Groban crowd with the tasteful, soulful sounds of ‘20s-era jazz, but little did those fans know the freak show that to await them after the purchase of Back to Black.

4. “House Of Cards” -- Radiohead: Yorke’s most confessional song on an album full of them, “House Of Cards” is likely to become one of the most oft-quoted Radiohead songs in their catalog.

3. “Apartment Song” -- The National: “We’ll stay inside ‘til somebody finds us / do whatever the TV tells us” is either the most romantic line of the year, or the creepiest, depending on your interpretation. Even if it is a stalker’s tale, it’s probably the catchiest stalker song since The Police’s “Every Breath You Take.”

2. “Paper Planes” -- M.I.A.: If critics say hip-hop is too obsessed with materialism, “Paper Planes” is the most logical extension of this mentality: a chorus made up of shotgun blasts and cash registers. The children’s chorus and the sample of The Clash’s “Straight to Hell” are thrown in at no extra charge.

1. “All My Friends” -- LCD Soundsystem: You can add “That’s how it starts, we go back to your house” to such notable opening lines like “She came from Greece, she had a thirst for knowledge” and “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” With a simple, jittery piano beat, James Murphy maps out your post-grad life. It may sound depressing, but the music is so infectious, you go along for the ride anyway.

Hype of the Year: Feist

No doubt Leslie Feist has one of the greatest sets of vocal pipes in music today. Let it Die is one of the better bummer albums of this decade. And there have been other artists who have moved from their punk roots to the more comfortable territory of NPR-friendly alt-country or cabaret rock (see Ryan Adams, Neko Case). But there’s just something…overtly shallow about Feist’s The Reminder. True, when it started out, Feist’s ascendance on the charts was a great example of how word of mouth can still triumph in the age of hyper-marketing. But suddenly, Feist’s album was as common of a site in Starbucks as overpriced coffee cake. Then it was the iPod commercial. Now, whenever I see the precious album cover of that silhouette preening against that minimal backdrop of colors, my left eye can’t help but twitch in annoyance.

Shows of the Year

5. Wilco and Andrew Bird – The Orpheum Theatre – Omaha, NE – if only for making me fully appreciate Sky Blue Sky, once I heard the songs in a live setting.

4. The Arcade Fire and St. Vincent – Chicago Theatre

3. The Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem – Red Rocks Amphitheatre, CO

2. TV On The Radio – VooDoo Lounge, Kansas City

1. The Hold Steady and The Heartless Bastards – Sokol Underground Omaha, NE




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