Modest Triumphs, Unexpected Pleasures
Not every year can kick the door down. You can't count on a song -- or a record -- changing your life more than once a decade, maybe less as you get older. So, while 2007 seemed bereft of genuine revelations, it wasn't a bad year at all, far from it.
For me, it started in December 2006, when what would become my favorite record for the upcoming year arrived in the mail. It was David Kilgour's The Far Now, a quietly transcendent piece of work, simple on the surface but exquisitely beautiful. It was the kind of record that's easy to dismiss, and indeed, many people did. Its grace emerged out of stillness, gimmick-free and true to itself. You could hardly even write about it, because what was great about it was essentially nonverbal, its calm, restful beauty, its shimmer of near perfect tone, its evident ease of execution. And, as a piece of work, it set the tone for the whole of the year. If anything, 2007 was a year of slow burners and gradual growers, records that seem like not so much the first time, but over repeat plays set up permanent camp space in the imagination. Nothing earthshaking, perhaps, but why would you want the earth to shake all the time? Isn't it better to sink your toes, once in a while, into warm welcoming earth?
This was also a year when even the most relentless music-listening program began to seem arbitrary. For every record I made time for, half a dozen I might like remained untouched. The sample was about the same size -- I listened seriously to somewhere between 200 and 250 new records this year -- yet seemed less adequate than ever. Maybe I missed the astonishing stuff. Maybe I listened to it once, and was in the wrong mood and didn't get it. How can you ever be sure?
It didn't help that the record industry made it more difficult than ever to listen to the big records. Publicists for Spoon (and, more bizarrely, Chuck Prophet) refused to send promos at all, though both records were readily available from file-sharers. CDs from the New Pornographers and The National arrived so heavily copy-protected that it was painful to listen to them. (And again, not very hard to find them in perfect condition online.) In the end, though, who could care very much? On sheer musical terms, most of the mainstream could be safely ignored. Cursory listens to big records like the new Arcade Fire, White Stripes, Wilco left me unimpressed, and I've never cared much for Radiohead. Of the wide-release stuff, only the National's Boxer stayed with me, despite a water-marked copy whose tracks stopped and started mid-song. (Try that on shuffle.) Meanwhile dozens of lesser-known CDs flooded over the transom, some unlistenable, some dull, but many more imaginative and better than the big names. You could hardly keep up.
But okay, enough about my problems, what about the records? Here are my ten favorites, a few killer songs from not quite top-ten CDs, and some stellar reissues. There's so much music out there now that, even in a quiet year, there's more good stuff than you can recognize.
2. The National - Boxer(Beggars)
The National caught fire this year, partly due to perseverance, but mostly on the back of this understated, subtly complicated album. Here, the band's straight-on guitar attack is embroidered and embellished with a neo-classical chamber flourishes, its naked yearning undercut by sardonic asides, the whole thing jacked on pounding, galloping drums. "Fake Empire," with its homey images of spiked lemonade and fresh picked apples, explodes at the middle with a chaos of brass and maybe two different time signatures running simultaneously (or maybe it's just coming apart), while "Slow Show" has the most achingly romantic line of the year.
3. Jesu - Conqueror (Hydrahead)
Justin Broadrick continues his journey from harshness to beauty, through careful production marrying the obliteratingly loud sounds of metal bass and drums with fragile, fuzz-blurred melody. Album highlight "Weightless and Horizontal" starts with the whistling mystery of synthesizer, light as sunshine, then counterbalances it with a ponderous, slow-rock ritual. The two sounds meet in the middle, not as a blur, but as a synthesis of matter and energy. Grand, ambitious and mesmerizing.
4. Arbouretum - Rites of Uncovering (Thrill Jockey)
A strange blend of slow-paced guitar psyche, and bible-black Americana, from the very first, this album made the chills run down my neck. Opening track "Signposts and Instruments" rides a glacial-paced, distortion fuzzed guitar riff over the rough traditional ground, Heumann's voice rising eerily over the furze, hopelessly observing that "signposts spin and instruments lie." "Pale Rider Blues" lets his Hendrix-love spin out over an extended stretch, riffs and blues chords haunting a vast echoing space. And "The Rise", with its rickety percussion and certainty-filled call and response, is a gospel song for people who don't believe in anything, lost in darkness and looking for beauty.
5. Angels of Light We Are Him (Young God)
Michael Gira's last Angels of Light with Akron/Family -- and maybe his last overall -- marks a return to the epic scale and booming percussion of Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home. "Black River Song" opens with a black keyed piano run, then erupts into an exuberant, pendulum-swinging groove, massed chorus and glockenspiel tinkling chaos. It is simply bigger than the space it fits into. The title track is just as hugely imagined, resolving out of feedback and drone into a skewed and outsized country romp. And with the mysterious, moving "Not Here/Not Now" Gira duets with a woman for the first time since you-know-who, a lovely moment.
6. The Papercuts - Can't Go Back (Gnomonsong)
A pure pleasure, this record, from the headlong, string-caffeinated rush of "Dear Employee" to the sweeping baroque Wilson-isms of "Summer Long" to the final, uneasy swing of "The World I Love." Achingly sweet pop, with just enough sadness and anxiety to make it bearable.
7. Glenn Mercer - Wheels in Motion (Pravda)
Astonishingly, this is the Feelies' frontman's first-ever solo record, in a career that started way back in the 1970s. He spent ten years or so making it, writing songs slowly, crafting demos and inviting friends from a half dozen old bands, including the Feelies, to sit in. Wheels In Motion almost defines the term "slow-burner", building momentum out of gentle acoustic guitar jangle and minimal percussion, and leaving an indefinable aura of gorgeous melancholy in its wake.
8. Twilight Sad - Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters (FatCat)
There's something touching and vulnerable about this record, despite its vast guitar sounds and intestine-rattling drums. It's as if these Scottish lads, barely out of their teens, are trying on dad's overcoat, as they coax a romantic, arena-filling sound out of their low-end gear. Dreaming of rock stardom, but tethered to home, they slip withering asides about manners and loving mothers into moody feedback-laden epics.
9. Frightened Rabbit - Sing the Greys (FatCat)
Frightened Rabbit are also Scottish, also quite young and also rather endearing, though in a very different way than label mates in the Twilight Sad. Their debut, Sing the Greys, has a raggedy, heart-sore raffishness, lyrics shouted, drums pounding, guitar strings scraped and scrubbed in relentless, a-directional energy. "Music Now" is the stand-out, its quavery melody wafting over fractious 4/4 pounding and shouting in unison, both diffident and self-sure at the same time.
10. Okkervil River - The Stage Names (Jagjaguwar)
Another slow-bloomer, a record, in fact that didn't fully hit me until I'd seen the band live. Now when I hear the brief chaos of feedback that interrupts "Our Live Is Not a Movie Or Maybe" I think of how it extended for several joyful minutes on stage. Now when the drums kick in at the crucial turning point of "Plus Ones" (just after the line about "eight Chinese brothers"), I remember how the song took off right then, and nearly bounded off the stage. It was probably all there to begin with, but now I see it.
Like most people, I liked a lot more than 10 records. Here are some songs that I loved from records that didn't make the cut.
"Trust, Gravenhurst - The Western Lands (Warp)
And finally, I didn't really listen to a lot of reissues this year, but here are a few that made an impact.
1. Young Marble Giants - Colossal Youth and Collected Works (Domino)
By Jennifer Kelly