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2007: Top Ten

See two posts down for my thoughts on the year in music. Sad to say, there's not one homerun in the bunch, but here are a few triples:

Check out Highway 290 Revisited for Richard Nelson's picks.

Bruce Springsteen: Magic

I don't even know what to make of the Boss anymore. He goes all quiet and folky for awhile, he tours with a covers band, then he makes a record that sounds like the proper follow-up to Born In The U.S.A. All in a day's work, I suppose.






Youth Group: Casino Twilight Dogs

I saw Youth Group open for Death Cab For Cutie, and they definitely fit in that indie pop milieu. But they aren't as fussy or self-conscious. These songs stuck with me this year.







Albert Hammond, Jr.: Yours To Keep

Read the review.

Just look at that cover. Awww.







Kaiser Chiefs: Yours Truly, Angry Mob

Read the review.

Though not necessarily compelling as an entire record, this has enough amazing singles (Ruby, Heat Dies Down, I Can Do It Without You, etc) to keep it in the player.



Motion …

2007: Best Of The Rest

Biggest Disappointment
Prince

It wasn't his 2007 album Planet Earth that disappointed. It was the purple one himself, and the self-sabotaging litigious campaign against his fan sites. Completely baffling and unnecessary. Then again, if Prince's decision-making skills were sound, Batdance, Grafitti Bridge, The Rainbow Children album, and the Lovesexy cover photo would not exist.







Best Cover Art
Vicious Vicious: Parade

Lots of great design choices this year, but this one gets the nod for no particular reason. I just like it.








Best Cover Version
Robbers On High Street, Monkberry Moon Delight

A little known McCartney song that wasn't so great in the first place is resurrected and much improved by ROHS. If only their 2007 album, Grand Animals, had been as fun.





Best Title
The Pierces: Thirteen Tales of Love and Revenge

They swiped it from the fictional author in Diane Setterfield's 2006 The Thirteenth Tale, but the title is an excellent description of The Pierces creepy/sweet aesthe…

A Requiem For 2007

I think I can finally admit it: 2007 sucked.

Don't misunderstand me. On nearly every count, this was the best year of my life. I switched from a miserable job to a dreamy one. I moved to a new place for the first time in 8 years, saying a final goodbye to karaoke Daryl and miserly landlords. And a romance that began late in October 2006 deepened and grew. As of last month, I'm engaged.

That's a year no one could complain about. And yet...

If you follow the music industry it's been impossible to miss the growing sense of doom. I am not a naysayer by nature, but I can't help but believe that the music industry as we know it is dying, slowly-and-surely. I guess part of me wanted to believe that digital and physical sales would continue to co-exist, each feeding off the other. But with CD sales dropping by the week, it appears that the future of music is in downloads. And that has big implications on how we experience music and on the future of the album itself.

In Defense of Matt Pond PA

This Pitchfork review of Matt Pond PA's new album, Last Light, has me all riled up.

I love the idea of Pitchfork; daily reviews, news about bands you wouldn't otherwise get news about, the occasional enlightening feature article. That's all really cool. But, whether by design or circumstance, the site has evolved into a haven for indie rock snobs

When rock 'n' roll was born, so was the rock snob. This type of person has an innate need to actively dislike any music which the majority of others enjoy. There's no sense of artist loyalty in the rock snob. They'll go cold on a band in a New York minute (and don't even get them started on Don Henley), but, hypocritically, will demand full fan loyalty from the artists they support. They are never short on opinions; and sometimes their opinion even has factual basis. Some rock snobs don't even really like music all that much. To them, music is a matter of identity more than anything else.

A lot of rock…

154. Motion City Soundtrack: Even If It Kills Me (2007)

Let's say you have a band. The main lyrical appeal of the band is your acerbic stories of bad choices, your sad/funny tales of girls and substances you like more than you should.

Now let's say you get sober and fall in love for real. Sure, you're happy, but what's a songwriter to do?

Even If It Kills Me kicks off with Last Night I Fell In Love Without You, and it seems that all is still right (wrong) with Justin Pierre's world: "I waved goodbye to that heart of mine beating solo on your lawn." It's the sort of I-don't-care-but-I-do broken heart song that the band has made its trade.

But the second track quickly reveals a new dimension, that things are not the same as they ever were. This Is For Real is not only about cleaning up your act, but also about the person who inspired you to do it. "You smoked the demons/ Gave me back my feelings / Now I am good to go." It's the most unabashed thing they've ever done, at least until …

153. Rilo Kiley: Under The Blacklight (2007)

Reviewers of Rilo Kiley's 4th album/major-label-debut Under The Blacklight have exhausted their already dog-eared copies of the All Music Guide trying to come up with musical comparisons. Though often guilty of this strategy myself, I am not at all a fan of it.

I'm quoting myself here, from this blog, circa summer 2004:
"Just a glance through the latest issue of Spin reveals that the prevailing method of describing an artist is comparing them to another artist. You know: This songwriter has the lyrical dexterity of early Dylan combined with the gloomy soundscapes of the Cure, or that band takes the pomposity of Tattoo You-era Stones and adds the sensitivity of Dashboard Confessional. Or: It's like Trout Mask Replica as recorded by Sweetheart Of The Rodeo-era Byrds.

At some point descriptions like that just make me glaze over, especially when I'm only vaguely familiar with the reference points themselves. But as I try to write about music myself, I find that makin…

152. The New Pornographers: Challengers (2007)

The unique thing about The New Pornorgraphers is that there's no clear hipster consensus on which of their albums is best. One camp says their debut, Mass Romantic, was the bee's knees, and subsequent albums have been a disappointment. Others find the first album too strident, and believe the group really got it together on Electric Version. Still others feel Twin Cinema was where it all came to fruition.

Critics and the fans who care about them love nothing more than a good galvanizing mass opinion, regardless of whether or not there's any truth behind it. This would seem to speak well of the Pornographers, saying that each of their albums has merit. And go ahead and try to find me a critic or fan who has bad things to say about band leader A.C. Newman's solo jaunt The Slow Wonder. You won't be able to do it.

The New Pornographers' new album Challengers, is actually getting some comparisons to The Slow Wonder. This is good. But in the same breath, many r…

151. Rooney: Calling The World (2007)

It's safe to assume that the Schwartzman household had a pretty good record collection, including - but not limited to - Cheap Trick, The Raspberries, E.L.O. and early Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Rooney frontman Robert Schwartzman's songwriting owes a huge debt to these power pop powerhouses. So did the sound and sensibility of his brother Jason's old band, Phantom Planet. The cover art for Calling The World even looks like a Badfinger album.

Rooney's first record was a keeper. It was one of those CDs I kept trying to leave off my end-of-the-year top ten but just couldn't. On first blush, Calling The World is even better, more varied, layered and mature. And it better be! Word has it that the band recorded TWO albums between their debut and Calling The World, and weren't happy with either. Only three songs survived from the two interim albums.

As a result, Rooney sound much more seasoned than any band on its sophomore record has any business sound…

150. The Bacon Brothers: Getting There (1999)

Writer's Note: This was the second album review I ever wrote. I composed it at work one February day to amuse myself and my friend Shalini, who found the record for cheap and loaned it to me.

The Bacon Brothers' 1999 album Getting There is further proof that entertainment crossovers are just a bad idea. Just as Britney Spears' acting failed to redefine cinema as we know it, no one should expect much from a musical project by Hanes pitchman Kevin Bacon.

Surprisingly, this is actually the second effort from the band (which is filled out by bassist Paul Guzzone, drummer Marshal Rosenberg and Kevin's brother Michael). Lest you think this just the whim of a bored star, consider that Kevin himself wrote or co-wrote 9 of the 15 songs on this album. He appears to be at least as serious about being a rock star as Keanu, Jared, Minnie, Juliette or Russell.

The album isn't unlistenable, but it isn't good either. The opener Ten Years In Mexico has a pleasant James Taylor…

149. Wilco: Summerteeth (1999)

Writer's Note: This was the second album review I ever wrote. It appeared in the Augustana Observer on March 26, 1999.

Wilco is one of those rare prolific bands that never seems to run out of quality material. From 1995 to 1999 the band released the equivalent of a record per year and always managed to show up on critics' end-of-the-year lists.

Wilco rose from the ashes of country rock darlings Uncle Tupelo. The group's two songwriters started rival bands, Jay Farrar formed Son Volt, Jeff Tweedy (and drummer Ken Croomer) formed Wilco. Both bands continued the roots rock sound of their former group, with a bit of twang and a debt owed to Neil Young.

Summerteeth, Wilco's fourth album, found the band sneaking away from the genre that defined them, showing barely a hint of twang. Instead of Hank Williams, it seems Tweedy was listening to the Beach Boys. The band still made singable songs with lyrics that are sweet ("When I forget how to talk I sing") and sca…

2007 Mid-Year Round-Up

145. Brother Ali: The Undisputed Truth (2007)

No doubt Brother Ali is talented, with a gift for narrative and a mesmerizing tone, but the real star on The Undisputed Truth is beatmaker Ant. Even Ali knows it: "Ant give me 10 beats a week / so fuck it / I put the record how it need to be." Need further proof? Try Watcha Got's early '80s hip-hop throwback of a bridge, the Bollywood bounce of Truth Is... or Freedom Ain't Free's reggae-with-strings backing. No other hip-hop producer works with such a wide variety of sounds while still building such coherent, even commercial, songs.

The highlight of the album is a final suite of autobiographical songs. Walking Away details the dissolution of Ali's marriage with brutal honesty and a little bit of controlled anger. Faheem is a love song for his son and avoids being cingeworthy by being straightforward and brief. And finally the '80s soulfulness of Ear To Ear allows Ali's to get his priorities straig…

Justifying My Love

I've been away from music writing for over two months, though not purposefully. I have been ensconced in major life changes: turning thirty, moving for the first time in 8 years, and finding a new job. Call me crazy, but having several aspects of my life in flux is just not conducive to creativity. That doesn't mean I haven't been thinking about and listening to music just as much as usual. I just haven't been putting those thoughts into words.

And maybe that's good.

Okay, I'm being dramatic with that. I love writing album reviews and have no intention of stopping. But I must admit to lately finding it difficult to truly express how certain songs and albums make me feel.

I don't think I'm alone in this. Even in some of the great books about pop music (Song Book by Nick Hornby, anything by Chuck Klosterman, Love Is A Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield) the rate of me truly identifying with the author's love of a song or album or artist is alarmingly low. …

144. Fountains Of Wayne: Traffic And Weather (2007)

Fountains Of Wayne have taken some unexpected lumps lately. The former critical darlings' 4th release, Traffic And Weather, has been met with some harsh assessments, especially from Paste and Pitchfork.

Paste writer Marc Hirsh claims that the band has run out of steam. Pitchfork reviewer Matt LeMay concludes that the album finds FOW "treading water in the worst possible way." Both of them give the Traffic And Weather one of the most insulting comments an album can recieve, that it's mediocre and boring.

But is it true?

After a few listens, carefully aware of his own bias, this long-time diehard Fountains fan is happy to say no, it isn't true at all. Of course, that leads to another question: What's wrong with Marc and Matt?

I've prepared a list to try to suss out their problem.

1) They hate Fountains Of Wayne and always have.
Right off we get Marc out of the way, because this is obviously his issue. Read how he begins the second sentence of his review: &qu…

In Brief

139. Kaiser Chiefs: Yours Truly, Angry Mob (2007)

Ignore the ass-backwards review on Pitchfork and enjoy zippy XTC-derived pop from a group that has improved on its exciting but uneven debut. Ruby is joy and fear all mixed together, Heat Dies Down is as good of a meet-then-break-up-messily song as you could ask for, and the thrilling Everything Is Average Nowadays is anything but. On album closer Retirement lead singer Ricky Wilson claims, "I want to retire" but let's hope it doesn't happen anytime soon. Grade: A



140. The Broken West: I Can't Go On, I'll Go On (2007)

Mining the same indie power pop territory as The New Pornographers is a good approach, and Los Angeles' The Broken West do it well, even without Neko Case's gorgeous voice. The album never quite acheives full lift-off, but nevertheless cruises at a smooth, enjoyable altitude. Check out Brass Ring or Abagail. Grade: B




141. Alexa Ray Joel: Sketches (2006)

Billy and Christie's little gi…

138. New Monkees - New Monkees (1987)

From the Department of Everything Old is New Again:

In 1987 Coca-Cola and Warner Brothers put together a can't-miss proposal: Considering the renewed popularity of The Monkees with America's young people - thanks to MTV's airings of the old TV show and a 3/4 reunion tour - let's update the concept for our modern times and laugh all the way to the bank!

Thus were born the New Monkees: Marty, Dino, Jared and Larry. Much like the original Monkees, they were given their own television show and a record to promote within said show. And much like New Coke, everyone still preferred the original.

How disrespectful of a concept was this? Imagine a band coming along and saying, "We're going to call ourselves the New Rolling Stones." Granted, The Monkees were never known for integrity. They were soullessly manufactured to capitalize on Beatlemania and their managers had no respect for musical creativity. The band succeeded artistically despite this, thanks to a ste…

21. No More Kings - "Sweep The Leg"

I'll start by stating unequivocally that The Karate Kid is my favorite movie ever. No one can convince me there's a better film. I'm also a big fan of the novels of Gregory Maguire, wherein the author typically reimagines an existing story from another point of view, usually that of the villain.

So this surprise piece of nostalgia pop by No More Kings is right up my alley. It concerns the inner thoughts of Johnny Lawrence, the blond black belt ex-boyfriend who made Daniel LaRusso's life so miserable.

We all know that Daniel defeated Johnny at the All Valley Under 18 Karate Tournament, and in the process earned Johnny's respect. "You're all right, man" Johnny says as he hands Daniel the trophy. It's one of the many intriguing moments in the film. Johnny, who through the whole film shows no hint of being anything but a conscious-free bully, suddenly has depth.

To be fair, it's not a complete turnaround. Earlier, when Johnny's coach, Mart…

137. America - Here & Now (2007)

Raise your hand if you've seen Time Life's 30 minute infomercial for their Classic Soft Rock collection, hosted by the guys who were in Air Supply.

I was mesmerized when I saw it one night, mostly because of great songs by the likes of Hall & Oates, Todd Rundgren, Little River Band, England Dan & John Ford Cooley, Player and, of course, America. I started to think about how it has become cool to like what it wasn't cool to like at the time.

Take America's new album, Here & Now, as an example. The record was produced by two guys with plenty of hipster cred: James Iha (he of Smashing Pumpkins fame, with a soft rock solo album to his name) and Adam Schlesinger (he of Fountains Of Wayne fame, a band unafraid to pilfer the '70s). What's odd is how they haven't updated Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell's songwriting or sound at all, and yet the album still sounds so very modern.

What's up with that? Well, believe it or not, soft rock is still a…

136. Sloan - Never Hear The End Of It (2007)

There are 30 songs on Sloan's new album, so here are 30 reasons you should give a listen:

1. Canada. They can use our love and support.
2. The album's title is the second line of the song.
3. The artificially-colored band portrait on the cover; every one of their 8 albums has featured some sort of depiction of the band.
4. The pink background on the cover. Who says it's for girls?
5. The non-stop programming, a la side 2 of Abbey Road.
6. Every time you use a urinal made by the Sloan company, you'll have songs to hum.
7. All four band members write songs (though they are all credited to the band), switching vocal and instrumental duties. If you listen enough, the individual composing styles begin to emerge.
8. The harmonies in Listen To The Radio and Right Or Wrong.
9. For those of you who believe cheapness is indeed a sense, the album is a great bargain at 76 minutes of quality at the price you might pay for an album half that long.
10. The Dylan sneer in Who Taught You To …