Episode 95. Released January 22, 2008
Radio Slipstream counts down what it sees as the best albums of 2007! The tip top of my top albums of 2007 list that was fiddled with constantly throughout the year (and in its entirety went up to 280…uhps). Sure it’s a bit late, but that just means it’s more accurate a list than everyone else’s, right? Yeahuh.
Read on for the results
25: Curses (Future of the Left)
24: You Follow Me (Nina Nastasia and Jim White)
23: 23 (Blonde Redhead)
22: Armchair Apocrypha (Andrew Bird)
21: The Stage Names (Okkervil River)
20: Five Roses (Miracle Fortress)
19: I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (El-P)
18: Dirty Acres (Cunninlynguists)
17: Emotionalism (The Avett Brothers)
16: Night Falls Over Kortedala (Jens Lekman)
15: Sole and the Skyrider Band (Sole and the Skyrider Band)
As with anything released on the Anticon label, this disc explores a (non)brand of hip hop that’s likely to rough up your understanding of the genre a bit (broad as that genre might be). Sole spits the lyrics in a rapid, arrhythmic staccato stream that’s not particularly musical but suits his rough voice and irritable mood. The beats from Skyrider are murky, drenched in back alleys and samples of violins, rock, ye oldies, and even opera; layered together it sounds not unlike DJ Shadow or Amon Tobin united with Current 93. Between pounding and sparse, angry and bemoaning, the sound is processed to be raw and the meaning only dimly aware of hope.
14: Spiderman of the Rings (Dan Deacon)
This album is particularly defined by the character of its creator. If I hadn’t seen this video, I might not have put in the effort to see it as pure unadulterated glee rather than something cheap and/or annoying. So he seems all kinds of zany DIY madness, with possible overtones of insanity. In reality, Dan’s got a Masters in musical composition; he’s just coming at things from a unique angle and has quite a wonderful sense of humour. There’s something so unpretentious about this that it can’t help but get me grinning. And championing fun and innocence so honestly without coming off like a self involved ass is pretty awesome. Catchy, in-your-face, retro futuristic absurdist fantasy techno for 6-year-olds. Or something.
13: From Here We Go Sublime (The Field)
Track 7, The Deal, is ten minutes long and essentially repeats the same 15 second phrase over its entire length with minor variation (after a one minute build). It’s also one of the most compelling songs I heard this year. The base sample is so utterly beautiful it becomes enchanting and the minor variations are effortless, but exciting. The other songs follow a similar pattern, though they’re all a bit more active about it. Combining multitudes of bright samples cut down and glitched up over steady backbeats and dripping with airy, ethereal synths, or are those samples, too? You could define it as microhouse, glitch, techno, or even look toward the subtle trance-like epic builds for categorization inspiration. It sounds to me like the brightest sun in the clearest sky shining warmth on the coldest winter ice.
12: Foley Room (Amon Tobin)
A concept album in the vaguest sense, Foley Room sees Amon Tobin setting aside the samples that defined his first four albums and setting out with a mic to record all manner of natural sounds from a variety of sources. The album ends up as a channelled cacophony, drilling itself even deeper into paranoid atmospherics than its predecessors, but occasionally dipping into the melodies of dusty gramophone music. Foley Room is not entirely comprised of conceptually themed samples in the style of Matthew Herbert, rather, it’s a broad exploration and celebration of the varied noisemakers all over our world and how they relate to music. As a collection of music, though, the album is equally successful, sounding almost like a soundtrack for some hundred year old steampunk industrial revolution.
11: Rumpelzirkus (Kalabrese)
Minimal house is a big thing these days. Long, repetitive sleepy dance tunes with little clicks and a light hint of melody. It can be good, even awesome, but no one can ever be blamed for not liking it. Kalabrese (Zurich-based producer Sascha Winkler) takes the template of spaced out house music and decorates it with ample touches of funk, a smattering of dub and techno and some wtf that makes semiminimal music much more fun. He opines about (among other things) chicken farms and the pain of losing his chair, and the tone is irreverent but serious. There are some downright danceable grooves, mixed with quirky experiments and even some compelling melodic swells to satiate most people’s need for purebred enjoyment.
10: Untrue (Burial)
A steady clacking beat carries most of this record by anonymous dubstep producer Burial through the scary, uneasy side of squalid urban nightlife. Ghostly voices of manufactured radio passion fall against the murky thuds and strains of eerie darkness. The songs here often flow together, often seem not too different one from another, but throughout they build on the same compelling atmosphere. It is cold, lonely and somewhat uneasy. Possibly meant for dancing, to me it could only soundtrack a trip onto the dancefloor if it was lost in a hazy, slow motion stupor. The album sounds more like it’s heard from outside the club on the way back home, the cheesepop R&B samples muffled like a fragment of a memory.
9: Andorra (Caribou)
Andorra was carefully constructed entirely on the computer of Hamilton, Ontario native Dan Snaith, who now lives in Britain and has a master’s degree in mathematics. His live shows, and aspects of previous albums, are basically an orgy of frantic drumming and not overly concerned with melody. On Andorra, though, that spastic madness is dipped in a gloopy coat of sunshine and glee—giving us a bright pop record that sounds like it might have come out of a drug trip in the swingin’ 60s. And it’s great! Layers and layers of carefully arranged sounds: catchy, immense, grandiose, sparkling joy. Definitely a record for the summer.
8: Kala (M.I.A.)
Arular, Maya Arulpragasam’s first album, was a miniature sensation. It fused the rhythms of her homeland (Sri Lanka) with the electronics of modern dance clubs while sounding ultra-chic instead of like an awkward experiment in worldbeat. That her father is a Tamil Tiger and her incisive lyrics reflected a view of the world unfamiliar to many also certainly helped to draw attention. Kala continues in much the same way, perhaps moving slightly toward a more Western sound (there’s even almost a Pixies cover). But it’s still heavily informed by musics made to make you move your body, and perfected over centuries (that is, non-western). It can be noticeably repetitive, but if you concentrate on shakin’ that thang you really shouldn’t mind. Maya’s confidence and the swagger in her lyrical delivery is almost as infectious as the lively backing tracks.
7: For Emma, Forever Ago (Bon Iver)
Justin Vernon’s self-released solo record (which he mostly wrote and recorded over four months hidden away in a remote cabin) is a delicate, haunting beauty. It takes the common palette of a guitar-toting folk balladeer (Will Oldham is an obvious point of reference) and spreads it lightly toward soul and gospel, wearing its emotion proud and poignant. Vernon’s voice is raw, even shrill; the melodies, his ardent wails and occasional layers of overdub render it remarkably affecting. Even if the obtuse lyrics leave few clues about many of the songs’ subject matter, the album title itself succinctly conveys the loss and longing contained in the ragged guitar swells, fragile melodies, and straight-up beauty found within.
6: Hissing Fauna, You are the Destroyer (Of Montreal)
The third Of Montreal album since they went ‘hi-fi’ by adding liberal dabbling in synthesized sound to their palette (and 8th overall), Hissing Fauna is a psychedelic and deceivingly upbeat collection of bubbling and catchy tunes. Under that, though, is a starkly engaging retelling of Kevin Barnes’ break-up and trip to Norway, “trying to restructure my character, because it had become vile to its creator.” He speaks with eloquent forthrightness about his emotional turmoil, leaving the listener alternating between empathy, pity, amazement and amusement. Happily, the album isn’t a wallowing, sorry-for-itself tearfest, but rather a celebration of life with all its inherent scratches and scars intact. The hopeful tone only hinted at by the lyrics is reflected in the lilting, squelching arrangements and infectious melodies.
5: The Shepherd’s Dog (Iron and Wine)
Sam Beam’s voice is like cedar smoke from a campfire buried somewhere in the Ozarks. On his last albums that voice combined with gentle swooshes of acoustic guitar, like the song of crickets and warblers. Then it did it again. And again. It was beautiful, but a bit too repetitive. This time around (following stylistically on 05’s Woman King EP), he diversifies the backing band, and to great effect: getting us out of that faraway forest and taking us through households and wilderness, city and country. It all still sounds very rustic and dusty, but with a real drive and energy to get us from one place to the next. The arrangements (lots of pedal steel, organs, accordion, quiet drumming, piano, and still those acoustic strums) give the songs a perfect bed as they lilt, swell and sway through open fields, natural aromas, breezes and candlelight. Shepherd’s Dog gently carries you into another world, one I sometimes wish I could stay in.
4: Random Spirit Lover (Sunset Rubdown)
These songs are unconventionally orchestrated, paced and sung; my brother actually thought it was meant to be funny when I played it for him. It’s a bit like a twisted carnival somehow exploding into music. If you can get past the potentially off-putting uniqueness, though, there are intricate and surprisingly catchy songs with lyrics that are very much worth paying attention to. It’s a bit hard to describe why I like this album so much, but I think it’s mainly the energy, the wild abandon with which the band approaches the strangely epic songs, even through the quiet moments. The grunts, squeals and yelps from instruments and voices alike are touching and invigorating; a display of beauty from an organized caterwaul and a meditation on humanity and society laced with complex metaphor and mythological imagery.
3: Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Spoon)
Spoon has a singular sound, but they’re always able to find a slightly new angle to explore those punchy, syncopated beats from. Gax5 (reportedly named for the sound of staccato piano chords) shows Brit Daniel and friends at the top of their game, sticking to their signature sound but expanding it significantly. It’s more direct than Gimme Fiction and more varied – giving us some nice bouncy horns and also recalling the raw sound of their earlier albums. Discarding any silly comparisons, what GaGaGaGaGa’s really all about is catchy as hell, fun funky piano guitar pop with a deliciously rough edge hiding out below. It’s both a succinct summary of Spoon’s talent and possibly their best album yet—and that’s no mean feat.
2: In Rainbows (Radiohead)
Put simply, In Rainbows is full of great songs. There’s a revelatory joy and soulfulness not traditionally associated with the band flowing through most of the tracks. It is an album by a band who is comfortable with their sound, not trying to shock or surprise us, just playing naturally. The songs are diverse yet contained, rambunctious and climactic or delicate and haunting—sometimes at the same time. That In Rainbows strikes a perfect balance between these extremes and defies easy categorization is a definite part of what makes it a great album. The production helps, too, bringing out a bright, organic sound that sounds to me something like fresh-cut veggies. Just generally brilliant.
1: Boxer (The National)
The National really hit it big in 2007. Their last (and third) album Alligator was a sleeper-hit in 2005; it was largely ignored initially, but steadily picked up fans and accolades over the following couple years until eventually becoming a mini indie sensation (even getting them an opening spot for hipster favourites the Arcade Fire). Anticipation and expectation (hype!) were high for their next album and when Boxer hit the ears of the world, it quickly garnered critical and popular acclaim. The National played at sold out venues, appeared on Letterman, and probably even sold some copies of their new album (research pending).
That’s the macrocosm of the story of The National within the independent music community. My personal experience isn’t all that different. I heard Alligator on recommendation, liked it enough to rank it #5 on my top albums of 2005, then liked it more and more. I fell in love with the band and their strange mystique: the smoky, urban middleclass placelessness. They seemed to me more honest, more listenable and more intriguing than just about anybody else putting out music.
I was anticipating Boxer BIGtime, but prepared for disappointment (because when you follow the number of bands I do, it happens a lot). Boxer, however, did everything exactly right to fuel my fandom even further. So I listened to it constantly and loudly, saw the band twice in concert, hummed and sang along at all hours, and wondered at how I could find such strong emotional connections between myself and the lyrical and musical content of the songs. Ya can’t really ask for much more from an album.
So what is it that makes me spill out such gluts of praise?
First off, the arrangements and musicianship are brilliant. Each drum hit, sigh of distortion, rich bass note… every feathery guitar arpeggio, piano chord, violin tremolo, horn spike… they all rise and fall together perfectly, creating tension, softening, tightening. And despite the rich, multi-layered arrangements barely a note is wasted.
The atmosphere created by the instruments is a consistent one, (and for this, Matt Berninger’s deep voice counts as well). It’s dark; not in the way absence of light creates darkness, but in the way layers of paint create darkness. A darkness made with lightness, richness, and colour still swilling under the surface. Much like the heady and strangely sweet air of the city at night. While consistent tones give the risk of blandness, Boxer keeps moving just enough, between urgent charging and delicate floating, to keep interest piqued and still seem like a cohesive whole.
Lyrics are a very important part of Boxer. Berninger never quite says it straight—he’s got a real knack for nebulous little images that could mean a number of different things, but mean them all very well. “I’ve been dragging around from the end of your coat for two weeks; everywhere you go is swirling, everything you say has water under it,” he sings on Brainy. He dabbles in the details of implied feelings and undefined moments, and applies great number of really wonderful turns of phrase.
It’s a very impressionistic approach, but the picture it builds in the end, for me at least, is one of listlessness in a suburban existence defined by a pre-delineated way of life, and a half-hearted struggle to break that tedium or at least navigate through it toward something partly meaningful or fulfilling. “Another uninnocent elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults.” There are references to growing up and losing the innocent fun of childhood in several tracks. No wonder that, as a recent university graduate confusedly hanging on to the last corner of irresponsibility, I feel I can relate.
My favourite thing about The National’s lyrics on this, and other albums, is the way glints of optimism and humour shine through, even when it’s dry, confusing and absurd, or ironic optimism turned around at the last minute. It’s a lot like life, that way. “So worry not; all things are well. We’ll be alright. We have our looks and perfume on.” The songs feel very real. No posturing, proselytizing or trying too hard. It is what it is, nothing more.
Berninger’s low, languorous voice and delivery fit the lyrics and subject matter, which fits the heaviness and resonant intricacy of the arrangements. It all fits snugly together, both aesthetically and thematically, in a way that’s a rare accomplishment. Some might find the sound of the album consistent to the point of dullness, but Boxer excels because the National adhere to their fairly strict formula and explore it completely. It is a truly wonderful album.
And the drums!