Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Michael Atchison's Best of 2007

It came like an avalanche, the music of 2007. Overpowering, cascading, all-consuming. Sensational new releases seemed to come every week, too many and too quickly to digest. Welcome to the new golden age.

In some ways, that age will be defined by Radiohead. They made the album of the year, a recording that succeeded artistically and also signaled the coming of a new way to do business – but it didn’t make my top ten list. It would have been there in almost any other year, and it was on various drafts of my list. In Rainbows has an icy, luminous beauty that continues to reveal itself over time, and five years from now, when I finally catch up to it, I may declare that I was a brain-atrophied stooge not to proclaim it a masterpiece upon release.

But in a year when Radiohead made a recording of and for the future, much of my favorite music echoed the past. Bruce Springsteen made an album with a dense 1960s wall of sound that swelled with melodies carried by a croon that would have elicited Gene Pitney’s envy. Nick Lowe gave us a note-perfect blend of classic country, soul and pop, a batch of new songs that sound like standards you can’t quite place. Wilco settled into a warm Me Decade groove (and channeled the Beatles on “Hate It Here”) with new guitarist Nels Cline sounding like Mick Taylor updated for the 21st Century. The Red Button made the last great Merseybeat record, the sort of piercingly melodic pop music you rarely hear anymore. And Canadian guitar pop stalwarts Sloan were the anti-Radiohead, a band that embraced and perfected convention. With In Rainbows being available only as a download (for a time at least), Radiohead stripped the album of the physical vessel that had defined it in the rock era. When vinyl ruled the earth, an album lasted about 40 minutes. In the CD age, the potential grew to twice that. But how long is an album now? How much memory you got? Sloan, instead, embraced the compact disc’s limitations, cramming 76 minutes of music onto the shiny silver platter. They also embraced pop classicism on Never Hear the End of It, fashioning ringing, chiming, endlessly melodic songs into suites, a la Abbey Road.

When I think back on 2007, I’ll recall that when I was thirty-nine, it was a very good year. What’s old is new again. Here’s my top ten:

1. Bruce Springsteen, Magic. Bruce Springsteen has always been a perfecter, not an innovator. From his earliest records, discussion of his influences has gone hand-in-hand with discussion of his music, be it Dylan (the debut), Van Morrison (The Wild, the Innocent . . .) or Phil Spector and Roy Orbison (Born to Run). Even as he became a Brand Name, Springsteen’s folkier turns inevitably invoked Woody Guthrie, and in 2006, he put the influence right on his sleeve and released a batch of songs made famous by Pete Seeger. This year he came back hard with a lush, gorgeous disc that conjures memories of 1960s California pop, with the grand Spectorian density it demands. True to the album’s name, Bruce sets up his audience with some sleight-of-hand. The hard-driving opener “Radio Nowhere” bears little resemblance to the rest of the affair, and no Springsteen title track has ever seemed less essential to an album than the quiet, minimal “Magic.” But the songs that form the disc’s emotional core – ones like “You’ll Be Coming Down,” “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” and “Long Walk Home” – give Magic cohesion in their rich melodicism, overt romanticism and unrelenting realism. The music swells and swoons, the Boss bites and croons, and the audience gets one of the finest efforts of a legendary career.

2. Sloan, Never Hear the End of It. I had all but ignored this veteran Canadian collective until this album, which stopped me in my tracks. A band in the truest sense, this is four guys erupting with ideas and stitching them into something that sounds like it was conceived and executed in a moment of extreme clarity. It’s a pop opus the likes of which is rarely attempted (let alone achieved) anymore, thirty songs that flow, one into another, to reveal something much greater than the sum of their parts. Melodies, harmonies, epiphanies.

3. The Ike Reilly Assassination, We Belong to the Staggering Evening. With a heavy hand and a rockin’ band, Reilly delivers a Bringing It All Back Home for a generation raised on punk rock, a staggering, swaggering blend of liquor, sweat, charisma, blues and sex.

4. Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. I’ve reached a point of complete trust with Britt Daniel, Jim Eno and company. After this, their fourth straight stellar affair, I’ll go anywhere they want to take me. If their next album consists of goats farting into sousaphones, I’ll listen until I unlock its mystery. Luckily, there’s no flatulent barnyard brass here, just ten incandescent slices of off-kilter indie pop.

5. Lily Allen, Alright, Still . . . . No album brought me more joy this year. A smart, funny, charismatic voice supported by a propulsive rhythmic architecture that appropriates elements of R&B, hip hop, New Orleans and Two-Tone ska. In the hands of a lesser artist, this could have turned cloying and tedious. There’s nothing “lesser” about her.

6. LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver. James Murphy makes cold music warmly, taking metal machinery and heating it up until it pours like liquid. It shakes my ass and rattles my brain, and (in places) reminds me of Fear of Music/Remain in Light-era Talking Heads, and there’s little better than that.

7. Joe Henry, Civilians. After two albums of drift into the jazzy ether, Henry retreats to his wheelhouse – pristine, urbane songs made for the evening’s hazy small hours. Scotch and water for the soul.

8. Okkervil River, The Stage Names. This one grew on me slowly and refused to let go. It began with the T. Rex swagger of “You Can’t Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Man,” and then songs started to leap out of the woodwork, one after another. A group of tunes as diverse and memorable as this is a rare thing indeed.

9. Jarvis Cocker, Jarvis. Brit rock pioneer responsible for the classic “Common People” goes solo and retains all the wit and guile that made his band Pulp famous (in some circles). Cocker delivers songs by the armload, conjuring hooks galore and lifting one massive sample from Tommy James and the Shondells.

10. M.I.A., Kala. She quotes the Modern Lovers at the beginning and samples the Clash near the end. In between, M.I.A. cranks out some of the most exotic and thrilling contemporary party music I’ve heard. Maybe I’m not so afraid of the future after all.

1 comment:

EvilWoman said...

I will tell you that I drank the Koolaid very early on Magic and it remained at the top of my list all the way through.

Thank you for that, Michael. *HUGS*