Saturday, January 05, 2008

COLUMN: Best 'o 2007

I first got into journalism by reviewing records. In fact, it was a review of Bon Jovi's "Slippery When Wet" that was my first published work in high school. I trashed the album, and my locker and my house got toilet-papered for a week straight as a result. Music remains my first love, and you have to indulge me annually when I spend a column waxing poetically over my favorite records of the year.

Our entertainment editor recently published his year-end picks, and I watched as he took the usual heat from our online commenters over his choices (as I suspect I will for mine.) Many of the comments questioned whether or not the musings of an entertainment writer from the Quad Cities really matter in the grand scheme of things. The real answer: No, they probably don't. We're not handing out Grammies, and our opinions aren't being sought after by record execs.

However, we ARE hardcore music fans blessed with a forum to share our love for pop culture. If you hate my picks, big deal. I probably hate yours, too. But if one person out there reads this list and discovers a band that they like, then hey, mission accomplished. That said, bask in the glow and wonder of my picks for the Best Darn Albums of 2007:

#10 - I'M FROM BARCELONA - Let Me Introduce My Friends (EMI)

Neither a single entity nor from Barcelona, the Swedish collective I'm From Barcelona finally saw their debut record get released in the U.S. this year. If you think a 29-member band from Sweden who sing songs about chicken pox and stamp collecting might be a little silly, you'd be right. But the feel-good silliness of the band is combined with a knack for crafting perfect, sunny-day pop songs that would fit on an Archies record, if Archie were Scandinavian and had 28 friends. What could have been a silly novelty record turns out to be a joyous celebration of the spirit of pop music. You'll be humming it for days.

#9 - ROBIN GUTHRIE AND HAROLD BUDD - Before the Day Breaks (Darla/Bella Union)

(Guthrie & Budd don't make videos, but above is a clip of Guthrie playing live in Peru earlier this year.)

I have to get past the fact that I once interviewed guitarist Robin Guthrie for a music website and found him to be one of the most egotistical, arrogant jerks I've ever come across. He might be a schmuck, but there's no denying the guy's immeasurable talent. This year Guthrie hooked up with ambient neo-classical pianist Harold Budd for two records of blissed-out ethereal soundscapes. It's not their first collaboration, but it may be their best. Despite what I think of the guy, if there's a heaven, Guthrie's guitar is its Muzak.

#8 - APPLES IN STEREO - New Magnetic Wonder (Simian)

The Apples in Stereo have been leading the resurgence of psychedelic pop music for nigh on a decade now, and fans were mortified last year when it was announced that husband-and-wife bandleaders Robert Schneider and Hilarie Sidney were getting a divorce. Rather than pack it in musically, though, the band persevered through personal strife and completed the album they'd spent two years crafting, and it's a magnum opus of pop cool. Featuring a guest list of some of the greatest indiepop musicians around the world, the Apples may have their best record yet, which softened the blow when Sidney officially departed the band upon the album's completion.

#7 - JUSTICE - Cross (Ed Banger/Vice)

Daft Punk have spent the last decade making France the epicenter of cool when it comes to dance music, but fellow countrymen Justice came on the scene this year and stole their thunder. Where Daft Punk excel at hard driving robotic beats, Justice inject their dancefloor grooves with electronic emotion. Thieving elements of soul, R&B, lounge, funk, and melding them with the relentless deep bass beats that are the calling card of the French scene, Justice have made THE soundtrack for the dancefloor this year.

#6 - M.I.A. - Kala (XL Recordings)

Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. was supposed to record her second record with American uber-producer Timbaland, but visa problems (likely stemming from the rapper's outspoken radical political beliefs) prevented her from recording in the U.S. Instead, she made the album in sporadic bursts while travelling the world, self-producing the record alongside friends. It's still the same beat-heavy, politically-driven hip-hop that made critics fall in love with her debut, but "Kala" absorbs the cultures it was recorded in, adding an irreverant world music flare to an already thrilling record.

#5 - MIKA - Life in Cartoon Motion (Universal/Island)

A record that you want to blare from your car but don't dare due to the questionable looks you'll get from passersby, Lebanese-born Mika has made the year's most flamboyant debut. Unabashedly thieving the best bits of classic Elton John while simultaneously resurrecting the over-the-top grandeur of Freddie Mercury, this record is the year's greatest guilty pleasure, and responsible for many shades-drawn dance sessions at my place.

#4 - PANDA BEAR - Person Pitch (Paw Tracks)

Panda Bear is the nom-de-plume of one Noah Lennox, best known as the keyboard noodler for Animal Collective, a band that music critics drool over but I personally can't stand. Lennox's solo work escapes the weird-for-the-sake-of-being-weird prentention of Animal Collective, and instead takes the listener into a simple yet complex world of looped guitars, otherworldly samples, and ghostly vocals. The result is a haunting epic that sounds like Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys trapped on an iceberg.

#3 - ROBYN - Robyn (Konichiwa)

You might remember Robyn as the Swedish chanteuse who reached the American Top 40 with "Show Me Love" in 1997. Modeled by her record label to follow in the shoes of the Britneys and Christinas of the world, Robyn found herself stifled by lame songs and image consultants. Instead of going along for the ride, she bought out her contract, formed her own record label, and put together her own team of producers, shunning mainstream pop for fierce Nordic electro beats and synths. The result is a snapshot of poise and confidence, and the album Gwen Stefani's been trying to make for years now. Right now, it's only available in Europe, but with a stateside release due this spring, she'll be a household name by this time next year.

#2 - BAND OF HORSES - Cease to Begin (Sub Pop)

Sometimes the best records of the year don't have to be overly-indulgent artistic statements. Sometimes all it takes it takes is great rock & roll, and that's what Band of Horses specialize in. When co-founder Mat Brooke left the band last year, most critics thought it would spell the end of the group, but in the hands of frontman Ben Bridwell, the band took on a new vision and came out with a record of mature, uncomplicated beauty.

#1 - OF MONTREAL - Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? (Polyvinyl)

The brainchild of acclaimed songsmith Kevin Barnes, of Montreal have been crafting eclectic pop gems for over a decade now... but this is no ordinary pop record. Over the past couple years, Barnes married, moved to Norway, had a child, fell into a stifling depression, saw his marriage crumble, and eventually pulled himself together and reconciled with his wife. This album, recorded mostly solo on a laptop computer, chronicles it all - from the lowest moments of clinical depression to the highest peaks of personal redemption. It's an emotional rollercoaster of dance beats and glam funk. The greatest album thus far from the greatest band making music today, period.

Honorable Mentions:

The 1900's, Cold and Kind

Tiger Saw, Tigers on Fire

Shout Out Louds, Our Ill Wills

Architecture in Helsinki, Places Like This

Caribou, Andorra

Airiel, The Battle of Sealand

Miguel Migs, Those Things

The Polyphonic Spree, The Fragile Army

Britney Spears, Blackout

(Seriously tho, for the train wreck that she is, Britney's producers made an amazing top 40 record.)


Socialist Christian Hippie said...

My argument with Sean, and with this column is not that a Best Of list is useless in the grand scheme of things, but that the National music scene is extremely well covered. Especially the Pop music scene.

If we are to grow Local talent where Entertainment writers and editors can make an impact is by promoting local music. Local music is NOT well covered by many other mags. Heck, local music is no longer even played on local radio.

That's not even to start on the fact that the paper hardly covers art music, avant garde music or jazz, or new age, or folk... locally or otherwise.

So when I see ANOTHER top ten pop music list...Heck...even NPR has one.

-shane- said...

Well, you're getting into some pretty grey areas with this comment.

For one, are my picks pop music? By definition of the term, I suppose that yep, they are. But are ANY of these artists heard on the radio, even sporadically? Not unless you listen to some cool radio stations.

I would argue your point and say that indiepop is sadly NOT well-covered at all by either the local or national media... and part of my insistence on writing up my picks every year is in the hopes that I might generate more attention for these artists that are woefully lacking in sales, airplay, and attention.

I would also argue your point that our paper hardly covers what you call "art music." I call every one of these artists artistic. I certainly call most of them avant-garde.

Lastly, local music is promoted egregiously in the Dispatch, as best we can in the space that we're given. Part of the reason that you don't see as much coverage as you want is likely due to the artists themselves. Speaking towards some of the local indie bands, there's a stigma attached to being interviewed by a mainstream newspaper - and it's not a good one. To some, sitting down for an interview with a daily newspaper is akin to "selling out." Some of these bands avoid us like the plague and won't cooperate when we approach them to cover their music. We will cover ANY musicians making an impact in the Quad Cities who are willing to sit down with us, talk about their art, get a photo taken, etc. We will publish ANY gig sent to our event calendar. Personally, I think Sean does a pretty bang-up job trying to cover a variety of musicians and music styles.

Lastly. You're right, there are no local musicians spotlighted on my year-end list. Know why? Because, in this critic's opinion, no local musicians merited such an accolade this year, plain and simple. Davenport's Driver of the Year put out a rock record this year that just barely avoided my year-end list, but otherwise, nothing local really blew me away this year.

If you look past to my prior year-end lists, you'll find a smattering of local bands listed. I try my best to weigh my picks in an unbiased manner among ALL artists - local, national, or otherwise.

I point you to my "honorable mentions" in the column above and ask that you check out the 1900's, who are a FANTASTIC Chicago band who played their second ever gig right here in Rock Island (at the now-defunct Rocket Theatre.) As far as area bands go, that's the best 2007 had to offer.

Socialist Christian Hippie said...

Part of the argument has become semantics.

All music is art. I'll argue that.

However, I use the term "art music" to denote a line of musical thought that stretches from Gregorian chant until today that has been in conversation and is self referential to a great extent in that conversation.

This is sometimes (mislabeled) as "Classical Music". Classical Music, however, refers to a specific time period in this conversation.

Most of your music is "Pop" music in that it is designed to speak to a different line of thought stretching back into, primarily, African American genres. Equally worthy (except in modern media coverage as I have argued) and certainly respectable. The music is, simply, different purposed. It too is involved in a conversation with itself. Certainly, the art forms can collide. (see George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, etc)

There have been many classical releases this year. There have been superb recitals, concerts, and so forth outside of the QCSO this year. Many by very worthy, excellent artists. Yet, coverage is sparse to nill. One whole side of the conversation is being, mostly, ignored.

This, I believe, even affects your bottom line at the newspaper.

Instead of hearing a local angle on classical (art) music I am forced to rely on the NYTimes. Essentially the ONLY paper to carry
both sides of the discussion. So, I do not subscribe to the local paper, but to a National one so that I can follow a type of music that has a vibrant local side to it, but since it is invisible I will do my best to follow the argument from the one perspective I have. A national one.

I know many people who are of the same mind.

You are a wonderful and intelligent columnist, or I wouldn't waste my time.

Thank you for all you write. I am simply suggesting a widening of the paper's audience and focus.

-shane- said...

Gotcha, and call me slightly naive. I've never heard anyone refer to the classical (and what else can I call it? Classical-esque?) genre as "art music," but I can appreciate that. And yes, you're right, we COULD do better with our coverage of classical music on the local front. It seems like the reviews that I HAVE read on the stuff is more like, "They played this piece. It was rousing. Hats off!" without getting in depth.

And I'll be honest, I know jack-all about classical music, so I'm not the guy to tackle the subject. In all honesty, and Sean would be the better guy to talk about this, it may be a case of our reviewers simply not being educated enough in the genre to give proper justice to extensive coverage, know what I mean?

I urge you again, though, to stay as open-minded as possible with contemporary music. Just because an artist might use a guitar instead of a lute doesn't make them any less artistic. Before you comment back, go back to my post and watch the video of Robin Guthrie performing live in Peru -- you'll see that he's an avant-garde minimalist musician who shares a lot more with the classical/composer realm than the world of pop music. I've always wondered what the reaction of a classical music fan would be to someone like him. (The video is an open-air recording and lacks the intricacies and warmth of his studio releases, but I think you'll get the feel regardless.)

And if you like him, I can point you to several other modern non-classical musicians who follow the same vein of music as artistic statement vs. verse/chorus/verse pop music.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you 100% on your rating of "Life in Cartoon Motion" by Mika. He is a gem. I tried to chat with you the other evening at the club, you looked very perturbed to see me. Maybe next time. I just wanted to tell you that the music mix was great and that I read your column every Sunday. First thing... even before the Target ad.

-shane- said...

God no, not perturbed at all. It just gets REALLY stressy in there when we get THAT busy and I don't have a whole lot o' time to chat late in the night. (Plus it didn't help that our sound system was on the fritz that night and I was having to fight off evil equipment!)

But no -- thanks SO much for reading and for stopping by. E-mail me sometime or stop by the club EARLIER and I won't be such a ball of stress, I swear! :)


Anonymous said...

So... what email would I use to chat with you about all fun things music and such?

I was only partially offended, I understand the demands of being a sensational dj and all. Your security guard was very nice though.

-shane- said... :)