Saturday, December 29, 2007

The albums of 2007

Notice I didn't write the word BEST in the title. Of course, I think they're the best, but I certainly don't want to push that on you, the reader. In any case, please read on about the albums that affected me most in this past year of 2000+7. No pictures, let's not tempt copyright lawyers, but you can easily find all of these albums either on line (I recommend for the domestic ones and for the Japanese ones) or at your favorite brick-n-mortar store.

10 - Planet Earth - Prince

Prince is simply one of the greatest musical artists of all time. His music is as indelible as it is impenetrable' enigmatic and is is accessible.

A lot of critics were quick to dismiss "Planet Earth" as a dud either because he released it for FREE to purchasers of a London newspaper or because it didn't live up to their lofty standards. OK, it isn't "Sign 'O' The Times" or "Purple Rain" but I don't believe it's even striving to be. This is Prince being Prince. Take it or leave it.

If there were any doubt as to the importance of this album, I give you two names: Wendy and Lisa. On the raver, "The 1 U Want 2 C", they join Prince on the most buoyant song he's done sine the late 1980's. On other tracks, Prince shows his most unabashed romantic side he's ever recorded. Man, "Lovesexy" wasn't this romantic. He leaves himself emotionally naked and seduces the listener with some ultra smooth jams. "Planet Earth" may not be earth shaking and it won't change the world. It is well worth you time and I defy anyone to find an album released this year that matches the pure romantic intensity (No, not sexuality) that this one does. It's simply incendiary.

9 - Heavy Starry Heavenly - Tommy Heavenly6

Damn it. Every song here is great. It's got a wonderful production and everything is spot on... so why is it so damn low on my list????

Simple. Save for 4 songs, every song on this album has been previously released as a single or a B-side. It's a new album of 75% recycled material. Lucky for Tommy, it's fabulous material. It's just that Tommy's fans had all bought the singles and they simply weren't aware that they were going to buy them all over again. Even the seasonal Christmas and Halloween songs were included! To the credit of the producers, these songs appear to have been remixed for the album but there just aren't enough new songs here!

Well, as for the brand new songs, "Bloody Knee High Socks" is about as good as Tommy gets (and that's great!) as is "Stay Away From Me". "Door Mat" head bangs it's way through the brain and "Lucky Me" is a rousing album closer.

Tommy has turned back into Tomoko and The Brilliant Green has reformed, so we may never get to see February6 or Heavenly6 again. Not the best send off to one of my favorite J-rock characters, but under the circumstances, a great album nonetheless... singles be damned.

8 - Mike Viola - Lurch

This is the CD that I was waiting for before compiling my list. I certainly didn't want to risk making a best of and leave Mike off of it. Well, Mike didn't disappoint. "Lurch" is a fine album and better than most things I had heard this year.

After the introspection of "Hang On Mike" and the exorcism of his darker side with "Just Before Dark", "Lurch" is about getting on with life and happiness. Indeed, many of the songs sound as if we're eavesdropping on him talking to himself. It's such a playful and inventive album and yet it plays by all of the power pop rules. ""The Strawberry Blonde" sounds like a late 60's Beach Boys classic and "279 East 10th Street" actually sounds like something Brian Wilson would write (remember "Busy Doin' Nothing"?). "So Much Better" chimes in a way to make Matthew Sweet want to smash his guitar in jealousy. "Girly Worm" and "All Bent Out Of Shape" recall the Blue Thumb days more than anything he's released since the Blue Thumb days. "It Comes In Waves" reveals Mike's love for The Beatles' "Revolver" album. Every song here is an absolute gem and it was almost entirely done by Mike himself in his home studio.

I'm glad I waited. It more than deserves to be on this list.

7 - Icky Thump (Vinyl edition) - The White Stripes

Led Zeppelin reunited this past year for a live concert. I heard a bootleg of it. Very underwhelming. My immediate thought was they should've taken the stage and played "Icky Thump". No one would've known the difference. Can you imagine if The White Stripes had OPENED for them? The mind boggles.

Let's put it down to brass tacks, whether I like Jack White or not (I don't), he channels early 1970's Robert Plant like nobody else. The title track and the following track, "You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do What You're Told)" simply stink of Zeppelin; Reeks of it, even. In fact, it hurts me that I adore this album so much since I don't hold much reverence for either the White Stripes or Led Zeppelin. Strangely, if I have my MP3 player on random and a song from this album come on, I'll flip past it immediately. However, if I listen to it as a complete album, I can't get enough of it. Sure there're some duds along the way. The cute and campy cover of "Conquest" should've been nixed and the CD version of "Rag -n- Bone" is too self conscious for it's own good, but the album at large is quite good.

Which is why I chose the Vinyl edition of "Icky Thump" over the other editions (the common CD edition and the Digital Download edition). The Vinyl edition is mixed differently and each song has things going on that're unique to that particular version. "Conquest" really can't be salvaged, but the Vinyl edition of "Rag -n- Bone" is concentrated mostly on the music and guitar work and most of the cute dialogue between Jack and Meg is, thankfully, gone. The Vinyl sounds better, too, since the CD and digital versions sound a bit sterile and hollow. This edition is fuller and in-the-room more than the other versions. Get this one if you can, it cooks.

6 - Scratch - Kimura Kaela

This is Kaela's 3rd album and it's a departure from the previous two. Upon initial listen, I really didn't think much of it. I was expecting to hear some fun pop and a couple of hard driving rock songs, but that just isn't where this album's heart is. From the opening track, "L. Drunk" with it's xylophone under the hollow electric guitars, I wasn't initially prepared for what I was hearing. After a few more listens, I got it. It's always great to hear albums that defy expectations, even if it leaves me cold at the outset.

The album is quirky and non conformist. "Magic Music", written by Linus Of Hollywood is a head bobbing pop treat, while "Snowdome" (music by Beat Crusaders) is a beautiful ballad. There are some good middle of the road pop numbers next, but then the album goes through the roof beginning with "Kirin Tan" which brings to mind classic Echo and the Bunnymen. The following tracks, the instrumental title track, "Swinging London", "Never Land", the brilliant "Tree Climbers" and the synthy "Joey Boy" escalate the album higher and higher until the final track "Ground Control" hits the listener right in the face. "Ground Control" could be one of the best pop songs of the decade. It's pure pop bliss; all hook, no filler.

All in all Ms. Kimura seems to be growing with every album. "Scratch" is a keeper.

5 - Raising Sand - Robert Plant and Alison Krauss

This one knocked me for a loop. Take an aging Rock God and pair him with a silken voiced Bluegrass legend and you get something not completely expected. "Raising Sand" is a disc that I went in not knowing what to expect at all. Would Plant bring out the primal animal in the petite Krauss? Would Alison tame the savage Robert? The answer seems to fall to the latter, though, of course, Robert Plant was always more of a balladeer that the howling demon he seems to be remembered for.

When the two sing together, there is a magic intertwined in their voices. My initial thought was, they sound like The Raveonettes without the fuzz... and a helluva lot better. "Rich Woman", the opening track has a soft, bluesy strut that made me think of the Raveonettes. It was the second track that hit me over the head. "Killing The Blues" is so soft and sweet and their vocal interplay is nothing short of devastating. I could literally listen to that particular track all day without tiring.

The bulk of the album from there has the two taking turns on the lead vocals from song to song. Plant's songs are more of the romantic sort while Krauss' songs are curiously sung from a male point of view (or a lesbian point of view, I could say, but that would be reading waaaaaaaaaay too much into it) and that gives her tracks some serious edge.

It's such a curious collaboration, but such a satisfying one. I'd have never believed it were I simply told about it and yet I'm writing about it being one of the best albums I've heard all year.

...and it is just that.

4 - Golden Grapefruit - Love Psychedelico

Ah. The good 'ol 'Delico. It's been 4 years since their last studio album. That's an eternity in the Music Biz. Fans of this super-duo have been chomping at the bit since their last release "III", back in 2003. Since then, they've released a best of, a concert DVD and a handful of teaser singles that did nothing more then whet the appetite.

Well, the new disc finally came out and it was a bit of a shock. "Golden Grapefruits" (named as a tribute to Yoko Ono's "Grapefruit" book) didn't exactly sound like the 'Delico we came to expect. The first track, "Freedom" was extremely busy and electronic; a far cry from the tight guitar grooves heard previous. The album did come around, though, with tracks that sounded like the Rolling Stones ("AHA! All We Want"), REM (the Bouzouki driven "Carnation") and Led Zeppelin ("Rain"). Other tracks like "Humanimation" and "Good Day Celebration" explored the free associative experimental side of the band.

Unfortunately, they put a good but ultimately useless B-side cover of The Beatles' "Help!" and the 3 year old track "Everyone, Everyone" on there as well. They're both good songs in their own right, but really had no business on this album. Still, in spite of that, "Golden Grapefruit" is a fine album and miles ahead of albums from like minded bands across the world.

3 - Nicole Atkins - Neptune City

This girl. I tell ya. I only have known of her for a few months, but "Neptune City" by Nicole Atkins makes me feel like I've known her forever. This isn't just a great, mellow pop album. It's an album of marvelous pop standards. It's the type of album that, were Peggy Lee around today, she might have recorded. "Neptune City" is chock full of Pop Standards. The songs smoulder with the incredibly expressive vocals from Ms. Atkins and the production smacks of the techniques of yesteryear.

The title track croons and swoons a story about how the past never lasts. "Brooklyn's On Fire" with it's fist pumping, shout along chorus carries itself along in it's swirling circus melody. The track to play, though, is "The Way It Is". This track is so sexual and sultry, it threatens to melt the speakers. There may not be a better female vocal this year than hers on that particular song.

This album is her debut on a major label and it's an incredible start to what promises to be a great collection of albums. I would not be surprised to see her on future best lists.

2 - EPopMaking ~Close Encounters With Pop~ - Beat Crusaders

With their first major label release, "P.O.A. Pop On Arrival", the Beat Crusaders laid down the blueprint for a new type of Punk Rock. It was a Rock that echoed the old while embracing the new. While other bands were emulating The Ramones filtered through the heavy handed guitar of Billie "Green Day" Joe, BeCr was foraging new places for their guitars and keyboard to go. That album was wonderful, but it really left no one prepared for what loomed on the horizon. "EPopMaking" is one of the biggest, most pleasant surprises of the year. It takes the full on assault of "P.O.A." and expands on it magnificently.

What has been done here is an incredible travelogue of trailblazing Punk Rock for the 21st century. Encased within the 19 track CD is an array of what exactly can be done with variations on themes and how grafting different musical genres to Punk can create breathtaking music on it's own. I would not be in exaggeration were I to call "EPopMaking" the Beat Crusaders' "London Calling"... but without all that political stuff.

One thing that is remarkable and stands out above all else is the addition of collaborations with other groups. In the past couple of years, BeCr has made good on a promise to expose non-major label bands to a wider audience by releasing split albums with certain bands. "EPopMaking" features 4 tracks of these collaborations with Your Song Is Good ("Fool Groove", "~Your Melody~"), Tropical Gorilla ("Droog In A Slum")- a band featuring BeCr cult star CIM on guitar, and Asparagus ("Fairy Tale"). The album feels so vast and alive but never becomes crushed under it's own weight. It's actually BETTER than "P.O.A." and that's about the greatest compliment I can give it. A great Rock album.

...and the best album I've heard all year...

1 - Young Modern - Silverchair
It's rare that an album of completely fresh and invigorating music comes along. Most artists try it and they just can't grasp that brass ring.

When Silverchair joined forces with Van Dyke Parks for the "Diorama" album, there was a sense of promise; that, sometime in the future, something truly special was going to come from their alliance. "Young Modern" fulfills that promise tenfold.

The opening (semi) title track screeches out of the station and begins immediately breaking free of past expectations. Indeed, "Young Modern Station" sounds like a train leaving behind an ugly and stifling city while heading towards a beautiful and stately countryside. The train slows into a stride with "Straight Lines" and then the mood changes with the quirky "If You Keep Losing Sleep", a song filled with breathtaking time signature changes and insistent Military snare. The gorgeous "Reflections of a Sound" surprises once again with an irresistible sunny power pop anthem. From there, Silverchair settles in with their centerpiece for "Young Modern", the sweeping epic of "Those Thieving Birds". This is their "Surf's Up". It's actually a three piece song cycle who's The first part, "Those Thieving Birds Part 1" lulls the listener into a beautiful aural slumber while the second part, "Strange Behaviour", wakes up the listener with a driving, string laced tour de force of pure pop expressionism. The final segment, "Those Thieving Birds Part 2" brings things full circle and lingers there as would a Raven lifted on the wind.

From that point on, the album switches gears and becomes a killer, straight ahead rock and roll album. There's "The Man That Knew Too Much" with it's keyboard driven melody followed by the best track on the album, "Waiting All Day". This particular is possibly the most perfect pop song of the year. It's so light and breathy that it floats on air. It's eerie and ethereal in it's pure pop majesty. The final four tracks of this album absolutely rip. "Mind Reader" growls and tears it's way through a 3 minute primal workout while the George Harrison-istic slide guitar on "Low" further surprises the listener at Silverchair's growth as a band. "Insomnia" is a synthy pleasure with a chorus designed to stick in the crinkles of the brain. The album's closer, "All Across The World" takes things down to a nice easy level with a singalong ballad. The album begins perfect, maintains it's perfection during it's running time and ends perfectly. It's perfect.

The true revelation here if you haven't been following the band since "Frogstomp" is Daniel Johns' development as a songwriter and singer. I'm not much on lyrics, but there is so much playfulness and invention on hand that it becomes absolutely giddy, and make no mistake, a lot of credit has to go to his vocal inflection. I've rarely heard a vocalist these days that can sell a song the way Johns does.

I've gone on way too long here, but it's easy to gush. Silverchair's "Young Modern" is hands down the best album to have been released in 2007. I will go on record to say it's a Pop Music Masterpiece that can and does stand strong along side works like "SMILE" and "SGT. Pepper". It's that good and you should own it. Period.

Yeah. So that's it. My picks for the most worthwhile music this past yeah. I hope you agree. I understand if you don't, but there is no excuse for not going and listening for yourself. Here's to more and even better music in 2008!!!

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