Friday, November 23, 2007

Top Ten of 2007

The past year has been, I have to say, a fantastic year for music. Most of my top albums this year came from bands I hadn't really listened to before. Without further ado, here's the list:

10. The White Stripes, Icky Thump: This is a solid set of the old-school blues-inflected, muscular rock we've come to know and love from Jack and Meg White. The addition of occasional organ work and the use of bagpipes in a couple of tracks really expands the band's musical palate. The acoustic blues of "Effect and Cause" and the classic "300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues" are the sort of songs Jack White must be able to crank out like nobody's business.

9. Rufus Wainwright, Release the Stars: A slice of pop so rich it's likely to give you diabetes. Wainwright just keeps producing such immaculate music that you'd think he spent years crafting each song. Tracks like "Do I Disappoint You" and "Release the Stars" are uplifting, defiant, and perfect, while "Tulsa" is full of innuendo and the sort of inside jokes real fans will appreciate.

8. The Shins, Wincing the Night Away: This is one of those albums I've listened to so many times this year, it's like I can't imagine a time when I didn't have it. Building on their previous efforts while pushing their sound forward, the Shins managed to top Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow. "Australia" has a jaunty bounce, "Sleeping Lessons" is a slow-building tune that explodes near the end into an almost-jam, and "Phantom Limb" is the sort of track that will someday belong on a greatest hits collection.

7. Bruce Springsteen, Magic: It's nice to see the Boss cutting loose with a real rock record again (and with the E Street Band, no less!), but I found myself slightly disappointed in a way that he didn't bring in more elements from efforts like Devils and Dust or The Seeger Sessions. The looseness of something like The Seeger Sessions was a breath of fresh air, but the tightness of this record feels almost constraining after it. On the positive side, though, Bruce and the band brought their A-game, and these are some great tunes. "Radio Nowhere" is a balls-out rocker and distant relative of "Born to Run" or "Thunder Road," while "The Long Walk Home" and "Magic" are detailed and universal all at the same time. Definitely a strong record, if a little too tightly-produced.

6. Wilco, Sky Blue Sky: Like most Wilco records, this one took repeated listens to grow on me. The band takes a step back from the arch-artiness of their previous efforts and just plays music that's fun. There's a mellow, folky vibe that runs through the whole record, but also some of the sunshine pop leanings that were last seen on SummerTeeth (and anything that recalls that glorious album is welcome in my book). On the whole, the album feels closer to the Autumn Defense (a side project of two of the band members), with its '70s soft rock and singer-songwriter aesthetic than anything off of A Ghost is Born or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. "What Light," "On and On and On," and "Hate it Here" are standout tracks, and the second half of the record definitely feels stronger than the first half (though the first half does include "Impossible Germany," a song with one of the coolest titles ever), but this is a real grower of an album.

5. Josh Ritter, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter: I hadn't heard of this guy until I read about him in No Depression, but I really dig his stuff. A folk-rock vibe and a tendency to cram too many words into a phrase (a la Dylan) make this guy entertaining to listen to. The fact that he cranks out fantastic, folky pop songs with great hooks and sing-along choruses doesn't hurt. Songs like "Right Moves," "Wait for Love," and "Empty Heart" have spun so many times on my iPod that they're all up in the top 25 of my most-played tunes.

4. Radiohead, In Rainbows: This download-only album that shattered the notion of content delivery last month is a fantastic listen. Even more so than on
Hail to the Thief, the band seems to have found that delicate balance between their arty inclinations with their need to cut loose with some guitar rock and struck the perfect balance. My favorite track has to be "Bodysnatchers," with its snarling guitars, stuttering drums, and nigh-incomprehensible lyrics. Definitely one of their strongest albums from beginning to end, regardless of how the music was made available to the public.

3. The National, Boxer: This is a record I downloaded on a whim (after seeing them mentioned in a music blog), and I have to say that I've never looked back. These guys have a fantasitic vibe and energy, full of interesting rhythms, intricate guitar work, and compelling yet cryptic lyrics ("Showered and blue-blazered"? What the hell does that even mean?). Standouts include "Fake Empire," "Start a War" (featuring one of the most emotionally-charged lines I can recall in recent memory, "Whatever went away, I'll get it back again"), and "Apartment Story." But really, there's not a bad track on the album, and you'd be doing yourself a favor to pick this album up at the first available opportunity.

2. Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga: These guys just kick ass, period. From the strutting, defiant opener, "Don't Make Me a Target," to the echo-laden "You've Got Yr Cherry Bomb" and the horn-inflected "Underdog," there's not a bad song here. Pulling from a variety of influences and styles, yet always sounding of a piece, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is the sort of record you never get tired of listening to.

1. The Arcade Fire, Neon Bible: Hands down, the best record I've heard all year. I got it at the same time I picked up the new Shins, and this one has just grown on me so much. I've listened to the record so many times, I can't believe it only came out this year. It's been in constant rotation on the iPod (and was on constant rotation in the car on CD when I was without the iPod adapter this summer), and "Keep the Car Running" is just one of the best songs I've heard all year. Again, though, there's not a bad song on this record, and the blending of unusual instrumentation (there's lots of mandolin, a church organ, and accordion) with tunes that seem like the bastard child of Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie is a style that just works so well. Definitely my album of the year.

Honorable Mentions:

1. Ryan Adams, Easy Tiger: Too slick for its own good, with all of the rough edges smoothed away and shined to a high gloss. But some of the tracks - "Two" and "Pearls on a String" in particular - are fantastic, and if he can strike a balance between this and his work on Cold Roses, the next album could be a classic.

2. Mark Knopfler, Kill to Get Crimson: A song about a painter killing someone to get their blood to use as paint? Awesome. Strong from beginning to end, though no song really stands out from the pack. Like much of his solo work, this record is solid and warm, with the subtle guitar work and gently-sketched stories about average folks.

3. Iron & Wine, The Shepherd's Dog: Expanding the sonic palette from his earlier work, Sam Beam crafts an album that owes as much to Granceland-era Paul Simon as it does to indie rock. But damn, does it work! A great record that probably would've been in the top ten if I'd had more time to process it.

Black Friday

In that post-Thanksgiving lull (oh, glorious, glorious tryptophan!), I find myself watching Stargate (the movie, not one of the series) and vegging out on a Friday morning. Good times.

A lot of the commercials I saw this week indicated that some stores are opening up as early as 4.00 am. I'm pretty certain it wasn't that ridiculous last year or any previous years. I always thought the earliest the stores opened was 6.00 am, and even that was excessive. Seriously, who's so intent on getting their shopping done the day after Thanksgiving that they'll drag themselves to the store at 4 in the freakin' morning to shop?

Sadly, I expect the stores were actually packed at that hour.

Michelle and I have decided to do all of our Christmas shopping online to avoid the idiocy of the whole thing. Personally, I think it's the best solution.

So we have - in case people were unaware - adopted two cats. They are the cutest things ever. They're sisters, about 12 weeks old, and very friendly. The black one we named Ninja Steve, and the gray striped one we named Cecilia.

Poor Ninja Steve has a fungal infection that started out on her head but has expanded to a spot on her hind leg, the base of her tail, and behind an ear. We're taking her to the vet on Tuesday to see if they can do anything about it.

We picked up the new OS X Leopard on Wednesday. So far, I'm real pleased with it. Sometime before the end of the weekend, I'm going to set up boot camp and get Windows on here, too...not because I desperately want to have a Windows operating system on my computer again, but because there are a lot of programs that are just easier to find or get through Windows than Mac. It's a matter of expediency and ease of use, that's all.

Later this weekend, I'll post my list of favorite albums from this year. Damn, was it a good year for music.


Song of the Moment: The Arcade Fire, "(Antichrist Television Blues)"

Thursday, November 01, 2007

"Burnin' Ring Of Fire"

Halloween came and went.

I went as Johnny Cash, though it was mostly because that's all I could think of at the last minute. Michelle went as the ol' standby, Static Cling (always a great costume, I feel).

Dunno how much I actually looked like Johnny Cash, but hey, what can you do.

We're already at the end of the first quarter at school. Hard to believe it's already November.


Song of the Moment: Johnny Cash, "Folsom Prison Blues"