What a strange year.
Unlike most years, when I find myself all over the place musically, this year found me focused on a small collection of albums that repeatedly drifted into my ears. I’m not like this – I’m not one of those people that sits back and says, “What a crappy year for music this has been,” but when I look back on 2007 for truly notable music, I simply come back to a small handful of my very favorite releases where most years find me struggling to pick which ones were my favorites. Not so this year – it’s pretty cut and dried.
Are they artistically important? In some cases, yes, but does it really matter? What matters most to me, at least, is that the albums are ones that I’m going to be coming back to year after year. If they’re not groundbreaking, earth-shattering redefining examples of music, so be it. This list, in a way, is a prediction of sorts – I am attempting to predict the albums that are going to have staying power with me, at the very least. And, who knows, maybe in a few years we can look back and these albums will have withstood the test of time for many others. I’m pretty confident they will, in fact.
Wilco – Sky Blue Sky: Opening with the gentle guitar of “Either Way,” a film begins to unreel in my mind. The black screen, the titles, and then Jeff Tweedy’s soft, scratchy voice crackles out “Maybe the sun will shine today” just as a scene of the open road is revealed. That’s what Sky Blue Sky is to me – road music, an escape, transportation away from the everyday nothingness that often drives us insane. And, more than any other piece of music, escape is exactly what I did with this album since it came out earlier this year.
Wilco may have taken a quiet and calming turn here, but there’s so much more going on. The music is subtle, revealing layers of intricate, thoughtful, and sometimes downright weird stuff going on underneath the top coating of amiable, easy-going tunes. Listen close and it’s impossible to ignore jazz guitarist Nels Cline’s contributions, or the unusual drumming that Glenn Kotche lays down behind the band. These elements take Sky Blue Sky from simply being a good album to being something that needs to be listened to again and again. It’s an instant modern classic rock album – a rarity these days.
Crowded House – Time On Earth: Sometimes you just can’t hear things right. Or maybe it’s just me. I don’t know – whatever the case, that happened here. Time On Earth eluded me for months after its release. As expected, given my love for Neil Finn’s songwriting, a few songs grabbed me quickly, and that’s exactly the problem with the album. Some of these songs were so good that they eclipsed all the others. In their brilliant light the album as a whole slipped away from me. I fell into a bad rut. I heard it in chunks – “this” little group of songs was great, “that” little group of songs was good, and others, well, I just didn’t care for. The whole didn’t jell – and this was unusual for me. I usually love an album or I don’t. Something was wrong here, and I began to think it wasn’t the music.
I found myself presented with a few opportunities where I couldn’t focus on the music like I normally do. When I opted to listen to a playlist I’d created that mixed things up just a tiny bit by throwing in two b-sides to mirror the tracklisting of the vinyl version of the album, I realized that all of the songs were powerful and beautiful. That little change created a new terrain out of the familiar, somehow, and I could hear the album anew. The clouds parted, as they say, the light shone down from above, and the haze cleared, illuminating what is a powerful collection of songs dealing with love, death, and the state of the world.
We can argue if we want about whether they’re truly Crowded House songs or “just” more Neil Finn songs. That’s what some are doing. But in the end, does it matter? I’ll take more of either.
Rush – Snakes & Arrows: While it may not quite be the wild and crazy effort that producer Nick Raskulinecz promised, it is a solid, enjoyable album. If anything, it suffers mainly from the band’s attempts at covering so much ground. Where they had formerly been so focused on a “sound” for each album, this album is all over the place, picking bits and pieces from all over their catalog. It makes for a fun listen, but not an especially focused one when you’re in a particular mood. What I respond to on this album, more than many other Rush albums, are drummer Neil Peart’s lyrics, which seem to be misunderstood by many as the words of a very bitter man about a very cold world, rather than what I believe them to be. Which is one man attemping to show that while there are terrible events of every kind taking place, there is beauty and belief and justice to be found if we would just trust in each other. A unified message of hope ties an album of loose ends together in a fantastic way.
Radiohead – In Rainbows: Even after only a few months with this album, it’s hard for me not to look back on their catalog and think of the high points as OK Computer, Kid A, and In Rainbows. Somehow, after years of really doing their own thing, going their own way, which kind of means that they had a bit of a “Spinal Tap Jazz Odyssey for a new generation” thing going on. Here, they veered back to territory closer to OK Computer and the prettier parts of Kid A and made a bunch of really beautiful songs. Sure, there are lots of bits of experimentation here and there, but where it used to take the front seat, it’s now more background, with melody upfront. Part of me wants more of the weird, angular, gritty stuff, because I loved that. But when they make music this compellingly lovely, it’s impossible to deny wanting more.
Blackfield – II: Guitarist and vocalist Steven Wilson seems to have split his pop sensibility off from his “other” band, Porcupine Tree, so they could focus more on delving into darker subjects with heavier music. Blackfield, his project with Israeli singer Aviv Geffen, is more of an outlet for his more, um . . . “upbeat” material. I say upbeat in quotes because it’s hard to call it that, exactly, since the songs are still filled with tales of heartbreak and personal woe. But in comparison to the pure angst experienced in recent Porcupine Tree material, where societal ills are front and center, it does indeed feel lighter. Here is where Wilson and Geffen allow their catchiest, most beautiful harmonies to emerge, even while turning out some of the year’s best hard rock – if “Epidemic” is not one of the best straight-up rock songs of the year, something is wrong.
The Shins – Wincing the Night Away: Maybe it’s a “sophomore slump” of sorts to some – despite it being their third album – since their big break came with Garden State a few years back when Chutes Too Narrow was all the rage. Will they really change your life? I think a lot of people thought they would and are holding this album to that standard. This is not that album. In fact, it’s an album made for the people who scoff at such notions and wanted something beyond more of the same from the band. It’s mature pop, darker, weirder, a little off-putting – a decided step away from the candy-coated elixir of their first two albums that hooked so many. And it’s exactly the kind of move a band needs to make to stand the test of time. Personally, I hope to see many more Shins albums lining the shelves of my CD rack.
Ryan Adams – Easy Tiger: Adams has regained the focus he had with Heartbreaker and Gold and turned out one of the strongest sets of music of his career here. What came through after a few spins for me, what grabbed me, is that behind the usual country tinges was a little swagger found in soul and r&b that I hadn’t really noticed before. It’s not pronounced, but it’s there nonetheless.
Porcupine Tree – Fear of a Blank Planet: It might be easy to go on and on about the themes of isolation that waft through Blank Planet‘s lyrics, but for me, it’s all about one thing: the music. Honestly, sometimes the lyrics are a little pedestrian and it’s not like this isn’t a topic that hasn’t been covered a million times before. They’re simply excuses for Steven Wilson to lay down some of those gorgeous harmony choruses. But back to the music – Wilson cranks things up a bit here, and, as I said above, he seemingly has split off the pop-side of the band to Blackfield, so Porcupine Tree can focus on the darker, heavier, grittier, and weirder stuff. And we get it all – “Anesthetize” expands to nearly 18 minutes in basically two movements and features some of the heaviest, fastest playing the band has ever done, and then is followed by one of the prettiest songs they’ve ever done, “Sentimental” (which features the memorable riff from In Absentia‘s “Trains.”) The album is nothing if not an intense song-cycle of despair.
Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau – Quartet: This is one of those pairings that could have gone either way. Two extremely strong, vibrant leaders in their own right getting together and turning out an album where they simply butt heads for an hour or so and nothing transcendent happens, or, simply put, magic. Luckily, it was the latter, and even more luckily for us, our hunches were true that there was a second offering coming with the full band backing the two.
David Torn – Prezens: I have used the word “alien” to describe David Torn’s guitar work so many times that I’m afraid to say it anymore. And yet I can find no other words that adequately convey the qualities in his sound and style without picking that one. His is an utterly alien sound. No one, I mean no one sounds like him. He manages to take things that sound like an amp dying and turn it into sheer beauty – and he purposely makes these sounds, mind you – and then he twists them just enough so that nothing about it sounds “pretty” but manages to sound right. He is one of few guitarists that I willingly label “genius” and it’s because he focuses so little on being a guitarist and rather intends to simply be a musician. There are no blazing solos or fretboard runs in his music – just searingly weird landscapes of tones and textures.
Mörglbl – Grötesk: Don’t even bother: it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a weird band name they use because it sounds funny. And that, in itself, should tell you something about this band – they’re French and they have this kind of sense of humor. Add in the fact that guitarist Christophe Godin plays like the lovechild of a bizarre mating of Mike Keneally, Frank Zappa, and John McLaughlin and you’ve got some pretty weird territory. Zappa asked, “Does humor belong in music?” That question could be appended with the phrase “instrumental music.” They don’t descend into Keystone Kops-like moments, but it is clear that the intent of their music is serious fun, and there’s an element of humor. In fact, there are times when I laughed to myself at the often ingenious approaches the trio takes to music. Not necessarily “funny ha-ha” but “funny clever.”
Grant-Lee Phillips – Strangelet: Every time Phillips puts out an album this happens: it comes out, I love it, and then it just falls into my routine. Whatever it is about Grant-Lee Phillips, he somehow has the right gearing to mesh with the gearing of my life with nary a hitch. And therein lies the rub: he gets forgotten. Strangelet popped up earlier this year and slipped right into my listening for a while, becoming a quick fave, and then just became part of the background. When I began thinking about the year’s releases again, suddenly I realized that this album came out this year, not much longer ago even though it feels far more familiar than that. Phillips’ music is that tired cliche of comfortable old shoe – it fits perfectly and feels good, but goes neglected until you really think about it. Don’t neglect this album.
Michael Brook – BellCurve: After the disappointment I felt with 2005′s RockPaperScissors, I would never have expected this “remix” album of that material to not only stand on its own but be as strong as it is – nor be a favorite of the year. And yet . . . BellCurve takes the strongest elements of RockPaperScissors and re-molds them with very different, much more suitable backing music, and, except in the case of one song, does away with all of the vocals that, frankly, cluttered up what most people are tuning into Brooks for in the first place: his beautiful guitar work. The result is a far more pleasing album that ranks with his fantastic Live at the Aquarium and Cobalt Blue releases, rather than down with the confused murk, say, of Albino Alligator. (In an incredibly stupid and frustrating move, the CD is only available for sale at Barnes & Noble. The album may be downloaded from Itunes and Amazon, however, if files are your thing.)
I’d like to take this opportunity to offer my thanks to readers of Overlooked Alternatives and its offspring piece, The Breakdown. As has a tendency to happen, life has started to impinge upon my time to devote to writing this and keep up with reviewing music and, you know, having a life. While I enjoy getting to explore the new releases every week, I’d really rather put my time into actually reviewing recently released albums rather than simply speculating about them.
The opportunity arose recently to join forces with Glen Boyd and Mark Saleski on Blogcritics’ weekly New CDs column and I jumped at the chance. I won’t be a weekly presence on the list but I will contribute when the beacon of new music that needs a spotlight lights up the sky.
Suffice it to say that I will be there more often than not. It’s not “goodbye,” it’s more, you know, “see you in a bit. I have to run out to the store for some bread. Do you need anything?”