Best of 2007: Minus the Drama and the Fraud

1.) Unless It’s Kicks–Okkervil River (The Stage Names)
2.) Chores–Animal Collective (Strawberry Jam)
3.) Fumes–Aesop Rock (None Shall Pass)
4.) Boyz–M.I.A. (Kala)
5.) Middlenight–The Sea and Cake (Everybody)
6.) Don’t You Evah–Spoon (Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga)
7.) Shake a Fist–Hot Chip (Made in the Dark)
8.) Innocence–Bjork (Volta)
9.) Someone Great–LCD Soundsystem (Sound of Silver)
10.) Plasticities–Andrew Bird (Armchair Apocrypha)
11.) Just Friends–Amy Winehouse (Back to Black)
12.) Weird Fishes/Arpeggi–Radiohead (In Rainbows)
13.) Apartment Story–The National (Boxer)
14.) Gronlandic Edit–Of Montreal (Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?)
15.) She’s Fantastic–Sondre Lerche (Phantom Punch)
16.) Landmines–St. Vincent (Marry Me)
17.) Heatherwood–Deerhunter (Cryptograms)
18.) The Waking–Kurt Elling (Nightmoves)

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1.) Unless It’s Kicks–Okkervil River
I love this song. True, I would still mostly prefer reading interviews with Will Sheff to listening to Okkervil River’s albums, but this has absolutely got to be one of the most perfect songs I heard all year. I think it’s the strain in it that really gets me–there’s a hyper-jubilance there that’s so intent on embracing and celebrating and affirming life that it almost becomes abrasively defiant, like a wild-eyed street-corner prophet who has seen the truth, man! The drum work, in its intelligence, is right up there with what Jim Eno’s doing all over Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (dig the way the rhythms layer themselves across those first few verses), and Sheff’s lyrics about the girl in the stands with her heart in her hands unexpectedly speaks to a question about fandom I’ve been wrestling with for years, namely: where does that love go when I experience a particularly strong reaction to a book or a movie or a piece of music? “I wanna tell her ‘your love isn’t lost’.” I’d have to be a tone-deaf moron not to believe him when he proclaims it like that.

2.) Chores–Animal Collective
Ah, the epic decision of 2007’s mix-making endeavors: run a cut from Strawberry Jam or from Person Pitch? Ultimately, I tried to split the difference by going with one of Panda Bear’s songs off the Animal Collective album. All the different movement in this song has somehow become associated in my mind with riding the El around the Loop, especially at night, especially across the river (as Panda puts it: “At the end of the day, when there’s no one watching”). The sense of peace and release after the frantic, tribal intensity of the first half of the song feels warm and liquid and mature.

3.) Fumes–Aesop Rock
As Aesop Rock friend and collaborator John Darnielle wrote of a similarly cinematic hip-hop track last year, “I spent much of the summer listening to this over the headphones trying to see if the narrative ever ran out of new developments. Not yet!” This cut freaks me out a little bit with how good it is. Sure, it was probably my nerd attack when I first heard that crackly recording of Newton’s first last of motion being used as the hook that first attracted me to this cut, specifically, out of all the equally dense tracks on None Shall Pass. But the more I listened to it, the more I thrilled to the pitch-perfect storytelling on display here. These are about the five most rich and rewarding minutes of music I’ve encountered in recent memory.

4.) Boyz–M.I.A.
I get sort of irrationally annoyed when I hear or read older, overeducated white men raving about M.I.A. and Kala. Something about it just rankles, like their praise is somehow attempting to give her permission to be as good as she is. This is not to say I have some sort of special access to a deeper or, heaven forbid, more “pure” enjoyment of her music, of course; my not-insignificant whiteness and middle-classness are certainly factors in it, probably over and above my femaleness. But still, I do love the way the schoolyard taunts of “Boyz” throw that permission back in all of our faces with a punishingly funky wall of drums, a cheering crowd, and calculatedly casual disses to not just gender but financial solvency and war-mongering impulses as well.

5.) Middlenight–The Sea and Cake
If I’m going to get nostalgic about any time period of my life, I generally lean more toward high school than I do college, but for some reason I found myself thinking a lot about my IU days over the course of this year, and no music triggered those thoughts more dependably than the Sea and Cake’s excellent Everybody. I’m sure a large part of it is that I first encountered their albums (along with Archer Prewitt’s solo stuff) during the years I volunteered at the student-run radio station, but it’s also due in part to the emotional jumble of the songs themselves. Like here in “Middlenight”–when taken together, that elegant, afro-pop-tinged guitar, that low, breathy flute line that’s so moist it almost sounds like a Rhodes piano, and of course that devastatingly sexy shrug in Sam Prekop’s voice all carry a conflicted kind of insouciance that’s just as full of clear-eyed hope as it is bullheaded confidence.

6.) Don’t You Evah–Spoon
Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is another predictably immaculate album from Spoon, full of career-defining corkers like “The Underdog” and “Black Like Me.” But somehow “Don’t You Evah” comes across as one of the Spooniest songs of the bunch–and Britt didn’t even write it. Much has been made of the “Jim, can you record the talk-back?” meta playfulness here, but, for my money, their familiar sonic palette of guitar, snare, bass, tambourine and shaker, and Britt’s hoarse yelp becomes its own kind of self-referentiality as they continually find ways to whittle those elements down to even finer, cleaner points. That drum snap that pops about a sixteenth of a beat before you’d anticipate it in the brief instrumental bridge blows my mind with how effectively it both teases and educates you: rather than delaying a harmonic resolution the way a melismatic trill might, the rhythmic pattern is actually giving you what you want before you’re expecting it. It gratifies you before you’ve properly braced yourself for the pleasure of its fulfillment, thereby only fueling and even heightening your craving for the next go-round. It’s teaching you how to listen to these songs, laying bare their discrete elements as if to say, “see, there’s no magic here; we’re working with the same ingredients everyone else has access to.” Which, of course, is what makes the magic truly magical. This is why we listen to pop music, kittens.

7.) Shake a Fist–Hot Chip
The nuttiness of the vocal breakdown and “sounds of the studio” bleepy freakout in the middle section are entertaining as hell, to be sure, but also wouldn’t mean a thing without the epically beguiling bookends on either side of it. The deep bass bats you around like a cat toy between its massive, fuzzy paws, and the archly coy vocal goes straight for the trick that never fails to work on me: the nearly chromatic melody line. (No matter if it’s ascending or descending–and even better if the bass plays it too–it’s one of those things I just can’t resist in a song. You can hear it, for example, in Radiohead’s “Optimistic” and I think I once traced the origins of this fetish back to my lifelong relationship with Jesus Christ Superstar, but regardless: there it is and there it shall remain.) In a year full of vibrant, sensual, and emotionally affecting dance music, this cut instantly stood out for me upon downloading for its wiliness and its willingness to be simultaneously dead-serious about its appeal to your ass and utterly full of shit as it tickles your ears. I’m also rather amused by the way the spoken segment sounds a little bit like Owen Wilson talking directly to the camera in the best music video Wes Anderson hasn’t made (yet).

8.) Innocence–Bjork
Smarter people (and bigger fans) than I have gone to the mat during this end-of-year list-making season defending Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky against its various and sundry detractors, but I’ve yet to encounter anyone who’s done the same, at length, for Bjork’s Volta. (Though, I do have to give a hale-n-hearty “fuck yeah” to Owen Pallett’s deliciously snotty bon mot on Pitchfork aimed at the “asshats” who didn’t/couldn’t/wouldn’t appreciate the album: “You just want her to be digestible. I want to hear her make an all foghorn and ocean record.” I wish I’d said it first!) Which is a shame because, well, damn–listen to this track: that fat, barking cough in the beat, the squidgy keyboard bit, and some of Bjork’s best, most direct lyrics in her career-spanning sub-catalog of personal accountability songs. In a weird way, Volta feels similar to last year’s Divine Comedy album Victory for the Comic Muse in that they both pick up bits and pieces of sounds and themes and lyrical conceits from all different corners of their respective careers, almost daring us to make sniffly comparisons to their earlier work. The comparisons are inevitable, of course: it’s just that they’re actually favorable and colored by the recognition that, oh, this is what precocious artists sound like when they grow up and into their talent and learn to really luxuriate in it.

9.) Someone Great–LCD Soundsystem
Why, yes, I do tend to think an awful lot about loss. Why do you ask? Recipients of last year’s mix will remember M. Ward’s “Requiem” giving us a joyful, boozy, fingerpickin’ tribute to the memory of a good man, where, with this track, James Murphy gives us a more stunned and mellow and eventually resigned take on trying to swallow the enormity of a dear companion’s passing away, whether by death or other irrevocable circumstance. And, come to find out, once swallowed, it tastes almost insultingly like a decent cup of coffee. Such is the brilliance of this brilliant song on a most brilliant album: the nearly revolutionary simplicity of the hard-won truth that it keeps coming and it keeps coming and it keeps coming til the day it stops.

10.) Plasticities–Andrew Bird
I’m a city person. I love living in a city, I love traveling to new cities, I love pouring over the peculiarities that give cities their own unique style and vibe. I love them the way I love books–just being around them is often good enough, and when you get to know a few of them really well, it can be downright magical, though in lieu of quality, quantity can often make for an extremely satisfying substitute. And so Bird’s inclusion of “dying cities” in his binary attached to music halls as a unit that must be defended touches me deeply. I’ve praised this album elsewhere for the way it so beautifully dramatizes the collision of the Self with the Empire, and I think it’s a sensitive and sophisticated and nuanced point that he’s making here, that it’s our neural walls Big Brother is after now. The city walls really belong to us, the people contained within them, and they’re ours to do with as we see fit. We’ll fight, we’ll fight.

11.) Just Friends–Amy Winehouse
I feel a little lame and/or bad for gravitating to this one sorta reggae-tinged track on an album most celebrated for its Motown revivalism. I’m going to make it even worse for some of you by admitting that I think part of the reason I love it is because it sounds like it could have appeared on the Jackie Brown soundtrack, which I adore tremendously. But, gah, it’s just so nice and warm and easy with its sparkling electric piano, sultry horns, and spacious woodblock accents. It’s got a pleasantly fuzzy Sunday morning feel to it, and everybody needs a little Sunday morning sometimes. Especially Amy herself these days, it seems. (Yeah, I went there.)

12.) Weird Fishes/Arpeggi–Radiohead
Both Bjork and Radiohead tracks on my year-end best-of mix? What decade am I in? Thom is in downright incredible form here, as are the rest of the boys. The whole song, in fact, sounds like a dream, like exactly the kind of track I might have hoped Radiohead would come back with after their three-year absence from recording, if only I could have figured out how to articulate what I was looking for. And, for me, with my well-documented and often joked-about fear of/fascination with the ocean and its creatures, the imagery of the sublimity of the deep is, really, the only proper context in which to present a lyric as devastating as “everybody leaves, if they get the chance / and this is my chance.” Which, in turn, is almost literally buoyed by the closing lines (that I’m sure Kevin Barnes is kicking himself for not having written this year): “I hit the bottom and escape.”

13.) Apartment Story–The National
I don’t know how many times I must have listened to Boxer before this song slowly started revealing itself to me as one of my favorites on the disk. But the more I listened to it, the more I felt a twitchiness rise up through the bottoms of my feet and a smirkiness pull at the corners of my mouth; I think we used to call it having bugs in our bones, that spazzed out inability to sit still, the compusion to wiggle around in your chair and maybe throw paperclips or some other small objects at someone you love until they either get fed up and leave the room or start throwing the shit back. Really, it’s the sound of cabin fever–“stay inside til somebody finds us,” “sleep in our clothes and wait for winter to leave.” It may be a romanticized, movie montage version of cabin fever, but I’ll gladly take the fictional romance of Berninger’s warm vocal burr and the Dessner brothers’ churning guitars and Bryan Devendorf’s steady, radiator-clang drum work over my own small, hateful, crabby, late-winter desperation any day.

14.) Gronlandic Edit–Of Montreal
Or I suppose I could take Of Montreal’s grandiose, florid, and completely unhinged version of internalized, pent-up despair. Man oh man, I just never saw Hissing Fauna coming this year, until it had completely wrapped itself around me like the sparkliest, most sexually ambiguous and unrelenting boa constrictor out of some sort of Jan Svankmajer jungle. I love everything about this track–the plainspoken yet archly self-critical lyrics that feel like so much familiar internal monologue, the longing for religious deliverance tossed out to fend for itself among the most hedonistic booty-shaking bass grooves, and especially the way Barnes’s vocals are layered on top of themselves to harmonize in a kind of aural equivalent of a kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley nightmare dance sequence where all that cheerful precision becomes its own kind of horror.

15.) She’s Fantastic–Sondre Lerche
I’ve been a pretty ardent fan of Sondre Lerche for the past few years (now’s when you cue up my mix from ’04 and go, “ah, yes, ‘Stupid Memory,’ with the kick drum and the theremin, right, I remember”), but after the minor disappointment of the trad jazz drag of Duper Sessions (which mighty cheeseball Robbie Williams did better with Swing When You’re Winning a few years back anyway), Phantom Punch really blew me away in the early part of ’07. It’s no secret that I’m something of a pop classicist or purist or formalist or whatever you want to call it–if given the choice, I’m generally going to gravitate to virtuosity and “chops” over experimentation or “challenging” music most days of the week–and so it should be no surprise that I’d be reduced to barely restrained swooning by the sophistication of Lerche’s songwriting. I don’t want to bore anyone by repeating myself, so, for the sake of them what’s interested, I’ll hastily point you in the direction of a feature-length gush I wrote about the album as a whole, while I spend just a few more moments getting rapturous about this one song in particular. Just . . . just listen to how in the pocket everything falls in these two minutes and twenty-three seconds. The precision is exceedingly tasteful without ever feeling cold or polite. The vocals and the drum fills and the guitar lines all interlock so snugly, they kind of vibrate in your ears the way houndstooth or seersucker vibrates in front of your eyes. And . . . and when that six-note pattern gets repeated in the breakdown at 1:40, it’s . . . it’s like some Cole Porter shit up in here. It’s phenomenal. Where else in indie rock are you, basically, going to get a little soft shoe routine? And don’t even get me started on the Hitchcock references. Aside from, uh, some easily extrapolated personal reasons, I called this comp (and the above-linked review) Minus the Drama and the Fraud very intentionally–it’s raising a glass to the idea that great art and great beauty doesn’t necessarily have to be tethered to an equal amount of angst.

16.) Landmines–St. Vincent
I like Feist and The Reminder just fine, but Annie Clark gets my vote for the best honey sweet, playfully soulful, and quirkily gorgeous female vocalist of the year. Marry Me was an absurdly assured debut. I know I’ve said it before, and I know the comparison probably doesn’t mean much to that many people aside from myself and my family and my friends I’ve forced to listen to Time and Love over the years, but she sounds, to my ears, like nothing so much as our demographic’s Jackie Cain. I was instantly drawn to this song with its dreamy vibe, which feels oddly evocative of WWI (which is, OMG, like totes my fave war), and those gut-punching lyrics. I challenged myself to do a lot of dating throughout the second half of this year, and I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I found myself identifying with the lines, “I’m crawling through landmines / I know ’cause I planted them.” Ouch.

17.) Heatherwood–Deerhunter
It was really difficult to decide on one song to highlight off Cryptograms; it just works so well as an album taken as a whole. I’m still not really sure what made me pull the trigger on “Heatherwood” specifically, other than it simply fits really nicely in the flow of the tracklist here. I never would have predicted I’d like Deerhunter as much as I do. I guess I’m still surprised as how, pardon the term, accessible even their noisiest and most violent stuff is.

18.) The Waking–Kurt Elling
Yes, it’s the Roethke poem. Elling’s albums can really be all over the place, between pretentiousness so stultifying it makes Joanna Newsom sound like Andrew W.K. and corn-laden gimmickry that would give even the most middlebrow of easy-listeners cause to sneer, “really, isn’t that a bit much?”, and this year’s Nightmoves was no exception. But sometimes, as here, he just fucking nails it. His vocal is sweet and deeply felt, and Rob Amster’s bass only confirms my estimation that he’s absolutely one of the best young jazz guys out there right now. Taken as a whole, no other song I listened to repeatedly over the course of this year allowed me as much perspective on, well, on how OK I’m really and truly doing after all.

Other musics I enjoyed this year: the Shins’ Wincing the Night Away (fuck y’all hataz–Mercer’s still got it), Laura Veirs’s Saltbreakers (Laura + Tucker Martine = 4evah!), Kings of Leon’s Because of the Times (it was a late-breaking discovery, but wow, what a doozy), Baby Teeth’s The Simp, Caribou’s Andorra (both likewise late-year discoveries that certainly would have squeezed something onto this mix if I’d had enough time to digest them), Panda Bear’s Person Pitch (of course; it killed me not to be able to use “Take Pills” or “Good Girl/Carrots” on here), Field Music’s Tones of Town, and Les Savy Fav’s Let’s Stay Friends.

(Also, RIP Oscar Peterson, a true legend and giant of both his instrument and the genre.)