Brace yourself for You-Phoria’s newest writing talent, Matthew Krenning. Here is his rundown of the best music of 2007.
NUMBER TEN: SUNSET RUBDOWN, RANDOM SPIRIT LOVER
Similar to comparing the Jicks outings to the first two Stephen Malkmus solo albums, Sunset Rubdown finally feels like a project unto itself as opposed to a vessel for the lead man (Spencer Klug of Wolf Parade) to filter his sole creative talent through. The whole experience is dense, disorientating and challenging, which in the end leaves a sense of masochistic longing to dabble in it again and again. For a while I resisted its charms and was immune to its allure; I would put it on and note some of the solos or releases of tension but never really sink into it. The songs flowed almost too seamlessly, the transitions too disorientating; it was too damn unpredictable and cryptic. But then, finally, it hit me and I was floored.
There are always those concept albums that need to be heard in full to understand, but this album transcends that approach. It is a dream with no real cohesion between actions and situations, just a dense collage of emotions, memories and magic. It may be abrasive and abstract at first but eventually, when all your preconceived notions of what it should or might be are broken down, you are finally allowed to be swept away its wonderful trance-like state.
NUMBER NINE: DEERHUNTER, CRYPTOGRAMS
This album has an incredibly calming effect on me. During the spring when I was still in my “dark time” that was prevalent for the first half of this year I would drive around and let the waves of “Providence” and “Cryptograms” wash over me; serenity and peace would become the focal point of my mind during these times. That speaks volumes about the mood and effect this album achieves.
Singer Bradford Cox obviously has some issues, most notably his contorted stage presence and look. As my buddy Cal noted after their show at Pitchfork earlier this year, “he has to be the ugliest lead singer I have ever seen.” His exile from normalcy and reported sexual abuse feed the emotional undercurrent of the album. “Spring Hall Convert” and “Lake Somerset” tap into this repressed frustration, but what balances the album are the safe points (akin to a child’s hiding spot) in “Heatherwood” and “Hazel St.” (“I was 16 / I lived on Hazel Street / Protect me from my seam / And guide me with your heat”).
NUMBER EIGHT: EL-P, I’LL SLEEP WHEN YOU’RE DEAD
I really dig El-P’s production and approach to hip-hop. To me, it was best emphasized on Cannibal Ox’s 2001 release The Cold Vein, where El-Ps work demanded as much attention as the desolate and bleak rhymes. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is just as sick and slick with a more personal and potent approach due to his taking the MC reins under his own moniker.
Generally there is always that one moment in each of his songs where everything comes together and journeys to an “oh shit” moment where total brilliance hits a swell point. Not content to find one catchy sample and hit “repeat,” his songs have a discernible beginning, middle and end with compelling tales and characters woven within. All of this is emphasized with wry humor, a bleak vision and a fucking bad-ass persona.
These points are best presented with Aesop Rock in the hip-hop banger “Run The Numbers.” The track opens: “Two out of the five of these fuses are wired live / If I wanna survive I gotta FIND THOSE DETONATORS!” and only continues to blaze and build from there. True, an argument could be made for an aurora of over-indulgence and extreme theatrics with “I found a cure for cancer but it wasn’t radio friendly,” but honesty and on-target points are so prevalent that it’s less pessimistic and more just depressingly realistic.
I have pondered the influence of society and the current state of the global consciousness on current music and we are most obviously in a dark place and time right now. El-P is suitable and important music for these times. As opposed to cashing in his distinctive talent with the prerequisite hip-hop themes of money, drugs and sex, El-P takes the road less traveled and continues to mold hip-hop into a battle cry for the pissed-off and frustrated individual.
NUMBER SEVEN: MENOMENA, FRIEND AND FOE
A fucked up version of Sesame Street to be sure, Menomena provides an uncompromisingly playful and dark vision to their rock. This is shit the Flaming Lips wish they could produce. “The Pelican” is one of the finest and most sinister tracks of ‘07, from the pounding on the piano to the searing guitar intro and finally the choir ending; the rest of the album is littered with similar moments but none as potent as this. “Air Aid” and “Evil Bee” are both filled with smooth grooves balanced by moments of childlike jubilation, while on the other hand “Boyscout’n” will have you humming along to a chorus of whistling while the singer ruminates “I can’t believe I lanced my hand to help destroy a helpless man.”
What separates this album’s creators from being another novelty indie shtick of a band are the sobering themes and subtlety that run rampant throughout the songwriting. “What if all my enemies were dead?” is uttered with dread and disdain, lacking any sense of satisfaction, and it’s polarizing moments such as these that make the album really stand out and give it emotional weight. Creative, hilarious and heatbreaking…oh, and it also has what is possibly the best CD cover art ever.
NUMBER SIX: RADIOHEAD, IN RAINBOWS
I hazily almost admitted to my friend Zak a week ago that In Rainbows may in fact be better than Kid A, something that would have sounded crazy to me only a month previous. Kid A is a hard cookie to crack as I remember having “Morning Bell” and “Optimistic” on repeat for months while walking the cold fall streets of Madison on my way to work at Mountain Jacks in 2000. Kid A was a revelation to many jaded rock listeners yet to me at the time it was just the album after OK; there were few rock cynicisms in my mind then and its tone and mood are tied to me without precursor.
In Rainbows did not have this luxury. Now there are horrible things like expectations and comparisons to bring into the equation, yet the album has yet to falter in my mind and has instead grown in esteem.
What I love about this album is how heartfelt it is. While reading some Sōtō Zen parables today the phrase “Do not think of yourself as someone’s teacher or as someone’s predecessor” hit me and while taking in the thought I decided that, in fact, is the way to not only approach music but practically everything else that surrounds and feeds into music. Radiohead has that wonderful attribute of taking the knowledge necessary to evolve its sound and skill but the ability to separate its influences or ego from tarnishing the music itself.
I was sure this album would be the band’s undoing; how wrong I was. It came at the perfect time, with execution and style to match, and once again I found myself heading to work while obsessing over Radiohead.
NUMBER FIVE: THE NATIONAL, BOXER
Ryan and Audrey, my brother and his girlfriend, lived with me from March of 2007 until November. A good experience to be sure, with the normal complications arising from sharing a space with two other people. Anyway, Ryan and I are drastically different; night and day, cats and dogs, Pumpkins and Pavement. Regardless, he heard me play this album once or twice and almost immediately he burned a copy to his Xbox 360’s harddrive. For six months this album was mixed within a collage of Sublime, Tool, Rage and Chili Peppers while he ground away at accomplishing a high-level achievement in Gears of War, this all being something that I watched and experienced with him as part of a daily social engagement. (To give you some perspective, it took that kid probably 200 hundred hours to get that fuckin achievement, no joke.)
What I think Ryan and I have in common is a shared appreciation of the desolation and isolation that comes with not only living within the “American Dream,” but just from living in general. Springsteen, 80’s U2 and even Joy Division tapped into that aging desperation of humanity by applying it to relateable and wholesome settings, only to destroy the idealistic vision and show what lies behind the curtain.
So getting back to Ryan and me and The National. “Let’s put a little something in our lemonade” is our upbringing in a lot of ways, with all the complexities that come from being around frustrated and confused adults (a group which I now consider myself a part of), and this album is easily the biggest bridge album between the two of us as brothers.
NUMBER FOUR: ARCADE FIRE, NEON BIBLE
Neon Bible is infinitely more interesting to me than 2004’s Funeral. Supposedly, Bible is the case for how much singer Win Butler can overstate his lyrics—bullshit. This album sees the band expanding its lyrical scope and instrumental use and the results are half a step short of perfection.
“Black Mirror” opens on a somber note with a pulsating beat steadfastly progressing the song. Granted, the album would fall into the category of “grating” if every song was similar to track 2, “Keep the Car Running,” but the brilliance comes from the polarizing song selection, with the subtle and beautiful title track preventing this from becoming another chamber-pop record. “Ocean of Noise,” the centerpiece of the album, debates the struggles of discerning truth from fiction, wrong from right, and the hopelessness and frustration that arise from such impossible questions which accumulate in the heartbreaking release “I’m gonna work it out/‘Cause time won’t work it out/I’m gonna work it out/‘Cause time won’t work it our for you.”
Most importantly for me, Arcade Fire has brought back a band mystique that is seriously lacking from 99% of the music currently being produced. There are things to discover within Bible, whether they are embedded in the cryptic “overstated” lyrics, or from calling the Neon Bible hotline or even viewing the equally mysterious videos and projects they have designed around the album. Nothing is straightforward or obvious. Is it really so bad that a band finally drops the cynicism that arises from writing emotive and powerful lyrics? Is it really that horrible to have emotional weight to anchor a band instead of some sort of tongue-in-cheek hipster persona (see Number 1 below)? Thank you, Arcade Fire, for restoring my faith in giving a shit about something.
NUMBER THREE: SPOON, GA GA GA GA GA
This is Spoon at their unhinged greatest. Gimme Fiction was too shortsighted, Kill the Moonlight too juvenile; Ga rectifies and refines the Spoon formula and what is left is a damn near perfect rock ‘n roll record. I am all for minimalism and am a huge fan of Spoons sparse song-structures since Moonlight was released, but it finally seems they are tired of playing it safe and instead choose to just rock out while remaining as catchy as possible.
The album opens up with singer/guitarist Britt Daniel asking not to be made a target, which accumulates into an eye-popping swell of static guitar at the conclusion of the track. Following is the sublime “The Ghost of You Lingers,” which is a perfect lesson in how to make an empty “bridge” song within an album concept take on a life of its own. “Dont You Evah” and “The Underdog” put on full display Spoons ability to come off as the coolest motherfuckers in indie right now and really do nothing special aside from just being damn good.
Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is a rock record first and foremost, tied around a lose concept with an oddly fitting industrial production to boot. It doesn’t do anything new per say or anything experimental; it’s just awesome indie rock with no filler or over-hyped band image to get in the way, which makes it special not just for 2007 but for indie rock in general.
NUMBER TWO: M.I.A., KALA
The first day I got the vinyl I rushed home, threw it on my turntable and immediately called Leslie on the phone
“So, M.I.A. is the new Madonna.”
“Uh, yeah…” (with obvious and justified skepticism in her voice)
“Mark my words: she is new queen of pop.”
Typically when I burn hot on an album, a certain amount of apprehension sets in: is this love going to run out shortly? Is the record really that good? I emailed Cal a few days later declaring it one of the best of 2007, which brings us to now; this album is easily one of the best pop albums in, what, a couple decades?
Hyperbole aside, every track on the album is either killer or oddly compelling (i.e. “Mango Pickle Down River”). “Bamboo Banga” starts out with some Modern Lovers lyrics sewn in before it hits the gas mid-song, the tempo carrying over into the schizophrenic “Bird Flu.” “Jimmy” weaves in some disco fever and passionate desperation: “You told me that you’re busy / Your loving makes me crazy / I know that you hear me / Start acting like you want me.” “World Town” and “XR2” are dance manifestos rushing into the show stopper “Paper Planes,” where a meager-sounding Maya details her illegal exploits to a Clash sample and some of the most effective sound effects I have encountered in a song.
There are so many aspects to this album that work that it would take pages to detail all the positives. It has a fierce attitude and bleak-yet-provocative outlook on the world. It’s danceable, jammable, insanely fun and heart-breakingly sad. This album is so fucking good that I have had to go back and listen to her first album, “Arular,” and reconsider its merits; turns out Kala has even elevated the effectiveness of that album as well.
I think it was in October when I was talking to Leslie and she said, “You know that ‘Jimmy’ song? It sounds a lot like Madonna.”
ONE SWEET ONE: OF MONTREAL, HISSING FAUNA, ARE YOU THE DESTROYER?
Where to start with this one? What hasn’t this album symbolized to me in the last 12 months?
Let me preface with a short story. I escaped a horrible relationship in August of 2006. Over the next two months, three of my best friends left Wisconsin in conjunction with me moving into an apartment by myself for the first time ever. To say that I was secluded, frustrated and despondent would be an understatement. I subsequently had the worst November ever followed by a confusing and depressing winter. I found this album in February and poured all my frustrations into it.
Poppy cynicism for the art of breaking-up is an apt description of the album. Songs are bouncy, playful and sprawling, yet tied to the central theme of singer Kevin Barness temporary separation from his wife shortly after having their first child. His approach of strength by setting up tough emotional barriers and disconnecting through indifference are regular tactics in my own handbook. “Chemicals don’t strangle my head” in Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse” parallels my own drastic and uncontrollable shifting between moods as repressed longing and frustration boiled and seeped out though my actions. “And its just like you to hurt me when I’m feeling good”—preach it, brother. On “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” Barnes lets loose in a twelve-minute bitch-out of his ex-lover, which jumps over into “Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider” where “you ain’t got no soul power” relates the gross lack of meaning within the relationship.
“Faberge Falls for Shuggie” contains one of the most awesome spills of emotion found in a pop song this year with the equally brilliant “She’s a Rejecter” diving to the lowest of lows as a bitter Barnes mulls paying off some random chick to go lay the beat-down on his ex; a fucking beautiful thought that I only replayed in my mind for months on end.
None of this quite captures my experience of love lost as “A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger.” “I spent the winter on the verge of a total breakdown / While living in Norway / I felt the darkness of the black metal bands / But being such fawn of a man / I didn’t burn down any old churches / Just slept way too much, just slept.” The similarity between his experience and mine is uncanny…save for my never visiting Kongsvinger, I suppose. “And through many dreadful nights / I lay praying to a saint that nobody has heard of / And waiting for some high times to come again” was day in and day out my mantra. By this point I had lost my faith in any god or entity having any control over the universe and thus any meaning within life was null with my brain. Love was a fucking piece of shit as was my ex and maybe even myself. My perception was so distorted and lost in existentialism that enjoyment was sucked from practically every aspect of my life and I was a bitch because of it. But eventually Barnes reconnected with his wife and I did the same with life in general…or I guess I found a fulfilling outlet, at least, in my job at the Co-Op come July of 2007.
To me this is the perfect break-up album capturing angst, despondency and remorse. I don’t think anyone can say Barnes is entirely an adult in his approach of dealing with loss but who the hell is? This album was my life for almost six months, both in how much I played it and all the eerie parallels, and from that it has been bound to a memory and time of extremely high emotional resonance. Because of all this, it is easily my pick for 2007.
And then, a few other items that had me jammin’ a lot (in no particular order):
The Field: From Here We Go Sublime
PJ Harvey: White Chalk
Neurosis: Given to the Rising
The Fiery Furnaces: Widow City
Deerhunter: Fluorescent Grey EP
Lil’ Mama: “Lip Gloss”[Single]
LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver
Panda Bear: Person Pitch
Animal Collective: Strawberry Jam
A Place to Bury Strangers: A Place to Bury Strangers
Risn Murphy: Overpowered
Deerhoof: Friend Opportunity
Aesop Rock: None Shall Pas