Was 2007 a year of solidarity or separatism? Let’s forget about U.S. politics for a second. I’m talking about music ; specifically, from the original land of English and its former colony across the pond. I gather that we each have our own bevy of pop-star junkies for tabloid fodder, although the United States came late to the New Wave Of Crazy British R&B Chicks (NWOCBRNBC), so 2007 became the de facto year for Winehouse and Allen over here. Wouldn’t it be weird if the Brits were putting Britney Spears in their top ten lists? Stateside, all the singer-songwriters were busy forsaking their actual names for something that sounds like a band name but really just refers to one person, then touring with a band to further confuse us all. Can we blame The Streets for that? I guess everybody can’t be Madonna (who is totally losing the 80’s nostalgia battle to hair metal; are all the U.K. rock stations playing Slade nowadays?). Oh, and speaking of British rappers who can’t rap, at least they don’t try to make anyone think that they think they can rap. Got me? Ever since Kanye Wests head swelled up like the South Park school counselors did after they convinced him not to do drugs, American hip hop has been hijacked by slick producers, clever lyrics (if were lucky), and zero talented MC’s. You picked a fine time to leave us, Jurassic 5! Thankfully, there was so much great music spewing forth from both continents…that every critic seemed to have the exact same year-end list. Maybe some music is just universally and unquestionably good? For instance, the following ten or twenty items:
1. Jesu: CONQUEROR
Few artists have ever discontinued a seminal group only to forge a fresh legacy with a new one, but Justin K. Broadrick has defied convention with Jesu. While the fledgling act was still finding its feet on its 2005 self-titled debut, Conqueror is as defined and assured as anything in the Godflesh canon. It rests comfortably on the heavy, sludgy Hydra Head label, but it reveals studio mastery and sonic sophistication befitting a man who’s been making music for over ten years longer than the label has existed. While its layered sonic pulse has understandably drawn comparisons to shoegaze, the songs here exist in profound clarity, in outward triumph, and the lyrics are focal and lucid. Broadrick’s meditations on relationships, obsessions, hopes and regrets are the shards of a mirror into your life and the lives of people you know; the perspective often seems to shift with the tectonic permutations of the music, like a dialog between two avatars of one mind (particularly the soul-steadying mantra of “Weightless & Horizontal”). Immersion in this album will awaken hope and disillusion with equal intensity, and you will be forced to self-examine to determine how you will appreciate it. Its sound is so huge that it feels like it’s coming from all sides, overwhelming but never overbearing, the invisible wall that insulates only the deepest yearnings and fears. The monstrous guitar riffs earn their gravity more through depth than heaviness, but they’re often so hypnotic and so slow to gain full strength that each new movement is a revelation at first listen and a destination once the album has worked its way into your subconscious. It’s a breathtaking work of sustained tension that is its own release, the strongest musical statement of the year.
2. M.I.A: KALA
Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen may have grabbed more headlines in 2007, but as good as their music was, a third freaky U.K. female came along and made our collective booty shake even harder. Originally envisioned as a collaboration with Timbaland, Kala relegates the ubiquitous producer to just one track (thank you, U.S. visa complications), leaving M.I.A. to her own devices with spectacular results. She borrows from only the choicest indie roots artists (Jonathan Richman, the Pixies, the Clash). She relinquishes a verse here and there only to blow her esteemed guests away on the turnaround. She brings meatier beats, more resonant samples, and more S-O-U-L, making 2005’s excellent Arular sound like a skeletal exercise by comparison. If you don’t find it irresistible yet, if you think it’s just club fodder, put it into an eclectic shuffle mix and observe your joy whenever M.I.A. pops up. It’s hip-hop bravado with a globe-spanning conscience that still amounts to a smooth, cohesive collective. Above and beyond an itemized list of its strengths, it is a timely statement that will prove as timeless as the talent and heart it exudes.
3. Radiohead: IN RAINBOWS
If there was any point in Radiohead’s career when the band may have lost its sense of direction, it would have to be 2003’s Hail To The Thief, a frequently brilliant but ultimately scatterbrained album whose songs work much better littered throughout a live set than glued awkwardly next to each other on plastic. That album’s follow-up, In Rainbows, takes the sundry elements of Thief and steels them to one purpose, creating some of the most soothing and haunting music of the band’s career. There’s no giant leap musically here, but it’s singer Thom Yorke’s most lyrically personal, concrete album since 1993’s Pablo Honey, and the tense cohesion is evident from guitarist Johnny Greenwood’s frothy, combative layering to drummer Phil Selway’s rhythm dominance/slavery, the secret weapon of a band that has no secrets. Yorke’s singing on “Nude” makes every other pop singer on Earth hope it took him a hundred takes, and it never lets up from there. Whereas on Thiefs “2+2=5” or “Backdrifts” Yorke sounded panicked and jumpy, he is more self-assured than ever before on “House Of Cards” and “All I Need,” and even playful on the otherwise frantic “15 Step.” The band that grew up too fast has been slowly rediscovering its sense of fun ever since the turn of the century; they’ve finally gotten some of it down on wax. The world was waiting with baited breath, devotee and defeatist, to see if Radiohead would falter. Perhaps some day, but for now, the band has just gone right back to its considerable strengths, still daring the world to follow.
4. Fog: DITHERER
Look no further for Americas answer to Radiohead, people. There isn’t going to be one. Fog, if anything, is the anti-Radiohead, even though the superficial similarities and overall greatness should’ve drawn critics feet into their jowls. There’s the precise mixture of computer and human sounds, the quirky vocals with a wide emotional range, the grand, cacophonous swells, the laser-precision drumming. But Fog is quintessentially American, from the weirdly funky groove of “Inflatable Ape Pt. 3” to the creepy Eagles harmonies of “What’s Up Freaks?” The band has been systematically toning down the electronic distractions and amping up the organic musicianship over the course of four albums, only becoming a full band for the creation of Ditherer, and creator Andrew Broder has done well in fleshing out his band and welcoming a menagerie of esteemed guests (Andrew Bird, Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker, and Martin Dosh, to name a few) to purvey his peculiar vision. A loosely-conjoined discourse on fatherhood, Broder’s songs have a surface sheen of blather; you’ve got to delve to glean the emotional punch, and it’s there, most prominently in the sublime legacy meditation of “On The Gallows,” but just as poignantly in the absurdist “Your Beef Is Mine” if you care to revisit it a few times. There are still samples in the background, but this is essentially power-trio math-rock with all the soul and none of the whine of what the punk rockers called emo back around the turn of the millennium. Broder has created a moving statement with his sense of humor as the hood ornament, and it’s a rare and thrilling ride.
5. Ulver: SHADOWS OF THE SUN
With the plethora of band names containing the word “wolf” these days, it is Ulver’s fortune to have named itself in Norwegian, but the music would be in no danger of being lost in the pack even if founder Kristoffer G. Rygg had just named his band Wolves. The metamorphosis of Rygg (aka Garm, Trickster G) has coincided pointedly with Ulver’s gradual transformation from a black metal band into whatever it is now, something that no prefixed genre could attach itself to. Shadows Of The Sun retains Ulver’s sole unifying characteristic of unease but never succumbs to the frantic paranoia of 2000’s Blood Inside. Instead, Rygg’s lush production and ethereal harmonies create a disturbingly false serenity beneath the shade of unrelenting misery. A cover of Black Sabbath’s “Solitude” fits the mood perfectly, Rygg’s vocal trumping Ozzy’s weird original, but still with that spectral aura that only becomes unnerving upon reflection. The inevitability of death has never been portrayed with such tranquil finality.
6. Dälek: ABANDONED LANGUAGE
Dälek has been quietly developing its soundscape of industrial-drenched rap in Newark for ten years now, and after 2005’s desolate Absence threatened to box them into their own distinctive gimmick, MC Dälek and producer Oktopus have revitalized their sound with a fundamental testimonial of U.S.-weary hip hop, lazing in old-school rhyming and toning down the drone to its essence. Abandoned Language is a posse-free, populist statement for a microscene still just on the verge of existence. It’s easy to lose yourself in the atmospherics, easy to feel your latent adrenaline rise to the calls-to-arms; this is the sound not so much of diversifying as deepening of definition, a decisive statement of direction. Oktopus weaves pointedly through a haze of muddled vocal soups that serve to spotlight the landmarks by contrast. It’s all generally chill, but there’s a fire just below the surface of Däleks measured drawl that occasionally burns right through, as in the menacing “Corrupt (Knuckle Up)” or the deep frustration with a splintered society in “Tarnished.” Basically, it’s great music to groove to as you slowly get more and more pissed off about the state of the world. And then hopefully, you’re inspired to get up and do something about it.
7. The Veils: NUX VOMICA
This sophomore effort still feels a little bit like a debut album, despite its fully-formed stylistic personality, slick-but-gritty production and compelling, stirring songs. This may be partially due to the fact that the only holdover from 2004’s The Runaway Found is singer/guitarist/mastermind Finn Andrews, something of a cult obsession to his fans. His delivery ranges from resigned melancholy to impassioned madness in a performance that should’ve been the breakout of the year. Musically, he guides the band through piano-glinted pop, jarring grunge-folk and ambient acoustic textures that flow together easily, buoyed by his wrenching, anti-cliché lyrics. But there’s still that new-band smell, artists stretching and reaching out, relishing in the highs and the giddy possibilities before them. It’s clearly Andrews’s show, but the band crafts an idiosyncratic, pastoral backdrop for his melodrama, and it’s a tear-jerker. The album gets off to a raucous start with a painful loss-of-innocence tale, “Not Yet”, and “Calliope!” a desperate but not hopeless love song. Andrews has a gift with words, and pieces such as the title track or “One Night On Earth” could stand without music, but his voice is just as much the star, and whether he’s screaming in mockery (as in “Jesus For The Jugular”) or stemming the tide (the subdued “Under The Folding Branches”), no voice in anything resembling pop music today has more passion or substance. Time will tell if the rest of the musicians will remain, whether they will grow to be more than a backing band, but as long as Andrews doesn’t run out of ideas, they’d be well advised to hitch their wagons and gear up for a wild ride.
8. Neurosis: GIVEN TO THE RISING
For a band at the forefront of a major musical movement, Neurosis has garnered precious little mainstream press. Perhaps its brothers-in-arms in Isis have overshadowed Neurosis, touring with Tool and gradually commercializing their sound, while Neurosis continues to create challenging, abrasive, arrant works of art, not heeding the trends in the post-metal genre it basically created. Stylistically very similar to 2004’s The Eye Of Every Storm, Given To The Rising often takes the tension to even less comfortable extremes, honing its predecessor’s unbridled rage to greater effect while nurturing its calmer essences and reintroducing them to the maelstrom of noise to truly disturbing yet exhilarating effect. You’re not going to catch this on the first or fifth listen; you’re going to find yourself banging your head (slowly, methodically) one day with headphones on and suddenly hear through the textures of a behemoth like “Fear And Sickness” and marvel at the intricacy of it all. You’re going to feel yourself shudder as the climax of “Hidden Faces” somehow gets even more intense when you thought you were at your threshold, then fades into a disorienting loop. You’re going to be driving through a traffic jam, lulled into passive frustration by the wasteland that announces “At The End Of The Road,” then lurch to life as the sonic distortion throws your inconsequence back at you. You can experience this album as escape or fulfillment, but either way, there will be blood.
9. Call Me Lightning: SOFT SKELETONS
Thank God 2006 is gone, and the plague of Wolfmother and its ilk is already looked upon with indifference at best. You’d occasionally hear the word “unpretentious” bandied about, but who was listening to that shit without a smirk? Call Me Lightning is true unpretentious rock, and it isn’t an attempt to get back to the Dio ideal. The title track skates close to late-80’s Sonic Youth, is bookended by 1975 AC/DC power-chording, but has its very own, decidedly 2007 delivery and downbeat. Singer/guitarist Nathan Lilley is sometimes reminiscent of a more sonorous Shane McGowan (on the downtrodden but hopeful “Filthy Information”), but capable of Ian McKaye-level abrasion (the shredded punk of “Shook House Shakedown”) and anything in between. Musically, you can crank it up at a party when everybody just wants to rock out, or you can put on headphones and let the urban heartbreak envelop you and spit you out. It’s gritty, but it’s got heart and humor. It’s life, Brew City-style. Come along if you want, but you buy the first round.
10. Cornelius: SENSUOUS
Jimi Hendrix sang about manic depression, but here’s a guy who seems to be living it in music. Sensuous drifts from ADD-soused electro-glitch to quasi-acoustic guitar melancholia, sometimes so abruptly that you have to question whether you’ve been duped into thinking somebody’s batty mixtape has been pawned off as one artist. That’s only on first listen, though; gradually, Cornelius (Keigo Oyamada) paints what is actually a cohesive, rolling pop dreamscape, really only using words as abstract punctuation (when they’re in English, at least) to convey the spasmodic urgency of youth. Yet even at its most forceful (electropunk sugar rush “Gum”), and especially at its spookiest (psychedelic jitter-buzz “Like A Rolling Stone”), the myriad instruments and effects float through a contemplative atmosphere, and even as scattered as it is, the overall effect is soothing (even barring the closing Rat Pack tribute “Sleep Warm”); the sadder moments only serve as empathic interludes. Oyamada’s singing is like a robotic greeting from the day spa of the future. He coaxes some of the warmest imaginable synth tones out of hibernation, puts his guitars through crisp, astral effects and lets them cascade in all directions around your brain. Relax—in the future, outer space is going to feel just like home.
THE NEXT TEN (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER):
Buckethead: Decoding The Tomb Of Bansheebot
Grails: Burning Off Impurities
Of Montreal: Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?
Priestbird: In Your Time
Primordial: To The Nameless Dead
Today Is The Day: Axis Of Eden
The Twilight Sad: Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters
OTHER ESSENTIAL SONGS:
Andrew Bird: “Dark Matter”
Animal Collective: “Fireworks”
The Arcade Fire: “Intervention”
Björk: “Declare Independence”
The Black Angels: “Black Grease”
Bone Thugs-N-Harmony: “Wind Blow”
The John Butler Trio: “Funky Tonight”
From The Headline: “14”
Glen Hansard & Markta Irglov: “Lies”
PJ Harvey: “The Piano”
LCD Soundsystem: “Someone Great”
Maritime: “First Night On Earth”
Paul McCartney: “Vintage Clothes”
Meatbreak: “They Will Follow The Stick If It Has A Good Beat”
Menomena: “Muscle ‘N Flo”
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss: “Gone, Gone, Gone (Done Moved On)”
Sunday Morning Chameleon: “Back And Forth (In My Mind)”
Swallow The Sun: “No Light, No Hope”
Eddie Vedder: “Hard Sun”
Ben Weasel: “The First Day Of Spring”
White Rabbits: “I Used To Complain Now I Don’t”
Keller Williams: “Restraint”
Wu-Tang Clan: “Get Them Out Ya Way Pa”
apologies to Art Kumbalek, what the fock.