Thursday, December 27, 2007

Merry belated

Image: Katie Baum

The last week has been a whirl and blur of airports, cash registers, gold paper & green ribbon, lemon, chocolate, cinnamon & walnuts, hot ovens & cold turkey, family gossip & a family friend's cancer death, wooden puzzles, toy trains & doll dresses, Bach, Dickens, snow (and snow and snow), treacherous ice, thick wool sweaters, knit hats, shivering outdoors, sweltering in, smiles & laughter & small irritations, paper peace cranes, lit candles, children singing "Joy to the World" awkward and out-of-tune in angel and shepherd costumes like something in a Christmas comedy. And finally, in the last 36 hours -- sleep, blissful sleep.

Stampanasa - Horses Brawl

From Horses Brawl (Amazon, eMusic)

Nowell, Nowell: The Boarees Head
- The Orlando Consort

From Food, Wine and Song: Music and Feasting in Renaissance Europe (Amazon)

I remain determined to write a list of my favorite albums of 2007. Not because I think the mp3 blogosphere needs another list (good god, it doesn't!), but because there were so many wonderful albums worth talking about this past year. So I swear I'm posting something before the stroke of midnight Dec. 31!

In the meantime: Eric's 2007 album post is smart and thoughtful and intensely personal, and Charlie writes a lovely series of mini-fictions for his favorite singles.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

2007 EPs, reissues and other good things


A slight change in programming: I'm pushing back writing and posting my favorite albums list til the quiet period between Christmas and New Year's when I'll have time and energy to give these records their due. (And when I'm out of the office for almost two weeks, woo!). Basically, the list will go up exactly one hour after you've stopped caring about such things. So be it.

Instead: a mop-up post of good EPs and reissues and music I loved (sometimes obsessively) in 2007 that wasn't released in 2007. Plus other bits n' bobs. (And if you missed my 50 favorite songs of 2007, they're here.)

I will refer to:

Lola Who? - Plants and Animals

Thunder & Lightning - Christy & Emily

A Child Lost in Tesco - Eugene McGuinness

The End of the War - Winter Flowers

Gesi Baglari
- Selda

Memphis Flu - Elder Curry and His Congregation

I wrote up Plants & Animals' track "Jacques" in 2006, but when a year had passed and nothing seemed to be stirring, I figured I'd never hear from the Montreal band again. Then P&A dropped With/Avec this autumn, a dense and detailed meanderer with songs that thump, rattle, sing-along and build and build and build, like beavers and birds and fine carpenters with teak wood, nails and a hammer. The lead track, "Lola Who?" -- the most precise and perhaps best of the four -- croons vaguely Thom York-ish to a sweet molasses melody. It's awfully durn pretty. Buy from eMusic. Myspace

a little bit classical, and she's a little bit rock n' roll, and together, Christy & Emily sound sometimes like the former and often like the latter, but mostly like an avant-folk warmup, a dreamy preview of good things to come. Not that there isn't plenty to appreciate in
Gueen's Head. I love how the opener, "Ocean" drifts and swirls before locking into a chorus-like meme at the three-minute mark. And in "Thunder & Lightning," the pair is as raw, convicted and girl-powerish as any early-90s International Pop Underground act. I talked about the mysterious nostalgia of "Island Song" earlier this year. Buy (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

Joanna Newsom, remember her? The girl with the harp? Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band is a totally rad live-recorded EP that probably slipped your mind because it was released all the way back in April. Even if you aren't a Newsom completist (and even if that title makes your teeth ache), these three banjo and accordioned tracks -- new song "Colleen," Milk Eyed Mender's "Clam Crab Cockle Cowrie," and Ys' "Cosmia" -- are worth making space on your hard drive for. "Cosmia" delighted me the least of Ys' original five-song cycle, but here it's lighter, lovelier and dancing in its bare feet. Buy from Amazon.

Eugene McGuinness
crams so many influences and ideas and words into Early Learnings of that it sounds like he just wedged the cap off a pressurized bottle of lifelong music-listening-and-loving, and chugged it. In other words, it sounds like the first record it is. Even if McGuinness is still ID-hunting, the EP's enormous pop fun -- even the slow songs about girls. In August I called the kid
"an ironist, a jester of clever asides, a greeter of misfortune with devil's horns and funny glasses." Buy from Amazon. Myspace

I don't know if David Thomas Broughton is ever going to make a proper studio album, and I don't care so long as live recordings like David Thomas Broughton vs. 7 Hertz continue so passionate and fragile and taut like wires buzzing with life and love and lust and death. Even his nod toward levity, "Jolly," is pregnant with dark matter. Buy from Amazon. Myspace

(Relatively recent) reissues:
Reverend Charlie Jackson
's God's Got It: The Legendary Booker and Jackson Singles.
Holy moley! What a superb record of timeless,
indeterminate-vintaged blues-gospel root and rudiment (from the early to mid-70s, but would you ever guess?). I effused about title track "God's Got It" in October. Buy (Amazon, eMusic).

Judee Sill's Live in London. As much as the songs, live albums are about the relationship of performer to audience, the thick air thinned by a joke or cool space warmed with a passionately played crowd favorite. What I love on this record is Sill's diffident, hard-lived voice as she explains her songs -- like they need explaining. In August I talked about her intro to "The Kiss": "A song I wrote seven days, eight days ago, Judee Sill confides to this 1972 BBC studio audience. Her voice has a shiver of stagefright jitter. Or maybe she's just so thrilled to offer this shy gift (like a first kiss) because she knows it's something special, but also fears it's not."
Buy (Amazon, eMusic).

Selda's Selda.
superlative Bearded Ladies compilation turned me on to Turkish folkie, Selda. And if you think "Turkish" and "folkie" tell you everything you need to know, think again. I recently posted "Gesi Baglari" (not on this album, but the comp) as part of a song & image essay and have kept the file up for your great downloading pleasure. Buy from Amazon.

Loved in 2007 / released sometime other than 2007:
The Wave Pictures. Like, all of it -- everything they've ever done. Several tracks are available for download on the band's website. Buy 2006's Sophie from Amazon. Myspace

Winter Flowers'
2006 self-titled album. It might have made last year's list; alas, I didn't hear this record until this April. I
originally described the song "End of the War" as "delirious, off its head, dancing so abandoned it abandons keyboard and plays thick gold air," and listened to it as much as any 2007 song. The wistful and dewy, "Too Young to Marry," which sounds like a traditional ballad but is actually an original composition (though probably related to older ballads of that name) is also stunning. Buy from Amazon. Myspace

Boduf Songs'
Lion Swallows the Sun. Ditto for this criminally underrated apocalyptic folk album. In February I said that Mr. Boduf Songs, Mat Sweet, "plays and sings thresholds, the certain heres before the indefinite theres, the doorframes against which we slump in suspension against action." Buy (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

Laura Barrett's "Robot Ponies." This song came to me sometime after I made my 2006 songs list and before the end of last calendar year. But I think it took time for me to appreciate how brilliant Barrett is to pluck peals from the strings of her ancient-sounding kalimba while singing chrome-and-vinyl retrofuturistic about Christmas 2053 -- where every little girl wishes for a nylon-furred, plastic-bag feeding robot pony. Stream the song on Laura Barrett's Myspace.

Elder Curry and His Congregation's "Memphis Flu." One of the first (and best) things I posted all year is a 1930 gospel track sang vengeful and lusty, whooped and hollered. Buy
How Can I Keep From Singing, Vol 2: Early American Religious Music and Song (Amazon, eMusic).

I wasn't even going to mention videos, but Saturday night over a lovely Malbec and the largest mussels
I've ever seen (so big they should have been named in the Mitchell report), a friend remarked how he never gets tired of watching the Will Oldham and Zach Galifianakis video for Kanye West's "Can't Tell Me Nothin'." I'd totally forgotten about it, but yes -- the funniest, silliest, most ridiculous (in a wonderful way) clip of tractors, bearded guys and dancing 4-H'ers to grace YouTube this year.

Then of course there's La Blogothèque's Les Concert à Emporter (Take-Away shows). I probably don't need to tell you that the French site has carved its own niche of taste and innovation with these whimsical mini-concerts. But just in case you haven't journeyed there in a while, the latest greatness: Caribou grandmasters a parade of Paris schoolchildren in its first ever acoustic performance, then plays "Sundialling" as wandering (and sprinting) minstrels.

Speaking of videos:
Soon, the holidays ("list season" for you bloggers) will be over and it will be January. Said the Gramophone has a wonderful way for music lovers and creative types (all of us, right?) to
fight cabin fever and productively muddle through this otherwise dreary time of the year: Enter StG's video contest! Make a short film of your favorite song (any song, from whenever, by whomever) for the chance to win an amazing prize package of CDs, records, t-shirts, Sennheiser earphones and more -- including a birthday phone call from Basia Bulat. You'll have fun even if you don't win, so enter already.

Art by Anne Siems.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

50 favorite songs of 2007

410 wide

This year I got ambitious and thought I'd jot down some thoughts on every one of my 50 favorite songs (though about half of these blurbettes are quotes from earlier posts). Each song is so different and delightful in its own way that I couldn't rank them. You'll find the list in alpha order by song title.

I'd love to host an mp3 for every one, I really would, but given bandwidth constraints -- out of the question. So I tried to put up the songs that may be harder to find via Hype Machine or, or to stream from the artists' Myspace pages. Clear your afternoon schedule and get comfortable: This is long.

Alice and Sarah - Orion Rigel Dommisse
"Their white necks smell of nutmeg and cloves, their bare knees blush pink, and yellow satin ribbons flutter like butterflies in their chestnut hair. But this sweet folie à deux would sooner slip razors from the bright folds of their dresses and eviscerate that frog than kiss him." [From Nov 12] Buy What I Want From You Is Sweet (Amazon). Myspace

All the Night Without Love
- Elvis Perkins

"And you hear the way he drawls 'all' like ahhh or awww, like a chronic ache. And how he pries 'love' from his tongue, letter by letter, sticky and slow like a curse, like a taunt. And you learn his story (his real story), one that puts the lie to the thoughtless, irresponsible, everyday misspeaking of the word "tragic." And you think you know what this song is. But it's not." [From March 10] Buy Ash Wednesday (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

Be Less Rude
- Frightened Rabbit

Frightened Rabbit makes so quaint a plea for civility -- Scott Hutchinson's voice appropriately choked, hurt, deeply disappointed -- that you almost miss what's going on behind the pained show of wist and woe. If you could be less rude/You don't know what it might do for you. Sarcasm, or pragmatic appeal to self-interest? Buy Sing the Greys (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

Bird Flu
- M.I.A.

"Bird Flu" -- all teem, screech, squawk, squeal, grind -- is the imagined hot zone in sound. It's dangerously irregular heartbeats, the scratch and sluggish swell of pustules, fever ripping throat, fog crowding head, bones itching with ache. It's the sound of your own fears leveraged against you. With two words, M.I.A., however otherwise incoherent her personal politics, aggregates every global ill -- not just (or mostly) biological ones. As Susan Sontag said, illness is a metaphor; disease is morally coded. Sontag was speaking from the personal experience of cancer, but the metaphor extends, particularly to an infectious disease so culturally scaffolded, ideologically contested, inexorably entwined with issues of national identity, geographic borders, economic might, and the fragile equipoise of regional and global power. Electron microscopes don't lie: The viral microbes of avian influenza are real all right. But bird flu's also the third-world anxiety about first-world border protectionism. It's the eco-destabilizing effects of global warming and aggressive development. China's burgeoning economic power and protectionist trade policies. It's terrorism -- or the imagination of terrorism -- as uncontained and uncontainable, as inevitable as apocalypse. It's even a psychic hangover (for Americans, anyway) of the political catastrophe of Vietnam. M.I.A.'s genius is to deliver the fear sly and sexy and engaging, to crook her little finger and urge, come closer. Touch me, I'm sick. Buy Kala (Amazon, iTunes). Myspace

Book Lung - New Ruins
I'm flummoxed.
This should be like catnip to fans of Wilco, Okkervil River, Band of Horses and other Americana-inspired indie rock. So why did this central Illinois band receive so little attention in the mp3 blog universe -- or anywhere else -- this past year? Here's what I originally said: "A riveting track of quicktimed martial drums, sketched with black skies, dirty sheets and men who shake with rage like power lines in the wind. Mostly, though, it's a song that seems to exist to convey a single line sung again and again: Your ghost still walks all around these hills. The key word, I think, being still. The implication, still here, trapped." [From May 9] Buy The Sound They Make (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

The Bower - Robin Allender

Pay no mind to the fact that (full disclosure) Robin is a friend, or that drafts and scribbles of the songs that ended up on his beautiful, bucolic folk record, The Bird and the Word, have been winging their way to me via email for the more than two years I've known him. "The Bower," if I recall correctly, was once a much shorter song. It was always graced with that melancholy melody and Robin's fleet fingerpicking (I don't think it's hyperbole or bias to hazard that he's one of the best young guitar stylists working in Britain today). But the coda that I've come to love so much -- especially that line like a long-suppressed truth, I'm just a wasteful man in a caravan -- is a relatively recent development. And a song that was like something pressed between the pages of a cracked leather-bound book, something hazy and nostalgic, is pinpricked with here-and-now real-life poignance. Buy The Bird and the Word (Dreamboat Records, iTunes). Myspace

Comfy in Nautica
- Panda Bear

In interviews, Noah Lennox has nonsensed about how "Comfy in Nautica" is a track about "coolness" and fitting in or wearing the right clothes ... or something. And yeah, the song does surf a shrugged vibe and laid-back lines like, Try to remember always just to have a good time, delivered in dulcet Beach Boy homage. But dude, you're either way disingenuous or you don't know your own strength! Because that ominous rattle of train tracks, pounding sound of marching feet and grave whistle of dive-bombing planes, not to mention loaded phrases like Shut up boy and be a soldier/ coolness is having courage, are like, deep. Sophisticated, anyway. Gorgeous and scary and cool tossed in a blender and pulverized. Intentional or not, Lennox's synthesis of pop culture and political provocation, "Comfy's" free float between aesthetics and invective, reminds me of the work of -- more than any musician -- artist Robert Rauschenberg. (The artist, note, has been hugely influenced by Philip Glass, so this isn't as left-field as it sounds.) Rauschenberg depicted early 60's chaos, confusion and sensory onslaught with collaged magazine cuttings of culturally evocative images and other material flotsam of contemporary consumer life. Recontextualized images of John F. Kennedy in canvasses such as Retroactive, seem to serve a parallel purpose with Lennox's aural appropriation of Brian Wilson; both are overdetermined icons resonant of American dreams and myths soured, and both are juxtaposed with darker images. But neither Rauschenberg or Lennox imply any sort of moral imperative. I'm connecting the dots between these guys for another reason. Panda Bear's Person Pitch album is a thrilling sonic assault -- like nothing I've ever heard. But it's also excessive and exhausting and overloaded. I haven't found a way to listen to it more than 30 minutes at a time. Buy Person Pitch (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
- Miranda Lambert

"Hoo boy,
does Lambert perform an ugly public exorcism of some bad, and yes, violent, feelings. This expert balance of horseplay and insanity makes "Crazy" more than your typically tiresome values-affirming Nashville product. Besides, who's to say what happens off-screen? There's always closing time in the parking lot." [From May 22] Buy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Amazon, iTunes). Myspace

- Matzak
"A production that starts snowy baby-blanket white, with pristine blips and incandescent organ glow, then gently swells in perfectly paced stages, gradually gathering color and texture, including some brief buzzy-bleepy spazz-outs. It swells round and rich and ample. It swells human." [From April 19] Buy Life Beginnings (eMusic). Myspace

Dagger - Emily Jane White
It's the way White worries that guitar figure and how its repetition inks the lines of melody and sharpens the emotional pitch. So when she sings, Please walk back to me, it's a heart piercer. Buy Dark Undercoat (eMusic). Myspace


Dancing on Our Graves - The Cave Singers
"I love how the percussion seems to skitter in every direction, like a bag of BB pellets loosed in a school gymnasium, like a tapdancing marathon in a bowling alley. It's as if The Cave Singers handed everyone they saw a pair of sticks and various jingle-jangle makers and asked them to paint the sun in rhythm.
" [From Oct 3] Buy Invitation Songs (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

Dating Cops
- The Intelligence

"Lars Finberg is seized with an anxious, itchy aggrievement that knows no precise object, a vague and omnivorous can't get no satisfaction. So his voice careens around the room like a squash ball, hard and unpredictable. Going out, going out with, going out with you, he stammers over the dirty chug of guitars and drums, scrambling for the most withering insult in his arsenal." [From Oct 14] Buy Deuteronomy (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

Don't You Evah
- Spoon
Before Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga hit this year, one of my favorite Spoon songs was "Tear Me Down," the band's contribution to the Hedwig & the Angry Inch tribute album. A skeletal bone-shaker, the song's an explicit showcase for Spoon's minimal and studio-manipulated sound. But it's not a Spoon composition; it's a cover. Another fave was Britt Daniel's slinkier and sexier than it ever deserved to be remix of Interpol's aloof "Slow Hands." Again (obvs), not a Spoon song. "Don't You Evah" makes three. But if you hadn't been told, would you evah think, hearing that hip-bumping bass or the way Daniel drawls vowels, that this isn't a bespoke suit? I can't think of any band so capable of utterly remaking songs in its own brilliant image. Buy Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

Dulce et Decorum
- Alsace Lorraine

"What counts is the sound-sweep: its swooning soft glamour, its billowy beats and coy false ending, its adolescent ache."
[From April 19] Buy Dark One (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

Dumb Animals
- Handsome Furs
If non-human animals could speak (I'm hypothesizing here and basing my theory, admittedly, on the relatively small sample of animals I know personally), I don't think they would mumble or mince words, speak through metaphors and veils and the wool of their turtleneck sweaters pulled over their mouths. I doubt very much they would passive-aggressivize basic wants and toe (paw) the ground while they prevaricated. They wouldn't need the sudden thunder of an organ chord to command attention or a maelstrom of noise to
speak a fierce or unwelcome truth. Buy Plague Park (Amazon). Myspace

Everybody's Down
- No Age

"Even when you know it's coming, even though the song's been building to it the whole time, the last 42 seconds are like the climactic scene of the best kind of Hollywood action pic, where the explosions and car chase and shoot em' up are diegetically predictable and necessary, but also totally unexpected because they so wonderfully exceed your expectations.
" [From June 25] Buy Weirdo Rippers (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

Feeling Free
- Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators
Nicole Willis is never going to put Beyoncé out of a job. And on her extremely fun album with the Soul Investigators, there are some very awkward stretches where, when it comes to hitting the notes she's not within miles of the ballpark. But that's sort of the point. This is disco for ordinary cube-dwellers
(not club-dwellers), the working stiffs and stiffs-from-working who need a glass of sparkling wine to get their feet and asses moving. And, as such, it's not formalist about where it gets its ideas, but shuffles through just about any soul lover's record collection -- Motown, Stax, Donna Summer, James Brown, Parliament. It's all waiting for you on the dancefloor. Buy Keep Reachin' Up Amazon, eMusic) Myspace

Five and Dime
- Port O'Brien

Isn't this song a couple years old, you ask? Maybeee. Happily for me, it turned up on Port O'Brien's 2007 LP-length reconstitution of a couple earlier EPs. Anyway: "Midway through, the song indeed takes a happy turn (a cue from rock n' roll, a big gulp of sunshine and blue sky). It rides a sea-foam glinting wave, opens to the wide ocean and nothing for those couple minutes makes the world seem so vast and right."
[From March 4] Buy The Wind and the Swell (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

- Red Leaf Black Bird

"A voice like Kelly Nyland's, a glum gluey-tongued twang, can convince you that something terrible has happened out there on those desperate plains (that cruel geometry where the earth meets the horizon at brute angles). Some Cold Blood, some Badlands.
[From March 27] An album is expected in 2008. Myspace

Hallelujah the Hills
- Hallelujah the Hills

"Why just burn the barn when you can also torch the farmhouse, set the fields afire, watch the whole world go up in flames? It's a ludicrous song of ridiculous joy, of secular religiosity, a sing sing a song, sing it loud act of music-faith testifying." [From June 18] Buy Hallelujah the Hills (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

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Haze - Essie Jain
"Something wonderful happens in "Haze," beginning just under a minute. [Essie Jain's] voice thickens and pleats and the keys pick up their feet, lose their moorings, and gather plucked strings. It's a flowering that's torpid at first, but soon reveals brass that blazon brighter, chorus on chorus." [From Jan 19] Buy We Made This Ourselves (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

Hip to the Sweet Blue World Again - Capstan Shafts
"It has a feverish lilt, a buzzing, faintly throttled elation that can't be contained by the walls of the garage where [Dean] Wells plays a modest Guitar God to the rakes and broken toasters and spare tires." [Nov 15] Buy Environ Maiden (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

Hustler - Simian Mobile Disco
A monstrous catchy themesong for everybody reading this. Yeah: you, me, everyone we know -- we're all hustlers, baby. Not like this or this, but like this: I walk out that record store/with the records in my clothes/what the fuck is you gonna do? Well? Buy Attack Decay Sustain Release (Amazon). Myspace

- Clear Tigers
It's cold outside and the wind screeches something fierce -- a vulture closing in on its prey. But inside our igloo everything is snug and the rest of the world is so much cotton batting. My bracelet jangles and your shoe taps to the Christmas carol we're belting ("Hark the Herald Angels Sing," if you must know), and we've got a blanket, a bag of cinnamon doughnuts and a bottle of rum to keep us warm. Let's go! Let's go look at the ocean again! you interrupt every so often. But you say it like you're running in place, like you're miming movement for comic effect.
In the battle of stasis and kinesis, stasis wins. Buy Brutal (eMusic). Myspace

John Allyn Smith Sails - Okkervil River
"A tender/brash/funny take on [John] Berryman -- this song starts direct,
in medias res, its lyrics of liquored melancholy bluster and sarcastic self-pity, its languid bass guitar and tight, insistent beats, its neat, feedbacked slide into rousing sail into the sunset." [From Oct 9] Buy The Stage Names (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

John Brown
- Papercuts

he lead guitar stabs sharp and sure, and if [Jason] Quever's intonations start foggy, four minutes in he's bleating sweet certainty to a crisp backbeat in support of this John Brown who sees things and hears voices (and who may or may not be the famed abolitionist and infamous half-deck card player). For a moment, the invisible and disenfranchised are bright hued and clarion voiced." [From Feb 8] Buy Can't Go Back (Amazon). Myspace

- Gowns
"I'm not certain there is such a thing as a good anti-war song. But the way Gowns performs "Johnny," in rasps and gasps, hisses and glitches, prying turgid harp lines with thick thumbs, seems true, sounds right. Hard despite its soft, florid beauty, it intimates the agony and weariness of war, insinuates the mechanical motions of machines and men and the arduousness of resisting that mechanism, affirms the futility of saying, they'll never take our sons again." [From March 19] Gowns' website. Myspace

Kissing Like It's Love
- The Voyces

"A honey-smacked ditty about, ya know, faking it a little, surrendering to the moment because the moment's what you have, because the sun is grinning yellow and the sky is blue, because
for now it's enough. Or in the words of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with." [From March 25] Buy Kissing Like It's Love (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

Lake Somerset
- Deerhunter

Deerhunter posed one of the most formidable mental challenges of 2007: How to overlook the hype, shenanigans, meltdowns, disturbing blog posts and breakup rumors, and just enjoy the music. It helps that they're a very good live act (I saw them twice) and Bradford Cox a mesmerizing frontman. On stage he's self-involved and unpredictable -- a bit like a wounded bird privately nursing his broken wing and when you venture close to help, liable to start flapping and screeching. In "Lake Somerset," a murky mix of noise and rhythm give the best impression I've heard of what it's like to drown -- or lose your mind. Throbbing bass is eclipsed by voice, voice submerged by guitar, guitar engulfed by drums, drums soused by feedback, and so on, until every instrument is kicking and screaming for life. Miraculously, the din locks into a fantastic groove and you don't mind going down. Buy Cryptograms (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

Let Me Get Your Coat - Future Clouds and Radar
At his best, Robert Harrison (as Future Clouds and Radar) isn't aping John Lennon and his pysch drop-out experiments (and there's plenty of that on his double self-titled album), but paying homage to the rip-em-up-&-start-again era -- specifically, the bitter-ironic croon of Elvis Costello and the romantically defeated power pop of Squeeze. Equal parts misery and pomp, it's a nice song to mope cheerfully to. Buy Future Clouds & Radar (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

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Like a Drug - Kylie Minogue
Yes, it's a sort of silly pop song of obvious hooks, phone-it-in beats and bargain basement lyrics. But it grabs you after one listen -- whether you want it to or not. And when I think about Kylie of the long-and-storied career (that you know Britney's never gonna have). And even more about Kylie, breast cancer survivor, singing lines like Boy, you've got me feeling crazy bout my body, I have to give her a pass. Even a ringing endorsement. Buy X (Amazon). Myspace

Lip Gloss
- Lil Mama
Whatcha know bout me? Lil' Mama demands as she struggles, like every adolescent (cept, she's way more charismatic!), to negotiate the liminal zone between interiority and public identity. What's excellent about this song
-- besides its massive pep rally stomp and sassed vocal hooks -- is that Lil Mama doesn't resort to tiresome sexual innuendo to define her burgeoning adult-ish persona. Lip gloss is just that: a cosmetic. You could definitely critique or culture jam the track, Adbusters-style, or worry yourself sick over the troublesome (I guess) capitalist fetishization of blah blah blah. But I think it's important to keep your eye on the ball here. This is a song about a young woman who feels strong and empowered and beautiful -- for a change. So who's gonna quibble about a little face paint? From Lip Gloss single (Amazon, iTunes). Myspace

Myriad Harbour
- The New Pornographers

Maybe the chewiest brownie of the year, "Myriad Harbour" sounds like another class trip with the coolest kids in school. Noses pressed against bus windows, Dan scouts the sights with Carl and girl-watches with John (Kathryn's fallen asleep to her iPod, Todd's in the bathroom, Kurt's chatting with the driver, Blaine's playing solitaire and Neko's off touring her latest record). It's the blithe and breezy fun we expect from The New Pornographers and is completely enjoyable on the level of sensation and spectacle. Yet ease a trowel a little ways into the soil, and it's also Bejar's sophisticated discourse on structuring space, and, in particular, how mobile dwellers -- tourists, migrants, students, long-distance commuters and consultants (and certainly musicians) -- read the city. A relatively large segment of any urban populace, particularly New York's, these individuals know it through its restless comings and goings (I took a train, I took a plane/ Who cares you always end up in the city). And they map it with what Zygmunt Bauman calls a "stranger's aporia," or a dialectic of moral uncertainty and aesthetic attraction to the strangers and strangeness that share their space. "Harbour" hums with a sense of estrangement, intimacy, pleasure and anxiety all brushing up against one another. Bejar muses familiarly about New York musicians (and the girls who love them), but also wanders into a record store and buys a generic anthology of American music -- a passkey to the local culture that has thus far remained locked to him. Walking the city is also a way for him to talk about the greatest unknown, the intimate stranger (you), that dogs his every step. One more thing. A lot of people have speculated about Bejar's plural harbor. I read it as a composite of New York's many physical and cognitive portals. At the same time, it's a wistful reference to the city's original, grand point of entry and a knowable, singular narrative. Buy Challengers (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

- The Dodos
"[Meric] Long's psych-folk-pop compositions are smart and tight and melodic and his hammer-handed, fleet-fingered acoustic attack always meets [Logan] Kroeger's thumps halfway, awkward toe to toe, chin to chin, heat to intensity. And his voice is great. Warm and wobbly and familiar like a brother's or a best friend's." [From Feb 1] Buy Beware of the Maniacs (from band). Myspace

99 and 1/2 - Mavis Staples
Well, she drawls, hands on hips astride Ry Cooder's springy mix. Well: Like what have you got to say about the fact that one of the most kick-ass dance tracks of 2007 is a civil rights standard from the 68-year old Staples Singer? "99 1/2" is about going the extra mile, and Staples advises that it's hard; it wouldn't be worth anything if it wasn't. On this last half mile, her voice gasps and creaks and chokes with exhaustion and feeling. But also laughter. Her chuckle implies that it's not only about faith, persistence and muscle, but also an indeflatable sense of humor. Buy We'll Never Turn Back (Amazon) Myspace

The Past is a Grotesque Animal - Of Montreal
Forgive us our pretensions, our social gaffes, our uncontrolled urge to insert our intimacy with Georges Bataille into conversation. We were young, insecure, trying to impress. We were discombobulated by music. We were in love at first sight. This initial deception, in retrospect, wasn't a strong foundation for a relationship. Credit us with the wisdom we've earned since, though. Admit that when we say, It's like we weren't made for this world/But I wouldn't want to meet someone who was; when we say, Project your fears onto me, I need to view them/ See there's nothing to them; when we say, It's so embarrassing to need someone like I do you, we speak poetry, we speak gospel, we speak honest and profound. Buy Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

A Paw in My Face
- The Field
Walking over the pond frozen February solid, something red catches my eye -- a knitted hat trapped just beneath the ice's crust. I reach down to brush aside a dusting of snow and touch a tremor; a cold and gentle rumble quakes my fingers. I retrieve a pickaxe from the shed and start hacking. The hat -- adult sized -- comes up easy enough, but
a child's mitten is buried beneath it. And below the mitten, a white-now-gray water-sodden sneaker. As I crack open the pond chip by chip, I accumulate a fine pile of outerwear, and the vibrations -- now a distinct beat -- get louder. Then, out of the corner of my eye, a flash of skin, a patch of hair. There are people down there! And they're dancing! And the music -- it suddenly sounds familiar. I peel off my parka, shuck my fleece-lined boots, unwind my wool scarf and start climbing down. Buy From Here We Go Sublime (Amazon). Myspace

- Animal Collective

Five things that made "Peacebone" one of my most-played songs of 2007 (ranked in ascending order):
5. It hops and hums and howls as if stung by a thousand mechanical bees.
4. Avey Tare's register shifts from chest to falsetto are like Grand Canyon ledge-leaps.
And the way he sings surface like surfacccce, to rhyme with curious: I dunno, it kills me every time
2. The boneface vocal sample is like the return of the repressed -- in
Groucho Marx glasses.
1. I have no idea what this song is trying to say (monsters, mazes, mildewed rice?). But I love the way it says it.
Buy Strawberry Jam (Amazon). Myspace

The Pilgriming Vine - Basia Bulat
Some voices reinforce roles in this imaginary shared space:
You: audience. She: star. But bonny Canadian lass Basia Bulat isn't like that. Her voice is rosy and ringing and her music has that rare quality of the welcoming, the direct, the communal. She bends down and reaches into the crowd, offers her hand, invites you to join her onstage in her quiver and fevered trepidation as she contemplates that pilgriming vine. If Bulat were to pick up one of those flutes and pied piper it into the forest, you'd follow her without a backward glance. Buy Oh My Darling (Amazon). Myspace

Poor Things
- The Boggs

"The plates spinning on sticks include a rhythm section performing something between a jig and a post-Madchester shuffle, growling riffs and puckish picked strings, wood block percussion, bells and "sci-fi" synthesizer sounds -- almost all of which
play hot potato with the melody, almost all of which urge you to move." [From July 31] Buy Forts (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

Heffernan border 6

Reflection of the Sun - The Sheds
"With its plain-spoke and spirited testimonials
(courtesy of The Seedy Seeds, Uncle Smokin' Joe, Matthew Shelton), and a bam-bam beat ushering it from storyboard frame to frame, [the song is] highly effective. It's also, in all seriousness, as random-whimsy as a dog parade, as stifled-giggle as a school play, as sweet as pink lemonade, as summer as the sun." [From July 5] Download from The Sheds' website. Myspace

Saddle Song
- Mary Epworth and the Jubilee Band

"So exuberant in its ragged glory that you would be very hard-hearted indeed if you weren't moved to smile, to join its rutted rolling procession, its pilgrimage, its parade of smashing cymbals, shivering violins, clamorous voices and a horn section just roused from sleep, but game for the journey to Rome, to Damascus, Samarra, Mecca or simply the end of a cobbled London street.
" From [Jan 28] Myspace

- Caribou

"It's an embarrassment of riches, this song. A feast of components layered like berries and cake and whipped cream in a trifle bowl -- and every bite the best you've ever tasted.
" [From Aug 22] Buy Andorra (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

Stockades - Frog Eyes
"Overzealous, gaudy (even tacky), majestic and somehow able to successfully perform basic hurts, plain heartbreak, with ornate sets and extravagant costumes." And OMG, the insanity and greatness of that piano!
[From May 3] Buy Tears of the Valedictorian (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

A Sunday Smile
- Beirut

A smile, as you know from your everyday gift and receipt of that coordinated flex of 43 (or so) muscles, can signify unfettered happiness. A smile also may manifest love, pleasure, kindness, good humor, contentment, relief, flirtation, pride, confidence, irony, submission, false sincerity, rue, mockery, anxiety, embarrassment, contempt, cruelty, fear -- to name just 20. And often (usually), a smile is more than one at once. Beirut, with its parchment-papered curl of melody, its boated bob and sway, signals the emotional complexity of this easy physical gesture. Explains, at least a little, how on Saturday a smile is bathing you in its hot glow and on Sunday, only a dotted line marks its traces. Buy The Flying Cup Club (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

Swan Pond - Julie Doiron
A waltz counted on a child's stubby, jam-sticky fingers.
One, two, three, one two three. A snug, sleepy afternoon sprawled on the kitchen floor with craft paper and a box of watercolors. A house where the biggest bother is a lost sneaker or spilled apple juice. Julie Doiron sings domesticity with a throat threadbare from picturebooks and lullabies. She sings with joyful exhaustion and bemused wonder. Buy Woke Myself Up (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

Tony Danza Dancetravaganza
- Shitt Hottt

This song isn't strictly garage band, but it's awfully attached to staccato Farfisa (and wafting more than a whiff of amateurism). Not exactly punk, but sarcastic and sportin' attitude. Not a novelty, but awfully funny, even demented (uh, it's a detailed and enthusiastic fantasy about hooking up with Tony Danza). Like the girl groups that came before it, Shitt Hottt is a sassy, insouciant blend of innocence: I'll wear my new socks, in case we take a walk/ You know they're argyle, I hope he likes that style! and experience: And then he kissed me for all to see/The way his ass is, and oooh those glasses. From Are You There God? It's Me Shitt Hottt (Buy from band's Myspace).

2080 - Yeasayer
Image: Laura Hughes

All Hour Cymbals (Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

- Rihanna (ft. Jay Z)
Future pop historians will probably go over it with tweezers and toothpicks, but I think it's pretty obvious that the key to
"Umbrella's" fabulousness lies in a certain sultry stammer -- just one little extended vowel that says more than 1,000 words. Buy Good Girl Gone Bad (Amazon, iTunes). Myspace

You Earn Your Enemies - Un Deux Trois
"[Lead vocalist] Heather McEntire never sings cold or bitter; her tongue sustains notes like orange embers. And I nominate the backing ahs ahs in a best supporting role. They coax the lead with courage, courage, like some Ronette or Shangri-La or Go-Go who wandered off and into 2007." [From Feb 14] Buy Lovers EP (Holiday for Quince Records). Myspace

Update: See my recommended EPs and favorite non-2007 music heard this year here.

Art throughout this post by the amazing baroque revival painter Julie Heffernan.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Ho ho hum

Image: Pascal Fallonneau

It's Christmas So We'll Stop - Frightened Rabbit (The Pretend It's December Choir)

I've been yapping about Frightened Rabbit all year and (surprise!) here I go again. Sort of. This is the very proper choir arrangement of the lily-livered lapins' new holiday single -- soon-to-be holiday classic. If you'd like to hear the rousing pop version, I suggest you digital download it from eMusic or order the old-school 7" vinyl from Fat Cat (iTunes offers a "clean" track, but I can't in good conscience endorse censorship). If you're utterly broke from splurging on gifts for your loved ones, you can also stream the song from these festive Glaswegians' Myspace.

I'll be spending the weekend making my 2007 favorites lists and proofing them twice. Will they feature some Frightened Rabbit? Tune in to find out! Favorite songs go up early next week and albums the following week.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Ice promise

Image: Camille Solyagua

Sheets - Promise and the Monster

This afternoon, feverish and bundled in blankets on the sofa, I watched the migration of a murder of crows. Or, I should say, I watched a very short leg of their journey (and though murder is the correct term and these birds were ginormous, they didn't appear life-threatening). The weary ones settled in a naked tree,
their spindle legs tightroping brittle branches, gelid eyes scanning the fresh-laundered sheet of snow. Others, eager to get on with it, flew anxious laps of the block, beating black wings against sifting snow. Ten minutes later they pushed south again.

Promise and the Monster's album Transparent Knives is a delightful late-year surprise from glassine-voiced chanteuse Billie Lindahl. She plays guitar with the patience and rigor, tremble and spellbindery
(not to mention consistency -- there isn't a dud track on the record) of her countryman and soon-to-be tourmate, José González. See PatM's Myspace page for various Swedish dates beginning next Tuesday. And buy the album from Imperial Recordings or (much cheaper) on iTunes. It's very, very good.