Archive for November, 2007

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Best of 2007: Top 20 Albums (10-1)

November 30, 2007

 

Radiohead

#10 Radiohead – In Rainbows

Being a Radiohead fan ten years ago is no guarantee that you care any more. The last decade has been marked by a progression into more introspection and obscurantism by the biggest art rock band of the 90s. So it’s impossible to look at In Rainbows without reference to all that’s gone before. Which is unfair, because if this was the first or second album by an unknown band, it would be hailed as a landmark. The sounds are still heavily influenced by the IDM and experimental electronica of recent albums (the likelihood of Radiohead making another straight-up guitar record is precisely nil) but the songs are more immediate. Some even scale the same heights a bunch of British one-hit wonders did back in the mid-90s with an album called The Bends. If you’ll permit me saying that.

Radiohead – “Jigsaw Falling into Place”

 

Bishop Allen

#9 Bishop Allen – The Broken String

Last year was a golden year for twee pop with stellar efforts from Camera Obscura, the Radio Dept and mainstays Belle and Sebastian. Fortunately for boys and girls who like their music cute and fey, Brooklyn’s Bishop Allen have pulled together a bunch of their best songs from 2006’s twelve EPs (that amazing year again). The instrumentation is idiosyncratic, the lyrics are whimsical and clever and the melodies are likely to stick in your head. More than enough to tide us over until the next bumper crop.

Bishop Allen – “Like Castanets”

 

The National

#8 The National – Boxer

Their last effort, Alligator, crept up on many a music fan following its early 2005 release. Now The National have made a similarly complex record, one that improves with repeated listens. Something has changed, though. Where Alligator was permeated with a rage that burst out of control on the rockier numbers, Boxer is much calmer. It feels more like resignation, maturity, whatever you want to call it. It’s also a more consistent-sounding album without being sameish – dark, moody and beautiful. The taste may be an acquired one, but you’ll be glad you persisted.

The National – “Apartment Story”

 

Menomena

#7 Menomena – Friend and Foe

Abstract indie rock trio Menomena have hit the medium-time with this album and deservedly so. Their odd-ball blend of samples, loops and live instruments (including baritone sax – a sadly underutilised instrument) is alienating and engaging simultaneously. It means each song hits you twice, with an immediate and a delayed impact. But it’s deceptive because you never really have a handle on their songs, even on repeated listens. The moment a song’s verse is starting to make sense, the chorus opens up and a new, puzzling dimension is revealed. You can keep chasing this album for years and it will still be fresh.

Menomena – “Air Aid”

 

Iron & Wine

#6 Iron and Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog

Much has been made of Iron and Wine’s shift from solo acoustic project to full-band extravaganza. In truth, Sam Beam is still making the same music as always, full of melancholy and the warmth of the Deep South in summer. Nevertheless, the new sounds, arrangements and production tricks keep things interesting and make this album an essential addition to the Iron and Wine canon, rather than just more of the same. The draw-card is still Beam’s honeyed voice and his gentle guitar-strumming, which are both in fine form. So you really get two Iron and Wine albums in one – the one you were expecting and the one that catches you by surprise.

Iron and Wine – “Flightless Bird, American Mouth”

 

Andrew Bird

#5 Andrew Bird – Armchair Apocrypha

The ferociously-talented multi-instrumentalist Bird has hit the jackpot with this one. It’s a perfect collation of everything good about indie rock over the last two decades. It’s slacker rock, it’s literate chamber pop, it’s songs about ancient history, it’s vocal lines that soar like Jeff Buckley never went anywhere. It’s whistling. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but I figure that’s because Andrew Bird is probably a hell of a lot smarter than you or I. And he makes better albums than we do.

Andrew Bird – “Fiery Crash”

 

Jens Lekman

#4 Jens Lekman – Night Falls on Kortedala

He’s an odd one, Jens. He’s a phenomenon with the hipster kids. He is signed to cooler-than-cool label Secretly Canadian. And yet, you can’t help suspect that he’d quite like to be Barry Manilow. Kortedala is a stunning album, but it’s packed full of grandiose romantic statements, delivered with complete earnestness over syrupy strings. This shouldn’t work. Perhaps it’s because he mixes it all up with brilliant off-beat samples and hilarious character portraits and because, curiously for a native Swedish speaker, he’s one of the best English-language lyricists working today. It would take longer than the album’s running time to explain why it’s brilliant, which means that it stands on its own. No more words necessary.

Jens Lekman – “I’m Leaving You Because I Don’t Love You”

 

Feist

#3 Feist – The Reminder

It’s all FM-radio easy-listening pap, some will tell you. But that’s not an explanation of why Leslie Feist’s fans are so in her thrall. For my money, she’s one of the most versatile vocalists to appear this decade. Her songs are deceptively simple – like old jazz standards that only come to life when a truly great vocalist breathes into them. Each vocal turn evokes so many emotions and imbues the (nicely un-clichéd) lyrics with layers of meaning. It’s a much more focused effort than 2004’s half-originals, half-covers Let It Die and the quality of the best tracks is similarly excellent. If you don’t “get” Feist, it’s your loss.

Feist – “Honey Honey”

 

Apparat

#2 Apparat – Walls

German techno is entering a bit of a heyday right now. Kompakt’s micro-house sound may not be as trendy as it was a few years ago, but other labels like Get Physical, BPitch Control and Shitkatapult are more than taking up the slack. Shitkatapult main-man Sascha Ring’s Apparat project isn’t actually that “techno”. Walls has a lot of beats and bleeps, but it’s more an electronic pop record. Some of the tracks sound like Thom Yorke (“Arcadia”), others like Justin Timberlake (“Holdon”). All of them soar and all of them sound amazing.

Apparat – “Fractales Pt. 1”

 

Hammock

#1 Hammock – Raising Your Voice…Trying to Stop an Echo

Ambient music can suffer from it’s “barely there” nature – it can sound beautiful, but it can also be forgotten as soon as the track is over. US duo Hammock overcomes this by mixing up equal parts droning ambient and shimmering shoegazer pop. The songs may blur into each other, but they ebb and flow effectively over time, peaking in gorgeous melodic passages before receding into subliminality, then bursting forth again. Sigur Ros and Slowdive are obvious touchstones, but Hammock generally sound like themselves. Which is an amazing thing to sound like. And the best album of the last year.

Hammock – “Shipwrecked (Flat On Your Back)”

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Best of 2007: Top 20 Albums (20-11)

November 29, 2007

I’ve been doing annual album lists the last few years and this one has probably been the easiest to do – simply because finding 20 albums that I have no reservations about was quite simple. Leaving things out was a lot harder. But with any luck, you’ll discover some of those albums off your own bat – you don’t really need me to tell you what to listen to. So here goes – the countdown begins.

 

The Clientele

#20 The Clientele – God Save the Clientele

Alasdair Maclean and his band of 60s revivalists hit a high-water mark a few years back with Strange Geometry and it was always going to be a hard act to follow. They wisely chose to expand their palette of sounds and it’s paid off. While the variations from Geometry’s dreamy reverb-heavy template mean the God Save the Clientele is less coherent overall, the songwriting is excellent and up-beat pop numbers like “Bookshop Casanova” make this record memorable.

The Clientele – “Bookshop Casanova”

 

St Vincent

#19 St Vincent – Marry Me

Annie Clark, lately of cult-like supergroups The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens’ Illinoisemakers, ventures out on her own – and we wonder why she waited at all. Marry Me is a literate, quirky and adventurous album and Clark is a charismatic and off-beat frontwoman. She’s a torch-singer for the terminally disaffected, a pop star for those bored with standard pop star antics. Our generation’s Kate Bush perhaps?

St Vincent – “Landmines”

 

Aesop Rock

#18 Aesop Rock – None Shall Pass

After the cryptic and dark diversion that was Bazooka Tooth, Long Island experimental rapper Aesop Rock takes a turn back to the mainstream…or at least a mainer stream than before. The production, from Ace Rock himself as well as long-time collaborators like Blockhead and El-P, is a great mix of sinister and melodic. The rhymes? They’re as rapid-fire and baffling as ever. Without the concept-album framework that his magnum opus Labor Days had (all about the 9-5 grind, apparently), you could easily miss the point. But it’s worth trying to figure it out.

Aesop Rock – “Five Fingers”

 

Rosie Thomas

#17 Rosie Thomas – These Friends of Mine

So, she’s not having Sufjan Stevens’ child after all, but Rosie Thomas has made a bloody good album. We’ll forgive her for getting our hopes up about indie rock’s First Baby. On first listen, These Friends of Mine is so accessible and mellow it sounds a bit – well, obvious. But it’s so jammed packed with beautiful melodies and endearing stories and Rosie’s voice is as stunning and evocative as always. Yes, all is definitely forgiven.

Rosie Thomas – “Why Waste More Time?”

 

Blonde Redhead

#16 Blonde Redhead – 23

23 marks Blonde Redhead’s latest step into the world of sophisticated art-pop. Compared to their no-wave beginnings and early comparisons to Sonic Youth, it’s a highly polished effort. The production values are amazing and the vocals from Kazu and Amodeo are eerily effective. Each song sounds like it should be a pretty slice of dreamy indie, but Blonde Redhead manage to make everything sound unsettling – if anything, the purity of the sound makes it creepier. It needs to be heard.

Blonde Redhead – “Heroine”

 

Monkey Swallows the Universe

#15 Monkey Swallows the Universe – The Casket Letters

After a debut that showed promise, but not a lot of consistency, Sheffield’s other monkey-themed band return with the album we’d hoped for. The band’s strengths – Nat Johnson’s world-weary vocals and mellow acoustic folk tunes thousands of Nick Drake fans dream about – are put to better use, bringing to life more memorable tunes. There are still stand-out tracks (“Little Polveir”, “Science”) rather than a constant flow of brilliance, but MTSU are well on their way.

Monkey Swallows the Universe – “Science”

 

Spoon

#14 Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

The most common observation about Spoon’s output is that they make an art out of making music from as little as possible. True, it’s hard to pick an album that’s more bare-bones than Girls Can Tell or Kill the Moonlight, but it’s not as simple as that. Britt Daniel and Co. make an art out of playing songs that use the building blocks of pop music, but end up sounding oddly unfamiliar. It’s all in the details and Ga (x5) is an album for detail people. It’s a pop rock record, sure, but there’s no fear of cliché because somehow no one else has ever thought to make a Spoon album.

Spoon – “The Ghost of You Lingers”

 

Josh Ritter

#13 Josh Ritter – The Historical Conquests of…

Dylan, Springsteen, Wilson, Guthrie. Now that we’ve got the obvious touchstones out the way, we can talk about how Josh Ritter has made an album that almost lives up to its own mythological aspirations. Fourteen songs, all shooting for timelessness rather than retro copycatting. Lyrics that draw on love, failure and all the other stuff and nonsense of classic rock. Music that draws from old Americana, garage-punk and chamber pop. It may have only come out this year, but Ritter’s musical conquests deserve at least a few pages of history.

Josh Ritter – “To the Dogs or Whoever”

 

Band of Horses

#12 Band of Horses – Cease to Begin

Some critics have bewailed the lack of a barnstorming rocker to equal “The Funeral” or “The Great Salt Lake” on the Horses’ second album. I’m not too fussed myself, because to me, Band of Horses has always been about the slow country ballads. Just as the slow-burning end to last year’s Everything All the Time was the strongest part of Album #1, the heartbreaking “No One’s Gonna Love You” and “Detlef Schrempf” give Cease to Begin a boost into the company of 2007’s best albums.

Band of Horses – “No One’s Gonna Love You”

 

The Field

#11 The Field – From Here We Go Sublime

With only a remix of Annie’s “Heartbeat” and a few 12” records to his name, Axel Willner’s 2007 was promising but not a dead-cert for success. Just as well he pulled together an ambient techno album set to appeal to everyone from headphone obsessives to late-night college crammers. The Field’s sound is a tweaking of the usual Kompakt minimalist house sound, using repetitive loops and pitch-shifting to great effect. It sounds icy and beautiful and perfect for dance parties when everyone’s too tired to dance any more.

The Field – “Sun and Ice”

To #10-1

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Best of 2007: Live music

November 17, 2007

2007 was a pretty good year for gigs – I’m not sure I’ve seen so many quality acts in years. Of course, picking a “best of” for live gigs is even more subjective than most of this year-end-listing business – it’s totally dependent on geography, budget and luck. But I saw a fair few gigs and these are the ones I’ll still be raving about in five years’ time. I guess you had to be there.

#5 Phoenix – V Festival, Centennial Park, Sydney, 30 March

As well as putting out by far the best album of their career last year, French 80-pop revivalists Phoenix also evolved into a pretty formidable live act. Their performance at the V Festival in Sydney was only short and struggled against the usual outdoor festival issues, but it was still a memorable outing. Thomas Mars is a charismatic frontman – all Gallic shrugs and lanky good looks. Their set was heavy on 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That and with good reason – there’s not a dud track on it. But even the older songs such as “Too Young”, “If I Ever Feel Better” and “Run, Run, Run” benefited from the more muscular rock sound they’ve developed. And absolutely ball-tearing versions of “Second To None” and the reprised “Napoleon Says” sealed the deal.

#4 Nouvelle Vague, Emilie Simon – The Metro, Sydney, 5 July

The “So Frenchy, So Chic” franchise is a bit annoying – cashing in on the local love for French rom-coms with Gerard Diepardu – but it did bring together two great artists for a sold-out show at The Metro. I had seen Nouvelle Vague at the V Festival earlier in the year and they had won me over with their absurdly energetic bossa nova covers of old punk and new wave tracks. Vocalists Melanie Pain and Phoebe Killdeer seemed to have ingested some kind of Mexican jumping bean because they didn’t drop the all-singing all-dancing momentum for a second. Emilie Simon was also a revelation. Her live accompanists were a Captain Beefheart lookalike with a theremin and various computers and a percussionist who played the fish bowl among other things. And Simon herself sang her heart out, bashing away at the piano passionately. The fact that she looked like a model on top of everything just added to the heartbreak all the indie boys felt when she left the stage.

#3 The Clientele – Spectrum, Sydney, 27 July

This British band bring new meanings to “reverb” and they have the 1960s-fuelled heartbreak songs to go along with the shimmering effects. I was only a casual fan before I saw them play but I walked away a true believer. The simplicity of a group of people making beautiful music may seem unexceptional, but there was something revelatory in the way they brought their songs to life on stage. Spectrum is a tiny venue and suffers from a deaf sound guy who turns everything up to ear-splitting volumes. But the cramped conditions only increased the intimacy of the show. It was as if we were all old friends, waiting to see what our buddies had whipped up in their latest jam session. But it was also something altogether more transcendent.

#2 The Pixies – V Festival, Centennial Park, 30 March

“You’re too young to even remimber thus,” said the lovely 30-something New Zealander woman standing in front of me in the crowd. It didn’t matter. I never caught the indie rock trailblazers first time around, but unlike a lot of middle-aged reformations, these guys are just as angry, passionate and inventive as you could hope. They may look like school teachers, but when they rip through a song as violent as “Tame”, you are actually slightly scared. Frank Black and Kim Deal’s voices have aged amazingly – neither was any great singer in the 1980s, but they’ve matured into idiosyncratic but impressive vocalists. I was worried that The Pixies could only disappoint me. Oh me of little faith.

#1 Ryan Adams and the Cardinals – The Palais, Melbourne, 20 August

For all his profilic, lack-of-editorial-input craziness, Ryan Adams has recorded some amazing songs. It was just surprising to hear them sound so much better live. The Cardinals are the best country backing band you can imagine and seem to have workshopped their group dynamics into a fine art form. Ryan’s got off the drugs (apparently) and also seems to have taken some serious vocal lessons. I have never heard a live performer soar so effortlessly between registers and between rough and smooth vocal tones – and certainly no one normally as unpolished as Adams. Despite some irritating hecklers and some bizarre between-song comments from Ryan, it was one of the best live shows I have witnessed. Fifteen songs, most of them played out to twice their normal length and milked for every drop of beauty – live music heaven.

Fortunately for you and I, some guy bootlegged the whole damn show. So have a listen and see what I mean.

Ryan Adams and the Cardinals – “Wild Flowers (live)”

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Ghost

November 12, 2007

I came quite late to Jason Molina’s Songs: Ohia project – after they’d already disbanded and Molina had moved on to other things, as it happened. I’ve made up for it recently by compulsively absorbing a heap of the band’s back-catalogue and it’s definitely worth the effort.

My favourite disc at the moment is the hard-to-obtain live album Mi sei apparso come un fantasma (“you came to me as a ghost” in Italian, I believe – or “six appeared to me like a ghost” according to Babelfish) simply because it’s the best expression of Molina’s Neil-Young-by-way-of-mogadon aesthetic I’ve found yet. It rocks out a lot more than much of Songs: Ohia’s music, it’s tuneful and it contains some amazing guitar work.

So if you’re in a sufficiently good mood to handle some seriously mopey country rock, click below.

Songs: Ohia – “It Won’t Be Easy”

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Best of 2007: Top 5 album packs

November 10, 2007

Goodnight Believer will be closed over December/January, so I’m getting in early with some of the year-end lists. Today, it’s a look at the best album packaging of the year. Honestly, I’ve been pretty impressed with the quality of album covers that I’ve bought this year – and some have been downright astounding.

#5 Band of Horses – Cease to Begin (Sub Pop)

Band of Horses - Cease to Begin

They’ve done it before, but Band of Horses’ use of photo postcards is still exceptional. Christopher Wilson’s shots, mostly taken in BoH’s new home of South Carolina, are beautiful and worth the price of admission alone.

#4 The National – Boxer (Beggars’ Banquet)

The National - Boxer

An album that looks exactly the way it sounds – moody, nocturnal and gutsy. The cover photo of the band playing to an elderly audience with minimal lighting is just classic and prepares you for the gritty but beautiful sounds contained on the disc. This is an album cover that will never date.

#3 Blonde Redhead – 23 (4AD)

Blonde Redhead - 23

Definitely the oddest cover of the year – and for Blonde Redhead’s most straightfoward album yet. The little red cardboard band is annoying to get off and on again, but it looks stunning. And the four-legged tennis-player is just as beautiful and unexpected as the album.

#2 Iron & Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog (Sub Pop)

Iron & Wine - The Shepherd’s Dog

This one gets in the list for the lyrics sheet alone. It’s a full poster-sized represenation of the album cover on one side and a block-printy collection of song lyrics on the other. The creepy, fauvish painting of the eponymous dog on the cover is also outstanding.

#1 Menomena – Friend and Foe (Barsuk)

Menomena - Friend and Foe

Menomena have made a mark with previous album covers and this one is especially good. The bizarre and intricate cartoons on the cover and the disc are almost mythological in scope. And the album tracks are listed around the disc like an alternative zodiac. Off the wall in the best possible way.

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This is insect speed

November 6, 2007

Sometimes I just ignore music for no good reason at all. Like the 2005 album by German lap-pop dudes The Notwist with weirdo American rappers Themselves. I should have known that I would dig it and yet I busied myself with other things. I guess there’s always so much to be listening to.

Better late than never, anyway. Because 13 & God is an impressive piece of dark and experimental hip-hop (if you can even call it that). It’s got the glitchy yet melodic thing that The Notwist do so well along with alternating vocals from the nasal Germans and the even more nasal (and tremendously abstract) Californians.

Where to start? Here are some good points:

13 & God – “Afterclap”

13 & God – “Perfect Speed”

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In which Sondre Lerche discovers the Strokes

November 5, 2007

Sondre Lerche

I honestly don’t have a lot of time for the Arctic Fratellis and their ilk – much the way I’ve felt about all the “rock revival” movements since my late teens. And don’t they just seem to pop up biannually? If this is an odd numbered year, then bugger me… rock must be back.

But to tell you the truth, Norwegian twenty-something troubador Sondre Lerche’s recent discovery of punk-revival tempos and distorted guitars is welcome as far as I’m concerned. There’s nothing revolutionary about it, because it just makes him sound a lot like those famous NYC hipsters that brought the R-word back in 2001, whereas before he sounded like Paul McCartney.

Nevertheless, the guy’s songs circa 2004’s Two Way Monologue were probably a bit too mellow before and they have benefited from the new energy. Lerche is all of 25 years old and has been bashing out songs since his teens, so a bit of stylistic change is to be expected. And he’s retained both his spectacular gift for a melody and his lovestruck-Romeo histrionics – a world away from the cynicism of much new rock.

So – a toast to new developments and may they result in the absolutely killer album I’m sure he has stored up in him. Some old stuff and some new stuff.

Sondre Lerche – “On the Tower”

Sondre Lerche – “She’s Fantastic”