The Nitty Gritty ~ Ten Albums To Make Your iPod Weep
Okay, so we've knocked down albums 11-42, and that was fun. But here are the best of the lot. So sit back, download Soulseek or iTunes, and find these albums quickly. Your ears will thank you later. I will thank you now.
10. The Angels of Light - We Are Him: Michael Gira scares the hell out of me. The literal Hell. Sometimes, when I listen to his Angels of Light stuff, I'm reminded of music class in High School when Mr. Townsend would play us Stryper in order to illustrate how Christian Rock fit better in the "basement" of the afterlife than in the tranquil perfection of heaven. Being all of 14 at the time, and not really liking Stryper in the first place, I think I just nodded and pretended to understand what he was talking about. If Mr. Townsend had really wanted to make his point, he would have skipped the whole Fundamentalist indictment of CCM and played us something like We Are Him. I can't really put it into words, but I'm of the opinion that Michael Gira writes music that could be described as Transcendent and Depraved in the same moment (which incidentally might not be a bad way to describe living on Earth). At 53 years old, it's amazing that he continues to produce serious art with such immediacy, and in ways that the rest of his baby boomer generation can only imagine (*he says, glaring at Dylan, Springsteen and Neil Young*). We Are Him manages to capture both the spirit of Southern Gothic Literature and Country/Western Music, most clearly on the title track -- four minutes and eleven seconds of pure pagan-Gospel hillbilly-tribal rock. Not for the faint of heart, but saints be praised for the gift of Gira.
9. Uncle Earl - Waterloo, Tennessee: Uncle Earl are a bunch of ladies who know how to rock through bluegrass. While most might be satisfied with the contemporary stylings of Alison Krauss & Union Station, this little cowpoke needs more -- more blue with his grass, more stomp with his fiddle, more tradition with his modern interp. And Uncle Earl deliver on all accounts. Waterloo, Tennessee restores my faith in the purity and continuity of the uniquely Southern musical tradition. When the gloss falls away, it's nice to know that you don't have to find LPs from 1954 to find good bluegrass. Uncle Earl find ways to make the string band genre sound new and fresh and exciting without resorting to the Nashville temptation "to reach a wider audience." If you like your mountain music, and you especially like your mountain music fun and adventurous and oh-so-pretty, give this album a whirl. There might not be a forthcoming sequel to Down from the Mountain, but this might be the next best thing.
8. Spoon - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga: Almost three had years passed since I last thought about Spoon was up to. Their last album, Gimme Fiction, came and went like a lamb, not registering much when it dropped a couple of years back. But Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga managed to seize the cockels of my heart like Kill the Moonlight did, and suddenly, I cared about this band again. And life just seemed better because of it. I can't quite put my finger on it, but Fiction seemed to ape the idea of Spoon, not quite capturing the spirit and frenzy of "The Way We Get By" or "Jonathon Fisk." Instead, it was like a B&W Zerox of what a Spoon album should sound like. Everything seemed in place, but it wasn't as vibrant, it wasn't as refreshing. I'm sorry if it sounds like I'm describing a soft drink, but that might be a good metaphor for Spoon's music. It won't change your life, but when made correctly it can put a spring in your step and smile on your face. And from the opening notes of "Don't Make Me A Target" it's clear that Britt Daniel and Co. have gotten back to the business of putting smiles on the faces of the faithful. This is what a rock 'n' roll album circa 2007 should sound like. Why the rest of America doesn't agree is a complete and utter mystery.
7. The Innocence Mission - We Walked In Song: Karen Peris is like the Family Room couch -- as long as you keep the dogs off it, it only gets better with age (maybe that's OtR's problem, too many dogs). In an effort to stay away from Cheese and Wine metaphors, I might have just turned you off from sampling this album. If so, that would be a low-down shame. The Innocence Mission have been around the game long enough to have tasted "Alternative" success and survived to go on and become even greater songwriters in the process (the were college radio darlings for their mid-nineties single "Bright as Yellow" donchyano). And basically, I love them to death. In what can only be described as a marriage -- both musical and familial -- made in heaven, Don and Karen Paris make music for every day of the week, and twice on Sunday. Delicate vocals, gentle guitar work, subtle bass lines, and percussion so occasional it's almost surprising at times, We Walked in Song delivers it all. And in ways that make you want to hold your breath every time one song ends and a new one begins. Simply lovely.
6. Gatsby the Great - Karuna Rage: This album was a mistake; I downloaded it thinking it was Kanye West's Graduation. I have to admit that from the outset because I am in no way an expert (nor do I even resemble one) in underground rap. Karuna Rage ended up being the musical surprise of the year for me. Most albums I'll have some inkling of, whether from previous familiarity, recommendations from friends, or web buzz. But Gatsby was totally unfamiliar to me. To make it at number six, you'd expect it to have all the hip-hop bells and whistles -- hot producers, crazy samples and tons of guests. Instead, Karuna Rage is probably one of the simplest hip-hop records I own. Homemade production, mostly piano tracks and organic beats, and a simple yet outstanding flow. I still know absolutely nothing about who Gatsby is (Google searches are frustratingly pointless), other than dude is from NYC , he has an affinity for the Howard Beale character in Network, and not everyone likes him as much as I do. Which is too bad, because in a year when hip-hop was something of a turn-off for me, Karuna Rage made me want to take notes and sow my rap oats all over again.
5. Band of Horses - Cease to Begin: I used to think of Band of Horses as a Pac-NW ripoff of My Morning Jacket. And now I can say with all honesty and humility that I was very, very wrong. These guys have got it, whatever it is, and that it translates to one of my favorite rock albums of the year. Cease to Begin. . . .um, begins with a bang called "Is There a Ghost," and hardly lets up for 35 solid minutes. At the moment, I can't get over the more countryish tracks like "The General Specific" and "Marry Me," -- countryish because while not actual country songs, they employ some gorgeous Mason-Dixon-inspired harmonies that reel me in a little more with every listen. If Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and Cease to Begin were parallel lines cut by a transversal, then the pairs of their corresponding angles would most definitely be congruent. It's only because Top Ten Lists are better understood than random bunches of records that I reluctantly rank one of these albums "above" the other. I almost fully assume that where one goes, the other will follow. It's my own personal 2007 rock 'n' roll postulate.
4. Akron/Family - Love Is Simple: There's something of a disconnect between hippies and their music -- Jefferson Airplane and early Dead made some really great tunes. It's just when hippies open their mouths it tends to spoil the whole mystique; it's then when you realize that they're no more wise or transcendent or in-tune with reality than you are. What sounded like amazing words of love and acceptance when sung turn to bloated gibberish when said aloud without music. Maybe that's something for the Church to think about. Maybe not. But when a band like Akron/Family come around, with songs titled "Love, Love, Love (Everyone)" and "Don't Be Afraid, You're Already Dead"; and albums called Meek Warrior and Love Is Simple, my natural instinct is to love the music, hate the message. But Akron/Family do something the old hippies just couldn't. They shut the hell up and jam. Yes, I've said it once and I'll say it again. I can't stand Jam Bands. Except when the jam never overtakes the band. Akron/Family play Jazz as Rock 'n' Roll, or maybe Rock 'n' Roll as Jazz. To stick them with the Hippie or Jam Band labels doesn't began to describe their music. Love Is Simple is everything modern Praise & Worship could be if those musicians put half as much thought into their music as they did into updating Hebrew Psalms for a modern, image driven, consumer packaged culture. Am I digressing? Yes. But know this: Love Is Simple takes the ideas of Jesus Christ and Woodstock and sets them to some really bitching tunes. In case you haven't heard, Akron/Family are phenomenally sick musicians. Their jams are never pointless, and always weird as hell. Why these guys aren't huge in Vermont is beyond me. Maybe they're too good. Maybe they're too true. Maybe they're too lovely for people to stand. I don't know. But I do know that this album should be heard by joyous people, because it will increase their joy: They will be glad as in the time of harvest, as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.
3. Bowerbirds - Hymns for a Dark Horse: Folk music originated everywhere -- continually originates everywhere -- especially in the American South. Bowerbirds are a new folk band from North Carolina, and play a brand of folk oft times tagged as nu-folk, which is sort of ridiculous because they stand firmly among the old folk traditions of love and land and hard times. Hymns for a Dark Horse is one of those rare debut albums that capture a young band in its young band prime. That an album this good is a debut album is beside the point -- or maybe it's above it -- because the point is this: Folk music needs more artists who aren't afraid to write lyrics like It takes a lot of nerve to destroy this wondrous earth. Whatever you think of folk music in general, leave it by the wayside before listening to Hymns for Dark Horse. This album is not about making a statement (though there are statements made). It's not about maintaning an image (though the imagery is clearly there). And it's not about defining a genre and appealing to a certain clique (though it sounds like a certain music for a certain people). This album is about carefully crafting songs, balancing words and music in powerful ways, creating new tunes for new times, that speak of old themes and old mysteries. Were it not for three other people in the whole wide world, this would be my favorite album of the year. And unlike albums one and two, I would recommend Hymns for a Dark Horse to every person I know, and every person I don't know, and all the people that fall in between.
2. Panda Bear - Person Pitch: This album came to me in a storm. I think I downloaded it sometime late last winter, before it had even been released, and immediately fell in love. Panda Bear is another part of that Animal Collective, and after Person Pitch, probably my favorite part. The few few seconds of "Comfy in Nautica" literally woke me up from a long, dark winter above the 42nd parallel in New England. The idea of Brian Wilsonian sunshine pop in January might sound strange, but it really, honestly fits. Words are words, and they do an awful good job getting us around on most days. But words have very little to say when it comes to Person Pitch. It's the music, stupid. That's what's got my tongue strings and heart strings in knots. It's like a thousand nights of being wrapped up in your favorite blanket, listening to the stars. Or a thousand days of hanging out in the kiddy pool, content to simply be content with everything that everyone else says make you less-than. This is an album about being and becoming, and in that sense it's about the end of the world as much as it's about the moment we're in. There are times when you feel like a kid, and then there are times when you become a kid. If the kingdom of heaven doesn't sounds alot like this, then someone up above better have a really good reason.
1. Nina Nastasia & Jim White - You Follow Me: I can't even remember just how I came into contact with Nina Nastasia and You Follow Me. But thank goodness for providence, because Miss Nastasia is one for the ages, beautiful in song, and Jim White is her perfect foil, probably the most bad-ass drummer ever. When you think of singer-songwriters, you don't think of jazz and bop and music that swings. Until you hear You Follow Me, then you do, and you can't believe you never did, and the world falls out from under you, and proclaim this album your favorite of the year. Nina Nastasia was new to me this year; every album of her back catalog like a long lost gift from an old friend. But it was her collaboration with Dirty Three drummer Jim White that brought me into the fold, and made me a fan for life. I tried explaining to my brother what this album was about, and how it was the same as any other girl-singing-over-her-guitar album, and how it wasn't like anything you've ever heard before ever in the history of history. Nastasia is a superb songwriter, but we've heard that before. Nastasia has a captivating vocal presence, but we've heard that before, too. And White can drum, but so could Roach, Peart and Bonham. But they never played with Nina Nastasia, and that's their loss. In just ten tracks and thirty minutes, this pair rip through volumes of folk, jazz and pop, producing probably the quietest, most intense album the year. And my favorite musical moment of 2007. From opening to closing, I simply couldn't get enough. This is 2007 for me. And I am so very, very grateful.