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The music that defined '07 according to Riga

By Mike Riga

Section: Arts

January 18, 2008

dc0118085.jpg2007 was a pretty decent year for music. Overall, there was no single jaw-dropping, ass-kicking record that set itself apart from all the others. However, what they lacked in overall excellence, the artists who made my “best of” list made up for in overall consistency.

All of these records are excellent, although none all that revolutionary. The list is comprised of a solid mix of newcomers and stalwarts, and even a new release from an indie rock granddaddy. All these records deserve notice, and you should check them out.

10. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible

Granted, Neon Bible is no Funeral, but in a way it is just as exciting. The Arcade Fire is always a band struggling with its identity as the latest genre-defining indie rock stars. Since the debut of Funeral, these guys have made it to the top of the indie world, and even surpassed it to some extent. So when these guys tossed out Neon Bible, a big-sounding, well-produced, monolith of a record that makes you think Springsteen instead of Built to Spill, some people were put off by it.

And while Neon Bible isn’t THAT great, it is still a solid record with a couple of brilliant songs on it. “Keep the Car Running” is a woozy track, all dynamics and group chorus cathartics. The organ led stomp of “Intervention” is the best thing this band has ever done, and that plus “No Cars Go” and “The Well and the Lighthouse” makes this record well worth listening to. The rest of it is not as consistent, but when the Arcade Fire is at its best, it is better than nearly any other artist out there.

9. Working for a Nuclear Free City – Businessmen & Ghosts

Working for a Nuclear Free City is a Manchester (England, that is)- based outfit that deftly blends elements of Brit-rock, electronics, shoegaze, and a healthy dose of attitude into neat sounding little band.

You can tell from the first seconds of their newest release, the sprawling, 29-track Businessmen & Ghosts, that these lads pay a bit of a debt to the trail blazed by the Stone Roses many years ago, but as you delve deeper into the album, the way Working for a Nuclear Free City effortlessly toy with and combine genres is exciting.

“Rocket” is an interesting song, set to a trancy, rolling beat, with two guitars dueling over it, creating a sound that is both folksy and post rock at the same time. “Kingdom” is a timely, propulsive song.

The real epic on this album is “England,” a seven and a half minute time bomb of song, complete with interesting electronic work, and bolstered by surging guitars and powerful dynamics. Certainly, in this long player, Working for a Nuclear Free City come across as prolific, although not every song works and some tracks are nothing more than short instrumental passages.
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That being said, with a little more focus, and maybe an editor, there’s no telling what these kids could do.

8. A Place to Bury Strangers – A Place to Bury Strangers

New York’s finest (and apparently loudest) band released this self-titled album as a compilation of various previous recordings and demos. This is a surprise, considering how well the album stands as a singular record.

A Place to Bury Strangers’ sound is well-defined and cool, and their collection of proto-punk firepower, 80s guitar heroics, and an industrial wall of feedback is invigorating from the first listen onwards.

The bruising “Missing You” starts the album off well, setting the tone as guitarist and effects-maestro Oliver Ackerman’s band jumps between heavy riffing and reverb-ed out passages. The overall effect of this kind of wall of noise that A Place to Bury Strangers specializes in comes off as vaguely post-apocalyptic, and that’s to its benefit, as it mostly trades in sound since at times the songwriting is not so spectacular.

“To Fix the Gash in Your Head” is another excellent track, all jittery rhythm mixed with jagged guitar heroics. “My Weakness” and “I Know I’ll See You” are both strong tracks, but nothing on the album compares to “Ocean,” the album’s closing song. “Ocean” is not only A Place to Bury Strangers’ best song, but also the best album closer of the year. This song finds the band slowing down a little bit, and layering in heavy guitar and bass effects over a hypnotizing core. The result is nothing short of epic. What a song, bolstered by an excellent debut album. One wonders if a full studio environment would help or hinder their intentionally jagged sound.

7. Weakerthans – Reunion Tour

Super radical indie pop veterans the Weakerthans resurfaced with Reunion Tour, which is a funny title, as they had not broken up at any point, and if anything, have really managed to refine the various parts of their sound into their most consistent if not best album (Left and Leaving is still their defining work).

“Civil Twilight” finds John K. Samson singing in his usual, distinctive voice, and the band continues with their light pop rock. It all sounds harmless at first, but Samson has a really touching quality to his voice, and works wonders lyrically.

While “Civil Twilight” may repeat past formulas, “Relative Surplus Value” finds the band pumping out a stomping rock beat, as Samson muses about a man whose life a run itself into a monotony of business trips and board meetings.

“Virtue the Cat Explains her Departure” is a sequel to the previous album’s similarly titled predecessor, but turns over the previous track’s punk-pop in to a more somber melody. For a song about a cat reflecting on its master’s problems, it’s all great drama.

That’s the thing about the Weakerthans; while it may not stray much from the formula (except on the wonderful “Elegy for Gump Worsley”), John K. Samson and company manage to create lasting moments, and fill their songs with enough emotion to really make a connection with the listener. This is an underrated band.

6. Dinosaur Jr. – Beyond

Hey! Remember Dinosaur Jr.? They were sure great in 1988, man! Well, J. Mascis got the old lineup together a few years ago, and reunion tours resulted in a new record. Beyond is not a return the murky-ness and acid-fried heroics of Dino Jr.’s 80s output, but comes as something of a super-rock explosion, remembering the heroics of old, but choosing to progress from them into a new, more straightforward direction. J. Mascis is still the great guitar player he’s always been, and contributions from him and Lou Barlow provide the best songwriting they’ve ever come up with.

So in a way, this may not be Dinosaur Jr.’s most defining record (those days are long gone) but this is one of its best. “Almost Ready,” “Crumble,” “This is All I Came to Do,” and “Been There All the Time” are classic Dinosaur Jr., with big rhythms anchored by Mascis’s sun-fried yowl and his exceptional guitar playing. This is just a great record by a band that never lost its power over the years. May they continue to bring the rock.

5. Okkervil River – The Stage Names

Ah, Okkervil River. You may never eclipse the amazing Black Sheep Boy. That record is Will Sheff and company’s greatest achievement, and probably will always be. How does a band then follow up one of the best records of the past decade? Okkervil River chooses to drop the dark theatrics of Black Sheep Boy, and churn forward like it has always done.

The Stage Names boasts a brighter sound, and to some extent a more traditional one. And while it is no Black Sheep Boy, The Stage Names remains an excellent record, full of brilliantly written songs and smart and extensive arrangements.

“Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe” is the first song, and the best, showing off the bands excellent sense of dynamics and Sheff’s distinctive howl and smooth lyrics. This is the major rock song on the record, because at times some other more rock-oriented songs lack the first track’s urgency and craft.

But Okkervil River’s best moments always came on the ballads, where Sheff’s real songwriting abilities come to the forefront. He’s one of the best pure songwriters out there, and his trebly voice lends gravitas to brilliant songs like “Savannah Smiles” and “A Girl in Port.”

However it’s “Plus Ones” that captures the idea of the album. It’s just a great song, well written, emotional, and deftly played. While this may not be the bands greatest moment, Okkervil River will never disappoint if it continues releasing songs of this quality.

4. St. Vincent – Marry Me

Annie Clark is St. Vincent. She is awesome. Marry Me is a fun debut, finding the guitar virtuoso and songwriter jumping genres, playing all sorts of styles, but still maintaining her own voice. For a one-person band (Annie plays every instrument on the record), St. Vincent churns out everything from pretty pop songs to stomping rock to something more quiet and jazzy.

“Now Now” is a pretty song, kicking off the album in an intricate and smart fashion. The other thing about Annie Clark: she can also sing.

“Your Lips are Red” is easily my favorite song on the record, chugging to a decidedly cool edge before bursting in guitar histrionics before breaking the cool tempo for an earnest coda. It’s a dynamic song, bolstered by Clark’s voice.

“Paris is Burning” is another intricately composed, original song. “All My Stars Aligned” is a pretty piano ballad.

While occasionally the album can’t match the fervor of the aforementioned tracks, I think Ms. Clark has proven herself as an upcoming talent, one who can wow us in the most complex and straightforward ways.

3. The Besnard Lakes – Are the Dark Horse

This record may have slipped under the radar, thanks to the explosion of so many Canadian bands, most of them super trendy and not all that interesting (a.k.a. Wolf Parade and co.).

The Besnard Lakes are the opposite, because while it creates excellent music, it may not be all that cool, considering how much they seem to love prog rock on Are the Dark Horse.

This band features alternating boy/girl vocals, amongst a swirling (and occasionally stomping) mix. Many bands feature this, but the Besnard Lakes create powerful songs, all long players that continuously layer sound after sound upon the mix before exploding into an awesome climax.

“Disaster,” “Devastation,” and “And You Lied to Me” follow this formula, creating groovy, epic rock songs, more fitting of Rush worshippers than your typical Montreal dance pop band.

What makes this album varied and excellent is that the band tempers the rock bombshells with quieter, more aesthetic moments, in songs like “For Agent 13” and “Because Tonight,” subtly recalling the more eclectic moments both of the Arcade Fire and Sigur Ros. Its all strong melody, loaded up with off-the wall arrangements, and leveled off by the searching vocals. These guys are good.

2. The Black Lips – Good Bad Not Evil

The Black Lips are a fun group. Formerly specializing in extremely noisy, dirty southern punk, they have cleaned up their sound a little, without losing any of the attitude that makes them so compelling.

Where in the past, songs blurred the line between composition and noise, the band has contributed their strongest set of songs yet, from the slow stomp of “I Saw A Ghost” and “Veni Vidi Vici” to forays into honky tonk and country in the very tongue-in-cheek “Navajo” and “How Do You Tell a Child Someone Has Died.”

Yet still the Black Lips’ best songs are its most propulsive, and thus the Hurricane Katrina ode “O Katrina” is so dynamic. The faux-50s rollick of “Bad Kids” again allows the guys to goof off, while still making great music.

“Cold Hands” is a special punk rock song, because, amongst all the joking, this song stands as the band at its most earnest, with a desperate chorus and searching verse.

Track by track, this album is incredibly consistent, and every song provides something a little different and incredibly excellent. Few bands could pull off a record this cool.

1. The Twilight Sad – Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters

Of all the new music that I’ve heard this year, the album that struck me the most was this Scottish quartet’s debut, Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters. The Twilight Sad specialize in these moody, effects driven rock epics, that effortlessly combine shoegaze, folk, emo, rock, and more into a swirling, propulsive concoction.

The band creates swirling melodies from subtle layered guitar tracks, piano, accordion, and more, playing out the melodies finer intricacies before exploding into catharsis through a wall of heavy, washing distortion.

Singer James Graham has a powerful voice, complete with a thick Scottish accent. The Twilight Sad’s finer moments often come when Graham rises above the noise with evocative lyrics and a genuine pathos. The band’s name is fitting, and these moody tracks are anything but happy, but the emotions felt fit the music, and are deftly handled by Graham’s evocative lyrics. The band does indeed have a formula, one that is discernable from the first moments of “Cold Days From the Birdhouse.”

However, when the songs are the good, and the band plays so earnestly and effectively, it all sounds quite amazing. There is not a single sub-par song on this record, with songs like “Mapped by What Surrounded Them” and “And She Would Darken the Memory” rises to positively brilliant heights. For a debut, The Twilight Sad have a completely developed sound that is pretty, interesting, cathartic, and captivating.

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