It’s enough to make you dig a hole and listen to nothing but Kinks records for the winter: so much stuff out there and so many people ranting and blogging and IMing and YouTubing about it that it feels like we’re perpetually in the middle of a (Bit-)torrential downpour. It’s overwhelming. Whenever will we be able to catch up? Even this morning I discovered two more ’07 albums that I had yet to hear — which are now my new favorites (James Blackshaw’s The Cloud of Unknowing and Susie Ibarra’s Drum Sketches). And then there are albums that I loved in ’07, such as M.I.A.’s Kala, that have received so much ink, sucked so much bandwidth, that any words at this point seem wasted. Google “Sound of Silver” and “best of the year” and 12,500 hits come up. Do you care what I think about LCD Soundsystem? Me neither.
I’m opting out of that conversation in service of a different mission: to pull you aside, sit you down over coffee or a beer or a single malt and offer a little list of musical gems that have been overlooked or underappreciated in year-end roundups. If you want to know about the Super Size records, you can log on and get blasted with 280,000 reasons why Radiohead’s In Rainbows is one of the year’s great releases. But there were so many modestly brilliant records — exquisite, germinal masterpieces that, 20 years hence, will be being rediscovered and reissued (hopefully by the Numero Group) that it seems silly to crow on and on about “Bird Flu” when many tracks ascended alongside of it. Here are some of them, in no particular order.
Marissa Nadler,Songs III: Bird on the Water(Kemado)
The memory I have of Marissa Nadler is of her standing onstage at Spaceland in August, a vision in front of that blue sparkly curtain, four microphones set up, each with a different reverb effect on it. Over the evening, she moved from mike to mike depending on the desired sound, often in the course of the same song. “Diamond Heart,” the first track on this Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter’s third album, begins with this rhyme: “So do you know I’m a dancer now/With red painted lips and a Jezebel crown.” A touch precious, perhaps, but when sung in Nadler’s breathy, echoed voice, as sturdy and unwavering as Joan Baez in her prime, it sounds like a perfectly cast bell struck by a velveteen mallet. Nadler recalls Hope Sandoval when she covers Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat,” her voice carrying as though she were standing in the center of a basilica, overtones and reverb creating ghosts and gusts.
No Age,Weirdo Rippers (Fat Cat)
No Age write no-bullshit songs. No fat. Pure focus: a few minutes in, bang, done, see you later, next song. The best two-piece punk band in the country? Holy crap, these guys kill. One dude, Dean Spunt, on drums, the other guy, Randy Randall, on guitar, both singing and combusting as if slammed by a hammer. Ragged, distorto guitar shows the influence of the noisier areas of the Smell scene. I’ve seen them three times in the past three months, and they’ve blown my head each time. Take a song like “Neck Escaper.” It manages to bleed both shoegaze and hardcore, lobbing a hissing melody in the air like a Roman candle. Like all great songs this year, from Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” to Radiohead’s gorgeous, perfect “House of Cards,” No Age’s best tracks sound predestined, as though forces much greater than we can possibly appreciate created them. I can’t wait to hear what they do next.
Boxcutter, Glyphic (Planet Mu)
Burial’s getting all the ink this year from out-of-touch rock writers looking for a hip, beat-based electronic record to toss into their lists and make them seem more well-versed than they actually are. The second Burial album, Untrue, is indeed deep, subharmonic dubstep, the British subgenre that has its seeds in London’s drum & bass and 2-step scenes. But diva vocals usually annoy me, and Untrue is teeming with them. In sheer meditative depth and rattle-your-bones vibe, Boxcutter’s Glyphic, released on Mike Paradinas’ consistently great Planet Mu imprint, hits a sweeter spot. Boxcutter loves that warbly bass of first-wave acid house and jungle, and drags scattershot Aphex Twin–style snare patterns into his six- and seven-minute tracks. Most important, he seems to understand the underlying philosophy of his music’s genetic forefather, Jamaican dub: Echo is your friend, and so is bass, and so is silence — and in that combination lies a potent recipe.
David Karsten Daniels,?Sharp Teeth(Fat Cat)
Perhaps it was the context: driving along PCH near Big Sur, sunroof open, listening to North Carolina–based Daniels, with a small backing chorus, singing a mantra: “There is a joy that you can’t contain/There is a feeling you just can’t explain.” Those are the song’s only lyrics, and they start out small. After the first eight rounds, the supporting music starts to get bigger: The guitar is joined by a humming keyboard and a few voices, then a violin creeps in, then a drum and a bass, all the while Daniels singing in a Will Oldham–esque warble, over and over, “there is a joy that you can’t contain” as then a larger chorus comes in with a magical “ahhhh.” It reminds me of composer Gavin Bryars’ stunning “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet,” a mantra that evolves at a glacial pace and gradually morphs from something small to something huge. Daniels delivers his songs with a weary resolution that contains a trace of anger, or sorrow, or something. Sharp Teeth isn’t perfect, but it’s a really nice thing.
Deerhoof,Friend Opportunity ?(Kill Rock Stars)
Criminally overlooked perfection from San Francisco’s most explosive three-piece engine, Deerhoof. Two dudes and a lady go nuts with the rhythm and angular melody, courtesy of many curious keyboard sounds. Deerhoof make skronk sound funky like Mars and the Contortions did in NYC 1980. Like Radiohead, the band delivers songs with multiple melodies that compete for your attention; dwell on what guitarist John Dieterich is doing and you miss an itsy bass run. And vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki, like Thom York, transforms songs with her ability create complex melodies with her voice, her ability to roam the scale with a relaxed intent, like she’s tapping out notes not with her throat but on a xylophone. But they sound absolutely nothing like Radiohead. In fact, no two Deerhoof songs sound the same. Each is a surprise, like, “Wow, I had no idea they were gonna go there.” And there is always interesting.
Vashti Bunyan,Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind: Singles and Demos 1964–1967(Dicristina)
I’ve been mindful of this British folk artist’s attractions for a few years, from around the time she resurfaced alongside the Animal Collective to release the beautiful “Prospect Hummer” EP in 2005. But I didn’t realize until I stumbled across this collection at Amoeba that Bunyan was discovered in 1964 and nurtured by Andrew Loog Oldham, the producer and arranger of all the classic early Stones songs — “Play with Fire,” “Under My Thumb,” “Ruby Tuesday.” Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind collects all of Bunyan’s early singles and demos, when London was driving hipster culture. Bunyan, however, is a quiet presence. Behind folksy British pop, replete with tambourines, bongos, bass, guitar and Oldham’s sweeping strings, Bunyan’s ethereal voice is lighter than Nico’s or Marianne Faithfull’s, but that weightlessness never betrays a lack of depth. Worth it, if only for the what-should-be-classic holiday song, “Coldest Night of the Year.”
White Rabbits,Fort Nightly (Say Hey)
First and foremost, the St. Louis–via-Brooklyn outfit White Rabbits is a dance band, but exactly what kind depends on which song. On their debut, the five-man group (all of whom wear suits onstage) presents a sound that feels confident and unique, an odd mix of blue-eyed rhythm & blues, late-era Specials (I’m thinking “Ghost Town” and More Specials) and a touch of Gang of Four. “The Plot” is an insistent pub rocker, like something Elvis Costello would have covered in 1976. “I Used to Complain but Now I Don’t” showcases the band’s rubbery rhythm section, a dynamic threesome perfectly in step with a declarative piano. Expect great things from White Rabbits.
P.J. Harvey,White Chalk(Island)
It’s easy to ignore P.J. Harvey on your way to the Next Big Feist, but a comparison of the first couplets of their respective 2007 releases is instructive. “I’m sorry, two words/I always think after you’re gone,” announces Feist on The Reminder. Harvey, meanwhile, is tackling something altogether more imposing than relationship dynamics: “As soon as I’m left alone/The devil walks into my soul.” Two ways of conveying a similar feeling, perhaps, but the latter is so much more eloquent and urgent. Harvey is Alice Munro to Feist’s Sue Miller. Comparisons aside, Harvey, now 38, has crafted a quiet, intensely eloquent album — and I use the word album intentionally, because that’s what this feels like to me: a classic album. Just as exciting, it seems to capture a proven master settling into midlife, getting comfortable with her voice and and writing some songs.
Michael Hurley, Ancestral Swamp(Gnomonsong)
Hurley has been kicking around since 1966, when he recorded for Folkways his First Songs, reportedly a few days after being released from the mental ward at Bellevue in New York City. Those songs introduced his aesthetic, one that has remained consistent in the intervening 40 years and 21 albums: simple, joyous numbers accompanied on guitar and, occasionally, mouth trumpet (he squeezes his lips and blows a melody). That it’s taken so long for him to be fetishized by the hipsters is amazing; it should have happened a decade ago. But if you’re a Cat Power fan, you’ve heard a few of Hurley’s best; Chan Marshall has covered his “Swee-dee-dee” and “Werewolf,” and though Hurley’s voice is less flattering by far than hers, his originals cut to the bone. Released on Devendra Banhardt and Andy Cabic’s Gnomonsong label, Swamp isn’t any sort of revolution, but it’s a simple, perfect object.
HEALTH,HEALTH (Lovepump United)
The best first song of the year, by a landslide, is “Heaven” by this L.A. band. It crushes with its sheer weight, an anvil tied to a church organ tied to the whole dang cathedral dropped from the 13th floor of a warehouse. Lots of bangs and booms on HEALTH’s self-titled debut, all squished into a quick, insistent, 11-song, 30-minute disc with songs like “Girl Attorney,” “Triceratops” and “Courtship.” HEALTH recorded HEALTH at the downtown club the Smell, and you can hear it: an all-brick-and-concrete and unforgiving slab. They’re perhaps the next great band to spring out of L.A.’s bursting noise scene — No Age being the first, and hopefully Abe Vigoda, whose “Animal Ghosts” 45 is some pretty serious stuff, the next. And I, for one, can’t wait to hear what happens after that.
Various Artists,Home Schooled: The ABC’s of Kid Soul(Numero Group)
The most heartbreaking recorded moments of the year for me arrived courtesy of Home Schooled. Compiled and issued by the stellar Numero Group reissue label of Chicago, the collection features a variety of songs by kid groups that formed in the wake of the 1970s success of the Jackson 5. These 17 songs, by no-hit wonders like the Man Child Singers, Cindy and the Playmates, and Little Murray and the Mantics, cast light on a little corner of America’s musical closet heretofore only seen in dusty Goodwill bins and brothers’ basements. The success of these songs rests squarely on the shoulders of 8-year-old boys and girls, who sing of primal fears — “Mama, don’t leave me, mama!” — and situations way beyond their years. Jack and the Mods’ “One Is Enough for One” features the vocals of Jake Townsend, an Otis Redding in a Gary Coleman body who delivers something ageless. When on “Sweet Pea,” Altyrone Deno Brown whines with genuine frustration — like a Sam Cooke kind of sadness — that “Sweet Pea is what they call me/But that’s not my name,” your heart breaks right alongside him. He’s so, so much more than just Sweet Pea. If only you could see.
And if you like those, find these: St. Vincent, Marry Me; Entrance, Prayer of Death; Panda Bear, Person Pitch; Johnny Greenwood Is the Controller collection; Karen Dalton, Cotton Eyed Joe (Live 1962); Jose Gonzalez, In Our Nature; Build an Ark, Dawn; and Sunset Rubdown, Random Spirit Lover.
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