Saturday, December 1, 2012

Top Albums of 2006 & 2007

Now that we have reached the final month of 2012, I have turned my focus toward my annual and, unfortunately, ever expanding need to share my favorite music of each year.  I've started making notes and am preparing to write about each release that moved me this year, and I am finding it difficult.  Not only is writing about music difficult and counter-intuitive, it can be frustrating.  It's frustrating, because I am not sure what my motivation is.  I am not particularly good at it, nor do I have any aspirations to be, but I do love the music and I have a strange need to both organize and document everything that I've purchased throughout the year.  Mainly though, I want to share the excitement and deep feelings that I experience from these songs.  I want to do my small part in spreading the word, despite my lack of eloquence and an audience. 

That takes care of the motivation part, but not the pain of actually squeezing coherent words out of me about this music.  Surprisingly, while at a crossroads the other day about whether or not to bother with the list this year, I ran across some old file that had two years worth of lists on it.  I think these were each posted originally on Myspace.  What really struck me is that it's clear that my dilemma is one that I battle each year.  2007's list is purely a list with zero descriptives about why I like those records, while 2006 is filled with them.  Strangely, it was this fact, along with some simple loose paragraphs describing my favorites of 2006 that kind of re-energized me.  I thought I'd share them here, as I go back to work on what was great about 2012.  All of these albums are still worth checking out, by the way!

Top albums of 2006

Overall, 2006 has been a crappy year for me. Sure some of my best friends went out and had some kids this year, but I also lost someone very dear to me. In addition, I quit my job and gave up any idea that I might one day feel healthy again. Even the Portland Timbers played like pansies. Normally, during times such as these, music becomes a powerful resource of inspiration and reflection for me, but this year has generally been a terrible year for music. I don't know if it's because I'm getting older and less impressionable, or if I'm simply missing the boat on things, but I haven't bought this few albums in a year since I turned 14 (ever since I was old enough to whore myself out to some job in order to earn money to buy music). Don't get me wrong, I am certain that there are thousands of really cool things I would enjoy if I had exposure to them, but I am not discovering them as easily as I used to and I'm getting lazier. Be that as it may, there are always exceptions. Recently, I have been impressed by the Teddybears, the Silversun Pickups, the fun cover songs by Nouvelle Vague, along with all of the impressive b-sides from the singles (which I finally tracked down) off of the Editors first album from last year. Also, I can't forget my re-discovery of Containe's great 1996 LP Only Cowards Walk Like Cowards and the Cure reissues. Meanwhile, I look forward to tracking down new releases by the Rifles, Dina D'Alessandro, Emma Pollack, Springhouse, the Drakes Hotel, the Black Watch, along with a new one by Charlotte Hatherley – among many others. I have been doing this clich├ęd list of favorite albums for 20 years now and I'm not sure why. Somehow I get wrapped up in all of the end of year hype, and the needless categorization of an art form. My only criteria for ranking these are a subjective memory of what was most listened to. Because of this list, however, I am provided with a mini time capsule into what my life was like from year to year. I am also always curious what everyone else is listening to, so please feel free to share your favorites, comments or questions below or privately. I am always hungry to learn about what I'm missing. Thanks, and please, have a fun 2007.

1. The Lawrence Arms. Oh! Calcutta! (Fat Wreck Chords)

I may be getting older, but that does not mean that I'm ready to surrender myself exclusively to the draw of mellow adult-tailored acoustic/country folk subtleties as sponsored by NPR. I'm still really pissed off a lot of the time and I like to have music that relates to those moments. Unfortunately, I am not able to relate to the whiney, uninspired, derivative emo-fashion piss that passes for punk rock these days ($40 ironic t-shirts and $80 pre-torn jeans from Urban Outfitters do not make one edgy). Luckily, the Lawrence Arms returned in 2006 with their 5th full length album (they also have 2 split LP's and a singles compilation) along with a couple of trips through Portland. This trio shred it up in short bursts of addictive rock-n-roll crammed full of energy, passion, intelligence, and, most importantly, humor. They share the Midwestern sensibilities of the young and drunken working class Replacements, filtered through the ragged intensity of Unfun-era Jawbreaker. They have the drunken wisdom of experience that allows them to stumble upon poignancy effortlessly. None of this matters, however. All that matters to me are that the songs rock and cut through the bullshit. They inspire me to get my ancient, broken bones off my ass and go do something. I cannot get enough of 'em.
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2. Sophia. Technology Won't Save Us (Flower Shop/City Slang)

This 4th LP of Sophia's (along with a unique live one) is their best. It is a slick, smooth, and huge sounding record! Beautiful orchestrations surge and swell atop layers of guitars, sharp thudding drum work and some sub-sonic bass lines. Robin Proper-Sheppard's songwriting has achieved a perfect balance between his straightforward brooding grooves of the two 90's LPs and his mildly Goth flavored epics since. He could've easily overdone these songs, but instead they are powerful, catchy and to the point – like a Year After Year-era Idaho as performed by the so-called shoegaze days of Moose (please ignore my band marriage comparisons). "Pace," "Lost (She Believed in Angels…)," and "P.1/P.2 (Cherry Trees and Debt Collectors)" would all be massive world wide hit singles if I were in charge. Of course, I'm not, but hopefully they will make it huge anyway.
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3. Whysall Lane. Whysall Lane (Blackball)

Whysall Lane is the first project I've heard from guitarist/singer Richard Baluyut since Versus disappeared a few years back (I recommend starting with 1998's Two Cents Plus Tax for more on that great band). That's not all, however, the drums are handled by former Jawbreaker drummer (and hero) Adam Pfahler, and newcomer (to me anyway), bassist Mikel Delgado. The songs are constructed with simple sounding building blocks, allowing them to smolder like incense filling the air with intensity (sorry). This intensity evokes a noir atmosphere. The drama from each tune is palpable before the words are sung, but not immediately revealing. Because of this, the album took a couple of listens before flowering into something special, but once it did, this LP didn't leave the player very often.
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4. Camera Obscura. Let's Get Out of This Country (Elefant/Merge)

On the third Camera Obscura album, this Scottish group changes things up a bit by recording in Sweden. What they gain is an early 60's Phil Spector-ish "Wall of Sound" added to their style. As usual, these tracks are decorated with strings, organs, and trumpets filling out their sound, but then everything is pushed into the red during recording (a la the Concretes' "Say Something New" from a couple years ago). This technique adds a boost of electricity to the songs. Tracyanne Campbell's voice crackles with her typical dry wit and bratty ruminations on the downfalls of love. The best tunes here are the upbeat ones, but the quiet ballad, "Country Mile," managed to break my heart. Overall, it's a fun record that managed to garner me a surprising conversation with the cute record store girl, who complimented my choice, when I purchased it. Nice!
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5. The Long Blondes. Someone to Drive You Home (Rough Trade)

This one is a late addition to the list. I bought this one in Seattle on 12/29 and listened to it over and over during the three hour drive home. In fact, I have carried it around with me ever since! The Long Blondes provide endlessly catchy and mildly new wave(y) songs fronted by the detached cool seductions of the rich voiced Kate Jackson. I get the sense from these songs of a been there done that maturity (in attitude, anyway) played out in an overly dramatic fashion of early twenty-something's involved in fractured relationships. I never get tired of this stuff. I suppose touchstones would date way back to early Blondie through to today's Metric. I just enjoy the ride and hope they can continue to produce such effectively memorable melodies for a long time.
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6. Metric. Live it Out (Last Gang) - 2005

Here is the opposite story to the Long Blondes. I picked up this LP early last fall, and much like 2003's Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?, it took me forever to enjoy it. I cannot explain why. Once I get over my initial indifference, I fall head over heels. Emily Haines' biting words are front and center throughout, but I found Jimmy Shaw's guitars to be a revealing highlight here. This album is less overtly new wave derivative of their last and it is all the better for it. This band has a lot to say and do and I think the best is yet to come. This is still a fine place to be.
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7. Charlotte Hatherley. Grey Will Fade (Double Dragon) - 2004

Charlotte recorded this album, while her now former band, Ash, recorded their 2004 LP, since she played guitar for them, but rarely got a chance to provide her songs to the records. This is her chance to show off. It took me a long time to get this one from '04, but the wait was worth it. Her playing is extraordinary and these songs are heartfelt and fun and full of busy energy. Her words are endearing and personable, like a close friend telling you a story over drinks. This is a perfect album for sunshine activities (as long as it isn't burning hot). She has a new LP out soon, so quickly grab this one and then we can discover what she has in store for us next.
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8. The High Violets. To Where You Are (Reverb)

Every year I need a band that can provide me with a so-called “shoegaze” flavored soundscape with pretty female vocals to soothe my weakening mind. They cannot make music that's too fluffy, or too intent on creating extended vistas lacking any hooks or direction. Portland's own High Violets filled this year's opening very capably. Their songs are just right. The guitar work buzzes and churns forward with an easy momentum and even though I don't know many of the lyrics, Kaitlyn Ni Donovan's vocal melodies make these songs memorable and downright catchy. Thanks!
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9. The Delgados. The Complete BBC Peel Sessions (Chemikal Underground)

The Delgados released their fifth and final album in 2004. They will be sadly missed, not only because of the strength of their songs, but because in the live setting they were unspeakably remarkable. This 2 CD collection of radio sessions is cheap and, for some reason, easier to find than all of their actual albums. This collection acts as a good retrospective of their history for the unfamiliar, while including a variety of covers and alternate takes adding value to the collector. Before this band came along, I never thought I would get excited and overwhelmed by indie rock backed by complex string arrangements and flute playing, but here you go. They will be missed.

10. Mojave 3. Puzzles Like You (4AD)

Wow. Mojave 3 hasn't dropped their folk-based moodiness completely, but this new LP rocks! The songs are short, upbeat rockers. In fact, the few slower numbers sound out of place on this collection. Kudos to them for trying something different and pulling it off so well. As always, my only complaint is that there aren't enough of Rachel Goswell's beautiful vocals here (get well!).
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11. Lambchop. Damaged (Merge)

I heard that this is the last Lambchop album. If so, they will be missed. Their quiet and unusual brand of country music is always an interesting alternative my normal tastes. Kurt Wagner's brilliance reveals itself in subtle washes that paint a realistic portrait of Americana that defies so many perceptions and generalizations. Besides, if they throw in the towel, that could put the 7,000 band members out of work.
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12. Decoration. Flippant (13 B Sides)

These guys remind me of a less frenetic Wedding Present during the days of the C-86 scene in the UK, or even the underrated power of Adorable. They have a knack for creating scenarios loaded with regret and remorse for relationship opportunities now passed (a personal past-time). This is nothing new, but these songs are like mini stories, whose impact are buoyed by tumultuous arrangements. This album collects b sides from their early singles and it's very strong. Still, I recommend their debut from last year Don't Disappoint Me Now, ahead of this one.
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Top Albums of 2007

Here we go again. New Year's Day. Another year older. Another Best Of list. These are my favorite albums of 2007 as determined by some imaginary perception of most listened to. None of it makes sense and it could be different any other day. Why, you may ask, is my opinion important? It isn't. That is why I won't prattle on and on about why I like these particular albums.

1. Editors "An End Has A Start"

2. Dina D'Alessandro "Is It Safe?" 2005

3. The Jealous Girlfriends "The Jealous Girlfriends"

4. Great Northern "Trading Twilight For Daylight"

5. Drakes Hotel "Tell Me Everything"

6. Fields "Everything Last Winter"

7. Emma Pollock "Watch The Fireworks"

8. Maximo Park "Our Earthly Pleasures"

9. The Long Blondes "Someone To Drive You Home" 2006

10. The Rifles "No Love Lost" 2006

11. Stars "In Our Bedroom After The War"

12. Young Galaxy "Young Galaxy"

13. The Pipettes "We Are The Pipettes" 2006

14. Dulcesky "Lands" 2006

15. Foundry Field Recordings "Prompts/Miscues" 2006

16. The Lodger "Grown-Ups"

17. Star "Devastator"

18. Trembling Blue Stars "The Last Holy Writer"

19. Various Artists "Love Goes On: A Tribute To Grant McLennan"

20. At Swim Two Birds "Returning To The Scene Of The Crime"