2007 / Music / Top 10

Soundbytes: Top 10 Albums Of 2007

Kanye West, Feist Release Year’s Best Discs

Read The Reviews: Robert Plant and Alison Krauss | Feist | Battles | Kanye West | Band Of Horses | M.I.A. | The National | LCD Soundsystem | Radiohead | Panda Bear

If you want to neatly summarize the year 2007 and how all of what happened affected the music world, many of the media’s most notable audiophiles took it upon themselves to label it as a year worthy of hyperbole.

Magazine and newspaper critics — looking for a way to tie a year’s worth of events into a pretty Christmas bow — focused on Radiohead’s label-less release of their new album via the Web. They’ve pinpointed this as the singular event that will define 2007 and beyond. The New York Times proclaimed the release of “In Rainbows” as representing one of the “tipping points” in a metamorphosing industry paradigm. Meanwhile, Entertainment Weekly likened the record’s entry into the marketplace to the release of “The Jazz Singer,” the first sound motion picture that essentially rang the death knell for the silent film era.

But, if you’ll forgive a broad statement of my own, 2007 won’t be remembered as the beginning of the end or even the end of the beginning. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that analyzing an individual year is as frustrating and un-instructive as examining a solitary snowflake in the midst of an avalanche.

It’s clear the old ways are either dead or dying. MTV.com cited Nielsen SoundScan figures that state album sales were down 15 percent this year as compared to 2006. These figures aren’t anything new for industry executives. At the same time, “In Rainbows” isn’t blueprint for revolution either. It was an experiment.

The music world’s future is no longer moving from one static model to another that is destined to exist for years. Instead, we’ll have a flexible, multi-dimensional approach that will evolve with technology, commercial needs and consumer tastes. Saying anything else is losing sight of what’s happened in the years before 2007. It’s someone looking to sell something on the newsstands.

Instead, 2007 was just another year of intractable warfare between increasingly desperate music corporations who quibble incessantly amongst themselves while their stodgy business models sink deeper and deeper into the red. Add to this hostile climate their hatred for their mutual foe — technology — and you have the makings of a ravenous wolf pack looking for any easy kill. It’s no wonder big stars like Radiohead or Madonna would strike out on their own.

In contrast to the commercial battlefield that exists, music fans have never had it so good. New technology is offering cheaper prices, more variety, easy portability and generally greater control of the music that they want. Meanwhile, better opportunities will surely come in the years ahead.

Smaller sales mean fewer big stars are able to suck up the media airwaves. Add the marketing and promotional advantages that the Web offers and it’s easy to see artists who might never have had it so good. Never before have so many had so much of a chance to get themselves heard. They might not strike the multimillion-dollar lottery like their hit-creating predecessors in the decades before, but their chances for building a thriving career in music aren’t as astronomical as purchasing the one winning ticket.

In musical terms, desperation as well as fewer big-ticket albums meant more room for diversity to grow and flower. Everyone seemingly had a shot at the big leagues. It allowed a former golden god like Robert Plant to re-emerge from the hard-rock history books with an unlikely rootsy duet album with country music crooner Alison Krauss. At the same time, scores of indie-rockers and rappers found the divide between independent and major label increasingly irrelevant. Technology now functions as a great leveling in terms of access to the public square, permitting niche artists like M.I.A. or Feist or Arcade Fire to expand their cult followings.

And what about the music itself? It’s always a great year if your ears are open and that’s no hyperbole.

Here’s this year’s list, in no particular order.

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss “Raising Sand”

Whether Robert Plant would admit it or not, his own frustration shadowing his post-Led Zeppelin solo career has proved to be a more destructive force to his career than any comparisons to his old group’s hefty back catalog.

Plant was in his early 30s when Zeppelin folded in 1980 — too early for retirement — and ever since, he’s struggled with what an unemployed rock titan with limited original songwriting potential should do. Although he has lapsed into toying with his Zeppelin bandmates or revisited the old group’s heavy-rock terrain on his own from time to time, Plant has been something of an iterant musician. He has mostly avoided the pop spotlight by dabbling in styles with limited commercial potential, including the pre-Vietnam War R&B and blues, California-style hippie-folk and North African music.

At the same time, Plant has always craved the attention and artistic respect that he once basked in from lofty arena stages. As a result, his solo years are a zig-zag course through ethnomusicology. The only pattern that exists is one of which Plant escapes from his Zeppelin comfort zone into a well-established but foreign genre, releases a bastardized version on record, which is greeted with apathy from most music fans and then abruptly departs to another area of the world. He studiously mimics the indigenous song forms although the chances are remote any of it will never grace London’s The O2 as the reunited Zeppelin did earlier this month.

Perhaps worn out from this frustrating cycle, Plant decided to stop wandering and put his newest album squarely in the hands of roots-rock connoisseur and producer T-Bone Burnett. Famed for his work at reacquainting traditional country music to pop audiences via the “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack, Burnett had a plan for redeploying Plant’s vocal talents. He smartly teamed the heavy metal icon with bluegrass siren Alison Krauss and the resulting album is unlike anything in Plant’s solo canon. “Raising Sand” is authentic yet easily accessible. It’s lovingly produced and atmospheric in a way that harkens back to both old-time country music and Bob Dylan’s “Time Out Of Mind,” but the use of the two distinct voices and ghostly spare arrangements give the songs completely new interpretations.

Playing right to Plant’s normal modus operandi, all the songs on the record are covers. However, Plant, Burnett and Krauss cleverly chose contemporary songwriters like Tom Waits, Sam Phillips, Townes Van Zandt and Gene Clark and gave each the old-school treatment sparsely peopled with bits of acoustic guitar, mandolin, fiddle and pedal steel guitar. Even “Please Read The Letter,” which was a song Plant cut with Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page during their ’90s collaboration, was recast with reverb-drenched acoustic and electric guitars and a booming doghouse bass and bass drum tandem that thoroughly outdo the ham-fisted, “hammer of the gods” tact of the original recording.

There’s also a sense of joy and confidence in each track. The sounds and textures conjured by the seasoned country music pickers who Burnett hired are original yet traditional and succeed in continually revealing an obscured depth to these songs. This gives a rich background of sound for Krauss and Plant, who share the mic with an unusual ease and empathy.

Now, the only frustration that Plant should have to contend with is that coming from the Zeppelin diehards. Those looking for a permanent reunion will just have to wait. Plant has finally found an outlet that satisfies all his wants, marrying musical authenticity with immediacy, creative respect with widespread acclaim. The tour dates with Krauss that he’s already lined up in the New Year make plain that he’s not changing course anytime soon.

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Feist “The Reminder”

While the media remained fixated on singer Amy Winehouse — gawking at both her tempestuous private life as well as how exquisitely her producer Mark Ronson re-created the core facets of ’60s soul music — this year’s other great breakout chanteuse, Leslie Feist, completed an album that’s just as much a spectacle. “The Reminder” might be the closest anyone came this year to recording the perfect disc.

Reared in Canada and a part-time member of indie-rock collaborative Broken Social Scene, Feist demonstrates wide-ranging tastes but with the underground cred that protects her through any experimentation. Like Nina Simone, who is sampled during the track “Sealion,” Feist is a child of the New World although her music has unmistakable European élan. “The Reminder” was recorded in Paris and her music veers from alt-rock songstress to the hipsters’ Edith Piaf, but Feist never surrenders her breathy musical identity to eclecticism.

The cuts shift in moods like a setlist, certain tracks appearing ideal for a demographic filling an imagined club of people. The Blondie-esque funk of “My Moon My Man” is a flamboyant number, perfect for the Radio City Music Hall’s Rockettes. “The Water” and “Honey Honey” are more stark and intimate performances, Feist softly crooning with palpable despondency in a smoke-filled cabaret. Chord-rockers like “Past In Present” and “I Feel It All” are destined to energize her base with a little electric guitar.

The most endearing song on “The Reminder” is “1234,” which became a hit after it was featured in an iPod TV commercial. The track might be the greatest nursery rhyme created in pop music since the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” Feist takes bittersweet sentiments and wraps them in sweet melodies and a sweeping hook. The song culminates with a chorus that even the tone-deaf can join in on as “Sgt. Pepper”-style horns and other instruments expand the production to deftly fill out the landscape.

However, other, more contemplative songs really demonstrate the breadth of Feist’s talents and best document her appeal. “Brandy Alexander” is an excellent take on doo-wop, but one in which listeners have to wait and wait until Feist is joined by her backup singers. In the meantime, she marvels us with a low-key, Van Morrison-inspired vocal performance.

One can detect a bit of Van’s influence again on the record’s high point, “So Sorry.” Feist croons with power and subtly to an “Astral Weeks”-like backing of standup bass and drums played with brushes. Her serene voice quivers with a nakedness that bolsters the darkly romantic lyrics that seek forgiveness and coalesce into a melody that beautifully and simply pulls together the various rhythmic elements. At the end, you can forgive her for anything.

What can’t be forgiven would be to overlook Feist’s achievement. “The Reminder” might not have the brash pop immediacy that Winehouse’s “Back To Black” nor does Feist have Winehouse’s penchant for tabloid-pleasing exploits, but one won’t find a more unique or bold statement from a female singer in 2007.

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Battles “Mirrored”

Since the end of the ’80 hair-metal days, instrumental prowess has remained a bogeyman among rock’s younger generations.

Scarred by the spectacle of so many rock groups each boasting a spandex-clad Steve Vai-wannabe who could attempt an “Eruption”-style finger tap fest on the guitar’s neck, a majority of rockers have sought a different path. They’ve opted to emphasize emotional power or melodic inventiveness in their music over demonstrating the kind of dexterity that will make you a god at the local Guitar Center. Call it the enduring legacy of Kurt Cobain.

The New York-based futuro-rock group Battles openly flaunts the kind of jaw-dropping chops that many musos shun for fear of being labeled an elitist gearhead. Born out of the dissolution of seminal math-rock outfit Don Caballero and featuring a former member of New York noise-rock group Helmet, Battles’ music, as demonstrated on their first full length disc “Mirrored,” is a definitive break from the current aesthetic. Their instrumentals are a frenetic blend of heavy rock, jazz fusion, techno and prog-rock influences. Finally, the guys in Yes, Rush and King Crimson can name drop a current band who they can point to as carrying the torch.

You can clearly hear the influence of Rush’s Neil Peart and Alex Lifeson on the stop-start frenzy of “Snare Hanger” or the whirling fury of “Rainbow” and “Tij.” Guitarists Ian Williams and Dave Konopka’s angular runs are note-filled, but sound thin and wire-y. Drummer John Stanier keeps the tumbling melodies and swift mood switches on track with precise, hyperactive syncopation. Like jazz players, the group will repeat a melody and then alter it slightly on each pass. Then, the group begins to stray off on melodic tangents, occasionally revisiting the basic melody as a unifying motif.

That “Mirrored” has won praise in indie-rock circles shows not only its high quality of the songs, but also how much it has had to overcome. In contrast to the past where instrumental powerhouses like Eric Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughn dominated the scene, Battles is now something of a unique throwback worthy of appreciation, like Amy Winehouse or the Darkness. It would be a fantasy to think “Mirrored” could usher in a return to prog-rock’s glory days. The record is most likely the musical equivalent of a lightning strike (tell Geddy Lee I’m sorry), but that doesn’t diminish what Battles has achieved.

Besides marveling at the musicians’ instrumental powers, listening to “Mirrored” will clue you in to what that 13-year-old guitar ace will be playing next time you stroll into Guitar Center.

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Kanye West “Graduation”

While his mother’s recent death is a tragedy that no one deserves, Kanye West’s Midas touch as well as his motor-mouth have really set him up for a “Behind The Music”-worthy fall.

Apart from this dramatic turn of events, West has had an astonishing run in the last five years. Already one of hip-hop’s most in-demand producers, he leapt from the studio to center stage with the release of two seminal solo discs, which established him as the genre’s preeminent talent. His latest and arguably best disc, “Graduation,” further solidifies his looming presence in the rap game.

But along with his formidable compositional skills came heaps of bravado, which have landed West in the headlines for what he has said more often than for his music. He’s famously thrown fits for not winning awards and made controversial statements that suggest support for various conspiracy theories. His gaffe machine tendencies extend to his raps as well. “I’ve played the underdog my whole career,” Kanye raps on “Barry Bonds,” a slice of lazy-Southern funk. “I’m doing pretty good as far as geniuses go.” It would be funnier if we didn’t suspect he actually believes his own hype.

Tracks like the 13 that populate “Graduation” will definitely keep the Kanye hype running strong. Dissecting his winning formula is how West appeals both to popular impulses, but does so by demonstrating a degree of sophistication in crafting his studio jams. Like Dr. Dre and Timbaland, he doesn’t just work the drum machine for beats. He tacks on layers of keyboards and other instruments and then mixes in obscure instrumental or vocal samples — Daft Punk, Can, Public Enemy, Steely Dan and Mountain are among his latest targets — creating an actual song, not just a backing track to lay rhymes on.

At nearly every facet of any song, West is impressive. On the mic, he has a surprising range, vaulting from the confident club hound on “Stronger” to the silly Romeo of “Flashing Lights,” and yet always demonstrates a remarkable command. Even formidable guests like Mos Def, Coldplay’s Chris Martin and Lil’ Wayne are shouldered over to brief supporting roles where they belong.

When you examine the tracks themselves, you discover a variety of tones and shadings that demonstrate few emotions are beyond his grasp. In less sure hands, the disco-era strings, thudding-beat plasticity and New Wave shimmer of “Flashing Lights” would be a clumsy love song. On “The Glory,” he assembles a cavernous, descending bassline and brilliantly transforms a vocal snippet from singer-songwriter Laura Nyro until it sounds like a pre-adolescent Michael Jackson is chirping in the background. It and several other tracks are nothing short of an achievement that all hip-hop wannabes will be dissecting and recreating in the years to come.

As I wrote about earlier, West seems a shoo-in to take an armful of the eight Grammy nominations that he received for “Graduation.” Unfortunately, it’s not only for his musical achievements that he’ll be recognized, but because of his mother’s death. Like other celebrity stories, such an awards-show coronation would be a fitting climax to his career arc and aligns with a cruel lesson West is sadly learning now: nothing lasts.

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Band Of Horses “Cease To Begin”

The biggest stumbling block for South Carolina-based, power-pop three-piece Band Of Horses isn’t how to make a great album. They’ve released two already, including their latest, “Cease To Begin.” Rather, it’s about how to thwart the comparisons to other young groups with similar sensibilities who are also steadily making inroads in the current rock scene.

The band, led by vocalist-guitarist Ben Bridwell, has perfected the art of creating yearning pop songs. They’ve mastered bleeding-heart sentiments that dozens of emo punks have reduced into spoiled whining and imbued them with conviction and passion so as break the most jaded of hearts.

Unfortunately for Bridwell and company, there are several other active bands — Sub Pop labelmates the Shins or My Moring Jacket — who are using the same Neil Young-approved blueprint to construct their songs of woe. While the Shins are more deliberate students of New Wave and My Morning Jacket stretches out with its jam-band capabilities, Band Of Horses is somewhere in between. Their sound derives from Young’s country-rock and Crazy Horses periods, but with Paisley Underground-influenced song formats (which itself was a product of Young).

To obscure the fact that they’re drawing from the same well, the Band Of Horses has emphasized their rustic influences on “Cease To Begin,” lashing echo-y country harmonies onto grunge guitar chords. The operatic melodies and Bridwell’s earnest delivery recall “Joshua Tree”-period U2. While these songs might not be the classics that fill the “The Joshua Tree,” Bridwell is certainly aiming to create enduring anthems.

Album opener “Is There A Ghost” certainly comes close, building from a lonely lament into raging intensity with Coldplay-like splendor. On “Ode To LRC,” the band turns Young’s “Cowgirl In The Sand” into a peppy groove that blossoms with rock-radio appeal. (There’s something about Bridwell’s laconic vocal cadence and how he says “LRC” that is reminiscent of Snoop Dogg rapping about the LBC way back from “Doggystyle.”) The song distills the group’s influences into a knock-out formula.

Other tracks, like “The General Specific” or “Marry Song,” have a more explicit traditional feel. The former is a string-band sing-along that Wilco might have dabbled in before Jeff Tweedy became enamored with art-rock. “Marry Song” is an electric piano-delivered homily with mountain music harmonies that soar while the lyrics dwell on feelings of restraint, vibrant emotions disguised by pleasant conversation.

“Cease To Begin” for the most part succeeds in disguising the common musical touchstones that Band Of Horses share with its rivals. The album can’t mask the potency of its musical vision.

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M.I.A. “Kala”

Such is hip-hop’s global appeal, crossing lines that divide people by race, language, culture and class, that it remains a challenge to exactly pinpoint much less explain the reasons for an artist like M.I.A.’s popularity.

Obviously, the rapper, (AKA Maya Arulpragasam), has won widespread attention from Pitchfork.com and indie-rock-dedicated music blogs after she dreamt up two masterful discs, including this year’s “Kala.” However, her draw in the black community itself — the cradle and core audience of the genre — doesn’t compare to her support among white rap fans. How are we to understand this incongruity?

Is it M.I.A.’s unconventional rapping style or her progressive sampling sources that makes her a non-entity in what should be any rapper’s home base? Is it the foreignness of the experiences that she rhymes about, which largely avoid scenes of urban America? Or have whites, intimidated by some American rappers’ aggressiveness on the mic or in their street-oriented image, sought out a less threatening interpretation of hip-hop to cling to?

On musical terms, there’s no reason for anyone to choose Young Buck’s “Buck The World” over “Kala.” It’s difficult not to be overawed by M.I.A.’s complicated and culture-blending vision most likely born out of leaving her native Sri Lanka and living in exile in U.K. She takes the golden age of hip-hop from the claustrophobic confines of any ghetto U.S.A. and transports it on a head-spinning journey hopping continents as easily as crossing street corners. She ducks in and out of a dance production from a Bollywood movie on “Boyz” and chills out on “Mango Pickle Down River,” an Australian jam with didgeridoo and pee-wee rappers from Aboriginal children’s hip-hop crew Wilcannia Mob. “Hussel” is an electro-clash safari where squeaky keyboards blast like marching elephants and tribal drumming keeps the caravan moving.

Growing up in the late ’70s and early ’80s, M.I.A. seems at her proudest when she plays the disco queen on “Jimmy.” Awash in New Wave keyboard haze, M.I.A. demurely raps on top of a Bee Gees-like bass pattern and pulsating beat. Keyboard-created strings wind listeners up again for another gaudy verse. If this were played back in Studio 54, the track would have even made Andy Warhol head to the dance floor. Heard today, this is M.I.A.’s gift to any suburbanites who spent their wonder years at the local roller rink and are looking for a reason to lace up their skates for another spin.

Without a demographic study, we might never know definitively what makes some rap fans gravitate toward a De La Soul or the Streets or an M.I.A. while others are content to really debate whether Kanye or 50 Cent will sell more units. Probably for anyone who has heard “Kala,” such debates are frivolous pondering for us tea-drinking obsessives who are too busy picking things apart instead of just enjoying an artist with uncommon rhythmic abilities and a broader interpretation of what constitutes hip-hop music.

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The National “Boxer”

Past releases like “Alligator” and the “Cherry Tree” EP suggested that the National was a hard-working Midwestern quintet (currently based in Brooklyn, N.Y.) who through constant touring and dedication to craft, were working through their own original songs derived from thoroughly safe, mainstream rock influences.

This is why the busy drumming, slow-building instrumental crescendos and intense lyrical power of the songs on “Boxer” are a pleasant surprise. The group is still working through the brainy elements of the ’60s and ’70s rock songbook, but the National now has majestic if low-key sonic attack and a complex array of instruments that wasn’t as apparent before. Their heroes are musical giants and the group’s new, nocturnal-themed songs are ambitious enough to meet the challenge. Throughout the record, the band taps into the same yearning zeitgeist that early Bruce Springsteen fixated on, which augments the mini-rock symphonies that swell and crash with the emotions.

Vocalist Matt Berninger’s Ian Curtis deadpan is the narrator of these episodes documenting Gotham nightlife. Hints of sentimentality reveal a beating heart throbbing beneath his dry, cool exterior. He plays a twitchy wallflower on “Slow Show,” slyly seducing his love as acoustic guitar chords and the faint yelp of feedback from a electric guitar howls and builds to a Springsteen-ian coda. With a weary, “Layla”-style piano melody emerging forth, Berninger finally drops his shy pretenses and becomes more emphatic in the depth of his feelings. She probably said yes.

His demeanor becomes cockier during “Start A War,” when he bleakly warns an erstwhile intimate. He’s more poetic and philosophical in “Ada,” employing vivid imagery like “stand inside an empty tuxedo with grapes in my mouth,” which contrast sharply with Berninger’s constant monotone. Sufjan Stevens makes a guest appearance to inject some florid piano to the country music-inspired guitarwork, modest horn accompaniment and wisps of strings.

The road has made the quintet a tight malleable unit and they present a sonic front more varied than what you’d think would come from a few well-versed indie-rockers. Guitar-playing brothers Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner offer complimentary parts on “Guest Room,” one playing a traditional melody while the other sounds like he’s playing through a delay pedal to create atmospheric background. The band’s greatest asset might be drummer Bryan Devendorf, who authoritatively works his kit on “Mistaken For Strangers,” “Squalor Victoria” and “Apartment Story,” giving both tracks a uniquely polyrhythmic drive that cuts through the dense fog of unflashy instrumental parts and Berninger’s near-mumbles.

While the individual parts on the songs remain workman-like, it’s when you pull back and take in the song as a whole that you can fully appreciate the National’s triumph. “Boxer” is a leap forward and is propelling the band to the next level where they’ll be rubbing shoulders with those whom the band once considered idols but should now consider equals.

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LCD Soundsystem “Sound Of Silver”

Labels like “dance,” “techno” or “electronica” often get thrown about in describing LCD Soundsystem, but in truth, the one-man-band only utilizes the full spread of drum machines, keyboards and samples that are at any enterprising DJ/producer’s fingertips to fulfill a musical vision.

And that vision is certainly more in the rock vein. The project, the brainchild of sometime DJ/producer and New Jersey native James Murphy, explores elements of ’80s New Wave, ’70s funk and even ’00s garage-rock and does so for the most part without having to corral all those prima donna musicians. Murphy’s latest disc, “Sound Of Silver” does utilize some of the touring members that he hired for some tracks, but he typically does it all himself, just like Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor did before he got a major-label budget to hire any hack that he wanted.

Murphy’s strategy of writing rock songs with a DJ’s toolkit is clever in that it allows him to formulate some catchy songs absent any catcalls that he’s pop sell-out. He is, after all, fooling around in disposable “dance” music, which has little credibility.

A quick listen to “Watch The Tapes” is enough to make it apparent that LCD Soundsystem is a pet project from ’70s and ’80s-worshipping rock fan. There’s a human drummer mechanically beating out the rhythm and a sentient bass player plucking out a fuzz-filled pattern. Murphy behind the microphone sounds uncannily like the jive-talking Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme doing an impersonation of the nasally Strokes’ singer Julian Casablancas. The similarities to the Strokes become even more obvious during “North American Scum,” as Murphy sounds slightly less confused/drunk behind the microphone than Casablancas usually does. The music, too, owes a debt, but bolsters the rhythm that chugs along like a subway train with a wheezing keyboard and peppier dance-party drumbeat.

Another cut consumed with locomotive power is “All My Friends,” on which Murphy hammers on a piano in a repetitive rhythm reminiscent of the Velvet Underground. Murphy sings more in his own voice and with tinge more seriousness. The lyrics seem to dwell on the passage of time, getting older and the inevitable tug between the carefree years of youth and older folks’ responsibilities. Murphy seems concerned with not only creating a party, but is beginning to think about what happens afterward. All this mulling is done with one of the record’s most irresistible melodies.

Post-modern, programming-heavy cuts like “Us v. Them” and “Get Innocuous!” should appease those searching for something that will rule the 21st Century dance floor. This is just Murphy’s ruse. His “Sound Of Silver” isn’t meant for the flashy club alone. It’s destined for your local arena and Murphy is ready to rock it.

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Radiohead “In Rainbows”

Put out of your mind all the brouhaha about Radiohead, the group’s new album “In Rainbows” and its unusual release. We don’t need to spend any more time with concerns about what it all means for the music industry or whatever. On strictly musical terms, “In Rainbows” is an unlikely renaissance at the midpoint of the English quintet’s career.

The group was already in the history books and placed on a high pedestal for its art-rock masterworks, “The Bends” and “OK Computer.” The white-hot reaction from fans and the press caused frontman Thom Yorke and the others to purposefully dismantle the group’s mythic status before the legend had definitively been written with a series of more abstract, commercially blunted records. Like Pearl Jam before them, Radiohead maintained a large and loyal fanbase, although one far more insular than the group or its handlers might have liked. The band succeeded in weathering the storm, and yet had let too many difficult albums alienate them from casual music fans.

The band’s last record, “Hail To The Thief” was marketed as a return to accessibility. The songs weren’t more guitar-based and less clogged with ambient noise experimentation, but lacked the explosive melodies and tranquil beauty that the group captured on their best discs. It appeared the group’s moment might have passed and their collective destiny pointed them toward the fringes with more left-of-center albums and assorted solo projects.

Yorke and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood did just that, working for the last couple of years on intense, experimental solo LPs before the band reconvened with producer Mark “Spike” Stent. Those sessions yielded little and so the band restarted with Nigel Godrich, who has produced a majority of their albums. Despite their shared history, the subsequent album is hybrid of the sounds and styles Radiohead has explored during their six previous discs. “In Rainbows” is the cleanest, stripped-down and most immediately inviting record the band has released since “The Bends.”


As singer and principal songwriter, Yorke has always had a dominating presence on Radiohead records. On their recent output, however, the increasingly bewildering, skittish music was often more interesting component and his distinctive singing was no longer a focus. A majority of “In Rainbows” is more clearly oriented toward Yorke. Whether it’s the relaxed, Latin-tinged “House Of Cards,” the acoustic guitar-and-maudlin strings aria of “Faust Arp” or “Videotape,” a piano ballad with a hiccup that hints it will soon sprout a searing rock guitar solo that never comes, Yorke’s reverb-drenched voice is again the pivotal fixture that sells the songs.

And how Radiohead is selling its songs is the important matter. That doesn’t mean selling in terms of their marketing plan or how many downloads they made for how much. Rather, selling means the band is no longer afraid to plainly showcase its best features and melodic tendencies. They’re selling themselves without mucking it up with effects, and that’s worth getting no matter how you have to get it or what little you pay.

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Panda Bear “Person Pitch”

The last selection in this kind of list is always the most difficult. While all the preceding records are in no particular order, obviously some discs make it onto the list with little deliberation necessary. Others take time and a weighing of attributes versus other potential contenders.

“Person Pitch,” the third solo album by Animal Collective member Panda Bear (real name Noah Lennox), made it onto the list because of the numerous questions it provokes through the extraordinary music and how forces the audience to pull together the answers like an abstract artwork. (Please believe me when I say that the fact that it was named at the top of Pitchfork’s list as well as a couple of other notable music blogs wasn’t a factor.) Several other albums currently cooling their heels in the honorable mention category deserve to sit in this place, but none of them was as ambitious, strange and delightfully discombobulated as “Person Pitch.”

Lennox has been playing with New York art-experimenters in Animal Collective for years and his solo pursuits have typically remained in the group’s lengthy shadow. His new album, released last spring, received some critical plaudits and slowly gained a greater following through word-of-mouth praise and might push him forward in the Collective’s unified front.

The most basic description of the disc’s sprawling, dream-like sound is the melodic, drug-addled haze that might have been recorded right after Brian Wilson finished tracking “Pet Sounds.” The best example of this is “Bros,” which is like Wilson’s attempt at a Phil Spector-inspired teen drama recorded at the bottom of a well. Lennox trades slurred vocal lines with himself before compounding into some exquisite, bright harmonies. “Good Girl/Carrots” erupts with furious tablas playing for four intense minutes before the raga mutates into another Beach Boys symphony of noir-sounding piano and Lennox’s blurry, falsetto singing set to a “Shaft”-like rhythm.

Other songs seem to leave gaping holes that Lennox perhaps expects listeners to fill in for themselves. “Take Pills” and “Search For Delicious” are a combination of Syd Barrett’s disintegrating melodicism and the Flaming Lips’ keyboard-created soundscapes. “Comfy In Nautica” is a harebrained, broken-record sing-along. Voices, foot stomps and handclaps reverberate and slap into each other in the dense fog of sound. The earnest voices barely making through, singing like the world is coming to an end, but if it is, they really will teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.

The sense of disorientation that’s ever present on all these songs make “Person Pitch” a more fascinating listen as each time new textures emerge and new sounds can be latched onto. The underground hype surrounding Panda Bear compares to that which followed Jeff Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel in the months and years after he laid down “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” As is the case with Magnum’s opus, “Person Pitch” is destined for the fraternity of cult albums. However, such is its rare qualities that is also belongs in your CD collection.

For More Info:

This year’s honorable mentions, in no particular order, include:

  • Andrew Bird “Armchair Apocrypha”
  • Beirut “The Flying Club Cup”
  • Rilo Kiley “Under The Bright Light”
  • Handsome Furs “Plague Park”
  • Amy Winehouse “Back To Black”
  • Iron And Wine “The Shepherd’s Dog”
  • Animal Collective “Strawberry Jam”
  • P.J. Harvey “White Chalk”
  • Various Artists “I’m Not There” Soundtrack
  • Black Moth Super Rainbow “Dandelion Gum”
  • Arcade Fire “Neon Bible”
  • Grinderman “Grinderman”
  • Levon Helm “Dirt Farmer”
  • Simian Mobile Disco “Attack Decay Sustain Release”
  • Devendra Banhart “Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon”
  • The New Pornographers “Challengers”
  • The Apples in Stereo “New Magnificent Wonder”
  • Of Montreal “Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?”
  • The Klaxons “Myths Of The Near Future”
  • Clap Your Hands Say Yeah “Some Loud Thunder”
  • Black Lips “Good Bad Not Evil”
  • Justice “Cross”

Previous Stories:

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2007 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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