OK, so it's finally here. My top 10 albums of the year. There's simple angular pop, melancholic Scottish rock and an anti-folk singer covering anarchist punk, there's even a record in there by a man who calls himself 'the Swedish Frank Sinatra'! Anyway here it is...
10. GOOD SHOES - Think Before You Speak
An ingeniously simple album. Spindly guitars clash and meld over bouncy basslines and simple drums creating a sparse yet likable sound. The lyrics go from the mind numbingly mundane to cheekily political, tales of watching films on planes with girls mix with barbed comments on private education and snobbery. The best moments been when the two collide, like on the wonderful 'Morden'. A simple song about their home town, a place infested with drugs and violence, where on every corner there is a pound shop or a KFC. These mundane, minute details of their bleak setting clash with larger spreading social ills to create a frightening portrait of modern British life. Overall Think Before You Speak is a witty, concise and fundamentally enjoyable album about young British life, the problems deeply personal and ultimately frivolous yet symptomatic of a larger communal malaise. However depressing this sounds this record can only make the listener crack a smile, chirpy melodies and witty, urbane lyrics peppering the whole piece from start to finish. Like The Rakes if they were 10 years younger and 100 times angrier. Cracking.
9. SUPER FURRY ANIMALS - Hey Venus!
2007 was the year I discovered just how amazing Super Furry Animals really are. Before this year I had taken them for granted, a band that have always been around on the radio or the telly yet never quite pierced the musical part of my brain. It was only when a friend bullied me into checking out SFA's singles collectionSongbook that I really had my SFA epiphany. Hearing all those amazing songs in one place made me finally appreciate them for the great band they are and by the look of this, their eighth album, always will be. Hey Venus! is simply great pop music. Exactly what you expect from SFA but with something extra. Packed full of catchy choruses, strange imagery and spacey, bouncy guitars. A lesson in how to make a great 21st Century album, one that encapsulates everything that was good about the past but is firmly rooted in the future. Brilliant.
8. JEFFREY LEWIS - 12 Crass Songs
Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. This album really is the impossibly twee anti folk hero Jeffrey Lewis covering 12 songs by the Essex based anarchist punk band Crass. OK, I know that was a shock, but now get up off the floor and get ready to hear the strangest album of the year. The strangest thing being that this album doesn't sound weird in the slightest. If you weren't told this was a bunch of Crass songs you probably wouldn't notice, Jeffrey's beautiful arrangement turning Crass' furious punk thrash into twinkling folk songs that burst into brash anti folk riots. He has completely made the songs his own, his unique vision paying off more than anyone could ever imagine. A classic work that's certainly up there with any of his other self penned albums. One day Jeffrey will be a star, just not yet.
7. MALCOLM MIDDLETON - A Brighter Beat
Brooding, melancholic and impossibly bleak, yet somehow uplifting and joyous, A Brighter Beat is Malcy's finest moment outside of Arab Strap. A combination of everything that was great about his previous two albums condensed into one amazing record. An album for anyone who has ever felt sad for no reason, felt lonely even with a thousand people around or just felt plain grumpy. The songs are sorrowful laments that charm your socks off with their honesty and humour. From the wonderfully silly 'We're All Going To Die', to the beautiful anthem for the shy ones that is 'A Brighter Beat' right through to the epic closer 'Superhero Songwriters', this is a consistently brilliant album. Every word a confessional, every note a wonderful bit of audio therapy. The self deprecating humour packed in every word stops the album descending into self obsessed misery, and forces the listener to crack a smile. A Brighter Beat is a testament to just how much Malcolm Middleton continues to grow as a songwriter. A caustic, grumpy masterpiece for the modern age.
6. THE ARCADE FIRE - Neon Bible
Distinctly more lo-fi than Funeral, Neon Bible sees a rawer, angrier Arcade Fire come to the fore. The attention turning from personal tragedy to global unrest. There is still the awe inspiring bombast of the bands previous work but now it seems slightly more unhinged and off kilter. This is a band who have grown and honed their craft before unleashing their second album, and it has paid off. Neon Bible is superbly understated yet magnificently epic, an ungodly mix of quiet and loud. There are songs that channel the spirit of Born To Run era Springsteen alongside downbeat funeral marches and massive string led operettas alongside a quiet mournful mandolin based lament, there is no particular sound to this record, just a feeling. There is an underlying aggression throughout, bubbling over in those louder, bombastic moments. Neon Bible is a wonderful record of twisted, confused American road songs that perfectly soundtrack our confused world.
5. RADIOHEAD - In Rainbows
Away from all the hyperbole surrounding this album and it's digital release, not many people have discussed the musical benefits of this wonderful album. Sounding like a mix of OK Computer ,Kid A and Hail To The Thief, with a pinch of Thom Yorke's own The Eraser album, In Rainbows is pretty much the perfect Radiohead album. Finding the perfect balance between experimentation and simplicity, Yorke's voice is no longer hidden behind filters and vocoders, coming through the mix to power the whole album alongside the twinkling, jangly guitars and beeping persistent electronics. The lyrical content is much more open than previous albums, almost personal in its simplicity and unveiled attitude. The album is also more human, more sensual. It's a more tactile and exploratory Radiohead, one that actually lives in the same mundane world as us, the humble listener. Much like OK Computer there is an underlying paranoia and a fear of your surroundings, yet now it's not quite as claustrophobic, there is an element of acceptance. In Rainbows is a confident collection of some of the finest songs Radiohead have ever constructed.
4. JENS LEKMAN - Night Falls Over Kortedala
A wonderfully lush collection of gloriously overblown pop songs. Jens' voice glides, like Stephen Merritt of The Magnetic Fields mixed with a Swedish Scott Walker, over slick layers of horns, strings and looped old fashioned samples. Jens' personality on this record flits from naive optimist to wide eyed Lothario, his beautiful songs covering love and loss, first kisses and crushes on hairdressers. One song even covers the strange goings on of a weekend at the house of Jens' lesbian pen pal, with Jens posing as her boyfriend to fool her conservative father! Brilliantly self aware and at times hilariously funny, Lekman's songs are unique and timeless, a flash back to a simpler time when pop music was big, brash and unashamed. You will fall in love with Jens Lekman, and it will probably sound like this record when you do.
3. THE CRIBS - Men's Needs, Women's Needs, Whatever
I love The Cribs. Always have, always will. Men's Needs, Women's Needs, Whatever, their third record, continues their flawless career. A fantastic collection of understated pop gems, The Cribs have bettered themselves again. Opener 'Our Bovine Public' is one of the best songs of the year, an aggressive ditty about the state of the musical nation and how Ryan never thought he'd be a hipster like everyone else and 'wear brown shoes'. 'Girls Like Mystery' is another self deprecating slice of Wakepop, with lyrics that reveal just what the brothers think of themselves and each other, trading lines like 'there's not much to say for me / that's OK you know that girls like mystery'. 'Men's Needs' is a wonderfully simple critique of modern relationships, and 'Moving Pictures' is one of the most overtly emotional songs in the Cribs' cannon, both showing a side of The Cribs more mature and less scenester bating than previous records. The next track 'I'm A Realist' has lyrics that dissect these two sides of The Cribs, 'I'm a realist / I'm a romantic'. 'Majors Titling Victory' is an attack on, yes you guessed it, MTV. A wonderfully rawkus grind that goes further than most of their tighter pop songs to highlight the influence of bands like Sonic Youth and Huggy Bear on their work. The Sonic Youth connection continues with the spoken word input of Lee Ranaldo on the cathartic 'Be Safe', arguably one of the best songs the band has ever produced. A huge, immensely bleak piece of beat poetry coupled with an impassioned, screamed chorus. Closer 'Shoot The Poets' is wonderful, a stripped back acoustic performance from Ryan that forms a delicate end to a less than delicate record. Put simply, this is a brilliant album that finally brought The Cribs to the larger audience that they deserve.
OK, this was such a hard decision. Who has made the best album of the year? What actually constitutes a 'best album of the year'? Do I award invention and experimentation or just pick the album that I personally have listened to most? Do I choose joyous pop abandon or cerebral forward thinking experimentation? Both albums are worthy winners, I can't stress that enough. Both are classic albums, they will last through generations and stand out as an indicator of just how good music was in 2007. Anyway here is my decision. At number two we have...
2. PANDA BEAR - Person Pitch
A few months ago when I started this blog I wrote an article, entitled 'A Study Into The Possibility That Panda Bear Has Made The Best Album of 2007', extolling the virtues of one Noah Lennox, founding member of Animal Collective and now the creator of the second greatest album this year as Panda Bear. Here's what I said about Person Pitch...
Opener 'Comfy In Nautica'is simply beautiful. The opening chants roll and crash, lulling the listener into a hypnotic trance. It's, at the same time, both a humbling and uplifting experience. The crashing drums and Gregorian chanting hit you round the face while Noah's sweet, tender and naive vocals caress your cheek to make it better. Its this mix of the grand and the simple that runs throughout the whole album, the grandeur of the music is contradicted by the simplicity and all round pop sensibility of the vocal patterns. As an instrumental piece this album would be an extremely experimental and rather avant garde, but nonetheless beautiful, prospect. The vocals give it that push over the edge into populist territory, a sweetener in a sour cup of coffee. Overall the album is a dual purpose product, you can either give your full concentration and study every nook and cranny, or you can just let it drift straight over you. It really is bliss to just sit and listen to this record and be taken away from life for 45 minutes and 36 seconds. It never gets old and this blissful feeling never dwindles. Put simply, it's a modern symphony. If there's any justice, Panda Bear will be looked at in a centuries time as a visionary and a genius. He is our generations shining light, our own little genius.
What can possibly beat a genius I hear you cry. Well, 4 geniuses might do the trick. And that's exactly the make up of the band that has made the best album of 2007...
1. THE SHINS - Wincing The Night Away
From the opening ethereal tones of 'Sleeping Lessons' to the delicate acoustic guitar of beautiful album closer 'A Comet Appears', Wincing The Night Away is a gorgeous journey through the wonderfully bright world of The Shins. An album of playful pop gems, wistful laments on life and opaque lyrics. A mixture of bashful naivety and joyous celebration.
'Sleeping Lessons' builds from just sparse, nautical keyboards and a heart wrenching vocal into an explosive symphony of guitars, crashing drums and twinkling keys. One of the best Side A / Track 1's ever, setting the scene for a pop symphony with a massive, building yet explosive start. 'Australia' is vintage Shins, bouncy melodies and powerful vocals creating a layered sound that twinkles and sparkles. 'Phantom Limb' is a great piece of songwriting, containing a shameless sing along hook yet still maintaining a cerebral and somewhat guarded lyricism, serving as a wonderful abridged summary of The Shins' sound. 'Sea Legs' is one of the biggest departures from this Shins sound of previous albums, a 5 minute plus lament powered by a distinctly hip-hop beat. The beat crackles and hisses underneath another nautical themed melody, the watery sound of a washed out slide guitar colliding with dreamy synths. 'Red Rabbits' sees another very different Shins, a reflective downbeat incarnation. A slow creeping bass runs underneath rather festive keyboards as James Mercer croons a lilting vocal melody. As the crackling sample of a cheering crowd fades away the opening jangle of 'Turn On Me' rings out into space. A wonderful song full of steel pedal guitars and charming lyrics like 'You must have known that I was fond of you / Fond of Y-O-U'. I get goose pimples every time. It's Mercer's delicate phrasing and heartfelt tone that push this album into the territory of greatness. His lyrics are full of oblique natural imagery and sea faring analogy, but can also be extremely honest and revealing. He doesn't give too much away, yet gives you a good idea of what makes him tick. He has the perfect balance. He is one of our generations finest frontmen despite his shyness and timid nature, he shows you don't need to be a posturing attention seeker to be a good band leader and frontman. Anyway back to the album and the spacey drone of 'Black Wave', a transitional atmospeheric track that feels like another movement of 'Turn On Me', albeit a darker, more experimental one. This is another reason why I adore this album, it works so well as a whole piece, it's not just a bunch of songs. There is a linear pattern to the way the songs are arranged. Put one track out of place and it would ruin the album. 'Split Needles' is as dark as 'Black Wave' yet packs a bigger punch. A mix of glorious offbeat drums and jagged, intermittent guitars, 'Split Needles'is a brooding march, full of introverted anger and discordant keyboards. 'Girl Sailor' is a mix of the Beach Boys esque melodies of their first album Oh, Inverted World and the more grown up country that graces parts of Chutes Too Narrow, coming together to form the perfect Shins ballad. But this is all just the appetiser to the 6 course meal that is 'A Comet Appears'. A finger picked guitar and the human voice form a powerful, heartbreaking moment. A bare, thoughtful lament on loneliness and faith. James Mercer's powerful, emotive voice weaves between each reverb soaked note to create the most truly touching moment on the album. Lyrically the most open track on the album, with beautiful lines like 'We can blow on our thumbs and posture, but the lonely are such delicate things. The wind from a wasp could blow them into the sea, with stones on their feet, lost to the light and loving we need'. Amazingly poetic and deeply profound for mere pop music.
Wincing The Night Away is a masterpiece, a classic in the making and truly the best album of 2007.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year xx