Monday, December 22, 2008

2007 - souped-up vinyl spinning round and round.

So here we are, my friend. Nearly at the end. This week’s list covers 2007, which, to be honest, isn’t that different from my original list. But if you think that’s anti-climactic, then you’d better gird your loins for my 2008 list, sucka-punk.

Not much else to say, really. 2007 was a good-but-not-great year for music, not that I’m complaining. I still spin the albums below on a fairly regular basis, although some of them (Planet of Ice, New Wave) are close to getting overplayed now.

In other news, I’ve been trying to come up with a retroactive name for these weekly installments:

  • Pop Life?
  • The 22-Year Run?
  • 22?
  • 22-10?
  • _____?

10. Nakatomi PlazaUnsettled

Lush post-hardcore abounds in Nakatomi Plaza’s third album, Unsettled. Easily the group’s best release to date, it boasts ridiculously jawesome guitar solos, socio-political commentary, and classy breakdowns. Co-vocalist and guitarist Oscar Rodriguez’s solos are probably my favorite part of this band; he shreds gloriously note-for-note live, and these studio recordings perfectly capture his effects pedal-laden riffage. Powerful yet graceful, it bums me out that these guys didn't get their due before breaking up. Recommended for fans of Thursday and Jawbox. Now if only I could convince the band to stay together…

9. The White Stripes – Icky Thump

After The Raconteurs’ collaborative approach, Jack White returned to his main squeeze The White Stripes with renewed purpose for Icky Thump. While I’ve come to appreciate the band’s back catalogue, I have to admit, this is actually my favorite Stripes record. There’s a fair amount of rocking tunes, especially the title track, but what really draws me to Jack is the way he sprinkles humor among his guitar licks. Cuts like “Conquest,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do What You’re Told),” and “Rag & Bone” are funny enough to stand out, yet seriously rocking enough to become more than just novelty tunes. Icky Thump has a classic rock flavor without all of the hedonism and self-importance.

8. Tegan and Sara – The Con

Filled with synth, folk-pop, and angst, The Con made me realize that there were so many more qualities to Tegan and Sara than lame haircuts and “Walking With a Ghost.” These sisters are a pretty smart pop duo, delivering raw numbers like “The Con” and “Nineteen” with utmost sincerity and cajones. The Con is all over the place, harkening back to the band’s folk-y early days on “Call It Off” while reaching into Cure-like levels on the title track and “Back In Your Head.” Their sorrow sounds ever so sweet, thanks to concise song structures and solid hooks. And hey, they roll with Hunter Burgan, Kaki King, and Matt Sharp on this record, so clearly they’re nice folks, right?

7. Minus the Bear – Planet of Ice

Listening to Minus the Bear’s Planet of Ice is like getting a foot rub from Jesus Christ reincarnated as a panda bear. It’s like experiencing the sunrise through rose tinted 4-D glasses. You know that subset of people who think doing drugs and listening to Pink Floyd or The Animal Collective is awesome? Those people are stupid. Listening to Planet of Ice is super fine without supplements.

I’d like to apologize for my hyperboles, but I simply cannot deny the mastery of this progressive dance surf synth rock album. It’s that fucking good. The band didn’t rewrite Highly Refined Pirates, and it’s for the best. Between Planet of Ice and the experimental remix album Interpretaciones del Oso, Minus the Bear has revealed a fearlessness in songwriting that is practically unparalleled. Well, Mew might be able to keep up. But surpass? Forget about it; Minus the Bear is your Technicolor panda bear savior.

6. PJ Harvey – White Chalk

Having temporarily exhausted her guitar, Harvey rebooted her songwriting by switching to a new instrument - piano, resulting in this minimalist, unforgettable gem. Harvey’s overall strength as a songwriter has always been her erratically explorative nature. She’s a wicked guitarist and a gripping lyricist, and her vocals range from rocking to haunting to soulful, but her one general constant has been an unwillingness to rehash her past work. Uh Huh Her, Harvey’s lone attempt to rekindle the guitar squall of older records Dry and Rid of Me in 2004, came across like a midlife crisis. It felt as if Harvey had done all she could do with her guitar, but retained the compulsion to write.

All of the songs on White Chalk are piano compositions. Harvey’s playing is basic, but in the most blessed of ways. Her songs are simple, free of excess, like a Beatles or Beach Boys tune, only much, much more depressed. From “The Devil” to “The Mountain,” White Chalk is the perfect autumnal comedown record. Harvey’s soprano vocals show extreme restraint, a perfect complement to her shimmering chords.

For the most part, White Chalk is a quiet success in the vein of Emily Haines, Nick Drake and The Mountain Goats’ Get Lonely. Harvey’s restraint cracks here and there on tracks like “Silence" and "The Piano,” but it completely explodes on closing number “The Mountain,” when she finally lets loose a ghastly wail that rings like a death cry. But whether she’s quiet or loud, Harvey is still exploring new avenues as a songwriter, creating a catalogue of songs that are connected by degrees but stand by their loathsome selves as well.

5. Crime in Stereo – Is Dead

My favorite hardcore band of 2007, and they didn’t even make a hardcore record. Crime in Stereo is pushing its musical boundaries while still remaining within in the realm of “catchy.” After releasing one of the best political hardcore records of 2006 (The Troubled Stateside), Crime in Stereo could’ve rested on its bevy of juicy riffs and shredding vocals for a good long while. Instead, these Long Island duders chose the hard road, concocting a quick follow-up that inverts the band’s formula. Where The Troubled Stateside was a hardcore record that occasionally got melodic, Crime in Stereo is Dead is a melodic record that occasionally gets hardcore. The title is entirely appropriate, as this record is a drastic but rewarding change-up in the CiS canon.

This album bends the rules of its genre, pushing forth a new punk aesthetic that jams out without being ridiculous, and sacrifices none of its ferocity in exchange for a bit of grace. Few bands besides Thursday are trying to push forward such a powerful dynamic like Crime in Stereo, but here’s hoping …is Dead changes the way kids think about their music. Like the artwork says, long live Crime in Stereo.

4. Big D and The Kids Table – Strictly Rude

Like zombies, tax forms, and Jason from the Friday the 13th series, ska just won’t stay dead and gone. Luckily, this isn’t such a bad thing, thanks to Boston ska masters Big D and The Kids Table. The group has been turning out all types of ska/punk gems for over a decade now, and their fifth full length, Strictly Rude, shows no signs of wear. While slightly uneven, Strictly Rude is a great album, not just from Big D and The Kids Table, but for the ska genre in general. For the most part, the band has dropped its punk edge in order to create a purely ska record, a la The Specials or The Toasters.

Ska is often thought of today as a stagnant musical style. The third wave ska subgenre, otherwise known as “modern ska,” has existed for about 20 years or so with minimal improvement. But Big D and The Kids Table have plowed through mediocrity to craft a series of revolutionary and brilliant albums which single handedly reinvigorate the ska genre. Boston may be one heck of a ways away from Kingston, but Big D and The Kids Table have still mastered Jamaica’s eclectic musical style, as proven by Strictly Rude.

3. The Menzingers – A Lesson in the Abuse of Information Technology

Joyous folk/pop punk from my own home state of Pennsylvania, A Lesson in the Abuse of Information Technology was a Valentine’s Day surprise for me this year. The group played a VD show at Siren Records at Doylestown, opening for Smoke or Fire and Fake Problems. The group recalls elements of Against Me!, Anti-Flag, and The Clash (whom do they honor with a stunning cover of “Straight to Hell”). Their live show is just as strong as the album, full of piss and fervor. A Lesson… is crammed with anthemic throat-shredders, with an acoustic ditty or two for variety. It’s hard to choose a favorite among the flock; the title track stands out with its repeated line “I supply my own divide / morality.” But so do “Sir Yes Sir” and “Alpha Kappa Fall Off a Balcony.” And again, how sweet is that Clash cover? These passionate Pennsylvanian punks make me giddy, and not just ‘cause of the alliteration they let me slip in.

2. Against Me! – New Wave

There was a ton of hullabaloo about Against Me!’s major label debut. Sire, home to such not very punk acts as The Ramones, Richard Hell and The Voidoids, and The Replacements, may have coughed up the corporate cash to pay for New Wave, but I don’t care. The intolerant punk stream pushed Tom Gabel out and he pushed back by making his band bigger and broader. I hope every close-minded crusty-ass motherfucker hears these tracks and realizes that their former favorite punk band isn't writing punk songs anymore and couldn't care less about it. The jammy tides of “Ocean,” the dramatic balladry of “Bourne on the FM Waves of the Heart,” the slow burn of “Thrash Unreal.” They’re all awesome.

Butch Vig lends a deft touch to these recordings, layering the fuck out of the vocals and guitars and making a remarkable, to-the-point modern rock record. For the band’s part, they’re still doing what they've always done – writing about politics and the music industry and drugs and girls. Life, basically.

Against Me! is my Clash, my righteous call to arms. Gabel is every bit as conflicted about going mainstream as Joe Strummer; whether or not he can reunite his personal beliefs with his business practices like Strummer did is yet to be determined. He's gotten a lot more isolated from his audience; his stage banter is nearly nonexistent when he plays Philadelphia now. In the meantime, I've got nine amazing, catchy rock tracks and one goofy-ass grinding one (“Animal?” Really? You couldn’t swap it with B-sides “Full Sesh” or “You Must Be Willing?”)

1. Nine Inch Nails – Year Zero

Nearly 20 years after he began Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor continues to find new things to itch his craw. On his new album, Year Zero, these things happen to be the United States government and RIAA. A concept album, Year Zero tells the (hypothetical) story of what will happen in the year 2022 if the U.S. government’s rampant religious zealotism is not checked (apparently, Reznor thinks this will bring about the apocalypse). Despite the dark subject matter, Year Zero is one of the strongest, sexiest NIN releases in quite some time, offering a bundle of danceable grooves. At the same time, though, it manages to also be Reznor’s most experimental release since his underappreciated 1999 album, The Fragile. Either way, it’s a huge step up from the good, but tame, NIN-by-numbers of the 2005 comeback album With Teeth.

In a way, Year Zero is the real NIN comeback album. With Teeth was good enough in that it offered a few catchy singles, but it’s Year Zero which finds Reznor exploring new territory, not only as a songwriter, but as an all around entertainer. Furthermore, while With Teeth had flourishes of political outrage, such as on lead single “The Hand That Feeds,” Year Zero is completely dedicated to sticking it to the man.

In addition to summing up my thoughts on the human race, this album was the soundtrack to much love and dancing between my girlfriend and me. It figures that a record about the apocalypse would bring us closer together. Combining chaffing rage with surprisingly danceable beats, the end never seemed so sexy on cuts like “Capital G” and “HYPERPOWER!.” Mixed among the throbbing beats, though, lurks a real power, found in the digitized breakdown of “The Great Destroyer” or in the gang vocal call-to-arms on “Survivalism.” Unlike most concept albums, Year Zero feels lean and unpretentious, and the accompanying online game was kind of nifty too. This album is so good I own it in four formats: CD, vinyl, CD remix and vinyl remix. It’s sad to see that, just one year later, Reznor is releasing just about any old fart of an idea he comes up with. But this 2007 release shows that late period come-backs do still happen, however brief they may be.

TOMORROW: Check out for my top 20 albums of 2008.

COMING JANUARY 1: Best of ’08 director’s cut, with a top 25 and other bonus content.

No comments: