Alright, loyal readers, time to reveal my picks for the top ten albums of the year! The process of boiling the dozens of great releases down to a list of the ten best was arduous, but I’m happy with the results. As always, please comment and tell me your thoughts on this list. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these releases.
One theme that I saw emerge this year was how bands handle the internet as a means for fans to aquire music. Many bands were able to think outside the box and devise ways to harness the power of the internet to distribute their music while still making a profit. Those kind of smart decisions tend to help bands climb my list.
Matthew Cooper’s releases under the name Eluvium have gotten steadily better. 2005’s Talk Amongst the Trees was a great ambient album with huge synths sounds and electronic touches here and there. With Copia, Cooper took a turn into the Neo-Classical genre by adding more structured string and horn arrangements to his already enormous sound. The result is an album that is best listened to in its entirety and considered a singular piece of music. This is not just another post-rock album from Temporary Residence Records, this is a mature and lovely album of orchestral sound.
Key Tracks: Amreik, Reciting the Airships
Stars was one of the bands this year that took the pre-release leak problem by the tail and released their album digitally weeks before its planned street date. Props to them for taking a civil route in combating piracy (as opposed to Metallica, et al, who sue their own fans…).
Stars was also one of the bands this year that was charged with the task of following up a career defining record. While many bands are not able to do this, I believe Stars succeeded. Their success was achieved by not trying to make the same album again. Where Set Yourself on Fire was focused almost strictly on relationships, this album is more complex and features some political themes along with the romance. It also explores different styles and takes time to isolate vocalists on some songs. While some fans were not able to handle these departures, others (myself included) see this as a sign of a band that is recording on its own terms and will not be told what to do – which is a good thing.
Key Tracks: The Night Starts Here, In Our Bedroom After The War
A.C. Newman, Neko Case and company released another gem of Canadian indie pop with Challengers. Again, the collaboration element is central on this release five members given a vocal credit. The songs are still very smart lyrically and the music provides the perfect backdrop. Multi-instrumentalists abound in this band and the music is incredibly dense without being scattered, an amazing feat in its own right! Neko Case’s vocals are, as always, particularly great (too bad all her solo stuff is too honky tonk for me).
Speaking of rights, the NP’s tactic for dealing with internet piracy was to offer their new album in a few different editions that included bonus discs and fancy packaging. They also provided purchasers of the special edition with live track downloads throughout their nationwide tour. How high tech!
Key Tracks: All The Old Showstoppers, Adventures in Solitude
This disc holds a special place for me because Becky and I attended a performace of this great Icelandic band at the Varsity Theater this year, after which the band sold copies of this album for the first time ever. They told us that they had just received their first shipment of the album that day! So we were one of the first to buy.
Amiina got their start as the supporting band of Sigur Ros. This album marks their first LP as a separate entity. Their sound is difficult to describe, suffice to say that the instruments employed by these four women include synth, piano, guitar, violins, cello, viola, harp, harmonica, melodica, glockenspiel, call bells, and musical saws. The final song of their live performance was played on four saws. The album does a marvelous job of capturing the sounds of all these instruments in harmony. I expect Amiina to make a name for themselves in the future and prove they are not just a backup band.
Key Tracks: Rugla, Seoul
Sam Beam may have started out with ultra-lo-fi bedroom recordings of hushed folk songs, but his aspirations were always bigger than that. In 2005, he began to explore those leanings with two projects: the Woman King EP and a collaboration with Calexico entitled In The Reins. Listeners of those two albums realized that their classical guitar wielding hero had a flair for the electric too, but most assumed his next proper LP would send him back to the bedroom. Such assumption proved incorrect.
This album finds Beam wearing many hats as he explores instrumentation and sounds from all over the map. His lyrical poetry is still easily recognizable and his voice is still the soft, almost raspy one found on his first two discs. The album shows an artist who is growing and now has the means to let it happen naturally. Beam will be a staple in the industry for years.
Key Tracks: Boy With a Coin; Flightless Bird, American Mouth
EITS took two years to record this, their fourth, LP. They actually recorded most of it in a studio in Minnesota. The result was a great record that seamlessly continued the sound of their previous albums, which expanding on the theme. The guitars are bolstered by heavy distortion and the song structures play to that strength with crescendos interspersed with calming interludes. The band also manages to insert melodic piano sections to their sound to very positive effects. It’s amazing how an instrumental band can drive home the themes of solitude and loneliness so well.
The band did their part to coax fans into buying their album by offering it with a second disc containing remixes of every song on the album. The second disc actually ends up being slightly longer than the album itself! They also released the album on limited edition colored vinyl for audiophiles who demand high fidelity.
EITS also put on one of the best shows I attended this year and definitely the loudest one!
Key Tracks: Welcome Ghosts; So Long, Lonesome
This could be cheating to rate this two disc compilation-ish album so high, but I’m doing it anyway. While the disc technically contains no “new” material, the songs here are new.
Disc one, Hvarf, contains new studio recordings of some of the band’s lost songs and re-imaginings of other old tunes. It does a great job showing how the band has never stopped evolving, turning their old songs into new ones as they refine their style.
Disc two, Heim, is all acoustic renderings of some of the band’s most beloved songs. The greatness of this disc is found in hearing all the atmospherics stripped away from the songs to reveal the lovely melodies the band has written. They were there all along, but hearing them played on straight piano and guitars without reverb allows the listener to appreciate them in new ways.
I should also mention that these discs were released in support of the DVD Heima which captures Sigur Ros playing unannounced, free concerts all over their native country of Iceland. If you ever get a chance to view this, take it. It’s without a doubt the most beautiful concert doc I’ve ever seen.
Key Tracks: Von (Hvarf), Staralfur (Heim), Salka (Hvarf)
I’ve already discussed the merits of the film itself in my film review post, but the music is what really makes the film work.
Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova are the perfect musical pairing and their personal chemistry shines through even on soundtrack. Where Glen is fiery and yet shy in his guitar playing, Marketa is soft spoken and yet confident with her piano. When the two play together, the harmonies are perfect.
The songs themselves are gems on their own. The overarching theme is, of course, heartbreak and longing for relationships to mend, but tunes praising giddy new love are here as well.
Listen closely and you’ll get the sense of just how talented these musicians are: meters jump around, instrumentation is constantly changing and voices bend and break over intense crescendos.
Becky and I have had this disc in constant rotation since we bought it. It may end up being one that we have to buy again because we wore our first copy out.
Key Tracks: Falling Slowly, When Your Mind’s Made Up, The Hill
2. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
Count me as one who was certain the greatness of Arcade Fire’s first album Funeral could not be approached (let alone surpassed) by a second album. Upon hearing Neon Bible the first time, I decided it was true. Then, on subsequent listens, those I realized I’d been wrong. This album is a grower in the truest sense of the word. As the lyrics are digested over and over again, the listener begins to realize that they have something really special. The instrumentation is still incredibly diverse, the pipe organ is the prominently featured instrument on some of the strongest tracks, and no one can match the intensity they unashamedly display across the board.
The band has said that this album deals with Christianity and consumerism and how they believe the two are not compatible. This point was driven home when I saw the band perform live and they created a new outro for a song by repeating the mantra “Money changes everything.” This point is especially apropos for a band whose rise to power was meteoric. They will not let this new success change who they are and they will not forget how they got here: together.
Key Tracks: Keep the Car Running, Intervention, My Body is a Cage
Yes, I have to say that, for me, 2007 will forever be associated with this release. In Rainbows was the Radiohead record that everyone was waiting for, but no one expected. Everyone knew it was coming and assumed it would be something out of this world. No one saw it coming and knew it would be one of the most accessible Radiohead albums ever.
The music the band recorded for this release is genetically found somewhere between The Bends and Kid A. It probably has the most in common with OK Computer. The hard to follow experimentation takes a backseat to more straight up songs about love and life. If I gave you the lyrics “I don’t want to be your friend/I just want to be your lover” and asked if it was from Radiohead or John Mayer, which would you guess? The songs are probably not going to be viewed as timeless (a la “Paranoid Android”), but maybe that’s what the band wants. They want to freedom to experiment and the freedom to relax.
Listening to this disc, I feel like Thom has yeilded some musical control back to the band. It was his love for electronica that pushed the band into Kid A territory and I think that his solo album The Eraser satisfied that love enough to allow Johnny Greenwood’s electric guitar work to move forward.
Of course, their revolutionary distribution plan didn’t hurt this release in my book! The gutsy decision to invite fans to pay what they want for the digital release scored more headlines that any standard release ever would have. While final earnings are sketchy, it seems the move paid off for the band. Those fans who purchased the “Discbox” were treated to a physical copy of the disc, a bonus disc, a picture book and a double vinyl copy of the album all stored in a high quality gatefold case. Plus, they now have a standard CD release scheduled for January for those fans late to get in on the digital release or too poor to afford the box. This is a band that doesn’t care what fans think, but definitely cares about fans. How rare is that in this industry?
Key Tracks: Bodysnatcher, Nude, Videotape
And at the risk of being too long winded, let me briefly highlight two posthumous releases that deserve honorable mentions:
Elliott Smith – New Moon
As if we needed more evidence that Elliott was one of the best songwriters of our time, this album shows that even the tracks that Smith didn’t put on albums were great. We’re left, again, to wonder if a tragic genius may be the only kind.
Nick Drake – Family Tree
Another beautiful musician taken before his time is showcased on this great release. Drake’s family was directly involved in remastering home recordings Nick made in his youth. They document his growth from blues guitarist to tender folk singer. The collection also contains recordings of Nick’s mother singing her original piano compositions, giving further insight into the origin of his talent. A marvelous compilation!
Thanks for reading and for listening! Have a safe and happy Christmas!