Monday, December 31, 2007

Top 40 of 2007

40-39: December 16, 2007
38-36: December 17, 2007
35-33: December 18, 2007
32-31: December 19, 2007
30-29: December 20, 2007
28-27: December 21, 2007
26-21: December 23, 2007
20-16: December 25, 2007
15-11: December 28, 2007
10-6 : December 30, 2007
5-1 : December 31, 2007
5. The National - Boxer

The National's previous album, Alligator, showed a ton of potential, particularly in its best songs, but there were a few throwaways. Still, it garnered much critical acclaim and made its followup a highly anticipated affair. Boxer delivers on that potential, and even improves upon it to the point of being an almost perfect album.

"Fake Empire" is a brilliant opener, and perhaps the album's finest song, but that doesn't mean there's a dropoff in quality after that. There's not a single song here that isn't essential, with "Start a War" being its other major highlight, and the sum total is an intelligent and introspective album that leans towards indie rock's mellower, even more romantic, side.

4. Modest Mouse - We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank

Let's just get this out in the open right away...this is a tremendous album. All of the Modest Mouse loyalists who think their last two albums are disappointing need to just get a grip and accept that the band is evolving, and that doesn't necessarily mean selling out. There are plenty of quality indie rock bands who maintain a sound that is still accessible to more mainstream ears. It's just that Modest Mouse didn't used to be one of those bands, and now they are.

This is a brilliant album, that is strong throughout its entire 60+ minutes. Despite being more accessible than its predecessors, the trademark Modest Mouse quirkyness is still present in full force. Not to mention that the versatility that has always made this band so great is still on display, combining indie radio-friendly tunes like "Dashboard" and "Florida" with thrashing rockers "Fly Trapped in a Jar" and "Spitting Venom", and the pleasantly mid-tempo "Missed the Boat" and "People as Places as People".

3. Of Montreal - Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?

Of Montreal's sound had shown some potential to my ears for a while, but on Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? they really deliver. The subject matter here are the difficult times that band leader Kevin Barnes has gone through in the past few years, most importantly the breakup of his marriage and subsequent depression. Despite this, it's an upbeat and infectiously catchy pop album, that still manages to capture the despair of Barnes' recent experiences.

Highlights include album opener "Suffer for Fashion", the pop brilliance of the curiously titled "Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse", and the hilariously bitter "She's a Rejecter", on which Barnes sings "There's the girl that left me bitter, want to pay some other girl to just walk up to her and hit her...but I can't, I can't, I can't!" Pure pop genius.

2. Band of Horses - Cease to Begin

Band of Horses' debut, Everything All the Time, was impressive, but their sophomore effort, Cease to Begin, is outstanding. I don't know of another album that starts as strong as this one, with the first four tracks, "Is There A Ghost", "Ode to LRC", "No One's Gonna Love You" and "Detlef Schrempf" all being certifiable eagles.

Despite the strength of the first half, the remainder still does not disappoint, as every minute of this brief 35-minute affair is absolutely breathtaking, highlighted by Ben Bridwell's soaring falsetto, plenty of reverb, and more shimmering guitar hooks than one could ask for. Positively stunning and goosebump inspiring. If you don't love this album...well, there's nothing I can do for you.

1. Cloud Cult - The Meaning of 8

I won't make the same claim regarding The Meaning of 8 that I did about Cease to Begin. This is not for everyone, but it certainly is, without a doubt, the album of the year for me.

The album's liner notes discuss the album's title in the context of Carl Jung's philosophy regarding the universal meaning of the number 8. However, the album's true meaning is revealed on its seventh track, "Your 8th Birthday", as singer Craig Minowa repeatedly belts out the name Kaidin, his infant son who died of unknown causes in 2002. Kaidin would've turned 8 this year.

The Meaning of 8 isn't the first time Minowa has included his son's death as at least the partial focus of an album, but this loss is never shared so eloquently as it is here. Admittedly, I have a soft spot for such subject matter, but this is my album of the year on the strength of its music as overdose of cerebral, quirky and at times symphonic indie rock that is a pleasure for its entire 64 minutes.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

10. Andrew Bird - Armchair Apocrypha

For some reason, it took a few listens to really take to this one. I remember reading, earlier in the year on the Metacritic forums, that contributors were somewhat divided in whether or not to embrace Armchair Apocrypha's more guitar-based approach. The violin, Andrew Bird's primary instrument, while still featured, is not the primary emphasis, nor is his trademark whistling. But, these elements are all there, as are his cleverly odd lyrics with more than occasional scientific references, and they all come together to create another wonderful and cohesive collection of songs.

This is one of those albums that is so consistent that, it seemed everytime I listened to it, I changed my mind about my favorite songs. In the end, though, I'd say that "Imotosis", "Simple X" and "Scythian Empires" were the tracks that most frequently stood out, the latter two being among the songs with a greater emphasis on Bird's beautiful whistling.

9. Iron & Wine - The Shepherd's Dog

I really thought my admiration of Sam Beam and Iron & Wine had run its course. The debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle, was a masterpiece of stripped-down acoustic indie-folk. Nick Drake comparisons were thrown around loosely but not undeservedly. His work that followed, though, failed to live up to my expectations, partly because he had already perfected his formula, but also because the material just wasn't as good. The collaboration with Calexico, In the Reins, provided some hope, but I couldn't help but feel that Beam and Co. had run out of steam.

As it turns out, Iron & Wine have continued the momentum gained by In the Reins with their second best record yet, The Shepherd's Dog. Benefiting perhaps from the influence of Calexico, or from the fact that Beam replaced almost every member except himself, this album gets the full band treatment and pulls it off extremely well. While it still doesn't stray far from the original aesthetic of Iron & Wine, it is easily their most diverse record and I wouldn't even question anyone who considers it their best.

8. Sunset Rubdown - Random Spirit Lover

Spencer Krug is quickly climbing the ladder as one of my favorite musicians. If not for last year's Shut Up I Am Dreaming finishing at #11, this could have been the third straight year that an album on which he was featured made the top ten. Regardless, this is quite impressive, given it has all been accomplished in the post-downloading era.

That's what I've decided to call the time period from 2005 on. Just as Major League Baseball has the pre-segregation and post-segregation, and, of course, the pre-steroids and post-steroids, eras, music has pre- and post-downloading. Since the availability of massive amounts of music has become much more prevalent in this time period, making the top ten takes on greater meaning.

In the post-downloading era, only The Hold Steady, Sufjan Stevens, Andrew Bird and one other artist have made the top ten twice. Actually, that's quite a few, considering it's only three years we're talking about. Sunset Rubdown just misses that distinction, but no one has figured quite as prominently in all three years as Spencer Krug has, with Wolf Parade's Apologies to the Queen Mary being the third album I'm referring to.

7. Two Gallants - Two Gallants

Two Gallants' last album, What the Toll Tells, was good, but the singer's voice was even a little grating even for my taste. So, after a few too many listens, I grew a little tired of it, although I still honored it in my top 50. The songs on this, their self-titled third album, while not necessarily earning better reviews from the critics, are so good, in my opinion, that they overcome the same pitfall. In fact, the nature and subject matter of these songs make Adam Stephens' voice a perfect fit.

I've certainly listened to a lot of music that has addressed the subject, but this has to be my all-time favorite breakup album. It so exquisitely captures the typically competing feelings of bitterness, longing and regret that I considered sending a copy to a friend who ended a six-year relationship this year. But, that would've been risky, so I didn't. Still, if I were him, I would have found comfort in this album, as strange as that sounds, although I probably would have done so while drinking. So, I guess it's a good thing that the only breakup I experienced this year was from a 2+ month relationship.

6. The New Pornographers - Challengers

I'm not sure what it is that fans of this band are so disappointed with on this album. The formula has changed a bit...the music seems to be inspired by a mellower brand of pop than its more powerful predecessors. A.C. Newman claims it is a salute to early Roxy Music. I don't know enough about that band to really say either way...I'd be more apt to say I hear a little nod to E.L.O., although I'll admit that I seem to throw around that comparison a little too often. Regardless, all the ingredients that make everything New Pornographers sound so infectiously catchy are still here, and it makes for another brilliant album.

I've never been a fan of Dan Bejar, or his main band, Destroyer, the indie darlings that they are. I've always loved The New Pornographers despite him, on the strength of Newman's material, not to mention Neko Case's compelling voice. Maybe one of the factors that makes this album so great to me is that I actually really like Bejar's contributions, even to the point that I'm considering putting one of his songs on my year-end mix.

Friday, December 28, 2007

15. Bloc Party - A Weekend in the City

I seem to have a tendency of discovering bands one album after their critical breakthrough. A few examples that jump to mind from 2006...Joanna Newsom, Cat Power, The Futureheads. The previously mentioned Beirut would also be a pretty good example of this, but Bloc Party would have to be considered an exception.

If I remember correctly, I wrote off Silent Alarm after one listen, but thankfully returned to it later in the year and had a decidedly different experience. I was captivated by their combination of hook-laden arty brit-pop and emotionally charged ballads. One of the common criticisms of A Weekend in the City is that it doesn't show off the band's versatility as much as the debut. Regardless, it's an impressive followup that builds on the their obvious strengths, the most important of those being wrapping heartfelt lyrics around powerful songs with gorgeous melodies. A prime example is Kele Okereke's declaration on "Waiting for the 7:18" that "If I could do it again, I'd make more mistakes, I'd not be so scared of falling...I'd climb more trees, I'd pick and I'd eat more wild blackberries". But, the album's most impressive moment, and possibly my song of the year, is the nostalgic "I Still Remember", which powerfully evokes images of the sadness of reminiscing about past regrets, but still somehow maintains a certain hopefullness.

14. The Apples in Stereo - New Magnetic Wonder

Ever since I first heard The Apples in Stereo, on 1997's Tone Soul Evolution, I've been waiting for them to make an album that combines the eclecticism and pop genius, respectively, of their Elephant 6 brethren The Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel. Of course, my reference point wasn't that specific back then because I hadn't yet heard of either of those two other bands. However, I felt knew a little something about their potential.

Well, those overwhelming expectations may, in fact, be a little out of the Apples' reach, but New Magnetic Wonder comes about as close as they could possibly get. Since it's pretty obvious that they wear their Beatlesque pop influences on their sleeves, this would be their Sgt. Pepper' album with sounds all over the map, that combines catchy pop with psychedelic soundscapes, coming across serious at times and just plain fun-loving at others.

13. The Shins - Wincing the Night Away

Although it does seem that fans of The Shins are in different camps as to whether Wincing the Night Away is another blast of wonderful power-pop, albeit more slickly produced that its predecessors, or a disappointing sellout, about the only negative thing I can say about it is that it took four years to complete. Although not quite as good as Chutes Too Narrow, my personal favorite, or Oh, Inverted World, I would definitely fall into the former category. Despite a couple songs that I would consider throwaways, this album does not disappoint, especially on "Australia", "Phantom Limb" and "Turn on Me".

12. Okkervil River - The Stage Names

I knew Black Sheep Boy, my album of the year in 2005, was going to be a tough act to follow. The Stage Names proves that Okkervil River is more than capable of building on the momentum of that masterpiece...musically, at least. Conceptually is where this album falls way short of its predecessor, but that's really an unfair comparison. If you care to catch up on why I feel that way, you can do so here.

The highlights are impressive, and they include "Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe", "Savannah Smiles" and "A Girl in Port". I could have done without the pseudo-cover of the Beach Boys' "Sloop John B" that is "John Allyn Smith Sails", which closes the album. Given my affinity towards albums that start and end strongly, this may have prevented this one from cracking the top ten.

11. M.I.A. - Kala

After M.I.A.'s (aka Maya Arulpragasam) debut Arular, I figured she was a one-shot deal for me. Sometimes there's an intangible element that drives my enjoyment of a particular album or artist at a specific moment in time that can never be captured again. While I assumed that was the case with Arular, Kala turned out to be just as good, if not better.

Definitely outside of my realm, I have a difficult time describing what M.I.A. is all about, and it is certainly no easier to explain what it is I like about her music, but I do appreciate this description from

"Kala and Arular are similar in that they are both wildly vigorous and wholly enjoyable albums, generous with blunt-force beats, flurries of percussion, riotous vocals (with largely inconsequential lyrics), and fearless stylistic syntheses that seem to view music from half of the planet's countries as potential source material."

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

20. Bright Eyes - Cassadaga

Conor Oberst is either a precocious genius or a pretentious asshole, depending on whose opinion you're soliciting. I would've thought myself to be in the latter camp until I heard I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning in 2005. Maybe asshole is a little strong, but emo- followed by a very unflattering and non-PC term questioning his sexuality is probably more accurate. However, Wide Awake was an absolute indie-pop meets roots-rock masterpiece, and Cassadaga proves to be a worthy followup. I can understand how his overly emotional, sometimes quivering voice and occasionally self-important lyrics can grate on people, but both of these albums have simply got better and better with each successive listen.

I've often remarked about albums that are anchored by a few outstanding tracks that keep me coming back to it, and eventually the rest of the material grows on me and proves to be almost as good. I would consider this to be the case with Wide Awake, but in this instance that momentum carried right on through to the next album. Cassadaga's standouts, "Four Winds", "If the Brakeman Turns My Way", "Soul Singer in a Session Band" and "Classic Cars", while not as overwhelming as those from its predecessor, certainly served that purpose as well. I'm even a big fan of some of the somewhat overdone stuff here, particularly "I Must Belong Somewhere", making this album truly worthy of top 20 status.

19. Kanye West - Graduation

I would have to say that Kanye West now qualifies as my favorite modern hip-hop artist, with two year-end list appearances in the last three years...although falling a bit short of the #18 ranking of last year's Ghostface Killah album, Fishscale, and of the distinction as my highest ranked hip-hop album ever.

Late Registration made my top 50 in 2005, but didn't rank nearly as high as this. I don't have access to all of my files right now, so I'm not exactly sure, but I think it came in at #43. I'm not sure if Graduation is that much better, or if it's just a matter of Late Registration being the album that set this one up for me. I do think, however, that this is a more consistent effort, as the latter contained a few songs that I loved, but definitely some moments that I could do without as well. In this case, Graduation's highlights, "Champion", "Good Life", "Can't Tell Me Nothing" and "Big Brother", are only offset by brief dropoffs like "Barry Bonds".

18. Ryan Adams - Easy Tiger

A sober Ryan Adams returns after a string of disappointing albums, or should I say from a spell of emphasizing quantity over quality in the past few years. Following the short-lived existence of Whiskeytown, Ryan's first solo album, 2000's Heartbreaker, was an absolute desert island disc, and it's followup, Gold, was quite good as well. Since then, it's been all downhill, with a few strong moments here and there, but with Easy Tiger, I'm ready to say he's returned to form and put out the second best solo album of his career.

Just about all of his talents are on display here, from the countrified "Goodnight Rose" and "Tears of Gold" to the rocking "Halloweenhead", but most of all on the tracks that are most reminiscent of his best work, "Oh My God, Whatever, Etc." and "I Taught Myself How to Grow Old". I'm sure Ryan isn't finished with his attempts to reinvent himself, but hopefully the increased focus he seems to have achieved here will continue. I'm fairly optimistic that it will.

17. Spoon - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

Spoon's 2005 album, Gimme Fiction, was where I jumped on the bandwagon. It was a solid effort, but only scratched the surface in helping me to understand what the fuss was all about. This was another case of a record that loyalists considered a minor disappointment, so it might not have been the best starting point. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, despite its weak title, does a better job of putting all of this band's talents on display.

While probably not considered to be quite as good as Girls Can Tell, this album shows off the band's versatility, with songs like the brassy "The Underdog" and the exotic "My Little Japanese Cigarette Case" breaking some new ground, while "Don't Make Me a Target", "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb" and "Finer Feelings" deliver the band's standard formula to near perfection.

16. Arcade Fire - Neon Bible

All the hype that preceded the release of the Arcade Fire's 2004 debut, Funeral, was probably what ruined it for me. I'm sure, as has been the case with many of the artists billed as indie-rock's "next big thing", there were Neutral Milk Hotel comparisons a plenty. To me, their ambitious, emotionally charged sound simply failed to deliver.

Sometimes lowered expectations can prove to be a blessing in disguise, as Neon Bible is everything that Funeral was supposed to be, despite not receiving quite the attention and critical acclaim. "Keep the Car Running" is almost perfect, and easily one of my favorite songs of the year. The rest of the album simply flows where Funeral seemed to meander, making it easily the superior my opinion.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

26. Architecture in Helsinki - Places Like This

This album came out in the same month as the latest from Okkervil River and The New Pornographers, so in spite of the fact that Architecture in Helsinki's previous album, In Case We Die, finished in my top 20 of 2005, this was only the third most anticipated release of August. I think I first listened to it while driving through Western New York on my summer road trip to Ohio. I was not blown away at first, but this one proved to fall into the infamous "rewards repeated listens" category...otherwise known as "a grower".

Call me crazy, but I hear a bit of B52's energy in a couple of songs on this album. Well, at least these Australian indie popsters share one thing in common with those Athens, GA natives...the fact that both bands are co-fronted by male and female members. There isn't necessarily one song that stands out on this album, but overall it's a solid collection of catchy indie pop you can dance to.

25. Sigur Rós - Hvarf/Heim

For long standing fans of Sigur Rós, this year's release may have been less than satisfying, but since I'm a bit of a newcomer, it filled a void that has existed since 2005 top 10 entry Takk... drifted from my regular rotation.

This is basically two EPs that, when combined, make for an hour-plus long affair. Hvarf is a collection of rarities, while Heim is a live-in-studio acoustic performance of some of their past favorites. Among the new material, the symphonic "Hljómalind" is the highlight, proving the slow build to powerful chorus as another style of song that I'm an absolute sucker for.

24. Jens Lekman - Night Falls Over Kortedala

The second Swedish contribution to this year's list, Jens Lekman is undoubtedly one of the most clever, funny and charismatic characters on the independent music scene...kind of the straight version of Stephin Merritt. To me, he has an unrivaled knack for writing and singing beautiful and catchy indie pop that somehow tows the line between being too serious and too silly. This sounds like a difficult task, but "A Postcard to Nina" is a perfect example. A hilarious song about meeting the father of his lesbian friend and pretending to be her boyfriend, it also delivers a not overly preachy "always be true to yourself" message.

23. Son Volt - The Search

By now, it should be apparent, if not perfectly clear, that I would side with Jay Farrar in any dispute between he and his former bandmate Jeff Tweedy. Despite this, there's no questioning the fact that Tweedy has proven to be more creative and versatile and has parlayed these talents into not only critical acclaim, but marginal commercial success as well. This year, however, is the first since the late 90's that I can honestly say that I like the direction Son Volt is moving in more than the path that Wilco has chosen. Maybe that's partly because Wilco's recent offering just didn't do it for me, but more importantly, Son Volt has followed their strong comeback album, Okemah and the Melody of Riot, with an even better effort. In fact, I consider The Search to be the second best album in the band's entire catalog, and that's saying something, considering #1, Trace, is one of my all-time favorites.

22. Beirut - The Flying Club Cup

I enjoyed Beirut's debut, Gulag Orkestar, but it didn't quite inspire me to want to listen to it repeatedly. Still, it was good enough for the band to still be a spot on my radar. Then, when the Lon Gisland EP, which included the brilliant "Elephant Gun", was released earlier this year, I knew I was quickly becoming a fan. Brilliant might be over-stating may have just been the best Neutral Milk Hotel influenced song I'd heard in a long time, but you get the idea.

Beirut's overall sound is not as inspired by Neutral Milk Hotel as that one song, and despite my affinity for NMH, I consider that a good thing. I don't think there's enough room in this indie world for all of the artists who unashamedly wear Jeff Mangum's influence on their sleeves. While NMH is certainly an influence of theirs, Beirut's sound is distinctive enough to be considered their own. While one reviewer called the debut "a kind of Neutral Milk Hotel-meets-gypsy field recordings", The Flying Club Cup takes this sound to a new level, employing a beautiful amalgam of wind instruments, strings, accordions, keyboards and organ.

21. Interpol - Our Love to Admire

I've already discussed Interpol a little here, and I may have to admit that I've rated this album higher than just about anybody else this year...but so what. This is another case of being a relative latecomer, so I don't have the same reference point as other Interpol fans who think this album is clearly a notch below their prior two efforts. Who knows? This may be analogous to all those people who never heard Being There and now think Sky Blue Sky is some kind of masterpiece. The positive side of this, for folks in the latter camp as well as myself, is we both now have the uncharted territory of the back catalog of a truly great artist to explore.

Friday, December 21, 2007

28. Loney, Dear - Loney, Noir

Very confusing band name and album title, I must admit. In fact, it could almost be a deal-killer if the music wasn't so good. Loney, Dear is Swedish singer/songwriter Emil Svanängen, and Loney, Noir was a big hit with me in a year that many of his fellow countrymen also made an impression. Actually, only two of the four artists who come to mind landed spots in the top 40, with Shout Out Louds and The Tough Alliance falling short.

Emil's ridiculously high falsetto might not be your cup of tea, but how can you not fall for his brand of infectious and sweetly melodious pop music? Highlights here are many, but my particular favorites are "Hard Days 1,2,3,4", "Carrying a Stone", and "I Won't Cause Anything At All". Slotting in at #28, this record holds the distinction as the highest ranking album by an artist I'd never heard of prior to this year, with Handsome Furs being the only other band in the top 40 to satisfy that criterion.

27. Editors - An End Has a Start

Editors' debut album, The Back Room, instantly grabbed my attention, despite the fact that the tougher critics generally referred to them as a poor man's Interpol. In a somewhat ironic twist, I can actually credit Editors as the band that turned me on to Interpol. I'd certainly heard small doses of the latter prior to this, but it wasn't until hearing these less than favorable comparisons that I figured it was time to give Interpol a solid listen.

Editors' sophomore effort, An End Has a Start, is nearly as good as their first. It may not break any new ground, but it's another 40+ minutes of anxious, dramatic hook-laden British indie rock. This band will probably never escape the Interpol comparisons, but they could do a lot worse in terms of reference points. They may occasionally veer dangerously close to Coldplay, but they seem to reign it in just in time to keep from falling over the edge.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

30. Feist - The Reminder

This being the third female artist (out of 11) on the list so far, you may think that this is the year in which females are more highly represented than ever. You probably haven't even noticed, but if you're thinking this, you're wrong. In fact, the opposite is probably true. If you've never heard me talk or write about my unintentional prejudice against women in music, start here. I'm not going to get into it further, except to say that I like a lot of music made by female artists, but I guess it's just very infrequent that I really love them.

This album is a good reference point for the statement made in that last sentence. Similar to Regina Spektor's 2006 offering, Begin to Hope, Feist's The Reminder is front-loaded with a few songs that make me feel optimistic that this is going to be a fantastic album..."So Sorry", "I Feel it All", "The Park". But, then there's a drop-off. The difference between this and Begin to Hope (fitting title, huh?) is that the latter has a solid handful of eagles, whereas The Reminder has a bunch of really good songs and a few that drag a little. Still, it's my second favorite album of the year by an exclusively female act, which may sound patronizing, but I say that's nothing to scoff at.

29. Pelican - City of Echoes

I've certainly listened to my share of post-rock (or whatever you call it) bands, thanks to a particular rock snob friend of mine. While were on that subject, "The Rock Snob*s Dictionary" defines post-rock as follows:

"Amorphous genre born of rock-crit necessity in the nineties, mainly to explain to the skeptical public that the free-form, slo-mo noodlings of such semi-smart strivers as Tortoise and Low were not lazy, unstructured cop-out jams but the music of the twenty-first century".

Well, it's the 21st-century, and I still find that most of the stuff that falls into this "genre" just can't hold my attention for an entire album. I generally find that it's good for a 15-20 minute drive home on a cold dark night in Poughkeepsie. That's its niche. Not much potential for commercial success there.

Pelican's City of Echoes, despite its 4.4 Pitchfork rating, not only held my attention for the entire 42 minutes, but it did so again and again, and this was during the summer. Its conciseness might very well be a good reason for this. Regardless, returning to it again as I write this, I'm still digging this band's brand of heavy instrumental rock, although I'd like to suggest to them that they release their next album somewhere between November and February.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

32. Rosie Thomas - These Friends of Mine

My co-worker and I were discussing the divergence in our respective tastes in music. We do have fairly similar taste, but she really dislikes what she considers to be pretentious sounding singers. I made a reluctant comparison that I'm more emo than she is. She agreed, but cut me some slack by re-phrasing my description to say I like sentimental music more than she does. This album, and one track in particular, perfectly embodies the feeling that I'm a sucker for sentimentality.

That track is "Songbird", Rosie Thomas' interpretation of the Fleetwood Mac original. I have to admit to not being that familiar with Christine McVie's version before I heard this one. That's probably why it really hit me. Then, to be able to listen to it back-to-back with the Fleetwood Mac version, and to realize the latter is even better, is really amazing. But, that doesn't detract from the beauty of Thomas' version. Hers is played to acoustic guitar backed by subtle strings, while the Fleetwood Mac song is a piano ballad, and Rosie's voice adds a certain down-home folky charm to the song.

But, the rest of the album, although only 33 minutes in total, is really special as well. In my regular frequent spins entry in my myspace blog, I called March the best month of 2007 to that point...which isn't really saying much, but it probably hangs onto that distinction even at year end. I ranked These Friends of Mine in a three-way tie with two other female singer-songwriter albums for 5th best album of the month. As it turns out, Rosie's effort is the only of those three to have the staying power to secure a spot in my top 40.

31. Mark Olson - The Salvation Blues

Depending on your interpretation, there may be a slight factual error in my post of December 17. I've been a fan of The Jayhawks a little longer than Dinosaur Jr. Of course, The Jayhawks didn't put out an album in 2007, but co-founder Mark Olson did.

Just as I favored Jay Farrar over Jeff Tweedy in Uncle Tupelo, and J Mascis over Lou Barlow in Dinosaur Jr., I initially was a bigger fan of Mark Olson than his co-leader in The Jayhawks, Gary Louris. This changed when Olson left the band and Louris proved to be a more talented songwriter who really stood out when fronting the band on his own. Olson clearly has his niche, and that niche is in straight-up country-rock and, sometimes old-timey, folk.

The Salvation Blues is technically his first truly solo record, after several albums with his now ex-wife Victoria Williams as The Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers, Mark Olson & The Creekdippers, and just the Creek Dippers. It's also the first album since their divorce. I'm not sure why, but I was more saddened to hear of their breakup than I would have thought possible.

I have no knowledge of their relationship, but for some reason I pictured them the perfect couple, living a simple life in the California desert, barely making a living from their music, and Mark taking care of Victoria when she had setbacks due to her M.S. But, I was wrong. She filed for divorce when she found out he was shacking up with an old girlfriend. Then, the old girlfriend dumped him too. It was a rough year for Mark, so I guess this is a bit of a different kind of comeback, and a good one at that.

Roger Clemens

Alright, I need to take time out from the top 40 countdown to get back to the steroids issue. I was beginning to believe that it was becoming less and less likely that Roger Clemens' name would ever be cleared, and possibly even more unlikely that he was, in fact, innocent of the accusations. Andy Pettitte's admission of HGH use not only makes it seem more likely that his best friend in baseball was also using, but also gives some creedence to the word of Brian McNamee.

Then, Clemens issued the following statement yesterday:

"I want to state clearly and without qualification: I did not take steroids, human growth hormone or any other banned substances at any time in my baseball career or, in fact, my entire life."

There's no clever phrasing here that could be used to defend himself from being called a liar at a later date. He has stated unequivocally that he is innocent of all accusations.

So what does this mean? I don't know for sure, and I certainly am not ready to say that I believe him. I want to believe him, but I'm still skeptical. However, I hold firmly to my opinion that he needs an opportunity to present his side of the story, i.e. to refute the charges.

He also stated, "I plan to publicly answer all of those questions at the appropriate time in the appropriate way." I don't have a problem with this, although some are criticizing him for it, saying he needs to defend himself publicly rather than by issuing statements. But, this is a complicated matter, and just as the defendant in a trial has a right to not talk to the press about his case, Clemens has the right to expect that he should be given the appropriate forum.

So, what is Clemens going to do? I don't know the answer to that question, but I have what I think is an ingenious idea about what he should do.

He should announce that he's not retiring, and sign a one-year contract with the Yankees for the major league minimum. He should make it clear that he plans to pitch an even smaller portion of the season than he did last year, maybe only the final two months; That he plans to stay in shape and then begin training in the Yankees' minor league system between one and two months prior to this, or however long it takes.

Of course, this contract will be a highly incentive laden contract that pays him generously should he crack the Yankees' rotation and make it back to the major leagues. He should state publicly that he is well aware that the Yankees, as constituted right now, have six capable starting pitchers competing for five spots and there is no guarantee that he will be able to unseat any of them. But, of course, that will be his goal, that and to help the team make it back to and win another World Series.

Why would he do this when it seems ever so obvious that now is the time he should retire for good? To defend and protect his legacy, that's why. By doing so, he will be forcing Bud Selig's hand to take action based on the allegations in the Mitchell Report or not.

Selig has already stated publicly that he plans to investigate each active player named in the report and decide on any possible disciplinary action on a case-by-case basis. So, should he suspend Clemens for his involvement with steroids, Roger will utilize baseball's appeal system to its fullest extent. That will be his forum, his "appropriate time and appropriate way", to attempt to clear his name, preserve his legacy and ensure his place alongside baseball's greats in Cooperstown.

Should Selig decide not to take action, this will not allow Clemens the opportunity to make as strong a statement as if he does, but his defense will be that Major League Baseball didn't even seek to punish him for what the report claimed he was guilty of. Therefore, they determined that the case against him was weak. Why was the case against him so weak?...Clemens will ask rhetorically. Because the allegations are false, will be his answer.

Will this erase the doubts in everyone's minds, in the so-called "court of public opinion"? No, but he will have done what he said he would do, "...publicly answer all of the questions...", and it will be a much stronger statement than anyone has made in response to the steroid allegations. More importantly, it will eliminate any clearcut case against electing him to the Hall of Fame, and ensure his place in baseball history...on the basis of his performance rather than his enhancing.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

35. Handsome Furs - Plague Park

Handsome Furs is the "other" Wolf Parade side project. I say other, because after two well received albums in consecutive years, Spencer Krug's Sunset Rubdown is maybe even bigger than Wolf Parade itself. In fact, is it really a side project when they've made more albums than the main band? But that's Sunset Rubdown, and I'll be writing more about them later, so I digress.

Wolf Parade's other (there I go with that word again) front man, Dan Boeckner, is the driving force behind Handsome Furs. While Boeckner's vocals make it difficult to consider this a major departure from the band from which this project spawns, there are some considerable differences. The music is generally more stripped down, but the presence of electronic blips and drum machines make it far from an organic effort. Not as upbeat and powerful as Wolf Parade, nor as drenched in layers as Sunset Rubdown, this is still an impressive debut from a worthwhile side project. Now, I look forward to a proper Wolf Parade album this year.

34. Malcolm Middleton - A Brighter Beat

I was never really a fan of Arab Strap, but only because I was never really exposed to their music, not because I didn't like them. I still can't really say either way, but judging from Malcolm Middleton's solo output, and the fact that I've heard them referred to as Scotland's answer to Walter Becker and Donald Fagen (not just because they're both named after sexual devices), I'm pretty sure I could easily be swayed.

But, the problem is that Middleton is the Becker of Arab Strap, so who knows? Regardless, his solo albums have made me an instant fan, with 2005's Into the Woods cracking my top 20, and this impressive follow-up. You can never get enough songs about life's depressing and darker moments sung by a Scotsman as charming as Middleton. When he sings "when are you coming home...don't want to be alone" on "Fuck it, I Love You", it's hard not to want to venture out to the pub to drink a pint on his behalf. And then there's "Up Late at Night Again", as much this album's highlight as "Choir" was to Into the Woods. I dare you to listen this song without wanting a drink.

33. Radiohead - In Rainbows

I think I remember reading somewhere that this album was in danger of being overlooked musically because of all the hype surrounding it's unorthodox release. Well, so much for that. I already count it atop two critical year end lists and in 12 other top tens. That's out of 16 lists total, all aggregated on Metacritic, which leaves two in which it didn't crack the top ten. Those publications are Paste, my new favorite music magazine, and Slant, which I know little about.

In Rainbows is a good album. It's better than the new Wilco, the band I once referred to as the alt-country Radiohead. It's not OK Computer. It's not even The Bends. It's good, actually very good, with a couple weaker moments. That's all I have to say.

Monday, December 17, 2007

38. Dinosaur Jr. - Beyond

It just occurred to me that, among this year's top 40, Dinosaur Jr. is the artist I've been a fan of the longest. But, you can read about that here. As I've said before, I've always been a much bigger fan of the post-Lou Barlow Dinosaur Jr. of the early 90's than the more critically acclaimed earlier material. Well, Barlow returns, following the band's 10 year hiatus, on Beyond, and he fails to screw it up. Don't get me wrong, it's still J Mascis who gets most of the credit, but Lou's contributions aren't so bad.

While the album lacks a killer song, a la Where You Been's "Get Me" or the consistency from start to finish of Green Mind, there are still some killer tracks here, including "Almost Ready", "Pick Me Up" and "This is All I Came to Do". Overall, this is a pretty strong effort thats hearken back to the heyday...or, at least my opinion of their heyday.

37. Aqueduct - Or Give Me Death

My relationship with the music of Aqueduct could be described as a tenuous one. When I first heard 2005's I Sold Gold, I really took to it. Then, after repeated listens...maybe a few too many, in wore on me, and when it came time to elminate a few contenders from the year end list, it wasn't difficult to leave off.

The thing of it is, this is one of those bands where the vocals can really get to even a self-proclaimed lover of annoying singers, such as myself. Then, I heard Or Give Me Death early this year and I thought it was vastly superior to the last record. There was no way I was going to grow tired of this one. But, in going back to it later this year, I discovered I had. I bumped it down in the rankings from a lock to make the list to just a contender, and one that I really thought was going to miss the cut again.

Then, realizing I just wasn't in the mood for it the last few times I'd listened, I gave it another chance, and realized there is something special about this collection of quirky indie pop. There really are quite a few standouts here, including "Living a Lie", "Keep it Together", and "With Friends Like These", and it really would've been a shame to leave it out of the top 40. That's not to say, though, that I couldn't change my mind in a few months.

36. Levon Helm - Dirt Farmer

As I peruse the entire list, I notice that there are certainly a number of bands who were recommended to me at one point or another by a friend or acquaintance. But this is the only album of the 40 that was a specific recommendation by someone this year. Of course, I didn't need my friend Macee to tell me about Levon Helm, the only American member of the mostly Canadian roots rock progenitors, The Band. I knew of the album, and might have sought it out on my own, but it wasn't until she mentioned that it sounded like a really good Americana album that I decided to check it out.

I was not disappointed. The album is a collection of his interpretations of old folk and country standards, as well as a few written by more modern artists, including Steve Earle's "The Mountain" and Buddy & Julie Miller's "Wide River to Cross". Other highlights include "False Hearted Lover Blues", "Dirt Farmer" and "Got Me a Woman". All culled together these songs could represent a look back at Helm's Southern roots, but to me they're just a pure slice of Americana.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Upon finalizing my top 40 of 2007 this weekend, I have to say that this has to be the earliest I've ever completed the list. I usually spend a little more time obsessing over it, but maybe I've finally refined the process to the point that it doesn't feel like a chore. In the first few years that I did this, I wouldn't finish until a couple months into the new year. I guess I was determined to really evaluate every album and be certain of my final list. But, in reality, this is not an exact science, so I'm never really certain. And besides, my philosophy has evolved to the point where I think of my year-end compilation as the soundtrack to my year, so it just wouldn't be right if an album on my best of 2007 list was one I listened to mostly in early 2008.

A potential downside to finishing this early, of course, is that I could overlook something. But, there's always something that I'm going to overlook, and there are always going to be friends raving about albums like Sky Blue Sky and wondering why it was left off the list. So, since I've decided that nothing I've begun listening to in the past couple of weeks is a contender, I'm confident that my list is complete. So, without further adieu...

40. New Buffalo - Somewhere, Anywhere

2005 was the first year that I expanded the list beyond a top ten due to the sheer number of albums I listened to (approximately 300). Near the end of that year, there were a handful of records that I had just picked up that I labored over the decision of whether or not they would crack the list. One of those albums that eventually didn't make it, was New Buffalo's debut Last Beautiful Day. That album may actually have been a little better than this one, but the second offering from this indie folk/pop outfit does not disappoint.

I remember reading somewhere that Sally Seltmann, the singer/songwriter of New Buffalo, had written one of Feist's more popular songs. In fact, she co-wrote "1234", the song from the iPod Nano commercial. Most of this album is not as upbeat as that one, but with mellow folk/pop gems such as "Emotional Champs" and "It's Got to Be Jean", it makes for a really pleasant listen.

39. Art Brut - It's a Bit Complicated

Another case of a band whose debut may very well be the real highlight of their catalog so far, Art Brut's Bang Bang Rock & Roll made them one of Pitchfork's darlings in 2005. I listened to it once and dismissed it as solid but "not my thing". I may have been wrong.

A couple months ago, I saw this band open for The Hold Steady, and immediately sought out their sophomore effort, It's a Bit Complicated. Witty, sarcastic and simple but clever lyrics sung to hook laden guitar rock, art punk is the most common description associated with this music. Highlights include a couple of hilarious breakup songs, "People in Love" and "Post Soothing Out", and the difficult to take seriously sexuality of "Blame it on the Trains" and "Jealous Guy". It seems to me this album had the potential to be great, and I suppose I'll have to find out if the debut lives up to that potential, but in the end, it's just good clean fun...not that clean is that important to me.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Mitchell Report

It took me three hours to drive the 4+ miles home from work last night. So, between switching back and forth between the MIT and Emerson College radio stations, I listened to a lot of sports talk. That means I heard more opinions than anyone would want to on the Mitchell Report.

It's amazing how quickly Roger Clemens has been tried, convicted and sentenced in "the court of public opinion", a grossly overused phrase that, nevertheless, is almost perfectly fitting. I say this because, as far as I can tell, the Mitchell Report, released yesterday, is essentially analogous to the gathering of evidence to determine if there's enough to bring the accused to trial. Yet, it appears already that Clemens' legacy, and his status as a future Hall of Famer, is irreparably tarnished.

Maybe I'm overdoing it with this legal system analogy, but I personally think the doctrine of innocent until proven guilty shouldn't be completely disregarded when it comes to matters outside of the courts. Clemens, of course, is not the only person this applies to. He's just the one who stands to lose the most.

Consider Brian Roberts. The only mention of his name in the report is in reference to him having lunch with teammates David Segui and Larry Bigbie, and convicted steroids dealer Kirk Radomski. The following year, according to Bigbie, Roberts admitted to him that he had injected himself once or twice. That's it. In his report, Mitchell states, "I have not included every allegation that we received or the results of every interview we conducted or every document we reviewed. Inevitably, much of that information was cumulative, not relevant, or of only marginal relevance. None of it would have materially altered the account that is provided." So, based on a very weak piece of evidence, Mitchell apparently decided that it was materially relevant to include Roberts in his report.

This brings to mind two questions. First, how unsubstantial and irrelevant was the information he left out? Second, why did Mitchell consider the evidence regarding Roberts relevant? No one claims to have injected him, or to have seen him get injected, and he didn't influence anyone to begin taking steroids. Bigbie was already using on his own, according to his own admission. Was it because Mitchell considered the information relevant to the "case" (and I use that term loosely) against Bigbie? Unlikely, as Bigbie was offering him all the information he needed on himself. Or, was it that Mitchell decided to show no sympathy towards the players who declined to speak with him? I guess we'll never know. Honestly, I think it was a mistake on the part of the Players' Association to advise their members not to comply, but Mitchell's inclusion of Roberts' name is an irresponsible error in judgment, and damaging to his credibility.

Yes, I said it. I'm questioning George Mitchell's credibility. To that point, I find it interesting that there are two separate instances in the report that refer to the fact that the Red Sox front office inquired about the possible use of steroids regarding two players they were looking to acquire, Eric Gagne and Brendan Donnelly. How about that? The Sox front office should be praised for their due diligence in assuring that they fill out their roster with only players who are outstanding citizens of the game. I wonder what Mitchell's motives could have been for casting such a favorable light on Red Sox management? That's a tough one.

Who knows? I could be out of line on that previous accusation. I'd have to read the entire report to determine if there is even one mention of another team's front office making such inquiries. Or maybe it's because Mitchell has better access to the transcripts of Theo Epstein's email. But, I still find it curious.

Next, there is the matter of the type of evidence that the majority of the report is based on...statements by Kirk Radomski and Brian McNamee. Statements that, in court, would be a matter of one person's word against another's, at which point the credibility of the witness comes into question. Would Radomski and McNamee be considered highly credible witnesses? I think not. Yet, I'm already reading and hearing Roger Clemens' name being instantly lumped in with Barry Bonds'. There is a mountain of evidence that has been piling up over the past few years against Bonds. Yesterday was the first piece of concrete evidence, other than the usual speculation about body type and improved performance, against Clemens.

Let's not rush to judgment here, folks. I'm not saying Clemens is innocent. In fact, my gut tells me that time will not bring forth the kind of evidence that will exonerate the Rocket and clear his name. I just think it's irresponsible to not take a step back, review the evidence that's been put forth and wait to hear what other information is out there that we have yet to hear, maybe even what Clemens has to say in his own defense.

The most rational analysis I've read or heard since this all came down is Jayson Stark's column on I urge every serious baseball fan who wishes to develop an informed opinion on the subject to start by reading what Stark has to say. In fact, I'm going to call this required reading of anyone who wishes to discuss this issue with me. This may sound arrogant, but if you haven't read Stark's column, then don't even bring up the subject with me.

Next, read some of the report. I realize it's a monstrous 400+ page document, and I certainly don't claim to have read the entire thing myself. But, it's not difficult to think about what points of reference you're most interested in learning more about, search within the PDF for a particular term, and start reading. I guarantee this will lead you to your next curiosity, which will result in you searching on another term, and on and on from there.

When Mark McGwire received such a lack of support in his Hall of Fame bid this past year, I thought that maybe he was getting a raw deal based on what little we knew about what he was guilty of. It's not enough to say, "Look at him! He must be taking steroids!" I don't care if it's painfully obvious to you, there has to be more than that to base a credible opinion on. At the same time, I didn't disagree with voters who said that they simply wanted to wait until there was more information regarding McGwire's alleged steroid use. In that sense, they were saying they weren't certain of his Hall of Fame worthiness yet, and I don't have a problem with that.

The same applies to Clemens. If he were up for vote this year, and if I had a ballot, he would probably not be on it, simply because there's nothing wrong with making him wait a year to see how things shake out. Fortunately, we'll have five years to consider what the truth is. It's looking increasingly likely that both Clemens and Bonds will be on the ballot in January of 2013. By then, we'll probably have a pretty good idea how they will fare, but one thing's for sure...if they are both denied entrance, it will be a sad reminder of how this era has left us with no idea of who is great and who isn't. Because if those two can't be considered legends, then who can?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Best of 2007

Well, it's almost time for the annual ritual of celebrating my favorite albums of the year. Let me reality, I spend the entire year obsessing over this process. Now is the time that I share my list with friends and whomever else might be vaguely interested.

This year I've only listened to 240 new releases. That's not necessarily the final number, but it pales in comparison to last year's 400 and doesn't really come close to the prior year's 300 either. For that reason, this year's list will be a top 40 rather than a top 50. Frankly, I feel that most of the records that would be filling out numbers 41-50 are really nothing to rave about, so I'm going to opt for a little more quality over quantity. Besides, there's something that just feels right about a top 40. I'm sure Kasey Kasem would agree.

I'm actually pretty close to completing this year's list...definitely a little earlier than usual. The most recent albums that I got a little excited about have already faded, and after sorting through...wouldn't you know it...50 contenders, I have it narrowed down to 42. In fact, I'm still deciding the final order of #s 1-7, but I also need to complete a final evaluation of #s 35-42 and my list will be complete.

But nobody really cares about this. If you care at all, it's about the actual list, not the process. So, as soon as I'm finished with the aforementioned final evaluation, I'll be counting them down...right here. I'm feeling ambitious right now (although there is still much Christmas shopping to finish), so I'm planning to do a brief writeup for each album. This could be a short review, a comparison of how the album stacks up versus the artist's prior work, or a description of my own experience with and/or enjoyment of the record.

I'm looking forward to getting started. Please check back shortly.