Monday, December 31, 2007

My Favorite Albums of 2007

Most of the time, I really don’t like top ten lists. I’d much rather make a list of 10 albums, movies, or whatever else I liked from the year regardless of rank. However, I do still think in my head about where I would rank albums over others. Since that’s going on in my head, despite my best efforts I make ranked lists at the end of each year. I make my lists based on what I liked from the year, and not on what hot, buzzed-about band every zine and blog goes crazy over that particular year. You're not going to find any Animal Collective, Panda Bear, or LCD Soundsystem on here, I just don't like any of that enough to even consider putting it on a list. I respect those releases, but when I do stuff like this, its about what I like.

I think this year has been a pretty good one for music. A lot of times you hear in the press that the year sucked for music, that ten or twenty years ago there was a much higher mean quality of music, but I tend to disagree. I can always find ten albums that I believe legitimately deserve to be remembered from the year, and 2007 is no exception. Here is my list of my top 10 favorite albums of the past twelve months:

10. Bright Eyes – Cassadaga

Conor Obherst finally dropped the boy wonder label with this release, recorded all over the country while he recovered from addictions he suffered from on the tours following his two releases in 2005. The album sounded mature, unwavering, soulful, and honest. I saw him play a concert at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, and with an orchestra behind him Obherst brings the house down on these tracks. It’s great to see him being experimental with his sound while his lyrics add much welcomed maturity to their originality and poetry.

9. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible

When I first heard the album, I didn’t really like it except the only previously released song “No Cars Go” because that song is to this day my favorite Arcade Fire track. Over the course of the year though, the album grew on me and deepened in the same way the band changed “No Cars Go” from its first incarnation into the thundering, string heavy, powerful barnburner it is on Bible. They transcended the sophomore slump, and I can’t wait to hear what they’ve got in store for their next, most likely even more ambitious disc.

8. Arctic Monkeys – Favourite Worst Nightmare

One of my favorite songs from the year is “Fluorescent Adolescent,” and these English boys delivered another album full of great images of their travels. From the description of a friend in “Brianstorm” to a warning of hometown fans in “If You Were There, Beware” the whole album tells a great series of stories. It moves along at a masterful pace for the first six tracks, takes a break on “Only Ones Who Know” and then plunges into another race until the last track “505.” The last four songs are still the best ending to an album I’ve heard in a very long time.

7. Paramore – Riot!

Sometimes all you want to do when you listen to music is have fun, and no record I heard this year did that better than Riot!, the second album from Paramore. It’s loud, raucous, raging, pulsing, and just a huge good time of an album. It’s full of punchy guitars and loud, fast choruses, and I loved every one of them.

6. Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova, & Interference – Once Soundtrack

I love the film for what it is, but it is undeniable that what gave Once its strength was the quality of the songs written for the film by Hansard and Irglova. Achingly powerful in their raw energy, Hansard belts his lungs out on songs like “Leave” and “Say It To Me Now,” but it is the chemistry between Hansard and Irglova (now an official couple off the set of the film) makes “Falling Slowly” and “When Your Mind’s Made Up” some of the best songs ever written for a film. I have no qualms about saying this is the best film soundtrack for popular music since Purple Rain.

5. Radiohead – In Rainbows

It’s on almost everyone else’s year end lists, and if I were to make a list of the most important releases of the year, this would without a doubt be at the top. I love Radiohead, I can’t stop following them down the creative rabbit hole they’ve made for themselves with every successive album. I marvel at the way they are able to go in almost any direction and make a great work of art. This time around they made their most cohesive, thematically tight album since OK Computer. No album Radiohead makes sounds like a previous work, so comparison to a different album’s sound is almost pointless, but taken as another fantastic album in a series, In Rainbows stands above a lot of the bands’ recent work.

4. Bloc Party – A Weekend in the City

A lot of people were turned off by the direction Bloc Party took with their sophomore disc. Kele Okereke chose to create a cohesive, story oriented album about life in a metropolis. Since their debut was such a party-oriented, fun-filled rock fest, this understandably turned a good amount of people off; but those that stuck around were rewarded with a fantastic concept album that plays through better with every subsequent listen. Okereke is clearly scared of London and the life that city fosters in people. The Xenophobia present in "The Prayer" and "Where is Home?" is palpable, with the fear and terror coming through in the music. The rest of the band kept the sound very tight, with Matt Tong's drumming still ranking with the best around. I heard this album develop from the early live debuts of some of the tracks, and the lyric changes only made the album better. If Silent Alarm was the sound of a late-night party, then A Weekend in the City is the sound of knowing you have to eventually leave hat party and walk home through the dark and unfriendly city. Bloc Party captured life in a big city better than any band since The Clash in London Calling, and it'll probably be another thirty years before anyone gets this close again.

3. Daphne Loves Derby – Good Night, Witness Light

They’re my favorite band for a reason, and every song on here resonates with me in a deeper way than anything I heard all year. These boys from the Seattle area possess some of my favorite indie rock ever made, and front man Kenny Choi really got poetic with his lyrics this time around. The title was named after a line from a Robert Frost poem, and the rest of the lyrics grapple with personal issues and finding a place in the world. I’ve loved this band ever since I first heard them as a wide eyed high school sophomore, and I haven’t stopped since.

2. Rilo Kiley – Under the Blacklight

Longtime fans of the band were up in arms over the sound of the first single off this record, “Moneymaker”, but in retrospect all the criticisms of the album and the new direction the band took seem insignificant in light of the masterful piece of pop music they created. It’s a portrait of Los Angeles, but also a perfectly crafted breakup album of Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett, the worst band mate breakup since Gwen Stefani and that bassist from No Doubt. Instead of just getting “Don’t Speak” out of it, Rilo Kiley got an entire album full of great tracks that fly by over Under the Blacklight’s short running time. Everything about the band over the past few years is examined in the lyrics and sound of these songs, and everything is fantastic.

1. Bloc Party – Another Weekend in the City

Some people might see this as cheating, but I don't give a damn. From the first time I read about the amount of b-sides Bloc Party was putting on different releases of A Weekend in the City I was ready to listen. The idea made fiscal sense because the actual album had been leaked in December of 2006, but it also was sonically different from what made it onto their sophomore album. Instead of being tight thematically in line with songs about a foreboding metropolis, these tracks were more akin to their debut, full of carefree, ballsy, danceable rock. When I first saw the band, it was the first time I had danced through the entire set of a rock band, and I loved that feeling. Listening to these tracks, in the order originally postulated on the Good, the Bad, & the Unknown the week of the emergence of the tracks, I can't believe that a band could release an amazing concept album, but have an equal amount of great rock-out tracks just waiting in the wings. Yes, the album is unofficial, as is the title, tracklisting, and album cover, but I didn't listen any album by any band, new, established, favorite or otherwise than this collection of 11 Bloc Party "b-sides." Considering the quality of all the tracks Bloc Party has released as so-called "b-sides," including "Two More Years" "Tulips" "Flux" and the entirety of these tracks, I have a hard time coming up with a single song they've created that isn't a great one.

Monday, December 24, 2007

My Christmas Playlist

I never really kept up with my promise of posting Christmas songs, so I'm going to do it in one large playlist. These are my all-time favorite Christmas songs. Some are classics, some are alternative covers, and a few are original Christmas songs that I personally enjoy. May they bring you a little joy during what little of the Christmas season is left.

Hanson - Merry Christmas Baby (the guiltiest pleasure on this list, but it's from what I consider one of the greatest Christmas albums of all time...)
Phantom Planet - Winter Wonderland
Sufjan Stevens - O Come O Come Emmanuel
Sufjan Stevens - That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!
Elvis Presley - Here Comes Santa Claus
The Jackson 5 - Santa Claus is Comin' To Town
Nat King Cole - The Christmas Song
The Beach Boys - Little Saint Nick (the Californian in me can't resist the idea of hearing this song on a beach in the sun when the rest of the country is covered in snow)
Paul McCartney - Wonderful Christmastime
Britney Spears - My Only Wish (in retrospect, she obviously wants to wish for more than this for Christmas...perhaps some sanity for starters...)
Relient K - the 12 Days of Christmas
Chris Ayer - Wintertime
Daphne Loves Derby - Silent White Christmas Night (my favorite Christmas song, ever.)
Daphne Loves Derby - Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
Gatsby's American Dream - Christmas Time Is Here
Bright Eyes - Blue Christmas
Alvin & the Chipmunks - The Christmas Song
Fall Out Boy - Yule Shoot Your Eye Out
Trans-Siberian Orchestra - Christmas (Sarajevo 12/24)
Mariah Carey - All I Want For Christmas Is You

Happy Holidays

An Early Xmas Gift: A Guest Top 25

Since I got home for Christmas I've essentially stopped posting. I needed a break, but the small readership of this blog has suffered. In any case, in the next few days I will hopefully have a ton of new posts up, starting with my second ever guest post. My friend Jake listens to way more music than I do, and has sent me his Top 25 albums of the year. While I don't agree with all of them, I'm posing them because I strongly believe in having more than one opinion out there. Check out the year-end accumulations over at Metacritic to see most of the media's top albums.

Jake's Top 25 Albums of 2007

25. The Silent Years- “The Silent Years”
24. Sunset Rubdown- “Random Spirit Lover”
23. Dinosaur Jr- “Beyond”
22. Blacks Lips- “Good Bad Not Evil”
21. Dan Deacon- “Spiderman of the Rings”
20. A Place to Bury Strangers- “A Place to Bury Strangers”
19. !!!- “Myth Takes”
18. Iron & Wine- “The Shepherd’s Dog”
17. The Clientele- “God Save the Clientele”
16. Menomena- “Friend or Foe”
15. Wu-Tang Clan- “8 Diagrams”
14. Spoon- “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga”
13. Battles- “Mirrored”
12. Beirut- “The Flying Club Cup”
11. White Rabbits- “Fort Nightly”

10. Deerhoof- “Friend Opportunity”
I’ve been a Deerhoof fan for as long as I can remember, and this album definitely satisfied my hunger for their new album. The Runners Four is great, but I think this even surpasses it in terms of a complete album. Considering this came out in January, it’s impressive that when making this list I immediately thought of “Friend Opportunity.”

9. The Fiery Furnaces- “Widow City”
OK, this is no Blueberry Boat, but what is? The Fiery Furnaces, no matter what, will always make a f*cking sweet album. Honestly, I was kind of disappointed and it’s still my 9th favorite of the year. Musically, this album is up there with their best; however, it lacked the completeness that I felt from Blueberry Boat and Gallowsbird’s Bark. Still, awesome.

8. Papercuts- “Can’t Go Back”
I listened to this album well after everyone else did, so I feel a little guilty putting it in my top 10. But it’s so f*cking great, that I couldn’t resist. If anyone puts this album as their number 1, you have no arguments from this guy. From the intense lyrics in the opener “Dear Employee” to the haunting “Unavailable,” this album has a song for anyone who likes music. First time I put this on my iPod, I listened all the way through like I do with every first listen, unless it frustrates me (aka “American Gangster” and “Places Like This”). I then listened to it two more times (Yeah, I have a lot of time on my hands); that’s how good this album is.

7. Liars- “Liars”
Best two track opening to an album of the year, and probably the last 2 years although the Junior Boys may have a good case. Once you play those two songs over and over again, you can finally continue and you’re in for a treat. Great lyrics, wonderful guitar work, just solid in every area.

6. The Besnard Lakes- “Are the Dark Horses”
My “dark horse” of this list is this Canadian group. No words can really describe the feeling I get when I hear this album, but the last two minutes of the second track “For Agent 13” may be my favorite part of any song this year. I was glad to see the Lakes get some recognition in some reviews for the great album they made. I’m expecting big things from these guys in the future.

5. The Arcade Fire- “Neon Bible”
Ahhh The Arcade Fire, the new “kings” of indie rock. Funeral is a tough album to follow up, but Win Butler and crew did an admirable job with Neon Bible. Although I hated the first track, “Black Mirror,” every other track on the disc is superb. From the up-tempo “Keep the Car Running” to the beautiful duet “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations,” Neon Bible appealed to all music tastes, which is fucking impressive these days with all the pretentious assholes out there (not excluding myself).

4. Radiohead- “In Rainbows”
I mean, what’s there to say? You might say it’s no Kid A or OK Computer, but what’s that supposed to mean? Nothing will ever be anything like those albums.

3. LCD Soundsystem- “Sound of Silver”
James Murphy just rocked my world with the opening track “Get Innocuous.” Once I heard that track, I figured the disc would just go downhill, which somehow he managed to avoid. I didn’t really like the last two tracks, otherwise it would have been number 1. Still, awesome work by Murphy.

2. Of Montreal- “Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?”
Not to be a dick, but I wish Kevin Barnes would be depressed more often. OK, Of Montreal has made some f*cking amazing albums, but this is my favorite of all of them. Although some of the lyrics may be depressing, how can you not dance to most of these songs, or at least move around? When I’m driving listening to this album, I’m dangerous. It didn’t hurt either that track 7 is my favorite song of the year.

1. Okkervil River- “The Stage Names”
What are you talking about? Okkervil River? Really? Have you looked at your list? In a year where you were all into the dance, upbeat shit, this is your favorite? Well, I don’t know what to tell you. They’ve made 5 albums, and the only other one I like was the 2005 disc Black Sheep Boy, which honestly was a completely different album. I was immediately drawn in by the opening track “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe.” It’s such a pessimistic album, while at the same time cheerful. Being able to achieve such a difficult thing to do made for a much more enjoyable listen. Well done, OR.

There you have it, Jake's top albums of the year. I'll admit I haven't listened to a lot of them, and when I post my top 10 it will be relatively clear that I liked much different stuff, but there's a lot of great music on here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Why I Loved The Dolphins Win

Sunday saw the Miami Dolphins win their first game of the 2007 NFL season to avoid the possibility of being the first team to go 0-16 in the history of the league. It was an amazing evasion of futility, and while a lot of people thought the celebrations got out of hand, I thought it was a great story. However, my favorite part of the win was not the Dolphins avoiding a completely defeated season, it wasn't the undefeated '72 Dolphins being on hand for their 35th anniversary, it wasn't any of those big stories. My favorite part of that whole game was the man that caught the 64 yard touchdown in overtime to win the game: Greg Camarillo.

Most people have no idea who Camarillo is, and seeing as how half the Dolphins are no name players due to massive injuries to the starters I'm not that surprised. But I've known who Greg Camarillo was since I was in middle school. He's the son of Susan Camarillo, a woman who worked at my middle school as a counselor, and who I knew very well for three years. Here's what I know of her son's story:

He went to Menlo-Atherton High School, right down the road from where I went to high school in Atherton, California. He went on to college at Stanford, where he walked onto the football team just as the Tyrone Willingham era had ended, the coach bolted for Notre Dame, and the Buddy Teevens & Walt Harris tenures began. Camarillo played so well at tight end that he was given a scholarship for his later years on the team, and was given a fifth year of eligibility due to injury. After completing his college career, he ended up on the practice squad for the San Diego Chargers, and that was the last I had heard of him until Sunday when I watched him take a pass and run all the way down the field to give the Dolphins their first win in almost a year.

It's extraordinarily satisfying to know his story; to have seen someone take a different route into a meaningful place in the NFL. Camarillo didn't get a scholarship out of high school football, didn't get drafted, didn't have anything handed to him in any way to give him a chance to shine, but he still carved a place for himself in a way many players who have coasted through to a professional career haven't been able to. Yes, the Dolphins suck, and yes, when the starters come back from injuries Camarillo will most likely be headed back to the practice squad. But there's no way fans in Miami will forget the players responsible for keeping them from utter humiliation in the 2007 season. Greg Camarillo's name will be remembered, and I think he's very deserving of that.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Review: Juno

If I were to offer any complaint about the smash summer comedy Knocked Up, it would be that it is from the perspective of the guy that donates the seed, instead of following the woman who gets knocked up. That small problem is rectified in Juno, the new film from Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking) written by newcomer Diablo Cody and starring Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, and Jason Bateman.

Almost any kind of simple plot synopsis wouldn't really do this film justice. Basically, Page plays Juno, a high schooler who has sex with her best fried (Cera) and gets pregnant. She decides to keep the baby and let a childless couple (Garner & Bateman) adopt it. Those two sentences don't even begin to describe how brilliant this film is though; it really exceeding every gigantic expectation I had when I walked into a preview screening in downtown Chicago a few weeks ago.

I am a huge fan of Arrested Development, so it was great to see Michael Cera and Jason Bateman in the same movie again, even though they didn't share any screen time. They are both great at being either leading men or filling character holes, and Juno is filled to the brim with quirky, indie characters that fill every niche in the indie-movie blueprint. There's a dog-obsessed stepmother, a vulgar friend, and a host of other small parts that get great lines courtesy of Cody's incisive and side-splitting screenplay.

Diablo Cody was hand-picked to write Steven Spielberg's next project after this movie, and she's got a host of other projects in the works specifically because of how amazing this script turned out. It feels very hip, but very easy going, flowing easily from one fantastic line to the next. Garner and Bateman get great exposition as a wife increasingly ready to be a mother and a husband who isn't sure but doesn't say it.

The soundtrack is also an amazing mix of indie rock you probably have never heard of. Kimya Dawson and The Moldy Peaches provide many of the songs on the advice of Page that they would be what the actual Juno MacGuff would listen to. The songs fit perfectly into the color scheme, attitude, and tempo of the film. You can find my favorite song from the soundtrack at the bottom of this post.

The script, soundtrack, and all the rest of the performances aside, Ellen Page is front and center for the entire film and carries it the whole way. She is nothing short of amazing for the full running time, careening from emotional high to low with incredible accuracy. This is the kind of exposition I wish we saw of Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up. Juno is dealing with an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy, being in love with her best friend, going through high school, and growing up. As she says to her father, "I don't really know what kind of girl I am yet." That Juno is still figuring her life and finds a way through a difficult pregnancy, and we believe it every step of the way is a credit to Reitman, Cody, and especially Page.

I implore each and every one of you to go out and see this film. It's definitely one of the best of the year, and provides a great, possibly superior complement to Knocked Up. See it at all costs, you'll be hearing about it for months, and Page, Cera, Cody, and Reitman will be riding the wave this movie creates for years to come.

The Moldy Peaches - Anyone Else But You

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Songs for the Season

Today I'm posting some of my favorite songs to listen during the Christmas season that aren't necessarily covers of Christmas carols. Most of the time, I don't really like original songs that are about the Christmas season (case and point, The Killers "A Great Big Sled"), but other times something just strikes me the right way.

New Found Glory - Ex' Miss

One of my greatest guilty pleasures is New Found Glory out of Coral Springs, FL. I've listened to them since seventh grade, and I never plan on stopping. This song is about a hated ex-girlfriend during the holiday season, as opposed to just a hated ex-girlfriend, like about 60% of NFG's other songs, and roughly that percentage in the genre as a whole. I still love it though, especially the "Jingle Bells" guitar solo.

The Matches - December Is For Cynics

Who could resist a song that suggests its listeners "get high on art supplies"? That's my favorite line from this Oakland, CA band's wintertime song. I saw them play a private party at a club in Palo Alto once, and they were great. Very energetic, personable, but they did play a private show for two girls having an 18th birthday party, so they were thinking about the money on that decision. To be honest, this is my favorite song by The Matches, but their second album Decomposer has some pretty solid stuff on it.

Fountains of Wayne - Valley Winter Song

I cannot listen to this song without thinking of a log cabin out in the wilderness being covered by a snowstorm. Listen to this song and try not to have that visual stuck in your head. Impressively, this song is actually about seasonal affective disorder during the winter, but it remains a happy, wintery pop tune. I really enjoyed listening to it while I was watching the first snow of the year here in Evanston a couple days ago.

Monday, December 3, 2007

A Viral Music MySpace?

I was reading Another Form of Relief the other day, and they had a post up about this girl Laura Hocking. She's a Cambridge grad, living and performing in England for a while.

What I was intrigued by was not just that her songs are fantastic, not just that she's giving away fourteen tracks for free downloading, but that she's spread the music out over three different MySpace accounts with three similar names.

From what I can gather the project is titled Laura Sings L*ver, with that * being replaced by an o, e, or i for each of her sites.

The simple guitar+vocals formula works really well; I think she sounds a bit like Regina Spektor with a guitar instead of a piano, what with the quirky sounding voice and staccato delivery. My only complaint is that I wish there was some other place I could find the rest of the songs that belong to the album these free downloads do. If anyone tracks those down, let me know. For now, just take a listen to a few of her songs I really liked, and then go download the rest off of her sites.

Laura Hocking - Leonie Lauder's Morning Jaunt
Laura Hocking - Swim Thru
Laura Hocking - Strongmen and Acrobats

Saturday, December 1, 2007

My Favorite Time of Year

Today is December 1st, the beginning of my favorite month of the year, leading up to my favorite holiday: Christmas. Over the course of the next 24 days I will put up at least 12 of my favorite Christmas tracks, as well as my year-end lists for my favorite movies and albums of the year.

We start with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and possibly the most epic Christmas song ever. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra is made up of almost all the members of prog-rock outfit Savatage, but this incarnation of the band has been much more successful due to its grandiose takes on Christmas material. "Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)" is perhaps their most well-known song, and it's the only epic Christmas tune I really like. The guitars screech all over the place, and it makes you just want to experience the band live with thousands of people around you. Take a listen, and get ready for the holiday season.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra - Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)