Thursday, December 06, 2007

Best Music 2007

About a month ago, my friend Paul wrote about 2007 being a down year for music. I have to agree. I’ve been buying fewer CDs, and enjoying the ones I do buy less, than at any point I can remember. Part of this, I am sure, is my fault; I’m getting older, more set in my ways, and less willing to give new things a chance. But how to explain that I got plenty excited about a lot of songs, but not about very many albums? This is completely out of character for me. It makes me think that maybe, in an iPod world, musicians have stopped trying to make those other ten tracks on an album count. For people like me, who live for those ten tracks no one else ever hears, this is a major blow.

Still, there were a few albums this year that managed to rattle my cage. So, in no particular order, here are my top five of 2007. (Visit 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds for Paul's top ten.)

Arcade Fire: Neon Bible
If I listened to this album every day I think I would have driven off a cliff by now, but there’s no denying the power of Arcade Fire’s second full album. The lyrics and music capture the paranoia and fear of living in Bushworld ’07, a land of bogeymen propped up by liars competing with actual threats that pop up seemingly around every turn. The killer track is “Windowsill,” in which lead singer Win Butler concludes a long list of things he doesn’t want with the tear-inducing (for me, at least) words, “I don’t want to be an American no more.” For a man who considers the Constitution a holy document, them’s fightin’ words—but who can blame Butler?

The Shins: Wincing the Night Away
Even this gem wasn’t perfect enough for me—Chutes Too Narrow really had me expecting divinity—but “Australia” and “Phantom Limb” are so darn good and the connective tissue of the rest of the album is very strong. Also, give this enough spins and I think you’ll begin to suss out a theme!

Spoon: Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Not the deepest title, is it? But for half an hour this is just one big happy rocker, and, like a large penis, that is always welcome. (That joke will make sense only to those who have watched Rome. But isn’t it true regardless?) Yet there are moments of depth, and this was one of two albums on the list to feature a song with minimal lyrics that absolutely mesmerized me: “It’s just my Japanese cigarette case / Bring a mirror to my face / Let all my memories be gone.” I’m no drug user, but who hasn’t had a day that made you feel like that?

Iron and Wine: The Shepherd’s Dog
Sam Beam continues to astonish me at every turn. To go from the whipering bard of his first album to this bold experimental work and not drop a single clunker along the way is no mean feat! Here he pulls out steel guitar and jazz piano and yet his whisper is still the star of the show. Tremendous.

LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver
I bought this on a whim because I remembered playing the last LCD Soundsystem album during a dinner party two years ago and finding that everyone seemed to dig it. Little did I know that James Murphy had concocted a meditation on growing up set to danceable beats. One song has only the following lyrics: “Sound of silver, talk to me/ Makes you want to feel like a teenager/ Until you remember the feelings of/ A real live emotional teenager/ Then you think again.” Madness—but so true!

A list of only five albums doesn’t mean I didn’t like anything else in 2007! Amy Winehouse made a fine album with a few transcendent cuts; I can only hope people who are waiting for her next album are giving Dusty Springfield a chance while they wait.

“Four Winds” by Bright Eyes just about puts tears in my eyes every time I hear it; this is what people were talking about when they called him the next Dylan back at the turn of the millennium.

Parts of the Modest Mouse album thrilled me, and I can’t help singing along to “Effect and Cause” at the end of the new White Stripes album. “Radio Nowhere” kicks off the new Springsteen album with a shot, and even after hearing it during the World Series about a thousand times I still like it.

Kelly Clarkson’s album flopped, but “Never Again” was filled with a gleaming rage that I just get. And another Idol alum, Elliott Yamin, made a pretty good album, too, that actually seemed to get the radio airplay it deserved. Take that, Taylor and Katherine! (And Jordin, and Blake, and...why am I still watching that show?)

Ryan Adams returned after more than a year without an album and delivered a strong one, though it did more to make me re-listen to all his old stuff than to get me to play it.

Oh, and Rufus Wainwright made an album that held my interest, at least for a while. I still can’t get enough of “Release the Stars,” in which I swear he slurs the lyric “So why not just release the gates and let them all come out?” so that you hear “release the gays.” What a joke on Hollywood in a year when letting the gays out was a big topic of conversation! Oh, and “Between my Legs” is so deliciously naughty and derivative of Phantom of the Opera to boot that I can’t help but recommend it.

What did I miss? Feel free to give me grief in the comments…

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Best of the Rest, 2007

Traditionally this would be where I'd give you a list of my favorite music in a variety of categories. (Paul has the whole deal up on 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds.) But, as you'll see when you read the Best of 2007 post, this was no ordinary year. And so, I have but one recommendation to offer in this space this year. It's about my best concert experience--but you can share it with me, even though it took place way back in May.

It was my first time hearing Bernard Haitink conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the program was a doozy: Bruckner's 7th Symphony. I arrived excited to see Haitink, enthused about our seats (we'd finally made the switch from the upper balcony to the lower and expected a better view and better listening experience), and delighted with the piece about to be performed.

Wouldn't you know it? For once, I went into something with high hopes and was still completely blown away. Haitink had me at hello, and for almost 70 minutes I was enraptured. I've been going to more and more classical concerts every year since I moved back to Chicago in 2003, and over time I've had plenty of great experiences; I chronicled one transcendent night at Ravinia in 2006 and I can remember plenty of others (Marin Alsop's rendition of Tchaikovsky 4, Pierre Boulez's Mahler 7, Paavo Jarvi's night of two Concertos for Orchestra, one Bartok, the other Lutoslawski...). But on May 12 of this year, for the first time, something incredible happened.

I cried.

Those who know me know that I cry easily; the wrong song on the radio, or a sad ending to a movie or TV show, is all it takes. But at a concert? Of music that ostensibly has no set meaning?

And yet, when the piece drew to a close, there the tears were, in my eyes, welling up even through thunderous applause.

And why, you ask, do you care? Because for once, I can share my concert experience with you. The CSO has released a recording of that very performance. It's the second release on its new CSO Resound label, and the first to be released as a Super Audio CD. You can buy it here. I cannot promise that it will bring tears to your eyes, but if it does, you've been warned.