Having done it for 2006, and it now being nearly two weeks in to 2008, it must be time for me to post a list of my favorite popular musical recordings of 2007. That is what weblogs are for, is it not?
Your results may vary, and heaven knows only a few of the following have found a place on more prominent "best of the year" lists, but these are the collections that I have most enjoyed listening to this past year, and that I expect will continue in my ears for years to come. (That 2006 list has held up very well, in my opinion.) In most cases, I have accompanied my comments with authorized MP3 exemplars of the music in question. In the continuation of this post -- the Listful Appendix -- I have compiled supplemental links to relevant videos and live Daytrotter sessions.
Listening Listfully -- foolish favorites of 2007
Not appearing on any other year-end list that has caught my eye, this is the easy choice for my personal favorite new music of 2007. Clocking in at nearly 75 minutes and interleaving songs (with words for titles) and instrumental interludes (titled with strings of punctuation marks), With my left hand... absorbs and appropriates a century or more of introspective and crafty musical influences: echoes of everything from Satie and Debussy to high Minimalism (Harold Budd, Terry Riley, Steve Reich) to Aaron Copland via Randy Newman to anonymous late night Brill Building troubadors reaching for a flask of comfort. And yet, Doveman sounds only like itself. Himself. Whatever.
The Doveman name in this case encompasses the core of Thomas Bartlett on piano and vocals and Sam Amidon on banjo and such, with Peter Ecklund on muted nocturnal cornet, and other assorted collaborators, and the end of all their exploration is a music of moody and extraordinary beauty. Meditative, gorgeous, riveting -- really not, I think, to be missed.
- Doveman - ... [and] Sunrise (Medley) [MP3 link]
In contrast to Doveman, The National is all over the year-end lists -- and with good reason. If John Cheever and Don DeLillo formed a band . . . and Doveman's Thomas Bartlett sat in on piano . . . it would probably sound like this. "Underlying everything, I'm a professional/In my beloved white shirt." Earnest, edgy, ecstatic music for grownups, and for those still wrestling with being or becoming grownups. It's good to be a grownup.
- The National - Fake Empire [MP3 link]
Post-X, John Doe has retained the fire of his punk years while continuing to improve his already strong skills as a songwriter and singer, working in a country-leaning vein as he maps the often-troubled heart of California and the west. While he can be unapologetically bleak ("The Meanest Man in the World," "Unforgiven"), he can be unapologetically optimistic as well ("Darling Underdog"). He is at his best somewhere in between, in the land of troubled but potentially salvageable relationships as in "The Golden State." Writing on eMusic, Karen Schoemer beamed: "If Bob Dylan or Neil Young made an album this good, it would win a Grammy." Very little overstatement there.
Glorious bittersweet perfectly off-kilter pop, echoing a century of songcraft with particular debts owed to the music hall and Tin Pan Alley schools beloved of Harry Nilsson and Alan Price. I grow more fond of this collection every time I hear it. By turns swooning and cynical, hopeless and vital. Mr. Daytrotter, Sean Moeller, writes with justifiable enthusiasm: "May the blessed Santa Claus give Richard Swift the power and dexterity he needs to get back to work on what likely will be another masterpiece."
- Richard Swift - Kisses For The Misses [mp3 link]
Zach Condon collects field recordings of alternative universes. In this case, he sends dispatches back from a Monet-bespangled France of the turn of the last century, all its wars behind it and none ahead: France as the land of the Hundred Years' Peace. It's all Sundays in the parc avec Georges, ma cherie, from here on in; luxe, calme et volupté till les vaches come home.
- Beirut - A Sunday Smile [MP3 link]
I can't say as I am able to account for the Samuel Beckett reference in the album title, because the meaninglessness of life is not a particularly prominent theme here. The Broken West was formerly known as The Brokedown, and under that name I enthused in their general direction back in the summer of '05 when they were still unsigned. That condition was corrected by the good folks at Merge, and in the spring of '07 they released this very satisfying debut. Perfect driving with the top down music, and easily the least melancholy collection on this list.
- The Broken West - Down in the Valley [MP3 link]
Speaking of melancholy: If Eeyore was a singer-songwriter . . . . No no, that's not fair. Steve Adey sounds extraordinarily gloomy, but the glint at the kindling of hope is not too hard to find in this collection. Last July, I praised his elegy for Jeff Buckley, "Mississippi." It and the other originals on All Things Real are well worth the listening, but the high points may actually be a pair of covers: a version of Will Oldham's "I See a Darkness" that can stand honorably beside Johnny Cash's rendition and, above all, a remarkable take on "Shelter From the Storm," slowed down to the pace of a slow hymn, running twice as long as Dylan's original, looking each verse straight in the eye, and accompanied by a piano part right out of "Let It Be." Gloomy, yes, but compellingly so.
A splendid flash back to the good bits of the dread Progressive Rock: complicated pan-global cross-rhythms, chanting, children's choruses, and the spirit of Terrapin Station period Grateful Dead. Always threatening to run off the rails into empty-headed hippy-dom, but never quite doing it. To paraphrase Phil Collins' Genesis, the album is "alive at both ends, but a little dead in the middle," but those two ends are well worth a visit.
If Doveman is Thomas Bartlett with Sam Amidon, Samamidon is Sam Amidon with Thomas Bartlett. Consisting largely of skeletal rendering of traditional folk songs, with a smattering of originals and a deeply skeehawed version of Tear for Fears' "Head Over Heels," Chicken is music for the broad flat windy prairies of the soul.
- Samamidon - Tribulation [mp3 link]
A special case because Ash Wednesday featured as the strong Number 2 choice on my 2006 list. It returns here because the album actually received its official release in February 2007. I am happy to stand by my assessment from last February. I can only excuse the omission of this collection from other year-end lists by assuming that it came out too long ago to be remembered, which is a feeble excuse at best.
Under his band-based moniker of Elvis Perkins in Dearland, Mr. Perkins recently released a jaunty, Carnivale-styled performance of his "All the Night Without Love," which is available more or less exclusively via *
[* Psssst! In a handy bit of synchronicity, I find that KCRW posted the new version of "All the Night . . ." via it's Top Tune podcast just yesterday. So much for exclusivity, eh?]
More old school Proginess, this time drawing on the discipline and precision side of King Crimson and Yes, but without the Stonehenge-y mysticism that mars much of that period. Ghosts are alluded to, but only to assure us they don't exist. It is not a strike against Planet of Ice that the vocals would be right at home on an Alan Parsons Project album. Someone has compared this to Steely Dan as well, and that is not a bad thing either. Cool, in every sense.
- Minus the Bear - Throwin' Shapes [MP3 link]
Bryan Ferry has been covering Bob Dylan since the first track of his first solo album, his seering version of "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall." This is not so much a really good album of Dylan covers as it is a really strong Bryan Ferry album on which all the songs happen to be Dylan songs. Ferry's version of "Gates of Eden" is worth the visit in itself, and his rendition of "To Make You Feel My Love" is the only one I've heard that makes entirely credible a song that is, for Dylan, rather a bit of hackwork.
13. Michael Bach -- Over and Over EP
Not really an album at all, and available only as an entirely free download directly from the artist, via the Wild Geese collective. From northern Sweden
(Malmö, I believe)*, Michael Bach records spare, melancholy songs all on his own in Stockholm, and puts them up for all who care to listen. A little sunnier than Ingmar Bergman, but only slightly. Equally lovely though, like white plaster walls on a very bright but very cold day in winter.
[*I have been corrected on this point in a very kind email from the artist, thanking me for my mention of him here.]
- Michael Bach - Over and Over [MP3 link]
BellCurve encompasses the component parts of Brook's already quite-good 2006 album RockPaperScissors as remixed and reimagined by producer John Hood. The vistas get slightly grander, the gestures get slightly broader, the vocal parts mostly disappear -- including, regrettably, the excerpt from Richard Burton's reading of Under Milkwood that was featured in the original version of "DarkerRoom" -- and the end result is an immersive tone poem for guitars, percussion and electronics.
- Michael Brook - LightStar II [MP3 link]
15. Ken Layne & the Corvids' Transcontinental would have had a place somewhere in the middle of this list, but for the fact that it doesn't officially exist. Pity.
The Listful Appendix of videos and live recordings follows along below.
The Listful Appendix
PART I: Daytrotter Sessions featuring fool-endorsed artists
The Broken West:
PART II: Video
Bonus: Elvis performs "It's Only Me" in the back of a black cab in Black Cab Sessions #16.
Videos by Thomas Bartlett's brother (aka fast boy) for each of the songs (or excerpts of each) from With my left hand I raise the dead . . . are collected here.
The Complete Flying Club Cup videos are viewable here.
Samamidon - Saro -- from the forthcoming All is Well