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Last year, I published a mix that I called The 20 ’06, composed of ten local songs and ten national songs from my twenty favorite albums of the year. I’m doing it again this year, but I’m switching up the rules a bit. Last year, my goal was to make a compelling mix of songs from my favorite albums, but my mix was often mistaken for a top twenty songs of the year-type list. This year, it’s a little closer to that, but they’re not in order of preference or anything. In the spirit of Warp + Weft, I’ve picked out twenty songs that I feel both comprise a good mix of songs and are also among my favorites from 2007. Note, however, that this doesn’t mean that “Skinny Love” is my number one song of the year (although it coincidentally is), or that Ela’s “Come Down to the Water” is my twentieth favorite song. This also means a lot of songs I loved (“Calgon for Hetfield” by Happy Apple, for instance) didn’t make it on here becuase I didn’t feel like they fit the overall aesthetic of the mix. The order is dictated by the yardsticks all good mixmakers use: flow and contrast. Plus they’re songs about which I have something to say, but I’ll try and keep it brief.
Bon Iver :: “Skinny Love” :: For Emma, Forever Ago
This song begins with the line, “Come on, Skinny Love, just last the year,” and it’s a brilliant sentiment for both looking back on the year behind and looking towards the year ahead. We measure our lives in years; thankful when the hard ones have passed, wistful when the good ones are gone. For singer/songwriter Justin Vernon, the recording of his superlative For Emma, Forever Ago straddled 2006 and 2007, and “Skinny Love” simply bleeds splinters from the Wisconsin cabin he recorded it in last winter. It’s one of those rare songs that compels you to listen to the whole thing once it’s begun. Many are the times I’ve found myself parked out front of my building at two in the morning after coming back from a show, forced to sit and listen until the final chord of “Skinny Love” rings out. It’s just that mesmerizing, and there wasn’t a finer song this year.
Radiohead :: “All I Need” :: In Rainbows
It seemed like Radiohead’s unorthodox promotional and retail strategies with regards to In Rainbows somewhat obscured the actual music on the record, but no matter: I suspect this is a record that will endure. Plenty of people felt that In Rainbows was too loose and jammy, but I find it tremendously focused and brimming over with an intimacy that Radiohead have rarely tried to achieve. “All I Need” follows in the lineage of other non-traditional Radiohead ballads like “Thinking About You” and “True Love Waits” in its ambivalence both toward the object of the narrator’s affection and toward the affection itself. It’s all beautifully orchestrated, with a crystalline counter-melody balancing the brilliant bass line in the second verse. It’s by turns desperate, dependent, dominating, and disaffected, but through it all, Yorke conveys deep sympathy, and when the song explodes into full flower at the 2:56 mark, it’s positively revelatory.
Parts and Labor :: “Fractured Skies” :: Mapmaker
Can emotion be stripped from aesthetics? I suspect that though I think I know the answer, this particular bugbear of the critical process will remain a point around which to balance my love of music for the rest of my life. I didn’t get into music to one day write top ten lists—I got into it because it seemed bigger, brighter, louder, and more perfect than life itself. Most of the songs on this mix have brought me near to tears, but often for very different reasons. “Fractured Skies” rolls out so big it doesn’t seem like it could go anywhere but down, but epic only has four letters and it’s not nearly a big enough word to contain the sheer fire and force of will in this song. The essentially incomprehensible lyrics climb up that melody again and again, and what they’re saying doesn’t seem nearly as important as the vast weight of the music behind them. And then when it all goes supernova at the 2:19 mark, it’s just the most giant fucking thing I can imagine in music. So no: I don’t think emotion can be stripped from aesthetics. No.
Low :: “Belarus” :: Drums & Guns
Low certainly didn’t make things easy on anyone this year with Drums & Guns, least of all me. I interviewed them on Homegrown and then again later for a Skyscraper article, and I wouldn’t say either were superlative interviews, but not because Low were standoffish. The overwhelming sense I got from them is a desire to keep some of what they do to themselves, and I can respect that. Even when they went rock on The Great Destroyer, there was a sense of something held back; not so much emotionally in the music as in the meaning of the music. And that’s really the thing that makes “Belarus” such a beguiling song. It’s cold in its way, but Mimi Parker does her best to warm the song like a space heater with her fragile falsetto.
Battles :: “Leyendecker” :: Mirrored
Battles put on, bar none, the best show I saw in 2007. They’re a profoundly odd band, unwilling to write songs, per se, but at the same time resolutely concerned with hooks and melodies. Compulsively percussive, with vocals that sound like something straight out of the Hall of the Mountain King, Battles are, simply, fucking weird. ‘Leyendecker” showcases Tyondai Braxton’s eerie, pitch-shifted vocals and former Helmet drummer John Stanier’s thunderously funky backbeat. Braxton’s elfin vocals are even stranger when you can actually see them coming from a real live person, and midway through their set at the Fine Line, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was down at some bizarro, proggy version of Fraggle Rock.
Menomena :: “Wet and Rusting” :: Friend and Foe
Menomena are at their best when their songs sound shattered and taped back together. In a way, “Wet and Rusting” sounds like a remix; there are huge gaps in it: solo guitars left to carry the verses in places, thunderous drums brought in suddenly. What at first sounds fractured comes together beautifully at the 2:33 mark. It’s hard to notice if you haven’t seen them live, but right there, Justin Harrison takes over a vocal that was sung at the beginning of the track by Brent Knopf, and as the song continues to build, all three members of the band are eventually singing overlapping lines in the style of a round. A lot of bands would probably smooth out the edges, though, obscuring the chunky nature of their approach, but for Menomena, the process is an indelible part of the song. As my fellow writer Mark Baumgarten replied when I consulted him in advance of interviewing Harrison for a piece, “They not only fuck with form, they fuck with methods of production and delivery.”
Jay-Z :: “Pray” :: American Gangster
After a standard rap intro track (slightly ominous, mostly pretentious, entirely unnecessary), “Pray” opens American Gangster in earnest, and it sets the bar for Jay’s widescreen ambitions pretty high. Banging four-on-the-floor drums, a histrionic choir of Beyonces intoning pseudo-religious chants—it all points to an overblown epic, but Jay really delivers here, particularly when he paints a jump cut as audacious as anything cinematic in the second verse. After describing a young Sean Carter’s walk to school past ruins filled with needles and the sight of a drug dealer speeding by in a convertible BMW, he seamlessly connects his youth with what he became: “As the girls start to giggle / I ask, ‘Why you laugh?’/ They say, ‘You’re too little / One day you’ll understand / when you become a man / ’bout the things you have to get.’ You / fast forward freeze fame on my pistol / Fistful of dollars / ignorance is so blissful.”
Mystery Palace :: “NASCAR Survivor” :: Flags Forward
Mystery Palace have a swagger that says, “We enjoy what we’re doing, and if you do too, great. If not, that’s cool.” Despite its title, “NASCAR Survivor” is nothing like a fiery wreck. Instead, it’s a little frigid, but also humming quietly with some genuinely gorgeous keyboard bits. Circuit bending has become something of a buzz term recently, but where a lot of groups who employ it sound like they’re still getting the hang of it and only using it for texture, Ryan Olcott and co. have been doing it long enough to be able to build songs around it without making it sound like a novelty.
The National :: “Fake Empire” :: Boxer
When “Usual Suspects” first came out, surprise endings that big in major pictures had become something of a lost art. Such holy shit moments are even rarer in rock music, but The National produced the most holy shit moment of 2007 on “Fake Empire.” The slightly doleful piano that opens the song seems to provide a pulse, but when Matt Berninger’s vocals float in, they sit a little uneasily on its three against four pattern. It feels loose and a little jumbled, even when they glide into the chorus, where Berninger borrows closing k’s to open lines: “We’re half away… / kin a fay… / kempire.” But when the song comes to rest in the bridge, the drums come in wrong-footed, like they’re feeling their way into the song. When they break into an easy trot, the structure goes from ramshackle to crystalline in a beat and the song breaks into stride, not unlike Verbal Kint going from limp to stroll as he walks away from Agent Kujan’s office.
Burial :: “Near Dark” :: Untrue
Burial’s Untrue is a profoundly lonely, empty album. It has the kind of spareness that only electronic music can truly have, but it’s also built around the human voice. Boards of Canada often uses the human voice in a similar way—out of context, warped beyond recognition—but where Boards more often laces vocals on top of their songs, Burial grounds his songs with them. The ghostly melodies, which are often recognizably dancefloor in origin, are at the heart of his tracks, but the stresses and strain they undergo keep them at arm’s length from the listener. What makes “Near Dark” stand out is the very distinct sound of a shell casing falling to the ground, a sound that recurs throughout the song. The voices are stripped from the people who made them, the sound of the shell falling is removed from the gunshot, and so the entire track takes on an echoic and disjointed quality.
Yeasayer :: “Wait for the Summer” :: All Hour Cymbals
To be honest, I can’t really tell you if this song is going to endure for me; I only got All Hour Cymbals about three weeks ago. Like another Brooklyn quartet, Vampire Weekend, Yeasayer seem to draw their inspiration as much from Peter Gabriel’s and David Byrne’s dabbling in world music as from any straight-up rock influence. Of course, Rusted Root did much the same thing a dozen years ago, but Yeasayer manage to do it without sounding like the punchline of a jam band joke. The world is getting smaller and smaller all the time, and so it makes sense for indie rock to become less insular to exotic cultural influences. But rather than seeming self-congratulating for their diversity of taste, Yeasayer make it all sound gloriously natural and raw.
Building Better Bombs :: “Kid Tested, Motherfuckin’ Approved” :: Freak Out Squares
Sometimes it’s the little things. OK, with me, it’s usually the little things. If Building Better Bombs’ debut record, Freak Out Squares, is composed mostly of songs that are barely restrained blasts of chaos, then “Kid Tested, Motherfuckin’ Approved” is all that fury shaped into a projectile weapon. It’s leaner, meaner, and more cohesive as a song than most anything else on the record, but the thing that really blows my mind about it happens at the 1:06 mark. There’s a split-second full track mute accompanied by a thick sub-bass note. What? Well, plenty of bands have songs where they suddenly all stop playing before plowing back ahead, but Bombs went to the trouble of actually muting everything in this tiny gap, and you can really hear the difference on headphones. There’s no air, no hiss, no buzz—it’s like having the wind knocked out of you, and the sub-bass is like the fist imprint on your solar plexus.
Feist :: “Brandy Alexander” :: The Reminder
No, it’s not the song from the iPod commercial. It’s really kind of a throwaway track that’s pretty deep into the back end of Feist’s The Reminder, but it’s just as smooth, sweet, and seductive as the drink that it takes its name from. It also shows exactly what makes Feist great, if anything does: she’s so easy with it. Often, people mistake laziness in music for easiness. Smooth jazz and contemporary pop take the easiest path through a song, but they’re light years away from Feist’s considerable talents with a simple, smoky tune. Plenty of people have started to crap on her for “selling out” or some such drivel, but guess what? It’s way harder to make music this good and with this broad an appeal than you think.
Camp Lo :: “82 Afros” :: Black Hollywood
It’s been almost ten years since Camp Lo’s sterling debut, Uptown Saturday Night, but while we’ve all gotten older, Sonny Cheeba and Geechi Suede remain vacuum-sealed in their own world. I couldn’t have said it better than their Wikipedia stub, which says they’re most well known for “lyrics that consist almost entirely of Blaxploitation-style Dadaist slang.” I mean, check the first line of “82 Afros”: “82 Afro, cut it with cannons, Lo / Blaxploitation team. Pop on ’80s operating clean, clean.” I think. While they’re as gloriously nonsensical as ever, it’s Ski’s production that’s the real star here. Oddly, the sample this song is built around was also used for Ghostface Killah’s “We Celebrate” from The Big Doe Rehab. It’s really nothing more than the first five or so seconds of Rare Earth’s “I Just Want to Celebrate,” but Ski one ups the Ghostface track by adding a stumbling tom pattern to the tail end of the beat. You know it’s going to land every time because it’s mechanized, but it still manages to mess you up. Sorry Toney Starks: Camp Lo 1, GFK 0.
Painted Saints :: “Tinder” :: The Bricks Might Breathe Again
Painted Saints’ “Tinder” has my favorite guitar tone of the year. Lead Saint Paul Fonfara recorded the song with a guitar handed down to him from Jim White (who also loaned it out to David Byrne for a spell), and he says you can literally see sunlight through it. Apparently it was left out in the rain and then repaired, but I think you can still hear the water damage. “The bridge is literally held on by pennies,” he said when I interviewed him last fall, “and I haven’t been able to change the strings since I got it because the whole thing will fall apart.” Please don’t; it sounds simply amazing on this George Harrison-by-way-of-Morphine stomper.
Land of Talk :: “Sea Foam” :: Applause Cheer Boo Hiss
Land of Talk singer Elizabeth Powell’s sleepy-headed delivery is one of the most charming things about her band’s debut EP, but on “Sea Foam,” it works a particular kind of magic. The first time you hear the song’s chorus, you’d be forgiven for thinking she’s singing, “As she keeps you / and she needs you.” After all, those are two not uncommon sentiments in rock songwriting—the ideas of holding on and desire. But listen closer: she’s actually singing, “As she keys you / and she knees you.” Now that’s much more interesting: the push-pull of a relationship that both sparks and hurts you. But I find it hard to believe that some of the meaning of that first interpretation of the words doesn’t lie latent in Powell’s delivery, perhaps on purpose. The net effect is a slurred jumble that ultimately makes meaning take a backseat to nuance.
The Veils :: “Jesus for the Jugular” :: Nux Vomica
“Jesus for the Jugular” has to be one of the most venomous songs from 2007. It’s vicious, writhing, and explosive, even on a record whose overriding texture is full-throttle, throat-rending desperation. But unlike Building Better Bombs or Parts and Labor, The Veils’ song here is almost painfully fragile as well. It feels hobbled, but angry, like a wolf with a thorn in its paw, and the song limps out on crutches before just about biting your face off. What’s it about exactly? Not sure, but when Finn Andrews winds himself up to scream the line, “Ain’t nobody ever gonna ever have to die!” you’ll forgive him all the redundancies and double negatives out of sheer respect for his wounded agony.
Fog :: “What’s Up Freaks?” :: Ditherer
Is Andrew Broder’s music verité ode to one night at the Turf Club only resonant for people who live and breathe live music in the Twin Cities? It’s laced with references to local personalities (The Current’s Danny Sigelman, Kid Dakota’s Darren Jackson (I think)) as well as local venues, and it’s shored up by gorgeous harmonies courtesy of Low’s Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. But it’s a story that must play itself out across the country and probably the globe all the time: Following a set at a favorite bar, the singer gets news of a friend’s death, but business must be attended to (band members paid, gear loaded up) before he can return to the comfort of a friend or lover. Or to boil it down even further, the most significant things in our lives still have to vie with the most mundane for our attention. On a record which is primarily concerned with the inflation of the concern we invest in the picayune details of middle class American existence, “What’s Up Freaks?” is a shining confirmation of the endurance of certain essential things: friends, community, music.
Tarentel :: “Whistle in the Wires” :: Ghetto Beats on the Surface of the Sun
Tarentel’s latest—a double disc compendium of four vinyl LPs—is the oddest record I’ve ever loved. Despite its lack of form, its resistance to melodic development or musical structure, its general distaste for any kind of purchase from which to begin to understand it, I keep coming back to it time and again for its sheer experimentalism. “Whistle in the Wires” seems somehow simultaneously ghostly and alive, breathing as it does beneath the wheezing organ that frames it musically. Over the distance, though, the music breaks apart, as if the recording itself is deteriorating under our attention. You know how they won’t let you touch stuff in museums? What if you could, and you recorded the slow destruction of some kind of ancient, diaphanous parchment? “Whistle in the Wires” would be the soundtrack.
Ela :: “Come Down to the Water” :: Real Blood on Fake Trees
The two most important songs on a mix are the first and last ones, and I knew as soon as I chose to include this gem from Real Blood on Fake Trees that this was going to close out The 20 ’07. You need something to sing you gently into that good night, and “Come Down to the Water” has that inexorable, endless feeling that makes it feel like it’s still resonating and growing long after it’s done. It has an almost gospel tinge, what with the baptismal imagery, and it makes the most of Peter Leggett’s superlative feel. The way it builds and echoes has so far kept them from trying it in concert (as far as I know), but I can always hope that one day they’ll sort it out.