Okay. This “Best of 2007” music list was the planned jump off for this blog, back in November when I decided to start one. I think it’s still a good idea, even though we’re well into March and 2008 at this point. It should still serve as a good introduction to my tastes and biases.
I’ve limited this list to albums. Even though I probably buy 5x as many singles, and I think the single, in most cases, is a superior serving, it’s hard enough trying to figure out what albums came out in a calendar year without trying to remember every 7” or 12” too. That means some excellent new music got left off, but I plan on remedying that by writing about singles as I get them in future posts.
The ranking of these records is almost arbitrary. Depending on what I’m in the mood to hear, any of these records, including the honorable mentions could top the list.
Enough hedging, here we go:
- Buff1 – Pure (A-Side Worldwide)
Michigan’s Hip Hop crew, The Athletic Mic League, was woefully underappreciated, and under promoted. I have a few singles by them that I really like (“The Loveliest”, “Feel Good”) but I didn’t even know they had 2 full length albums. To remedy their marketing difficulties the 7 man crew decided to get behind their emcee Buff1 for a solo career. It’s the sort of ploy that worked for Del & The Hieroglyphics, so it’s not a bad idea, and I think they really backed a winner. The first thing that hits you when listening to “Pure” is ‘Damn, dude can flow.’ It doesn’t strike you as his 3rd full length, because it sounds like a hungry emcee putting it all out there on his debut. With production from Waajeed (Platinum Pied Pipers), Mr. Porter (D12) and The Lab Techs (Athletic Mic League), the beats are solid with that knocking Detroit sound. ‘Pure’ employs a nice helping of guest emcees too, like Elzhi (Slum Village), Invincible (Anomalies), Guilty Simpson (Detroit’s Freddie Foxx), Tiffany Paige (Sol Uprising), One Be Lo… but maintains a good balance that still makes it Buff1’s show. I hope people catch on because good emcees are definitely a rarity today.
- Burial – Untrue (Hyperdub)
Everyone can throw around genres like dub-step, 2-step, or garage, all they want. I don’t go to clubs enough, so “Untrue” meets my ears on the headphone battleground, not the dance floor. When I listen to the deep, crackling grooves, I hit the same headspace that I do when I listen to electronic-dub stylings of artists on the ~scape label or Rhythm & Sound. It’s dark, hypnotic & cathartic like a simmering grudge.
- 1888 – Honey, I’d Kill… (Clay Garden)
Featuring members from some of the fine indie/hardcore bands of the mid-90’s Norfolk/Virginia Beach scene like Words A Game, Owltian Mia, Candyland Carcrash… 1888 takes a sharp turn for poppy alt-country territory. It’s got a slick, studio sheen to it, with synthesizers and edited drum tracks handling some of the work, but the slightly antiseptic polish actually works for the coldly calculated love songs. This is pretty far out of my normal spectrum, but my history with the guys gave me the patience to really give the songs a chance, and they’re pretty damn catchy.
- DJ Jazzy Jeff – Return Of The Magnificent (BBE)
To most, Jazzy Jeff is a TV-Land punchline, but the man never stopped producing dope beats. Working with a lot of great R&B & hiphop talents like Pos (De La Soul), Big Daddy Kane, Jean Grae, Method Man, CL Smooth, J Live, Rhymefest, Raheem DeVaughn, Dave Ghetto, Kardinal Offishall, Twone Gabz, Peedi Peedi, Kel Spencer… Jeff knocks out a classy, unpretentious, bumper. I rocked this on repeat for over a month, probably clocked 50+ listens and still put it on my honorable mentions. It holds up.
- Arbouretum – Rites Of Discovery (Thrill Jockey)
Baltimore indie-rock band, Arbouretum, led by David Heumann delivers the sort of melancholic American rock sound epitomized by Neil Young. It’s their 2nd album but 1st on my radar and it’s quite stunning. I still need to give it a little bit more attention, a few more listens, and that may be the only thing holding it off of the top 10.
- Cinematic Orchestra – Ma Fleur (Ninja Tune)
Cinematic Orchestra, which is basically J. Swinscoe & guests, has been releasing no-joke downtempo jawns for the Ninja Tune label for 8+ years. Over those years, The Cinematic Orchestra’s music has morphed from sample-based hiphop instrumentals into more organic, live-instrument jazz interpolations, lightly riding trends. I really enjoy the Cinematic Orchestra albums, this album especially, but it has been hard to let them out of the background music ghetto. On “Ma Fleur,” the collective, like the Ninja Tune label itself, make some forays into the popular indie-mutant-folk sound, shortening songs and adding vocals including some from Fontella Bass and Patrick Watson. It works, especially if you're in a lonely mood and looking for a little sympathetic musical accompaniment.
- Mudboy – Hungry Ghosts! These Songs Are Doors (Not Not Fun)
California record label Not Not Fun has been one of my favorites for the past few years. The put real effort into discovering interesting new artists that are playing unique brands of music for the joy of it, hitting all sorts of genres (damaged pop, rock, folk, psych, noise, free jazz…) and presenting it with innovative DIY packaging and artwork. The “Hungry Ghosts! These Songs Are Doors” Lp comes in an intricately die-cut sleeve that’s worth the price of admission on its own, but then you delve into the record and you get hit with the moody ambience of the music itself. Up front and center is an organ, but it’s put through a ringer of processing and comes out sounding like, as the title suggests, a haunted evening at the dark edge of the woods.
V/A - Home Schooled - The ABCs Of Kid Soul (Numero Group)
V/A - Eccentric Soul: The Prix Label (Numero Group)
V/A - Cult Cargo: Grand Bahama Goombay (Numero Group)
One of my favorite discoveries of the last 2 years has been the Numero Group record label, a re-issue label specializing in making previously undiscovered funk, soul, rock... music widely available. Searching small towns all over the globe, digging up micro-pressed 45's, abandoned master tapes and local legends, the Numero Group discovers a million could-have-been stories and then does an excellent job of narrowing it down to the cream. Excellent packaging and liner notes fill out the projects until you've got very compact, complete documents of deserving artists who just missed their lucky breaks.
The Top 10:
10 – Daniel Higgs – Atomic Yggdrasil Tarot (Thrill Jockey)
Over the last few years, the singer for Baltimore indie/hardcore band Lungfish learned to play the guitar and set about diffusing his arcane philosophies through psych licks and the occasional blast of mouth-harp. The word among guitar-nerds is that Higgs’ playing is phenomenal, not even taking into account how short a period he’s been playing for. I can’t judge the technique, but the application is singular and full of fascinating threads to unravel. If you haven’t seen Lungfish or Higgs live, it’s hard to explain the cult of personality that he inspires, but to see him rocking back and forth singing about hidden truths is simply transcendental. The CD comes with a full-color book of paintings & poetry by Higgs, also renown tattoo artist and lyricist. I bought the Lp so I only got a Xerox booklet, but I’m not heartbroken because, even though I really, really enjoyed Higgs’ previous books of poetry and drawings, I found the pieces in this booklet lacking, and I have the important part, the music, on the superior format.
09 – Pterodactyl – Blue Jay (Cardboard)
I was excited to see a full length from Brooklyn's Pterodactyl in 2007, keeping the torch lit for art-damaged, invulnerable-youth, sugar-high hardcore/post-punk. Their musical heritage begins with "plug it in" and ends with "they asked us to stop" and it's squelchy, sing-songy, infectious, violent, joyous, earnest, wreckless and impolite in the most polite way possible.
08 – The Ponys – Turn Out The Lights (Matador)
Chicago's The Ponys play that classic Rolling Stones style of Rock 'N Roll that i have pretty much ignored my entire life. Their sound might be touched with other, more contemporary influences like Television, Husker Du, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth... but that underlining snide, dual-guitar big-rock sound still rumbles at the foundation. The Ponys' sound is refreshingly clear of the usual indie-rock pretension: cryptic lyrics, scene politics, and musical-theory masturbation. They focus instead on powerful, energetic & catchy songwriting, and i focus on awkwardly dancing and singing along.
07 – Exploding Star Orchestra – We Are All From Somewhere Else (Thrill Jockey)
Despite what the Thrill Jockey website says, I’m still Skeptical that this came out in 2007, but its a fantastic album and i'm happy to include it in my top 10. Led by Rob Mazurek, a well established member of the Chicago independent music scene as a solo artist and a colaborator with groups like The Chicago Underground, Isotope 217, Tortoise, Stereolab, Gastr Del Sol, Sam Prekop, Pan American... The Exploding Star Orchestra is a huge ensemble of genre-bending musicians pushing jazz into interesting new avenues. Members, including John McEntire, Jeff Parker, John Herndon, Jim Baker, Nicole Mitchell, Mike Reed, Matt Lux, Jason Ajemian, Jeb Bishop, Corey Wilkes, Josh Berman, Matt Bauder, Jason Adasiewicz... manage to meld a large brass section and often double-duties in the rhythm section with a heavy use of tape loops and studio post-production to create a cohesive new post-jazz style that's organic and classic at the edges of John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, John Zorn...
06 – Sleep Walker – The Voyage (Especial)
Led by Hajime Yoshizawa, also a talented electronic music producer, the Japanese ‘club jazz’ group Sleep Walker continues their winning streak with their 2nd full-length effort “The Voyage.” Built on quick, shuffling house rhythms but unquestionably and foremost jazz with live piano, tenor & soprano sax, bass, and drums, all of the tracks send your pulse soaring along with the ever-building saxophone squonk and cymbal crashes. Sleep Walker are mind-blowingly tight musicians and the melodies they storm through are simply addictive and uplifting.
05 – La Melodia – Vibing High (Kindred Spirits)
La Melodia, from Amsterdam, is the pairing of producer I.N.T. and singer/emcee Melodee. I first heard I.N.T. on his instrumental EP on Kindred Spirits, and was immediately a fan. He definitely comes from the J Dilla school of production with crisp snares (or hand claps) & a shuffling bass line as the primary focus, the thickly textured & layered melody are almost an afterthought. Melodee caught my attention with her appearance on Kid Sublime’s album “Basement Soul”. She rocks the mic with a sweet, uplifting oldschool flow, like a reincarnation of Roxanne Shante or Paulette Winley. The combo as La Melodia is fine chemistry, getting good and deep to scratch an itch for purist hiphop, the sort of hiphop built from head-nodding funk & soul samples that you really can’t get in the US anymore. (http://www.myspace.com/lamelodiamusic)
04 – Armstead Brown – Fieldwork (Peacepipe)
“Fieldwork” is a bit of a late entry, hitting shelves in early December, but the debut disc from Pittsburgh-based beatmaker Armstead Brown has probably clocked more listens than all of the other entries in my top-10 combined. It's just a solid hip hop album with fresh and diverse beats and a good selection of well-matched emcees hailing from Pittsburgh and New York City. Coming hard with that true-school sound of artists like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, DJ Jazzy Jeff, J-Live... "Fieldwork" knocks with jazzy headnod vibes and rugged JB's funk, with arrogant braggadocio and humble dedications to love. It's a complete package and more than a worthy entry in the local and international scenes.
03 – Yesterdays New Quintet – Yesterdays Universe (Stones Throw)
Madlib is insane in the best ways possible. It's simply crazy how much music he makes spread amongst his zillions of aliases, and the extremely high percentage of it that is solid if not brilliant. If you haven't been checking lately for his jazz alias, Yesterdays New Quintet, maybe because you felt the 1st album was a little rough around the edges, you need to check in again because he is officially killing it now. Overdubbing himself playing all of the instruments, Madlib manages to bang out a huge diversity of styles from straight bop to Cecil Taylor abstratory to soaring soul-jazz, all with an undeniable injection of Madlib's unique swing. Yesterdays Universe is a huge, huge record and easily one of Madlib's best.
02 – Do Make Say Think – You, You’re A History Of Rust (Constellation)
Of all of the 2nd or 3rd generation post-rock groups, Do Make Say Think is the most musically solvent. Do Make Say Think has always struck me as the alternate universe version of Tortoise where they continued on the path that they had mapped out with their self-titled & "Millions Now Living..." albums and continued to improve on that formula instead of making the left turn into drum & bass on "TNT" and ironic rock on "Standards". "You, You're a History Of Rust" is the 6th record from the Montreal-based Do Make Say Think since their formation in 1995 and continues along the steep evolution of their sound to include the introduction of vocals. The vocals are tastefully sparse though and the majority of the record is still that same swelling instrumental wash of rock, jazz, folk, dub, electronica with the emphasis on beautiful, emotional song writing. "You, You're A History Of Rust" is a fantastic record full of delicate, mediatative melody but also has some surprisingly raucous moments. In my opinion, Do Make Say Think has never had a misstep and have simply proven again and again that they are amazing musicians with a strong vision for their sound and i'm on board for the long haul.
01 – Build An Ark – Dawn (Kindred Spirits)
Build An Ark is a large improvisational ensemble soul-jazz group led by Carlos Nino, also known for his more beat oriented work as Ammon Contact, Hu Vibrational or The Life Force Trio. The nearly 30-person deep Build An Ark is a pure melting pot of talent, some new and some veteran, including legendary heads like Big Black, Phil Ranelin, Dwight Trible, Nate Morgan, Derf Reklaw, and Munyungo Jackson. The supergroup takes their eternities of musical heritage, and they distill it all through Carlos Nino’s flare for modern composition to produce that consciousness-raising spiritual jazz groove like the best of Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, and even the interstellar regions of Sun Ra. Their 1st album, “Peace With Every Step”, breezily my favorite record of 2004, was full of stirring covers like Pharoah Sanders’ “You’ve Gotta Have Freedom”, Stanley Cowell’s “Equipose”, Phil Ranelin’s own “Vibes From The Tribe, and even “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. On “Dawn” there are 2 covers, Pharoah Sanders’ “You Yourself Are the Key To The Universe” and Big Black’s “Love, Sweet Like Sugar Cane”, but the way the original compositions fit with them seamlessly illustrates the maturing of Build An Ark’s aesthetic; positive, uplifting music.
Well, that was harder than I figured it would be. A hearty thank-you to all of the musicians that made the list for these incredible albums.