11 January 2008

2007 in retrospect: Part I

Well, 2007 is officially 11 days dead (give or take a few hours); a week and a half is about right to try and pull a set of opinions together and attempt to animate them with nifty wordplay and strange references to even stranger things, right?

I did a thing on my old blog where I'd spotlight noteworthy purchases over the course of the year (CDs, DVDs, games, books, sometimes even a new release movie if I really felt impassioned about it), but the slight problem was that, no matter how much work I put into enlivening my opinion, how hard I worked to try to say something that was a legitimate response to something that someone else was trying to say, I kept running into that roadblock that circles around back to that first post (the one where I was talking about how I'm not qualified, or at least as qualified as other people on the Internet, to offer up my opinions and thoughts for public consumption): there's not a lot of weight behind what I have to say. I'm not, shall we say, David Fricke, Manohla Dargis, or even Peter Hammond.

Instead of pushing myself to fashion opinions that are of passing interest (at best, but we're hoping that'll change - again, not the royal "we") to few if any people constantly over the course of the year, I'm just going to attempt to give it a good go around the start of the new year, and see how far I can get. My primary issue with that strategy is that my critical muscle (it's on the face, around the eyebrows) might lose some of its abilities if it's not stretched out frequently over, say, the course of the year (in addition to that whole consistency issue - why should I inject any consumer/artistic criticism at the start of the year but never at any other time? Be consistent, dammit). But, we'll give this a try. Besides, when I have an opinion that needs to be shared right now, I imagine this'll be the place it's shared.

I suppose even the best of us (hell, even that fake reviewer that Sony Pictures created to provide them with choice quotes for movies) had to start somewhere. So, I suppose I'm [re]starting here. I think I've been working hardest on pulling together a list of my 5 favorite albums that I purchased last year, that were released last year (if I didn't buy your CD, but I probably didn't hear it, with the notable exception of Year Zero, which, while good, I plan to hold off buying. Sorry, Trent, but I paid full price for With Teeth, so I think you owe me a cheap copy of your new album - I'll get it off half.com in the next few months. I have Sonic Youth CDs to buy first). So, since I've been spending time considering this somewhat arbitrary-seeming ranking (more on that in the next paragraph) for a while now, this is probably as good a thing as any to kick off the retrospective.

Before we get to the list, though, I should lay down my ground rules, explain myself some so that this is a less arbitrary-seeming ranking of music. First and foremost, and this should go without saying, but what the hell, I'll say it anyway, only stuff that was a new release in 2007 qualified. Even though, according to Amazon, the 2-disc version of Daydream Nation was released in 2007, and despite the fact that no matter when it was released it would be amazing, particularly with an entire extra disc of B-sides and live performances, it's really a 20-year-old (jesus) CD, and doesn't qualify. Also, I'm looking exclusively at full-length albums, so unfortunately, that means Hvarf/Heim, the B-sides/live EP from everybody's favorite band from Iceland (assuming Bjork isn't a band, but rather an artist - I'm assuming her status as most popular Icelandic... musician person still hasn't changed), Sigur Ros, also doesn't qualify. However, a movie soundtrack (preferably by a single artist) that can work on its own as an album and isn't just a hodgepodge of songs that may or may not have even been in the movie, could work, which led to the serious consideration of Eddie Vedder's music for Into the Wild, and might well have led to considering the Sweeney Todd sountrack, had I purchased it and listened to it at length. Beyond that, most anything's fair game, as long as it came out [new] in 2007 and was a full album.

I hate it when I distill a seriously long paragraph of overly complex sentences into one sentence at the close. Negates the value of the whole paragraph.

Now, I've attempted to keep this in something resembling an order of preference (as in, if I could only have one of these CDs, it would be the one at #1, if I could only have two of them, it would be #1 and #2, etc), but that gets thrown out the window right off the bat. You'll see in a second.

Drumroll, please (preferably Grohl's part from "In Bloom," I love that song so).

Phil Wrede's Five Favorite Albums from 2007:

#1 - (tie) Explosions in the Sky's All of a Sudden, I Miss Everyone and Sparta's Threes
#2 - The Dillinger Escape Plan's Ire Works
#3 - Fountains of Wayne's Traffic & Weather
#4 - 3's The End Is Begun
#5 - The Smashing Pumpkins' Zeitgeist

Has any list ever lost its legitimacy this quickly? I'd be shocked if it had (unless it was included in Maxim or Blender). I spend all this time spelling out my criteria, setting up my rules and everything, and then my Top 5 list has six albums on it. Fuck me, right?

Let me attempt to explain myself. I was introduced to Explosions' music a couple of years ago, and fell in love with The Earth Is Not A Cold, Dead Place almost immediately. As many bad things as I've said about Texas, and people from Texas (and I've said a lot), this is music that could only be made by Americans, by Texans. Epic, brawny, awesome, cinematic, cathartic... Basically every sort of positive adjective that you could apply to the music (minus any involving vocals, since it's all instrumental and all), could be applied to them. I still contend they're the real reason that Friday Night Lights really raised itself above the high school football movie genre.

But, anyway. 2007 saw the release of what I have to say is my favorite of their albums, the aforementioned All of a Sudden, I Miss Everyone. It feels to me like the peak, the pure, concentrated spearhead of everything they've been growing towards from the release of their first CD. I don't know if there was a better song released on a disc in 2007 than "The Birth and Death of the Day." If there was, I didn't hear it, and I won't believe you if you tell me otherwise. The whole album really is like one big melancholy song; "Welcome, Ghosts" fits so perfectly into "B&D" that I could've sworn it was the same song the first time I listened to it, and "It's Natural to be Afraid," well, it's really the prototypical Explosions song (or it would be, if it weren't for this album's first track). It doesn't overwhelm right off the bat like "B&D;" it's a slow burn-type build to the payoff, but what a payoff it is...

It's next to impossible to follow up those songs, and the last 3 tracks of the album try admirably. I particularly like the inclusion of piano parts in "What Do You Go Home To?" and "So Long, Lonesome," and the returns to form that make up "Catastrophe and the Cure." I hope they play with brevity a little more in their next release; limiting themselves to a sub-4 minute song ("So Long") did wonders for the album's close. There's a lot to be said for restraint, and although these guys are the masters of that in the context of the 7+ minute song, hearing them try to apply that technique to a significantly smaller-scale piece excited me for what future albums might hold.

That's not to say I want them to start writing songs for radio play, just that I'd like it if they kept pushing themselves. In this case, pushing might be more like pulling back.

That being said, we'll move on to Sparta's Threes. I'll happily be the first person to admit that I was, shall we say, underwhelmed by Porcelain, their second album. It had its moments, for sure, and the songs they play from it live stand up well to most of the music in their catalogue, but I might do well to compare it to Pearl Jam's Riot Act, insofar as the songs were there, but the energy just wasn't. And to sound so... bored on your second album doesn't bode well for the future (I forgave Eddie & Co. because, well, the depressed tone fit the subject matter and the time; Jim Ward and his band don't get a free pass like that), particularly after Wiretap Scars wore its heart so prominently on its sleeve and fueled the music with dollop upon dollop of raw emotion.

Threes, however, was not just a return to form, but had the potential to become one of those seminal albums, a powerful shared experience for those lucky enough to have it (it probably won't, given that Sparta's market penetration is significantly less than even that of the infinitely less accessible Mars Volta - and, to digress for a moment, if the point of art is to communicate ideas, why the hell should we praise artists who deliberately go out of their way to make what they're trying to say incoherent?). The inclusion of former Engine Down guitarist Keeley Davis seemed to, for whatever reason, push the music leaps and bounds ahead of what it'd been before. Ward and Davis' vocals mesh well, and in a ridiculously different, and yet similar, way from the way Jim's vocal parts worked with former guitarist/vocalist Paul Hinojos. Listen to Threes' main single, "Taking Back Control." Rather like the guitar parts themselves, the vocals are similar, yet impressively different.

Were I to take a stab at Threes' underlying themes, I would have to go with choice and self-motivation. So many of the songs ("Unstitch Your Mouth," "Crawl," "Taking Back Control," "False Start") deal directly with choice and decision that I actually have no choice but to focus on that very topic. It's impossible to ignore Sparta's participation, and Jim's specifically, in the efforts by musicians, movie stars, and entertainers of all sorts to get out the vote during the 2004 election when listening to "Taking Back Control." Clearly Ward, much like Eddie Vedder, is still angry, but much like in Pearl Jam's transition from Riot Act to their recent self-titled album, much more is at hand than impotent name-calling. For Vedder, it was drawing attention to the people hit hardest by the tyrants afflicted with what Riot Act called the "Green Disease;" for Ward, it boils down to choice, and making the point again and again that change is within reach, that the result is, quite often, determined by one's effort.

I apologize for the long-winded Pearl Jam comparisons; when you have a good tool with which to make a point, I think you should use it.

So, after all that, we're left with Sparta's timely (and quite possible timeless) masterwork of a record, and Explosions in the Sky at the pinnacle of their craft. It's virtually impossible to compare the two, so I choose both. Just like Towelie.

Let's take this opportunity to amend the list:

#1 - Sparta's Threes and Explosions in the Sky's All of a Sudden, I Miss Everyone (tie)
#3 - The Dillinger Escape Plan's Ire Works
#4 - Fountains of Wayne's Traffic & Weather
#5 - The Smashing Pumpkins' Zeitgeist

There, now it's pared down to 5 albums. Sorry, 3. You put on an awesome show at the Fox when you opened for Porcupine Tree, and more people should listen to your album, but what'm I supposed to do? Rules are rules.

More on the rest of the list at a later date. This post needs to be done.

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