This is Fifty Second Week.
Hope you all had a good Christmas. Welcome to the third annual year-end roundup column, where I try to zip through just about everything I heard and didn’t review over the past 12 months in about an hour. I call it Fifty Second Week for a couple of reasons. First is the obvious pun – it’s the 52nd week of the year. But also, to maximize the number of reviews and minimize the time I spend on them, I give myself 50 seconds to set down my thoughts about each one. When the timer rings, I stop typing, mid-word or no.
I’m staring right now at a pretty daunting stack of CDs – 56 of them, in fact. These aren’t new records, but rather ones that I bought, listened to, mentally filed away, and then for whatever reason completely forgot to review. But all of them are worth at least a mention in this column, so here we go. The forgotten albums of 2007. This is Fifty Second Week.
Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, Follow the Lights.
The second Adams release of the year is a seven-song EP that strikes me as a stronger work than Easy Tiger, his middling full-length album. His take on Alice in Chains’ “Down in a Hole” is a keeper, and the live-in-the-studio stuff is very good.
Animal Collective, Strawberry Jam.
Everyone loved this noisy pop excursion from this band, so I bought it to see what all the fuss was about. Turns out, not too much – it’s got a nice foundation, but it’s a little too poorly thought out, and the production is a bit too self-consciously noisy for me.
The Bad Plus, Prog.
I owe Erin Kennedy for this one. Imagine a jazz trio doing takes on Tears for Fears and Rush songs, and you have the right idea. They aren’t a cheesy lounge act, though – their versions of these songs rock, particularly their take on David Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” and the originals are just as strong.
Band of Horses, Cease to Begin.
Another critical favorite, but this one left me mostly cold. It’s got a bunch of boring one-four-five ballads on it, and one extraordinary song, the superb third track, “No One’s Gonna Love You.” Buy that song off of iTunes, and leave the rest behind.
Don’t even try to tell me prog rock is dead. Not after hearing this percussive, complex, mostly instrumental and totally awesome album. I feel ashamed that I didn’t review Mirrored during the year, and even more ashamed that I didn’t give it the honorable mention it so richly deserves.
Beastie Boys, The Mix-Up.
I may have listened to this once. This album is entirely made up of the jazz-funk instrumentals that have peppered the Beasties’ albums since Check Your Head, but by themselves, they don’t inspire much of a reaction. Blah.
Some pretty standard melodic modern punk, which means this isn’t punk at all, but rather loud pop. That having been said, there are some good tunes here, but there isn’t anything on this album that makes Cartel stand out. Which is probably why they resorted to a reality TV show to draw some attention.
Chemical Brothers, We Are the Night.
The Chems have their thing down by now, and there are very few surprises on this album. You get the minimalist dance stuff, the psychedelic stuff, and the jokey song, this time called “The Salmon Dance.” Not bad if it’s your first and only Chemical Brothers album, but nothing special.
Paula Cole, Courage.
I suppose releasing this dreck was sort of courageous. I used to like Cole, but here she imitates Norah Jones a little too much, and a little too poorly. This is somnambulant jazz balladry at its worst, guaranteed to cure insomnia and stop her career comeback cold.
Collective Soul, Afterwords.
Tony Shore really likes this one, and I can’t figure it out. It doesn’t strike me as any better or worse than any record they’ve done, really. Ed Roland is in his groove, and the only difference I can tell between this and their last four albums is that I had to go to Target to get this one. Damn exclusive deals.
Nick Drake, Family Tree.
Let the exploitation of Drake’s legacy begin. Here’s a hodgepodge collection of tape scraps and demos and basement recordings, some sung by his mom, and none of it really adds to the perfect three-album catalog he left behind. Skip it.
Eagles, Long Road Out of Eden.
Holy shit, this is lousy. You think you’ve heard lousy before, but if you haven’t suffered through more than an hour and a half of over-the-hill soft rock mixed with subtle-as-a-brick environmental statements, you really haven’t. Thank God you can only get this at Wal-Mart.
Feist, The Reminder.
Everyone liked this one too, and I don’t really get it. The Reminder reminds me of nothing more than Sade, and I don’t recall her being this critically adored. This is pretty good stuff, and some of it is memorable, but most of it just lies there.
The Field, From Here We Go Sublime.
I like this one, but not as much as many other critics seem to. This is nice, passable techno-ambient instrumental stuff, but nothing makes me want to throw away my old Orb albums. I dig it, though.
Field Music, Tones of Town.
Now this one, I really like. Imagine if Gentle Giant had gone pop, like they did anyway, but had retained a lot of their bizarre song structures and instrumentation along the way. This is a brief little record, but it packs a punch. Very good.
The Flower Kings, The Sum of No Evil.
In which Sweden’s best prog band ditches the jazz and fusion elements that have characterized their recent material and strikes gold with a classic prog sound. Especially excellent is the 24-minute “Love is the Only Answer,” a classic Flower Kings tune on a classic Flower Kings record.
Girlyman, Joyful Sign.
For me, this is the last album Girlyman gets to make like this. Their third album is exactly the same as their first and second ones, centered on the trio’s heartrending vocal harmonies and their down-home songwriting. But there isn’t much growth here at all, and I think they need to shake it up next time.
Great White, Back to the Rhythm.
I admit it, I like this band a lot. They’re a holdover from my long-hair days, but Great White has always been more of a straight-up rock band with Zeppelin overtones. This reunion album is exactly what I’d hoped for – a bunch of solid songs played and sung with conviction. If you ever liked them before…
Hanson, The Walk.
It’s a function of the alphabet that my two guilty pleasures are right next to each other. Hanson has finally made the album they’ve been trying to make for years. This is a mature pop record that leaves memories of their teen pop past in the dust. There are some especially good songs on here, and they deserve a chance to impress.
Emerson Hart, Cigarettes and Gasoline.
The solo debut from Tonic’s frontman is straightforward and earnest, just like his band was. Hart has a few solid songs here, but overall, it’s pretty unmemorable stuff. His voice, though, is terrific, as always. I give it about a C+.
Darren Hayes, This Delicate Thing We’ve Made.
I’m a sucker for double albums. I should learn my lesson. The Savage Garden frontman’s solo effort is a synth-heavy excursion that is sometimes effective and sometimes very, very bad. There’s a decent single album in here, but it would still not rate very highly.
Bruce Hornsby/Christian McBride/Jack DeJohnette, Camp Meeting.
The first of two devilish surprises from Bruce Hornsby in this list, this is a straight-up jazz trio album that gives Bruce the chance to show off just how good he is. And what can you say about McBride and DeJohnette – they wouldn’t play with Hornsby if he weren’t worth their time.
Kaiser Chiefs, Yours Truly, Angry Mob.
Second album by these modern popsters, and it’s not much better than the first. It’s okay, especially the first couple of tracks, and most especially the hummable single “Ruby.” But there ain’t much here to sink your teeth into.
King’s X, Live and Live Some More.
Superb live album from the venerable Texas trio, who seem to be on a bit of a comeback streak. This is a 1994 show, and proves that King’s X are a force to be reckoned with on stage. “Moanjam” is particularly awesome.
I’m not really sure why I buy KMFDM albums anymore. They’re all the same, and this one is no exception. Here are the martial beats, here are the samples, here are the synths, and here are the typical fight-the-power lyrics, shouted out over and over again. This is a band that hasn’t changed in 20 years.
Mark Knopfler, Kill to Get Crimson.
I love Knopfler’s work, so I’m not sure why I didn’t get around to reviewing this during the year. It’s another sterling solo album from the former Dire Straits guitarist, full of slow burners, lovely ballads and some of his trademark lead playing. I could listen to Knopfler play all year and not be bored.
Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, Se Dice Bisonte, No Bufalo.
Not so the Mars Volta singer/guitarist, who drops another slab of guitar jams and fusion workouts here. What once dropped my jaw now bores me to death, and I’m not looking forward to the new Volta next month at all.
Lyle Lovett and His Large Band, It’s Not Big, It’s Large.
Truth in advertising alert: the Large Band is only on one song here. The rest is standard Lovett – jazz-country gospel with a healthy dash of clever and wry. It’s a good record, but I was hoping for more horns.
Marilyn Manson, Eat Me Drink Me.
Manson ought to be stuck in a rut by now, but he keeps coming up with new twists on his sound. This album is a slow, creepy piece that eschews the industrial noise of the past in favor of a more Alice Cooper-esque sound. Which fits, since he stole his whole shtick from Cooper.
Scott Matthews, Passing Stranger.
A genuine surprise. Matthews’ work bears a strong Jeff Buckley influence, and his debut is full of little interludes and detours. The result is a fully enjoyable disc. As much as I don’t need another musician named Matthews in my life, I really like this album.
Nellie McKay, Obligatory Villagers.
This mini-album is actually McKay’s best effort yet, from the sarcastic feminism of “Mother of Pearl” to the wonderful horn and string arrangements throughout. McKay can be tedious in large doses, but this 30-minute effort is just right.
Megadeth, That One Night: Live in Buenos Aires.
What’s surprising about Megadeth’s second live album is how much crap Dave Mustaine resurrected for this 2005 show. There are classics here, like “In My Darkest Hour,” next to shit like “She-Wolf.” It makes me wonder if he has any sense of quality control at all. Thankfully, his last two albums prove he does.
Thurston Moore, Trees Outside the Academy.
Another one that probably deserved an honorable mention. This is a surprisingly pretty album from Moore, the astonishing guitarist of Sonic Youth. This record sounds like Moore aging gracefully. You probably won’t believe it’s the same guy.
Meshell Ndegeocello, The World has Made Me the Man of My Dreams.
Wow, this is a crazy record. It’s a headphone trip, a soul workout, an ambient soundscape and a pop record all at once. Ndegeocello has never been a pigeonhole kind of artist, but this is her most out-there (and artistically successful) record yet.
Joanna Newsom, Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band EP.
I love Joanna Newsom. This three-song EP documents her Ys tour, for which she employed a host of musicians to replicate the string arrangements of the album. New song “Colleen” is a thigh-slapping highlight, and the new take on “Cosmia” is amazing.
Sinead O’Connor, Theology.
O’Connor produced two versions of this collection of spiritual songs, one on acoustic guitar and one with an array of studio musicians. Comparing the two is fun, and O’Connor certainly has a captivating voice. But the songs are kind of mediocre throughout.
Dug Pinnick, Strum Sum Up.
Second solo album for the King’s X bassist, and it’s much like the first – low-down grooves, repeated lyrics, not a lot of imagination or beauty. This record includes some extended jams, and they’re the best part, except for the 11-minute “Coming Over,” which is like Chinese water torture.
Queensryche, Mindcrime at the Moore.
A live album containing both Operation: Mindcrime and its sequel, and putting a cap on the project. Here you can really hear just how inferior the second installment is, and Geoff Tate’s voice has definitely seen better days. But it’s nice to have this as a memento.
Qui, Love’s Miracle.
I love me some Jesus Lizard, and David Yow’s new band is just as fucked up as his old one. This is slow, loud, explosive stuff, with an unhinged rabid dog at the microphone. And they do a fantastic version of Zappa’s “Willie the Pimp.”
R.E.M., R.E.M. Live.
The honorable Georgia band’s first live album documents their worst tour ever, and is chock full of lousy late-period songs, especially from their latest snooze-fest, Around the Sun. What I really want is a document of some of their early shows, not this Bill Berry-less waste of time.
Rush, Snakes and Arrows.
Another one I can’t believe I didn’t review. This is Rush’s most energetic and best studio album in a long, long time. Even the instrumentals pulse with life, and Alex Lifeson hasn’t sounded this alive in more than a decade. Rush fans, pick this up. (Like I need to tell you.)
Shellac, Excellent Italian Greyhound.
It takes Steve Albini and his band an awfully long time to make records, considering they all sound about the same. You know what to expect from Shellac by now – pounding, slow, drum-heavy minimalist rock, punctuated by bursts of abrasive guitar. You either like it or you don’t. I do.
Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby.
Here’s the other stunner – a bluegrass-jazz combo that works miraculously. The new versions of Hornsby songs here are terrific, Skaggs’ high and lonesome voice working very well with Bruce’s new arrangements. And you haven’t lived until you’ve heard these two whiter-than-white guys slam through “Super Freak” on piano and banjo. It’s awesome.
Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.
Another one the critics went – pardon me – ga ga over. This is probably Spoon’s best album yet, and it still sounds sort of unfinished, like the band came up with a few good grooves, some smart piano parts, and a few stray melodies, but didn’t fashion any memorable songs from them. Alas.
Bruce Springsteen, Magic.
There’s precious little magic here, unfortunately. This is Springsteen’s most compact-sounding album in a long time, his standard reach-for-the-sky anthems compressed within an inch of their lives. It’s okay, but it sounds like a pale imitation of The Hold Steady, one of Springsteen’s acolytes, and that’s a shame.
Stars of the Lid, And Their Refinement of the Decline.
This is excellent stuff. Two CDs of constantly blossoming instrumental ambient drones with great titles like “December Hunting for Vegetarian Fuckface.” Play this loudly in the car while driving at night. It’s pretty amazing.
Symphony X, Paradise Lost.
Hey, remember Yngwie Malmsteen? If you think he was the shit, you want to try Symphony X. Their latest is a screaming collection of power prog-metal, with a firmly ‘80s mindset. It’s loud and cheesy and proud of it.
Serj Tankian, Elect the Dead.
Solo debut by the frontman for System of a Down, and it’s about what you’d expect. That is to say, it’s awesome. It’s intelligent, crafty metal with a hundred different musical surprises buried along the way, and Tankian brings all his cartoony voices with him. It’s like a metal band fronted by Mel Blanc.
Richard Thompson, Sweet Warrior.
Thompson’s so consistently excellent that it’s almost hard to praise him anymore. This album finds him plugging in his electric guitar again and letting rip, and he pisses all over Eric Clapton with every note. Especially fine is “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me,” about a soldier in Baghdad. (Dad for short, get it?)
K.T. Tunstall, Drastic Fantastic.
Tunstall’s second album is neither drastic nor fantastic, alas. It is a pretty solid slab of tuneful pop music, sung in her husky voice. I quite like “Hopeless” and “I Don’t Want You Now.” I don’t really remember much of the rest.
Various Artists, Instant Karma: The Campaign to Save Darfur.
Let’s hope this collection raised some much-needed cash for the effort to halt the genocide in Darfur, ‘cause it’s not much good as a piece of art. These are John Lennon’s solo songs, performed (and often massacred) by a smattering of pop stars young and old. Not so good.
Eddie Vedder, Into the Wild.
A brief soundtrack piece from Vedder, who shines on a cover of “Hard Sun” but comes off as slight pretty much everywhere else. The packaging is much better than the record, unfortunately, and from what I hear, Sean Penn’s movie is better than them both.
Rufus Wainwright, Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall.
I’m sure Wainwright loves the double entendre in that title. This is a faithful recreation of Judy Garland’s 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall, with a full orchestra and some special guests (his mom, his sister). It’s fun stuff, and Rufus resists the camp urge – this is all played straight and respectfully.
Waking Ashland, The Well.
I’ve heard this second album from piano-poppers Waking Ashland probably six times, and I can’t remember a note of it. I like to think that has more to do with the poor quality of their songs than the poor quality of my memory. I wonder if a seventh listen will do the trick.
The Weakerthans, Reunion Tour.
Very successful comeback record for this band, who impressed with Reconstruction Site a few years ago. This is heartfelt indie rock of the highest caliber, with clever lyrics and good melodies. It will fly by without sticking unless you really concentrate, but let it in and it’s pretty great.
Kanye West, Graduation.
Last but not least, here is West’s third album, which isn’t quite the masterpiece his second, Late Registration, was, but is still a pretty damn good hip hop album. You’ve heard “Stronger,” I’m sure – that’s the best song, and it gives you a taste of the synthesizer sound of the whole thing. This is good, if not brilliant stuff.
And that should do it. One hour, 20 minutes. I’ve grown to enjoy this annual tradition – it’s a good way to cap off the year. I’m writing this on December 22, and I’m flying out to the East Coast tomorrow. There will likely be no column on January 2, but I’ll see you all a week later.
Thanks for sharing my 2007. Year eight, here we come.
See you in line Tuesday morning.