Best Year Ever?
2007's Off to a Great Start

Back when I was young enough to watch Sesame Street, they used to run segments designed to help kids learn words in Spanish. (They probably still do, but I haven’t seen the Street in more than a decade, and it was better before everyone could see Snuffy anyway.)

And one of those segments, which I vividly remember, was a crude animation of a guy crawling on his stomach through a vast, empty desert. You could tell it was hotter than hell for that guy because the animators had drawn in huge, unmistakable beads of sweat that were flying off of his head. (I could be wrong about this part – it’s been a long time. But that’s how I remember it.)

And as that guy inched along, no doubt burning the skin he scraped against the blistering sand, he repeated one word, over and over again:

“Agua! Agua!”

That, metaphorically speaking, is what January is normally like for me as an obsessive music fan. Absolutely nothing comes out in January, and ordinarily, nothing comes out in February, either. It’s a dry, deserted wasteland of post-Christmas apathy for the music biz. The mainstream stuff doesn’t bother with the early part of the year, since the Grammy cutoff is in the fall, and the indie stuff usually clears a path, though what they’re clearing it for is anyone’s guess. The field is left to high-profile rap releases and tumbleweeds.

Of course, that’s in most ordinary years, and 2007 is already looking like it won’t be an ordinary year. I can’t recall ever spending as much money in the record store in January as I did this year, and February kicked off with a nice couple of weeks as well. And astoundingly, just about everything I picked up has either lived up to my expectations, or wildly exceeded them.

Last week, for example, saw the new Bloc Party, called A Weekend in the City. I dropped the ball on this English band’s superb debut, Silent Alarm – by the time I caught on, it was too late, which is the story of my life. I’m just glad I did catch on, because Silent Alarm is extraordinary, a mix of angular, almost new-wave guitars with U2’s passion for sky-high choruses and depth of feeling.

City is even better, and what is it with these British bands who’ve never heard of the sophomore slump? Don’t they know they’re supposed to wait until the third album to truly find their sound and knock one out of the park? Bloc Party didn’t get that particular memo – City is bigger, grander, and more purposeful than the debut, pulling in a healthy Radiohead influence (but only from the good stuff, not the asinine post-OK Computer period), and matching it with more considered compositions.

Of course, the result is a somewhat quieter and more textured album, which some may find off-putting. It shimmers to life with “Song for Clay (Disappear Here),” which finds lead singer Kele Okereke sighing in a breathy falsetto. But don’t worry, those fast-paced, explosive drums kick in about a minute into it, supporting a jagged riff from hell.

It doesn’t last – the album quivers more than it shakes, especially in its more delicate second half. “Where is Home” is like a great lost Cure song, all synth beds, pounding drums and Okereke’s pleading voice. “Kreuzberg” is a masterpiece of chiming guitars and gorgeous vocals, taking on U2’s sense of drama and dynamics. And closer “SRXT” will break your heart with its fragile melancholy, leading to a powerful choir-drenched middle section, and then fluttering away on droplets of guitar and glockenspiel.

Through it all, Bloc Party have grown more experimental, more adventurous. There are some obvious Jonny Greenwood-isms all over this record, but there are just as many moments of pure inspiration, and it’s all so confident, taking your hand and guiding you from one end to the other. This is an excellent album, and it makes me all but certain that one day, Bloc Party will make a brilliant one.

Also taking a more experimental tack is Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, even though they’re not as talented, and their second record is not quite the stunner Bloc Party’s is. If you know Clap Your Hands, you likely have heard the hype surrounding their unorthodox approach to the music biz – they achieved fame through the Internet first, and they steadfastly refuse to kowtow to label politics, preferring to release their work themselves.

But such DIY attitude hasn’t extended to their music this time. On the first record, they were scrappy and earthy, bleating out repetitive rock songs with little more than energy to keep them afloat. But on Some Loud Thunder, their sophomore effort, they enlisted Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann and grew some ambition. For the most part, it pays off, even though here and there the band can be heard drowning in the new sounds that surround them.

For one thing, Alec Ounsworth has a voice that’s built for chugging indie rock – imagine a less controlled David Byrne, slipping and sliding all over the notes he’s trying to hit. When that voice is supported by more expansive instrumentation, it sounds out of place. I should mention, though, that the exception to this rule is the great “Love Song No. 7,” a melancholy wonder that fits Ounsworth’s swooping sighs perfectly.

For another, sometimes the production just gets away from them. The title track, which unfortunately leads off the album, is mixed with all the levels in the red, and it’s a painful experience. The Dylan-esque “Mama Won’t You Keep Them Castles in the Air and Burning” almost collapses under its own weight by the end, and “Underwater (You and Me)” could have used one of the debut’s more stripped-down arrangements.

But Clap Your Hands win serious points for musical bravery – one thing you won’t hear on this album is the typical two-chord rock that fueled their debut. Like Bloc Party, they let the Radiohead influences out here, but they also whip out fucked-up acoustic blues (“Arm and Hammer”), drunken 6/8 balladry (“Yankee Go Home”) and, in “Satan Said Dance,” one of the campiest and most fun freak-outs in recent memory.

Come to think of it, I give the band infinite credit for sinking tons of money into this album, making a major-label-style sophomore record, and then keeping it for themselves, and self-releasing it. But I also think that in reaching for new musical styles and thicker production, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah have just highlighted their shortcomings. Some Loud Thunder isn’t bad, and it is an unexpected direction for this band to go, but it doesn’t build on the strengths of the debut. In fact, it all but ignores them, and the record suffers from a lack of energy because of it.

The same criticism cannot be leveled at the Apples in Stereo, who find just the right blend of goofy rock and shiny production on their latest, New Magnetic Wonder. Of course, they’ve had some time to perfect it – Wonder is the band’s sixth full-length in 12 years, and perhaps the most successful piece of work Robert Schneider and company have released.

It’s essentially 14 songs and 10 interludes, and the interludes only make up about six minutes of this thing, but take them out and the album sounds incomplete. This record is super-fun, from its emulation of 1970s guitar rock to its disco-era vocal effects to the heavy helping of Electric Light Orchestra influence that’s slathered all over it, and even though at 52 minutes it’s the longest Apples album to date, it’s over before you know it.

The album kicks off with tone-setter “Can You Feel It,” a glorious explosion of Cars-like rhythms and Jeff Lynne-inspired vocal layering. It’s probably the most fun I’ve had listening to music this year so far, and will probably keep that crown until Fountains of Wayne’s Traffic and Weather comes out in April. The album doesn’t flag from there, splashing into rockers “Skyway” and “Energy” before ducking into Supertramp land with “Same Old Drag.”

Elsewhere, Schneider unveils his “non-Pythagorean” scale, which allows him to play notes between the 12 tones of the normal octave. But don’t worry, it won’t make your head hurt for long – the focus here is absolutely on ‘70s-inspired rock tunes that could have found their way to the airwaves in decades past. The album climaxes with “Beautiful Machine,” a four-part strings-and-horns indie-rock epic stretched over two tracks and nearly eight minutes, and even that remains light and fun for its whole running time.

The Apples in Stereo have never been about filling the world with angst, or delivering scathing indictments of the world around them. They’re about making fun, catchy tunes, and on New Magnetic Wonder, they’ve outdone themselves in that arena.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with opening a vein and bleeding all over your recording studio, which one-man-band Of Montreal does on its eighth album, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer. Of Montreal is (at least lately) just Kevin Barnes, and over time, his work has become more insular and electronic. But it has never failed to be melodic and catchy at the same time.

Hissing Fauna has been described as a concept piece, and it’s easy to see why – it opens with a series of singalong stompers, and you’d never know how bitter they all are unless you read the lyric sheet. In particular, “Gronlandic Edit” struts along on a funky bassline while Barnes takes on organized religion in a multi-layered (and fascinating) falsetto. The first six songs are danceable and hummable and full of sparking color.

That all changes with track seven, the 12-minute “The Past is a Grotesque Animal.” An endless rant slathered in synthesizers, it serves as the turning point of the record, and as a screeching veer into more venomous territory. The rest of the record follows suit, and grows angrier as it goes along – nothing after track six matches the bright bursts of the opening salvo. The stomping “She’s a Rejecter” contains this striking line: “There’s the girl that left me bitter, want to pay some other girl to just walk up to her and hit her…”

In all, Hissing Fauna is Barnes’ most emotionally naked album, taking his trademark juxtaposition of bouncy melodies and gloomy lyrics to new heights. Or new depths, depending on how you look at it. It’s a tough album to get through, but the closing track, the lighter-than-air “We Were Born the Mutants Again With Leafling,” makes struggling through the second half worth it. Barnes has crafted a challenging, powerful record here, and who knows how Of Montreal fans will take to it.

I also should mention that Hissing Fauna comes in one of my favorite packages of the year. I’m a fan of album art, and clever designs – it’s the kind of thing that sets real CDs apart from their context-free digital download counterparts. This album’s digipack unfolds like a flower, petal by petal, and the liner notes are on their own free-standing cardboard circle. The whole thing comes in a clear plastic sleeve that keeps all its pieces in place. It’s a great design.

But it’s not my favorite so far. That honor goes to Portland, Oregon’s Menomena, who drafted graphic novelist Craig Thompson (Blankets) to create the artwork for their second album, Friend and Foe.

I will not be able to describe this package to you – you simply have to see it. It involves a die-cut front cover card, through which you can see the art on the CD (or on the back panel, when the CD’s playing). There are eight different permutations of the cover, depending on how you fold it, and if you line the track numbers on the CD up with the holes in the cover, you get different designs for each song. There’s so much subtlety to the artwork that you could stare at it, shifting the CD and the cover over and over again, for hours and not catch everything.

With all that, you’d think the album would be crazy-experimental, but it’s not – Menomena make music using a looping program, taking turns writing and recording their parts over it while standing in a circle, but the results sound surprisingly like the work of a very talented rock band. Friend and Foe is more dense and subtle than the band’s debut, with pianos and sweet vocals and memorable melodies carrying the day.

Songs like “Boyscout’n” slither along on a creepy bed, with dynamic guitars and eruptive drums, and the variety of sound and structure belies the loop-based origins of these tunes. They get more spacey by the end, with closer “West” sounding like a transmission from a mental institution on Mars. Friend and Foe overall goes deeper, and as it trails off with an extended piano coda, it leaves you feeling more wistful than you may have expected.

If you’re looking for a follow-up to that delicate conclusion, can I suggest Swedish outfit Loney, Dear? I know you’ve traveled pretty far with me this week, but trust me when I tell you I’ve saved the best for last.

I first heard Loney, Dear in my wonderful record store, Kiss the Sky. The band’s fourth album, the repetitively titled Loney, Noir, arrived in promo form from Sub Pop Records, and the staff played it in the store. And I was swept away – this album is just fantastic.

Loney, Dear is the pseudonym of songwriter Emil Svanangen, and he constructs these glorious mini-epics in his home studio, overdubbing and overdubbing until he sounds like a cast of thousands. His songs are pretty delights, buoyed by strings and clarinets and millions of other little things, and topped by Svanangen’s high, clear voice. It’s feather-light stuff, but in the very best way – it fills the air around you and invites you to breathe it in.

Loney, Noir’s highlights are many, from the flutes-and-clarinets dance track “Hard Days 1, 2, 3, 4,” which makes tambourines and handclaps sound like magic, to the superb folksy glide of “Saturday Waits,” to the comparatively forlorn ballad “I Am the Odd One.” There’s nothing in these 33 minutes that hasn’t been lovingly crafted, and nothing that won’t make you fall in love with music again.

The album could have ended with the sad heartbeat of “The Meter Marks OK,” but thankfully, Svanangen decided to go with “And I Won’t Cause Anything at All,” a slowly building, pulsing, saxophone-inflected beauty of a track. It sounds for all the world like taillights drifting away in the distance, like a happy ending in progress. The song contains the slowest fade on the record, and you’ll find yourself grasping for every last tone and beat, hoping it doesn’t end.

Seriously, this is my discovery of the year thus far, a record of heartbreaking beauty. I hope Sub Pop finds it in them to re-release Svanangen’s first three albums, and I hope they’re as good as this one. And I hope he keeps them coming, because Loney, Noir is just a lovely little piece of work. I can recommend everything this week, especially the Bloc Party, Of Montreal and Apples in Stereo albums, but this one… this one, I’m going to treasure.

If this keeps up, 2007 will be an amazing year for music, and with new ones on the way from some of my favorite bands, including Marillion, Fountains of Wayne (hear the smashing first single “Someone to Love” here) and Wilco, I have nothing but hope for the next 10 months. Music, as the man said, is the best.

See you in line Tuesday morning.