Saturday, December 08, 2007

Changing Your Heart: 2007 In Review

     2007 was a fairly non-eventful year of music, as far as I heard. I spent the better part of the year delving into music created in the first half of the twentieth century, though, rather than obsessively seek out every new artist and trend. (Trend of the year: wolves, or ghosts? You decide.) But thanks to outlets like The R3-30, Exclaim!, and Under The Radar I was introduced to a healthy number of up-and-comers. Some songs were everywhere and could not be ignored. Others were hidden gems which even you, kind reader, may not have heard of until now. But that's the whole point of this. This isn't the best of the year (for how can you qualify something as "the best" when tastes vary so much). It's merely my favorites.

- - - 7 ALBUMS FOR '07 - - -

M.I.A.1. M.I.A. - KALA
After the success of her first album, Arular, released in spring 2005, Maya Arulpragasam's blend of dancehall, hip-hop, grime, and electro was a hot commodity and expectations were high. With her second album, Kala, Maya not only meets but surpasses those expectations. She continues to hone her sound without losing sight of any of her ideas or quirkiness.

All the ingredients of Arular are here but added to the mix are The Modern Lovers, Pixies, The Clash, Timbaland, New Order, and the sounds of Bollywood. Whether it's the stomp of 'Boyz', the sweetness of 'Jimmy' or any of the other twists and turns prevalent, M.I.A. proves her worth as the next great female powerhouse, deserving of the crown that sat upon the heads of Björk and PJ Harvey for many years, while flash-in-the-pans like Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen fall to the wayside.

John K. Samson departed punk favorites Propagandhi in the late '90s and started a group called The Weakerthans. They released their debut album Fallow the same year, a punk folk album in the vein of Billy Bragg or The Lowest Of The Low. Since then their sound has gradually evolved into the more indie/power pop sound of Left And Leaving, the folksy Reconstruction Site, and now with their fourth album, Reunion Tour.

Reunion Tour takes Samson's poetry and the storybook folk rock of Reconstruction Site while furthering interest in the experimental sounds previously only hinted at on tracks like 'Past-Due'. Ambience pervades, keyboards take a larger role than ever before, and tape loops invade the same kind of literate poetry that Samson's been writing for the past decade. Lead single 'Civil Twilight' is a knock-you-on-your-ass rocker that could have easily fit onto Left And Leaving and Virtute the cat returns (and departs) in the saddest song on the album.

After Rilo Kiley's third album, More Adventurous, the band took a break and members split off with Blake and Jason releasing a new Elected album and Jenny picking up the Watson Twins for her first solo album. Jenny's solo album was a largely country affair, influenced by the likes of Laura Nyro and Emmylou Harris. How this would fit into the indie-pop style of Rilo Kiley remained to be seen. Whether Rilo Kiley even had a future was up in the air. But three years later, Rilo Kiley returned.

Under The BlacklightUnder The Blacklight is the biggest step yet for the band. Embracing pop over rock more than ever, the band's sound is a far cry from their beginnings. What results, though, with Lewis' voice ever the focal point is a slice of white-soul, the likes of which haven't been heard since Dusty Springfield hung up her microphone. Blacklight isn't as immediately grabbing as past efforts, but repeated listenings reveal deeper depths than ever before. 'The Moneymaker' grooves, 'Smoke Detector' offers up Wall Of Sound-style dance, and even the mandatory Blake track 'Dreamworld' hints at an Elephant 6 influence that one would be surprised to find.

London, Ontario's Basia Bulat marks her full-length debut with Oh, My Darling. Seemingly coming from out of nowhere, Basia's music is rife with strings, acoustic guitar, and the kind of sounds you'd expect to hear from someone who's performed on the same bills as Julie Doiron, Sondre Lerche, and Final Fantasy. Highlights include the bouncy 'I Was A Daughter' and the single 'Snakes And Ladders'.

Tim DeLaughter's Polyphonic Spree continue their cult takeover with this, their third album. The choral strength remains as the 23 members play everything from guitar to flute to theremin to harp, as well as feature a ten-person choir. 'Running Away' is one of the best Spree songs to date showing that the band, much like The Flaming Lips, know how to marriage theatricality and musicianship into one awesome force.

Let's Go SailingLos Angeles' Let's Go Sailing finally released their debut album after many years of working at it. LGS is made up of members from and of such acts as Irving, Silversun Pickups, Modest Mouse, The Rentals, and Beechwood Sparks. On the surface this is effervescent twee, but twee music wrote with the wisdom of experience and a slightly somber tone in looking back. This year's answer to The Boy Least Likely To and I'm From Barcelona.

Jenny Omnichord is Jenny Mitchell and her omnichord. Are you still following? A longtime Barmitzvah Brothers member, Jenny steps out on her own with her impossible-to-find first album. Featuring production from Canadian legends like Bob Wiseman and Jim Guthrie, Jenny writes earnest, ambitious songs sometimes sounding like if Princess Peach formed a band, but mostly sounding like your kid sister knows more than she lets on.

Jenny Omnichord

- - - 7 SINGLES FOR '07 - - -
Note: Rihanna's 'Umbrella' is clearly the song of the year. Every year has to have the R&B breakout hit which becomes a huge anthem. In 2003, it was 'Hey Ya'. In 2006, it was 'Crazy'. In 2007, it was 'Umbrella'. While it's admittedly a tremendous pop song and deserving of 'Single Of The Year', it wasn't one of my personal favorite seven singles and thus did not place on the list below.

1. FEIST - 1234

Preceding the release of her third album The Reminder, Leslie Feist was already a fairly big name in Canada. As onetime member of By Divine Right and occasional member of Broken Social Scene, she enchanted the indie rock masses. With her 2004 solo album Let It Die, she was nominated for four Juno awards and won two. Her song 'Mushaboom' was very popular and covered by the likes of Bright Eyes and The Postal Service. But slap a song of hers on an ipod commercial and watch how the rest of the world takes notice.

After having already licensed 'Mushaboom' to a couple different commercials, allowing its use for an ipod commercial was no big qualm for Feist, I'm sure. The success must have been a bit of a surprise though. Within days of premiering, internet searches for the name of the song skyrocketed and pushed '1234' into the popular mindset, charting in the top 10 in the singles charts in Canada, The United States, and The United Kingdom. Suddenly Feist was being featured in the New York Times and Vanity Fair, being nominated for the Polaris Music Prize, performing on Saturday Night Live, and being nominated for four Grammy awards including best pop album, best female pop vocal, best music video, and best new artist (despite releasing her first solo album eight years ago).

None of this would have occurred were the song not ridiculously good, though. Cowritten by Sally Seltmann of New Buffalo, the song isn't entirely unique from much of Feist's catalogue. The handclaps are there, her signature cooing, rhyming, and fluttering, the chorus of backup singers, and the cuteness. All the success that resulted is mere flash, while the song itself is substance. Feist shows why she deserves to be in the place that she now is - and why she's deserved to be there all along.


Within the first five seconds, the song is familiar. On the first listen, even. A classic in all aspects. Jack & Meg have finally managed to write a single that doesn't get old, that you don't get sick of. They've shown again how they're timeless. This could easily be added to the playlist of any classic rock station and blend in with all the big names of the '70s. They've managed to subtly evolve and change their sound in just such a way that it is still unmistakably The White Stripes but with enough of a difference from their old albums that it is still fresh and exciting, and never tired (something their contemporaries in The Strokes and Interpol have yet to figure out how to achieve).


Janelle MonáeShe's been called the female Andre 3000. She has all the sizzle of the mainstream divas Beyoncé and Rihanna but with the eccentricity of the OutKast legend mixed in. From the opening "I-I-I'm an alien from outer space" you know you're not in for your regular R&B pop song. But the track comes from a concept album about Janelle's recent trip into the far future. She lists Judy Garland, Lauryn Hill, Buddy Holly, Björk, and Michael Jackson as her influences and, with any justice, she'll one day be spoken of with the same reverence.

4. M.I.A. - JIMMY

Probably the most accessible track off Kala, this is another one that deserves to be a smash hit but failed to really hit the charts anywhere except for in Japan. The strings are so prominent, one of the last things you'd expect in an upbeat hip-hop song, and Maya's vocals flow amazingly, highlighted only occasionally by the backups. 'Jimmy' has more hooks than some albums do in their entirety, grabbing you in a different way with every new chorus and verse and just challenging you to try to sit still and keep your mouth shut.


WintersleepAt a friend's urging and with a promised free ticket, I saw Wintersleep live last fall and was not wowed. I found them stilted and plain. So imagine my surprise when 'Weighty Ghost' came across the dial. Riveting and welcoming, the keyboard backdrop soothes you while Paul Murphy's vocals draw you in and the chorus makes sure you stay put. More songs like this and bands like The Weakerthans will have to start looking over their shoulders.


In which Architecture In Helsinki take the best parts of TV On The Radio and The Go! Team, chase it with a mouthful of pop rocks, chew them up, and spit them back out.


The opening track from the Pornographer's fourth album opens with a gentle strum followed by A.C. Newman's trademark voice. By the time the lead-in to the chorus starts, the backing oooh's come in and the song begins to heat up. Drums chime in, Newman's voice gets deeper and more pronounced, extra guitars are added, and Neko Case's voice joins the mix. A constant growth. An uphill climb. And an ever-further pinnacle. Much like the Pornographers themselves.

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