Pop Rocks: Year in Review 2007
1. Battles Mirrored (Warp)
What makes an album qualify as "pop” is always subjective, but in 2007 most people have accepted the notion that — more than ever — music’s most hospitable genre has broadened even further. The best example of pop’s infinite reality this year also happens to be our favourite album, Mirrored, the debut full-length by Battles. In a bid to communicate their multi- dimensional sound, these New York gear enthusiasts have also wholly blurred the lines of musical categorisation to a point where even they take the easy route in explaining their music. "The easy, five-second answer is when you’re at a gas station and the guy sees you pull up in a van and says, ‘Hey man, you’re in a band! What kind of music is it?’ We say, ‘Oh, just rock’n’roll,’” admits guitarist/keyboardist Ian Williams.
Forming out of the ashes of heavyweights such as Don Caballero and Helmet in 2003, Battles released two EPs (compiled as an album in 2006 by Warp) of formless experiments that drummer John Stanier confesses weren’t exactly demonstrative of the band’s ability. "The songs on the EPs are prehistoric,” says Stanier. "They’re so old and when I listen to those I can tell it’s before we knew each other personally and before we knew each other musically.”
Mirrored is the sound of four men — Williams, Stanier, Tyondai Braxton and Dave Konopka — expressing their familiarity and comfort with one another. The album’s concentrated fusions pin man alongside machine, fusing together bits of metal, flesh and neon lights to create sounds akin to, well, none other. Inhuman vocals nod to Kraftwerk’s stroke of artificial intelligence; mechanically calculated time changes suggest telepathic avant-jazz improvisation; and the twisted melodies fill a unique microcosm with something palatable for the conservative listener. Daft Punk may personify the swinging "Robot Rock” lifestyle, but Battles achieve bionic precision while appearing as their human selves — they don’t need fancy blinking helmets and a spaceship to get their point across.
As complex and hi-tech as Mirrored’s makeup is, it’s surprisingly traditional in its composition. According to Stanier, the songs were assembled the same way your average singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar would write theirs. "About 95 percent of the music was written before we entered the studio,” Stanier explains. "And by that I mean there were sheets of paper stacked up and lying all over the place with notes.” Adds Williams: "There’s a definite script that we use. The only real approach to improv that we have is that we sort of jump out against the grain sometimes to snap the songs into life.”
And plenty of life there is — Mirrored jumps and jolts with vitality, pushing surprises on the listener left and right with every listen. There are the sounds of Snow White’s seven borgs hard at work in fast-forward on "Ddiamondd,” the bombastic romp of Martians with single "Atlas” and how about "TIJ,” which is nothing short of the score to a high-speed, sci-fi getaway chase. Says Williams, "For me there is this connection, playing this… we don’t really like to think of it as instrumental music, I mean it does come from that at first, but as evidenced by Mirrored, we’re definitely looking to push it into new directions.” Cam Lindsay
2. Arcade Fire Neon Bible (Merge)
With its majestic myriad strings, pipe organ, piano, hurdy gurdy, hurtling riffs and rhythm and relentlessly stirring melodies, Neon Bible makes its gloomy narratives delectable for the masses, huddled and otherwise. Losing faith in one’s church, country, planet, body — these are gargantuan issues to tackle in an epic novel, let alone a "pop” record, yet here they are, in all their bold and bitter glory. As B.B. King once said to Bono, "You’re mighty young to be writing such heavy lyrics,” a truer statement of Arcade Fire, whose sophomore record is as much a lyrical triumph as a musical one. Lorraine Carpenter
3. Caribou Andorra (Merge)
Caribou’s Andorra is like an auditory exhibit of "modern sounds,” as conceived at different points throughout the last several decades — techniques and ideas that broke ground in the ’60s are recreated and combined with up-to-date electronic touches. At first, Dan Snaith’s light vocals drift through a dense haze of lovely melodies, sounds and effects, mediated by heavy, driving beats; the songs are softer during the second half of the record, though no less entrancing. Even Andorra’s most stripped-down tracks are finely pieced together, making a cursory listen just as moving as a thoughtful one. Snaith’s many ideas form an overwhelmingly pretty whole, but parsing his work detail-for-detail reveals new proofs of the quality of his work. Alex Molotkow
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