Pop Rocks: Year in Review 2007
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
4. Panda Bear Person Pitch (Paw Tracks)
Animal Collective’s Panda Bear (née Noah Lennox) has simply outdone himself and his band-mates with this staggering record. Already blessed with a snowy, Brian Wilson-esque voice, Lennox distorts, chops and layers his Beach Boys mould, rendering Wilson’s tradition of songwriting in a completely novel light. Computers, samplers, and mixing boards conspire to coil his sweet melodies and sampled grooves into joyous swirls of noise. Meanwhile, capsules of found sounds dissolve and explode softly in Lennox’s dense stew of floating voices, echoes and beats. This barrage can almost be too much to take sometimes, but being overwhelmed in this manner is a weightless, transcendent experience. Pras Rajagopalan
5. Radiohead In Rainbows (Independent)
After you’ve paid your six (or four, or two, or zero) pounds and discussed the value of music with anyone who’ll listen, you’re left with a remarkable piece of work. In Rainbows sees Radiohead discard their role as distant lover, delivering a set of their most sincere, untreated and instantaneous songs to date. Great works of art are often created under the artist’s own terms; In Rainbows displays this notion so concretely that you are lead to believe that each note is the only logical choice. The story surrounding In Rainbows raises a lot of questions; the music raises none. Daniel Sylvester
6. Miracle Fortress Five Roses (Secret City)
Yet another great band indie band emerged from Montreal’s jam space-cum-café this year. Graham Van Pelt’s project Miracle Fortress released their first full-length album just before summer, and also managed to make it onto the short-list for this year’s Polaris prize. From start to finish, Five Roses doles out anthem after lulling anthem, combining Phil Spector’s signature wall of sound with Brian Wilson’s beachy vibes, with a twist of Motown soul. The airy synths and catchy bass lines reel you in hook after hook, and truly makes this the definition of perfect pop. "Hold Your Secrets to Your Heart”? Not about this album! Stephanie Kale
7. Deerhunter Cryptograms (Kranky)
With Cryptograms, Atlanta’s Deerhunter went from being virtual unknowns to one of the year’s most talked about and exciting bands and for good reason. The group’s sophomore album hits that great spot where forward-thinking experimentation meets sure-and-steady pop, where artistic expression never overtakes a good, enjoyable listen. Through washing textures, ricocheting vocals and hazy guitar patterns, ambient passages give way to psychedelic drones, dark pop snippets and back again, making for an album that’s as complex as it is satisfying. With a sound that’s very much its own, Cryptograms is a truly modern recording that will likely serve as a benchmark for many groups to come. Brock Thiessen
8. Deerhoof Friend Opportunity (Kill Rock Stars)
If there were an award for most stunning and consistent improvement in musical quality, Deerhoof would be a shoe-in. The quirky novelty of previous material has given way to incredibly creative and accomplished song craft and musicianship without sacrificing the endearing oddities the band is built on. Stripping down to a three-piece seems to have been helpful in focusing song structure and melody while giving Greg Saunier the opportunity to exercise percussive muscles most drummers will never realise exist. A masterpiece of music without boundaries invoking the best elements of pop, prog, punk, folk, classical, techno glitch, experimental noise and anything else conceivable, Friend Opportunity is essentially a music geek’s wet dream. Scott A. Gray
9. Spoon Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Merge)
Indie icons Spoon had a tough act to follow with the success of 2005’s Gimme Fiction, but the pressure obviously didn’t get to them. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is another dose of the infectious yet uncomplicated pop songs that we’ve come to expect from the Austin band. But that’s not to say the record is in any way typical or predictable. Their simple melodies paired with Britt Daniel’s less-than-smooth vocals are what indie classics are made of, and some of the catchiest guitar-driven songs are definite essentials on anyone’s playlist of favourites. The only thing Spoon can’t do is disappoint. Jill Langlois
10. Animal Collective Strawberry Jam (Domino)
Pushing and prodding at the borders of music can be a tiring chore, but never has this band felt more visceral, more electric and more alive. Without a hint of hesitancy, every song kneads your body and mind like a piece of dough, making us all at the mercy of these wizards of sound. If you could even put their programmed beats, shrieking vocals and tones from a galaxy unknown into a genre, you could argue this is their "rock” album. No matter how you want to package it, this is a magnificently crafted aural manifesto. Chris Whibbs
11. Feist The Reminder (Arts & Crafts)
A glorious collection of songs from Canada’s sweetheart, made all the more remarkable given the high expectations that preceded it. The Reminder reminds us, most of all, that Leslie Feist has become a truly great singer and songwriter of enviable talent and range. Awash with irresistible pop gems ("I Feel It All”) and heartbreaking torch songs ("The Water”) alike, The Reminder invariably finds memorable melodies skilfully wrapped around meaningful words, all beautifully sung in a style as natural as it is unique. The poignant nostalgia hidden inside joyous hit single "1 2 3 4,” meanwhile, confirms our lady’s considerable songwriting gifts. A superior record. Neil McDonald
12. Attack In Black Marriage (Dine Alone)
Given their youth and hardcore band histories, what you’d expect from these Welland punks is, well, punk. Instead came an exciting and ambitious fusion of horn-flecked rock’n’roll epics, countrified ballads and a smart, literate lyrical approach. In them one can hear the DNA of bands from the Replacements and Weakerthans to the Foo Fighters and early Rolling Stones. To hell with trying to reinvent rock’n’roll ⎯ Marriage is heady and drunk with the thrill of taking it out for a fast drive with the top down, a timeless narcotic at any age. James Keast
13. Sunset Rubdown Random Spirit Lover (Jagjaguwar)
While Wolf Parade fans anxiously await that band’s follow-up to Apologies to the Queen Mary, Spencer Krug’s second album with Sunset Rubdown might just prove his best work is done when he is left to steer the ship. What can’t be overlooked is the vital contribution of first mate Camilla Wynn Ingr; her considerable talents shine here as never before. A euphoric non-stop romp that flings you giddily sideways and upside-down — and could take on Fiery Furnaces’ Blueberry Boat song for song — Random Spirit Lover testifies that Sunset Rubdown have gone from side project to main attraction. Helen Spitzer
14. Jens Lekman Night Falls Over Kortedala (Secretly Canadian)
Jens Lekman is a genius. He writes perfect pop songs with what seems like no effort, and his latest collection is very hard to fault. As an album, it delivers a surprisingly cohesive collection of tales of Swedish romance, set to a string-laden disco beat with funny, touching and incredibly witty lyrics. The delivery is still equal parts Stephen Merritt and Scott Walker, with the songs having a greater reliance on samples than before and those elaborate arrangements are unexpectedly infectiousness. His tweeness, which isn’t disguised at all, might be a bit of an acquired taste, but those who get it will marvel at just how glorious a record this really is. Michael Edwards
15. Besnard Lakes Are the Dark Horse (Outside)
This album logged more time on my stereo than any other in 2007. It’s a work that hits the head and the heart simultaneously, grabbing both in a fierce grip that it has yet to relinquish. There are some obvious reference points to the group’s shoegazer meets space rock meets orch-pop approach (Sigur Rós, Spiritualized, Beach Boys), but the strength of the songwriting and the performance transcends mimicry. Jace Lasek’s effortless falsetto and Olga Goreas’ haunting delivery mesh and contrast perfectly, and the epic swell of the music seduces with an easy grace. Kerry Doole
16. The National Boxer (Beggars Banquet)
Do I love Boxer for its muscular update of Roxy Music’s fey romanticism or the Tindersticks’ woozy late night paeans? Do I love it for vocalist Matt Berninger’s sidelong deconstruction of the moon/spoon/June love song into odes that can say, "this isn’t working, you, my middlebrow fuck-up?” Do I love it for the band (of brothers) that make music that can be called stately and refined without actually meaning sterile and dull? Do I love it because young women listening to it in a record store nudge each other and say, "wait for this next line… listen… ahhhhh?” Yes I do. Eric Hill
17. No Age Weirdo Rippers (FatCat)
In two years, Randy Randall and Dean Spunt started No Age, toured the world, released countless EPs, compiled them as a full-length on Weirdo Rippers, and went through a bidding war that resulted in them signing to Sub Pop. One listen to Weirdo Rippers, however, and you realise it was probably stress-free good times. Combining elements of shoegaze, early indie rock, and ’80s hardcore, Weirdo Rippers flourishes in timeless melodies and stripped-down jams. It’s that rare demonstration of a band doing what they love regardless of whatever’s big. And that’s why they’re going to be huge. Josiah Hughes
18. Of Montreal Hissing Fauna Are You the Destroyer? (Polyvinyl)
It’s the pitfall of the break-up album that most artists end up moaning poor-me lyrics over a dolefully strummed acoustic. But never have loneliness and self-loathing sounded as fun as they do on Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, the eighth studio album from Athens, GA indie-pop act Of Montreal. Recorded as front-man Kevin Barnes struggled through a separation from his wife and infant daughter, Hissing Fauna embraces the mood swings of break-up anxiety with enviably manic abandon. Bursting with spacey synth-pop hooks and decadent, instantly catchy choruses, Barnes’ deft songwriting runs the emotional gamut from sadness to defiance to total glam sleaziness without once coming off as trite. Chris Boutet
19. Tinariwen Aman Iman: Water Is Life (Outside)
Rock’n’roll is so buried under cliché that it’s near impossible to hear something new. And blues music — the very root of rock’n’roll — is certainly not new. But in the hands of Touareg tribesmen wandering the desert with battery-powered amps and electric guitars, singing songs of resistance and self-determination around campfires, rock’n’roll revisits its mysterious and rebellious origins with one droning chord and sometimes just a one-note guitar solo. You don’t have to understand the lyrics to engage in Tinariwen’s call and response, though you might want to work on your ululating before surrendering entirely. Michael Barclay
20. Beirut The Flying Club Cup (Bada Bing)
Channelling the spirit of legendary chansonnier Jacques Brel, Flying Club Cup is an articulate reflection on the smoky Parisian cabaret-style of the ’60s. Twenty-one year-old Zach Condon has effortlessly mastered the French art of storytelling in a dramatic fashion reflecting on the lost loves and melancholic lives of a cast of mid-20th century rural French characters. A ramshackle assembly of instruments, collected from the streets of Condon’s European jaunts, provides a theatrical accompaniment that constantly threatens to fall apart as simply as the lives that Condon lyrically unravels in his troupe of protagonists. Derek Nawrot
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