Tuesday, December 25, 2007

10 Records You Should Buy With the Gift Card You Just Got

Oh what fun it is to laugh and sing a Slayer song tonight.

Continuing in the year-end goodness, the Toaster Talks brings you on this lovely national holiday the first of its two lists. It's the lesser, to be sure. This one takes about an hour or so to crank out, whereas next week's Top 100 songs of the year list kicks my damn ass...still a dozen or so hours to go on that front. Until then, enjoy your Xmas and your Boxing Day (all you crazy Canadiens!) and I'll see you on the 1st.

A little on the methodology here: These are my ten favorite records of the year. It isn't necessarily the best or the most deserving of awards, although I'd like to think they are. There are no soundtracks, no reissues, no cover albums, no tributes and no box sets. And, due to a lost bet 17 years ago, I'm not allowed to include any Jethro Tull. It gets tougher every year...


10. Southeast EngineA Wheel Within a Wheel

For me, this is the biggest surprise of the year. And I’m sure it is for you, because I’m pretty sure 95% of you have never heard of these guys. Well, they’re from Athens, Ohio, and I wrote a little a few weeks back. I am biased here, as I’m very familiar with their work. The more I listen to Wheel Within a Wheel, though, the more I’m convinced it stands up to the best albums of the year pretty well. Its two closest competitors in their genre – Ryan Adams and Wilco – pale in comparison to this refreshingly honest material from a truly gifted songwriter and a bunch of guys who could have easily been just support. Instead, the arrangements are inventive and interesting. All in all, it’s a record that hasn’t stopped growing on me. Compared to the rest of the list, these guys might be obscure, but I have a feeling they won’t be for long.

9. LCD SoundsystemSound of Silver

I was pretty much sold completely on my first listen to “North American Scum” and haven’t looked back. Some of the longer numbers – “All My Friends” and “Someone Great,” in particular, are making me reconsider my general distaste for what I deem to be unnecessarily long songs. For others, this could easily be the best album of the year, but considering most of what LCD Soundsystem does isn’t really up my alley, a No. 9 spot says a lot about how good this one is.

8. Arcade FireNeon Bible

Funeral probably changed how I will view modern music. So in my eyes, at least, Arcade Fire were destined to disappoint. Neon Bible is a somewhat hodgepodge collection of dark, vaguely seditious songs that doesn’t resonate with me the way it intends to (or the way it does for so many others who have them topping out their lists). Still, upon revisiting the record, I still find it very, very good – a follow-up effort that just shouldn’t be compared to its predecessor. (It’d be like panning Magical Mystery Tour because it’s not as complete and life-changing as Sergeant Peppper…).

7. SpoonGa Ga Ga Ga Ga

I’ll admit that I resisted this one and its critical acclaim. I just didn’t think Spoon had this in them. Sure, I enjoyed “The Underdog,” but something about the bandwagon that sped off from the starting gate irked me – not to mention the misspelled song titles or the album name itself. But I kept popping it in my car stereo on many of the long drives that filled my fall and winter. I realized the change in me in September when I found myself really enjoying “The Ghost of You Lingers” and the stereo dynamic that is almost breathtaking in the car (I initially hated it in my headphones.). There’s no question – Spoon has made a fantastic album with this one.

6. The New PornographersChallengers

Many of us – myself included – were really counting on the New Pornographers to give the summer’s pop scene a kick in the mouth. You know, more smart power-pop from the folks who have done it so well since Mass Romantic.

What we got instead was much more an indication that The New Pornographers had outgrown their nascent sound and frontman Carl Newman was trying hard to branch out. There are new lead singers (Immaculate Machine’s Kathryn Calder) and a seemingly conscious conservation of Dan Bejar and Neko Case (the latter gets only two leads on the album).

As a whole, Challengers feels disjointed, a mix of would-be solo Newman songs, a few new Pornographers standards and a third batch of songs that almost deserve to be assigned to a third nom de plume. (The best example of this is the 6-minute “Unguided,” which is probably one of the most intelligently crafted songs of 2007.) Still, the album proved itself to be the grower of the year, due to Newman’s pop sensibilities and the raw talent that this band has on hand.

5. Iron & WineThe Shepherd’s Dog

Much like Challengers, The Shepherd’s Dog is an evolutionary album. Sam Beam finally gave in to the full-band sound, and what a relief! Before The Shepherd’s Dog, I had never been able to listen to a full-length Iron & Wine release without taking a break.

It had to be done. Since teaming up with Calexico in 2005 to make In the Reins, the intimate vocals and sparse (but secretly complex) arrangements that had come to characterize the Iron & Wine catalog no longer satisfied as it used to. It’s hard not to think that it would have been far easier for Beam to continue down the path toward Nick Drake-like mystique. But the urge to play around with his sound clearly got the best of him.

This couldn’t be more evident than on “Carousel,” a disarming track that puts Beam’s vocal through what sounds something like a Leslie Cabinet. In the end, the experimentation is refreshing but it’s the sheer beauty of moments like “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” that make this album a must-own.

4. Jens LekmanNight Falls Over Kortedala

At the very least, this album deserves credit for finally settling the nagging pronunciation issue. It’s Yens. Thank you.

This album is baroque pop at its ripest. Lekman steps up to the plate with his cute, clever Swedish singer-songwriter shtick and hits an absolute home run. Songs like “Postcard to Nina” and “Your Arms Around Me” show that he is one of the best indie storytellers out there. Night Falls Over Kortedala is the kind of album that is good and consistent enough that the listener never really thinks that Lekman could be capable of producing anything less. It’s why it’s one of the last albums I remember when trying to piece together my “Best of” list; it doesn’t play like a masterpiece, perhaps because it doesn’t need to.

3. Of MontrealHissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?

I’ve never been a huge Of Montreal fan, but they certainly have my attention now.

Hissing Fauna…? isn’t just a great album, it’s also managed to get mentioned in the same breaths as stunning concept albums that have left the rock world struggling to figure out what the fuck just happened. Perhaps the best comparison is Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, which saw a respectable and risky artist put everything on the line in the name of making a strong statement. Hissing Fauna…? is a bit more subtle (how could it not be?) and perhaps a little lighter on the self-hatred in its tales of drug use, depression and longing. And while this album isn’t an instant classic, due mostly to a slight weakness in its later tracks, its ambition is hard to deny.

For me, I always got hung up on the 12-minute “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal,” finding its repetition and length a bit obnoxious. Then one day this fall it clicked. And all of a sudden the song stuck, finally landing (at least in my mind) the triple axel it attempts.

And then it was decided – “This is a fucking fantastic record.” Because I apparently am the decider.

2. The NationalBoxer

This was my far-and-away front-runner favorite album released this year up until about two months ago (not long after Cease to Begin was released, and I finally turned the corner on the Of Montreal album). In a way its greatness was due to its role as a utility infielder for my soundtracking needs. I could throw Boxer on no matter the situation. I first discovered this in the car, realizing it was a great driving record. Then I put it on in the apartment on one night before a party and found it had night-starting qualities too.

Bryan Devendorf’s drumwork drives this album. Sure, the songwriting has merits of its own, but the lyrics take on a necessary subtlety under the stark, popping rhythms. Matt Berninger’s signature drone puts his vocals into a much different category (something more along the lines of Crash Test Dummies, perhaps) without the dark-city-on-a-late-night backing arrangement. But without Berninger’s songstylings, the result would uninviting – an exercise in depicting cold isolation, perhaps. Instead, we get an album that, if you let it, will pump your blood for you.

1. Band of HorsesCease to Begin

While last year’s Everything All the Time catapulted Band of Horses straight into indie hearts everywhere, I always found the album to be a bit uneven. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great album (and an outstanding debut at that) but it didn’t sound like a complete work to me the way that Best Albums of the Year do.

Cease to Begin does. And it’s evidenced by the fact that there aren’t any masterpiece tracks like last year’s “Funeral” and “Great Salt Lake” on this album. And yet each track takes me in and propels itself along in a way that doesn’t just make the album feel whole; it makes it feel brief. For a band that put me in a trance that could have lasted hours in concert, this is no small feat.

There’s no question Cease to Begin gets an A on the Toaster grading scale. Still, I’m always nervous when there is no heir apparent album of the year. And I’m left for weeks second-thinking my choice. This year will be one of those years, I’m afraid, as the #2 and #3 albums could both have easily stolen the throne.

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