INDIE CRED: Leslie Feist edged into the mainstream with The Reminder — and an Apple ad.
Thanks to Radiohead, 2007 may one day be looked back on as the year the music died — at least by the industry that has relied on the same business model for selling music since Elvis and the Beatles. But bad times for the big guys have generally been good news for the rest of us. After all, the post-disco crash set the stage for punk, and it was the commercial vacuum left in the wake of hair metal’s collapse that cleared the way for grunge. So, on the consumer side of the commercial divide, 2007 was the year the music thrived, as streamable audio on MySpace, YouTube videos, and the Web in general supported an ongoing groundswell in independent music and independence in general. That left the majors digging deeper and deeper into their vaults for reissues like the Joy Division catalogue, and replacing cheap plastic jewel cases with deluxe Digipaks. In other words, it really couldn’t be a better time to be a music fan. Which didn’t make it any easier to single out 10 of the year’s best, but it did make the process that much more enjoyable.
Against Me! | New Wave
Great album title. And “White People for Peace” is one of the better named songs of the year. Oh, and there’s also a top-notch duet, with Tegan Quin (of Tegan and Sara) sharing the spotlight with Against Me!’s angry-at-the-world frontman Tom Gabel in the poetically titled “Borne on the FM Waves of the Heart.” This is the Butch Vig–produced major-label debut on which scrappy punk outfit sells out and, yes, sounds great doing so. New Wave (Sire) may be more rock than punk, but when Gabel shouts, “We can be the bands we wanna hear/We can define our own generation,” it’s clear his heart’s still in the right place.
Arctic Monkeys | Favourite Worst Nightmare
So much praise was heaped on the Monkeys’ 2006 debut by the British press that it was conceivable the band would crumple like the Libertines under the weight of being the UK’s rock-and-roll saviors. Instead, they shook off the accolades and took the accumulated energy of a year on the road into the studio to bash out an album (on Domino) that might even be better than Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. Now, nobody can write them off as England’s answer to the Strokes, because if anything it’s the Strokes who need to come up with an answer to Arctic Monkeys.
Deerhunter | Cryptograms
This Atlanta band have punk in their hearts (and their past), but they’ve evolved into something altogether different on Cryptograms (Kranky), an album that re-rewrites the rules of indie pop by meshing the arty jangle of early R.E.M. with the swirling textures of a lo-fi My Bloody Valentine. The secret weapon is singer Bradford Cox, a tall, lanky, awkward soul who in the best punk tradition sings outsider songs for insiders.
Feist | The Reminder
Leslie Feist has indie cred through her association with Broken Social Scene and enough mainstream pop promise that Apple picked her “1234” for its iPod Nano commercial. On The Reminder (Interscope), her second solo disc, she doesn’t sound as voluptuous as Amy Winehouse or as straitlaced as Norah Jones — she splits the difference, sliding from sensuously jazzy to innocently alluring to playfully moody, with a natural, irresistible warmth.
Great Lakes Swimmers | Ongiara
In the fine tradition of Neil Young, Great Lakes Swimmers’ banjo-picking frontman, Tony Dekker, is a Canadian as steeped in rural Americana as any Smokey Mountain bandit. Except that Dekker’s touch on Ongiara (Nettwerk) is even lighter and more hauntingly textured than Young’s on Harvest, and his folk heroics seem happy enough standing on their own, without the punch of Crazy Horse rock. My favorite “discovery” of the year.
PJ Harvey | White Chalk
Every now and again, Polly Jean finds a little way to make a big change, and White Chalk (Island) is one of those. She’s put down her guitar before, but this time she replaces it with piano, an instrument she’s relatively new to. The results are as raw as Dry but quieter, more haunting, and even a bit darker. It’s a reminder that PJ’s still not ready to be pinned down and always worth paying attention to.
Modest Mouse | We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that this is the same Modest Mouse who emerged from a tiny town in Washington State in the mid ’90s sounding grungy, dark, and oh-so-serious. If you count the addition of legendary Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr on We Were Dead (Epic), then it actually isn’t the same Modest Mouse. But the playful transformation that had singer/guitarist Isaac Brock on the same interplanetary path as the Flaming Lips, and out on some of the same Pink Floydian limbs that Doug Martsch was occupying with Built To Spill, started before Marr arrived. Now, Modest Mouse just have more texture to work with — and the smarts to do so tastefully.