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december 2007

As we're nearing the end of 2007, I'm revisiting this year's releases in preparation for compiling my year end best-of lists of albums and singles. The two I listened to yesterday were the New Pornographers' Challengers and the Fratellis' Costello Music, and I have similar problems with both.

With Challengers, every song on there is a solid 3 stars, but none of them stand out enough from the others to get bumped to 4 stars (although "Mutiny, I Promise You" has probably earned them). See, they aren't all 4 star tracks, but because the quality is so consistent, it's hard for me to figure out which ones really rise above the others. The album itself is probably rating about a 3.5 out of 5 (and honestly, if I were using Pitchfork's 10 point scale, it would probably be a 7.4), which doesn't make things any easier, because it confirms my instinct that there aren't a great deal of 4 star tracks on it, but there aren't that many that only rate 3.

I remember being very disappointed with the Fratellis record after getting hooked on their Flathead EP, which included two of the best songs on the record, "Henrietta" and "Flathead". It's kind of the same deal with this record as Challengers: the quality is pretty consistent, and all that sameness makes it really difficult to get attached to a particular track (although there are a couple of genuinely bad songs on here). Overall, the record rates no more than 3 stars, but I believe there are a couple more 4 star tracks lurking in there. Usually these reveal themselves when I stick an album like this in a big shuffle playlist so that when I hear a track from a particular record, it's surrounded by tracks from other artists and it can stand or fall on its own. But I don't think I have the patience to do that right now, so I might just have a concentrated listening session where I can pay more attention to each song.

There were a lot of records like these two this year, and there are an awful lot of as-yet unrated tracks from 2007, even from albums I've listened to a good number of times. But I don't think there will be much problem coming up with a top 10 list, because there were plenty of albums that did distinguish themselves. But figuring out that middle ground of decent/good records from those that were fair to middling is going to be a mess.

So Mark Everett (E) of Eels is the son of the physicist who came up with the many worlds/parallel universes theory. Who knew?

Menomena's Friend and Foe is the latest record to benefit from my revisiting of albums released in 2007. I remember my general impression of it was that it was a lot like Deerhoof when one of the guys sings, but not quite as good. But I'm really digging it now, so maybe this fallow period vis a vis new releases isn't such a bad thing after all.

I don't really need to re-listen to Jens Lekman's Night Falls Over Kortedala since it has never been removed from my main playlist since I got it, but I keep finding my way back to it. It's serving as a nice palate-cleanser between the other relatively unfamilar records from 2007 that I've been focusing on over the past few days.

White Rabbits' Fort Nightly is also faring well during my re-listening project. I don't think this process is really making it any easier to do my year-end rankings, because I either overlooked too many albums the first time around because they were released alongside other records that held my attention better, or I'm so starved for something new to listen to that these discs are getting bonus points because they seem new compared to records with higher listen counts.

I listened to practically nothing this weekend, and I'm not quite sure why. It's becoming more and more difficult to find time for serious listening; I no longer have the kind of projects at work where I can just sit in headphone land and work for hours at a time without interruption, and when I listen in the car or when I'm working at the computer there are obviously other things I'm paying attention to.

Those oceans of time when I was a teenager with nowhere to go and music was really my only escape seemed like a curse then, but that's when I fell in love with listening to music, and so many of the bands from that time are still so important to me today. Except for when I'm in a nursing home, if I make it that long, I can't imagine a time in my future when I'll have that kind of time and that kind of limited access to entertainment options that will almost force me to focus on music that intently again.

I guess if that time ever comes, my entire music library will be stored in the ether, I won't have to worry about the fact that my little one room efficiency won't have room for all my CDs. I can curl up with some future version of the Kindle and beam music directly into my hearing aid or whatever, and come close to that now-remote world of solitude where I can really sink into books and albums deeper than I can in my current harried existence.

I've been meaning to write about our second day at the Virgin Festival back in August for a long, long time, and I suppose I'd better get it over with before the year ends. So here we go.

I kind of wanted to see CSS or Dan Deacon, both of whom kicked off their sets at noon, but after the very long day we'd had at the festival on Saturday, we didn't quite make it on time. We made sure to be there by 2, however, because Spoon was scheduled for 2:25, and I did not want to miss their set.

I'm still not that thrilled with their last couple of albums——there are just not enough distinctive songs——but Kill the Moonlight is one of my favorite records, and I still like the band overall. Their set was pretty good——Britt Daniels exuded rock star cool, and the band was as tight as you would expect from the spare minimalism of their albums. At one point they were joined onstage by one of their old associates who has relocated to Baltimore and now plays with a local band. They played "Fitted Shirt" with him, which is one of the best songs in their catalog and one which I didn't have high hopes of hearing since it's from a few albums back.

They focused mostly on the newer stuff, but they played a good number of songs from Moonlight, and I have to say the live setting gave more life to the more recent songs. A good portion of the audience were recently minted Spoon fans, as evidenced by their attention span——the two girls sitting on the blanket next to ours stayed only to hear the two songs they knew from advertising campaigns or tv/movie soundtracks or whatever ("I Turn My Camera On" was one of them, can't remember the other) and then promptly decamped for the food vendors. But I hope that with the energy of their performance they won over a few less fickle folks in the crowd who weren't already fans.

The next band we really wanted to see was the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but it was a couple of hours before they took the stage, so we took that time to grab some food and wander around the festival a bit. On the south stage, Jewish rapper Matisyahu was holding court, and listening to him live for a couple of songs left me with the same impression I have of him from hearing his songs: all his stuff sounds pretty much the same, and it's all pretty mediocre. But the sandal-footed frat boys with long shorts and bead necklaces and their flip-flopped girlfriends seemed to be enjoying his set.

Panic! at the Disco was playing the north stage, and while they were obliging enough to play their big single "I Write Sins Not Tragedies", they also unfortunately attempted to cover the Band's classic "The Weight". I appreciate them attempting to bring a bit of rock history to their presumably underinformed teen audience, but man, if you've seen the Band's performance of this song in Martin Scorsese's documentary The Last Waltz, you would know that this is not something to fuck around with. It's like that old saying: "It is better to remain silent and be thought an idiot than to open your mouth and remove all doubt." With this song, it's better for a young band that's still earning its stripes to stay away from it and be thought of as incapable of something so perfect than to perform it and confirm that it's out of their league. Because it definitely was.

Bad Brains played the south stage after Matisyahu finished with his shenanigans, and although we had time to watch about 45 minutes of the set, it just didn't hold my interest. I know, I know, people like me aren't supposed to say things like that. But I don't know any of their songs——I never really got into them——and so I have been largely unaffected by their comeback, as heralded as it was.

I still stand by my earlier assertion that the new Go! Team record, Proof of Youth, is mostly redundant because it's so similar to their debut album, but in re-listening to it, there are a few really great tracks, most notably "Fake ID" and "Universal Speech", both tucked next to one another in the middle of the album.

It's hard to know what to do with a band like this——they got known in the first place for a very unique signature sound, so if they move away from that too much (a la Architecture in Helsinki), they risk losing their core fan base, but if they don't modify things much from album to album and basically make a this-year's-model update to their sound (a la Clinic), their core fans will eventually lose interest, even if the songs on their latest work are just as good as the songs that the fans fell in love with on the band's first releases.

Good stuff: Okkervil River has posted a free download of cover songs called the Golden Opportunities Mixtape to their web site, along with album artwork so you can make your own physical CD and so you don't have to look at the generic icon on your iPod. It would be a nice treat any time of year, but in the musical drought we've been suffering through for the last couple months, it's an especially welcome bit of rain.

Some early best of 2007 lists are starting to appear, and one album that I'm shocked doesn't show up more frequently is LCD Soundsystem's Sound of Silver. I haven't really sat down and made my finalists list yet, but I'm going to be shocked if I find 10 albums better than that one from the past year.

Another record I'm surprised to see missing from many of the year-end lists that have appeared so far: Radiohead's In Rainbows. Aside from the bonus points it gets from the way they released it, it may just be the best and most consistent album of the band's career, and just as with LCD Soundsystem, I'm going to be very surprised if it doesn't end up somewhere pretty high in my top 10 list for 2007.

Someday I'll put together a good indie Christmas mix by cobbling together a few songs here and there every year. This year's possible additions: the Flaming Lips' "Christmas at the Zoo", the Minus 5's "Your Christmas Whiskey", and a trio of songs from the New Pornographers' The Spirit of Giving EP. Overall I'm still a long way from a CD's worth of songs, but I think I'll be able to pull three from these five tracks.

I picked up Lupe Fiasco's The Cool, which will likely be my last purchase of 2007. I've only listened to it once so far, but it doesn't seem nearly as dynamic as his debut, and it also seems to lean a little too heavily on guest stars. I might grow to like it better the more I listen to it, but I can pretty much guarantee you that it won't measure up to Kanye's latest disc.

Off to visit family for a week or so, and I'll be taking a break from posting until the new year. See you then, and take care.