Best Albums of 2007! (20 through 16…)

January 10, 2008 at 5:14 am (Best-of lists, cool band alert, reviews, rock and roll)

20. Film School, Hideout.
You think you had a lousy 2006? Check out the doozy of a year Film School frontman Greg Bertens had: after the year opened auspiciously with influential indie-major label Beggars Banquet releasing Film School’s self-titled second album, the embarked on a US tour to support it. After a show in Ohio, Bertens was mugged and beaten outside the club. Two days later in Philadelphia, thieves made off with the band’s van and all their music gear.

The strain was too much for Bertens, and he dissolved the band to clear his own head. It must’ve worked, because Film School’s 2007 release, Hideout, builds on all the promise the band ever had, and delivers an album I never thought they had in ’em. Film School play unabashed shoe-gazer dreampop music; one listen and you’re transported to the land of My Bloody Valentine’s woozy, swirling guitars and laconic if androgynous vocals. Yes, I know: lots of bands are doing that. What separates Hideout and Film School from the pack of shoegazer revivalists is that Bertens has an impressive batch of songs–if they aren’t as good as Kevin Shields’ takes on the genre, they’re at least in the same ballpark, which is no mean feat and thus makes Film School a band to watch and embrace. “Go Down Together”, in fact, is the equal of anything in the MBV catalogue (and one of the best songs of the year), and “Two Kinds” and “Capitalized I” aren’t far behind.

“Go Down Together”
“Two Kinds”
“Dear Me”

19. Grand Atlantic, This Is…
In their native Australia, Grand Atlantic’s brand of instantly-winning radio-friendly (if radio didn’t suck) guitar rock has already gifted them with a couple of hits from their debut disc. Here in the States? Yeah, welcome to Anonymityville, fellas.

Still, this is a band to keep an eye on. With a huge sound that falls somewhere between Oasis, Cheap Trick, and Sloan, Grand Atlantic spends most of This Is trying on a variety of musical hats, from quiet, Wilson Brothers/Left Banke-y pop of “Prelude” and “Wonderful Tragedy” to bracing straightahead rockers like “Coolite” (great opening lines? Try “You, you’re my Penny Lane…”) or “Smoke And Mirrors”. Grand Atlantic spend much of their debut showing off a craftsmanship that elevates what could have been an utterly derivative and dull affair into one of the most exciting guitar rock discs of the year.

“Coolite” (video)
“Wonderful Tragedy”(video)
“Smoke And Mirrors” (video)

18. The Ponys, Turn The Lights Out.
I love The Ponys, I hate The Ponys, I love The Ponys…depending on which song from Turn The Lights Out is playing, my feelings toward this Chicago band changes. At various times I had this disc ranked as high as #3 on my list…and as low as being one of the year’s great disappointments. So yeah, they’ve gotta be doing something right, huh?

When The Ponys are on, they’ve found a sound that sounds something like a more focused, less-drug addled Brian Jonestown Massacre with a jagged postpunk bent to their songs. When they’re not so on, they’re indulging their worst indie-rock “aw shucks” tendencies and thus making a statement rather than actually rocking out. At their best, Ponys songs like “1209 Seminary” and “Double Vision” manage to walk the thin line between their two more indulgent sides and result in some of the most exciting and visionary rock recorded this year. Let’s Turn The Lights Out if nothing else shows The Ponys have it within them to be a landmark band cut from the same cloth as The Pixies, if they want it.

“1209 Seminary”
“Double Vision”
“Maybe I’ll Try”

17. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Raising Sand.
Perhaps you young’ns are too wee to remember, but back when I was in high school Robert Plant released two decently-received post-Zep solo albums that did reasonably well in sales and even yielded a couple of hits. The other thing those discs (and his work as the voice behind the Honeydrippers) revealed was that Robert Plant’s voice was all but shot. Drenched in reverb, echo, and multitracked to the point of being unrecognizable, it was all a far cry from the wailing, shrieking, Zeppelin front man of “Whole Lotta Love”.

So if you’re waiting for me to say “Robert Plant’s voice is back!” keep dreaming–although it is obvious he’s taking much better care of that instrument over the last few decades and hasn’t sounded this good since In Through The Out Door. Instead, by turning to a rootsy Americana setting and by collaborating with Alison Krauss, Plant has found a perfect vehicle and collaborator for what his voice can still do, and as such he reveals himself to still be one of the best vocalists in rock in the last 40 years. Together the two take off on a batch of songs drawn from American myth, whether they’re swampy chestnuts like “Rich Woman” or the Everly Brother’s rollicking “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)”, as well as a passel of newer songs (a wonderful unrecorded–new?–Zeppelin song called “Please Read The Letter” and Sam Phillips’ gorgeous winder “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” with Krauss singing lead).

The only thing keeping this glorious album in the bottom half of my Top 20 is T-Bone Burnett’s production. After hearing the glorious abandon of “Gone Gone Gone”, you’ll find yourself hoping and praying that at some point Krauss will decide to start sawing the hell out of her fiddle and that Plant will take a foot-stomping Appalachian melody and just rock the holy hell out of it…but Burnett and his hyper glossy faux-“old-timey” prodcution hovers over the whole enterprise like a fire extinguisher trying to keep two combustible artists from bursting into a bonfire.

The entire album can be streamed from the control in the upper left of the site here.
“Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)”
“Please Read The Letter”
“Rich Woman”

16. Great Northern, Trading Twilight For Daylight
If earlier on this list we hailed the return of shoegaze, with Great Northern’s Trading Twilight For Daylight we can hail the return of dreampop to something other than the retro paint by numbers attempts of other bands. Using an almost 4AD-ish sound as a springboard, Great Northern’s principle songwriters/singers, Solon Bixler and Rachel Stolte manage to update that sound and give it a unique footing with their own voice.

Huh. That’s a lot of cross-referencing of obscure musical genres for one paragraph, so let’s try again: this is an entire album of songs that sound as if they could’ve been played over the closing credits of a Tim Burton movie, or would serve as the perfect soundtrack to a book of Neil Gaiman short stories. Songs like “Our Bleeding Hearts”, “Middle” and especially the stirring “Home” unfurl like mini-symphonies, self-contained movie soundtracks that never want for lack of visual imagery. If the band has a weak spot, it is their inability to not take themselves too seriously. Whimsical ethereality in art is a delicate balance, as Burton, Gaiman, and Lewis Carroll could tell you; get too serious about it, and you’ll crush it. In other words, I’d hate to see these folks end up as insufferable as The Decemberists. For now, make some darjeeling, grab a copy of “Stardust”, and enjoy this delicate little miracle of a snowflake of an album.

“Our Bleeding Hearts”
“The Middle”
Video for “Home”

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