This Was 2007: Discs

Worst album of the year

I-Empire by Angels & Airwaves: To quote Blender Magazine’s Jonah Weiner, “[Tom] DeLonge is hungry for the vast truths of the universe, but there were more of those in one bar of blink[-182]’s ‘First Date’ than on this whole record.” Ouch. But seriously, it’s a terrible record. The most positive thing you could say about it is that it’s like bad U2 with a less annoying singer.

Runner-up
My December by Kelly Clarkson: Everyone took her side in her public hissy-fit with Clive Davis. Oh how wrong we were. I generally think artists should have as much control as possible over their own content, but Clive was right, honey. This album is a big piece of shit.

My Top Ten Albums of 2007

10. Paul McCartney – Memory Almost Full
Starbucks employees may disagree after having to hear it all day every day for a week or so. The fourteenth solo album (not counting Wings even!) by the sexagenarian bassist-cum-most-famous-songwriter-of-all-time plays like a trippy greatest hits, touching on all of McCartney’s strengths and largely avoiding the cutesy pitfalls that have plagued him forever. The songs become a cheerful remembrance of an extraordinary life without ever dipping into mere nostalgia.

9. Robert Plant & Alison Kraus – Raising Sand
One of those projects that seems destined solely for the library of die-hards but turns out to be sublime. It’s an unconventional but perfect pairing of vocal styles and personalities; and while T-Bone Burnett’s selection of covers (plus one Page & Plant composition!) is uniformly great, I could listen to these two tackle 1950’s novelty songs.

8. Young Jeezy – The Inspiration
I’m not sure how to even explain this one. Jeezy seems to lack all the requisite technique for excelling at hip-hop; his rapping tends to function on sheer force of personality. His persona of uber-dealer and motivational speaker is a piling on of hip-hop cliché and yet totally unique to him. His producers created synth sounds that are huger, cheesier, and faker than anything. It all adds up to a giant, fist-pumping wallop that makes “Lose Yourself” seem like Hamlet-style handwringing.

7. Radiohead – In Rainbows
Right now, there are about four legit candidates for Biggest Band In The World. U2 will always be there, insufferable or no. Coldplay wouldn’t exist without U2. Green Day hasn’t been heard from since about 2005. That leaves Radiohead, who just happen to be the most sonically adventurous of the lot. Their long-awaited new album is chock full of actual love songs, none of which are remotely bad. And they put the thing out on the Internet, at the price of whatever the fuck you want.

6. Miranda Lambert – Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
She came in third place on “Nashville Star,” the crappy country knockoff of “American Idol;” but I bet she could kick the ass of any real “Idol” winner. In an genre where women often rule the roost, this fiery, complex album landed like a Molotov cocktail and suddenly made everything (even the tire-slashing song and the poisoning song) sound absolutely pale in comparison. She is going to have a juggernaut of a career.

5. Rilo Kiley – Under The Blacklight
The real sell-out would have been a totally polished take on their sarcastic country-rock. Instead, Jenny Lewis and the guys used their major-label debut to try just about every genre they want. There’s British Invasion, disco, Dusty-style country, ‘70s Cali rock, and even Miami Sound Machine. Is all the sex and prostitution in the lyrics a veiled take on suddenly being mainstream? Either way, I still want to get it on with Lewis’ singing, even though I know it will just devour me and spit me out.

4. Fall Out Boy – Infinity on High
They were already the most self-aware teen idols ever, provoking their fans to consider the shaky pretenses that bond band and listener. Now the original MySpace superstars continue the pop-punk-as-blog-post style of their breakout album with an ever-expanding sonic palette. If Green Day wanted to see how much rock-opera conceit you could put in and still have punk, FOB stretch the same boundaries by incorporating the last twenty-five years of Top 40. And goddamn – Patrick Stump can really fucking sing.

3. Kanye West – Graduation
After two really good albums that still didn’t quite live up to the hype, Kanye finds his focus and crafts an album that is tapped into the zeitgeist yet still brimming with West’s idiosyncracies. In a year when most rap is abandoning any sort of challenge beyond “Who can sell the most ringtones?”, Kanye’s positivity, honesty, and geniune attempts at self-improvement seem more vital than ever. And it’s all dripping in ear candy.

2. Bruce Springsteen – Magic
The Boss’s most satisfying album in twenty-odd years is also his angriest: it’s filled with alienated commuters, mourning families, desperate fugitives, pissed exes, and one seriously banged-up national identity. Even the dude who believed in “The Promised Land” has morphed into a bitter, lonely creep. But the sweeping salve of the E Street Band helps us think that we shall overcome. And we had better.

1. Brad Paisley – 5th Gear

I remember when Brad Paisley played at Vanderbilt my freshman year. I scoffed at the booking, sure that this guy would just automatically suck. After all, it was country music. That my roommate’s girlfriend loved Paisley only sealed the deal.

The Vanderbilt campus was not a regular ho-down or anything (although there was the occasional trust-building exercise that somehow involved square dancing). It seemed like it was mostly females who were real country aficionados. And at some frat parties Garth Brooks could follow a song by Chamillionaire without a thought.

But in my social circle, country was something that was mostly ignored. We thought of it as a niche – one that we just didn’t give a shit for. And if ever a twang sounded within earshot of one of the hipsters in McGill, the reaction would be one of almost palpable disgust. Of course they hated country music, they scoffed – with the obvious, de rigueur exception of Johnny Cash. Perhaps we should have paid more attention to the frat kids, because that fall, a little white music player went from a status-y icon to an essential tool of human life.

The advent of the iPod, with its ability to randomly play massive amounts of music, has changed the way people listen to music. Well-thought sequencing doesn’t matter so much anymore: the headrush of that perfect song at the perfect time can create a feeling so giddy or profound that you might skip through dozens of songs to find one that can up the ante. Classic rock, rap, pop, massive hits, and rarely-listened-to album tracks all flow together thanks to a computer algorithm that makes no distinction betweens these groupings. Reinforcing the open-minded nature of an already progressive generation, the iPod has ushered in a new golden era of the song. Even radio stations like JackFM have begun to mimic the broad taste of an average iPod user.

There’s just one problem with this utopian vision – there ain’t no country. It only took a dozen or so years for hip-hop and rap to become fully integrated into the global consciousness and the Top Forty format. Country, meanwhile, has been gradually fenced off into its own formats, markets and ultimately its own industry (collectively, the largest in the music business). Why is this?

(SPOILER ALERT! I’m going to delve into some unresearched, armchair sociology here – but what other reason is there to write on the web?)

Anyone familiar with Kelefa Sennah’s essay on rockism from three years ago should intuitively understand the biases a newcomer to country might bring. Rock is the soul-baring expression of the artist who writes his own material; country thrives on the regular work of professional songwriters. Rock songs try to capture ineffable emotion with abstract lyrics; country songs often tell stories as tightly structured as a Hollywood screenplay. Cute or funny rock is the province of novelty; country songwriters can make whole careers out of goofy puns.

The subject matter of many country songs probably seems hokey, if not downright complacent, to mostly progressive tastemakers – songs about loving your family, domestic bliss, and patriotism probably won’t set the world on fire. When you get to the drinking and flirting songs, it’s too easy for us to throw around condescending phrases like “good ole boy.”

The debacle of country radio’s treatment towards the Dixie Chicks in 2003 only instigated a further backlash. It seemed to confirm what we already secretly believed – that most country artists (and practically all of their fans) were closed-minded, ignorant nationalists. The country artists accepted in most hipster circles or established magazines like Rolling Stone are comfortably liberal, alt-country pioneers or followers like Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, and Conor Oberst; or else it’s the oh-so-tasteful T-Bone Burnett/Alison Kraus roots that became hip when the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack sold 5 million copies in 2000. I’m not denying the greatness or importance of these artists (Alison Kraus must have the best voice in the genre since Emmylou), I’m just saying that this accepted subset of country doesn’t really represent the genre at its most popular. And this is also not to say that country performers are some downtrodden minority: Carrie Underwood is well on her way to becoming the most artistically and commercially successful “American Idol” winner.

I write all of this to soften the blow of the next sentence. 5th Gear is the best album of 2007. I, a former anti-country bigot, deem this superior to fine releases by Bruce Springsteen and Kanye West. Yeah, it’s that good. From front to back it is an almost perfect piece of pop craftsmanship. Not only is it a great album in its own right, but it opened up an entire world of music towards which I had been openly hostile. And I think it can do the same thing for many others who used to be like me.

Paisley is known primarily for his frequently hilarious lyrics and his estimable guitar chops, playing in a style halfway between James Burton and Eddie Van Halen. With the reputation as funnyman, Paisley has been a singles artist up to this point. I haven’t delved into his first two albums yet, but Mud on the Tires and Time Well Wasted illustrate his weaknesses as well as his strengths – for every swooning come-on or gut-busting anthem, there’s an easy-target joke or a cringe-worthy example of casual sexism. His two time-capsule songs up to now would probably be “Alcohol,” written from the first-person perspective of that immortal substance; and “Whiskey Lullaby,” a duet with Alison Kraus that might be the saddest song ever and must surely be Paisley’s best known.

But Paisley is on another level here, creating a disc that functions as both a collection of potential hits and a cohesive song-cycle built around a distinct theme and sound. The album kicks off with “All I Wanted Was A Car,” a Springsteeny narrative of, well, a teenager who really wants a car, and ends with a heartwarming twist. A nice story, clever rhymes, sharp Telecaster riffs played by Paisley himself, big choruses, tight harmonies – the stylistic norm is clear within the first two minutes. The song also announces the thematic concerns that will run through the whole album: entering his thirties, Paisley seems to be grappling with the transition from goofy immaturity to the contentment and responsibility of stable family life. (Kind of like “Knocked Up” without all the dick jokes.) Nearly all the songs embody one of these two ideals or attempt a kind of balance between them: Paisley almost develops split personalities as one ballad’s refrain and concept, “It doesn’t get better than this/But it did” is recycled for “Better Than This,” in which camping buddies build elaborate redneck fantasies to complement their campfire.

The most telling song here is “Letter to Me,” composed solo by Paisley (he had a hand in ten of the fifteen songs here). Written with the kind of detail that suggests pure autobiography, contemporary Brad writes a conversational letter of practical and moral advice to his 17-year-old self, summing up with the idea that shit seems tough when you’re in high school, but “these are nowhere near the best years of your life.”

But “Letter to Me” would be a bit overbearing if it weren’t preceded by two of Paisley’s most winning singles, “Ticks” and “Online.” I can’t spoil the hook for “Ticks;” suffice it to say it is gross and funny and kind of cute all at once. This one really illustrates Paisley’s adventurous ear for production; there isn’t an arrangement on the album that doesn’t fit its song. “Onlne” has circulated well on the Internet thanks to its high-profile music video (it was the first country clip to top the iTunes video chart). Some have accused it of the same easy-targetism and broadness that marred “Celebrity.” I disagree: by the end of the song, I think the listener is really rooting for this guy and singing along with him. The marching band at the end is a triumphant punctuation mark. (Interesting side note: Paisley is a documented “Battlestar Galactica” fan.)

Also coming down on the younger side of the dividing line are “Mr. Policeman,” an old-school double-time chase song complete with a “South Park” reference; and “Bigger Fish to Fry,” an all-star hootenanny about how Satan really has too much on his hands to prosecute every little sin on Paisley’s soul. “Some Mistakes” stands out among the ballads. From the jaunty intro to the final jam, it sustains that perfect, goofy, grinning feeling of a budding romance. No need to see another romantic comedy: just listen to this.

The most problematic song for some will be “I’m Still A Guy,” in which Paisley helpfully inventories the many differences between men and women and sings a verse taking a swipe at metrosexuals. Andrew Sullivan and Trey Parker, two of my favorite thinkers today, critique the metro trend without comment; if I got all huffy over Paisley’s jokes, wouldn’t that be just a tad hypocritical?

My favorite song on 5th Gear is “If Love Was A Plane,” also penned alone by Paisley. Turning on a familiarity with well-worn country clichés, it’s got a very dark, wry sense of humor that cuts more deeply than a pure joke song like “Alcohol” or “Ticks.” At first listen, I groaned, expecting a treacly ballad about lovers overcoming the odds and “makin’ it;” but the twist in the chorus had me cackling before dread crept in.

So even if you think you hate country, just give this dude a chance. And I’m not trying to say that if you don’t immediately run out and buy the collected works of Brooks and Dunn you are some kind of bigot. There’s just a lot to embrace out there in the world of country singles: the sweep of Tim McGraw, the full-on Diane Warrenisms of Shania Twain, the solidarity of the Dixie Chicks, the fratty goofing of Toby Keith, the WTF? of Big and Rich, the tight live show (and tighter jeans) of Kenny Chesney. I promise it’s not that scary. Whatever you do, have a great 2008.

Pop never dies,

Keesup

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