A few months ago, Stephen King, who I respect in the same way I respect Nick Hornby, as a writer whose work I like who also has a pretty good critical perspective on popular culture, wrote a piece for Entertainment Weekly about coolness, and who was cool and who wasn't, specifically in terms of pop artists. (Find it here.)
It was actually surprisingly curmudgeonly and, in my opinion almost as off-base as Sasha Frere Jones' article about how indie music has disconnected itself from black music.
However, it gave me permission to use coolness to define my best-of-2007 list, so here goes, the coolest records of 2007 as per moi.
1. Okkervill River The Stage Names
Okkervil River has plenty of indy cred -obscure lyrics, wandering melodies - but at their heart they are a very powerful rock band.
Okkervil River - Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe
Okkervil River - John Allyn Smith Sails
2. Sorcerer White Magic
I think this is my favorite discovery of the year. Sorcerer is Daniel Saxon Judd, a musician/producer from Oakland, CA. Sorcerer is his vehicle to present his odd combination of laid back California yacht rock and disco. It shouldn't work, but, of course, it does.
The Sorcerer - Hawaiian Island
3. Jens Lekman Night Falls Over Kortedala
Swedish guy from Gothenberg, the Austin of Europe. Many people compare him to Jonathan Richmond, which is definitely not cool. But since all those people are wrong he is still cool. Charming lyrics (at least they seem to be, maybe it's the Swedish accent), surrounded by astute samples from all over the musical map. Like a great storyteller, he lays out conflicts and then subtly but inexorably increases the emotional pressure.
Jens Lekman - Postcard to Nina
4. Silent League Of Stars and Other Somebodies
Their MySpace site proudly proclaims, "Soft rock is not a guilty pleasure."
Silent League - Before You Started
5. Of Montreal Hissing Fauna Are You the Destroyer
Mixing '70's and '80's soul with George Bataille.
Of Montreal - A Sentence of Sorts in Kingsvonger
6. Lewis and Clarke Blasts of Holy Birth
I believe Lou Rogai may be the best songwriter in America.
Lewis and Clarke - Blasts of Holy Birth
7. Panda Bear Person Pitch
Complicated, layered pop music.
Panda Bear - Comfy In Nautica
8. M.I.A. Kala
Her second album, even stronger than her first. This time next year she is the Next Shakira.
M.I.A. - Paper Planes
9. Chromatics Night Drive
Post modern neo-disco? The next cool sub-genre.
Chromatics - Night Drive
10. Feist The Reminder
At this point she is too popular to be a cult figure, but too smart to be mainstream. Okay, she's already been on "The Today Show" twice. I guess that makes her mainstream. That only adds to her subversive coolness.
Feist - 1234
11. The National Boxer
Supposedly inspired by Jonathan Ames' The Extra Man.
The National - Fake Empire
12. The Dreamers - Day For Night
Representing all the Swedish pop music I listened to this year.
The Dreamers - Michael
13. Paul Duncan Above the Trees
I don't know much about this guy, except that his songs are shiny bright acoustic gems.
Paul Duncan - Red Eagle
14. The Heart Strings Try Fly Blue Sky
I found this band on MySpace, under their cover band name Hot Air Balloonists. I blogged about a song of theirs. Their manager sent me their record when it came out a few months ago. I really like it.
Heart Strings - Pedalo
15. National Lights The Dead Will Walk, Dear
A concept album about dying. More fun the Lou Reed's Magic and Loss.
National Lights - Better For It, Kid
Honorable Mentions: Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga; Dan Deacon Spiderman of the Rings; The Field Over the Ice; Iron and Wine The Sheperd's Dog; Richard Hawley Lady's Bridge; Taken by Trees Open Field; Ulrich Schnauss Goodbye; Mono in VCF Mono in VCF; Arcade Fire Neon Bible; Great Lakes Swimmers Ongiara.
Friday, December 21, 2007
I recently saw Juno, the Jason Reitman film written by Diablo Cody, about a smart 16-year old (played by Ellen Page) who gets pregnant and decides to have the baby and then give it up for adoption.
I highly recommend the film - it's funny and thoughtful and knowing. Not the least of its highlights is the soundtrack, which is a mixture of cool oldies and new singer/songwriter stuff. One of the things I particularly appreciated was that the producers weren't afraid to play whole songs and make them the center of attention.
As if to underscore the fact that Juno is basically a child, the song that plays over the opening credits is "All I Want Is You," by kiddie music star Barry Louis Polisar.
I've been playing this song over and over ever since I saw the movie. I'm sure I'll get sick of it soon enough - it's that kind of song - but for now it's my Christmas hit.
Barry Louis Polisar - All I Want Is You
Purchase the soundtrack on Itunes - it's not yet available from Amazon or in stores.
Monday, December 17, 2007
Sunday, December 09, 2007
I got to know Jon Dee Graham after I moved to Austin in 1997. At the time, he was in the process of transforming himself from a respected guitarist who had toured and recorded with people like Kelly Willis, John Doe and Simon Bonney, to a singer of his own songs. It was not an easy transformation. Austin, for all its musical greatness, has a tendency to pigeonhole people and then fight like hell to keep them there.
Consequently, there were a lot of nights when Jon Dee and his buddy and musical compere, Mik Hardwick, played to a crowd of five or ten. That crowd often included me. I don't think you have to be a genius to recognize Graham's talent, but for some reason many people in Austin didn't seem to get him at first.
That started to change after he did a Sunday night broadcast on one of the local Austin radio stations. Matt Eskey, the owner of Freedom Records, heard a tape of the show and asked him to make a record. Gave him a bunch of money (Not!) and said, go make a record and bring me the master and I'll put it out. So Jon Dee took a notebook full of songs and a couple of guitars, went into a local studio with Hardwick, a group of musicians he had met over the years, and Austin's producer du jour. That producer left after a week for greener pastures (or what he perceived to be a better offer) and Jon Dee, Hardwick and engineer Andy Taub ended up producing the album themselves. I hung around a little during the recording sessions, and watched as Jon Dee, Mike and Andy slowly built the album (sometimes, it seemed, with glue and rusty nails and wood they found out behind the studio.)
By the time the album came out, in June or July, 1997, I had moved to Los Angeles, so I experienced Austin's "discovery" of Jon Dee and his talent second hand, through the pages of the Austin Chronicle.
After Jon Dee finished recording, he mixed and mastered the album. He and Matt Eskey started taking it around to radio stations. I remember very clearly speaking to Jon Dee one night after he had met with the program director of the most influential radio stations in Austin. This was a good guy, a guy with taste, a guy who had been a friend of Jon Dee's for years. He listened to the record and pronounced it "not radio-ready."
It may not have been radio-ready, but sometime after that Andy Langer wrote a cover story about Jon Dee for the Austin Chronicle, and, Austin being Austin, that was enough to create a tidal wave of interest in "Escape."
Not that it was undeserved. Escape from Monster Island is a brilliant album.
Many of the songs - the ones most moving to me - dealt with his touring- and divorce-enforced separations from his then-five year old son, Roy. But there were also songs that explored spirituality, and songs about relationships and friendships and breakups and tragedies. Not too many happy songs . (There were a couple later on - a great song called "Big Sweet Life," a song called "October," which I posted last year.) Throughout all of Jon Dee's songs, on Escape from Monster Island and on his later albums, there is a sense of sadness and regret but mostly, a willingness to explore the dark places most of us are just as happy to stay away from.
Ten years of listening, and the album still moves me, and makes me uncomfortable and makes me nod my head in recognition.
Jon Dee Graham - $100 Bill
Jon Dee Graham - Faithless
Jon Dee Graham - Kings
My current favorite lyric (from "Kings"):
Havin' a child
Takes the paint right off a man
Man, man oh man.
Out in the wild
The beasts do the best they can
To stand, stand, stand stand
You can purchase Escape From Monster Island, as well as the new documentary about Graham, called Swept Away, at the Texas Music Roundup.
Get more info about Jon Dee at his website.