A Year In Music – 2007 P.I.E. Tournament (Round 1, Part 2)

In case you missed our introduction to the P.I.E. series and this tournament bracket, please see https://computernewspaper.wordpress.com/2012/03/01/2007-a-year-in-review-2/

 

ROUND 1 RESULTS – PART 2

Lily Allen Alright, Still

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Spoon Ga Ga Ga

Loser: Lily Allen

Obituary:  Lily Allen is British, and not in that sneaky way that Sting or that guy who plays McNulty is.  Lily Allen is super British, and when you first listen to Alright, Still it’s hard to think about anything else.  Like a Guy Ritchie film, it’s the impenitent frankness of her words and demeanor, dressed up in what sounds like a lower-class British accent, that make it so charming.  Adele and Amy Winehouse are great, but it’s easy to forget that they’re not part of the American pop-culture monster.  There’s something distinctly foreign about Lily Allen.  It’s not just the britishisms or the accent — it’s the wit and tone.  If that was all she had to offer, it would be easy to write her off in an exercise like this that is meant to value you resonance over novelty, but upon further review, it turns out she’s a fairly substantial talent as well.  By writing about things like waiting in line at a club or how her brother won’t ever get laid because he’s too much of a stoner, she’s not asking to be taken too seriously, but there’s a clever cadence to her vocal patterns and an unpredictability to her melodies that suggest she’s not just stumbling into stardom; she knows exactly what she’s doing.

Lily Allen’s wit and the grungy sexuality of her lyrics might fool you into thinking differently, but Alright, Still is nothing if not a Pop album.  People have described this album as being Reggae, Calypso, and Ska (people usually say things like that when they hear horns), and it’s true that you can hear those influences if you’re looking for them, but really, this is just a collection of three and a half minute, chorus-centric Pop songs.  Her obvious counterpart is Mike Skinner, from The Streets, and although we’re quite certain she’s tired of hearing that (especially from Americans), it’s tough to imagine she doesn’t see the similarities herself.   They both seem like they knew what they wanted to say in a song before they fully formed the melody, but find clever ways to manipulate the vocal structure to accommodate their lyrics.  They both operate in colloquialisms and benefit from the fact that British colloquialisms are always more endearing than American ones.  Lily Allen’s consistency is what separates her from The Streets.  “Smile” is the song that garnered the most attention on Alright, Still but the album has seven or eight songs that could have taken its place.

Because Lily Allen’s sophomore album in 2009, It’s Not Me, It’s You showed growth and adaptability (as well as a consistent use of commas in her album titles), Alright, Still has become a lesser album, but it’s always an accomplishment when an artist is able to diminish their previous work by creating something new.  Allen loses to Spoon in the first round, but it’s the equivalent of an eighth seed beating a ninth; could have gone either way.

The White Stripes Icky Thump

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Bright Eyes Cassadaga

Loser: The White Stripes

Obituary: This album, Icky Thump, is interesting in retrospect because it ended up being the duo’s final release.  It was not a disappointment, necessarily– The White Stripes actually have so much clout in the rock scene that it is hard to imagine anyone grinding such an axe.  They, along with The Strokes, were the headliners of the “Rock Music Is Saved” era at the turn of the century. Between their raw, garage sound, their innovative music videos, a signature red-white-black color scheme, and the tantalizing mystery of Jack White’s relationship to Meg White, the band survived for years on its own calling cards.

Icky Thump was their sixth album, which does seem like enough for what they offer.  Songs like “Icky Thump” and “Conquest” are pure headbangers, the type of pulsating rock that scratches that itch of White Stripe loyalists. But in addition to these tracks, they have two underrated classics that cemented yet again their heterogeneous appeal: “Rag and Bone” and “Effect and Cause.”  The former is bluesy in a style The Black Keys may not even be able to imitate. The majority of Jack’s vocals in this song are spoken in an affable twang, which is sometimes preferable to him actually singing. It makes the junkyard fun again, a tribute to seedy hoarding that pre-dates the civility of the ‘Free Stuff’ category on Craigslist. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i9kpUmacJR0&feature=related .  The latter, “Effect and Cause” is a strong lyrical effort, aided by the exchange of the usual the distortion pedal for an acoustic, intimate sound.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYLuHUlxRoo

The album is no better than their others, but not much worse. Search ‘The White Stripes’ on Grooveshark and no song from this album makes the top 26 streams. It did win the Grammy for Best Alternative Rock Album, but so did their previous two efforts– the only take away from this accomplishment is a begging question of what exactly represents ‘Alternative Rock’ in the mid-to-late 2000s, let alone at any time.  Eventually, The White Stripes would cancel much of their 2008 tour for Icky Thump citing ‘anxiety’ problems. Their official break-up was announced one year ago to little outrage. This has less to do with any downhill slope the band was on, but more to do with the fact that Jack, at that point, had already been doing some acting (Cold Mountain, how soon we forget) and starting side projects like The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather.  Given that he is listed as #17 on Rolling Stone’s ‘Greatest Guitarists of All Time’ and has a much-anticipated solo album coming out this April, it is likely that he is a lifer when it comes to the music industry. Though Icky Thump is officially The White Stripes’ final album, it hardly matters given the breadth of Jack White’s influence; more accurately, it seems the album was just a farewell lap for Meg.

Rogue Wave Asleep at Heaven’s Gate

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Yeasayer All Hour Cymbals

Loser: Rogue Wave

Obituary: When you look at Rogue Wave’s discography in iTunes, you’ll see four full-length albums, a couple EPs, and about a billion soundtrack appearances.  Even if you’re not familiar with the band Rogue Wave, chances are you’re somewhat familiar with their music.  They exist somewhere between the general appeal of pop and the pretentious (and protected) obscurity of indie.  Their music manages to stay accessible, without losing track of their initial intentions, which is hard to do.  Bands like Rogue Wave face an interesting challenge — once they achieve a certain amount of success, their fans balk at the thought of losing one of their own to the amorphous muddle of the mainstream.  It’s a hypocrisy that has frustrated artists, musicians, and directors for many years.   Everyone wants to be part of something exclusive, and often exclusivity belies success.

Aside: Rogue Wave’s music  has appeared in Napolean Dynamite, Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, Friends With Benefits, three OC episodes, Weeds, Spider Man 3, Love Happens, The Perfect Storm, Friends, In The Land Of Women, Just Friends, and others.

Rogue Wave’s debut album, Out Of the Shadow, recorded by singer Zach Rogue (he’s from California so he was forced to change his last name from Schwartz to Rogue) while he took a hiatus from work.  Its impact is reminiscent of the surprisingly successful debut from Oregon’s Blind Pilot, 3 Rounds and a Sound.  Both albums contain songs that don’t demand as much patience from their listeners as a lot of the music that their contemporaries were making.  Their songs are simply produced, displaying a remarkable confidence in the strength of the singers’ song-writing abilities — often consisting of just one or two acoustic guitars, a simple drum beat, and a single vocal pattern.  Though the formula is similar, Zach Rogue is neither Israel Nebeker (Blind Pilot), nor Kimya Dawson or Damien Rice.  The songs on Out Of the Shadow (and their equally impressive follow-up Descended Like Vultures) are peculiar without being silly, and melodic without being dramatic.

So where does Asleep at Heaven’s Gate fit in?  The truth is, it doesn’t really.  Understand, it’s quite a good album, and it shows the same ability to adapt and progress that Descended Like Vultures did, but it also loses a lot of the charm that was so effortless in their previous offerings.  Asleep at Heaven’s Gate is bigger and more ambitious than the first two albums, as long as we assume ambition means longer songs, cleaner production, and more instruments.  This is not something we should hold against Rogue Wave, for they created a fine album with Asleep at Heaven’s Gate.  In fact, the album opens and closes with (in the Computer Newspaper’s mind) two of their very best songs.  Both “Harmonium” and “Cheaper Than Therapy” demonstrate a scope of imagination and an ability to stack different ideas upon one another within a single song, that weren’t fully realized in Out of the Shadow and Descended Like Vultures.  When it comes down to it though, for the purpose of this tournament, Rogue Wave’s third album didn’t have as much to say as Yeasayer’s first.

Lupe Fiasco The Cool

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The National  Boxer

Loser: The National

Obituary: This is another case of a band becoming possibly too big for their indie britches.  Let’s table that, though.

When this album came out, there was a swirl of attention from audiences and critics alike– Boxer was named ‘Album of the Year’ by Paste and is ranked #110 on Pitchfork’s ‘Best Albums of the 2000s,’ which may be good until you realize it is difficult to name 109 other albums in general. There is nothing undeserved about these honors, either, this record feels like it will be their artistic peak.

For the uninitiated, the most interesting thing about this band is Matt Berninger’s singing voice.  In interviews, Berninger claims that it has been ‘compared to every brand of whiskey in existence,’ which means we will not try to forge new ground there–good job, humans, you nailed it–The Computer Newspaper thinks his voice has a real, hmm, ‘whiskey’ quality to it. How did we all come to this conclusion together (besides the obvious existence of a collective subconscious)?  Check out this performance of album closer (and biggest standout) “Start a War” in the (heavily-recommended) La Blogoteque concert series from France.

http://vimeo.com/11569291

This video puts The National’s charm on full display. You can barely ascertain which one Berninger is at the outset. You just hear a deep, slurry baritone atop the pleasant guitar (or piano in the album version) and once you finally realize which of these dudes is singing, you have to wonder if Berninger years ago accidentally googled ‘How to French Inhale’ rather than the ‘How To Sing’ search he intended. It’s kind of annoying, but kind of awesome, too. The lyrics seem to be soaked in alcohol as well, especially the rhetorical ‘Do you really think you can just put it in a safe behind a painting, lock it up and leave?’ refrain. It feels like your grandpa, who is four highballs deep, has decided to sit you down for a talk– part of you thinks what he’s saying has some wisdom behind it and you admire how he’s still partying even though he’s 74 and it’s 6 pm, the other part of you is wishing he organized his thoughts better, and you realize that you cannot wait to put him to bed so that you can go have some fun with your friends (i.e. maybe go listen to some Vampire Weekend). This is no knock– if anything, The National is the musical equivalent of Mad Men — after 10 minutes with it you wouldn’t mind a cigarette and a scotch-on-the-rocks, something that will feel masculine.

The ultimate problem, though, is those drinks add up. Especially on The National’s faster numbers, the charm of his whiskey voice can wear thin, and end up just sounding uninterested instead; the world does not need another Julian Casablancas.

Boxer represents the best of what The National offers, including “Fake Empire,” which thrives because it is mostly just a spotlight on piano and Berninger’s voice just like “Start a War.”  The song builds and builds until eventually dueling horns come in to end–it’s a great tone-setter for a special album. “Mistaken for Strangers,” “Slow Show,” “Apartment Story” all still hold up in 2012, but mostly because it feels like ‘classic National,’which is something people say when they are indicating that the newer stuff is not as good– their only album since, High Violet, sold well but hardly seemed like new territory.

So is Boxer still one of the top 10 albums of 2007?  Yeah, it certainly may be–it lost to Lupe Fiasco on a buzzer-beater for godsakes. The press and the hype and the promise this seminal record offered was its own worst enemy, soon they started selling out arenas instead of clubs, the term ‘chamber-rock’ was coined and distributed to describe them, their songs were popping up everywhere in media (Chuck, Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill — basically The Computer Newspaper’s entire DVR)— these are all side effects to their success that made it seem like The National was the Next Great Band. The reality is that Boxer was already their fourth album and their output since its release confirms they are a perfect niche band, not someone that should be headlining music festivals.

But don’t take our word for it– we have been drunk for the past four paragraphs.

Justice

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LCD Soundsystem Sound of Silver

Loser: Justice

Obituary: This is probably the album that we, at The Computer Newspaper, are least familiar with.  We spend more time shut in our dark room (room is singular unfortunately) watching re-runs of Khloe and Lamar (purely for research for future articles…) than we do on the sticky French-inspired dance floors that play Justice songs that aren’t “D.A.N.C.E.”  Because we wanted to include a wide variety of genres in this retrospective, we decided it would be worth it to take a second look at the French duo’s debut.

2007 was also the year that Burial’s Untrue came out, and by most accounts, it was a more significant effort in the ‘beeps and whistles scene.’  While Untrue innovated the dubstep genre with its moody subtlety and mysterious origin (the creator of Burial, William Bevan, renamed anonymous until 2008), the Justice album didn’t stray too far outside the tracks that their more-famous, also-French, predecessors left in the snow ahead of them.  You can hardly blame Justice for doing a Daft Punk imitation.  Back when The Computer Newspaper was fifteen, he danced around the living room of his friend’s house to ”Around The World” over and over just like any other red-blooded American male, flicking the lights on and off, wearing funny hats and imitating the mummy from the music video.  It’s no surprise that the French would take pride in one of their own, especially when that band has managed to maintain a strong electronic-music fan base while turning into one of the biggest bands in the world.  When they want to, Justice actually does a pretty great Daft Punk impersonation.  There were a lot of people who just assumed “D.A.N.C.E.” was Daft Punk the first time they heard it. Daft Punk seemed to appreciate the tribute, taking them on tour even before the full album was released.

The problem with is that it basically falls apart around “D.A.N.C.E.” The rest of the album sounds completely different, which is only a problem if you like the d.a.n.c.e-y accessibility of “D.A.N.C.E.” Justice is young (and were younger in 2007), and it shows.  They have little interest in dynamics or subtlety, which makes listening to in its entirety an exhausting proposition.  The only real change of pace on this album is “Tthhee Ppaarrttyy,” which also bears the unfortunate burden of being the worst song ever made.  Seriously, it’s bad.  The only thing Justice accomplishes with “Tthhee Ppaarrttyy” is reminding us that there is only one Peaches.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JbN5B93mpFE

Because we’re not all that familiar with the genre, The Computer Newspaper decided to ask our official Beeps and Whistles producer, 5% Joe:

“Justice = Over-hyped Teen angst drivel.  D.A.N.C.E. had the potential to bring good electronic music back into American pop-culture. They capitalized off of the French house sound based off the greats (Daft Punk, Cassius, Stardust, Benjamin Diamond, etc), but never stuck with that sound.  Both Justice and Daft punk went with that noise sound rather than the original house roots.  I can also vent about the resurgence of electronic music through this crappy wave of dubstep if you want me to!”

Good thing we didn’t write about Burial.

Tegan and Sara The Con

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The New Pornographers Challengers

Loser: The New Pornographers

Obituary: The first thing you should know about The New Pornographers is that they are so, so Canadian. Not explicitly or anything, at least not in their lyrics–they just seem, well, harmless. Not jaded. Great snow-shovelin’ music for sunny days in January.

The second thing you should know is that they are averagely famous. Within indie-rock circles, their name gets a lot of ink, but not always as an indication that people spend a lot of time listening to them.  Part of that is the ‘supergroup’ label they have never shed– The New Pornographers is comprised of at least six members at all times, many who belong to other bands or have high-profile solo careers including A.C. Newman, Neko Case, and 2011 critical darling, Dan Bejar of Destroyer. Normally, this many singular, creative personalities in one band can poison the mixture, but their work over five albums never seems to feel that combative. The result is far more amicable and deferential, like the only thing the band cares about is just putting together a nice pop melody.

Challengers is not this band’s only well-reviewed album, but it reared its face on many best-of lists for 2007, and years later, seems to have the most lasting power because it’s the record with the most attention paid to creating those token harmonies between male and (at least one) female.  The titular track is a relatively slow piece, but full of gorgeous vocals — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHWWWa8EvzI — stay until 2 minutes in to hear the breakdown.  You simply do not hear that many bands, then and now, successfully execute that kind of mid-song wordless melody– it gives the track a kind-of “oh, you just caught me daydreaming” vibe.

The album’s highlight, “Adventures in Solitude,” a song about gay teen suicide, is a masterpiece in structure. It perfectly represents the band’s versatility.  The first half of the song is sparse and pretty, but the second half brings in drums, violins, and overlapping vocals that dip and soar in alternating, dramatic fashion.  The link below gives you a good taste of the song’s musical elements, while also putting the show Ugly Betty on full, brutal display https://docs.google.com/document/d/1adKuw_vciVom3jGHmFu1rFCkEaxIcOWygPcE7T2DdQU/edit .

The New Pornographers will try to rock as well, to have some fun, evident on single “Myriad Harbour”  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xO_VONrCJQE&feature=relmfu , which manages to be both confident and somehow guileless at the same time (i.e. Canadian).  This particular album has a lot of these types of songs, meaning B/B+ songs that lack greatness as stand-alone pieces, but added up, make a sturdy, comfortable couch to lie upon.

Arcade Fire Neon Bible

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Radiohead In Rainbows

Loser: Radiohead

Obituary: We’re taking a risk here.

It’s hard to find a band or artist that has had a career that parallels Radiohead.  While they have never offered the same mass appeal as the Beatles, it’s hard to argue that Radiohead managed to produce quality, innovative records for a longer duration.  The Beatles first album, Please Please Me, was released in 1963 and their last album (well, the last to be released) was Let It Be, in 1970.  Radiohead has been recording music since 1993.  They’re one of the few bands that have stayed relevant in the last twenty years as trends in genre shifted beneath their feet.  They’ve survived grunge, alternative, punk, electronic, and even (gulp) emo, without ever subscribing to the definitions of any of those genres.  They stayed a step ahead of their peers (like the Beatles before them) by innovating recording technologies and incorporating instruments and ideas that demonstrated a diversity of influences and an inability to remain stationary.  Each album sounds and feels different, which is a tribute to a band that has refused to be left behind.

So why did they lose in the first round?  Well, for starters they drew Neon Bible, but it’s not just that.  In Rainbows succeeded in being a quality collection of songs by a band that we know well, but it failed to surprise us or change how we might categorize Radiohead’s music, which is what we’ve come to expect from them.  Really, it sounds a lot like Hail to the Thief.  The most innovative thing about this album might be how they chose to release it – by making it free online and allowing downloaders to contribute whatever they felt appropriate, which was a classy (though slightly misleading) move.  It’s hard to hold it against them after clearing the path for so long, but with In Rainbows, Radiohead finally begins to show some age lines.

Kanye West Graduation

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Band of Horses Cease to Begin

Loser: Kanye West

Obituary: Facts are facts– if you have a time machine, no one in music over the past decade warrants a visit as often as Kanye West. Most of this is a credit to him as a restless visionary. He stands alone in hip-hop, and with only a few others in the entire industry, for setting the new standard whilst evolving with the times, for re-inventing his sound on each subsequent album, for caring enough about his own craft and the direction of music in general to always take serious professional risks. And it is sentences like the above, especially from people that write better than The Computer Newspaper, that enable that other dimension of him as an artist: Kanye West, the person, the megalomaniac.

For this project, we are only allowed to go back to 2007, which like any other time for him, is interesting enough.  Artistically, he puts a cap on his Education Trilogy (College Dropout —- > Late Registration —- > Graduation) and releases his last ‘straight hip-hop’ album as a solo artist. The album is a huge success, wins multiple Grammys, and puts even further distance between himself and his peers (in comparison, Jay-Z, the only other rap superhero, spent 2007 focusing on the American Gangster soundtrack, just months after returning from a brief ‘retirement’ to release his worst album yet, Kingdom Come).  As a public figure, West has at this point already admonished President Bush for not ‘[caring] about black people’ in 2005 and throws a stink at the 2007 MTV Music Awards for not winning a single award and for the channel’s decision to have a has-been Britney Spears perform the opening number. He is, objectively, still just very petulant at this point, not quite the full-blown Asshole he will become in the following years in the eyes of, basically, the whole world; we are before the Tipping Point.

The album, Graduation, suffers a first-round loss here not because of any ire The Computer Newspaper holds for him as an artist, far from it. It is because, giving a look at Kanye’s first two albums and now his most recent work, Graduation is one of his weaker albums conceptually.  The tracks are definitely there: “Stronger,” the not-so-subtle take on Daft Punk, becomes his highest selling digital download to date. Sure, the Daft Punk track is great, but West is not a thief– he samples because he loves (Kanye had them perform the song with him at The Grammys that year and often posts on his website various indie bands he recommends).  “Champion” and “The Glory” shows off the vintage Kanye, the producer side that is still one of the best, lifting a few bars from Steely Dan for the arrangements of “Champion” and using that signature “chipmunk soul” sound for “The Glory” that harkens back to his earlier albums (e.g. “Through The Wire”).  Thematically, Kanye has yet to become the paradox that he is in 2012– songs “Good Life,” “Drunk and Hot Girls,” and better-with-age “Flashing Lights” are basically club-friendly party/money songs, something he has since outgrown.

We just happen to know now that Kanye was only getting started, which is CERTAINLY not something easily said about most of the other 31 albums profiled. Graduation represents his transition, his awkward teenage years. He even kept the guest spots to a minimum with just Mos Def, T-Pain, and Chris Martin offering their voice for the hooks– a possible sign that, along with the death of his mother late in ’07, his next chapters would be a departure from typical hip-hop–much more reflective, complex, ambitious, and in typical Yeezy-an fashion, all designed to establish himself as music’s distant singularity.

And that concludes the first round.  Let’s take a look at the bracket as we head into round two:

Click on me for a closer look

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