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/
ELITE 8 RESULTS
LCD Soundsystem Sound of Silver
The Arcade Fire Neon Bible
Loser: LCD Soundsystem
Obituary: If you scour through the 2007 archives, looking at ‘best-of’ lists from a variety of publications, you get an immediate sense that LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver would be considered the consummate winner. It has the hits and it has the sense of importance great albums do, when the ideas are too confident to be contained by 3 or 4 minute track lengths, and when the package put together seems like an announcement of purpose. As far as its influence, there is no question James Murphy (otherwise known as LCD Soundsystem) registered an impact on the stubborn, outer shell of the music industry, spilling genres onto other genres and outlining a style still yet to be truly imitated with any success.
The Grammy that this album was eventually nominated for was in the category of Electronic/Dance, but that betrays the many devices Murphy uses. First of all, there is an emphasis on real instrumentation instead of turntables. Second, Murphy sings throughout, and not like a ‘Calllllllll on Meeeeee’ refrain a couple dozen times–he charismatically talks, sings, huffs, screams, all soaked in a characteristically-wry outlook (consider that his debut hit single in 2005 was called “Losing My Edge”, which perfectly suits the way Murphy stays sardonic and somehow always ahead of the curve). None of this is necessarily typical for dance music. That being said, LCD songs do tend to be over 6 minutes long, building from an early beat to several orchestrated peaks–though they may play rock festivals, their song structure is definitely electronica-based.
While the album Sound Of Silver would seem strange to listen to now, at least all-the-way-through without the rest of Murphy’s catalog, you would be treated to arguably his three or four most classic songs if you did. In “All My Friends,” with its patient, locomotive piano and impassioned chorus about the nature of aging and growing apart, Murphy builds an epic. This song no doubt gets the biggest ovation night after night at LCD shows http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emyfIBXdSfE. “North American Scum,” however, may be the widest-appealing song on the LCD playlist–the film Step Brothers makes prominent use of it for their antagonists’ first stand-off http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJ6kb5MisRo. In this song, Murphy’s vocals seem to be talk-sung with the irreverence once so appealing in an artist like Beck. But unlike a lot of other artists, LCD can play several hands at once; he can be cool, but he can be sensitive, too. “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” the ninth and final track on the album, allows Murphy to make an ambivalent ballad to his native Manhattan before throwing every drum and guitar solo he can find at the problem a couple minutes in. At this point, in 2007, LCD Soundsystem had re-invented the NYC cool that The Strokes had established years earlier, and become the fresh soundtrack for cramped studio apartment parties and art gallery openings (disclaimer: sheer speculation).
You can certainly find albums more satisfying throughout than Sound Of Silver, but few as culturally important, few as fresh. Just looking at the year-end 2007 reviews, you would think the majority of critics were impregnated by it, suggesting that Everything would have to change now, for better or worse. Even when ranking the entire decade, Pitchfork made it the #17 album of the 2000s and put “All My Friends” as the #2 song of that same era. LCD did not release another album until 2010, which opened to wide commercial success thanks to the groundwork that was laid three years prior. Murphy announced the retirement of LCD Soundsystem as this third album was released, which seemed about right given the ‘too cool for school’ attitude found in much of their work. Given the ethos that Murphy established in just six years of work (2005-2010), it would frankly be irrational to question any of his professional decisions, even if the notion of ‘retirement’ in music feels more and more like a cop-out than it is the, according to Murphy, ‘dignified thing to do.’
Iron and Wine The Shepherd’s Dog
Aesop Rock None Shall Pass
Loser: Aesop Rock
Obituary: You may not know Aesop Rock. If this is the case, click it up! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZEBGCOCxLgA . This is “None Shall Pass,” the big, unofficially-Gandalf-themed title track. Press play, switch back tabs, and keep reading.
Even if the planets aligned and you were still following rap music in 2007 (let alone now), it would be 50/50 that you knew Aesop Rock. Given that shallow pool, it definitely says something that The Computer Newspaper kept None Shall Pass sailing to the Elite Eight. Sure, it is a personal favorite, but that is because we personally favor when rappers lack narcissism. Whether hip-hop lyrics are boastful (e.g. not necessary) or self-critical (e.g. Drake, Kanye), the subject matter of most spitting is the spitter himself. You can count the number of times in a song Aesop uses the pronoun ‘I’ using one paw. That is a remarkably unusual achievement of third-person storytelling not just for rap, but all music … shit, most movies and books, too. When you listen to an Aesop song, you rarely learn about his personal life or character traits–you just try and keep up, which unfortunately, is a fool’s errand for those of us that do not teach English at an Ivy League school.
He is verbose, dense, abstract–a real prick basically if you’re trying to sing along. Just as understanding Shakespeare requires fastidious analysis, Aesop uses enough figurative language and alliterative tricks to write term papers on. This works for and against him, ultimately. If you care about lyrics, which most interested in underground rap do, you have an unlimited supply here from the now 36-year-old MC from New York (though went to college at BU). You also have, conversely, a demanding amount of abstraction and incongruous linguistics lying ahead of you (so much so that ‘abstraction and incongruous linguistics’ is probably lifted verbatim from one of his songs about ghosts or pirates), especially if you listen to 14 straight songs as None Shall Pass asks of you.
The overriding bonus that None Shall Pass possesses is that it is loaded with a variety of accessible beats and clean production, an absolute necessity for indie rap to make it to the mainstream. This album was critically-acclaimed as well as making it to the #50 spot on Billboard charts. Given that attention and that it was his best seller, one could argue that 2007 was his artistic and commercial peak, but he did already have four previous full-length records of notable merit, plus this album does not include his (and music in general’s) best song, “Daylight,” and thus far, this remains his final release as Aesop Rock, solo artist. He has been at least active lately, working on a Hail Mary Mallon side project as well as (intriguingly) collaborating with Juno-darling Kimya Dawson. Thoes factors aside, some of his most enticing grooves are on this album: see “The Harbor Is Yours,” “Five Fingers,” “Coffee,” and “Bring Black Pluto” (the only rapped lamentation about solar-system-classification in existence).
On a larger scale, in the war of lyrical, underground rap against the establishment, he was one few left in his platoon–in 2007, we are way past the primes of the Mos Def, Common, Talib Kweli, the turn-of-the-century standard-bearers for socially-conscious material. For that triumvirate, and others too countless to name (just think Chappelle’s Show guests), there was no longer a ‘gangsta’ aesthetic to rally against–everything was diluted. By the mid-2000s, with commercial rap less monolithic, there was (and still is), a frustrating aimlessness in underground rap. Then you have guys like Aesop Rock, guys who adapt, guys that were always ‘doing their own thing’ with moxie and conviction.
Bright Eyes Cassadaga
Amy Winehouse Back To Black
Loser: Bright Eyes
Obituary: Conor Oberst has been recording and releasing music since he was in eighth grade. Eighth grade. The Computer Newspaper did an informal survey in their house to see what their greatest accomplishments were in eighth grade. Here were the responses:
-“touching a boob”
-“making the basketball team”
-“beating kid chameleon…it’s like a hundred levels!”
-“touching a boob AND making the basketball team. Wait no, one of those was
Not to belittle the achievements of the 1548 Cook St. residents, but it’s not hard to figure out how Conor Oberst ended up famous and The Computer Newspaper ended up blogging. When looking back on Oberst’s first few releases, maybe we should consider ourselves lucky that we all don’t have a complete recorded history available on the internet. Water, Collection of Song: 1995-1997, and Letting off the Happiness are a tough listen unless you’re a serious fan (there are some seriously impressive lyrical moments if you have the patience to find them). With both 2000’s Fevers and Mirrors and 2002’s Lifted, Oberst created the Bright Eyes Persona – the big-eyed teenager with the greasy bangs, deep wavering (some would say whiny) voice, and big ultra-serious lyrics. It’s a polarizing persona, and though it no longer really fits him (he’s 30, he’s grown into his eyes and out of his bangs, and both his voice and lyrics are a lot more accessible these days), it’s still how most people imagine him. In 2005, Bright Eyes released the ultra-successful folksy-rock I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and the moodier, electronic Digital Ash In A Digital Urn. By making two completely different albums (and going on two separate tours) critics asserted that Bright Eyes showed an inability to marry interests in two different musical directions on one piece of work; The Computer Newspaper would venture that it’s a ridiculous proposition to expect artists to contain all their interests and influences on each release, which is exactly what Cassadaga sounds like it’s trying to do.
When The Computer Newspaper listens to Cassadaga, it hears an artist in transition. It becomes difficult to discern which changes were made in response to criticism (or more likely out of an adjustment to the frustration of feeling like he’s been pigeonholed), and which are made out of a genuine desire to mature as an artist and musician. Regardless of what prompted these changes, they create an album that sometimes sounds as if it got away from the band’s original intentions. Let’s take a closer look:
-The scope of the production: Before Cassadaga, everything Bright Eyes recorded was in Lincoln, NE with engineer and fellow Bright Eyes member, Mike Mogis. Cassadaga was recorded in New York, Portland, LA, and Chicago. It’s not unusual to record in multiple studios or cities, but it does sometime sound like the pieces of Cassadaga are disjointed and shuffled – like the longer it took to record, the further they drifted from the clarity of the album’s original theme.
Like most indie bands adjusting to the expectations of a wider audience, Bright Eyes shifted the production style into a cleaner (and sometimes colder) sound, brought in a string section to augment the more dramatic moments, and eliminated most of the coarse vocals that people found either endearing or annoying on their earlier albums. The result is a more accessible sound, which often attracts new fans and frustrates old ones.
-Lyrics: By the time Cassadaga came out, Oberst had been labeled ‘Rock’s Boy Genius’ and ‘Our Generation’s Dylan.’ As we try to understand an artist we tend to rush into comparisons, which isn’t necessarily harmful, but it’s often inaccurate. Both Bob Dylan and Conor Oberst are known for their easy comfort with language, and though their lyrical styles are completely different, both artists create songs that are better understood when read rather than heard. With Cassadaga, Oberst removes himself as a character from the majority of his songs, which is a fairly abrupt change after the brazen sincerity of his earlier work. He can still blow you away with a line whenever he wants (our personal favorite — “I’ve made love, yeah I’ve been fucked, so what?), but it seems as if he’s less concerned with each line than he used to be.
-Image: This might seem like a silly one to include, but it’s tough to ignore. By allowing the rest of his hair to catch up with his bangs, he further separated himself from his earlier work — a trend further proven when he adopted a completely non-rock star haircut on his next release with The Mystic Valley band.
-A tougher sound to reproduce live: When touring for Cassadaga, Bright Eyes found that it was difficult to recreate the sound live. They’ve always toured with a lot of musicians, but all of a sudden they needed multiple drummers and percussionists, a league of pianos and keyboards, and a string section to play the songs as they were intended to sound. While Oberst has never really rejected Cassadaga, he has alluded that his frustration with the recording process was the reason he created The Mystic Valley Band (and took a four-year hiatus from Bright Eyes). The Mystic Valley Band consisted of two electric guitars, an acoustic rhythm guitar, a bassist, a keyboardist, and a drummer.
It’s tough to imagine that many Bright Eyes fans would claim Cassadaga is Bright Eye’s best work (other than Johnny Depp and George Clooney). Fevers and Mirrors and Lifted showed a promising but sometimes sloppy songwriter that seemed to be bursting with things to say. Digital Ash and The People’s Key reminded us that we never really know what to expect from Oberst, and I’m Wide Awake will probably be the album that he’s best remembered for. In the five years since it came out, Oberst has released two Mystic Valley albums, collaborated with Mogis, M. Ward, and Jim James on the Monsters of Folk album, and released a Bright Eyes album that better fulfills the promise of its theme than Cassadaga does. Though it’s still a tremendous collection of songs by one of our most important songwriters, it’s hard to compare it to what will probably be the best album by each of the artists moving into our final four (i.e. Neon Bible and Back To Black).
Lupe Fiasco The Cool
Feist The Reminder
Obituary: When one thinks back to 2007, perhaps no artist seems so adorably ‘five years ago’ as Canadian solo artist (Leslie) Feist. With the album The Reminder, which was iTunes #1 most downloaded record that year, Feist made a name for herself no sooner than you could count 1, 2, 3, 4…. hey, speaking of Apple, and counting, you remember this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8qP79rRzzh4 . Rarely does an artist get big from an advertisement, but in this case, we can confidently pinpoint when Feist went from unknown singer-songwriter (and Broken Social Scene member) to Indie Pop Star–a debt that she has several times publicly acknowledged and seemingly regretted.
This does not mean that, five years later, we should not review its success. Culturally speaking, 2007 represented a time when Apple still splits its market share with several tech companies, including Microsoft, but the gap was widening exponentially due to their indelible marketing techniques. With their token, white-backdrop minimalism, Apple spent years in the mid-2000s consistently establishing a style of advertisement that was hip and clean, just like the brand itself. Feist’s “1234” song represents a similar simplicity, and her video was full of colors and choreography–ideal for the typical Apple user (i.e. in their 20s or 30s and less-jaded-than-they-used-to-be…. look, if this is unnecessary generalizing, we apologize, but it’s fun….let’s just say there is a well-populated Venn Diagram somewhere in the world that includes Macbook users, Feist CDs, and Whole Foods shopping bags). In 2012, undoubtedly, Feist experiences some self-loathing when she looks at the sales figures of The Reminder following the Apple commercial (digital downloads jumped from 2k/week to 73k/week), but she should remember that she hardly ‘hocked’ any product, the relationship was entirely symbiotic, and that the late CEO Steve Jobs handpicked the music for his ads and we know him to be, basically, a once-in-a-generation genius.
Also, albums do not fare well just because Apple provides the exposure to a single (to wit: Chairlift’s “Bruises,” Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl,” and CSS’ “Music Is My Hot, Hot Sex”). With The Reminder, you have an album where “1234” is not even close to being its best song. The single “I Feel It All” is about as close to indie pop greatness as you’re going to get, which is a testament to her typically-flawless vocal control and subtle instrumentation (there may or may not be a xylophone involved). “Sea Lion Woman” is an almost tribal response to the rest of the album, and “My Moon My Man” has an addictive metronome just from the title. And she can classically croon, too, like in “Brandy Alexander” over snaps and piano to close out the album–a song so culturally important, even B-list actors need it to concentrate http://www.vulture.com/2011/06/michael_bay_and_shia_labeouf_h.html .
The point is, and 2.5 million sold copies verifies this, The Reminder was a culture-sweeping album. She was nominated for four Grammys that year, but did not win any (she did, predictably, clean up at Canada’s annual Juno awards show). Given her talent and her career fighting through the industry (she is 36 now), one has to feel alright with the fact that Feist received heaps of money and attention in 2007.
Everyone, but apparently, Feist. Following the success of The Reminder and subsequent promotion, tour, awards, etc., she decided to take that reclusive path several reluctant artists do after they hit it big commercially, going so far as to not touch her guitar for a full year. Finally, she released a new album Metals this past Fall which was deliberately less-radio-friendly and darker, as if covered in the soot of “1234”’s rubble. Now, to give you perspective, and because they are so inextricably linked, Apple in the same period continued to out-think its competitors, backburning its iPod fleet so that they could focus on smartphones and tablets–no big deal, just devices that ensure the developed world a permanent, mobile tether to the internet. Feist, on the other hand, only just now released a follow-up album that you probably have not even heard one minute of.
And is it an unfair analogy to compare Feist’s career with the world-owning Apple corporation? For sure. But at The Computer Newspaper, we feel that albums like The Reminder come along far less often than advances in computer design.
Now, the FINAL 4 RESULTS
The Arcade Fire Neon Bible
Iron and Wine The Shepherd’s Dog
Loser: Iron and Wine
Obituary: Sam Beam is famous for his beard, and like all men with famous beards, he probably gets called Jesus a lot. His first album, The Creek Drank the Cradle sounds like it was written and recorded on a dilapidated back porch by a bunch of shirtless guys blowing into jugs and plucking on two-by-fours with strings stretched across. While the style was clearly influenced by a relatively obscure pocket of music, the ‘guy with the acoustic guitar, whispery voice, and lo-fi production’ was very much en vogue in 2002. Back then, anyone who sang quietly and finger-picked was compared to Elliott Smith or Nick Drake. Iron & Wine was one of the few that was able to carve out his own niche.
During the five years between The Creek Drank the Cradle and his 2007 release, The Shepherd’s Dog, Iron & Wine released one full length and series of EPs that were increasingly ambitious. He covered “Such Great Heights” by The Postal Service (which was on the Garden State soundtrack and featured in an M&Ms commercial – introducing his style to a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t have heard him), contributed memorable songs like “The Trapeze Swinger” to movies (In Good Company), and collaborated with Calexico on an album that really expanded what we thought was his comfort zone. When The Shepherd’s Dog came out in 2007, it wasn’t necessarily surprising how much bigger it sounded than his first two full lengths, but upon review, the difference is stark. It’s not just the additional instruments, which are plentiful–it’s the pace, textures, and the way that Beam sometimes ventures out of his whispery vocal style that stand out. 2011’s Kiss Each Other Clean further illustrated how Sam Beam isn’t comfortable working within one style.
We love this video, before you get too distracted looking at the pretty severe-looking Spanish girls, try to figure out if Sam Beam is actually singing underneath that thing.
If The Shepherd’s Dog has one flaw, it’s that the majority of the album is overshadowed by a few songs. That seems to be a familiar problem in 2007. As we music consumers began to focus less on the entirety of an album, it became easier to pick and choose what we wanted to keep and what we were willing to discard. The Computer Newspaper would be willing to bet that a lot of people have “Boy With A Coin” and “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” in their music libraries, but have lost a lot of the rest of the songs during computer changes, library deletions, and general iTunes fickleness. The digital music age has made it easy to forget about the songs that don’t stand out to us immediately, and there’s a lot on The Shepherd’s Dog that gets better the more you listen to it (“Resurrection Fern”). Because most people don’t pay for music anymore, it becomes easier to move from one album to another before giving it enough time to feel like you know it well, and maybe more importantly, feel like you got your money’s worth. Luckily for those of us who have moved on since 2007, P.I.E. is here to remind us what we might have forgotten.
Amy Winehouse Back To Black
Lupe Fiasco The Cool
Loser: Lupe Fiasco
Obituary: There is an inherent degree of difficulty to making a stadium-sized rap album, but Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco (who was 25 in 2007) gets plenty of points for ambition, stretching his sophomore effort The Cool to 20 tracks and billing it (loosely) as a concept record. While the construction of “The Cool” as an allegorical character throughout is never fully realized, any Lupe album is going to probably impugn the following things: drug use, misogyny, violence, and the glorified role these ills typically serve in hip-hop music. Which, for most rational adults, means he is preaching to the choir.
What made Lupe Fiasco dangerous, as far as rap’s status quo goes, is that his world-class, versatile flow gave him enormous street credibility amongst purists despite being an outspoken advocate against vulgarity, and thinking rappers had a responsibility to be role models in addition to artists (Nas was clearly his hero growing up). After being adopted by Jay-Z and Kanye West, his 2006 debut Food and Liquor was an immediate game-changer, most notably in the form of the classic “Kick, Push,” a story about youths whose great strife is getting in trouble for skateboarding in public spaces. The song made a great statement about what coolness could and should mean in the modern age; Lupe was rocking eyeglasses and a hoodie years before this new nerd chic style overtook hip-hop culture, before a guy like L’il Wayne started buying cardigans.
Subsequently, The Cool, delivered on his original promise and became an immediate success amongst critics and audiences alike. It stayed at #1 on rap charts for nine straight weeks and received several Grammy nominations. Chances are that you have heard the hit “Superstar” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26X8ant7qtw, and with good reason–it would be a first-ballot shoo-in for the Class of 2007 in a Song Hall-of-Fame. Someone as gifted as Lupe on the mic will rarely take a song off, it’s just a matter of coupling his virtuosity with an infectious hook, which is easier said than done in hip-hop. “Superstar” has just that, using Matthew Santos (a cheaper version of Coldplay’s Chris Martin) on that track as well as on the slow-moving “Fighters.” The best thing you can say about The Cool, in fact, is that it had a really classic song and plenty of quality supporting material with it– more than anything, this is why the album deserves to be in the Final 4. Sure, there is some filler–there are 18 songs after all–but it is scary how loaded the album is with different beats and cadences, from speed-showcase “Go Go Gadget Flow” to venomous “Dumb It Down” to nostalgic “Hip Hop Saved My Life” to party-soundtrack “Go Baby.” The Computer Newspaper cannot remember too many albums over the past decade that have upwards of 10 effective songs like The Cool does.
The downside, the part that elicits the occasional sadness from this committee, is that we were riding high with Lupe in 2007, content that there was a fresh, rogue voice in hip-hop that cared about politics (especially when it comes to American foreign policy), celebrating intelligence (he says Cornel West taught him in college it was ‘okay to be smart’), and keeping his production free of too much big-shot-producer influence. It is a rare feat, especially in hip-hop, to establish an anti-mainstream ethos that your Billboard-topping peers respect. Unfortunately, all of the above puts unfair pressure on him as an artist, and we had to wait until 2011 for him to release a follow-up, Lasers. There are countless poor reviews of this album available online, but suffice it to say, the sound of it alone is, well, misguided. There are dubstep songs, a John Legend cameo, even a flagrant sample of Modest Mouse’s “Float On” for the first single–gone is the overarching charm of The Cool’s homemade beats and missing is Lupe’s decisiveness on the microphone.
It may sound like a harsh reality of the music industry and rap specifically, but it feels like: if you really had a lot to still say, Lupe, why did you wait four years for this underwhelming follow-up? Our guess is that his response would relate somehow to the perils of fame or ‘using his celebrity for good’ and mentioning all the charitable work he has been doing in Africa and Haiti, but that may not be a good enough excuse, or at least not one fitting a potential Superstar.
And so, the THE 2007 P.I.E. MUSIC CHAMPIONSHIP
The Arcade Fire Neon Bible
Amy Winehouse Back To Black
Loser: Amy Winehouse
Obituary: Too soon.
For all intents and commercial purposes, Amy Winehouse owned 2007. Like Lauryn Hill before her and Adele most recently, the album Back To Black dominated Grammy Night (5 awards) and thrust her into every limelight imaginable, whether it be daytime talk shows, MTV airplay, or sweaty dance clubs across the world. In the nicest way imaginable, she was a phenomenon. Unlike Hill and Adele, or Norah Jones, or Beyoncé, the honors she hoarded became only sidebar to her tumultuous personal life. She unabashedly exposed her drug habits and troubled domestic relationships to a thirsty media; at first, this force of personality only accentuated the music, but slowly that balance unraveled and all the personal troubles defined her role in popular culture.
To nobody’s surprise, Winehouse passed away last summer at 27, the same age of death as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, and Jeff Buckley. The culprit appears to be a combination of alcohol and maybe pills, but it may have been the first recorded autopsy in celebrity history where details seemed superfluous; any commoner could play amateur coroner and throw a dart at a periodic table of illicit substances. Heroin, meth, ketamine, ecstasy–all are drugs she had been hospitalized for abusing previously–not to mention a history of domestic violence and arrests for disorderly conduct and assault. Just like Courtney Love, Winehouse became a punchline of needing to ‘get her shit together’ shortly after she became famous. Really, for the past five years, escaping the tabloid reports of Winehouse vices has been as futile of an endeavor as avoiding her song “Rehab” in 2007. The difference between Winehouse and Love, and more recently Lindsay Lohan, and what puts her into the Hendrix-Joplin-Cobain pantheon of ‘died-too-soon’ tragic figures, is that she was really outstanding at what she did for a living, becoming the most important name in music for a given period.
Inside (and outside) the studio, Winehouse was a complete throwback. Her Thing is her voice, a soulful, brassy tone that had not been seen in pop music for decades (Adele, would have been 15, and living in the UK watching Winehouse rise to prominence in 2006). If we learned one thing musically from her ascension, it is that regardless of age or ethnicity, people still love MoTown —- > “Tears Dry On Their Own,” which samples parts of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojdbDYahiCQ&feature=related. But impersonations of dead genres will sound like pointless re-treads unless a novel twist is added–in this case, the soul sound was modernized on Back To Black by (famous in UK) hip-hop producer Mark Ronson and enlivened by the depravity of Winehouse’s lyrics. “Rehab,” which was Time magazine’s ‘Song Of The Year’ in 2007, is the classic example of this lethal pairing. While an obvious nod to the lounge-singer-with-handclapping-backup milieu popularized in Cold War-era Detroit, “Rehab” is given the rhythm of a hip-hop track and thematically addresses Winehouse’s refusal to get help for her life-crippling addictions despite the pleas of her family and even her record label. Consider, for a moment, that level of sass–Winehouse releases her first album in 2005, a much jazzier, less-successful record called Frank, subsequently shows signs of substance abuse and her record label tells her to get help, so she in turn writes an assertive new album, one that is far funkier, far more soulful, far more naked–and the first single she turns into that label is a Fuck You about changing her behavior. That is truly flippant. It kind of makes you shake your head a bit, and when you consider what a roaring success the song and the album became, it becomes clear that Amy Winehouse executed some of the best ‘Rock Star’ moments we have seen in twenty years. Easily. This unique iconoclasm, along with how well the record holds up five years later, is why The Computer Newspaper has no qualms about giving her the No. 2 spot.
Now, one last thing. Because she died, and Back To Black will be her final LP release, there is no question her legacy receives that posthumous polish that all eulogies entail. Much like Nirvana, the crash-and-burn death of Winehouse ensured she will always be more myth than reality. Had she not died last year, and continued to make music, her next album would in all likelihood been a disappointment, either because (a) how does one follow-up Back To Black, (b) her train-wreck personal life takes precedence over the music or (c) she miraculously gets clean and sober, resulting in far-less-interesting creative output. Who knows, maybe she was never going to put out another album, maybe she would choose the direction of Lauryn Hill and bow out of celebrity because the pressure became too much, in which case you are just left with speculation and the occasional ‘boo’s from your once loyal fans.
Instead, what Winehouse had (and has in nostalgic retrospect) going for her fills an obituary to the brim, in no particular order.
A) an iconic apperance–the short skirts, tall heels, tattooed arms, dramatic eye-shadow and eye-lashes, all associated with the costume of a prostitute, not to mention hair influenced by Elvira and The Munsters
M) a transcendent voice: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WbVp09E1LRg&feature=relmfu, the more intimate the setting, the more defenseless you are against it
Y) a raw honesty about herself and her problems (besides “Rehab,” other songs on Back To Black include “Addicted” and “You Know I’m No Good”) that never actually feels like a gimmick. She’s 100% authentic, which is not to say someone like Adele (see ‘transcendent voice’ on the checklist) is not, but Winehouse is a more sexual, physical creature, one that conveys toughness on the outside and the inside.
If Amy Winehouse was given the chance to live her life again, it is possible that she would choose to do things differently. She may choose to possess the slightest bit of self-control and stability. But without that reckless, honest spirit informing the way she wrote and sang music, her career would have been substantially less important.
Before getting to our winner, let’s take a final look at the complete 2007 bracket:
Winner: The Arcade Fire
Speech! Speech!: In researching and planning a retrospective of 2007 albums, before the idea of a bracket was even introduced, the very first thing concluded by The Computer Newspaper was that The Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible was absolutely peerless. This is high praise, even it is just from two dudes that share a room (not to mention a goddamn blog) together in Denver. But it is deserved. Even at the time, this album seemed like it was designed and created in an alternate universe of ambition. Which is typical Arcade Fire, who is notoriously a ‘grandiose’ band, a reputation established with 2004’s Funeral and further tightened in 2010’s The Suburbs. Because they are one of few artists that still obsess over the conception of an album rather than ‘some new songs,’ they are perfectly-suited for this kind of tourney. Funeral is about personal pain and mortality, The Suburbs is about the alienation one feels near cul-de-sacs. And then there’s Neon Bible, which to its credit, goes macro and tries to rebel against some modern-day oppressors: government, religion, technology. While most music (that gets popular) tries to avoid pretension, it can sometimes pay off, as an artist, to take yourself very seriously at times–a character trait of The Arcade Fire nobody would dispute, though the same can be said of the decade’s other Significant band, Radiohead.
Speaking of Radiohead, Thom Yorke’s crazy ass may have found in The Arcade Fire their heir apparent, at least in terms of balancing commercial success with critical acclaim. Arcade Fire has three records, each one a chart-topper (both in sales and ‘best-of’ accolades) and a Grammy darling–finally winning ‘Album Of The Year’ for The Suburbs, though that seemed to be more of a better-late-than-never award. In other words, if Scorcese’s The Departed is The Suburbs, then Neon Bible is Goodfellas. The truly scary part is that Neon Bible, despite receiving its own fair share of coronations by music publications, is not viewed nearly with the same dough-eyes as their debut Funeral, which was recently voted #2 Album of the Decade by review aggregator Metacritic, losing to (surprise, surprise) Radiohead’s Kid A. They are very much 3 for 3 right now–a winning percentage that, with all due respects, keeps bands like Vampire Weekend and The Black Keys still looking up at this juncture.
So who is this Alpha Dog of rock? Primarily Canadian, for starters, though brothers Win and Will Butler split time growing up in the U.S., which given that Win is the frontman, explains why the world of The Suburbs sounds so familiar for American audiences (the Butlers spent their teenage years just outside Houston). Win Butler’s wife, Regine, is also in the band, singing backup vocals and playing accordian, keyboards, and even the hurdy gurdy (a.k.a. a wheel fiddle, of course). Beyond this 3-person family dynamic, there are at least 4 other members, sometimes up to a clean dozen on stage when they tour. Other non-standard instruments include the organ, violin, cello, xylophone, harp, French horn, and glockenspiel (Joke: their name The Arcade Fire, translated from Canadian, means The Kitchen Sink). For evidence and entertainment, here they are playing in an elevator http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjxef8AfVQg …. we should add ‘magazine’ to their list of instruments.
Beyond treating music as a team sport, the band purchased an abandoned church in Quebec in 2007 to become their permanent recording studio. This makes songs like “Intervention,” which uses an organ to set the mood, sound not just epic, but downright biblical http://vimeo.com/15483899 … This link shows their SNL performance of that song, if for nothing else worth watching because Butler smashes his guitar (adorned with a political message about helping Haiti) at the end, presumably because his melodramatic strumming caused some of the strings to break. Moreover, they use a bullhorn instead of a microphone, which just seems like the kind of subtle touch The Arcade Fire specializes in, though maybe not so subtle as a symbol given how much of their content discusses, or serves as an example of, proselytism.
Many critics compared their first album to a David Byrne-type sound, and that Neon Bible represented a more Americana, Bruce Springsteen influence. While The Computer Newspaper avoids these kinds of time-spanning comparisons, it does feel like, especially in comparison to other famous bands, The Arcade FIre captures the voice-of-this-generation better than any other. In that sense, the Springsteen thing with Neon Bible seems totally apt. The lyrics of Win Butler are a few things all at once: detached, nostalgic, and definitely jaded about the status quo. If that cocktail doesn’t feel about right for the children of the 70s and 80s, not sure what would, but we can elaborate further with examples.
1. “Windowsill,” appeals to the shotgun-wielding-old-guy in all of us, decrying the ‘salesman knocking at [your] door,’ ‘noises on TV,’ and ‘living with [your] father’s debt.’
2. “Antichrist Television Blues” examines the culture of detachment provided by the media, opening it up with “I don’t wanna work in a building downtown…’cause the planes keep crashing, always two by two…i don’t wanna see those planes hit the ground” — nothing locates a 2000s mindset quite like a 9/11 reference.
3. “Keep The Car Running” is bluegrass rock, advising us all to basically take road trips, because as in all Arcade Fire songs, there is some ambiguous “They” that is coming for us
The album is one of the best top-to-bottom collections of songs you’ll ever see, each piece integral to the overall puzzle. As our unchallenged winner in this tournament, we feel perfectly at peace paying tribute to a band that still tries to matter in the world. Funeral is what the purists (and “I loved them before they went mainstream” types) will always celebrate and The Suburbs is the culmination of their popularity. Neon Bible, though, is the opus in-between, the album where they could fine-tune their mission statement as a band.
If any of you are still reading, we thank you for accompanying us down memory lane in this P.I.E. tournament; we feel good that in an exercise of nostalgia, Neon Bible is the winner because it straddles the line of ‘timeless’ and ‘2007’ with such permanent agility. We close with the last track on the album, “My Body Is A Cage,” a gorgeous song, mashed up here against the ending of classic western Once Upon A Time In The West http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pyp34v6Lmcc . Enjoy.