Mike Baron's YEAR IN MUSIC!!!, Part One
Two thousand seven has been a great year for pop music but you’d never know it by the stench emanating from the so-called “music industry.” Corporate CD sales are in the toilet and overpaid A & R men don’t have a clue. How many hip-hop records will be played ten years from now? Most new bands don’t know how to compose in three chords. The list of one and two chord top-forty hits stretches to the moon and back.
The flowering of pop beauty this year has not been seen since the late sixties/early seventies. Let us begin at the top, with the Records of the Year. Yes, Records, because ultimately I could not decide between two timeless masterpieces: SLOAN-NEVER HEAR THE END OF IT and JACKDAW4-BIPOLAR DIVERSIONS.
#1: Sloan’s long player clocks in at seventy-two minutes without a second of waste. The boys from Nova Scotia put on a clinic of shifting, foot-stomping rock and roll. Thirty tracks cover every mood from metallic barn burners to honey-drenched power pop. As they’ve done in the past Sloan link each song to the next creating a seamless tapestry. There are too many highlights to list, but the one-two punch of “Can’t You Figure It Out?” and “Set in Motion” will win over even the surliest skaters. “Can’t You Figure it Out” is an achingly sweet paean to a busted relationship that segues into the deadpan, hilarious, and gorgeous “Set in Motion.” Every time you listen to this record you notice another delicate touch. The production is superb. Some critics have rightfully compared it to the White Album. Chris Murphy’s bass is brilliantly kinetic and very McCartneyesque.
The Other #1: Jellyfish fans, your wait is over. I know you’ve heard it before. Seems like every other band on this site compares to Jellyfish. Jackdaw4’s second record, BIPOLAR DIVERSIONS, is a sprawling yet tightly-controlled masterpiece of power pop dynamics, constantly surprising, never disappointing. Willie Downing seems to be the driving force, and he makes full use of his four vocalists for stunning arabesques throughout. Each song is a rococo masterpiece, juxtaposing sunny major-chord choruses with startling, minor chord bridges. The first song “Sooma” begins, “And the sun shines out of my ass, it’s incredible…” Sooma flaunts more hooks than Tommy Hearns sparring on the deck of a Russian fishing trawler. Every song is a mini-masterpiece of arranging and inspired performance. The title track is not only gorgeous, it offers the sonic equivalent of bi-polar disorder, an audible analog of what a person experiences. “My Little Gangsta” covers the same territory as XTC’s “No Thugs in Our House,” with comparable flare. But it’s those soaring voices that continue to suck you in.
#3: BRYAN SCARY-THE SHREDDING TEARS shows what one man can do holed up in a garret surrounded by synthesizers. Basically a keyboard man, Scary has fashioned an operatic, hallucinatory soundtrack to a black and white noir about a rock and roll Candide. The first track, “A Stab at the Sun,” is one of those left-field masterpieces that touches musical spots you haven’t felt in years. Combining chamber pop, British beer hall stomps and ELP bombast, Scary lives up to his name on this iconoclastic barnburner. The rest of the disc is equally inventive. Scary’s not a rocker per se. He’s a raconteur on the keyboard. You can’t deny the treacherous hooks of “The Ceiling on the Wall” or “Bottom of the Grave.” For fans of Brian Wilson, Michael Brown, Ben Folds, and the Beatles.
#4: From here on the numbering is meaningless. These are all great records. MIKA-LIFE IN CARTOON MOTION is a blast of disco fever from London by way of Paris and Lebanon. “Grace Kelly,” the album opener, is an irresistible slice of kitsch the likes of which have not been heard since the demise of Freddie Mercury, whom Mika cites. The details are exquisite: the ting of vibes, the background voices drawing you into that irresistible bridge, and that crazy soaring chorus. Another keyboard player, Mika has a gift for the hook evident in every song. “Billy Brown” and “Big Girl” leave no doubt where Mika stands. He’s the best falsetto since Michael Jackson. You’ve heard slices of “Love Today” on television, now hear the whole song. Try to keep your feet from moving. Try.
#5: THE PILLBUGS-BUZZ FOR ALDRIN The Pillbugs have been producing outstanding psychedelia since 1991, released their first album in 1998. Mainly the brainchild of guitarist/composer Mark Mikel, the Pillbugs have been getting progressively richer, deeper, and more rewarding with each subsequent release. This is a two disc set, like two of their previous albums. There is no filler. To give you a clue where they’re coming from the second track is called “Make Like Arthur Lee.” Only Arthur Lee never managed to fill an album the way these boys do. The second disc in particular hits you with one perfectly timed acid flashback after another, until you feel like you’ve been worked over by a tag-team of nude female masseuses to music by vintage Airplane and Country Joe & the Fish.
TOMORROW: Mike's fave albums #6-11!!!