Sit down, tape your eyes open, and unplug your ears. This'll be a doozie of a post. I know, I know we've all been suffering through these year-end lists, but it's just blogger nature to think others care about what we think. I'm no different, so here are my picks of 2007 in no particular order because it's pretty futile to rank these. Also, these aren't the "BEST" of 2007 per se... I'm usually behind the eightball in terms of actually listening to things the same year they're released, not to mention I'm unreasonably biased so every year-end list is basically made up of my favourite bands/artists that happened to release an album that year. See, I can already picture next year's list: Who Killed Amanda Palmer?, new Ben Folds album, Zooey Deschanel's debut, Ben Lee's Mixtape, new Raconteurs album, The Ditty Bops, Supergrass... sigh, I'm so predictable. Alright, here we go:
Top Covers/Cover Albums:
One of my favourite albums of 2007, covers or otherwise, was Mark Ronson's Version. In early 2006, I put a mental checkmark next to Mark Ronson's name when his masterful cover of Radiohead's Just featuring Phantom Planet's Alex Greenwald was making the blog rounds. I hesitate to call any one cover "definitive", but for now that will be the definitive cover of Just. Once I heard Ronson was working on a covers album, that immediately jumped up to one of my most anticipated releases of 2007. Ironically, I didn't know most of the songs being covered and I listened as if they were originals, so I was immune to claims of "Oh! He ruined this song" or "What a pointless cover of that song". I've read some pretty harsh reviews of the album-- "Pandering!", "Unoriginal!", "What a rich spoiled jerk!"-- which kinda baffles me but I guess to each his own. I've said before (possibly to myself) that Britney Spears' Toxic is a great cover song, which is to say it's been covered so many times in various styles that (for the most part) all manage to make it interesting. Mark Ronson's version is no exception, throwing in some Ol' Dirty Bastard vocals and somehow making it work. Other highlights are Amy Winehouse performing The Zutons' Valerie, Lily Allen on The Kaiser Chiefs' Oh My God, a b-side cover of Queens of the Stone Age's No One Knows, and this instrumental Coldplay cover:
Mark Ronson - God Put a Smile Upon Your Face (feat. The Daptone Horns) [originally by Coldplay]
A covers album that grabbed my attention out of nowhere in early December was Shawn Lee's Ping Pong Orchestra Hits the Hits. Similar to Mark Ronson, Shawn Lee (a multi-instrumentalist) has brought a retro sound to modern hits. Covers include choices as diverse as the Gorillaz' Clint Eastwood, Red Hot Chili Peppers' By the Way, and (surprise!) Britney's Toxic. I first heard of him when I tuned into KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic when Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings were performing. With a couple minutes to spare before the top of the hour, a groovy little piano-based cover of Hey Ya came on and naturally my ears perked up. Just when I thought I'd heard enough Hey Ya covers, this one comes along to re-inject some life into it. Snag the whole album from eMusic or Amazon.
Shawn Lee's Ping Pong Orchestra - Hey Ya [originally by Outkast]
Have you ever seen that online video of the Peanuts gang synced to the original Hey Ya? Originally created by some clever bear at Venis Productions, they got cease & desisted by United Media, though we all know once it's online, you can't stop the signal... It's pretty hilarious especially when Andre 3000 sings "we know we're not happy here" and it cuts to a grumpy Charlie Brown standing alone in front of an empty mailbox. Ha! Even though it can get repetitive with not enough footage to fill out the whole 4 minute song, the "Cooler than being cool" section is quite brilliant. Anyway, Shawn Lee's Ping Pong Orchestra, unintentionally or not, takes this concept to its logical conclusion with a Hey Ya cover in the style of Vince Guaraldi's Linus & Lucy.
Shawn Lee's Ping Pong Orchestra - Rehab [originally by Amy Winehouse]
I was probably one of the last people to hear Amy Winehouse's Rehab sometime in November, so I totally missed the whole overexposure to it. Not surprisingly, I started digging the song after hearing covers by Girls Aloud and Paolo Nutini. While train wreck seems to be the phrase most often used to describe Amy Winehouse, it's disappointing since I actually enjoy her music & voice as opposed to say Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan who just won't leave us alone. While Winehouse has been making it on to best-of lists this year for Back to Black, the album was technically released in October 2006 in the UK and last December in Canada. So belated '06 kudos to that album.
The Bad Plus - Tom Sawyer [originally by Rush]
Being Chinese-Canadian, I must be genetically inclined to love piano-based jazz covers of Rush. This so happened to be one of my most played covers of the year. Unlike some Bad Plus covers, this never derails into total chaos and unrecognizability.
Corinne Bailey Rae - Steady As She Goes [originally by The Raconteurs]
Once upon a time in August, I mentioned that BBC was putting together a covers compilation of 40 contemporary artists covering 40 tracks to celebrate 40 years of BBC Radio One. Well, I seem to have missed the whole release part of the equation. It guess it was released in November, though typing combinations of "BBC" "Radio 1" "40 Years" and "Covers" will hardly bring up any Amazon links. To find it, search for "Radio 1 Established 1967", which is available for the low, low price of $63.99! The Amazon 3rd-Party sellers seems to be the way to go if you're desperately seeking this album. After a fly-by listen of that plethora of covers, the most outstanding cover to me is Corinne Bailey Rae's take on The Raconteurs' Steady As She Goes. She continues to blow me away with her covers... first Zeppelin, then the Raconteurs? That's two years in a row that Corinne Bailey Rae has made my top covers. She could probably cover any song and I'd enjoy it-- love her voice!
MC Chris - Dare to Be Stupid [originally by Weird Al Yankovic]
This is interesting: a cover of a Weird Al original. Honestly, though I'm a big Weird Al fan I never really liked this song... until I heard this amped up electro version, which made me reevaluate the original as all good covers do.
The Quartertones - Here Comes the Fuzz [originally by DJ Format]
Somehow over the course of this blog I've never once mentioned DJ Format even though that's the closest thing to rap or hip-hop that I listen to regularly and thoroughly enjoy. The original from 2003's Music for the Mature B-Boy is an instrumental track based on a repeated guitar sample with horns. This cover from the b-side to DJ Format's The Hit Song is performed "unsampled" so to speak by The Quartertones, a Canadian jazz/funk outfit from Toronto. While in the UK last year I specifically went on the hunt for DJ Format albums, which (at the time) were notoriously hard to track down here in Canada for a reasonable price even though a regular collaborator is Toronto rapper Abdominal. Now you can get DJ Format quite simply on iTunes, though it's no match for a physical album.
You may recognize some of DJ Format's music videos such as We Know Something You Don't Know featuring breakdancing mascots (one of my fav all-time videos) or the arcade game-inspired 3 Feet Deep, directed by Keith Schofield who incidentally has a string of awesome retro music videos like Hard 'n Phirm's Pi and Wintergreen's When I Wake Up (telling the legend of the E.T. Atari landfill burial of '83). The We Know Something video was directed by Ruben Fleischer and I've always wondered if he and Kanye West went to the same bear costume shop (FYI, the music video released in early 2003 predates Kanye's debut album The College Dropout by almost exactly one year). Someday soon I'll write up that post I've been meaning to write for months regarding interesting cover/sample breakdowns of DJ Format's The Hit Song and Here Comes the Fuzz.
This fun acoustic cover comes from a live iTunes session.
As Angélique Kidjo has done earlier on a cover of Jimi's Voodoo Chile, she transforms the Stones classic (which has been covered often) with latin beats and African chants. Joss Stone contributes guest vocals.
The Kleptones - War of Confusion [Genesis vs. Edwin Starr]
While the mash-ups fad has kind of worn off, The Kleptones have proved why the sub-genre was so exciting to begin with. From the 2007 internet release Live'r Than You'll Ever Be (available in its entirety for free here), War of Confusion seamlessly blends Edwin Starr's War with Genesis' Land of Confusion to create the best anti-war mash-up since George W. Bush sang Sunday Bloody Sunday. The whole live set (the logistics of a "live" show I don't really understand) is an example of some of the best-sounding mash-ups I've heard. This guy's a pro and he doesn't lazily fall back on simply overlaying rap vocals over instrumentals. Just look at the songs mashed together in Underground Hand: Queen's It's a Kind of Magic, Aerosmith's Dude Looks Like a Lady, Nine Inch Nails' The Hand That Feeds, and The White Stripes' The Hardest Button To Button. Other inspired combos include Jet vs. Stevie Wonder, The Doors vs. Dick Dale & The Del-Tones, Beck vs. The Eagles... all to a rockin' dance beat.
Favourite songs/albums of '07:
The White Stripes - Icky Thump
Icky Thump is one of my top albums of 2007, which should come as no surprise to any regular reader since I seem to talk about the White Stripes every 5 posts or so. Even ignoring the Conquest cover (which is hard to ignore), the album is full of nuggets such as the Effect & Cause, Rag & Bone, Little Cream Soda, Catch Hell Blues, I'm Slowly Turning Into You... OK, so I'd better just stop there before I list the entire album. I am under the impression that almost nobody has heard the original Corky Robbins Conquest, except for possibly Jack White.
The Polyphonic Spree - The Fragile Army
The Arcade Fire is topping many best-of lists this year and conspicuously missing from many lists in my opinion is The Polyphonic Spree's The Fragile Army. More than a few times I've seen The Polyphonic Spree unfavourably compared to the Arcade Fire. I've read, for example, that they're "The Arcade Fire's hippie cousins" or they're "trying too hard to be the Arcade Fire", which isn't really fair to either band, especially since the Spree predate the Fire by a few years. The Polyphonic Spree seem to inspire either adoration or extreme hate. I think some people just have a hard time with the Spree's earnestness. Lack of irony doesn't go over so well these days. Anyway, I don't mean to get all defensive here. The Fragile Army was one of my favourite albums of the year. Plans to see them on tour this year clashed with my White Stripes roadtrip, but hopefully I'll see them in 2008. My desire to see them has boosted significantly since I heard they added a cover of Live & Let Die to their repertoire.
Coconut Records - Nighttiming
I was completely enthralled by Coconut Records debut album Nighttiming. In case you didn't know, Coconut Records is Jason Schwartzman. Yes, the actor and former drummer/founding member of Phantom Planet, here playing every instrument on the album which is not as pretentious as it may sound. From the disco groove of the title track to the melancholic West Coast to the Tom Petty-esque rocker Minding My Own Business to the dreamy Summer Day, Schwartzman features a range of music, none of which really feels out of place. It took me a long time to disassociate him from his role as Max Fischer in the brilliant Wes Anderson film Rushmore. With an insignificant performance in the underrated CQ and an obnoxious turn in the god-awful Slackers, I was ready to just write him off completely as a one-hit wonder. A few years later, my sister and I would rent I Heart Huckabees and proceed to laugh hysterically throughout. In the process, I was finally able to view Jason Schwartzman as an actor and not Max Fischer. 2007 must have been a good year for him since he released this solo album independently and also reunited with Wes Anderson in the wonderful film The Darjeeling Limited (and the preceding short film Hotel Chevalier). I found out about Coconut Records quite by accident while investigating the limited music samples of Zooey Deschanel (remnants for a future posting), who is a guest vocalist on two tracks on the CD. The album, which I bought directly from Schwartzman's Young Baby Records, came with a "surprise gift" that turned out to be one of hundreds of polaroids he took. These will supposedly be used in a future music video (my polaroid seems to be of clippings/photos on his fridge or wall). I guess he ran out of polaroids since now there's a new surprise gift offered with each order. In fact, I just went ahead and ordered another copy for someone's belated x-mas gift.
Andrew Bird - Armchair Apocrypha
This year I got to check off Mr. Bird from the list of must-see acts after finally catching his show in Vancouver. Armchair Apocrypha was another solid record of indie goodness as only Andrew Bird can do it, this time 'round with some electric guitar in the mix. Here he revisits the track "I" from his earlier album Weather Systems with new lyrics and arrangement.
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings - 100 Days, 100 Nights
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings put out another awesome record of old school funk soul that's even better than her last album. Nobody's Baby has got "AH-ooh's" that would do Aretha Franklin proud and Let Them Knock is a perfect showcase (as is the whole album) for Sharon's wicked soul vocals.
This was from their 5-song Pack Rat EP, a nice gift to tide us fans over until the next album due early in '08. No one sings retro harmonies as beautifully as these girls.
On Danny Michel's live DVD from this year that he released independently, one of the extras was this version of In the Belly of a Whale, one of my favourite of his songs.
This live track released towards the end of 2007 is a sneak peek at the direction they're taking with the new album expected in March 2008. Diamond Hoo Ha Man sounds like it's borrowing from the heavy fuzz riff of the White Stripes' Blue Orchid, but that's not altogether a bad thing.
Cover finds of the year:
This incredibly groovy head bobbin' cover of The Band is from the 2003 release It Took So Long. This was on constant repeat as I discovered it shortly before departing for China.
For years this had been on my list of covers to track down. I remember this from an old mixtape my parents had on our family roadtrips. My sister and I loved to sing the lyrics, which are basically "No no no no-no no-no-no-no-no no No No No no No no NO NO no No no no" etc... which makes for some difficult google searching. A couple years ago I finally found out the song was called Nobody But Me, originally by The Isley Brothers and a hit for The Human Beinz in the 1960's. Except neither of those were the version I had heard as a kid. Over the years I would track down covers by George Thorogood, The Dickies, a non-cover of the same name by Blake Shelton, and more, but never that exact one. Then a few months ago I dug up that old cassette tape and recorded it to mp3 with the tag "unknown artist". In a move that should have been obvious from the get-go, I asked my mum if she knew the song, seeing how she originally would have made the mixtape from an LP. She didn't know immediately, but I was inspired to dig through old records in the basement looking for an LP with that cover. As it turns out it was taped off an LP from the library (gee, how times have changed) and my mom remembered it was Canadian rock band Doug & The Slugs from an album originally released the year I was born. Mystery solved!
2007 in Film:
The best film I saw in 2007 was Zodiac, David Fincher's brooding meditation on the Zodiac killer and the individuals heavily involved with the investigation. Even though it came out early in the year, that was the one film I saw that completely engrossed me and left my jaw on the floor as I left the theatre. Last year it was Children of Men, this year it was Zodiac. Of the summer of blockbuster sequels, only the old school action throwback of Live Free or Die Hard and the visceral thrills of Bourne Ultamatum (best of the series) stood out. I hated Transformers, Ratatouille was a delight, The Simpsons Movie was surprisingly not terrible, but Stardust was a disappointment. I caught the Danny Boyle sci-fi thriller Sunshine on the flight home from Hong Kong and it was riveting even on a teeny-weeny seat monitor. I really liked Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, which had unintended extra pathos in light of the real-life turn of events surrounding Owen Wilson this year (hopefully he bounces back in '08). The absolute worst movie I saw this year was August Rush. Gag! Vomit! I saw it at a free screening and felt totally ripped off. No Country For Old Men was excellent, but I didn't love it.
2007 films I really want to see still: Sweeney Todd, There Will Be Blood, and Gone Baby Gone.
Most anticipated for 2008:
- Be Kind Rewind (new Michel Gondry film with Jack Black & Mos Def)
- 21 (long in the works adaptation of Ben Mezrich's Bringing Down the House about the MIT blackjack team)
- Shine a Light (Scorsese's Rolling Stones concert film; Jack White is a guest star)
- Iron Man (never really a fan of the comic, but the crew/cast involved seem to trying really hard to make it a worthy comic adaptation)
- Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (George could have called this anything and I'd show up)
- The Happening (new Shyamalan film... Lady in the Water was his first film I outright disliked; hoping he returns to Sixth Sense/Unbreakable form)
- Get Smart (probably going to suck, but hopefully not)
- The Dark Knight (THE film of 2008)
- new X-Files movie (I don't have much expectation, but I'm definitely intrigued)
- The International (Clive Owen + Naomi Watts with Run Lola Run's Tom Tykwer directing)
- Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze directing the children's classic with a screenplay co-written by Dave Eggers??? Sold!)
- Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince (love the books; movies not so much... but I'll check it out anwyay)
- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher re-teaming with Brad Pitt)
- new Bond film (no brainer)
Phew! After that post, I wouldn't expect to hear anything from me for a while! Happy New Year!