It's been a grand year to live and listen to music in Portland. Though nearly 50 new locally made albums—drawn from a staggering diversity of genres—found a place in my regular rotation of records this year, in my view the following five gems glittered even more brightly than the rest. All of the usual disclaimers about the vagaries of personal preference apply. Musicians of Portland, you've done us proud yet again.
1. Menomena—Friend and Foe
Were Friend and Foe the only album to have come out of Portland in 2007, I would feel no less confident, based on its strengths alone, making the case that our strange little city is producing the best music in the country right now. Making good—or, rather, unfathomably great—on the unrefined promise of their 2003 debut I Am the Fun Blame Monster!, the three multi-instrumentalist musketeers of Menomena stormed the Grammy gates and erected a visionary monument unto indie ambition that will stand the test of time.
I swear that birds recommenced their chirping, flowers came into bloom, and spring truly began this year at the precise moment that I randomly stumbled across Au's MySpace page and pressed play on the track "Boute." The song opens Au's self-titled debut LP and is thus the opening volley in the band's campaign of radical classical/folk integration. As someone who loved Philip Glass before Sonic Youth, hearing this was a revelation—like happening upon the ruins of an ancient city only to find the moss-covered remains of technology infinitely more complex than that of the present.
3. Starfucker—untitled EPI sang the praises of this delightful little CD-R's third track, "Rawnald Gregory Erickson the Second," at length in this column two weeks ago, declaring it a flawless specimen of bedroom pop, and my favorite song of the year. I also suggested that you could find someone to stand with equal ardor behind each of this EP's seven tracks. It follows, then, that this first set of recordings by now-and-again Sexton Blake mastermind Josh Hodges under his new moniker, Starfucker, is remarkably strong as a whole. Starfucker's smooth-edged, fun-first songlettes are unlabored, unblemished, and pack enough melodic punch to knock out even Tay "Chocolate Rain" Zonday.
4. Jefrey Leighton Brown—Change Has Got to Come!When you collect the data, run the analysis, and plot the graph of Portland music, jazzman Jef Brown is the point that bucks the indie-electro-folk trend line and seems to make no contextual sense. Though Brown would be a frustrating outlier for sonic statisticians, he is an inspiring breath of fresh air for lovers of timeless tune and tone. A founding member of Jackie-O Motherfucker and currently the leader of Evolutionary Jass Band, Brown harmonizes his experimental instincts and respect for tradition to work wonders on this basement-born, sax-centric album of foggy, post-Coltrane sincerity.
5. Blitzen Trapper—Wild Mountain Nation
If you'd told me a few months ago that this album would become one of my favorites of 2007, I wouldn't have believed you. While I could never really find a way into this Kentucky-fried sextet's previous albums of disjointed roots rock, the band's moccasin-wearing inner wolf-children lured me into their teepee this time around by letting their mellower side show. The eccentricities, angles, and enthusiasm still lead the way on this sun-soaked Western picaresque, but for the first time the melodies and structures are more than strong enough to survive the journey.