60. Gui Boratto – Chromophobia [Kompakt]
Chromophobia balances an ornamental relationship between the large and the small. Even alongside sterling efforts from DeepChord Presents: Echospace, Stephan Bodzin, the Field, and others — each album boasting its own hypnotic aesthetic — Gui Boratto’s tech house and pop retained a memorable spot in 2007’s most intriguing electronic music. Chromophobia is marked with diversity that spans plains in mere moments, with lush trance webs and mildly speckled introductions.
In one segment worth sharing, Boratto uses dramatically Cure-inspired synths in “Xilo” to follow bleeps and mid-tempo crackles in “Acrostico”, just before a cinema-sized charger called “Beautiful Life” bursts from an almost-hesitant liftoff. “Beautiful Life’s” climactic surges come off otherworldly and gluttonous when played next to the miniature chimes-and-clicks symphony in opener “Scene”, but like Chromophobia‘s palette of sounds, its scale is expansive and vast. – Dominic Umile
59. Eluvium – Copia [Temporary Residence]
As Eluvium, Matthew Cooper is creating the most striking instrumental ambient music of our time. Still, “ambient” seems the wrong word. It conjures up notions of static or barely moving mood-pieces casting a subtle shade on the listener’s surroundings. A transfixing mood is definitely present throughout Copia, but there’s movement, too. There’s an emotional heft to the compositions that makes them almost pop songs, with melody playing as large a role as atmosphere. Copia stands out in Eluvium’s discography for his abandonment of guitar in favor of mainly organ and piano. It stands out among other music made today for how simply it presents a complete universe of sound. This is music that stops time still while sparking motion within listeners’ hearts and brains. – Dave Heaton
58. Beirut – The Flying Club Cup [Ba Da Bing]
If Beirut’s debut album, 2006’s Gulag Orkestar, was Zach Condon’s carefully etched postcard from the Eastern Bloc, then The Flying Club Cup finds him calling collect from a Parisian café — pinot in hand and pursed lips at the ready. Since its inception as an outlet for Condon’s musical musings to a fully fledged ‘band’ with actual members, Beirut has always bore exotic gifts. On The Flying Club Cup they’ve moved from painting Balkan music with a baroque brush to Gaelic folk and Jacques Brel balladry. The ukulele and horns are still present, but here we find them augmented by wheezing accordions and Owen Pallet’s vibrant violin. Condon’s elongated vocal style adds a rich, romantic overtone to the eclectic affair, which is timeless in its musical pursuit. The Flying Club Cup is the sound of someone finding their feet but deciding not to plant them in one place. – Kevin Pearson
57. Iron & Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog [Sub Pop]
The pleasure of early Iron & Wine releases tended to lie in the hushed intimacy of Sam Beam’s songs. The arrangements were so minimal and the delivery so muted and feather-light that you couldn’t help feeling that they were being played just for you in your own living room (preferably in front of a blazing fire). Something’s happened since 2004’s excellent Our Endless Numbered Days, with Beam collaborating with Calexico and trying out some different sounds and textures. The Shepherd’s Dog reflects this new, full-band incarnation of Iron & Wine and it’s an adventurous extension of the Beam sound. This is the best Iron & Wine album yet because the warm, delicacy of old is still present even when the band is in strange new territory, whipping up a reggae jam or country stomp. Sam Beam is still playing in your living room — he’s just brought some friends along. – David Pullar
56. Blu & Exile – Below the Heavens [Sound in Color]
In the past, duos like Eric B. and Rakim and Pete Rock and CL Smooth have shown that chemistry cannot be forced and that an organic album can only be made when the men behind them take their ideas to a higher level. Blu and Exile hold that same type of musical and mental synchronization, and although they are far from legends in the hip-hop game, their first full-length collaboration Below the Heavens shows that the two have the potential to reach that status. Each artist contributes their own superbly honed skills to the album’s 14 tracks, with Blu rapping as if he can only speak in complex rhymes and Exile dropping beats that glide along with crunchy soul samples and crisp drums.
Unlike many underground rappers who are trying to break, Blu does not aggrandize himself or focus his rhymes on bling and cars. He is merely an average guy with adept lyrical skill, drawing only from his life and focusing on his depression, faltering romances and life of poverty. Blu is real, just like his listeners, and fantasy has no place on the record. But like every great hip-hop duo, an emcee needs an equally forceful producer, and Exile provides a splendidly lush soul soundscape. These two are so in sync with one another that if they can hold it together longer than other classic rap duos have and deliver more albums of this quality, then they will surely leave their mark on hip-hop. – Steven J. Horowitz
55. New Young Pony Club – Fantastic Playroom [Modular Image]
On first exposure, it may seem odd that such a highly anticipated album was met with such a low-key response from the collective critical community. The reason for this probably has a lot more to do with the circumstances surrounding Fantastic Playroom‘s release than the actual album itself. A few of the band’s singles had already been floating around the ether for the better part of a year before their debut actually dropped — by the time it did, bloggers and fashionistas who had already grown tired of “Ice Cream” had moved on to whatever Hot New Thing. All’s the more shame, considering that “Ice Cream”, for all its charm, is the worst track on the album.
New Young Pony Club have defied one-hit-wonder expectations by crafting a classic freshman album that not only makes good on every erg of pre-release hype, but manages to overshoot even the wildest predictions of the band’s boosters. Although they’ve been lumped in with a few other terrible bands in the ghastly “nu-rave” microgenre, Fantastic Playroom owes less to Altern-8 or the Shamen than the Talking Heads, specifically circa More Songs About Buildings and Food. The only thing is, singer Tahita Bulmer might just be better, and is definitely sexier than David Byrne. There’s nothing faux about the authentic funk on display here. Just about perfect in every way. Tim O’Neil
54. St. Vincent – Marry Me [Beggars Banquet]
For most people, playing guitar for Sufjan Stevens or the Polyphonic Spree would be the highlight of an entire career. For Annie Clark (who we know as St. Vincent and who’s done both), it was just the prelude to her own remarkable solo debut. And thank god for that. Marry Me is one of those rare records that offers something new and imaginative with every track. Musically, Clark is as comfortable delicately placing a horn in the midst of a jazz-inspired torch song as she is building a distorted, choir-fuelled, indie-rock crescendo. And lyrically, she’s just as hard to pin down. Marry Me echoes the whole anxious mess of our 21st century lives (from our war on terror to our fear of commitment), and since it’s delivered with such sad whimsy, you’re never quite sure whether you’re supposed to break down and cry or just plain laugh at the glorious absurdity of it all. Either way, it’s a beautiful thing to listen to. – Adam Bunch
53. Ryan Adams – Easy Tiger [Lost Highway]
It’s easy to over-praise Easy Tiger simply because of diminished expectations. After all, Ryan Adams released three wildly uneven full-length albums in 2005, along with a never-ending stream of hip-hop/hard-rock EPs on his website. Just when the world was ready to give up on him, Adams unleashed Easy Tiger, easily his best and most unified album since his classic solo debut, Heartbreaker. Yet where that album was steeped in metaphor, here Adams goes straight for the gut. His top-notch backing band, the Cardinals, have finally gelled with their leader, and together they can make country-rock excursions like “Tears of Gold” and the gorgeous “I Taught Myself How to Grow Old” seem absolutely effortless.
Hell, even the obligatory rock number (“Halloweenhead”) sounds totally comfortable within Tiger‘s bed of melancholy guitar pluckings. It’s a hell of a contrast: on Adams’ 2003/2004 mope-rock excursions Love Is Hell, Adams used two whole EPs to try and be deliberately cathartic. Here, all he needs to sing is the yearning line “You and I together / But only one of us in love” to get the same effect. In short: welcome back Ryan. We missed you. – Evan Sawdey
52. Liars – Liars [Mute]
Thematically, garage rock has typically dealt with the alleviation of boredom or the unleashing of desire through various outlets: self-destruction, self-mutilation, sex, driving. Contrarily, art-rock has typically dealt with the bottling up of those same desires. Why these two have never crossed paths is a question that critics have not asked enough, but that Liars are all too willing to answer for us. When Angus Andrews — the seven-foot, leering frontman of Liars — pleads, “there’s someone for me”, it’s far from romantic.
After seven tracks of brutal assaults, from the three chord nail-driver of “Plaster Casts of Everything” to the Troggs stomp of “Freak Out”, there’s no way to read it as anything but sick pleasures. With Liars, this trio finally takes their fascination with witchcraft and dark fantasies and directs it inward, taking the psychosis and bizarre imagery of art-rock and post-punk and matching it to the most visceral and varied rock and roll in eons. – Tal Rosenberg
51. The Pipettes – We Are the Pipettes [Memphis Industries]
Girl groups just wanna have fun. The polka-dotted pop of the Pipettes debut album offers the pleasures of a good time with the promise of more to come. The three lasses know their way around a dance floor and the boys next door. The trios’ songs are full of melodic hooks, sweet doo-wop harmonies, and catchy lyrics delivered with gum-snapping assurance and a sassy attitude. These three women might evoke the past glories of the Shangri-Las and Ronnettes, but the Pipettes’ musical concerns belong to the 21st century. They don’t cry for no one and are nobody’s baby. They don’t stay at home and wait for the phone to ring. They are out there mixing it up and having a ball. The Pipettes humorously boast of their talents, passions, and insecurities in an infectious manner that makes you want to be their best friend if you can’t be their boyfriend. – Steve Horowitz
50. Blitzen Trapper – Wild Mountain Nation [Lidkercow Ltd]
Blitzen Trapper had a hell of a year in 2007. It started off simply enough for the Portland sextet as they quietly put the finishing touches on their third self-released full-length, and backed it up with the usual heavy touring. However, despite its humble entrance, Wild Mountain Nation exploded once it got through the door, a veritable Trojan horse of throwback Steve Miller, angular post-rock riffage, backwoods country contemplative Americana, and humble electric folk ramshackle. The major indie media bathed the album in praise for months, eventually leading to a contract with the highly influential and legendary Sub Pop. By its nature, the album is an inspiration to every DIY band out there, struggling to do what they love for a living without selling out that dream. Blitzen Trapper made it on their own terms, and mark my words, they’re going to keep making it. – Filmore Escalito Holmes
49. Manic Street Preachers – Send Away the Tigers [Red Int/Red Ink]
With Send Away the Tigers, rockin’ Welsh trio Manic Street Preachers regain the power and majesty of their ’90s glory days. Throughout the record, lyrics of political and romantic hopelessness are buoyed by soaring, melodic anthems. Singer and bassist James Dean Bradfield has a huge and irrepressible voice, while guitarist and principal songwriter Nicky Wire is a self-proclaimed nihilist. What should be an odd couple is actually a heavenly matching of complementary powers. On Send Away the Tigers, the Manics have rediscovered just how well their talents can work together, creating their best album of the 2000s. – Michael Keefe
48. Alcest – Souvenirs D’Un Autre Monde [Profound Lore]
Expectations were high among underground metal scenesters when word came out that French black metal one-man band Alcest had completed their debut full-length, but nothing could prepare them for the dazzling beauty that would burst forth upon first spin. Traces of singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Neige’s black metal style linger, from the tremolo picking to the somewhat high-end mix. Although he claims to have never heard shoegaze before, this album explodes with roaring guitars and soaring melodies that bear an uncanny similarity to My Bloody Valentine and Ride.
Unlike peers Wolves in the Throne Room, Agalloch, and even “metalgaze” greats Jesu, the arrangements on Souvenirs are more pastoral and sun-drenched. Neige’s lyrics, sung entirely in French, are shamelessly romantic, as tracks like “Printemps Emeraude” and “Ciel Errant”, which muse about trees and clouds for crying out loud, and they pack an emotional wallop that few underground scenesters would dare attempt. – Adrien Begrand
47. PJ Harvey – White Chalk [Island]
With another instinctive, artistically-challenging record, pioneer Polly Harvey is adept at capturing the voices of women on the verge of nervous breakdowns: the frail Victorian ladies-in-waiting, ghostly brides, the forsaken and the abused, and a caché of other feminine archetypes of days long past get the full treatment on her gorgeous, mournful White Chalk. Haunting and elegant, written mainly for the piano, the record is a delicate oddity on first listen, but soon reveals a sinister supernatural ribbon that chills to the bone.
The urgency and bruised intimacy of Harvey’s emotional vocal odyssey provides a rare glimpse into the soul of a true poet, while her hymn-like compositions, at once incredibly complex and fragile, are expertly recorded by producer Flood. While this transformation into a repressed, frightened spinster may not have been what fans expected from the chic rock goddess, it is a stunning immersion into character. Her bravery on this record will have you partying like it’s 1899. – Matt Mazur
46. Modest Mouse – We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank [Epic]
Modest Mouse’s first post-“Float On” LP begins with what sounds like a midget jumping on a bed while playing an accordion, before erupting into a Götterdämmerung of serpentine guitar leads and lisping/ bellowing vocals. Less idiosyncratic than their earlier work, this is instead Isaac Brock’s version of a pop/rock album. The result is the band’s catchiest music yet, full of uptempo ditties like “Dashboard”, “Fire It Up”, and “We’ve Got Everything” that are still ten miles (or should I say leagues?) left of the mainstream.
The rhythm guitar jangles of ex-Smith Johnny Marr and the guest backgrounds of James Mercer provide pastoral respite on the gently mournful “Missed the Boat” while “Spitting Venom” lives up to its title, an eight-minute showstopper of angular melody and frightening guitar. Powerful and confident, to hear this album is to hear one of America’s best bands at the height of their powers. – Robert Short
45. The Shins – Wincing the Night Away [Sub Pop]
It is well known by now in the music world that the Shins are good at crafting intricate and unforgettable songs, damn good. Bright melodies burst without limit from the brains of indie’s most well-known band. Wincing the Night Away was a smashing commercial success by any standard — it reached #2 on the US Billboard chart — and was the first Sub Pop album ever to reach the Top 20, a testament to the group’s ability to bring indie to the masses. But despite popularity and critical acclaim, the album retains the musical integrity of the Portland group’s previous two LP’s.
Nearly every Shins song ever recorded would work perfectly in a soundtrack or on a mix CD, but Wincing the Night Away, as the group’s third consistently creative album, solidifies the fact that their music, although accessible, exceeds the music of their mainstream peers in every way: lyrically, rhythmically, melodically, and harmonically. The Shins are able to take simple structures like arpeggios and standard rock progressions and transform them into something that transcends modern pop, balancing catchy accessibility with genuine musical craftsmanship. This combination of simplicity and innovation is why, as Natalie Portman so eloquently put it, the Shins will change your life. – Elizabeth Newton
44. The New Pornographers – Challengers [Matador]
More cinematic than Twin Cinema, and more cohesive than any other record released this year, the New Pornographers’ Challengers was so very good it compelled you to think in clichées. Underneath its underlying tones and dizzy melodies, next to its intelligent guitars, you’d find frailty, beauty, sex as art, and, quite probably, something or other about dolphins. A perfect uber-pop experience, Challengers, saw Carl Newman and his multi-tasking cohorts tweak the nose of expectation and laugh in the face of jaded pop cynicism. Toning their sci-fi joy-ride down just a notch or maybe three, they were able to create time and space for pure pop seduction as a result.
“All the Old Showstoppers” nicely showed off the collective’s apparently endless ability to build organic pop architecture with layer upon layer of wit, invention, hook and harmony. The title track, sung by Neko Case, beguiled and stunned. Dan Bejar’s eccentric “Myriad Harbour” enchanted. “Failsafe” wrapped Kathryn Calder’s vocals around a resonant tremolo guitar to quite beautiful effect. And the almost mournful “Go Places” saw The Flame-Haired Chanteuse deliver yet another irresistible performance.
Repeatedly recalling the grandiose pop conceits of Roy Wood, Jeff Lynne, and George Martin, Challengers marked a deliberate and significant advance on its predecessors while remaining firmly connected to very best of the band’s past. Listen carefully and you can hear elements of “From Blown Speakers”, “Ballad of a Comeback Kid”, and “The Body Says No” lurking within this exceptional record. “Mutiny, I Promise You”, for example, is essentially a distillation of everything that was good about Electric Version. Less insistently percussive and relentlessly dramatic than its sources, it’s a majestic and heroic pop song of the very highest quality. And entirely typical of Challengers. – Roger Holland
43. Jay-Z – American Gangster [Roc-A-Fella]
Over the course of Jay-Z’s tribute-to-the-movie that is American Gangster, H-to-the-Izzo leaves no doubt as to who he believes is the king of the hip-hop hill. The thing is, the way he tells it leads us to believe he’s the king, as well. The self-aggrandizement, while still quite obviously present throughout the album, is tempered via struggles with morality, faith, and self-doubt. Somehow, the presence of these struggles makes Jay-Z even more magnetic than he usually is.
Subject matter aside, Jay’s flow is solid, and the production from Diddy’s Hitmen is actually perfect for the cinematic feel that he was so obviously going for (though Bigg D’s inspired take on Beastie Boys’ “Hello Brooklyn” steals Diddy’s thunder for one track). And for once, Jay-Z has put together an album whose purpose isn’t so much to blow you away, but to seep into you, bit by bit. He succeeded, and as such, his legend continues to grow. – Mike Schiller
42. Andrew Bird – Armchair Apocrypha [Fat Possum]
From the opening post-millennial airport dread of “Fiery Crash” to the Eastern squeal of “Yawny at the Apocalypse”, Andrew Bird’s Armchair Apocrypha is no less passionate and moving for being a paragon of elegance and intellectualism. Originally conceived to be less wordy and more spacious than 2005’s Mysterious Production of Eggs, the album finds Bird still reveling in dense wordplay and sound. Collaborator Martin Dosh’s “Simple X” boasts a syrupy melody bolstered by clattering percussion and Bird’s ubiquitous whistle; “Plasticities” slow-burns its way to being one of the songwriter’s most indelible and meticulous constructions. “I think life is too long / To be a whale in a cubicle” he offers, in a way encapsulating the album’s entire m.o.: to escape from the drudgery and deadening routines of life, an effort mirrored by Bird’s own growth as a songwriter, carving out an increasingly idiosyncratic yet pleasing path through the brush and briars of contemporary song. – Michael Metivier
41. Lucky Soul – The Great Unwanted Label [Ruffa Lane]
It isn’t rare these days for a group to take its cues from ’50s and ’60s vocal pop: Motown, the ‘girl groups’ and Northern Soul. But it is rare that the songs are well-written enough that it doesn’t seem like a costume or gimmick. The Greenwich, UK band Lucky Soul’s debut album has razzle-dazzle in spades, but its impact lingers long after that daze-inducing first kiss, on the strength of its songs. They take their cues from the greats of the past — including also indie-pop of more recent decades — but that’s only the start. The band’s founder Andrew Laidlaw, is a songwriter with an innate grasp on melody, words and how they work together for listeners. And underneath the romantic glow and bittersweet tone of his summery pop songs lies an independent, nonconformist streak, befitting of the most headstrong punk rocker. – Dave Heaton
40. Columbiafrica – The Mystic Orchestra – Voodoo Love Inna Champeta Land [Riverboat]
This Colombian love letter to classic African guitar pop is a grand mélange of two continents, everything coming together in a fizzed-up dizzy multicountry crash of instruments, singers, chants, and shout-outs. Styles several decades old emerge invigorated and champeta‘s South American reinvention of the musicians’ African ancestry comes close to a modern apotheosis. It took them three years of work to sound this spontaneous. Voodoo Love Inna Champeta Land is at its best when you listen to it all the way through. The album is a rapid and rich tapestry. Single tracks don’t do it justice. – Deanne Sole
39. Okkervil River – The Stage Names [Jagjaguwar]
The Stage Names recalls the best attributes of those self-important rock-star-blues albums of the ’70s (think: Neil Young’s On the Beach, Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty, or Joni Mitchell’s For the Roses) while avoiding the pitfalls. No matter how much you love those records — and, boy, do we ever — it can still be tough to identify with their woe-is-me whining about demanding tour schedules and unlimited impersonal sex with groupies. But whereas those records were predicated on the idea of massive fame as an isolating device, and of “the road” as a catch-22 of community and loneliness, The Stage Names is born of the more accessible frustrations of “some mid-level band” who’s “been driving too long”.
Austin’s Okkervil River have, with their fourth full-length, crafted a road record that manages to be unreserved in its confessionalism without being trapped by the irony of what Neil Young mournfully called the “love art blues”. And, part of the fun here is that frontman Will Sheff knows it: he playfully spies a “blonde in the bleachers” at one point, and even recalls Joni’s old fear about the dangers of holding “the hand of a rock ‘n’ roll man” for too long. Great songwriting, gorgeous melodies (“A Girl in Port” is arrestingly beautiful), clever allusions, and dedicated performances define this among the best rock ‘n’ roll records of the year. – Stuart Henderson
38. Battles – Mirrored [Warp]
It should have come as a surprise to no one when Battles went and released a debut full-length that completely trumped its impressive preceding EPs. Conjured of a bag of tricks befitting of band of multi-instrumentalists, Mirrored is an irresistible, spasmodic carousel of human virtuosity and technological mastery. The album saw the addition of vocals, but in reality Tyondai Braxton’s incomprehensible warbles are just another instrument to add to the colourful maelstrom. The real progress is in the structuring: Mirrored, both as an album and its individual tracks, just seems to flow, and this brings a degree of satisfaction previously just out of reach of the band’s prior work. Crafting a noisy, edgy, messy, but always intricately arranged record, Battles achieve the admirable feat of making indie kids dance while exhibiting technical brilliance in all quarters. – Chris Baynes
37. Terence Blanchard – A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina) [Blue Note]
Amazingly talented musicians abound in the jazz world, but only a precious few possess the cultural resources, political consciousness, and emotional depth to create a work of art as moving as Terence Blanchard’s A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina). Expanding on the hauntingly beautiful music he scored for Spike Lee’s HBO documentary When the Levees Broke, Blanchard captures the sound of sorrow distilled into mournful poetry. Ever present in his introspective blue notes are the people of New Orleans, those who survived the roaring waters, those the storm returned to the ancestral realm, and the yet unborn whose lives will be indelibly marked by this great disaster. Listen to the elegiac “Wading Through” or “Ashe” and you hear a New Orleans-born musician moved by a profound love for humanity and a deep understanding of the jazz spirit. – Claudrena N. Harold
36. El-P – I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead [Definitive Jux]
There are bigger things than hip-hop, something few hip-hop artists realize. What they forget is hip-hop’s birth as a movement in and around suffering. You could hear that suffering in Woody Guthrie’s talking-blues depression, the Bronx’s squalid open-air parties, the shots emanating from a white Cadillac on 7 September 1996, Eminem and MTV, and, if you ask me, the solo output and entrepreneurship of one Jaime Meline. No one has done more this decade to change the face and sound of hip-hop and to bring it back to its long-suffering roots than him.
I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is one of the most powerful records, hip-hop or otherwise, this year. It’s steeped in El-P’s usual post 9/11 dread, but it goes to emotional lengths that Fantastic Damage only played with. It’s a political record in that it reflects the times, but it doesn’t take sides. It may be bleak, but only because, as El-P says, he so badly wants happy – “We deserve that / Dream collapsing”. – Gentry Boeckel
35. Caribou – Andorra [Merge]
In Andorra, Daniel Snaith constructed an impressively ambitious album of sonic diversity, showcasing in equal measures his ability to explore broad horizons and his ear for a sublime melody — not to mention some enviable skills at the helm of a drum kit. A veritable kaleidoscope of sounds, at times rooted in ’60’s influences, at others, clever aural manipulation that is very much contemporary, Andorra‘s main strength is that it is equally comfortably trading in pared-down electronica as it is sun-kissed pop. Snaith’s snowy soft tenor is given more room to breathe than ever before, playing Beach Boy on “Melody Day” and choir boy on “Sandy”. But it is still deep within the mix of a compellingly complex and multi-layered array of sound — both organic and synthetic — that seems curiously befitting of a man with a PhD in Maths. – Chris Baynes
34. Animal Collective – Strawberry Jam [Domino]
The band previously known for its arch experimentalism made one of the year’s best, most inventive pop records. Strawberry Jam is not only Animal Collective’s most accessible record, it’s got to be in consideration for their best, as well. From the complex rhythmic interplay of “For Reverend Green” to the soft-eyed wonder of “Fireworks”, the Brooklyn group found over and over the perfect marriage of experimentation and pop explicitness. For this they may have taken over the reins of Radiohead in pushing and extending indie fans’ musical appreciation, making us all more sophisticated in the process.
At its heart, Strawberry Jam is a carefree celebration, it delights in the strangeness and wonder of the world, and in this is remarkably optimistic. Don’t be deterred by Avey Tare’s occasionally-screechy vocals — both they and the music has been much toned down from the band’s earlier, tribal/ noise work. Instead, Animal Collective have entered the rarefied territory of pop, bringing a new meaning to the word in their own weird, wonderful way. – Dan Raper
33. Wilco – Sky Blue Sky [Nonesuch]
Go ahead and pile on Wilco, as some have done, for not extending the Midwestern Radiohead comparisons and making Sky Blue Sky their Amnesiac. Do so, however, and you might overlook the quiet soul present in Jeff Tweedy’s voice or the newfound, albeit guarded optimism in his songwriting (most notably realized on “Either Way” and “What Light”). Also not to be ignored is that Sky Blue Sky presents compelling evidence that this Wilco lineup is the most versatile and gifted incarnation of the band to date, able to stop on a dime and completely alter the mood, tone and tempo of a given track. Leading the instrumental charge is guitarist Nels Cline whose work throughout the album is nothing short of transcendent. When Wilco’s history is written, Sky Blue Sky is doubtful to achieve the reverence of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot but it’s a worthy addition to the excellent canon. – Aarik Danielsen
32. Panda Bear – Person Pitch [Paw Tracks]
If ever there was an album that could, should we have to call on it, repel the forces of Satan from invading the warm, lush prairies of Earth, Person Pitch, the third solo effort by Animal Collective’s Panda Bear (nee Noah Lennox), would have to be it. Combining elements as disparate as dub, electronic, folk, and classic rock [insert Brian Wilson reference here], Person Pitch is a gorgeous, breathtaking record that works in effect to both uplift the spirit and transfigure it. From the cozy campfire sing-a-long of “Comfy in Nautica”, to the sheer ambient majesty of “Search for Delicious”, Lennox has single-handedly crafted that rarest of creatures: a pop album that is both experimental and deeply moving. A masterpiece, pure and simple. – Karl Birmelin
31. Shantel – Disko Partizani [Crammed]
With Disko Partizani and Shantel’s ProTools genius, the crowd enjoying the folk music of Romania continues to grow. Not wanting to repeat himself with a third edition of Bucovina, Shantel accomplished the most daunting task imaginable in this genre: making an accessible pop record with tubas, trumpets and dumbeks. Once again he has succeeded. Describing the process of production to be “like a movie”, the entire album plays out like a soundtrack to a life lived well. His concern for the vanishing traditional music of the Balkans created an emotional response that hits the hips and heart hard. And our response remains among the greatest of human pleasures: to dance. – Derek Beres
30. The Field – From Here We Go Sublime [Kompakt]
Leave it to a Swede to craft what is perhaps the most absorbing, quietly riveting electronic album of the year (they’ve ruthlessly conquered every other sector of popular music, so why not minimal techno?). Borrowing from sources as diverse as Lionel Richie (“A Paw in My Face”) and ’50s doo-wop quartet the Flamingos (the brilliant title track), the Field, a.k.a. Axel Willner, sculpts with surgical precision every track down to its marrow, to the point where From Here We Go Sublime almost sounds like an act of breathless obsession. The result is a hypnotic, mystifying album that dares to launch its listener directly into the sh… well you know. – Karl Birmelin
29. Patrick Wolf – The Magic Position [Universal]
Before releasing The Magic Position, Patrick Wolf was known for crafting records that were brooding and somewhat gothic. His albums were filled with a smoky mysticism, but their poeticism and musical experimentation helped propel Wolf to become a mysterious indie icon. On his third disc, Wolf shed his knack for murky electro-infused tunes and moved into a gutsy pop territory. The shift was unexpected, but the result was altogether gratifying.
The Magic Position is a blithe and fleshy body of work that shows just how capable Wolf is of translating his emotions into music. The record shines in both its emotive and melodic versatility, and though many of the tracks differ in their instrumental composition, they are all bound together by Wolf’s cryptic tones and bountiful romanticism. He can easily navigate his melodic terrain, whether it involves melding electronic buzzes, harp glissandos and an ebullient glockenspiel on the anathematic title track or crisp synthesizers and a subtle horn section on “Get Lost”.
But the album is much more than just a collection of fiery pop songs. There is outright theatricality and angst in the thumping drums and Wolf’s tenor voice on “Overture”, while the sweeping “Augustine” is painted with a more somber coating. The tracks on this deeply visceral record reveal Wolf’s newfound confidence, and if it is this type of attitude needed to make his music more accessible, then fans can only hope that this sunny streak of joy lasts long enough to enliven the next record. – Steven J. Horowitz
28. Jens Lekman – Night Falls Over Kortedala [Secretly Canadian]
Symphonic sampling and unapologetic schmaltz: few do it better than Sweden’s master songsmith Jens Lekman. Night Falls Over Kortedala, his second full-length, weaves tender tales of his hometown through borrowed snippets in his signature sprawling fashion. Unlike other sample-heavy albums, say Girl Talk’s brilliant Night Ripper, Lekman’s latest doesn’t draw particular attention to its appropriated parts. More than just a musical trivia game, though it is that, too,
Night Falls Over Kortedala uses recordings from the likes of Enoch Light, Willie Rosario, and the Tough Alliance to flesh out Lekman’s captivating rhythms and lovesick melodies. The resulting record combines the soul of ’60s Motown, the grandeur of Broadway show tunes, and the intimacy of a two-track folk record into an awe-inspiring package. Even the most unsentimental of listeners should find something to delight in. – Nav Purewal
27. Bettye LaVette – The Scene of the Crime [Anti-]
Neither Bettye Lavette nor the Drive-by Truckers are ones to mince words, so it’s no surprise that The Scene of the Crime is an aggressive, flinty, open-hearted record where even the ballads show no hint of meekness. Unsurprisingly, Lavette and the Drive-by Truckers reportedly butted heads during these sessions. The nice surprise is how well they meet in the middle: Lavette doesn’t try to rock like the Truckers, and the Truckers don’t try to be a Muscle Shoals session band.
Songs like “Before the Money Came (the Battle of Bettye Lavette)” and “I Still Want to Be Your Baby (Take Me As I Am)” find Lavette strutting over thorny, Stonesy guitars, while “You Don’t Know Me at All” does its thing atop a warm bed of keyboards courtesy of secret weapon Spooner Oldham. And Lavette’s cover of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Talking Old Soldiers”? Long before she wails, “how the hell do they know what it’s like to have a graveyard for a friend?”, the song belongs to Lavette and Lavette alone. Scene of the Crime doesn’t prop up a soul legend past her prime. This is a fierce meeting of the minds between vital, strong-willed artists. – Andrew Gilstrap
26. Feist – The Reminder [Cherrytree/Interscope]
What makes Feist great on this sensual and timely album has nothing to do with innovation, but with the way she synthesizes a number of important archetypes of the past several years: the modern chanteuse (Norah Jones), the indie pop star (New Buffalo), the avant-garde virtuoso (Joanna Newsom). Feist can’t compete with Newsom’s musicianship or Jones’ croon, but through careful songwriting she manages to do them both justice, and that in and of itself makes her a standout among all the one trick ponies in the industry. In a time when FM radio matters less and less every year, there is no honor more fashionable than being the voice of the iPod generation, so the fact that the album’s signature track “1234” accompanies that irresistibly hip Mini commercial certainly says something about how in touch the artist is with her time. – Jonathan Levin
25. SoCalled – Ghettoblaster [Jdub]
“Hey! You’ve got your chocolate klezmer in my hip-hop peanut butter!” What initially seems like a potentially disastrous, overly-kitchy pairing turns out to be a beautiful marriage in the hands of SoCalled (AKA Josh Dolgin). Blending the traditional music of Jewish cantors with streetwise, beat-heavy hip-hop, SoCalled skillfully weaves the two seemingly incongruous genres together, threading in a bevy of guest artists to help him realize his musical vision. Not limited to just klezmer and hip-hop, Ghettoblaster rounds things out with samples of snappy jazz, funk, and 90-year-old men dropping profanities in English and Yiddish.
On paper, Ghettoblaster gives off the impression of being a novelty act, however, Dolgin’s love for the music of both his Hebrew heritage and American heritage shines through on each of the disc’s tracks and makes this one such a heavy hitter. That’s not to say that Ghettoblaster maintains a steadfastly solemn approach. Quite the contrary. SoCalled imbues several tracks (“Heart Attack Feeling”, “Baleboste”, and the excellent “You Are Never Alone”) with self-deprecating humor, poking fun at himself while preserving a tremendous respect for every musical genre he throws into the melting pot. The light-hearted humor gracing the disc does so in a gently winking fashion that welcomes anyone, regardless of color or creed, to a world of insanely addictive music. – Lana Cooper
24. Dwight Yoakam – Dwight Sings Buck [New West]
With his new tribute album, Dwight Yoakam has given us Buck Owens back again, the young Owens, that is, whose music could set hay bales on fire. Yoakam was a fitting heir to Owens’ legacy. After migrating to Los Angeles following an unsuccessful stint in Nashville, Yoakam became a California rabble-rouser who sang country with rock ‘n’ roll in his belly. The Kentucky native grafted himself on to the Bakersfield sound, shaking up the moribund Nashville establishment with a string of chart-toppers in the ’80s and ’90s.
Most of the songs on Dwight Sings Buck are faithful recreations of Owens’ originals. Owens’ songs wouldn’t tolerate stiff, note-for-note duplication, however. Yoakam manages to sound like he’s channeling Owens at his peak, while his band eerily summons the spirits of Don Rich and the rest of the Buckaroos with classics like “My Heart Skips a Beat”, “Cryin’ Time”, and “Above and Beyond”. Yet Yoakam’s voice remains his own. And what a voice… it calls to mind the strangest paradoxes. He sings like a silky foghorn, soothing you to sleep at the same time he blasts you awake. He sings the way a chocolate-covered chili pepper might taste. – Lester Feder
23. Patty Griffin – Children Running Through [ATO]
Patty Griffin’s career arc — well, it’s more of a jagged line, if we’re being geometric — is a strange one. One that includes helping make the Dixie Chicks famous, watching as a fantastic record gets abandoned on the shelf by A&M, and putting out records of fairly astonishing consistency, few of which have anything to do with what’s come before. Children Running Through, Griffin’s seventh, boasts the usual array of stylistic detours, undertaken with what’s apparently an enviable lack of effort. Opener “You’ll Remember” is basically Griffin versus a stand-up bass, while “Getting Ready” finds her besting the roadhouse version of Sheryl Crow like nothing. But as usual, it’s Griffin’s cut-crystal voice that’s impossible to ignore. When it’s let free to wander on the flight-worthy ballad “Heavenly Day” and the gospel “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)”, all you can do is listen to it glide. – Jeff Vrabel
22. Pharoahe Monch – Desire [SRC]
When future archeologists unearth artifacts from 2007, or when visitors from distant galaxies collect information about us, I want “real hip-hip” to be represented. We should put Pharoahe Monch’s Desire in a time capsule or an intergalactic welcome basket, so generations to come, even if they are light-years away, can witness the skills: Pharoahe’s intricate but facile delivery, his wit and wordplay (“even if you were ashes you couldn’t urn/earn”), and his use of extended metaphor (“Free”, “When the Gun Draws”). Plus, Pharoahe Monch can sing, too!
Boasting production from the Alchemist, Black Milk, and Pharoahe himself, Desire heralds a zenith in hip-hop’s long-standing affection for genre-fusion, melding bits of gospel, rock, soul, hip-hop, and jazz. Loosely based on the concept of “freedom”, and its permutations in music ownership, self-concept, and politics, Desire disturbs the universe, breaks the time-space continuum, and delivers one of hip-hop’s favorite statements: We Were Here. – Quentin Huff
21. Of Montreal – Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? [Polyvinyl]
Should pop music be confessional and sincere, or flashy, flighty and larger-than-life? Why not all of these things? And throw in the mythological indulgences of ’70s rock, the sexual indulgences of Prince, and a cartoonish carnival vibe, while you’re at it. Hissing Fauna… is the dark, confessional epic of the year, with a 12-minute soul-savaging missive serving as the fulcrum at its center. It’s also the playful identity crisis of the year, a rock-pop-electro-funk-soul creature built of its creator’s neuroses and pleasures.
While Of Montreal has become more reflective of its founder Kevin Barnes’ personal idiosyncrasies, it has at the same time grown in stature, standing at the head of a host of cultural waves and conversations: rock versus pop, art versus entertainment, expression versus commerce, the past versus the future. Hissing Fauna… embodies, and thrives off, all of it. It’s an attention-grabbing theatrical extravaganza made from deeply personal source material. – Dave Heaton
20. Meshell Ndegeocello – The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams [Emarcy]
If the world made Meshell Ndegeocello the man of her dreams, she’s one hell of a man! Ndegeocello’s man is a damn fine musician, whose sphere of influence encompasses hip-hop, jazz, funk, soul, reggae, rock, and every tweet and gurgle in between. On Dreams, the amalgam ties together in a challenging package that’s neither pretentious nor self-indulgent. Rather, it’s a spiritual journey that blends spoken word and sensual, soulful melodies across a series of multi-layered meditations. Those meditations of life, love, and spirit are elevated to the heavens with grinding bass, swirling flutes, soaring guitars, and inspired drumming. Ndegeocello’s muse is not afraid to reach beyond what a single person could possibly grab. In his/ her exploration, s/he’s “just a soul on the planet / trying to do good / be good / feel good”. If Meshell Ndegeocello is the man of her dreams, we should all dream like she does. – Quentin Huff
19. Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga [Merge]
Though technically an indie band, Spoon manages to avoid the fickle trends and tuneless derision that plague Indiedom by draining fat and pretension from the rock ‘n’ roll nub, Foreman Grill style. Its sixth LP, the absurdly titled Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, is a stubbly and supple thing dedicated to champion grooves and the iconography of rock’s heart-in-mouth diction. Over a modest 36 minutes, the album offers judicious variety of both style and theme, reimagining Motown in one track and abstract minimalism in the next, taking insufferable politicos to task and then praising stylish accessories all within the span of five minutes. The album’s catchy first single, “The Underdog”, helped Spoon snag its debut in Billboard‘s Top 10, but Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is no mainstream compromise — this is what idiosyncrasy looks like when it’s polished and prettied. – Zeth Lundy
18. Rahsaan Patterson – Wines and Spirits [Artistry Music]
Rahsaan Patterson brings a painter’s palette of sounds and emotions to Wines and Spirits. It begins with bubbling funk (“Cloud 9”), ends with a swelling orchestra (“Stars”), and mines a fair amount of musical ideas in between. Patterson expands on the strengths of his past work with songs that represent the guiding principle of his life and art: he cannot nor will not be boxed in. The songs on Wines and Spirits are emboldened by different facets of Patterson’s musical personality while his inner-struggles are threaded through the grooves. The compass of his journey points in every direction. “Water” is dreamy and womb-like, “Oh Lord (Take Me Back)” churns on his gospel-rooted voice, and “Pitch Black” takes soul to the edge of rock. Wines and Spirits illustrates, definitively, why Rahsaan Patterson is one of popular music’s most intuitively creative artists. – Christian John Wikane
17. The Avett Brothers – Emotionalism [Ramseur]
Since their self-titled debut in 2000, the Avett Brothers have always held onto a certain level of modestly hard-working obscurity. Despite releasing four studio albums, two live albums, and an EP all in between rounds of continuous cross-country touring, packing themselves tightly in a van towards the next unassuming venue, the band has never exposed themselves above the greater musical radar.
That changed earlier this year however, when the North Carolina trio (comprised of brothers Scott and Seth, as well as friend Bob Crawford) hit a progressive high mark with their latest album, Emotionalism. While still blending the eccentricities of old-time country, bluegrass, and folk with an approachable pop/rock sensibility, it is Emotionalism‘s romantically rural storytelling, beautiful vocal harmonies, and rudimentary arrangements that transform its polished sandpaper sound into an unforgettable addition to the Americana canon. – Mike Hilleary
16. Talib Kweli – Ear Drum [Blacksmith/Warner Bros.}
Talib Kweli must be married to the microphone. The gifted wordsmith again weds dope lyrics by the mouthful to engaging beats, this time on the mellow tip. Like any marriage, Kweli’s Ear Drum is a lesson in balance: how to do what you love and receive love for what you do. Garnering near-universal applause for his work with Mos Def and Hi-Tek, 2004’s The Beautiful Struggle received a mixed reception. On Ear Drum, Kweli acknowledges that “you can’t please everybody”, before casting his wide lyrical net across subject matter as diverse as partying, spirituality, battle rapping, and critiques from fans. Among the guests, Kweli gets crunk with UGK, croons with Norah Jones and Justin Timberlake, and trades bars with Jean Grae and KRS-One. The mood is right and the rhymes are tight. No, you can’t be all things to all people, but there’s a reward here for the attempt. – Quentin Huff
15. Ha Ha Tonka – Buckle in the Bible Belt [Bloodshot]
A little bit country, a lotta bit rock ‘n’ roll, Ha Ha Tonka is 2007’s best band you forgot to download. While everybody was busy arguing about the degree to which an artsy Quebecois octet harnesses racial “miscegenation”, four white guys from the Ozarks rawked with enough soul to satisfy the stingiest of critical ears. Their website calls it “foot stompin’ indie rock”, but the latter distinction is merely a temporary technicality, unless you’ve still got room for Jack and Meg White in that cramped, insular little room. Ratings of 7s, 8s and 6.4s tend to speak louder with a slew of zeroes after them. – Josh Timmermann
14. The Good, the Bad & the Queen – The Good, the Bad & the Queen [Honest Jons]
The most surprising aspect of this newly assembled mood-pop collective is that its sound betrays the promise of its lineup: There are no upbeat Britpopisms from Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz), no bass guitar heroics from ex-Clash man Paul Simonon, precious few polyrhythmic intricacies from Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen, and Simon Tong, former guitarist for the Verve, doesn’t go near a riff. Even producer Danger Mouse keeps his distance from hip-hop branding. It’s as if each musician was instructed to play against type and focus his tunnel-vision on the creation of atmosphere, a hulking cloud of dreamlife that dissipates into terminal reality.
Songs like “Herculean” and “Kingdom of Doom” throb and pulse to the rhythm of the defeated, while “History Song” and “80s Life” are shot through, respectively, with hopeful rays of dub and doo-wop. It’s inverted pop music that reflects an erratic world, a song cycle for winters of the mind that pine for seasons of greater warmth. – Zeth Lundy
13. Lyle Lovett and His Large Band – It’s Not Big, It’s Large [Lost Highway]
Lyle Lovett’s 2007 recording is both dark and sweet, funny and deadly serious. It cops Count Basie one minute and the Blind Boys of Alabama the next: sleek and rough, spare and lush, fresh and traditional. It is, very possibly, his best recording, which makes it one of the best recordings by any American musical artist in the last ten years. Fans of Lovett and the Large Band know that it balances a horn section and a set of gospel singers, pedal steel and fiddle matched against plenty of funk.
The surprise on It’s Not Big, It’s Large is that the Large Band is used with a studious judiciousness, setting each song in as little music as it demands. Indeed, the genius of the record is how often it settles for less: fewer instruments, fewer melody notes, and even fewer lyrical conceits. It is a deeply economical record while remaining a “large” album by any standard. Like the really great American musicians such as Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong, Lovett deftly moves his music across boundaries without losing his own identity and message. His voice has that same American beauty, too: a rough elegance that hides its handsome confidence behind a charming, inimitable crookedness.
With It’s Not Big, It’s Large, Lovett cements his status as one of our best, a profound artist operating with a combination of indirection and sincerity, craft and emotion. As further proof that popular American songcraft is a thriving art, this seamless album is one for the ages. – Will Layman
12. Mike Farris – Salvation in Lights [INO]
Mike Farris was a stunner at this year’s Americana Music Festival in Nashville. We stumbled into his show, fleeing a mediocre show upstairs at the Mercy Lounge, not knowing what to expect from Farris at all. Well, I just about fainted from shock on the spot, thinking I was hearing a young Sam Moore belting pure Southern soul from the far-away stage. Farris is really that good. Vocally, he’s the heir to the soaring soul tenor of Moore, with his effortless and uttterly passionate delivery. His greatest strength is as a live performer, and he’s one of the finest I’ve ever seen.
Check out the YouTube clip of Farris singing “Green Green Grass of Home” at the Porter Wagoner tribute during the festival to see what I mean. Even singing solo with his guitar, his music has as much of a kick as when he’s belting out numbers with full band and gospel choir.
Salvation in Lights captures about half of that live powder keg, but that’s more than enough to make it a superb record. Ranging from straight-on gospel to blues and Stax-style soul, the record is grounded in Farris’ faith and his sublime musicianship. There’s a real New Orleans feel to the bulk of these tunes, as “Dixielandesque” horns pop in and out of songs, adding to the delightful Southern stew. – Sarah Zupko
11. Josh Ritter – The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter [Sony]
Josh Ritter’s 2006 effort, The Animal Years, was extremely good; it’s younger cousin is better. Among its many treasures, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter includes what may be 2007’s most perfect little moment, a swoony love story between two nuclear missile silo employees who fall in love while doing crosswords and awaiting the end of the world, possibly in that order: “‘What five letters spell ‘apocalypse?’ she asked me / I won her over by saying ‘WWIII,’ and we smiled and we both knew that she misjudged me.”
Elsewhere, Ritter shows off a mastery of piano-twinkly ’70s pop with “Right Moves”, which is as sunny and semi-goofy as the title suggests, and a raggedy, deceptively simple stomp in the Dylan-indebted “To the Dogs or Whoever” and the Clash-indebted “Mind’s Eye”, both of which show that in addition to everything else, Ritter’s tricks include allowing his characters and himself the occasional sad smirk, even if the world is ending. – Jeff Vrabel
10. Mavis Staples – We’ll Never Turn Back [Anti-]
Among songs like “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There”, the Staples Singers’ anthems of empowerment resonated for an entire generation. We’ll Never Turn Back is the heir to this legacy. Ry Cooder assists Mavis Staples with a set of “freedom songs” that inspired those on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. The album features Staples’ soulful renditions of traditional gospel songs arranged by Cooder. Forty years later, wars continue to rage and resolution seems but a distant reality. There’s no shortage of issues to protest and the voice of Mavis Staples is the perfect conduit to catalyze action. Though the album slipped slightly underneath the radar of mainstream, it is well worth experiencing, if only to hear how Staples’ voice emanates hope in the current maelstrom of malcontent. – Christian John Wikane
9. M.I.A. – Kala [Interscope]
Two years ago Ms. Arulpragasam’s debut Arular was one of the most vibrant debuts to come out in years, but as optimistic as we were when it came to the follow-up, nothing could prepare us for what M.I.A. had in store. Instead of playing it safe by serving up multiple continuations of “Galang”, the astonishing Kala flies directly in the face of convention, a violent, cacophonous, exhilarating collision of world music and cutting-edge production.
The myriad influences span the globe, including Africa, Sri Lanka, Australia, Jamaica, and India, not to mention clever doses of Western pop, all pieced together and infused with thunderous arrangements by producers Switch, Diplo, Blaqstarr, Morganics, and Timbaland. Whether it’s the faithful cover of Bollywood tune “Jimmy”, the aggressive “Bird Flu”, or the jaw-dropping sound-effects chorus of the Clash-sampling “Paper Planes”, the bold Technicolor of Kala renders Arular to mere monochrome by comparison. – Adrien Begrand
8. The Fratellis – Costello Music [Cherry Tree]
Costello Music is a fraternity house disguised as a utopian dream — all beer swilling, sticky floors and giving in to your inner sleaze with none of the dire consequences that come with the morning after. The Scottish trio ascended to ubiquity, if not fame, when “Flathead” was chosen as the tune to an iPod commercial. But the album deserves more notice than a 30-second sound bite. With rapid-fire guitars, the occasional barroom chant and lyrics that bring to mind a slightly less sloshed version of the Dropkick Murphys, the Fratellis are debauchery done right. Inspired by world events, even the most trivial artists are coming out with dour testaments to the times. Those missives may be rightfully inspired, but they also make an album full of (more or less) innocent fun all the more welcome. – Rachel Kipp
7. The National – Boxer [Beggars Banquet]
Dark brooding and evocative — though without ever laying literal meanings bare — the National’s fifth full-length turned a complex formula up several notches. Here, again, as on Alligator, were the murmured images, sensual melodies, and sudden classical flourishes, yet the whole enterprise sounded more intense. Drums were turned up louder, making rockers like “Brainy” into raucous simulacra of the band’s live show. Even smouldering ballads — “Slow Show”, for instance — were paced by wild galloping percussion.
Meanwhile, baroque intervals of brass, strings, and classical guitar flared and receded within this disc’s rock songs, yet never felt flashy or out of place. Matt Berninger’s deep, whispery voice made even the most commonplace observations sound romantic, but twisted listeners into knots with a declaration, “You know I dreamed about you / For 29 years before I met you.” Funny, I feel the same way about this record, as if I’d been waiting for it all along. – Jennifer Kelly
6. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible [Merge]
The second Arcade Fire album isn’t quite as stunning or personal as Funeral, their 2004 debut, but they’re still batting a thousand: two records and not a bum track between them. “Antichrist Television Blues” and “Windowsill” address post-9/11 unease (apparently Win Butler has crossed living in America and working in a downtown building off his to-do list), but it’s the energized majesty of “Intervention”, “Keep the Car Running”, and a resurrected “No Cars Go” that feel the most immediate.
The band’s recurring imagery summons equal dread and beauty — vehicles, oceans, and darkness all get a workout — before “My Body is a Cage” joins Funeral‘s “In the Backseat” as evidence that they rival Radiohead for album-closing acumen, download nation be damned. Indeed, one of Neon Bible‘s greatest strengths is its cohesion (even its minor flaws, like some too-easy lyrical rhymes, are consistent). It solidifies Arcade Fire’s status as rockers unafraid to go for broke, reach out, and prove that the indie rock tent can be as big and welcoming as anyone else’s. – Jesse Hassenger
5. Kanye West – Graduation [Roc-A-Fella]
It’s not really so much that the rapping on Graduation is brilliant — when Kanye West follows a poignant discussion of struggle in a relationship and the weight of expectations with the old, tried and true “How many ladies in the house?” line, you want to smack him. The production by itself isn’t anything to write home about either, as it’s obvious that the production of a few songs on both of Kanye’s previous commercial releases surpass anything on Graduation individually. There’s definitely no “Gold Digger” here.
Still, Graduation far surpasses both of those releases in consistency both on the level of the song layout (which, mercifully, is entirely devoid of skits) and construction. Nobody knows better than Kanye how to make Kanye’s rapping work with Kanye’s production, and Graduation is the defining example of that. Does he like to talk about himself? Sure. But when you’re talking about a man who can talk about himself with the sort of charisma and skill that Kanye does, all while setting it to the sorts of beats that are in Kanye’s repertoire, and those who hear him are forced to listen. – Mike Schiller
4. LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver [Capitol]
Five years after the novelty of “Losing My Edge”, Sound of Silver could stand as the pinnacle of LCD Soundsystem’s development, and if it was simply a matter of form, the album would still succeed with its blend of old influences and new directions. It’s more than stunning style, though, as James Murphy and band use their grooves to encase a greater emotional depth than that which they’ve previously reached (“Someone Great” being the obvious but not only example). Murphy also keeps his wit, most noticeably on the oft-quoted “Sound of Silver” lyrics. The album flows smoothly, and the year’s best single, “All My Friends”, can’t create a rupture. Edge firmly intact, LCD Soundsystem’s second album offers less a return to form, and more a surpassing of it. – Justin Cober-Lake
3. Miranda Lambert – Crazy Ex-Girlfriend [Sony]
Always a bridesmaid, etc: So long as that other young, blonde, Southwestern-raised product of star-making reality TV is gracing CMT countdowns and the CD shelves of your big box retailer of choice, ‘Ran is doomed to second fiddle status, the Jan Brady to Carrie Underwood’s Marcia. Of course, critics love her. We’re a sad lot of bridesmaids ourselves, famous in the small towns of the Interweb and marginal music message boards, while our perkier older siblings wax catty on E! and VH1. “Whether you’re late for church or you’re stuck in jail — hey, word’s gonna get around.”
In a banner year for country music of all stripes, critics’ country godmother Lucinda Williams released her best start-to-finish collection since Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Lambert, meanwhile, dropped the best country record, period, since Williams’ 1998 masterwork, or at least since last year’s Dixie Chicks record. Every track’s a classic or close, including the pair of covers that close it out — sequentially, an amped-up Patty Griffin scorcher and a heart-melting take on “Easy From Now On” in which moving on with life sounds anything but. – Josh Timmermann
2. Amy Winehouse – Back to Black [Universal Republic]
Let’s face it: the only reason Amy Winehouse gets more tabloid attention than George Jones or Shane MacGowan ever got is ’cause she looks better in a skirt. And yes, as both a blinkered genius and a self-destructive head case she belongs in their company. Back to Black is the year’s emotional gobstopper, a retro-futuristic concept album about infidelity and addiction by a woman who quickly transformed her own attempt at connubial bliss into a wincing public travesty.
These songs work best when they’re balanced between their sonic touchstones (your grandma’s first date) and the self-willed (selfish?) gamesmanship at their core. It helps that they’re either diapered in funky Kingston (circa 1967) or stabbed by Motown horns and tropes in all the right places. From the ubiquitous “Rehab” to the sublime “He Can Only Hold Her”, Winehouse’s tatted lust dap-walks back and forth between its tumescent goal and her own fragile water-balloon of a heart. If you enlarge her vivid dramas to include the real world, this record becomes a cultural milestone.
From “I cheated myself like I knew I would” to “He can only hold her for so long”, we’re looking at some serious emotional neoliberalism here: slippery, detached, profit-seeking. And in “Love Is a Losing Game” we finally hear the truth: love itself is not zero-sum, therefore unprofitable. Let’s just hope that among the many things Hathaway taught Winehouse, defenestration as a cure for depression isn’t among them. – Mark Desrosiers
1. Radiohead – In Rainbows [Independent]
Lost in all the hype, unique marketing strategies, and rants regarding its impact on the business aspects of music, many are overlooking the most important thing about Radiohead’s long-awaited seventh album, In Rainbows. Those who have wisely chosen to instead focus on the musical aspects of the release have gladly discovered that it is one of Radiohead’s most memorable albums to date, providing both senses of accessibility and innovation in what is arguably their most confident output yet.
The result is instrumentally and stylistically diverse; sweeping strings are heavily prevalent in melodic gems like “Faust Arp” and the epic conclusion in “Reckoner”, while intensity of both electronic and alternative proportions are echoed in the infectious “15 Step” and aggressive “Bodysnatchers”. But perhaps their most tremendous achievement comes in the beautiful “Nude”, a touching effort where built-up strings are released concurrently with Thom Yorke’s melodically domineering vocals. Though all ten songs on In Rainbows specialize in varying stylistic pursuits, Radiohead manages to maintain utmost cohesiveness in one of the best albums of their career. – Mike Mineo
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This article originally published on 20 December 2007.