The Best Singer-Songwriter Albums of 2007

Michael Keefe
Richard Thompson

What unites these artists is an individual presence -- a voice -- that is powerful enough to carry an entire album without retreating to the cozy confines of a band.

Music trends may come and go, but one constant is the presence of the singer-songwriter. Whether a 13th century minstrel or a 1960s protest singer, the lone musician has been setting word to song for a very long time. The singer-songwriters of 2007 continue that tradition while expanding the influences in their works. They combine elements of folk, rock, country, and jazz, and hints of world music, into the tunes they compose. What unites them is an individual presence -- a voice -- that is powerful enough to carry an entire album without retreating to the cozy confines of a band. Sure, all of these artists play with other musicians, but they aren't called backing bands for nothing. The leaders have their names on the CD covers and are telling the stories they want to tell. They stand out. In 2007, these are the 10 singer-songwriter albums that stood out from the pack.

Artist: Richard Thompson Album: Sweet Warrior Label: Shout! Factory Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/t/thompsonrichard-sweetwarrior.jpg US Release Date: 2007-05-29 UK Release Date: 2007-05-28

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Sweet Warrior is the consummate Richard Thompson album, featuring excellent examples of all the styles of music he has played over the years. There are wry rockers, bittersweet ballads, strains of British folk, and the fluid guitar interludes that have made Thompson an understated god of the six-string. He's also a fine wordsmith, whether adopting the mindset of the troops fighting in Iraq in "Dad's Gonna Kill Me" ("Dad" being short for Baghdad), or taking a darkly comic look at how to mend his soul with "Needle and Thread". Whatever the message or the mood, the songs on Sweet Warrior are uniformly strong. His best record this decade, this immediately appealing disc is among his most accomplished.

Richard Thompson - Dad's Gonna Kill Me

Richard Thompson: Sweet Warrior

Artist: Ry Cooder Album: My Name Is Buddy Label: Nonesuch Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/c/cooderry-mynameisbuddy.jpg US Release Date: 2007-03-06 UK Release Date: 2007-03-05

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List number: 2

Over the past couple of decades, Ry Cooder has largely subjugated his own musical identity in order to produce and promote an incredible array of artists and styles from around the world. On My Name Is Buddy, Cooder returns to the crafts of writing and singing songs. Paying tribute to Depression-era pro-labor union folkies, Cooder has created the tale of a cat, Buddy, who's looking for a scrap to eat during hard times. The influences of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie permeate this record, but Cooder has pulled in many other sounds, too, like the tin whistle of the Chieftain's Paddy Maloney and accordion of tejano master Flaco Jimenez. Although long-time fans might miss his slide guitar playing, My Name Is Buddy is Ry Cooder's best album since the mid-'70s and a delight for all.

Ry Cooder - Goodnight Irene (with Flaco Jimenez)

Ry Cooder: My Name Is Buddy

Artist: Eleni Mandell Album: Miracle of Five Label: Zedtone Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/m/mandelleleni-miracleoffive.jpg US Release Date: 2007-02-06 UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 3

Perennially under-appreciated singer-songwriter Eleni Mandell's sixth album, Miracle of Five, is her subtlest and best work yet. From the first a capella seconds of "Moonglow, Lamp Low", the scene is set. Mandell has largely left behind her country roots, and the lovers she portrays are no longer true. They're just two broken-hearted strangers, sharing the last slow dance of the night. Torch-singing crosses with sad '50s pop and, yes, a bit of vintage country balladry. Eleni gently purrs every note, keeping Miracle of Five quiet and unassuming. But her songwriting is too good to ignore. Along with the excellent opening track, the sly "Girls" and the dreamy "Make-Out King" feel like covers of old-time classics, but they're 100% Mandell. With this shy little album, Mandell might not be begging you to listen to her music, but I am.

Eleni Mandell - Girls

Eleni Mandell: Miracle of Five

Artist: Sarah Borges Album: Diamonds in the Dark Label: Sugar Hill Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/b/borgessarah-diamondsinthedark.jpg US Release Date: 2007-06-12 UK Release Date: 2007-06-18

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With the opening rockabilly riff of lead single "The Day We Met", it's clear that Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles are going to deliver some hooky, country-fied tunes on their sophomore album, Diamonds in the Dark. As catchy as that cut is, the retro-'60s gold of "Stop and Think It Over" has it beat. Borges's snap-crackle-and-poppy version is even better than Mary Weiss's. Elsewhere, Borges and the boys set fire to her own "Lonely Town of Love" before sliding into pure country on "False Eyelashes". Then the Broken Singles create a canyon-full of Americana atmosphere for their pretty interpretation of Tom Waits's "Blind Love". Borges's twang is sweet and supple, and her dedication is infectious, whether to her own material, X's "Come Back to Me", or Canned Heat's "Open Up Your Back Door". With the compelling Diamonds in the Dark, Sarah Borges shows why she should be a star.

Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles - The Day We Met

Sarah Borges: Diamonds in the Dark

Artist: Nick Lowe Album: At My Age Label: Yep Roc Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/n/nick-lowe-atmyage.jpg US Release Date: 2007-06-26 UK Release Date: 2007-06-04

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List number: 5

1970s pub rocker and Elvis Costello pal Nick Lowe has become something of a country gentleman in his later career, but he hasn't lost his pop sensibilities or his acerbic wit. At My Age continues the Americana trend Lowe began with 1988's Pinker and Prouder Than Previous and which he cemented on 1994's excellent The Impossible Bird. This new album is a tuneful collection of songs with an early country feel, often recalling the stylishness of the unheralded Floyd Tillman. Lowe comes off like a class act, but he shows his sinister streak on "I Trained Her to Love Me". Later in the album, Lowe reveals his humble side by proclaiming, "If even I can find someone / Then there's hope for us all". Mixing sly humor, tenderness, and treachery, Nick Lowe is still the Jesus of Cool.

Nick Lowe - I Trained Her to Love Me

Nick Lowe: At My Age

Artist: Lucinda Williams Album: West Label: Lost Highway Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/l/lucinda-williams-west.jpg US Release Date: 2006-02-13 UK Release Date: 2006-02-19

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List number: 6

Sweetly sour-voiced singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams's latest, West, is a brooding album. She sounds pissed-off at times, soul-crushed at others. Eclectic producer Hal Wilner and his buddy, beyond-jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, accentuate Williams' beautifully bad mood with perfect string arrangements and silvery atmospherics, lending this disc a unique sonic timbre. Some of her hardcore followers probably won't know what to make of West, but it's an excellent meditation on, with occasional outbursts against, loss, betrayal, and the overarching stab of disappointment that follows both. It is a little dark, but a few easily likeable tunes will reel you in, and the rest will keep you hooked.

Lucinda Williams - Come On

Lucinda Williams: West

Artist: Joe Ely Album: Happy Songs from Rattlesnake Gulch Label: Rack 'Em Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/e/elyjoe-happysongsfromrattlesnakegulch.jpg US Release Date: 2006-02-06 UK Release Date: Available as import

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One of the three key members of super-group the Flatlanders and a superb Texas singer-songwriter with 30 years of solo albums under his belt, Joe Ely offers his best album since the latter half of the '90s, when his popularity peaked with Letter to Laredo and Twistin' in the Wind. On Happy Songs From Rattlesnake Gulch, Ely shows that his writing is as sharp as ever and his performances as impassioned. Though pigeonholed as a country artist, Ely's music ranges too wide for easy classification. This cracklin' good album boasts Southern-tinged rockers, boogie-woogie, swaying tejano, swampy blues, and an anthemic reworking of the legend of Bonnie and Clyde. Joe Ely infuses each track with vigor and swagger, making Rattlesnake Gulch one of his best.

Joe Ely - Gallo del Cielo

Joe Ely: Happy Songs from Rattlesnake Gulch

Artist: Patty Griffin Album: Children Running Through Label: ATO Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/g/griffinpatty-childrenrunthrough.jpg US Release Date: 2007-02-06 UK Release Date: 2007-02-26

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Patty Griffin has crafted yet another very fine album with Children Running Through, finishing her first decade of recordings on a high note. In his review earlier this year, Andrew Gilstrap observed of this record: ""Burgundy Shoes" reinforces Griffin's status as a lyrical time machine, recalling the sunny days and bus seats of childhood. Similarly, a pink dress catches the mind's eye in the Springsteen-folk of "Trapeze", the story of a woman who takes to the high wires rather than love...The brushed snares of "You'll Remember" evoke a smoky club, while the oblique, metaphoric bus trip of "Stay on the Ride" features funky horns, and the horns of "No Bad News" sound like Calexico slipped in the back door." My favorite is the roots rocker "Getting Ready". Patty Griffin is overflowing with strong songs. A dozen of these can be found on Children Running Through.

Patty Griffin - No Bad News

Patty Griffin: Children Running Through

Artist: Josh Ritter Album: The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter Label: Sony Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/r/ritterjosh-thehistoricalconquestsofjoshritter.jpg US Release Date: 2007-08-21 UK Release Date: Available as import

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Mixing Bob Dylan homages with indie-rock, Americana, and folk, Josh Ritter weaves his serpentine lyrics around his most musically adventurous set of recordings yet. Despite the variety of influences, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter holds together well as an album. The shadow of another great icon, John Lennon, falls across the poppy and piano-driven "Right Moves". The insistent rocker "Real Long Distance" features Neutral Milk Hotel-like off-kilter horns in a glorious bout of noise making. A few bits of filler cool off what is otherwise an excellent record, but The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter is still flush with great songs.

Josh Ritter - To the Dogs or Whoever

Josh Ritter: The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter

Artist: Rickie Lee Jones Album: The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard Label: New West Contributors: Rickie Lee Jones, Lee Cantelon, Peter Atanasoff Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/j/jonesrickielee-thesermononexpositionboulevard.jpg US Release Date: 2007-02-06 UK Release Date: 2007-02-05

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The always restless Rickie Lee Jones returns with The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard, a sprawling album that melds the chugging minimalism of the Velvet Underground with the twisting, turning explorations of the new freak-folk vanguard (Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, et al). Jones's sermon is obscure, and the path it takes is more like a winding lane than a wide-open boulevard, but that just makes the journey more intriguing. The album is meant to be absorbed as a whole, but catchy tunes like "Falling Up" and "Circle in the Sand" leap out of the mix. Those accustomed to her tidy pop songs may require a couple of listens to adjust to this disc, but the effort will be worth your while.

Rickie Lee Jones - Falling Up (live on David Letterman)

Rickie Lee Jones: The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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