The Best Albums of 2007

Artist: M.I.A.
Album: Kala
Label: Interscope
US Release Date: 2007-08-21
UK Release Date: 2007-08-20

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List number: 10

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

M.I.A. – Jimmy

M.I.A.: Kala

Artist: The Fratellis
Album: Costello Music
Label: Cherry Tree
Label: Interscope
US Release Date: 2007-03-13
UK Release Date: 2006-09-11

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List number: 9

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

The Fratellis – Chelsea Dagger

The Fratellis: Costello Music

Artist: Amy Winehouse
Album: Back to Black
Label: Universal Republic
US Release Date: 2007-03-13
UK Release Date: 2006-10-30

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List number: 8

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

Amy Winehouse – Back to Black

Amy Winehouse: Back to Black

Artist: The National
Album: Boxer
Label: Beggars Banquet
US Release Date: 2007-05-22
UK Release Date: 2007-05-21

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List number: 7

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

The National – Mistaken For Strangers

The National: Boxer

Artist: Lyle Lovett and His Large Band
Album: It’s Not Big, It’s Large
Label: Lost Highway
US Release Date: 2007-08-28
UK Release Date: 2007-08-27

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List number: 6

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

Video: South Texas GirlLyle Lovett and His Large Band: It’s Not Big, It’s Large

Artist: Arcade Fire
Album: Neon Bible
Label: Merge
US Release Date: 2007-03-06
UK Release Date: 2007-03-05

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List number: 5

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

MP3: Keep the Car Running

MP3: No Cars Go

The Arcade Fire – No Cars Go

Arcade Fire: Neon Bible

Artist: Kanye West
Album: Graduation
Label: Roc-A-Fella
US Release Date: 2007-09-11
UK Release Date: 2007-09-10

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List number: 4

It’s not really so much that the rapping on Graduation is brilliant — when Kanye 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

Kanye West – Stronger

Kanye West: Graduation

Artist: LCD Soundsystem
Album: Sound of Silver
Label: Capitol
US Release Date: 2007-03-20
UK Release Date: 2007-03-12

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List number: 3

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

LCD Soundsystem – North American Scum

LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver

Artist: Miranda Lambert
Album: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Label: Sony
US Release Date: 2007-05-01
UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 2

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 messageboards, 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

Video: Famous in a Small TownMiranda Lambert: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Artist: Radiohead
Album: In Rainbows
Label: self-released
US Release Date: 2007-10-10
UK Release Date: 2007-10-10

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List number: 1

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

Radiohead – Jigsaw Falling into Place

Radiohead: In Rainbows