(or, "My Top-something List that Somewhat Challenges the Critic's Choices")
Let's face it: 2007 was a kickass year for music. It seemed every month brought a new release, full of critical hype and commercial promise. While not all albums exceeded expectations (Wilco's Sky Blue Sky and Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga were mild disappointments) others were instantly recognizable as timeless gems. This was an incredible year for independent releases (Radiohead's critically-acclaimed In Rainbows), music festivals (Bonnaroo, SXSW, Coachella, Echo Project) and music-themed concept TV shows (HBO's Flight of the Conchords, some of the funniest songs ever delivered to the mass populace.) Yep, 2007's lasting legacy means 2008 has mighty big shoes to fill.
The problem with compiling a personal "Best of" list is that one's personal choices are too often tainted by the myriad critics whose opinions are biased by two obvious points: first, they have access to many more records (usually free) and tend to favor overproduced commercial hits over the true indie gems. Sure, I love the catchy hooks of the mainstream tunes as much as the next person (who hasn't tapped their foot or shook their money maker to the White Stripes, or downloaded an iTunes song after hearing it in a commercial?) but I still love rooting for the underdog, even musically. That's why my Top-something list varies slightly from the critics. I often wonder how critics choose their Top 10. Is it based on commercial success, overall popularity, or simply their own personal preferences? You rarely hear their reasons. When it comes to music, I judge based on 5 aspects:
- Does it move me? This is crucial. If it doesn't move me (to think, to drink, to sing along, to dance, or to cry) then it's not worth listening to. If at least one song doesn't inspire me to crank it & hit Repeat, it doesn't have a snowball's chance in Hell of making my Top 10 list. Music should elicit an active response, or it's just not worth hearing.
- Is it original? Music can be new but still sound like the hundred artists who inspired it. I want music that has its own unique sound. Or, if its influences are readily apparent, I want the artist to have put their own spin on it. Either way, if it's stale, I don't want it.
- Is it intelligent? Smart lyrics move me. Catchy melodies do, too. My favorite music has both hooks and heart.
- Is it multi-layered? Do I hear more than three chords and a drum? Does each listen reveal a new aspect of the production? Does the performer use more than 1 instrument and a verse-chorus-verse approach? The best albums of the year will answer "Yes" to each.
- Is it lasting? Is this timeless music, or simply a fad? How will this album stand up to all the others in my collection? Will this CD be on my "Desert Island" list? Will this album become one of the artist's career-defining releases, or a benchmark by which all future albums are compared?
Now that you know my selection criteria, allow me to share a few of my new music sources. Check out their complete lists to discover some great new music:
- NPR's "All Songs Considered"
- Paste magazine
- KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic”
Now, without further ado, here is my Favorite Music of 2007:
20. Amy Winehouse – Back to Black Say what you will about the notorious antics of this beehived, hard-drinking, wild-living British chanteuse: the chick has pipes. Listen to this album and try not to move. It's impossible. But be warned: you'll probably want a drink. Or four. Maybe it's the retro soul vibe, or maybe it's the artist’s trainwreck persona - either way, this is a kickin' album.
19. Ryan Adams – Easy Tiger Here's another troubled troubadour whose personal life often interferes with his performances. Adams is certainly not the male Americana version of Winehouse, but his mood swings on stage are legendary. Listeners always win when he channels that angst into his music. This album is more along the lines of his work with the Cardinals, a laid-back vibe that goes well with denim, beer and cigarettes.
18. Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga This album didn't have the instant appeal and hooky jangles of their last album, Gimme Fiction. It seems more produced. I wonder if Britt Daniel was overworked between this album and doing the soundtrack for Stranger Than Fiction. This is a great band to see live, and while not every song makes you dance, it's a solid collection.
17. Travis – The Boy With No Name OK, for starters, I’m a sucker for Scottish bands in particular and European introspective songsmiths in general. Travis lead singer Fran Healy consistently delivers pathos-tinged pop songs suggestive of broken hearts and disappointments. This sunnier release shows why they’re often imitated by the likes of Coldplay and Keane.
16. Tori Amos – American Doll Posse This wasn't on anyone's Top list this year. As with any Tori release, its content appeals to a slightly narrower, left-of-mainstream audience. This concept album continues where her 2001 CD Strange Little Girls left off: with 5 distinct personas who deliver a broad range of music. The album itself is not her best collection of work, but any true Tori fan will appreciate the originality of the content. And her tour was one of the best I saw this year.
15. Crowded House – Our Time on Earth This 80s band still has the same sound despite losing a band member and changing producers on this comeback release. Neil Finn collaborated with Johnny Marr (now of Modest Mouse fame) and the Dixie Chicks, which gives this CD a fresh sound. This album doesn't have the classic hits like with their earlier catalog (such as Woodface or Temple of Low Men) but the Beatles-esque harmonies still fit the listener's ears like a custom-made glove.
14. Peter Bjorn and John – Writer's Block As an indie band from Sweden, you know you've made it when Kanye West samples your whistling melody on his latest CD. This trio (like their Stockholm-based compatriots, Shout Out Louds) makes catchy, 60s-era pop that infects your brain and makes you long for sunny days and long drives in a convertible with no particular destination. It's fun music. It's smart and savory. This is another group on the mainstream radar now due to the inclusion of their work ("Young Folks") on the Grey's Anatomy soundtrack. Check 'em out if you haven't already.
13. Angelique Kidjo – Djin Djin This is another album that flew under most critic's radars. It garnered some attention when it was released, because it is primarily a collection of duets with music's top performers - Ziggy Marley, Joss Stone, Carlos Santana, Josh Groban, and Peter Gabriel, among others. Kidjo hails from the African country of Benin, and her music evokes an earthy, regional vibe unlike anything you've probably heard. Her duets with English-speaking artists blend east and west with beautiful harmonies and powerful results.
12. Wilco – Sky Blue Sky Some fans loved this one; some critics panned it. Despite the somewhat negative reviews ("too mellow" is what most claim) it's still Wilco. Yes, it's Wilco-lite. Considering that Jeff Tweedy went thru rehab after making A Ghost is Born, it's easy to see why this one is mellower.
11. Feist – The Reminder Leslie Feist is one talented singer/songwriter. Her third release certainly got a commercial boost when Apple used her "1-2-3-4" song in their iPod Nano ad. And it didn't hurt when TV's Grey's Anatomy used "My Moon, My Man" in an episode and featured "Sea Lion Woman" (which sounds like she's channeling Nina Simone) on their latest soundtrack. Feist was deservedly ubiquitous in 2007. She is one of those rare artists who bridges the gap between indie and mainstream, appealing to both and disappointing neither.
10. Editors – An End Has a Start Any band who is favorably compared to Joy Division, Coldplay, and Echo and the Bunnymen instantly gets my attention. This band is more than hype, more than the sum of its introspective lyrics and minor key power hooks. Although this album was overlooked on several critic's lists (save for KEXP) I found it to be refreshing musical journey. It's ideal winter music: lush melodies married to slightly bleak lyrics that linger long after the album concludes ("all you can hope for is the love you felt to equal the pain you've gone through" or "your face in my hands is everything good I need.") It's cold, cloudy-day music that the English do best. It's what you listen to when you can't muster up enough energy to be angry, so you reflect in pensive solitude. It's the musical equivalent of a trip to the therapist's office, only you never have to leave home. You won't be cured of what ails you when the album is over, but you'll feel like you've made progress.
09. Andrew Bird – Armchair Apochrypha Some artists possess indie cred; others generate it. Bird is the latter. If you haven't discovered his eclectic blend of literate adult-alternative, swooning vocals and musical craftsmanship that far surpasses his peers, then make haste to your favorite downloading service and buy this CD. Now. It's that good. Andrew Bird is one of music's premier lyricists. This Chicago native has an "outside-the-box" songwriting style (think Sufjan Stevens in grad school, hanging out with poets in jazz bars) but with the vocal range of Rufus Wainwright and the understated elegance of Leonard Cohen all rolled into a thirtysomething-aged package of self-effacing talent and charm. Critics and fans love this guy for a damn good reason.
08. Richard Thompson – Sweet Warrior It is a travesty when one anti-war protest song overshadows a fine body of work from an artist of such incomparable talent. Thompson’s Iraq-inspired “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me” (referring to Baghdad) received so much publicity when this album released that few critics praised the beauty of the other song lyrics. “Poppy Red” is a touching widower’s tale; “Guns are the Tongues” is a classic Thompson storytelling epic dealing with the timeless themes of love and war. One of the world’s finest guitarists showcases his skills on this CD. After more than 35 years in the business, he still lights a musical fire.
07. Iron & Wine – The Shepherd's Dog Indie folk-rocker Sam Beam is a consummate storyteller who creates music with an artist's deliberate, skilled touch. I wondered if his recent move from Florida to Austin, Texas (the reigning capitol of folk-rock hipness) and his use of a band instead of his usual minimalist acoustic backup on this album would make it sound more country than indie. No fears here. Beam's singable melodies and poetic verses are in top form. These tunes weave themselves into your head ("White Tooth Man" and "Boy with a Coin" especially) with a cadence perfect for walking down a dusty, two-lane road in sweltering summer heat while searching for a cold beer. Beam's music is the ideal soundtrack for those occasions when you've got time aplenty for pondering life. These are summertime travelling tunes, and fine ones at that.
06. The Frames – The Cost Irish singer/songwriter Glen Hansard may have finally found stardom thanks to his appearance in the rock musical Once (now out on DVD). While his band, The Frames, are possibly more famous in Ireland than U2, their U.S. fan base has been minimal. Hopefully this album will create new fans. The Frames create moving music that softly caresses your ears while holding your heart tight. It leaves an indelible mark. Songs like "Rise" draw you in and take you on a musical journey, with soft piano that crescendos with fiddle into a typically Irish plaintive wail and return you to a peaceful end. This is the simple beauty of a Frames album: Hansard (and band) guides you through a musical world of sweeping plateaus and heartbreaking valleys. Each listen is a journey that leaves you wanting more.
05. Modest Mouse – We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank This album is the closest I will ever come to having drinks with lead singer Isaac Brock and The Shins' James Mercer, who lent his vocals on a few tracks. This is dense, smart pop, with lots of life and plenty of bite. It's hard to find fault with the inclusion of The Smiths' Johnny Marr, even if it was one of the more improbable pairings of 2007. This is the band's fifth CD and a solid Top-10 inclusion on lists of critics and fans.
04. The National – Boxer Even though Paste magazine plastered these guys on their year-end cover with a glowing review, I still can't rank them any higher than #4. It's not that they aren't an incredible group with one of the very best albums of the year - it's just the other Top 3 met more of my criteria. The National deserves your attention if you haven't heard this (or their three earlier albums) yet. They are easily the best band you’ve never heard. Remedy that, pronto.
03. The Shins – Wincing the Night Away Music should be fun. Music should entertain without insulting the listener's intelligence. The Shins know this, which makes this album such a delight. As with their previous releases, Wincing has all the catchy hooks that make you sing along. This is a musical smorgasboard with a song for all tastes. Even their videos are smartly quirky and fun. Now if only they would bring in Kevin Spacey for a cameo since he's a dead ringer for James Mercer.
02. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible This would be the album of the year if not for the fourth-quarter release that topped it. What praise can I heap on this band that hasn't already been showered by a thousand critics elsewhere? Quite simply, they are genius. And this is only their second full release. They've got multi-layered sound unlike any other - seriously, how many other bands feature a pipe organ and a hurdy gurdy? Leave it to this Canadian husband-wife duo to create a unique blend of infectious, intelligent art rock.
01. Radiohead – In Rainbows You had to be living under a rock to escape this history-making release. Some fans legally downloaded it for free; others (like me) paid the iTunes equivalent of a buck per song. I feel it’s worth more. This is one of Radiohead's more mellow works, but it's not sonic drivel. It's lush in its atmospheric scope and truly entertaining from start to finish. Even though some of the songs have been around for years, this is more than just a Radiohead CD for fans. This is a must for any music lover who appreciates innovative ingenuity and beautiful songs. It helps if you’re already a fan of Thom Yorke’s vocal acrobatics. But if you’re not, this album might convert you.
Honorable Mention: José González – In Our Nature, Interpol – Our Love to Admire, Avett Brothers – Emotionalism, Shout Out Louds – Our Ill Wills, Bright Eyes – Cassadaga
Favorite New Music Discoveries: Pela, Vampire Weekend, Yoav, !!!, Yeasayer, Earlimart
Music I Tried to Like but Didn't/Don't/Probably Won't: Animal Collective, Jens Lekman, Kings of Leon, Beirut, Battles, M.I.A.