“Not good.” Any serious reflection upon the year in music naturally leads towards that two-word assessment. Another blurb that summarizes the direction of music during this year is “digital download.” This wasn’t the year that MP3s finally outsold CDs, but it did become increasingly apparent that downloads are affecting the way artists approach the creation of albums. Does the death of the compact disc signal the death of the full-length album? It certainly seems that more and more releases feature a few good songs, surrounded by a whole lotta nothin’.
A few bands – most notably Arctic Monkeys – have made noise about forgoing albums altogether and simply releasing their music as a series of singles. In a digital download world where most listeners never even purchase tracks 8 or 9, why spend the time and money to create them? This model makes even more sense as it becomes increasingly clear that album sales aren’t the golden goose they used to be. Madonna and Nine Inch Nails recently signed high-profile deals based around touring and merchandising. Radiohead used digital downloads to essentially give their new album away to fans and allow those fans to determine the value of the album. What’s an album worth in 2007? If you spent much time with your ear to the ground this year, you know the answer is “not much.”
Here are some albums that defied the prevailing trend, and rocked from start to finish…
The 20 Best Albums of 2007
20) Battles * Mirrored – An album of titanium-tipped beats that blast at the very structure of your skull, Mirrored is the work of a supergroup of musicians that includes longtime Helmet drummer John Stanier. While most bands are using technology to make their instruments more musicial, Battles are busy using their instruments to make their music sound more technological – and creating songs that don’t sound remotely like anyone else.
19) Jay-Z * American Gangster – As head of Def-Jam records, it’s amazing that Jay-Z has time to make any album, let alone a stone classic like American Gangster. Inspired by an advance screening of the Denzel Washington movie of the same name, Hova rips through a series of bumping rhymes that nod to blaxploitation-era Curtis Mayfield, while staying within his well-worn philosophy. Slinging bags and slinging albums? It all comes down to handling the delivery.
Listen: Roc Boys (And The Winner Is)…
18) The Budos Band * The Budos Band II – The best-kept secret of 2007 came blasting out of Staten Island with a series of funked up instrumental jams that just don’t quit. This 11-piece band builds funky groove after funky groove, working an afro-soul vein that yields plenty of wicked pleasures. Budos Band II is the instrumental album that the Beastie Boys wish they’d released this year.
Listen: Chicago Falcon
17) Black Francis * Bluefinger – Charles Thompson/Frank Black/Black Francis has been softening up over the course of his last several albums, taking a detour through Nashville, and creating plenty of adult comtemporary pop. So it’ll be a big relief to Pixies fans to hear his latest effort – an all-out return to the knife-edge histrionics that made his former group so compelling. Bluefinger doesn’t all kill, but what does is dangerous stuff indeed.
Listen: Captain Pasty
16) Black Lips * Good Bad Not Evil – These buzzing fuzzologists created one of the best trips of the year. The only question is, what year? Complete with swirling guitars, backward masking, and shouted vocals, the entirety of this album sounds like it was lifted from the legendary Nuggets compilation. Far out and right on…
Listen: It Feels Alright
15) 1990’s * Cookies – This Scottish trio kick out the jams on their infectious, fully-realized debut Cookies. Combining a propulsive post-punk sound with a series of catchy hooks and choruses, this is an album good enough to have you pumping your fist in the air on the first listen. All it needs it just a little more cowbell…
Listen: Is There A Switch For That?
14) Rilo Kiley * Under The Blacklight – Right down to its name, this album is a blatant tribute to the sounds of the 70’s. Rilo Kiley has wrapped confessional tales of heartbreak and excess in so much aural cotton candy that you can’t help but tap your toes and sing along. No wonder they keep getting compared to Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac.
Listen: Silver Lining
13) White Williams * Smoke – If Generation X found itself trapped in that creepy hotel from The Shining, this would be the ballroom soundtrack. The loping beats and off-kilter lyrics are reminiscent of Midnite Vultures-era Beck – it’s electronica tarted up with guitars, vintage synthesizers and plenty of smart attitude. Joe Williams may be white, but there’s nothing vanilla about his sound.
Listen: Going Down
12) Spoon * Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga – This is the album Spoon has been building steadily towards over the last decade. There have been a lot of great individual moments on their past albums, but here the group revels in horns and handclaps, sounding like a Stax/Volt reincarnation, and creating nothing less than the best blue-eyed soul album of their generation. At this point Spoon is a major label band merely masquarading in Indie clothing.
Listen: You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb
11) Queens Of The Stone Age * Era Vulgaris – Like the worn record ring on the album cover, QOTSA are an anachronism from another age. In 2007 hardly anyone plays straight-up Rock&Roll, but Josh Homme is a true believer, and keeps pumping out great riffs with regularity. ‘3’s & 7’s’ ‘Sick, Sick, Sick’ and ‘Make It Wit Chu’ prove that you don’t have to accept Rock that’s been watered down with a bunch of hyphens.
Listen: Make It Wit Chu
10) Robert Plant & Alison Krauss * Raising Sand – Plant & Krauss weave their voices together in a tapestry of sound that is filled with warmth and heart. T-Bone Burnett’s flawless production wraps their voices in digital effects and plenty of space, creating an atmosphere that is at once eery and comfortable. Plant is forgoing a tour with his former bandmates in Led Zeppelin so that he can tour with Krauss. Which sounds crazy, until you have a listen to the graceful melodies of Raising Sand.
Listen: Rich Woman
9) Paolo Nutini * These Streets – On his debut album, this 19-year old Scot showed he’s got the voice of a man. In spots his lilting brogue calls to mind an early 70’s Van Morrison, even if his songwriting abilities aren’t quite yet up to that comparison. The upbeat songs are the highlights here, but Nutini shows a deftness of touch and feeling on ballads like ‘Autumn’ and ‘Alloway Grove’ that belies his youth, and bodes well for the future.
Listen: New Shoes
8) Pink Martini * Hey Eugene! – Pink Martini may not garner rapt critical attention, but make no mistake – this is a band that has arrived. This 15-piece, self-dubbed “little orchestra that could” features the blazing talent of lead singer China Forbes, who holds forth with an incandescent voice that is part torch-singer and part torch. On Hey Eugene!, the band moves through many instruments, languages and styles, creating a sound that is at once completely retro and totally fresh.
Listen: Hey Eugene!
7) LCD Soundsystem * Sound Of Silver – Party on, Garth!
Listen: All My Friends
6) Radiohead * In Rainbows – The “choose your own price for the download” method of delivery netted the band more than two million dollars and untold notoriety, but it’s the songs that really count here. A solid album from start to finish, In Rainbows avoids much of the recent experimental noodling that has put off more casual fans of the group. While not necessarily a return to the form of OK Computer or Kid A, it’s certainly the most accessible album the group has made since either of those masterpieces.
Listen: Jigsaw Falling Into Place
5) The National * Boxer – In 2007, the finest proponents of Brit-Pop came from Brooklyn by way of Cincinnati, OH. The National’s fourth album finds the group building on the momentum of 2005’s excellent Alligator without losing any of the existential dread that made that album so memorable. Matt Berninger’s lyrics are cryptic and intensely personal slices of melancholy, set against musical vistas that are as wide as the Manhattan skyline. Boxer is a monumental album built from a million and one nagging cares.
Listen: Mistaken For Strangers
4) Iron & Wine * The Shepherd’s Dog – The first several notes sound like they’re coming through a tinny radio, teasing at Sam Beam’s lo-fi, man and a guitar sound. Then The Shepherd’s Dog bursts into full bloom – awash in sonic flourishes that enhance Beam’s sound and purpose. Definitely not the kind of album that Sub Pop cut its teeth on, this is carefully crafted psychedelic folk that is both beautifully lush and soulfully spare.
Listen: Boy With A Coin
3) Amy Winehouse * Back To Black – In an era of pitch-corrected and overly digitized music, Amy Winehouse is a welcome throwback. Her songs reflect her real life struggles with life and love, and she’s been an irresistable train wreck for tabloids everywhere, but that sideshow shouldn’t overshadow the music on Back To Black. A timeless collection of songs that sound better with every play, it shows Winehouse to be a diva in every sense of the word. The question isn’t whether this woman has skills, it’s whether her dangerous liasons will dim her bright talent before she can make another classic album.
Listen: Back To Black
2) Various Artists * I’m Not There Soundtrack – Where Bob Dylan cements his status as the most influential musician of all-time. Sure, the argument’s been out there for some time, but hearing 33 covers by a variety of contemporary artists brings home that Bobby D. will have sway over musicians for as long as song continues. Sonic Youth, Iron & Wine, Mark Lanegan, Jim James, Cat Power, Antony & The Johnsons, Los Lobos, and many more don’t so much cover Dylan as he covers them, encompassing all of their styles within the breadth of his ouvre. In this context it’s easy to see how far the onetime Robert Zimmerman’s influence really reaches – to the horizon of music. The fact that Richie Havens and Willie Nelson nearly steal the show only adds to an incredible package.
Listen: Tombstone Blues [Richie Havens]
1) Zeph & Azeem * Mixed Messages (official ‘Rise Up’ mixed tape) – Poetry slam champ and former Spearhead protege Azeem deserves a new handle: most underappreciated rapper in the world. Released as a promotional add-on to Zeph & Azeem’s new album Rise Up, Mixed Messages collects B-sides, remixes, outtakes and more onto perhaps the finest hip-hop album of the last decade. This tour-de-force features a buffet of tasty samples, including Latin horns, disco strings, and Pink Floyd. Throw in Azeem’s world class rhymes, which touch on everything from global tourism to the Illuminati, and you’ve got a monster album that flows from top to bottom like the Mississippi river, and demonstrates how relentlessly inventive hip-hop might sound in a world without overly restrictive copyright infringement laws.
Listen: Don’t Quote Me (Xclusive)
Listen II: What If (Xclusive Remix)
The next 10…
Neil Young * Chrome Dreams II
Ministry * The Last Sucker
Justice * †
Kanye West * Graduation
Digitalism * Idealism
Band Of Horses * Cease To Begin
Arctic Monkeys * Favorite Worst Nightmare
The Hives * The Black & White Album
Andrew Bird * Armchair Apocrypha
Ween * La Cucaracha