Friday, December 28, 2007

The 20 Best Albums of 2007

So it's that time again. Year-end lists and all that good stuff. This past year was a pretty darn good one for music, if I do say so myself. From the propulsive, urgent return of The Boss and the defiant rock of a former American Idol star to the '60s-inspired blues of one messy Brit and the spritely musings of two twin lesbians, 2007 offered all kinds of great fodder for your iPod. Here, then, are my choices for the 20 best albums.

1. Bruce Springsteen: Magic (Sony)
No arguments here. The year's best disc came from one of our greatest rock and rollers of all time. Revitalized like he hasn't been since 1984's Born In The U.S.A., Sprinsteen reunited with the E Street Band and managed to crank out one of the best albums of his career. There's no denying that listeners can find traces of Darkness On the Edge of Town and The River on Magic, but even those classics don't hold a candle to the urgency that fuels this modern masterpiece. From the propulsive, urgent guitars that power opening track "Radio Nowhere" (one of the best rock songs of the last decade, period) to the Beach Boys-esque romance of "Girls In Their Summer Clothes" all the way to the tender "hidden" track "Terry's Song," Magic is the sound of an artist finding his way back to the limelight--and the sound of true rock and roll revisited.

2. LCD Soundsystem: Sound Of Silver (Capitol)
Indie rocker/label owner James Murphy may have gone "mainstream" by signing with Capitol Records, but his sophomore effort (the follow-up to 2005's more edgy LCD Soundsystem) retained every bit of the scrappy charm that we've come to expect from him. While "North American Scum" provided the dirty-rock anthem that we craved, tracks like the Human League-esque "Someone Great" and album centerpiece "All My Friends" (my pick for Best Dance Track of the year), this brillantly inventive and quixotic disc provided all sorts of sounds, the best of which were created for the sheer purpose of making you want to shake your bootay. And if you didn't, then Heaven help you.

3. Peter, Bjorn and John: Writer's Block (V2 Music)
Though many may be familiar with this trio's breakout hit, the painfully hip whistling anthem "Young Folks," there's a lot more to enjoy on this endlessly appealing record, the third from these mucho-talented Swedes. There's the grandeur of "Objects of My Affection," the New Order-meets-The-Shins romanticism of "Up Against the Wall" and "Paris 2004," the Brit-folk minimalism of "Let's Call It Off" and the grrovy psychedelia of "Chills." Throughout the CD, the sonic grooves are by turns moody, effervescent and challenging, but listen after listen, they continue to charm like few other songs managed to this past year. I actually didn't hear this album until the very end of the year, but I was so infatuated with the effortless hooks and hip retro vibe that I immediately deemed it one of the year's finest.

4. Radiohead: In Rainbows (Self-released)
Though much has been made of Radiohead's decision to make their latest album available via pay-what-you-will Internet downloads, not enough has been said about how good the music iteslf is. On recent albums (such as the painfully moody Kid A and its even more out-there follow-up, Hail to the Thief, Radiohead seemed more obsessed with creating a detached vibe of icy-cold electronica than they did with making music that people could actually relate to. Not since OK Computer has the band sounded this accessible. Some may scoff at the notion that music should be "dummied down" to appeal to the masses, but In Rainbows proves that you can make music that is both accessible and daring. One listen to album highlights like the dreamy "Nude" and "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" or the garage-rock bombast of "Bodysnatchers," and you'll likely clear your schedule for a week to immerse yourself in the wondrous splendor that Thom Yorke and company have to offer.

5. Amy Winehouse: Back to Black (Universal Island)
Though by year's end she had turned into the U.K.'s very own Britney Spears--that is, a loopy basket case with a substance abuse problem and a penchant for landing in the tabloids--Amy Winehouse started out the year by delivering one of 2007's most modern retro albums. With producer Mark Ronson onboard to whip her jazzy, Motown-by-way-of-Laurn Hill tracks into shape, Winehouse wowed us with both the ubiquitous "Rehab" and the even-better "You Know I'm No Good." She sang the blues on the somber "Love Is a Losing Game" and even managed to churn out one of the greatest female self-empowerment anthems with the sunny "Tears Dry On Their Own." Winehouse's equally fine (if not better) debut album, Frank, saw a release stateside in the latter part of the year, but this is the album that put this troubled talent on the map.

6. Duran Duran: Red Carpet Massacre (Epicc)
Springsteen wasn't the only notable "comeback" this year. Though they had struggled with retaining their relevance over the years, our favorite Double-Ds were back with almost the original line-up (guitarist Andy Taylor left the group after a falling out over the album's creative direction) and a new set of New Wave-meets-urban-hip-hop tracks courtesy of special guest producer Timbaland and his new best friend, Justin Timberlake. Red Carpet Massacre didn't return the band to their Top 40 heyday (the album debuted at No. 36 on the Billboard charts, and quickly fell off the radar), but it did prove to this music fanatic that there is life left in the old boys yet. I'm honestly flabbergasted that tracks like the funkified "Nite Runner" (featuring both Timbland and Timberlake on vocals) and the epic single, "Falling Down" (produced by Timberlake), didn't click with music buyers. Those tracks--along with the beguiling "Skin Divers" and "Tempted"--are nothing less than some of the best the band has ever recorded. Perhaps it's too much to expect that people will follow their childhood idols into adulthood (Madonna has certainly struggled with this same problem over the last few years), but for my money, there was no career move more risky and ultimately rewarding than the one that Duran Duran managed to pull off in 2007.

7. Kelly Clarkson: My December (RCA)
Speaking of the most risky career moves, Kelly Clarkson takes second place for her bewitching third record, My December, a bold and mature offering from the former American Idol princess. Clarkson got into a scuffle with label owner Clive Davis, who had allegedly scoffed at the album's "dark" themes, before the disc dropped, but the controversy surrounding their tiff didn't sustain album sales beyond its first few weeks. That's unfortunate, because My December is the best album of Clarkson's career. It's true that she explores some of her darker hours, including what she has called the lowest point of her life (album closer "Irvine"), her fears of ending up alone (the propulsive, brilliant "How I Feel") and a tough breakup (first single "Never Again"), but there is hope to be found among these gems. While the over-bloated "Haunted" creeps too near Evanescence for my tastes, the rest of the album reveals Clarkson to be a young woman of a continually evolving nature, and nowhere is this represented more poignantly than on the gorgeous ballad "Sober." On this stunning track, which builds from a whipser to a wail, she lays bare her emotions and proves once and for all that she is her own person. Clive Davis, "crossover hits" and album sales be damned; Clarkson has recorded a near masterpiece.

8. Mandy Moore: Wild Hope (EMI/The Firm)
The third riskiest career move of 2007 would have to be former pop tart Mandy Moore's parting from major label Sire Records to sign with EMI/The Firm in order to record a more sophisticated pop record. Like Clarkson, Moore was struggling with pressure to best her chart-topping glory days, but instead she shucked convention, hooked up with songwriters like Rachael Yamagata, Chantal Kreviazuk, Michelle Branch, Lori McKenna and indie-pop duo The Weepies, and co-wrote a batch of sunny pop tracks that hark back to female siner-songwriters such as Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell and Sheryl Crow. There's a refreshing sense of self-empowerment that flows through the record, from the "I-am-worthy" opening track (and first single) "Extraordinary" through the bittersweet breakup song "Looking Forward to Looking Back." There's also a sense of forgiveness; Moore dips into the self-righteous well only once, on the misguided second single "Nothing That You Are" (on which she tells an ex, "I hope you burn in Hell"--ouch!), but elsewhere, she finds a way to accent the positive on lustrous tracks like "Few Days Down," the pretty title track, and the album's gorgeous closer, "Gardenia." Elsewhere on the album, Moore asks "Can't You Just Adore Her?" on a track of the same name. After listening to this wonderful record a few times, the answer is an unequivocal and resounding yes.

9. Tegan and Sara: The Con (Sire)
Following 2004's breakthrough hit So Jealous was no easy task, but these twin lesbian sisters managed to record and release a fifth studio album that not only improved upon that record's indie-pop pleasures, but also cemented their reputation as two of the coolest chicks on the planet. So much of The Con is righteous, it's hard to pick what stands out, but you could certainly start with the jangly, urgent title track, the poppy post-breakup anthem "Back In Your Head," the desperate "Hop a Train" or the spendid "Burn Your Life Down." Guest artists on the record include Jason McGerr (Death Cab for Cutie), Hunter Burgan (AFI), Matt Sharp (The Rentals) and singer-songwriter Kaki King, but it's the Canadian siblings who stand alone-together in the spotlight, offering themselves in 14 tracks of pain and submission that qualify as some of the best of their career.

10. The White Stripes: Icky Thump (Warner Bros.)
It's almost too much to ask that a garage-rock-and-blues duo like the White Stripes could top themselves at this stage in their career. Six albums into a partnership that has already brought them much critical praise, comparisons to Led Zeppelin and several Grammy nominations (and a few wins), Jack and Meg White (still no relation; still not married) have churned out what is quite possibly the most focused record since their triumphant 2003 disc Elephant. It's certainly more streamlined than 2005's often brilliant but ultimately uneven Get Behind Thee Satan. Here, Jack and Meg stick to what they know best--exploring new ways of extending the Zeppelin sound without compromising their own identity along the way. The record's opening title track is among the grungiest of their canon, while "You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You're Told)" is their best sing-along-song since the Jackson Five-inspired "My Doorbell." "300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues" recalls the greatest Zeppelin ballads, while "Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn" is nothing short of a Scottish folk song remade for the modern age and the epic "I'm Slowly Turning Into You" provides Jack with this set's best opportunity to wail like Robert Plant--and he does. And there's "Rag & Bone," an insistent blues track that finds the duo humorously bantering about the usefulness of discarded items. All the Zeppelin comparisons are valid, of course, but the White Stripes are no mere tribute band. Indeed, they are as finely realized as a rock band in today's world can be, and their signature sound is still one of the best you're likely to find anywhere, anyhow.

11. Arctic Monkeys: Favourite Worst Nightmare (Domino)
Like the White Stripes, the Arctic Monkeys deliver propulsive power chords and attitude galore, mostly courtesy of lead singer Alex Turner. While I was not a fan of the band's 2005 debut record, I have since fallen head over heels for the more sophisticated sound found on this sophomore effort. Gone are the overwrought indie-rock histrionics that marred Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not; in their place are hooks and grooves that inspire people to sing along. Tracks like the pogo-stick-worthy "Teddy Picker" and the jaunty "Florescent Adolescent" reveal that Turner and company are students of randy pop rock, while "Only Ones Who Knows" reveals a softer side not previously heard from them. "Do Me a Favour" rocks out with understated percussion, while "This House Is a Circus" sounds like it takes its queue from Madness' "Our House." It's obvious that Turner and the boys have inspired other Brit bands like The Fratellis and even Scissors for Lefty (whose 2007 release, Underhanded Romance, is also one of my picks for the year's best), and with the more "in-tune" offering that is Favourite Worst Nightmare, it's not hard to see why.

12. Kristoffer Ragnstam: Sweet Bills (Bluhammock)
Let's hear it for those Swedes again. While Peter Bjorn and John were the trio to watch in 2007, Kristoffer Ragnstam was busy making his own waves as a solo performer. Being to Sweden as similarly inventive singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche is to Norway, Ragnstam composes jaunty, emotive indie-pop songs that burst out of him in fits and spells. A self-taught drummer, Ragnstam ensures that his records are full of percussion, and Sweet Bills, his full-length debut (following 2006's 5-track EP Do You Want a Piece of Me?), is a percussive dream. The songs (like first single "Breakfast by the Mattress," the somber title track and the slinky "Man Overboard") are sweet and sure in the best way--confident without being arrogant, sophistiated and intricate without being too arty and detached. 2007 was the year that Sondre Lerche got a major career boost after he was invited to compose tracks for the soundtrack to the film Dan In Real Life; let's hope that in 2008, somebody offers Ragnstam the same opportunity to get his name out there. This kid's the real deal.

13. Alicia Keys: As I Am (Sony)
Some might say that As I Am, Alicia Keys' super-sultry third album, represents the "selling out" of an individual talent in order to appeal to a wider market. Indeed, the tunes on this record are among the most accessible of Keys' career. Gone are the difficult, often confounding rhythms that (to this reviewer) marred her first two albums. In their place, Keys has inserted pop hooks and melodies that make her particular brand of R&B go down like honey. There's a lot of girlfriend-power to be found here: "Go Ahead" shows Keys finding the strength to tell a no-good dirty lover to "go on and get up out of here" after telling one too many lies, while the lovely "Superwoman" finds her celebrating her power ("Even when I'm a mess/I still put on a vest/With an S on my chest") and righteousness. Meanwhile, the now-ubiquitous single "No One" may just be Keys' best single since 2001's "Girlfriend" first catapulted her to stardom. Throughout the record (and especially on other highlights like "Teenage Love Affair" and "Wreckless Love"), Keys creates a fuller, richer sound than on previous releases, finally fulfilling her promise as the thinking person's R&B diva. Long may she reign.

14. Tracey Thorn: Out Of The Woods (Astralwerks)
I'm not sure what happened to make Tracey Thorn fall out of graces with the critics, but it needs to be said that the relatively unsung release of her second solo effort was a major faux pas of my fellow music afficianados. The voice behind Everything but the Girl took everything good about that critically praised duo (superb hooks, introspective lyrics, down-tempo grooves) and incorporated all of it into Out Of The Woods before she repurposed it for her own solo needs. Fans of EBTG classics like "Wrong" and "Mirrorball" will find much to love among these 11 gems, including highlights like "A-Z," "Falling Off a Log," "Grand Canyon" and the exurberant first single, "It's All True." The gorgeous "By Piccadilly Station I Sat Down and Wept" finds Thorn in an especially somber mood, reflecting "Do you ever wonder where love goes/Out there in the ether I suppose," while album closer "Raise the Roof" brings it all back around with a thrilling, inspirational nod to kindness and humanity. While few of the tracks contained the sheer inventiveness that defined EBTG hits like "Missing" and "Lullaby of Clubland," they proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Ben Watt isn't the only visionary in that duo.

15. KT Tunstall: Drastic Fantastic (Virgin)
Her breakthrough ablum Eye to the Telescope may have been the one that brought her recognition, but her sophomore effort will be the one that brings her respect. The Scottish lass throws herself full steam into a set of buoyant guitar-pop tracks that build upon the pleasures found on that first record. But this time around, Tunstall sounds more sure of herself, more focused on a particular sound and vision. She rocks out on album opener "Little Favours" and later track "Funnyman," and finds introspective glory on the uptempo "Hopeless," "Saving My Face" and the pensive "Beauty of Uncertainty." "Someday Soon" is a wistful ballad that finds Tunstall looking foward to getting her due, but it's harder-edged tunes like the kiss-off track "I Don't Want You Now" that reveal the depths of this woman's talent and range. Far from a one-hit wonder, she's just getting started.

16. Joe Purdy: Take My Blanket And Go (Self-released)
For those who have not yet discovered the sonic pleasures of Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Joe Purdy, you're in for a treat. This endlessly prolific recording artist (four albums in two years!) writes, records and releases his records via his website, iTunes, eMusic and sites like CDBaby with a refreshing disregard for major label involvement. His acoustic music can be summed up as "front porch blues," and he has often been called a folksinger, but make no mistake: Joe Purdy rocks. Not in the way that Plant and Page once did, but in his commitment to making music that people can connect to. His ninth studio album (following the release of Feburary's equally good Paris In the Morning), Take My Blanket and Go is also one of his best, a lyrical, laid-back journey through the trials of his heart. A lover of a good love song, Purdy is at his best when he's in a somber mood, which is thankfully just about all the time. Whether he's lamenting the end of a relationship (as on the lovely title track), singing about goin' fishin' ("Goldfish") or recalling the memory of a day spent with an introspective friend ("Good Days"), Purdy finds new ways of investing acoustic music with fresh insight and splendor. Settling in with one of his records is like sitting down with an old friend for some good old-fahsioned soul searching: It's as rewarding as it is revelatory.

17. Kelly Willis: Translated From Love (Rykodisc)
Miranda Lambert may have gotten all the critical accolades (and deservedly so) this past year for her spirited Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but to this reviewer's ears, there was no better country release than Kelly Willis' lastest Ryko release, Translated From Love. Her first album in five years is also her best since her career-redefining breakthrough, What I Deserve. It gets off to a nifty start with the spirited "Nobody Wants to Go to the Moon Anymore," then continues to reveal gem after gem. Her cover of Adam Green's "Teddy Boys" is a revelation of retro-cool hipness ("Maybe I was just lookin' for somethin' nasty," she ponders), and her take on Iggy Pop's "Success" reveals a naughty side not previously heard, while "I Must Be Lucky" gives her the opportunity to purr her way through one of her sultriest performances yet. The rest of the album falls in line with the tender Nashville ballads she's become known for, which is just fine by me. When she croons that she's got "Too Much to Lose" or wonders whether a "Stone's Throw Away" is a good place to be, Willis reminds us what the best country music can accomplish.

18. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: 100 Days, 100 Nights (Daptone Records)
Amy Winehouse may have had the bigger retro-soul release of the year, but Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings brought the Motown sound back in a more authentic way on their third release, which landed them on several year-end best-of lists. Fans of The Supremes will find much to love among tracks like "Nobody's Baby" and especially "Tell Me," which evokes The Supremes' "Reflections." Jones--a 50-something-year-old who's been pounding the pavement since the '70s--brings much worldliness to the music, imbuing the grooves with equal parts pain and happiness. Hers is the voice of a woman who's lived to tell--a survivor of high order--and on these 10 delirously good songs of lost love, she sings the blues in a way that makes it sound like she invented them.

19. Just Jack: Overtones (TVT Records)
Somwhere between Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake, Beck and The Streets lies Just Jack, an ornery little whipper-snapper from North London with mad rap skills and an ability to showcase them in electro-pop arrangements that are endlessly tuneful. He brings the funk on first single "Writer's Block," incorporates a snazzy, jazzy melody on the spirited "Glory Days," and settles in for a moody down-tempo grove on "Disco Friends." U.K. hit "Starz In Their Eyes" finds him calling out a friend for getting caught up in celebrity and fame, while "Life Stories" is a shout-out to "every last member of the X-generation/Addicted to the Internet, drugs and masturbation" and other outcasts who seem lost in today's corporate culture. But the pleasures don't end there: Just check out the brilliantly ambitious power-pop track "No Time" and funkified album closer "Electrickery" for proof that Just Jack is worthy of major stardom. Call him derivative if you want, but when the songs are this fun and the rhymes this clever, who cares who else he might sound like on occasion? None of those guys' albums made me smile half as much as this one did.

20. TIE: Angie Stone: The Art of Love and War (Stax)
Bedroom music never sounded so sexy as on an Angie Stone, and with this, her fourth album, the neo-soul diva and recent reality TV star returns with her finest set of smooth grooves since her debut, Black Diamond. Having ditched J-Records for the re-launched Stax, Stone re-emerges as a more insightful, introspective artist. This is evident on the album's opener, "Take Everything In," on which she sings about enjoying the simpler things in life, and on the wistful closer, "Happy Being Me," which features a lazy saxaphone that evokes the Sesame Street theme song. In between those two self-affirmative bookends are more traditional R&B grooves like the sultry "Baby" (featuring R&B legend Betty Wright), "My People" (a civil rights anthem featuring James Ingram) and "Pop Pop," a sensous track that compares the thrill of falling in love to dancing. Throughout the record, Stone displays a newfound confidence that propels her singing to new heights and re-establishes her as a singer and songwriter of incomparable talent.

20. TIE: Scissors for Lefty: Underhanded Romance (Eenie Meenie Records)
So I had to make this a tie so that I could include this record on my list. I had no idea who these guys were when I first received the record from their U.S. publicist, but after putting it one day on my way to work earlier this year, I was instantly taken with the infectious hooks and grooves that the band churns out song after song. From the excellent opener "Nickels and Dimes" to the Fratellis-esque "Next to Argyle" and the moody "X's are Forever," Scissors for Lefty make retro-rock sound cool and hip all over again. When they get to rock out on the power-pop chorus of "Save It Cory," they even inspire chills. Their music is not only great for rock and rollers, but also those who love to dance. It's that ability to appeal to multiple camps that should keep this band going until they finally break big. And when they do, I'll be there to say, "I told you so." But in a good way.

Here's looking forward to 2008... :)


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