The best albums of 2007
Thu Dec 27 2007
PRESENT, IN ACTION Global star M.I.A. had a pretty good year.
Photograph: Mike Schreiber
Chosen by: Jay Ruttenberg, music writer
1. Amy Winehouse Back to Black (Universal). The troubled hag is not the nostalgist she may at first appear to be, but the rare performer to haul soul music into the present tense. Now, her biggest challenge: not dying.
2. M.I.A. Kala (Interscope). The world finally gets the futuristic global pop star it deserves. Still no flying cars or robot maids, though. Full review
3. Yoko Ono Yes, I’m a Witch (Astralwerks). A hodgepodge of young musicians reimagine the avant-gardist’s grossly underrated canon, unveiling heart-rending indie rock and edgy dance-floor anthems. Full review
4. Various artists Imagine the Shapes (What’s Your Rupture?). A Manhattan label transfers vinyl EPs by four of its artists—Love Is All, Cause Co-Motion, the Long Blondes and Comet Gain—onto a CD that reels with the revelatory energy of early Rough Trade. Full review
5. Drug Rug Drug Rug (Black and Greene). A romantic couple from Boston debuts with shaggy, melodically ferocious indie rock.
6. The White Stripes Icky Thump (Third Man/Warner Bros.). The sole rock star sprung from the current decade continues to open explosive new pockets within his wittingly narrow palette. Full review
7. Bill Callahan Woke on a Whaleheart (Drag City). The veteran songwriter maintains his poker face but tempers his brooding, casting his wicked poetry in sweetly bent, roomy arrangements. Full review
8. Mika Life in Cartoon Motion (Casablanca/Universal). Mika’s exuberant pop is fruitier than Freddie Mercury’s mustache and gaudier than Elton John’s underwear drawer.
9. Ezra Furman and the Harpoons Banging Down the Doors (Minty Fresh). What does it sound like to be 20 and bursting with ideas? These Dylan-besotted undergrads give their scrappy deposition.
10. Nellie McKay Obligatory Visitors (Hungry Mouse/Vanguard). The songwriting dynamo assembles Poconos jazzers for her most eccentric work, rife with theatrical poses, corny solos and novelty hits from an alternate universe.
NEXT: Hank Shteamer's picks
Chosen by: Hank Shteamer, music writer
1. Pissed Jeans Hope for Men (Sub Pop). Sub Pop reasserts its scuzz-rock pedigree with this hysterically caustic sludgefest.
2. Muhal Richard Abrams Vision Towards Essence (Pi). Local imprint Pi cements its position as one of the premier 21st-century jazz labels with a sumptuous solo recital from an avant-garde master. Full review
3. Sigh Hangman’s Hymn (The End). The veteran Japanese outfit unleashes a ghoulishly extreme firestorm of symphonic thrash-metal lunacy. Full review
4. Thurston Moore Trees Outside the Academy (Ecstatic Peace). Sonic Youth’s frontman spends a lot of time these days playing in the noise sandbox, but here he turns to poignantly moody rock songs shaded with elegant strings. Full review
5. Deerhoof Friend Opportunity (Kill Rock Stars). The fifth brilliant full-length in six years from this Bay Area art-pop trio proves that there are few more visionary outfits in contemporary rock. Full review
6. Zs Arms (Planaria). This fearsome local avant-chamber crew captures its hyperevolved methods on an ecstatic debut.
7. Rob Crow Living Well (Temporary Residence). Crazy busy lately with Pinback and a slew of side projects, San Diego songsmith Rob Crow still found time for a solo disc—the best showcase yet for his humbly exquisite guitar pop.
8. Levon Helm Dirt Farmer (Vanguard). Dirt Farmer marks the resurrection of the Band stickman’s trademark twang after a battle with throat cancer, but the disc’s deepest pleasure is savoring Helm’s bottomless drum-set groove. Full review
9. Tyshawn Sorey that/not (Firehouse 12). Jazz debuts don’t come any more ambitious than this hauntingly enigmatic double-disc set from local drummer-pianist Sorey. Full review
10. Ween La Cucaracha (Rounder). These Pennsylvania cult-pop veterans demonstrate once more that the only way to stay funny is to keep a perfectly straight face.
NEXT: Steve Smith's picks
BY A NOSE Tyshawn Sorey’s debut made waves on the local jazz scene.
Photograph: Ben Gerstein
Chosen by: Steve Smith, associate music editor
1. Suzanne Vega Beauty & Crime (Blue Note). New York’s soft-spoken poet laureate fashioned a love letter to her hometown, filled with ghosts, nostalgia and quiet passion.
2. Tyshawn Sorey that/not (Firehouse 12). The young polymath drummer, pianist, trombonist and composer recorded a suitably audacious CD debut. Full review
3. Radiohead In Rainbows (W.A.S.T.E.). A mix of solid songcraft and studio adventure made Radiohead’s seventh studio effort vital well past its download-by date. Full review
4. Robert Glasper In My Element (Blue Note). In their second Blue Note outing, pianist Glasper and his triomates breathe fresh life and fire into a well-worn format.
5. Battles Mirrored (Warp). Mixing Ty Braxton’s loopy, good-natured vocals with a solid math-metal core is sort of like watching Multiplication Rock on the monitor while sweating at Crunch.
6. Muhal Richard Abrams Vision Towards Essence (Pi). The Chicago patriarch distills a lifetime spent extending jazz tradition into a single hour at the piano. Full review
7. Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles Diamonds in the Dark (Sugar Hill). Boston singer-guitarist Borges draws a straight line from Wanda Jackson to X in this memorable set of rowdy rockers and weepy ballads. Full review
8. Exploding Star Orchestra We Are All from Somewhere Else (Thrill Jockey). Globe-trotting cornetist Rob Mazurek and his big big band hit escape velocity in a fiery set that bites Sun Ra, Steve Reich, Kraftwerk and funk.
9. Brakesbrakesbrakes The Beatific Visions (Worlds Fair). It’s just a madly infectious collection of twangy pub punk—until you notice undertones of paranoia and wartime unease in Eamon Hamilton’s lyrics.
10. Sam Sadigursky The Words Project (New Amsterdam). Saxophonist Sadigursky’s literate, luminous poetry settings are given voice by a bumper crop of impressive young singers. Full review
NEXT: Colin St. John's picks
Chosen by: Colin St. John, music assistant
1. Panda Bear Person Pitch (Paw Tracks). Who knew you could create varied, dramatic and complex dream sequences in a Portuguese apartment? Noah Lennox—that’s who. Full review
2. Radiohead In Rainbows (W.A.S.T.E.). Groundbreaking self-release aside, the Oxford boys have proved again to be much more than just Thom Yorke and his falsetto. Full review
3. The White Stripes Icky Thump (Third Man/Warner Bros.). Bagpipes, trumpets, synthesizers—oh my! Jack White continues to diversify without diluting the Stripes’ sound. Full review
4. Lil Wayne Da Drought 3 (Young Money). If this simile-laden extracurricular mixtape is any indication, other rappers might have to hide under their desks when school gets back in session with Weezy’s upcoming Tha Carter III.
5. Menomena Friend and Foe (Barsuk). A lot of fuss is made about Menomena’s use of the Deeler computer program in its recording process, but what matters is that the Portland, Oregon, natives write songs that can be both catchy and wandering at the same time. Full review
6. Animal Collective Strawberry Jam (Domino). The nightmare to Panda Bear’s dream, Jam represents the most accessible batch of songs ever from the perpetually great Animal Collective.
7. Of Montreal Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (Polyvinyl). The fact that Kevin Barnes made this sprawling pop epic—instruments, computers, songwriting and production—almost entirely by himself is nothing short of astounding.
8. Battles Mirrored (Warp). Call this cacophony of vocal variations, keyboard experimentation and explosive drumming math rock if you must. Just don’t underestimate Battles’ ability to string it all together.
9. Kanye West Graduation (Roc-A-Fella/Island Def Jam). Perhaps West is kind of a jerk, and maybe his rhyming skills fall short of ill. But his ability to basically do it all puts him at the forefront of the hip-hop game. Full review
10. Les Savy Fav Let’s Stay Friends (Frenchkiss). Longtime live favorites on the local scene, Tim Harrington & Co. show their studio prowess on their fourth full-length. Full review
NEXT: K. Leander Williams' picks
Chosen by: K. Leander Williams, music writer
1. M.I.A. Kala (Interscope). No hip-hop masterpiece has ever sounded this raucously globalist and fun. It’s as if the London phenom is spinning the world on her finger. Full review
2. Gogol Bordello Super Taranta! (Side One Dummy). The Gypsy-punk band’s dubby splatter says hedonism, but its words are as serious as your life.
3. Tabu Ley Rochereau The Voice of Lightness (Stern’s). The Congolese-rumba pioneer finally gets a career summation worthy of his stature. Full review
4. Amy Winehouse Back to Black (Universal). When the tabloids find another troubled child to latch onto, what we’ll be left with is this raft of splendid R&B songs.
5. Russ Lossing/Mat Maneri/Mark Dresser Metal Rat (Clean Feed; Portugal). Piano, violin and bass: dreamy, chamberesque improv that’s about the lyricism of strings bowed, plucked and hammered. Full review
6. Fanfare Ciocarlia Queens and Kings (Asphalt Tango; Germany). The Romanian brass band convenes a veritable European Union of funked-up Gypsies.
7. Various artists Music of Central Asia, Vol. 4, Bardic Divas: Women’s Voices of Central Asia (Smithsonian Folkways). Sisters are doing it for themselves, from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan.
8. Roy Haynes A Life in Time: The Roy Haynes Story (Dreyfus Jazz; France). The history of modern jazz is laid out in rhythm, from the perspective of a drummer who had a front-row seat.
9. Various artists Think Global: Tango (Oxfam/World Music Network; U.K.). You’d think there’s nothing idiosyncratic about sensuous dance music from Buenos Aires…or is there? Full review
10. Taylor Ho Bynum/Tomas Fujiwara True Events (482 Music). This spiky-smooth duet asks the trumpeter for rhythmic moxie while the drummer dusts off his melodic chops.
NEXT: Mike Wolf's picks
Chosen by: Mike Wolf, music editor
1. Magik Markers Boss (Ecstatic Peace). The year’s greatest transformation resulted in its best album, a fiercely beautiful rip through the heart of rock.
2. Major Stars Mirror/Messenger (Drag City). Pure, maximal psychedelic power from an outfit that specializes in nothing but.
3. Times New Viking Present the Paisley Reich (Siltbreeze). Grit and noise amplify (instead of obscure) the brilliantly artful musings of this young trio.
4. Burial Untrue (Hyperdub; U.K.). Samples, static and beats: The last man on earth surrounds himself with ghosts and remembers what things could have been like. Full review
5. Islaja Ulual YYY (Fonal; Finland). An alien (okay, Finnish) presence imports shocking otherness into folk-pop songs; Sun Ra would chill to this. Full review
6. Panda Bear Person Pitch (Paw Tracks). Layer after layer of melodic sounds form a tower to heaven. Full review
7. Kanye West Graduation (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam). Has any pop artist ever been so human and honest about the conflicts inherent in success? Full review
8. Oakley Hall I Will Follow You (Merge). Every record by this rootsy folk-rock group tops the last one, and this rough-cut gem is no exception.
9. Pink Reason Cleaning the Mirror (Siltbreeze). See No. 4 above—then imagine the same last man, paranoid and writing pained psych-pop songs for a wrecked planet. Full review
10. Cass McCombs Dropping the Writ (Domino). A mystery without a history, singer-songwriter McCombs releases his third great album, alluding to everything and revealing nothing. Full review
NEXT: Report card
Every year grumpy fans howl that music is dead, or on life support, or at least bleeding and confused. But it’s just not so, ever—as the above lists should attest. The music industry, of course, is another matter: As the labels continue the cycle of mergers and layoffs, high-profile artists like Radiohead and Madonna make headlines with forward-thinking deals. At the same time, the live-music scene in NYC has its own problems. Until either the city lets up on its campaign against arts spaces of all sorts or club owners simply become more daring, local musicians will have to keep scrounging (i.e., heading to Brooklyn) for good places to play.
FINAL GRADE: C