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Despite the depressing trend of declining music sales in 2007 (total year-end album sales - both physical and digital - plunged 15 percent from the previous year's already bleak results), it certainly can't be attributed to a lack of quality albums this year. 2007's best music marked a year of fine indie-folk fare, merciless hard rock and a wealth of challenging new sounds. Here's our countdown of the year's strongest releases.
10) Grinderman - Grinderman
Gathering three members from longtime accomplices The Bad Seeds - Warren Ellis, Martyn P. Casey and Jim Sclavunos - for a new project known as Grinderman, Nick Cave has concocted a bastard offspring with this noisy new quartet. On their self-titled release, Cave reclaims some of his youth with impassioned, belligerent and often foul slabs of raw, gritty garage rock. One thing that makes this effort so different from when The Bad Seeds would rattle the rafters, however, is that Cave tackles all the electric guitar duties for the first time. And not unlike The Sex Pistols or The Stooges before him - two acts who featured members that could barely play their instruments when they first formed - Cave's own slop-jar blues attack on guitar lends both an honesty and urgency to the music, forcing the rest of the band to readjust their own styles to something more base and primitive.
And it's this primordial stomp that rampages throughout that makes the entire album so arresting. Cave's buzz-saw guitar cleanly cuts through the opening track "Get It On," while the two pummeling numbers, "Depth Charge Ethel" and "No [Expletive] Blues," channel the same jarring psychotic rock from The Stooges' 1970 masterpiece Fun House. The scuzzy organ line that stains the impeding rhythm section and guitar howl on "Honey Bee (Let's Fly To Mars)" as well as the album's manic closer, "Love Bomb" both stitch together a Frankenstein of mid-'60s American Nuggets-era garage rock with mid-'70s punk - only without the pimples and safety pins. Even when the arrangements get stripped back to a bare minimum, as on the album's title track, Cave's black-snake-moan of a croon along with his ghostly electric guitar and Ellis' foreboding viola turns this number into a nightmarish dirge that's hard to shake.
Call it a midlife crisis. Call it a return to Cave's own volatile roots. But don't call it mellow or mature, 'cause these mothers rock... hard.
9) Feist -The Reminder
(Cherry Tree Records)
On Feist's third proper solo album, entitled The Reminder, the Canadian singer/songwriter has produced, arguably, her finest effort to date.
Hailing from a host of various bands that she's either worked or collaborated with - most notably Canadian allies Broken Social Scene, electronica mistress Peaches and the Norwegian folk-pop duo Kings of Convenience - Leslie Feist has managed to stretch out beyond her indie-roots with a beautifully layered, highly textured collection of pop, folk, jazz, electronica and touching torch songs that should guarantee the 31 year-old singer a much broader audience without losing any of her indie cred.
Without sacrificing her art Feist has produced her most accessible and satisfying effort to date with The Reminder, and in the process has proved herself one of the most arresting artists of this decade. Perhaps there's no more appropriate summation of this record than the indie chanteuse's own when she muses over and over during "Brandy Alexander" that it, "goes down easy."
8) Iron & Wine - The Shepherd's Dog
(Sub Pop Records)
In just five years South Carolina-bred singer/songwriter Sam Beam (aka Iron & Wine) has positioned himself as one of the premier talents of the indie-folk scene with his hauntingly frail sonnets and deep telling tales often draped in the dark moss of Southern Gothic imagery. Comparisons to Nick Drake, Simon & Garfunkel and Elliott Smith effortlessly poured in following his strong 2002 debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle, and continued through a handful of EPs and his even his second full-length, Our Endless Days Are Numbered, which for the first time strayed from the solo acoustic formula by incorporating a band into the studio - even if these additional musicians still held to Beam's minimalist agenda. But with his latest release Beam's own voice and his songs are now, quite possibly for the first time, best judged on their own and without comparison.
On Iron & Wine's third proper album, entitled The Shepherd's Dog, Beam further expands on his sound and production values with a mesmerizing collection of beautifully crafted compositions that are brought to life with the aid of more experimental and richer arrangements. Despite that Beam's slight departure from his own lo-fi roots will be missed by some, The Shepherd's Dog actually finds this talented musician at a creative sea change (not unlike that of Dylan going electric for his classic mid-'60s trilogy Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde). While Beam may not exactly be tearing down the fences of folk music, he's certainly created an attractive new gateway in with this sumptuous and adventurous album.
7) Robert Plant & Alison Krauss - Raising Sand
Sometimes it takes the seemingly oddest of pairings to come up with something truly wonderful, and that's exactly what former Led Zeppelin screamer Robert Plant and bluegrass songbird Alison Krauss have done on their recent full-length collaboration entitled Raising Sand.
There are more than just a couple of reasons why this album works as well as it does. What first jumps out of the speakers is the wonderful chemistry between Plant's soothing vocal delivery and the angelic voice of Krauss. Songs such as the lilting "Killing The Blues" and the mountain folk of "Your Long Journey" showcase these two vocal powerhouses as an even more powerful duo, as they not only have a wonderful sense of give-and-take with their vocal parts, but also know exactly when to join together as one.
Whether in their respective elements or out, Plant and Krauss - along with producer T Bone Burnett - have made a lasting piece of music that, while often steeped in the past, is also surprisingly contemporary and timeless.
6) Bright Eyes - Cassadaga
(Saddle Creek Records)
On Cassadaga the 27 year-old Nebraskan singer/songwriter Conor Oberst ruminates over his travels across the States and comes up with a sprawling thirteen-track collection that's not only his most mature effort to date but also, quite arguably, his finest. From spacious folk numbers augmented by ethereal pedal steel guitar and spectral strings ("No One Would Riot For Less," "Middleman" and "Lime Tree") to country-fried barn burners (the aforementioned "Four Winds") and proud stabs at rootsy Americana ("Soul Singer In A Session Band" and "Classic Cars") to the wonderfully poetic ("I Must Belong Somewhere," where he cries, "Leave the novelist in his daydream tomb. Leave the scientist in her Rubick's cube. Leave the true genius in the padded cell. Everything it must belong somewhere.") Oberst, along with Mogis and trumpet and piano player Nate Walcott have created a richly satisfying album.
Joining the ranks of Bright Eyes' revolving cast of characters are modern heavyweights M. Ward (guitar and vocals), Gillian Welch (vocals) and Rachel Yamagata (vocals). While these talents add wonderful hues to the palette, it's ultimately Oberst's songs and Mike Mogis' sumptuous production that make this patchwork of pop, western balladry and Louisiana Hayride-country such a picture-perfect musical tapestry.
5) Ryan Adams - Easy Tiger
On Ryan Adams' ninth studio effort, Easy Tiger, the singer/songwriter has apparently learned from many of the missteps he's made over the years and got back to the brass tacks of what he knows best - crafting honest roots-based tunes and performing them with a passion and verve that's once again believable. Seeming more comfortable in the alt-country shoes he broke in with his band Whiskeytown in the latter half of the '90s than the hard rock and, God forbid, rap that he's recently dabbled in, Easy Tiger is easily one of Adams' strongest efforts to date.
Joined by his backing band The Cardinals, who were also employed on the prolific artist's last three efforts (Cold Roses, Jacksonville Nights and 29), the classic country rock of the late Gram Parsons is perfectly channeled into this baker's dozen of earthy delights. From the longing tug of "The Sun Also Sets" and the slow-burn country twang of the beautiful "Tears of Gold" to the expertly crafted "Two" and "Everybody Knows" and even the decidedly harder rocking "Halloweenhead," Adams and fellow Cards have crafted a modern rival to Neil Young's Harvest and The Flying Burrito Brothers' The Gilded Palace of Sin - two artists and albums that Adams has certainly emulated throughout his career but, only up until now, has successfully joined the ranks of.
Filled with folk, country, pop and a snootful of Southern charm, Adams has successfully tapped into the lowest common denominator of American music. Easy Tiger is a must for anyone interested in not only the easy-going rock of the early '70s and alt-country, but also well-crafted music that's been a rich part of this country for the last two centuries. With this kind of tiger in his tank, this guy sounds like he'll be running for a long, long time.
4) The White Stripes - Icky Thump
(Warner Brothers Records)
Funny, but is seems that year after year The White Stripes end up making my year end 'best of lists.' (Alright, last year they didn't make the cut - only because they didn't release an album in Ô06. But guitarist Jack White's side project The Raconteurs did, which in an indirect way still counts, I reckon).
Within the simplistic confines of just vocal, guitar and drums The White Stripes have been able to not only continually expand their unique brand of rock & roll (albeit with the occasional mandolin, marimba and glockenspiel thrown in for good measure) but have also been able to successfully reinvent themselves with each ensuing album.
This certainly holds true on their sixth full-length release Icky Thump (the unusual title derived from the phrase 'ecky-thump,' a Northern England colloquialism of surprise or amazement). While this collection rocks harder than their last piano and marimba driven album Get Behind Me Satan, with Jack White's bombastic guitars howling and screeching throughout, along with Meg White's primitive and powerful drumming, it also employs more of the blues that originally fueled the duos' earliest efforts - their 1999 self-titled debut and the follow-up De Stijl (the latter which I still consider their finest record to date). But just as the band pushed the boundaries as they experimented with more country and Latin American sounds on Get Behind Me Satan, the former Detroit duo (Jack now resides in Nashville where Icky Thump was recorded) have added not only a Mediterranean flair with a cover of Patti Page's early '50s number "Conquest," complete with Spanish trumpet and flamenco-ing heavy guitar riffage, but have also tapped into their own Scottish roots with the inclusion of bagpipes on the lively reel "Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn." They also incorporate this odd, yet lovely sounding instrument on "St. Andrew (This Battle Is In The Air)," which, with a dizzying dervish of bagpipes, guitar squalls and Meg's stream of consciousness lyrics, creates an unsettling sound as if the ancient Scots were the first to stage a psychedelic freak-out.
It's amazing that as the state of rock & roll continues to ebb-and-flow, just a boy and a girl are able to continually push the envelope and keep things fresh with little more than a guitar and drums... well, that and the occasional bagpipe. Ecky-thump!
3) The Apples In Stereo - New Magnetic Wonder
(Yep Roc Records)
New Magnetic Wonder may be the sixth studio album The Apples In Stereo have released in twelve years, but, more importantly, it marks their first in the last five years. While such a long hiatus often spells disaster for most other bands, it actually seems to have rejuvenated the Denver-based indie-rock outfit as this record turns out to be a true magnum opus of swirling, psychedelic, positively-charged power-pop.
Incorporating the sweet harmonies of The Beach Boys, the sunny vibes of the late '60s, a knack for hammering out one perfectly constructed song after another in true Lennon/McCartney style, along with the lush, multi-layering production skills of ELO (sans some of the heavy-handed pretensions), The Apples In Stereo, on paper at least, sound like a throwback to the late '60s or early '70s. But despite the fact that they often do hearken back to the golden age of pop, they also sound as fresh as anyone else out there at the moment. The bulk of the record, or actual songs, are all patch-worked together with short interludes of spacey mellotron, disorienting psychedelia, grand chamber music, Kraftwerkian vocoder and jazz bits that feature both a drunken-piano teetering about, before a Django-gypsy guitar slowly flamencos between these pop confections. Even the oddly disorienting beginning of "Open Eyes" borrows some the experimental tape looping that John & Yoko explored on their 1968 Two Virgins album (who The Apples further pay homage to by including the nude silhouettes of the two eternal lovebirds from the cover of Two Virgins for their own beautifully colorful and trippy album art).
If you, like myself, are a fan of unabashed sweet, guitar-driven power-pop then this is a no-brainer. Go out now and pick up New Magnetic Wonder. It's nothing short of magic.
2) Arcade Fire - Neon Bible
I have to admit that after first hearing Arcade Fire's follow-up to their breathtaking 2004 debut, Funeral, I was, at first, a bit disappointed. I suppose it's not fair to measure any album next to, what I consider, the greatest rock record of this decade, but with expectations high for this second release, the comparisons were universally (and personally) made, nonetheless.
After listening deeper, however (and more importantly seeing them performing many of these numbers live in Chicago last May), each one of these eleven songs have unfolded into things of true beauty. From the introspective march of the title track to the stark angst of "My Body Is A Cage" to the revved-up powerhouses "Keep The Car Running" and "No Cars Go" this album showcases Arcade Fire as one of the two most important bands in rock music today. Which leads us to...
1) Radiohead - In Rainbows
Radiohead not only made major headlines in October by self-releasing their seventh studio album, In Rainbows but also brought together a huge community of music fans around the record's release (something that hasn't been done for quite some time). After recently jumping ship from their six-album record contract with EMI their decision to self-release this effort was news in itself, but the real meat of this story is that they offered this ten-song set for whatever fans were willing to pay for it - from nothing to as much as they'd like. And, surprisingly, it's a new business model that seems to be paying off (at least for a band of this magnitude).
With so much talk of their unconventional "name your own price" sales method for this release, the question that still needs to addressed, however, is, "How's the music?" Well, with ten tracks that work in some the edgy guitar parts from their 1995 effort The Bends ("Bodysnatchers"), as well some of their more experimental forays into electronica from Kid and Amnesiac ("15 Step" and "All I Need") and the grand spaciousness of OK Computer ("Nude") In Rainbows turns out to be a colorful, welcome amalgamation of their entire career.
But despite the many elements incorporated from their past, this album also has it's own distinct feel and unique execution; with beautiful melodies just barely out of reach, yet constantly wooing you in closer. And while both Thom Yorke's haunting vocals and Jonny Greenwood's guitar-work are still both predominate forces, Colin Greenwood's bass work shines throughout - adding fragmented rhythms to "15 Step" and a driving backbeat to "Jigsaw Falling Into Place," while also weaving in a lovely second melody line on the beautiful standout track "House Of Cards." It's refreshing to see that with In Rainbows Radiohead is still pushing their own limits as they continue to chart new frontiers - not only musically but also in the way that their music ultimately reaches their fans.
|Spoon - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Merge Records)
On the Austin-based indie rock band's sixth full-length album, leader Britt Daniel and his four other bandmates turn in such irresistible left-of-center pop on songs such as "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb," "Don't Make Me A Target" and the uplifting Billy Joel-infused track "The Underdog," that we can actually forgive them for penning the most ridiculous album title of the year.
|Wilco - Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch Records)
On Wilco's sixth proper studio effort (not including their two pleasing Mermaid Avenue Woody Guthrie tribute albums with Billy Bragg) singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy has decided to stop the sonic experimentations and noisy tinkering of their last two releases (2004's A Ghost Is Born and 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) to instead produce a no-nonsense record that not only retraces Wilco's own early alt-country roots, but also revisits the airy folk vibe of early '70s West Coast singer-songwriters.
While the mood may often sound downtrodden, there's also a sense of positive hope that's crying to get out. And despite that the album at first passing may seem somewhat monochromatic, the gray skies part on some of these numbers with not only strong melodies but also some snarling guitar leads that are reminiscent of both Neil Young and Jerry Garcia. Some may chalk up the sound of this record to Tweedy maturing, which he most certainly is, but I think it has more to do with him still realizing the power of great songcraft, which he most certainly does for Sky Blue Sky.
|The Fratellis - Costello Music (Interscope Records)
Too often hype thrust upon on a new act is just that - trumped-up hyperbole that fails to deliver when push comes to shove. Not so with these Scottish rogues, however. The guitar-fueled rock on The Fratelli's Costello Music is an amalgamation of sexed-up '70s glam rock, early '90s Britpop and a touch of American roots music transformed into a style that only the Brits seem capable of pulling off so well when traversing blues and country music.
|The Good, The Bad & The Queen - The Good, The Bad & The Queen
I don't know why I'm so affected by this record. It's dreary, gray and maudlin. But considering that it's teeming with the talents of vocalist / songwriter Damon Albarn (Blur / Gorillaz), bassist Paul Simonon (The Clash), drummer Tony Allen (Africa 70 / Fela Kuti) and guitarist Simon Tong (The Verve), and, more importantly, so perfectly reflects the city of London that it tips its coal-caked top-hat to (a city that I adore), then I've probably just answered my own question.
Like the historic city itself, the ten-tracks that fill out this self-titled release are indeed bleak and gloomy, yet always charming - with many secrets and pleasant surprises to be revealed around its many damp corners.
Thematically Albarn marries Anglo-yore with concerns of current world conflict ("I don't want to live a war that's got no end in our time," he dryly sings on "80's Life" before slipping into further despair on "Kingdom of Doom," "Drink all day 'cause the country's at war. You'll be falling off the palace walls"). But despite much of the downtrodden subject matter, it's Danger Mouse's subdued, yet lush production values coupled with both an interesting grouping of worldly musicians and songs brimming with hidden melodies playfully lurking throughout that makes this such a rewarding effort.
|M.I.A. - Kala (Interscope Records)
Kala, the London-born and Sri Lanka-reared artist has raised the bar for not only her own eclectic music, but also a number of other genres. Mixing rap, reggae, London Grime, indie rock and electronica with often politically-charged lyrics the 30 year-old singer, whose real name is Maya Arulpragasam, has produced a dizzying, exhilarating collection of dance music. Often silly and, at times, seemingly disposable, M.I.A.'s Kala is, nonetheless, an intoxicating brand of new world-music guaranteed to get you moving.
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