Two of America’s Top Music Critics have offered up their Top 10 Lists for 2007 exclusively for the Juice Blog. I’m talking about Will Carroll and Mark Donohue. Will and I have been making these lists for awhile and I asked Mark, who has been writing on music for the great website, Nude as the News. Will has some surprises on his list, Mark has the type of list I expected he would. We discover that Mark is such a music freak that he is one of those guys who still buys vinyl. I will post mine on Saturday afternoon. Top Ten Albums of 2007
WILL CARROLL PRESENTS
When I was making this list, I realized a couple things. First, it was a terrible year for music. There’s nothing on this list that says that music as a business is headed in the right direction or that there’s any one standout album. I’m not sure even the best of them would have cracked some past lists and there’s certainly nothing approaching the revelatory album of the decade, American Idiot. Second, there’s nothing alike on this list. None of these things are at all like the others, but before you accuse me of eclectic hipster pseudo-snobbery, it’s just a quirk. That said, it wasn’t a lack of good albums that failed us, just a lack of great ones. If this had been a Top 20 list instead of just ten, the difference between #2 and #18 wouldn’t have been that far off. Solid albums from Fall Out Boy, Bruce Springsteen, Leann Rimes, Prince, Lupe Fiasco, Dierks Bentley and Kanye West were just barely off. I also hate leaving Miranda Lambert’s "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" off the list, but it’s just not QUITE there, though I highly recommend it. No, this list reflects what many of us have to do. Absent the great, we’re left picking the bones of every genre looking for something with feeling, something that resonates with more than the latest fashion, and something that, yes, has a beat and we can dance to.
1. Guitar Hero III – Soundtrack
Quibble with me over the fact that this isn’t an "album." Use your own definitions on your own list, pal. It’s an indictment of the music industry that many are left to the dearly departed OiNK and Bit Torrent sites to find their own versions of this album. The game itself is just a cooler version of Dance Dance Revolution, an excuse to fuel up all the metalhead fantasies we all have buried. It’s fun, it’s loud, it’s obnoxious, and it’s addictive. There’s problems here – some of the covers, especially "Pride And Joy", are painful. What’s great is that a "classic" like "Rock You Like A Hurricane" becomes just a song again. It’s okay to pump your fist or waggle your tongue Gene Simmons-style as long as you keep hitting the notes. For a little while, you are Slash or Tom Morello or even just that guy you wanted to be when you still thought Motley Crue was cool. You remember … even if you’ll only admit it with the curtains drawn and the game on easy. Guitar Hero makes music both fun and immersive, something a lot of albums (and labels) seem to have long since forgotten.
2. Friday Night Lights – Soundtrack
I was late to the party on Friday Night Lights, the TV show, but I’m glad I showed up. The pitch-perfect West Texas parable is accompanied by a great soundtrack. The best of these, the bastard step-children of Jerry Bruckheimer’s over-the-top 80’s gloss, have become mixtapes to the fans from the creators. Grey’s Anatomy does it as well as anyone, with a slot on that hit show a near-Oprah-level guarantee of sales. What Friday Night Lights, the soundtrack does, is remain true to the show. You’ll remember the moments where the songs came in – the season-bracketing drawl of Tony Lucca’s cover of "Devil Town" tastes like Permian Basin dust in my mouth while "So Divided" is as cathartic a moment on the album as it was in fictional Dillon. The best soundtracks take us back to moments, enhancing and pushing the drama forward. Even without the visuals, this soundtrack works as well as any television soundtrack ever has.
3. All Of A Sudden, I Miss Everyone – Explosions In The Sky
Like most, I’m not sure what to make of EITS as a band. They’re something shy of an American Sigur Ros and something more than the atmospheric noodlings of Godspeed You Black Emperor. They’ve added more piano to their sound, which seems a bit tighter and less spatial – something that likely came as a result of their scoring of Friday Night Lights, the TV show. They’re still unbelievably textured yet far from overproduced. The lyrical high-tone Fender that is their trademark rings like Edge’s American cousin at times and at others, it merely seeks its own level within the song. It’s not for everyone and not for every mood – it’s jarring to catch one of these songs on your iPod’s shuffle. Instead, it’s an album rewarded by concentration, even meditation, something that’s overlooked and even denigrated in a music world that’s only as experimental as Timbaland’s next beat.
4. As I Am – Alicia Keys
I spent two weeks in New York City during October. The city is bigger than me, Joe Sheehan reminded me, but he didn’t need to. On the second day I was there, I was strolling down 8th Avenue towards Chelsea Market when I noticed a sign for "Hell’s Kitchen Diner." I paused a moment, visions of "The Warriors" coming to my head. It took me about two more heartbeats to realize that Hell’s Kitchen wasn’t much different than the six blocks previous and that I could continue walking without some bat-toting gangster cracking me in the skull. It just reminded me that the liner notes touting that Alicia Keys grew up in Hell’s Kitchen are pretty empty. Luckily, her music is anything but empty. She’s the opposite of Britney Spears, keeping her music first, making a good (if underrated) movie, and never letting her relationship hit the tabloids. It’s hard to say that this album is better than her first three; it’s just more complete. She sprung full-blown into existence, but she’s continuing to mature as an artist. "Like You’ll Never See Me Again" should come with a condom. Keys said during her "Iconoclasts" show that she wants to sing each time as if it’s her last. It shows.
5. Ga Ga Ga Ga – Spoon
It’s NOT as good as "Gimme Fiction," but Hemingway wasn’t as good as Fitzgerald either. This time around, the Austin band (hmm, three Texas based albums in the top five was not intentional …) is a bit more spare and a bit more playful. It’s not a bad thing, but the dramatic tightness that made the first half of "Gimme Fiction" so revelatory simply never shows up here. Instead, it’s the looseness that marks this album. The guys seem to be playing more, letting things run. It’s not so much production as it is performance, which comes out well here. The manic start of "The Ghost Of You Lingers" is followed by a down-mixed vocal which can barely be understood. It’s a move more expected from The Flaming Lips, but it’s just the first of a series of tricks that don’t come off as illusion. "The Underdog" adds horns to the shuffling acoustic guitar in what could be the best song on another great addition to Spoon’s catalog.
6. Make Sure They See My Face – Kenna
It’s hard to criticize Timbaland in one breath and praise Chad Hugo in the next, but I will. Kenna had this act down in 2003 and a re-listen to his seminal New Sacred Cow reminds us that being ahead of one’s time seldom has much reward. This isn’t as good, as revelatory, or even as interesting, but compared to so much other music that might sound similar on first listen, Kenna and Hugo have come up with an evolutionary step that might not be noticed. While Justin Timberlake is playing the Elvis part, Kenna is the Chuck Berry of modern electronic pop. It’s far from a perfect analogy, but songs like "Out Of Control" or "Sun Red Sky Blue" could play on any radio station, satellite or terrestrial, that fancies itself pop or rock … and yet it won’t. Malcolm Gladwell wrote of Kenna’s Dilemma in his book, Blink, but the dilemma is still in place. America’s not ready in the broad sense for this music, even though it likes things very similar. It’s the dis-ease that lurks just below the surface, a cognitive dissonance that Kenna can’t overcome by an SNL gig. Don’t be one of the ones that misses out on a solid album. In 2010, we’ll be quoting it with hits.
7. The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse – The Besnard Lakes
Yeah, this instead of The Arcade Fire. The flames should go in the box to the left. Ok, so how do I put one Montreal-sound album in the list and completely leave off everyone’s All-American. (It’s a phrase, Canadian friends …) Not everything works and yes, it’s as busy and pieced together as anything else out of Quebec. The married couple at the heart of the Lakes trade off vocals, a discontinuity that can be unsettling as you’re trying to find a niche in the music for yourself, but that unsettling quality is what pushes this album. When the muffled drive-through vocals interrupt "And You Lied To Me," just before a blazing two-guitar attack takes the song from an Ennio Morricone pop-mumble over to a David Gilmour meets Neil Young lighter-waver, the music is able to take you exactly – exactly! – where the artists intended. There’s a purpose to the production here. Is it richly layered and overslick? Yes, but this might not work any other way. Where Arcade Fire and its imitators would layer on something quirky, the Lakes are putting down another four tracks of distorted six-string or echoing vocals to re-create Pet Sounds era Brian Wilson. Wilson has become a strong influence on rock over the past few years, but while Dark Horse won’t hold up the way that Pet Sounds did, it’s nice to hear that good music can still come out of the sandbox.
8. Fear Of A Blank Planet – Porcupine Tree
Part Rush, Part King’s X, Part Spinal Tap. That’s an odd mix, but Porcupine Tree — possibly the worst name for a band since … well a long time — pulls it off. They rush (no pun intended) back and forth between a Rush/King Crimson progressive mix, which is no surprise since both Alex Lifeson and Robert Fripp guest here, but also mix in an atmospheric quality that recalls something between Pink Floyd and Sigur Ros. Seventeen minute songs don’t often occur in music these days as iTunes shifts us back to a singles-based music economy, but few could actually pull off holding on to the concept as they do here. When Lifeson’s guitar comes in, it’s as if we found the missing link between "Tom Sawyer" and "Paranoid Android", a moment of musical epiphany. Even the title speaks to the odd amalgam that Porcupine Tree has pushed and in being almost completely singular, they’ve managed to take all their obvious influences, pair them up with ones that aren’t so obvious, and come up with an original sound, an original work, and an original concept. That’s pretty, well, original.
9. Raising Sand – Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
On first listen, there’s nothing that should work here. The high-tone, almost too-perfect soprano of Alison Krauss goes well with Vince Gill (who’s quadruple album just barely missed the list), but she’s never been mistaken for the Hammer of the Gods. So why does it work? The shuffling Everly Brothers song that I first heard on the radio doesn’t show off the pairing that well. It takes a couple listens before coming to a couple realizations. First, the duet isn’t the focus. Yes, both Plant and Krauss are in fine voice here, but this is a T-Bone Burnett album. He’s used Krauss to great effect before, but here’s she’s just another instrument in the mix. Once you get past the names and faces on the cover, you’ll feel better. Second, there’s more in common between the vocalists than we would have expected. Listening to Krauss echo "Immigrant Song" at the start of "Trampled Rose" or hear the harmonies dance on "Please Read The Letter" and you’ll get it. It just takes some time.
10. Icky Thump – White Stripes
There are moments where the thick fuzz of Jack White’s guitar has never been better. There are moments where the quirky road that White always wants to take us on veers towards disaster. It’s never boring, even if you don’t always so much enjoy the ride as experience it. Nothing on the album matches the screaming power of the title track and in fact, nothing approaches it. White runs all his normal genres, from blistering post-punk to neo-traditional country to acoustic plaintive ballad, yet seems fresher on this than he has since Elephant. There are down moments as well, ones that make this just barely scratch the list. "Conquest" is camp, with the normal varying mileage. "You Don’t Know What Love Is" comes off as just a bit too close to Bad Company’s "Shining Star" for my comfort. It’s all homers or strikeouts here, but White is one of few people in music these days, like Prince or Ryan Adams, who are talented enough that you never fault them their misses when you know there will be a moment that will make you forgive them anything.
Mark T.R. Donohue Top 10
In alphabetical order:
Architecture in Helsinki- Places Like This
An absolute gas of a new wave party album, designed to get heads bobbing from the first listen but with surprising depth in its lyrics and emotional content. Frontman Cameron Bird’s adenoidal howl sounds like Australia’s answer to Fred Schneider but on songs like "Hold Music" and "The Same Old Innocence" Bird’s tentative embrace of modernity channels higher 80’s royalty still — it’s as if David Byrne hadn’t completely lost his sense of humor in 1987 and then decided to start from scratch again with an enthusiastic, coed group of fledgling musicians.
Guitarist/keyboardist/master song titler Ian Williams’ later work with the once-great Don Caballero and then the obnoxiously oblique Storm & Stress hardly suggested he had a smash hit in him, but in Battles he seems completely invigorated. In collaboration with former Helmet drummer John Stanier, whose pummeling tom and piccolo snare work gives even Mirrored’s electronically altered compositions solid form, and the totally gone Tyondai Braxton, Williams and Battles first delivered the undeniably hook-laden "Atlas" (history’s first seven-minute prog-rock instrumental instant mixtape classic) and followed it up with a record that sometimes sounds like John Fahey played at 78 ("Tonto") and sometimes sounds like Atari Teenage Riot kicking Gastr Del Sol’s ass ("Leyendecker"). It’s not for everyone, sure, but if you have even the very least interest in avant-garde rock this is like the Reign in Blood or Millions Now Living Will Never Die of the genre.
Bela Karoli- Furnished Rooms
For the second year in a row the burgeoning Denver scene has spit out a record totally worthy of being mentioned among the year’s best, and I couldn’t be happier, since that happens to be where I live. What’s more, the ghostly, feminine Bela Karoli sound absolutely nothing like last year’s local champs, the banjo-trombone-and-kitchen sink indie rockers Everything Absent or Distorted. Upright bassist Julie Davis murmurs overtly literary lyrics in a spooky, clipped tone while accordionist Brigid McAuliffe echoes her uncertainly with longer, sweeter harmonies. All this is set to skittering, convention-ignoring looped beats that at once infuriate and intoxicate with their failure to resolve.
Dear and the Headlights- Small Steps, Heavy Hooves
This Phoenix-based quintet provides pleasant, lived-in rock and roll with the tasty central hook of a frontman who can actually sing and lyrics that belie the band’s rather unfortunate song titles ("Oh No," "Grace," "Hallelujah" — NOT the Leonard Cohen song). I keep comparing them to people to Counting Crows and people look at me back like that’s an insult. What’s wrong with Counting Crows? Their first album was really good!
The Frames- The Cost
I will never understand how this band, Ireland’s second most popular, hasn’t carved out more of a following stateside after 15 years of quality work. Frontman Glen Hansard has recently attained some notoriety thanks to the film Once (one of the highlights from The Cost is an arrangement of the movie’s "Falling Slowly" greatly enlivened by Colm Mac An Iomaire’s shivery violin), but not enough of the Once cult has gotten on board with Hansard’s band. It beats me why — after a few albums that perhaps drank too deeply from American indie rock and the let’s-replace-drummers-with-laptops movement, The Cost is a live-in-the-studio-feel album with some simply beautiful tunes, particularly the 5/4 "When Your Mind’s Made Up" and the stark "Bad Bone." Highly suggested as a counterweight to those who found the naked overemoting of the Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible too much to take.
Manu Chao- La Radiolina
The French/Spanish polyglot is a huge star in South America, due in no small part to a touring band (featuring the godlike Madjid Fahem on electric and nylon-string guitar) that eats men’s souls. Odd, then, that Chao’s first two American albums were lo-fi affairs that mostly used canned, stiff backing arrangements and rocked out hardly if at all. La Radiolina comes closer to matching the accelerator-mashing pace of Chao’s live shows, with light island ska passages jump-shifting into punk forcebeats. Stylistically, that means that the album tends to repeat and double back on itself rather often — a device that North American audiences may misinterpret as lack of originality. In fact, part of the genius of Chao’s cosmpolitan synthesis of the musics of many worlds is the way he uses simple, repeated motifs. This isn’t a record to divide, but to unite, and by the end of it you may find yourself speaking in tongues, as Chao drifts through Spanish, French, English, Portugese, Basque, and several North African languages in his lyrics.
Radiohead- In Rainbows
The album may well merit placement on end-of-year lists merely for the unique circumstances of its release. But let’s put that aside for a second. Is Radiohead getting old or boring? Not in the least. In Rainbows isn’t a dramatic change from its predecessor, Hail to the Thief, but songwriting (as opposed to soundscape-creating) has reclaimed a place of prominence in Radiohead’s project, helped along by the unlikely device of Thom Yorke’s underrated solo electronic record of last year. They’re doing ballads again ("Nude"), which is great news, and the way the electronics embellish rather than overwhelm the rock instruments is an overdue refinement — drummer Phil Selway finally sounds like he’s working for his money. Frankly, by making the first track one in 5/4, they had me hooked. I’m a sucker for 5/4.
Spoon- Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
I have been listening to Spoon on and off since 1996, but I have never been particularly impressed with any of their records until this one. Perhaps Britt Daniel will never learn to write songs from the heart instead from the head, but he’s gotten absolutely fantastic at faking emotion when necessary ("Don’t Make Me a Target"). Every Spoon album has at least one marvelous song on it, but for the first time there isn’t any filler to be found and the heights — "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb," "Finer Feelings," "Don’t You Evah," "Black Like Me" — are the highest they’ve ever reached.
Ween- La Cucaracha
I kept trying to talk myself out of including this one on the list, since to all intents and purposes it’s "just another Ween album," but who am I kidding — three months, six months, two years from now, what from 2007 am I still going to be listening to? I’ll tell you what — La Cucaracha. "With My Own Bare Hands" is some of the raunchiest rock Deaner and Gener have ever laid down, "Woman and Man" sounds like side one of Led Zep’s Presence dipped in acid, and the so-saccharine-it’s-awesome "Your Party" has David Sanborn, of all people, wailing on the sax. All bow before Boognish!
Wilco- Sky Blue Sky
You can put every other record above this one in any order you like, but hands down this is the best album of 2007 and is quickly becoming one of my favorites of all time. Jeff Tweedy has been completely in control of his muse for a while now, but not since Uncle Tupelo’s Anodyne has he played with a better attuned group of musicians — and the addition of the virtuosic Nels Cline gives his music a guitar-hero dimension it’s never had before. There may not be another songwriter in the world apart from Tweedy who can set out to write a song as nakedly "inspirational" as "What Light" and knock the thing out of the park. Not since Television in their heyday have electric guitars sung together more beautifully than on "Impossible Germany." Cline’s delicious lap steel playing on "Walken" alone is worth twice the price of the CD (which is what the vinyl edition costs, hint, hint). It might not have been a great year for music apart from this record, but Sky Blue Sky alone made 2007 worth remembering.