I spent a lot of time watching music documentaries this year, as VH-1 Classic became my new favorite channel. (I highly recommend the great 7 part series done by the BBC called 7 Ages of Rock, if you want to learn about the greatest bands in music history and how they fit into different genres). It was on the Sundance Channel’s Live at Abbey Road documentary that I figured out the best way to describe my approach for what constitutes the reason a band/artist would make my list. On this show, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers discussed how music works for him. He offered up that The Clash’s Sandinista record was one of his favorites, as its political message moved him. He added, though, that a record like Van Halen II was just as important to him, even though it had no such intellectual message. While for me using London Calling and Women and Children First would have been better examples, I really dug the sentiment. I’m not Clive Davis, but I highly respect the hook element of songs, as it is a lot easier to write a critically acclaimed record than it is to write one that is a big seller. The ultimate for me is when these 2 factors merge and you get a White Album, Who’s Next, or, Nevermind.. My music guide prefers the Replacements Tim to Let It Be or Bob Mould’s work with Sugar over Husker Du. My favorite artists are the one’s who sell-out and still make artistically rich records. I ‘m more Rick Rubin than Pitchfork.
1. Fall Out Boy- Infinity on High
The Emo genre is filled with more crap than any rock genre of all-time and that includes rap-rock and hair metal. Outside of Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American, I can’t think of one Emo record that I think would have been in any of my Top 10 year end lists. After making the only other Emo recording I really liked, From Under the Cork Tree, its follow-up shows Fall Out Boy pointing to center field, swinging from their heels and damned if they don’t hit it out of the park. (This last sentence qualifies this piece as a baseball piece.) The singing of Patrick Stump is what truly makes this a special record. The guy can funk it up, rock out with his c–k out (well, that image fits Pete Wentz better), and even do the new romantic 80’s style ballad (Golden recalls early Depeche Mode).. I compare him to Elton John in his prime, as he doesn’t look the part, but he can sing about any type of genre and make it a standout. Who would have guessed that Babyface would produce 2 of the best pop/rock songs of 2007, but both This Ain’t A Scene, It’s An Arms Race and Thnks fr th Mmrs livened up a really lousy year on the radio. While the rest of the releases on my list would give me more cool points at Pitchfork, Infinity on High was the only one that managed to be a great record from beginning to finish, while at the same time entertain the masses. It ain’t American Idiot, but it is the best overall record of 2007.
2. Against Me!- New Wave
It is always fun when an indie punk band decides to try to reach a larger audience. Sure you are risking alienating your audience, but do you want to spend the rest of your lives in a van going from gig to gig just barely surviving? The best case scenario in this situation is to write some great message songs, while having Butch Vig put a slick gloss of production on the finished product. Bad Religion meets Cheap Trick, as Against Me should move up to a tour bus after this great rock record. Unlike his obvious rock heroes like Joe Strummer and Billy Bragg, singer Tom Gabel shows a sense of humor with his message, as White People for Peace demonstrates. Against Me! rocks power-punk here like the Hoodoo Gurus did during their prime.
3. Wilco- Sky Blue Sky
Welcome back Pt. 1. Wilco made one of the best records of the past 15 years in 1996’s Being There. While critics went crazy for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Summerteeth, these were vastly overrated works to my ears. I kind of had given up on Jeff Tweedy ever reaching the levels of Being There. Sky Blue Sky is not an Americana classic, but his singing and writing has never been better. Sky Blue Sky reminds me of what a John Lennon release in 2007 would be like. High praise, but the weary voice Tweedy brings has an aching quality which combines exquisite guitar sound that rings throughout this wonderful record.
4.Radiohead- In Rainbows
Welcome back Pt. 2. For quite awhile now, I’ve been lamenting the loss of Radiohead, the rock band. While many see them as imitators, I have been trumpeting Muse, as they have taken the Radiohead formula and moved it to its most bombastic extremes, making for superior records than Kid A, Kid B, or Kid C. In Rainbows shows Radiohead going the opposite direction, with the band exploring a quiet, almost trip-hop sound. It works great, as the band has written some of its best songs since OK Computer and has kept out much of the space rock that has limited theimselves from connecting with a larger audience. Much like Pearl Jam, Radiohead seemed to recoil away from the spotlight, as they had no interest in being the biggest Rock band in the world. Becoming another U-2 seemed to be Radiohead’s birthright after their classic records, The Bends and OK Computer, but they instead decided to explore soundscapes and focus on a connection with their most rabid fans. Many touted Hail to the Thief as their return, but it lacked the beauty that was so much a major component in their best music. In Rainbow finds the band someplace between their classic releases and Thom Yorke’s fine solo record, Eraser. Taking a step back is not always bad, as sometimes it helps you connect with what you do best. I look forward to seeing what Radiohead’s next move will be as I’m excited that they are truly back making music with some stong song-writing principles.
5. New Pornographers- Challengers
This Canadian group has always been more of a singles act to me. Their previous release, Twin Cinema, was lauded by many critics, but it was a big disappointment to me, as the hooks didn’t hook me. I actually had liked band members Neko Case and A.C. Newman’s solo works better. Not anymore, as the great indie pop record they always had in them finally came together with Challengers. The harmonies, the hooks, the strings, it has song after song that makes me wish I had the money to buy an AM radio station and play these 70’s singles right next to 10cc, Stealers Wheel, Big Star, and The Rasberries.
6.Spoon- Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Back in the 90’s, when Spoon was seen as a second-rate Pavement, it would have been hard to imagine they would be the the big deal and Stephen Malkmus would be kicking around an up and down solo career. Their previous release, Gimme FIction, put them on the map, but I think it is my least favorite of the excellent past 4 albums they have put out since 2001. If you are unfamiliar with them, British falsetto and the clap heavy percussion brings funk to their unique sound. This is the formula for Spoon and while I don’t like Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga as much as 2002’s Kill the Moonlight, it still demands attention on any list of the best of 2007.
7.White Stripes- Icky Thump
The only group that has put out more great records than Spoon this decade is Jack and Meg White’s band. When you add the top-notch work he did with The Raconteurs and Loretta Lynn, Jack White has become the most important figure in music today. Every time I wonder how they will be able to tweak their basic sound enough to keep things fresh, the Stripes add bagpipes and some flamenco horns and bam they sound just as fresh as ever. Jack White knows how to make music sound like it was recorded in the 60’s, but with all the dynamics of today. Like Spoon, Icky Thump isn’t their best work, but it still charts highly in 2007.
If you want to hear the greatest Kinks record since State of Confusion, look no further than the 1990’s. I’m a fan of Louis XIV, but they are more of singles band, where the 1990’s made a complete recording of 60’s Brit-pop of the Kinks done with the arena rock polish of the Kinks of the 80’s. I really dig the Scottish music scene with bands like Snow Patrol, Franz Ferdinand, The Fratelli’s, Mogwai, Paolo Nutini, and The View all making interesting music. The 1990’s might have a retro sound, but it is the most infectious record I heard all year.
9. The National- Boxer
The lo-fi record of the year, Matt Beringer’s low register voice brings a weariness to these passionate songs like if Leonard Cohen could really sing. I hear flourishes that remind me of the best work of Mark Eitzel and the Joy Division/Bauhaus instrumentation on most of it makes the Boxer a gloom rock classic.
10. Miranda Lambert- Gunpowder and Lead
This was the year that many critics found Miranda Lambert. A discovery on the USA Network’s Nashville Star, her debut was hit or miss, but the single, Kerosene, just might be the best country song of this decade. While this record doesn’t have a single on the level of Kerosene and isn’t as good overall as 2006’s Taking the Long Way by the DIxie Chicks, it is 2007’s best release by any solo artist, either rock or country. I should mention that Lambert is a sexy little package of pure blonde bombshell. Kind of like if Jessica Simpson wasn’t manufactured and had talent and brains. Keep Tony Romo away from her, please!
11. Dan Wilson- Free Life
I will start my review of this record using a quote by Wilson on who his influences are."
I’m heavily influenced by Joni Mitchell, Eddie Money, Beatles, Radiohead, Jaco Pastorius, Miles Davis, Pink Floyd, Neil Young. I’m lightly but happily influenced by Smashing Pumpkins, Elliot Smith, Bryan Adams, Pat Metheny, REM, Sigur Ros
Any artist that puts Eddie Money, Radiohead, Pink Floyd and Miles Davis in his list of major influences is someone I’m guessing I’m going to dig. In Dan Wilson’s case, I have since his days fronting the cirminally underrated band, Semisonic. While Free Life is not quite on the level of his work with Semisonic, it has a trancendent quality that few artists can manage. While many think of him as the guy that did Closing Time, Wilson won a Grammy last year for song of the year for Not Ready to Make Nice, which he wrote with the Dixie Chicks. One of the other great songs he wrote for their album, Easy Silence, he covers on Free Life. In a year that was weak for singer/songwriter types, Free Life is a dreamy gem you should take a listen to.
12, Kid Rock- Rock and Roll Jesus
Before the year started, if I would have known Fall Out Boy would sit on the top of my list I would have been pretty surprised. A bigger shock would have been Kid Rock being anywhere on my list. I know Bob Ritchie is not a guy who screams musical integrity and he might have the least range of a singer since David Lee Roth, but like Diamond Dave, the dude does have charisma and knows how to bring it to his music. Devil without a Cause was one of the best releases of 1998, but since then he has really put out a lot of crap. Working with producer Rob Cavallo must have helped him shape what he does best, as he has written quite possibly the best pure rock song of the year in So Hott, which brings sex and sonics together like a Monster Magnet classic. While there are a few clunkers on the record, as his Bocephus meets Bob Seger balladry is drug down by the fact the guy has no real talent for it, the uptempo songs are great, using soulful female backup singers like he is recording Gimme Shelter. Any guy who gets this much high-quality tail, puts out a quality record, and punches Tommy Lee in the jaw… all in one year…must be living a charmed life.
13. Rilo Kiley- Under the Blacklight
While many like the solo work of Jenny Lewis, I think she is at her best with Rilo Kiley, as the band really pushes her creativity. While 2004’s More Adventurous is a smarter record, Under the Blacklight is a lot more fun. Who says folk-rock with disco flourishes don’t make for a great melding of styles. Check out their Moneymaker video, where Jenny slithers. It also features a guy (Tommy Gunn) who looks like the porn version of Jim Rome. Rack him!
14. Arcade Fire- Neon Bible
An improvement over the overrated Funeral, Arcade Fire has done something much like the Killers, as their 80’s romantic vocal tones have been roughed up here and been given a bit of a Springsteen makeover. I get why so many critics and dudes in the 30-45 age range love them so much, as Arcade Fire reminds them a lot of their old college radio station. It is the second part of their album that really starts to connect with me, as their sound is stripped down a little more and the music fits the ache of the lyrics. I would suggest to Arcade Fire they listen to Sky Blue Sky for a template on what would really make their songs shine.
15. Amy Winehouse- Back to Black/Joan Osbourne- Breakfast in Bed
No song hit me harder this year than the first time I heard Rehab. I thought that i heard a classic Motown/Stax lost single. Then I discovered that it was done by some young British booze-hound who outside of the bee-hive hairdo and the Eartha Kitt makeup looked nothing like the girl I expected to produce this great voice. The second single, You Know I’m No Good, was almost as revelatory. The production work by Mark Ronson was just as important as the vocals in creating a White Stripes-like experience, but in this specific case bringing retro-sounding soul, not rock, with more modern dynamics. Back to Black starts to fade by the second half, but the first 2 singles alone make it deserving to be on this list.
I’m sure Joan Osbourne could give some tips on what it is like to be the flavor of the month, as her debut single, One of Us, was one of the best songs of 1995. Since then, she has tried to make her way home, like a holy rolling stone. She seemed to regain some of her heat stealing the show in 2002’s concert tribute film Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Breakfast in Bed further explores her talents at singing blue-eyed soul music, with her covers of Kiss and Say Goodbye and Sara Smile definite highlights. Unlike Winehouse she doesn’t have the tabloid life or youthful sass, but Osbourne has more depth to her offerings and sings like a woman, not a girl. I would love to hear what she could do with a producer like Ronson, as the the record has a little too much of a Don Was/Bonnie Raitt sound. It still is well-worth picking up, though.
It is sad to me what is happening in music, as artists are becoming singles machines. Similar to the 50’s, when 45’s were king, now downloads have left the long playing release a second class citizen. I was really disappointed by hip hop in 2007, as my list denotes. The biggest disappointment was Bruce Springsteen’s Magic, which was so overproduced it destroyed the orgainc feel that makes the E Street Band, Sure, Springsteen has used the Wall of Sound approach on a lot of his records, but this time Brendan O’Brien has recorded the thing so loudly that all the instruments blend into each other. A few songs are so good that they transcend this overproduction, but not many. By the way, I’m only giving partial blame to O’Brien, as I figure the Boss ididn’t just sit by quietly and let him make all the decisions on how the record sounds.