Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Internet Self-Releases, Indie Rock, Hip Hop, and a Canadian Bootleg: The Ten Best Albums of 2007

I didn't see many movies this year, and I played only a few new video games, so I can't help much with awarding honors to those artforms. But music -- I listened to quite a bit of music this year. So let's get 2007 over with: here are the ten best albums.

But before we get started:

Special Mention: The Tragically Hip, World Container; Amy Winehouse, Back to Black
Both of these great records arrived in America in 2007, but were released in the artists' native countries in 2006. Being the fussy nitpicker I am, I cannot in good conscience include them in this list. But you should find them anyway -- especially World Container.

Now then.

10. Sky Blue Sky, Wilco
Embracing the situation is our only chance to be free
Jeff Tweedy lets his country influences spread out, and the result is the most relaxed, straightforward album Wilco's ever released. The best of it sounds like a long-lost album by the Band, and features some of the best guitar work of the year (particularly on "Side with the Seeds").

9. BLAM Canada Tour 2007, Victoria 1-31-07, Barenaked Ladies
Throw your sticks and stones, throw your mobile phones
An offhand between-songs comment about the mascot for a long-closed chain of grocery stores leads to a joke about breakfast being the most important meal of the day ("That's why I had three this morning," Ed says), which leads to an improvised rap about eating Egg McMuffins on the beach with one's date, which somehow leads to a brief mash-up of "Shout" by Tears for Fears and "Victoria" by the Kinks. If you ever needed proof that the Ladies were insane, here you go; if you needed proof they were still a spectacular live act and musical force, you can find that here, too. They combine the strongest of their new material with a smart mix of classic tracks -- I wish I'd been there.

8. In Rainbows, Radiohead
Don't get big ideas -- they're not gonna happen
By this point, a Radiohead album that's merely "good" would seem like an enormous disappointment. Thankfully, In Rainbows is much better than that. Most of the press surrounding its release focused on its internet self-distribution and the way it would change the music business -- the great music kinda got lost in the noise. But a few spins of "Bodysnatchers" or "Jigsaw Falling into Place" is all you need to remind yourself why Radiohead is -- still -- the best band in the world.

7. We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, Modest Mouse
I laugh all the way to hell, saying "Yes, this is a fine promotion"
It's overlong, lyrically obtuse, and has the greatest album title I've ever heard -- in other words, it's just like every other Modest Mouse record. But this one stands above almost all of them: smart, catchy, and funny in all the right places, it's their best since The Moon & Antarctica. A three-song cameo by the Shins' James Mercer doesn't hurt, either.

6. Icky Thump, The White Stripes
Now my mind is filled with rubber tires and forest fires
I've mentioned many, many times how little sense it makes, but the White Stripes just can't stop making breathtaking music. After all these years, their sound seems different -- it feels thicker and denser -- but the instrumentation remains the same: Jack's screaming guitar and wailing vocals, plus Meg's simple and overloud drums. Those bluesy guitars make a comeback after sitting out for most of Get Behind Me Satan, and Jack makes it count with some top-notch riffing (check out "Little Cream Soda"). And when you hear the character sketch crammed in between verses on "Rag and Bone," you realize that there's never been a band that has as much fun making music as the White Stripes. They're just as much fun to listen to.

5. Wincing the Night Away, The Shins
So give me your hand, and we'll jump out the window
We can give James Mercer some kind of MVP award for his appearance on two of the albums on this list. But Wincing is a monumental work -- it's an indie pop record of surprising complexity, with even a few attempts to rock out. And "Phantom Limb" is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard.

4. The Fragile Army, The Polyphonic Spree
Everybody shines
The Spree take some getting used to, but not much -- the massive choir turns every song into an irresistible sing along, and the music is so bright and charming that it practically glows. Done badly, and every track could be a cheesy "We Are the World" chant; done well, and it's the Polyphonic Spree.

3. Graduation, Kanye West
My head's so big you can't sit behind me
Mr. West's infamous ego is getting harder and harder to complain about. Graduation is his most confident album yet, and finds him branching out even further to find his samples -- Michael Jackson, sure, but Steely Dan? Elton John? Mountain? Daft Punk?! And his rhymes continue to grow in sophistication and cleverness, even as they start to sound more and more like Versace and Louis Vuitton commercials (seriously, dude -- you like fancy clothes, we fucking get it). And boy, that feud 50 Cent decided to have didn't turn out too well for him, did it? Don't let the door hit you on the way out, Curtis.

2. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Spoon
You got no fear of the underdog -- that's why you will not survive
Another band that just gets better and better with every album. Gimme Fiction was a huge step forward in both artistic and commercial terms, but Ga Ga equals it and then improves, dropping horn sections and driving piano rhythms like they'd been doing it all their lives. If the mainstream ever turned away from American Idol and paid attention, Spoon could take over the world. If only, huh?

The Best Album of 2007: Neon Bible, Arcade Fire
The lions and the lambs ain't sleeping yet
In a Questionable Content strip, one of the characters jokes that Arcade Fire is so passionate about their music that they could very well spontaneously combust on stage. That was evident on 2004's Funeral, which turned grief into an explosive cathartic release. Neon Bible turns that fire outward instead, and they once again find magic. Political without being preachy, melancholy without being maudlin -- this group of crazy Canadian bastards seemingly can't do any wrong. Their massive sound can occasionally sound claustrophobic, which is probably the point -- but a rousing celebration like "No Cars Go" feels like a window opening. Two albums in, and they've been hailed as the patron saints of the indie rock scene and then proved they deserved the title -- where the hell do they go from here?

Now playing: Arcade Fire - No Cars Go
via FoxyTunes

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