I’m still not sure what kind of year it was.
If you were reading all year, you probably noticed the see-saw of emotions and proclamations I made at regular intervals. 2007 was the best year ever one month, and a sad disappointment the next. I sailed into December certain that the year was a mediocre one, and that 2007’s top 10 list wouldn’t stack up to those of the past two years – two of the best years I can remember, both personally and musically.
Well, that list appears below, and if I do say so myself, it holds up nicely. I was worried for no reason. I still think 2007 wasn’t quite as good as its two predecessors, but I discovered, as I was digging through the more than 100 CDs I bought this year, that there were some fantastic gems hidden there. I rounded up 12 honorable mentions as well, and two additional favorites that were ineligible for the list. I also found a couple dozen excellent songs from lesser albums that colored my year, some I’d all but forgotten.
2007 wasn’t bad, all told, but I’m still not ready to sing its praises. I think there are two reasons for my lingering disappointment. First, the year gave me nothing that stopped my heart and made me weep. Here’s the thing – the last three years each had that one album that shot to the top of my list – the indisputable choice, the most extraordinary piece of music I heard. In rapid succession, we got Brian Wilson’s SMiLE, Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois, and Joanna Newsom’s Ys. You can’t beat that, and 2007 didn’t even try – I won’t downplay how much I dig the album atop my list this year, but it isn’t even in the same league as those three.
Secondly, so many of my regular favorites let me down this year. Some of them, like Rufus Wainwright and Ryan Adams, put out acceptable records when they should have made extraordinary ones. But many more of them squeezed out efforts that were just beneath them. The New Pornographers, Wilco, They Might Be Giants, Bjork and Marillion all made sub-par albums, and in fact I was ready to call Marillion’s Somewhere Else the biggest disappointment of my year, before Neil Finn resurrected Crowded House for the lousy, boring, unworthy Time on Earth.
So it took a while to look beyond the badness, but there’s nothing like formulating a list of the good stuff to make you see the silver lining. My top 5 records this year surprised the hell out of me – here’s a band I had written off, a couple others that hadn’t impressed me much until now, and a number one that came out of nowhere. The top 10 this year contains no old standbys, two artists I’d given up on, and a bunch of albums that honestly shocked me with their sheer quality.
You wanna see it? Okay, okay. First, let me get the rules out of the way. As usual, only new full-length studio albums count – no live records, no covers albums, no compilations, no rarities collections. Only albums released between January 1 and December 31, 2007 are eligible, and entrants are graded on composition, performance, production and personal taste. Your mileage may vary.
I nearly revised a rule this year, and I may very well end up rewriting it next year. Here’s why: for the first time ever, there’s an album in my top 5 this year that isn’t technically out yet. I usually confine my list to those records out in physical formats in record stores, but one of them (and I bet you can guess which one) was only released digitally. The CD version of that album comes out on December 31, saving me the moral dilemma, but I see the writing on the wall. I know this is the way of the future, and you can bet next year will see more of these, and I’ll likely include them in the list, if they’re good enough.
Just to clarify, though, I love packaging and physical formats, and I’ll be sad to see them go.
So anyway, here are some honorable mentions for you before we get to the list proper. We start with two of my favorite collections of the year, neither of which is eligible for the top honors. First up is Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, who defied all expectations with their wonderful Raising Sand. It’s all covers, you see, but they’re extraordinary covers, Plant and Krauss winding their harmonious voices together over earthy, smoky folk and blues tunes. They do the Everly Brothers, Tom Waits, Mel Tillis and Townes Van Zandt, and they do them all beautifully.
And then there’s New Moon, the two-CD collection of unreleased music from Elliott Smith. If you were expecting a hodgepodge of rarities and demo-quality basement recordings (like Nick Drake’s Family Tree, for instance), you were likely blown away by the consistency and quality of New Moon. It’s very much like getting two terrific new albums from the late, great Smith, and I’m grateful for these songs. Smith was hailed as one of the best songwriters of my generation, and New Moon gives you another two dozen reasons why.
We go back to the first quarter of the year for the first of our honorable mentions. Everyone seems to have forgotten about Bloc Party and their swell sophomore album A Weekend in the City. It’s slower and deeper than their debut, but it’s better, and in an album or two these guys should be on the list. With “Hunting for Witches,” Bloc Party also wrote one of the coolest songs of the year, with what I think is 2007’s best guitar riff.
Tegan and Sara made their best album with the brief, melodic The Con, while Joy Electric produced a vocally-driven winner with The Otherly Opus. Marc Cohn broke his nine-year silence with Join the Parade, a different kind of album for him, and with “Dance Back From the Grave” wrote the best post-Katrina hymn I’ve heard. And Rilo Kiley put together their best record with the sugary, glossy pop gem Under the Blacklight. (That sound you just heard was my friend Jody squealing with delight.)
I criticized Fountains of Wayne for clogging their fourth album, Traffic and Weather, with novelty songs, but further listens have convinced me of the effervescent pop wonder in this record. There’s some crap, like “Strapped for Cash” and the terrible “Planet of Weed,” but when they’re on, they turn out witty smilers like “Someone to Love” and “’92 Subaru.” And when they’re at their best, they tug on the heartstrings with tunes like “I-95” and “Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim,” maybe the year’s sweetest love song. It’s not their best, but it’s better than I first thought.
Terry Taylor brought the Swirling Eddies back from a decade-plus hiatus for The Midget, the Speck and the Molecule. It shouldn’t have surprised me that Taylor would make a terrific album, but it did – I was dreading a jokey, half-hearted chucklefest, and what I got is a worthy successor to Zoom Daddy. It’s dark, it’s clever, and it’s definitely funny, but Taylor has written some of his best latter-day songs here about faith in a materialistic world. It’s super.
Minus the Bear practically redefined majestic with their third full-length, Planet of Ice. They refined their complex geometrical rock, delivering eight-minute epics and two-minute pop thrillers with equal ease. They were bettered, but only slightly, by Explosions in the Sky, who took their instrumental soundscapes to new heights with All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone. It’s an album as gorgeous as its New Orleans-inspired cover art.
Modest Mouse produced their finest album yet with We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, bringing former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr into the fold. Many people criticized the album for moving too far away from the scrappy, unfocused roots of Modest Mouse’s earlier records, but as you might expect, that’s exactly what I liked about it.
PJ Harvey nearly made the list with her haunting White Chalk. It’s a fragile, un-PJ Harvey kind of album, one that will chill you to the bone. But I realized pretty quickly that I’d overrated it based on how it made me feel. In the end, this is a ghostly experiment that often works, but it doesn’t hold a candle, compositionally speaking, to anything on the list. If you want an unnerving experience, though, you can’t do better than this.
And that brings us to number 11, and it’s Over the Rhine’s lovely The Trumpet Child. Karin Bergquist and Linford Detwiler crafted a tribute to the old-time jazz and gospel albums in their record collections, and in so doing took their sound to some beautiful new places. Bergquist remains one of the best singers we have, and if not for the dismal “If a Song Could be President,” this record may have ended up on the list. I certainly won’t quibble with anyone who likes this better than some of my top 10 choices. If you’ve ever liked OTR before, get this. You won’t regret it.
Which brings us to the list proper. It starts with a band I’d never heard before this year, and ends with an unlikely masterpiece. It’s a solid, surprising collection of 10 very good albums, putting lie to the notion that ’07 had nothing going for it. And here it is:
#10. Loney, Dear – Loney, Noir.
Emil Svangenen is Loney, Dear, and for years he’s been making these ornate pop records all by himself, playing a bevy of instruments and layering his high, wavery voice again and again. You’d think the result would be insular, and maybe a little canned-sounding, but instead it’s glorious. Sub Pop released Loney, Dear’s fourth album in the U.S. earlier this year, and it’s a brief charmer – 10 delightful slices of chamber-pop graced with horns and strings and sweet melodies. I’m going to treasure this one – if not for the band at number 7, this would be the discovery of the year for me.
#9. Bright Eyes, Cassadaga.
It took Conor Oberst long enough to live up to his own hype, but here it is, the first Bright Eyes album with no tracks I want to skip. It’s the biggest-sounding record Oberst has made, with oodles of guest artists, stacked instruments and sound effects, and that certainly helps. But what makes this album so good is that it contains the 13 best songs Oberst has ever written, all in a row. It’s all over the place stylistically, from the country-rock of “Four Winds” to the minor-key folk of “Middleman” to the classic balladry of “Make a Plan to Love Me,” but Oberst handles each style with aplomb. And the closing tracks are heartbreaking, particularly “Lime Tree.” Hopefully this is Bright Eyes’ Great Leap Forward, but even if he never makes one like it again, Cassadaga will remain excellent stuff.
#8. Tori Amos, American Doll Posse.
Excuse me while I do a little dance to celebrate Amos’ return to this list. She’s one of my favorite artists, and has been since high school, but for the last 10 years, she’s churned out overlong, uninteresting, sloppy records like Scarlet’s Walk and The Beekeeper. I had written her off, truth be told, and I wasn’t holding out much hope for Posse, another 78-minute concept album. But it’s awesome, a loud, bold, engaging record that cranks up the guitars and finally, finally wakes Tori up. Posse is the first of her albums in a decade that sounds inspired, and it doesn’t waver – there are only a couple of bum tracks out of 23, a remarkable ratio for latter-day Tori. It’s no Little Earthquakes, but Amos is back, and I couldn’t be happier.
#7. Okkervil River, The Stage Names.
I always feel a little stupid when I discover a band that’s been around for years. The Stage Names is Okkervil River’s fifth album, but it’s the first one I’ve heard, much to my chagrin. I knew within the first minute of “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe,” when Will Sheff’s voice shot up that extra octave and the pianos kicked in, that I’d found something special, and the rest of the record didn’t disappoint me. They’re a classic rock and roll band, but I defy you to find sadder songs this year than “Savannah Smiles” and “A Girl in Port.” And I dare you to stay neutral on this band once you’ve heard the way they work “Sloop Jon B” into the crashing closer, “John Allyn Smith Sails.” This is a great album from a band worth watching, and the discovery of 2007 for me.
#6. Monarch, Lowly.
I didn’t expect this. Brennan Strawn’s Monarch used to be just another dramatic rock band, but their second album (which feels to me like Strawn’s first solo album, truth be told) is a stupendous set of soaring anthems and orchestrated wonders. Strawn has a voice that most frontmen would kill for, and on this album, he uses it to its fullest, penning stratospheric melodies and singing the hell out of them. His songs are about love and faith and holding on to both, and while I love the hummable pop numbers like “Lose it All,” I am fully taken in by his slow-build epics, like “Find Others” and the amazing “Save Your.” The record comes in crummy packaging, but don’t let that deter you – head here and add this to your collection post haste.
#5. Radiohead, In Rainbows.
In many ways, Radiohead was the biggest story of 2007. Everyone wanted to talk about the release of this album as an MP3 download, with no label support, and everyone wanted to use it as the model for the changing industry. But while everybody discussed the format, nobody talked much about the music – a shame, since In Rainbows is far and away the best Radiohead album since OK Computer 10 years ago. The secret? They jettisoned the cold, mechanical, insular sound of their work since then, and made the warmest, most human record of their career. They also wrote their best, most melodic songs in a decade for this album, including the wonderfully simple “House of Cards” and the semi-sweet “All I Need.” In Rainbows is going to be remembered for its release strategy, but it deserves to be remembered for its music, too.
#4. The Arcade Fire, Neon Bible.
I’m surprised, too. After this band’s debut, Funeral, had the indie-rock cognoscenti all a-twitter, I tried it, and reservedly liked it. But I was blown away by the follow-up, a grandiose art-rock project with song after song building towers of sound. This is a powerful record, one that proves that ambition is not a thing of the past among the new crop of artists. From the creeping strings of “Black Mirror” to the thick organ of “Intervention” to the joyous horns of “No Cars Go,” Win Butler and his band have built a monolithic pop album here, one that still knocks me flat after dozens of repeat plays. Funeral was the prelude. This is the real thing.
#3. Aqualung, Memory Man.
I’m not sure what I was expecting when I picked up Aqualung’s third album. I’ve enjoyed Matt Hales’ work before, despite the awful nom de plume he’s picked for himself, but his take on Coldplay-style piano-pop has never made much of an impression. Not so this album, Hales’ giant step forward – Memory Man is a masterwork, a modern pop album of such emotion and invention that I’m honestly surprised at how little attention it received. Memory Man is a lot of things – it’s a winning collection of piano-based pop songs, sure, but it’s also a headphone album of the highest order, chock full of little sonic touches that take time to discover. And it’s a song cycle about holding on, about living through the worst the world has to offer. In the crushing final track, “Broken Bones,” Hales pleads over a static-filled CB connection for a little more time before the world collapses, and I don’t think I heard a better final track all year. I don’t know if anyone else is watching Hales’ ascension, but I certainly am, and Memory Man is a great sign for his future.
#2. The Shins, Wincing the Night Away.
Wincing, the first great album of the year, came out in January, and held on to best every album but one. That should tell you how good this thing is. James Mercer obviously loves the same records I do, and the Brian Wilson influence looms large here. But he’s also exploded his band’s sound with moody pieces like “Sealegs” and “Black Wave,” setting them next to ultra-melodic stunners like “Australia” and “Phantom Limb.” With the closer, “A Comet Appears,” he penned one of the prettiest songs of the year, the perfect ending to this nearly perfect album. For the first time, everything came together for the Shins – this is their first top-notch album, and I had a few sleepless nights about relegating it to the number two spot. Anyone calling Wincing the Night Away the album of the year won’t get any fight from me.
But I can’t, because the record at number one surprised the living hell out of me. It’s a modern pop masterpiece from the unlikeliest of sources. Here it is:
#1. Silverchair, Young Modern.
Yes, Silverchair, the Australian trio that started off as a Pearl Jam tribute band. Many people my age remember their first two albums, Frogstomp and Freak Show – the first for its ubiquitous hit “Tomorrow,” and the second for its ridiculous songs about eating disorders. They were terrible. I’d ask you to cut Daniel Johns some slack, since he was a teenager when he wrote those albums, but they’re so bad that he deserves no quarter.
If you tuned out then, I wouldn’t blame you, but you missed an astonishing evolution. Over two increasingly better Silverchair discs and a side project called The Dissociatives, Daniel Johns grew into one of the best pop songwriters on the planet. And Young Modern is where he proves it. You will not believe this is a Silverchair album. There has never been one like this, and though the band must be aware they are asking people on this side of the pond to overcome a lot of baggage, this record is so very worth it.
Young Modern is a candy-coated sonic thrill ride, and every time you think you know where it’s going, you end up surprised. “Young Modern Station” and “Straight Lines” are the most typical things here, and even they are hummable and memorable. But by track three, all bets are off – “If You Keep Losing Sleep” is a psychodrama lush with strings and creepy percussion and brilliant melodies. And the hits keep on coming, right through to the end.
I can’t overstate just how much I enjoy the album’s centerpiece, the seven-minute “Those Thieving Birds/Strange Behaviour.” As the pianos pound and Van Dyke Parks’ string arrangements wind in and out, Johns delivers his master’s thesis in complex pop songwriting. The melodies on this thing are unbelievable, and they never quit. The second half offers sweet ‘70s pop in “Waiting All Day,” punky glam-rock in “Mind Reader” and an ELO tribute in “Low,” and the songwriting never falters.
There are several Great Leaps Forward on this list, but none as thrilling as the one Daniel Johns makes with Young Modern. He’s gone from laughable to brilliant in 10 short years, and this album is his pinnacle so far. When I bought Young Modern, I didn’t expect to find an album on par with some of the best stuff Jellyfish produced, but here it is. It’s not only the best album Johns has made yet, it’s the best record of the year, and it points toward a bright future for the still-young wunderkind at the wheel.
Hey, look at that, we’re done. I want to thank Dr. Tony Shore for his friendship and musical knowledge – he and I agree on the year’s best album, so I have no qualms about directing you to his blog here. And I want to thank you all for reading and sharing Year Seven with me. Next week is Fifty Second Week. Have a merry one, and be safe.
See you in line Tuesday morning… and to all a good night.