Best records of 2007

1. THE SADIES: NEW SEASONS (Yep Roc) – This record is filled with the sort of the songs that the Sadies themselves sing about in the track “Simple Aspiration”: “That simple little song/We used to listen all night long.” The Sadies’ music is far from simple, but it does have a modest, unassuming quality about it. The Good brothers are just about the most amazing guitar players on the planet right now, and those fancy licks come to them so easily that it never sounds like they’re showing off. And I love the way Dallas and Travis sing, too, with those croaky, understated voices of theirs. The songs on New Seasons sound slightly haunted. “Anna Leigh,” a song about a girl’s “eerie dream,” even contains the line, “It haunted me through all the shows, just what she saw.” The precise nature of all the dangers and dark fates alluded to in the lyrics is left a mystery. The album reaches an emotional peak for me on “My Heart of Wood,” in which the protagonist says he can barely breathe when he thinks about whatever it is that’s coming. “And if I’m still alive when the autumn kills the leaves, I guess I’ll be what they consider free.” The Sadies’ music might be categorized as roots rock or Americana, but it’s much richer than those labels might indicate, reminding me of everything from Johnny Cash and the Byrds to early R.E.M., but always sounding like nothing other than the Sadies. Sadies web site.

2. ARCADE FIRE: NEON BIBLE (Merge) – No, Neon Bible is not quite the album that Funeral was, but it’s still damn good. These are songs that burrowed into my brain over the course of the year, intensely personal and dramatically epic at the same time. The real church organ on “Intervention” is a great touch that really makes the song. The peculiar instrumental break in “No Cars Go” is one of those wonderful musical moments that makes you say, “What the heck was that?” The back-to-back songs with “don’t” lyrics (“I don’t wanna work in a building downtown…” in “Antichrist Television Blues” and “Don’t wanna live in my father’s house no more…” in “Windowsill”) are an eloquent expression of our age’s anxiety and frustration over the way things are. And the low-key, moody “My Body is a Cage” is a perfect ending. Arcade Fire web site. Neon Bible web site (with lots of videos and weird stuff).

3. FEIST: THE REMINDER (Cherrytree/Interscope) – This album has survived one of the true tests of musical quality for me: It made it through many spins on my stereo, plus overkill at the local Starbucks, and exposure on TV commercials. And after all that, when I put on the album again, it still sounded great from start to finish and I hadn’t grown the least bit sick of it. I have to admit to being a latecomer to the Leslie Feist fan club. While I like her previous album, Let It Die, this one’s better. I love her voice, and the arrangements are almost perfect in their elegance. I love mellow pop music when it’s done right, and this record is a good an example as I can think of how to do it right. Feist web site.

4. HANDSOME FURS: PLAGUE PARK (Sub Pop) – I hadn’t heard a note by the Handsome Furs when I saw them open this year for the Besnard Lakes at Schubas, but I found their guitar-meets-Casio-electronics sound pretty captivating. I bought the CD from their merch table, and it quickly become one of the albums I was listening to the most this year. I never got tired of it, maybe because it’s just nine songs long and all nine tracks have such strong melodies. I think I would have been skeptical if I’d read a description of the Handsome Furs’ sound. In a way, these songs sound like demos for a full band without the drums and bass and everything else that will be added later, but I don’t think these recordings could really be improved on with more bells and whistles. The guitar playing of Dan Boeckner (also a member of Wolf Parade) sounds perfect against Alexei Perry’s very basic keyboard chords and electronic drum beats, giving these anthems an unusual tension. Handsome Furs on myspace. Handsome Furs mp3s and videos on Sub Pop web site.

5. ANDREW BIRD: ARMCHAIR APOCRYPHA (Fat Possum) – Bird continues to amaze with his many talents. But it wouldn’t matter that he’s a fantastic whistler, violinist, singer, guitarist, etc., if he weren’t also writing wonderful songs to put all of that talent to use. This is another strong collection, almost on a par with his previous record, The Mysterious Production of Eggs. (Don’t overlook a delightful track Bird left off the album, “Self Torture,” which available on emusic.) Andrew Bird web site.

6. GRINDERMAN: GRINDERMAN (Anti) – Nick Cave and a smaller sub-unit of his usual backing band, the Bad Seeds, called themselves Grinderman and put out the year’s best loud rock music. Cave switched from his usual piano to guitar, and the pounding, twisted blues punk songs include his usual dose of wit, smarts and passion, and lots of frustrated libido. (See “No Pussy Blues.”) And on the rare occasion when Grinderman dialed down the intensity for a ballad, it also came up with a fabulously spooky song, “Man in the Moon.” Grinderman web site.

7. RADIOHEAD: IN RAINBOWS (self-released) – A superb album that will stand on its own merits regardless of the news story surrounding its unconventional release. I’ve liked every Radiohead album since OK Computer, so I’m not one of those people who felt like the band needed to “return to form.” To me, this is simply another great album in Radiohead’s impressive streak of great albums. It’s a subtle record that took a while to sink in for me. The band sounds at ease with its mix of sounds right now, not complacent but maybe a little comfortable. Yorke & Co. no longer need to prove that it’s OK to mix electronica with guitars. They know what they’re doing, and Thom Yorke even sounds a little soulful at times. Radiohead web site.

8. THE 1900s: COLD & KIND (Parasol) – The orchestral arrangements and vocal harmonies are sublime throughout this gem of an album. With all of the violins, guitars, keyboards, guy-and-girl vocals and what have you, the record ran the risk of sounding overstuffed, but somehow the 1900s managed to balance it all just right. There’s a strong 1960s flavor to the songs, with a little bit of the Mamas & Papas, and the sprawling orch-pop ensemble sound of later groups like Belle & Sebastian. The song “Acutiplantar Dude” (about a friend of the band who died) builds to a goose-bumps-raising line about being born again. “The Medium Way” has a similar climax, when the voices take the melody to an unexpected high (“I don’t know if I can sleep, it’s 3 in the morning“). These are illustrative examples of what I call the delayed-gratification principle in songwriting. As much as songwriters love to repeat the melodic hooks they come up with, sometimes it pays off to use it just once, dropping it in at the high point of a song. The 1900s web site.

9. SHARON JONES AND THE DAP-KINGS: 100 DAYS, 100 NIGHTS (Dap Tone) – Man, it’s been a really good year for soul music – old-school soul like James Brown and Motown and Stax artists used to sing. Despite all of the tabloid hullabaloo surrounding Amy Winehouse, I still think her record’s pretty fab, and so were the albums by Bettye LaVette and the Dynamites Featuring Charles Walker. Best of all, though, was Sharon Jones, who repeats the success of her last record, Naturally, with another platter of horn-driven grooves that sound exactly like lost soul sessions recorded four decades ago. I appreciate the answer that producer/songwriter/bandleader Bosco Mann gave on NPR’s “Fresh Air” when Terry Gross asked him how he achieved that sound. It’s not the equipment, he said, it’s the arrangements and the musicianship. Daptone Records web site.

10. ANTIBALAS: SECURITY (Anti) – These Brooklyn acolytes of Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat genre really let the logic of their songs dictate where they go. And they go to some strange places. The songs are long and mostly instrumental, but it never feels like the guys in Antibalas are jamming for just for the sake of jamming. The songs are compositions where every piece counts. There’s a little bit of singing (including a memorable rant/chant about the G.O.P.) and lots of brass. The horns sound so powerful. Antibalas web site.

THE REST OF MY TOP 25 in more of less descending order:

Dappled Cities: Granddance
The Shins: Wincing the Night Away
Loney, Dear: Loney, Noir
Magnolia Electric Co.: Sojourner
Björk: Volta
The Papercuts: Can’t Go Back
Amy Winehouse: Back to Black
Bettye LaVette: The Scene of the Crime
Johnny Irion: Ex Tempore
The National: Boxer
MV & EE with the Golden Road: Gettin’ Gone
Josh Ritter: The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
The Budos Band: The Budos Band II
LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver
Great Lake Swimmers: Ongiara

THE REST OF MY TOP 100 in alphabetical order (of course, all of this is subject to change after I listen to more records, and listen to these records more…):

The Aliens: Astronomy For Dogs
Fred Anderson and Hamid Drake: From the River to the Ocean
Besnard Lakes: Besnard Lakes Are the Dark Horse
Black Lips: Good Bad Not Evil
Black Moth Super Rainbow: Dandelion Gum
Blonde Redhead: 23
Boris with Michio Kurihara: Rainbow
Box of Baby Birds: Box of Baby Birds
Broken Social Scene Presents Kevin Drew: Spirit If…
The Broken West: I Can’t Go On I’ll Go On
The Capstan Shafts: Environ Maiden
Caribou: Andorra
Dinosaur Jr.: Beyond
Dolly Varden: The Panic Bell
Dolorean: You Can’t Win
Dr. Dog: We All Belong
The Dynamites Featuring Charles Walker: Kaboom!
The Earlies: The Enemy Chorus
Exploding Star Orchestra: We Are All From Somewhere Else
Field Music: Tones of Town
The Fiery Furnaces: Widow City
Figurines: When the Deer Wore Blue
The Go: Howl on the Haunted Beat You Ride
The Go! Team: Proof of Youth
Jose Gonzalez: In Our Nature
Patty Griffin: Children Running Through
P.J. Harvey: White Chalk
Richard Hawley: Lady’s Bridge
Iron & Wine: The Shepherd’s Dog
Sondre Lerche: Phantom Punch
Levon Helm: Dirt Farmer
Lil’ Cap’n Travis: Twilight on Sometimes Island
Linda Thompson: Versatile Heart
Charlie Louvin: Charlie Louvin
Eleni Mandell: Miracle Of Five
Mannequin Men: Fresh Rot
Cass McCombs: Dropping the Writ
The Mekons: Natural
The Mendoza Line: 30 Year Low
Menomena: Friend And Foe
Midnight Movies: Lion the Girl
Thurston Moore: Trees Outside the Academy
Marissa Nadler: Songs III: Bird on the Water
Nina Nastasia & Jim White: You Follow Me
The New Pornographers: Challengers
Oakley Hall: I’ll Follow You
Okkervil River: The Stage Names
Patrick Park: Everyone’s in Everyone
Parts & Labor: Mapmaker
Phosphorescent: Pride
Robert Pollard: Coast to Coast Carpet of Love
Robert Pollard: Standard Gargoyle Decisions
Porter Wagoner: Wagonmaster
Jon Rauhouse: Steel Guitar Heart Attack
The Ike Reilly Assassination: We Belong to the Staggering Evening
Richmond Fontaine: Thirteen Cities
Robbers on High Street: Grand Animals
Rufus Wainwright: Release the Stars
Savath & Savalas: Golden Pollen
Scotland Yard Gospel Choir: Scotland Yard Gospel Choir
Elliott Smith: New Moon
Spoon: Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Bruce Springsteen: Magic
Mavis Staples: We’ll Never Turn Back
Stars: In Our Bedroom After the War
Taken By Trees: Open Field
David Vandervelde: The Moonstation House Band
The Weakerthans: Reunion Tour
Tinariwen: Aman Iman: Water Is Life
Uglybeats: Take a Stand
Various Artists: The Inspiring New Sounds of Rio de Janeiro
Wilco: Blue Sky Blue
Robert Wyatt: Comicopera
Neil Young: Chrome Dreams II
Youth Group: Casino Twilight Dogs

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