The List – 2007 – Loring Wirbel
The slump in release activity is undeniable, as 2007 marked the second year in a row with just over 100 significant studio releases. While the best this year were surprisingly good, there were plenty of clunkers from the likes of Clap Your Hands and The Shins, and many albums clocking in at 30 minutes or less. There also seemed to be a remarkable number of reviewers assembling “best of” lists in 2007 who either had tin ears, or who responded too quickly to hype. Feist, for example, had a bubbly, enjoyable album, but among women singer-songwriters, her album was eclipsed significantly by Tori Amos (in my top slot) and even Nellie McKay – neither of which warranted a mention by most reviewers. Everyone went gaga over Band of Horses, who had a snoozy album, while ignoring indy stalwarts with good works in 2007, such as New Pornographers and Modest Mouse. Amy Winehouse garnered loads of attention for her bad-girl R&B, but her album was boooo-rrring compared to Motown revivalist Sharon Jones. Sure, we all have different opinions, but there were quite a few musicologists out there in 2007 listening to dreck and calling it a gourmet dinner.
Regular Studio Albums, 2007
1. Tori Amos, “American Doll Posse” – I’ve obviously never been an angsty teenage girl, but always respected Tori, though often from a distance. This year, her 80-minute, 24-song opus had the kind of sprawling quality of Beatles’ White Album or 69 Love Songs. You don’t often hear any artist compile this impressive a list of pop tunes.
2. The New Pornographers, “Challengers” – A.C. took a lot of heat from reviewers who think that “folkie” means “boring.” I don’t care if this sounds like a 21st century New Christie Minstrels, this is New Porns’ best album by far, and the Executive edition with bonus and live cuts is doubly impressive.
3. Yellow Swans, “At All Ends” – It’s difficult to give a noise album top billing due to its esoteric nature, but Yellow Swans have been honing their sound to reach a near-orchestral performance level. Astonishing stuff.
4. Iron and Wine, “The Shepherd’s Dog” – I’ll repeat what umpteen reviewers have said – who gave Sam Beam the odd drugs and music lessons? Older I&W CDs are great, but this is a huge leap forward, with African and Latin influences, and the first feel of a full band.
5. Okkervil River, “The Stage Names” – Sometimes heavy advance publicity is warranted, as with the newest outing from Will Sheff’s Austin ensemble, who have pulled together an amazing album in the Arcade Fire/Decemberists mold. The only caveat is that the two-disc bonus edition with an acoustic demo disc of the same songs does not work nearly as well as some bands’ (Pernice Brothers, Stacey Earle and Mark Stuart) use of the same tactic. Will can pen some great acoustic solo numbers, but these songs work better with band.
6. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, “Magic” – Yes, it’s true, this is the best Boss album since “USA,” and it is helped in no small part by Bruce absorbing a certain amount of style of The Magnetic Fields, a sound which oddly melds with E Street perfectly.
7. Arctic Monkeys, “Favorite Worst Nightmare” – Among all the hyped bands that made really crappy second albums over the last year, everyone seems to have overlooked the fact that those wild teens from Sheffield made a second album that arguably surpasses the first. Nice job, guys, too bad your Andy Warhol moment was over and too few people were listening.
8. !!!, “Myth Takes” – In both full-length albums and 12” dance singles, !!! always know how to mix avant-garde and dancy fun. But this album may just be their masterpiece. Songs like “Heart of Hearts” and “Bend Over Beethoven” sound like New Order in their mid-1980s prime, but even funkier.
9. Fiery Furnaces, “Widow City” – I’m never quite sure what Eleanor Friedberger is going to be up to, and this band’s last tour had them going through more heavy-metal posing than Todd Rundgren styling. Thankfully, the new album is as literate, adventurous, and careening-crazy as the “EP” release of a year or two ago.
10. Modest Mouse, “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank,” – Given that Johnny Marr of The Smiths joined up with the Mighty Mouse, one would think this album would have been praised regardless of results. Instead, everyone seems to whine that Isaac is resorting to sea shanties. Sorry, but these songs are as bountiful as any in the last MM album, if not quite as impressive as “Moon and Antarctica.” MM needs better praise than it’s getting.
11. Robert Pollard, “Coast to Coast Carpet of Love”
12. Robert Pollard, “Standard Gargoyle Decisions”
13. Robert Pollard and Circus Devils, “Sgt. Disco” – Merge Records made a big deal of a “double-trouble” release coming out in October, but few notice that former Guided by Voices frontman Robert Pollard actually came out with three at a time, with the Circus Devils album arriving just prior to CtC and SGD. He’s just as prolific as in the days of GbV, but with better editing. There are few filler songs on any of these albums, and many tunes are getting heavy radio play on college and AOR radio stations, something GbV rarely got. Good job, Uncle Bob!
14. Bright Eyes, “Cassadaga” – Conor Oberst is finally selling albums to match his talents, and this impressive release might be the best Bright Eyes ever made. It’s hard to say which was better, the songwriting or the kick-ass arrangements in this long and lush album.
15. The Arcade Fire, “The Neon Bible,” Earlier in the year, I might have thought this would automatically make Top Five, but additional listening convinces me it’s a little too calculated a move up from “The Funeral.” Nevertheless, Arcade Fire is one of those enthusiastic, literate, multi-instrument bands that make it very clear why they like to whoop it up with acoustic jams in subway stations and theatre aisles.
16. Charalambides, “Likeness” – Like Yellow Swans above, it’s hard to know how to rank experimental bands, but Tom and Christina deserve attention for an unusual, melodic effort at wringing odd feelings and experiences out of American traditionalist music.
17. Spoon, “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga,” – Britt Daniels has perfected the perfect three-minute British-invasion pop sound, and this album shows why Spoon was so popular on the outdoor festival circuit last summer. Some found that the “Get Nice” bonus disc sounded stupid, but I thought it was like a good drunk Guided by Voices basement session.
18. Radiohead, “In Rainbows” – The unusual release method of this album made folks ignore the content therein. Thom Yorke sounds happy for the first time in a while, and this album is enjoyable simply for being less paranoid than recent works. Still, it’s not a masterpiece, as some critics placing it at Number One would have you believe.
19. P.J. Harvey, “White Chalk” – The notion of Polly Jean doing a stripped-down album of just voice and piano caught many people’s fancy, and the fact that these were sad and lonely personal songs counted double. Still, as with piano albums like John Cale’s “Fragments from a Rainy Season,” the songs can sound too similar after the album is halfway through. All the same, a surprising shocker for PJ.
20. The Hives, “Black and White Album” – We already know that Hives know how to make a house-rocker album, they’ve just perfected the format. The ultimate loud-party spin.
21. Neil Young, “Chrome Dreams II” – How did this superb release get down here, while last year’s sloppy “Living with War” was Number Two? Only because this was a mixed bag of tunes from various points in Neil’s post-1985 career, so the common theme is hard to discern. But for an old geezer, Neil’s random collectibles beats anyone else’s highly-polished diamonds. And it’s nice to finally have “Ordinary People” on a studio album.
22. The White Stripes, “Icky Thump” – All in all, quite an impressive album for a group that always has to prove its own hype is warranted. The clear thing to notice in Icky is that Jack White maintains his sense of humor and does not take his celebrity-ism seriously. Here’s hoping Meg can get better so these two can get back out on the road.
23. Interpol, “Our Love to Admire” – These guys have made such a career out of being the cold New York offspring of Joy Division, it’s nice to see such a warm and sincere album. A few weak cuts, but a solid effort.
24. Enon, “Grass Geysers and Carbon Clouds” – As a trio with an Asian female lead singer, Enon could easily fall into the Deerhoof-Blonde Redhead trap of turning to a formula sound. The most surprising thing, as we’ll see below, is that the weird and wacky Deerhoof is getting the most predictable. Enon’s new one, like its last two, is fresh and odd and engaging.
25. Nellie McKay, “Obligatory Villagers” – Maybe Nellie took crap for releasing two sprawling two-disc sets in a row, because the new one is only about 32 minutes. Still, Nellie is one of the few that can mix perfect jazz torch-singer standards, free-form obscenity, and Loony Tunes antics in one wild mix.
26. Starving Weirdos, “Summon with Electronic Sorcery” – It’s hard to say this is the best SW album, since they’ve come out with some impressive works in the last two years, but this is clearly evolving in the same way Yellow Swans’ work is.
27. Cloaks, “A Crystal Skull in Peru” -- A special release by Starving Weirdos from their friends, this is a pretty bell-oriented studio album.
28. Jackie-O Motherfucker, “Valley of Fire” – Notice how, in the same way Six Organs and Magik Markers have been getting soft and melodic, Jackie-O brings in some acoustic instruments to mix with the long, wild jams and the moments when Inca Ore is ranting like the Southern preacher she was always destined to become.
29. Six Organs of Admittance, “Shelter from the Ash” -- One reviewer said that, by trying to create a composite of his previous three or four releases, Ben Chasny was aiming at a lowest-common-denominator product that wasn’t optimized for anything. Wrong. The mere fact Ben has Elisa Ambroglio singing backup counts for a lot, and the guitar work and arrangements herein are simply stunning.
30. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, “Living with the Living,” A great pop mini-masterpiece, particularly in the expanded two-disc version. Ted deserves to be hoisted up high by the Hold Steady/Spoon crowd.
31. Magik Markers, “Boss” – Now that they’re a duo of just Pete and Elisa, MMs have decided to go semi-legit in the studio, turning from wild noise to beautiful compositions. Remember, behind every successful noise artist is a romantic melodic composer waiting to break free.
32. Future Clouds and Radar (s/t) – Some magazines and online sites would have you believe this effort from Robert Harrison of Austin’s Cotton Mather band is the most innovative thing since Sgt. Pepper or White Album. Welllllll… it’s surprisingly good, a deep double-disc effort, but it’s hard to rank it with GbV or Lennon- McCartney.
33. Sunburned Circle, “The Blaze Game”
34. Sunburned Hand of the Man, “Fire Escape”
35. Sunburned Hand of the Man, “Z” – There are doubters who claim that Boston’s Sunburned Hand of the Man mix the worst elements of Sun City Girls and Jackie-O, to sound like hippie drum-beaters who’ve had too much acid. Wrong wrong wrong. In 2007, the band released three studio albums and three “specials,” including collaborations with Circle and Four Tet. What more do you want? Recognize genius, you fools!
36. The National, “Boxer” – Many folks had this thoughtful, poetic band in their top five. I have no complaints about that, I guess the lyrical staying power didn’t stick with me as long as for some.
37. Liars (s/t) – Liars said they wanted to get less experimental and more primitivo, and this album did it – sounds like muddy grunge rock from the early 1990s, but that can be a good thing!
38. Deer Tick, “War Elephant” – Because of the nature of his early folky-country self-releases, people might have been expecting a minimalist first album from John McCauley. Instead, this is a country-rock album reminiscent of Gram Parsons or Townes Van Zandt. Good stuff for a 20-year-old, topped off with a cover of Anthony Newley’s “What kind of fool am I?”
39. Jesse Sykes, “Like, Love, Lust and the Open Halls of the Soul” – Jesse has an endearing, deep-throated singing style she mixes with an Allman Brothers-type band, for a warm experience evoking late-70s Americana music.
40. Emma Pollock, “Watch the Fireworks” – The former lead singer for Delgados is fronting her own band now, backing up the New Pornographers on tour dates with some powerful original material.
41. Blonde Redhead, “23” – The first album since Kazu Makino’s riding accident brings BR to a poppier sound, but no less entrancing or experimental. Nice stuff.
42. Animal Collective, “Strawberry Jam”
43. Panda Bear, “Person Pitch” – Most reviewers tend to rate the solo album by Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) of Animal Collective way higher than the group effort, but I’m not going to take sides. Both albums are playful, intelligent, fun, and singable. AC and PB come from that downtown NY experimental crowd, but all their stuff is humorous and upbeat, something sorely needed these days.
44. Via Audio, “Say Something” – One of the big surprises of Denver’s Monolith Festival, this power-pop band fronted by Jessica Martens is fun in five dimensions.
45. The Weakerthans, “Reunion Tour” – While not always hitting the heights of “Reconstruction Site” or “Left and Leaving”, it’s good to have the Winnipeg folk-indy-punk band return.
46. Hototogisu, “Robed in Verdigris” – Another weird imprint from that Algerian-Egyptian label, this is Hototogisu at its most beautiful.
47. Feist, “The Reminder” – My comments on Feist above were not meant to distract from her very real talents. The new songs have very nice rhythmic arrangements, and live performances are very intriguing. Same goes for Bjork, below. But the writing itself isn’t as compelling as some songwriters, and Feist is getting a lot of good luck from an iPod commercial, good looks, good presence, etc.
48. Immaculate Machines, “Fables” – Kathryn Calder’s side project, when not with New Pornographers, is a very dazzling band whose second album isn’t as punky and hard-hitting as the first, but more adventurous in the songwriting.
49. GHQ, “California Night Burning Dreams”
50. GHQ, “Crystal Healing” – Marcia Bassett’s new material, both with GHQ and Hototogisu, seems more melodic and refined than earlier works, though still with a droning edge.
51. Yellow Swans, “Descension Yellow Swans” – Sure, not nearly as high as “At All Ends,” but it’s Yellow Swans. Of course it’s good.
52. Rilo Kiley, “Under the Black Light” – It’s hard to figure out what to do with this album, because it’s so damned good even when it’s trying to be deliberately dumbed down – and why, Jenny? After the incredible lyrics and arrangements on “More Adventurous,” Jenny Lewis decided to go for a 1970s disco-and-Fleetwood-Mac revival sound in an album all about the sex trade. Lyrics are predictable, tunes are like a “That 70s Show” soundtrack, yet you’ll find yourself humming them constantly.
53. Imperial Teen, “The Hair, The TV, the Baby, and the Band” – Imperial Teen is always cute in its harmonic pop, and cute when used as a B-52s spinoff is good. IT can’t reach the levels of greatness as someone like New Porns, however, so it never moves beyond upbeat and very pleasant.
54. Low, “Drums and Guns” – Maybe the fact this was released in February kept it completely out of the minds of most reviewers, but I’m not forgetting that Low tried to make an antiwar concept album, that succeeded as often as it failed. The fact that this followed an incredible album like “Great Destroyer” made it seem like a lesser jewel, but I hope it’s not dismissed for all that.
55. Les Savy Fav, “Let’s Stay Friends” – Probably this band’s best album, which means LSF is assigned to a secondary pantheon, which is a shame given how good it is at times.
56. Wilco, “Sky Blue Sky” – Everyone rags on this one because it’s Wilco’s pleasant-hippie-jam album, which I think is exactly what Jeff Tweedy wanted. Hate to put it down this low, particularly with songs like “Impossible Germany”, but it is Wilco’s treading-water album in many senses.
57. Thurston Moore, “Trees Outside the Academy” – Not fair, really, to have the godfather of progressive music’s solo album down at this level. It’s actually a solid, interesting work, better in some dimensions than anything Sonic Youth has offered lately.
58. Bill Callahan, “Woke on a Whaleheart” – Now that he’s not Smog any more, we get stripped-down acoustic efforts from Bill that are still some of the best folk-rock pieces out there.
59. Architecture in Helsinki, “Places Like This” – This band, like Animal Collective, emphasizes goofy, playful, imaginative stuff. Unfortunately, once you get beyond “Heart It Races” and a couple other songs, the quality of songwriting can’t be sustained.
60. Zaimph, “Mirage of the Other”
61. Zaimph, “La Nuit Electronique” – Marcia Bassett’s solo work, as mentioned earlier, is getting more inventive all the time, along with her GHQ/Hototogisu stuff.
62. Suzanne Vega, “Beauty and Crime” – Actually a triumphant return to interesting material after her self-indulgent breakup album, and some good material on her brother Tim.
63. Heather Leigh Murray, “Devil If You Can Hear Me”
64. Taurpis Tula, “Cadillac” – Heather’s experimental work on steel guitar, both solo and with Taurpis Tula, is getting wilder and more daring than her Charalambides days.
65. Art Brut, “It’s a Bit Complicated” – Any time Eddy sings it’s a party, and this one is as compelling as the first. Hope Art Brut sticks around for a while.
66. Bjork, “Volta” – Actually, this is quite good, but maybe I’ve made my way through all the Bjork fantasies I could. Antony’s backup vocals are particularly good.
67. Tom Carter and Vanessa Arn, “What Is Here For?” – Some of the best Charalambides-related work of the year, though Sarin Smoke is a heavy follow-up.
68. Caribou, “Andorra” – Even as a person who hasn’t been a rabid Caribou fan, I’m intrigued by this new one.
69. Sarin Smoke, “Smokescreen”
70. Sarin Smoke, “It Chars Our Lips” – When Tom Carter of Charalambides and Pete Swanson of Yellow Swans get together, magical things happen. The only reason these aren’t higher is that they represent ambient guitar music, great to experience but maybe not as up front as some of these artists’ works.
71. Explosions in the Sky, “All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone” – This might be Explosions’ best instrumental album, but they’re still sounding too much like Godspeed You Black Emperor for my taste.
72. Allison Kraus and Robert Plant, “Raising Sand” – Sure, it’s gorgeous bluegrass queen meeting aging hard-rocker in strange May-December studio work, but when it’s not too sappy, it’s very well done.
73. Kings of Leon, “Because of the Times” – This one is more hard-rock than the last ebullient “A Ha Heartbreak,” but it’s still fun.
74. Robert Pollard and the Takeovers, “Bad Football” – Not nearly as high as Pollard’s big three this year, but a fun and bouncy pop album.
75. Astral Social Club, “Neon Pibrock”
76. Astral Social Club, “Super Grease” – I’ve always loved Neil Campbell’s solo stuff, but I haven’t picked up every single ASC work the way I did with Vibracathedral, perhaps because this work seems more ambient.
77. Annie Garretson, “Connected” – Some surprisingly diverse and exciting material from a Colorado Springs woman who defies the typical singer-songwriter label.
78. Sir Richard Bishop, “While My Guitar Violently Bleeds”
79. Sir Richard Bishop, “Polytheistic Fragments” – Two slices of experimental acoustic guitar from the only active remnant left of the mighty Sun City Girls.
80. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, “100 Days 100 Nights,” – You want Motown retro? Forget Amy Winehouse! This is the real thing, and brilliant lyrics besides!
81. Leslie Keffer, “Feels Like Frenching” – The Southern queen of noise gets a proper album on Ecstatic Peace, and the world trembles in feedback.
82. Pinback, “Autumn of the Seraphs” – Interesting, though it doesn’t bowl me over as much as it does some people.
83. The Green Pajamas, “Box of Secrets – Northern Gothic Season 2” – Hmm, maybe Jeff Kelly should let Laura Weller do more of the songwriting – as with their Goblin Market side project, Jeff seems less inspired than Laura these days.
84. Angels of Light, “We Are Him” – We should thank Michael Gira for not giving us the same AoL sound with every album, and the addition of his new wife in backup is nice, but this has a disconnected quality to it.
85. Foo Fighters, “Echoes, Silence, Patience, Grace” – Dave Grohl never makes a bad Foo Fighters album, and the albums continue to sell in the millions, but the sound seems stuck somehow.
86. Ryan Adams, “Easy Tiger” – I’ve never been a Ryan Adams fan, but even I have to admit this is pretty good new material.
87. Steve Earle, “Washington Square Serenade” – Good material, some good topical pieces on immigration and aliens, but nothing on the level of “Jerusalem.”
88. Linda Thompson, “Versatile Heart” – Linda actually outranks former hubby Richard with the help of son Teddy and some very worthwhile material. Nice to see her back.
89. Climax Golden Twins, “Five Cents a Piece” – This seems more of a compilation-collection than a distinctive style, though anything from Climax is welcome.
90. Idea Fire Company, “Island of Taste” – Scott Foust and Karla Gay Borecky bounce between strict two-person IFCO efforts, and expanded politico-cultural works with Graham Lambkin (Shadow Ring) and Adris Hoyos (Harry Pussy). This should be a companion piece to Lambkin’s new “Salmon Run,” which I’m not including because I can’t find the stupid thing!
91. Melt-Banana, “Bambi’s Dilemma” – It’s good to see Melt-Banana back, and there seems to be some concession to commercial taste here, though it’s still mostly screaming and craziness.
92. Deerhoof, “Friend Opportunity” – And speaking of commercialism with Asian singers, I should praise these folks for making a very listenable album, but it’s very short, and not as interesting as when Deerhoof goes avant-garde.
93. Paul McCartney, “Memory Almost Full” – I almost neglected this because of the Starbucks contract (and did reject the Eagles due to Wal-Mart deal), but McCartney continues to churn out songs with an occasional edge of Beatles greatness.
94. Andrew Bird, “Armchair Apocrypha” – Sorry, Bird fans, this one held my interest far less than his last one. Some have in the top ten, I just didn’t get the energy of it.
95. Davendra Banhart, “Smoky Rolls Down Thunder Canyon” – As other reviewers have noted, this one certainly is long and diverse, with lots of Latin numbers, but Banhart sometimes goofs around with songs that fail to go much of anywhere.
96. Richard Thompson, “Sweet Warrior” – Always a pleasure to hear new Thompson material, though little grabbed me from this album.
97. Fursaxa, “Alone in the Dark Wood” – Tara deserves more, but her medieval style is an acquired taste.
98. The Good, The Bad, and the Queen (s/t) – So where’s the excitement here? Lots of marketing hype, not a lot of stellar material.
99. Lucinda Williams, “West” – Why did this album not grab me like “Essence”? Was it because she sounded tired and defeated? Not sure.
100. Vibracathedral Orchestra – “Sun Balance”
101. Vibracathedral Orchestra – “Wisdom Thunderbolt” – VCO in its post-Neil Campbell period isn’t quite the same, but all their material is worth hearing, including the new studio stuff.
102. Band of Horses, “Cease to Begin” – OK, some people had this at Number 1 or 2 of the year, and that’s just silly. The guys in BoH used to be in Carissa’s Wierd, a strange and weird band with violin who were always interesting. This is mellow alt-country that is pleasant enough, but no Carissa’s Wierd.
103. Joni Mitchell, “Shine” – Maybe I’m down on her for her Doris Lessing-style grumpiness, but the things I see are the things many critics complain about: good tunes, social consciousness, but a certain snide attitude more befitting of a crone. These are good songs for a return of Joni, but the haughty attitude disturbs me.
104. Patti Scialfa, “Play It As It Lays” – I always try to give Bruce’s wife more credit than some of those meanies, but these blues-rock tunes aren’t as inspired as some of her previous works.
105. Amy Winehouse, “Back to Black” – Once you get past the novelty of “Rehab,” Winehouse’s main appeal is her bad-girl image. So she can do R&B and jazz rehashes. So can Sharon Jones, and better.
106. The Shins, “Wincing the Night Away” – We were warned that the third Shins album might be a disappointment, and yeah, it was mostly boring.
107. Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah, “Some Loud Thunder” – There are the classic “sophomore slump” second albums that don’t quite match the first, and then there are the second-album stinkers. This is one of the latter.