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At Long Last: The Top-20 Albums of 2007
Saturday, January 12, 2008
I’m sorry for the tardiness, really I am, it was just inexcusable.

A lot of my Internet correspondents report that 2007 was a banner year for new music. If it was, I must have missed it. But then, it is entirely likely I did miss something; lifestyle has prevented me from spending as much time sitting around and listening—I mean, really LISTENING—to music this year as in years past. The primary driver here would be, as my wife calls her, “the short person who lives with us.” That is less a complaint than a wistful lament, because I love my short friend, love every compromise I make to accommodate her three-year-old needs. But I think I could count down my 20 favorite episodes of Spongebob way more easily than I can my 20 favorite new records of the year (and most of those would feature Plankton.) Because I spent WAY more time kickin’ back watching Bob than I did soaking up the glorious sounds of new rock’n’roll.

So if you’re new to the APW year-end top-20 list, yes, we still call them records around here. As long as the process involves recording, that isn’t likely to change. And too, we have long ago given up the conceit that we could present some sort of definitive list of the BEST records of the year; these are the favorites of all of us here at APW—“all of us” being one cranky, increasingly curmudgeonly middle-aged white guy with a decent job.

So no hip hop, no teen pop, no Arctic Monkeys. In fact, the whole rock megatend of nostalgia for 80s synth pop eludes me; I didn’t much care for the stuff the first time around. If you cite Duran Duran as an influence on your MySpace page, I’m not buying your record (although I will admit that I think that the chick from Fall Out Boy is hot.) And note to Amy Winehouse: the next time they ask you to go to rehab, mull it over.

Finally, a pet peeve. I like value for money as much as the next fella, but I find that a lot of records these days are just too damn long. I knew in 2002, for example, that I wasn’t loving Springsteen’s The Rising, because every time I played the thing I ended up looking at my watch. True. When a record leaves me wanting more, that’s a good thing. Our number one record this year clocked in at 38 minutes, and the artist also put out a companion EP that ran almost a half hour. Was there room for those extra songs on the full-length release? Absolutely. But posterity will reward the brevity. Plus, he got me to spring for both.

On the other hand, our number two record is a sprawling, self-indulgent double-album. Because when it works, it works.

OK then. I’m ready if you are. “RIYL” is an acronym for “recommended if you like…” But you’d have figured that out. The first 8 sort of cluster together for me toward the top; after that it got sort of difficult to decide what else to include, which is part of why I’m so dreadfully late this year.

And am I the only one who feels like he overpaid for Radiohead?

1. Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, Easy Tiger. I’ll assume you’ve already read my Amazon review (it’s the second one listed.) At this point, if Adams puts out a decent record and nothing extraordinary happens, it will probably land in the top slot on this list. I remain a total sucker for the guy. If I was a teenage girl, his poster would so totally be on my bedroom wall. From May through July this year, Adams and the Cards toured as an acoustic act, and these shows are, every one of them, a treasure. I was able to download and burn soundboard recordings of 20 or so of them from here (with the artist’s consent), and spent the entire summer listening to them. Sitting on the beach as the sun crawls down toward the horizon, blue giving way to orange, a gentle breeze, the Cardinals wafting from the portable speakers, my daughter frolicking and dancing on the surf—no complaints from me. On this record Adams seems to have “grown up,” which may not seem like a good thing for a rocker; but the real story is, he’s been clean and sober almost two years now, and the quality of his songwriting and his command of the delicate genre of country rock has gotten even better as a result. When I saw the Cardinals at Hiro in June, I was struck by how deftly Adams and band imbue a very soft, lilting, heart-on-sleeve kind of music with rock’n’roll spirit, rendering it divine. Very few artists have that ability, and the ones that do are the great ones. Get the EP as well and think of it as a double album. RIYL: Van Morrison, the Band, Neil Young, “Dead Flowers.”

2. Future Clouds and Radar, self titled. The debut album from Robert Harrison’s new band; his last one, Cotton Mather, put out some good records, and one great one (Kon Tiki, which sounds like John Lennon fronting Big Star circa 1979.) Harrison’s voice is oddly evocative of Lennon’s on “Strawberry Fields” or “I Am the Walrus,” and those two tunes provide a pretty good reference point for where this record sounds like it’s coming from. Sprawling across two CDs are tight, jangly, aching little pop tunes with lyrics that cut like a knife; swirling, swooshing passages, sound collage, found voices, chimes, sitars, and I don’t have the credits in front of me but I bet there’s oboe in there. There’s a struggle between structure (the beautifully crafted songs) and anarchy (the general everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production style), and when a work like this misses, it misses by a mile. But for me it connects. The self-indulgence and obvious excesses here lend a substantial amount of the charm. Classic 1968ish psychedelia RIYL: “Strawberry Fields,” Cotton Mather, Olivia Tremor Control, the Dukes of Stratosphear, going on a journey to the center of your mind.

3 Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, Raising Sand. With the utmost respect to these two credited performers, the driving artistic force here is, I believe, producer T-Bone Burnett. I’ll spare you his bio and the pathetic tales of my fanboy love for the guy, but there was a stretch in the ‘80s where it seemed like every time I loved a new record, T-Bone had produced it. More recently, he was behind the soundtracks to Cold Mountain, Oh Brother! Where Art Thou (featuring Krauss), A Mighty Wind, and I Walk the Line. Burnett plays a lot of (as akways, tasteful) guitar here, along with the always classy and understated Marc Ribot, and acoustic bluegrass stud Norman Blake. The sound is sparse, moody, mysterious, deep dark juju folk, with Celtic roots showing. The two lead voices blend remarkably well; the music shimmers and seethes ominously. RIYL: T-Bone Burnett, the Oh Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack; Ollabelle

4. Lewis Taylor, The Lost Album. Taylor is a Brit who made some waves in the late 90s and early 00s with records reminiscent of Marvin Gaye-style soul, and drawing comparisons to Stevie Wonder because he did all the vocals and played all the instruments. This one was apparently recorded at the time but shelved because it didn’t fit the sound. It finally came out this past January, and it is magnificent, drawing on the Marvin Gaye soul stuff but more heavily influenced by classic Todd Rundgren and Brian Wilson/Beach Boys. Supposedly he has retired from music, which is a crime. If you like sunshine and guitar pop, this record will surprise and delight you; it strikes from the heart of 1972, all Technicolor, in the best possible way. I heard he did a show in Manhattan shortly before retiring where he covered Rundgren’s “Everybody Goes to Heaven/King King Reggae” for an encore; and he covered Wilson’s “Melt Away” on his Stoned album. RIYL: Brian Wilson, Marvin Gaye, June and the Exit Wounds, New Radicals, 70s song-form Todd Rundgren.

5. Paul McCartney, Memory Almost Full. Sure, I’m a sorry sucker for McCartney, but consider that I haven’t really liked his work since Flaming Pie (1997), and this is better than that record. This is the first album of his to bring the giddy fluffy joy since Linda died; and to think I thought he’d lost it. In fact most pop geeks I know agree it is his best since 1989’s Flowers in the Dirt. Every record he puts out, pundits say, “It sounds like the Beatles!” Well, this one sounds more like classic Wings. And what’s wrong with that, I’d like to know? A lot of songs about looking back, upbeat and catchy melodies even though some of the subject matter is somber. I really like “That Was Me” and “Gratitude,” and “Mr. Bellamy” is clearly acquainted with Mrs. Vanderbilt. It took me three listens, but these melodies stuck in my head all year long. RIYL: Silly love songs, “Silly Love Songs.”

6. Josh Rouse, City Mouse, Country Mouse. He won me over for good with 1972 (one of my very favorite records from 2003, and from the ‘00s in general.) As usual, breezy, bouncy melodies that go down easily and that your wife will like (conversely, if you are someone’s wife, you might seriously consider picking this up.) Rouse married his Spanish girlfriend and moved to Barcelona, and there is something ineffably domestic about this record (indeed there is a track called “Domesticated Lovers.”) It also has a tinge of the bossa nova feel. To me it just sounds like brunch on the beach, and we should all be so lucky. RIYL: Rouse, Jeff Foskett, Jeff Larson, folk rock, brunch on the beach.

7. America, Here and Now. No, I’m not kidding. A year ago I’d have said that this was a band that made its entire career out of the 12 songs on this 33-year-old record (and don’t tell me you’ve never owned it.) I haven’t even heard any song of theirs since Carter was president. Yet somehow, perhaps because of hipster help from Smashing Pumpkin James Iha and Fountains of Wayne guy Adam Schlesinger (and an assist on one track from our guy Ryan Adams), they’ve managed to make a record that keeps the summer alive. Just unaccountably likable and good. Am I an America fan now? Nuh uh; let’s not get crazy. But credit where credit is due, and this exquisite piece of harmonic fluff will make you want to take Sister Golden Hair for a drive along the Ventura Highway, for sure. And as an added bonus, I kid you not, it comes with a live disc featuring those exact same 12 songs from that old record. RIYL: Jeff Larson, Josh Rouse, a warm breeze in the springtime, feeling like its 1974.

8. Mark Olson, The Salvation Blues. A member of the Jayhawks during their exquisite-harmony, alt-country heyday (remember this record?) This is a solo affair, although the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris contributes harmony vocals on some of the tracks, providing shivers and chills. And of course Greg Leisz plays pedal steel, as he does on one in three albums each year. A simple record, the sound of voices and stringed instruments and light percussion; kind of alt.country but not too twangy. I put it in the CD changer, and it stayed there an inordinate amount of time, until without much thinking about it, it had become one of my favorites of the year. Way more appealing than any recent Golden Smog record. And they say Olson and Louris are teaming up for a summer ’08 release. Cool. RIYL: real musicians playing their instruments, the Jayhawks.

9. Bruce Springsteen, Magic. It isn’t like you need my help to decide what you think. Many hard core fans call it one of his best; to those fans, I’d suggest revisiting, say, Darkness or The River. I may be in the minority, but I don’t think producer Brendan O’Brien is doing him any favors; the O’Brien records sound all mushed together to me into a big plastic jumble, whereas on the great Springsteen records every instrument had a place, and that place was distinct and perfect. And I think there are too many players in the band; I mean, 4 guitars and a fiddle? Really? But this is a solid rock record, likable all the way through, with some great songs that are, of course, rendered far better live. If you don’t love “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” shame on you. To his overwhelming credit, Springsteen has found a way to age gracefully, without having to lug around that damn mythology everywhere he goes. RIYL: Oh, come on. You know if you like this or not.

10. Wilco, Blue Sky Blues. Wilco is a band I wish I “got.” I really liked the 1996 double album Being There, which was like a drunken late night bull session with Gram Parsons, sort of. But then they got all creative and pretty much lost me (and oh how I tried to like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.) This one, lo, sounds like people have written and played a bunch of songs, on real instruments. Something in the fiber of it keeps putting me in mind of the Band, which is almost always a good thing, yet somehow it still has that sort of otherworldly Wilco vibe, which for me is not a plus. Tweedy has copped to thinking about 70s records when he made this, and around here 70s records are very popular. It is certainly the first Wilco record I’ve liked in 10 years. RIYL: Being There; the Band, tasty and articulate guitars.

11. Herbie Hancock, River: The Joni Mitchell Sessions. To me jazz records are like great paintings; you don’t really start appreciating them until the artist has died. So I don’t usually include jazz on these lists. And too, you might not expect the blend of Hancock and Mitchell to work. But it really does. First off, Hancock’s playing is impeccable; he is one of the greatest living pianists. And Wayne Shorter is here as well, and Hancock plus Shorter equals good record. Joni’s songs actually lend themselves to the jazz treatment, perhaps because she went jazzbo in the late 70s with Hejira (although only one song from that record is here, the lovely “Amelia.”) There are some instrumentals, some guest vocalists (Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Joni herself) and oddly, one Shorter composition (“Nefertiti.”) Even Joni’s poppy folky tunes work in this context. I put it on during a late night drive home in the rain, asking my wife if that was OK. She said, “Are you kidding? They could call this record ‘Music to drive at night in the rain by’.” Oh, and the sound is outstanding. RIYL: Jazz Joni, Hancock in a classic jazz combo format, the live Shadows and Light record.

12. Nelson Bragg, Day Into Night. Bragg is a Power Pop drummer with all-star credentials, notably Brian Wilson’s Smile album and current touring band (on Smile, both on record and in concert, he played the celery). I’m not typically positively inclined toward solo records from drummers (exceptions: Levon Helm of course; Foo Fighters), but this one is a gem. Very California, very breezy, harmony-laden pop, with a definite hint of Beach Boys and nice jangly guitars mixed with strummed acoustics. “The Death fo Caroline,” sort of a sequel to the Beach Boys “Caroline No,” will break your heart, especially the harmonies on the chorus. Also, its sort of a concept record; if it had sides, side A wouldf be day, and side B would be Night. And the songs flow nicely as a seamless whole. RIYL: The Beatles-influenced Byrds, Cloud Eleven, Jeff Foskett, the America record above.

13. Rilo Kiley, Under the Black Light. The big label sell-out from this indie darling band. My friend Geoff says their last one was better. Singer Jenny Lewis is the poster girl for… well, she’d look great on a poster, is what I’m saying. The comparisons to Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac are inevitable and apt, although minus the harmonies and vocal acrobatics; Lewis and guitar player Blake Sennett are an ex-couple trapped in the same band. On the first track, in fact, Sennett’s watery runs are very much reminiscent of Lindsey Buckingham’s playing on “Hold Me.”. And I liked their TV commercials; I forget what they were for, but I know I saw them on Gossip Girl. RIYL: Stevie Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac; Gossip Girl.

14. Iron and Wine, the Shepherd’s Dog. Everyone says this is Iron and Wine shedding the sparseness of their (really, his) earlier recordings and broadening the sonic palate. I duuno, to me it still sounds like Iron and Wine, probably because Sam Beam’s songs and vocals are strong and distinctive enough to provide the unifying content for my ears to hang their hat on. But then I went back and listened to the first record, and yeah, this one is more lush (if less immediate) and full. Slowly but surely, Iron and Wine are evolving into one of the best, most consistent artists around; folk rock that sounds nothing like folk or rock, made out of real voices and instruments. I imagine all the sociology majors I hated in college, with their earth shoes and bare feet (yeah, I know) loving this. By the way, I haven’t done this yet, but you can buy downloads of recent recordings of live shows here (sadly, MP3 only.) RIYL: Iron and Wine; records that will give you something to talk about with 25-year-old girls.

15. Nick Lowe, At My Age. Indeed. Talk about aging gracefully. Lowe’s evolution from pure popper for now people to crooner for then people has been a thing of beauty. If it barely sounds like he’s trying, it’s because he doesn’t have to at this point; he’s just that good. Seasoned, smoky, from a place where country music and “blue-eyed soul” exist on the same continuum, complete with wit and wordplay. Every element is done with taste and style. And only 33 minutes long, which is just right. I might even have underrated it. RIYL: Gracefully aging rockers, his last 3 records.

16. Lucinda Williams, West. One of six solo artists on my list old enough to join AARP, which tells you more about me than music in 2007. I kind of forgot about this one because it came out so early in the year. I thought World Without Tears, her previous album, was wonderful, and this one didn’t really wrap itself around my synapses in quite the same way… so I put it aside until recently, when I could listen with fresh ears. Grading Lu against her own work is almost not fair; grading her against the herd, she’s a solid A student. This is less a lilting, swaying country record than I might have liked, more sonically eclectic (and when an artist says “I tried a lot of different things on this album," that is rarely a good sign.) Also, the songs have a sense of melancholy to them arising from the recent death of her mother, but that cigarettes-and-good-whiskey voice, and that sexy little slur, serve melancholy well. RITL: Lucinda, especially Essence; looking at love from both sides now.

17. Fountains of Wayne, Traffic and Weather. Another band, like Wilco, that I’ve struggled to appreciate, but I broke through on their last one (surely you heard “Stacy’s Mom”? Apparently she’s got it going on.) The music and hooks and playing here are immediately likable, but there are so many pop culture references, hell, specific product references, that I half thought they were selling sponsorships. A minute-forty in, they’ve already mentioned Coldplay and the TV show The King of Queens. A friend says the quality of their records varies inversely with the number of overt pop culture references; me, I think this is a really good band that is too clever for their own good. RIYL: punchy, upbeat songs, big choruses, product placement.

18. Norah Jones, Not Too Late. I’m glad it isn’t, because I came late to Norah, although I loved last year’s slumming band record she did with the Little Willies. She got huge fast when her first record went through the roof and all summer you couldn’t drink a vente no-fat cappuccino, extra foam without hearing it. But I think this record—way less accessible, on which she stretches her song writing muscles—will mark the beginning of the rest of her career, in a good way. She has managed to find a post-phenom voice and groove, and when I say the songs are less accessible, I mean that in a good way; now she won’t have to make hits to reach her audience (although she might lose a few baristas along the way.) RIYL: Jazzy Joni (seriously); Rikki Lee Jones.

19. John Fogerty, Revival. His last one was so disappointing to me that I put it in storage, and I was afraid I’d have to write him off. But there is a failsafe for the guy, as he knows quite well. “You can’t go wrong,” he sings here, “if you play a little bit of that Credence song.” Indeed not. Reminiscent of Centerfield, the mid-80s record when he stormed back for the first time by embracing his trademark swampy chooglin’ sound from CCR days (and, absurdly, got sued by Fantasy Records, who owned his back catalog.) Talk about full circle, this record is actually on Fantasy; new owners there had started paying him royalties. He’s been working on his guitar playing, and it shows. Short, sweet, and right to the point. Sure it sounds like an update of Credence, but if those records were great then, why shouldn’t this one be now? And besides, sometimes you want some meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and gravy. RIYL: Centerfield; Credence.

20. The Shins, Wincing the Night Away. The Shins remind me of the New Pornographers, in that they’re called Power Pop, but for the most part I just don’t hear their music that way. On the other hand, I don’t know what it is then. Indie rock maybe. I’d have to call this the weakest of their three records, but as the guy at Amazon said, third album growing pains. Herky jerky, a little quirky. But as the record goes by, occasional moments of sheer beauty. Also, they’re my friend Max’s favorite band, which ought to count for something. RIYL: Scrubs, The New Pornographers.

And Let Me Say This About That

The Eagles, Long Road Out of Eden: A double CD that comes off as mediocre and dull, and I can’t shake the feeling that with a little judicious editing they could have gotten this down to one CD that would have really been—well, still mediocre and dull, but by God, at least it would have been shorter. Please Eagles, let me remember you the way you were: young, thin, and out of your gourd on blow.

The New Pornographers, Challenger. One day this band will totally “pop” for me, as they say on all those design shows my wife watches. I want to like them, honest I do. And I try. So far though, I’m not getting that pop. I’m holding on to the records though, because when I do finally “get it,” I’m sure I’ll love them to death.

Labels:


Posted by: --josh-- @ 5:46 PM  


4 Comments:
At 1/29/2008 11:34 AM, Blogger RoxiticusDH said...   

To the short person who lives with you: where is my 2008 MLK Day card? I have a dream!


At 1/31/2008 12:24 AM, Anonymous JH said...   

always a good read, Josh.

i'm a fan of brunch (overlooking the beach, not on the beach - don't like to eat sand) so i'm going to consider Rouse.

i meant to pick up Nick Lowe's album before i saw his show at Somerville Theatre in Mass back in September. then i meant to pick up his album after i saw his show in September. i still haven't picked up his album. i have to. he's still the Jesus of Cool in my book. the live show was a pleasure to witness - it all seemed so effortless.

any top ten or whatever list that includes a NEW album by America, well i have to tip my hat to the author. and then i have to actually consider purchasing the album on your recommendation. glad to see FoW and Pumpkin people producing, but remember - oz never did give nothing to the tin man, that he didn't, didn't already have.

Ryan Adams - he always seemed enjoyable enough when i stumble upon a song of his, but never interesting enough to explore his output.

thanks, JH


At 2/02/2008 7:28 AM, Anonymous Mike said...   

Hey Josh, why no love for Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings?


At 2/05/2009 5:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...   

Duran are consistently (for 28 years) better than everything on this sad list, but that's okay....


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