Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The best music of 2007?

When some of my friends hear me prattle on praising the best music of the year, they return kind but quizzical looks. “I couldn’t name a single record released in 2007,” one confessed.

To the person not paying attention, the music business is just another struggling, mainstream behemoth adjusting to the chaotic forces of a millennial market ecology. To me, it’s the anti-business of amazing artists arriving at the mysterious threshold to perpetually massage my ears, head, and heart.

While I cannot name the day when I went from being a serious music fan and zinester-turned-blogger to an obsessed pop music fanatic, webzine editor, festival frequenter, and weekly radio host, my appreciation for great music in 2007 can be measured in part by how much of my free time I devoted to this third career. Of course, I remember this reckless rock and roll ache from my high school days: the unquenchable ecstasy of slipping out on weeknights to catch shows and staying up until dawn to write about them.

As I read in a recent Rolling Stone news blip, many industry insiders predict that the portable, digital jukeboxes of the online subscription services will pave the future of for the serious fans. I must confess my unequivocal concurrence. While the brand-name matters little (for me it’s Napster-to-go and a compatible Creative Zen player), the construct has changed my listening habits in seismic shudders of sheer ear-bleeding bliss. Now, I know that “instant gratification” gets a bad rap in some circles, but to me, music acquisition has never been so soothing and seductive an adventure, with me lovingly clicking away at the laptop to access the universe without ever unhooking the headphones. Radiohead’s visionary gesture to bypass it all and offer its injection of fuzzy confection directly to fans was the download heard round the world. I’m still trying to reckon with the In Rainbows hype and backbite and may be for some time to come.

Back in “oh-four,” Bush-bashing was the bait on every agit-prop artist’s hook, and while anti-war anthems continue to populate many of the year’s best records, a topical shift has us treading on waters even more choppy with the waves of fear and future-shock. Eight years since we partied like it was 1999, global dread has grown into a pop commodity of delectable desperation.

Whether it’s Yeasayer transporting us to the year “2080” or the Klaxons clamoring about the “Four Horsemen of 2012,” whether it’s the “Doomsday” clock ticking inside Billy Corgan’s head or Conor Oberst going to Cassadega to commune with the dead, whether it’s Arcade Fire’s church-choir churning out the symphonies for the next great flood or Eddie Vedder’s stripped-down soundtrack to a tree-hugger’s traumatically romantic suicide wish, the end-of-the-world never sounded so simultaneously comforting and creepy. Wasted like Amy Winehouse, drunk on absinthe and the apocalypse, I remember the sword-swallowing performance artist who told me in 2006, “I never had a drinking problem when that Democrat was president.” As the calendar crashes toward another turn, rock’s growl and grime and synth-pop’s glam and slime are our answer to the sub-prime crisis, once again mortgaging our souls to rock and roll!

Beyond a faithful, begging obsession with songs about the end, my tastes turned south—as in down South—this year. More and more, I’ve been listening to homespun discs of Appalachia-meets-Americana roots rock. In literature, music, and life, my interests have always drifted to the down-home and the down-there darkness of sexy spirituals—but lately, I’m rooted there more than ever before. Perhaps the Tennessee spring water or the local ‘shine has finally got to me, but from the annual Bonnaroo to frequent trips to the Ryman, I’m getting more and more comfortable with the musical mood of my chosen place of residence.

One: Band of Horses—Cease to Begin

Frankly, I can’t turn this record off. It’s one to listen to every day and do to your soul like orange juice and yoga. Perhaps it’s the general darkness of the times that adds to the seductive denial of this disc’s sunny disposition. Born-again southerner Ben Bridwell brings the happy noise—a heart-swell of sing-a-long indy lushness, something to soothe the people pining for the next My Morning Jacket record.

Two: The Arcade Fire—Neon Bible

All the ink spilled and inspiration testified regarding this record: it’s all true and then some. When Neon Bible snuck into my ears in late winter, it wrecked me. The prophetic surge of this sonic collective caressed my brain’s brawn and belligerence. Beyond protest poems, these piercing hymns of hypnotic hopelessness are too believable and beautiful to deny. When I saw this group live in early May, it was one of those moments for permanent memory and bragging rights. Months later, the mystery and magic hold.

Three: Kings of Leon—Because of the Times

In this crunchy, country barbecue of bass lines and drum fills, we find a relentless local recipe of guitar riff and lyrical myth. Lithe and lethal, my Kings of Lebanon have littered rock’s reputation with their own reckless revision of the rags to riches myth. Basically, these are some young men with a serious yearning and willingness to bypass the brutal trenches that makes permanent bar-bands of too many of their potential peers.

Four: Radiohead—In Rainbows

Thom Yorke’s yummy yawp gives years to the moment, extending the instant of the download-heard-round-the-world into an eternity. The gritty weightless gravity of Greenwood’s guitar can crush the buzz about the band’s anti-business decision to basically give the album away. There’s too much good about this band and this gesture to package into a “best of” summary—this is the business of isness: something historical, something special, and something transcendental.

Five: Yeasayer—All Hours Cymbals

Let the choir sing! Too gospel to be either pop or punk, this band is gooey and gritty enough to be both. Yeasayer’s yumminess pushes the boundaries of indy-everything into tribal effervescence. We can hear echoes of TV on the Radio and Talking Heads and town square sing-a-longs. Tapping the spiritual advantages of a mixed-up and magical musical messiness, this Brooklyn brew begs new definitions of brilliance. A harrowing urban hoedown of hope and secular holiness. A band my spirit has been waiting for!!

Six: The Cave Singers—Invitation Songs

We all know that folk is punk in too many ways, yet here we go again: not another ensemble of ex-rockers turned motherfolkers! But the labels and litanies don’t really matter when the mojo gets you in the guts of darker regions. From the depths of your heart’s imaginings, this collection of hypnotic campfire hymns could conjure hope or hate or any other idea or emotion—bringing beautiful songs like water from the well, like heaven from hell, like honey nectar from the root of nothingness.

Seven: Bright Eyes—Cassadega

Many might learn about the backlash before they dig the devout musical and lyrical brilliance in Bright Eyes. Sure, it’s sometimes hard to stomach a prolific prodigy, but make that pretender the person of Conor Oberst, dubbed the “frog prince of emo,” recently blamed by one blogger for this year’s Omaha shootings, and we have the makings of a critical mess. Listeners would best leave behind internet inferences and fleeting reputations. Instead, just cue-up Cassadega, a convincing folk-rock epic that’s even more emotionally relevant when divorced from the “emo” tag and all its baggage. Look, let’s just check the band’s references: the likes of lush-alt-country goddess Gillian Welch is willing to open for Bright Eyes at the Ryman, and from this, we might accept that all the comparisons to the freewheeling young Dylan are more than so-much hype for a post-hippy prophet in his own right.

Eight: The White Stripes—Ikky Thump

Nothing complicated about the bullshit-skewering white-boy blues brought by Jack White as it rips back the meat to suck on the bones. Dueling doubt, this duo disses the dressed up music of every other genre, offering straight shots of Tennessee moonshine and pure injections of Motor City mojo. Friends like to tease me about how much I love this band for its red-and-black, Tennessee-to-Detroit shit-kicking axis of anti-evolution, and I don’t mind. I love to listen to the girls that love Jack and the boys that love Meg and all the old-school primary colors of genius generated by the many stripes of our fandom.

Nine: Iron and Wine—The Shepherd's Dog

Years ago, friends tried to turn my head to Iron and Wine, but my attention wavered and went elsewhere. With this new record reckoned “a significant departure,” I’m joining the club of faithful without reservation. Sweetly soothing songs from Sam Beam could carouse with the dead. Just the delivery could turn anyone on to all night séances with everything—but then there’re the lyrics. With this collection, surrealist verses stir the heart muscles of adept students listening to their lessons from a stoned William Faulkner-meets-Shel Silverstein shaman.

Ten: Ryan Adams—Easy Tiger

For the last few years, I’ve finally taken the time to gently gravitate into the albums of artists whose reputations more than preceded them. Among many other new loves, this is the year I finally embraced the indy-twang of the incomparable Ryan Adams. Since my ears for music always need to keep pace with my eyes for good music criticism, I rarely arrive at an artist without expectations. With Adams, let’s just say the road I had to walk was steeper than with others. But after seeing an unforgettable live set on a rainy October night, my appetite for the albums increased infinitely. And I’m still unschooled enough to really dig Easy Tiger without comparing it to previous works.

1. Band of Horses—Cease to Begin

2. The Arcade Fire—Neon Bible

3. Kings of Leon—Because of the Times

4. Radiohead—In Rainbows

5. Yeasayer—All Hours Cymbals

6. The Cave Singers—Invitation Songs

7. Bright Eyes—Cassadega

8. The White Stripes—Ikky Thump

9. Iron and Wine—The Shepherd's Dog

10. Ryan Adams—Easy Tiger

11. The National—Boxer

12. Wilco—Sky Blue Sky

13. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss—Raising Sand

14. Editors—An End Has A Start

15. Eddie Vedder—Music for the Motion Picture Into The Wild

16. Amy Winehouse—Back to Black

17. Puscifer—V is for Vagina

18. Akron/Family—Love Is Simple

19. Kanye West—Graduation

20. Rilo Kiley—Under the Blacklight

21. Okkervil River—The Stage Names

22. Feist—The Reminder

23. Future Clouds and Radar— Future Clouds and Radar

24. Bruce Springsteen—Magic

25. Dirty Projectors—Rise Above

26. Common—Finding Forever

27. Neil Young—Chrome Dreams II

28. Elvis Perkins—Ash Wednesday

29. Celebration—The Modern Tribe

30. Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals—Lifeline

31. Marie Siouxx—Faces in the Rocks

32. the everybodyfields—Nothing Is Okay

33. Aaron Ross—Shapeshifter

34. Sigur Ros—Hvarf Heim

35. MGMT—Oracular Spectacular

36. Annie Lennox—Songs of Mass Destruction

37. Against Me!—New Wave

38. Joni Mitchell—Shine

39. The Nightwatchman—One Man Revolution

40. Blonde Redhead—23

41. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club—Baby 81

42. Maria McKee—Late December

43. Cabin—I Was Here

44. Smashing Pumpkins—Zeitgeist

45. Dr. Dog—We All Belong

46. PJ Harvey—White Chalk

47. Interpol—Our Love to Admire

48. The Good, The Bad and The Queen—The Good, The Bad and The Queen

49. Mavis Staples—We’ll Never Turn Back

50. Michelle Shocked—ToHeavenURide

51. Menomena—Friend and Foe

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