On The Record: The 20 Best Albums Of 2007
This is not a perfect list, because this was not a perfect year. I think the general consensus is that something big happened (or is happening) in 2007, but no one seems to be able to agree on just what that "event of monumental import" was. Maybe it was In Rainbows, the OiNK bust or the defections of several high-profile artists from the major-label stables. Perhaps it was none of those things, and it's all still business as usual, but I sort of doubt it.
There's definitely a movement afoot, though. And these 20 albums were all part of it — some because they changed the flow of the industry, others because they were simply released in 2007. Below, you'll find game-changers, weirdo-folk, not-punk punk albums, expansive-yet-minimalist electro — and absolutely no Neon Bible. And, like I said, you'll probably find some faults with my list (I probably should've included Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and Bruce Springsteen's Magic, for starters) but I'd like to think that's also why it's also a pretty good one: After all, there was no clear-cut choice for Album of the Year in 2007, just a whole lot of efforts that could possibly lay claim to the title (or couldn't, depending on who you asked). If we learned anything, it's that practically everyone could agree on positively nothing. And if that's not a pretty accurate assessment of the past 12 months ... well, then I don't know what is.
Also, I'd love to hear your feedback and read your lists, so feel free to e-mail me at BTTS@MTVStaff.com.
20. The Go! Team, Proof of Youth
The sound of the blog bubble bursting, complete with '70s guitars, double-dutch cadences, thunderous drumming, glorious fuzz and a cameo by Chuck D. Unfairly abandoned by pretty much everyone who loved the Go! Team's 2004 debut, Thunder, Lightening, Strike (because it's basically the same record), Proof of Youth stands as an example of the inherent stupidity of today's fast-moving blogosphere, and a cautionary tale to bands like the Black Kids and Vampire Weekend. If only all failures sounded this good.
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19. Black Moth Super Rainbow, Dandelion Gum
Stuff a vocoder in your mouth. Strap a pair of Casio keyboards to your feet. Wander the Mojave Desert for a month. Do the Black Moth Super Rainbow. Gleefully psychedelic, completely nonsensical, unbelievably sunny folk-tronica from the wilds of Pittsburgh. Every bit as WTF as the name implies.
18. Patrick Wolf, The Magic Position
A guy who looks like an extra from "The Legend of Zelda" releases the year's most melodramatic album — 40 minutes of gilded, whimsical, overly indulgent Baroque-pop, full of stabbing violins, synthesizers that pop like fireworks and chiming church bells; becomes even more flamboyant (if that's possible); establishes himself as a sex symbol on both sides of the aisle; has onstage meltdown in NYC; threatens to quit the music industry via a messageboard post; recants his threat days later; then starts a feud with fellow balladeer Mika over "authenticity." And you thought you had a busy year.
17. The Shins, Wincing the Night Away
Not only is this album better than you remember, it's also probably the only thing on this list that the dude in the cubicle next to you owns (well, this or Kanye). Packing away the sunny, strummy indie-pop for darker, nocturnal mood music, the Shins crafted a weird winner that somehow managed to debut at #2 on the Billboard albums chart (despite leaking to the Internet like three months early), and finally get them out from underneath the shadow of that dude from "Scrubs." Hopefully.
16. Kanye West, Graduation
The swagger is nothing new. Neither is the lack of humility. But never have both sides of Kanye co-existed so successfully on one record (maybe Daft Punk helped broker the peace). On Graduation, West reveals the complexities contained within himself, looking back while moving forward, slowing down a step — really, there's nothing on here that grabs you with the immediacy of "Jesus Walks" — to bask in his successes, while still holding his competitors in check and keeping one eye toward the future. A truly accomplished, truly human album that still manages to work in a song based around a Steely Dan sample. And that's much harder to do than it looks.
15. Okkervil River, The Stage Names
World-weary, scruffy rock from the weariest, scruffiest band in Austin, Texas, Stage Names is beautiful, tear-in-yer-beer stuff, but it's also probably the most self-aware album released this decade (either this or Panic! at the Disco's A Fever You Can't Sweat Out) full of too-smart references to the Beach Boys, Marcel Duchamp artwork, Paul Simon and Nena's "99 Luftballons." It's meant to be a concept record of sorts, about the exploration of high art and low art, which sort of explains the tender ballad about the death of porn star Savannah. Sort of.
14. Jens Lekman, Night Falls Over Kortedala
Sumptuous, swirling pop from Sweden's finest troubadour. Sonically, it's all over the map: booming orchestral numbers, sparkly samba, morose Northern soul, all sung in Lekman's sleepy, mahogany-rich baritone. Also, "I took my sister down to the ocean/ But the ocean made me feel stupid" is probably the most emo line of the year. Deep, man ... deep.
13. LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver
Just last week, I named James Murphy's "All My Friends" as "the best song of 2007," and the album is nearly as good. Building on the, well, dancey-but-not-dance roots he's been laying down for a few years now, Silver is the record in which Murphy puts electroclash (remember that?) to bed for good and establishes himself as a truly important artist: the kind of guy who's not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve (check "All My Friends" or "New York, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down"), or get funky in really goofy ways, or record a 45-minute exercise track for Nike. And we need guys like that.
12. The National, Boxer
The sound of sepia. Sad like the photos you see pinned to the walls in really old bars. Beautiful like being drunk on a rooftop in Brooklyn, the city twinkling in the distance. Painful like the hangover the following morning. The songs on Boxer are all of those things, often at the same time. A remarkable record.
11. Feist, The Reminder
Sure, there's the song that sold the iPods, but there's also the churning, torch-y "My Moon My Man," the heartbreaking "The Park" and the slinky "Brandy Alexander," to name just a few. Intimately performed, expertly arranged indie balladry, with Leslie Feist's voice weaving through it all: lithe, supple, sexy and undeniably powerful. Probably — OK, undoubtedly — the breakthrough album of 2007.
10. Yeasayer, All Hour Cymbals
What world music would sound like if it was played by a bunch of hipsters from Williamsburg. Hints of African guitars, drone-y Eastern European notes, Celtic rhythms, plus chants, chimes and handclaps, all whirled together into a heady sonic brew. In a thousand years, when they excavate Bedford Avenue, they'll probably discover copies of Cymbals and think we were a much more evolved society. Either that or really big fans of Forest for the Trees.
9. Deerhunter, Cryptograms
If you believe the rumors (and given the generally terrifying WTF-ness of Deerhunter, I do), Cryptograms is really two albums in one: the first half — from "Intro" to "Red Ink" — was recorded in one manic session, on a single reel of tape, with frontman Bradford Cox still battling the lingering effects of walking pneumonia. The second half (starting with "Spring Hall Convert" and ending with "Heatherwood") was recorded in another one-day session, on another reel of tape. That the two halves are so sonically disparate — one murky and atmospheric, the other luminous and relatively straightforward — not only lends credence to those rumors, but also speaks volumes about the ever-evolving talent of the band itself, and makes Cryptograms an experience unlike most you'll hear this decade. And given that Deerhunter are currently on hiatus, that experience might — unfortunately — only be a one-time thing.
8. Modest Mouse, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
Not as accessible as Good News for People Who Love Bad News, not as good as The Lonesome Crowded West (or The Moon & Antarctica, for that matter), We Were Dead represents Modest Mouse at the great divide: On one side, the past. On the other, the future. So, accordingly, the album borrows equally from both, packed with rambling, shambling guitar exercises and (relatively) straightforward radio rock. There was even a slow number or three. That the album debuted at #1 on the Billboard albums chart seemed to be the most amazing thing of all, and it only gave MM the validation they deserved. No matter where Isaac Brock and company decide to go from here, they've already won.
7. Panda Bear, Person Pitch
Like the Animal Collective that begat him, Panda is less about making music and more about stringing together atmosphere, creating pockets of sound as big as entire universes. Here, he collects the wooshes of subway cars, the crunch of gravel under boots, wind, water (and a bunch more), and combines them with some really beautiful vocal harmonies, a little acoustic strumming and the occasional odd "woo-hoo" to create an album that's warm like an old blanket but also chilly like a snowdrift. Bizarrely accessible, sort of spooky, and really all you could ask for from so-called "experimental rock."
6. The Field, From Here We Go Sublime
A masterwork of techno (do people still even use that word?) both minimal and maximal, Sublime — the handiwork of Swedish DJ Axel Willner — recalls cellular division, slowly melting ice caverns and fields of blossoming sunflowers, often in the same song, and often using little more than a bass line, a kick-drum and a looped sample. Devastating in its simplicity and scope, it's more intelligent dance music than Intelligent Dance Music, which may not make sense, only it does. You get me?
5. Tegan and Sara, The Con
An album of beautiful complexity and brutal honestly, The Con covers all manners of love, loss and heartbreak, and does it all with a restraint and a maturity that belies the Quin sisters' age. W-a-a-y more confident and ballsy than any "follow-up to a breakthrough" album should be, yet still self-effacing and full of enough doubts to fill 1,000 diary pages. Expertly helmed by producer Chris Walla, it's a record that unfurls gradually, revealing just a bit more with each listen. For some reason, it reminds me of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, though I can neither explain nor condone that statement.
4. The White Stripes, Icky Thump
To some, it's just another example of Jack White's ever-expanding ego. To others, it's another addition to his "guitar god" résumé. I think I fall somewhere in between. Sure, there's parts of Thump that are a bit much — mainly the bagpipes that drag down the middle of the record — but there's also plenty of great moments, too: the fret-melting majesty of the title track, the delightfully silly vaudeville of "Rag and Bone," and straightforward, floor-pounding rock of "Bone Broke." For the first time, White also drops the whole "magical bluesman" shtick and opens up a bit, and — surprise — he seems just as conflicted and unhappy as you or I. Which only makes him, and the entire album, that much more likeable.
3. Radiohead, In Rainbows
The album that changed everything, only it probably didn't (though it's nice to oversimplify sometimes). When all the smoke surrounding its release strategy cleared, fans were left with an album that either enthralled or mystified ... there really was no in between. For me, it was the former: Radiohead put away the electronics on this one and just decided to play, making beautiful, intricate songs about decidedly human things — failing relationships, infidelity, whatever the hell "15 Step" is about. It's the album that sounds like the next logical step, and while some didn't want to hear Radiohead slip gracefully into their 40s, that's what they got. And I'll take AARP Radiohead over almost any other band on the planet. They may sound old, but, dude, they are old. Except Jonny Greenwood. He's apparently a vampire.
2. Against Me!, New Wave
The massive choruses. The even more massive hooks. The major label. The big-name producer. The boy/girl duet. The protest song that made fun of protest songs. There probably wasn't a more unapologetic record made this year — seriously, New Wave might actually redefine the word "unabashed" — and Against Me! are totally aware of this, and they don't care what you (or the majority of their old fans) think, which is why Against Me! are awesome, and why this album totally rules. Punk rock is probably dead already, but if it isn't, well, this is the album that killed it off forever. Good riddance.
1. Wilco, Sky Blue Sky
When all is said and done, the sky is still falling and the rivers continue to run red with BitTorrent. The industry is dead, except that it's probably not. We are living in the future, only no one seems to realize it, because we might just be living in the past. You are part of the problem, and the solution, all at the same time. And none of this really matters. What cuts through the fog and the noise is simplicity. And on the surface, Sky Blue Sky is the most simple record of the year: straightforward like Summer Teeth, sparkling in execution, bravely unflinching in subject. It resonates because it's true and beautiful and seemingly not of this era. But it's also unfathomably complicated: a record about relationships, about being so in love and wanting to make it work so bad, about giving of yourself and taking from someone else about being back to back, in the foxhole — impossible Germany, unlikely Japan — against overwhelming odds, but determined to fight until the bitter end. No one said simplicity was ever easy.