The end of the year is a conflicting time for music writers and editors. The pedagogue in us can't wait to reveal the recordings that rocked our world over the previous 52 weeks, while the approval-seeker nervously hopes that list isn't too far out of line from all the others. If we don't think Arcade Fire's Neon Bible is the greatest thing since indoor plumbing (or their last album, Funeral), we wonder, does that make us a bad person?
Of course it does, but that's beside the point. Thousands of albums were released this year on labels large and small, some of them excellent (Donnas, Bitchin'; Wu-Tang Clan, 8 Diagrams), some awful (Soulja Boy, souljaboytellem.com; Lifehouse, Who We Are), most merely okay (Annie Lennox, Songs of Mass Destruction; the Cult, Born into This), so listening to them all is simply impossible. Even the most fastidious critic has to reconcile him or herself to the fact that they'll only hear a sliver of what's out there, especially since every hour spent listening to a stiff like Smashing Pumpkins' Zeitgeist is one they'll never get back.
So then how does any one person decide what the "best" records of the year were? That's easy. The best records are whichever ones you say are the best. That's why this is such a cool job. Since when was anything related to music ever supposed to be objective, anyway?
Still, given the sheer volume of options, it's funny how the best-of lists that started cropping up earlier this month, and will continue to do so for another few weeks yet, seem to share at least 75 percent of the same titles, whether you're reading Rolling Stone or Blender at the barbershop or browsing Pitchfork and The Onion online. This is primarily because — brace yourselves — the people who write for such places really like those albums. Peer pressure plays a role. And one more thing: most of the music is, by and large, pretty damn good.
If there's a better record that came out in 2007 than M.I.A.'s Kala, an uncanny nexus of pop hooks, boho/Soho beats, Bollywood flair and pointed politics, I didn't hear it, and neither did many of my media colleagues. Amy Winehouse may be music's biggest fuckup since Axl Rose (cough, Britney), but Back to Black may also be the best pure soul record (Spector/Supremes division) of the decade. Feist's charming The Reminder is a little more low-key, like Cat Power without all the weird psycho stuff. Rilo Kiley's Under the Blacklight transformation from sunny Saddle Creek alt-country crossovers to softcore San Fernando Valley soft-rock peddlers — "Dreamworld" may be the best song Lindsay Buckingham never wrote — is still sinking in, but it kind of becomes them.
Against Me!'s impassioned, empowering New Wave is far and away a high-water mark of latter-day punk rock. Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga may be a little blurrier than 2005's great Gimme Fiction, but "You Got Yr Cherry Bomb" and "Don't You Evah" are among Britt Daniel's best, and the irresistible "The Underdog" even got them on SNL. The Shins' Wincing the Night Away has been hanging around since January, and via constant rotation on satellite stations like XM's Ethel — and even the actual airwaves in more, shall we say, progressive locales — will be soothing people who miss the Smiths for years to come. No, there was plenty of great new music this year. Supposedly, Kanye West's Graduation, Radiohead's In Rainbows, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss's Raising Sand, Bruce Springsteen's Magic and Jay-Z's American Gangster are all standouts in their respective genres; perhaps I'll finally get around to forming my own opinion sometime in 2008.
Conservatively, I figure between 150 and 200 new albums entered my personal orbit in 2007. (We'll deal with the tide of 2007 Texas music next week.) I listened to a good bit of rock (indie and otherwise), a fair amount of country, blues and soul, a smattering of mainstream pop and R&B and almost no hip-hop — again, though, that new Wu-Tang album is goooood. These are a few albums I think are worth remembering. But maybe that's just me.
Wilco, Sky Blue Sky: Oh my God, a new Wilco album that didn't take me, the biggest fan they'll ever have, six months (at least) to completely trust and embrace. Jeff Tweedy's moody midlife musings and Nels Cline's squelchy guitar static align in a most agreeable fashion. See also: Modest Mouse, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank; Liars, Liars
Bettye LaVette, The Scene of the Crime: Distinguished by her heart-wracking, gospel-fed vocals, Detroit diva LaVette serves it up Muscle Shoals-style with Drive-By Truckers' scrumptious, spot-on backing. Best song is a toss-up between Willie Nelson and Elton John — seriously. See also: Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, 100 Days, 100 Nights; The Dynamites featuring Charles Walker, Kaboom!
Southern Culture on the Skids, Countrypolitan Favorites: That's right, a covers album. A damn good one too: everything from old-school Nashville ("Wolverton Mountain") to power-pop to the Who's "Happy Jack," which sounds even jauntier with Pete Townshend's guitar swapped out for banjo. See also: Bryan Ferry, Dylanesque; Dwight Yoakam, Dwight Sings Buck; Porter Wagoner, Wagonmaster
Tomahawk, Anonymous: One of Faith No More/Mr. Bungle nomad Mike Patton's myriad extracurricular pursuits, obviously exploring his Native American interests. The song titles ("Mescal Rite 1," "Mescal Rite 2," "Sun Dance") could have been a bit more elaborate, but overall an enticing, borderline inexplicable mixture of mystical metal and, well, mescal. Quite a bit of it, evidently. See also: Puscifer, V is for Vagina; Grinderman, Grinderman; Ministry, The Last Sucker
The Hives, The Black and White Album: As someone who never really bought the Hives, this sure made me reconsider, and not because of the Timbaland songs. The record the Stooges failed to make with the weirdness that was The Weirdness. See also: Interpol, Our Love to Admire; Babyshambles, Shotter's Nation; Gogol Bordello, Super Taranta!
Siouxsie Sioux, Mantaray: The year of her 50th birthday, Siouxsie leaves the Banshees and Creatures behind for her — believe it or not — first-ever solo album. She's still every bit the slinky Goth seductress ("They Follow You"), with the kind of Shirley Bassey-like stature ("Here Comes That Day") that only gets better with age. See also: PJ Harvey, White Chalk; Willowz, Chautauqua; Avril Lavigne, The Best Damn Thing
White Stripes, Icky Thump: Their best yet. Oh yes. Combines the stadium-begging, pulverizing riffs of White Blood Cells and Elephant with the stylistic flightiness of Get Behind Me Satan. What is not to love? Jack and Meg are adorable in mariachi getup. Or kilts. Or rocking the fuck out. See also: Queens of the Stone Age, Era Vulgaris; Clutch, From Beale Street to Oblivion; John Fogerty, Revival
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