1. Wilco - Sky Blue Sky
I wanted to be a little more contrarian in my top choice, but there is just no getting around the fact that this was my favorite album released in 2007. I opted for the fantastic sounding two-LP vinyl release that is packaged with a bonus CD of the whole album. The quality of the pressing is outstanding, and I urge anyone who has yet to buy this album to pick it up on vinyl--it just sounds so good.
Perhaps I am showing my age by picking an album derided as "dad-rock" by the young whippersnappers at Pitchfork as the best of 2007. I suppose I can understand why fans who discovered Jeff Tweedy and company through Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (an album that alienated many of the bands older, alt-country fans as much as this one alienated their younger, post-rock fans). Compared to YHF, Sky Blue Sky sounds like classic rock, or perhaps the kind of music that might show up in a Volkswagon commercial. One can either hear this as a retreat into musical conservatism, or as paring the music down to it's essentials. I hear the later more than the former. Yes, there are elements of 70s soft-rock abundantly in evidence here. But the brilliant guitar interplay between Tweedy and Nels Cline recalls Television more than The Eagles. Whatever, I don't have to defend my choice--I just loved this album.
2. Iron & Wine - The Shepherd’s Dog
My friend Peter had this to say about this album: "Funny to think that many people saw Sam Bean as a bedroom-tape knock-off. It seems to me he's probably been way more successful in his maturity and growth than Oldham has in all of the 25 records or so he's released." I couldn't have said it any better, Sam Beam has shown remarkable artistic growth over the past few years. From the start it was clear that Beam was a gifted songwriter, but his early, lo-fi, acoustic recordings--lovely as they were--are no preparation for the intricate, fully developed music found in the grooves of this album. The sound of The Shepard's Dog is at once lush and inviting while also being challenging and difficult. Beam incorporates unexpected elements from juju and dub into his melodic, folky, psychedelia, and somehow it works. The effect is mesmerizing.
Is it just a coincidence that my two favorite purchases of 2007 were on vinyl? Sub-Pop includes a free MP3 download with purchase of the vinyl. Who needs CDs anyway?
3. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings - 100 Days, 100 Nights
Sharon Jones has been performing since the seventies, but has flown under my (and just about everyone else's) radar until recently. Damn, we've been missing out. On 100 Days, 100 Nights (and her other Daptone releases) this former corrections officer and her backing band, The Dap-Kings, deliver some of the most soulful and funky performances in recent memory. While the music sounds like it could have been recorded for Stax in 1966, it also sounds entirely fresh for 2007. Music this good is simply timeless.
4. Teddy Thompson - Upfront & Down Low
It should come as a shock to no one that the infant for whom "End of the Rainbow" was written would grow up to have a strong melancholy streak. While one might expect Thompson's voice to be a bit too light and airy to pull off these covers of hard-core honky-tonk classics, he finds a way to cut to the emotional core of the songs without replicating their rough-hewn, distinctively American twang. And Thompson's sole songwriting contribution, "Down Low" is a stunner that lyrically recalls his father's best (and darkest) work. Fans of Nick Drake will be happy to learn the brilliant Robert Kirby contributes some beautiful arrangements. This is an overlooked gem.
5. Glenn Mercer - Wheels In Motion
Glen Mercer has been pretty quiet since the break-up of his underwhelming post-Feelies band Wake Ooloo. This is by far his strongest outing since the Feelies' demise. The album is heavy on the atmospheric quality that characterized the best Feelies albums, but sounds altogether more mellow, relaxed and mature. If you wrote Mercer off after one too many mediocre Wake Ooloo records, you're missing out. This is a strong return to form.
6. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band - Magic
This is another strong album from Bruce Springsteen, who has been on something of a roll since releasing The Rising. "Living In The Future" sounds like classic Springsteen but speaks directly to 2007.
My only beef with this album is that the sound is too compressed. I like Phil Spector's "wall of sound" as much as the next guy, but the mix here is just too in-your-face and lacking in dynamics and subtlety. Does anyone know if the LP features a less compressed mix (as is sometimes the case)? If so, I'd buy it again, because the songs are really, really strong.
7. Linda Thompson - Versatile Heart
I'm glad we only had to wait five years for Linda's third solo album (rather than seventeen years we had to wait for her second).
8. Peter Case - Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John
If, like me, you lost track of Peter Case's music sometime after The Man with the Blue Post-Modern Fragmented Neo-Traditional Guitar, now is a good time to rediscover him. Case's voice and songwriting are as strong as ever, and the simple folk-blues settings for these songs work very well, better in fact than the slicked up Americana of his major label days.
9. Arctic Monkeys - Favourite Worst Nightmare
I admit it. I figured this band was nothing more than the latest great white hype when their debut album received all the glowing over-the-top praise in the British press. But this is a very good album, it sounds a bit like Wire circa 1978 if that band knew how to cut loose and party (which, granted, is hard to imagine).
10. The Innocence Mission - We Walked In Song
Thanks to Peter for alerting me to this lovely album that I would have otherwise ignored. He wrote very eloquently about this release on this blog earlier this year.
Honorable mention: Amy Winehouse - Back To Black, Bruce Springsteen - Live In Dublin, David Kilgour - The Far Now, Dean & Britta - Back Numbers, Feist - The Reminder, Kristin Hersh - Learn To Sing Like A Star, Meat Puppets - Rise To Your Knees, The National - Boxer, Nick Lowe - At My Age, Paul McCartney - Memory Almost Full, Richard Thompson - Sweet Warrior, Robyn Hitchcock - Sex, Food, Death... and Tarantulas (EP).
There is one more 2007 release I wanted to draw your attention to. It's called Song Poem Hits Of 2007 by The David Dubowski One Man Band. David--an eBay entrepreneur who sets other people's poems or lyrics to music in the grand song-poem tradition--gathered together some of his favorite song-poems that he recorded over the past couple years and released them on CD. Unlike most song-poems of the past, David actually put in a lot of work on these songs, and it shows in the music.
My own song-poem (previously featured on this blog) was among the songs included.