Despite the relentless negativity and uncertainty that surrounds the current state of the music business the artists and the art that emerged in 2007 were nothing less exceptional. More and better records seemed to ooze from every pore of the digital underbelly. The long tail is officially alive and well, and thanks to the success of iTunes, and the even better, eMusic service, it is now possible to deliver instant gratification to music lovers and readers of this list. In addition to that there is a wonderful real time environment for discovery and taste matching through sites like imeem, Mog, and metacritic.com. All of this makes finding and distilling a list down to even twenty must-haves near impossible. Alas, here are the records that made 2007 that much better for me. I hope you take in this list and then trust your own ears.
1. Midlake - “The Trials of Van Occupanther” (Bella Union)
Technically this is a 2006 record, but I didn’t find it until this year, and it was far and away the one record that meant the most to me this year. I didn’t like the name. I was suspicious about all the references to 70′s Americana. But 30 seconds into the “The Trials”, I was swept away. This is one of those rare albums that require no work whatsoever to fall hard and fast for. The breezy summer day sound is both bright and thoughtful, and does, I suppose, seem somewhat reminiscent of a genuinely American sound from some ambiguous time and place. Not so much rock like The Band, but more like only the best parts of Fleetwood Mac “Rumors”; cool and silky without any of the distinctive quirks that sometimes get tired after a while. But to suggest that the record is merely A straight forward guitar, bass, and drums idea, is to overlook the robust instrumentation (flute, strings, brass) along the way. Somehow this record went overlooked last year, so thank goodness it is so timeless.
2. Okkervil River “The Stage Names” (Jagjaguwar)
Far too few people will ever hear this record, I know it. This is rock balladry in its most modern finery, sung with the earnestness of a Springsteen or Tweedy, but thinner and slightly more warbling like Bright Eyes, with music as authentic and warm as “The Last Waltz.” On “The Stage Names,” the Texas band’s third album, the band has peppered their onetime sparse flavor of alt-country with billowing strings and piano such as on the epic “A Girl In Port,” or more upbeat and danceable tracks like “A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene”, and precious orchestral ditties like “Savannah Smiles.” Don’t get me wrong, this record isn’t so much a derivative of something else as it is conscious of all of the great under-appreciated music that has informed it. This is a major minor masterpiece, accessible yet specific enough to charm indie zealots and Coldplay posers alike. If not for the tragically overlooked Midlake at #1, “The Stage Names” made the first and most potent impact on me in 2007 featuring some of the finest songwriting of the year. Don’t live without it.
3. Blonde Redhead “23″ (4AD)
For over fifteen years I have been quietly rooting for the indie stalwarts, Blonde Redhead. Until now, none of their records have ever really resonated with me, but you can’t help but appreciate their distinctly NYC vibe, their hip multi-national roots, and their subtle ability to change ever so subtly over the course of their long career. But “23″ is a record to love. Part shoegazing revivalism reminiscent of Lush, Pale Saints and My Bloody Valentine, part modern new wave driven by melodic guitars, the album tracks alternately between the ethereal female vocal and the equally seductive vocals of Kazu Makino and Amedeo Pace. If there was a record easier to fall for, I’d like to hear it, and if there isn’t, this one proves that hard work and persistence in rough and tumble music still matters.
4. Panda Bear “Person Pitch” (Paw Tracks)
This record is a beautiful gem, both for people who know nothing about gems but appreciate things like color, and for those who can see the nuances of cut and clarity. On the surface there is an exceptional Brian Wilson melodic echo, but when you scratch off the waxy fog there is a something strange and surreal underneath. This is no surprise as Noah Lennox, aka Panda Bear, is one of the oddball members of the Animal Collective and now an American ex-pat living in of all places, Portugal. History aside, these strangely seductive pop narratives meander mostly along groovy percussion based riffs before evolving into bigger, broader sound-scapes that feel way more 60′s than 2007. With only seven songs, two of them weighing in at over 12 minutes, there is a kind of transcendent joy that oozes from each song, a bit like it catching a sunrise or full moon. Ultimately there is something small and precious that channels “Pet Sounds”, but more in spirit than anything else: a choral, orchestral, hand-clapping, toe-tapping, chorus-humming masterpiece.
5. Spoon “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga” (Merge)
For over a decade I have thought Spoon to be the most perennially overrated indie rock band of all time. Earlier records seemed bland and lacking soul- a whole lot of style without much musical substance. But on this annoyingly titled masterpiece I am, at least for this record, a believer. The first thing that strikes you on this record is that everything seems to revolve around a piano beat, and not surprisingly at times you can’t help but hear bits and pieces of Billy Joel tossed in here and there which is oddly a good thing. Lead by the relentlessly upbeat vocals of Britt Daniels, and the hand clapping finger snapping percussion beats, the ten songs on “Ga Ga ..” are among the most fun you are likely to find collected under one roof all year. This record truly is a very pleasant surprise.
6. Iron & Wine “The Shepherd’s Dog” (Sub Pop)
The logical next step for Sam Beam (aka Iron and Wine) was to create a band around his intimate folk-rock crooning. On the “Shepherd’s Dog”, he has fulfilled the promise alluded to on a few of his latest EP’s where he actually almost seems to be “rocking.” From the very first tune, “Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car”, he spins a kind of Americana groove, filled with old-timey strings, guitars and drums, and accompanies it with his silky vocals, while somehow infusing it all with a wonderful sense of urgency and intensity. It would be hard to think of a song more satisfying than “Lovesong of the Buzzard”, an earnest organ driving romp through the open fields of your life, or the kind of hypnotic tone set on “Wolves.” Ultimately, this record represents a step perhaps towards the big warm sound of Wilco, but is still drenched in something much smaller and personal.
7. Band of Horses “Cease To Begin” (Sub Pop)
This record is easily the most accessible and catchy rock record to make this list in many years. Looking more like a ZZ Top member at a Sturgis Harley rally, singer Ben Bridwell has crafted one of the most beautiful rock records in years. Think Radiohead, “The Bends”, with all of its ambition but none of the angst. His bushy beard, and heavily inked arms, makes you think scary headbanger, not dreamy indie rocker, but alas this is a G rated rock record for hipsters, and maybe even their kids. These songs literally tend to drift like fluffy clouds of sound, with guitars swirling around the gentle Bridwell’s vocals, while alternating kindly between the ethereal and the sublime. Like their name, this band paints the picture of open spaces, big skies, and fond memories.
8. The New Pornographers “Challengers” (Matador)
The New Pornographers are one of those bands who not only have not made a record that was less than great, but whom rarely ever make a bad song. On this, their fourth full length abum, their incredibly distinctive style of pop band has never sounded better. In part this can be attributed to the great contribution of Neko Case, whose vocal harmonies and stylistic range are for me without question the best in the business. But take nothing away from leader A.C. Newman’s own sweet vocals and unmatched hooks, and the overall musicality of the ever growing troupe of Canadian troubadours. Unlike many of the records I heard this year, this band seems almost of an era before rock and roll. The songs all feel pure and wholesome, almost like 50′s television but in a good way. Perhaps it is that the vocal harmonies remind me of what CSN&Y managed to pull off for on “So Far” but not in a free spirited 60′s kind of way, more in a modern pop context. This is an odd band indeed, but it is hard to imagine life without them.
9. Yeasayer “All Hour Cymbal” (We Are Free)
In the musical game of ‘which one of these things is not like the other,’ this record is least like any of the music I tend to get excited about. In part this is because I haven’t really heard a record quite like this before. To label this ‘world’ or ‘dance’ music would not be misleading, but then again it still wouldn’t do it justice. I know very little about this band beyond that they hail from Brooklyn and have made one of the most upbeat records of the year. At times they sound like they are playing Native American tribal music and then all of a sudden it is an India influenced George Harrison, and then back to some odd Brian Wilson choral exercise. This is truly the most imaginative effort of the year. I would say that with “All Hour Cymbal” you should enter at your own risk, but then again there is no risk here.
10. Radiohead “In Rainbows” (self-released)
There is not much left to say about how these 9 songs made their way into the world, but surprisingly little has been said about the songs themselves. This is easily the finest record the band has made since “OK Computer,” and only slightly less grand than the “The Bends.” Although no less daring than the albums that came in between, “In Rainbows” is, like its title, a colorful, textural, sprawling affair. I suppose you could call it moody, or maybe a better word would be “serious.” Conducted by the melancholy, yet oddly uplifting vocals of Thom Yorke, the record is incredibly musical with soaring guitars, strings, keys, and a powerfully understated percussion holding it all together. Believe the hype.
11. The Bees – Octopus (Astralwerks)
The Bees (formerly known as A Band of Bees) have always seemed a wonderfully pleasant enigma: a hippie throwback hailing from the tiny Isle of Wight. The band has evolved through three records from a spacey melodic pop band to a trippy rock band whose sound seems derived equally from 60′s Haight Street psychedelia to old school Detroit R&B. As much as it is difficult to find a thematic arc from album to album, and even amongst the ten delectable grooves on “Octopus,” the sound moves fluidly from an Afrobeat organ infused song like “Got to Let It Go” into a brass saturated Motown classic like “Just a Listening Man.” In an era where most bands have a hard enough time mastering even one genuinely unique sound, The Bees have extracted some of the most seminal beats from bygone eras and refashioned them to sound un-placeably authentic.
12. The Frames “The Cost” (Anti-)
There was a time, at least 20 years ago, when I would have been able to pump my fist in the air and shout unequivocally that U2 was the finest band ever to emerge from Ireland, but then again my hair was also pretty funny looking and I also probably owned a pair of slightly acid washed jeans. I have since lost that loving feeling, and hopefully the jeans, somewhere around “Joshua Tree,” and with the exception of a short affair with Sinead, stopped tracking the Irish scene. But a few years ago, by accident, I stumbled upon a lesser known Irish treasure called The Frames. This is a ridiculously good band: a stadium sounding rock band whose singer has a voice that blends the delicacy of David Gray with the raw power of Jeff Buckley. Their songs feature a symphony of crashing guitars, strings, and drums that alternate between ballads and rock anthems. Hopefully, fueled by singer Glen Hasnard’s music and performance in “Once,” my favorite film of this year, the world will rediscover the music of the Frames. “The Cost” is everything a great bog rock record needs to be: loud (at times), soft (at times), romantic and angry.
13. Caribou “Andorra” (Merge)
I’m a sucker for 60′s laced indie psychedalia. From the fragile pop of England’s, The Clientele, to the trippy guitar heroism of Sweden’s Dungen, the sense of time and place elicited by this sort of well executed genre bending is more powerful than that of almost any other era. Caribou is a one man band whose extraordinary second effort, “Andorra” accessorizes the sing song ballad template from bands like Love and The Byrds with a warm and well integrated dose of pseudo electronic. “Andorra’s” 9 songs breeze along mixing vocal melody with joyous sprinklings of flute, string and keys. Caution, however, this is not a series of songs meant to be downloaded and listened to in isolation, this is a vibe record meant to be consumed in a full session. The Summer of Love is alive and well, here. This is a good thing.
14. Gravenhurst “The Western Lands” (Warp)
There is a certain very specific kind of music I will always have a soft spot for. It is a pretty simple formula: usually a band of white guys, about my age, singing serious, impeccably produced, but often intentionally sparse records built around very subtle grooves. Gravenhurst, from Bristol, England, sounds a bit like the Red House Painters or Joy Division, lead by the sweet but hypnotic vocals of Nick Talbot who weaves a kind of melodic vocal darkness. “The Western Lands” alternates between slow methodical jaunts and almost pop songs like “Trust” to grittier more guitar driven instrummental moments. This record is about moods and the specific geographic places that inspire them. This is a very big, very small record, and one that I’m sure slipped between the cracks.
15. Vieux Farka Toure “Vieux Farka Toure” (World Village)
There is so much African music that most of us will never hear. With the exception of the Afrobeat of Fela and Femi Kuti, I have a hard time even knowing where to start, which is partially why finding this record was such a joy. Hailing from Mali, the extremely talented son of the late Ali Farka Toure plays a kind of finger picked African blues that meanders gorgeously between instrumental mediations, R&B, and reggae influenced tunes, and more traditional percussive chants featuring a sea or sounds that you have likely never heard before. Everyone needs a record like this to remind them how big the world really is, and how beautiful music seeps gloriously out of every culture.
16. Burial “Untrue” (Hyperdub)
Burial is a sparsely gorgeous electronic record that bears the closest resemblance to the early records of Portishead. Filled with minimal dance beats and accompanied by oddly beautiful vocals that are stretched and contorted into odd sounds and shapes, “Untrue” is not your basic Starbucks brand of chillout music. Where Zero 7, Morcheeba, and others float accessible beats and loops in front of beautiful songstresses, Burial is deeper, darker and eerier. Like the soundtrack to a midnight walk in a cemetery, this is record that won’t work for everybody, but for those whom it does it will be sublime and comforting.
17. The National “The Boxer” (Beggars Banquet)
A few years ago an indie band from Brooklyn, via my home state of Ohio, released a record so infectious that I quickly unearthed the earlier records that to see what I might have missed before. The National’s “Alligator” set me off longing for the follow up to that brooding but oddly poppy masterpiece. “Boxer” is a lovely album, a tad bit darker in tone and subject, but no less compelling. The band almost feels like it might be marching towards something, driven by precise almost military sounding drum beat, augmented by strings, keys, and guitars and most distinctively the deep baritone of singer Berlinger. Vocally it is easy to hear bits of Leonard Cohen, Brian Ferry, Serge Gainsbourg, and the Tinderstick’s Stuart Staples, while also hearing something so much more modern. On the whole “The Boxer” is redeemed by a handful of songs like “Apartment Story” that groove and swagger with a brazen smirk and driving beats. This record is a keeper.
18. Charlotte Gainsbourg “555″ (Astralwerks)
Daughter of an icon, film star, model, global hipster, and now a sultry singer in her own right, Charlotte Gainsbourg has delivered one of the finest folktronica records in many years. With dots, loops, keys, and overall musical texture provided by French phenoms Air, “5:55? is a luminously sweeping and at times gloriously moping mood piece rivaling the best DJ efforts of the genre (Zero 7, Morcheeba, Hotel Costes). Gainsbourg is always at the center of it all with her seductively hushed vocals accompanying either lush string arrangements and brooding piano, or the upbeat almost dance tunes spun around tight drum loops, retro funk/dance rhythms or spacey sounding science fiction soundtrack music. But more than yet another actress gone singer fiasco, “5:55? is a triumph with Charlotte Gainsbourg setting a very high bar …
These records are pretty damn good as well ….
19. Richard Hawley “Lady’s Bridge” (Mute)
20. Beirut “The Flying Cup Club” (Bad a Bing!)
21. The Shins “Wincing The Night Away” (Sub Pop)
22. Wilco - “Sky Blue Sky” (Nonesuch)
23. Voxtrot “Voxtrot” (Playlouder)
24. The Arcade Fire “Neon Bible” (Merge)