Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Best Albums of 2007 (Andrew)

***For an introduction to the kind of writing that will be showcased in Stark Magazine, we decided to include our best of 2007 lists. ***

As I started to prepare this list for the fifth year in a row a few weeks back, it was difficult for me to characterize 2007 the same way I have in years past. As I begin my look back each December, it’s always kind of simple for me to pick an all-purpose theme to depict each year as a whole – two years ago it was loss and change, last year it was ascending optimism – but for some reason, I couldn’t settle upon one idea to encompass all events of this year, simply because of the up-and-down, topsy-turvy way that aforementioned events unfolded. The same can be said for the music; one week I may have been heavily into something, the next I probably abandoned it entirely. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I suppose there were too many choices. Too many possibilities. Often I found myself saying, “What kind of year do you want to be, 2007?”, because it kept throwing me curveballs. There have been great highs and horrible lows – often one after another, but never for very long. And that’s the way I think I would summarize this year: just when something fantastic happened, it was then offset with something awful. It was a year for significant change – but never too significant; it was a year for stagnation – but there was always an exciting hiccup at just the opportune time to make me think otherwise. This vicious cycle was absolutely reflected in my listening habits, as you’ll soon see below. What may be an honorable mention is probably deserving of a regular spot, had I given it enough attention if I wasn’t flirting with something else by the time it was over. Conversely, by this time next year, I may end up hating an album that I put in this year’s top 10 simply because it really represents a particular mood or feeling that I experienced at a certain time this year.

Music is like that, though. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. With that being said, I do believe this is the definitive list of my life in 2007. I picked from 114 albums that I acquired in some way this year, and I deliver to you my 30 favorites. You’ll find some questionable choices (and maybe some more questionable omissions, depending on what tickled you), thus it’s a weird list for a weird year – but that’s kind of endearing.


30. The Shins- Wincing The Night Away

The great white indie hope. Not as revelatory as Oh, Inverted World or standard as Chutes Too Narrow, The Shins still broke through to the dark side of mainstream with this, their third album. For me, it was uneven. The band experimented more with electronics and dubious funk – “Sea Legs”, I’m looking at you – but there was just enough good to outweigh the bad. “Phantom Limb” and “Girl Sailor” are as first-rate as anything off of the first two albums, but the real gem here is “Turn On Me”, which has a sheen that is vintage Phil Spector, before he went nuts. I guess the reason this isn’t ranked higher is because it leaked in October 2006, so it’s more than a year old to me. So while not the album I was hoping for from the band that “will change your life” – thanks, Natalie Portman – they could have done a lot worse.

29. Minus the Bear- Planet of Ice

I’ll confess. I kind of used to hate – and maybe still harbor unnecessary bad feelings toward – this band. They just never clicked with me. I’m not a big fan of Pink Floyd or Steely Dan, even though I can certainly respect my elders, and that’s always what this band screamed to me. It’s right there in the moody textures of the guitar and the tone of Jake Snider’s voice. I got this album on a whim, and I sort of dug it a lot for about a month. Some of it is actually remarkably accessible even though it’s not presented that way, so you have to dig a little deep to find the hooks, but they’re there. I like the chopped-and-screwed feel of some of the songs (“Knights”, which sounds like a math problem being put together piece by piece), but I think that I’d have to be high to appreciate this album more. In the end, the songs are too long, but there’s definitely room to move.

28. Maroon 5- It Won’t Be Soon Before Long

Don’t kill me. While it’s true that Maroon 5 will never be underground in any sense of the word, who says that they’re not a respectable band? Sure, Adam Levine is a man whore and may be kind of a douchebag, but the dude can write a song. (See the Rob Thomas effect.) Every song on this album can and probably will be a hit single. From the last album, the band rode its own coattails for FIVE YEARS, and this is a better album in ever sense of the word. There’s not a lot of substance to the lyrics, but the melodies are killer. I mean, the ballads absolutely slay. “Better That We Break”, “Nothing Lasts Forever”, and “Won’t Go Home Without You” are all songs I wish I could’ve written and made millions of dollars from. Good for them.

27. Paul McCartney- Memory Almost Full

He was in the biggest band in the history of music, responsible for delivering more hits than any living person, yet Paul McCartney was still overshadowed by the genius of John Lennon. While I whole-heartedly agree that Lennon wrote the more meaningful and important songs, Paul McCartney had the better knack for structuring the songs. This album is just continued proof of his magic ear. Take the opening trifecta of “Dance Tonight”, “Ever Present Past”, and “See Your Sunshine.” Each song starts and ends exactly how it should, no more, no less. The mechanics are extremely simple but flawlessly defined, right down to his still-spot-on harmonies, and the songs range from joyous to heartbreaking (“End of the End”, in which McCartney contemplates his death over a “Hey Jude”-like piano coda.) The album drags a bit in the middle, but it’s still a highly enjoyable work from a living legend.

26. Bomb The Music Industry! – Get Warmer

Jeff Rosenstock, who used to be in one of the best modern ska bands, The Arrogant Sons of Bitches, parlays his completely DIY approach (giving albums away for free, allowing fans to make their own merchandise at shows, struggling day-to-day to pay rent…) into the third proper record from his new band. Nothing about it is particularly aesthetically pleasing (off-key vocals buried in the mix, barely legible lyrics and a drummer who’s always slightly ahead of everyone else), but it’s the DIY spirit that shines through in a completely enjoyable 38 minutes. Rosenstock creates brisk, two-minute bursts about making minimum wage, riding bikes, and breadsticks over horn-laden punk… and miraculously it all works. The highlight is “I Don’t Love You Anymore,” which borrows the backbeat from “Satisfaction” and transforms the backing band into a Motown or Stax Records ensemble.

25. Jimmy Eat World- Chase This Light

Although it’s another album on par with the band’s astonishingly consistent track record, Chase This Light doesn’t really bring anything to the table that Jimmy Eat World hasn’t already explored and mastered before. There’s the huge-sounding loser anthem (“Big Casino”), the syncopated stomp (“Here It Goes”), and the heart-on-sleeves closer (“Dizzy”), all of which are amalgams of each previous album’s strongest songs. It’s clearly a bid to reclaim the band’s glory days of earlier this decade, with the only dark song being the album’s centerpiece, “Gotta Be Somebody’s Blues”, coincidentally the weakest of the collection. The album focuses on the smart pop-rock of Bleed American more heavily than the morose Futures, and it suits the band just fine. They’ve clearly reached their comfort level and are quite content to stay there, which is fine by me, as long as they continue to deliver solid albums like this.

24. Against Me!- New Wave

Critics jumped the gun earlier this year, as many mainstream music magazines hailed New Wave as this generation’s Nevermind – the big, splashy album to signal the shape of things to come by ushering in a whole new movement in music. I will have to disagree, as it’s nothing more than merely a bunch of good rock songs, and nothing substantial has come about since its release. Hell, it’s probably the band’s worst album, as nothing on here holds a candle to Reinventing Axl Rose or even As the Eternal Cowboy. The production still sounds out of character for the band, which is much more suited to sloppy folk shout-alongs than the glossy polish applied here by Butch Vig. With all this being said, there’s still plenty to like. The title track is one of the best album openers of the year, “Thrash Unreal” would sound great on the radio, and “Borne on the FM Waves” features singer Tom Gabel in a duet with Tegan Quin (Tegan and Sara) in a 21st century update of “Summer Lovin”. Maybe this band will be as significant as everyone thinks they are one day, but for now, they’re just a good rock band.

23. Cassino- Sounds of Salvation

With Cassino, we get the late, great, superb Northstar reimagined as a folk band, courtesy of Alabama troubadour Nick Torres. Armed with some of the most poignant lyrics this side of Conor Oberst and a new twang to his already-raspy voice, Torres delivers 11 gorgeous hymns that wouldn’t sound out of place on a 1970s Neil Young LP. Along with Tyler Odom, who was his songwriting partner in Northstar, Torres employs little but acoustic guitar to offset his cryptic, haunting words. Alas, my biggest criticism with the album is that the subject material is a little too cryptic, so I can’t really relate to what I’m sure are deeply personal lyrics. Regardless, the music is fantastic, and this is a real under-the-radar winner.

22. The Snake The Cross The Crown- Cotton Teeth

Cotton Teeth is Southern rock at its damn-near-finest. The album opens up with a simple field chant of “I wanna live on the stage, I wanna play my guitar, and I wanna get paid,” kicks into handclaps and Mellotron, and never lets up from there. Taking cues from influences like Uncle Tupelo and Bob Dylan, the band is loose and rootsy on songs like “Gypsy Melodies” and “Behold the River.” There are one or two misses, but the album is a vast improvement from their last, 2006’s Mander Salis, with the melodies much more focused this time around.

21. Spoon- Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

No-frills on some songs and all-thrills on others, Spoon’s sixth album (winner of this year’s best album title) is all over the place, which is what makes its placement so frustrating for me. This could have very well been in my top ten, top five even – there are pop tour de forces on here, with the soulful “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” as the obvious winner – but I don’t like the album as a whole quite enough to rank it higher. Britt Daniel and Jim Eno are geniuses with some arrangements (bringing to mind a Brian Wilson/Van Dyke Parks relationship), and the diversity of left-field instruments are killer, but for every “Underdog” there’s a certified clunker like “Eddie’s Raga”, which is pleasant but ultimately goes nowhere. A for effort, though. Why do I have a feeling that this band is one album away from delivering its Yankee Hotel Foxtrot?


20. The Apples in Stereo- New Magnetic Wonder

I first encountered Robert Schneider, the eccentric brains behind the Apples in Stereo, last December performing an original song honoring Stephen Colbert on his show. Schneider’s kidlike vocals made the song kind of ridiculous, but there was something so harmless about the performance that I needed more. I did some research on Schneider and discovered that he was an integral founder of Georgia’s Elephant 6 collective (Neutral Milk Hotel, Of Montreal), so he’s certainly legit. This all coincided with the release of his band’s first album in five years, so I picked it up and fell in love. The songs are so cheesy and goofy, with cowbells, Moogs and vocoders galore (and topics like energy and the sun) but they’re absolutely charming; I think ELO is a perfectly appropriate comparison here. To be fair, there are some legitimately stunning songs on here, like the beautiful “Seven Stars”. Just a great, great pop album.

19. The Honorary Title- Scream and Light Up the Sky

I don’t think there’s really an interesting back story about me liking this album so much. It’s more of a case where it’s just a really cohesive set of songs that I keep going back to for one reason or another. This is one of those albums where you can keep discovering new things about it every time that really showcase how much work was put into it. Jarrod Gorbel lets his deep voice match each song perfectly, evoking Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright at different times. The songs range from Muse-like exercises in freaking out (“Thin Layer”) to malt shop waltzes (“Only One Week”) The band seems primed to achieve at least cult status with this album, if not a good deal of mainstream success.

18. Arcade Fire- Neon Bible

An album so simultaneously majestic and uneasy, it’s no wonder that Neon Bible has already catapulted Win Butler and the rest of Arcade Fire into the upper echelon of rock orators (Springsteen, Bono, Bowie…) that move and challenge their audiences. From the opening moments of the haunting, apocalyptic “Black Mirror” to the war march of “My Body is a Cage,” there’s not a musical moment that is without purpose. Whereas Funeral was light and introspective, the septet’s second album is dark and questioning. ‘Big’ ideas like war, religion and America are prevalent, usually sung in a hostile, biting tone from Butler. This may be blasphemy, because I’m quite aware of the near-universal praise of the first album, but I really do think Neon Bible is the more complete (and better) of the two collections. Either way, Arcade Fire has already cemented its status as the next great rock band of the 21st century, and they’re not going anywhere.

17. Deas Vail- All the Houses Look the Same

All the Houses Look the Same is a breathtaking debut from a virtually unknown band on the
Christian scene. Wes Blaylock’s impeccable classically-trained vocals effortlessly glide in and out of the atmospheric foundation the rest of the band brings forth. Recalling the best parts of Mae’s Destination: Beautiful, Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism and Explosions in the Sky’s The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place, the album naturally flows from start to finish, and it left me floored at the end of my first listen. The songs are elegant and heartbreaking, with the centerpiece of “Shoreline” serving as a microcosm for the rest of the album. At the climax of that song, when Blaylock switches into an ephemeral falsetto on top of swirling strings,
there’s simply no better moment in music this year.

16. The Graduate- Anhedonia

It’s strange that the definition of the titular word is “the chronic inability to perceive pleasure,” because I really got a lot of positive reinforcement from this album this year. Yet another impressive debut album from a relatively anonymous band, I have a feeling that Anhedonia is merely the start of a big career for this group of Illinois journeymen. Lead singer Corey Warning fronts this would-be-update of Third Eye Blind, letting his fiery vocals mask the brusque pop music. Combine this pop sense with dominant guitar lifted right out of The Joshua Tree, and you’re left with an impressive fusion of styles. As a side note, I can’t help but link this band with the now-defunct Race The Sun (even though, admittedly, they share little similarities in sound), due to the fact that they both utilized incredibly intelligent lyricists and a shrewd sense of melody.

15. Motion City Soundtrack- Even If It Kills Me

It’s not the band’s best work (that honor belongs to I Am the Movie), but it is, far and away, lead singer Justin Pierre’s personal grand opus. Pierre’s emotionally devastating lyrics (“With all my dreams hooked to hospital machines/ I think, "let's try redefining beautiful") plague the majority of the album, highlighting break-ups, drug addictions and failures. Pierre has always been an exceptionally forward storyteller, but here, he’s uncomfortably vulnerable, with his pain for our taking. It’s not until the closing title track that he offers hope (“I so want to get back on track/ and I’ll do whatever it takes/ even if it kills me.”) Though lyrically it’s their darkest effort yet, sonically the band is poppier and more accessible than ever. “This Is For Real”, “Calling All Cops” and “Where I Belong” are almost too tidy and polished, thanks to the production from Cars frontman Ric Ocasek and Fountains of Wayne writer Adam Schlesinger. Could this be the album that finally gives the band its breakthrough? If this becomes the standard for pop-punk in the mainstream, then count me in.

14. Kanye West- Graduation

Can we please just give Kanye West the title of Most Important Person Making Music Today? Give me one person in the last five years who has invigorated the music industry – the entertainment world – more than he has. Album after album, the rapper/producer continues to shock, confound, and captivate all fans of music by having them wonder what he’ll do next. Sure, he’s not a brilliant MC, but his creativity is second to none. When faced with the question of how to follow up two certified masterpieces, he ditched his proven method of success (speeding up soul samples) and turned to a new, bold production trick: synthesizers. They run rampant all over Graduation, from the monster single “Stronger” to the triumphant “Flashing Lights.” Who else would think of sampling Daft Punk, Elton John and Steely Dan on the same hip-hop record? There’s still the Kanye of old, too; “The Glory” and “I Wonder” can hang with The College Dropout and Late Registration, and “Homecoming” continues his flirtation with atypical duets (in this case, Coldplay singer Chris Martin.) In terms of classics, Graduation gives Mr. West three for three.

13. Hidden In Plain View- Resolution

2007 was the year of band breakups, but none stung worse than the termination of Hidden In Plain View, a band that not only served as one of the flagships to shape my musical tastes growing up, but also as a cornerstone to my youth. They were a band who started small, playing local shows as I was just coming into the “scene”, and subsequently gained national fame when they signed to one of the most prominent indie labels at the time. Because my band had the privilege and honor of playing with them during their rise, I had always looked to them with the utmost respect and as the basis for my ambitions of being in a band. Therefore, their breakup at the start of this year absolutely devastated me and my group of friends who grew up with them as well. The band ended their tenure (and friendship) on very bad terms, thus, this album is extremely hard to get through because their inner turmoil is laid out bare in the lyrics. You can hear Rob Freeman going after Joe Reo with his words, attacking his dedication and lamenting their lack of communication, two essential things that ultimately keep bands together. Every song is about the decay and loss of enormous potential, the withering of relationships and the dissolution of something vital. It’s amazing the band got through the recording of this album at all, albeit if it’s grossly incomplete. The music, as a consolation, is phenomenal; ironically enough, the band regained its spark by revisiting the spunk that made them fundamental in the first place. “I Don’t Want To Hear It”, “Circles” and “Bendy”, although painful in subject matter, regain the energy that they somewhat lost on the last album. This is the worst kind of closure and Resolution. It’s no secret that over the last few years, I’ve drifted out of the “scene” I grew up in, either becoming disenchanted or disinterested with it. With the end of Hidden In Plain View, I feel like that part of me – and that time in my life – is really, officially done.

12. Band of Horses- Cease to Begin

Following the same career trajectory as My Morning Jacket has worked out well for Band Of Horses. Their debut album, last year’s Everything All the Time, was an inspired – if not safe – introduction to the indie world, very much akin to what My Morning Jacket did with It Still Moves in 2003. Cease to Begin, then, is this band’s Z – that is, their artistic and commercial breakthrough. The two bands share quite a bit of similarities (particularly their love of and reliance on reverb), but whereas MMJ strayed from its foundations on Z, Ben Bridwell and Band of Horses hone in on their niche and fine-tune it to perfection. “Ode to LRC” showcases what the band can do best: tightly work out a groove on the verse, float into a lovely half-time chorus rich with harmonies, showcase a quick guitar solo, and do it all over again. In addition to MMJ, you’ll be able to hear influences such as The Shins, Flaming Lips and even a little Iron and Wine. At times both powerful and faint, Cease to Begin is a wonderful second effort by upcoming stalwarts.

11. Four Year Strong- Rise or Die Trying

Just take a look at the album cover: a magical wizard on top of a monster octopus, fighting a bunch of mechanical robot sharks in outer space. I’d say that’s pretty indicative of the music. Here’s how you make a Four Year Strong sandwich: You take the happy hardcore of Set Your Goals (complete with dueling vocals), the Moog synthesizer of Houston Calls, the lyrics and song titles of Fall Out Boy (“Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Hell”), and the explosive choruses of New Found Glory, and throw some Lifetime on there for good measure. It’s outrageous and unreasoning pop-punk, with songs heading off in every direction. This album is also the best to sing and drum along to in the car, thanks to the vocals of Alan Day and Dan O’Connor and the furious double bass of drummer Jake Massucco. Simply put, Rise or Die Trying is the most fun I’ve had all year.

10. Dr. Dog- We All Belong

We All Belong could have just as easily topped my list in 1967, because this thing sounds like it’s forty years old. And it’s fantastic. Dr. Dog is one of the select few bands who still refuse to go digital, preferring instead to record entirely analog, and I believe it’s their best quality that’s finally starting to get them some attention. The opening track “Good News” opens up with fuzzy piano and drums, sounds of people talking in the background, and then the vocals hit: a glorious blend of the Beach Boys and the Beatles. This is the sound of real musicians playing in a room together, singing live harmonies that are spot on. The band impressively matched the aesthetic of the 1960s to a ‘t’: from the distorted dissonance of the vocals to the drum tones that seemingly come directly from Ringo Starr’s kit. This album is easily my favorite discovery of the year.

9. Steel Train- Trampoline

Every year when I compile this list, there always seems to be a late bloomer – either it doesn’t come out until much later in the year, or it just gets shafted early on – that totally surprises me and knocks me off my feet. Usually it comes from a band I expected nothing from, and in this case it was no different. Trampoline is a phenomenal album, very much in the vein of The Format’s Dog Problems, where painful crises and realizations are veiled by exceptional pop music. Steel Train underwent such a radical departure in sound and objective from their last album, the decent but overindulgent Twilight Tales from the Prairies of the Sun. Step one was shifting the vocal reins to a new leader, Jack Antonoff, who was formerly just the band’s guitarist, and step two was swinging their direction from delicate folk to edgier indie rock. The album opens up with the line “When I was 18, everything was alive/ then the planes hit the towers and she died and he died,” which on any record would be morbid and depressing, but the backdrop is a cheerful romp complete with glockenspiel and handclaps. That’s pretty much how the rest of the time is spent, and it’s largely brilliant.

8. Say Anything- In Defense of the Genre

Either Max Bemis is a genius or he’s just insane. I haven’t decided yet. There seem to be two schools of thought on this subject. On the one hand, he was the mastermind behind 2004’s …Is A Real Boy, the near-legendary debut that bolstered his reputation as prophet to the punk rock scene. On the other hand, his follow-up to that album is In Defense of the Genre, a sprawling 27-song double album that many perceive as auditory A.D.D. The jury’s still out. More than half of these songs are as good as anything in the last five years, while a couple songs serve as nothing more than filler. Everything is fair game on the album: from the hard opener “Skinny Mean Man”, to the hip-hop “No Soul”, to the Cabaret “That Is Why” – and that’s just the first three songs. Guests also come aplenty; nearly every song features a cameo, ranging from Matt Skiba to Chris Carrabba to even Pete Yorn. I wish Bemis would have done a bit more trimming, because if this thing was one 15-song album, it would easily top …Is A Real Boy. The one thing that’s missing is a cohesive story throughout, which is what made the first album so unique and beloved. Nevertheless, Bemis is incredibly gifted (lyrically and melodically) no matter how you look at it, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more ambitious album than this one all year.

7. Ryan Adams- Easy Tiger

And speaking of ambitious, who else but Mr. Prolific himself, Ryan Adams? The man who not-so-long-ago put out three albums in the span of a year (and released something like 300 songs on his Web site in like, four days) has sent us what is arguably his most focused and concise album since 2001’s Gold. The 13 songs that make up Easy Tiger all logically flow from start to finish, without being longer or shorter than they should be. Adams also sticks to what he knows best: alt-country, a genre he helped pioneer and redefine several times throughout his career. “Goodnight Rose” kicks off the album with a bang; it’s a basic organ and guitar number that swings. “Oh My God, Whatever, Etc.” and “Off Broadway” are vintage Adams circa Heartbreaker, and “I Taught Myself How To Grow Old”, with its draining harmonica, is the most affecting – and best – closing song of any of his albums. I’m fairly confident in guessing that next year’s list will have at least one Ryan Adams album on it.

6. Down To Earth Approach- Come Back to You

When I read last year that Down To Earth Approach was prepping a new album titled Come Back to You, something about the title instantly clicked with me; all at once it seemed so simple, so honest, and so Midwestern that I couldn’t wait for it. When it was quietly released to no avail in July, it obliterated every single one of my expectations. I couldn’t understand why no one was making a bigger fuss about it. In my mind, Come Back to You is the logical album that falls between The Get Up Kids’ Something to Write Home About and On a Wire, and this band is the equivalent to a modern-day Gin Blossoms. Every single word that comes out of lead singer Jonathan Lullo’s mouth is sincere and yearning. There’s a subtle twang to the music – mostly straightforward pop-rock, but undeniably effective in its approach – and the theme of the album is as simple as it gets: it’s about a dude that misses someone. The songs breathe this longing, though, and I can’t even begin to explain it. When Lullo sings phrases like “Miles don’t mean anything to a heart that never changes,” is there anything more truthful and powerful? And then he one-ups himself by simply proclaiming, “We’re in love.” It’s beautiful, and it perfectly captures moments that all people feel at some point in their lives. Shortly after the release of Come Back to You, the band called it a day due to an overall lack of interest among the fans and the media. So it kind of breaks my heart to know that not many people will ever get to hear this album – or anything from the band – again. Do yourself a favor and listen to what you missed.

5. Tegan And Sara- The Con

Twin sisters Tegan and Sara Quin have crafted an uncompromising and completely unconventional album by every standard definition. I think what initially drew me in was the way the pair’s voices blend together in off-kilter harmonies, accentuating the totally wrong syllables of words and repeating them multiple times in confounding rhythms. What made me stay was everything else in the background: the auxiliary percussion that floats in and out of songs, the reverberated drums that perfectly complement certain vocal patterns at different volumes, the plucky 80’s keyboards that come in for dramatic effect, the bass that sounds like it’s being played beneath sheets of cardboard… I could go on and on. These perceptible quirks are largely due to the unheralded – but outstanding – production by Death Cab For Cutie guitarist Chris Walla. He is responsible for playing just as vital of a role on the album as the Quins are. With that being said, the songwriting is bar-none. Tegan and Sara each take seven songs of their own and split the lead vocal duties. Tegan’s songs tend to be a bit more accessibly melodic (“Hop A Plane”, “Nineteen”, “Dark Come Soon”) while Sara’s take a bit longer to fully grasp (“Like O, Like H”, “Relief Next To Me”) – but these are 14 exceptionally complex ditties that will take time to connect. Once they do, though, this album is unstoppable.

4. The Avett Brothers- Emotionalism

Hey, maybe 2007 is also the year of the siblings. I’m not really sure how I found out about this album, but one day it appeared to me, and I haven’t stopped listening since. I will have to borrow another reviewer’s words to best describe this album: “Americana with attitude.” This is energetic folk and punk music played with acoustic guitars, banjos and mandolins. The album begins with “Die, Die, Die”, which borrows its form from Weezer and its harmonies from the Beatles. The Avetts are synched with each other so well that their execution is flawless. Look to “Paranoia in B Major”, which starts as banjo fingerpicking straight from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack, then miraculously transforms into a lively exercise in pounding guitars and screaming, then back into a delicate three-part falsetto coda. “Will You Return” is practically an update of “Please Please Me”; all that’s missing are the screaming girls in the Ed Sullivan Show audience. Even when the album becomes more introspective, the music never suffers: “The Weight of Lies” laments the loss of a friendship, but the band’s energy remains fully in tact, even at a slower tempo. That this album is ranked so high after only becoming familiar with the band in a short amount of time is a testament to its uncanny ability to hook listeners in immediately.

3. Radiohead- In Rainbows

There’s no need to discuss how Radiohead may have potentially changed the music industry forever with the release of In Rainbows, because you know about that by now. Instead, let’s focus on the music, which is a pretty necessary element of the whole release that was overlooked by some in the process. I’m coming out and saying it right now: this album is my favorite, and arguably the best, Radiohead album since the landmark OK Computer. Although it’s what makes everyone love latter-day Radiohead, I do believe that the absence of the band’s “weirdness” (for lack of better words) on this album is what returns the band to form. Gone, for the most part, are the electronics that took up residence from Kid A onward, and in their place are... real guitar, real drums, and real song structure. Just like a real rock band. What may be even more remarkable, however, is that Thom Yorke – a figure known just as much for his enigmatic lyrics as his lazy eye – has finally written songs that people can relate to again. On “House Of Cards”, Yorke sings, “I don’t want to be your friend/I just want to be your lover.” That’s certainly a far cry from “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon.” There’s something for everybody on this album, too. “Bodysnatchers” is the hardest song the band has written in ages, “Nude” (a song from the OK days) is beautiful and uncomplicated, and “Reckoner” – the standout – is a slab of near-psychedelic bliss that sounds like it could’ve been performed by Mama Cass. Guitarist Johnny Greenwood is fabulous on this, as always, but the real surprise is the triumphant return of drummer Phil Selway, who makes the most out of the band’s revisit to conventional songwriting by playing the hell out of his (live!) drums. Who knows what In Rainbows is for Radiohead in the grand scheme of things? It may be a departure, or it could be their future…but one thing it isn’t is a regression. The fact that Radiohead is playing normal music again (by their standards, at least) does not signify that they’ve reverted back to the past. This is change. This is yet another stunning chapter in the band’s impressive, progressive career.

2. The Weakerthans- Reunion Tour

John K. Samson of The Weakerthans is a poet. The individual stories that make up each song off of Reunion Tour could only come from a mind so keenly aware of everyday happenings and tiny observations like Samson’s. Witness this lyric from “Civil Twilight”, the opening track from the band’s fourth album: “I wonder if the landlord has fixed the crack/that I stared at/instead of staring back at you.” Or how about this nugget, from the same song, written from the perspective of a pensive bus driver in the cold Canadian winter? “Streets slow down and ice over/Dusk comes on and I struggle stop-to-stop/To stop thinking of you.” Samson’s ability to write from viewpoints foreign to his own is unmatched among modern songwriters. He writes as a cat who runs away, but eventually comes back home on “Virtute The Cat Explains Her Departure”, and makes it sound absolutely devastating. Sometimes there is little distinction as to whether or not some of the songs are autobiographical of merely fiction, but it doesn’t matter. Regardless, Samson makes you feel for – and really empathize with – the characters of each story, whether they’re shadows of himself or completely imagined people. You almost don’t need music when the words are this good, but that’s doing a disservice to the rest of the band. “Tournament of Hearts” is expert lo-fi indie rock played to perfection, while the title track comes complete with horns and flute. In the end, after all the gushing, Reunion Tour is a perfect forty minutes of intricate, detailed storytelling and music by one of the most talented bands around.

1. Wilco- Sky Blue Sky

I slowly started to forget everything I wanted to say about this album as the months went on since its arrival. The music simply followed me wherever I went, whatever I did, however I was living… it was there. Sky Blue Sky is ambiguous, and so too was 2007. I have already alluded to the fact that the past twelve months were full of ups and downs, and that feeling of vagueness and uncertainty was absolutely what gave this year its character. In my mind, there was really only ever one clear cut choice for my number one, and this was it. How fitting that an album essentially representing indecision and doubt – and the acceptance that comes along with those feelings – correlated with my own peaks and valleys, and stands out as the best album of the year. This is the most I have ever been able to relate to Jeff Tweedy, who before was a brilliant songwriter and is now a brilliant communicator. All throughout Sky Blue Sky, Tweedy litters euphemisms for his own frustrations; in fact, the album’s most emblematic line is its first: “Maybe the sun will shine today,” from “Either Way.” Tweedy goes on to offer a slew of what-ifs: “Maybe you still love me, maybe you don’t”, before coming to his settled, albeit a bit tentative resolution: “I will try to understand everything has its plan.” And really, this is how it goes for the rest of the album. Tweedy recognizes that things aren’t perfect, that they’re actually kind of messed up, and that the best he can do is just let it happen, because eventually things will turn their tide. It’s such a simple way of thinking – something like a Chinese proverb ­– but somehow Wilco managed to pull a pretty tremendous album out of it. In looking to Tweedy’s lyrical suggestion of a lack of immediate resolution, the rest of the band takes heed; rarely do the songs on Sky Blue Sky end in the same manner that they begin. Where a song can start as a jazzy ballad, it can just as easily transform into a dueling-guitar competition at the end, a la “Impossible Germany.” And with that mention, not enough can be said about the additions of maestro guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone to Wilco’s lineup. This album is the sound of a band completely comfortable with playing with each other and exploring every possibility there is to be offered. While not as perceivably adventurous as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and not nearly as studio-manipulative as Summerteeth, the album is still thoroughly exciting: “You Are My Face” and “Side With The Seeds” are uncharted territories for the band, perfect combinations of what each individual member brings to the table. The remarkable solidity and experimentation at the same time just confirms what everyone saw on paper: This is the best supporting cast that Tweedy has ever assembled. However, there’s still no question of who remains the undisputed star; with his unparalleled wordplay and self-examinations, this may just be Tweedy’s most direct – and personal, although it’s kind of tough to beat Summerteeth in that respect – work yet. The last song, “On And On And On,” closes out the album the same way that “Either Way” begins it: with a rhetorical answer to his doubting questions. “One day we’ll disappear together in a dream/However short or long our lives will be,” and then, “Please don’t cry/We’re designed to die/You can’t deny even the gentlest tide.” Sky Blue Sky, then, in all its ambiguity, leaves us with the facts of life. Whatever happens, happens. And that’s something to live by.

-Andrew Daniels

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