You might reasonably ask why I'm coming out with this list in mid-February. The truth is, I think you have to build in at least a good month of overhang, because you still may not have found and digested some of the year's best albums properly by midnight on December 31st. This past year took some digesting too, unfortunately more from dearth than from girth. Here, in alphabetical order, are my picks for the best albums of 2007:
1. Chrome Dreams II (Neil Young)- Neil Young is a pleasure even when he's piddling around. It's an especial pleasure to find him here, well past the age of 50, still able to narrate interesting stories with his plaintive wail on a coherent set of songs that alternate between relaxed folkiness and Crazy Horse style assaults of heavy guitar feedback.
2. Icky Thump (White Stripes)- A so-so White Stripes album is kind of like so-so sex. It's still pretty compelling, and you certainly never think of leaving before it's over. As with Get Behind Me Satan, there's a little too much self-conscious experimentation here to really achieve the straight ahead, undiluted quality of their best work. Nevertheless, I'll still take a near miss from Jack and Meg over the best effort of many another outfit any day of the week.
3. I'm Not There (soundtrack, various)- Soundtracks usually have trouble succeeding as truly acceptable stand-alone albums since a significant layer of their meaning relies so heavily on the movies they spring from. Without that they run the risk of just being a weird assemblage of songs. This soundtrack, however, benefits from coming out of a movie that was itself about music and the life (through the work) of a single musician. Between unusual songs, unusual approaches to familiar songs and a surprising variety of artists participating, this ends up being a fresh and invigorating showcase of Dylan's song craft. I particularly recommend disc two.
4. Juno (soundtrack, various)- See caveat above about sound tracks as albums. How delightful, then, that this soundtrack pulls it off. The heart and soul of the effort, of course, is Kimya Dawson's delightful folk-punk songs, with their innocent and exuberant insistence on simple, fun lyrics. More remarkable is that the songs here by other artists, despite their diversity of styles and eras, feel like they belong with Dawson's songs and create a quirky, yearning and ultimately sweet organic whole.
5. Losin' It! (Vancougar)- Many have their eye on the music scenes in Canada's big cities as the source of the next big thing. This quartet from Vancouver certainly encourages you to think that hope may not be in vain. Part punk, part girl-group harmony and all energy, every time I listen to this album I wish there were more people out there making rock with this sense of loving attention to it's basic idioms and joyous adventure. And still producing songs that are actually about something, with distinctive voices from each of the individual members. Keep your eye out on what these gals are up to next.
6. Twelve (Patti Smith)- Well here's someone who knows a thing or two about loving attention to rock's idioms. A good cover should honor the essence of the original, but approach it sonically in a new and different way. If covers are going to sound just like the original, after all, that's what we have originals for. Patti Smith breathes new life into all twelve songs she covers here, not tripping at all in the transition from Tears for Fears to Neil Young to Jefferson Airplane to Dylan to Nirvana to Stevie Wonder (et al) and holding the whole thing together with the hypnotic power of her own singular voice and vision. Outstanding fun for any music lover.
7. Under the Blacklight (Rilo Kiley)- Try it and see if these songs aren't so damn hooky that they get stuck in your head the next day. And yet leave behind shards of lyrics that unsettle as they slowly dissolve. There's more than a trace of the now thankfully peaking and passing dance-rock indie sub-genre here, but with a lean more toward the rock side of the equation such that they end up with a genuine power and urgency that the efforts of many others in this vein ultimately lack. More than that, Jenny Lewis' incisive and insightful lyrical vision and lush and world-weary vocal delivery carries the whole thing to another level entirely.
8. 93-03 (Frank Black)- I'd agree in principle that it's questionable to include a greatest hits collection in a list of the top albums of the year. Nonetheless, the first 11 tracks of this compilation of the first ten years of the solo career of the former Pixies front man is one of the most consistently excellent listens of the year.
9. Almost Made Its- No, this isn't a band or an album name. Although it's a good name, isn't it? Pay me a nickel if you use it. What I mean is all the albums that made a vigorous stab at being superb but just missed it. Art Brut's It's a Little Bit Complicated, the Foo Fighters Echoes, Silence , Patience & Grace, Kings of Leon's Because of the Times, Bruce Springsteen's Magic, and Tegan and Sara's the Con are all worthy of attention.
10. There is no number 10. Lest it escape anyone's attention, it's a bad sign when the best albums of the year include two soundtracks, a greatest hits collection and a covers album. It's no accident that Frank Black got on the list with a set of songs from the mid-90s, the most recent of rock's periodic outbursts of renaissance. That last musical fluorescence has run it's course, and once again the old Gods are nearly dead. It's time for a revolution!