Each year at this time, music writers just can't seem to avoid making lists of their favorite albums from the past year, then foisting them upon you, the reader.
Well, who are we to break that cycle?
Here, then, is part one of our lists of favorites from 2007. Three more lists will appear in next week's issue.
GENE ARMSTRONG(in alphabetical order)
Arcade Fire, Neon Bible (Merge)
Full disclosure: I just didn't "get" this Montreal band's first CD, Funeral, although it was praised far and wide. But I finally grokked Arcade Fire's ornate orchestral pop with this follow-up, thanks in large part to the passionate delivery of lead singer Win Butler, who sounds to these ears a bit like Ian McCullough. "Keep the Car Running," the title track and "Intervention" (with that huge pipe organ) ought to become classics.
Feist, The Reminder (Cherry Tree)
Smokey jazz chanteuse, techno diva, folk waif, beatnik finger-snapper, pop star, mature songwriter: Leslie Feist tries on all these roles and more on her latest disc, and she's always convincing and confident. Sure, the semi-hit "1234" is groovy, but the thumping dance floor shaker "I Feel It All" is totally infectious.
Bryan Ferry, Dylanesque (Virgin)
You might not expect the ennui-laden voice of the Roxy Music lead singer to be the best vehicle for the songs of America's favorite pop-rock bard, but Ferry has been bringing his own cocktail-party style to Dylan's music since he covered him on his first solo album. Now, here's a whole album's worth. From the jaunty "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," through a rollicking "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down," to an appropriately apocalyptic "All Along the Watchtower," it's a masterpiece.
Holy Fuck, LP (XL)
More substantially "rock" than LCD Soundsystem, whom they narrowly edged from this list, this Toronto group builds glitchy, intelligent dance music from decidedly lo-fi (heck, even no-fi) sources, using not only live instruments but nonmusical tools such as film sequencers and toy guns to make arresting, heavily percussive electronica. This recalls the underappreciated Chrome, The The's early experiments and Remain in Light-era Talking Heads.
Nostalgia 77 Octet, Weapons of Jazz Destruction (Tru Thoughts)
This British jazz ensemble with a penchant for sardonic jokes (see title) has the chops to bridge hard-bop, Euro-jazz, swinging Big Band and cosmic blues à la Sun Ra. They bring a great brass section with trumpet, trombone, tenor and alto blasts with delicacy and aggression, as needed. Pianist Ross Stanley shows off a strong, rolling left hand while playing rhythm and an assertive right during solos. More, please!
Portugal. The Man, Church Mouth (Fearless)
The headphone album is back! On their third CD, this Alaska-by-way-of-Oregon outfit proves it's one of the most creative rock acts out there these days--from prog-rock to big-beat chant-pop, avant-blues, Zep-inspired monster riffage. Frontman John Gourley unspools fascinatingly abstract lyrics in a choirboy tenor and occasional falsetto. Think The Mars Volta without the claustrophobic psychedelics, Jane's Addiction without the gutter glitter.
Radiohead, In Rainbows (self-released)
With this brilliant album, Radiohead not only contributed to redefining the rules of the music business (by releasing it online and allowing consumers to pay what they liked for it), but the British band returned to top form. Thom Yorke sounds more clear-eyed than ever, and the band balances thick rock grooves, lush guitar textures, atmospheric sound effects and jittery electronic funk--song after terrific song.
The White Stripes, Icky Thump (Warner Bros.)
Maybe once we could've called them a retro-rock blues duo, but Jack and Meg White have expanded their sound drastically in recent years. Now they're exploring glam stomp, English pub rock, '70s hard-rock, skiffle, Celtic flavors and Latin-tinged pop (a delicious cover of the Patti Page hit "Conquest"). "Little Cream Soda" and "Rag and Bone" are two of my favorite songs this decade.
Wilco, Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch)
This band (and the next artist) are perennials on my faves list and on my stereo. On their latest, Jeff Tweedy and company continually refine the art of drawing from the history of rock and country to create something new and daring. Here, some jazz influences seep in, no doubt partially influenced by the moonlighting gigs of guitarist Nels Cline. And "Impossible Germany" is one of the finest pop-rock songs ever.
Lucinda Williams, West (Lost Highway)
Williams seems to have gotten better and better (and more prolific) during the last decade or so. This set of memorable tunes shows her at the top of her craft, getting funky and twangy and sexy and poetic. And the ache in Williams' voice has never been more eloquent. Über-impresario Hal Willner steps in to co-produce, but he never gets in the way.
ANNIE HOLUB(in order of month of release)
Of Montreal, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (Polyvinyl, released in January)
Oh, the Prince-esque soundscapes and dramatics! The mythical lyrics and lush synthesizers! The intoxicating rhythms!
Shins, Wincing the Night Away (Sub Pop, released in January)
When Chutes Too Narrow came out in 2003, I said in my year-end list that it was "not quite as awe-inspiring as Oh, Inverted World. " I'm not going to make a ridiculous mistake like that again. Wincing the Night Away is just as awe-inspiring as Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow, if not even more so.
The Autumn Defense, The Autumn Defense (Broadmoor, released in January)
The Autumn Defense is a side project of Wilco's John Stirrat and Pat Sansone. Although a Wilco album did come out this year, and although that album is fantastic, the Autumn Defense's self-titled album manages to find its way into my CD player more often than Sky Blue Sky. Sorry, Jeff Tweedy.
Andrew Bird, Armchair Apocrypha (Fat Possum, released in March)
Andrew Bird's combination of violin, guitar, whistling, shuffling drums, soft/loud dynamics and metaphoric lyrics only gets more intense with each album. I've had "Fiery Crash" stuck in my head since March.
Bright Eyes, Cassadega (Saddle Creek, released in April)
Cassadega reads like literature--every time I listen to it, each song transforms intensities and meanings. Each lyric Conor Oberst sings becomes the best, only to be trumped by the line that follows it: "Everything must belong somewhere. I know that now; that's why I'm staying here." I want to live inside this album.
Cloud Cult, The Meaning of 8 (Earthology, released in April)
I love this album so much that I've burned multiple copies, because I keep wearing them out. The album moves from the sky to the ground and back again. It bleeds grief and joy, and plays with the way we see the afterlife and nature. And on top of all of that, Cloud Cult is probably the greenest band in America. Cloud Cult is going to change our lives.
Lavender Diamond, Imagine Our Love (Rough Trade/Matador, released in May)
I spent nearly two hours on the phone with Becky Stark in September for the feature I wrote about Lavender Diamond, and talking to Stark is just like listening to Imagine Our Love--uplifting, fascinating and incredibly fun.
St. Vincent, Marry Me (Beggar's Banquet, released in July)
Strange songs and lyrics, artistic guitar playing, creative instrumentation, textures just a little outside of comfortable and perfectly recorded real piano--St. Vincent exemplifies everything that is true and right about independent music.
Bishop Allen, The Broken String (So Hood/Dead Oceans, released in July)
Bishop Allen's first album, 2003's Charm School, is in regular rotation in my head, and it's my best friend's 3-year-old daughter's favorite album. What's appealing to toddlers and adults alike is Bishop Allen's combination of cute pop with poetic lyrics--just listen to "Corazon," a love song to a piano, or "Click, Click, Click, Click": "In someone else's life, where Maria is a wife, I'm on a mantel in a corner in a photograph, smiling pretty."
Radiohead, In Rainbows (self-released in October)
Remember back when Radiohead was a Buzz Band on MTV? Remember the first time you heard Radiohead--the way you felt, where you were? Remember when OK Computer came out, and everyone's jaws hit the floor? In Rainbows will remind you.
LINDA RAY(in order of preference)
1. Andrew Bird, Armchair Apocrypha (Fat Possum)
Andrew Bird's genius lies in making his genius almost universally accessible. The proficiency of his musicianship, his use of technology and his skill in arrangements are jaw-dropping. But if you don't pay attention to anything but how the music sounds and feels, it's still as exciting as all get-out.
2. Robbie Fulks, Revenge! (Yep Roc)
Andrew Bird is the Robbie Fulks of pop-rock. Fulks is a country genius with a pure punk POV. It probably seems that everything these two release makes my Top 10; that's because they are the most insanely talented musicians under the radar. And, honestly, do you really need one more person telling you to listen to Kanye West? Revenge! is a two-CD set representing most of Fulks' musically encyclopedic range and samplings of his twisted wit.
3. (TIE) Son Volt, The Search (Transmit Sound)
Wilco, Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch)
Stop that laughing! I still think Jeff is cuter. This year, though, my Top 10 is otherwise all about stuff I enjoyed listening to, repeatedly. I can stay with Wilco, probably wherever Tweedy takes them, and while this work gets megapoints for being easier than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, I just got a bigger kick out of Jay's effort. Intellect vs. viscera. This one's a draw.
5. Mary Gauthier, Between Daylight and Dark (Lost Highway)
If you've somehow successfully gotten through life avoiding your own and everyone else's gritty traumas and heartbreaks, you should listen to a Gauthier song now and then just to learn something about the real world. There's profound beauty in all that pain, and Gauthier will take you there.
6. Grand Champeen, Dial T for This (In Music We Trust)
This band rocked my soul to its very core, even when I had no idea there was this sort of musicianship residing in them. Grand Champeen brings you live coverage of the life and lore of chasing the rock 'n' roll dream. Crank it up, and sing along.
7. Sand Rubies, Mas Cuacha (San Jacinto)
This record deserved to be crap, 20 years on with their lives and recorded catch-as-catch-can. The songs, though, stand with the band's best and better, and I've enjoyed the heck out of them.
8. The Autumn Defense, The Autumn Defense (Broadmoor)
Sweet, beautifully played and soooo California, The Autumn Defense can make you believe in valentines.
9. The National, Boxer (Beggars Banquet)
Today, it's The National in this slot. Yesterday, it was the Shins, Wincing the Night Away (Sub Pop). The week before, it was the Broken West, I Can't Go On, I'll Go On (Merge). At some point it was Josh Ritter, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter (Sony) or Band of Horses, Cease to Begin (Sub Pop). I think for one crucial moment, it was even Apples in Stereo, New Magnetic Wonder (Yep Roc). Some years, it's like that.
10. Steve Earle, Washington Square Serenade (New West)
I love it that Earle has done the Woody Guthrie thing, moving to New York and making more cosmopolitan music.