Once again a premier year in music has come and gone and after an exhaustive selection process I have somehow come up with my 20 personal favorites. If all I had to do was listen to music; this would have been finished in mid December. Based on the fact that I also have a full time gig, which does afford me the ability to listen to music while I work, it takes plenty of time to listen and enjoy and then to be a critical ear. Based on being a “faux critic” this is a long time love affair with the recorded sound, which may have been attributed to actually being one of those young souls who actually did attend Woodstock. Music has the ability to transform and even lift ones spirits from whatever life has to throw at us. It is neither laborious nor time consuming, since there is nothing but joy, which is derived from every single one of these recordings…and many more. This list would have been much bigger, but at the behest of the good Dr. I have edited this down to 20 from at least 60 and I have to admit that I surely listened to over 100 releases in 2007. As I have said this is a love affair with music.
There are many different styles represented here from Americana to pure and simple Rock n Roll. There are surely a few surprises to those of you who know music and listen, and for those of you that are not as nutty as me there are truly some gems. This is something old, something new and something borrowed and some blues. I can only hope that you will enjoy reading and listening to this assemblage as I did. As a little treat I have also included my favorite cut from each album so you can listen before you buy. And please do buy what you like; as this is not a plug for the music industry but only a plug for all the great musicians you can help support.
20. EZRA FURMAN AND THE HARPOONS: BANGING DOWN THE DOORS Extraordinary debut album from young Mr. Furman, a Boston college student whose voice and lyrics bear a striking resemblance to the wily old sage who everyone compares great singer songwriters to. Ezra Furman. Bob Dylan. Listen to the song “American Highway” and after thinking about it for maybe a minute or less you may agree that this young man has done an admirable job of channeling 1964 Bob.
19. THE THRILLS: TEENAGER This is the third album from these transplanted Irish rockers. Pop music suits them and their jubilant sound, which echoes the California sound of vintage Beach Boys, seems to have been wasted on the music industry. Conor Deasy has a hauntingly infectious voice and the “Nothing Changes Around Here” song captures the soul of most teenagers anywhere.
18. SHARON JONES AND THE DAP KINGS: 100 DAYS, 100 NIGHTS I defy anyone to listen to this and not move. Sharon Jones, backed by the amazing Dap Kings keeps making soulful blues music, which sounds straight out if the Sixties. The horns, guitars and drumming are on par with anything that Motown or Stax had to offer. The title song just oozes with old time blues and soul that one cannot help but reference James Brown or Etta James; back in the day.
17. CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG: 5:55 The daughter of Serge Gainsbourg, the famous French singer, Charlotte makes her family name proud. With the music of Air behind this chanteuse takes one on such a soft musical journey you almost feel like you are floating. Nor does it hurt that Jarvis Cocker wrote most of the songs. On “The Songs That We Sing” listening to her purr…”I saw somebody, who reminded me of you, before you got afraid, I wish that you could’ve stayed that way” makes on yearn for a quiet place.
16. LEVON HELM: DIRT FARMER The back story is as follows…Levon played drums with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. He then ended up in the seminal American roots band….THE BAND. Now skip forward to 2005 when after surviving throat cancer he was told he might never be able to speak again, let alone sing. This man is a testimonial to everything wonderful and special about American music and this is his first album in 25 years. Singing and playing many traditional songs along with his daughter and Larry Campbell; who played guitar with Robert Zimmerman, Levon just flat out kicks ass and takes no prisoners. His interpretation of Lauralyn Dossets “Anna Lee” is American music at its finest.
15. GRAHAM PARKER: DON’T TELL COLUMBUS It must be something in the Woodstock NY air. Graham Parker who resides near Levon has made one of the best albums of his 30-year career. Beginning with Howlin Wind in 1976, Parker epitomized the early indie rocker along with his cynical mates Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello, who are all still making great music. His caustic wit and sneering vocals make Graham Parker one of the great storytellers of our time. On “Ambiguous” these lines sort of sum up the good Mr. Parker…” I asked a woman the other day, how you gonna vote on election day, she said she was gonna vote for the woman with the nicest tie, well that sounds like she's thinking straight, she’s gonna vote for the right candidate, that ideas gonna fly.”
14. SPOON: GA GA GA GA GA I have to admit it has taken me till their sixth album for me to fully embrace these Austin Texas rockers. What wonderful music do they make with just four members. Pop music at its best with plenty of horns and tambourines and a nod and a wink to the Beatles and even Paul Simon. Superlatives are not enough to describe how wonderful this album is. I’ll leave it to the words from “The Underdog”……”you got no time for the messenger, got no regard for thing you don’t understand, you got no fear of the underdog, that’s why you will not survive.” Horns and drums and Britt Daniels singing like there’s no tomorrow.
13. OKKERVIL RIVER: THE STAGE NAMES The air in Woodstock; it must be the longneck beer bottles in Austin Texas. Okkervil River and Spoon are surely the two greatest bands from 2007 and Will Sheff and Seth Warren who are New Hampshire transplants (home of Rosey Jekes) have found a musical home. I may be repetitious in saying this, but there are just so many great rock n roll bands playing big music without record sales. The harmonies and melodies of this album are enough to make a grown man smile for an entire day. From the first song “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe” to “John Allyn SmithSails” which is a tribute to the Beach Boys Sloop John B, this is pure pop music at its best.
12. IRON AND WINE: THE SHEPERDS DOG Sam Beam has made albums by himself for years with just his guitar and his sweet voice as accompaniment. On this album he has assembled a full band and from the opening song “Pagan Angel And a Borrowed Car” who could well be a Belle and Sebastian song he seems pleased with the lush instrumentation surrounding him. It transports his voice and the stories that he tells about nature and mythical thoughts into another world. This is one of the most pleasant albums I have listened to in quite some time. The textures of this collection are woven so loosely it could become your favorite sweater.
11. BURIAL: UNTRUE One of the great surprises to me aural senses this year and to come from an anonymous DJ from London makes it extra special. This is Burials second album and the sounds are a mash up of just about everything that he could sample, from wonderful voices to the scratches of a long-playing record. His homage to the great dub producer Lee Perry and of course Massive Attack makes this an ethereal trip through the streets of London very late at night. You can almost feel like you have walked into a secret club that has the hottest DJ of the moment spinning mad tracks. The layers upon layer of sound turn this into a true exploration into the music of now in London.
10: MARY GAUTHIER: BETWEEN DAYLIGHT AND DARK
MARY WEISS: DANGEROUS GAME Every year it seems there are two artists who somehow share the same name and their music is mutually important in the year. 2007 was no exception as the Mary made fantastic contributions to the musical landscape. Mary Gauthier, a singer songwriter, whose little sister could be Lucinda Williams, made one of the best folk albums of the year. Although I despise labels, this could also be a country album or an alt country album or even a great album. She weaves a tale like all of the greats and her delivery just knocks you out. My personal favorite, although every song is fantastic, is “Last of the Hobo Kings” which charts the live and times of Steamtrain Morie. You can almost see the hobos sitting by a campfire waiting to jump a train and see America. Mary Weiss, on the other hand, has not released an album in forty years. The reason…she was soured on my music business after her teen years when she was lead singer for the amazing Shangri Las. For those too young to remember just google Leader of the Pack. She takes up where she left off, this time with the help of the great Memphis garage band the Reigning Sound. With the Wall of Sound still intact Ms Weiss delivers a 21st century debut to be proud of. All of the production makes one wants to go back to the Oak Park Park and shoot baskets under the stars. This is a full on great record, which recalls Ronnie Spector and all of the great sounds on the radio. “Stop And Thin It Over” reminds us of all of those broken hearted teenage years. And don’t miss “Cry About the Radio” for good measure.
9. BRIGHT EYES: CASSADAGA Conor oh Conor. The reference to Cassadaga, which is a Florida city filled with psychics, conjures up images of ouija boards and goofy psychics. His last two albums have started with strange openings and this is no exception but he delivers on all thirteen tracks. This kid is amazing. I have said it before and I will continue to sing his praises; especially since his white clothed 12-piece band put on one of the best shows of the year and this IS another stellar effort. “Four Winds” with all sorts of violins and drums and guitars strumming just about knocks you over with exuberance. Long ago hailed as a Dylan like singer songwriter, this Omaha boy keeps it real.
8. SAM BAKER: PRETTY WORLD Not a lot of people in Austin Texas (notice a trend) know who Sam Baker is. He lives in Austin and like the legion of West Texas singer songwriters in the vein of Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Ray Wylie Hubbard, Sam Baker is deserving of the same recognition. On his second album, following the largely ignored but beautiful Mercy, Sam Baker has fashioned a masterpiece with Pretty World. Both albums got me through the Reyjkavik Half Marathon on a gorgeous August morning. Sam Baker is a phenomenal singer a storyteller. I’ll let the words from “pretty World” tell ya………”before the sun, before the heat, before we untangle from our sheets, before the summer day unfurls, pretty world.” This is songwriting at its best.
7. JOE HENRY: CIVILIANS Joe Henry is as important to American music as Tom Waits and on this album he proves it. With the stand up bass playing along with this guttural voice of Joes, his songs weave stories of those people we see but wonder about. Who are they and where did they come from and what do they do? They seem interesting, yet you have never taken the time to speak to them. Listen to Joe. He has the answers. One of the great songs of our lost country is “Our Song” which starts out this way “ I saw Willie Mays at a Scottsdale Home Depot, looking at garage door springs at the far end of the 14th row, his wife stood there beside him, she was quiet and they both were proud…this was my country, this was my song, somewhere in the middle there it started badly and is ending wrong…” Not a better song written on this album which so honestly tells the sorry story of how this country has “squandered our goodwill.” God bless Joe Henry.
6. AMY WINEHOUSE: BACK TO BLACK Forget everything you may have read or heard about Amy Winehouse on television or in the gossip columns. This young woman has the pipes and with brilliant production of Mark Ronson she made top-notch album of blue-eyed soul, even though she has a huge drug problem. Ironically her hit song was “Rehab”. No matter the girl has listened to enough Motown, Philly, Atlantic and Stax records and has a voice, which recalls every single one of those great women. Diana Ross, Mary Wells, Martha Reeves, Tina Turner, Ronnie Spector and Tami Terrell all show up her in some form and especially on “Tears Dry On Their Own” if you can’t hear Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell on Aint No Mountain High Enough; well you were obviously not born yet.
5. ARCADE FIRE: NEON BIBLE Call it what you like from Art Rock to Baroque Pop to Indie Rock, Arcade Fire is one of the great new bands. After their first album Funeral was released, Jake raved about them. I listened and I liked it. Neon Bible is an extraordinary effort with sounds so grand that one thinks the walls are going to come tumbling down. Yes it’s that big. Winn Butler and Regine Chassagne front this Montreal collective which has instruments that include mandolins, harps, xylophones, violins, guitars and your garden variety hurdy gurdy (accordion). The sound is breathtaking and at the same time strikingly beautiful. The drums just keep coming on certain songs and you are almost waiting for someone to yell STOP. Their outlook on the state of affairs is also chilling, judge for yourself in the lyrics from “Windowsill”……..”Don’t wanna live in my fathers house no more,Don’t want the salesmen knocking at my door, I don’t wanna live in America no more, Cause the tide is rising, and its higher still, and I don’t wanna see it at my windowsill.” Couple this with their surprise appearance on stage in Ottawa with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and their shows in NYC with The National; there is much more greatness to come.
4. DEVON SPROULE: KEEP YOUR SILVER SHINED Now how in gods name does a woman who is only 22 years old make such a sweet and heartfelt album. Could be the Virginia mountains or it could be that she is just one of the great new talents on the music scene. I have not been so taken by a voice since I heard Nancy Griffith and Lucinda Williams for the first time. The stories that this Charlottesville native tells put you on a front porch with the smells of lavender and lemonade wafting through the air. As the front door slams out walks this beautiful young woman with a guitar in hand, in a vintage floral dress. She sits down with her guitar and starts to play. You are in another time and another place. A simpler time for sure. One that has nothing to do with war or a poor economy. Life is Simple. You are happy. When you are done you go inside and you shine your silver. Rikki Lee Jones and Maria Muldaur (Midnight At the Oasis time) had nothing on this woman. A few bits from “Lets Go Out”…………” There’s nothing in the fridge, nothing in the cupboard, the jelly jar is empty and I’m plumb sick of peanut butter, a ground hog ate the lettuce, right out of the ground, honey lets go out…” Go out and buy this!
3. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: MAGIC The title is perfect. For a 58 year old man who started greeting people from Asbury park while trying to be a saint in the city and growin up while doing the e street shuffle to meeting people across the river while hanging on the backstreets before being in candy’s room while proving it all night with bobby jean after working on the highway on his way to Atlantic city being chased by a state trooper while trying to forget about rosalita: Bruce has been busy. His body of work is his life and the life of many Americans who have lived and loved, who have been disappointed by what life has dealt them and by how their government and country have failed them. But fear not, Bruce has chronicled it all since that first night on September 23 1975 when I was fortunate to experience the kid from Freehold. So after The Rising and Devils and Dust and The Seeger Sessions the next logical progression, MAGIC. Trust me this is a magical look at America today from the rousing Radio Nowhere to the finale, aptly titled Terry’s Song, after Bruce’s long time friend and assistant Terry Magovern who passed last year. Bruce captures the sounds of America with references to the Beach Boys on “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” “Livin in the Future” “Devils Arcade” “Last To Die” all remind us of the awful occupation in Iraq and how it has scarred the country. Bruce is a proud American as is evidenced from this verse from “Long Walk Home”………..” My father said Son we’re lucky in this town, it’s a beautiful place to be born, it just wraps its arms around you, Nobody crowds you , nobody goes it alone, You know that flag flyin over the courthouse, means certain things set in stone, who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t.” Bruce is carrying on the legacy of the great American voices that speak up when necessary and making great music to boot.
2. STARS OF THE LID: AND THEIR REFINEMENT OF THE DECLINE At just over two hours this is a sonic orgasm of sights and sounds that are imaginary and at the same time are surely cinematic. Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride are Stars of the Lid (SOTL) and I have played this CD almost every day at one time or another since I purchased it in the beginning of November. These two genius composers, and they are composers, could be the godchildren of Brian Eno. Their music is easily classified as “drone-ambient” but the soundscapes that these two create with violin, cello, horns, strings are electronically generated drones. The stark beauty and the quiet feeling that comes over you could be equivalent to some sort of meditative state. Or it could be as simple as taking a yoga class or practicing Zen Buddhism. Or it could be a cloud that you have somehow landed on after sitting in peace for a long period of time. You may become enlightened while listening to this but you will surely not develop anxiety or the heebie jeebies. The fact that I am so impressed by their ability to transform a beatless sound into such grand music is to me startling. I am a lover of all music and this “band” is one of the purest most genteel experiences that I have ever had. Their song titles are movies in and of themselves….”That Finger On Your Temple Is The Barrel Of My Raygun” “Dopamine Clouds Over Craven Cottage” “The Evil That Never Arrived” “A Meaningful Moment Through a Meaning(Less) Process” and the opening track “Another Ballad For Heavy Lids’ Find this album if you love to relax or even if you love to think…about nothing maybe. I forgot to mention they are from Austin Texas and for anyone counting that is four very different sounds from little old Austin. I wish that my father were alive to hear this, but somehow I know he is listening and smiling down on me saying to himself, “I knew that sooner or later you would appreciate how great all music can be.” As always, he was right.
1. THE NATIONAL: BOXER How to best describe The National, with all due respect, is to say that they are Cincinnati born, now living in Brooklyn, consisting of two sets of brothers, the Dessners and the Devendorfs along with singer Matt Beninger and part time member Padma Newsome from Australia. The have made, in my humble opinion the best album of 2007 which is “deceptively subdued” while it is a “glorious achievement” in sound, texture and simplicity. It is a beautiful mixture of instruments with Bryan Devendorf playing the drums like a man possessed. The backbeat, which finds its way up front on so many of the songs, is just purely amazing. I am normally not a big fan of drums, usually focusing more on the guitars and other instruments, but this Devendorf guy reminds me of the greats, He never overpowers, but those drums are always there, especially in “Start A War” “Brainy” and “Mistaken For Strangers”. My son Jake, who happens to be a drummer, of course turned me on to the National when they released Alligator in 2005 and once again, I liked it. Matt Berningers voice…lord have mercy. He sounds like he could be the younger brother of the Crash Test Dummies lead singer and he writes songs as good as anyone today including Springsteen; who coincidentally is a fan. His characters “toy with adulthood and dress for success, but they also grapple with near paralyzing insecurity.” Cinematic indeed and with the gorgeous orchestral and horn arrangements from Mr. Newsome, coupled with the guitars of the Dessners this is truly a band that has yet to fully realize its potential, but has made a beautiful rock n roll record. So here are some choice lyrics from this gem………”Underline everything, I’m a professional, in my beloved white shirt, I’m going down among the saints.” “Squalor Victoria” ……..”oh you wouldn’t want an angel watching over you, surprise, surprise, they wouldn’t want to watch, another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults.” “Mistaken for Strangers” The National is hauntingly grand in their sound and truly amazing in their execution on this triumph.
BAND OF HORSES
THE MENDOZA LINE