Friday, November 23, 2007

2007: My 25 Songs of the Year

Once again, in honor of Black Friday I give you 25 songs that made a big impact on me this past year—everything listed here comes highly recommended, obviously. Keep in mind, these didn’t necessarily come out in 2007. I’m frequently behind the times (sometimes by several decades); elsewhere, old favorites were made new again for various reasons. And for the first time, this year I also name my favorite albums, rather than just songs. Without further ado …

“Icky Thump,” The White Stripes/“Raising Sand,” Robert Plant and Alison Krauss
Based on my review for “Icky Thump,” it’s not hard to see why this album has been at the top of my list for the latter half of this year. It was untouchable, I thought, but that was before Plant and Krauss unveiled their heavenly concoction of covers just last month. “Raising Sand” isn’t the type of album I usually go head over heels for—it’s a little mellow and quiet for my tastes. I loved it instantly, though, because their voices fit together so well; the more I’ve listened to it, the better it’s become.

So thinking “Raising Sand” was my new 2007 top dog, I went back and gave “Icky Thump” another spin just to be sure. Well, after shelving the Stripes’ latest masterpiece for a couple months, the album came roaring back to life—maybe with even more strength. One thing I find interesting and appealing about both of these records is that they actually get stronger the further you get into them; there’s no easy track to skip, no good place to stop, and in a rare twist their B sides are as strong or stronger than the A sides. Once I push play, I’m almost compelled to listen all the way through each.

So how to pick between two albums with no weaknesses? Easy: Don’t choose, just enjoy.

“Is Is,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs/“Sink or Swim,” The Gaslight Anthem

I’ve written about both of these, too, so not much need to rehash here. “Sink or Swim” was without question my Summer 2007 record—perfect for playing at high volumes during late-night drives.

“Keep the Car Running,” Arcade Fire (from 2007’s “Neon Bible”)

I knew this was gonna be the one from the first time I heard it (and basically said as much in my review). It stops me dead in my tracks every time it comes on. It’s ethereal, gorgeous, rollicking, ramshackle, mesmerizing … and those a capella breaks just kill me. It immediately reminded me of Springsteen, so it was nice to have that notion confirmed last month when Bruce and the E Street Band covered the song live in concert. What better endorsement could there possibly be for this wonderful piece? I just love everything about it.

Eddie Vedder covers, well, everybody: “Hard Sun”/“Love Reign O’er Me”/“All Along the Watchtower”

It was quite an “off” year for Mr. Vedder, unleashing three of the best vocal performances of his career. Just one of these songs would have been enough to satisfy this Pearl Jam fan a year after the band’s triumphal self-titled effort of 2006. But Vedder outdid himself in 2007. As I wrote in January, I feel some of his best work is done on other people’s original material, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that he made these three epic tours de force wholly his own. Even still, I was shocked each time at how good these three cuts are. His voice certainly has changed over the years, but if this is where it’s heading, I’m absolutely and totally fine with it. Go listen to “Hard Sun” through a good pair of headphones to hear what I’m talking about.

“All the Way,” Gasoline Heart (from 2006’s “You Know What You Are”)

My favorite track from an album I let sit around for too long before discovering how excellent it is. Lots of good tracks here, but “All the Way” summarizes the Tom Petty/Pearl Jam/Foo Fighters vibe Gasoline Heart embodies.

“Business Time,” Flight of the Conchords (from 2007’s “The Distant Future” EP)
Winner of the 2007 Pleasant Surprise Award for television, Flight of the Conchords had me cracking up all summer. This is one of several songs from the new HBO TV show that achieved instant cult-classic status, led by Jemaine, my preferred Conchord: “You know when I’m down to just my socks what time it is … it’s business time!” Makes me laugh every time.

“Days,” the Kinks (from 1968)
How did I go my whole life before this year without listening to the Kinks? I don’t know how it happened, but I’m glad to have corrected the error in 2007. For anyone who thinks there’s nothing more to this band than “You Really Got Me,” I encourage you to pick up the 2002 two-disc “The Ultimate Collection.” “Days” just jumped out at me the first time I listened through that comp. It’s a powerful, bittersweet eulogy from lead singer Ray Davies.

“Extreme Ways,” Moby (from 2002’s “18”)
Otherwise known as “The Jason Bourne Theme.” Need I say more? Could’ve put this killer track on my 2004 list, too. The Bourne movies are some of my all-time faves, and the chiming, high-pitched intro to this song is indelibly linked to them. It’s one of those tracks (like “Woke Up This Morning”) you’d think was written specifically for the soundtrack but actually wasn’t. Take these lines, for instance, sung by Moby with just the right note of strain and desperation in his voice:

I’ve seen so much in so many places
So many heartaches, so many faces
So many dirty things
You couldn’t believe

If that doesn’t sum up Jason Bourne, nothing does.

“Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love),” Jay-Z (from 2001’s “The Blueprint”)
From the first moment this song came pounding out of the theater speakers during the trailer for “American Gangster,” I was hooked. As is typically the case with Jay-Z, though, this cut succeeds despite his rather mediocre lyrics—his powerful voice and persona speak more than his actual words. The heart of this track is the fabulous wall-of-sound production work by Kanye West, building off a sample of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s original R&B beauty (from which Jay-Z took the song’s title). A track like this makes it easy to see why West would soon take over the hip-hop world. It’s a broad, mythically virtuoso studio performance, and it was an inspired choice for the film’s trailer.

“Icky Thump,” The White Stripes (from 2007’s “Icky Thump”)
There are several songs on the Stripes’ return to form I actually like more than the album’s eponymous opening track (“A Martyr for My Love for You” or “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” to name a couple), but “Icky Thump” was the track that had the most impact. After 2005’s scattershot “Get Behind Me Satan,” “Thump” proved Jack White hadn’t forgotten about his electric guitar and that he was still willing and able to call down the hammer of the gods. The only thing that hampers this song is White’s illegal immigration chatter; other than that, it’s an absolute monster, and a new iconic track for the band.

“Jesus,” Brand New (from 2006’s “The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me”)
Covered this one in my review from earlier this year, but I’ll just reiterate how much I love the hypnotic guitar part on this change-of-pace track from Brand New’s best album yet. Jesse Lacey’s introspective, spiritual lyrics take this one over the top.

“Meet Me in the City,” The Black Keys (from 2006’s “Chulahoma” EP)
This charming, mellow groove introduced me to The Black Keys, one of my new favorite bands (again, how I missed them for the past several years, I don’t know). I recommend not only all of “Chulahoma,” but also the harder-driving “Rubber Factory” from 2004 and as well as 2003’s “thickfreakness.” Can’t say enough good things about this band.

“Middle of the Road,” The Pretenders (from 1984’s “Learning to Crawl”)
Another how-could-I-miss-them band I finally got around to this year. “Middle of the Road” stood out for me among the band’s many hits.

“Muzzle,” The Smashing Pumpkins (from 1995’s “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”)

I basically covered everything needs be said about the Pumpkins in my July review/post about “Zeitgeist.” “Muzzle,” with its gorgeous and soaring melody, is hands-down my favorite SP song, and it was nice to go back and listen to it so much this past year. It’s 3 minutes and 44 seconds of Pumpkins perfection.

“My Love for You Is Real,” Ryan Adams (from 2007’s “Follow the Lights” EP)
For the past several months, I’ve been debating about which song from Ryan Adams’ 2007 full-length “Easy Tiger” to put on this list. Eventually I just settled on all of the first three tracks on the disc, because they went so well together. And then “My Love for You” came along and essentially summarized the goodness that is that trio into one gorgeous ballad. Quandary solved.

“My Moon My Man,” Feist (from 2007’s “The Reminder”)
Sure “1 2 3 4” got all the pub, but this is my favorite track off Leslie Feist’s breakthrough album. One of the things I love about her is the little catch she has in her silky voice; that quirk is on full display here. If “The Reminder” had a few more energetic numbers like this, it would have been one of my favorite albums of the year.

“Please Read the Letter,” Robert Plant and Alison Krauss (from 2007’s “Raising Sand”)
Amazing what a fresh treatment and the addition of Alison Krauss’ voice and violin can do for a song. This lover’s lament didn’t exactly jump off the disc when Plant originally recorded it nearly a decade ago with fellow Led Zeppelin alum Jimmy Page. This version, however, is a showstopper in an album full of them. Plant’s collaboration with Krauss has obviously reinvigorated the leonine rock icon; he sounds as good as ever on this track. Simply beautiful, and hopefully there’s more where this came from.

“Sealings,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs (from 2007’s “Spider-Man 3” soundtrack)
“Spider-Man 3” the movie may have been a bit disappointing, but the soundtrack produced two of my favorite songs of the year. First up is this swirling gem from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It was quite a year for the YYYs, as I could have put basically any of the five cuts from their “Is Is” EP on here, too. “Sealings” gets the nod because I really like how the song moves through different acts, from the murky opening minute to the incendiary first verse/chorus, to the “woooooooo” bridge, and back again. One of the New York trio’s best.

“Signal Fire,” Snow Patrol (from 2007’s “Spider-Man 3” soundtrack)
A fitting follow-up to the Irish quintet’s 2006 breakthrough smash “Chasing Cars,” “Signal Fire” deals in the same arena-ready rock/ballad style. It actually may shade a bit too far in that direction for my taste, but I’ll still take it because I love the orchestration and pounding drums. Much like Dashboard Confessional’s “Vindicated” from “Spider-Man 2,” “Signal Fire” captures the mood of the movie superbly.

“Terry’s Song,” Bruce Springsteen (from 2007’s “Magic”)
There really isn’t a bad song on “Magic,” but this intended throwaway (it’s not even on the tracklist) actually stands out above the rest. Sounding like the best song Neil Young never wrote for “Harvest,” “Terry’s Song” is the most honest moment on “Magic,” an album that wastes a ferocious and red-hot E Street Band on forced political messages. This quiet, powerful eulogy showcases Springsteen at his relatable, everyman best.

“The State of Massachusetts,” Dropkick Murphys (from 2007’s “The Meanest Times”)
Pretty much covered this song in my review. When the Murphys are on fire like this, they’re tough to beat. Another track to play at maximum volume, and one of my all-time favorites from this bunch of Boston rabble-rousers. A fitting sequel to 2005’s “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” without rehashing what made that song great. “State” gets my blood boiling in all the right ways.

“We Came to Dance,” Gaslight Anthem (from 2007’s “Sink or Swim”)
Comparisons to Springsteen’s “Jungleland” shouldn’t be thrown around casually, and I’m not doing so here when I say “We Came to Dance” reminds me of the Boss’ classic. “Dance” doesn’t sound like “Jungleland” really in the slightest, but it carries the same gesture and intent; it shares the same headspace, the same tone of last-chance desperation and hope. A brilliant song, one of several on “Sink or Swim.”

“What More Can I Say,” Danger Mouse (from 2004’s “The Grey Album”)
Yes, I’m surprised there are two Jay-Z songs on my list this year (much less even one), but once again this track is more about the production than Jigga himself. After the disappointment of the ridiculously overhyped “LOVE” remixing of The Beatles from last year, I went back to this true mash-up of The Fab Four’s “White Album” with Jay-Z’s “Black Album” from producer extraordinaire Danger Mouse (one half of Gnarls Barkley). I could have picked any of about six songs to include on this list, that’s how good “The Grey Album” is; I went with “What More Can I Say” because it works off my favorite track from “The White Album,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” of course.

“Wolf Like Me,” TV on the Radio (from 2006’s “Return to Cookie Mountain”)
One of the best-reviewed albums of last year just happened to come out at the same time as Johnny Cash’s “American V,” a record that dominated my musical life in 2006. Combine that poor timing with the fact that “Cookie Mountain” takes a few listens to sink in, and this disc unfortunately got pushed aside. I picked it back up early this year and “Wolf Like Me” was my gateway to an excellent album that refuses to be pigeonholed in any one genre. This song is a visceral powerhouse that virtually demands playback at an intolerably high volume.

“You Are My Face,” Wilco (from 2007’s “Sky Blue Sky”)
Wilco’s first release in three years wasn't quite what I was hoping for, but I think it laid a solid foundation for what Jeff Tweedy believes will be a stable lineup for the future (that would be nice). Picking a song from that album came down to two: “You Are My Face” and “Impossible Germany”; “Face” gets the edge for its majestic movement between whispery verses and Pink Floyd-style crashing choruses.

And while I’m at it …

MY 25 FAVORITE BANDS/MUSICIANS OF THE MOMENT (in alphabetical order and subject to change in another moment)
Ryan Adams
Arcade Fire
The Black Keys
The Bouncing Souls
Brand New
Johnny Cash
Danger Mouse
Dashboard Confessional (though I admit they’re basically done—the new album isn’t much)
Dropkick Murphys
Flogging Molly (new album in the spring—hooray!)
The Gaslight Anthem
Gasoline Heart
Alison Krauss
PJ Harvey (though the new album is quite disappointing—I’m afraid her best days are behind her)
Pearl Jam
Tom Petty
Robert Plant
Silversun Pickups
Snow Patrol
Bruce Springsteen
The White Stripes
Yeah Yeah Yeahs

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