Friday, January 02, 2009

Albums of the Aughts: 2007

In case you couldn’t tell from this whole “Albums of the Aughts” thing, I’m an album guy. Always have been, even when albums turned into cassettes, and cassettes turned into CDs. I don’t cherry pick. If I hear a song I like, I don’t buy that song, I buy the album it’s on. If a song goes on my iPod, its surrounded by the songs the artist intended it to be surrounded by. A completist (which means I’m concerned about the death of the album, but that’s another story for another post on another day).

So that made things a little difficult looking back at 2007, which turned out for me to be a year marked more by individual songs than entire records. For some reason, there’s a whole batch of CDs here that have some incredible tracks—some of my favorites of the decade—but have some holes on their resumes, as well.

Consider Feist’s “The Reminder,” for example: It has several catchy numbers as good as you’ll find from this year, but the album’s last four songs blend into a big mush. Same thing happens with Ryan Adams’ “Easy Tiger” or the “Once” soundtrack: Amazing high points, but too many skippable tracks to be considered favorite albums on the whole. The Arcade Fire produced two of my all-time favorite songs in 2007, “Keep the Car Running” and “No Cars Go,” but I don’t feel the need to listen to the rest of “Neon Bible” all that much anymore the way I do their 2004 debut, “Funeral.”

So, the list of honorable mentions this time around is especially potent; I can’t believe some of the artists relegated to such status from this year, but I just can’t justify picking one over the others when they all suffer from the same problem. Knocking those potential slot-fillers out of the running leaves me with just eight favorite albums from 2007 …

“Sink or Swim,” The Gaslight Anthem
Labeling “Sink or Swim” a “great debut” is probably the understatement of the decade. It’s a punk classic for this millennium, as the New Jersey quartet channels Bruce Springsteen, Joe Strummer, and R&B and soul legends of the ’60s through the filter of modern-day punk rock. Though the band would refine their sound to great effect the following year, “Sink or Swim” still stands as one of my favorite albums of the decade, an effort of near perfection from a band who made it readily apparent they were destined for greatness.
Favorite Track: “We Came to Dance”
[original review]

“Because of the Times,” Kings of Leon
“Knocked Up,” the first track on this, the Tennessee misfits’ third album, is seven minutes long. That right there is all the signal anyone ever needed that the Kings had turned a corner and weren’t looking back. Whether you like the new direction or not I guess depends on whether you like your bands to stay in the same frame for their entire careers or not; I prefer the latter, and “Because of the Times” is my favorite KOL album to date. The term “arena rock” has been turned into a pejorative over the years, due I guess to way too many imitators to the crown bands like U2 and Pearl Jam carry with ease. But the Kings effectively made the transition with this album, especially great shootin’-for-the-upper-deck tracks like “McFearless,” “Black Thumbnail,” and my …
Favorite Track: “Fans.”

“Boxer,” The National
It seems to me The National spent the aughts building to this dark masterpiece. Each of the band’s previous three albums took steps in “Boxer’s” direction, stretching their sound in new directions before unveiling in 2007 this sweeping, majestic, orchestral stunner. Frontman Matt Berninger has a rich, canyon-deep voice you can drown in, and his measured tones mix with Bryan Devendorf's melodic drumming to carry the album to melancholy perfection. This is an arresting effort you listen to with purpose (preferably on long drives through a dark night), and after pushing play on opening track “Fake Empire,” it’s basically impossible to find a place to stop. “Boxer” marked back-to-back albums produced by The National with nary a weak track; it flows perfectly from up- to down-tempo, electric to acoustic, as devastating with a whisper as it is with a bellow—all in a decidedly minor key.
Favorite Track: “Slow Show”

“Raising Sand,” Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
The biggest surprise of the decade? Gotta be. Seriously, whoulda thought the hedonistic former frontman of Led Zeppelin and bluegrass belle with the voice of an angel could find any common ground whatsoever, much less meld their voices together like they were born for one another? The results are simply, purely magnificent, however. Led by T. Bone Burnett, Plant and Krauss glide in and around one another over the course of these 13 tracks with a generosity that never pushes too hard or forces the issue—they just let the songs unfold naturally, easily, wonderfully. Listening to “Killing the Blues,” for example, it’s not hard to imagine the two of them looking across the studio at each other, saying as much with their eyes and ears as with their voices. When it’s all sung and done, “Raising Sand” just feels … right. It brought Krauss more attention than she’s ever had outside her home genre, and for Plant the album was a return to relevance he hasn’t had since John Bonham died nearly three decades ago. An instant classic—and, hopefully, the start of a long, long journey.
Favorite Track: “Please Read the Letter”
[original review]

“Into the Wild,” Eddie Vedder
This one took a long time to grow on me, requiring I just get over the fact it wasn’t the true solo album I was hoping for but, first and foremost, a movie soundtrack. I still wish several of the songs were given full-track treatment, but I’ve come to love the first four entries—“Setting Forth,” “No Ceiling,” “Far Behind,” and particularly “Rise”—kinda as one long song in four parts, like the rock operas Vedder loves so much. “Guaranteed,” meanwhile, took on new meaning for me seeing it performed live during EV’s two solo shows in D.C. in August. And the entire venture is worth it if nothing else than for my …
Favorite Track: the beautiful and stirring “Hard Sun,” one of Vedder’s best vocal performances.
[original review]

“Icky Thump,” The White Stripes
Jack White abandoned his unfortunate detour into marimbaland from two years earlier and returned to what he does best—melting faces—with this blood-boiling guitar manifesto. Opener “Icky Thump” is a call to arms on the six-string, and it’s followed by some of the heaviest rock-and-blues tracks the band’s recorded to date (“Bone Broke,” “Little Cream Soda,” “Catch Hell Blues”). But “Icky Thump” is more than just a return to the band’s original template. Elsewhere White taps his considerable influences to great effect on songs such as country-tinged stomper “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do What You’re Told),” the Irish folk tale “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn,” and the Flamenco-hammer of “Conquest.” This all culminates literally and figuratively with “Rag & Bone,” a call-and-response blues extravaganza recalling Jack and Meg’s more playful days that has the dynamic duo flaunting their ability to meld all these various pieces of musical history into a new tapestry for this millennium.
Favorite Track: “A Martyr for My Love for You”
[original review]

“Sky Blue Sky,” Wilco
With more than a year to reflect on Wilco’s most recent album, I’d best describe it as … solid. And, perhaps, a missed opportunity. That doesn’t sound like all that good a reason to be listed as a favorite album of the year, but such is the standard set by obviously one of my all-time favorite bands. There are plenty of songs to love on “Sky Blue Sky,” most notably the double shot of “You Are My Face” and “Impossible Germany.” What holds this record back, to my ears, is the confining production, which seems to dampen the sound and spirit of these tracks. It’s all a bit close for my taste, especially coming off the sonic palettes of the band’s previous two albums. Still, all that said, “Sky Blue Sky” is a good listen from start to finish, and that’s enough to push it above some of the other more scattershot albums of 2007. There’s something to be said for consistency.
Favorite Track: “You Are My Face”
[original review]

“Is Is,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Rolling off the success of 2006’s tour de force “Show Your Bones,” this five-song EP may be even better than its predecessor. The YYYs followed the same template of complicated, menacingly ethereal songwriting, blistering their way through 17.5 minutes of some of the best angular rock and roll of the decade. And this release didn’t even include the trio’s tremendous contribution to the “Spider-Man 3” soundtrack, “Sealings,” which may have just been their best song of the year! The EP made a strong showing during the aughts; “Is Is” is a testament to the format’s ability to punch you in the gut and leave you desperately wanting more.
Favorite Track: “Down Boy”
[original review]

“Easy Tiger,” Ryan Adams
“Follow the Lights” [EP], Ryan Adams & The Cardinals
“Neon Bible,” Arcade Fire
“Favourite Worst Nightmare,” Arctic Monkeys
“The Meanest of Times,” Dropkick Murphys
“The Reminder,” Feist
“Once” [soundtrack], Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova
“Kala,” M.I.A.
“Magic,” Bruce Springsteen

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