One of the highlights of my year is collecting music: some fantastic, some downright terrible. But there is nothing like the search for new music, the first experience with a new album, the joy of finding an album with which you fall in love. This year I fell in love with so many albums it has been difficult to narrow my list down to just a “top” few. But I have done so. Painstakingly.
MY TOP 15 ALBUMS ARE AS FOLLOWS:
1. I’m Not There: Original Sountrack
No, there is no specific artist who can claim this album as solely their own, but it is chalk full of wonderful covers of Bob Dylan’s greatest songs, by the greatest artists of our time. Few artists have ever been as polarizing as Dylan has been and his spirit is perfectly captured on this soundtrack; it is a remarkable tribute. Indeed, alongside Todd Hayne’s sprawling biopic I’m Not There, it may be the greatest Dylan tribute yet. Aside from a few songs, like Sufjan Steven’s unfortunate rendition of “Ring Them Bells,” most of the 37 songs are wonderful. I have returned time and again to Jim James’ version of “Goin’ To Acapulco,” Jeff Tweedy’s “Simple Twist of Fate,” Cat Power’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” and young Marcus Carl Franklin’s “When the Ships Come In.” Included also are inspired renditions by Stephen Malkmus, Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Joe Henry, and the fine work of Calexico which seems to hold the album together rather well. And of course, the common thread for all the artists is the lyrical talent of Mr. Dylan himself.
2. Steven Delopoulos: Straightjacket
Delopoulos second solo album (the first was 2003’s Me Died Blue) has certainly been one of those albums too few people know about. This is unfortunate because Delopoulos, the former singer of Burlap to Cashmere, is one of the most unique and talented singer-songwriters working today. Part early Dylan, part Cat Stevens, part Greek folk music, this raw and stripped down album is full of wonderfully penned, apocalyptic, spiritually driven songs. Katie Herzig and Sandra McCracken (Derek Webb’s wife) also perform on the album. Straightjacket is available by download only at Delopoulos’s website. For more, check out Tyler Clair Smith’s review at Into The Hill.
3. Southeast Engine: A Wheel Within A Wheel
Southeast Engine is a Wilco-esque band hailing from Athens, Ohio — coal country, the same area Over The Rhine is from. Their music, particularly on this album, is literary smart, spiritually humble, southern Gothic musings on failure and growth and the end of time. The name of the album is, in fact, a reference to the Biblical book of Ezekiel. This not an experimental indie album, not some kind of hip alternative Euro-rock, not a dance album, just a collection of pure, soulful, folk/pop, rock n’ roll songs, wound tightly and lyrically poignant that has been on repeat in my itunes for weeks now. Check out the band’s website for more information.
4. Joe Henry: Civilians
Henry is one of the best song writers anywhere and the lyrics on this, his newest effort, are beautifully poetic musings about the state of modern America and the themes of mercy, grace, violence, and forgiveness; this album contains the best lyrics I have heard on any album all year. Henry’s jazzy, blues-folk stylings are silky smooth and this well produced (and self produced) album is evidence of a seasoned and confident artist who understands the powerful role music can play in society and in lives.
5. Devon Sproule: Keep Your Silver Shined
What is most remarkable about Devon Sproule’s music is the way she wonderfully captures a sense of place. The 25 year old folk singer beautifully and intimately represents her Virginian, Appalachian home through an inviting mix of blues and southern blue grass in a way reminiscent of a good Southern short story or folk tale. Yet she also understands what makes a good pop song or a catchy tune. This is an album not easily categorized and an album not easily ignore. Play it once and you will play it again and again.
6. Josh Ritter: The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
In 2006 Idahoan Josh Ritter released his critically acclaimed album “Animal Years,” a meandering and sultry compilation of complex (yet precise) folk songs about loves found and lost, longing, and the art of wandering. At times dreamy, at times haunting, “Animal Years” proved Mr. Ritter to be a rare breed: that musician who, though his aspirations are great, seems to achieve more than even he hoped. Now, he has set the bar even higher.
For more see my complete album review.
7. Wilco: Sky Blue Sky
Wilco just keeps going and going, getting better and better, and as they explore new places in their music Jeff Tweedy and Co. are only drawing more and more fans, all the while keeping the devoted fans who have followed them for years. Sky Blue Sky seems to be their most accessible album yet filled as it is with gentle, guitar driven pop hooks and Tweedy’s most normal lyrics yet. Yet another wonderful album from one of the great bands of the last decade-plus.
8. Over The Rhine: The Trumpet Child
While The Trumpet Child may not be the best album this husband and wife duo have made, it remains a unique and beautiful collection of songs. In many ways the recording seems to be a tribute to American music, and Americana in general, particularly the folk and blues artists that influenced their own work. There at least a couple of songs on this album that belong among the best in the canon of OTR’s music including the title track and the playful “Don’t Wait For Tom.” There are certainly very few artists who have a voice as strong and beautiful and haunting as Kerin Berquist’s; an OTR live performance is an experience not easily forgotten. Check out Jeffrey Overstreet’s fascinating review of the album at Christianity Today.
9. The Arcade Fire: Neon Bible
The Arcade Fire may just be one of the defining bands of this generation, like U2 has been for so many years, or like Radiohead has been (and clearly continues to be). They have a sound both popular and unique, simultaneously intense and quiet; their lyrics are prophetic while at the same time compassionate. It is apparent that they hold true to their convictions and beliefs regarding society, religion, and the relationship between the two. They ask difficult questions that have no simple solutions and they do not pretend otherwise. They realize that faith is a difficult thing, that believing in something is a difficult thing, especially in a culture of consumerism and more-more-more, a culture that, ironically, believes there is no truth. Neon Bible is a cohesive and beautiful blend of pleasant ballads and energetic pop anthems that won’t soon be out of your head. Check out Jeffrey Overstreet’s review at lookingcloser.org.
10. Matthew Perryman Jones: Throwing Punches in the Dark
Jones’ blend of folk/pop songs and spiritually driven lyrics remind listeners that despite the fact that we are surrounded by suffering and hatred, and though we are sometimes filled with anger and rage, though we are often broken and often fail, we are creatures made in the Imago Dei complete with beating heart, creative impulses, and somewhere, though perhaps deeply, passion squirming about in our souls, grasping the bars which keep it hidden away. “Throwing Punches In the Dark” is an album about breaking down those bars, about bursting out, warts and all. For more check out my full review.
11. Mary Gauthier: Between Daylight and Dark
With the help of producer Joe Henry (what a year he has had!) Gauthier (pronounced Go-shay) created, musically speaking, one of the best folk/blues albums of the year. Not that her lyrics aren’t good too, because they are, but she shows great restraint in her delivery of them. This is an album, a collection of folk-noir ballads, that knows where it wants to be and how long it is welcome there and it doesn’t overstay that welcome. Gauthier has a tender and compassionate voice, interesting considering her songs often contain some dark and dreary material. Whereas the subject matter of some of her songs has a noir-esque feel about them, her voice is full of grace and mercy as if she feels for those she is singing about. This isn’t the kind of album that necessarily gets you dancin, but it is the kind of album that you makes you feel a plethora of emotions and question why you are feeling them. It is the kind of album that sticks with you long after the final note of the final track has echoed in your ear.
12. Band of Horses: Cease to Begin
This is an album that has grown on me over time and is one that seems to have a great deal of staying power. Band of Horses looks to be a band that is in it for the long haul. Improving on last year’s Everything All the Time, this album is a gorgeous compilation of musical stylings and influences from southern blue grass to country to shoe gaze to classic rock n’ roll. Often compared to bands like the Shins and My Morning Jacket, I think BOH has surpassed both primarily because of their range and diversity. At times this album delivers the best rock n’ roll anywhere this year, at other times it delivers playful, southern, folk- pop tunes, and again at other times it delivers haunting, dramatic, ambient, melodies more luscious and beautiful than any band has created this side of The Arcade Fire.
13. The Avett Brothers: Emotionalism
The Avett Brothers music is a study in intensity. Their songs are not full of angry guitars or pulse-pounding drum beats, but they are full attitude: good, healthy, home grown, southern attitude. The kind influenced by heavy humidity, youth on a farm, and perhaps a taste or two of grandpa’s sugar water. This album is about regrets and shame and the fact they everyone is going to, one day or another, “die, die, die.” Ultimately it’s about love, or wishing we could love, or wishing we hadn’t loved, or wishing we just had loved a little better. No one writes or performs a banjo driven folk song like the Avett Brothers and this album proves that they are only getting better. This album proves that the brothers are a little more mature and a little more experienced and that they are only getting better.
*note: This album could easily have been in my top five but I found that the songs didn’t have the staying power has those that comprise the albums ahead of it on the list.
14. Andy Zipf: The Long Tail
So there’s a bit of a catch here. Andy Zipf never actually released an album. However, he has released a compilation of tracks – beautiful and haunting and hopeful tracks – on the web. To find them you can visit his website or you can check out his profile over at Disc Revolt. Zipf’s music is gorgeous. Flat out gorgeous. And his songs are hopeful, something rare in today’s music. But Zipf clearly understand that life can be painful and often is; he recognizes that people often fail one another. But he also knows that being alone is similarly painful. His music is an infusion of beach boys pop, U2/Radiohead guitar driven rock, and Jeff Buckley vocals. Zipf tours extensively so be sure to check out one of his great shows if you have yet to do so. Also, see an insightful interview with Zipf at Into the Hill.
15. Ezra Furman and the Harpoons: Banging Down the Doors
Ezra Furman takes chances. Brilliant, energetic, rediculous, 60’s-esque, chances. And his music is a breath of fresh hair. Sounding eerily like a young Robert Zimmerman, this album is a raucous, heart-on-sleeve, folk collection of aggressive Americana songs. Furman has no intentions of singing on key or in tune or any such thing. He just sings. And sings. And sings. He doesn’t care about breathing or punctuation or diction. And, boy is it exhilerating! However, what keeps Furman and Co.’s creation from being a top 5 album is an inherent immaturity that pops up from time in the lyrics. But with that voice such things can be forgiven – for now. After all, he was only 21 when he sang these songs.
THE REST OF THE BEST:
16. Derek Webb: The Ringing Bell
17. Andrew Bird: Armchair Apocrypha
18. Feist: The Reminder
19. Explosions in the Sky: All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone
20. Bright Eyes: Cassadega
21. Once: Soundtrack
22. Louden Wainwright III: Strange Weirdos
23. St. Vincent: Marry Me
24. The Shins: Wincing the Night Away
25. Rosie Thomas: These Friends of Mine
ALBUMS I NEEDED TO LISTEN TO MORE BUT WHICH WERE GREAT UPON A FIRST LISTEN OR TWO:
Robert Plant and Allison Krauss: Raising Sand
Waterdeep: Heart Attack Time Machine
Radiohead: In Rainbows
Iron and Wine: Shepherd’s Dog (sorely over-produced as many other reviewers have pointed out)
Bruce Springsteen: Magic
The National: Boxer
*It’s not that these albums are terrible (though I was bored by Boxer and Magic) but simply that they are not as good as people are saying. Of course, the question is: what are your favorite albums of 2007?