Best Albums of 2007

This was a pretty solid year for new music — many established artists put out great CDs and several newcomers made a very strong first impression. Following are my top ten album releases of the year, counting up from Number Ten:

10. Lyle Lovett and His Large Band – It’s Not Big It’s Large

This album was a return to form of sorts for Lovett, after a long dry spell following The Road to Ensenada. It hasn’t held up as well as I thought it might, but it’s still a great listen with a couple of songs that rank among his finest.

9. M.I.A. – Kala

The definition of a “grower” — I liken this album to a sore tooth that you can’t keep from probing with your tongue. It’s loud, repetitive, assaulting… and I couldn’t help but listen to it over and over again. I’ve never been into world music or electronica, and this album is a fusion of both, but I find something irresistable in M.I.A.’s electric delivery and her addictive beats. It’s a great “dance” album but at the same time feels like a powerful ground-up political anthem.

8. Fountains of Wayne – Traffic and Weather

Another collection of simple gems by the best songwriting team since Lennon and McCartney (or at least John and Taupin). They have a gift for turning the banality of daily life (waiting in line at the DMV, driving down I-95 to meet your girlfriend, searching for luggage at the baggage claim) into pop poetry. This album doesn’t reach the heights of Welcome Interstate Managers, but it’s a worthy addition to their teriffic catalog.

7. Amy Winehouse – Back to Black

It’s a shame Winehouse is such a mess, but I suppose she fits into a long line of fine artists whose personal lives were drug-addled disasters. Here’s hoping she cleans herself up and continues to put out music as wonderful as this bluesy, soulful throwback. Its Motown-via-21st century English party girl vibe is beyond cool, and the songwriting is truly exceptional. So, too, are her vocals — who would guess a woman whose hair weighs more than the rest of her body could have pipes like this?

6. Josh Rouse – Country Mouse City House

I’m convinced that Josh Rouse is incapable of making bad music. Through seven full-length albums I’ve yet to come across a song I’d even consider skipping. This latest effort is a low-key affair, recorded over a few days in Spain, featuring nine laid-back ditties, two or three of which count among his best work. He’s one of those songwriters who comes up with such perfect melodies that you can’t help but wonder how nobody could have stumbled upon them before. In a fair world, he’d be winning Grammys and selling out arenas. But I’m happy to have him (along with Ben Folds and a few others) in that ‘secret treasure’ category.

5. The Shins – Wincing the Night Away

The Shins are the sort of other-worldly band that seems to play by their own rules and put out a kind of music that nobody really ever came up with before (I’d put them in a category with Belle & Sebastian and The Smiths in that regard). Several years ago, Zach Braff doomed them by having Natalie Portman, in Garden State, declare that their music would change your life. No it won’t. But I can see why a kid in the throes of teeange existentialism would think so. This album is their best yet and it offers new delights with every listen.

4. Lily Allen – Alright, Still

Absolutely the most fun I’ve had listening to an album in years. The alchemy of Allen’s Cockney-accented vocals blended with her sunshine melodies and ska beats makes for the musical equivalent of a banana split. It’s such a delightful evocation of a particular time and place in a brash young woman’s life — every time I listen to this CD I find myself longing to go to London and pub crawl with the cast of a Nick Hornby novel.

3. Lucinda Williams – West

Williams is in the unenviable position of having to compete with her own peerless catalog with each new release. West doesn’t stack up to Car Wheels on a Gravel Road or her self-titled classic, but neither does anything else on this list. What it does have are six or seven of the best songs I heard this year, performed and produced to perfection. It has one misstep (a 7-minute blues stomp that loses my interest at the halfway point) that drops it to #3, but Williams long ago cemented her status as one of the finest ever songwriters, and this album is further confirmation.

2. Bruce Springsteen – Magic

You have to hand it to Bruce — 58 years old and putting out his third teriffic album in a row. This is a streak to rival Bob Dylan’s current run, which is high praise indeed. Magic is the best of the bunch — a perfect blend of his anthemic Born to Run style with the introspective power of Devils & Dust. He has a few songs here that are directly or indirectly about the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, and he manages to make them powerful, poignant and also damn catchy. Perhaps the most impressive is ‘Long Walk Home,’ in which Springsteen bemoans how far off track Bush has taken this country. The final verse is particularly gripping:

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 and nobody goes it alone””Your flag flyin’ over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone.
Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t”It’s gonna be a long walk home

Yes it is. But meaningful albums like this one will make it an easier journey.

1. Rufus Wainwright – Release the Stars

This is getting a little boring. Rufus Wainwright puts out an album and it hits #1 on my year-end album list. This year I struggled a bit and thought about going with Bruce or Lucinda, even Lily Allen or The Shins. But I kept coming back to Wainwright’s latest opus. Following his epic two-part Want albums, Release the Stars is a relatively modest affair. As modest as any collection of pop operettas (poperettas?) lavishly adorned with strings, horns and choirs can be, anyway. What brings me back to Wainwright again and again, and his albums back to my #1 spot, is his peerless songcraft, of course, but also the reckless abandon with which he pours his heart out on tape. His is the only work I can think of that has brought little old stoic me to the brink of tears, and on more than one occasion. The highest compliment I can pay to Wainwright is that he’s the most cinematic musician I’ve ever heard, and this is another release worthy of the biggest of screens.

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