Top New Albums of 2007

January 3, 2008

At the end of any year, it seems that I’m often asked by friends what my favorite albums of the  year are.  My tastes have changed over the last several years and I’ve found that I spend an increasingly amount of music budget and listening time to genres that are relatively new to me or exploring the music of differing cultures or generations.  Having turned 40 this year, indie rock bands of 20-somethings don’t speak to me as much as they used to.  I think I bought a few hundred albums this year but most of them were not new releases just things that were new to me.  I’ll start with my favorite new releases and move on to new discoveries made this year regardless of when they were originally released.

 1. The Good, The Bad & The Queen

The Good, The Bad, & The Queen – S/T

The Good, The Bad, & The Queen, the latest project from Blur frontman Damon Albarn, features Albarn on vocals, the Verve’s Simon Tong on guitar, the Clash’s Paul Simonon on Bass, and Afrobeat legend Tony Allen on percussion with production by Danger Mouse.  Its hard to believe that about ten years ago, alternative music rags were regularly debating who was the best band in world: Blur or Oasis?  It seems even more surprising that I cared about this debate and might have answered Oasis. 

Albarn has been a busy man since those days releasing two albums with his cartoon electro-bubblegum pop band, Gorillaz, recording Mali Music – a collaboration with afropop stars, launching and leading Honest Jon’s – an excellent reggae/soul reissue label, and now the Good, the Bad and the Queen.   Albarn’s projects are never less than interesting.  Despite this, in the past, I’ve always had more respect than love for his music, perhaps stemming from my general apathy towards recent English rock in general.  

The Good, The Bad and the Queen is a distinctly English record consisting of songs about London yet its by far my favorite Albarn project.  However, this is not the bright and cheerful guitar oriented britpop of Blur.  The mood is dour and sorrowful; hooks are burried and layered textures of sound continue to reveal themselves over repeated listens.  Supergroups rarely produce albums that are greater than the sum of their parts.  Whether due to egos clashing, a lack of unified visions among the artists, or just that the project is not the main focus of any of its contributors, these projects are often much more exciting in concept than in execution. 

As a big fan of Simonon and Allen and someone who great respects Albarn and Tong, I approached this album with great trepidation and fear that it too would disappoint.   Instead, it exceeded every expectation I had.  Albarn’s melancholic voice and piano mixed with Simonon’s dubby baselines, Tong’s cinematic guitars, and Allen’s rhythmic yet restrained percussion mix beautifully together and produce the rare side project album where each contributor brings something interesting to the project but never steps on the contributions of the others and always works in pursuit of the artists’ unified vision.  In that respect, it reminds me a bit of the recent Brasilian supergroup, Tribalistas.  My love and admiration of this album continues to grow with each listen.  In a world of unlimited mp3 album leaks and short attention spans of many music fans, I suspect a lot people who would be inclined to really like this glossed over it due to its mellow pace and lack of immediate hooks.  Its their loss and my album of the year.

2.

John Doe – A Year in the Wilderness

John Doe is probably best known as the co-leader of the legendary Los Angeles punk band, X.  He’s released some excellent rootsy, americana solo albums over the last several years.  While I consider myself a fan of X and really love some of their classic punk anthems, I increasingly find myself more drawn to Doe’s acoustic solo work much like I’m more drawn to Frank Black’s solo work than to the Pixies.  2002’s Dim Stars, Bright Skies and 2005’s Forever Hasn’t Happened Yet were very good albums that deserved greater audiences than they achieved.  Perhaps the appeal of his accoustic work has been limited to punk fans and his punk history has limited his appeal to country rock fans.  Whatever the reason, A Year in the Wilderness, is an album which should appeal to both potential sets of fans.   Guitar contributions from the Blaster’s Dave Alvin and the Black Key’s Dan Auerbach bring a harder rock edge to this album while the harmony vocals of Aimee Mann, Kathleen Edwards, Jill Sobule and Cindy Lee Berryhill offer a beautiful contrast.  This is Doe’s most accomplished solo effort and one of the albums that I found myself turning to the most during 2007.

3.

George Brigman – Rags in Skulls

George Brigman is a hard blues rock singer/guitarist from Baltimore, MD who recorded a little known but highly regarded self-released album, Jungle Rot, in 1975.   Brigman’s sound is hard, and jam-oriented blues guitar but with a lo-fi, DIY punk ethos.  His audience was likely limited at the time as his long guitar solos/jams wouldn’t appeal to punkers while his diy/lo fi recording likely made his sound too raw for most blues guitar aficionados.  I discovered Jungle Rot a couple of years ago after reading praise of it on Julian Cope’s website and was impressed by it.  With renewed interest in Jungle Rot, Brigman released his first album in 30 years this year.  Rags in Skulls, is to my lo-fi intolerant ears, even better than Jungle Rot largely due to improved production.  As I listen to either of the Brigman albums, I can’t help but think that J. Mascis was probably a fan.  Whether he was or not, this album should appeal to Dinosaur Jr. fans.  Dinosaur Jr. released a new album themselves this year and while its pretty strong, I think this is a much better album.

4.

Glenn Mercer – Wheels in Motion

Glenn Mercer, the former lead singer and guitarist of the Feelies, released his first solo album in 2007 and its every bit as good as the last couple of Feelies albums.  Although I’ve seen it on a few critic’s best of lists (the Chicago Sun Time’s Joe DeRogatis and one of WFMU’s DJs), it really has slipped under most people’s radars.   If you are a fan of the Feelies or just of 80’s sounding indie jangle guitar pop, I’d highly recommend Wheels in Motion.

5.

Tim Armstrong – A Poet’s Life

As the founder and head of the Ska Label, Hellcat Records, Tim Armstrong is no stranger to Ska.  Tim Armstrong’s primary band, Rancid, also had a strong ska streak in a lot of their best recordings.  So it shouldn’t be a complete surprise that Armstrong would make his first solo album also his first album completely devoted to Ska.  A Poet’s Life finds Armstrong singing with energy and enthusiasm and ably backed by the the rhythmn section of the Aggrolites.  Living in Southern California, I’ve been exposed to a lot of Third Wave Ska bands that would be charitably described as the musical equivalent of a fart joke.  These bands with their juvenile lyrics and minimal chops unfortunately have given ska a bad name and made it difficult for some to take ska sung by a white boy seriously.  When done right though, its hard to find a better soundtrack for the summer than a good ska record and A Poet’s Life is a good ska record.  I couldn’t rank this any lower than #5 just based on how much I played it this year.  Truthfully, if the year ended in the summer when I’m most inclined to enjoy ska, this would be ranked even  higher.

6.

Orquestra Imperial – Carnaval So Ano Que Vem

The trio of Moreno Veloso (Caetano’s son), Dominico and Kassin released three albums which married traditional Brasilian styles with more modern experimental rock under the ______ + 2 moniker.  Each contributor alternated as leader and the band name changed depending on whose vision the album represented.  Moreno + 2 was my personal favorite.   Orquestra Imperial finds the three working in the more traditional Brasilian styles of Bossa Nova and Samba alongside Brasilian greats like Pedro Sa and Wilson Das Neves.  Caetano Veloso is one of my favorite artists and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.   He is extremely talented.  In addition to this great album, his production on his father’s Ce album (which was one of my favorites of 2006) is largely responsible for Ce being Caetano’s best album in 20-30 years.

7.

Son Volt – The Search

As one of my favorite singers and songwriters, Jay Farrar is always a good bet to make any year-end best of list I might compile.  Despite being an easy top ten pick for me, this Son Volt album is one I struggled with more than most Son Volt albums.  I was lucky enough to get a preview of some of the better songs on this album last year when Farrar played a solo set as an opener to a concert by his Gob Iron collaboration with Varnaline’s Anders Parker.  Among the songs Jay previewed were Methamphetamine, which would be my pick for song of the year, and Highways and Cigarettes which would be another of Farrar’s best songs on any album.  These songs in my opinion represent Farrar at his best — simple songs played acoustically with heartfelt lyrics and Farrar’s trademark yearning vocals. Hearing these first possibly set any unrealistic expectation for greatness for the album.  I grew to like most of the other songs upon many listens but the album suffers a bit from a disjointed stylistic approach mixing these alt country crooners with harder rockers such as Sattelite and pop songs complete with soulful horns such as the Search.  Most all of the songs are strong on their own right but as a whole the albums suffers from poor transitions between styles which make the album feel more like a collection of songs than a cohesive work.

8.

Loudon Wainwright III – Strange Weirdos

I ranked these albums several days ago in a rush to provide my picks to a compiled poll of best albums of the year.  I’ve since listened to Strange Weirdos four times in 3 days — a frequency extremely unusual for me — and decided that if I were to rank them again I’d move this much higher, perhaps as high as #2.  Before this year, I was only familiar with Wainwright by name.  I knew that he was the father of Rufus and Martha Wainwright, ex-husband of Kate McGarrigle and a folk singer himself.  I would have guessed that he had a cult following but was a 2nd or 3rd tier folk artist that people like me who only have a toe and a half in the folk need not make a big priority. 

In the fall, I saw Loudon live with Joe Henry in a show billed as Strange Weirdos and discovered how wrong I was.  Calling Loudon a folksinger of any rate is unfairly pidgeonholing him.  He’s more of a songwriter’s songwriter as evidenced by Aimee Mann sitting directly behind me at his show and spotting Pete Yorn also in crowd.  He has a wry, self-deprecating humor; a keen pop sensibility; a gift for direct, nakedly honest lyrics; and a strong stage presence. 

Strange Weirdos is a collection of songs written for and or inspired by the Judd Apatow movie, “Knocked Up.”  Two of the songs appear in the beginning and opening credits respectively and other snippets of songs appear in instrumental form throughout the movie.  Strange Weirdos produced jointly by Loudon and Joe Henry compiles and fleshes out these songs into a more complete and cohesive album.  The songwriting is truly top notch and the band which consists of the same band which backed Joe Henry on his 2007 effort “Civilians” accompanied at times by guest appearances such as Richard Thompson on guitar and Van Dyke Parks on accordian provides the perfect musical accompaniment. 

Its a charming and witty album, truly one of the greatest pop gems of the last decade along with (and which should appeal to the fans of) Jon Brion’s Meaningless and Joe Pisapia’s Daydreams. 

9.

Seu Jorge – America Brasil O Disco

Seu Jorge is perhaps best known to Americans as the actor who played Portuguese Bowie covers in Wes Anderson’s movie, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.  As a huge Bowie fan and a huge fan of Brasilian music, I would expect to love Jorge’s last album, The Life Aquatic Studio Sessions, which compiled these covers.  The covers are interesting and its a nice novelty collection but I find that if I try to listen to the album as a whole a few songs in I would rather listen to the Bowie originals.  Jorge’s three albums of samba soul originals, which America Brasil O Disco is the latest of, are much stronger albums.  This album was only released in December and I’m still digesting it, but like it enough to put it in my top 10.

10.

Build An Ark – Dawn

A couple of times a year I embark on what I consider to be a personal music research project.  I pick a genre that I don’t know a lot about but have a little exposure to and a positive impression about and I buy a lot of albums in the narrowly defined genre and attempt to educate myself on it.  My biggest project this year was all things Al Kooper; one of my biggest and favorite projects a few years ago was Spirtual Jazz or Black Jazz.  While I’m not sure I’ve followed a commonly defined grouping of this genre or created my own definitions and genre groupings, I’d define it as a jazz style built on Coltrane’s new jazz foundation but incorporating all styles commonly considered part of the “black experience” including soul, gospel, and african music.  Its adventurous and forward-thinking and intellectually challenging but at the same time eminently much more listenable than most of what would be considered free or new jazz.  Spirtual jazz albums often included vocals with lyrics focused on african american political themes.  Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Eddie Gale, and Horace Silver were early leaders in spiritual jazz.  Speciality labels sprung up in the 70’s which specialized in the genre including Strata East, Black Jazz and the Detroit-based Tribe Records.

I don’t frequently buy current jazz albums.  Jazz is a huge genre which would be impossible for me to truly mine, however many years I devote to it.  I don’t doubt that interesting things continue to go on in the world of jazz but I generally focus my buying on albums from the 50’s to 70’s, generally considered to the be strongest period in jazz.  However, for a band of Build An Ark’s pedigree, I make an exception.  Build An Ark is a Los Angeles-based multi-generational jazz and soul collective formed in 2004 by Carlos Nino and Adam Rudolph and spiritual jazz veterans such as Tribe Records founding member and trombonist Phil Ranelin, vocalist Dwight Trible and organist Nate Morgan.

I’ve lived with this album for less than a month and am still digesting it but it has everything that I love about spiritual jazz; a loose collaborative feel unbound from the traditional constraints of what jazz; interesting contributions from talented performers from all backgrounds; and an underlying soulfulness and energy.  I am taking a bit of a leap of faith ranking Dawn this high without digesting it more but I could easily see this moving up much higher with additional listens.

11.

Manu Chao – La Radiolina

Manu Chao may not be well known in the United States but he is a star throughout much of Europe and Latin America.  His debut solo album, Clandestino, originally released in 1998 has sold over 5 million copies worldwide and is the second highest selling world music album trailing only Buena Vista Social Club. 

Chao is a manic traveller having once said that he could barely tolerate staying in the same place for two weeks.  Manu’s first two solo albums reflected this, having been recorded mainly with a small portable studio Chao carried in his backpack on his travels, and incorporated ambient street sounds, looping backing tracks and vocals sung in Spanish, English, and French.  The recording limitations necsisstated that the albums would be minimalist yet they were rich with experimentation incorporating a variety of musical styles including rock, french pop, reggae, ska, dub, electronica, rai, salsa and a variety of other latin genres. 

By contrast, having just completed a long tour with a full band, Chao entered the studio to record La Radiolina with a full band.  The resulting album, not surprisingly, is more rock-oriented than the first two albums and sadly less interesting as a result.  Its hard to imagine a Chao album not making my top 20 and this is still a strong album, but its lacks some of the unique character of its predecessors.  Chao, whose son lives in Forteleza, Brasil, is reported to have already recorded a follow-up to La Radiolina recorded with Brasilian musicians and steeped in Brasilian styles and is rumored to be coming out in the next two years.  I expect that this will be much more up my alley.

12.

Joe Henry – Civilians

13.

Spanish Harlem Orchestra – United We Swing

Spanish Harlem Orchestra return in 2007 with their second album, United We Swing.  Its a very strong Fania style salsa album.  I strongly recommend it to salsa/salsoul fans while suggesting that newbies to Salsa would be better off starting with a 70’s offering of Joe Bataan, Willie Colon or Hector LaVoie.

14.

Rufus Wainwright – Release the Stars

15.

Wilco – Sky Blue Sky

Wilco’s latest offering, Sky Blue Sky, was one of the more heavily anticipated releases of 2007 for indie rock and alt country music fans.  I have long been a big fan of Tweedy’s first band, Uncle Tupelo, and of Wilco’s first three albums but I thought that their break through album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (YHF) was a mixed bag of great songs thrown next to weaker fare.  The album lacked a cohesive feel to me and I didn’t think it the masterpiece that many fans did.  They lost me completely on their follow-up and last album, A Ghost is Born, a prog-influenced album filled with meandering and pointless guitar solos.  I gave it many chances to grow on me but always found myself relieved when it ended. 

I  disapproved of the direction the band had taken and thought I was off the wilco bandwagon.  I ignored this album for most of the year as a result, but late in the year read a review which called it the proper follow-up to my favorite Wilco album, Being There, and suggested that it was heavily influenced by one of my alltime favorite albums, Neil Young’s Harvest.  I decided that perhaps I was being hasty and that the band deserved a last chance.  I still have mixed feelings about the album, but it is much better than A Ghost is BornSky Blue Sky has its share of guitar solos but unlike on A Ghost is Born, they are not meandering and directionless.  Here, they are always in support of the song, and the songs are indeed a return to the rootsy country rock of their past.  Its a very good if not great Wilco album.

16. 

The Green Pajamas – Box of Secrets: Northern Gothic 2

Formed in 1984 by Jeff Kelly and Joe Ross, the Green Pajamas, return in 2007 with what is hard to believe is their eighteenth studio album.  Claiming to be influenced equally by the Beatles and the 80’s Paisley Underground bands of LA, the Green Pajamas play a well-crafted jangly psychedelic pop which should appeal to any fan of the Paisley Underground scene or of Robyn Hitchcock.  Its bands like the Green Pajamas that remind me that its still worth paying attention to indie pop. 

17.

Dee Dee Bridgewater – Red Earth

One of the best jazz vocalists of her generation, Dee Dee Bridgewater has recorded with Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Billy Harper, Roland Kirk, Cecil McBee, Carlos Garnett, Max Roach, Frank Foster, Stanley Clarke, Horace Silver and Norman Connors. She won Grammys in 1998 for her tribute album to Ella Fitzgerald. She has also appeared in various broadway musicals incuding The Wiz (1975 Tony Award for “Best Featured Actress”), Sophisticated Ladies, Lady Day (as Billie Holiday), Carmen, and Cabaret.

In her latest ablum, Red Earth, Bridgewater explores her african heritage traveling to  Mali to record an album which marries American jazz with the voices, music and traditional instruments of Malian griot.   Some of Mali’s best artists contributed to the album including Oumou Sangare (vocals), Toumani Diabete (Kora), and Baba Sissoko.  The songs are a mix of original Bridgewater penned songs and Malian popular songs. 

18.

Mary Gauthier – Between Daylight and Dark

Mary Gauthier was given up by her mother at birth, ran away from home  at age 15 stealing her adoptive parents’ car, spent the next several years in drug rehab, halfway houses, and living with friends; and she celebrated her 18th birthday in jail.  She continued struggling with drugs off and own through her 20’s.   Despite these struggles, she managed to graduate from culinary school and open her own cajun restaurant which she later sold to finance her music career.  Now in her mid 40’s, Gauthier didn’t write her first song until age 35.  

Given the early difficulties of her life, It shouldn’t be surprising that her songwriting often takes the form of narrative storytelling of the struggles and challenges of ordinary individuals, the heartaches experienced along the way, and the celebration of those who persurve through tough times.  Her subjects on this album includes a girl visiting her father in prison on Thanksgiving, individuals displaced by Hurricane Katrina, and a tribute to Hobos (yes, Hobos!). 

Joe Henry makes his third trip to my 2007 top 20, this time in the producer’s chair.  Henry brings along the same band that supported him and Loudon Wainwright on their albums.  Loudon Wainwright makes a guest appearance providing backup vocals on two songs and Van Dyke Parks plays piano on one song.  The band keeps the sound appropriately sparse and uncrowded, primarily piano and light strings providing a strong platform for Gauthier’s music but always leaving Gauthier firmly in the center, never over-crowding her.  Her songs and stories are given centerstage where they truly shine.

19.

John P. Strohm – Everyday Life

20.

Andy Palacio & The Garifuna Collective – Watina

Andy Palacio is the best-known Belizean singer of Garifuna music, a style with a strong African flavor played with traditional turtle shell percussion, gourd rattles and wooden drums, as well as more contemporary instruments. The language of Garifuna, in which Palacio sings, is a mixture of Spanish, French, and West African and Carib languages. 

Just missing out – Best of the Rest

Nick Lowe – At My Age, Dinosaur Jr – Beyond, Black Francis – Bluefinger, Kevin Johansen – Logo, Bobby Hutcherson – For Sentimental Reasons, Clara Moreno – Meu Samba Torto, Orgone – The Killion Floor

Hello world!

January 2, 2008

I’m not sure what i intend to do with this.  I guess it will evolve over time or get abandoned completely.