2007 will probably be remembered as a tough year for music. CD sales continued plummeting, illegal downloads soared, and Britney’s still on a pretty short leash with Child Protective Services. At the end of the year, the “industry” appears rudderless and stubborn in the face of a very large shift in the way Americans get their music.
Also, this was my first year of iPod ownership. By the end of the year, I packed up all my CD’s and filled my hard drive with space-saving digital manna. The jury is in—iPod changed my life. I haven’t listened to an entire “album” in nine months and I haven’t darkened the doorstep of my local record store in almost as long.
I consistently refer to my playlists as the “Greatest Radio Stations Ever.” However, the unintended consequence of having ultimate control of thirty gigs of music at all times is what I call Too Much of a Good Thing Effect.
The Too Much of a Good Thing Effect (or TMGT for short) is the result of constantly shuffling my iPod and hoping for each song to be a dizzying high of breathtaking bliss; the perfect song for whatever mood I’m in. What I get instead is an uncontrollable urge to skip through until that happens, thereby rendering the majority of songs to filler status. New albums may make their way on the playlist, but unless they immediately grab me, they get skipped, possibly never to be given a fair shake. Clearly, this is no way to listen to music.
However, there were plenty of songs and albums that wormed their way into my cold cyborg heart, often for many different reasons.
Best Album of 2007 that Actually Came Out Five Months Before 2007 Actually Started
Heartless Bastards – All This Time
Dayton, Ohio’s Heartless Bastards have expanded beyond the blues roots of their debut and emerged with a bigger sound to compliment Erika Wennerstrom’s gigantic voice. It’s hard to believe this much glorious noise comes out of three people. All This Time should have been my favorite album of last year.
Best Half of a Great Album
Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
The highly-anticipated follow-up to 2004’s Funeral will probably make quite a few year-end lists, despite suffering from a schizophrenia of quality. Neon Bible is at its best when the sprawling Canadian nine-piece is focused and rocking (“Keep the Car Running,” “[Antichrist Television Blues]”). Once it ventures into ambitious, arty territory ( “Black Wave-Bad Vibrations”) Neon Bible suffers and becomes quite pedestrian. The high points are dizzying and superb, especially when seen live. Hopefully Win Butler and his cadre of excitable multi-instrumentalists can make their next effort more cohesive.
Best Return from the Edge of Ridiculousness
Ryan Adams – Easy Tiger
Conventional wisdom about Ryan Adams seemed to agree that he peaked early. After the child prodigy brilliance of Whiskeytown and a strong solo debut, Adams flirted with mainstream stardom before devolving into a bratty diva with no filter, once releasing three albums in one calendar year. The last album from that unholy trio, 29, was nearly unlistenable and it looked like Adams would be a victim of his own bloat. Then he got clean.
Usually that’s the final step into middle-of-the-road mediocrity, but it worked for Adams. Easy Tiger is a remarkable return to heartfelt musings on bittersweet love and disappointment, complete with strong melodies and great music. He’s still planning that nine-record box set of unreleased material, but perhaps that will be one last look at the erratic beginnings of a once-again promising career.
Best Album Performed by a Train Wreck
Amy Winehouse – Back to Black
It’s hard to decide which is more incongruent – that a voice like that comes out of that tiny pale body, or that someone so talented could be so blind about her impending doom. Simply focusing on the music reveals an incredible amalgamation of Spector-era girl-group stylings with brooding musings on lost love and good times. Ms. Winehouse clearly knows what she’s doing once she steps in front of a microphone. Hopefully she’ll be around long enough to follow up her American debut.
Best Avoidance of Sophomore Slump
Band of Horses – Cease to Begin
Sure, they sound like about a dozen other bands, but Band of Horses has the magic formula to put it all together and still sound fresh. One member short and holding court in South Carolina instead of Seattle, Band of Horses return to largely familiar territory on their follow up to 2006’s Everything All The Time. Luckily, that album left most listeners wanting more. Count Band of Horses among the few bands to avoid the dreaded Second Album Letdown in 2007, unlike Bloc Party and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, both of whom failed to duplicate the startling highs of their debuts.
Most Welcome Throwback to 1989
Dinosaur Jr. – Beyond
Like a Phoenix from the ashes of grunge, Dinosaur Jr. arose from seemingly out of nowhere to reunite its three original members and knock one completely out of the park. J. Mascis and Lou Barlow worked together under the Dinosaur Jr. moniker for the first time in 19 years and the result is the best kind of nostalgia. Beyond reminds the listener of the best parts of the late 80’s/early 90’s precursor to the Nirvana Years, namely that road weary vocals, mixed with fuzzy feedback-drenched solos and shitty production, resulting in the perfect elixir to the Pro Tools regime of the 21st century.
Best Ambitious 30-track Sprawler
Sloan – Never Hear the End of It
This one could be called Nova Scotia Calling, so named after Sloan’s Canadian roots and their obvious homage to the Clash’s seminal all-over-the-map masterpiece. Truth be told, Sloan owes much more to Lennon/McCartney than Jones/Strummer for their infectious sound, but the Clash legitimized the idea that a band could make their biggest splash by bucking formula and cramming as many genres into one album as humanly possible.
The Beatles/Clash comparisons don’t end there, as each member of Sloan writes his own songs, often to staggering results. That Never Hear the End of It easily recalls the Beatles and the Clash is a singular triumph, not a bad one for a 16-year-old Halifax band that hardly anyone in the lower 48 has ever heard of.
Best Return to Form
White Stripes – Icky Thump
After a clear yet uncharacteristic stumble with Get Behind Me Satan, the Stripes quickly shook off their first dose of critical ire and got right back to work. Honestly, I can’t really figure out what they did so differently on Icky Thump, but it works much better. It sounds like the band is simply more focused instead of further exploring what they could do with only one guitar and a drum kit. (The answer to that question, at least when the White Stripes explore it, is a lot. Perhaps too much.) Icky Thump is clearly a look back, but not in anger.
Most Surprising Collaboration
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss – Raising Sand
Only T-Bone Burnette would have the vision to put Robert Plant’s fascination with early blues and rock n’ roll together with Alison Krauss’ mournful bluegrass spirit and get away with it. The aural equivalent of that “He put peanut butter on my chocolate!” commercial, Plant eschews most of the bluster and banshee howls that made him famous and melds perfectly with Krauss’ refined country vocals. Clearly, the choice of material had much to do with the album’s success. The duo covers Tom Waits, Gene Clark, and Townes Van Zandt, among others, and not once do they sound gimmicky or forced.
Best Album of 2007
Kings of Leon – Because of the Times
When Kings of Leon’s third album was released in April, I knew immediately it was a contender for my favorite album of the year. Eight months later, Because of the Times took all comers and emerged victorious.
Suffering a little bit from too much hype too early, Kings of Leon had never quite reached their potential after two albums. Being a family band of southern rockers determined to wear lots of denim and grow magnificent beards, the Kings exploded onto the scene with a healthy push from overseas press and, frankly, wilted under the pressure. However, the Brothers Followill concocted their strongest album to date with Because of the Times, a catchy, driving, rocking album from start to finish.
Kings of Leon songs have always been interesting, with little more than a garage band feel to the music, but on Because of the Times, the band finally gelled, becoming striking and confident musicians. The opener, “Knocked Up,” a seven-minute epic about impending fatherhood and new responsibility, makes perfect sense – Kings of Leon has grown up, but also out, around, over and through the legacy of their previous two albums.