Lucinda Williams – West
Ben Harper - Lifeline
I started No Expiration around the time Ben Harper released Lifeline and I postulated that it might be the “album of the year.” For me, it pretty much is. I’m sorry that Ben doesn’t seem to be the type of guy to make critics’ top ten lists. On the other hand, I don’t think that Lil Wayne or Panda Bear or Band Of Horses will be selling out Radio City Music Hall a decade into their careers. Ben is just not on the radar of the hipsters, but the people who love him, really love him. This is one of Ben’s best albums – and even his lesser albums are better than most other artist’s best. P.S. Ben also collaborated with The Skatalites on “Be My Guest” off of the Fats Domino tribute album, Goin’ Home, and it’s an incredible version. I’d love to see Ben and The Innocent Criminals tour with a horn section. Not in a Vegas way, but with a great reggae/ska horn section.
Bruce Springsteen – Magic
You often hear people saying that they “grow out of” certain artists. With Bruce, I think people “grow into” his music. I’ve been a fan for a long time, but some of his older songs that I used to dislike, like “Hungry Heart” or “Dancing In The Dark” resonate with me now that I’m about the same age Bruce was when he wrote them. That’s one incredible thing about his appeal. Another is how he manages to address his fans after all these years, in a way that few artists his age are able to. Sometimes, he’s not shooting for the mainstream, and he knows that an album doesn’t have mass appeal: The Ghost Of Tom Joad, Devils & Dust and We Shall Overcome are examples of that. But when he really wants to address America (the country, the people and the idea), he gets The E Street Band, and swings for the fences. With both The Rising and Magic, he really connected. Is Magic as good as Born To Run or Darkness On The Edge Of Town or Nebraska? Ask me in a decade or two, when I’ve had as much time with it. All I know is that it feels like a great album for today, and I imagine that I’ll be picking it up in ten and twenty years and still loving it.
Steve Earle – Washington Square Serenade
I like when an album says something about an artist, other than “another year has passed, it’s time for a new album.” Steve Earle’s albums really tell you where he is in his life. It’s sort of a rock album, but it’s made without his longtime backing band The Dukes, because he moved to New York and they live in Nashville. And also, as he says, he “tested positive for ProTools,” allowing him to record in a more computerized way – which doesn’t take away from the soul of the album. Steve has claimed that this is a less political album, it still has “City Of Immigrants” and a big “f-you” to Lou Dobbs in the liner notes. But it’s about the fact that he’s in love – he recently married singer/songwriter Allison Moorer (whose great voice graces many of the songs). It even reflects the fact that he now has a great satellite radio show on SIRIUS (“Satellite Radio”) without pimping it too hard. I think it usually takes people a few years to get used to Steve Earle’s albums, but I loved this one the first time I heard it.
The White Stripes – Icky Thump
I don’t get why this album didn’t get more love. It’s great: “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told)” is probably the best rock song of the year, and one of the best things Jack White has ever written. Maybe Jack White is a “victim” of the sort of Denzel Washington/Meryl Streep thing: when you’re just so consistently great, people just expect greatness every time. There’s never really a “hook” – or a “story” – to a White Stripes album. They’re not going to do the "important album," or a "big departure album," or a bad album that will necessitate a "comeback album." They just crank out great album after great album. Yes, I love this band, but I still have the ability to be critical: I didn’t love their concert at MSG this summer: I thought it was a bit self-indulgent. But their records are consistently awesome, and they seem to have handled success really well.
Robert Plant/Alison Krauss – Raising Sand
How odd that, after decades of (mostly) resisting the tempting call of Led Zeppelin nostalgia in order to be taken seriously as a solo artist and break free of Zep’s shadow, Robert Plant’s greatest post-Zeppelin work came in the year that he actually agreed to a full-on Led Zeppelin concert. This was an inspired collaboration, T-Bone Burnett was the perfect guy to produce, and I hope we’ll hear more from this duo (or trio) in the future. Yes, I’ll pay to see Zeppelin if they tour (especially after hearing how righteous their reunion concert was) but I really want to see Robert and Alison do their thing. P.S. It’s also worth mentioning that he didn’t just collaborate with Krauss and his Zep-mates this year: on the Fats Domino tribute, Goin’ Home, he also collaborated with The Soweto Gospel Choir on “Valley Of Tears,” and the Lil’ Band Of Gold on “It Keeps Rainin’,” and both of those are great collabs. Robert Plant was the man this year. Meanwhile, in 2006, Alison had a hit duet with Brad Paisley, and produced an album for Alan Jackson. Robert and Alison, stars in their own respective right, know how to collaborate.
John Fogerty – Revival
I was telling a friend about my favorite albums of the year, and he mentioned, “Wow, there’s a lot of septuagenarians on that list.” Well, what are you gonna do? There are so few contemporary rock singers who convey joy (“Don’t You Wish It Was True”) and rage (“I Can’t Take It No More”) like John Fogerty can. (I’d also point out that I’m older than Ben Harper and both White Stripes, and I think Alison Krauss is my age.) Anyway: I really try to avoid the “It’s his/her/their best album since…” statement making thing, but I do think this is his best album since his days in Creedence Clearwater Revival. It’s nice to see that he’s finally comfortable in his own skin, and he’s comfortable with his legacy. I’ve been lucky enough to interview John on a few occasions, and he often worried about sharing the artistic fate of his hero, Elvis Presley, and becoming a parody of himself. With albums like this (not to mention other semi-recent songs like “Déjà vu (All Over Again)” and “110 In The Shade) he really doesn’t need to worry about that.
Public Enemy How Do You Sell Soul To A Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul?
I recently wrote about the huge impact this album has had on me. Some people would look at me like I’m crazy for calling this the hip-hop album of the year, because Public Enemy are (a) “old” (b) not hot (c) don’t use current producers and required guest rappers. That’s the problem.
Mavis Staples – We’ll Never Turn Back
I’ve always appreciated The Staple Singers – the family based group that Mavis got her start in. But in recent years, I’ve become a fan of her as a solo artist: I love the duet she did with Bob Dylan, an update of his song “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” from Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs Of Bob Dylan and her songs on the Joe Henry produced Meeting On Mission Street album which also featured soul singers like Billy Preston and Irma Thomas. Her new album, produced for the great Anti- label by Ry Cooder, is incredible. It’s just a rootsy gospel album, but it has such gravity to it. Maybe because she lived through the Civil Rights era. P.S. It’s interesting to note how much rock and roll music comes from gospel: this album has a bunch of songs that rock artists have covered, including “99 and a Half” (Creedence Clearwater Revival), “Eyes On The Prize” (Bruce Springsteen) and “Jesus Is On The Main Line” (Aerosmith, believe it or not).
Alicia Keys – As I Am
Alicia Keys has her priorities right. She wants to be absolutely huge, which is fine. But when she’s making her records, she wants them to be great. She doesn’t want to pander or follow trends, but she has no problem with success. I imagine that’s how Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye were back in the day. She just keeps getting better. This was her third album, and I can’t wait to hear her fourth one. I’ve never had a chance to see her in concert (I really regret missing her tour with John Legend a few years back), but I hope to catch her in 2008. Also, her duet with Keith Urban on The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” at Live Earth gave the event one of it’s few transcendent moments, and she was one of the only under-30 artists who seemed to know how to play to a crowd that size.
I’m Not There soundtrack
I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I haven’t seen this movie yet. And it’s almost unfair to compare an album of Dylan songs from the ‘60s through the ‘90s to music from 2007. But of course, an album of Dylan songs could suck in the wrong hands, and there are certainly are many artists here that are way out of their league. But The Hold Steady rock on “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window.” “The Man In The Long Black Coat” sounds like it was written for Mark Lanegan. And Calexico should consider hiring themselves out as a backing band to Willie Nelson and Roger McGuinn (they did a great job on a collaborative album with Iron & Wine, with whom they collaborate with here as well). And it was a cool bonus to hear Dylan’s version of the never (officially) released title track.
Radiohead – In Rainbows
I just wrote about this album. Good for them for taking advantage of the good will they’ve built up with their fans, doing things their way, and putting out an album that lived up to the hype.
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – 100 Days, 100 Nights
She’s 50-something and getting her first break. Good for her: it’s all about her talent, and her great band (who are also heard on productions by super-producer Mark Ronson – he did tracks on Amy Winehouse’s album, he has a cool solo album, and he did the Dylan “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” remix). Anyway, she is a really soulful singer, and this album is worth way more than it costs.
Nine Inch Nails – Year Zero
I remember when Nine Inch Nails released the double album The Fragile in 1999, it had all this hype, it debuted at #1, but then fell off the charts, sold about a million copies and was seen as a flop. A few months later, in 2000, Radiohead released the very left-field Kid A, which surprisingly debuted at #1 and sold about a million copies, and was hailed as this huge victory for music. I feel like the same thing just happened in 2007. Although Trent Reznor released Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero on Interscope (famously, his last album for the label), he used the “Year Zero” alternate reality game – which his label had no involvement with, or probably even knowledge of – to get the word out. I don’t know why the album didn’t seem to have a big impact. Part of Trent’s “problem” may be that each of his first three albums were five star classics which were completely unique: Pretty Hate Machine brought a songcraft to industrial/electronic music that wasn’t really there before, Broken saw him using a heavy metal/punk band format filtered through electronic music and his tour de force, The Downward Spiral was almost Pink Floydian. Everything since then has seemed a bit like a variation on that theme. And lyrically, he’s always been the kind of angry, self-absorbed guy. What I like about Year Zero is that he’s looking outward a bit more. I hear he’s working on the followup/sequel and maybe a feature film version of it. I hope he lays off the film – if he doesn’t like the compromises of a major label, wait until he tries to make a movie.
PJ Harvey – White Chalk
I’ve already written about this album. It bums me out to kind of hear her dissing her own Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea album, which is one of my favorites from her. But anyway, this a great and daring album. I’m glad I got to see one of her few concerts promoting the record. I think she’s already working on her next one with John Parish. They collaborated on the Dance Hall At Louse Point album in 1996.
The Nightwatchman – One Man Revolution
This is a good debut from Tom Morello’s alter-ego. I think it should have come with chord charts so that anyone could learn to play these songs. He was trying to add to the Woody Guthrie tradition. His songs weren’t as great as Woody’s, but it was a good try, there are good songs, and someone needs to be doing this. I’d love to see him work with Rage Against The Machine but keep doing this. By the way, where’s that solo album, Zach de la Rocha?
People dis Norah because she is just so popular – and she’s popular with “regular” people, which (I guess) isn’t cool. So Cat Power, beware of crossing over too much: people are already hating on Feist! Anyway, I have always maintained that if Norah’s albums weren’t so well produced, she’s have more “cred.” On the other hand, when Dave Grohl, Wyclef, Talib Kweli, Ryan Adams, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Mike Patton and Andre 3000 all want to work with you, I think that’s about enough “cred.” I doubt any of her albums will make the impact of her debut, but that’s fine, and I’m sure it’s fine with her. Not Too Late is excellent, but we expect that of her. P.S. Norah was also on the Fats Domino tribute Goin’ Home, and does a sweet version of “My Blue Heaven.” But I loved her collaboration with Wyclef Jean on his new album, Carnival II, “Any Other Day,” which is one of her best performances. (And his).
Lucinda Williams – West
I needed a break from Lucinda after seeing her in concert in the fall of 2007, so I haven’t listened to this album for a while. But it’s a great album: “Are You Alright” is touching, “Fancy Funeral” is hearbreaking but sweet, and “Unsuffer Me” is great (despite the fact that she wrecked it in concert and not in a good way). I’ll always love Lu’s music.
Common – Finding Forever
I think that this album debuted at #1, but didn’t seem to have a huge impact. I think Kanye West is the perfect producer for Common, and this album really works. Common is definitely one of the best MCs in the game, but I think if it wasn’t for his association with Kanye and his budding movie career, people would be “over” him. Which is too bad.
Nas – Hip-Hop Is Dead
OK, technically this one is from 2006, but it came out in December. I’ve always been more into Nas than Jay-Z, but I give Jay credit for signing Nas to Def Jam. Nas (and Common) are two of the only MCs that I feel can sit on the same shelf as albums by Public Enemy, KRS-One, Eric B & Rakim, EPMD, early LL Cool J and the rest of the greats. Nas is also one of the only guys with the courage to really criticize hip-hop. People will say that he’s just doing it for the attention, which I don’t buy. Or they’ll say he’s “hating.” Which is like saying that someone who hates Bush is “unpatriotic.” It’s just that they have high expectations for something that they love.
Foo Fighters – Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace
Although I complained about this album getting Grammy nominations that I felt should have gone to Bruce, it’s still a really good album. Plus, they really rocked Live Earth. Dave Grohl writes really catch songs, and he has pretty diverse influences – anything from Zeppelin and Sabbath to Bad Brains and Black Flag to Tom Petty surfaces in his music, but it always comes out sounding like the Foo Fighters. I love the song “Let It Die.”
Neil Young – Chrome Dreams II
It was cool for Neil to return to the Freedom format of having an album that wasn’t in a specific style. And you have to give him credit for releasing an unreleased 20 year-old 18 and a half minute track as the album’s “lead single.” The rest of the album is newly recorded, but many of the songs have been around for a few decades. A really solid Neil album.
Joan Osborne – Breakfast In Bed
I hate when writers refer to her as some kind of “We Love The ‘90s”/”Where Are They Now?” one hit wonder artist. It’s lazy and tasteless. She is one of the great singers of this era, period. She took a long time creating the follow-up to her breakout album, Relish, because she wanted to make something she was proud of. She just had the bad luck to do it at a weird time in the record industry. And so she fell off the pop culture radar. Anyway, she released Breakfast In Bed right on the heels of 2006’s Pretty Little Stranger, which was also really good. Breakfast has lots of covers, but so what, when Joan sings a song, it’s her song.
Amy Winehouse – Back To Black
The hype is about to outweigh this album, but I do think that it deserves the attention. She’s a great singer, and the production on this album is fantastic. Let’s hope she gets to do another one.
Arcade Fire – Neon Funeral
I know this album topped a lot of lists. I like and respect this band, but I’m not as in love with them as their fans. Some of the songs sound like a very long crescendo to me. But I really dig “Keep The Car Running” and especially “Intervention.”