Best of 2007: Top 10 Albums

This is the final article in my long-incubating series reviewing the best music I heard in 2007. Earlier I wrote about my criteria for selection, disappointments, honorable mentions and best songs.

    Top 10 Albums of 2007    

  1. Corinne Bailey Rae by Corinne Bailey Rae: The first notes of the opening track (“Like A Star“) say almost everything that you need to know about this wonderful album by chanteuse Corinne Bailey Rae. The spare dynamics of a lone acoustic guitar coupled with her expressive voice soon give way to a slow-rolling bass line, temperate drums and light backup vocals. Bailey Rae’s collaborators know enough to hang back and let her be the star but their subtle performances are no less sublime. Just as her musicians shift so easily from one style to another, so also does Bailey Rae. Songs like “Enchantment” and the incredible “Put Your Records On” put a groove in your bones while the singer lights up your soul. Bailey Rae isn’t afraid to get her croon on with songs like “Til It Happens To You” and “Choux Pastry Heart” which demonstrate that she knows how to wail but also that she knows not to overdo it. This album is great from beginning to end and it dominated my listening in the early part of the year. It was easy to pick this as my favorite album of 2007.
  2. The Rising Tied by Fort Minor: Notwithstanding the next album in this list, I can’t say that I’m a big fan of what Linkin Park does. I did, however, sense a certain kinship with sideman Mike Shinoda when I first saw the video for “Where’d Ya Go“. Although the chorus certainly reminds one of Eminem’s “Stan,” the verse is more introspective and shows the downside of success and fame. Sometime after that, the video for “Remember The Name” started getting heavy airplay and I realized I had to hear more. The Rising Tied harkens back to hip-hop’s finer days when it was all about having fun on the block while still maintaining a social conscience. On top of gorgeous musical backdrops, Shinoda and his posse rap about war, poverty, drugs and society. One of my favorite songs on the album is “Kenji“, where Shinoda tells how his Japanese-American grandfather spent World War II in an internment camp. It’s not all preaching and teaching, though, when Shinoda and crew throw down with mad beats and rhymes in songs like “In Stereo” and “Petrified“. This is a great first album by Shinoda and I look forward to what he comes up with next.
  3. Collision Course by Jay Z and Linkin Park: Although I’m not really a fan of either rapper Jay Z or hard rock band Linkin Park, I really enjoyed this six song “mashup” EP which a co-worker recommended. Because it’s an EP, it’s only six songs long which is nearly perfect for the material. Part of the problem I have with Linkin Park is that lead singer Chester Bennington‘s voice, like Geddy Lee‘s, is too thin and can’t carry an entire song. On this album, Bennington’s voice is just another instrument that is only occasionally added to the mix. Most of the vocals are handled by Jay Z and Mike Shinoda, who I suspect is the mastermind behind this recording. As I mentioned in an earlier article, Collision Course climaxes perfectly with the anthem, “Points of Authority/99 Problems/One Step Closer.” However, all the songs before it are also very nearly perfect. It is rare that you can rock out to distorted heavy metal guitar licks and groove to infectious hip-hop beats in the same song but these tracks tracks definitely deliver both.
  4. Broken Boy Soldiers by The Raconteurs: My love for all things Jack White is probably obvious by now so it should come as no surprise that White’s recent project made this list. Although he revisits territory familiar to White Stripes fans (“Bleu Veins” for example), most of the material here is more richly produced and enjoys a much bigger sound than the White Stripes deliver. Moreover, the vocal interplay between the unique voices of White and Brendan Benson add a wonderful texture to this album. Their voices complement each other in the same way that Vedder and Cornell complemented each other on Temple of the Dog. Nowhere is this more evident than on the mellower tracks, “Together” and “Yellow Sun”, which also features a dandy acoustic guitar riff. Fine musicianship is on display throughout, especially on tracks like “Hands” and “Level” when the quartet brings the full power of the band to bear. Instead of being the show, Jack White’s corrosive guitar is merely part of a greater show and does not suffer for it’s reduced role. “Level”, in particular, really showcases White’s mastery of tone and overdubs. Bonus points to whoever (White? Benson?) wrote the word “kakistocracy” into a rock and roll song (“Intimate Secretary”).
  5. Wolfmother by Wolfmother: Like most people, my first exposure to Wolfmother was via their hit single, “Woman.” Based on the music video for the song, I concluded that this was a high energy band that was reviving the classic power trio format of the 1970’s. Soon, though, I became disenchanted with Wolfmother as they became over-exposed in the media. “Woman” was even featured on the soundtrack for MotorStorm and was “playable” on Guitar Hero II. Still I was interested to hear the rest of their material and was pleasantly surprised to find that they are not nearly as one-dimensional as I had imagined. Admittedly, 70’s arena rock is an apparent influence but I also hear echoes of 90’s grunge and recent indie rock. In particular, much of this album greatly reminds me of the White Stripes. At times Wolfmother exhibits the same minimalism that makes the White Stripes so good (“Where Eagles Have Been”, “Apple Tree”), but they can also assault you with a crushing rock and roll wall of sound (“White Unicorn“, “Dimension“). The straight ahead rock is tempered with many mode changes and bridges (see “Colossal” and “Joker and the Thief“) making it more sophisticated than your standard verse-chorus-verse formula. I would be tempted to compare it to prog rock but it’s not as soft and definitely not as self-consciously pretentious. The only drawback to listening to Wolfmother is that you might find that you have an uncontrollable desire to turn the stereo up to 11.
  6. Kid Rock by Kid Rock: If I could be a musician, I would be a musician like Kid Rock. It’s always amazing to me when I find someone who shares my diverse musical tastes but it is especially amazing when a musician shares my musical eclecticism. Kid Rock is one of those musicians. Effortlessly combining elements from Run DMC, Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, Hank Williams Jr. and classic rock from the 70’s, Kid Rock makes music like nobody else. Like Neil Young, he writes whatever his muse tells him: sometimes to embarrassing effect (“Cadillac Pussy”) but often evoking real emotion (“Hard Night For Sarah”). In a genre that’s all about ego and being bombastic, careful scrutiny of Rock’s often autobiographical lyrics reveal a man that is more complicated than he is often portrayed in the media. They tell the story of a man devoted to family who sometimes grows tired of the rock and roll lifestyle. He’s troubled by his past and views his success as “payback” to all who doubted him on the way up. But Kid Rock is also a braggart and trash-talker in the classic hip-hop tradition who infuses his lyrics with a trailer-park sensibility that almost always puts a smile on my face. When he raps “Rollin in my pick up/Truck jacked up with the 4 gold shocks/And where i come from/Mud flaps come in stock” on “Hillbilly Stomp”, you can tell that he’s not frontin’.
  7. Chrome Dreams II by Neil Young: Most people who know me know that I have long been an ardent fan of Neil Young. At times that fanaticism has crossed over into obsessive territory, but I’ve dialed it back considerably in recent years. Although I still eventually purchase every album he puts out, it’s no longer on the day that it is released and is often a couple years after. I’ve come to realize that he’s equally capable of producing a masterpiece or a flawed diamond-in-the-rough. His latest release is somewhere in between but closer to masterpiece than flawed. Young has successfully melded together some unreleased gems from his past with a new batch of songs that he wrote for the album. Together they form a cohesive work that feels like the Neil Young that everybody loved in the early 1970’s. Hardcore fans welcome the official release of “Ordinary People”, a long unreleased epic that has been available on bootlegs since it’s conception in the late 1980’s. Nifty instrumental interludes and subtle double-tracked harmonies bely the fact that the song stretches beyond the 18-minute mark. Shorter songs like “Shining Light”, “Beautiful Bluebird” and “Ever After” show Young’s lifelong love affair with country music is still as strong as ever. Perhaps if Ben Keith wasn’t such a good family friend, Neil wouldn’t return to the twang again and again. There’s also lots of Neil’s signature guitar mangling on “No Hidden Path”, “Spirit Road” and the aforementioned “Ordinary People”. The only weak spot on the album is the inclusion of a typical Young throwaway, “Dirty Old Man”, which feels a lot like it’s predecessors “Piece of Crap” and “T-Bone”. Even so, there’s something here for everyone and it’s clearly his best effort since 2003’s Greendale.
  8. Guitar God/Population II by Randy Holden: Randy Holden is the best guitar player you’ve never heard of. After a brief stint with Blue Cheer in the 1960’s, Holden went on to form Population II, a band consisting of just him and a drummer. The band released it’s self-titled debut in 1970 before Holden disappeared into obscurity after his manager sold all of his guitar gear without his permission. He returned to the music business early in the 1990’s to record his second solo album, Guitar God, which can often be found packaged with Population II. An album in the truest sense, Population II delivers a dark sonic message that’s all about phenomenal tone, incredible sustain and well-heeled feedback. Holden’s singing is as good as any of the other great guitar slingers (Clapton, Hendrix, King, Vaughan, etc.) but he’s not going to win any awards for vocals any time soon. Still, the psychedelic era production qualities make the vocals fit right in with the soaring and thunderous guitar passages. Dark and heavy like Iron Butterfly‘s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, Holden goes way beyond anything else of that era with gigantic notes that will sear your soul. In particular, the two part odyssey of “Fruit and Icebergs” is as good, and better in some ways, as anything that Jimi Hendrix did. After reading one of only a few interviews with Holden, it’s clear that he spent his whole life trying to achieve the perfect sound with his guitar. I believe these two albums show that he has done precisely that.
  9. Icky Thump by White Stripes: Although this album is probably not up to the high standards that the White Stripes have set for themselves, it is still quite worthy of your adoration. Like previous efforts, “eclectic” is the operative word as they veer from Celtic (“Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn”) to mariachi (“Conquest“) and back to blues-based rock and roll (“Icky Thump“, “You Don’t Know What Love Is“). Although he sometimes sprinkles in the occasional funky synthesizer part, Jack White‘s strength is obviously big riffs and the screechy tone that makes his guitar solos so delicious. On songs like “Little Cream Soda” and “Catch Hell Blues”, White achieves the tonal perfection that recalls the Pixies and Neil Young when they are at their best. Still, I think this is a weaker effort than I expect from the White Stripes and would have been a disappointment if my expectations weren’t so high. It should be enough to hold me over until their next album but until then I’ll probably listen to the Raconteurs (see above) when I need a dose of Jack White.
  10. Blind Faith by Blind Faith: After Eric Clapton left Cream, he formed a new “supergroup” with Steve Winwood, Cream drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Ric Grech. Clapton grew restless in the band after only a year and they broke up with only this album to show for their time together. Even so, it’s an album that was ahead of its time (1969) and was a precursor to where rock would go in the 1970’s. The most recognizable song on the album is probably “Can’t Find My Way Home” which, like most of the songs on the album, features lead vocals by Winwood. Clapton does take the occasional vocal lead but when Winwood contributes harmony vocals, it becomes obvious that these two were meant to sing together. Also noteworthy is Clapton’s guitar which is typically mournful and lyrical, but on songs like “Presence of the Lord” he breaks out a blistering solo that doesn’t match his long-time nickname, Slowhand. The album’s only downside is the indulgence given to Ginger Baker in “Do What You Like”, a song that he wrote but thankfully does not sing. Likely deemed “experimental” at the time, it clocks in close to 15 minutes and includes a long drum solo. It represents everything that went wrong with 70’s rock, but the rest of the album represents everything that was right with 70’s rock.