Top 10 Albums of 2007

The music contributors for Relevantmagazine.com have decided to rise from the morose shadows they abide and spread some Christmas cheer. We have banded together to bring you the most brilliant, life-changing, completely absolute Top 10 Albums List for the Year 2007. Read, listen, debate, and enjoy.

(Also be sure to check out all of the contributor’s individual lists in the music section)

10. Josh Ritter- The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter

(Victor)

I have always championed Josh Ritter. He’s one of those guys who I’ve always wanted to put out the next great album – but instead of my wish coming true, each of his first three records would give me glimpses of what could be, while mixing in too many average songs to truly be considered great. But with his fourth album released last fall, The Historical Conquests Of Josh Ritter, that all changed. He finally harnessed his potential to become truly transcendent.

He does not waiver far from the Americana and folk stylings of his previous efforts, but there is a newfound penchant for the pop hook to go along with lyrics that sound more world-weary than ever. That’s a good thing, though, as he tackles the global issue of societal instability with a subtlety that his peers can not seem to grasp. This approach lends more credibility to his stance, whatever that stance may be. Ambiguity is his friend.

Whether he’s channeling Dylan ("To The Dogs Or Whoever"), Tweedy ("Right Moves"), Cobain ("Real Long Distance") or Jim James ("Wait For Love"), Josh nails it. He even mixes in a little timeless honky-tonk in "Next To The Last True Romantic". But more than anything else, pay special attention to the very creepy "The Temptation Of Adam", which allows your imagination to fill in the blanks when it ends. In conclusion,

-Ronnie Faus

9. Derek Webb – The Ringing Belll

(INO Records)

Derek Webb has established himself as one of the most progressive artists in the singer/songwriter genre, who admits that he is somewhat of a “square peg.” (The Square Peg Alliance also happens to be the name of a collective group of Nashville-based artists that frequently collaborate on each other’s projects that he helped found.) But with 2007’s The Ringing Bell, Webb established even further as an artist who doesn’t mind going against the grain.

As a former member of the CCM group Caedmon’s Call, Webb had already established a sizable following within the Church, but his solo music makes no attempts to simply follow the unspoken set of Christian rock rules. His songs are political, carefully critical of the church and are even, at times, released for free online without money immediately going to a label. And The Ringing Bell is just a further progression is his artistic evolution. This time, Webb goes Dylan, plugging in for amp-rattling rock ‘n’ roll tracks, politically intelligent anthems and foot-tapping pop songs in one of 2007’s best not-so-surprising surprises.

8. Animal Collective – Strawberry Jam

(Domino)

With their newest album, Strawberry Jam, Animal Collective has shattered all doubt that they are the new modern day inventors. Forget heralded “rock innovators” Radiohead and their recent release In Rainbows. If rainbows are what you’re looking for, Strawberry Jam is a colossal Crayola 64 pack (with built in sharpener) melting all over your brain. This album bundles more color and celebration than any previous AC record, even last year’s Feels. It seems that each Animal Collective record that comes out is dubbed “most accessible to date,” but some songs here come dangerously close to verse/chorus/verse format. Luckily, this transition probably won’t disappoint long-time fans.

Rich superlatives like prototype, keystone, or zeitgeist are tossed around quite a bit and it’s easy to get started on a slippery slope, but Strawberry Jam is important. It displays an interesting sway that Animal Collective has been shaping up to for a few years now. Strawberry Jam could nearly be classified a pop album compared to their avant-noise/freak-folk beginnings with almost indecipherable lyrics or melodies. This time around Avey Tare’s newly distinguished voice and gripping pop choruses are the defining strengths of the album.

In the year 2000, a certain aforementioned band broke the mold when they released their monumental album Kid A; an absolutely mind-blowing record especially considering this was a band that debuted with Pablo Honey and the hit single “Creep.” The sway for Radiohead was a parallel one, but from the opposite side of the pop spectrum. Kid A and Strawberry Jam both meet magically in the middle crafting impossibly hypnotic pop melodies out of so much formless ambience and electronic chatter.

Strawberry Jam creates something glorious and universal by setting free killer pop hooks, slipping them between layers of noisy loops and experimental atmospherics. Animal Collective have created a sound completely their own, not only redirecting indie rock but also establishing them as one of this decade’s crucial artists.

-Matt Chinworth

7. Menomena- Friend and Foe

(Barsuk)

Forget the connotations that come with the term “indie” for a moment. If you let go of any presumptions you might have had and experience all the risks and imperfections that Menomena has to offer, you’ll find that music can be more than just an abstract construct of mankind. Friend and Foe is natural and synthetic, controlled and free. But most importantly, the music is something you can rock out to, sing along with, and just feel good about.

The album’s contrasts and paradoxes are purposeful; they reveal an attraction to ugliness that, when examined with honesty, almost seem innate. Intellectual approaches to Friend and Foe will prove to be worthwhile, for it offers its listeners questions while engaging them through artistic expression.

The saxophone is never out of place, nor is glockenspiel. Each sound is where it should be; yet no sound is complete. Menomena make music that appeals to our creative side, because in
we can clearly hear how each moment of music was created. The great beauty of the album is that the creation process seems to have been completed with a disregard to musical unorthodoxy, be it melodies amidst dissonance or abstraction within borders. But no sins are committed. The band’s sincerity diminishes any air of pretentiousness.

-Dylan Peterson

6. Arcade Fire- Neon Bible

(Merge Records)

Who would have thought that Funeral would turn out to merely be foundational material for Arcade Fire? After all, 2004’s illustrious work showcased the Montreal band’s spiritual pomp and circumstance in all its glory. It was a heightened debut yet it also was nearly impossible to imagine them besting that effort. If anything, Neon Bible proves to never underestimate Win Butler, Regine Chassagne & Co. This year’s effort expands on everything Funeral laid down, triumphing with a spiritual and musical bombast that knew no equal in 2007. "Black Mirror," "Keep the Car Running" and "My Body is a Cage" all inhabit greater space than anything else released, proving Arcade Fire is simply one of this generation’s greatest musical acts.

-Matt Conner

5. The National – Boxer

(Beggars Banquet)

Is 2007 the year of urban isolation—being surrounded by lots of people and feeling really lonely? The beginning of the year brought Bloc Party’s so-so A Weekend in the City and the end of the year has seen the release of Burial’s masterful Untrue, both of which attempt to be the soundtrack to city-inspired melancholy (Untrue succeeds brilliantly). The rest of 2007, however, belonged to The National, who, with their album Boxer, have stake their claim to role of spokespersons for urban despair.

If this makes Boxer sound like a dark album, that’s because it is. Lead singer Matt Berninger comes from the Interpol/Joy Division/Stephen Merritt school of vocals, and his weary resignation makes each of the tightly wound songs sound that much more desperate. However, for all the darkness, there are small moments of transcendence that push this album out of mope-rock territory and into great album status. Not really apparent until after a few listens (this album is even more of a “grower” than Alligator), but Berninger has a caustic wit that lends much of these songs their energy—sure, he’s sad about things, but he’ll at least make fun of himself (and a few carefully chosen others) along the way. Whether he’s singing about giving in to the rosy glow of the television (“Apartment Story”), trying to make a lover laugh by putting on a “slow, dumb show” (“Slow Show”), or observing that he (and most all of us) are only “half awake in a Fake Empire” (“Fake Empire”), Berninger’s lyrics are the hook that the rest of Boxer hinges on.

And as the rest of the album unfolds after the initial thrill of the lyricism, what an album it turns out to be. Sparkling guitar lines are layered over unexpected percussion, and well-placed orchestral flourishes round out the complete sound. The slow-burn build of “Start a War” creates an intense dread that may even surpass the lyrics in their setting of the mood. And guest pianist Sufjan Stevens lends his minimalist-cyclical tendencies to two tracks, most obviously on “Ada,” where arpeggios ring in the background as Berninger relays his tale of lovelorn woe. As it progresses, Boxer trudges through most themes associated with being young, in the city, and lonely—insecurity about friends (“Mistaken for Strangers”), working (“Squalor Victoria”), and desperate hanging on to a possibly dying relationship (“Brainy”).

All in all, these factors combine to make Boxer one of the best releases of 2007. It may not be the cheeriest album, but it provides the soundtrack to urban isolation unlike anything else that came out this year.

-Ryan Hamm

4. LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver

(Capitol)

Combine seven-minute dance tracks with whip-smart lyrics and you get the perfect expression of life for many kids in their twenties. On the one hand, there’s the incessant, overwhelming acceleration of growing up in contemporary society, which at some point you can no longer resist. On the other hand, there are all the questions and reflections on life which no one’s giving you time to process. So what’s a kid to do in this predicament?

On his debut album James Murphy raided the shelves for his favorite records, barely concealed the identity of his influences, and threw the rest of his energy into ironic posturing. But on his second album, he seems far less satisfied with this solution. There is a cohesive tone from the first to the last track, a shimmering metallic groove that sounds more like Murphy than someone else in his record collection. You could try to pick apart all the musical nods, but aside from being far more difficult such an approach seems to miss the point. Murphy is staking out his own identity on the dancefloor and leaving much of the irony behind, giving serious attention to all those questions and reflections on life that twenty-somethings are posing. And while he would certainly balk at the prospect, at times Sound of Silver becomes much more than just a fantastic dance album. It amounts to a generational statement.

-Steven Jacobs

3. M.I.A.- Kala

(XL Interscope)

M.I.A.’s sound is true fusion. Not the fusion you’re thinking of, the kind that sounds like a jazz quartet got locked into a studio with a snake charmer and a banjo player and the only way they would ever be released is if they completed a full length LP within the hour. No, M.I.A.’s ability to cross genres and continents is both inventive and utterly intriguing. Her debut, Aralar, laid the groundwork for her sound, but the album had been so hyped and over-critiqued before it even came out that it was hard to for John Q. Public to form an honest opinion of what they were listening to. Kala is a better album, and with it M.I.A. has created a completely accessible collection of tracks that constantly travel in a million different directions, but never seem to take a wrong step.

See Also

Every critic has their own explanation of Kala. I guess it’s every writer dream to be able to come up with their own off the wall categorization like; SriLankin-Dancehall-Grime-Electrofunk. Written categories are really just grasping at straws and Kala must be heard to try and grasp its content. However, the album allows M.I.A. to remain elusive by doing what every truly great artist achieves; she creating something so great and original that it’s impossible to imitate or recreate.

-Eric VanValin

2. Of Montreal – Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?

(Polyvinl)

Whether you’ve experienced it first hand or just lived vicariously through the OC or Dawson’s Creek, everyone knows the sting of being jilted by a special someone. Kevin Barnes does. And when the brains of the equally energetic and eccentric Texas group Of Montreal split with his wife, he channeled the pain into Hissing Fauna Are You the Destroyer. The result is one of the most unique breakup albums ever recorded and one of the best albums of the year.

A complete stranger to inhibitions (he performed naked in Las Vegas this year) Barnes has crafted a brutally honest, but never mopey, memoir of the split. His lyrics on lost love are blunt and witty without letting the hilarity compromise the sincerity or sorrow. Who can’t relate to the line “There’s the girl that left me bitter/want to pay some other girl to just walk up to her and hit her” from “She’s a Rejector”?

And if the lyrics wade chin deep in a storm cloud, the music finds its groove in the silver lining. Brazenly sashaying across a tightrope of infectious dance music and brash indie rock, Hissing Fauna is a frantic aural circus that dares to find fun in the middle of a funk. We’ve heard enough weepy breakup albums. Here’s one you can dance to.

-Matt Henderson

1. Radiohead- In Rainbows

(?)

The past year has supplied us with a wide array of albums to consume our time and thoughts. However, the album that, while not surpassing the pack by a long shot, deserves top honors this year is Radiohead’s In Rainbows. Even if the band decided to release the album conventionally, it would still be worthy of top honors. Instead, the album deserves top honors not just for the music that Radiohead has created but also because of the manner in which they have distributed it.

While bands have, over the past few years, provided fans with downloadable albums, Blindside, for one, provided the Black Rose EP online this summer; Radiohead is the largest and most recognizable band to do so. Instead of continuing with their original label, EMI, who just released a Radiohead box set of all six EMI albums for apparent monetary reasons, the band decided to record and distribute In Rainbows online on a pay what you wish basis. This method proved to be a good idea; the album was downloaded over one million times the first day alone. Along with this download, fans also had the opportunity to order a box set that came out December 3rd. This set includes In Rainbows on double vinyl, an extra CD with new songs, lyrics, and album art by Stanley Donwood. In January, the album will be distributed worldwide.

Keep in mind that this procedure is not why Radiohead deserve the title of album of the year. On the contrary, this method provides the icing on an already fabulous album. In Rainbows holds its own as one of the few albums this year that can, and should, be enjoyed, from start to finish. Bringing together all that the band has done so well over the past six studio albums, Radiohead’s new masterpiece provides us with upbeat, not in the emotional sense, gems like “15 Step” and “Bodysnatchers,” while also giving us more somber cuts with “Faust Arp” and Video Tape.”

While Radiohead have not provided a new way for the public to consume music, they have bypassed the corporate apparatus that has defined the industry for years. With other artists following suit, Saul Williams and Barcelona for example, the music industry has changed this year, not just through the music produced.

-Matt Teutsch

Honorable Mention:

Dungen- Tio Bitar

(Kemado Records)

The photo adorning the CD booklet for this album should tell you everything you need to know. Like the music this photo accompanies, it contains all the tropes of the psychedelic era – a lanky, long-haired man (in this case, Dungen mastermind Gustav Ejstes), in flowered shirt and snug slacks is throwing his head back in what you would hope is an ecstatic thrall. For all we know, he could be dancing to his own band’s music, which would be fitting as the writing and production of all 10 tracks on Tio Bitar were Ejstes’ doing. Artists should be in love with their own sound. Not only does it often make their work that much better, but it makes us fall in love with it too.

There is plenty to become enthralled with on Dungen’s second U.S. album – the opening swells and ride cymbal washes on “Familj,” the Iron Butterfly meanderings that take up the last half of “Mon Amour,” the thrumming funk of “Svart Ar Himlen” – thanks to Ejstes taking up residence in the world of late ‘60s/early ‘70s rock. The masterful songs that the young Swede has created for this album makes it feel as if this residence is more than a state of mind, but a physical structure akin to Warhol’s Factory. The photograph could very well have been taken in that residence, catching Ejstes in the midst of a swirling, manic party that is going on outside the frames. We can only hope that with the next album that Dungen puts out, he includes an address as well.

-Robert Ham

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