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Kevin Renick | Music

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2007 was a terrific year for music, but it was also the year that finding music on your own terms (MySpace, iTunes, misc. downloads) became more pervasive than doing the bidding of the endangered species known as big record labels. Music writers had more opportunity to sample obscure and left-field stuff as well, since artists and inventive PR companies such as Team Clermont did a great job of making us aware of their projects. It would be easy to come up with a list of 20 or even 30 albums I loved this year, but I promised myself I'd zero in on the ten that meant the most to me and stood up to my own personal criteria. Here are the winners, plus some assorted additional recordings I'd like to acknowledge in other categories.


10 Best CDs

1. Radiohead | In Rainbows (ATO/Xl)
Despite all the press devoted to Radiohead's pioneering online distribution system for their seventh full-length album, what truly mattered was how rewarding the music was. The layered sound on almost every track was indeed rainbow-like; with shades and sonic coloring that always felt natural, and always revealed something new on successive listens. Thom Yorke sang his heart out, the songs seemed more open emotionally than perhaps on the last couple of records, and the whole thing was richly, melodically satisfying. For the world's greatest art rock group to accomplish this despite the daunting weight of expectations was simply thrilling.

2. Utah Carol | Rodeo Queen (Stomping Ground)
Great albums sometimes end up feeling like special friends, and the third album by Chicago's Utah Carol was my best friend in 2007. Not only was this an utterly charming record from start to finish, but JinJa Davis and Grant Birkenbeuel paid attention to every detail of their music with a palpable sense of creative wonder, and you can hear it. There's a soft, gauzy feel to this record that somehow manages to convey romantic yearning, passion for the open road, and a contemplative view of things lost and found in life that is deeply moving. The vocals (particularly the relaxed harmonies) are exquisite throughout, the epitome of warmth and grace, and at least two songs-"Come Back Baby" and "Twilight Time"-earn my "Blue Diamond" award for sublime songwriting craftsmanship.

3. Skeletons and the Kings of All Cities | Lucas (Ghostly International)
It's appropriate that this ensemble is signed to a label called Ghostly, as that's the dominant vibe on their memorable Lucas album. As someone who strongly feels that there's not enough mystery in music, I positively reveled in the murky sonic corridors of this disc, which employs tribal percussion, unhinged bursts of brass, and arrangements that positively defy logic. Having a willful creative aesthetic, even if it baffles your listeners, is always a good thing, and these guys are as willful as you can get. Spooky and texturally compelling, Lucas is also highly original, and the moment I woke up in the middle of an utterly mesmerizing hidden track-long after nodding off during the closing "Push ‘im Out"-was one of my most thrilling musical experiences of the year.

4. Wilco | Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch)
Jeff Tweedy scaled back the "prog" on Wilco's seventh record, but not the artful songwriting he's become a master of. In fact, Tweedy's successful stint in rehab did nothing to lessen the beauty of his music-rather, it seems to have given him a greater sense of purpose and a new lyrical directness. As well, new guitarist Nels Cline has helped solidify the Wilco lineup, which had been changing with every album. But this one's a real grower, with potent songs like "Possible Germany," "Shake It Off" and "Please Be Patient With Me" contributing to a truly rewarding listen.

5. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss | Raising Sand (Rounder)
Talk about a surprise! Who would've thought that Led Zeppelin's wildcat vocalist and bluegrass' soulful angel would mesh so beautifully together? Well, producer T Bone Burnett, for one. With a level of reverence and good taste beyond the aesthetic of most in today's music, Burnett facilitated a remarkably fluid, inspiring tunefest that found Plant and Krauss delivering incomparable versions of stellar tunes by Gene Clark, the Everly Brothers and Mel Tillis, among others. Listen to "Killing the Blues" or the rousing "Gone Gone Gone" and just try not to swoon.

6. The Winston Jazz Routine | Sospiri (The Record Machine)
You'd be forgiven for not being overly curious about this record based on the cover. After all, it's a cheap-looking brown thing with a line drawing of some rumpled old conductor, with the name "The Winston Jazz Routine" in barely readable type. What an amazing surprise, then, to find that the music within is akin to the best of Sufjan Stevens, i.e., gorgeous, melancholy ruminations on life and love, delivered by the memorably delicate voice of Nathan Phillips, who also plays over a dozen instruments with astonishing singularity of purpose. This is elegant, pensive chamber pop arranged and performed to spine-tingling perfection-"Grandmother's Glow" and "An Engineered Interest" are among the most beautiful songs I've heard all year. Go to www.therecordmachine.net to get this CD, as most stores likely won't have it.

7. Feist | The Reminder (Cherrytree/Interscope)
Bjork, Madonna, Pink, Dido...and you can certainly add Feist to the list of female artists known for one name and a distinctive musical vision. This Canadian art-pop chanteuse is fiesty (pun intended), flirty, fiery and positively feverish in her devotion to songwriting purity and delightfully eccentric arrangements. If you, like scores of others, can't get that "1234" song out of your head thanks to a certain TV commercial, rest assured there are plenty of other irresistable songs on The Reminder. Feist has the musical goods, on every possible level.

8. The Golden Ball | The Antique Barking Swirls of Dawn (Honeymoon Music)
This Philadelphia male-female ensemble managed a neat trick on their latest album: finding a perfect balance between nostalgic ‘60s idealism and modern indie rock inventiveness. Communal to an inspiring degree, organically psychedelic, lyrically and musically adventurous, The Golden Ball clearly had a ball making this record, and it's a gas to listen to as well. May those swirls bark ever on...

9. Liars | Liars (Mute)
You'd be hard pressed to find a more gleefully weird popular rock group than Liars. The advance word on their self-titled fourth album was that it would be more "down to earth" and "song-oriented" than past efforts. But even though there wasn't an overriding concept this time, Angus Andrews' spooked falsetto, the tribal percussion and the often unholy clanging guitar/keyboard racket this band conjurs with such ferocity were still proudly on display. And yeah, some of the songs-"Houseclouds," "Freak Out" and "Protection"-reveal a group that can put out the welcome mat on occasion. But overall, this band is still willfully left of center and not for the timid of ear. God love ‘em for it.

10. Bat for Lashes | Fur and Gold (Caroline)
The kind of sonic splendor that singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Natasha Khan conceived on this amazing album is the kind that puts a smile on the face of aging music writers. Khan inhabits a nocturnal landscape of hazy dreams, lost or newly found lovers and unfamiliar locales, and has the gift of being able to make you feel as haunted by her musical exploration of these as she clearly was writing about them. Pitched midway between Bjork and Kate Bush vocally and stylistically, but arguably more purely beautiful than either, Khan was one of 2007's boldest new artists. And the name Bat For Lashes is appropriately evocative.

 

Records That Were Just One or Two Songs Away From Being "Best of ‘07" Contenders:

Rilo Kiley | Under the Blacklight (Warner Bros.)

The Sea and Cake | Everybody (Thrill Jockey)

The Silver Seas | High Society (Cheap Lullaby)

 

Best Americana Albums

Lucinda Williams | West (Lost Highway)
Achingly sad missives on love and loss by an always-wise, mature American songstress.

Mariee Sioux | Faces in the Rocks (Grass Roots Record Co.)
Gorgeous acoustic fingerpicking wed to delicate female vocals and a Native American heart.

 

Under the Radar Gems of Uncommon Beauty

Akron/Family | Love Is Simple (Young God)
Communal, formula-defying non-freak folk that gives you hope for the human race.

Au Revoir Simone | The Bird of Music (Our Secret)
Electropop girls are the best! Tres bons, mes filles!

The High Llamas | Can Cladders (Drag City)
Elegant, string-driven chamber pop from the charming world of Sean O'Hagan.

Small Sails | Similar Anniversaries (Other Electricities)
Lilting soft beats and wordless vocals never sounded so sweet. Fall in love to this!

Sophe Lux | Waking the Mystics (Zarathustra Records)
The other classic female-driven art-rock platter of 2007 (besides Bat for Lashes). Hey Wendy Haynes (composer and vocalist here), let's do lunch!

 

Best Scandinavian Releases

Rumbskib | Rumbskib

Susanne Sundfor | Susanne Sundfor (MBN)

Bol | Skylab (NorCD)

Laakso | Mother, Am I Good Looking? (V2 Music Scandinavia)

Club 8 | The Boy Who Couldn't Stop Dreaming (Labrador)

 

Best Ambient/Instrumental Albums:

Stars of the Lid | And Their Refinement of the Decline (Kranky)

Eluvium | Copia (Temporary Residence)

Tobias Hellkvist | Transports (self-released)

Amiina | Kurr (Ever)

Do Make Say Think | You, You're a History in Rust (Constellations)

 

Hottest Female Rock Stars of 2007

Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley)

Kate Nash

Natasha Khan (Bat for Lashes)

Joss Stone

The Pipettes

 

Hype of the Year

Amy Winehouse

 

Reunions of the Year

Led Zeppelin

The Police

 

The 2007 "How Can We Miss You If You Won't Go Away?" Award

Britney Spears

 

| Kevin Renick

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