Best Of 2007: The overview

Compiling my Top 10 albums of 2007 for a couple of magazine polls – because I want my vote to count – I’ve been struck by how many second albums have shown up on my list. Typically, the second album is the one that gets made in too much of a rush, after a lifetime to prepare the debut, thereby revealing a buzz act’s inherent shortcomings. Here in America, they even have a term for it: the sophomore slump. But this year was more like the sophomore summit: the second albums by LCD Soundsystem, M.I.A., the Arcade Fire and Arctic Monkeys all made my list. Seems to me that can only be a good thing.

I’ve been making such lists since I was a kid, when I used to compile my own weekly Top 10, so I have fun with the annual polls, even if a part of me opposes trying to define the “Best Of” anything. After all, taste is subjective, right? Well, to some extent it is, but it’s amazing all the same how easily the human race reaches consensus. Take almost any album you’ve enjoyed over the last year, and chances are, you will have most enthused over exactly the same tracks as other fans of that album and chances are, equally, that those tracks will have been or become the singles.

For my part, I always labor to make sure my Top 10 list is balanced. That means that these may not be the albums or singles I played the most over the past year; rather, my list is meant to reflect what I always hope to be my wide-ranging (but ultimately, I admit, western and conservative) tastes. Therefore, every one of my top ten is itself a choice. For example, I loved the new albums by both Underworld and Chemical Brothers this year; I find each act continually consistent. But I can’t justify putting both in my Top 10 list when there’s so much other great music out there, so Underworld gets the nod, in part by default: the Chemical Brothers We Are The Night contains their worst collaboration ever, “The Salmon Dance.” Bruce Springsteen released two great albums this year, but does he really need my vote on either when everyone else has put Magic on their top ten lists – or should I find room for a new act that perhaps picks up on his recent jug band spirit, like the Felice Brothers? Certainly, I like to ensure there’s a couple of albums on my list that aren’t on other peoples’, perhaps partly out of elitism but also from a desire for people to go discover them, and for the artists and labels involved to know that someone out there really did rate them that highly. I talk here about not just the Felice Brothers, but Youth Group and Busdriver too, both of which were released on the ever-consistent Anti- label.

Then there’s the influence of other writers, “tastemakers” and DJs. Had not these people been raving about M.I.A.’s second album Kala – and had I not heard its singles via All Songs Considered, my Podcast of the Year – I might well have passed it up; it’s not like I heard or saw enough at the Siren Festival to make me feel that the Sri Lankan/London native was the Queen of everything hip (and hop). But now that I own it, I believe that Kala is the most sonically astonishing album I’ve heard in the last five years; it is, perhaps, the only truly 21st Century record on my list. Whether or not I find myself playing it relentlessly through next year is somewhat moot: for sheer musical mash-up global digital creativity, it deserves my nod.

At the same time, I refused to be bullied into agreement. Radiohead’s In Rainbows is, surely, the best album they’ve released in a decade, and were it any other act’s debut, it may well have made my list. (My wife has been playing it frequently.) But I’m still on that side of the fence that doesn’t quite understand Radiohead. Fortunately, I’m not alone: to quote Carrie Brownstein, formerly of Sleater/Kinney, and now a contributor to All Songs Considered, when she chose it for that radio show as her disappointment of the year:

“The disappointment is not in Radiohead as much as it is in myself. And Radiohead always reminds what a letdown I am because I never really get it. I cannot be the only person who eels that way. I like music that is difficult and challenging but there’s this blankness that I can’t get over.”

As for the incredible fuss about making In Rainbows available online for whatever price the consumer decided, I applaud the move – but I prefer to champion Stereogum webzine’s tribute to Automatic For The People, Drive XV, and the Sounds Like Silver LCDRemixed project: each was made available for free download or streaming, and neither asked you to put money in the producer’s bank account. Oh, and in my humble opinion, they’re both better albums.

A couple of those online albums’ individual cuts show up among my Songs of the Year – because that’s what that list is for: to highlight the innovative, the unusual, the ephemeral, the throwaway, the single that completely dominated its parent album – and the occasional new classic, hidden away at the end of a double live Bruce Springsteen album. Yet for all that I like to think such Songs of the Year should be disposable, I notice that every single of my choices has particularly pertinent/poignant/poetic lyrics. Words count. Maybe I need another chart entirely for my instrumental dance cuts of the year; sadly, I did not pick up (or pay attention to) as many of those as I should have done.

To be absolutely honest, I did not hear that many complete new albums this year, either. In large part, that’s because I’ve been working on a book about old music, which has provided its own long list of treasured (re)discoveries. I’ve also dropped off a number of mailing lists over the last few years, which is equally okay up to a point; I have enough music in my collection that I’ve never heard properly to last me many lifetimes. But still, as I’ve looked at other writers/DJs/personal lists, and as I’ve revisited the lone tracks by said artists that have made it to my iPod or online radio shows, I realize just how many complete albums I’d love to get in my stocking next week. As long as you’re not judging 2007 by Grammy nominations, it appears to have been a great year for music of all stripes.

And that brings me to my last major point. 2007 has seen, at long last, a return from the lengthy album to the “song,” increasingly made available to the consumer via web sites and/or MP3. As long as my iPod continues to self-load with KEXP and Indie Feed’s Songs of the Day, with the Brilliant show, with the Shortwave Sessions, All Songs Considered, Music That Matters and the Tripwire Podcast, I feel as well connected to new music as I ever have done. And if, in the process, I only get to hear one or two great songs from the best new albums, that’s okay – because there will be an equally great song or two on my iPod tomorrow. Goodbye old-fashioned transistor radio, hello new-fangled transistor radio. And may 2008 bring much more of the same (but different).

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