Thousands of discs were released this year, but only 20 could make the final cut. With the most scientific of instruments (headphones, and sometimes CD players) we whittled down this year’s releases, and each Thursday until the end of ’07 we’ll deliver five of our faves. Let us know what we missed, and what you loved.
Rilo Kiley, Under the Blacklight (WARNER BROTHERS)
Indie rock likes to dodge refinement, so there were some grimaces when Rilo Kiley’s rather glossy third disc spilled open. A couple of years ago, singer Jenny Lewis and her buds were underground royalty, but they’ve always wanted their day in the sun, and Blacklight’s motley songs are proud enough of their mainstream aura to carry themselves with an enviable swagger. Like its model, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, this is a disc about craft and breadth. White soul, punk-disco, sunny twang – each new track is just as dapper as it is daring. Believable, too. As Lewis injects coos and come-ons into her sex-centric lyrics, all the genre-jumping feels natural, a flurry of ways to express the feelings at hand, and a cool strategy for dodging stasis.
Amy Winehouse, Back to Black (ISLAND)
The beehive hairdo, nude lady tattoos and odd fashion sense marked Amy Winehouse an outsider from the get-go, a retro soul-singer who could sing like it was still 1968 and she lived in Detroit, not London. The collection of songs on her second record produced an impressive five singles including “Rehab,” which has our nomination for song of the year, and the album’s title track, a hauntingly recorded lament about love gone wrong—as with Winehouse it so often seems to do. Back to Black garnered her six Grammy Award nominations; her 2003 debut, Frank, earned her a Mercury Prize nomination in the U.K. and the attention of New York DJ and party-boy Mark Ronson. His production work on her second album (not to mention the work he did with the year’s other famous Brit, Lily Allen) ushered Winehouse into the limelight and also created a neo-retro movement in pop. Everyone seems to have gotten the point: Back to Black features the contributions of everyone from Ghostface Killah to Ashford and Simpson.
Coconut Records, Nighttiming (YOUNG BABY)
Jason Schwartzman is a man of many talents. The former Phantom Planet drummer has enjoyed a successful and offbeat film career, starring in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited this year and appearing as Ringo in Walk Hard. But he never gave up the music, as this latest project attests to. Self-recorded and produced, Schwartzman released Nighttiming on his own record label, so it didn’t get much play in the press. But it is one of the finest collections of pop music released in 2007, from the folksy humor of “The Thanks I Get” to the disco-trills of the title track. “West Coast” is one of the most wistful songs in recent memory, as Schwartzman sings: “For a second there I thought you disappeared/ It rains a lot this time of year/ We both go together if one falls down/ I talk out loud like you’re still around.” It’s a sweet, sad number that recalls sunshine delays in California and New York City in the rain, and if you’re ever in need of an album you can drive to—without having to skip around tracks—Schwartzman’s got you covered.
Modest Mouse, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (EPIC)
Bands break-up and artists go crazy attempting what Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock accomplished by accident. That’s not to say We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank is a tossed-off affair — it means only that Brock and his band sacrificed none of the hallmarks of their sound on their way to the top of the charts. After two decades of work, the trailer park philosopher has hit his stride, finally fusing the harsh-quiet extremes he’s spent his career bouncing between. With the addition of former Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr (and help from Shins‘ frontman James Mercer) the band’s fifth album is a nautically themed endeavor — sailors traveling the globe, doomed to die at every port. The songs alternate between spiked guitars and barking vocals (“Florida,” “Dashboard”) and lilting guitars and lisping whispers (“Little Motel,” “Missed the Boat”). The band’s most inclusive, technically impressive album easily drowns out the indie faction’s cries of mainstream foul.
Jay-Z, American Gangster (ROC-A-FELLA)
Proving that there is life after, “I’m too old for this s***,” a post-post retirement Jay-Z turns out his most compulsively listenable album with American Gangster. Inspired by the film of the same name, Jay-Z’s chronicle of his life’s work (i.e. the hustle, in its legal and not-so-legal forms) offers a humble sense of nuance that was nowhere to be found in Ridley Scott‘s brutish picture. A slap in the face to hip-hop’s pervasive ageism, it’s the kind of album that could only be released now, at this point in the 38-year-old’s storied career. Maturity, patience, taste and humility are unfortunately not really associated with hip-hop, and yet Jay-Z offers an album rich in those elements. Sadly, the album has pretty much flopped. The kids just don’t get it. Not that they even had a chance in the first place.
HERE ARE OUR FIRST FIVE ALBUMS OF THE YEAR (LAST WEEK’S INSTALLMENT).