In any given year a lot of very good music is recorded and released for sale, all over the world. A very small percentage of it makes it into my hands. And while I listen to all sorts of music, a brief perusal of my iTunes library will reveal that folk, traditional, and alt-country are pretty dominant; likewise, the following list is pretty heavy in those categories. All of which means my range as a music critic is fairly restricted. So, with those caveats out of the way, here are my ten favorite new albums of 2007, arranged in alphabetical order:
1. A Hawk And A Hacksaw And The Hun Hangár Ensemble: A Hawk And A Hacksaw And The Hun Hangár Ensemble. I reviewed this wonderful EP-length album a while back here, and my praise still stands. While I’m not aware of any free legal tracks available online for download, you can download and watch two performances by A Hawk And A Hacksaw at the excellent French website Take-Away Shows.
2. Andrew Bird: Armchair Apocalypse: There are very few songwriters out there who can pull off such sheer verbal cleverness with grace like Andrew Bird. And even fewer songwriters can whistle as prodigiously as Mr. Bird. Armchair Apocalypse is Andrew Bird at his best. It also contains the only song I’ve ever heard that has as its subject the ancient Scythians, and also manages to references the Thracians and Macedonians.
3. The Arcade Fire: Neon Bible: The New York Times did a write-up on The Arcade Fire for crying out loud, as have countless other people, so I don’t really need to pile on any further. A good album, if not a great one.
Neon Bible (another Take-Away Show)
4. Iron and Wine: The Shepherd’s Dog: A superbly beautiful album, with some songs that are reminiscent of Sam Bean’s previous, more mellow work. Most of the songs however are a marked departure from that mellowness, in favour of a more up-beat, wider-ranging, more deeply textured music, with influences pulled from all over the world (without, however, sounding kitschy).
5. The National: Boxer: Another endlessly lauded album, but still very good. Where Iron and Wine has “gone electric,” The National this year eased off all the lurching around and yelling, and instead turned out a moving, lovely album.
6. Okkervil River: The Stage Names: Hyper-literate alt-folk (for example: mandolin-driven songs about Beat poet John Berryman) done very well. While treading the dangerous ground of self-reference and ironic allusion The Stage Names still manages to be sincere and not simply (yet another) exercise in insider irony by indie rockers with mandolins and accordions. I saw Okkervil River perform in New Orleans a couple months ago and can report that they are as good live as recorded.
7. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss: Raising Sand: I just got a hold of this album, so I’ve yet to give it a good thorough listen. From what I’ve listened to so far though it’s excellent: Alison Krauss has long been a fine musician, but on this album she has gone beyond her previous work, with a richer, well-matured sound. Robert Plant’s not too bad on here either.
8. Southeast Engine: A Wheel Within A Wheel: A band I came across this year for the first time, Southeast Engine is an alt-country (with plenty of rock driving things along) flavored outfit from Athens, OH, and while comparable to Wilco among others, these guys have their own distinct take on Americana. They also deal with issues of Christian faith, and take delight in Biblical allusions and themes. “Oh God, Let Me Back In,” a meditation and prayer of repentance, is particularly moving.
9. Various Artists: Songs Of Defiance – Music Of Chechnya And The North Caucasus: This is, so far as I know, the only currently available recording of Chechnyan traditional music out there. According to a write-up in the Times, it was actually recorded outside of Chechnya, due to the less than ideal conditions inside the region at present. The producer instead looked up Chechnyan artists scattered around Russia and the Caucasus region to give a sampling of traditional music from the troubled break-away province. The results are wonderful. The most sublime tracks on the album are delivered by Cherim Nakhushev who sings with an incredibly emotional, plaintive voice that sent chills down my back the first time I listened to him.
10. Wilco: Sky Blue Sky: Not Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, to be sure, but still quite good, and still Wilco, just with less static and weird noise. Instead, Jeff Tweedy keeps the raspy vocals and throws in some introspective, mellow ballads, but lets in a lot more sunshine and bright guitars and general happiness. The songs are certainly simpler, both lyrically and musically, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This is the sort of album you want to have playing on a summer day while driving with the windows down.