For me, 2007 was about nice chord sequences, tunes that modulate into different keys, and honest-to-goodness "bridge" sections where big sunshine comes through the clouds. It's been a while since we've had such interesting progressions. Pop people did unexpected things with them (KT Tunstall), Radiohead found new ones in its already formidible toolkit, the National wrote tunes that borrow harmony from torch songs, ditto Iron and Wine and especially the Sea and Cake, creators of this year's most criminally overlooked sleeper. This is one reason, among many, for hope: Nothing against the repetitive vamp, but after a steady diet of them (are you listening, Kanye?), it's great to encounter compositions that snake around weird corners and go careening off cliffs and don't resolve in neat and tidy ways.
More 2007 Top Tens From:
Bob Boilen, Will Hermes, Robin Hilton, Meredith Ochs
Listener Picks for 2007
- Song: Little Favours
- from Drastic Fantastic
- by KT Tunstall
On the first six songs of KT Tunstall’s sophomore album Drastic Fantastic, the guitars are cranked hot in the mix, the hooks are the size of highway billboards, and the chords map unexpectedly bouyant paths. But as on her multiplatinum debut, heartache is under discussion, and as she charges toward a more carefree sound, Tunstall manages to hang onto a twinge of her doleful bittersweet old self. Turns out that twinge is all it takes to give songs like “If Only” and “Funnyman” compelling dimension. This year Fiest got all the critical love (for The Reminder, which contains four sharp songs and not-so-veiled variations), but in many ways Tunstall’s bright brash and unapologetically exuberant tunes were bolder.
- Song: Crossing Line
- from Everybody
- by The Sea and Cake
With this quietly lush cycle, the Sea and Cake steps outside the experimental Chicago post-rock domain to concoct a batch of straightforward (or nearly so) pop songs. Earnest and often breezy, Everybody presents vocalist Sam Prekop at his vulnerable romantic-crooner best, slithering through sleek, liquid melodies that might have been picked up in some expatriot bar on the Brazilian coast. Brushed lightly with bossa nova, such coy Bacharachian ditties as "Exact To Me" and "Crossing Line" are colored in pastels of longing and regret, and spun out elegantly, in ways that blur the line between the bitter and the sweet.
When Irish Eyes are Smiling
- Song: When Irish Eyes are Smiling
- from Cornell 1964
- by Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy
The recently unearthed concert by Charles Mingus’ group featuring Eric Dolphy is similarly relevatory – it’s a lusty blowing-session blast from an aggregate that ranks among Mingus’ best. Anchored by the unshakeable drummer Dannie Richmond, this sextet barrels through everything from early piano jazz to the stemwinding wheedles of the avant-garde to a seventeen-minute throwdown on Billy Strayhorn’s theme for the Ellington Orchestra, “Take the A Train.” Dolphy was at his most peak in 1964 – he recorded his classic Out To Lunch the same year – and this band, with Mingus interjecting constantly, keeps up with the saxophonist’s every crazy detour.
- Song: Paper Planes
I came late to this, in part because the hype from blogland was deafening; these days when so many of the cool kids rave, that’s a signal to approach with caution. Then I hit a string of disappointing world-mixmaster records – Manu Chao was totally recycling, Cafe Tacuba suddenly wanted to be an arena-rock act – and became curious to hear Kala in that context. Hello! Here were hard brusque beats from Satan’s drum circle, and crazy tangles of dissonance that would make Charles Ives smile, and, in the center ring, the trenchant M.I.A., singing like a wild woman. Utterly mesmeric.
- Song: Please Read the Letter
- from Raising Sand
- by Robert Plant/Alison Krauss
So much rock and country singing happens at the high decibel end of the spectrum, it’s easy to forget what magic two voices can create in calmer environs. This will remind you. Plant trades the Zep kleiglight for a place in the shadows, Krauss summons a touch of hellfire, and when they combine their voices the result is harmony singing of the Gods, humble and stirring at just above a whisper.
- Song: Old Man
- from Live at Massey Hall 1971
- by Neil Young
Some of the most interesting new music to surface this year was old, treasures from the deep vaults that offered valuable perspective on familiar artists. For the second in a promised series of unreleased gems, Neil Young unearthed an amazing solo concert from 1971, recorded between two pillars of his career – he’d recently released After The Gold Rush and had written, but not yet recorded, songs that would appear on Harvest. The relative newness of the material means he hasn’t settled into any routines; he treads lightly through “Needle and the Damage Done,” and renders “Old Man” with a plaintive vulnerability, an almost perplexed expression.
- Song: Green Gloves
- from Boxer
- by The National
Among the striking features of the National’s noirish fourth album Boxer is its intimacy: Exploiting every weary crevice of his (beautifully captured) baritone, Matt Berninger delivers thoughts on war and friends and the soul-sucking horrors of white-collar work in pillowtalk tones. He sings like he’s on the raw end of an allnighter and has no strength left to summon outrage or indignation. This casual affect deepens his songs: When he delivers the biting conclusion of “Fake Empire” – “We’re half awake, in a fake empire” – he’s just a half awake Average Joe ordering coffee. There’s no panic, no shouting. Just quiet desperation, oozing.
Antichrist Television Blues
- Song: Antichrist Television Blues
- from Neon Bible
- by Arcade Fire
Anyone who cares even remotely about rock needs Neon Bible, if only to be reminded what it sounds like when a bunch of true believers gather as one and swing for the fences. At various times the Arcade Fire summons the transcendence-seeking of the early Doors, or the restlessness Bruce Springsteen immortalized with Born To Run, or the assorted vexations associated with faith and devotion that are a Radiohead speciality. Win Butler goes deep into his disillusionments while the band ignores his plight and keeps on marching, bound for someplace grand and majestic.
- Song: Nude
- from In Rainbows
- by Radiohead
The tip jar got crazy coverage while the music of In Rainbows, the most streamlined and focused Radiohead has released in years, was in many instances ignored. That could be because this issue is such a massive one – we really don’t know what music is worth on the Internet open market, and neither do the Einsteins running the record companies. And it could be because Radiohead, unlike the many purveyors of predigested rock product, defies facile celebrity-scorecard analysis. Is this even a rock record? Who knows. In Rainbows offers a stupendous cliffhanging jazz waltz (“Nude”), a high-pressure chase (“Bodysnatchers”), and some of the least oestentations vocals Thom Yorke has ever recorded. Equally significant are the deftly textured multidirectional guitar arrays, which argue that it’s time to think of Jonny Greenwood as a distinct point in the evolution of the electric guitar.