Looking over this list, it's clear that my 2007 picks are ones that look back to bygone decades: The Dap-Kings, who back Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones, sounding like the house band of a long-lost R&B label that might be resurrected by Numero Group, or Iron & Wine (aka Sam Beam) getting his Crosby, Stills & Nash on. Even the super-commercial singles I liked this year — Alicia Keys, Justin Timberlake, Maroon 5 — all take strong cues from the '70s and '80s. When All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen asked us critics about our pick for 'most innovative CD of the year' on a recent show, all that came to mind was Radiohead's pay-what-you-like roll-out of In Rainbows, a commentary on the marketing, not the tunes. I suppose that when I listen to music, I'm listening for something that grabs my ear, my heart, my soul. Innovation rarely enters the equation. But revitalizing old sounds (or songs) and making them exciting — making them sound like contemporary, living art and not a watered-down copy of a copy of a copy — takes an innovative approach, and I believe the artists below have accomplished just that.
More 2007 Top Tens From:
Bob Boilen, Will Hermes, Robin Hilton, Tom Moon,
Listener Picks for 2007
- Song: North American Scum
- from Sound of Silver
- by LCD Soundsystem
Whaddya think, I sit around all day in a sepia-toned room playing banjo or wishing I was a fly on the wall when Booker T. and the MGs rocked Stax studios? Even I need to shake a booty sometimes, and when I do, LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy is the guy I will follow to the party. If you misspent your youth in the 1980s, you'll hear a lot of it in Murphy's thoughtful collision of new wave, punk and disco—SOS feels like the early part of the decade, when clubs and even certain radio stations might play records from those genres side by side. But it's his sense of humor, self-deprecating and deadpan, that keeps me spinning this one.
Song: "North American Scum"
- Song: Yeah!
- from The Tall Pines
- by The Tall Pines
Don't hate her because she's beautiful. With long straight hair falling over sky-high cheekbones and a penchant for floor-length dresses, Connie Petruk looks like she stepped out of late '60s/early '70s Nashville and sings like the lost sister of Bobbie Gentry or Dusty Springfield. Her honeyed alto will melt the frost off your windshield, and the band’s confident backing matches her attitude flawlessly. The Tall Pines are equal parts soul and twang, molasses and moonshine, sass and skill. The ten songs on their debut CD, all written by Chris Dell'Olio and inspired by his Southern upbringing, evoke the heyday of the country-soul hybrid without ever sounding unoriginal, a difficult feat. Be sure to listen all the way through – a bonus track features a long-lost recording of Frances Davis, a Florida gospel radio host (and, not coincidentally, Dell'Olio's grandmother).
- Song: Comfy in Nautica
- from Person Pitch
- by Panda Bear
Think it's easy to sit in your bedroom and make a lo-fi Pet Sounds? Try it and get back to me. Or better yet, go see Panda Bear (aka Noah Lennox, also of Animal Collective) perform the songs of Person Pitch, accompanied only by a microphone and an electronic box. Yes, his voice sounds eerily like Brian Wilson's, and the layers of voice and instrumentation draw the listener into a hypnotic state. But just when you forget you're not listening to the Beach Boys circa-1966, Panda Bear's songs becomes fractals and fall apart, a delightfully disorienting experience that leaves you eager for the next track.
Song: "Comfy in Nautica"
- Song: Ballad of a Thin Man
- from I'm Not There (Soundtrack)
- by Various
Our collective fascination with Bob Dylan—songwriter, poet, icon—is forever. Books are written, courses are taught, and every year a crop of troubadours emerge attempting to do what he did—to be the voice of his or her generation. There will never be another Dylan, but the songs he wrote tend to sound great when sung by others—so easily adaptable, a testament to their quality and timelessness, and the fact that his voice is an acquired taste. This soundtrack to Todd Haynes’ film of the same name is a (mostly) indie rock tour-de-force, including Jeff Tweedy, Mark Lanegan, The Hold Steady, Sufjan Stevens and Calexico (who team with Willie Nelson, Roger McGuinn and Charlotte Gainsbourg on different tracks). Despite the power of the material, few of the artists relinquish their individuality. Most honor his legacy but sound like themselves, and that's what makes this double disc a must-hear.
Song: "Ballad of a Thin Man"
- Song: Pass It on Pt. 1
- from Eccentric Soul: Twinight's Lunar Rotation
- by Various Artists
To say that Numero Group Records digs through the dust bins of music history so you don’t have to is accurate, but an understatement. Little by little, the label is documenting an era—the late 1960s-early 1970s—when independent record companies flourished across the nation and when regional hits existed on radio (the title itself is a nod to late-night deejay picks). This time they’ve set their sights on their hometown of Chicago and the Twinight label. Twinight gave the world Syl Johnson, but this double-disc focuses exclusively on the lost acts. You’ve probably never heard of Pieces of Peace or Sidney Pinchback & the Schiller Street Gang, but you’ve heard their strains in the danceable crossover soul that has dominated pop charts ever since, and the funk rock of bands like Chicago and Tower of Power. In the fuzzed out guitar flirting with huge horn arrangements, space-sojourns and deep funk lie not just a great retro sound, but a blueprint for the decades of R&B that followed.
Song: "Pass It on Pt 1." (performed by Pieces of Peace)
Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car
- Song: Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car
- from Shepherd's Dog
- by Iron & Wine
Sam Beam’s evolution as an artist is remarkable. His early songs under the Iron & Wine moniker were warm whispers over sparse accompaniment. Over the course of five CDs, including an EP with Tucson sound stylists Calexico, Beam has incorporated more stringed instruments and keyboards and expanded the arrangements of his songs, growing his talent without losing any of the intimacy of his storytelling. His voice still rolls gently over his guitar finger picking, but The Shepherd's Dog offers as much musical depth as it does atmosphere.
Song: "Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car"
- Song: Please Read the Letter
- from Raising Sand
- by Robert Plant/Alison Krauss
This pairing of an iconic British rock singer and a Midwestern gal who rose to fame as a fiddling wunderkind may have you scratching your head, but consider this: Robert Plant followed his blues muse to Africa and immersed himself in the roots of the music that made him famous. Alison Krauss revitalized bluegrass and, in the process, took home more Grammys than any female performer (20 to date). So Plant and Krauss are both passionate about roots music, and their seemingly disparate voices—his bravado-steeped and hers ultra-sweet—swoon together. Producer T-Bone Burnett is also due credit for why Raising Sand works so well; it's his sonic stamp that resonates in the CD's percolating rhythms.
Song: "Please Read the Letter"
- Song: Girl I Left Behind
- from Dirt Farmer
- by Levon Helm
The voice, drummer and lone American in The Band, Levon Helm had a pretty awful decade. He lost his recording studio to a fire, he lost his friend and Band-mate Rick Danko to heart failure, and on top of it all he lost his voice as he battled throat cancer. Trying times can make for great art, though, and Dirt Farmer is great. Helm's voice restored from a whisper to its Southern-steeped glory is remarkable on its own, but the material really makes the disc. A hand-picked collection of traditionals passed along to him by his parents and songs written by friends like Buddy and Julie Miller (who appear on the CD) and Paul Kennerley, along with an emotional reading of the Steve Earle/Del McCoury collaboration "The Mountain," Dirt Farmer is a seamless marriage of Appalachia and alt.Nashville. Helm's rhythmic reinvention of the Carter Family's "Single Girl, Married Girl" alone is worth the price of admission.
Song: "The Girl I Left Behind"
- Song: Long Walk Home
- from Magic
- by Bruce Springsteen
He's getting the band back together! Fans who waited years for the Boss to rock again won't be disappointed by Magic. Each member of the E-Street Band plays as if to remind you why you loved them in the past. Along with his longtime friends and partners in music, “Bruuuce” has created an album of impressive emotional breadth, from stadium-sized riffs, to quiet, private glimpses into a marriage, to a breakup song that plays like a sweaty backseat lullaby, to an anti-war avowal. The disc's opener, “Radio Nowhere,” is a prayer for diversity, for cacophony, and most of all for connection. It’s probably impossible for a rock star to not feel isolated, but Springsteen is still able to tap into the mind of every frustrated radio dial spinner driving solo down a lonely road, and no one does it better.
Song: "Long Walk Home"
- Song: "Me and Mr. Jones"
- from Back to Black
- by Amy Winehouse
Maybe it takes the kind of personal pain that lands Amy Winehouse in the news so often to sing like she does. Sultry and low, her voice twists elegantly as if to shirk the agony she’s in. Winehouse wrote these hip soul songs, filled with drunken, doped-up broken hearted strife, vastly entertaining if you don’t mind the fact that it’s mostly torn from the pages of her life. It’s still my favorite album of the year. Spectacular backing by The Dap-Kings, R&B power-house band of Daptone Records, and producer Mark Ronson (Christina Aguilera, Lily Allen, Robbie Williams), create a timeless sound without lifting a single sample from the era they are recasting—the late 1960s. It’s all instrumentation and ingenuity—and of course Winehouse’s beautifully tortured pipes.
Song: "Me and Mr. Jones"