It’s all about substance
Weighty sounds highlight the year in music and mark talent from jazz to hip-hop
It's the music, stupid.
With such major acts as Prince, Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, Radiohead, Madonna and the Eagles all breaking off from the dissolving corporate label structure, and with other media platforms changing how music is experienced, it can be tough to hear what really matters through all the jibber-jabber.
"Jibber-jabber" -- what a description. Is my inner curmudgeon finally breaking though? Next thing you know, I'll be saying "whippersnapper." In any event, the music that made this year bearable and, yes, even happy! at times was, more often than not, music of substance. That will be the mark of excellence for me for years to come.
But wouldn't you know it, I've already caught some heat for my favorite album of the year, Wilco's "Sky Blue Sky." A friend, whose musical tastes I generally trust, wrinkled her nose at that -- probably over the imagined "stench" created by the band's basic Americana sound. She's was always the British dance type anyway, so it's no surprise she's a fan of the unfortunate tabloid-fave Amy Winehouse. Two of her songs made my Best Singles list, so I'll give my friend that much credit.
Thanks in part to the DVD included in the special edition of "Sky Blue Sky," my appreciation for the Chicago-based band has become an I'll-follow-you-to-the-ends-of-the-earth, full-blown love.
The DVD's short film -- by Christoph Green and Brendan Canty, the guys behind the great documentary musical series "Burn to Shine" -- has leader Jeff Tweedy candidly commenting on his life of recovery from painkiller addiction, plus includes some wonderful band rehearsal footage.
Wilco represents music that's been lived in. Already a fine songsmith, Tweedy, in his own words, is now "creating without anxiety," writing songs that, when placed in the hands of the band, sound absolutely transcendent yet grounded in real emotion.
In Wilco's quest to pare down to the essentials and lessen the distractions around them, rehearsal sessions are magical. There's "Shake It Off," with its wonderfully herky-jerky arrangement, contrasted with a graceful bridge. The guitar work in "Impossible Germany" is Television-meets-the Allman Brothers. And there's the clear-eyed beauty of "What Light."
That same vibe runs through other favorite albums this year, like the Shins. "Wincing the Night Away" and the Shins' subsequent Honolulu concert were two top events for me. Singer-songwriter Patty Griffin made the strongest album of her career this year with "Children Running Through," reminding us what a top-notch singer she is in her own right.
Even without the ubiquitous iPod commercial that featured her track "1234," Leslie Feist's "The Reminder" would still be a standout. And, with a solemn nod toward post-storm New Orleans, jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard's "A Tale of God's Will (a requiem for Katrina)" highlights fulsome string arrangements that he's developed for his laudatory film soundtrack work.
Other faves include Lily Allen's wry and whimsical "Alright, Still"; Stephen Marley following in the footsteps of brother Damian with the equally strong "Mind Control"; Cleveland legends (and local faves) Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony proving that despite media claims, hip-hop ISN'T dead, thanks to their comeback "Strength & Loyalty"; and head Bad Seed Nick Cave's sidegroup "Grinderman" and its stinging, stripped-down rock sound.
My remaining pick, Miles Davis' "The Complete On the Corner Sessions," has a special meaning. That avant-garde jazz-funk sound from 1972 was the first music I gamely tried to review at the beginning of my career, at the University of Hawaii. Words did fail me when I tried to describe this intriguing morass of music, but all I can add is that it still sounds startlingly fresh and original after all these years.
I can only hope that 2008 will bring such small, meaningful surprises.
» "Sky Blue Sky,"
» "Wincing the Night Away,"
The Shins (Sub Pop)
» "Alright, Still,"
Lily Allen (Capitol)
» "Mind Control,"
Stephen Marley (Universal Republic)
» "Children Running Through,"
Patty Griffin (ATO)
» "The Reminder,"
» "Strength & Loyalty,"
Bone Thugs-N-Harmony (Interscope/Full Surface)
» "A Tale of God's Will (a requiem for Katrina),"
Terence Blanchard (Blue Note)
» "The Complete On the Corner Sessions,"
Miles Davis (Columbia/Legacy)
(Had to seriously pare down this list ... there were a lot of good albums in '07):
» "In Rainbows," Radiohead (self-released): How could this album not make the Top 10? Granted, it's a great album, but after its splashy (more akin to a cannonball dive) download-only debut, the actual, physical CD will be in stores Wednesday. Combine that with a tour, and the band's impact should be felt through much of 2008. It'll probably move into my Best Albums list next year.
» "West," Lucinda Williams (Lost Highway)
» "Neon Bible," The Arcade Fire (Merge)
» "Release the Stars," Rufus Wainwright (Geffen)
» "All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone," Explosions in the Sky (Temporary Residence Limited)
» "Friend Opportunity," Deerhoof (Kill Rock Stars)
» "Timbaland Presents Shock Value," (Blackground/Interscope)
» "The Weirdness," The Stooges (Virgin)
» "Icky Thump," The White Stripes (Third Man/Warner Bros.). Ah, what could've been, had their Hawaii concert not been canceled due to Meg White's "acute anxiety" attack ...
» "23," Blonde Redhead (4AD)
"RoadKillOvercoat," Busdriver (Epitaph/Anti-)
» "We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank," Modest Mouse (Epic)
» "Version," Mark Ronson (RCA)
» "Sound of Silver," LCD Soundsystem (DFA/Capitol)
» "Volta," Björk (Elektra)
» "American Gangster," Jay-Z (Roc-A-Fella)
» "New Wave," Against Me! (Sire)
» "Sweet Warrior," Richard Thompson (Shout! Factory)
» "100 Days 100 Nights," Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings (Daptone)
... and a special nod to the hearty "One of These Days," John Cruz (Lilikoi Records/Mountain Apple Co.)
» "They Say I'm Different"
and "Betty Davis,"
(Light in the Attic Records): The woman behind Miles Davis' revolution of sound as heard on the "On the Corner" sessions. In-your-face funk that was unjustly overlooked when originally released, now getting a deserved second look.
» "Sly and the Family Stone: The Collection,"
» "Tijuana Moods,"
Charles Mingus (RCA Victor/Legacy)
» "Daydream Nation (Deluxe Edition),"
Sonic Youth (Geffen)
» "Big Science: 25th Anniversary Edition,"
Laurie Anderson (Nonesuch)
» "I Still Remember,"
Bloc Party (Vice)
» "Baby Fratelli,"
The Fratellis (Cherrytree/Interscope)
and "You Know I'm No Good (Remix with Ghostface Killah),"
Amy Winehouse (Universal Republic)
» "Lazy Eye,"
Silversun Pickups (Dangerbird)
Kanye West (Roc-A-Fella)
» "Throw Some D's,"
Rich Boy featuring Polow Da Don (Interscope)
» "Wouldn't Get Far,"
The Game featuring Kanye West (Geffen)
» "Never Again,"
Kelly Clarkson (RCA)
» "Trapped in the Closet, Chapters 13-22,"
R. Kelly (Jive)
The Jesus Lizard (MVD Visual)
» "U.F.O.s at the Zoo,"
The Flaming Lips (Warner Bros.)
» "You're Gonna Miss Me: A Film About Roky Erickson"
» "Ramones: It's Alive 1974-1996"
» "Wild Style: 25th Anniversary Edition"
» "Unplugged in New York,"
... and the lovely film "Once,"
just released on DVD