Most of the “albums” I actually listen to from start to finish I make myself, selecting and sequencing the tracks with all due obsessiveness. This has nothing to do with iTunes—although the app makes the task so easy and fun; I made my first cassette compilation 35 years ago.


Am I Kidding Myself, or Was This Year as Good for Music as It Was Bad for the Music Biz?
Back in February, after getting advances on three albums that would wind up in my year-end Top 11 (I had to turn it up a notch this year), I wrote on the site: “Every so often, pop hits a particularly good patch—a moment in time in which several artists simultaneously appear with records that raise the bar for everyone else. It last happened two springs ago, when Beck’s Guero, Spoon’s Gimme Fiction and Coldplay’s X&Y brightened the landscape with their comparably delectable juxtapositions of slam-dunk hooks, phat grooves and overall inventiveness. Happily, it’s happening again with the Shins’ latest, which pushes the door wide open for Fountains of Wayne and Kings of Leon.”

That turned out to be an accurate forecast of the year, if I do say so myself, and I got a chance to write about nine of my Top 11 in Uncut, Paste, Mix and this virtual rag, as well as a number of other tasty albums. So here are my fave LPs, and some of what yours truly—and in some cases the principals themselves—had to say about them.

1. Kings of Leon, Because of the Times (RCA)
“We’re willing to take risks—playing it safe hasn’t done anything for us,” says Kings frontman/rhythm guitarist/ lyricist Caleb Followill, 25, about his band’s adventurous third full-length album. Working once again with co-producers Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams, Ray LaMontagne, Crowded House) and their mentor, Angelo Petraglia, band responded to the perceived pressure by opting “to really take it someplace new,” says Johns. The result is a righteously old-school yet envelope-pushing album whose highlights include the irresistible seven-minute opener “Knocked Up,” with its hell-bent groove and defiantly yearning vocal; “On Call,” of which Johns notes, “it’s got that great little bass part, it’s relatively easy to swallow, but it’s still got bags of attitude”; and the blazing “My Party,” which stands as the analog equivalent to Trent Reznor at his most intense. According to Esquire’s Andy Langer, Because of the Times is “a record on which you don’t have to know where they’ve been to see where they’re headed.”… [more on my blog:]

1A. Radiohead, In Rainbows (self-released)
Whaddaya know, a one-listen Radiohead album, lush and ultra-melodic, but still full of surprises. Workout faves: “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” (with its allusions to the Blue Nile’s “Tinseltown in the Rain”), “15 Step,” “Reckoner.” Tracks to get lost in: “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” “Faust Arp,” “House of Cards.” Tracks to blast your troubles away: “Bodysnatchers,” with that serrated, inside-out distorted guitar, the weather system that is “All I Need.” In Rainbows is a frontrunner for stoner album of the decade, but it also contains some of the most stunning old-school pop and soul bits (barely disguised). The music brilliantly delivered on the anticipation. Plus, you’ve gotta hand it to them for keeping a lid on the digi-LP right up until Oct. 10; hip-hop superstars should consider hiring the band as online security experts. Can’t wait to see whether co-manager Bryce Edge was right about the CD delivering far more detail than the 160 kbps MP3s, and I’m dying to hear those other eight tracks as well.

3. The Shins, Wincing the Night Away (Sub Pop)
Blown away by the folk-rock grandeur of first single “Phantom Limb,” with its incremental buildup to a climax worthy of the Arcade Fire, I read a number of reviews of Wincing the Night Away with great interest, and while each was positive, none was rhapsodic. In his lead review for Rolling Stone, Bob Christgau pronounced that the LP “feels labored,” though “gracefully realized” in an assessment that dwelled on “clumsy bits of overreaching” in James Mercer’s lyrics. Those qualifiers led to a rating of three-and-a-half stars, which has become the Stone equivalent of Christgau’s B+. So, as I slipped the CD into the tray after scoring a copy, I expected to be mildly disappointed, only to find myself jumping up and down in exhilaration from the first moments of “Sleeping Lessons” to the dying notes of “A Comet Appears”—the gleaming architecture of the arrangements fashioned by Mercer and his bandmates, with every nuance captured by co-producer/engineer/mixer Joe Chicarelli in a career turn for the old hand; the viscerally elegant grooves; Mercer’s captivatingly earnest vocals and essentially musical use of language; and, above all, melodies possessing all the untethered brilliance of the young Brian Wilson. All of that accessible headiness finds its way into songs rich enough to haunt your dreams and accompany you into wakefulness. Lately, that’s been happening to me with “Sea Legs,” whose skipping-record groove, ornamented with a lilting string synth line redolent of Boz ScaggsSilk Degrees, blossoms into the sort of widescreen climax that Tears for Fears (my wife Peggy gets credit for noting the TFF parallel) were so good at erecting a quarter century ago—totally unexpected and utterly irresistible. You’ll note that this is the track Pitchfork’s Matt LeMay dismissed for “its intrusive synthesized drum beat and lackluster arrangement,” comparing it to Eve 6, yet. To borrow John McEnroe’s ever-useful expression of incredulity: Matt, you cannot be serious! If “Sea Legs” ain’t a smash, there’s something terribly wrong with the music biz… Um, scratch that last part.

4. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Raising Sand (Rounder)
The pairing of the wily old tomcat and the classy country thrush turns out as magically in reality as it seemed unlikely on paper. Working with producer T Bone Burnett, whose impeccable taste in material (from Mel Tillis to Tom Waits) and players (from venerable folkie Mike Seeger to axeman supremo Marc Ribot and expressive steel player Greg Leisz), guides these two inhabitants of different worlds toward a fertile common ground, somewhere between the Appalachians and the Delta, out of which to entwine their voices. The spacious, burnished settings are designed for nuance, enabling Plant to overwhelm without raising his voice above a near-whisper on Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothin’”, and Krauss to move with lissome grace from shitkicker on the Everly Brothers’ “Gone, Gone, Gone” to siren on the Stones-associated “Fortune Teller”. The partners’ close harmonies are especially ravishing intimate as Gram & Emmylou on Roly Salley’s “Killing The Blues”, ghostly as the grave on Gene Clark’s “Polly Come Home”. Side projects don’t get any better than this. Put this record on shuffle with Gram & Emmy, Richard & Linda, Jack & Meg. I’m telling you, this record gets deeper and more magical with every spin.

5. Amy Winehouse Back to Black (Universal Republic)
The creative process works in mysterious ways. Take the moment of conception of “Rehab.” One evening, after shooting some pool in Lower Manhattan, Winehouse was relating her romantic travails to Mark Ronson, who was producing the English artist’s second album, as they walked back to his AllIDo Studios in Lower Manhattan. She’d become so depressed after the breakup, she explained, and was so close to going off the deep end that her friends and family started urging her to get some help. “They tried to make me go to rehab, and I was like, ‘No, no, no,’” she told Ronson. “When she said it, she did this ‘talk to the hand’ thing,” he remembers, “I said, ‘That’s really hooky; maybe you should go back and write a song.’ We didn’t give it that much thought. Then she came and she played it to me, and I went, ‘Cool. Let’s put claps here and maybe a minor chord in the verse to make it a bit jangly.’ And that was it. It is a good story when the song’s a hit; otherwise it means nothing.” [more on my blog]

6. Wilco, Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch)
Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky, the highest-profile album Jim Scott has mixed at his new Santa Clarita studio PLYRZ thus far, is a return to the band’s late-’60s/early-’70s following the envelope-pushing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born. After recording it live to tape in Wilco’s Chicago rehearsal space, bandleader Jeff Tweedy gave the tapes to mainstay Jim O’Rourke, who’d mixed both Yankee and Ghost, producing the latter, but Tweedy wasn’t satisfied with the results. “Compared to the demos, [O’Rourke’s mixes] just didn't feel quite the same or like the record we, as a band, had made,” he explained in Billboard. So he turned once again to Scott, who’d mixed several Wilco albums, most recently the live Kicking Television. A day after receiving it, Tweedy asked Scott to mix the entire album. [more on my blog]

7. Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Merge)
Spoon leader Britt Daniel and drummer Jim Eno don’t just worship the beat, they make love to it from every conceivable angle; for them, the tambourine and shakers are sex toys. Since Gimme Fiction back in 2000, the rocking Austin minimalists have embraced minimalism with a vengeance, removing anything not essential to the movement and character of a track with a conceptual purposefulness as systematically precise as a sushi chef. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, the fourth album in this bootie-shaking art project, is Spoon’s most unremittingly infectious set, pulling back from the panoramic vistas of 2005’s Gimme Fiction in order to zoom in on the rhythmic, melodic and textural gears and pulleys that are this band’s specialty. Lusty saxes lubricate the grooves of the reverb-y “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” and the Jon Brion-produced single “The Underdog,” Daniel adds more rhythmic detail to “Don’t You Evah” by double-clutching his vocal Dwight Twilley style, “Rhythm and Soul” reveals the poetry of the well-timed cymbal hit and “Finer Feelings” turns on a subtly seductive guitar figure that is the quintessence of tone and touch. Closer “Black Like Me” climaxes with a direct reference to The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.”

8. Crowded House, Time on Earth (ATO)
The first recording from the reborn Crowded House—whom Gen Xers will remember as a breath of Beatlesque fresh air in the arid mid-’80s—isn’t a one-listen album, nor does it work well as background music. Inevitably, a lot of people, half-remembering lilting hits like “Weather With You” and “World Where You Live,” will perceive the original band as a hooky, tuneful and undemanding pop group in the McCartney manner, and I fear that too few potential fans will sink into Time On Earth deeply enough (as readers of fiction do automatically) for it to catch them in its thrall. This record is never merely pretty (despite Neil Finn’s gift for melody) nor obvious, requiring the sort of progressive unpeeling one would give to an onion, and it gets more pungent with each layer that’s exposed. [more on my blog]

9. Fountains of Wayne, Traffic and Weather (Virgin)
With their fourth LP, Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood perfect their signature blend: recognizable vignettes of everyday existence populated by concisely drawn characters in the manner of Randy Newman and Fagen/Becker—restless souls trying to keep their heads above water amid the flotsam of pop culture. By my count, Traffic and Weather contains five instant classics, eight similarly impeccable but somewhat less sticky confections (although “’92 Subaru” warrants accolades for sheer density of detail) and one excuse to trot out their Beatles licks without having to apply them to a narrative vignette (the gratuitous but delightful “Revolving Dora”). As before, the partners populate their songs with The male protagonist of “Someone to Love” “puts Coldplay on, pours a glass of wine,” while his female counterpart is “sitting at home watching The King of Queens.” In the highway nocturne “I-95”, a driver’s races southward toward his love while the radio emits “a kick drum mixed with static.” The lost-luggage lament “Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim” swells into an arcing bridge boasting the universally relatable couplet, “It’s been a long, long day/Can’t we just be on our way?” “Strapped for Cash”, which recounts the travails of a gambler being pursued by heavies who want their money, crams a complete Elmore Leonard yarn into 3:31, while the the title song picks up heavy breathing in the newsroom at drivetime. And every one of the above has a hook to die for. Traffic and Weather cements FoW’s status as the savviest modern-day practitioners of both Beatlesque pop and Steely Dan’s cool precision.

10. LCD Soundsystam, Sound of Silver (Capitol)
Didn’t write about this album, but I can safely say it’s got three of the most killer workout songs of the year in “Time to Get Away,” “North American Scum,” “Watch the Tapes,” the title track and the awesome, Bowie-meets-Tom Tom Club epic “Get Innocuous!”

11. Bruce Springsteen, Magic (Columbia)
Didn’t write about this one, either, but “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” is one of Springsteen’s best songs and vocals ever, and I love the way the details in the material and Brendan O’Brien’s unfairly maligned production reveal themselves over time.

Arcade Fire
, Neon Bible (Merge)
The Eagles, Long Road Out Of Eden (Eagles Recording Co. II)
Feist, The Reminder (Cherrytree/Interscope)
John Fogerty, Revival (Fantasy)
The White Stripes, Icky Thump (Third Man/WB)
Steve Earle, Washington Square Serenade (New West)
Kanye West, Graduation (Roc-A-Fella/IDJ)
Bettye LaVette, Scene of the Crime (Anti-)
Lucinda Williams, West (Lost Highway)
The Thrills, Teenager (Virgin)
Brandi Carlile, The Story (Columbia)
Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, This Is Somewhere (Hollywood)
Mark Olson, The Salvation Blues (Hacktone)
The Honeydogs, Amygdala (Copycats)
Mark Ronson, Version (RCA)
I’m Not There (Columbia/Sony Music Soundtrax)

Neil Young
, Live at Massey Hall 1971 (Reprise)
The Traveling Wilburys, The Traveling Wilburys Collection (Rhino)
Nils Lofgren, Back It Up!! Live... An Authorized Bootleg (Hip-O/A&M/UMe)
Emmylou Harris, Songbird (Rhino)
Donald Fagen, Nightfly Trilogy (Rhino)
U2, The Joshua Tree (Island/UMe)
Moby Grape, Listen My Friends! (Columbia/Legacy)
Stephen Stills, Just Roll Tape (Rhino)
Forever Changing: The Golden Age of Elektra Records, 1963-1973 (Rhino/Elektra)
Love Is The Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets, 1965-1970 (Rhino)
Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration (Stax/Concord)

Most of the “albums” I actually listen to from start to finish I make myself, selecting and sequencing the tracks with all due obsessiveness. This has nothing to do with iTunes—although the app makes the task so easy and fun; I made my first cassette compilation 35 years ago. Speaking of which, I picked up Love Is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone’s resident humorist, after flipping through it and discovering replications of Rob’s handwritten sequences on the cassette cards. Damn—why didn’t I think of that? I’ve got boxes of mixtapes out in the garage…my own soundtrack of the last three-and-a-half decades. But I digress; here’s my soundtrack to 2007, conveniently gathered on three CD-Rs. You’ll note that each has one oldie for perspective’s sake.

Keep the Car Running / '07 grooves
Steve Earle
, Satellite Radio
The Eagles, Fast Company
Radiohead, 15 Step
Fountains of Wayne, Someone to Love
The Shins, Sleeping Lessons
Mark Ronson f/Amy Winehouse, Valerie
Spoon, You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb
Arcade Fire, “Keep the Car Running
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)
Kings of Leon, Fans
Radiohead, Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
Nick Lowe, I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass (1978)
Spoon, The Underdog
Beck, Timebomb
Ryan Shaw, Do the 45
LCD Soundsystem, Get Innocuous!
Kings of Leon, “Knocked Up
The Shins, Sea Legs
Radiohead, Reckoner

Impossible Germany / '07 moods
Rilo Kiley
, Dreamworld
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Fortune Teller
Feist, My Moon My Man
Sea Wolf, You’re a Wolf
Spoon, Don’t You Evah
Amy Winehouse, Back to Black
Wilco, Impossible Germany
Bruce Springsteen, Girls in Their Summer Clothes
Crowded House, Silent House
Kings of Leon, Trunk
Radiohead, Jigsaw Falling Into Place
The Honeydogs, Heads or Tails
Dan Wilson, Cry
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Killing the Blues
Fountains of Wayne, I-95
Kings of Leon, Arizona
Jackson Browne, Oh, My Love
Wilco, Either Way
Traveling Wilburys, End of the Line (1988)

Black Thumbnail / '07 edge
, Bodysnatchers
LCD Soundsystem, North American Scum
The White Stripes, Icky Thump
Led Zeppelin, Dancing Days (1973)
Foo Fighters, The Pretender
Kings of Leon, My Party
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Nothin’
Amy Winehouse, Rehab
Arcade Fire, Intervention
Radiohead, All I Need
Steve Earle, Way Down in the Hole
The White Stripes, Rag and Bone
Wilco, Side With the Seeds
Spoon, The Ghost of You Lingers
Flight of the Conchords, Business Time
Kings of Leon, Black Thumbnail
The White Stripes, I’m Slowly Turning Into You
LCD Soundsystem, Time to Get Away
John Fogerty, I Can’t Take It No More
Going yard (7/11a)
Th epitome of new country (7/11a)
On your Marks, get set, go. (7/8a)
Our editurr in chief has something on his mined. (7/10a)
Her table's stacked. (7/10a)
Who's already a lock?
Three chords and some truth you may not be ready for.
The kids can tell the difference... for now.
The discovery engine is revving higher.

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