It took me a few extra weeks to absorb some late-year releases, but here are my top 10 albums of 2007. This year's list runs a lot closer to the critical consensus than usual. I am not sure how to feel about this.
Top 10 albums
Her plans to record with Timbaland derailed by visa troubles, M.I.A. traveled around the world and conjured up a stateless, genreless masterpiece (see “Combat Rock,” posted September 20). Kala effortlessly blends a cornucopia of musical styles and references, and M.I.A.’s lyrics feint at sloganeering while also embracing the world in all its contradictions. The most politically complex, artistically ambitious, and musically adventurous album of the year lands at number one by a wide margin.
(“Paper Planes” “Birdflu”)
2. Spoon—Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
The most consistent American band of the decade follows up a trio of excellent albums with this, their best to date. Synthesizing an unusually broad array of musical tendencies for a group usually consigned to the dreaded “indie rock” ghetto, Spoon touches on blues, dub, new wave, and Memphis soul as frontman Britt Daniel sings about love, war, and even commercial appeal.
(“Finer Feelings” “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb”)
3. Radiohead—In Rainbows
So much attention was justifiably paid to Radiohead’s groundbreaking distribution model (see “Karma Police,” posted October 16) that it took me 10 or 12 spins to realize how good the record actually is. Like Spoon, Radiohead has made the loosest album of its career. It’s also the least-brooding effort in the band’s catalog, suggesting that Radiohead, most of whose members will be 40 by the end of the year, should settle into middle age nicely. (“Reckoner” “Bodysnatchers”)
4. Bruce Springsteen—Magic
After meandering through the ’90s, Bruce Springsteen has made a series of solid albums over the past several years, so it’s no slight to say that Magic is the Boss’s best in 20 years, an album that effortlessly achieves the political relevance that the post-9/11 The Rising audibly strained for. Never one to preach, Springsteen keeps the politics mostly low-key. Bruce on the 2004 election debacle: “Woke up Election Day/Skies gunpowder and shades of gray.” Bruce on the war: “To him that threw you away/You ain’t nothing but gone.” Bruce on torture: “Your flag flyin’ over the courthouse/Means certain things are etched in stone/Who we are, what we’ll do, and what we won’t.” But the album hits its peak with the remarkable “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” on which the 57-year-old Springsteen splits the difference between early Brian Wilson and late Philip Roth.
(“Girls in Their Summer Clothes” “Long Walk Home”)
5. Kanye West—Graduation
Kanye’s third-best album is his weakest as a rapper but Graduation is Kanye the producer’s most musically unified work to date. West may soon be the only artist left who can still afford to clear samples and he takes advantage here with snippets of Elton John, Steely Dan, Can, and of course Daft Punk. The Eurodisco-inflected tracks are good enough to make you wish he’d really gone balls-out with the concept. There’s nothing as sharp and savvy as “All Falls Down” on this outing, but “Homecoming,” which features the Devon, England-born Chris Martin reminiscing about “fireworks on Lake Michigan,” is an ingenious take on dislocation and loss of identity, and the album-closing “Big Brother” is a surprisingly candid reflection on Kanye’s relationship with mentor Jay-Z.
(“Flashing Lights” “Homecoming”)
6. Lil Wayne—Da Drought 3
It’s surely significant that two albums on my list were essentially given away for free over the internet. But while Radiohead’s gambit attracted a lot of fanfare, the underground hip-hop mixtape scene has been thriving for years with relatively little attention from the mainstream (i.e. white) music press. That may finally change thanks to the insanely prolific (and perpetually stoned) New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne, who released two mixtapes this year to wide critical acclaim and has a new official album coming out next month. This two-disc set, available for free download at http://www.datpiff.com/, goes a long way to back up Lil Wayne’s oft-repeated claim to the title of Best Rapper Alive. Lightning-quick musical references collide with semi-obscure sports metaphors and Wayne twists other rappers’ beats to his own diabolical ends, even daring to take on Jay-Z himself.
(“Ride 4 My Niggas” “I Can’t Feel My Face”)
7. Arcade Fire—The Neon Bible
I’m not quite as enthusiastic about this album as I was upon its release back in March (see “The Neon Bible,” posted April 27), but it remains a solid effort, whose reach only slightly exceeds its grasp. I saw the group perform on Randalls Island in October. The rumors are true: they’re markedly better live than on record. It was a great show, but there was something a bit disconcerting about the sight of a crowd full of politically alienated, debt-ridden, middle-class 20- and 30-somethings chanting along with lyrics like “I guess we’ll just have to adjust.”
(“Keep the Car Running” “Ocean of Noise”)
8. The Field—From Here We Go Sublime
This is what used to be called “techno.” The beats here are pretty straightforward for my funk-damaged tastes, but this debut from Swedish producer Axel Willner nonetheless makes for a chilled-out and exceedingly pleasant listen. From Here We Go Sublime is unusually melodic and accessible for its genre, with its best song built around a sample from hipster icon Lionel Richie.
(“A Paw in My Face” “From Here We Go Sublime”)
9. Modest Mouse—We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
Isaac Brock & Co. aren’t breaking any new ground here, but the first half contains some of the band’s very best work, not to mention the most bitter good song about the Bush administration that I’ve heard. (“Parting of the Sensory” "Dashboard")
10. PJ Harvey—White Chalk
This was a tough nut to crack, but clocking in at a scant 33 minutes, she can afford to be difficult. (“When Under Ether” “Broken Harp”)
Top 5 songs not on those albums
1. Rihanna-“Umbrella” (feat. Jay-Z)
Just when you thought they didn’t write lyrics like that anymore (“Ella ella eh eh eh”).
2. LCD Soundsystem—“All My Friends”
I didn’t like the album as much as I wanted to, let alone as much as a lot of critics did—too many tracks gave it up far too easily. But this poignant dance-rock epic about the beginnings of getting old is an impressive formal achievement: a seven-minute-plus New Orderish pop song built around a synth pattern worthy of Steve Reich.
3. Paul McCartney—“Ever Present Past”
When I’m sixty-five.
4. Lil Wayne—“I Feel Like Dying”
From Carter 3 Sessions, Weezy’s other big mixtape this year.
5. Amy Winehouse—“Tears Dry on Their Own”
I’m still a little suspicious of the whole retro-soul thing, but this gorgeous song, evoking early-’60s Smokey Robinson, is a fine showcase for Winehouse’s tremendous vocal talents.