While most music bloggers finished their best of 2008 list by the Hype Machine mandated deadline of December 15, I still haven't figured mine out. So much good music, so little time! Plus I am still on the road traveling for the holidays and I don't have time to blog. Here is my best of 2007 list that I post on Last.FM and MySpace, before I founded My Aimz is True. And, in retrospect, I still think this list is pretty accurate. Although I may bump Two Cow Garage up a few spots. Stay tuned for my best of 2008 list, which I will hopefully post before the start of 2009!
My Favorite Albums of 2007
1. Okkervil River - The Stage Names
This album grabbed me and never let go. Lead singer/songwriter Will Sheff writes and sings about the perils of becoming (relatively) famous, how to keep the band going when the tour becomes a drag, how weird it is to have groupies, and what happens when your creativity or songwriting ability dries up. The wonderful part of this album is the diversity of the songs (from rock "Unless its Kicks" to suicide ballad "Savannah Smiles" to obvious Motown influence "You Can't Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Man") and the array of instrumentation used (from coronet to pedal steel to rock piano). You can tell Sheff put a lot of time, thought, and effort into the songwriting, and his voice has really matured over the last few years. I actually had to ban myself from listening to this at about mid-October lest I burn out of it. I will love this album for a long, long time.
Standout Tracks: "Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe" (A kickass rock song about how life, unlike a movie, is actually quite boring), "Plus Ones" (what does happen to the 97th tear, or 100th luftballon?), "A Girl in Port"" (beautiful love song), "John Allyn Smith Sails" (Sheff turns the west indies folk tune "Sloop John B" into a suicide note from poet John Berryman. Brilliant!)
The only song I am not nuts about is "Title Track." Its not a bad track by any means, but it prevents this album from being a perfect 5.
Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe.mp3
Buy: The Stage Names (2007)
2. The National – Boxer
Although this album was released March, I stupidly didn't hear it until early December. And when I did it immediately captured me and blew me away. In fact, I had a hard time NOT making this my number one album of 2007, and I am repeatedly kicking myself for having missed them this year when they toured through Toronto. TWICE! Lead singer/songwriter Matt Berninger sings in a baritone voice, which almost always sounds either sad or desperate. He works with the themes of white collar angst - the constant grind of the big city ("Mistaken for Strangers"), climbing the corporate ladder ("Racing Like a Pro"), losing touch with your old friends ("Green Gloves"), and general disillusionment. The music is deep and lush, and some songs are supplemented with horns and keyboards.
For me, this was the perfect soundtrack for getting into the airport at 1:00 a.m. after Christmas seven hours later than expected due to a snow storm, having United Airlines lose my luggage, taking a bus from the airport to downtown, walking home from the bus stop in the pouring rain through the club district of Toronto with all of the super young kids getting soaked in their mini skirts and heals and their hair gel running all over, and finally getting home at 2:30 a.m. so physically and emotionally exhausted that I couldn't sleep.
Not a bad track on this album.
Standout Tracks: "Fake Empire" (amazing syncopated piano opening), "Mistaken for Strangers," "Green Gloves"
Buy: Boxer (2007)
3. The Sadies – New Seasons
The Sadies are my favorite Canadian band, and although they are mostly known for putting on kick-butt live shows, which they do (I saw them twice this year), their albums aren't bad either. Its nearly impossible to classify this band. They area incredibly talented musicians who are smart enough not to limit their music to one genre. Their previous releases have been parts country, rock, gospel, alt country, folk, bluegrass, surf rock and psychedelic. They are quintessentially Americana, (or Canadiana, I guess).
New Seasons is another great release. It starts with a bluegrass instrumental "Introduction," and launches into a slightly psychedelic rock song. The variety on this album is immense. This album sees the lead singers, brothers Dallas and Travis Good, doing a lot more harmonizing than on previous releases, and it really works. The frantic dual guitar work and country twangs that Sadies fans know and love are still included on the album, but this recoding also showcases some of the Sadies softer sides, with beautiful tracks such as "My Heart of Wood" and the instrumental "Wolf Tones." The album drags a little at the end, but otherwise its another wonderful release from a superb band.
Standout Tracks: "What's Left Behind," "Yours to Discover," "Anna Leigh"
What's Left Behind.mp3
Buy: New Seasons (2007)
4. For the Sake of His Songs: A Tribute to Townes Van Zandt by Various Artists from the AltCountryTab.ca forum
This tribute album represents all that is good about the internet. It was put out by a group of people who have never met each other, who all post and discuss music on the http://www.altcountrytab.ca forum. Eric Rhame, from Duluth, Minnesota, coordinated the project. People electronically submitted their home recorded tracks as MP3s to Mr. Rhame from locations as diverse as Tustin, California, to Denton, Texas, to Oxford, United Kingdom. The artists range from professional musicians, to law students, to stay at home dads, to civil servants. Some were singing for the first time, and others had never recorded before. It turned out so well that Mr. Rhame contacted Townes Van Zandt's widow, and she accepted a copy of it, and thanked the group for keeping Van Zandt's memory alive! Morgan King of The Popehawks and owner/operator of Yer Bird Records did the cover art.
I was only a passing Townes Van Zandt fan before I heard this album. Since then I have gone out and purchased three Van Zandt CDs and become a true believer. That is the point of projects like this. To keep the memory of a wonderful artist alive, and to encourage people to dig into his catalog. Amazing album.
Standout Tracks: "Marie" by Karl Haglund, "Kathleen" by Kristine Jones, "Flyin' Shoes" by Matt Kidney, and a punk version of "Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold" by The Popehawks.
Download the entire tribute here.
5. Son Volt – The Search
If I learned one thing in 2007, its that I am a Jay Farrar chick instead of a Jeff Tweedy person. For the longest time I have been denying it, but after comparing Son Volt's The Search with Wilco's Sky Blue Sky (or, Sky Snooze Sky, as I have dubbed it), there is now no question. Although The Search is not a perfect album, and some of the lyrics are quite esoteric, I think that it's the best thing Farrar has done since Trace. Farrar is still the lyrical master of the blue collar plight. A good example of this is the second track "The Picture," and if you search the internet a little bit, you can find a version of it without the Miami Sound Machine influenced horns. (Seriously Jay, horns?) But this and other minor blunders are forgiven by what is, in my opinion, the song of the year, "Methamphetamine." You can feel the desperation of the recovering addict in this song, trying to make it though the night without giving in to his demons. A must have album for all alt country fans.
Standout Tracks: "Circadian Rhythm," "Methamphetamine," "Adrenaline and Heresy," "Highways and Cigarettes"
The Picture (No Horns).mp3
(An iTunes "exclusive." iTunes exclusives can suck it. I know its something that the label makes the artist do, but all it does is hurt the real fans.)
Buy: The Search (2007)
6. Chris Knight – The Trailer Tapes
Chris Knight is the most underrated songwriter in North America. Knight recorded these tracks by himself in his singlewide trailer near Slaughter, Kentucky, back in 1996. Bootlegs and outtakes of these tracks have been floating around ever since. They are stripped down, emotional, and very raw. Knight is a master of storytelling – recalling lost love and broken hearts, hating the dead-end job, the bank foreclosing on the farm, and disillusion with city life.
My person favorite track, "Rita's Only Fault," tells the story of unrequited high school love – of course she marries the high school quarterback. But will anyone believe Rita when Mr. QB isn't very nice to her?
Knight has been picked up and dropped by the major labels all through his career. I had the privilege to see him perform and to meet him this year, and he was very humble and soft spoken. I'll take raw emotion and brilliant songwriting in a Kentucky trailer over Nashville radio bombastic hair gel, fake smile pop-crap like Rascal Flatts any day.
Standout Tracks: "Something Changed," "Rita's Only Fault," "Hard Edges," "Here Comes the Rain"
Rita's Only Fault.mp3
Buy: The Trailer Tapes (2007)
7. Folk Music for the End of the World – Various Artists – Yer Bird Records
This compilation from Yer Bird Records is a rough concept album about things that will ruin the world – such as greed, war, violence, death, losing faith, and even global warming. All of the tracks are previously unreleased. What I love about this album, in addition to the vast number of extraordinarily talented artists, is their ability to tell stories through song. And each artist does things his/her own way, leading to a really challenging and remarkable record.
I bought this early in 2007, and it was a huge grower.
My favorite track is "Mississippi Sea" by Hezekiah Jones. He tells the story of the aftermath of some big unstated catastrophe (maybe the melting of the polar ice caps or a big earthquake?), then hiding for 17 years and emerging in 2043. Now he vacations at his condo near the Mississippi Sea. And with only 16,080 people left on earth, they spend all day making babies. Not a bad life.
Other Standout Tracks: "Message from London" by Hayden, "Barter Blues" by J. Tillman, "Sad Little Drunks" by Oweihops, "Angeline" by O'Death, "Lay Me Down" by The Hotel Ghost (unbelievable mostly a capella vocal performance by female lead singer)
Buy: Folk Music for the End of the World (2007)
8. Ryan Adams – Easy Tiger
The extraordinarily talented Ryan Adams gets back to what he does best on this album: roots-rock Americana. There is not a bad track on this album. However, there are no real standout tracks either. His backing band, The Cardinals, superbly fills in the accompaniment. What really got me was seeing him on Letterman – for the first time in years Adams looked happy, like he was actually enjoying himself. I really love the consistency of this album.
Letterman, Nov. 2, 2007 (YouTube):
How Keep Love Alive (from 2005's Cold Roses) / Pearls On A String (amazing bluegrass jam)
Standout Tracks: "Goodnight Rose," "Off Broadway," "Pearls on a String," "I Taught Myself How to Grow Old"
I Taught Myself How to Grow Old.mp3
Buy: Easy Tiger (2007)
9. Two Cow Garage - III
If Paul Westerberg of the Replacements and Ben Nichols of Lucero had a kid, it would be Two Cow Garage's lead singer and guitarist Micah Schnabel. Schnabel sings his heart out on 9 of the 13 tracks, with bassist Shane Sweeney stepping in on lead vocals for four tracks. Sweeney's lower voice is a nice contrast to Schnabel's wailing, and makes for great variety on the record. This album is practically an alt country super group, with Slobberbone/Drams Brent Best producing and playing guitar on four tracks, and Scott Danbom of Centro-matic rocking the piano and organ.
This record is more rock than alt country, but I don't think that Two Cow Garage is too concerned about labels. They rock as hard as anything the Drive-By Truckers have done, and yet can dial it down when needed. This albums also has the best opening line of 2007, from "Come Back to Shelby." "I still smell the smoke from the bridges that I burned." Turn it up. Loud.
Standout Tracks: "Come Back to Shelby," "No Shame," "Mediocre" (bitchin' rock piano and horns)
Come Back to Shelby.mp3
Buy: III (2007)
This link to Amazon has the wrong track list. Try eMusic or iTunes.
10. Great Lake Swimmers – Ongiara
I wish I could remember who turned me on to this trio from Toronto. It's a very mellow, mid to low tempo record, perfect for a rainy or snowy Sunday afternoon. The opening track, "Your Rocky Spine," displays beautiful banjo picking, along with backing vocals from Sarah Harmer. There's a feeling of deep longing and melancholy throughout this record, but there is also a feeling of hope. The songs are recorded using minimal instrumentation - mostly acoustic guitar, banjo, double bass, and drums played with brushes. People categorize this as "indie pop" and compare it a lot to the work of Elliott Smith and Iron & Wine, but I believe that, like the other two artists, this record has large crossover appeal to many genres and age groups. Very consistently gorgeous throughout the record.
Standout Tracks: "Changing Colours," "Put There by the Land," "I am a Part of a Large Family"
Buy: Ongiara (2007)