Best of 2007: Top 40 Albums of the Year

Photo by David Greenwald

Most critics have long since given up the illusion of the year-end “best-of” list as an objective canon-definer, myself included. Instead, we’re left with critics’ personal favorites (where guilty pleasures reign supreme) or Pazz and Jop-style voting-based lists that tend to reflect the MOR consensus of staff taste rather than shining the spotlight on more obscure picks. (Plenty of MOR on this list, but it’s my MOR.) If you read a publication regularly, the lists of, say, Paste or Pitchfork shouldn’t surprise you, but if you’ve been enjoying said publication all along, they should still function as suitable listening guides. The trick is finding the list that aligns with your own personal taste. If you listen to NPR and spend a lot of time in Starbucks, that list is Paste‘s; if you’re into fey, sensitive-dude indie pop/rock/folk, well, you’ve come to the right place.

I’ve ranked 23 of these 40 albums. The ranked ones are all great (except Ryan Adams, which wouldn’t be honest to my listening habits to leave off) and certainly worth your time. The unranked albums that follow – the honorable mentions, I suppose – are also worthwhile, just not quite as striking or consistent as those that earned numerals. Without further ado, click the jump for my picks for the best albums of 2007.

1. Elliott SmithNew Moon
No surprises on this list, folks: Elliott Smith’s first three albums, recorded between 1993-1997, are among my favorites of all time. New Moon collects the songs from that era that didn’t make the cut. In retrospect, they should have. Four years after his untimely death, Smith remains the foremost songwriter of his generation but still seems to lack the veneration (and continued popularity) showered on, say, a Jeff Buckley. Perhaps it’s because Smith’s whispered lyricism cuts too deep and too subtle for listeners looking for more obvious angst. Regardless, much of New Moon ranks among his best work. All of it ranks above anything else released this year.

2. Radiohead In Rainbows
As with Smith, my relationship with Radiohead began well before my critical career and will likely continue long after I finally hang up my laptop and hyperbole. In Rainbows is full of flaws, especially in the second half: the overbearing strings on “Faust Arp,” the reverb that clouds too many tracks, the curious drum machine that ends the otherwise gorgeous “Videotape.” But warts and all, how many other bands are producing songs of such beauty and scope in 2007? The unfortunate answer is none, and while “Nude” may date back a decade, its final studio incarnation reflects the evolution Radiohead’s gone through since OK Computer. But this is hardly news: You’ve heard this album, and likely listened to it during the (record-breaking?) listening party that the band hosted on October 10 when they leaked it to the world. While that alone would make this the most noteworthy album of the year, In Rainbows didn’t just deliver the biggest listening party – it delivered the best.

3. Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
After two intermittently satisfying albums, the indie stalwarts surprisingly delivered their best album ever, a set of moody lyrics and celebratory, filled-to-bursting music. In a year where indie rock was criticized for being too white, Britt Daniel and Co. filtered soul and Motown through taut guitar rock to create a sound best categorized by its sheer exuberance. 2001’s Girls Can Tell may remain the tighter album thematically, but Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is an undeniably joyful masterpiece.

4. The National – Boxer
Here’s what Boxer is not: A better album than 2005’s magnificent Alligator. But the group’s latest and its accompanying tour did mark their transition from introverted studio players into confident rock semi-stars, and no one does urban melancholy better. The Revolver to Alligator‘s Rubber Soul, this is a band in their prime; let’s hope Sgt. Pepper’s is next.

5. Jens Lekman – Night Falls Over Kortedala
Lekman’s been called a pop genius this year, and when all’s said and done, this is probably the 2007 album I’ll be still be listening to most in six months. Everything about this album, from the samples to the songwriting, is charming enough to be the prince in some love-conquers-all fairy tale.

6. The Clientele – God Save The Clientele
Production from Lambchop’s Mark Nevers lent GSTC a warmth and fullness absent from the brittle Strange Geometry, but it’s the teary-eyed songwriting (and wonderfully tender performances, particularly from bassist James Hornsey) that makes this a welcome addition to the sad bastard canon.

7. The Thrills – Teenager
Had this been the band’s debut, the Thrills would’ve been hailed as mature beyond their years and as tuneful as their folk-rock influences. Instead, the hype train has long passed the band by, making Teenager an album free from expectations and full of the romance and nostalgia of fading youth.

8. Wilco – Sky Blue Sky
Nels Cline has received most of the fanfare alloted to the band’s new members, but it’s Pat Sansone who seems to have charted the course of Sky Blue Sky. With Wilco bassist John Stirratt, Sansone comprises the Autumn Defense, a group that plays unabashed ’70s soft rock. Many of 12 tracks of Sky Blue Sky, from “Either Way” to “Leave Me (Like You Found Me),” are textbook Autumn Defense songs; no wonder I adore them. It’s the band’s most indulgent album, but I can’t begrudge them the shameless Beatles aping (“Walken” and “Hate it Here” both cop irritatingly easy-to-recognize riffs) when they’re breaking my heart with “On and On and On.”

9. St. Vincent – Marry Me
Debut of the year! St. V nails jazz (“What, Me Worry”), bossa nova (“Human Racing”) and fuzzed-out indie rock (most of the rest) with a devious grin and expert production. Marry h
er? I just want to listen to her.

10. Loney, Dear – Loney, Noir
Perhaps more than any album on this list, Loney, Noir defines consistency. Each of these songs is a gem, a humble three-minute chamber-folk tune that quietly captures the subtle complexity that made Michigan-era Sufjan Stevens great.

11. The Main Drag – Yours As Fast As Mine
In an alternate universe, this album replaces Battles on every top 10 list. In this one, you should listen to their cover of “All My Friends.”

12. Ravens & Chimes – Reichenbach Falls
Genuine emoting that recalls Bright Eyes and the Arcade Fire without falling prey to those bands’ melodramatic excesses.

13. Of Montreal – Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
Another indie mainstay, another career-defining album. Too crazy for me to listen to with any kind of regularity, but easily one of the year’s most impressive releases.

14. Iron & Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog
Sam Beam’s most ambitious album and judging by the liberated energy of his performances, the one he had the most fun making. Keep doing what you do, guy.

15. The Acorn – Glory Hope Mountain
This year’s Akron/Family or Grizzly Bear (and better than both of those group’s ’07 releases): a fresh, bold take on folk that’s also utterly tuneful and satisfying.

16. Animal Collective – Strawberry Jam
The first Animal Collective album I will still care about in a year. Without any reverb to protect him, Avey Tare uses melody like a weapon and stabs indie rock in the heart.

17. The Broken West – I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On
Power-pop album of the year. Alex Chilton would be proud.

18. Kanye West – Graduation
Admission: This is the only rap album I listened to more than once this year. To make up for that, I listened to it a lot. ‘Ye has charisma for days.

19. Andrew Bird – Armchair Apocrypha
This would been an easy top 10 pick if it didn’t suffer from poor sequencing and a lack of second half energy. Some of Bird’s best stuff, including “Heretics” and “Simple X,” a showcase for drummer Martin Dosh.

20. The Sea and Cake – Everybody
No surprises here either, just a smooth set of glistening, jazz-indebted guitar rock from a band that’s long since mastered its sound.

21. Ryan Adams – Easy Tiger
I hated this, but then I listened to it 20 times and now I only hate the country songs (“Tears of Gold,” “Pearls on a String”). The rest – “Oh My God, Whatever, Etc.,” “The Sun Also Sets” – is pretty great. Dude gets a free pass forever, I can’t help myself.

22. Richard Hawley – Lady’s Bridge
Another note-perfect album of fine-worn songs. Less stand-out moments than 2005’s Cole’s Corner, but Hawley’s blend of jazz balladry, rockabilly and Orbison-crooning remains both refreshing and timeless.

23. New Buffalo – Somewhere, Anywhere
Not as good as Sally Seltmann’s debut, but better than Feist – whose “1234” she penned – by a mile.

And 17 honorable mentions, in alphabetical order:

The Autumn Defense – The Autumn Defense
Devendra Banhart – Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon
The Bird and the Bee – The Bird and the Bee
Boat Club – Catch The Breeze EP
Boris and Michio Kurihara – Rainbow
Burial – Untrue
Club 8 – The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Dreaming
Dinosaur Jr. – Beyond
Dungen – Tio Bitar
Early Songs – Wind Wound
Field Music – Tones of Town
Hauschka – Room to Expand
Lucky Soul – The Great Unwanted
Pants Yell! – Alison Statton
Saturday Looks Good To Me – Fill Up The Room
Thurston – Trees Outside the Academy
Laura Veirs – Saltbreakers

Note: Songs from most of these albums will be appearing on my forthcoming, enormous songs of the year post. In the meantime, you should have no trouble previewing these albums on the Hype Machine or MySpace. Most of these releases have been discussed here all year long, so hopefully, dear reader, this list compels you to try out the ones you’ve missed. Or give poor Wilco another shot.

Previously: Best of 2006: Top 30 Albums of the Year


Best of 2007: Complete coverage of this year’s finest songs and albums. Click below for more.