Landmarks: The Year 2007
There have been times when I’ve found it difficult to pick a favorite record for a given year, but 2007 wasn’t one of them. Granted, any time Joe Henry releases a new album, it makes the Album of the Year race fairly tough to call for me, but 2007’s Civilians felt particularly timely and triumphant. Part of it was that the album was the follow-up to Tiny Voices— an album that had by then become my all-time favorite, by Henry or anybody else– and that it had been some four years in the making. But more than that, the album followed on the heels of a particularly turbulent political season and looked ahead to the election cycle that was to come, yet it was not, as Henry has always been quick to point out, a “political album.” Actually, it was a decidedly spiritual one, casting its eye to national affairs but also invoking God’s name on nearly every song and exploring profoundly theological matters– namely, the providence and grace of God, themes it addresses more poetically and richly than any other album I know of, save perhaps Sam Phillips’ A Boot and a Shoe.
Henry was 2007’s true MVP, not only for that album’s superb songwriting but also for his skilled work as a producer, both on Civilians and on a pair of albums he cut for other artists– Loudon Wainwright III‘s Strange Weirdos and Mary Gauthier‘s Between Daylight and Dark. These three albums are produced immaculately and cut with the same core band, which made them feel, at the time, a bit like a trilogy, though all three have very distinct characteristics. If Henry’s album is about poetry and spiritual exploration, Wainwright’s is about joy and humor, and Gauthier’s about gritty blues. All three are utterly excellent, though, and rank as three of the finest albums from 2007, which I still think of as The Year of Joe Henry.
But if the big story in 2007 was, for me, Joe Henry, it was, for everyone else, Radiohead. In Rainbows appeared from out of the blue at the tail end of the year and made huge waves for its unorthodox release strategy, but, with a little distance, the album is now starting to be celebrated not just for its cutting-edge marketing, but, more importantly, for its standing as a very fine Radiohead album. In fact, it’s become one of my favorites: The sound of it is (comparatively) warm, romantic, and comfortable in its own skin in a way that no other Radiohead album is. When I get a Radiohead itch, it is, more often than not, for In Rainbows.
Another trend: Rock and roll. 2007 was full of great rock, ranging from The White Stripes‘ Icky Thump— their hardest-rocking set, and one of their most peculiar– to Queens of the Stone Age and the loud, nasty, primitive roar of Era Vulgaris. My two favorites might be Arctic Monkeys‘ piledriving rock and roll set Favourite Worst Nightmare and Spoon‘s sensational, inspired tribute to pop songcraft, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Rounding out the rock and roll set is Dinosaur Jr. and Beyond, one of the decade’s most thrilling comebacks, an album of great hunger, energy, and roaring rock and roll vigor.
Behind Joe Henry, though, the thing I listened to most in 2007 was The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, a blindingly great pop album for which I hold boundless affection. I’m not sure that anyone else loves the album in quite the same way that I do, but I stand behind it completely: Ritter reshapes American myth and music in his own image, and the album is both heartfelt and incredibly fun. More than anything else, it reminds me of the great Nick Lowe albums of the late 1970s– it’s a jukebox of great songs and styles, but it holds together due to the sheer magnetism of the singer and the consistent nature of the songwriting.
2007 was also the year of what is arguably my favorite soul album of the decade– it’s gotta be either Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up on Me (from 2002) or Bettye LaVette‘s The Scene of the Crime. The latter album is an exemplary entry in the genre, for a number of reasons: Not only is it a crash course in the art of song interpretation, with LaVette pulling songs from diverse sources and styles and turning them all into not only soul songs, but soul songs that tell her own, unique story, but it’s also a primer on inspired collaboration; LaVette and her backing band, the Drive-by Truckers, create a speaker-rattling, soul-stirring roadhouse fury, and few soul albums released in the 00s match this one in sure, unhinged fervor or edginess.
And though he didn’t release any album of his own in 2007, Bob Dylan was nevertheless the source– or at least the source material– of one of my very favorite albums from the year, the dynamite two-disc soundtrack to I’m Not There. Dozens of vintage Dylan tunes covered by some of the best artists around, and the whole thing is virtually devoid of clunkers of filler. It’s inspired, and compulsively playable; it still finds its way into my stereo all the time.
And the list goes on and on. Over the Rhine got playful with The Trumpet Child. Maria McKee made her more inspired and colorful album with Late December. Nick Lowe made his best-yet collection of country/rock/R&B gems with the easygoing, romantic At My Age. Arcade Fire mixed politics and religion for the fiery, ferocious Neon Bible. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss got contemplative for the sublime Raising Sand. Patty Griffin turned in another winning set, mixing country and folk and gospel, in Children Running Through. LCD Soundsystem made what might be my favorite dance recording of the decade, Sound of Silver. Nick Cave and some of his Bad Seeds rocked their way through midlife crisis in Grinderman‘s self-titled debut. Andrew Bird made one of his most ambitious and provocative works, Armchair Apocrypha. Miranda Lambert gave mainstream country a much-needed dose of rock and roll in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. The National turned in working-class poetry with their beautiful album Boxer. And on and on it goes; all told, I’m pretty sure 2007 was my favorite musical year of the decade.
But how about you?