10. Lucky Soul – The Great Unwanted
Drawing inspiration from 1960s girl groups like The Ronettes and The Shangri-Las has never been trendier. The Pipettes picked up dance moves and fashion tips from such squads, while Amy Winehouse utilizes the Spector Wall of Sound technique in her music. But The Pipettes only cop style, while Winehouse just borrows sonic technique. Enter British outfit Lucky Soul and their debut album The Great Unwanted, the true descendant of girl group sound and, more importantly, emotion.
The Great Unwanted sounds straight from the ‘60s, but not in a phony-fashionable way. Tracks like “One Kiss Don’t Make a Summer” and “Baby I’m Broke” captured the longing and melancholy of famous girl groups without sacrificing the hip-moving melodies, while “Struck Dumb’s” background ooh-and-ahhs and “My Brittle Heart’s” surging orchestration help mold emotionally powerful twee. Lucky Soul transcend trendy and capture the heart of girl-group pop, crafting one of the most welcome surprises of 2007.
9. Jens Lekman – Night Falls Over Kortedala
Ahh, love songs. Sound too forlorn about romance and you get the dreaded emo tag slapped on you. Sound a little too happy and the folks call you sappy pop or worse, adult contemporary. No wonder so many bands handle romance carefully, working with metaphors, irony and cool. Swedish singer Jens Lekman, though love shy, doesn’t shy away from love on Night Falls Over Kortedala, exploring the most popular emotion via catchy sample-built sounds and earnest lyrics with heart-pounding results.
Love doesn’t come easily or normally for Lekman – his songs find intimacy in Iraqi hair-cutters, avocado-chopping accidents, deaf-girl flirtation and lesbians fooling around with fake boyfriends (played by Jens). Night Falls features plenty of quirky narratives loaded with love and laughs, a testament to Lekman’s writing skills. But Jens has plenty of excellent sounds to go with the sap, such as the Carmen Sandiego-meets-Sugar Ray vibe on “Kanske Ar Jag Kar i Dig” or the tropical-tinged beauty of standout “Sipping on the Sweet Water.” Exposing your heart to the world is never easy, but Lekman does it cleverly and in a catchy way here, creating the best collection of love songs this year. This guy better be getting some.
8. Kanye West – Graduation
Critics bash Kanye for being insecure, recruiting Chris Martin to sing the chorus on a song about Chicago and rapping over a much better Daft Punk song. Graduation shines for all the reasons the haters cackle about – West doesn’t give a damn and he isn’t afraid to bash the bashers. The beats on his latest album combine the past (Steely Dan, Can, gospel) with the future (synth-pop, with just a little Japanese obsession, if the cover art and Akira-inspired “Stronger” video didn’t convince you), resulting in an exhilarating sonic landscape. The fascinating production takes a backseat to West’s words. Graduation stands as Kanye’s most intimate and personal album to date. “I’m just saying what I feel, man,” he declares on “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” his central philosophy. Killer single “Good Life” finds West ignoring the critics, content to “watch the money pile up,” while “I Wonder” finds him boasting about how he’s always right in his mind. The down-tempo “Everything I Am” approaches his fame more reflectively (“everything I’m not made me everything I am”), while “Big Brother” spotlights his insecurity about Jay-Z. All of West’s albums sport academic-themed titles, but Graduation is the only one resembling a class, a course on how to overcome all the negative forces in your life to achieve those dreams that are keeping you up at night.
7. The Clientele – God Save The Clientele
God Save The Clientele doesn’t see London-based The Clientele depart much from their hazy-and-shrouded pop song technique. The group recorded the album in Nashville — meaning a little honky-tonk shines through — but besides that, nothing too new. What makes God Save The Clientele the group’s best effort to date is how the band balances emotions throughout the album’s running time. The Clientele have always tugged on heartstrings, their recordings capturing the sound of twilight walks down empty suburban streets with heavy thoughts on the mind. But God Save opens with the sunshine-laced “Here Comes the Phantom,” an upbeat tune evoking The Beatles at their most dreamy. These ‘60s pop-like moments dot the album, from the swagger of “Winter on Victoria Street” to the optimistic lyrics of “Somebody Changed.” The Clientele even boogie on disco-fueled “Bookshop Casanova.” “Summer waits in the leaves / lovely as I’ve ever known / happiness just comes and goes,” the group croons on “Phantom,” a reminder that melancholy is the group’s strongest suit. “The Queen of Seville” and “Dreams of Leaving” showcase the group’s sad side at its finest. God Save the Clientele captures joy and sadness in equal strokes, resulting in an album sure to make you both smile and sigh, The Clientele’s calling card.
6. The National – Boxer
Matt Berninger sounds perpetually tired on Boxer, always hungover and beat down from the trials of everyday life. His band sounds equally exhausted, the guitars never quite rocking out and drums building up to an eruption that never comes. Boxer does restraint beautifully, seeing The National take their place musically and thematically between the squalling tales of teenage excess and emptiness of The Hold Steady and the drifting suburban drama of Wilco.
The National focus on everyday individual defeats, from the isolation of the white-collar world to that of the party scene. Boxer brims with yuppie loneliness, with Berninger’s words capturing the solitude and heartbreak of Americans trapped in the early stages of a rat race. The group’s latest is the rare long player filled with hummable melodies and lyrics of universal longing, approachable for the lonesome (“you might need me more than you think you will”), the political (“we’re half awake in a fake empire”) and the sappy (“you know I dreamed about you / for 29 years, before I saw you”). Matt Berninger and company created the quintessential album about American 20-something life circa 2007, an emotionally rich work open for any soul to enjoy.
5. M.I.A. – Kala
M.I.A. loads Kala up with political imagery, but does she have a specific platform to promote? The album’s inside artwork features child soldiers and guns galore, and the songs reference Darfur, the Third World and hummers — but is she saying anything specific? The brilliance of Kala lies in the language of music. Much like her debut album Arular, M.I.A. here constructs dance-able bangers using sounds from all around the world, dipping into African music, London club sounds and Bollywood. Yet she mixes noises often filed away in the “world music” bin with Western leanings, quoting The Modern Lovers on “Bamboo Banga” and Pixies on “20 Dollar,” while sampling The Clash on triumphant closer “Paper Planes.” Kala doesn’t find M.I.A. departing far from the terrain covered on Arular, but her latest sees her perfecting her craft, offering an amazing collection of body movers. M.I.A.’s political mission isn’t a defined issue; rather, it’s about bringing people together using irresistible beats, memorable lyrics and world sounds oft ignored by the West. If you’re getting a group of people to dance crazily to old Bollywood songs or a song featuring a chorus of gunshots, you’re doing something right. And something dangerous to the establishment.
4. Panda Bear – Person Pitch
Hating pop music would be like hating ice cream – sure, some of it may not be that great, but most of the stuff is irresistible. Animal Collective member Noah Lennox’s (a.k.a. Panda Bear) latest might as well be the bucket of deliciousness served at Ben and Jerry’s, a splendid mix of old standards and more adventurous fare. Person Pitch evokes plenty of classic ’60s pop – from The Beach Boys to The Zombies – but with a DJ’s sensibility, loading the record up with samples and hypnotic pacing. I can’t think of a more appropriate album for a song called “Take Pills” to be on. Panda Bear’s magnum opus sounds like an innocent, never-ending, sun-drenched beach party hosted by German and Detroit electro-producers high on upbeat pop.
No talk about Person Pitch ends without mention of “Bros,” the album’s best song and one of this decade’s greatest tracks. Clocking in at a barely-there 12 minutes, “Bros” samples ’60s pop outfit The Tornadoes and Cat Stevens to create the sonic equivalent of the happiest hurricane imaginable. The song’s first half seems to follow traditional structure, with Panda Bear singing relaxed verses leading up to a shimmering chorus that’s held up by lovely island guitar. But the second half veers to something new, swirls faster and more crazily with chants, whistles, vocal samples and drums colliding to form the sound of ecstasy. “Bros” isn’t just a magnificent pop song, but an homage to the uplifting power of music, one of the most joyous celebrations of life via pop you’ll ever hear. Expect a lot of imitators in 2008.
3. Radiohead – In Rainbows
Forget the sudden announcement, the bold pricing model and the “Are record labels dead?” talk. All of that detracts from the biggest shock of all: Radiohead’s biggest musical departure since 2000’s Kid A. In Rainbows is the group’s most straightforward album to date, foregoing complicated themes of technological alienation, human cloning or consumerism in favor of ten songs concerned mostly with (gasp!) love. This shift also shows sonically, the group no longer worried about being revolutionary but instead combining what they do best into 10 amazing tracks. “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” goes from fast paced guitar and drum work to twinkling electronics back to rapid speed while containing some of the band’s richest and saddest lyrical imagery. The defeated “Nude” wallows in a traditional Radiohead downtrodden mood, while “House of Cards” finds beauty in minimalism — nothing but soft guitar, drums and creepy background sounds. The centerpiece, the simple but devastating “All I Need,” even sounds kind-of Coldplay-like, but transcends that boring band with longing lyrics and an emotional arrangement. In Rainbows may change the music world because of its delivery method, but the songs won’t change a thing. They just remind the world that Radiohead have the musical talent to back up the other stuff.
2. Deerhunter – Cryptograms
The first half of Cryptograms, the ugly and schizophrenic sophomore album by Atlanta psych-rockers Deerhunter, piles on Spaceman 3 guitar and feedback, barely recognizable cryptic lyrics and scattered outbursts of electronic mayhem. This echoes the mood conjured up by a particularly bad drug trip, reaching nirvana or dying, if not all three at once. The album’s second half awakens from the nightmare bright-eyed — the cacophony of noises is replaced by pop-tinged rock songs with clear vocals and memorable melodies. It’s less deranged and more dreamy but still downtrodden. Cryptograms could best be described as a night-fever-turned-hallucination with a soundtrack by My Bloody Valentine.
Deerhunter’s twisted creation toils in mental and emotional agony, and is 2007’s most depressing album by a mile, even if the second half sounds mostly upbeat. Lead singer Bradford Cox and company probe personal pain, spilling it out in blurry lyrics and spiraling guitars. Cryptograms speaks to the self-loathing bunch by showcasing the inner turmoil of the saddened self on the first half and the fantasy of a normal life on the second. No album dove deeper and darker than Deerhunter’s latest in the past year, an album about being fucked up, hating it and wondering why the dreams can’t be a reality.
1. Animal Collective – Strawberry Jam
Though “Gimme More” and “Girlfriend” would beg the contrary, pop music never needs life support. Even when the form seems doomed and burdened with too much Fall Out Boy, pop never succumbs, and always sprouts catchier and lovelier songs for the world to enjoy. The Oughts brand of pop revels in nostalgia, with groups worshiping at the altar of Brian Wilson or Bruce Springsteen, evoking the past in today’s music. Even college-aged girls sing the choruses of decade-old Backstreet Boys songs more than anything from today. Brooklyn’s Animal Collective respect their ’60s inspiration, but choose to not simply imitate them. The group’s latest, Strawberry Jam, finds the four-piece band turning and twisting pop into exciting new forms, merging thrilling new sonic vistas with epic emotional punches. They’ve created the best album of 2007, one of the most innovative albums of this decade and an artistic statement cementing the group’s place in the pantheon of pop greats.
Animal Collective’s previous records fused conventional pop with bizarre experimentation; but on Strawberry Jam, the curiosity becomes fully realized and is no longer weird — just gorgeous. Opener “Peacebone” takes electronic dissonance and tweaks it enough to make a perfect backing instrument alongside hopping drums and lead singer Avey Tare’s shouts, crafting the group’s most-accessible, but still weird, song to date. Strawberry Jam bursts with such innovative song craft, from the underwater carnival vibe on “Unsolved Mysteries” to the speed-bending tempo of “Chores” to the Vegas-electronics meets warped vocals of “#1.” The merry-go-round “Cuckoo” starts soft, explodes, softens up again and repeats, creating an unsettling portrayal of the afterlife. Strawberry Jam’s beautiful centerpieces “For Reverend Green” and “Fireworks” roar loudest, the former a feedback-heavy rocker both ethereal and electronic and the latter a star-gazing pop song loaded with shining guitars and dreamy vocals. “Fireworks” in particular defines this album’s greatness – it stares forward, charting new musical realms, while the Wilsonian strokes and sense of melancholy pervading the song make it seem like it was always there.
Strawberry Jam sounded like nothing else in 2007 and nothing came close to sounding like it. Animal Collective created the most daring album of the year, an LP unafraid to see where pop could be taken next. Over the album’s nine tracks, Animal Collective make their pitch to be considered musical geniuses (case closed when you realize Panda Bear, responsible for No. 4 and fellow pop-bender on this list, is part of AC) but also make a bolder declaration. The past year saw the most vibrant and colorful collection of music released in 365 days yet this decade, and Strawberry Jam offered up the sound that should define the Oughts. Animal Collective shook off all the comparisons to The Beach Boys and The Beatles and, by creating the best album of 2007 and this decade’s most innovative pop album, earned the right to take their place next to them.