Dave Marsh, my #1 rock ‘n roll critic of all time (#2 some days, depending on whether I’m enchanted by or annoyed with Lester Bangs), loves lists. He once wrote a book called The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made where he ranked his favorite songs from #1 to #1,001. I find this oddly endearing, and can envision Dave agonizing over whether some old Little Willie John track should come in just ahead of Ruth Brown at #972, or should slip down to #973. Decisions, decisions. I also love the overwhelming scope of his undertaking. Why stop at a Top 10 or a Top 100 when you can do a Top 1,000? Better yet, a Top 1,001. The sheer extravagance is dizzying.
In that spirit, I offer you my list of the Top 10 Albums (Plus Honorable Mentions) of the First Four and Nine-Tenths Months of 2007. Why? Because
1. It’s almost the end of May, surely enough time to form some tentative impressions of the musical year as a whole
2. Everybody loves to label the frontrunners, and
3. We haven't had any good musical arguments since Paste Magazine left off Peter Gabriel and Joe Henry from their list of the Top 100 Living Songwriters. What were they thinking? And didn’t Paul McCartney die in 1968 anyway?
#1 -- Frog Eyes -- Tears of the Valedictorian
Weird, brilliant, and unsettling, Tears of the Valedictorian is notable for two reasons: Carey Mercer’s songs of madness, and his oddly compelling querulous yelp that emerges midway between David Bowie and Jimmy Swaggart. Mercer’s reptilian cohorts whip up a fine Tom Waits clanging trashcan symphony, but Mercer steals this freakshow, declaiming sermons about God knows what. “The wheat’s got to last/London, you’re cold, but the wheat’s got to last!” he shrieks. Easy there, dude. I suspect there is medication for this sort of thing, but Mercer’s poetic unraveling is both exhilarating and disturbing.
#2 -- Panda Bear -- Person Pitch
Mr. Bear is part of the freakfolk Animal Collective, but he’s got a serious Beach Boys fixation on his second solo album. The melodies and harmonies are worthy of Pet Sounds. Okay, not quite. But toss in the heavy reverb, the tape loops, the samples, and the electronic blips and beeps and this album answers the intriguing question of what would music sound like if Brian Wilson met Beck.
#3 -- Future Clouds and Radar -- Future Clouds and Radar
A brilliant, frustrating album. First, what band disgorges two discs and 27 songs on its debut release? And it's as bloated as that sounds. A quarter of these songs aren't merely filler; they're embarrassingly bad. But the other three-fourths comprise the best pop music I've heard this year -- perfectly written little power pop ditties that recall early Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Guided by Voices, and, above all, John Lennon and the late-period Beatles.
#4 -- Loudon Wainwright III/Joe Henry/Richard Thompson -- Strange Weirdos
You know, I once had a dream that Loudon Wainwright, one of my favorite singers, would sing a song written by Joe Henry, my favorite songwriter, and that Richard Thompson, my favorite guitarist, would provide the accompaniment. And my dream came true.
#5 -- Devon Sproule -- Keep Your Silver Shined
Devon Sproule’s music resides at the intersection of folk, country, and jazz. Pedal steel collides with clarinets. Sproule elongates her vowels and stretches out like a young Billie Holiday as she sings an old song associated with The Carter Family. And she writes a batch of sharp, finely delineated tunes about falling in love and getting married, finding joy in the simplest acts of life. There have been better musical albums released this year. But none have put a smile on my face like this one.
#6 -- Arcade Fire -- Neon Bible
Okay, let the coronation begin. Can I say that it’s a foregone conclusion that this album will end up at the top of most music critics’ lists? And I can’t quibble too much. It's very good, it's stirring, it's thought-provoking, and Win Butler captures the fine art of emoting better than anyone since the young Bono. But it's not as good as Funeral, and maybe, when the furor dies down, people will hear the awkward rhymes.
#7 -- The Clientele – God Save the Clientele
The Clientele wrote the quintessential soundtrack for 3:00 a.m. mopery and regret in Strange Geometry. And if God Save the Clientele isn’t quite that seamless masterpiece, it has the dinstinction of almost rocking in places (to the extent that twee tea drinkers can rock), and thus of being a more varied and wide-ranging effort. But no one does wistful melancholy as well as Alasdair MacLean, and on songs like “From Brighton Beach to Santa Monica” and “No Dreams Last Night” he’s damned near perfect.
#8 – Do Make Say Think – You, You’re a History in Rust
It’s the usual post-rock slow build from pastoral quiet to shrieking wall of noise, and it’s a trick that is getting a little tiresome. But in the absence of new music from Sigur Ros or Godspeed You! Black Emperor, it should be noted that Do Make Say Think is getting better and better, and that they are unique among their glacial cohorts in incorporating jazz elements into their music. This is their finest album.
#9 -- Antibalas – Security
Afrobeat jazz with wicked political commentary. If this were Bruce Cockburn I'd be slamming him for the sloganeering simplicity of his political songs, but somehow equating G.O.P. with Greedy Old Politicians works for me when it's combined with a strutting horn section and a singer who takes his cues from Fela Kuti.
#10 -- Graham Parker – Don't Tell Columbus
The former angry young man is now well into his middle age, but that doesn’t mean that he’s let up on the vitriol, and this is finest batch of songs in 25 years. If it’s not quite Howlin’ Wind or Squeezing Out Sparks, it’s close.
Wilco – Sky Blue Sky
The Safes – Well, Well, Well
The Broken West – I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On
John Reuben -- Word of Mouth
Patty Griffin – Children Running Through
The Twilight Sad – Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters
Grinderman – Grinderman
Rickie Lee Jones – The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard
Dungen – Tio Bitar
Richard Thompson – Sweet Warrior