Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Best CDs of 2007

The Top Ten - Sheer unpredictability is one of music's great joys. Only two of the CDs listed below are ones that I might have guessed had potential to contend, four were by artists heard for the first time this year, and the other four exceeded all expectations with their 2007 releases. Check these out if you will, and happy listening.

1. Joan Osborne - Pretty Little Stranger (Vanguard)

Listen to "Who Divided"

Joan Osborne ventured outside the comfort zone of her normal repertoire to make a "country album" and selected a half dozen really great songs to cover, not necessarily anyone's traditional idea of country. What drove this record to the top this year was the amazingly great songwriting by Joan on the six originals that fit so well with the covers, that it's not always easy to tell which is which. All of the songs feature superb production by Steve Buckingham and the resulting record is one that just gets better and better the more you listen to it, a rare perfect album. Check out this account of Joan's hometown concert at Prospect Park, Brooklyn last June. "Who Divided" is the great country single that country radio wouldn't touch. Joan never got to sing "Brokedown Palace" during her summer tour with The Dead but here she totally does justice to her favorite Grateful Dead tune.

2. Joan Osborne - Breakfast in Bed (Time/Life)

Listen to "Alone With You"

With Breakfast in Bed,Joan shifted back to the familiar territory of soul music, again with an impeccably chosen slate of eight cover songs which are matched in quality by the six originals written by Joan, pulling off the totally unexpected but totally welcome feat of releasing the two best records of her career, all within the same year. It may be her various adventurous experiences of recent years, singing on tours with The Dead and Phil Lesh and Friends, and singing on the Standing In The Shadows of Motownmovie, but whatever the reason, Joan has totally come into her own as a songwriter and regardless of the style of music she chooses to do, she has never sounded better. This is an artist working at the top of her game and the results are pure pleasure. "Natural High" is a gorgeous cover of the 70's hit by Bloodstone. "Alone With You" is an original that sounds like a cross between Al Green, Johnny Rivers and the Spinners.

3. Rosie Thomas - These Friends of Mine (Sing-a-long Records)

Listen to "Much Farther to Go"

Hearing these songs for the first time in concert, they got to me more so than most any such experience in recent memory. The record was written mostly by Rosie, and recorded in studios and apartments in New York and Philadelphia with friends Denison Witmer, Sufjan Stevens and Josh Meyers. Recording strictly for fun, free of typical music business pressures, the joy of music making combines with warm feelings of friendship in a way that makes this record uniquely compelling. The production is sparse and the songs have a delicate beauty that is breathtaking. After that initial exposure at WCL, this record took up permanent residence in my CD player for the rest of 2007.

4. Natalie Walker - Urban Angel (Dorado)

Listen to "Urban Angel"

Originally released independently in late 2006, Natalie Walker's solo debut was picked up for national distribution in 2007 with two bonus tracks added. With Thievery Corporation's excellent remix of "Quicksand" in regular rotation on the Sirius chill channel, Urban Angelhas been widely categorized as trip-hop/electronica, but when you really listen to it, it boils down to seriously beautiful and delicate melodies, not unlike Rosie Thomas, albeit with a bit more production and a few more keyboards. And Natalie's voice has that ability to whisk you away for the duration. Originally from Indiana, Natalie now calls Philadelphia home.

5. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals - This Is Somewhere (Hollywood Records)

Listen to "Ah Mary"

In the past year since their first appearance at the 2006 WXPN festival, Grace Potter and her excellent band have stepped up their game significantly and now offer some of the most intense and exhilarating live performances I've ever had the pleasure to witness, and having seen them twice in 2007, it's clear that these musicians are firing on all cylinders. Originally garnering attention with the distinction of being a rare female who plays the Hammond B-3 organ, Grace spends more time these days strapped behind a Flying V guitar engaged in intense guitar duels with Scott Tournet, the Nocturnals' gifted lead guitarist. She still sounds great when she plays the B-3, she writes all the songs, and seems equally at home singing rock, blues, gospel or a ballad. This record is great, but it's only a hint of what's in store in their live show which is totally not to be missed.

6. Justin Currie - What Is Love For (Rykodisk)

Listen to "If I Ever Loved You"

Del Amitri's worldwide fan base has been seriously jonesing for new music ever since the band went on hiatus following 2002's Can You Do Me Good? As a founding member and as one of its primary songwriters and vocalist, Justin's occasional communications via web have suggested a bitter and disillusioned soul living inside a whiskey bottle. One of the most unexpected and pleasurable live shows this year was seeing Justin perform songs from this, his first solo album, at New York's Living Room, a set in which Justin exploded all assumptions with an earnest, endearing, almost shy, sentimental, and eager to please performance that included several of his own classic Del Amitri tunes. Justin's talent outclasses most singer songwriters and while this is not a Del Amitri album, it is a solid set of songs that are totally in character with his Del Amitri compositions, and is a more than welcome surprise return to recording from one of our most gifted artists.

7. John Fogerty - Revival (Fantasy)

Listen to "Creedence Song"

John Fogerty's run of hits and great albums with Creedence Clearwater Revival from 1968 to 1970 is second only to the Beatles in terms of quantity and quality, and for better or worse, Fogerty cannot avoid comparison with that benchmark every time he releases a record. The peak creativity he achieved in that era is one that nobody should have to compete with, and add to that an incredible story of war with his label that essentially sidelined him from performing his own best material for many years and his eventual redemption both musically and personally is an inspiration to say the least (read Fogerty's own telling of his story here). His records now are a little fewer and farther between, and his batting average may be more mortal, but when Fogerty album reaches the consistency of Revival it's still magic.

8. Lily Allen - Alright, Still (Capitol)

Listen to "Smile"

With this, her debut record selling over a half million copies in her native Britain in 2006, Lily Allen brought her act to U.S. audiences in 2007. The music on Alright, Stillis a very hard to resist stew of pop, reggae and ska, steeped in the cheeky attitude that made her myspace blogs such an unlikely joy to read. Her unfiltered abrasiveness was delightfully refreshing. The constant media attention seemed to take it's toll as Lily seemed to reduce her visibility somewhat as 2007 progressed, but the songs which already sounded great on this record, came even more to life in live performance with her excellent touring band and a stage presence that knocked 'em dead just about every time out, even if she did declare in her blogs that playing the same set every night on tour in America was mind numbingly boring. Here's a rundown of her Philadelphia show.

9. Mandy Moore - Wild Hope (Firm Music)

Listen to "Wild Hope"

Better known for her movies, Mandy Moore actually began her career singing, recording her first album at age 14, with the film roles following soon after. Her first few records for Sony were primarily prepackaged teen pop, but by 2003 Mandy began to distance herself from all that when she recorded Coverage,a very ear friendly album of covers of classic songs from the 70's and 80's. Fast forward to 2007 and Wild Hopein which Mandy took a large step forward musically by co-writing all of the songs on the record. The quality of the result is a combination of Mandy's lyrical contributions and vocal attributes which are considerable, some well chosen co-writers such as The Weepies, Chantal Kreviazuk, Rachael Yamagata and Lori McKenna, excellent work by producer John Alagia, and a superb studio band. Seeing Mandy perform these songs live at Joe's Pub was another highlight of 2007.

10. Emmy Rossum - Inside Out (Geffen)

Listen to "Falling"

Emmy Rossum may also be better known as a movie actress, but her background as a classical and opera singer dates back to grade school when, according to the All Music Guide, her choir director discovered she had perfect pitch. Already an accomplished vocalist by age 12, she began an acting career with television roles eventually leading to movies such as Mystic River and The Day After Tomorrow.The Phantom of the Operabenefitted from both her acting and singing skills. Inside Outis her first album release, a highly produced set of tunes that owes much to the sound of Imogen Heap. It would be interesting to know if Imogen would feel complimented or ripped off by this. In any case, the multi-tracked vocals are gorgeous, the songs memorable, and while it may not have a marketing niche to speak of, it came on strong at the end of the year and made a solid case for inclusion in this list. Plus there's a quite nice cover of the Carpenters' "Rainy Days and Mondays".


Ten More - This year's top ten pretty much picked itself, not much deliberation required. However, there were still quite a few releases in 2007 that were worthy, and I can't resist listing ten more.

The Cat Empire - Two Shoes (Velour)

The Cat Empire injected a healthy dose of Cuban music into this, their third CD out of five they have released in thier native Australia and now their first U.S. release, and recording it in Cuba, came up with the party record of the year, bested only by their live performance at this year's WXPN Festival in which they dazzled the audience both with their musicianship and their energy and accomplished the near-impossible feat of actually getting everyone in attendance up and dancing, in broad daylight no less.

Crescent and Frost - Make it Home (Self Released)

The level of musicianship in Crescent and Frost is exceptional and it is always a treat to see them play live, which they do regularly at The Living Room in New York's Lower East Side. Even if Rich Hinman's electric guitar didn't mesh so perfectly with Daniel Marcus's deftly picked acoustic, and even if Jason Mercer's instrumental contributions didn't raise the bar, and even if the songwriting wasn't superb, Maryann Fennimore would still make it great with her singing; the combination of all the above comes together nicely on their records too, of which this is their third, and also contains a nice cover of "Stop in the Name of Love".

Fountains of Wayne - Traffic and Weather (Virgin)

Your first reaction listening to this latest release by pop/rock-meisters Fountains of Wayne may be that they are repeating themselves somewhat, having spent their last record beautifully dissecting the foibles of middle America and the workaday world. After a few more listens to Traffic and Weather, you might also conclude that the melodies and production are so unstoppable and that their take on the working world is so good that they should just keep on keepin' on.

Great Northern - Trading Twilight for Daylight (Eenie Meenie Records)

Dave from Direct Current found these guys on myspace and thought that their sample songs warranted a trek to the North Star Bar to check out thier live show. Despite sparse attendance and despite the theft of the group's iPod containing many of the production effects that they use in concert, they gave a stellar performance that served notice that there is significant songwriting, musicianship, vocal, and production talent among this foursome and repeat listening to this debut CD bears that out.

Kate Havnevik - Melankton (Republic)

Falling somewhere between Bjork and Imogen Heap, Norwegian singer-songwriter Kate Havnevik forged her own musical identity on this, her debut CD. The music mavens at Grey's Anatomy took a shine to her too, placing an unprecedented five songs on the show in the past year. Her live show early on in 2007 at Mo Pitkins made use of a newly recruited band when she came over from England to do an American tour in support of Air, and whatever the show lacked in quantity was easily offset by quality as Kate quite nicely put across her well written and beautifully produced songs.

Missy Higgins - On a Clear Night (EMI Import)

Missy Higgins, a singer-songwriter of the first order with a strong sense of pop melody, caught my ear performing from her native Australia during the Live Earthconcert, necessitating an import purchase of this, her second CD. Reprise had released her excellent first effort, The Sound of Whitehere in 2005 but ultimately dropped her. Wiser heads apparently prevailed and she was signed again by Reprise, with this equally great second CD finally scheduled for U.S. release on February 26, 2008. Seeing her play live at Philadelphia's Tin Angel was another concert highlight of 2007.

Eleni Mandell - Miracle of Five (Zedtone)

A longtime favorite, it took seeing her play these tunes live to really get this latest record, the advance preview songs on her myspace player not really showing off the project to best advantage. It turns out that this is another solid release from a supremely talented singer-songwriter who has demonstrated a mastery of many musical styles which she doesn't hesitate to vary from one release to another. A protoge of L.A. hipster Chuck E. Weiss (see Rickie Lee Jones), Eleni remains the only female artist, maybe the only artist period I've ever heard who can adequately cover Tom Waits' early wordy songs.

Gretchen Peters - Burnt Toast & Offerings (Thirty Tigers)

Gretchen Peters is better known for the songs she's written that have been hits for other artists, but a listen to any of her own fine CDs confirms that none of the cover artists sing her songs any better than she does, and her latest CD is no exception. Her inclusion in a show of similarly talented country singer-songwriters, CMA Women of Country Music, at Joe's Pub in NYC was another concert highlight of 2007.

Kim Richey - Chinese Boxes (Vanguard)

Kim Richey is another supremely talented songwriter and singer whose excellence continues unabated on this, her fifth album. A great live performer also, with any configuration of backup musicians, it was great to see her do these songs live this past summer at the WXPN Festival.

Tracey Thorn - Out of the Woods (Astralwerks)

The voice of Everything But the Girl, Tracey Thorn's return after a lengthy absence with a new solo CD in 2007 was more than welcome. Only her second solo release, it features songs mostly written by Tracey and great production and finds Tracey in fine voice.


Just a Few More - Before I wrap 2007, here are just a few more releases that spent significant time in my player and are certainly worth a listen.

David Bromberg - Try Me One More Time (Appleseed Records)
Kasey Chambers - Carnival (Warner Brothers)
A Fine Frenzy - One Cell in the Sea (Virgin)
Mary Gauthier - Between Daylight and Dark (Lost Highway)
Herbie Hancock - River: The Joni Letters (Verve)
Joe Henry - Civilians (Anti)
Over the Rhine - The Trumpet Child (Great Speckled Dog)
Eddi Reader - Peacetime (Compass)
Serena Ryder - If Your Memory Serves You Well (EMI, Import)
Luciana Souza - The New Bossa Nova (Verve)
Garrison Starr - The Girl that Killed September (Phantom Domestic)
Jessica Parsons Taylor - The Slower Side of Time (Self Released)
Teddy Thompson - Up Front and Down Low (Verve)

Still residing in my In-Box - Time unfortunately is the one thing that there is never enough of, and of the 2007 releases I never got around to, the following will get some time on my iPod in 2008.

Jonatha Brooke - Careful What You Wish For (Bad Dog)
Crowded House - Time on Earth (Ato)
Miranda Lambert - Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Sony)
Los Straitjackets - Rock En EspaƱol, Vol. 1 (Yep Rock)
Radiohead - In Rainbows (Red)
West Indian Girl - 4th & Wall (Milan)