Year in Review: Douglas Heselgrave's Top Studio Albums of 2007
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2007, Volume 14, #12
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Tue December 18, 2007, 07:00 AM CST
1) Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective – Watina
This wonderful record from Belizean punta rock star Andy Palacio has to be the most groundbreaking and original world music album of the year. Watina sounds as fresh as Bob Marley’s Natty Dread did when it first came out in 1973. Palacio’s powerful singing voice and soaring guitar lead a band of Garifuna musicians through some of the most catchy and melodic acoustic material to be released anywhere at anytime. Watina is a truly indispensable outing.
2) Iron & Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog
Because it was the follow-up to Iron & Wine’s wildly popular 2004 release Our Endless Numbered Days, there was a lot riding on The Shepherd’s Dog. Sam Beam, the creative force behind the band, took a risk and jettisoned the simple acoustic formula that had characterized his earlier work in favor of an approach that was more layered and rhythmically driven. The results are breathtaking, and they elevate Beam’s already stellar skills to an even higher level. The Shepherd’s Dog gets better each time it is heard.
3) Marcel Khalife – Taqasim
Taqasim, the most recent album by Lebanese oud sensation Marcel Khalife, is one of the most compelling releases of the year. The effort consists of three instrumental selections, and, with Khalife’s fabulous string work leading the listener through some very exciting musical territory, its music is reminiscent of In a Silent Way-era Miles Davis. The interplay between the oud, stand-up bass, and percussion is breathtaking and challenging. Fans of Garcia and Grisman’s self-titled debut will enjoy journeying through the universe that Khalife illuminates. Taqasim is a delightful, mind-bending release.
4) Teddy Thompson – Upfront and Down Low
The premise of a young British singer and guitarist recording versions of American, tear-in-your-beer, country tunes may seem to be a bit of a stretch, but Teddy Thompson proves on Upfront and Down Low that it’s not so much where you’re from as where you’ve been that counts. His versions of Walking the Floor over You and I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone must be heard to be believed. Throughout the disc, Thompson’s voice demonstrates a level of control and nuance that one usually would expect to hear from a much older and more experienced singer. With a sterling list of guest players, including Richard Thompson and Rufus Wainwright, Upfront and Down Low is the country release of the year. Teddy Thompson is definitely an artist to watch.
5) Lucinda Williams – West
By taking a risk and stepping outside of the alt-country formula that has been so successful for her, Lucinda Williams has reinvigorated her career and produced her most challenging record yet. Hal Wilner’s cinematic production style and his ear for a song — along with Bill Frisell’s truly inspired guitar playing — make West Williams’ best-sounding album ever. Though it lacks the cohesion of some of her more famous endeavors, the songs on West represent a brave new direction for the 53-year-old Williams to pursue. At an age when many artists choose to play it safe, she remains a brave and restless creative force, whose best work, remarkable as it may seem, may lie ahead of her.
6) Habib Koite & Bamada – Afriki
Waiting six years between releases can mean career suicide for a recording artist, but in listening to Afriki, Habib Koite’s new album, one can hear how the intervening time was spent. Koite is the most commercially successful musician in Mali, and more recently, he has become an artist of international stature. Championed by Bonnie Raitt and Peter Gabriel, Koite’s releases always have been characterized by brilliant guitar work and passionate vocals. Afriki is characterized by its complex arrangements, layered instrumentation, and beautiful singing. Not only is it his masterpiece, but it also truly is one of the best endeavors to come out of Africa in the last decade.
7) Herbie Hancock – River: The Joni Letters
Tribute albums are a tricky business. They often are far less than the sum of their parts, and even the most well-meaning collections with the most impressive list of contributors sometimes have been doomed to mediocrity and failure. What makes River: The Joni Letters stand apart from the pack is Herbie Hancock’s avoidance of the obvious as well as his love for and exploration of the melodies that are hidden within each song. Rather than diverting the listener from Mitchell’s work, the inclusion of Wayne Shorter’s Nefertiti and Duke Ellington’s Solitude strengthens and unifies the endeavor. Standout tracks include the title song with vocals from Corinne Bailey Rae as well as Leonard Cohen’s inspired, spoken-word take on The Jungle Line. River: The Joni Letters is a beautifully rich and textured outing.
8) John Prine and Mac Wiseman – Standard Songs for Average People
Worlds away from the sophistication and self-conscious perfectionism of Teddy Thompson’s record, Standard Songs for Average People is the work of two master craftsmen who have taken a break from their regular careers to explore classics from the great American songbook. What the album lacks in terms of technical prowess, it more than makes up for in feel. It’s hard to believe that John Prine and Mac Wiseman only met just prior to the recording of this disc; it sounds like they’ve known each other and have been playing together forever. The versions of I Forgot to Remember to Forget and Don’t Be Ashamed of Your Age are irresistible, and they will keep listeners humming and singing well into the New Year. Standard Songs for Average People is a testament to the power of simple, unadorned music that is sung by two of the best singers in the business. Without a doubt, this is the warmest sounding endeavor of 2007.
9) Neil Young – Chrome Dreams II
After testing the devotion of many of his longtime fans with Greendale and Living with War, Neil Young released Chrome Dreams II, the sequel to an unreleased album from 1977. Encapsulating most of his styles and concerns, Chrome Dreams II is the release for which many listeners have been waiting. The ever mercurial Young is in fine form throughout the set as he sings about love, life, God, and contentment over instrumental backings that range from the sublimely beautiful to the dementedly metallic. The much-discussed, 18-minute opus Ordinary People could have used some editing, yet it also provides a clear depiction of Young at his most sincere and unrepentant, which is, of course, a good thing. Purchasers of the deluxe edition have an opportunity to enjoy a DVD of the endeavor, which Young chose to illustrate with a one-hour film of close-ups of rust from his collection of classic cars. It’s weirder than weird, and it’s just what we’ve come to expect from Neil Young.
10) Dobet Gnahore – Na Afriki
Blessed with one of the most soaring and beautiful voices on the planet, Dobet Gnahore sings so well that she easily could make a person believe in angels. Na Afriki is the debut from this young vocalist and dancer from Cote d’Ivoire, and it is a gorgeous collection of acoustic songs that feature some of the loveliest melodies and instrumentation recorded this year. Immediately memorable, Na Afriki is a disc that hasn’t strayed far from my CD player since it was released this past spring. It is a very worthwhile and essential endeavor that no one will regret purchasing.
For additional information, please also see our other Best of 2007 Lists
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box