Year in Review: John Metzger's Top Studio Albums of 2007
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2007, Volume 14, #12
Written by John Metzger
Wed December 19, 2007, 07:20 AM CST
As one year draws to a close and the next one begins, it’s only natural to look back and reflect upon what has happened as well as to ponder what lies ahead. The music industry has been in disarray at least since the dawning of the Millennium, and there doesn’t appear to be much hope in sight. Album sales remain caught in a free-fall, and digital downloads, which once promised to lift the finances of the major labels out of the doldrums, have leveled.
There are many reasons, of course, why the music business is suffering. Everything from the ease of illegally offering materials online to the complete dismantling of the process of developing an artist has played a role in diminishing the value of the major labels. Perhaps, the biggest problem, however, is that these companies have failed to comprehend new technologies such as the iPod. Rather than figuring out how best to capture this developing market and incorporate it into their existing business models, many corporations instead have thrown all of their eggs into one basket, thus abandoning all of their prior successes as well as a key segment of the population.
While the market for digital downloads has grown considerably large, it nonetheless doesn’t fill the same roles as a more traditional distribution system, nor does it cater to everyone’s interests — at least not in the way that the old-fashioned record stores once did. Gone is the satisfaction that a person gains from making a discovery by flipping through a series of albums sitting on racks in a small, local shop. There is no personal touch, nor is there a way of truly connecting with fellow fans. Likewise, the quality of products that are available to be downloaded may meet the needs of iPod users, but they hardly are suited to those who prefer to utilize full-sized stereo systems. The lack of artwork, and the do-it-yourself labeling is equally inadequate.
When the industry moved from vinyl to compact disc, many decried the inferiority of the packaging. Nevertheless, the improved durability of the medium as well as the sound quality of the recordings helped the new technology to flourish. Still, there was one aspect of this modernized business model that never quite achieved resolution. CDs had the capacity to store far more data than vinyl ever did, and while musicians and labels alike had the ability to provide more music to consumers, the resulting products often were filled to the brim with songs that previously would have been left on the cutting room floor. There are reasons why double-albums were unique commodities in the 1960s and 1970s. Not only is it hard to turn 90 minutes worth of material into a unified effort, but it also is difficult to maintain the listener’s attention for the full duration of the endeavor.
In recent years, as artists have become wise to the challenges they face by filling a disc to its full capacity, outings began to shrink back to more manageable lengths. Unfortunately, this change in perspective coincided with the advent of digital downloads. For a brief time, it helped to return some focus to the artistic process of making music, but quickly, the industry became derailed by the notion of selling songs instead of albums. To put it simply, the mentality of the 1950s, when singles ruled the day, has returned with a vengeance. Many artists now are driven by a commercial force that insists that each tune be a standalone entity that is immediately ingratiating. There always will be a market for this sort of approach, but currently, this kind of thinking has thrown the entire market off balance.
Still, there are those artists who are continuing to fight the good fight. They have joined the online community by routinely allowing their music to be made available through iTunes and other download-oriented stores. At the same time, however, they have redoubled their efforts to make cohesive albums that tell a story in song. These tend to be the most satisfying efforts, and they are the ones that deserve the recognition for being the best albums of the year.
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1) Robert Plant / Alison Krauss - Raising Sand
Coming in the wake of the collaboration between Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan, the union of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss makes perfect sense. There is a yin-and-yang dynamic to their performance on Raising Sand, and with the help of producer T Bone Burnett, the duo finds ways of leveraging their pasts in order to give meaning to the present. Krauss sings like an angel, but her fiddle accompaniments paint darker, sadder textures across the terrain. At the same time, Plant says more with his understated presence than he ever did with a banshee wail. Both artists have been looking for a way to break out of their respective routines and do something unexpected. Not only is Raising Sand the culmination of their journeys, but it also is the boldest musical statement of the year.
2) Suzanne Vega - Beauty & Crime
In the past six years, there have been countless outings that have dealt with the political climate in post-9/11 America. Suzanne Vega’s Beauty & Crime does, too, though it accomplishes its goals by viewing the aftermath from an entirely different perspective. Rather than limiting herself to discussing the specifics of unjust wars and horrendous leaders, she focuses instead upon the personal tales of those who found themselves in and around Ground Zero. Beauty & Crime is a eulogy for her brother, for whom the disaster became too much to bear, though it also is a love letter to the city that she calls home. It is an album that is as much about devastation and destruction as it is about spiritual and communal rebirth, and the honest emotional outpouring that led Vega to create Beauty & Crime is what makes it so potent.
3) Son Volt - The Search
Over the years, the pressure on Jay Farrar has been immense. Not only has he had to live in the shadow of his previous band Uncle Tupelo, but his subsequent group Son Volt also has had to compete for attention with former collaborator Jeff Tweedy’s outfit Wilco. Whenever Son Volt issued an album, Wilco followed suit, and comparisons were inevitable. While Farrar seemed to be struggling to reclaim his former glory, Tweedy adventurously was pushing his music forward. The Search goes a long way toward leveling the playing field. In a cryptic fashion, Farrar’s lyrics deal with life in a 21st Century, post-9/11 world, and his music jumbles an array of classic rock influences as only he can. Farrar has shown moments of brilliance in his solo career, but never before has he put together an effort that unfolds as effortlessly as The Search.
4) Iron & Wine - The Shepherd's Dog
Those who are familiar with Iron & Wine’s early endeavors likely will struggle, at least initially, to come to terms with The Shepherd’s Dog. By contrast, those who venture first into the group’s new album immediately will recognize its brilliance. Throughout the endeavor, Sam Beam, Iron & Wine’s guiding force, twists convention in knots. He uses his fractured lyrics to sketch images of the world while raising questions about war and faith, and then, he sets it all adrift on the tidal flow of his multifaceted musical arrangements. As bossa nova beats and Eastern textures collide with his Southern gothic- and Appalachian-imbued essence, he conjures the sound of the apocalypse in ways that are as seductive as they are disturbing.
5) Lucinda Williams - West
West is the sound of Lucinda Williams’ world as it collapses around her. While searching for answers in the wake of her mother’s death as well as the demise of a long-term relationship, her emotional outpouring is at times difficult to embrace. Yet, it also is just as hard to turn away from the pain she exhibits at every turn. With the help of producer Hal Wilner and guitarist Bill Frisell, Williams concocted music that truly brings her words to life. The surrounding accompaniments plumb the shadowy depths of her hardened heart, and they illuminate the path that ultimately leads her out of her misery. So great is Williams’ talent that even when she isn’t operating at full capacity, she still is able to craft one of the year’s best outings.
6) Fountains of Wayne - Traffic and Weather
Generally speaking, bands either burn out or grow up. With Traffic and Weather, Fountains of Wayne has chosen the latter path. As always, its melodies are ridiculously intoxicating. On the other hand, its lyrics have become more sharply focused. The outing paints a rather bleak portrait of life in the Western world, one in which material possessions are used to fill the emptiness that lurks inside the hearts and minds of its inhabitants. Traffic and weather are the excuses we give for not being able to find the antidote to our collective problems. Love, after all, is the answer, but because of the obstacles we place in our own paths, it has become a lot harder to find.
7) Wilco - Sky Blue Sky
Wilco has become something of an expert at throwing curveballs at its fans. In this regard, Sky Blue Sky, its latest endeavor, is no different. However, instead of heading off in another bold, new direction, the group laid a different sort of surprise at its fans’ feet. In effect, it retreated to the past in order to find the future, and while pouring over each of its prior efforts, Wilco picked among the scraps that many thought it had left behind. The band rarely has made music that sounds as relaxed and comfortable as this, but rather than feeling like a redundant exercise, Sky Blue Sky blossoms into a richly textured universe that simultaneously is familiar and fresh.
8) Josh Rouse - Country Mouse, City House
Josh Rouse has been threatening to create a masterwork for years, but he never has managed to put all of the pieces into place — that is, at least until he issued Country Mouse, City House this past summer. To say that the outing is the culmination of his efforts is certainly an understatement. It sounded wonderful on a hot, August day, and it is equally magnificent when heard in the dead of winter. Although it musically stays within Rouse’s safety zone, his arrangements never fail to hit their mark, and with his lyrics, he explores the intricacies of his relationships by tracing the circular patterns of his life. In the past, Rouse’s consistency has allowed him to meet the expectations of critics and fans. Country Mouse, City House not only exceeds them, but it also establishes a new framework for viewing his output.
9) Paul McCartney - Memory Almost Full
It certainly seems as if time is catching up with Paul McCartney. Whether he finally is coming to terms with the deaths of his wife Linda as well as his pals John Lennon and George Harrison or he simply is struggling to understand where his relationship with Heather Mills went astray, McCartney’s latest album Memory Almost Full is stuffed to the brim with songs of self-reflection. It’s true that the surrounding music isn’t as adventurous as what he concocted with Nigel Godrich for Chaos and Creation in the Backyard. Nevertheless, he finds a better middle ground for his material. Consequently, the outing contains plenty of surprises, but it never feels as if he forced his arrangements to go in a direction that they didn’t want to head. Throughout his career, McCartney consistently has worn his heart on his sleeve, but rarely have his words felt as deeply personal as the ones he penned while thinking about all his yesterdays.
10) Joni Mitchell - Shine
Shine is Joni Mitchell’s first album of new material in a decade, and the time she spent secluded from the music business certainly gave her the perspective that she needed to overcome the obstacles that undermined many of her post-’70s offerings. Although she remains angry about the lack of civility in the world, the weariness in her voice and the beauty of her homegrown arrangements provide the perfect environment for her words to flourish. If she sounds grouchy, she certainly has reason to be, but tucked within her furious tirades is the hope that enough people will heed her warning and institute the changes necessary for making the future a more palatable place in which to live.
For additional information, please also see our other Best of 2007 Lists
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