2007 was a year of duality for music. While the industry continued to tank, it was quietly a very good year for rock ‘n’ roll and indie music. The Boss returned with his old band, the Police actually got along and even Led Zeppelin reunited. The most exciting music was busy breaking down barriers. Arcade Fire played in intimate churches; Web site TakeAwayShows.com and the film “Once” returned music to the streets; and a certain British band eliminated a very big middle man.
- “In Rainbows,” Radiohead: The much-ballyhooed online release of “In Rainbows” in some ways obscured what an excellent album it is. The opener, “15 Step,” begins with a cold electronic beat that sounds like recently typical Radiohead or Thom Yorke’s 2006 solo album. But 41 seconds in, Johnny Greenwood enters with a beautiful, languorous guitar line. From then on, the band gradually lets the melody take over, particularly on songs like the midnight ballad “Nude” and the soulful show-stopper “Reckoner.” With Radiohead, you’re always on guard for the crash, the shattering of brightness – but on “In Rainbows,” they let the light linger.
- “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank,” Modest Mouse: There is so much to gather from this sprawling, schizophrenic album. You have former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr suddenly in the band. You have a group completely ignoring the thrust of fame that came from its 2004 hit, “Float On.” And you have Modest Mouse’s persistent, ever-growling excellence. On this, the band’s best disc since 1997’s “Lonesome Crowded West,” the rollicking id that is Isaac Brock surfs through nautical themes, carbon stealing and little motels – and it all adds up to a fascinating mess.
- “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga,” Spoon: Fans of this Austin, Texas-based band have been waiting for Britt Daniel and company to make the album they always had in them. Well, this is it. After several exceptional but imperfect discs, “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga” is a tightly honed collection of ten tracks, including both their trademark sparse arrangements (“The Ghost of You Lingers”) and robust, hi-fi rockers (“The Underdog”). On the melancholic “Finer Feelings,” Daniel looks for love in the pages of Memphis newspaper The Commercial Appeal – surely a more metaphorically-named paper than USA Today.
- “Person Pitch,” Panda Bear: This album sounds like the future. Working alone on his computer, Noah Lennox (whose stage name is Panda Bear) builds loops and layers of psychedelia around his ethereal, sun-drenched melodies. Anything you might call “fractured Beach Boys” isn’t for everyone, but Lennox’s nearly indescribable music – particularly the transcendent “Bros” – feels like a landmark achievement. (His home band, Animal Collective, also released a great album in 2007: “Strawberry Jam.”)
- “The Reminder,” Feist: Ubiquitous iPod commercials were the only thing that detracted from this gorgeous, lilting album. The intimate production makes you feel like Feist is playing just for you; she fittingly sings: “Teenage hopes are alive at your door.” For Feist, that means joy and optimism, not spray paint and flaming bags of feces.
- “Sky Blue Sky,” Wilco: The latest from Jeff Tweedy’s Chicago outfit is an unusually normal album – a kind of conservative rebellion against the band’s earlier experimentalism, most notably found on their classic “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” Instead, these are wistful, straightforward songs, enlivened by Nels Cline’s expert guitar work. Not every album has to change the world.
- “Under the Blacklight,” Rilo Kiley: When Jenny Lewis released a solo album in 2006, many wondered if her band Rilo Kiley was done, no longer necessary for Lewis’s considerable songwriting talents. It takes less than a minute of “Blacklight” – when Blake Sennett lays down the most ticklish guitar lick of the year – to remember the importance of the band. They play straight man to Lewis while she flirtatiously coos songs of tawdry sex and broken relationships. Fleetwood Mac fans, there is another.
- “Back to Black,” Amy Winehouse: If you’ve been distracted by Amy Winehouse’s perpetual tabloid troubles, go back and listen to the last track on “Back to Black,” “You Know I’m No Good,” to remember why everyone knows she’s plenty good.
- “Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?” Of Montreal: You, too, might be hesitant to embrace makeup-heavy glam bands or album titles that address plantlife skeptically. Kevin Barnes’ Athens, Ga.-based band used to be more of a giddy, melodic psychedelic group, but on “Hissing Fauna” Barnes’ breakup is fuel for a wild, unpredictable ride and a search for a lover with “soul power.” The band that began as part of the Elephant 6 collective has never made a better record. And it’s funky, too – especially the closer: “We Were Born the Mutants Again with Leafling.” Yes, that’s right. Leafling.
- “Friend and Foe,” Menomena: On their third disc, the Portland, Ore. indie band Menomena has created one of the year’s most percussive albums. They seem to sense that now is their time: the album opens with Brent Knopf singing that he’s got to “pick up my hustle.” Menomena verges from hand-clapping, piano sing-alongs to songs built on electronic loops, but inventive, varied rhythms are always the foundation. Menomena might also be the best baritone sax rock group since Morphine, which is kind of a cool club.
Honorable Mentions: “Sound of Silver,” LCD Soundsystem; “Magic,” Bruce Springsteen; “Woke on a Whaleheart,” Bill Callahan; “Wincing the Night Away,” The Shins; “Our Love to Admire,” Interpol; “Some Loud Thunder,” Clap Your Hands Say Yeah; “New Wave,” Against Me!; “West,” Lucinda Williams; “Let’s Stay Friends,” Les Savy Fav.