by LUKE BAUMGARTEN, ANDREW MATSON and JOEL SMITH & r & & r & Black Lips Good Bad Not Evil & r & & r & Screw crunk, this is the dirty south. Mixing the twang of southern rock with the percussive chug of Johnny Cash, Modern Lovers-esque proto-punk and a single-mic-in-an-unfinished-basement record sound, the Atlanta band's Good Bad Not Evil is a monument to rock and roll played on the cheap. The result -- cynicism and slop guitar held together by that chugging percussion and uniformly filthy hooks -- is the best rock album to party to I've heard in a long time. Put it on. Get drunk. (LB)
DOWNLOAD: "Veni Vidi Vici"
Menomena Friend and Foe
This Portland trio makes a big, diverse sound. Friend and Foe is filled with complex, booming rhythms sitting front and center in the mix. Most of the melody comes from the vocals (all three members trade off singing duties, with a lot of harmonizing) and piano. Guitar is used sparingly, mostly to create accents of fuzzy noise. Sparse glockenspiel, synths and the occasional (tenor?) sax blurt add layer upon layer of texture to songs that, despite their stupefying complexity, still feel light and, above all, fun to move to. (LB)
DOWNLOAD: "Air Aid"
Kanye West Graduation
Kanye West is a genius producer, great rapper and cultural force of nature, the only hip-hop artist ballsy enough to lash out against George W. Bush and homophobia point-blank and unrehearsed. Released to much hype on 9/11 (the same day as 50 Cent's Curtis), Graduation didn't disappoint those seeking controversy and next-level artistry from the Chicago renaissance man.
Shunning fan-favorite trademarks -- Chipmunk-speed soul samples and warm, orchestral experiments -- Kanye rapped hard over Graduation's new, detached futurism that kicked like Sparks 7.0 ("Champion") and swept with chromium majesty ("Flashing Lights"). (AM)
DOWNLOAD: "Flashing Lights"
Andrew Bird Armchair Apocrypha
The last entry from this whistling, looping, fiddling songwriter -- 2005's The Mysterious Production of Eggs -- was a critical darling, showing up on all the Top Ten lists. This one, curiously, was not. While it's true Bird toned down some of his more charming, more immediately likable musical idiosyncracies (frenetic beats and squiggly melodic lines), his Armchair experiments in big, beautiful washes of sound and epic, rolling-boil compositions are every bit as compelling; and his ceaselessly inventive melodies and lyrics -- just as catchy -- yield even bigger, plumper fruit. (JS)
The National Boxer
There are albums that get under my skin immediately and make it prickle for months, sometimes years. Boxer got its hooks in me midyear and hasn't let go. Mid-to-fast-paced guitar melodies and propulsive, up-front rhythm form a hurtling underlayer for and haunting contrast to Matt Berninger's singularly deep, languorous baritone as it delivers, with unhurried precision, the year's wryest, cleverest, saddest lyrics. The five albums below certainly deserve their ranks, but Boxer was the best album of my year. The last couple, maybe. (LB)
DOWNLOAD: "Slow Show"
The Avett Brothers Emotionalism
We proclaimed early and earnestly that Emotionalism would be among the best records of 2007. We're sticking by it. Leaps better -- and fathoms deeper -- than Four Thieves Gone (the record that brought the North Carolina trio national attention last year), it's a startlingly innovative and utterly exciting mash-up of folk, pop and punk, with thrashing banjo, riotous rhythm and Beatles-esque harmonies (even while screaming) that translate through speakers almost as vividly as they do live. We've never heard so much raw energy squeezed out of folk instruments. (JS)
DOWNLOAD: "Paranoia in Bb Major"
Amy Winehouse Back to Black
It's been awhile since the UK and USA agreed on what makes a good pop star. We still don't entirely agree -- British audiences tolerate faster techno-style rhythms that don't fly Stateside -- but 2007 marked the year everybody got behind a brassy broad with a not-so-classy image and a killer Motown-style band. Amy Winehouse was the throwback anti-heroine America had forgotten to appreciate, and her backing band the Dap Kings effortlessly linked hip-hop to Motown. An ode to addiction, Back to Black is love and pain, tragic and bad-ass. (AM)
DOWNLOAD: "Back To Black"
Last year's brain-breaking Arular introduced the world to UK indie-pop star Mathangi "Maya/M.I.A." Arulpragasam's wonderful vision of world dance music: American producer Diplo's outsized electro-tribal beats and color-clash melodies wrapped around her grating, hyperactive dancehall toasting with weird, perfect enthusiasm.
Kala finds M.I.A. outsourcing more production and turning into a real songwriter. Her vocal presence blends the brazen emotion of Bjork-style bellows with Missy Elliot's hypnotic, stoned confidence. Borrowing vocals from The Pixies, guitars from The Clash, and aboriginal child rappers from Australia, Kala collides worlds with the volume way past 11. (AM)
DOWNLOAD: "Paper Planes"
Jay-Z American Gangster
It's great to know Jay-Z wasn't bluffing: He really can make masterpieces at will. On AG, the Great Jay Hova doesn't rap too comfortable like he did on last year's boring Kingdom Come, and he also doesn't engage in the heavy-handed self-mythologizing of his "retirement record" The Black Album. Instead, he relies on what he does best -- tell gangster stories with zero effort and maximum technical skill -- and rides it for a whole album. It's exhilarating, and a refreshingly non-commercial move for a mogul who sometimes forgets he's a better artist than businessman. (AM)
DOWNLOAD: "No Hook"
ALBUM OF THE YEAR: THE ARCADE FIRE NEON BIBLE
The recorded-in-a-cathedral Neon Bible is Montreal band Arcade Fire's powerful, expansive masterwork, easily the most cathartic, rewarding album of 2007.
Plodding piano and seasick strings on the opening track, "Black Mirror", exhibit deadly restraint, a brilliant foil to the all-out rush of songs like "Keep The Car Running," which goes from zero to headlong in no time thanks to a sustained, fire-hose blast of acoustic ephemera. When the song switches to a half-time, hymn-like tempo, Neon Bible becomes a paranoid, religious experience. The closer, "My Body Is A Cage," is distant spirit-napalm until a pipe organ tidal wave hits like the end of the world. Suddenly, everything is awash in violent glory and Arcade Fire's wide-angle vision is revealed: This band is fighting for the world's salvation.
Significant-sounding choral blasts, propulsive kettle drums and occasional (tasteful) use of a megaphone make Arcade Fire come off like a small army, but for all its epic heft, Neon Bible is a deftly tempered, subtly gothic collection of existential anthems.
Listened to during a crisis of faith, this album will absolutely change your life -- though it probably won't make you believe in God. For soul-saving grandeur, nothing in 2007 came close. (AM)