The Year’s Best Music

Before we get started, a caveat: no one here at NEWSWEEK has heard all of the music released over the past 365 days, so any best-of list is going to be, by necessity, incompletely informed. Even for those of us whose job it is to stay on top of the latest releases, it invariably proves overwhelming. And then there's the fact that music is painfully subjective--you'd have better luck compiling a less-divisive best-ice-cream-flavors list. So are these the best sounds of the year? Certainly you won't find too many chart-toppers here. But then you don't need us to tell you that Rihanna's "Umbrella" was a pretty good pop song. Hopefully you'll find something here that you missed, and be glad you did. To our ears, this list represents what sounded sweetest in 2007.

1, 2, 3, 4: Feist. The video (and iPod commercial) of 2007, and one of its better songs, too. Leslie Feist, a member of the loose-knit Canadian music mafia that includes Broken Social Scene and the New Pornographers, prances about with a rainbow of friends in what may or may not be an empty American Apparel warehouse. As her lovely tune--banjo, choir, strings, finger snaps--progresses, everybody prances and skips in an intricate, goofy-yet-endearing hipster Busby Berkeley number with Feist as its beating heart. All in one take. —BB

100 Days, 100 Nights: Sharon Jones. Imagine your favorite sounds from 40 years ago; maybe they were recorded at Stax or Motown, maybe by a group of Muscle Shoals session musicians. For whatever reason, a batch of their hip-huggingest music fell into some time capsule and wasn't unearthed until today. It's all here: boom-bap drums, chicka-chick guitars, simmering organ and gutbucket vocals ("The lies that you've been spinnin' up are running out of thread," Jones sings to a wayward lover. "And your crafty little pencil is running out of lead"). This is no "neo-soul"; this is the real deal. —BB
 
5th Gear: Brad Paisley. Everyone went crazy for "Ticks," Paisley's smash single in which the protagonist attempts to pick up a young lass with an offer to check her for pests. Cute enough. But for our money, it's Paisley's direct link to the Nashville of old that wins our hearts. There's ample nostalgia here--for Merle and Willie, sure, but also for Paisley's own childhood. "Throttleneck" and "Mr. Policeman" showcase his prodigious guitar chops. When he attempts a stab at seeming more, well, contemporary, the result is "Online," a bore of a song that relies on tired stereotypes about MySpace nerds (already a dated reference in the age of Facebook). "Some Mistakes" shows he does have a mature, more modern side as well—and it's enough to convince us to forgive him his his, well, mistakes. —BB
 
The Anthem: Pitbull. Reggaeton star and Cuban-American rapper Pitbull comes up with one of the best dance tracks of the year with "The Anthem." Here he blends the horn riff off a cheesy Italian techno track, frenetic salsa beats, booming hip-hop bass and Spanglish raps (that include shout-outs by the ubiquitous Lil' Jon) and comes up with one of the oddest yet catchiest club tracks around. The single, off his new CD, "The Boatlift," is the best reggaeton crossover we've heard yet.  —LA

Aunt Jackie: Jason Fox. A kid from Harlem uploads a homemade video featuring an infectious old-school rhyme and launches a local dance craze along the lines of the "Chicken Noodle Soup." A record deal with Jermaine Dupri ensues, as does an official video (and the inevitable parodies). A novelty act? Probably. We may never hear from Fox again, but we were glad to do the Aunt Jackie with him for the summer anyway. —BB

Better Get to Livin': Dolly Parton Where did this video come from? Cavorting around carnival grounds in a corset and tiny top hat, Dolly shows no mercy for those deflated, joyless legions who have lost their vim, vigor and sparkle: "Your life is a mess, your house's a wreck and your wardrobe's way outdated," she sings, while Amy Sedaris shows up in turns as the barker, fortune teller and some squeaky-voiced green allegory--for what, exactly, we aren't sure. It might not make sense, but anyone in this freakshow called life who could use a down-home spiritual adviser, step right up, step right up! --JC

The Complete 'On the Corner' Sessions: Miles Davis. From 1972 until 1975, Miles Davis was in the studio with a revolving cast of musicians who abetted his diversion from the path of straight-ahead jazz that began with "In a Silent Way" and "Bitches Brew." The results, largely confined until now to the albums "On the Corner," "Big Fun" and "Get Up With It," resembled like what James Brown and Sly Stone might've sounded like if they'd had tabla and sitar players flavoring their mixes. In Miles's case, the results were brilliant improvisational funk that only sounds better with time. And of course, in the midst of everything, there is "He Loved Him Madly," Miles's gorgeous funeral march for the late Duke Ellington, one of those works that truly is, to use the Duke's characterization of anything top-drawer, beyond category. Seminal stuff.  --MJ
 
Cornell 1964: Charles Mingus Sextet With Eric Dolphy. Before there was Town Hall, there was Cornell. In March 1964, Charles Mingus took his awesome sextet to upstate New York and played a gig that, before this recording surfaced, had been all but completely forgotten. The Town Hall concert took place 17 days later, shortly before the band toured Europe, and then, sadly, saxophonist Eric Dolphy died after slipping into a diabetic coma at just 36. Blue Note's raucous two-disc release is a revelation that will surely replace the Town Hall recording as the definitive document this band left behind. "Fables of Faubus" alone runs an epic mood-morphing 30 minutes and stands among the bassist bandleader's best recorded solos. Mingus had only previously recorded "Take the 'A' Train" with big bands, yet here it is with a sextet, rollicking joyfully all the way to Sugar Hill. A must-own for any jazz lover.  —BB
 
Dirt Farmer: Levon Helm. After beating back throat cancer, this album from The Band's drummer is something of a miracle. The song selection, a mix of traditional folk tunes and originals that sound as if they were penned 100 years ago, is superb. And Helm's voice, more weathered than it was when he sang about driving Old Dixie down, is the surprising star here. It's beaten up enough to imbue rusty Americana like "Poor Old Dirt Farmer" and the achingly gorgeous "Little Birds" with fresh authenticity. Still a crack drummer (and, it turns out, mandolinist), Helm leads a pitch-perfect acoustic band and is joined on vocals throughout by his daughter Amy. A warm, gratifying return to deep roots music. —BB

Double Up: R. Kelly. Are you ready for some "Real Talk," people? Arguably the best (and inarguably the nuttiest) male R&B singer working somehow found some time this year to untrap himself from the closet long enough to record his 11th studio album—featuring appearances by Snoop Dogg, Nelly, T.I., Kid Rock, Usher and other marquee names. The fact that Kelly outshines them all is testament to his, well, freaky skill. Kelly still faces multiple charges of child pornography that could put him away for 15 years. If he's not careful, "Double Up" might be entered as evidence: "It's like a rain forest, it's like Jurassic Park, 'cept I'm your sexasaurus," he croons on "The Zoo." "You got me locked up in your cage of ecstasy and I don't wanna be free." You have to hand it to him: cages are way sexier than closets. —BB

The Dreamer Evasive: Apartment. It's been a painful wait since this London four-piece put out it's 2005 single "Everyone Says I'm Paranoid." Hearing the chiming-guitar-disco-stomp of "My Brother Chris" and the jaunty Northern-Soul-meets-The-Smiths "Fall Into Place" more than justifies the nearly 30 bucks you needed for the import CD this past spring. If you could find a copy, that is. Luckily, it's now on iTunes. —RE

Fancy Footwork: Chromeo. With more hooks than a Burlington Coat Factory outlet, Chromeo has brought their Mooged-out electro-funk to a new level on this sophomore effort. Think Zapp & Roger with just a little more cheek; Hall & Oates with just a little more moustache (metaphorically, anyway). The standout cut is "Tenderoni," and its title alone is enough to elicit a giggle. But the groove—as tight as it is deep—is no laughing matter. There are riffs galore on this album, but some of the sweetest are throwaway banter between the duo—like when Pee Thug delivers advice through a talk box to Dave One on "My Girl is Calling Me (A Liar)." His suggestion: take her to a movie. Ours: play this at your New Year's Eve party. —BB

Flux: Bloc Party. "A Weekend in the City," Bloc Party's second collection of tuneful, fidgety post-post-punk, was a bit of letdown. It lacked the underlying urgency and spark of 2005's "Silent Alarm"—there was no single addictive, crowd rousing song like "Banquet." But "Flux," their post-album single, takes a slightly dodgy premise—merging art rock with late 1990s techno—and straps a giant, echoing guitar line onto a throbbing trance rhythm to instant-classic effect. More or less on repeat play since its release this fall. —RE

The Flying Club Cup: Beirut. Barely-out-of-diapers Zach Condon moves from New Mexico to Brooklyn and trades his infatuation with Balkan brass bands for the seedy, sepia-toned Paris of Eugene Atget. It's aching, louche melodies are perfect for pretending you're a Montmartre flaneur circa 1903. Not that we know anyone who, you know, does that. —AR

Grinderman. Along with three of his seven Bad Seeds, Nick Cave howls, sneers, threatens and gets downright dirty on his new band's eponymous debut. "Get It On" launches the record with "You gotta get up to get down and start all over again! Head on down to the basement and shout. Kick those white mice and black dogs out! Kick those white mice and baboons out! Kick those baboons and other motherf---ers out and get it on!" Lest you forget, Cave is 50 years old now. Not that he's shy about reminding you. The album's standout cut is the desperate-yet-hilarious "No P---y Blues," which charts Cave's physical decline (and ensuing lack of romantic prospects): "I changed the sheets on my bed/ I combed the hairs across my head," sings the crumbling rock star. "I sucked in my gut and still she said/ that she just didn't want to." This is a dude sounding way younger than his years by attempting to do just the opposite. —BB

The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust!: Saul Williams.  A month after Radiohead's "In Rainbows" made its pay-what-you-please splash, Williams, a spoken-word veteran, released "Niggy Tardust" the same way. The Trent Reznor-produced album is full of big beats, naked aggression and bold ideas—the main one being that they didn't need the help of the record industry. The first track, "Black History Month," thunders like a paranoid, postapocalyptic P. Funk drumline. "I'm tougher than bullets so, baby, pray to your savior/ I never been shot, but I bet you I'm braver/ I'm taking my spot, n---a, I ain't afraid to be me/ Sometimes I find it very hard to be ... who? Me." Tracks like "Tr(n)igger," with its perpetual Public Enemy loop, and a creepy cover of U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" keep the tension elevated throughout. —BB

In Rainbows: Radiohead. When "In Rainbows" arrived in October, the media obsessed over its method of delivery—a name-your-price download--and largely ignored the music. Don't make the same mistake. This lucid, open-armed album strikes a better balance between experimentation and accessibility than any Radiohead release since "OK Computer." And "Nude" is the year's most heartbreaking love song. —AR

Jarvis: Jarvis Cocker. We want to be Jarvis Cocker. We want his velvet suits, his outrageous glasses, his rangy frame and, most of all, his unerring way with a putdown. Possibly the cruelest lyricist since "Thin Wild Mercury"-era Dylan, the former Pulp frontman delivers again on his solo debut. Just look at the track list: "Fat Children," "I Will Kill Again," "Don't Let Him Waste Your Time." That the latter boasts his best blend of melody and misanthropy since "Common People"—and one of our favorite videos, like, ever--is icing on the cake. —AR

Lip Gloss: Lil Mama. It's poppin'; it's cool. Lil Mama spits fire. What more needs to be said about this 18-year-old Queens native's breakout single? —BB

Mark Ronson. What a year this kid had. Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black" belongs at the top of any year-end music list, but her best song, "Rehab," owes its sound to producer wunderkind Ronson (not to mention Sharon Jones's backing band, the Dap Kings). Oh, and Ronson also had a hand in producing another standout Brit whose debut finally came to our shores this year. Lily Allen's "Alright, Still," may have been floating around online for months, but it officially brought its lilting calypso-ska-pop (and Ronson production) to the States in 2007. While Timbaland, another superproducer who had a big year, was busy spreading himself thin (cough cough OneRepublic cough), Ronson followed all that up with "Version," an album of contemporary covers and classic British pop done with an old-school Stax/Motown twist. Lily and Amy both come back for cameos, but Ronson was the star. —BB
 
Marry Me: St. Vincent. St. Vincent is Annie Clark--an associate of both Sufjan Stevens and the Polyphonic Spree--and just when she threatens to outquirk the quirkiest Brooklyn hipster on earth, she surprises you. On her beguiling, gorgeous debut she plays guitar, organ, clavieta, xylophone, vibraphone, dulcimer, Moog, bass and piano. And there are just as many moods—cinematic, smooth, dark, jaunty and, OK, sometimes twee. Listen to "Paris is Burning": "come sit right here and sleep while I slip poison in your ear," she coos. She channels Billie Holiday—and all of Lady Day's troubles—on "What Me Worry?" And on "Marry Me John," she sounds so good, so kind, even as she sings "I'll be so sweet to you, you won't realize I'm gone." She'll be in someone else's arms—and lingering in your ears. —BB

Night Falls on Kortedala: Jens Lekman. Lekman combines the slack-jawed charm of Jonathan Richman with sweeping Brill Building craftsmanship to create the best Swedish pop record of 2007—and if you know anything about Swedish pop, that's no small feat. Try "Sharin," with a falsetto chorus worthy of Frankie Valli.  Aren't guilty pleasures supposed to make you feel guilty? —AR
 
RoadkillOvercoat: Busdriver.  The warped, rapid-fire Los Angeles emcee keeps getting better. On this year's RoadkillOvercoat, Busdriver's first release on the Anti/Epitaph label, the cerebral rapper's rhymes are more sing-songy and more politically charged--he rages against both hypocritical hippies and a certain genus of Texas shrub. He's also still cheeky about his fate as perennial underground darling. ("My daily commute ends in a fender bender because no one acknowledges my 10-year tenure./ I've got the know-how to thrill your scene, but they want someone lowbrow, a philistine," he raps on the hook-heavy opener, "Casting Agents and Cowgirls.") With DJs Nobody and Boom Bip supplying the beats, Busdriver seems most comfortable venturing outside his comfort zone, smirking nasally through '80s-style synth pop, drum 'n' bass, and even faux emo in addition to funky old-school hip hop. —BB  

Vampire Weekend.  OK, so this band of recent Columbia grads didn't officially release a record in 2007. But we got our hands on some demos last spring and have been listening nonstop ever since. Early notices always mention the group's WASPY Graceland vibe, and, yes, it's there. (Try "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa," which references Congolese pop and Louis Vuitton.) But don't let the labels distract. Their debut, which drops Jan. 28, is nothing more or less than good old-fashioned geek rock—think Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and Marshall Crenshaw. It'll probably make our 2008 list, too. —AR

Wagonmaster: Porter Wagoner. The man who is best known now for having launched Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner died this year. But before he passed away, he left behind this gritty hard-country album and introduced a new generation of fans to Nudie suits, pedal steel guitar and solemn recitations. "Eleven Cent Cotton" is a foot-stomper about poverty; in "Be a Little Quieter" he is haunted by memories of a lover who walked out--both would have sounded perfectly natural in Hank Williams's voice. The crown jewel is "Committed to Parkview," which Johnny Cash had always wanted the Thin Man from White Plains to record: it's a chilling tour through the real-life mental hospital that both men had the misfortune of being familiar with. —BB

With Lasers: Bond Do Role. Say you found the nastiest batch of baile funk—Brazil's gritty party music—and added a heaping dollop of 1980s Miami booty bass (and, fine, threw in some lasers). You'd get something close to Bond Do Role. Under the stewardship of American producer Diplo, the trio mixes hair-metal guitar, kazoos, bizarre samples, smutty lyrics and sheer playfulness on their first album. The highlight is the sing-songy "Solta o Frango," Portuguese for "Release the Chickens," meaning, basically, "Let Your Hair Down." If you want butt-bouncing world music without the heavy-handed messages of M.I.A. (who probably belongs on this list somewhere, so this will have to do), fire up the barbeque and release those chickens. —BB