Top 25 Albums of 2007

This year provided a vast array of great new releases from newcomers and well-established bands alike. From the shockingly sudden release by a long-acclaimed band to innovative new rap, dance-rock, electronica and pop albums, 2007 had a little bit of something for everyone, and was certainly the best year for music since at least 2004. Here are my top 25 albums of this year.

#25: M.I.A/ Kala: The Sri-Lankan import followed up her highly acclaimed debut Arular with a diverse collection of rap in her unique style. The middle-eastern tone of “Jimmy” is immediately memorable, and the almost annoyingly repetitive brilliance of “Boyz” is tough to get out of your head as well. Other highlights include the downtempo “Paper Planes”, which enters new territory in its melodic sampling of shotgun blasts and cash register jingles, as well as the catchy “Come Around” and the smashing closer “Big Branch.” The political agenda is less prominent on Kala and M.I.A seems to let loose, turning out an album full of experimentation and diversity.

#24: Jens Lehkman/ Night Falls Over Kortedala: If you can bear the soft sweetness of Lehkman’s Swedish accented voice, then you can appreciate how this album flows with intrigue over its folky, disco sound along with heavy string and horn arrangements. Lehkman’s unique, often-spoken word vocal style soars on tracks like the jazzy “The Opposite of Hallelujah” and the soft but driving “A Postcard To Nina”, while a dancier disco element adds complexity on “Sipping on the Sweet Nectar” and “Into Eternity.” The album is held together by standout tracks that showcase Lehkman’s vocals, and none are prettier than the straightforward, honest “I’m Leaving Because I Don’t Love You”, and the mesmerizing “Shirin.” There may not be a “Black Cab” on Night Falls Over Kortedala, but the songs have a more consistent flow this time around.

#23: Liars/ Liars: After pioneering the dance rock movement and then sinking their teeth into a full blown post-rock concept album, Liars come back with an eponymous album that is somewhat of a combination of the two. From the opening riffs of the terrifying “Plaster Casts of Everything” it’s clear that the band hasn’t strayed from its dark sound, although this sounds a lot louder. Switching gears is the post-modern pop sound of the Beck-esque “Houseclouds”, a dancey track that succeeds with its atmospheric simplicity. “Freak Out” works well enough for being a complete Jesus and Mary Chain ripoff, and the album overall approaches shoegazing from time to time, a new realm for the band. The heavenly riff on “Pure Unevil” is a sure highlight while “Clear Island” rocks as with its scary circus rockiness, coming closest to sounding like the Liars of old. In between, the material isn’t as strong nor does it flow as perfectly as Drum’s Not Dead, but it’s good to see that the band continues to experiment musically.

#22: Kanye West/ Graduation: The third installment in the seemingly anti-education album titling by West delivers more amazing beats and production, albeit behind often lackluster lyrical work. Opener “Good Morning” sets a somber but hopeful tone, the seriousness of which we haven’t seen from West at the start of his albums. More upbeat numbers like “Champion”, the Daft-Punky “Stronger” and “Good Life” of Entourage fame give the album a nice pace, while the Chris Martin cameo on “Homecoming” and the honest arrogance of “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” are the real showstoppers. Graduation is a move forward musically for West, who depends on piano arrangements along with string elements throughout another complex and well-produced album.

#21: The New Pornographers/ Challengers: The band tried to grow up a bit on this album, providing a more mature collection of tunes that generally leans more towards soft, beautiful melodies than one would expect from the band’s former power-poppy beginnings. Neko Case is always a star, and such is the case on two of the albums prettiest numbers, “Go Places” and the title track. Lead man A.C. Newman enters new territory on the ballad “Unguided”, but still rocks it out on more familiar sounding tracks like “All of Things That Go To Make Heaven and Earth” and “Mutiny I Promise You.” For hardcore fans, Challengers may seem a bit of a departure from the band’s style, but all of the main elements are still there along with a sort of musical branching out.

#20: Prodigy/ Return of the Mac: The year’s best rap album arises from a surprise comeback story, as Prodigy of Mobb Deep releases his best work in over a decade. Raw, hard-hitting lyricism combines with reflection on this deep album, which benefits from Prodigy’s dark, insightful rhymes combined with razor sharp beats. Highlights include the catchy “Stuck On You” as well as the immaculately arranged standout “Take It To The Top”, which features intense orchestral elements. Near the end of the album, the beats really shine on “My Priorities”, another more modern track. Meanwhile, Prodigy gets back to his roots with more familiar melancholy sounding tracks like the crushing “Legends” and the twangy “The Rotten Apple.” Return of the Mac is incredibly musical throughout, as it incorporates strings, horns, piano and guitar but never loses its east-coast flair, and is a welcome accomplishment for the nearly forgotten Prodigy.

#19: Iron and Wine/ Shepherd’s Dog: Sam Beam’s songs are often so low-fi, repetitively formatted and ultimately relaxing that they are often difficult to separate from one another. This album adds twangier guitar work and a newfound jammy hippyness in addition to more familiar sounds as Beam succeeds once again. Shepherd’s Dog is consistent throughout as all Iron and Wine albums are, although might grow a bit tiring on the unfamiliar ear. Keeping things interesting this time around are the jazzy “The Devil Never Sleeps” as well as the anthemic, hippyish opener “Pagan Angel And A Borrowed Car.” More familiar are the simplistic beauty of “Lovesong Of The Buzzard”, the devastatingly pretty “Carousel” and the soft repetition of “Innocent Bones.” I’m not sure that the album is any better or worse than any of his previous work, but once again Beard provides a solid collection of tunes.

#18: Band of Horses/ Cease to Begin: While it doesn’t quite rip your heart out the same way that last year’s brilliant debut Everything All The Time did, the sophomore effort from Band of Horses doesn’t disappoint by any other measure. On the whole, the songs are softer, highlighted by the standout ballad “No One’s Gonna Love You” and the pretty, if slightly forced “Ode to LRC.” More upbeat attempts to duplicate their debut such as the foot-stompin’ “The General Specific” and the “Funeral”-esque “Cigarettes, Wedding Bands” succeed for the most part, although seem to be lacking a bit compared to their best prior work. Nevertheless, it’s still Band of Horses, and that goes a long way, as Cease to Begin creates a similarly ominous tone.

#17: Animal Collective/ Strawberry Jam: Let’s face it, Animal Collective isn’t for everyone. The syncopated shrieking of Avey Tar and the smooth harmonies of Panda Bear have led to some of the most unique music of the decade from a band that is truly one of a kind, and Strawberry Jam is no exception. Opener “Peacebone” is immediately gripping, as Avey Tar raps over rolling, syncopated carnival beats and loops back through his own patented shrieks, all with impressive and addictive melody in its simplistic brilliance. “For Reverend Green” ranks among the best songs that the band has ever done, building with nervous persistence through an amazing melody with well-arranged harmonies that lead right into the shrieking coda. As with many of their albums, the music is so experimental that concentrating through all of it becomes a bit of a tough task towards its conclusion, although more harmonies separate the rockier “Winter Wonder Land” as a memorable track, while the slower “Fireworks” uses similar tactics to create its own air of beauty. Their music is often difficult to separate, but Strawberry Jam is no departure from the quality of their past work.

#16: Bloc Party/ A Weekend In The City: After the immediate success of debut Silent Alarm, the best album of 2005, the boys from Bloc Party tone it down a bit on their less intense follow-up. Opener “A Song For Clay” shows huge promise and gets the album off to a rocking start, but many of the attempts to top it seem overlong, toned-down and over-serious, if not bordering on sappy. In between some huge misses, the band still finds time to rock out with the familiar sounds of “Hunting For Witches” and “Where Is Home?”, although the latter suffers a bit from its inability to start with the huge punch that made Silent Alarm sound so consistently energetic. The band recovers a bit towards the end of the album with the classic pop tune “I Still Remember”, which is the clear album highlight as it builds with rolling guitar riffs and pounding percussion. While certainly a disappointment overall, there are still enough solid tracks here to put Bloc Party’s follow-up effort on the map.

#15: The Shins/ Wincing The Night Away: James Mercer and company step outside the box on their third album Wincing The Night Away and deliver a collection of tunes not completely baroque or poppy while as transcendant at times as it is inconsistent overall. Nevertheless, The Shins don’t disappoint early on. Opener “Sleeping Lessons” builds slowly behind light electronic beats and feedback into a pounding crescendo that gets the album off to a great start. The next track “Australia” sounds like vintage Shins–bright, upbeat, unrelenting, slightly tropical and reminiscent of the best moments of the epic Chutes Too Narrow, while “Phantom Limb” is simply marvelous. Towards the end of the album, “Girl Sailor” is a surefire highlight lyrically, and reminds me of the subtle heartbreak of the brilliant “Gone For Good”, even adding a touch of the same twangy western elements. Overall, Wincing The Night Away certainly provides its fair share of highlights, even if those highlights don’t amount in quanity to either of their previous two efforts, and these guys look poised to keep making great music for many years.

#14: Okkervil River/ The Stage Names: One of the year’s most honest and frequently heartbreaking records came from this band, who combine an All-American guitar sound with some of the prettiest melodies and lyrics that any of us heard all year on their fourth full-length. Opener “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe” starts the album off on a rocky note that is not without its own bittersweet note of regret while upbeat tracks “Unless It’s Kicks” and standout “A Hand To Take Hold of the Scene” follow, the latter a dancey R & B number that benefits from a catchy horn arrangement at the chorus. However, the early tone of the album quickly fades into softer, somber and often devastating tunes. The best of these are the hopeful relationship analysis on the melodic track “Plus Ones” and the soft, tender heartbreak of “A Girl In Port.” The album closes on a perfect note with a quasi-cover of the Beach Boys “Sloop John B” re-written as a failed attempt at suicide before evolving into a raucous, crushing cover of that famous track. The band packs a lot of depth and feeling into these nine tracks, and they aren’t to be missed.

#13: The National/ Boxer: The sophomore album from The National creates a unique, consistent mood, somewhat reminiscent of walking through an abandoned, rainy city at night. As dreary as that may sound, leadman Matt Berninger’s deep, haunting baritone and the band’s persistent rock feel carry Boxer a long way. From the dark, isolated sound of the brilliant “Brainy” to the soft, beautifully arranged acoustics on “Slow Show” and the culmination of complex sounds including piano, guitar and horns on the penultimate “Ada”, the band shines throughout without a weak track. They really show their stuff on rockier tracks like “Mistaken For Strangers” and “The Apartment Story”, while “Guest Room” provides a mixture of melancholy and hope all at once. It’s an addictive listen to be sure, and shows a lot of promise behind its subtly orchestrated beauty.

#12: Battles/ Mirrored: This is certainly one of the most original albums I’ve heard in awhile, relying on heavily on the increasing technological advances of lap-top software to amp-up its mechanical, almost robotic guitar rock, while still drawing noticeable influence from the post-rock movement. It all adds up to a fascinating and innovative collection of futuristic music. Opener “Race: In” probably comes the closest to sounding like classic post-rock, drawing immediate similarities to Tortoise’s early work, while moving along in a repetitive manner above a whistling electronic melody before gradually breaking down into a series of chants. This leads into the epic second track “Atlas”, as tribal percussion initially draws us in beneath chants that sound like they could be coming from a machine of some sort before evolving into more chanting in an unintelligible baby-talk chorus. The diversity of the music is certainly a credit to the album, as the shorter track “Leyendecker” provides harder drumming, subtle piano keys and a more “in your face” sound, a complete contradiction to the previous track “Tonto”, which is more of a groovy, rolling bass jam. “Rainbow” follows as maybe the album’s most complex tune, starting slowly and curiously before abandoning reason and delving into a shocking cartoon-like quasi-breakdown. “Battle” your way through this album and you shall be rewarded.

#11: Modest Mouse /We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank: After 2004’s commercially successful Good News For People Who Love Bad News, Modest Mouse gets back to its roots and produces its best album since The Moon and Antarctica. The latest release from this long time indie-rock staple balances and combines intense emotion with the same fun, upbeat rockiness that made “Float On” instantly adored three summers ago. This time around, Modest Mouse takes it a step up, and what results is a consistent, if not incredibly complex album that works well as theme music for the summer of 2007. Opener “March Into the Sea” starts with a bang as leadman Isaac Brock howls in his patented unintelligible dischord, and the song switches between this intensity and its softer, sweeter verses before building into an impressive crescendo. More fun but no less effective is the upbeat second track “Dashboard”, which speeds along above strings, quick guitar plucks and more Brock yelping and ultimately enters some innovative territory for the band. if I’m forced to pick a favorite from this impressive collection of music, I’d have to go with the penultimate track “People As Places As People.” At its center is a rolling, grinding drum line which carries the track throughout along with catchy guitar riffs, but beneath are insightfully circular lyrics. By continuing on the same path they’ve been following for over a decade now and by not trying too hard to change their uniquely identifiable sound, Modest Mouse has delivered another enjoyable collection of songs.

#10: Panda Bear/ Person Pitch: Noah Lennox, the man disguised as Panda Bear in the innovative post-rock duo Animal Collective, brings his own vision to his latest solo album, complete with harmonies reminiscent of the Beach Boys, but extending further than that. The beauty of this album is its ability to combine elements of those influences with Lennox’s unique tastes in dance music, pop and post-rock, eventually forming a record that is immensely layered and demonstrates amazing musical depth. I prefer this album to any of the Animal Collective’s work. Opener “Comfy in Nautica” sounds like a campfire chant at first, but Lennox’s skillfully redundant melodies and Brian Wilson-esque vocals create a hypnotic element that sets a great tone right out of the gates. Second track “Take Pills” begins slowly with tambourine beats and feels almost as if was recorded underwater. The subdued beats and vocals take a quick turn halfway through the song, and gain an almost tropical vibe. The devastating “Bros” combines incredibly refined melodies above synthesized drum loops initially, but builds into much more. The twelve-minute track evolves slowly but marvelously, intertwining elements from all across the musical spectrum, and concludes triumphantly with piano and horns crashing together with all of these to form a crescendo-based, melodic tune for the ages that certainly ranks among the best tracks of the year. Person Pitch is a huge harmonic and electronic accomplishment all the way through.

#9: The Field/ From Here We Go Sublime: Axel Willner’s From Here We Go Sublime is surely one of the most dark, intense, ambient and sharply focused electronic records in recent memory. Opener “Over the Ice” captures attention right off the bat with repetitive, syncopated techno percussion lines and subtle, computer-generated vowel chants of “E” and “I.” Indeed, this wouldn’t sound bad in a dance club, but it elevates well above that genre because of the somber, serious mood it creates. Later on the record, “Good Things End” further accentuates this tone, using even darker melodies above more repetitive rolling drum lines. Standout track “A Paw In My Face” builds slowly and evolves into one of the most melodic songs on the album, creating a downtempo, bittersweet tone perfect for background music at a gathering. Faster songs like “The Little Heart Beats So Fast” and “Everday” work better as dance party tunes, although they aren’t without their own tones of seriousness. This is music that can be used to have fun, but that isn’t why it was created. From the atmospheric electronic melodies on epic “The Deal” to the eerie syncopations of the astonishing “Mobilla”, From Here We Go Sublime stands true to its title, never wavering and never becoming the least bit disengaging. If there was ever an electronic album to prove to naysayers that beats and melodies created by computers can be intensely musical, this could be the one.

#8: Menomena/ Friend And Foe: On their third release, experimental indie rock band Menomema really knock the ball out of the park with Friend and Foe. The band uses custom software which they refer to as “deeler” to loop simple musical segments throughout entire songs. Leadman Brent Knopf writes the software and sings the songs, and the end result is an impressive album full of ideas and diverse tracks. “The Pelican” is a stomping, rolling track with all kinds of diverse musical elements, and really benefits from Knopf being at his most intense vocally. The best song on the album is “Wet and Rusting”, which sounds nothing like the first two in any way, enough to make one ponder if this even the same band. This mesmerizing track combines early piano elements into strumming acoustic guitar and looped drum beats and eventually combines all of these together to form perfectly executed layered rhythms. “Air Raid” follows gloriously with a more futuristic progression while the softer “Rotten Hell” provides the album’s prettiest melody behind soft piano keys before building into its most impressive and dramatic finish. Without a single weak track, Friend and Foe is, in the end, a remarkably consistent album thanks to its innovative musical arrangements, catchy melodies and strong lyrical quality throughout.

#7: The Twilight Sad/ Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters: One of the year’s best debut albums came from this quartet from Glasgow, Scotland whose name seems to perfectly capture the essence of its music. Using a unique style by intertwining shoegazer guitar with a story-telling Scottish folk style, The Twilight Sad delivers a record with compelling lyrics and a sound all its own. The album begins on a soft note with “Cold Days From the Birdhouse”, which starts sweetly and sadly before it picks up steam and builds into a startling crescendo. Lead singer James Graham is at his best on tracks like the amazing “That Summer, at Home I Had Become The Invisible Boy” where his ability to oscillate between soft, deep vocals and angst-filled screams add powerful emotion to the songs. Almost every song on this album uses a similar technique, starting slowly before building into a gut-wrenching climax that is usually accompanied by soaring shoegazer guitar work that mimics My Bloody Valentine. Towards the end of the album, songs like “Mapped By What Surrounded Them” show the band at its darkest and most hopeless, as pounding drumbeats create the backdrop for Graham’s wailing vocals before the track surrenders into the abyss. A real highlight here is “And She Would Darken The Memory” which seems upbeat compared to its company, beginning with a bonga-drum beat and evolving into a pure masterpiece behind perhaps the prettiest musical and vocal work on the album. After repeating the opening line several times softly early in the song, there is a moment where Graham absolutely shrieks the same line at a later point, which provided for me one of my favorite live moments of the year at the Pitchfork Music Festival. This isn’t music for the easy listener, but for those that enjoy music that conveys a lot of feeling and sounds incredibly good while doing so, I wouldn’t miss out on this one.

#6: Arcade Fire/ Neon Bible: Expectations couldn’t have been higher after the release of Funeral at the end of 2004 led many critics to crown the Arcade Fire as the second coming. On their sophomore effort, the band seems distraught in a more outward manner than on their first album, musically advanced but at times overly self-righteous and pretentious. Nevertheless, the introduction of new musical elements and the increased vocal prescence of Regine Chassagne help Neon Bible rise over all of its negativity. Engaging early on is “Keep The Car Running”, an old-fashioned, foot-stomping rock song with folky elements that we recognize from last time around. Probably my favorite thing about this album is the introduction of church-style organs to the music. One of the better tracks here is “Intervention”, the opening organ chords of which are reminiscent of orthodox style church hymns. However, what really holds this album together is the brilliance of “Ocean of Noise” in the dead middle. The band is happy to build slowly with light piano and vocals with elements of hopelessness before exploding into the best finish to a song Arcade Fire has ever produced, complete with wailing vocals and classical violin. At times, Neon Bible seems incredibly over-serious, and for any other band this might have been a disaster. But the Arcade Fire has an ability to exude its energy over even its own mood and its often over-the-top lyrics.

#5: Of Montreal/ Hissing Fauna Are You The Destroyer?: What a delightfully diverse and well-made album this is. It’s lyrically dark, but benefits from its unique style and comes off on the whole as rocky and incredibly interesting musically, complete with probably the most eye-catching album title in recent memory. “Suffer For Fashion” gets the album off to an upbeat, well-disguised cheery start behind circus-like Atari keyboards and a catchy melody. The poppy, tons-of-fun “Heimdalsgate Like A Promethan Curse” follows in the same style complete with seventh-inning-stretch organ and synthesized percussion. Slow grooves like “Gronlandic Edit” and “Faberge Falls For Shuggie” keep the album moving along smoothly, the latter adding eerie violin notes. The relative fun stops with the devastating album centerpiece and masterpiece “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal”, a twelve minute epic filled with pain in its universal and incredibly real lyrics. This was my favorite single song of 2007 due to its strong emotional delivery and complex musical layering. Meanwhile, highlight track “She’s A Rejector” sounds like a combination of a Franz Ferdinand guitar riff and vocals from The Rapture, and although shockingly different from the rest of the album is perfectly placed near the album’s conclusion. This track really rocks, yet carries a tone of sadness all the while. Overall, this is an incredibly interesting album that while sounding upbeat for the most part is actually upon repeated listens a dark album channeling deep inner pain. I suppose the combination of those two things make it all the more of an interesting listen.

#4: Deerhunter/ Cryptograms: The fantastic sophomore album from this Atlanta band makes an astounding argument to be crowned the greatest shoegazer-noise rock album since My Bloody Valentine’s epic Loveless. As the title would suggest, Cryptograms is a haunting, immaculately arranged work containing soaring melodies, rolling basslines and space-rock guitar punches. In the early stages of the album, Deerhunter seems content to progress at a snail’s pace, placing purely instrumental tracks intermittently throughout. In fact, out of the twelve tracks on the album, only seven are actual songs with lyrics (which are not always discernible). What makes Cryptograms such an accomplishment is the fact that those seven songs are all the album needs to attain immediate status as a classic, and the instrumental tracks in between add positive elements to both its complexity and its continuity (although foregoing those in favor of the tracks used on the amazing Flourescent Light EP might have raised this album’s ranking a notch or two.) On the title track, leadman Bradford Cox opens by speaking over transitive feedback, which is followed by the catchiest bass line in recent memory combined with a simple repetitive guitar riff which all eventually evolves into absolute musical chaos behind soaring electric guitar and heavy drum beats. Eerie guitar rings out over the devastating “Spring Hall Convert”, which is probably the best song on the album besides the title track. On the whole, Cryptograms combines elements of shoegazer, dream pop and noise rock almost perfectly into an album of pure beauty that concentrates more on the sum of its parts than on each individual track.

#3: Spoon/ Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga: It is truly amazing to me how easily Spoon continues to pump out such great music. On Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Spoon combines elements from all of its terrific previous work into short, intense, diverse pop-rock songs that pack serious punch, and the result is the band’s best album to date aside from 2002’s influential, stunning opus Kill The Moonlight. The album opens with that characteristic bluesy Spoon guitar grind on “Don’t Make Me a Target” as leadman Britt Daniel sings about “nuclear dicks with their dialect drawls.” As piano chords creep into the forefront about halfway through, the tune becomes all so familiar yet still incredibly refreshing. The devastating “The Ghost of You Lingers” follows and serves as this album’s “Paper Tiger”, using softly syncopated keyboard lines and eerie, echoing vocals to perfectly capture the mood of sadness that the song is intended to create. This song actually makes me want to cry. The short, poppy “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb” switches the mood quickly with its upbeat percussion and the addition of triumphant horns and tambourines, while the dancy “Don’t You Evah” draws comparison to past classics like “Turn My Camera On”, “Was It You” and “Stay Don’t Go”, using a rolling bassline and catchy percussion beneath upbeat guitars. The intense acoustic guitar on “Rhthm & Soul” bears resemblance to Gimme Fiction’s “I Summon You”, although I actually prefer this track to that one. Spoon really serves it up in the album’s second half, beginning with the album’s first single “The Underdog.” We see the band at its most triumphant here, as jangly guitar riffs and horns combine wonderfully to form one of the album’s strongest tracks. Penultimate track “Finer Feelings” keeps things moving with its tambourine percussion, jabbing bassline, hand-clap chorus and a bittersweetly hopeful lyric. “Black Like Me” closes the album with its beautiful melody and the unforgettably honest lyric “I’m in need of someone/ To take care of me tonight.” As the coda turns the regretful melancholy of the tune into a full-blown emotional break down, the album ends on a perfect note. Spoon has certainly found its own unique sense of musical perfection here, balancing bluesy piano, jabbing guitar lines, eerie syncopation and flat out enjoyable rock music all into one fantastic piece of work.

#2: LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver: Could this be the best dance rock album since–well, ever? The Rapture’s Echoes may still hold that honor, but with Sound of Silver, LCD Soundsystem has created its masterpiece. With this album, James Murphy has put together a relentless, high-octane dance record which at the same time feels decidedly musical- in and of itself, quite a combination. It is evident from the opening beats of the show-stopping opener “Get Innocuous” that Murphy has sharpened his art considerably. This opening track immediately tops the best of the last album (which is no small feat), combining catchy synth and heavy percussion beneath subdued, chanting vocals reminiscent of the Talking Heads. Playful songs like “Time to Get Away” and “Watch the Tapes” hold the album together nicely as strong dance tracks that sound more similar to the last album, while others like “North American Scum” take it a step further and provide shockingly intense beats and crescendo choruses all behind Murphy’s trademark spoken vocals. If you aren’t bouncing off the walls while listening to this one, there’s something wrong with you. However, what really will end up separating Sound of Silver from other albums released this decade is the complexity it gains from softer, melodic and poignant tracks such as “Someone Great”, “All My Friends” and “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down.” If Echoes defined perfection of the ill-fated dance-punk genre, this album defines the perfection in dance-pop. Without a single weak track, this record seems likely for a long shelf-life, and its innovation merits it deserving of a special place in music history. In fact, I had it cemented in the #1 slot until the big surprise happened….

#1: Radiohead/ In Rainbows: When the band announced on the first day of October that they would be releasing a brand new album nine days later, and without a label, it isn’t hard to imagine the frenzy that resulted from hard-core fans and the music industry at large, with some speculating that the peculiar release style was somewhat of a cover for the band’s inevitable musical decline. Leave it to Radiohead to shock everyone, in every way possible, once again. With In Rainbows, Radiohead achieves its most beautifully calculated collection of songs to date within an arrangement that flows as though it were a symphony, and the end result is their greatest album since Kid A. Thom Yorke’s voice has never sounded better, and the addition of string elements on many of the tracks flow together brilliantly, demonstrating the band’s reborn focus on the music itself and away from the experimentation that drove some fans away in recent years. Instead of retreating back to the arena-rock guitar that gave the band its beginnings, Radiohead enters new territory on this album, focusing on the pure beauty that they have always been able to create and stringing it together over an entire album.

Opener “15 Step” begins with syncopated drum beats that initially render memories of past experimental tracks, but once the catchy guitar riff comes in, we know we are in for a treat. Songs three through seven are easily the most amazing twenty minutes of consecutive music that Radiohead has recorded since the opening half of OK Computer. The onslaught of fantastic tunes begins with the long-awaited recording of crowd-favorite “Nude”, which has undergone quite a transition from its former condition. Radiohead nails it by recording a version that is hopelessly pretty beyond explanation. We get a full blast of orchestral string notes through the soft, intimately produced track, which carries itself on the strength of some of Yorke’s best vocal work to date. “Weird Fishes/ Arpeggi” follows with its rolling percussion, submerged-underwater guitar rhythms and some more great vocal work by Yorke, eventually building into a classic Radiohead crescendo and one of the album’s greatest surprises. And then there’s “All I Need”, which is probably my favorite song on the whole album. The track opens with a deep string arrangement, heavy bass and a dancy drum rhythm and rolls along with suave persistence. What could have been a simple romantic tune succeeds as one of the band’s greatest songs ever behind glockenspiel notes, deep strings and an eerie simplicity before exploding into a piano-based crescendo supporting Yorke’s soaring vocals the likes of which we haven’t heard from these guys since “Let Down.”

The mysterious “Faust Arp” and its downtempo Beatles-esque acoustic tune integrates some of the album’s best use of string instruments and serves as the album’s perfect glue. The next track is titled “Reckoner” but bears no resemblance whatsoever to the unreleased track of the same name that the band has played on numerous occasions live. And to say that the new “Reckoner” is better is a massive understatement. Yorke sings in falsetto on a high octave throughout the seemingly redundant but impossibly beautiful first half of the song before the tune slows down to a crawl and picks back up again with more strings, tambourines and more great vocal work by Yorke. After that, the band hits us with a jangly, upbeat tune called “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” which outdoes previous post-Bends attempts at guitar-rock such as “Go To Sleep” in terms of intensity and musical quality while still flowing wonderfully with the album’s somber tone. Closer “Videotape” is almost frustrating in its simple beauty and seemingly intentional lack of building into anything that resembles the crescendo that listeners have come to expect from previous closers. Again, the beauty of Radiohead lies within their ability to shock and amaze and always keep the listener guessing as to what they could possibly have up their sleeves next. This album is simply crushing, and I’d be amazed if anyone makes anything better for at least five years.

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