Top 5 (Favorite) Albums of 2007

Note: The title states “Favorite”, not “Best”.

I must admit. I slept on a lot of albums this year (Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible and BattlesMirrored are just two examples). For some reason I kept reaching for older (not necessarily old) stuff in 2007.

In no particular order:

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Travis
The Boy With No Name
[Sony Records; May 8, 2007]

The boys from Glasgow, Scotland reclaimed their mid-tempo crown with this 2007 offering. Although it’s not their best album (that would be The Man Who) or their 2nd best either (that’s The Invisible Band), it brought them back together with producer extraordinaire, Nigel Godrich, after self-producing their previous politically motivated lackluster (at least for them) effort, 12 Memories (I didn’t think 12 Memories was that bad, but public – and my sister’s – opinion was not as kind. I admit, one listens to Travis to laugh and weep all at once. We don’t necessarily care about their politics).

The opportunity to see them live on a hot summer Monday night at the House of Blues in Orlando did not pass me by. While most were ending the first day of their dreadful workweek, my cohorts and I were on our way north on the Florida Turnpike to get a close-up glimpse (50 feet?) of the band that headlined the 2000 Glastonbury Festival in front of 100,000 of their closest friends. $30.37 very well spent.

The Boy With No Name skips over 12 Memories and picks up right where The Invisible Band left off. The album’s first five cuts stand out – with “Selfish Jean” (a pun on Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene), an upbeat head bopper, and “Battleships”, a romantic comedy, my two favorites. Ode-to-New York City closer, “New Amsterdam”, makes reference to Jean-Michel Basquiat and calls out Bob Dylan by his real name.

That’s cute.

To all my female readers, if your significant other hasn’t played Travis for you on your way home from dinner, beer, and a movie, question his manhood… and call me later…much, much later.

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El-P
I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead
[Def Jux; March 20, 2007]

The first time I ever heard Brooklynite El-P‘s (aka El Producto) voice, he was claiming mustard as his favorite flavor of gas and telling listeners that HE was America on Company Flow’s Soundbombing II track, “Patriotism”.

I became a fan.

After dropping 2002’s underground smash solo debut, Fantastic Damage, El-P (birth name Jamie Meline – son of jazz pianist, Harry Keys) took a 5-year hiatus before releasing this well-conceived album. Tackling relevant themes of paranoia, science fiction, and an apocalyptic future, El-P unapologetically frightens you to death, gives you a glimpse of hope, and then cuts the string all over again with his dark humor and use of vivid metaphors. While there are plenty of guest appearances – The Mars Volta, Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif, Trent Reznor, and Cat Power – El-P treats them more like tasteful subtle collaborations. If you don’t pay close attention, you miss their contributions to the album.

The production on this album contains a lot of what we’ve come to expect from El-P’s beats – dense, dark, and scary with off-kilter percussion and snippets of disturbing sounds. However, with I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, El-P manages to “break your neck” and even move your feet in ways I’ve never experienced Mr. Meline.

I’m never comfortable around El-P. One never feels completely safe. It’s akin to riding The Haunted Mansion at Disney World circa 1981. I knew I was going to sh*t in my pants, but I willingly kept getting back in line.

Add an album cover influenced by Alexander Calder and…

His live show on the eve of I’ll Sleep’s… record release at Studio A in Park West the week of WMC was very refreshing. It was also well attended – especially for a Monday night. The mostly local crowd consisted heavily of the usual faces one is accustomed to seeing at an underground hip hop show – backpackers, breakers, graf writers, indie kids (hate that phrase), DJs, aspiring emcees, and a Realtor®.

The lead single, “Flyentology“, should tickle your fancy, as should “Up All Night”, “Habeas Corpses”, and “EMG”.

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Kings of Leon
Because of the Times
[RCA Records; April 3, 2007]

“I don’t care what nobody says, we’re gonna have a baby.”

And so begins album #3 from these American rock-n-rollers hailing from the Music City – Nashville, Tennessee – and parts of Oklahoma. By now “the story” – 3 home-schooled sons of a Deep South-traveling Pentecostal minister get together with a guitar-wielding cousin and start a band – has worn off. The focus is on the music. At least it should be.

Relatively anonymous in the States, the Kings of Leon continue to be hailed and praised in England and other parts of Europe. A band’s band, KOL was chosen by legendary rockers, U2, to be the opening act of their 2005 tour of the United States. While their country and American southern roots are just as evident in Because of the Times as they were in 2003’s Youth & Young Manhood and 2005’s Aha Shake Hearbreak, rocking alongside U2 majorly influenced this latest offering.

Everyone got tighter on this album. Lead guitarist Matthew Followill sounds like “The Edge stars in Deliverance” with hints of Jimmy Page, while bass player Jared Followill gets funkier and provides the spaced and rhythmic tones necessary for drummer Nathan to show off some of the crispest percussioning I’ve heard in quite some time (see McFearless). Then there’s lead singer Caleb Followill’s voice. A voice that sounds like – well – Caleb Followill. One minute it’s southern twang, the next minute it’s a sweet hush, and 30 seconds later it’s nails on a chalkboard. One constant, however, is that it remains unmistakable.

Highlights include album opener “Knocked Up“, “Charmer”, the aforementioned “McFearless”, and “Ragoo”.

Seeing KOL live in Atlanta’s amazing concert hall, Tabernacle – once upon a time a Baptist church – proved to be the musical highlight of my summer.

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Kanye West
Graduation
[Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam Records; September 11, 2007]

Remember when hip hop slipped into a coma (way before Nas claimed that hip hop is dead)? I do. I mean, how did we get from Tribe’s “Electric Relaxation” to an MTV-proof formulaic club banger dressed in grossly oversized clothing and platinum jewelry chauffered by a fancy European export sitting on glossy 24″ rims with a barely dressed video “ho” in tow? Dropping a “hot single” in the iTunes era is now the norm. The old-fashioned idea of putting together an album, long ago, fell out of favor.

Fast forward to 2004. Just as I was getting ready to deliver my eulogy to hip hop, the Louis Vuitton Don becomes a College Dropout. Back came the sweet sounds of the intricate soulful samples once “popularized” by the likes of Pete Rock, Prince Paul, and RZA. I didn’t shred my speech. I just filed it away in a safe place (por si las moscas).

After dropping out of college and filing a Late Registration in 2005, Kanye West, a Chicagoan (just thought I’d point that out), blessed us late in the 3rd quarter of ’07 with his finest studio album to date, Graduation. Love ’em or hate ’em (remember what he said after Hurricane Katrina? A lot of people I know didn’t like that), no one can deny the man’s talent and creative genius. You don’t necessarily buy a Kanye West album to hear him “spit”. It’s not that he’s a slouch behind the mic – he’s not. It’s just that while he’s witty, honest, and intelligent with his rhymes, his beats are hot butter for your breakfast toast.

With Graduation, Kanye proudly shows off his wide array of musical influences. Who else (besides M.I.A – maybe) can successfully pull off sampling Daft Punk (on smash single,”Stronger”), Can (on “Drunk and Hot Girls”) and Labi Siffre (on “I Wonder”), feature guest appearances as diverse as Lil Wayne, Mos Def and Chris Martin, and share co-production duties with the likes of DJ Toomp and Jon Brion (who co-produced all of Late Registration)?

Many laughed when Mr. West stated that he aspired to become the biggest pop artist since Michael Jackson and sell out stadiums, not arenas, worldwide.

I didn’t.

Sidebar: M.I.A.‘s Kala could have been on this list. However, I feel that her 2005 debut, Arular, was superior. Nevertheless, for those who like old school Miami bass (like I do) and/or electronica and/or just plain good music (like I do), she might be a fit. Go get it!

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Radiohead
In Rainbows
[Self-released; October 10, 2007]

As if expressing genuine emotion with beautiful and complex imagery wasn’t difficult enough, the guys from Radiohead – the Brits from Oxfordshire – decide to make the RIAA uncomfortable by conducting a rather bold social experiment with the release of their latest (this their seventh) studio album.

For those not familiar with the experiment, Thom Yorke & Co. made the entire album available as a digital download through their website, www.inrainbows.com on October 10, 2007.

The price tag? None. Radiohead asked fans to pay what they thought the album was worth to them. If it sucks, you pay nothing. If you love it, pull out the AMEX.

Clearly, most people that purchased the album paid much less than the $13.99 they would have shelled out at Best Buy. Actually, according to a November 6, 2007 Newsfactor.com article on the subject (keep in mind that the album was available online until December 10th), nearly two-thirds of those who downloaded the music paid nothing at all, while 38% chose to pay amounts ranging from a single penny to $20. Those who voluntarily paid, paid an average of $6 for the album. All in all, Radiohead grossed $2.62 for each copy of the album that was electronically distributed the first 29 days of the experiment. You do the math: 1.2 million downloads at $2.62 per copy = $3,144,000.00. Not bad for a band that makes most of its money performing live in front of sold out crowds.

While media buzz surrounding previous albums like Hail to the Thief, Kid A, and OK Computer built anticipation for the upcoming release, the only marketing involved with this digital release was an announcement on the band’s blog on October 1, 2007.

Which led one to believe – are they purposely downplaying the release of this album? After 12 years of releasing classic upon classic (I begin with 1995’s The Bends), has Radiohead lost its mojo? Is Radiohead (musically-speaking) preparing to become the post-Achtung Baby U2?

Upon inserting my copy of In Rainbows,

Sidebar: I did not purchase the digital release of In Rainbows. A colleague, Manny Ramirez – not the RBI machine for the Boston Red Sox with 490 career home runs and 1,604 RBIs, the one with RED I Mortgage – presented me with a copy while sitting in front of my computer one morning. I wasn’t even aware that Radiohead was releasing a new album at the time. Gracias, Manuel. Eres un caballero y un erudito (somehow that doesn’t translate as well as I’d like it to).

into slot #1 of my 6-CD changer, two things immediately became evident. Radiohead is no U2 (thank goodness for that) and a social experiment has no bearing on music. Content is and always will be king.

Album opener, “15 Steps”, at first, feels like a page out of Kid A with drum loops and an electronica sound. However, once Jonny Greenwood’s guitar comes in at about the 42-second mark, you not only realize that this is no Kid A, you realize that “15 Steps” is the introduction to Radiohead’s reinvention – yet again.

“Bodysnatcher”starts off as a fast-paced thriller – complete with that signature Jonny Greenwood riff – that can and should be played at every Park West club at 6:00 am after every club kid has taken his/her 5th roll of the night (I’d love to witness that). That is until it reaches about the 2-minute mark and the same guitar takes you on a different acoustical journey – which is what Radiohead manages to do with every single one of their albums. One minute your head’s about to sever from your neck and the next minute the sound of Thom Yorke’s beautiful falsetto and harmonious background vocals forms a knot in your throat.

I managed to stay tear-free with the melodic “Nude” before I approached track #4, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”, which brings out the best of Phil Selway’s drums behind crescendoing arpeggios and Thom Yorke’s confession: “I get eaten by the worms | and weird fishes”. I emphathize.

The middle of the album provides you with a much needed recess after all that emotion. “Faust Arp”, “Reckoner”, and “House of Cards” show you the soft and soulful side of the band before speeding things up again with album highlight, “Jigsaw Falling into Place”, and ending it on a somber note (of course) with the melancholic, but pretty “Videotape”.

I used to have a hard time anwering the question: “What’s your favorite band”?

The Strokes hold a very special place in my heart because of the timing of their debut – Is This It?, Julian Casablanca’s talented songwriting, and the energy felt at their live shows, but crowning your favorite band means that there is no other band better than that band.

Answering that question is difficult no more.

Adrian Salgado is a realtor associate with RED I Realty in Miami, FL and can be reached at 305-491-7179 or emailed at SalgadoA@gmail.com.

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