Don Yates, Music Director of KEXP
I’m fortunate enough to be able to hear a ton of music every year, but I wouldn’t pretend to have heard everything worthwhile -- there’s way too much music released nowadays for anyone to listen to all of it. Still, I’m happy to share my favorites, even though ranking them this year seemed more arbitrary than usual. Not very many of them shared much in common, beyond me liking them a lot. So while I wouldn’t consider it all to be set in stone, what follows are some of my favorite albums of this year.
1. M.I.A. - Kala (Interscope)
M.I.A. took a huge leap forward on her second album, combining hip hop, club music and occasional rock references with a dizzying variety of other styles from around the world for a sound that evoked a lively street corner in a major international city, with her deadpan vocals cutting through the hustle and bustle with lyrics ranging from the playful to the politically provocative. Pop music that’s genuinely cutting-edge, even revolutionary.
2. Miranda Lambert - Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Sony/BMG)
One of the biggest problems with modern country music is excessive timidity, which makes the artistic fearlessness of this fiery Texan all the more admirable. She’s also fast turning into a great country songwriter who’s equally convincing at playing the small-town rebel or a vulnerable dumped lover.
3. Bettye LaVette - The Scene of the Crime (Anti-)
The veteran soul singer continued her artistic renaissance with this masterful album that finds her taking songs from a variety of sources ranging from Willie Nelson to Elton John and transforming them into deeply personal tales of revenge, sorrow, affirmation and redemption. The Drive-By Truckers provide surprisingly supple accompaniment (aided by the great soul keyboardist Spooner Oldham), but the focal point is LaVette’s powerful singing.
4. The Whore Moans - Watch Out For This Thing (Wizard House)
In another great year for Northwest rock, this Seattle band rose to the top with a knockout combo of classic garage-rock riffs and screaming hardcore punk intensity. No other band provided more rock ‘n’ roll thrills for me this year than these guys, and I plan on ending the year how it began, with the Whore Moans tearing it up live at the Sunset.
5. Bruce Springsteen - Magic (Columbia)
With indie-rock bands like the Hold Steady, the National and Arcade Fire all embracing Springsteen’s influence, the man himself returns to his classic E Street Band sound on his best record in a couple decades, with poignant songs painting a bleak portrait of a country that’s lost its way due to an unnecessary war, a climate of fear and diminished opportunities.
6. Wu-Tang Clan - 8 Diagrams (SRC/Universal Motown)
The first album in six years from the legendary Staten Island crew is one of the year’s boldest and most adventurous hip hop records. While all of the group’s rappers are in fine form (and Method Man is much more than that), the RZA steals the show with some of his most cinematic production, creating trippy, almost psychedelic soundscapes that are as intricately crafted as they are borderline bizarre.
7. Arcade Fire - Neon Bible (Merge)
This Montreal band’s debut album was rooted in personal concerns, particularly the deaths of loved ones. This time around they look outward under the influence of Springsteen, and like him, they cast a critical eye at a world gone wrong, though their often-rousing music provides some hope and perhaps even a call to action.
8. The Valley - The Valley (self-released)
Hearkening back prime Sub Pop bands like the Fluid, Seaweed and Mudhoney, this Seattle band follows up their debut album with a monster 6-song EP featuring a bone-crushing sound driven by noisy, scuzzy guitar and massive song hooks.
9. Roger Wallace - It’s About Time (Natchez Street)
The Austin honky tonker adopts a more stripped-down sound on his latest album, while also confidently exploring a wider variety of styles with his most consistently strong set of songs to date.
10. The White Stripes - Icky Thump (Warner Bros)
One of their most adventurous, hardest-rocking and just plain fun albums, with the focus on Jack’s squealing guitar riffs complemented by Meg’s primal thump.
11. Kanye West - Graduation (Roc-A-Fella)
While he’ll never be known as one of the world’s great rappers, Kanye continues to shine as a producer. On his third album, he masterfully blends his trademark warm soul grooves with European electro-house and techno synth textures and an even broader range of cleverly used samples ranging from Laura Nyro and Mountain to Can and Daft Punk.
12. pleasureboaters - gross (Don’t Stop Believin’)
This young Seattle band’s explosive debut combines postpunk-influenced dance-rock with aggressive garage-punk and angular Fugazi hardcore into an intricate sonic maelstrom that’s still catchy and danceable enough to move the crowd.
13. Amy Winehouse - Back to Black (Universal Republic)
Put aside this young British singer’s never-ending personal troubles, and you’ll find one of the year’s most distinctive soul albums, with a sound steeped in ’60s R&B but updated with bits of hip hop and reggae. She’s also a fearless songwriter and a remarkable singer with a brassy tone and confident phrasing that sound years beyond her young age.
14. Jay-Z - American Gangster (Roc-A-Fella)
Taking inspiration from the film of the same name, Jay-Z gets back to what he does best, though his drug-dealing tales are now more reflective than they were in his youth. Lyrically, he’s in peak form, delivering a variety of clever, tongue-twisting rhymes with peerless authority and an untouchable flow. He also takes time to answer rap’s critics with a savvy defense of artistic expression.
15. Les Savy Fav - Let’s Stay Friends (Frenchkiss)
While this Brooklyn band’s previous records contained plenty of brilliant moments, this is their most consistently strong recording and also their best-sounding, with the band adding a few new pop tricks to their bracing blend of angular post-punk and Fugazi hardcore.
16. LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver (Capitol)
Sound of Silver is not only a great dance club album filled with New Wave funk scorchers, it’s also a first-rate set of pop songs. James Murphy improves upon his fine debut with a broader, more fully realized sound, stronger vocals and a variety of emotionally resonant songs that strike deep.
17. Feral Children - Second to the Last Frontier (Buffalo Shoe)
With roots in the small town of Maple Valley, this Seattle band shares some similarities to the ramshackle sound and alienated lyrical sensibility of Modest Mouse, but combined with the communal vibe of tribal freak-folk and the explosive rage of punk.
18. Burial - Untrue (Hyperdub)
My favorite late-night album of the year, bringing together hazy production, tricky two-step beats, atmospheric synths, assorted mysterious sound effects and manipulated R&B vocals buried deep in the mix for a spectral sound that gets deep under the skin.
19. Eilen Jewell - Letters from Sinners & Strangers (Signature Sounds)
The debut from this Boise-raised, Boston-based singer was a pleasant outing of heartfelt country-folk, but she follows it up with an excellent album that’s more tough, raw, bluesy and soulful. The album’s barroom blend of western swing, rockabilly, honky tonk and Jimmie Rodgers blues ends up being a great fit for her airy, sultry vocals.
20. Black Eyes & Neckties - Apparition! (Clickpop)
This Bellingham band proudly carries on the dark garage-punk tradition of the Murder City Devils, with a fierce blend of loud, buzzing guitars, spooky organ lines, pummeling rhythms, gravelly, shouted vocals and horror-inspired lyrics.
21. Dyme Def - Space Music (Soul Gorilla)
This young Seattle trio gets back to basics on their high-energy debut of straight-up hip hop, with one of Seattle’s great beatmasters Bean One providing hard-hitting production for their brash, street-smart battle raps. The Seattle hip hop scene was red-hot in 2007 with a number of high-profile shows and other excellent albums from Blue Scholars, Grayskul, Cancer Rising, the Physics and
Gabriel Teodros, and it shows no signs of slowing down in 2008.
22. Parts & Labor - Mapmaker (Jagjaguwar)
While their adventurous, percussion-driven sound is still loaded with lots of electronic and guitar noise, these Brooklyn noisemakers tighten things up with stronger melodies, relatively more conventional song structures, anthemic choruses and massive song hooks for a powerful rock album that would make Husker Du proud.
23. Ghostface Killah - The Big Doe Rehab (Def Jam)
The latest from the Wu-Tang rapper isn’t as strong as last year’s classic album Fishscale (or Supreme Clientele, for that matter), but it’s still loaded with a variety of soul-flavored hip hop bangers that place GFK’s engrossing street stories and high-anxiety rapping front-and-center.
24. Grinderman - Grinderman (Anti-)
The debut album from this project featuring Nick Cave backed by a slimmed-down version of the Bad Seeds contains some of the rawest, most brutal recordings Cave has made since the Birthday Party. He also contributes some dark, unsettling ballads, but at the heart of the album is primitive, bluesy garage-rock laced with menace and seething lust, but also leavened with some knowing winks at the absurdity of playing a middle-aged rock ‘n’ roll animal.
25. Tim Armstrong - A Poet’s Life (Hellcat)
The first solo album from the frontman for punk band Rancid is an endearingly loose and scruffy take on the classic Jamaican sounds of ska, rock steady and early reggae. Accompanied by the Aggrolites, Armstrong hearkens back to classic British two-tone acts like the Specials and the Selector for some of the most easily enjoyable songs of his career.