Ann Powers: Prince and other royal treats
In October, I published a list of what I thought most other critics would put on their 2007 Top 10s. My predictions are panning out, though I should have ranked LCD Soundsystem higher and recognized that few would grasp that Rihanna's more than a singles artist. Understandably, some readers thought that list represented my own faves. Here's the real rundown of what made me happiest this year:
Prince at the Roosevelt: It cost your monthly mortgage to get into the Purple One's exclusive run at the Hollywood hotel, and it was worth it. He was relaxed, virtuosic, hilarious and unmatchably cool.
So Much Soul: Amy Winehouse hogged the spotlight, but soulful music was everywhere this year. Sharon Jones, Bettye LaVette and Mavis Staples showed that older really can be wiser; superwoman Alicia Keys and suave boys such as Ne-Yo and the Dream led the younger set toward new heights.
Stagecoach: Year 1 for the country Coachella offered a dazzling array of acts, including bluegrass greats, rocker chicks and (naturally) Willie Nelson. Every stage was stellar, and the manageable crowds made it easy to jump around. Will it ever be this good again?
Booty-Shaking Brainiacs: Indie-rock nerds and club kids completed their merger. Electro-pop geeks Hot Chip slayed at Coachella, M.I.A. and LCD Soundsystem outdid themselves, and Kanye West's "Stronger" reinserted Daft Punk's cartoon disco into everyone's hard drive.
"What Hurts the Most," sung by Jeffrey Steele at the Key Club back in February. I always thought the Rascal Flatts hit co-penned by this Sunset Strip rocker turned Nashvillean was pretty cheesy. But Steele's heartbreaking rendition at a songwriter's panel days after his teenage son's accidental death proved what millions of Flatts fans already knew: Sometimes a cheesy pop song is the sweetest salve.
Ladies of the (Silver) Lake: Somewhere between Joni Mitchell and Mia Doi Todd, L.A. became the most fruitful place on Earth to be a female singer-songwriter. Releases from pals Eleni Mandell, Becky Stark (of Lavender Diamond) and Inara George (with the Bird and the Bee) were all stunners. And that's just the tip of the eyeliner.
"I'm Not There": Trickster auteur Todd Haynes dived headfirst into the Dylanesque to make this not-a-biopic and produced a music nerd's dream. Part interactive trivia game, part tragic love story, part weird American myth, it's a beautiful, curly headed film.
Rihanna, "Umbrella": Her summer smash is delicious Caribbean hip-hop soul with the ('ella, 'ella, 'ella) hook of the year. Best is the song's compassion, something rarely expressed in the sex-and-power games of contemporary R&B.
The Radiohead Revolution: It didn't change everything, but the U-Price-It download of "In Rainbows," the latest album from these great art-rockers, was a brave display of faith and optimism.
Oh, and some favorite musical product, in no particular order: Santogold, "Creator"; Of Montreal, "Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?"; PJ Harvey, "White Chalk"; Patty Griffin, "Children Running Through"; Lil' Wayne, "Da Drought 3" mix tape; Bloc Party, "A Weekend in the City"; Herbie Hancock, "River: The Joni Letters"; Robin Thicke, "Lost Without U"; Betty Davis, "Betty Davis" and "They Say I'm Different" reissues; Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, "Falling Slowly."
Britney's meltdown, obviously.Also, Kelly Clarkson's struggle to claim her voice left everyone involved looking either cold or foolish. And the otherwise admirable Avril Lavigne offered up "Girlfriend" -- a despicable slice of competitive female nastiness that rewrites "girl power" as a game of "get the boy."
Richard Cromelin: Brits abound in year's pop
I guess the Brits are back from that post-Oasis lull. My 10 favorite albums of 2007 include five from English artists, not counting patriarch Robert Plant's collaboration with Alison Krauss, and easily could have
included this year's collections by the Arctic Monkeys, Jamie T., Lily Allen and PJ Harvey, among others. America's own Kanye West and the White Stripes represented the hip-hop and rock genres most proudly, with little notable competition (Kanye's label chief Jay-Z came close with his "American Gangster"-inspired epic). Though the Arcade Fire is based in Montreal, the band's leader Win Butler hails from the U.S., so we can split that vote.
Arcade Fire, "Neon Bible" (Merge)
Radiohead, "In Rainbows" (no label)
The Klaxons, "Myths of the Near Future" (Astralwerks)
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, "Raising Sand" (Rounder)
Kanye West, "Graduation" (Roc-a-Fella)
M.I.A., "Kala" (Interscope)
The White Stripes, "Icky Thump" (Third Man/Warner Bros.)
Bloc Party, "A Weekend in the City" (Vice)
Simian Mobile Disco, "Attack Decay Sustain Release (Wichita)
Vusi Mahlasela, "Guiding Star" (ATO)
Agustin Gurza: Latin pop expands boundaries
Calle 13, "Residente of Visitante" (Sony). The devilish duo from Puerto Rico is more mature though no less outrageous in its sophomore effort, expanding the boundaries of urban Latino with two of the most memorable songs of the year -- the deliciously seductive "Tango del Pecado" and the gritty immigrant anthem "Pal Norte," with a chorus by the Cuban hip-hop trio Orishas.
Juanes, "La Vida Es . . . Un Ratico" (Universal). The Colombian star returns to form with an emotionally and sonically charged album infused with hope and determination in the face of personal and social turmoil.
Manu Chao, "La Radiolina" (Nacional). A layered, loopy sequence of melodies and themes runs through the latest solo album from the Barcelona-based, Paris-bred musician, unifying threads of his eclectic style into a commanding statement.
Federico Aubele, "Panamericana" (ESL Music). This Argentine singer-songwriter takes inspiration from the Pan American Highway to create an album that connects cultural threads traversing the continent (bolero, tango, reggae) while bringing nostalgia, plus a warm Spanish guitar, to his cool electronica.
Kevin Johansen, "Logo" (Sony BMG). The droll baritone from Argentina via Alaska finds his voice again in this delightful bilingual work that uses cumbia, tango, folk and (U.S.) country as musical vehicles for his smart, satirical writing.
Randy Lewis: Country music's finest moments
Old-school legends and new crossover projects helped define a quality year for the genre.
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, "Raising Sand" (Rounder). The roaring mouthpiece of hard rock meets the heavenly voice of bluegrass somewhere between the craggy hollers of Appalachia and the forest depths of time immemorial.
Mary Gauthier, "Between Daylight and Dark" (Lost Highway). It matters not whether this singer-songwriter's often harrowing tales relate real-life situations or people -- the emotions they elicit are as genuine as humanly possible.
Steve Earle, "Washington Square Serenade" (New West). The Texas singer-songwriter offers his take on life in the big city in this New York-rooted excursion in which his skills as a social observer and commentator are equaled by his passion for the plight of the downtrodden or forgotten.
Porter Wagoner, "Wagonmaster" (Anti-). This Grand Ole Opry stalwart died in October, but he couldn't have gone out on a better note than this lively and moving swan song shepherded by his friend and collaborator Marty Stuart.
Merle Haggard, "The Bluegrass Sessions" (McCoury Music). Country's greatest living poet surrounds himself with fiddles, mandolins and acoustic guitars in a tradition-minded outing that is up to the minute in his social critiques and timeless in his takes on the human condition.
Soren Baker: Hip-hop showing social awareness
Kanye West, "Graduation" (Roc-A-Fella). The Chicagoan's famous brashness rivals his musical prowess on this stellar album.
Common, "Finding Forever" (Geffen). After 15 years in the business, the Chicago rapper hits a smooth, socially aware stride.
Talib Kweli, "Eardrum" (Warner Bros.). The Brooklyn rapper's winning mix of lively wordplay and political commentary makes this collection linger long after the music stops.
WC, "Guilty by Affiliation" (Lench Mob). The Los Angeles-based rapper's latest is an exemplary example of thinking man's gangster rap.
Consequence, "Don't Quit Your Day Job!" (G.O.O.D./Columbia). Blue-collar rhymes from this Kanye West affiliate shows that rap isn't only about flash and bling.
Don Heckman: Jazz stars past, present and future
Michael Brecker "Pilgrimage" (Telarc). There's a tendency to give sentimental credibility to recordings released after an artist's death. But this is a major recording by a major artist, even though it was Brecker's last -- a stunning epilogue to a brilliant, far too short career.
Charles Mingus Sextet With Eric Dolphy: "Cornell 1964" (Blue Note). Newly discovered, this is sheer gold -- historic performances by one of the very finest ensembles Mingus ever led. Best of all, there is extraordinary playing -- on alto saxophone, bass clarinet and flute -- from Dolphy, who died 12 weeks after the gig at age 36.
Maria Schneider "Sky Blue" (ArtistShare). Schneider's usual atmospheric blend of big-band sounds is tempered here with simmering rhythms and some showcase soloing. And in "Cerulean Skies," the CD's epic central piece, she announces a fascinating expansion of her already masterful composition skills.
Joshua Redman "Back East" (Nonesuch). As the median age range of marquee jazz players continues to rise, saxophonist Redman, at 38, is one of the rare under-40 musicians who are making waves. "Back East" displays his ability to star in the difficult saxophone-bass-drums instrumental format.
Robert Glasper "In My Element" (Blue Note). Combining the inventiveness of jazz with the beats and accents of rap and hip-hop isn't exactly a revelation. But few of the young artists working at distilling the disparate elements can match Glasper's success at reaching out to audiences of each genre.
Don Heckman: World music reveals global connections
Youssou N'Dour, "Rokku Mi Rokka" (Nonesuch). The irresistible appeal of N'Dour's emotion-laden voice and irresistibly body-moving music has reached well beyond the arena of African music. In "Rokku Mi Rokka" he explores the compelling links between Africa and the slave-generated sounds of the Western hemisphere.
Gilberto Gil, "Gil Luminoso" (DRG Brazil). Released in Brazil in 1999, "Gil Luminoso" is his first collection of solo voice and guitar performances. And the only question is why it took so long for these intimate sophisticated performances to find their way north.
Angelique Kidjo, "Djin Djin" (Razor & Tie Direct/Starbucks Entertainment). Although Kidjo can carry any program on her own, she once again has an all-star supporting cast via duets with, among others, Josh Groban, Peter Gabriel, Ziggy Marley and Carlos Santana. Don't miss her romp through "Gimme Shelter" with Joss Stone.
Shahram and Hafez Nazeri, "The Passion of Rumi" (Quartertone Productions). The extraordinary vocals of Iran's much-honored Shahram Nazeri are stunningly combined with his son Hafez's blend of Middle Eastern musical structures and the sounds and textures of Western orchestration.
Various artists, "Sound of the World" (Warner Classics). Accurately titled, it's a two-CD mini-tour through world music, featuring 33 artists from 30 countries -- among them Mali's Vieux Farka Touré, Berlin's 17 Hippies, Argentina's Gotan Project and Belize's Andy Palacio. An eminently listenable starting point for world-music newbies.
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