Here's the last in a four-part series revealing my choices for the Top 20 records of 2007. Feel free to submit your own list to firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll strongly consider posting it.
1. Christian Kiefer
– Dogs & Donkeys (Undertow
) The first thing that comes to mind when I listen to this is that it approximates early ‘70s Neil Young, which to me approximates godliness. Not that this is a ripoff; a lot of great stuff just happens to sound like that. Now according to the label Web site this record was wholly written about economics. Apparently, Kiefer is a noted avant-gardist and I suppose this concept would qualify as that. But there’s not much that unusual in the grooves except for how good this is. It’s hard to pick highlights—nearly every track shares a palpable power with simple but compelling instrumentation and Kiefer’s at times enthralling voice. If I had to pick one, I’d say “Fisher King,” though it’s a little more Desire-era Dylan than Neil. Or maybe “Slow Rivers,” which you could mistake for Calexico. But this album’s consistency and integrity are among its many fine points. If this is a concept album, it is a rare one that works virtually to perfection. Probably because it’s about something everyone can relate to. Err… But, seriously, an amazing record and a great triumph for Christian Kiefer. 2. Or, the Whale – Light Poles and Pines A shockingly strong debut from this San Francisco band that combines proclivity for great roots tunes with enough ingenuity to dismiss any thought of derivation or convention. “Death of Me” is one of the most perfect country songs I have ever heard without sounding out of place in the 21st century. Ditto with “Gonna Have To.” This is real, authentic modern heartbreak music. Brilliant multi-part harmonies and hot licks on a varied array of instruments are all over. The kind of record that makes feeling bad feel good. Simply wonderful. 3. Great Lake Swimmers – Ongiara (Nettwerk) After two pleasantly nondescript albums that exemplify the most sympathetic connotation of “sleep inducing,” Toronto’s Tony Dekker and his sidemen wake us up a bit here. Sure, album opener “Your Rocky Spine” doesn’t exactly make you wanna pump your fist, but it’s enough to get your head bobbing a little bit. In the mold of Will Oldham or Jason Molina, Dekker’s Appalachian-tinged coo contains a delicate texture that some instrumental accoutrements only accentuate. When it is weaved amongst the banjo, cello, steady snare beat, and background vocals on “Backstage with the Modern Dancers,” the real eye-opener occurs, and the rest is just as beautiful. Dekker has found the proper formula for presenting his formerly stark sketches that sets him apart from the multitude of sheepish folkies. 4. Okkervil River – The Stage Names (Jagjaguwar) I would call this a return to form for this great Austin band if it weren’t so different from their past work. Songwriter/frontman Will Sheff trades in his confessional tack for a literary one, a process that I suppose may have begun on the group’s curious 2005 Black Sheep Boy releases, but just didn’t come off. Here it is wall to wall great songs, including the eminently ingenious “Plus Ones.” But more than that, this record just has a different feeling than past releases. This is the first Okkervil release I would really describe as a rock record, though certainly not every track has the Bowie swagger of “Unless It’s Kicks,” and the stunningly beautiful country-baroque “A Girl In Port” harkens strongly to earlier days and is the most striking track here. But there are plenty of pleasant surprises here for fans, not least of which is the manic reading of “Sloop John B.” incorporated into the closing “John Allyn Smith Sails,” on which Jonathan Meiburg’s soaring harmonies—magnificent throughout—particularly shine. 5. Damon & Naomi – Within These Walls (20-20-20) As aging hipsters continue to romanticize Galaxie 500 17 years after that band’s demise, most unjustly fail to note that its former rhythm section has put together a catalog that far outstrips its forerunner’s depth and quality. Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang’s sixth duo album is perhaps their best and certainly their most majestic, given its departure from their often minimalist arrangements. Both have developed into absolutely enchanting vocalists over the years and effortlessly weave lilting melodies around their own accomplished instrumentation and exemplary contributions from guitarist Michio Kurihara and sax player Bhob Rainey.