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Critics' Picks for 2007

Backbeat scribes sound off on their favorite releases of the past year.

Music critics are completely full of crap. Or they're insightful, intuitive and completely reliable. It all depends on your perspective and individual sensibilities, I guess.

A while back, I pointed this out to my friend Ian, a local engineer who makes records for a living, encouraging him not to take it too personally if someone trashes something he's poured his heart and soul into. Just because one person pans an album doesn't mean it's bad.

Still, when pressed, critics will argue to the death, staunchly and zealously defending our assessments. But while we may have informed takes — a byproduct of being lifelong, obsessive, voracious fans — we're really just filters. We sort through, listen to, absorb and develop opinions on the deluge of music that's released every day for the benefit of those who don't have the time to devote to such things. (Well, that, and many of us are in love with the sound of our own voices or fancy ourselves as some sort of gifted, prescient know-all-ogists. But that's a whole other Oprah.)

Point is, we put it out there, and from there, ostensibly, you align yourselves with someone who shares your sensibilities, and from that develops a natural sense of trust (or distrust, as the case may be; I dismiss plenty of pundits simply because our tastes are so vastly different). And in that spirit, I offer you the picks of my most trusted confidants, the Backbeat contributors whose ears and opinions I trust implicitly. If you have half as much fun reading their insightful thoughts as I had editing them, mission accomplished. Dave Herrera

A Life Once Lost, Iron Gag (Ferret Music). The difference between a good metal vocalist and a great one comes down to believability — the sense that the singer is expressing his true torment, not engaging in an acting exercise. Fortunately, A Life Once Lost's Bob Meadows keeps it real, which is why the likes of "The Wanderer" and "Meth Mouth" hit so hard and feel so satisfying. Michael Roberts

John Abercrombie, The Third Quartet (ECM). One of Abercrombie's more introspective albums of late, this stunning collection of tunes primarily comprises ballads, yet steps it up on "Banshee" and Ornette Coleman's "Round Trip." This is the guitarist's third record with Marc Johnson, Mark Feldman and Joey Baron, and the guys sound more cohesive and relaxed than ever. Jon Solomon

All Teeth and Knuckles, Club Hits to Hit the Club With (Lujo Records). A couple of angry-but-funny kids from San Francisco use "second-rate gear to make first-rate tracks" of punky electro-hop that bangs harder than a celebrity sex tape. With tongue-in-cheek odes to try-too-hard girls, stingy dealers and shoplifting, Patric Fallon and Giovanni de la Cruz make cracker crunk that's no joke. — Eryc Eyl

Aqueduct, Or Give Me Death (Barsuk). Aqueduct's Dave Terry is a pop auteur with an incredible ear for hooks and melody and a knack for oddball arrangements. Drawing on everything from '90s alt-rock to cheesy '70s AM ballads to modern, gritty hip-hop, Terry delivers an excellent second effort full of scintillating pop gems. Cory Casciato

Art Brut, It's a Bit Complicated (Downtown Records). Art Brut's debut earned them no shortage of hyperbolic accolades, but the British Hold Steady's sophomore release beats it soundly. Though vocalist Eddie Argos's lyrical gems still take center stage, the pulsating energy and lip-curling attitude of the rest of the Brut force makes this far more than a one-trick pony. — Eyl

Nicole Atkins, Neptune City (Red Ink/Columbia). Nicole Atkins is a flamboyant vocalist whose rich, round tones and exuberant whoops recall the days before digital audio workstations that can make anyone sound pitch-perfect. Throughout her most recent full-length, she pits herself against big arrangements replete with swelling choruses and glitzy orchestration — and she consistently emerges triumphant. Call her the queen of Neptune City. — Roberts

The Bad Plus, Prog (Heads Up). In addition to some forward-thinking compositions by pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King, the Bad Plus has a knack for taking someone else's songs and deconstructing them. This time around, the trio puts some clever spins on tunes by Rush, Bowie and Bacharach. —Solomon

Broken Social Scene Presents Kevin Drew, Spirit If... (Arts & Crafts). It's Kevin Drew's showcase, but fans of Broken Social Scene will feel right at home in this collection of oceanic, sprawling rock songs. Drew manages to cover plenty of territory, from the radio-ready chorus of "Lucky Ones" to the paranoid, claustrophobic pulse of "Frightening Lives," and he distinguishes himself at every stop. — Casciato

JJ Cale, Rewind: The Unreleased Recordings (Time-Life Records). Much to the delight of his cult-like fan base, the quietly influential Cale finally opened up his dusty vaults to release fourteen soulful gems that fairly ooze with his backroads brand of sonic honky-tonk juice. Highlights include a fresh-sounding cover of Clapton's "Golden Ring" and classic readings of "Lawdy Mama" and "All Mama's Children." — Nick Hutchinson

Celebration, The Modern Tribe (4AD). The Modern Tribe is a consciousness-expanding fusion of dream pop and a contemporary revisiting of traditional percussion. Visions of a joyful, spiritually uplifting future commingle with earthy, primeval rhythms to produce a shining, insistent sound that's very much of the moment. Overall, this album beautifully points toward an eclectic indie-rock renaissance. Tom Murphy

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