Critics' Picks for 2007

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

Manu Chao, La Radiolina (Nacional Records). Chao’s musical upbringing represents a world of music: He’s a Parisian of Spanish origins who was weaned on British punk. La Radiolina draws upon these elements and more, effortlessly weaving together reggae rhythms, danceable Latin grooves and evocative, often political lyrics presented in several tongues. But no matter the language, his passion comes through loud and clear.— Roberts

Common, Finding Forever (G.O.O.D. Music/Universal). On Finding Forever, Common stuck with the same formula that he used on Be: rapping over Kanye West's beats on topics ranging from love to the streets and the industry. It all still works because Common continues to be a lyrical master, and Kanye is a mastermind when it comes to production. — Quibian Salazar-Moreno

Deerhoof, Friend Opportunity (Kill Rock Stars). Despite the fact they're right up my alley — weird, experimental, yet deliriously poppy at times — I never got Deerhoof until I got this album. These ten songs chop up and reconfigure rock into strange new shapes and patterns, and the results are wildly unpredictable but always well-grounded in songcraft. — Casciato

Kurt Elling, Nightmoves (Concord). Elling is the most idiosyncratic jazz singer of his day — a quirky crooner attracted to the dark side of the street. Examples? Check out "The Waking," with lines borrowed from a Theodore Roethke poem, a bizarre ten-minute revamp of "Body and Soul," and an unexpectedly effective cover of the Guess Who's "Undun." Weird? Yep. Compelling? Damn straight. — Roberts

Enon, Grass Geysers...Carbon Clouds (Touch and Go). Enon has toned down the anything-goes flavor of its early albums in favor of a fairly well-defined sound this time out. Luckily, the act settled on irresistible pop songs forged from sheets of distortion. And since the approach works so well, from the opening surge of "Mirror on You" to the almost-delicate closer, "Ashish," there are no complaints here. — Casciato

Charlotte Gainsbourg, 5:55 (Vice). Gainsbourg teamed up with the guys from Air, Jarvis Cocker and Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon to craft the ultimate late-night album of the year. Her wispy vocals, which recall her mother's (singer/actress Jane Birkin), sound gorgeous over the compositions penned by Air's Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicholas Godin. — Solomon

Great Northern, Trading Twilight for Daylight (Eenie Meenie). An ideal name for a recording that travels between light and dark, Trading Twilight for Daylight has its heartbreaking moments as well as its shining ones. Solon Bixler and Rachel Stolte have collaborated to make the perfect soundtrack for the time when the sun goes down and everything turns pink. — Solomon

Gov't Mule, Mighty High (ATO). Showcasing an unlikely penchant for reggae and dub, Gov't Mule delivers a spicy bag of nugs. A mix of live and studio takes includes ganja-flavored versions of Al Green's "I'm a Ram," the Stones' "Play With Fire," Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle" and a dubbified version of "Unthrow that Spear." — Hutchinson

Gowns, Red State (Cardboard Records). Equally tinged with the sonic experimentation of Mister Heartbreak and the starkly exhilarating hauntedness of Evangelista, this sophomore effort is Gowns' artistic breakthrough, with songs like broken daydreams lovingly reassembled and made beautiful. Never the same texture throughout, it's a rich fabric that wears well on you.— Murphy

Grinderman, Grinderman (Anti-). Nick Cave has proved many times over that he's incapable of slowing down, but the wit, personality and musical substance of his latest project took even true believers by surprise. The thin pale duke of doom cracks whips and cracks wise on some of the most accessible and darkly humorous music he's made since the Birthday Party. — Eyl

Hail Social, Modern Love & Death (Self-released). This is another second album that puts its predecessor to shame. The Philadelphia synth-poppers in Hail Social pull out all the melodic stops to produce a record that's more infectious than a youth hostel toilet seat. Fans of the dorkier side of '80s electro-pop have to show a little respect for these orchestral maneuvers. — Eyl

Hard-Fi, Once Upon a Time in the West (Atlantic). The notoriously fickle U.K. press has written off Hard-Fi far too soon. On West, Richard Archer's creation draws from multiple British-rock streams — punk, ska, power pop and more — to arrive at a slick, ornate, danceable amalgam of quirky strings, massed background vocals and anthemic lyrics that cut to the heart of suburbia. Don't believe the lack of hype. — Roberts

Jay-Z, American Gangster (Def Jam Records). Last year's Kingdom Come was poorly received by fans, so Jigga went back to his hustlin' ways to talk about his hustlin' days. The result is the soulful and vivid album that we've always expected from Jay-Z. — Salazar-Moreno

David Kilgour, The Far Now (Merge). The veteran indie rocker's sixth solo release makes a case for his continued relevance as an artist with an untarnished ear for inventively lovely melodies. At turns tenderly intimate and headily blissful, Kilgour's work reveals an affection for the everyday, in-between moments. Not merely a random collection of songs, this album reminds us to live in the present. — Murphy

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