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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

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

K-Os, Atlantis: Hymns for the Disco (Virgin Records). By now, you can pretty much depend on K-Os to deliver the most soulful hip-hop of the year, which he did once again with Atlantis. The disc is a mix of raw hip-hop with classic soul, rock and blues, making it freakishly addictive. — Salazar-Moreno

Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, Raising Sand (Rounder). Produced by T Bone Burnett and featuring the unlikely duo of Krauss and Plant, this could have been one hell of an unfortunate dud, but it's not. Set against the Grammy-gilded pipes of Nashville's Krauss, Plant's proto-metal vocals smack with the same ethereal and druidic quality that helped him elevate electrified blues and bell bottoms to worldwide acclaim. — Hutchinson

KRS-One & Marley Marl, Hip-Hop Lives (Koch Records) — This is KRS's fifteenth album and a direct response to Nas's Hip-Hop Is Dead, from 2006. Produced by onetime rival Marley Marl, KRS makes his point that hip-hop is alive and well, and this disc will make you fall in love with it all over again. — Salazar-Moreno

Talib Kweli, Ear Drum (Warner Bros.). With a new record label and a new crew (Blacksmith Movement), Talib came out with a renewed energy this year. Ear Drum broaches his continual struggle in the industry, the struggles of the youth in the streets, and the black community's struggle with spirituality. — Salazar-Moreno

Tord Gustavsen Trio, Being There (ECM). There's something about Scandinavian pianists and their Nordic improvisational sensibilities that's a bit dark and slightly moody. Tord Gustavsen proves no exception. His playing and compositional skills are tremendously lyrical and introspective, and he's definitely on the top of his game with Being There. — Solomon

LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver (DFA Records). Previously, James Murphy came off as a wizened wiseacre whose only depth was in his record collection. This slab of dark disco, however, plays like a sincere, guileless soundtrack to a midlife crisis. The graying hipster, who once bemoaned losing his edge, finds growing up under the disco lights has only made him sharper — if a little sadder. — Eyl

M.I.A., Kala (Interscope). Shamelessly and playfully borrowing from a broad range of musical styles, M.I.A. is a sonic revolutionary on par with the political agenda of her lyrics. Kala finds Bollywood pop colliding with sound collage, hip-hop dancing raga with sub-Saharan voodoo shamanism. Socially critical music never sounded so fun. — Murphy

Pat Metheny & Brad Mehldau, Quartet (Nonesuch). Last year, guitarist Metheny and pianist Mehldau released an outstanding album of duets. The two have a similar knack for improvisation, and hearing them stretch out and push each other in this quartet setting is even more dynamic. — Solomon

Minus the Bear, Planet of Ice (Suicide Squeeze Records). Anyone who thinks of progressive music as either willfully difficult or excessively airy-fairy will be disabused of that notion by this Seattle outfit's take on the approach once known as art rock. Tracks such as "White Mystery" are propulsive and accessible even as they eschew hackneyed structures for more adventurous tangents. Minus adds up to a plus. — Roberts

The National, Boxer (Beggar's Banquet). There's nothing flashy or extravagant about this album; it's just tightly executed, subtle and powerful rock music for grownups. There's not a bad song among the dozen found here, but the best of them — "Fake Empire," "Apartment Story," and "Slow Show," in particular — rise to the level of classics. — Casciato

Office, A Night at the Ritz (Scratchie Records). Scott Masson's brainchild makes studio-perfectionist pop that shimmers and salivates with addictive hooks, sassy come-ons and irresistible ear-candy melodies. But beneath the sparkle, there's enough grit to give A Night at the Ritz complexity and texture. Fittingly released on James Iha's Scratchie imprint, this meticulously crafted gem was years in the making and pays off with pure pop-rock pleasure. — Eyl

Of Montreal, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (Polyvinyl). Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes took us on an all-access guided tour of his disintegrating psyche, set the whole thing to a spectacular mix of throbbing, glittery synth-pop dance funk and created the best soundtrack to a nervous breakdown ever imagined, much less realized. Breakup albums are for teenagers; thank God (and Barnes) for this breakdown album. — Casciato

Panda Bear, Person Pitch (Paw Tracks). If Brian Wilson had fled to Germany to escape his problems in the '70s and joined Faust, Person Pitch could have been made thirty years ago. Sweet vocal melodies and harmonies dipped in velvety reverb and arranged around quietly bizarre grooves form the core of this excellent expedition into the experimental fringes of what constitutes pop. — Casciato

Pharoahe Monch, Desire (SRC Records/Universal). On his first album in seven years, Pharoahe Monch delivers the absolute best lyrical performance of the year, hands down. With witticisms like "A slave to my label, but I own my masters" littered throughout, you know you've got something special. — Salazar-Moreno

Pink Reason, By a Thread (Trick Knee Productions). Pink Reason is arguably the first post-punk band in years to have come out of hardcore rather than the first wave of punk rock. This three-song seven-inch from the promising Green Bay outfit is proof that some of the most innovative and original music comes from unlikely places. Its noisy beauty is unforgettable. — Murphy

Radiohead, In Rainbows (ATO/Red). In Rainbows made headlines for the unique pay-what-you-want distribution method by which it first greeted the public. For that reason, the music tended to be overlooked amid all the hoopla about shattered paradigms, and that's a pity, since these ten songs make up Radiohead's most well-rounded, consistent and thoroughly enjoyable recording in years. That's a bargain at any price. — Roberts

Red Pony Clock, God Made Dirt (Happy Happy Birthday to Me Records). Unflinchingly honest and introspective lyrics have always been Gabe Saucedo's strong point. Instead of a voyeuristic peek into a troubled mind, these songs tell us that we're not alone in our angst and insecurity. Coupled with warm and lush loungey pop, each track is a salve to our inner adolescents. — Murphy

Fionn Regan, The End of History (Lost Highway). A finalist for the Mercury Prize, The End of History will be the beginning of a love affair with Regan's work for any admirer of singer-songwriting that's both pretty and perceptive. Although "The Underwood Typewriter," "Hunters Map" and the rest seem fragile, they're built on a sturdy foundation of evocative imagery and clear-eyed sensitivity. — Roberts

The Rosebuds, Night of the Furies (Merge). Gracefully changing from twee-pop tunesmiths to a darkly dancing duo, Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp probably surprised themselves as much as they did everyone else. To have done it at all is a remarkable feat in itself, but to have done it with such convincing attitude and lack of pretension proves these two lovebirds mean it. — Eyl

Dino Saluzzi & Anja Lechner, Ojos Negros (ECM) Once again, Dino Saluzzi shows us why he's the world's master of the bandoneon. While long steeped in the ways of tango music, he breaks away from that approach on this chamber-meets-avant-jazz album. Along with cellist Anja Lechner, also a member of the acclaimed Rosamunde Quartett, the two make stunning music together. — Solomon

Sam Yahel Trio, Truth & Beauty (Origin). Organist Yahel, drummer Brian Blade and saxophonist Joshua Redman have worked together in various settings. On Truth & Beauty, the interplay of the trio shines, with Yahel giving the occasional nod to Larry Young, Redman's seasoned tenor work and Blade's snappy timekeeping. — Solomon

Antonio Sanchez, Migration (CamJazz). Pat Metheny once said the drummer was the most important musician in his band. Antonio Sanchez has been playing with Metheny since 2002, if that tells you anything. On his debut as a leader, Sanchez enlisted Metheny, Chick Corea and tenor players David Sanchez and Chris Potter, whose dual sax assault propels Sanchez's playing throughout. — Solomon

Savage Republic, 1938 (Neurot Recordings). Eighteen years after their last album, these pioneers of industrialized post-punk and bellicose tribalism return with a soundtrack for the coming apocalypse. Bringing together twin virtues of grandiloquent austerity and dreamy exoticism, this record is a sprawling epic — a bit like Ennio Morricone scoring doomsday backed by the Cure and Joy Division. — Murphy

Bruce Springsteen, Magic (Columbia). Not to sound ageist, but most veteran rockers spend the autumn of their careers living off the past because the present is so problematic. Springsteen, whose last two decades' worth of albums have often seemed heavy-handed and overly self-conscious, beats these odds on Magic by combining seriousness of purpose with his strongest batch of music since the glory days. — Roberts

Richard Swift, Dressed Up for the Letdown (Secretly Canadian). Although Richard Swift sings of his letdowns in the music biz on the sweetly melancholic "Artists & Repertoire," Letdown is his most successful record to date. Tipping his hat to Paul McCartney and Harry Nilsson, the witty Swift has created a near-masterpiece that sounds like it could have been recorded in the mid-'70s. — Solomon

The Tea Cozies, The Tea Cozies (As Seen On Records). The precocious child of Brit and indie pop, Seattle's Tea Cozies sound as great as any of their influences on their debut EP. Underneath the fiery emotions expressed is an undeniably accessible charm. Playful, passionate and defiant, the band's catchy songs are intelligent, strong and well-crafted. — Murphy

Theory Hazit, Extra Credit (Hip-Hop Is Music). On his debut album, Theory Hazit tackles topics that no one in hip-hop is talking about, from gossiping to the dynamics of a stepfamily to the spiritual side of life — all over banging beats. Hazit is the most slept-on rapper of the year. — Salazar-Moreno

T.I., T.I. Vs. T.I.P. (Grand Hustle/Atlantic). No denying it: T.I. Vs. T.I.P. is a flawed album. Still, in one of the weakest years for hip-hop since Kool Herc's heyday, the ambition and looniness that distinguish this quirky face-off between different aspects of T.I.'s personality — not to mention infectious jams such as "Big Shit Poppin' (Do It)" — lift this disc above the competition. — Roberts

Trans Am, Sex Change (Thrill Jockey). This longstanding post-rock band shaves off the glorious excesses of its previous efforts to create concise, propulsive, experimental pop songs. Never forgetting what has made it consistently interesting, the group continues to fearlessly splice together early analog synth-pop drones and driving, adventurous prog rock. The musical equivalent of a William Friedkin thriller. — Murphy

Ween, La Cucaracha (Rounder). Dumb lyrics and smart tunes are Ween's trademark, and this latest album is no exception. If you can get over — or be amused by — the locker-room juvenilia in the lyrics, these songs will absolutely amaze. Sure, there are a couple of throwaways here, but the best material ranks among Ween's strongest. — Casciato

Kanye West, Graduation (G.O.O.D. Music/Universal). With his third album, Kanye West proves that he's one of the most consistent artists in the game. Whatever he delivers, it's sure to be cocky and arrogant, yet you can't stop singing along and bumping the disc in the ride for months at a time. — Salazar-Moreno

White Rabbits, Fort Nightly (Say Hey Records). This rollicking, raucous NYC collective makes bittersweet, piano-driven garage rock that would make both Mott the Hoople and Arcade Fire grin with glee. From glistening summer pop to greasy alleyway rock, White Rabbits' dual drummers and dueling vocalists turn in an eccentric, eclectic set that still manages to be almost aggravatingly hummable. — Eyl

Saul Williams, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust (Self-released). Taking a cue from Radiohead, Saul Williams offered Niggy Tardust as a free download, or you could pony up $5 — a steal either way. Produced by Trent Reznor, Tardust's mix of industrial beats coupled with Williams's fiery brand of hip-hop results in a brilliant-sounding album. — Salazar-Moreno

The Winter Sounds, Porcelain Empire (Livewire Recordings). Making synthesizer-heavy swirly pop with breathy vocals and emotions held at a simmer, the Winter Sounds could be mistaken for an early-'90s British shoegaze outfit. In fact, this ensemble rides in on clouds and gossamer from Athens, Georgia, injecting its retro sound with that town's lengthy and estimable indie-rock heritage. — Eyl

Witchcraft, The Alchemist (Rise Above Records). Heavy music from Sweden is nothing new, but these Scandinavian sickos bring vintage amps, '70s psychedelia and Sabbath to their black celebration. Stellar songwriting and melodies make The Alchemist a standout among this year's metallic offerings. Before corporate radio neutered classic rock, it stung like this. Your dad will love it, too. — Eyl

Wu-Tang Clan, 8 Diagrams (Loud Records/Universal). Despite what Ghostface and Raekwon think about the new release, 8 Diagrams is miles ahead of Wu-Tang's last efforts, The W and Iron Flag. These are still some of the best MCs to ever touch the mike, and RZA remains an absolute genius on the beats. — Salazar-Moreno

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