Dear Ann and Bob,
Let's start with the song of the year—which isn't to say the song of 2007. I'm talking about "Don't Stop Believin'," nee 1981, the soundtrack to the year's finest music video, and, for a week in June, the holder of the No. 1 spot on iTunes. My first thought when the screen went black at the end of the Sopranos finale was, "What a great song"—and my love deepened when I heard Petra Haden's barbershop version, which glories in the contrapuntal genius (I use the term advisedly) of Journey's arrangement. Meanwhile, guess what note-perfect cover song Kanye West has been playing as a requiem for his mother on his current tour?
OK, so I'm half-joking. A more sober-minded Song of '07 choice would be "Umbrella" or "Rehab" or, for the indie-inclined, "All My Friends." I mention "Don't Stop Believin' " at the start of our conversation as a cautionary tale. Back in 1981, how many critics gave love to Journey's top 10 hit? The answer, based on research conducted at Robertchristgau.com, is not bloody many. The co-winners of the top single prize in that year's Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics Poll were the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" and Laurie Anderson's "O Superman/Walk the Dog." "Don't Stop Believin' " didn't place in the top 25.
Of course, Journey was a whipping boy for years—the embodiment of "corporate rock," that favorite rock-crit epithet circa '81. (I well remember my junior-high-school self, rock snob in training, sneering at my friends who piled off to see Journey's Escape tour.) And now, a quarter-century later, lookee here: Journey's schlock-rock anthem haunts American culture like no other song from 1981 and has been embraced as a secular hymn by arguably the most important popular musician of the current decade. It gives a critic pause. At a time when hundreds of year-end polls are available at a mouse click—polls that suggest a pop punditocracy mired in by groupthink—I can't help wondering what I'm missing. How has critical orthodoxy clapped my ears shut? There's a "Don't Stop Believin' " of 2007 out there somewhere; it's probably some Nickelback song. Or maybe it's Mims.
And with that preamble, I offer my best-ofs—a veritable study in pop critical orthodoxy. Or not entirely: I admired but didn't adore the widely lauded Arcade Fire and Radiohead albums. Spoon? Meh. And I bet my favorite-singles tally includes more wussy girl-pop tunes than most critics'. (Yep, that's Katharine McPhee at No. 25.) But check the rundown of usual suspects—Kanye, Lil Wayne, LCD Soundsystem, Feist, Amy Winehouse, Miranda Lambert, and the ultimate critics' darling, M.I.A., who heads up both my singles and albums list—and it's clear that I heard the same year as many others. Anyway, here are 25 songs I loved:
1. M.I.A., "Bird Flu"
2. Lil Wayne, "I Feel Like Dying"
3. Sophie-Ellis Bextor, "Catch You"
4. Usher featuring Ludacris, "Dat Girl Right There"
5. Eve, "Tambourine"
6. Ciara, "Like a Boy"
7. Jennifer Lopez, "Qué Hiciste"
8. Rihanna featuring Jay-Z, "Umbrella"
9. Aventura, "Mi Corazoncito"
10. Miranda Lambert, "Famous in a Small Town"
11. Hector El Father, "Pa' La Tumba"
12. Amy Winehouse, "Back to Black"
13. Robin Thicke, "Lost Without U"
14. Eric Church, "Guys Like Me"
15. The Pierces, "Boring"
16. Sugababes, "About You Now"
17. Gwen Stefani featuring Akon, "The Sweet Escape"
18. Kanye West, "Can't Tell Me Nothing"
19. Mika, "Grace Kelly"
20. The Fratellis, "Flathead"
21. Natasha Bedingfield, "I Wanna Have Your Babies"
22. The-Dream, "Falsetto"
23. Mickey Avalon, "Jane Fonda"
24. The Cribs, "Our Bovine Public"
25. Katherine McPhee, "Over It"
And with apologies to Battles, The-Dream, Manu Chao, Bonde Do Role, Jens Lekman, Tinariwen, Nick Lowe, and others bubbling under, my 10 favorite albums:
1. M.I.A., Kala
2. Miranda Lambert, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
3. Brad Paisley, 5th Gear
4. Lil Wayne, The Carter 3 Mixtape
5. LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver
6. Kanye West, Graduation
7. Amy Winehouse, Back to Black
8. Feist, The Reminder
9. R. Kelly, Double Up
10. The Pierces, Thirteen Tales of Love and Revenge
Kala is the richest fusion of politics, confession, and rhythm I've heard in a dog's age. For the deep exegesis, I direct readers to reviews by my Music Club partners: Ann's in the L.A. Times and Bob's in Rolling Stone. I'll simply add that, with M.I.A., seeing is as revealing as hearing. She's an art school grad, and her auteurism extends from rhyme- and beat-creation to co-directing her videos and live-show visuals to designing and fabricating her clothes. The videos for "Bird Flu" and "Boyz"—filmed, respectively, on the southern Indian coast and in Jamaica—present our heroine on war-footing, fronting armies of male dancers. They're eye-popping tableaux, which make vivid Kala's subject matter (per Christgau: "the brown-skinned Other now obsessing Euro-America") and mission (per M.I.A.: "I put people on the map that never seen a map").
Kala sounds like a post-colonial studies seminar, but it's spectacular fun. The beats are thick, buzzy, exciting—all in all, the sturdiest that I heard in 2007, with top honors going to the clobbering urumee drum symphony that powers "Bird Flu," and the sole raspberry to (lo and behold) Timbaland's track. And let's not forget "Jimmy" and "Paper Planes," two of the year's most delectable pop ditties.
By the way: Is it noteworthy that my top two albums both feature centerpiece songs in which women take up arms? "Paper Planes" is an abstract revenge fantasy, a symbolic mugging of the First World by the Third, complete with lock-load-and-fire sound effects. Miranda Lambert's "Gunpowder and Lead" is a more standard narrative: domestic violence victim grabs her sawed-off and lies in wait for the creep who beat her up to make bail. From a social progress perspective, I'm not so sure a chicks-with-guns trend is a good thing—but if I had a daughter I'd sooner she gorge herself on Miranda's vigilantism than, say, the Pussycat Dolls' stripper-pop. And it's definitely less boring than hearing 50 Cent brag about his glock for the 1,000th time.
Speaking of 50: Did you notice that he's not quite retired? The rapper's defeat in his showdown with Kanye West was just the most high-profile flop in a year that, by the reckoning of many hip-hop diehards, was the worst in memory. The roadkill included T.I. and Jay-Z, whose American Gangster bored me stiff and, what's more, seemed like a cop-out: After bragging about acting his age on last year's dreary Kingdom Come, he uses the cover of a "concept album" to return to the subject matter he'd supposedly outgrown. A bit desperate, no?
It was also an off year for R&B, with neither Rihanna, Keyshia Cole, nor late fourth-quarter entries by Mary J. Blige and Alicia Keys (zzzzz …) filling the planet-sized hole left by the vacationing Beyoncé. The fellas did slightly better, with strong work from the Sexosaurus, Ne-Yo, and The-Dream, who put out a fine solo debut, and, oh yeah, also authored some nonsense syllables you may have heard: "Ella, ella, ella/ Eh, eh."
I'm running out of room. I haven't even gotten to the two brightest spots in black music: Lil Wayne, who proved that a rapper can be the planet Earth's greatest lyricist and most original vocal stylist, and Kanye West, who proved that a rapper can be pop's most cosmopolitan composer. Nor have I mentioned the guy I listened to the most this year, the irresistible Brad Paisley, who proved that a country singer can be the world's shreddingest guitar player and coolest all around rock star. And funniest comedian.
I'd also like to dig into the questions of indie rock, race, and rhythm that have lately been obsessing our guild. It was, after all, a pretty damn good year for indie beats, wasn't it? (Go, Battles!) And I'd like to discuss those delightfully silly regional hip-hop dance crazes. (Hello, Aunt Jackie.) And as much as I'd prefer to avoid this unpleasant topic, I think we should consider Britney and her tabloid pop. Blackout has garnered heaps of critical respect for its electro-shock production and audacious treatment of Britney's troubles. But I found it a ghoulish, car-crash porn, without a trace of human feeling in it; the record smacked me up against the limits of my heretofore untrammeled poptimism. Turns out a mind-blowing Bloodshy & Avant beat alone doesn't do the trick. As the poet said, I'm livin' just to find emotion.
But enough about me. Ann, Bob—what music thrilled and repelled and fascinated you this year? More to the point, which candidate are you backing in the Iowa caucus: Akon or T-Pain?