All criticism is, to some extent subjective, but of all the artistic mediums which receive regular critical attention, rock/pop music criticism is by far the least grounded in any sort of objective standards. That doesn’t mean there are none to speak of, but the criteria on which pop music critics make their judgments are broader, vaguer, and less settled than those used by the critical communities surrounding, say, jazz, classical music, film, or fiction. Making year-end best lists, then, especially ordered lists, is — at very best — an exercise in instinct and approximation.
Part of the problem lies in balancing the concerns of personal enjoyment versus innovation and impact. With movies, it’s fairly easy to call something a guilty pleasure and move on, but with pop music more than any other medium, it’s difficult to separate the comforts and pleasures of the familiar and the conventional from a higher set of critical standards. Spoon’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, for example, makes for a singularly delightful listen, but it’s essentially trafficking in musical ideas that have been around for three decades (at least), and it’s little more than a refinement and update on its own time-tested sound. It’s tough enough to attempt to put this up against something roughly equivalent like The Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible. How does one effectively compare this to, say, Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam, a brilliant but often dense and difficult record whose primary pleasures are in its innovations and experimentions?
This problem is only exacerbated by the increasing need to compare across genres. It’s relatively easy to make substantive arguments that M.I.A.‘s Kala and Kanye West’s Graduation are simply better albums than 50 Cent’s dismal Curtis, or even Jay-Z’s surprisingly strong, if too straightforward, American Gangster. But how ought one go about ranking any of these albums in a list that also includes Animal Collective and Spoon?
In the end, it’s an almost purely arbitrary decision, a not-quite-random balancing act that tries to figure out the proper blend of personal pleasure and enthusiasm, recognition of impact and ingenuity, and qualitative judgments about the success or failure of a project weighed against its ambitions. In that spirit, here are my picks for the best – or at least my favorite – albums of 2007.
15) Sunset Rubdown – Random Spirit Lover
14) St. Vincent – Marry Me
13) Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
12) Black Kids – Wizard of Ahhs
11) Justice – †
10) Battles – Mirrored
9) Feist – The Reminder
8) Of Montreal – Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
7) Menomena – Friend and Foe
6) Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
5) The National – Boxer
4) MIA – Kala
3) Yeasayer – All Hour Cymbals
2) Animal Collective – Strawberry Jam
1) Kanye West – Graduation
I probably heard upwards of 200 new albums this year, and this was, by far, the best year for music in a very long time (I’m tempted to say in my lifetime). I found exciting and instantly memorable new music on what seemed like a regular schedule for the entire year. So I feel it’s worth it to note some other strong albums, many of which might have made a year-end best list in a weaker year.
Other worthy albums this year (in no particular order):
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Is Is EP; Travis Morrison – All Y’all; Simian Mobile Disco – Attack Decay Sustain Release; Radiohead – In Rainbows; Jay-Z – American Gangster; John Vanderslice – Emerald City; Iron & Wine – Shepherd’s Dog; Interpol – Our Love to Admire; El-P – I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead; Aesop Rock – None Shall Pass; Les Savy Fav – Let’s Stay Friends; Dear and the Headlights – Small Steps, Heavy Hooves; Deerhoof – Friend Opportunity; Johnny Greenwood – There Will Be Blood Soundtrack; Grizzly Bear – Friend EP; Okkervil River – Stage Names; Blonde Redhead – 23; Le Loup – The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly; LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver; Modest Mouse – We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank; Goodbooks – Control; Nine Inch Nails – Year Zero