Cook's Corner: 2007 Year In Review

By: Dennis Cook

If Cook's Corner has one underlying mission it's to nose out the best music hiding amongst the noise and clutter. There's so much great music that doesn't get tons of press or find many enthusiastic ears, and this column hopes to expose readers to a few things that wind up delighting them every year. There is nothing that consistently touches or inspires me as deeply as music, and it is that passion that drives every word and thought behind the Corner.

With that in mind, I offer the Corner's favorites from 2007 along with a few special commendations. There are a number of already canonized titles absent [Radiohead's In Rainbows, Wilco's Sky Blue Sky] as well some worthy slabs that just missed the cut [Modest Mouse's We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, Jay-Z's American Gangster, The New Up's Palace of Industrial Hope, Otis Taylor's Definition of a Circle, New Monsoon's V]. I listened to a crazy, possibly unhealthy amount of music again this year. In all my intense listening this was the stuff that rose to the top. Each of these albums, offered in alphabetical order, possessed fresh pleasures and insights with each spin. And each, in their own way, had a certain x-factor that set them apart from the pack in inspiring, wonderful and frequently moving ways.

13 Best Albums of 2007

Akron/Family: Love Is Simple (Young God)
Rarely has something so musically free spirited been so gosh darn embracing. If David Crosby and Greg Ginn jammed with Pharoah Sanders' late '60s band it might sound this fearless, joyous and adventurous. Simply put, Love Is Simple makes one glad to be alive.

The Avett Brothers: Emotionalism (Ramseur)
Unsparingly honest and achingly funny, the Avetts' fifth studio record is roots music funneled through a highly modern sensibility, immediate and true and planted in rich, ancient soil where weary hearts rest.

Backyard Tire Fire: Vagabonds & Hooligans (O.I.E.)
In a year without a new Drive-By Truckers' album, BTF kept the working man going with this earthy, heartfelt, wide ranging rock dynamo fueled by the flucking great songwriting of Ed Anderson. Stack this up next to the best Tom Petty and Jayhawks albums.

Bad Religion: New Maps of Hell (Epitaph)
Punk rock should have more elder statesmen like Bad Religion. New Maps is an ontological Molotov cocktail lobbed into the American psyche just when we need it most.

Devendra Banhart: Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon (XL)
Slow to unfold but if you took the journey with an open heart you discovered Banhart's most sensual, subtle and fully realized song cycle to date. Silly and spiritual, Smokey skips like a bejeweled water bug across the ponds of the mind.

Bright Eyes: Cassadaga (Saddle Creek)
Conor Oberst writes a damn fine song, and he's never been better than Cassadaga, which gels all his charms into an emotionally and musically resonant corker that announced Oberst's full coming-of-age as a composer and performer.

Efterklang: Parades (Leaf/Rumraket)
A unique, marvelously colorful gem from Denmark, Parades is orchestral, haunting and deliriously uplifting in ways that defy description. You can imagine Bjork listening to this on headphones for days on end.

Iron & Wine: The Shepherd's Dog (Sub Pop)
Infused with a distinctly West African vibe, Sam Beam's latest launches him from his folk-rock cul de sac into the rarified neighborhood of singular talents like Terry Reid and Robert Wyatt. In a word, this Dog is magic.

The Mother Hips: Kiss The Crystal Flake (Camera)
If radio had more true culture than a petri dish then the Mother Hips would rule the airwaves. If there's a better pair of songwriters than Tim Bluhm and Greg Loiacono out there I've never heard them. Crystal Flake is all the good things of rock & roll in one hip shakin' bundle.

Papa Mali: Do Your Thing (Fog City)
Through a carefully articulated haze, Papa drags the blues into the realm of the weird and warped. It's a conjuring thing and he's aided greatly by producer Dan Prothero's artful shaping of his amorphous richness. As splendid a mindfuck as you'll ever encounter.

Richmond Fontaine: Thirteen Cities (El Cortez)
Willy Vlautin is one of today's great storytellers, and the boys in Richmond Fontaine (with a little help from Calexico and Howe Gelb) accentuate and uplift every element in his smartly dented tales on Thirteen Cities. Another grand one from one of America's rock treasures.

The Society of Rockets: Our Paths Related (Underpop)
An unbridled creative fire burns throughout this mind-bending marvel that redeems and evolves the notion of modern psychedelic music. Like the best rock of the '60s & '70s this recognizes no borders except the ones they set for themselves. Plus it's fun as a shirtless spaceship ride to the stars!

Southeast Engine: A Wheel Within A Wheel (Misra)
Wheel shares the spirit of the best My Morning Jacket or Drive-By Truckers without echoing them in any specific way. Southeast Engine shares an unshakeable integrity and determined invention within a familiar framework with these bands but the overall mood and burrowing lyrical smarts are all their own. If there's any justice this band will catch some of the same breaks MMJ and DBT have gotten.

A few special commendations…

Ballsiest Live Album of 2007

Rufus Wainwright: Rufus Does Judy At Carnegie Hall (Geffen)
Few live recordings are more iconic or fiercely adored than Judy Garland's Judy At Carnegie Hall (1961), a tour de force through the Great American Songbook by a seasoned pro. Wainwright has the brass clankers to take on this classic and boy howdy if he doesn't belt it all the way back to the cheap seats. Captured over two nights at NYC's Carnegie Hall with a 36-piece orchestra, Wainwright's rendition is catty, conversational and cool as cool can be. After putting out the troubled, ornate Release The Stars in May it was a buoyant surprise to receive this ambitious set in December. Never has Wainwright sung with more romance or flair. It's enough to make you wish Jerome Kern was still around to write for him.

Best Reissue of 2007

Gilberto Gil: Gilberto Gil (Nêga) (Water)
Long unavailable, Gil's third album from 1971 found him in exile in England. The longing for his home in Brazil is palpable, especially on his skipping version of Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home." Within these grooves lies a survivor's determination to suss out joy and understanding even in less than ideal circumstances. His only all-English language album, it offers some of the trippiest guitar gyrations and ebullient scat-singing ever captured. While the phrase "timeless" is bandied about carelessly these days, it truly fits this classic.

Best Archival Find of 2007

Aretha Franklin: Rare & Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul (Rhino/WEA)
Aretha earned her monarchical title by the sweat of her brow. This almost uniformly outstanding set of odds and sods testifies to the overabundance of creative mojo she was working with between 1966-1973 on Atlantic Records. Listening to the demo for "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)" or rump shakin' outtakes like "Sweetest Smile And The Funkiest Smile" is enough to make you sigh for the current state of mainstream soul music. Smart, informative liner notes by the great Jerry Wexler and music writer David Ritz etch in the details surrounding these once lost snapshots of a musical genius in her fighting prime.

3 Discoveries From The Past In 2007

Each year a few artists from earlier times come find me. It's a constant reminder that for all the new stuff coming down the pipe there's still plenty from the past that's well worth splashing around in. I share my new enthusiasms from yesterday with you in the hopes you also offer them a slice of your listening time.

Rotary Connection
Rotary Connection was Chess Records attempt to cash in on the Flower Power scene. Except the Connection was a little ahead of their time, merging funk and freak in unprecedented ways. Singer Minnie Riperton went on to commercial fame in the disco era but never again touched the imaginative heights scaled with Rotary Connection. Besides releasing one of the most exquisitely tweaked Christmas albums ever (1968's Peace), their all-covers record, 1969's Songs, remains a model of the interpretive arts. The uninitiated are steered towards the 2-CD anthology Black Gold: The Best of Rotary Connection, which contains the entire Songs album and a well chosen smattering of the rest of their catalog.

Mostly known for her peacenik anthem "Lay Down (Candles In The Rain)" and double entendre classic "Brand New Key" (used to raunchy effect in Boogie Nights to introduce Heather Graham's Rollergirl), Melanie Safka is a fully fleshed earth mama that helped give birth to modern fem talents like Joanna Newsom and Meg Baird. There's a poetic reach and hyperactive passion to Melanie's work that's intoxicating. While some pieces remain rooted in their original time period, many others possess a time transcending spark that's positively absorbing. Not often credited as an influence, Melanie most assuredly paved the way for many artistic, dreamy musical ladies that followed. She remains an active performer that you can catch up with on her official site. A good place to start is Beautiful People: The Greatest Hits Of Melanie, which was mastered by Robert Fripp.

Originally bankrolled by a Dutch millionaire in the late '60s, Supertramp was a slightly chipper U.K. version of Steely Dan, harnessing pop instincts to top-flight musicianship and intricate but seemingly simple compositions. Like 10CC, they only sort of tapped into the American consciousness (despite 1979's Breakfast In America momentary cultural omnipresence). There's something intrinsically and wonderfully English about them. Few have been better at thinking man's pop, and the curious are encouraged to start digging in with Retrospectacle: The Supertramp Anthology.

5 Artists To Watch In 2008

We close with a look to the future and five acts the Corner thinks have a very promising year ahead of them.

1. Haale
With blazing, soulful performances like this year's Bonnaroo, Persian-American singer Haale is shaping up to be the multilingual PJ Harvey or next generation Patti Smith. This is Sufi mysticism filtered through Hendrix's headband, a hypnotic, snarling piece of cosmic charcoal that burns hot and long. Joined by Matt Kilmer (percussion) and John Shannon (electric guitar), her trio moves with the substance and grace of a much larger band. Haale is punk poetry in motion and as her debut full-length approaches one feels she's really going places and might just pull the rest of us along on her expressly spiritual journey.

2. Marillion
After releasing Somewhere Else - possibly the loosest, liveliest album of their career - in 2007, these long lived U.K. rockers once again turned to their fans to underwrite their next album with pre-orders. There's a brilliant independence to Marillion that shines in their music, which plays to no sensibility but their own. By turns epic and cheeky, their tunes are saturated with feeling that extends into every aspect. Odd as it is to say about a band nearly three decades old, they might just be hitting their creative stride, which is pretty impressive considering where they've already gone.

3. Lavender Diamond
This year Los Angeles' Lavender Diamond released Imagine Our Love, a fantastic debut with the tender, bittersweet sweep of The Carpenters and welcoming fingers that lure you into the clutch of something stronger and more thought provoking than you quite imagined. There is so much joy and light in their music, one can't escape the feeling there's something truly special waiting just around the corner. Visit their news page on their website and the posting for "Today" begins, "Did you know that this is the beginning of the era of true love? The end of oppression? Of the self or the other. It's true. True love can only exist in the absence of oppression and where true love exists there is no oppression." Oh hells yeah!

4. Grayson Capps
Rumor says there's a double record in the works for 2008. As rootsy rockers go, there's none better than Capps, who weaves with the greasy swagger of Lowell George and sings like the bastard son of Merle Haggard and John Prine. The fact that he's singing some of the most well constructed ditties around doesn't hurt, and neither does having a crack band like The Stumpknockers, who slap his tunes around like they owe them money. The swamp and the city intersect in Grayson Capps and there's mighty fertile ground in that musical wedge.

5. The Black Crowes
Trust me, I know a few things and one of them is the Black Crowes are going to have an outstanding 2008. Their first new studio album in seven years, Warpaint, arrives in March followed by a busy year of international touring. There's fresh steam in this engine, which is rare in a band approaching 20 years together. Rock 'n' roll needs the Black Crowes and they are answering the call with flying colors. Just you wait and see, children.

Cook's Corner returns to its regular sortie through the obscure and unsung later in January with reviews of new Young God records signing Fire On Fire, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' soundtrack to The Assassination of Jesse James and other sundry delights.

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‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^› {¬¿¬} starstarstarstarstar Thu 1/3/2008 06:22AM
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‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^›      {¬¿¬}

the mother hips is a great one!! papa mali and iron and wine are nice albums.

but lotus and umph should be on the list.

their double live releases are freaking awesome!!!

RothburyWithCheese starstarstarstarstar Thu 1/3/2008 11:50AM
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Finally someone talking about Melanie on this site. ThANK YOU! i have all her albums and love them. She is amazing!

joshpotter Thu 1/3/2008 01:15PM
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Good call with Akron/Family, Dennis. They get my vote for "Band to finally be embraced by this scene in 2008."

moejoerisin Thu 1/3/2008 02:11PM
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cassadaga is a really great album. even if you're not huge on bright eyes, definitely give it a listen. thanks for all you do dennis

JDMethod starstarstarstarstar Thu 1/3/2008 03:13PM
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The Black Crowes are gonna be bad ass in 08 throw Luther into the mix, and they are gonna be tough. Can't wait for Warpaint. Akron/Family also are a great up and coming band i have most of their records. Good call Dennis

sman Thu 1/3/2008 03:58PM
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You forgot Wilco Sky Blue Sky, which is one of the best albums of all time already, and Ryan Adams Easy Tiger

sman Thu 1/3/2008 04:01PM
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woops probably should have read the initial paragraph

Nibble starstarstarstarstar Thu 1/3/2008 04:08PM
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Nice 2007/08 list. I think that a band that will be on your '08 list in the beginning of '09 might be Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin. They have a new album coming out and their older ones are great. Great list though. Hours of internet surfing.


FreeHawk starstarstarstarstar Thu 1/3/2008 07:53PM
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Glad to see someone else enjoyed Papa Mail's album as much as I did. 2008 is going to be a monster year for everyone who has a clue in good tunes,so cheers everyone!

moejoerisin Fri 1/4/2008 12:15PM
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"When you look at what people consider success in the music industry, it's just terrible music. In a way, to have whatever people talk about as "crossover success," I think it means you start making bad music. I mean, when I'm flipping through the channels and see the VMAs or something, I don't really see any music there. I see TV personalities. Which is fine, it's entertainment, fair enough. But it doesn't seem to have much to do with what I consider actual music, what I want to listen to. I want to be enriched by the music I listen to. That's the reason it never really exists in the mainstream. Because that's not what most people are after. I think they're after entertainment." -Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes)

i don't think this is saying anything that most jambasers don't know, but it's a great quote regardless..

joxley1 starstarstarstarstar Sat 1/5/2008 09:12PM
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Thanks so much for turning me on to the Avett Bros. "Emotionalism" is a brilliant album. I'd never have known to listen if not for the article. Cheers.

Dgold starstarstarstarstar Sat 1/12/2008 04:30PM
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adding some things to my shopping list now

Thanks Dennis!

aprazza starstarstarstarstar Mon 1/14/2008 07:16PM
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Great recommendations, Snappy. I will have to check out some of the stuff I have not heard. Really loved Iron and Wine too - a fantastic record.