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From Black Metal to White Chalk

Monica Kendrick, Peter Margasak, and Miles Raymer pick the best releases of 2007.

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Monica Kendrick

In the absence of a Hatebeak LP, any other record is little more than a way to fill the empty hours. I'm not saying these aren't great albums, but I just couldn't see the point of ranking them.

SIR RICHARD BISHOP

Polytheistic Fragments (Drag City)

While My Guitar Violently Bleeds (Locust Music)

It's impossible to decide between these two instrumental albums, both by the underrated master guitarist who helped found the Sun City Girls. His signature blend of styles—an overwhelming one-two punch of ritualistic, entrancing electric noise and floridly romantic acoustic playing heady with the mystique of flamenco and raga—isn't the sort of thing that encourages you to keep score. So I didn't.

ALIM AND FARGANA QASIMOV

Spiritual Music of Azerbaijan (Smithsonian Folkways)

Father and daughter put their breathtakingly supple voices to work in the service of mugham, a sometimes austere but always dramatic central Asian classical tradition. Their lyrics are often the words of poets, both from the 19th century and the present day, which helps turn the music into something powerfully spiritually transforming.

BADAKHSHAN ENSEMBLE

Song and Dance From the Pamir Mountains (Smithsonian Folkways)

The Pamirs are a remote mountain range in Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan, where the folk traditions include a regal, elegant string-and-hand-drum-based dance music that sustains a longing tension before catapulting into ecstasy. Here as on the Qasimov record, many of the lyrics are Sufi poems, the majority credited (rather dubiously, considering they've been passed down orally) to well-known names like Rumi and Hafez. I saw both acts at the Symphony Center's "Spiritual Sounds of Central Asia" concert in November, and I'm ridiculously glad I did.

OM

Pilgrimage (Southern Lord)

Strangely, there's a common thread linking the music of the central Asian groups to the desert-caravan dream doom of this California duo, formerly the rhythm section of Sleep: they both balance mesmerizing sensuality and divine communion, which gives their peaks and valleys a strange kind of orgiastic asceticism.

YAKUZA

Transmutations (Prosthetic)

Art-metal so delicious and nutritious, so brilliantly badass, that I'll even forgive the band for naming a song "Meat Curtains."

DAMON & NAOMI

Within These Walls (20-20-20)

Naomi Yang's singing and the guitar of guest Michio Kurihara provide the fascinating surfaces of this gentle psych-folk record, but Damon Krukowski's playing establishes the sophisticated and unobtrusive armatures for their paper-lace constructions to hang upon.

O'DEATH

Head Home (Ernest Jenning)

I love the Velvet Underground's "Hey Mr. Rain" so much I've always wished someone would make a whole album with that same moody, sinister urban-bluegrass feel. This comes close.

DANIEL A.I.U. HIGGS

Atomic Yggdrasil Tarot (Thrill Jockey)

Calling this one of the best releases of the year requires a definition of "best" I don't think I've used before. In an alternate universe Higgs might've been a revered shaman or a wild-eyed vagrant ranting on a bus, but in this one he does things with a jaw harp that shouldn't be allowed—things that definitely should've been amplified loud enough to drown out September's tipsy Empty Bottle crowd.

DALEK

Abandoned Language (Ipecac)

This New Jersey noise-hop duo, always pretty grim and dark, gets a notch grimmer and darker on Abandoned Language, and there's not a minute on the album that isn't wide awake, hungry, and haunted—even the bumpy spots are compelling.

IRON AND WINE

The Shepherd's Dog (Sub Pop)

Its cover art is so unpastoral it's almost nihilistic, but this album is nonetheless redolent of fiery country spirituality, which shines through the luxurious arrangements like dark eyes through a shaggy mop of hair. When I saw Iron and Wine play at Pitchfork, I couldn't help thinking that there really was a lot to love about the Grateful Dead.

Peter Margasak

1. CAETANO VELOSO

Ce (Nonesuch)

Making his first stab at a straight-up rock record, the veteran Brazilian singer totally nails it by doing everything on his own terms. Backed by a sparse, dry trio, Veloso confronts sexuality and aging with a frank, poetic sensibility undiluted by easy sentiment—and his vocal performance, which ranges seemingly effortlessly from beautiful lyricism to piercing, almost experimental melisma, might be the finest of his career.

2. AMIR ELSAFFAR

Two Rivers (Pi)

Oak Park native Amir ElSaffar, son of an Iraqi father and an American mother, got his start playing jazz and classical trumpet, but in his 20s he became obsessed with the Iraqi maqam tradition, a rigorous and beautiful semi-improvised vocal music. Prior to the U.S. invasion, he studied in Baghdad for six months, and afterward he spent several years in Europe, where Iraqi expats and exiles taught him to sing and play santoor (a type of hammer dulcimer). He was about to abandon jazz altogether when a fortuitous commission from Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia allowed him to combine it with maqam. Two Rivers, the resulting work, is a rigorous, respectful fusion that accommodates all the crucial nuances of both genres—ElSaffar even plays his trumpet in quarter tones to duplicate the modes of maqam.

3. M.I.A.

Kala (XL)

I haven't seen her in a couple years, but from all accounts Maya Arulpragasam still sucks live—fortunately, her records are getting better. Though I doubt she pushes too many of the buttons herself in the studio, she's hardly just a front for her producers—her whomping jams absorb rhythms from around the globe as naturally as anything I've ever heard. I'm sure they work great in the club, but more importantly they still hit the mark when they aim much higher.

4. TINARIWEN

Aman Iman (World Village)

This Tuareg outfit, formed in a refugee camp during an insurrection against the Malian government, often gets called a "desert blues" band in the West—a glib characterization that makes Tinariwen's music seem indebted to an American form. In fact its hypnotic, circular riffing, overlapping rhythmic cells, and call-and-response vocals are all elements of the same West African traditions that helped shape the blues after they were exported to the States via the slave trade. Few bands anywhere in the world are making music so beautiful and gripping with electric guitars.

5. FRED ANDERSON & HAMID DRAKE

From the River to the Ocean (Thrill Jockey)

Almost every time I've seen 78-year-old tenor titan Fred Anderson over the past couple years, he's played as well or better than ever, and this stunning album with drummer Hamid Drake, a longtime disciple, can stand up against anything in Anderson's discography. With support from top-notch guests—bassists Josh Abrams (who doubles on guimbri) and Harrison Bankhead (who also plays piano) as well as guitarist Jeff Parker—Anderson pushes himself beyond his usual vocabulary of gestures but still plays the blues as deep as they go.

6. GRINDERMAN

Grinderman (Mute/Anti-)

Nick Cave and three of his Bad Seeds abandoned their usual meticulous arrangements to make this raw, spontaneous-sounding rock record, which in many ways is more profound than anything their main band has done in years. Cave's scabrously witty lyrics confront aging, impotence, irrelevance, and loneliness with a mix of blunt honesty and sneering indifference, and the band—with Cave forgoing piano to brutalize an electric guitar—plays with the lean economy afforded by age and experience.

7. MOSTLY OTHER PEOPLE DO THE KILLING

Shamokin!!! (Hot Cup)

This excellent New York quartet, led by bassist and composer Moppa Elliott, turns a lot of people off with its in-your-face shtick, but its pell-mell survey of classic mainstream jazz—from swing through bebop—is as loving as it is prankish. Sure, the music's about as subtle as a Road Runner cartoon—in their dazzling solos, trumpeter Peter Evans and saxophonist Jon Irabagon start with wry humor a la Lester Bowie and crank it up to 11—but underlying the silliness are serious structural smarts, rigorous technique, and passionate improvisational brio.

8. TORBJORN ZETTERBERG

Skildrar Kvinnans Kamp (Moserobie)

The ambitious Swedish bassist delivers his second consecutive album-length suite, displaying a compositional reach worthy of Charles Mingus. It's brought to life by a who's who of Stockholm's killer jazz scene—including saxophonists Jonas Kullhammar, Alberto Pinton, and Per "Texas" Johannson.

9. ROBERT WYATT

Comicopera (Domino)

This delightfully loose art-pop record makes a poignant commentary on war, beginning with deeply personal ruminations about loss and conflict and then pulling back to look at what corruption, greed, and violence have wrought in the world at large. As big as his themes are, Wyatt is careful to put them across with modest, human details, and that way his lyrics speak much louder. His low-key singing is gorgeous and intimate, and the airy, varied arrangements somehow coax even more beauty from his voice.

10. MOMO

A Estetica do Rabisco (Dubas Musica)

Young Brazilian singer Marcelo Frota, aka Momo, taps into his country's rich psych-folk tradition—I hear traces of Lulu Cortes, Alceu Valenca, and Marconi Notaro—to guide his loose-limbed arrangements and strong pop melodies. A Estetica do Rabisco ("The Art of Scribbling") easily tops just about everything that's been released in America under the dubious freak-folk banner.

Miles Raymer

1. LCD SOUNDSYSTEM

Sound of Silver (DFA/Capitol)

For most of our young century James Murphy has been perfecting his ur-hipster shtick, playing at being more jaded than God, but he seems to have realized that this subcultural satire—though often insightful and occasionally hilarious—was gonna wear thin quick. For Sound of Silver he flipped his format and came back as dance music's ambassador of emotions, showing the wider pop world that the genre isn't totally superficial and shallow. "All My Friends" is the triumphant but bittersweet anthem that a generation of aging club kids never knew it needed—and an undeniable floor filler.

2. M.I.A.

Kala (XL)

One good way to follow up your breakthrough debut is to make an album that does everything it did, but better. Kala is a lot like Galang, but it ranges even further with its shanty-tech world-music genre splicing—from Jamaica to Bollywood to the Australian outback—and its hooks are even catchier. M.I.A.'s shotta-chic stance comes off less like fashionable lefty posturing and more like an actual threat, and at the same time the whole album's about as fun as humanly possible.

3. CELEBRATION

The Modern Tribe (4AD)

The title's no joke—on their second album, Celebration roam far from the constraints of rock, venturing into trance-inducing rhythmic abstraction. Katrina Ford is probably the only front person I could refer to as "shamanic" with a straight face.

4. OF MONTREAL

Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (Polyvinyl)

Kevin Barnes rounds up all his mental problems, gives them a duffel bag of psychotropic drugs, and takes them out to the Discotheque at the End of the Universe. The driving, pulsing, tightly arranged pop on Hissing Fauna is laced with psychedelia, some of it garish enough to verge on the insane—and the album's keystone, a harrowing 12-minute meltdown called "The Past Is a Grotesque Animal," does more than just verge on it.

5. PJ HARVEY

White Chalk (Island)

Having finally reached full-on rock-icon status, Polly Jean puts down the guitar, learns how to play piano, and makes an achingly gorgeous album that's the opposite of the milestone Rid of Me in pretty much every way—except for its visceral impact. Pretty much every full-on rock icon goes through a "difficult" phase, and if this is the start of hers, I don't think I mind.

6. ETERNALS

Heavy International (Aesthetics)

I don't know how the Eternals manage it, but even though their music conjures up every bad feeling I have about living in Bush's America—paranoia, terror, outrage—it still sounds appealing. Maybe it has something to do with their next-level post-reggae styles, which dig grooves so deep you want to sink into them forever.

7. NO AGE

Weirdo Rippers (Fat Cat)

Every year or so a new record makes the case that cheap-and-dirty rock is not, in fact, dead. This year the most persuasive argument came from No Age: this collection of singles jacks up worn-out, busted-ass punk formulas with enough freaky energy to make them sound exciting again. Hearing it for the first time made me feel like I was 15 again and just found a tape of Circle Jerks singles.

8. LOW

Drums and Guns (Sub Pop)

Every song on Drums and Guns is great, but "Breaker" could have made my list all on its own—when Alan Sparhawk cries "My hand just kills and kills" over a funereal organ, it sounds like America's conscience keeping it up at night. It's chillingly austere, overwhelmingly gorgeous, emotionally crushing, and the best thing the band's ever done.

9. WALE

100 Miles & Running (mix tape)

Plenty of hip-hop records that came out in 2007 were more technically accomplished than 100 Miles & Running, but no rapper made me want to hang out and play NBA Street with him the way Wale did. He's into D.C. go-go and quality denim, and when he raps over Justice's "D.A.N.C.E." it's positively epic. On 100 Miles he sounds hungry as fuck—I expect to see him bite off a big chunk of 2008.

10. WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM

Two Hunters (Southern Lord)

Though black metal is supposed to be the nastiest and most brutal species of metal, many of its practitioners understand that it becomes an ambient blur when played sufficiently fast. Wolves in the Throne Room have definitely figured that out, and they know what do to with the information—their epic-length songs sound punishing at first but eventually start to feel almost serene, conjuring images of an idyllic future where civilization has stepped aside to return the land to roving packs of feral dudes in Mayhem T-shirts.

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