Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Jeff Bentoff's Favorite CDs of 2007

I’ve divided my list into categories. No single 1-to-10 list. The usual caveat – this list is based only on what I’ve heard, not what I haven’t. (Duh.)

CDs that would make me really pissed
if they didn’t exist this year

Amy Winehouse / Back To Black
This one seemed to come out of nowhere. A unique, soulful voice with perfect phrasing. A hot horn section and band. Awesome originals and arrangements. If you’re put off by all the media about Amy’s drug and other troubles, join the club. But don’t let that keep you from listening. If she survives the personal and media onslaughts and keeps cranking out great CDs, she’ll be a classic.

Jason Isbell / Sirens in the Ditch
I’m not familiar with CDs by the band he just left, the Drive-By Truckers, but the positive media about this debut solo CD got me to pick it up, and I’ve been hooked ever since. The tunes are thoughtful, soulful, country-oriented gems. His voice has a bit of rasp that makes the delivery sincere. And the writing is top notch. Recorded at Muscle Shoals. Check out this scaled-down live version of a beautiful song about the war. (The CD version is better.)

Wilco / Sky Blue Sky
With its latest CD, Wilco and leader Jeff Tweedy prove they’ve found solid ground. Sky Blue Sky is infused with the comfort that Tweedy has finally found in his music and from all accounts in his life. But don't equate comfort with boring – no, this CD really rocks. Bringing Tweedy's latest vision to life is guitarist Nels Cline, known mainly as an avant garde jazz player. Nels brings amazing virtuoisity and creativity to the Wilco rock world, both on this CD but more importantly in great live performances they've been giving on their current tour. Some great live video of one song at:

CDs that really helped make 2007

Ryan Adams / Easy Tiger
This is the year I discovered Ryan Adams after not really paying much attention to his CDs sleeping in my collection. After seeing a great show at Red Rocks in Denver this summer, I woke up those CDs, and I bought this new record. It's full of hook-filled songs, great production and backup work.

The New Pornographers / Challengers
I go for the New Pornographers mainly for vocalist Neko Case. This CD shines because of her – but also because of A.C. Newman, Dan Bejar and the other Pornos. Some great tunes and captivating hooks.

Lily Allen / Alright, Still
Here’s a case where substance lives up to hype. Lily’s songs are clever and fun. The production and arrangements by Mark Ronson (producer of much of Amy Winehouse’s CD) hit the mark. Her songs are full of great situations lyrical twists. The songs reflect her life. Was I ever this young? [Note: Ronson's own 2007 Version CD of covers is definitely worth getting if you like the CDs I've listed by Amy and Lily. It's mainly great instrumentals, but the two singers are also featured on a cut apiece.]

Rilo Kiley / Under The Blacklight
This CD seemed at first a bit too shiny, smart and topical for me. But after a few listens, the tight and rocking Rilo prove to be improving on their sound. Jenny is singing as well as ever, and co-leader / guitarist / co-writer Blake Sennett's major role here offers Ms. Lewis a better foundation than her fine but less unique solo outing last year.

Maji / Christmas Dreams
I’m partial to this holiday CD in part because I’ve been doing PR for this project. It’s a great CD if you like Christmas music at all. Several songs appear to be future Christmas classics. They’re all either written, sung, produced and / or performed by Joe Puerta, a Milwaukee resident who rose to fame as a founding member of Ambrosia and Bruce Hornsby and the Range. A great singer, bass player and producer, Joe pulled together a group of top Milwaukee musicians and his friend and songwriter Bill Pfordrescher. Contributors include John Sieger, Robin Pluer, Grace Weber, John Calarco and Dave Adler. All but two songs are originals. Hear two of the best songs and watch their really cool videos:

And two more equals ten

Feist / The Reminder
Leslie Feist’s smoky singing, catchy tunes and fun arrangements make this her best CD to date. Don't hold it against her that this CD is a hit and all over TV thanks to the iPod Nano ad featuring "1234." Even indie artists deserve a break now and then. If you've seen the ad and want a laugh, check this out:

Robert Plant & Alison Krauss / Raising Sand
The concept held no interest to me, but after hearing a couple of tracks online, I got it. Their voices blend marvelously, and the groovy vibe courtesy of producer T. Bone Burnett makes this irresistible. Don't think "Stairway to Heaven" here. If you do, you'll be surprised.

And two great singles worth listening to:

Mike Fredrickson / "Cecille"
From Poor Freddy's Almanac, the 2007 release by our great Milwaukee songwriter, bassist, vocalist and painter. Superior pop writing, this one has melodies and lyrics that lock into your brain and don't let go. Available at CD Baby.

Cannonball Jane / "Take It To Fantastic"
New York Magazine calls her a "one-woman New York punk-funk project." Listen to this when the Milwaukee snow is flying and you're ready for summer already (like now). Sampled Cuban horns and a killer guitar riff take me to the Caribbean, by way of Brooklyn. From Knees Up! EP. Get at eMusic.

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