What a year it's been for a baby boomer like me.
We've seen strong fresh offerings from stalwarts like Paul McCartney, John Fogerty, America, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Hornsby, James Taylor, Jean-Luc Ponty, John Mellencamp and yes, even the Eagles. What's more, the old stuff pulled from the vaults for the first time from luminaries like Neil Young and Miles Davis were of good quality too, adding up to a solid year for the Old School.
Furthermore, many of the newer and/or more obscure acts added to an already splendid batch of material.
So, in looking back on 2007 and forward to Christmas gift giving, it's time to assess the releases over the last 12 months and choose the outstanding ones. In doing so, I'm going to leave out a lot of records that I genuinely liked, even though the list is a long one as it stands.
Now, I can't claim to have even listened to even 0.1% of all the new releases out there and this isn't about saying what is the best for every taste. It's simply a collection of records I liked the best without regard for genre, artist or popularity.
It pains me that I don't have a blues offering in the bunch; that's more of a function of my not listening to enough new blues records rather than it being a down year for blues; chances are I'll figure it out in 2008 much as I figured out in 2007 that Charlie Musselwhite's Delta Hardware was a 2006 winner.
In putting together this collection, I thought of it much along the lines of sports; Every year you have your best players starting in the all-star or all-pro game with those who were just a cut below selected as alternates. The single most outstanding player is the MVP. This is the approach I'm going to take in making my selections; The flawless or nearly flawless are the "starters," the generally solid ones with few weaknesses are my "alternates" and my favorite release of the year is the MVP. Oh, and what the hell, I'll throw in 2007's best song in my book, too, called "One Track of The Year."
A little unusual, perhaps, but I just can't rank them any more specifically. It was even difficult to sort out which are starters, which are alternates and which didn't even make the team at all. But it's a pretty good indicator of what moved me this year. I'll break 'em out into four distinct articles, starting with the alternates. Enjoy, and Happy Holidays:
Nels Cline Singers – Draw Breath
Among the small but special heap of whack jazz guitarists, Nels sits at the top. That he can shift from the listenable to the loud without losing his identity puts him near the top of all guitarists, however. He's still most at home with improvised music and since "Nels Cline Singers" is synonymous with "improvised" this one is a no-brainer. Only the needlessly plodding last track denies this stellar CD the starter status. Read my full review here.
Wilco – Sky Blue Sky
This is a band I've only recently delved into and admittedly it's only because of the addition of Cline. Even though his tasty, ever-so-slightly-warped guitar licks do enhance this record, Sky Blue Sky would be mighty good even if he wasn't on it. Frontman Jeff Tweedy's warble is the perfect blend of affected indie and Nashville twang that puts both wit and weariness into every song. This record has that warm, easygoing early-70's vibe to it where country and rock seamlessly blend together. Underneath the laid-back veneer are some smart song constructions and melodies that stick in your mind long after the songs end. It's hard to find much fault with Sky Blue Sky.
Carla Bley – The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu
Bley is a master practitioner of the art of composition no matter what the configuration is. For this one, her small band configuration is expanded slightly to take in the fine Italian trumpeter honored in the title. And provided with Carla's tone poems, he shines brightly. The opening piece "One Banana" is absolutely sublime and the rest ain't that bad, either. Read my full review here.
California Transit Authority – Full Circle
CTA is the vehicle for founding Chicago drummer Danny Seraphine's return to the music business. Seraphine took the luxury of making his band what today's Chicago can never be: the old Chicago. Yes, the majority of the songs here are remakes of tunes from the Terry Kath era but played with renewed vigor and a smokin' band headlined by guitarist Marc Bonilla and Tower Of Power vocalist Larry Braggs. Read my full review here.
Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette – My Foolish Heart: Live at Montreux
Keith Jarrett is so consistent that as long as he releases at least one CD a year, which he tends to do, he will be on this list every single time. There are no flaws to note in this millionth or so record by the best trio in jazz today, it is only held back by the fact that you can easily change this out with any of their other records without missing a beat. Also mentioned in a Quickies article here.
Josh Roseman – New Constellations: Live in Vienna
Roseman's brand of jazz is not the most whack but it is a strong nominee for most eclectic. Whereas Roseman mashed up jazz trombone with pop classics on his 2001 debut Cherry, here he melds his jazz with reggae, rock, avant garde and dub with often some very unique and interesting results…and it's all done live. Roseman is truly one of a kind even among his kindred progressive jazz musicians and seems to be just getting going. Also mentioned in a Quickies article here.
John Scofield Trio – This Meets That
Like Jarrett, every Scofield release is a significant event to me. And likewise, Sco' is getting the job done with a trio, but one of a different sort. Supplemented by a horn section styled after Gil Evans, Scofield blends chamber jazz and classic rock to create another hybrid that still is unmistakably his own sound. Read my full review here.
Levon Helm – Dirt Farmer
This is the closest thing you will find in a new The Band record these days, and even though it's a lot more organic than The Band ever was (feels weird to say that, but it's true), it evokes Helm's old group in all the right ways. Also mentioned in a Quickies article here.
Sam Yahel – Truth And Beauty
Yahel has been steadily rising in stature among the current generation of New York-based jazz musicians and Truth And Beauty is the record that should put him on par with the top artists in that group. There are a lot of subtleties in both Yahel's organ playing and composing that belies the seemingly simple structures at the surface of these songs. And with his running buddies Joshua Redman and Brian Blade rounding out his band, it's a record with a triple threat. Read my full review here.
Umphrey's McGee – The Bottom Half
UM seems intent on making rock-oriented jam band music fun again and the outtakes collection The Bottom Half makes another convincing case that it was supposed to be that way all along. Listening to this set of songs that remain of almost consistently good quality despite veering wildly from rock to country to Jamaican to funk gives "outtakes" a good name. Read my full review here.
Bruce Hornsby – Camp Meeting
The story of this CD is that rock star Hornsby goes headlong into challenging jazz and winds up sounding like a seasoned pro doing it. He composes complex, interesting originals and takes fresh approaches to familiar covers. Bruce could have easily looked like an idiot making this record but the dice he rolled came up with a seven. Read my full review here.
John Mellencamp – Freedom's Road
Strange that I would like this record so much because I never was a big fan of Mellencamp's in his heyday and Freedom's Road isn't that stylistically different from his classic era. Maybe it's because now he seems settled into the confident role of an old vet skillfully plying his trade rather than trying to find his niche somewhere between Springsteen and the Stones. It's also a consistently strong batch of songs, the Chevy truck ditty notwithstanding. Even though we've still got The Boss taking the pulse of America, the former Mr. Cougar has more quietly accumulated plenty enough credibility to pull that off, too. Lord knows there's certainly room for more for his ilk these days. Read Nick Deriso's full review here.
Bill Frisell, et. al. – Floratone
The self-styled guitarist Bill Frisell teams with percussionist Matt Chamberlain and two producers Lee Townsend & Tucker Martine to combine extemporaneous jams with Teo Macero-esque editing. The upshot to this studio mad science is soundscapes that sound cutting edge and typical Frisell at the same time. Read my full review here.
NEXT: The 2007 All-Star Starters list