Top 10 Albums of 2007

Click here for “Top 30 Songs of 2007.”

1. M.I.A.: Kala (Interscope)

Flush with fresh, exotic beats and featuring hypnotic, often surreal vocals that alternate from cocksure rapping to schoolgirl singing, M.I.A.’s second album Kala seduces the listener with a catchy collage of sonics that defies categorization. The Sri Lankan rapper, singer, songwriter, producer (and painter, while we’re at it) is also a clever lyricist; her line “I hate money because it makes me numb” was quoted recently by Thom Yorke in the New York Times. Then there’s her deftness with samples. On “20 Dollar,” M.I.A. transforms The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” into a trippy space flight. And “Paper Planes” (the best song of 2007), finds her rapping about being an international criminal over a subdued interpolation of The Clash’s “Straight to Hell.” But the real genius of the number is a gunshot/cash register hook, and the way M.I.A. is able to sound at once treacherous and adorable as “a bona fide hustler.”

2. The White Stripes: Icky Thump (Third Man/Warner Bros.)

The scrappiest duo on the planet returns with another fierce helping of heavy blues, psychedelia and manic mountain music. The disc caroms from the savagery of the hard-rocking title track to the wistful country closer “Effect & Cause.” Like his pal Bob Dylan, Jack White is a scavenger and shapeshifter, creating his own musical world out of all the old, weird American stuff that came before him.

3. Amy Winehouse: Back to Black (Republic)

Forget, for a moment, the awful tabloid photos, the on-stage blunders (key bump, anyone?) and that she really does need rehab. Winehouse did a remarkable thing this year: She gave us a soul album that brilliantly updates the sounds of Stax and Motown with language that speaks to the modern woman — someone who can feel sexy, confident, scorned and miserable all in the same day, and openly discuss such feelings. The horns and backup singers might recall a record from 1970, but it’s all about the here and now when Winehouse asks: “What kind of fuckery is this?” and then sings “You don’t mean dick to me.”

4. Caribou: Andorra (Merge)

Like a stellar Beach Boys album for the new millennium, Andorra has hooks aplenty augmented by myriad layers of synths, found sounds and enough live instrumentation to give this “electronica” disc a classic, timeless quality. Equally importantly are the delicate, impassioned vocals of Caribou’s Dan Snaith. The guy’s a multi-instrumentalist/computer whiz with a Ph.D. in mathematics who in concert spends most of the time behind a drum kit, but when he delivers a line like “sometimes in her eyes I’ll see forever” it’s as if he’s channeling a young Brian Wilson.

5. Radiohead: In Rainbows (Radiohead)

As a lifelong Radiohead fan first drawn to the band as a young teen by the single “Creep,” and who spent more time as a college sophomore analyzing and appreciating OK Computer than studying, it’s nice to have Radiohead back rocking out in their own wonderfully odd way. Whereas Kid A, Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief are often experimental at the expense of the song, In Rainbows recalls 1990s Radiohead while still looking forward. It’s a batch of songs that smack of genuine emotion (Yorke even sounds horny on a couple of ’em). They’re melodic, often driving numbers, judiciously supplemented with the band’s seemingly limitless arsenal of otherworldly effects. And then there’s Yorke’s voice, that striking instrument forever vacillating between gorgeous and harrowing.

6. Sadaharu: Resist. Revolt. Reclaim. (CI)

Pigeonholed in some circles as “post-hardcore,” this quartet rocks with the precision, passion and funkiness of a more punk-leaning Rage Against the Machine. On this collection of gloriously sinister anarchy anthems, Sadaharu makes bloody revolution not only sound prudent, but more wickedly fun than a bender with Kate Moss.

7. Jason Isbell: Sirens of the Ditch (New West)

The year’s best debut disc comes courtesy of this former Drive-By Trucker. Limited to only a couple writing credits per album during his DBT days, Isbell establishes himself as an indie star on this album of originals, which adroitly blends elements of power-pop, alt-country and classic soul. Whether singing about the funeral of a friend who died while fighting in Iraq (“Dress Blues”) or imaging Truman Capote-style what happened the night Phil Spector went from legendary producer to tabloid villain (“Brand New Kind of Actress”), Isbell draws the listener in with gripping details.

8. Pink Martini: Hey Eugene! (Heinz)

Pink Martini makes pop music that spans the globe with an emphasis on past greatness, effortlessly sweeping the listener from a swank 1920s speakeasy to a steamy Rio de Janeiro nightclub. Dexterous frontwoman China Forbes sings in English and Portuguese — even Arabic on the Middle Eastern dance number "Bukra Wba'do." And then there’s the title track, a near-perfect, contemporary pop ditty about a crazy, booze-fueled hook-up.

9. Jay-Z: American Gangster (Roc-A-Fella)

Kanye West wore hip-hop’s crown earlier in the year when he pummeled 50 Cent on a super Tuesday showdown. But it’s Jay-Z who remains rap’s reigning king with this excellently poignant, menacing and at times playful comeback album. Inspired by the flick of the same name based on the life of Harlem hustler Frank Lucas, the disc uses live instruments and era-specific samples to create an inspired retro sound over which Jay-Z spits some of the sharpest rhymes of his career. And not to be left out, Kanye makes a cameo on the disc’s hottest track, the horn-intensive “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is…)”.

10. Pieta Brown: Remember the Sun (One Little Indian)

When alt-country hero Iris DeMent said her favorite album of the year was by her daughter-in-law Pieta Brown (daughter of folk singer Greg Brown), I chalked it up to nepotism. Then the disc arrived. Ms. Brown’s assured, sultry vocals shine here in a mysteriously rustic setting crafted by guitarist/producer Bo Ramsey (of Lucinda Williams fame). A master of smart confessionals, Brown send chills up the spine when she imagines a conversation with country’s toughest queen (“In My Mind I Was Talkin’ To Loretta.”)

BEST REISSUES/COMPILATIONS: Various Artists: Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration (Stax); Neil Young: Live at Massey Hall 1971 (Reprise); Led Zeppelin: The Song Remains the Same (Swan Song); Warren Zevon: The Envoy (Asylum/Rhino); Ani DiFranco: Canon (Righteous Babe); Various Artists: I’m Not There (Sony); N.W.A.: Straight Outta Compton: 20th Anniversary Edition (Priority

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