Amy Winehouse, Back to Black
In a year coined by The New York Times as the year of the celebrity train wreck, Amy Winehouse epitomized how quickly the life of a rising young star can spiral out of control in the unrelenting flashbulbs of the paparazzi. But her album Back to Black, released to a U.S. audience in March of 2007, made Amy’s apparent marital problems and descent into drug addiction far more compelling than the travails of her pop and celebutante peers. With a rasping voice husky enough to ooze smoke over the airwaves, Winehouse combined jazz, R&B, and a dose of hip-hop to refuse rehab and tell us she was no good, creating some of the year’s most timely, catchy, and, above all, beautiful songs. What becomes of Winehouse in even the near future is almost impossible to predict, but I’d venture to bet that her addictive songs are destined to be classics.
Troubles also beget great music for rapper/singer/songwriter M.I.A., whose sophomore album Kala turns her problems securing a U.S. visa into danceable and controversial criticisms of our immigration policies. The album’s rich blend of genres creates a hip-hop and electro-pop vibe that will have M.I.A.’s lyrics reverberating through our heads. Perhaps even the most literal-minded conservatives might eventually see the irony intended by the would-be immigrant artist’s song “Paper Airplanes,” in which she claims that “all I wanna do is BANG BANG BANG.”
Wilco, Sky Blue Sky
With their smart and haunting lyrics and vibrant instrumentation, Wilco has yet to release an album that isn’t great in my book. 2007 showed them in top form with the release of their sixth album, Sky Blue Sky. Evoking influences ranging from Dylan to modern experimental music, the album is rife with musical treasures, which those who bemoan the state of modern rock would do well to note.
Radiohead, In Rainbows
The past couple of years have often left me pining for more vintage Radiohead. I’ve found that one can only play Ok Computer and Kid A so many times before friends reach for their iPods. And while Hail to the Thief was good, it didn’t capture the instrumental excitement of the band’s earlier albums. So it was with excitement and trepidation that I greeted their latest offering, In Rainbows. But by the end of the first song, the question shifted to whether the band had merely reclaimed its past awesomeness with this album or surpassed it. The lyrics are at times hilarious—or maybe I’m the only one tickled by landlords’ reactions to talk of piss-foam parties. Humor aside, the album is daring, poignant, and deftly executed—Radiohead at its best. And with its more accessible style and listener-determined pricing, it’s a great album for even those who haven’t been keen on Radiohead in the past to try.
Feist, The Reminder
Many a great song has been ruined when overplayed as a commercial jingle. But pop/folk singer-songwriter Leslie Feist’s sweetly terrific “1 2 3 4” made iPod Nano commercials a listening experience to be anticipated. The Reminder’s other songs, while less bright, are equally seductive, transporting listeners to Feist’s lushly inviting and romantic musical universe. This album is the sort of guilty pleasure chick-pop that’s so good, one has no compulsion to feel guilty.