2007 Calvin Awards: Best Album

February 15, 2007

Save the transvestite cheerleader, save the world.

This category celebrates the best in music this year, going to that ever increasingly obsolete unit of music, the album. Even as iTunes and other digital media threatens to render the idea of a collection of songs by one artist as a quaint relic, there remain groups out there capable of producing a collection of work that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. As usual, our predilections in music run to the semi-obscure, the indie and the offbeat as we pretend that most of top-40 radio doesn't exist. Clay Aiken and Justin Timberlake fans need not apply.

Heading up the list is Portland's The Decemberists, with their major label debut The Crane Wife. Last year's Picaresque came in fourth on our chart, which served as a stepping-stone for this year's triumph. For The Crane Wife, their hyper-literate prog-rock took the form of a kind of concept album, borrowing a Japanese folk tune for an overarching theme, as well as their usual assortment of sea shanties, melancholy bar anthems and any other inspiration they can find. Lead singer Colin Meloy's story telling remains top notch, and at the conclusion of the album, you feel like you've just experienced something like a long lost French New Wave film. It was one of the most immersive musical experiences this year.

Neko Case also made our top ten list last year as a part of pop masters The New Pornographers, but it's her solo work that gets noticed here, with Fox Confessor Takes the Flood finishing second in our polling. Transitioning seamlessly from her early days in the Tacoma punk scene into a goddess of alt-country to her sublime pop collaborations, Case has transcended her Patsy Cline-sound alike status into something that seems to blend everything she's done before, defying any kind of genre classification. Frankly, with a voice as powerful as hers, she can do anything she wants to.

Third spot goes to yet another repeat mention, The Hold Steady, and their latest album Boys and Girls in America. Opening with a Springsteen-esque riff and continuing that influence throughout, the album is like the greatest collection of bar band anthems ever written. Boys and Girls in America is filled with 11 odes to youth and heartbreak, all backed by the crunchiest power chords you've heard in a long time.

Scottish-based twee rockers Belle & Sebastian take fourth spot with The Life Pursuit, and although their homages to 1960s chamber pop and AM radio continue, there's something different about this iteration of rock's gloomiest band – they actually seem to be having fun. Yes, it seems like they've actually discovered the joy of making music, and have put their mastery of pop to good use, producing a peppy record that experiments with blues rock (The Blues Are Still Blue), funk (Sukie in the Graveyard) and country (Mornington Crescent).

One of the most adventurous albums of the year slides in for fifth spot. Avant garde New York group TV on the Radio's Return to Cookie Mountain can at times be an extremely off-putting album – it lacks any natural singles, its songs defy the traditional verse-chorus-versus structure and songs lurch forward as if to throw the listener like a bucking bronco. However, on repeated listens, it's one of the most rewarding albums of the year. Layered vocals and instruments compete with fuzz and synthesizers to create a sonic landscape to encompass and swallow up the listener.

Bob Dylan's career renaissance continues unabated with Modern Times, the sixth place finisher on our list. Known for all eternity as the popularizer of American folk music, on Modern Times, Dylan shows that what he really wants to do is rock out. A collection of rockabilly and blues tunes (the album opener, Thunder on the Mountain, feels like a long lost Elvis tune, save for a name drop of the very contemporary Alicia Keys) filled with wry humor, and a vitality that belies the fact that this is Dylan's 31st studio album.

The Arctic Monkeys were one of the most exciting debuts of the year with Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, which placed seventh here. The British noveau-punkers made a splash with this album filled with working-class rock anthems and tales from the club scene, with lyrics that take the piss out of everyone from poseur rock groups to music industry executives to all the girls that turned him down on the dance floor. The energetic, dance-able tracks on this album were as much fun as rock got this year.

Jimmy Buffett returns to what he's best at after a brief flirtation with country on his previous album. Take the Weather With You has the 60-year-old reflecting on youth, the end of the world, and the fact that people are just constantly on the phone. Fingers Taylor, the harmonica player who was absent for a couple of albums, makes a return for a few songs and a cover of Crowded House's Weather With You (with special guests Gomez) is just wonderful. Also, any album with a song that features the line "when you feel like a written off actor on Deadwood about to get fed to the pigs" is all right with us.

All right, just sing it with me "I remember when, I remember when I lost my mind". Unless you've been living in a cave on Mars with your eyes closed and your fingers in your ears, you'll recognize that as the opening to Gnarls Barkley's Crazy, the biggest hit off their debut album St. Elsewhere. The collaboration between DJ Dangermouse and Cee-Lo was 2006's "Hey Ya", a breakthrough song that exploded into the public and became ubiquitous. The good thing is that the album it's on has more than just that one brilliant single and is the best that soul and hip-hop had to offer this year.

Lastly, we wrap up with My Chemical Romance's The Black Parade. A concept album about death and mortality, The Black Parade represented My Chemical Romance's breakout of the "emo" label as they attempted to revive the stadium rock sound of bands like Queen and Pink Floyd.

Just missing the cut this year were Sam Roberts's roots rock influenced Chemical City, Johnny Cash's posthumous American V: A Hundred Highways, folkie and ex-Rilo Kiley member Jenny Lewis with Rabbit Fur Coat and the return of Evanescence with The Open Door.

Top 10
Position Artist Album Total Points
1 The Decemberists The Crane Wife 38
2 Neko Case Fox Confessor Brings the Flood 31
3 The Hold Steady Boys and Girls in America 30
4 Belle & Sebastian The Life Pursuit 28
5 TV on the Radio Return to Cookie Mountain 27
6 Bob Dylan Modern Times 20
7(tie) Arctic Monkeys Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not 16
7(tie) Jimmy Buffett Take the Weather With You 16
9 Gnarls Barkley St. Elsewhere 15
10 My Chemical Romance The Black Parade 13

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