Compiling an end-of-the-year list always makes me a little nervous. I worry I'll leave off an artist whose work was tight, whose effort deserves a mention. But for some reason (chiefly space limitations), I can't get everyone in. This year wasn't so hard, though. When thinking about the "best" CDs of the year, sales and critical buzz don't matter much to me. "Best" means that the artist stepped his game up and, in the process, set a higher standard within his genre. It's music that either added something fresh to current trends or bucked them altogether with a vibrant and memorable approach. Here's my list of the best albums of 2007, many of which deserved more attention than they received:
RAHSAAN PATTERSON Wines & Spirits
I can't think of too many other contemporary male soul singers whose music feels so sincere. Patterson is always adventurous, yet his songs remain accessible and rich with fluid melodies and open-hearted lyrics. No pretension, no forced posturing -- this native New Yorker truly keeps it real. On Wines & Spirits, the singer-songwriter's fourth album, Patterson's remarkable musicality is in full bloom. Each song is a colorful universe unto itself, but the album flows seamlessly. From percolating, Sly Stone-inspired funk to spare, Janis Ian-penned balladry, Wines & Spirits deepens with each listen. A modern soul classic.
MAVIS STAPLES We'll Never Turn Back
And speaking of soul, this Chicago-raised artist is one of the greats. For 50 years, she sang with her father, brother and sisters as the Staple Singers, the legendary group that melded country gospel, Delta blues and urban funk into an irrepressible sound. (You remember the classics: "I'll Take You There," "Respect Yourself," "Let's Do It Again.") Although Staples has lost some of her shouting power over the years, her breathy, husky vocals still roil with conviction. And on this album, a collection of modernized "freedom" songs, she offers a potent musical balm. Backed by Ry Cooder's sensitive but oh-so-funky production, the artist soars on such evergreens as "Eyes on the Prize" and "Down in Mississippi." With We'll Never Turn Back, Staples gloriously brings blues and gospel back to R&B.;
THE WHITE STRIPES Icky Thump
With each release, this minimalist duo invigorates its blues-rock base with instrumentation that matches its eccentric image. On this album, one of the more inspired releases to come out of rock this year, Jack and Meg White throw in everything but a hammer and nails. Mariachi horns, flamenco flourishes and bagpipes add odd but fitting textures to the music throughout Icky Thump. Of course, the duo overreaches a bit. "St. Andrew (This Battle Is in the Air)" is a noisy waste of time. But that's the only lull on this smart and fearless album. SUZANNE VEGA Beauty & Crime
Since rocketing up the pop charts with 1987's "Luka," Vega has maintained a respected reputation for poetically painting memorable characters in her songs. On this album, her debut for the venerable Blue Note label, the artist's approach is deft and sophisticated as the music smoothly blends organic and quirky electronic instrumentation. It's an assured, stylish record that uses the city of New York as a deep character study. The idea may sound a little passe, but Vega makes it work. "Ludlow Street," dedicated to the memory of Vega's brother, Tom, is especially moving. But the entire album is, hands down, Vega's masterstroke.
No disrespect to such marquee names as Common, Talib Kweli and Jay-Z, all of whom released solid rap albums in 2007, but Lifesavas, an independent, underground trio from Portland, Ore., trumped them all. This is one of few hip-hop CDs to drop this year that didn't feel painfully contrived. Sure, the album concept -- a soundtrack to a faux blaxploitation flick -- isn't exactly original. But it doesn't get in the way of the album's brilliant production and incisive, sterling tales of urban survival. Several cuts -- namely "Freedom Walk" and "Shine Language" -- are uplifting without feeling corny or didactic. Unlike many hip-hop releases to come down the pipeline lately, Gutterfly is a cohesive album that sounds better with repeated listens.
SHARON JONES & THE DAP-KINGS 100 Days, 100 Nights
Amy Winehouse may have been Miss It this year with her critically acclaimed Sarah Vaughan-meets-vintage Motown approach, but that was nearly obliterated by her erratic behavior, which filled international tabloids. At least she had the good sense to use the Dap-Kings on the tour behind Back to Black, her lauded American debut. But the band has been backing Jones, a full-figured, full-throttle vocalist, for some time now. And this album, whose retro sound isn't too far removed from Winehouse's, is excellent. There's nothing contemporary about the CD. The music is straight-up brassy, Stax-like soul, which the Dap-Kings replicate wondrously. But it is Jones' gutsy, grits-and-honey vocals that drive the album. At 51, Jones boasts a nuanced, emotional believability you just don't hear in the one-note approaches of so many of today's wannabe divas.
HERBIE HANCOCK River: The Joni Letters
One legend pays tribute to another. Jazz visionary Hancock reinterprets the jazz-suffused work of pop maverick Joni Mitchell. As an interpreter, Hancock respects the integrity of Mitchell's songs but is daring enough to twist them in captivating ways. With the help of knockout talent -- namely sax great Wayne Shorter, rock-soul legend Tina Turner and sultry vocalist Norah Jones -- Hancock crafts a transcendent album that casual and hard-boiled jazz fans should relish.
THE SHINS Wincing the Night Away
Although this album is a bit slicker than the band's previous work, The Shins steer clear of alt-rock cliches. In several ways, the album is typical Shins -- melodic and guitar-driven. But this time, the band folds in progressive musical elements that give the sound a certain freshness. Subtle but affecting musical quirks pepper Wincing the Night Away. "Phantom Limb," for instance, is lifted by an odd, soaring chord change midsong, and "Black Wave" rides on dreamy electronic textures. To stay vital on this release, The Shins didn't need to do a complete overhaul of its sound. Just a few shimmering touches here, some dark tones there made all the difference.
DONNIE The Daily News
It's no easy feat to take such heavy topics as the shady American pharmaceutical industry, depression, the Atlanta child murders and the Hurricane Katrina disaster and churn them all into edgy, uplifting songs. On the Georgia-based artist's sophomore album, he extends the tradition of gospel as "good news" in bad times. Unlike other modern soul artists whose lyrics are politically charged (Lauryn Hill immediately comes to mind), Donnie isn't preachy. A sense of hope and spiritual transcendence permeates his lyrics as the music bumps with unbridled funk reminiscent of Talking Book-era Stevie Wonder. Behind Patterson's Wines & Spirits, The Daily News is the second most impressive R&B; album of 2007.
HONORABLE MENTIONS Ledisi, Lost & Found; Musiq Soulchild, Luvanmusiq; Ann Nesby, This Is Love; Carrie Underwood, Carnival Ride; Wynton Marsalis, From the Plantation to the Penitentiary; Ry Cooder, My Name Is Buddy; Lucinda Williams, West; Rickie Lee Jones, The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard.