The Best Music of 2007 

Lee Hildebrand's top 10 for the year

Nappy Brown, Long Time Coming, Blind Pig.

At age 77, Napoleon Brown is singing better than ever. In fact, he's singing better than just about any other bluesman currently recording. The myriad of vocal tones, inflections, and pitches the North Carolinian employs on his first album in more than a decade is astonishing, and he uses them to express a variety of emotions and moods, from tortured to ecstatic, serious to jovial. He's a trickster, especially on a remake of his 1955 smash "Don't Be Angry," injecting his trademark li-li-li-li-li in front of the title phrase, which still seems odd more than a half century later. During the blues ballad "Give Me Your Love" he switches between registers at will, injects extraneous syllables here and there, and executes descending melismas with breathtaking ease, cutting to the emotional core of the song while simultaneously showing off his vocal virtuosity.

Deborah Cox, Destination Moon, Decca.

Unlike some soul singers twice her age who attempt to keep up with current trends in R&B — often succeeding artistically, though youth-conscious urban radio routinely ignores their efforts — 33-year-old Canadian dance-music diva Deborah Cox has taken a decidedly retro approach by performing songs recorded in the '40s, '50s, and '60s by Dinah Washington. Backed either by a big band, string orchestra, or jazz combo, each magnificently arranged by producer Rob Mounsey, Cox explores several facets of Washington's eclectic repertoire, from such pop ballads as "What a Difference a Day Made" and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" to the '50s-style R&B of "I Don't Hurt Anymore," swingers like "Blue Skies" and the title track, and a couple straight blues, all with depth of feeling and flawless technique.

Marie Knight, Let Us Get Together:, A Tribute to Reverend Gary Davis, M.C Records.

When M.C. Records approached Marie Knight about doing an album of Rev. Gary Davis songs, the veteran gospel and R&B vocalist admitted she'd never heard of the blind street singer. But Knight, ever the professional, accepted the challenge, learned a dozen songs associated with the late, great Piedmont-style picker, and proceeded to record one of the most significant career comeback albums in the annals of American roots music. The 84-year-old singer's powerful alto has diminished little since her days in the '40s and '50s as Sister Rosetta Tharpe's duet partner. Though it may be a little craggier around the edges, Knight's sustains still ring out magnificently, her octave leaps land right on pitch, and her enunciation is as clear as finely polished crystal. Central to Knight's triumphant performances are the contributions of guitarist-producer Larry Campbell, best known for his work with Bob Dylan.

Dorothy Norwood & the Mississippi Mass Choir, No Request, Malaco.

Dorothy Norwood may not have the greatest singing voice — her raspy contralto has become increasingly frayed — but few gospel performers have a better sense of timing. Whether singing or speaking, the 72-year-old Atlanta native employs pregnant pauses and unexpected asides in just the right places in order to induce shouting in her audiences. She and the choir rock out on uptempo numbers, but the disc's highlight is "Old School Blvd.," a medley of "Guide Me, Oh Thou Great Jehovah," "Leaning on the Everlasting Arm," and "Precious Lord," treated to a snail's pace with no fixed tempo. Norwood takes her time as she wails with intense conviction, commenting at one point, I got a hallelujah in my belly. She also cleverly recites the story of the Three Little Pigs and finds religious meaning in the third pig having built his house on a solid foundation.

Joshua Redman, Back East, Nonesuch.

A half century after saxophone titan Sonny Rollins traveled from New York to Los Angeles to record the daring Way Out West, the first album on which he was supported by just a bassist and drummer, Joshua Redman journeyed from Berkeley to New York to cut Back East with three different sets of bassists and drummers. He not only reinvents "I'm an Old Cowhand" and "Wagon Wheels" from Rollins' classic disc, but also expands the concept to include such other numbers as "East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)," John Coltrane's "India," and several original compositions that reflect his interest in Indonesian, Indian, Middle Eastern, and African music. The performances, on which Redman switches between tenor and soprano saxophones, bristle with melodic and rhythmic surprise. He also locks horns with guest saxophonists Joe Lovano, Chris Creek, and, in his final recording, his late father Dewey Redman.

Ed Reed, Ed Reed Sings Love Songs, Blue Shorts Records.

The recording debut of Ed Reed, at age 81, comes as a highly auspicious breath of fresh air in the jazz vocal world. The Richmond-based singer is a crooner of the first order who finds musical and emotional nuances in ballads from the Great American Songbook, including such infrequently heard gems as Harold Arlen and Truman Capote's "A Sleepin' Bee," Billy Strayhorn's "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing," and Gordon Jenkins' "Goodbye." Reed's range is wide, from a ringing tenor to a richly resonant baritone, and his sometimes breathy tone has an intimate, inviting quality that is enhanced by the empathetic piano support of Gary Fisher, the subtle swing of bassist John Wiitala and drummer Eddie Marshall, and the solos and fibrous horn arrangements of multi-instrumentalist Peck Allmond, who produced the disc in collaboration with Bud Spangler.

Mavis Staples, We'll Never Turn Back, Anti-.

Mixing politics and religion was a daring proposition for professional African-American gospel singers during the civil rights movement. The Staple Singers were one of the few prominent gospel groups of the period with the nerve and conscience to lend their voices to the cause. On We'll Never Turn Back, produced by Ry Cooder and his son Joaquin, Mavis Staples applies her throaty, intensely emotive contralto to a program that includes church songs such as "We Shall Not Be Moved," "I'm on My Way," and "Jesus Is on the Mainline," their lyrics altered, sometimes only slightly, to project the movement's messages. It is far from an exercise in nostalgia, however. It's been almost 50 years, she wails on the autobiographical "My Own Eyes." How much longer will it last? We need a change now more than ever. Why are we still treated so bad?

Jacky Terrasson, Mirror, Blue Note.

The shadow of Thelonious Monk looms large over Jacky Terrasson's first solo-piano album, particularly on his Monkish reading of "Just a Gigolo" and when he inserts a snippet of "Well, You Needn't" into a romping reading of the Duke Ellington-Juan Tizol standard "Caravan." The Berlin-born pianist is far from being a Monk imitator, however. Terrasaon is the most original pianist currently working within the straight-ahead jazz tradition, yet he is unafraid to take daring liberties with it. Freed from the time-keeping constraints of a rhythm section, he uses an internal metronome while juxtaposing lush chords, rhapsodic melodies, rippling glissandos, crashing dissonances, stride interludes, and jagged rhythms to create a seamless, awe-inducing whole. His quiet deconstruction of "America the Beautiful" is especially thought provoking.

Howard Wiley, The Angola Project, H.N.I.C. Music.

Inspired in part by historic field recordings of spirituals, work songs, and blues performed by convicts at Louisiana's brutal Angola State Penitentiary; The Angola Project overflows with more raw passion than just about any jazz release in recent memory, and in some ways rivals Wynton Marsalis' most ambitious work. Much like the famous David Murray, who guests on one track, young Berkeley-born, Hercules-based tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley is a free player who places feeling over conventional technique. His tone is fat and frequently torrential as he rips though material steeped in the African-American call-and-response tradition. Ensembles that include trumpeter Geechi Taylor, trombonist Danny Armstrong, opera singer Jeannine Anderson, blues-and-jazz vocalist Faye Carol, and two violinists serve to heighten the music's haunting qualities.

John Fogerty, Revival, Fantasy.

Thirty-six years and nine solo albums since the breakup of Creedence Clearwater Revival, John Fogerty has returned to form just when he's most needed. You can't go wrong if you play a little bit of that Creedence song, he sings at one point, having seemingly set aside differences with his former bandmates. But more significantly, the Berkeley-born musician has replaced his notorious anger at the former owner of Fantasy Records with a new target: George W. Bush. Stop talkin' about stayin' the course/You keep on beatin' that old dead horse, he snarls on the fiercely rocking "I Can't Take It No More," one of two anti-war songs on Revival. Throughout the disc, Fogerty sings with passion and plays razor-edged guitar in what is perhaps the most perfect synthesis of blues and country elements since Elvis hooked up with Scotty and Bill.

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