The Best Music of 2007 

Mark Keresman's top 10 for the year

Fred Hersch Trio, Night and the Music, Palmetto.

I used to think Fred Hersch was "just" another talented mainstream jazz pianist ... until I really listened to him. Hersch has dazzling technique, but it serves the music and not ego, a rhapsodic style that's emotively heart-swelling without being all gooey-sentimental, his compositions are inventive and engaging, and his trio (Drew Gress, bass; Nasheet Watts, drums) play as a unit, a true band, not just a "group." And they swing — everything a great jazz piano trio disc is supposed to be, Night is.

Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJoNETTE, My Foolish Heart, ECM.

Hate to be redundant, but here's another quintessential piano trio set, all the more impressive as a) it's a two-disc set recorded live and b) I'm not the biggest fan of Keith Jarrett (I've found some of his post-1984 stuff a little dull) — but I got to give credit where it's due. Jarrett, Peacock, and DeJohnette — also known as Jarrett's "standards trio," in business for 25 years [!] — literally blaze here. Their collectively nimble, bracing attack on these jazz repertoire warhorses feels like they were written yesterday and their lives depended on it. This trio's level of empathy is up there with that of the classic bands of Brubeck, Miles, and the Modern Jazz Quartet. Even though these masters stretch out, there's nary an unessential note.

Elizabeth Cook, Balls, 31 Tigers.

In a manner not unlike locals Red Meat, singer-songwriter Elizabeth Cook brings a modern sensibility to honky-tonk country music while sustaining the style's snap 'n' crackle/Buck 'n' Loretta verities. Cook even brings bucolic splendor to the Velvet Underground ballad "Sunday Morning" — she's got balls and that ain't all, bubba.

Meshell Ndegeocello, The World Has Made Me the Man, of My Dreams, Decca.

Hyperbole alert: This album is our decade's counterpart to Sly & the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On. The harrowing World is a seething caldron of psychedelic funk, dub, jazz, and rock. If it weren't for the jungle rhythms and wiry throbbing bass driving it, the swirling dream-pop of "The Sloganeer: Paradise" could be mistaken for early Cocteau Twins or Laika. Ndegeocello sings wisely, soothingly, and seductively, as if trying to change the world or her lover's mind with the right words. Climb aboard Starship Meshell, master of her/our universe.

Dollar Store, Money Music, Bloodshot.

Hey, I know this is only rock 'n' roll, (ostensibly) Cash-meets-Clash Americana division, but what Dollar Store (a spin-off of the Waco Brothers, which spun-off from the Mekons) really remind me of are '70s UK pub-rock combos Ducks Deluxe and Dr. Feelgood, albeit with more tongue-in-cheek working-class fatalism (kinda what that Cougarcamp fella might sound like if he didn't take himself so seriously). I know it's only rock 'n' roll, but I can't stop playing it.

Alemayehu Eshete, Éthiopiques Vol. 22, BudaMusique.

In his homeland of Ethiopia, Alemayehu Eshete is known as the Abyssinian Elvis because of his Elvis Presley-like cool and gyrations, both physical and vocal. "Nèy-Nèy Weleba," is — to over-simplify — Arabic jump-blues, featuring some rich, bluesy tenor saxophone, a jaunty beat, and Eshete's punctuating the Middle Eastern melody with Aahhh! "Tequr Gessela" and "Wètadèr Nègn" are fab Motown hits that never were, with Eshete coming on like an Abyssinian Marvin Gaye (in Ethiopian lingo, of course). Imagine '60s soul king Jackie Wilson backed by a rock steady outfit from the early '60s — funky and fascinating.

Various artists, Healing Force:, The Songs of Albert Ayler, Cuneiform Records.

What a line-up: a few local luminaries (Henry Kaiser, Damon Smith, Aurora Josephson), a giant of the SoCal out-jazz/free-improv scene (Vinny Golia), an NYC avant-jazz guitarist (Joe Morris), an ex-Zappa/jam-band-land guitarist (Mike Keneally), and a drummer from art-punk/noise-rockers Flying Luttenbachers (Weasel Walter), all taking on the oft-maligned late-career free-jazz/funk fusion of 1960s jazz avatar Albert Ayler. This is some seriously scary stuff, beyond good and evil, beyond mathematics and blackjack, up/out there with the Meat Puppets' first album, the Pop Group, and Diamanda Galas' most extreme material.

The Chris Potter 10, Song for Anyone, Sunnyside.

In the 1950s, there was a movement/trend in jazz called Third Stream, a fusion of jazz and Euro-American notated music (sometimes referred to as "classical"). It didn't really catch on big with critics or the general public, but it never completely went away, either. Tenor saxophonist/composer Chris Potter's latest utilizes an ensemble featuring woodwinds and strings (along with guitar, bass, and drums) for a lengthy Third Stream-y set of moody, elegant re-birth of the cool post-bop with undertones of 20th-century classical styles, à la Wayne Shorter-meets-Kronos Quartet.

Michael Hurley, Ancestral Swamp, Gnomonsong.

The past few years have seen a proliferation of what's been tagged as "free folk," "freak folk," and "New Weird America." Essentially, they mean to describe performers who have a unique or off-kilter take on traditional Anglo-American folk styles — i.e., Devandra Banhart, Faun Fables, Vetiver — the descendants of subversive '60s/'70s folkies the Holy Modal Rounders. Born in 1941, this Hurley fellow is one of their spiritual godfathers — earthy yet urbane, quirky in an unforced, naturalistic manner, gently droll, drawing equally upon Delta blues, coffeehouse folk, Appalachian music, and country. Back porch music from/on the edge of Infinity.

Naked Barbies, Stay Naked, NBD Records.

Little does most of the Bay Area know it is home to one of America's finest roots-rock bands: Naked Barbies, and they've been at it long before the Americana tag came 'round. Singer Patty Spiglanin's bittersweet, amber-toned singing oozes unaffected, mature sensuality (think Dusty Springfield, Shelby Lynne). Their songs are concise and addictive, and the Barbies' grounding in country, folk, and R&B is so innate they recall the Band at its peak. Stay Naked may be their swan song, but Ms. Spiglanin is planning a solo album — you got to watch.


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