Ah, 2007. We’re just a couple of short days into the New Year and I miss you already. For when I wasn’t busy beating up paparazzi’s cars with umbrellas (ellas-ellas-eh-eh) or perfecting my wide stance on the toilet a la Larry Craig, I was listening to music. A LOT of music. I’ve amassed quite a collection of music over the years, and I dare say I acquired more music in 2007 than any other year. I acquired so much music, in fact, that I wasn’t able to give a fair listen to a pretty good amount of stuff. There was a lot of stuff that may wind up being the equal of the stuff on this list, but I need a bit more time with. That’s to say nothing of albums like Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” (which received it’s physical release on 1/1) and Van Hunt’s “Popular” (scheduled for physical release 1/15) that are (extremely) early contenders for my “Best of 2008” list.

Anyway, despite things I might have missed, I certainly listened to more than enough music to come up with a Top 20 list, and here are the albums that were among my favorites this year.

20. Joss Stone “Introducing…Joss Stone” ( http://www.jossstone.com/)

The young Brit lass was one of several that made great albums this year (Lily Allen just missed my Top 20). I’d been saying for years that Joss would make a great album once her personal maturity caught up with her voice. Thanks to her takeover of the songwriting function and contemporary production from Tony Toni Tone’s Raphael Saadiq, Joss finally lived up to that potential. The Common duet “Tell Me What We’re Gonna Do Now” should’ve been a hit, and she also scored with songs like the summery “Headturner” and the Lauryn Hill-featured “Music”.

19. K-Os “Atlantis-Hymns For Disco” (http://www.k-osmusic.com/home.asp)

While Canadian emcee/singer K-os probably spent most of 2007 being mistaken for Wyclef and will.i.am (all three men favor one another strongly), the man has more talent than both men combined. It wasn’t until receiving a copy of his (very) premature hits collection (released this summer) that I realized how good “Atlantis” really was. He’s certainly one of the most versatile artists out there, capable of creating an old-school rap anthem like “The Seekwill”, rhyming over an interpolation of “Jailhouse Rock” (“The Equaliser”), and then turning around and creating pump-your-fist rock tracks like “Born To Run” and “Sunday Morning”. Our neighbors to the North don’t have the greatest rep when it comes to music (Celine Dion/Shania Twain/Nickelback), but here’s one Canuck you should definitely be paying attention to.

18. Mark Ronson “Version” (http://www.markronson.co.uk/frontpage?cmd=cookie/check)

Here’s an interesting concept: take a few Brit-rock classics (and one Britney Spears song), re-arrange them to sound like they came from mid-Sixties Motown, and then recruit a gang of “hip” new artists (including a couple that appear elsewhere on this list) to sing them. Somehow, it all worked. Aussie soul singer Daniel Merriweather, Brits Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse and Robbie Williams, American funk band The Dap Kings and Virginian-by-way-of-Ethiopia Kenna all joined forces for one of the year’s best party albums. And you haven’t lived until you’ve heard the late ODB rhyming over a reconstituted version of Ms. Spears’s “Toxic”.

17. Gerald LeVert “In My Songs” ( http://www.geraldlevert.com/)

R&B’s teddybear passed away mere weeks before this album’s release, and what a shame, because this was the best album released over the course of the crooner’s 20-year career. Experimenting with popular sounds (the sped-up soul samples of “M’Lady”, the Timbaland-esque electro sound of “What You Think About That?”), Gerald was still at his best on the ballads, whether he was professing loneliness on the title track or agonizing about taking a lady’s virginity on “Is This The Way To Heaven?”. One only wishes he was still around to make albums this good.

16. Rihanna “Good Girl Gone Bad” (http://www.rihannanow.com/)

It wasn’t much more than a collection of singles, but the singles were so damn good it turned Rihanna’s third effort into arguably the year’s best pop album. From the post-disco thump of “Don’t Stop The Music” to the cagey, mysterious “Rehab” (yet another feather in the cap of Timbaland & Timberlake), this was yet another step in the transformation of Rihanna from Disney Channel-ready disposable pop artist to sexy siren. And, of course, it spawned the year’s best single.

15. Kenna “Make Sure They See My Face” (http://www.kennakenna.com/)

After four long years and a label change, Kenna delivered on the promise of his debut, “New Sacred Cow”. Joined once again by Chad Hugo of The Neptunes, Kenna expertly straddled the line between hip-hop and new wave. With influences ranging from The Cure and Duran Duran to U2, “Make Sure They See My Face” was the year’s best Eighties rock-inspired albums, whether delivering electronic rockers like “Daylight” and “Out of Control” or atmospheric ballads like “Static”. Thankfully, your boy Skateboard P stays out of the way on most of this album, only sharing songwriting credit on 2 tracks (which, of course, are the album’s weakest).

14. Maroon 5 “It Won’t Be Soon Before Long” (http://www.maroon5.com/)

And now for the year’s best Eighties-inspired pop album. Adam Levine and company made the half-decade wait between albums worth it by building upon the promise of “Songs About Jane” with better lyrics, better production and an all-around better record. You’ve gotta love a band with the chutzpah to rip off Hall & Oates (“Makes Me Wonder”), The Police (“Can’t Stop”), and the Talking Heads (“If I Never See Your Face Again”). I would call them the best funk/rock/pop band around if there were any other bands around to even challenge them.

13. Kings of Leon “Because of the Times” (http://www.kingsofleon.com/)

Fans of Kings of Leon were allegedly taken aback by the Southern rock band’s cleaner sound, but as someone who was only vaguely aware of the band’s presence prior to hearing this album, I have no such axe to grind. Besides, none of the songs on this album sound even remotely similar to your typical Top 40 (or even rock radio) fare. Caleb Followill sings like a man possessed (judging from “Charmer”, he certainly screams like one) and his brothers and cousin in the band play like a cross between Lynyrd Skynyrd and Franz Ferdinand.

12. The White Stripes “Icky Thump” (http://www.whitestripes.com/)

I must admit, I wasn’t as excited for this as I should have been. The fact that Jack White’s side project, The Raconteurs, sucked major *ss took some of the wind out of my sails. I shouldn’t have worried-The White Stripes are arguably the greatest rock band to emerge this decade, and “Icky Thump” is another shining example of the joyful noise two people with instruments can make. Starting with the title track (which sounds exactly like a song entitled “Icky Thump” should) and continuing through songs that sound as though they were recorded for the soundtrack to a spaghetti western (mariachi horns and all), this album was good enough to wipe that bad Raconteurs taste right out of my mouth.

11. Mary J. Blige “Growing Pains” (http://www.mjblige.com/?utm_source=maryjblige.com)

We’re still waiting for The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul to face a challenge from any other divas out there. No other singer out there makes you FEEL them the way Mary J. does. Even with an army of producers and co-writers, every note on this album is undisputably Mary. Other than a pointless duet with Usher, everything on this album is gold, from a Neptunes-produced throwback dance jam (“Till The Morning”) to the uncharacteristically peppy “Just Fine”. She really shines, though, on the album’s ballads, which draw inspiration from Eighties pop-particularly “Smoke” and album closer “Come To Me (Peace)”.

10. Alicia Keys “As I Am” (http://www.aliciakeys.com/)

Another R&B diva who finally lived up to her potential, “As I Am” found Ms. Keys delivering a classic singer-songwriter album, splitting the difference between soul divas like Aretha and AM-radio faves like Carole King. “Where Do We Go From Here” bumps enough to get a shot on modern urban radio, but the Prince-like “Like You’ll Never See Me Again” and the John Mayer-featured “Lesson Learned” are the album’s highlights.

9. Justin Currie “What Is Love For?” (http://www.justincurrie.com/)

Taking a break from his day job as principal singer and lyricist for Scottish stalwarts Del Amitri (one of the most underrated pop/rock bands ever), Justin Currie released his first solo album, “What Is Love For?” this year. It turned out to be just as rewarding as any album by his band, with Currie’s whiskey-soaked croak taking center stage on a collection of tracks that look at love from a sarcastic, bitter point of view. While one song (“Out of My Control”) is a harder-rocking track in line with his band’s work, most of this album is reflective and somber, making this a perfect fit next to other great albums like David Gray’s “White Ladder” and Ray LaMontagne’s “Trouble”.

8. Chaka Khan “Funk This!” (http://www.chakakhan.com/)

On her first album of new material in a decade, the greatest female soul singer of all time NOT named Aretha Franklin cemented her legend. Produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis (who are as good now as they were producing The S.O.S. Band twenty-five years ago), Chaka’s impassioned wail rides on top of peppy originals (“Super Life” and “Let Go”), as well as covers of everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Prince, Joni Mitchell and The Doobie Brothers. Her disciple Mary J. Blige comes on board for the fiery “Disrespectful”, and the result is the aural version of a wild-west shootout. Obviously the comeback of the year.

7. Fountains of Wayne “Traffic & Weather” (http://www.fountainsofwayne.com/)

The power-pop band to end all power-pop bands, Fountains of Wayne’s fourth studio album boasted catchy hooks, hilarious character sketches and great playing. There’s a rocking track about newscasters in love, a vignette about a couple waiting in an airport (“Michael & Heather At The Baggage Claim), and my two favorites, the debt-riddled schlub in the horn-spiked “Strapped For Cash” (there’s an amazing video waiting to be shot for this song!) and “Planet of Weed”, which needs no explanation.

6. Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds “Live From Radio City” (http://www.davematthewsband.com/)

I guess you have to be “on” if you know your show is going to be released on DVD, right? Part of the reason I like this album so much is because I was actually at the show where this is taped. But even if you weren’t lucky enough to appear, this CD is all the explanation you’ll ever need for why some folks follow the Dave Matthews Band around (or plan summers around their tour schedule) the way folks used to follow The Dead back in the day.

5. Kanye West “Graduation” (http://www.kanyeuniversecity.com/)

The fact that this album is the least essential of the three he’s put out and STILL makes it into the Top 5 of my year-end list should speak volumes about the respect I have for West’s artistry. Thematically, Kanye sticks to the topic he knows best (himself), and while the album comes from a place of monumental egotism, ‘Ye not only retains enough of a sense of humor to make the egomania go down easy, but he also has such an ear for big production. Any Kanye album is a listening experience, and “Graduation” is no different.

4. “Talib Kweli “Ear Drum” (http://www.talibkweli.com/)

Kweli’s previous album, the “mixtape” “Right About Now” was a rather large piece of animal dung. “Ear Drum” finds the Brooklyn MC back on track, cementing his status as one of the greatest pure rappers of his era. Although the album’s three or four tracks too long, Kweli still stepped up his game here, this time without any assists from his man Mos Def (who needs to do a little bit of damage control himself). Artists ranging from UGK and KRS-ONE to Norah Jones (a particular highlight) and Justin Timberlake appear here, which should tell you how respected Kweli is in the music community. He may never shed the “backpacker”/”conscious rapper” title, but “Ear Drum” is proof positive that Talib Kweli is a great MC. Period.

3. Modest Mouse “We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank” (http://www.modestmouse.com/photoblog/?p=338)

I only discovered Modest Mouse one album ago, so forgive me because I’m not too familiar with their earlier work. I will say that lead singer Isaac Brock’s screams and cackles leave me thinking that he’s just one incident away from a ride on the crazy bus, and the band itself sounds more like The Talking Heads than any other band I’ve heard. While there’s nothing as immediate as their breakout hit “Float On”, “We Were Dead” boasts more high points than that album, from the stoner anthem “Fire It Up” (yes, thank you!), to the frenetic “We’ve Got Everything”. Brock’s inability to stay on key (not to mention his lisp) has a bit of a charming factor to it, and this album contains more driving and sailing references than any album I’ve heard before or since.

2. Me’Shell Ndegeocello “The World Has Made Me The Man of My Dreams” (http://www.theworldhasmademethemanofmydreams.com/)

It’s a shame that this woman’s such a genius, but no one buys her damn records! Switching gears from her usual funk sounds, this album incorporates elements of everything from Middle Eastern music to folk-rock to electronica to jazz. Actually, it reminds me most of the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink fusion stuff that Miles Davis was doing with “B*tches Brew”. Along the way, Me’shell proves (once again) that she is a fearless songwriter, champion musician and a very seductive vocalist. Maybe it’ll take a few years for Me’shell’s work (all 7 albums of it) to be seen as the visionary music it is, but in today’s disposable culture? Doubt it.

…and, finally, in a completely anti-climactic move:

1. Amy Winehouse “Back To Black” (http://www.amywinehouse.com/)

You know an album’s good when you can sing it in it’s entirety: from the first note to the last. The sad thing is that the genius of this album may permanently be obscured by the artist’s personal life. The irony of that is the reason the album is so good is BECAUSE of the artist’s personal life. Stung by a temporary breakup with the man who eventually became her husband/enabler, Amy Winehouse joined forces with producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi and created “Back To Black”, an album that discusses heartbreak, loneliness and alienation with pinpoint detail. Now, granted, other albums have dealt with breakups, but how many of them have sounded this good? Amy’s voice is spirited yet haunted (especially on the album’s standout songs: the title track and “Love Is A Losing Game”, and the band behind her absolutely smokes. This is real soul music. There’s a reason this album topped so many year-end polls (and is nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy). Hopefully, as a listener, you can look through the tabloid coverage and realize that Ms. Winehouse is quite the talent.

Now, discuss 🙂