The Chat Room

High Notes of 2007

Jody Rosen takes readers’ questions about this year’s musical hits and misses.

Slate music critic Jody Rosen was online on on Thursday, Dec. 20, to take readers’ questions and recommendations on the best music of 2007 (the topic of discussion in Slate’s ongoing ” Music Club” back-and-forth).

Jody Rosen: Hi, everybody. I’m excited to chat a bit about the year in the music.


Boston: Jody, I wrote you last year after your dis of Daughtry. It is awesome when a writer can admit a mistake and correct it. I applaud your about-face! Not a rocker easy to please, when I went to Daughtry’s first show at the Paradise I was very impressed. Like you state, Chris Daughtry is the real deal. He has taken post-grunge to the for front with big vocals, catchy hooks and gawd is he fun to watch on stage.

It has been such a drought for rock. Daughtry has found a way to rock hard enough for us die-hard rockers but be melodic enough for the pop audience. I have seen Daughtry now five times and they never disappoint. The crowds just love Chris. At a Daughtry show the age range is vast—pre-teens to those in their 50s. All races, creeds and colors. Everyone is singing along and totally entranced by this newly appointed rock star!

The three American Music Awards and four Grammy nominations are well-deserved. Daughtry himself jokes that, as he is up against the boss, it is like a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest, LOL! But the nominations are deserved. All a skeptic needs to do is go and see Daughtry, and they too will become a believer. Thanks again.

Jody Rosen: Yeah, as I said in the Slate Music Club conversation, it was a live show that made me a grudging Daughtry convert. I’m only partially converted. I’m not crazy about his songwriting or the stolid beat in his songs. But he is a great, muscular singer and has an undeniable rock star stage presence. Anyway, he doesn’t matter what critics think: he was the people’s choice this year, at least in terms of CD sales.

You’re right, by the way, to point to the age-range of Daughtry’s audience: I was struck by the number of pensioners mixed in the with screaming teens when I saw him in Denver. That’s the Power of American Idol for you…


Washington: Two nominees: the comeback of The Police and the soundtrack of The Walker with Bryan Ferry.

Jody Rosen: Funny, I don’t know who exactly would get my Comeback of the Year vote (definitely not Jay-Z.). I haven’t spent enough time with Bryan Ferry’s record.

As for The Police, I saw one of the first shows on their tour and was quite blown away by the band’s musicianship. I had forgotten that they were essentially prog-rockers with a little reggae overlay. It was like a regular jazz odyssey up there! As I remember, “Driven to Tears” in particular got taken pretty deep into space-jam territory. They had big movie screens flanking the stage, and there were long, lingering close-ups of fingers on fretboards, which seemed totally appropriate. Sting especially sounded great. He has that totally unique vocal tone—can still hit the high notes—and wow, what a bass player. I interviewed Andy Summers and he told me the band was considering (big maybe) a new album. So maybe next year they’ll make a real, full-fledged comeback, with new songs and everything.


Manassas, Va.: Hey! I thought it was a particularly good year for music, and there was an unusually large number of albums that I bought this year that I really grew to love. I was wondering how you thought this year in music stacked up?

Jody Rosen: I’m not sure there’s ever a bad year for music. There’s always someone somewhere doing something new and fantastic. Usually thousands of someones. This is perhaps especially true these days, with so damn much music available, in record stores (do those still exist?), online, in clubs, and elsewhere. A feast for the greedy music nerd. It’s part of a critic’s job at this time of year to provide an overview—to a pantomime of a comprehensive look back at the year. But the truth is, I’m still catching up with 2007. In 2027 I bet I’ll discover something great that I’d slept on for 20 years. One recent example: I’d never given a proper listen to Brad Paisley’s 2005 album Time Well Wasted until a few months ago—and now I like it better than all the records on my 2005 Top 10 list! Anyway, the short answer is: I think the year in music stacked up well. Wish there had been more good hip-hop, though…


Country Fan: What are your picks for the best in country music this year? There have been lots of good ones. Josh Turner gave us an awesome CD. 1990s legend Garth Brooks gave us another greatest hits collection. Sugarland delivered. The list goes on and on…

Jody Rosen: The Sugarland album is technically a 2006 release. But I dug it. They had a couple of killer singles this year. (Did you catch their performance of “Stay” at the CMAs? Lovely stuff.) My two favorite country releases were Miranda Lambert’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Brad Paisley’s 5th Gear.


Washington: I must agree that Kala is an awesome album, though I’d disagree on “Bird Flu” being the best. I didn’t really like “Bird Flu” at first, but it has been growing on me a lot, especially after seeing the video on YouTube from some concert where she just invites a bunch of people up on stage to dance around all crazy with her during it. “Bamboo Banga” gets my nod for best, and “XR2” as the least favorite. Road runna road runna! What’s with all the critics hating on “Come Around”? Me and you … need to go to your teepee.

Jody Rosen: Yeah, M.I.A.’s whole album is amazing. Except, I’d argue for “Come Around,” the Timbaland track you mention. I think most critics weren’t nuts about that song because it sounds a little tossed-off productionwise, compared to the rest of the record. God knows Timbaland’s stretched himself a little think this year. It’s hard when you’re expected to supply 10-20 of the Top 40 singles in any given week…


Dewey Cox: Jody, are you familiar with the music of Dewey Cox? Is there something wrong with me if the Walk Hard soundtrack is my favorite album of 2007?

Jody Rosen: Familiar with Dewey Cox? Who isn’t? The man, the myth…

Walk Hard is great, but I think I prefer Royal Jelly from Dewey’s Dylan phase.


This Year’s “Emperor’s New Clothes”: What act had your fellow critics going ape-pooh this year but that you think is a bunch of bullocks with no “there” there?

Jody Rosen: Panda Bear.


Jazz Fan, Va.: Did Slate pick any jazz CDs? I’m liking the Terence Blanchard CD, A Tale of God’s Will. What say you? The Best Jazz Albums of 2007(Slate, Dec. 18)

Jody Rosen: Yeah, check out Fred Kaplan’s nice overview of the Year in Jazz on Slate.


Washington: The Dewey Cox box set is the album of the year! Did you like the Gogol Bordello album? Is it at the top of your chart? How about the Black Lips? They had two discs this year.

Jody Rosen: Dewey Cox is sure getting a lot of love here. I do love Gogol Bordello, although I prefer them live to on record. They’re one of those bands whose sound is too manic to be properly captured on a recording, I think. Plus lead singer Eugene Hutz’s mustache must be seen to be understood.


Annapolis, Md.: Some CDs on my own top of the year list are Iron & Wine’s The Shepherd’s Dog, Patrick Wolf’s The Magic Position and Kevin Drew’s Spirit If… Which albums didn’t quite make your list?

Jody Rosen: Well, I’ll resist the opportunity to give Iron & Wine another swift kick—we did enough of that in the Slate Music Club. Suffice it to say that he’s not my favorite.

Some of the albums that just missed my Top 10 list include: With Lasers, a great, party-hearty dance record by the Brazilian band Bonde Do Role; Love Hate, a very fun, very slick, very-Prince-inspired R&B album by The-Dream (who wrote Rihanna’s big hit “Umbrella”); and At My Age by Nick Lowe, who I’m beginning to think may be a better songwriter, all things considered, than his old friend and collaborator Elvis Costello.


Claverack, N.Y.: Album of the Year: In Rainbows, Radiohead. It seems outrageous to say, but despite being named album of the year by Billboard and Filter, and one of the top ten of the year by Rolling Stone, this amazing disc still doesn’t gets its proper due. Perhaps it is twice overshadowed; first by its innovative online distribution scheme, second by its progenitors (“well of course it’s great, it’s Radiohead”). Yet with In Rainbows, the band managed to pull off the enviable feat of recording their most accessible album since OK Computer while not sacrificing a bit of their distinctive complexities of rhythm and sound.

Jody Rosen: In Rainbows definitely is growing on me. The band writes some very beautiful songs. And as you say, the music is both complex and inviting, which isn’t easy to pull off. There’s something about Thom Yorke’s voice that I find a touch grating, but that’s my shortcoming. I do think it’s good development that, as my colleague Ann Powers pointed out, Yorke is letting his libido seep into the music a bit.


Kusel, Germany: Jody, one thing that frequently is lacking in modern music criticism is an actual discussion of music—specially the basic elements that make up all music, rhythm, timbre, tempo, dynamics and pitch. Melody and harmony of course evolve out of these basic elements. Often discussed are the social context, and lyrics of particular songs. Often, in reading your reviews and reviews of other critics, I sense that disconnect. Songs and in fact entire genres of music seem to be preferred based on extra-musical elements. In fact, I have sensed from you a genuine lack of understanding why some people might enjoy a particular genre, artist or song, because they don’t qualify as “up to snuff” according to the extra-musical standards most critics employ today.

As a music educator, I feel that this move away from actual musical evaluation of popular music does a disservice to the music as well as to the culture of popular American music. As a listener, I often don’t care about the lyrics, but listen more to chord progressions or timber. My question for you is, is there a way for music criticism to return to looking at musical elements?

Also, there has been much discussion on—I forget how it has been worded—but the lack of inclusion of African American elements in music as a particular flaw in music, particularly in indie rock. I think that this is a flawed assessment and seems to discount the complete integration of African and European music that occurred at the end of the 19th century. I believe that the integration of these two divergent musical cultures is so great that you truly can’t find any American music, including indie rock, that does not reflect African traditions. As a brief example, there is a line in The Shins’s song “Phantom Limb” that has polyrhythm that, while brief, is straight from African polyrhythmic traditions.

There may be a certain “groove” factor that might seem to be missing, but in fact it is a matter of the degree to which a song has that groove element, not the lack of this element entirely that you are hearing in many songs. My apologies for a lack of complete fact-checking on articles—it is midnight in Germany and time to sleep.

Jody Rosen: Hello, Germany. You make a great point. I do think lyrics and, as you say, “social context” are overemphasized in popular music criticism at the expense of the music itself. Most critics, yours truly included, could stand to bone up on their musicology, or at least get conversant with basic music theory.

On the other hand, music is a famously difficult thing to write about—dancing about architecture and all that. It’s tough to strike the the right balance between technical analysis (which may bore readers to tears) and the broader view. Very few people do it well. Jon Pareles of the New York Times and the New Yorker’s Alex Ross and Sasha Frere-Jones are the three writers who, for my money, do this best.

Also, pop is rather unique: in order to understand Beyonce you need to take into account everything from the timbre of her voice to the recording technology employed by her producers to, yes, her latest appearance in US Weekly. Anyway, your point is well taken.


Anonymous: What’s the best soundtrack of the year?

Jody Rosen: Gotta be Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, doesn’t it?


Brad Paisley: Jody, where you think Paisley rates as a guitar player? Not just among his country peers (as a singing gun-slinger I think he is better than Keith Urban and about equal with Vince Gill) but in all of pop music.

Jody Rosen: I’d put him right at the tippy-top. Check out his solo in “Make A Mistake” (on Time Well Wasted CD). Better yet, just see him live. Blazing. And he never overplays. A tasteful shredder.


Washington: My favorites this year, are Neon Bible by Arcade Fire, Sky Blue Sky by Wilco, Cease to Begin by Band of Horses, and The Crane Wife by The Decemberists. Looking forward to (hopefully) getting for Christmas the Alison Kraus/Robert Plant CD. Based on this grouping, what should I be looking for on the horizon next year?

Jody Rosen: Hmmm … how about I recommend a CD from this year that you may have missed instead? Try Oakley Hall’s I’ll Follow You. They’re a Brooklyn-based alt-country band that write great tunes and really bear down on their songs—they rock hard, in other words. I think you’ll dig ‘em.


Earle: Best CD of 2007—Steve Earle’s Washington Square Serenade.

Jody Rosen: You old lefty, you.


Washington: Any artists out of the District of Columbia that moved you in 2007?

Jody Rosen: Yes! I really liked (Go-Go legend) Chuck Brown’s We’re About Business, actually. And he runs that town, right?


Jody Rosen: Okay, this was fun. Sorry about the typos, folks. That’s why they pay editors the big bucks. Bye now.