My 10 favorite records of ’07

by Jordan Green

I publish this list with a strong caveat. The range of my vision is limited by the circumstances governing which bands happened to be traveling through the Triad and making their promotional pitch, the time limitations of weekly deadlines, and the unaccountable science of personal taste – what music sears its particular imprint on my psyche. It’s a hopeless task to keep up with all the good music coming out these days, and it’s equally true that all the bad music being produced creates a disorienting halo of flak.

There are probably better records than the ones on my list, but I haven’t had the disposable income or time to seek them out. Among the worthy albums that I either haven’t gotten around to listening to or have only partially digested are the Avett Brothers’ Emotionalism, Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky and Lucinda Williams’ West.

¥ Adam Thorn & the Top Buttons’ Where’s the Freedom?: The title song is in many ways a strangled plea for idealism in these disappointing and waning days of the Bush administration as another war, a deteriorating economy and a xenophobic election loom on the horizon. In many ways the album’s 11 unforgettable short, sharp and bracing pop songs bracketed between two ragged soul covers stand as Thorn’s homage to the Kinks: music stripped down to essential elements that leave no hiding places for the hopeless sinners of the Curtis Mayfield classic.

¥ David Karsten Daniels’ Sharp Teeth: Daniels, a musician who resides somewhere between Durham and Chapel Hill, brought us this lush folk masterpiece that springs from the Southern eccentric storytelling tradition. All the same, some of the songs sound like they might have been written by Neil Young stranded in a farmhouse on the frozen Canadian prairie ca. 1970. That is, until an exuberant Dixieland horn section bursts in. Eighteen guests complete the party, including Aimee Argote and Daniel Hart, artists who Daniels matches for iconoclasm and emotional honesty.

¥ Carol Bui’s Everyone Wore White: Carol Bui seems to have sprang out of nowhere, but actually she comes specifically from Washington, DC. She proclaims with a loud electric guitar driven forward in a jagged streak that maintains a funky and angular coherence. There’s the barest hint of Fugazi’s influence. The vocals and lyrics of this Vietnamese-American artist make no concessions to convention, revealing need, rage, disappointment and desire over the backing of rocking violin and more of that dissonant-by-turns-expressive guitar.

¥ Ron Whitehead’s I Refuse: First an admission: Ron Whitehead is an old friend and fellow poetic traveler (it’s a long story). With that out of the way, I can honestly say that the alchemy of poetry and music on this disc is utterly transcendent. The title track is a manifesto of dissent that can be understood on several levels, both as political screed and as a cultural expression of wooly Kentucky cussedness. And the track’s righteousness is matched by a cackling sense of humor: “I refuse to kiss anyone’s ass, except Sarah’s.” Another track, “Riding With Rebel Jesus, the Wanderer,” evokes a feeling of unbearable heartbreak, but also acceptance, the poem’s pathos enhanced by the acoustic guitar playing and haunting singing of Whitehead’s ex-wife Sarah Elizabeth, the electric guitar squall made by Will Ragland and the subtle percussion of Andy Cook. “Holed up in Oaxaca, we’d reached the end… of the line,” the poem informs. “The government was against us; an army waited for us… outside.”

¥ Caleb Caudle’s Red Bank Road: After the breakup of his band, the Lowlands, Winston-Salem’s Caleb Caudle went to Johnson City, Tenn. and recorded this melancholy, acoustic gem with everybodyfields steel player Megan McCormick, his brother Kyle and percussionist Joe Russell. Then he formed a new band with Kyle called the Bayonets. Consider Red Bank Road Caudle’s Nebraska and his band the equivalent of The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. Caudle immediately established himself as a first-rate songwriter with this album. Everything about it brings to mind lost loves, decomposing fall leaves and creaky winter beds.

¥ House of Fools’ Live and Learn: The Greensboro band’s first full-length embodies the grand and exquisite scope of their unrepentant ’70s rock opera vision: soaring harmonies, dueling guitars, moody piano and dynamic shifts. They’ve staked an eccentric pop sound that simultaneously nods to the past and hurtles into the future. Nobody sounds quite like them, and they’ve got shows booked far into 2008 from Boston to Phoenix.

¥ The Solcetfre Project’s Fel Fre: Solcetfre gathered a loyal fan base around them when they first started playing at Churchill’s in Greensboro, and then after taking a break for a minute they dropped this, their first album. It’s vocal music grounded in jazz, funk and, of course, soul. Timeless and transporting. Positive party music. Special nods go to the exquisite “With U,” composed and performed by Vanessa Ferguson, and the ecstatic pain of Jeremy Johnson’s “Is It Over.”

¥ Clement Mallory’s The Future of Poetry: A poet of modest means and boundless ambition, Clement Mallory’s command of the English language and the nuances of spoken expression covers the emotional waterfront. This recording, like most of his work, explores themes of money, power and family in stances of shifting vulnerability, urgency and wit, heavily dosed with homages to poetic role models Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez. The beats produced by Maurice Wiggins, JG and Walter Jones switch between edgy militant tracks and old-school funk grooves.

¥ Sullivan’s Cover Your Eyes: The sophomore effort and the beginning of the end for this great Greensboro band that played its last at Greene Street on Dec. 21, Cover Your Eyes stands as the fullest expression of singer Brooks Paschal’s emotional solidarity with his audience and the band’s gentle explosions of aural pleasure. The songs are built like cathedrals in their power, beauty and detail. The lyrics of “Fire Away” make a fitting epitaph: “What makes it all right doesn’t make it all better; what slips through our hands we keep.”

¥ Patrick Park’s Everyone’s In Everyone: This CD came to me without a narrative history or personal reference, making it all the more alluring, although upon closer inspection I recognize the production stamp of Chapel Hill’s Chris Stamey and bass tracks by North Carolina music alum Don Dixon. This Los Angeles troubadour’s album unfolds in gradual stages, first as quiet, British-inflected folk, along the lines of the late Nick Drake. Upon further listen, these songs – all based around the acoustic guitar – reveal surprising musical turns and lyrics brimming with care, acceptance and friendship.

Surrender to music and don’t take it for granted.

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