Web exclusive: The top 40 albums of the past 20 months 

From fringe femmes to bluegrass balladeers

By Leslie Benson and Greg Locke

This year, NUVO decided to follow a different perspective for our annual gift guide. We chose to present to you a comprehensive shopping guide to independent treasure huts and mom-and-pop shops all across the Circle City. Though we may not have offered concrete examples of gifts to purchase for your loved ones in our insert this year, you’ll now know where to go to let your imagination wander.

But for you music aficionados out there, we didn’t forget you! Here are NUVO’s top 40 favorite albums of 2007 (in alphabetical order divided by gender), as well as other albums that are still making top album sales lists from 2006. You’ve probably heard of most of our choices, but you — and your friends — should own them all! We’d love to hear which albums you would choose to wrap and tuck under your tree. So post your comments online at NUVO.net/music. Happy holidays and happy shopping!

Top 20 female albums

Alison Krauss
“A Hundred Miles or More: A Collection”
Rounder Records, 2007

If you comb the mountainside, you’ll find a woman standing in front of a cabin door holding the hands of two ragged boys — the rural bluegrass songs she’s collected, epitomized in human form. She won’t greet you, but like a guardian angel, you’ll hear her crystalline voice and fiddle ring out … a watchdog of obscure legends. But really, what 20-time Grammy Award winner Alison Krauss will do is captivate you.

Like a mild Dolly Parton, “A Hundred Miles or More: A Collection” presents butterscotch tones and a slap on the cheek (“Sawing on the Strings”). Then Krauss lulls you with the heart-wrenching “Jacob’s Dream” and the old-timey country spiritual “Down to the River to Pray.” She also sings duets on the album, including “Whiskey Lullaby” with Brad Paisley (a karaoke favorite) and “How’s the World Treating You” with James Taylor. Melancholy lyrics aside, “Hundred Miles or More” debuted at No. 10 on the “Billboard” Top 200 chart and No. 3 on the country chart earlier this year.

As a 13-year-old fiddle prodigy, Krauss entered her career with humble dreams. She admired bluegrass legend Tony Rice like a girl would a movie star, but her youthful spirit gave way to her performing on a national summer tour this year with her idol and her longtime band, Union Station.

True to her independent label, Krauss has taken every opportunity to explore her passion. This, her 12th release, holds a vivid portrait of the musician’s career, with five new songs thrown in the mix. Krauss croons the songs of others, but does it believably. She follows the verses of Appalachian bluegrass elders, but she revives the art for a new generation. Sometimes tugging at the fiddle strings outside traditional songs, her pop aesthetic can just as easily slip into classics.

Next in her itinerary: More musical production seems inevitable. She’s already produced Alan Jackson’s “Like a Red Rose” (2006), as well as recordings by Reba McEntire and others. Country, bluegrass and mainstream pop musicians alike respect Krauss, who uses wit and charm to woo her audience. She even caught the ear of Robert Plant (former Led Zeppelin frontman) and released “Raising Sand” with him this year.
—Leslie Benson

Ever Records, 2007

Gentle, fragile songs like glass ornaments on a fir tree adorn the album debut of four Icelandic maidens known as Amiina. “Kurr,” produced by the string quartet responsible for backing another Icelandic band, Sigur Rós, combines unusual instrumentation with spontaneity. The band, which had been playing together in various other musical groups since before the birth of Amiina in 2004, just piled all the makeshift instruments they could find into a car one day and drove over mountains to the studio where “Kurr” came to fruition. Without specific parts, each musician became adept at playing various parts, harmonizing lullabies of fantasy and mystery. The songs nurture like a child’s first music box. Glockenspiels, xylophones, bells, table harps and singing wine glasses are just some of the long line of eclectic instruments that concoct the syrupy, cosmic goodness that is Amiina, similar to the “Rockabye, Baby!” CD series, which also uses such instrumentation, but in its case, to cover popular rock songs. But “Kurr” epitomizes originality. It is music to paint to, to take bubble baths to and to dream to. Listen to “Kurr” and let your mind follow its bliss. It’s really a shame the girls fell ill and had to cancel their Indianapolis date earlier this year.
—Leslie Benson

Amy Winehouse
“Back to Black”
Republic, 2006

For a British soul and R&B singer to beat the local LUNA Music record sales of male rock hard-hitters like Queens of the Stone Age (“Era Vulgaris”) weeks in and weeks out, was quite a feat. But Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” released in 2006, is still staying strong in top 10 album sales charts in Indianapolis. Her smoky cabana punk look will trick newcomers expecting yet another pseudo-pop-punk album straddling some Aguilera-Spears line. (Quite the contrary!)

Winehouse proves doo-wop is still sexy. Her time-warp to the ’50s and the soulful, jazz-pierced ’70s (think Diana Ross) will stun you. It’s a musical miracle that the classic R&B of her parents’ generation — then the love songs of an era — could be reinvented and rewritten for a new age. But “Back to Black”’s popularity gives hope to the future of music. The album isn’t just good; it’s monumental for its time. It’s old school — way old school! The songs (“You Know I’m No Good,” “Me & Mr. Jones,” “Back to Black”) are on par with the Motown quality of some of the tracks off the “Pulp Fiction” soundtrack, which is still to this day a favorite roadworthy compilation.

Winehouse brings the all-girl vocalist idea to the mainstream. Though not in an all-girl band, she could damn well lead one, just like her idols, The Shangri-las (remember “The Leader of the Pack”?). The musician has outdone herself; she’s graced the cover of “Rolling Stone,” performed the catchy “Rehab” during an MTV Movie Awards show and won the BRIT Award for the Best British Female Artist earlier this year. No wonder Mark Ronson (of Lily Allen) supports her.

Songs on “Back to Black” have already been covered by other contemporary favorites, including Paolo Nutini (“Rehab”) and Arctic Monkeys (“You Know I’m No Good”). Who knew the Wurlitzer, saxophone, trumpet and flugelhorn still could sound cool?
—Leslie Benson

Carina Round
“Slow Motion Addict”
WME/Interscope Records, 2007

Carina Round isn’t easy to pin down. Her music bends the bow like a young Grizabella the Glamour Cat in her heyday — all scratchy and screechy, but at times, sultry like caramel melting between lips. Round’s “How Many Times,” track two on “Slow Motion Addict,” evokes the hip woo-hoo-hoos last heard on the Dandy Warhols’ “Bohemian Like You.” But the real mystery is her ability to sound like four alt icons all on one album — with the vibrato of the Cocteau Twins, the half-dialect of Björk, the pop-punk angst of Elastica and the warm sway of Fiona Apple.

Though “Take the Money” takes a cheap shot, songs like “Stolen Car,” “Down Slow” (an obvious play on words), “January Heart,” the experimental title track, the orchestrated “The Disconnection” and the forthright single, “Come to You,” pick up the slack. Round shows she has high expectations on this album. She won’t give into just anyone. To really appreciate her, you have to understand her and maybe even tolerate her a little, especially those shrieking outbursts. But the wait is worth it. Her handpicked gem-choruses will bring you back for a second listen. Dubbed blues, Round’s music makes more sense as atonal pop. You won’t find Muddy Waters here, only raging rivers of bold liberation.
—Leslie Benson

Carrie Underwood
“Some Hearts”
Arista, 2005

Country girl Carrie Underwood grew up playing in the dirt, singing at county fairs and hanging out with her Sigma Sigma Sigma sorority sisters. She was born an all-American girl. A student at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma, the singer hoped to become a broadcast journalist. Instead, she became the 2005 “American Idol,” as well as the 2005 “World’s Sexiest Vegetarian” in PETA’s annual online poll.

Underwood’s ballad, “Don’t Forget To Remember Me,” which made her momma cry, became a No. 1 country hit, and her debut album, “Some Hearts,” sold 6 million copies. She quickly became the first female country singer to achieve four No. 1 hits from a debut. Fashioning her success after idols Loretta Lynn and Martina McBride, Underwood has stayed close to her family and friends, as well as her songwriters. Hillary Lindsey has connected with her as a major songwriter, especially on “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” But with a little more experience under her belt, Underwood may take her writing skills into the musical realm and churn out a few originals.
—Leslie Benson

The Cowboy Junkies
“At the End of Paths Taken”
Zoë Records, 2007

The Cowboy Junkies have been busy this year. Not only did they release a reflective new album, “At the End of Paths Taken,” they also released “XX,” a book of the bands’ own photos, the paintings of Latin American artist Enrique Martínez Celaya and the lyrics of producer/guitarist Michael Timmins, as well as a DVD/CD revisiting the alt-rock Junkies’ “The Trinity Session” (1988). But their new album chronicles a rich career, led by Margo Timmins’ soothing, sensual voice, like a child’s hand tugging onto a friend’s arm.

Fellow sibling Peter Timmins raps the drums while stories unfold, and Alan Anton texturizes the backbeat of songs with his bass. The album mostly examines the affect a family can have on its offspring, like poetry set to music, rounded out by the track “My Only Guarantee,” accompanied by piano.

But skipping stones over the album will cause mere rippled waves, as the real crescendo lies in “Mountain,” a track Margo sings overtop her father’s recorded voice as he reads a passage about their family from his autobiography. The low sounds of his reading aloud whisper words of shooting stars, a full moon and a detached edginess behind a veil of scratchy guitars. And the Junkies’ solemn conclusion about their family unit? It lies in the album’s last song. “My only guarantee: I will f*** you up.”
—Leslie Benson

“The Reminder”
Cherrytree Records/ Interscope, 2007

Two-and-a-half years of touring three continents would make any musician ecstatic to slip into their jammies and jam out with their best friends. In a 200-year-old manor house outside Paris, Leslie Feist and her live band stuffed a dining room parlor with instruments to record “The Reminder.”

Improperly deemed by some as an ethereal soloist, she actually got her start in raucous punk and rock bands (By Divine Right and Broken Social Scene). She’s a tomboy and a meticulous DIY queen.

Though she didn’t make it to Indianapolis this year, Feist is an indie wonder all over the States. She’s Canada’s darling, though, having received a 2005 Juno Award for Best New Artist.

Living on the edge, Feist once joined her roommate, the randy rapper Peaches, on tour as a sock puppeteer and back-up dancer. She took her punk attitude on stage with Peaches while the artist played “Fuck the Pain Away” in Berlin. Bitch Lap Lap, as Feist was then named, went no-holds-barred.

So don’t let “The Reminder” fool you. Feist is not as reserved as she seems. Taking with her a little piece of home, Peaches’ keyboardist, Gonzales, even joined Feist to record this new album.

Upon first listen, Feist comes across as a mellow Mary Tyler Moore of sorts, but the trickster really has a punk edge. “The Reminder,” however, stays true to bedroom pop. It’s mild and sleepy, yet it remains one of the year’s most popular releases.

“My Moon My Man” takes a more liberal, jazzy approach, painting Feist’s voice as an instrument, not just a word-vehicle. She’s a diamond-speckled bird on “Sealion,” which features tambourine claps. “The Limit To Your Love” and “1234” bring more Diana Ross pleasantries to the brink, but after listening to the disc, NUVO wants to hear more of feisty Feist rather than the reserved musician.
—Leslie Benson

Jane Monheit
Concord Records, 2007

While classic tone garnered Jane Monheit a Grammy nomination, her seventh album, “Surrender,” brings ballads and Brazilian bossa novas to the forefront. From scatting to singing cabaret, she finds warmth in English and Portuguese.

Now on Concord, the label that once represented Ray Charles, Monheit reinterprets songs from the American Songbook with chilling ease. The songs that came into her life and inspire on her new album include a rendition of Sergio Mendes’ “So Many Stars” and Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed.” And a velvety version of Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” touches heart strings.

“Surrender” is the calm, late-night drive back to the ’burbs from the city. The songs wear pristine designer clothes. They don’t skimp on the extra sauce. They’re expensive, evoking demure, Audrey Hepburn-esque feel-good jazz. Monheit is as precise as she is authentic.
—Leslie Benson

Joanna Newsom
“Joanna Newsom and the Y’s Street Band EP”
Drag City, 2007

Folk by a seafaring storyteller, Joanna Newsom finds strength in the oral tradition. Her musical family (guitarist dad, pianist mom, cellist sister and drummer brother) raised the singer-songwriter well. Newsom has excelled at harp and piano since her pre-teens. Irish countryside tales would find the international traveler easily. Her tiny voice chimes with a brill, pioneering squeak. Her harp makes the EP, “Joanna Newsom and the Y’s Street Band,” sound medieval at times and in tune with country bards’ songs.

For instance, “Colleen” tells the dreamlike story of all women overcoming shame. Though relatively short, the EP is notable for its melodic, intimate, lo-fi orchestrated serenades. Newsom’s appreciation for Appalachian-picked bluegrass streams through like the ethereal webbed stories she weaves.

Most closely akin to songwriter Laura Veirs for her sea and dream references, Newsom is much more yarn-like — woven into warm musical tapestries just as vulnerable and fragile as her haunting rural voice and harp.

Newsom’s homespun songs come from another world and another time … They’re farmer’s songs and fishermen’s songs from an epic balladeer. On the EP, Newsom’s skills in Celtic, Senegalese, Venezuelan and Western classical harp melodies pop with unfamiliar ease.
—Leslie Benson

Julie Doiron
“Woke Myself Up”
Jagjaguwar, 2007

She’ll wear her hair long and scruffy, shading her face. But sometimes, she’ll wear her hair short in a boyish crop close to her face so you can see every line, every wrinkle. It’s that juxtaposition between hidden fancy and in-your-face ruggedness that makes indie rock singer-songwriter Julie Doiron so lovable.

She has the unsure, sugarless siren’s song of a higher-pitched Nico (The Velvet Underground). And “Woke Myself Up” is a lo-fi, unintentionally ambitious album of folk and psychedelia that would have been at home in the heyday of the ’60s. Doiron’s one with her guitar, with its simplicity, but the connection made between its humbleness and her melancholy lyrics brings out the height of timeless songwriting. “No More” brings the album to its forte with its vocal harmonies and the funk lines of Rick White’s driving bass.

Doiron grew into her solo career after the 1996 breakup of Eric’s Trip, a Canadian band in which she played the bass. She has since released six full-length albums and two EPs, excluding this CD. She won a Juno Award for her “Julie Doiron & the Wooden Stars” album. With “Woke Myself Up,” Doiron makes Bloomington, Ind.’s Jagjaguwar recording label proud.
—Leslie Benson

Laura Veirs
Nonesuch Records, 2007

Mystified by the natural world and those in it, singer-songwriter Laura Veirs’ lyrics find comfort in inventive states. Exploring transcendence on her third Nonesuch release, “Saltbreakers,” with an eight-person Baptist Cedar Hill choir on “To the Country” — recorded in the Nashville Johnny Cash cabin — Veirs finds her restlessness channeled with call-and-response and open imagery.

“I love when people sing together,” Veirs says. “I think we yearn for that at some level. That’s why people sing loudly together in karaoke rooms.”

Stripped-down grunge/pop, “Saltbreakers” makes good use of guitars and simple percussion. It’s college folk with an indie rock undertone. While hopeful at times (“Pink Light,” “Don’t Lose Yourself”), the disc is also full of dreamscapes (“Ocean Night Song”).

Veirs keeps the ocean-dream theme throughout the album. They’re not just random songs strewn together; rather, they’re natural and celebrate the element of water.

“Nature is a good tool,” Veirs says. “Everyone can relate to how seeing an ocean wave makes them feel … I use it to talk about the struggles people go through.”

The Seattle native spent 10 years exploring the natural world around her, humbling her into introspection. “I love Olympic National Park,” she says. “The sea is there. It’s so stark and grey.”

“Wandering Kind” off “Saltbreakers” reigns full of metaphor and scraps of self-sacrificial imagery. This is the musical version of the shifting chameleon in scenes of surrealism (like in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”).

This is your younger sister’s Ani DiFranco — just not as focused on social justice. The best way to listen to the album is to sit beneath a willow tree, close your eyes and imagine the tales Veirs spins. It’s time to daydream.

Veirs hopes to include more “people singing together” on her next album, which is still in its planning stages. “I’ve already burnt out all the elements,” she says. “Maybe next time I’ll continue with that, or, who knows — maybe I’ll write an urban hip-hop album!”
—Leslie Benson

Lucinda Williams
Lost Highway, 2007

The first track on Lucinda Williams’ most recent studio album, “West,” asks, “Are You Alright?” It would, more appropriately, be a question she should ask herself. Her answer might be, “I’m unbroken. I may be fragile at times, but I am unapologetic of my emotions and of the truth. My songs are testimonials to my life experiences. If I don’t document them, who will?” Though only envisioning her response, “West” plays out these answers, unveiling a mature, unruly icon of Americana who, by nature is — (similar to her inspiration, Bob Dylan) — a songwriter first and a singer second.

Raised by her literary father, Miller Williams, who wrote and presented the inaugural poem for President Clinton’s second term in 1997, Lucinda looked to songwriting like therapeutic journal writing, transcending from her diary to eventually recording those inner thoughts.

Songs like “Unsuffer Me” and “Where is My Love?” on “West” wax meditations from authentic, cracked vocals and hopeful violins — sounds that juxtapose each other perfectly. The album takes the listener to a place, both literally and figuratively, where the folk-roots community thrives. Out “West,” away from ghosts in Austin and Nashville, Williams has reclaimed herself. This is evident on “Come On” as she confronts past lovers and challenges their inability to please, let alone tame, such a stubborn woman.

Williams doesn’t censor herself. She writes about real people, oftentimes garnering song ideas from dreams, which she writes down upon waking up, and she has been known to record raw snippets of songs-in-progress on a hand-held Sony Walkman tape recorder at her kitchen table, so as not to lose the wispy words. She even keeps old songs in a folder from as far back as 1976. We can only hope those stream-of-consciousness gems are released one day.

With craggy, bruised lyrics, the blues, folk and rock pieces of “West” rope in the personal and make it public — like an un-tumbled, dusty piece of quartz just ripe enough for psychic energy. Williams’ regional Louisiana accent pours forth in a voice that has become its own instrument and contrasts well with the strings on this album.

The archetype of womanhood, who grew up fawning over Emmylou Harris and Joni Mitchell, made the South her playground before heading West. As a girl, she played music in her living room and took road trips with her dad to Mexico.

Williams’ mother, who died a few years ago, was divorced from Miller when Lucinda was a pre-teen. Disturbed deeply by her mother’s death, and the funerary planning she was forced into, Lucinda skipped the service and opted to write her own odes to her beloved birth mother in some of the songs on “West” (“Mama You Sweet,” “Learning How to Live” and “Fancy Funeral”).

But things have taken a brighter turn for the musician since then. After trudging through tumultuous relationships that landed from blood to pen on paper, Williams finally found her “soul mate,” Tom Overby, director of marketing for Fontana Distribution of the Universal Music Group. Since they met, she has been writing “happy love songs” and loving the West.

Overby played an important hand in the success of Lucinda’s current album. He suggested she contact “Saturday Night Live”’s musical director Hal Willner (since 1981), who has produced CD tributes to notables like Theologies Monk and Edgar Allan Poe. He co-produced “West” with Williams, whom he had on his “wish list” of artists to work with. So dreams do come true. Now if only the world would adopt Williams’ ideas, like those on “What If”: “Shutter to think / what it would be / if the president wore pink, / if a prostitute was clean? / What would happen then? / How would the world change / if thick became thin / and the world was rearranged?”
—Leslie Benson

Marissa Nadler
“Songs III: Bird on the Water”
Kemado Records, 2006

Her finger-picking techniques pay homage to American blues guitarists, but Marissa Nadler plays folk through-and-through. Painting morose aural landscapes, her songs cover traditional themes like lost love and death but sidestep into enthralling underground fringe-folk. She has been known to engage metal fans — quite a feat for a melancholy guitarist. Perhaps she found her affinity for the sublime from Massachusetts’ winters during her youth or time spent actually painting at the Rhode Island School of Design.

But why does Nadler evoke Mazzy Star? Vocally, the groups are very different, but Nadler’s melodic vocals over strung guitar sound similarly romantic.

A 2006 release, “Songs III” is still making 2007 top 10 sales lists. The disc is ripened with cello, synth and mandolin, as well as percussion. It’s the suburban Midwest cowboy’s lonesome eulogy. You’ll find no aggression on this album, just melancholy. Nadler’s is the soundtrack to the end of a sad love story. Songs like feathers shed and wisp away with the breeze of Western hills … not an energy boost, but certainly the honey in your warm milk before bedtime.
—Leslie Benson

Miranda Lambert
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”
Sony, 2007

Not winning the 2003 season of “Nashville Star” was a blessing in disguise for country gal Miranda Lambert. It brought her publicity, performing experience and the opportunity to record her debut with Columbia Nashville.

She co-wrote 11 of 12 songs on her debut, “Kerosene,” which hit No. 1 on the country charts. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” extends that album with the same studio and producers. And she toured this year with Toby Keith for his “Big Dog Daddy” release — not bad for a small-town Texan.

But she must not think highly of small communities. On her newest CD, you’ll find “Dry Town” and “Famous in a Small Town.” It’s the story of the girl trying to escape her oh-too-comfortable, everyone-knows-her-name kind of hometown for a chance at stardom.

But Lambert isn’t a failure. She fell into luck, and her voice is no joke. Lambert’s boot-scootin’ country will please even the most pop-precocious essentialists.

And this isn’t little girl country; it’s sweaty, ramblin’ woman’s country. Lambert will light a fire under you with twangy, tangy honky tonk. She’ll prove everyone in a small town has a story to tell — even the familiar tales about “crazy ex-girlfriends.”
—Leslie Benson

Norah Jones
“Not Too Late”
Blue Note Records, 2007

You’ve probably only seen one side of Norah Jones — the languid soulstress who serenades her 30 million record owners worldwide to sleep every night. But the best-selling female artist of the 21st century, eight-time Grammy winner Jones is more spunky than sleepy. In interviews, she says she sings Shakira covers during karaoke. She’s even formed a punk-rock side project, El Madmo, to escape her pigeonholed musical role.

Although she was a band and jazz geek in high school, Jones has made up for it by appearing with everyone from André 3000 to Elmo off “Sesame Street.” OK, so that last duet wasn’t as cool, but Jones is the daughter of hippie-era sitar god Ravi Shankar, so she was sort of born into the cool factor.

This summer, the songwriter debuted as an actor on “My Blueberry Nights” with Jude Law and Natalie Portman. This girl’s got her hand in almost every pie. Though she’ll be mostly remembered for her first album, 2002’s “Come Away With Me,” since then, she’s matured as an artist. She’s not just a jazz singer. Jones also excels at pop and country on “Not Too Late,” her new album. She even has a rock vibe on some songs. (Jones grew up with a fondness for Guns ’N Roses!) And she’s not afraid to get political on this album (“My Dear Country”), as well as honest (“Sinkin’ Soon”). Oh how ominous and bitter she sings (“Not My Friend”): “Your voice is ringing / Just like the boys who laughed at me in school.” But her radio hit, “Thinking About You,” brings the love back to Miss Jones. Plus, her black and white striped dress on the album cover of “Not Too Late” is really quite fetching. Bravo!
—Leslie Benson

Over the Rhine
“The Trumpet Child”
Great Speckled Dog, 2007

“A good song that matters to somebody will always matter … Songs can help heal,” writes musician Linford Detweiler, one-half of the machine that is Over the Rhine. If you’ve ever been to one of OtR’s live performances, you’ve probably been healed by their music.

Whether you heard them at the Buskirk-Chumley Theatre in Bloomington, Ind., or at the Music Mill in Indianapolis, you’re one of the lucky few that heard early gems from OtR’s August release, “The Trumpet Child,” including the billowy brass of the spiritual title track — one of singer Karin Bergquist’s finest hours vocally.

“Someone described it as a ‘jazz hymn,’ and I really liked that,” says Detweiler. “Obviously, I think people are a little bit surprised at the way Karin approached that song as more of a classic torch singer or something, but there’s something going on there that’s pretty special with her performance.”

From a songwriting standpoint, the husband-and-wife team of Bergquist and Detweiler are one of the finest contemporary Midwestern roots songwriting duos. “The Trumpet Child” is another album of their signature tune collections, so hearty you can get drunk on them, like many of OtR’s previous projects.

“There’s some kind of a numbing effect, I think, in our society, where we tend to go through life half awake, just kind of absorbing what’s in front of us,” says Detweiler. “I think songwriting can be a spiritual discipline that invites people to wake up and live life with their eyes more fully open, more fully engaged.”

But OtR isn’t all about seriousness. Songs like “I’m on a Roll” show the childlike nature of the couple — loving, lucky and playfully charming: “Garters on my stockings / the sidewalk bends to stare / I’m on a roll.”

But after more than 15 years of releasing quality, almost grass-roots albums like “Good Dog Bad Dog,” “Films for Radio,” “Ohio, Drunkard’s Prayer” and others, saying this Cincinnati, Ohio-formed band is just “on a roll” would be selling them short.

Ragtime, jazz, blues and folk — even tints of gospel — it’s all here, and you won’t want to wait to hear them. “The Trumpet Child” will make you shiver. Additional highlights from the album include “Nothing is Innocent” and “If a Song Could Be President.”

“I think ‘If a Song Could Be President’ is a celebration of the fact that all this music could have only happened in America,” says Detweiler. “It’s one of the greater gifts we’ve given the world.”

Also out within the past year and perfect for newcomers to OtR is the album “Discount Fireworks: A Collection,” handpicked favorites and memorable singles from the band’s past, including “Give Me Strength,” “The World Can Wait, “Latter Days,” “Ohio” and “All I Need is Everything.”

If you’re not a fan of their new stuff, pick up their new holiday album, “Snow Angels,” and you’ll fall in love with folk’s darlings, if not for the first time, then all over again. You can also pick up the unique Over the Rhine blend of coffee they have for sale online and at their concerts. “What I love about it is it’s just kind of a conversation starter,” says Detweiler. “We really value conversation being a part of what we do musically, and it doesn’t get any better than sitting down with a cup of good coffee with people that are close to you.”
—Leslie Benson

Patty Griffin
“Children Running Through”
ATO Records, 2007

She’s found fans in the Dixie Chicks and Emmylou Harris, and she’s written songs recorded by her musical peers (Reba McEntire, Joan Osborne and Martina McBride, among others). Patty Griffin has used her liberating persona as the musician’s musician to play the way she wants. With her songs in such high demand — (hey, Dave Matthews even signed her to his ATO Records) — Griffin is able to be as bold as she wants to be, and as goofy and as obscure.
The Grammy-nominated artist recorded “Children Running Through” near Austin, Texas. On the disc, she sings of love, family and her country, tripping into Sheryl Crow-like rock (“Getting Ready”) and then curtseying in her “Burgundy Shoes.”

But the new album isn’t her only recent accomplishment. She also appeared in the 2005 film “Elizabethtown” and was the inspiration for a 2007 summer off-Broadway play “10 Million Miles.” Griffin also graced Indy’s the Vogue in April while on tour. Highlights of her musical montage, co-produced with Mike McCarthy (Spoon), include “Railroad Wings,” “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)” and “Someone Else’s Tomorrow.”

The footprints of those wild white ghost horses from her back album cover, galloping through folk heaven, epitomize her gospel-tinged ballads.
—Leslie Benson

Paula Cole
Decca, 2007

More than eight years ago, Paula Cole still reaped the benefits of her first breakthrough album, “This Fire” (1997), which featured “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” and “I Don’t Want To Wait” (the TV theme song for “Dawson’s Creek”). She helped found Lilith Fair, and she was heard all over the radio and on MTV, but the singer soon lost her light and her heart. It wouldn’t be until 2007 that Cole would release another album, “Courage,” because that’s exactly the virtue she had to gain in order to continue her career.

To glamorize her homecoming as a top-notch female musician and celebrate her new album, Cole performed at her alma mater, the Berklee School of Music in Boston. She came prepared this time — packed with a label deal, 11 new songs (including “14,” co-written by Patrick Leonard of Madonna and Roger Waters fame), and a new producer, Bobby Colomby, co-founder of Blood Sweat & Tears.

Cole has since overcome fear and adopted a workshop songwriting style that has encouraged a better sound. She’s learned some life lessons for her new tour and advanced from the young woman who toured Germany with Peter Gabriel long ago to the beckoning, blossomed powerhouse she is today. Cole has transcended domestication and rediscovered her womanhood.

Studying jazz improvisation as a youth and working as a wedding singer only prepared Cole in part for her mid-life crisis and temporary musical downfall. She disappeared after losing her previous record deal, and she considered changing careers to academia after birthing an asthmatic daughter. That’s a lot of stress for a working musician.

However, now Cole’s a new woman, and still as gorgeous as ever. On “Comin’ Down,” she prays for strength and truth. It’s what she’s lived through since we last heard from her: “… This mighty woman’s ready to explode / Fire here below the surface of my volcano” (“14”).
—Leslie Benson

Regina Spektor
“Begin to Hope”
Sire, 2006

Another 2006 album staying in Top 10 sales lists at area record shops this year, “Begin to Hope,” by Regina Spektor, resounds for all lovers and fighters out there. The lilac-voiced pianist has been covered by all the big music and fashion media outlets since her star rose, as if she were a top model.

But the Jewish and Soviet-born, classically-trained musician has received all the acclaim not for her beauty, but for her playground-friendly indie rock and Fiona Apple-esque vocal instrumentation. She doesn’t just sing. She croons and scats from lows to staccato highs, playing with gaping mouth “oohs and ahhs” to make catlike sounds. Years after her 2003 Sire release, “Soviet Kitsch,” she’s been selling out 3,000-plus crowds and performing at festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza.

It’s a giant leap for the Bronx, N.Y.-raised songwriter who began composing music at age 16 after childhood piano lessons and eventually playing dingy New York clubs, where she’d pass around burned CD-Rs of her music. Her self-promotion worked. Word traveled by mouth until her album landed in the hands of record producers, and now, Spektor’s a foreign delicacy. From the superstitious song “Après Moi,” to the delicate, ironic love song “Samson,” to the catchy radio hit “Fidelity,” “Begin to Hope” will make you do just that.
—Leslie Benson

Taylor Swift
“Taylor Swift”
Big Machine Records, 2006

Taylor Swift released her self-titled debut in 2006, but her country tours this year, including a stop in Indy, have kept her name on the track to rising stardom. The fashion icon, which attended high school in Tennessee and performed the national anthem at a 76ers NBA game at age 11, had her debut album go platinum with more than 1 million copies sold.

She won America over with her ballad, “Tim McGraw,” paying homage to the country veteran. But the pianist/guitarist/vocalist is like most teens. She has to push herself to exercise; she’s close to her best friend and she wears her heart on her sleeve (“Teardrops On My Guitar”). Other songs of note on “Taylor Swift” include “Picture to Burn,” “Stay Beautiful” and “A Place in This World.”

Though she’s home-schooled while on the road, she still finds time to write or co-wrote new songs and will release another album in 2008. Ronnie Milsap and George Strait have even taken the musician under their wings — not bad for a girl in liberty boots who got a record deal at age 14 with Sony Publishing.
—Leslie Benson

Top 20 male albums

Ryan Adams
“Easy Tiger”
Lost Highway Records, 2007

After years of releasing excellent but often-spotty albums, alt-country rocker Ryan Adams has finally coughed up a batch of memorable tunes. Sure, the album doesn’t have anything quite as drop-dead indispensable as “Magnolia Mountain,” “Come Pick Me Up” or “Avenues,” but nearly every track comes close enough. Featuring a slew of surprisingly catchy songs (specifically “Everybody Knows,” “The Sun Also Sets” and “Halloweenhead”), “Easy Tiger” will stand as the go-to primer album for new fans.
—Greg Locke

Arcade Fire
“Neon Bible”
Merge Records, 2007

An easy pick for 2007’s breakout band, Canada’s Arcade Fire follow up their classic debut, “Funeral,” with an album equally as good and impossibly even more ambitious. While “Neon Bible” isn’t exactly a huge style change from the band’s other material, it does feature church organs, even more fleshed-out arrangements and the best production an indie rock band can buy.
—Greg Locke

The Besnard Lakes
“The Besnard Lakes Are the Dark Horse”
Jagjaguwar, 2007

This intense pop album from Canadian super-producer Jace Lasek and his wife, Olga Goreas, succeeds at bringing to mind wonderfully conflicting elements of pop music — Brian Wilson and Pink Floyd being the most obvious example. Look for this sonically triumphant album, as well as the band responsible for it, to gain notoriety over the next few years.
—Greg Locke

Bill Callahan
“Woke On a Whaleheart”
Drag City Records, 2007

My first love of 2007, Bill “Smog” Callahan’s first album under his birth name features nine often-rhythmic folk songs draped in obscure lyrics and ramshackle folk accompaniments. These are Callahan’s best batch of songs since Smog’s 1999 classic, “Knock Knock.”
—Greg Locke

Merge Records, 2007

After a few half-good, genre-confused albums, Dan “Caribou” Snaith has finally released his masterpiece with the incredibly focused “Andorra.” Rather than jumping from genre to genre, Snaith welds together the best elements of shoegazer rock, progressive rock, electronic music and indie rock for a sound that is wholly his own. Look for “She’s the One” to pop up in a Cameron Crowe film before long.
—Greg Locke

Kevin Drew
“Spirit If”
Arts & Crafts Productions, 2007

Stepping out of the shadow of his ever-growing home unit, Broken Social Scene, Kevin Drew has put together an impressive solo debut full of ’90s nostalgia with Spirit If. While the album does lose focus at times and runs a bit long, it features far too many high points to overlook, including the J. Mascis-assisted “Backed Out on the Cause,” an easy pick for rock song of the year.
—Greg Locke

Albert Hammond Jr.
“Yours to Keep”
New Line Records, 2007

While his full-time band, The Strokes, seem to be dulling their edge a bit more each time out, Albert Hammond, Jr.’s solo debut — released overseas last year — reminds us of the retro brilliance of his band’s seminal debut, “Is This It.” Ten tracks deep, “Yours to Keep” is a dusty pop album with no holes, a million hooks and surprisingly well-written lyrics.
—Greg Locke

Jens Lekman
“Night Falls Over Kortedala”
Secretly Canadian, 2007

Those looking for someone to fill the void Morrissey left when he changed his subject matter from the personal to the political need look no further than Swedish songwriter Jens Lekman. With a hugely-dramatic vocal deliver and a writing style that brings to mind Moz himself, Lekman crafts off-kilter pop songs that come off like a Wes Anderson-commissioned Belle and Sebastian album. Presented in a warm, bedroom production-style, “Night Falls Over Kortedala” is Lekman’s best (and most lush) collection of songs to date.
—Greg Locke

“Drums and Guns”
Sub Pop Records

Led by singer/songwriter/guitarist Alan Sparhawk and his million-dollar-voiced wife, Mimi Parker, Low have long been releasing mostly-overlooked pocket masterpieces. With “Drums and Guns,” which was produced by the legendary David Fridmann, they’ve manage to sound just as epic and sprawling as any Radiohead or Arcade Fire out there, the difference being that they accentuate each strum, vocal, drum-kick and bassline to the max. The result is one of the biggest sounding — not to mention best — minimalist rock albums of all time.
—Greg Locke

Magnolia Electric Co.
Secretly Canadian, 2007?

Jason Molina and his Magnolia brethren have built a modest goldmine with “Sojourner,” a box set that pulls together the three previously unreleased albums (as well as an EP) they recorded in 2005. Though nine of the songs included in “Sojourner” were compiled last year and released as under the title of “Fading Trails,” the remaining wealth of material is new, and, frankly, much better than “Fading Trails” when heard in its original context. The highlight here by far is “Nashville Moon,” a 12-song masterpiece of country rock that’s as haunting as it is beautiful. Also included in this very limited edition set (which, no joke, comes packaged in a wooden box) is a pewter medallion, a poster, five postcards and a DVD.
—Greg Locke

Thurston Moore
“Trees Outside the Academy”
Ecstatic Peace!

Sonic Youth’s golden boy first attempted solo fame in 1995 with “Psychic Hearts,” and while that album did have a few good tracks, it proved to be (at best) a fraction as good as his work with the Sonics. Such is not the case with his long overdue proper sophomore album, “Trees Outside the Academy,” an album full of varied artistic depth only true SY fans knew Moore was capable of.
—Greg Locke

The New Pornographers
Matador Records, 2007

After three Jolt-juiced power-pop albums, Canada’s foremost supergroup finally tones things down a bit, in doing so offering their most listenable album to date. Though it’s frontman Carl Newman’s songs that lead the way, Daniel Bejar’s “Myriad Harbour” and Neko Case’s “Challengers” stand as two of the year’s very best songs. Not just one of the most “repeat all” function-worthy albums of the year, but also the most fun, “Challengers” plays it straight in approach without sounding a bit anything like anyone else. Oh, and look out for new member Kathryn Calder; she just might be the coolest gal in the world.
—Greg Locke

Okkervil River
“The Stage Names”
Jagjaguwar Records, 2007

This overly literate Austin, Texas band has long been touted as the “next big thing” in indie rock. Though “The Stage Names” was a bit too unpredictable to make them the next Shins or Decemberists, it does contain some of their best and most soulful songs to date. Look for fans to warm up to this excellent nine-song “grower” in years to come.
—Greg Locke

Dead Oceans, 2007

Matthew “Phosphorescent” Houck’s third full-length is a fine example of the good that can come from over-thinking. Though it’s short (eight songs clocking in at 40 minutes) and economically produced, “Pride” sounds huge, utilizing the best elements of freak folk and borrowing equally from Will Oldham and Phil Elverum. At the heart of these eight imaginative songs are Houck’s lyrics, which are as vivid and poetic as you’ll find in 2007.
—Greg Locke

“In Rainbows”
No Label, 2007

With no record label, print advertising, radio airplay, music video, single or ringtones in sight, Radiohead managed to get more press than any other band — mainstream artists included — in 2007. Lucky for audiophiles, the album behind all the commotion is good — really good. Ten tracks of compositionally deep, yet economically-played pocket-prog-rock, “In Rainbows” is the best batch of Radiohead songs since 1997’s “OK Computer.” In what will surely go down as “The Year of the Indie Artist,” Radiohead played along, making history along the way.
—Greg Locke

The Ike Reilly Assassination
“We Belong to the Staggering Evening”
Rock Ridge, 2007

Dig down to the gut of Ike Reilly’s fourth and best album and what you’ll find are 12 pop songs, all of which are masked on the exterior with a rollicking Rolling Stones-like swagger. Clever lyrics, a smoke-blasted voice, an always-bouncy rhythm section and some of the coolest jagged guitars riffs of the year make “Staggering Evening” the biggest surprise of 2007. Give “Valentines Day in Jaurez” one listen, I dare ya.
—Greg Locke

Josh Ritter
“The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter”
Sony/BMG, 2007

After a decade spent often lost in the shadow of Ryan Adams, Josh Ritter has finally lived up to his potential with “Historical Conquests,” a roots-based songwriter album full of charm, smarts and — more than anything else — expertly executed tunes that bring to mind Loudon Wainwright III, Bob Dylan and even Adams himself.
—Greg Locke

“Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga”
Merge Records, 2007

Some bands surprise you with each new record they record; Spoon is one of these bands. With instant indie rock classics like “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb,” “The Underdog” and “Finer Feelings,” Spoon’s sixth LP is the year’s best pure indie rock album; that said, it should also appeal to fans of early-’70s classic rock with its slight nods to said era’s shape-shifting, genre-melding daze.
—Greg Locke

Bruce Springsteen
Columbia, 2007

With “Magic,” Bruce Springsteen has against all odds, released one of his all-time best albums. Backed by a still-powerful E Street Band, “Magic”’s 12 tracks — seven of which are worthy of “Best of Bruce” consideration — utilize often socially conscious lyrics over raucous backdrops that should help Boss fans remember why they love “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “Born to Run” so dearly.
—Greg Locke

“Sky Blue Sky”
Nonesuch Records, 2007

No apologies due to the kiddies, the long-labored “Sky Blue Sky” saw Chicago’s Wilco trading in their recent penchant for experimental studio creations for a live, in-studio sound made to be played on the stage. With its soulful backbone, flashy guitar-work and timeless writing, “Sky Blue Sky” announces the arrival of a more mature, composition-based Wilco.
—Greg Locke


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