MENORCA, Spain -- When I turned 16, my parents threw a surprise birthday party. Their efforts at deception were easily concealed; because my birthday is Dec. 23, it had never before elicited much in the way of celebration. I had no reason to suspect that the trip to the video store was anything more than a trip to the video store.
Later on, when we were high school upperclassmen, my party took on retrospectively mythical status. The 10 invitees and I would look back with awe, wondering how it had been possible that five males and five females -- all sophomores in high school -- were allowed to spend the night under the same roof.
The answer: Kansas weather.
In the time it took for my friends and I to finish a game of Scattergories, a winter storm had coated the gravel roads with ice. My father told my friends to call their parents -- he wasn't going to let anyone venture out on the treacherous roads. It was a responsible move. One he questioned when, at 2 a.m., we were still loudly playing Truth Or Dare in the basement.
Nothing particularly interesting happened at the party. My parents' liquor cabinet (shelf) wasn't raided, no clothes were removed and no one was impregnated. As far as I know, anyway.
But when I think back to my 16th birthday party, my mind runs not to the girl who sneaked downstairs to share my bed with me, but to music.
(Once there, she lay on my back as I tried to sleep. Because I was (A) shy, and (B) evidently, retarded, I took this as a sign that she wanted to lie on my back as I tried to sleep.)
I think of music because, as a 16th birthday present, my best friend gave me "Ten" by Pearl Jam.
Which upped my album collection to, I think, eight CDs.
I had all eight memorized. I could sing each of them word for word.
Now, iTunes tells me that my collection stands at 11,241 songs, which is probably slightly fewer than 1,000 albums. (I don't believe in downloading individual songs. I leave that to middle school girls and ADD victims.)
In some ways, I miss those early days. There's no way I'll ever have the connection with the last album I bought ("Holy F---" by Holy F---) that I did with the first ("Achtung Baby" by U2). But I think I'll be able to deal with the loss of intimacy. It's fun to have so much music available. And it hasn't been hard to get here. Thanks to the entity we trendsetters like to call "the Internet," it's never been easier to find good music.
I get frustrated when people say that they can't find music they like. Because there's so much to be found. I will admit that it takes some time and effort. (And a decent Internet connection.) But it's there.
In fact, 2007 was one of the best years for music in recent memory. I was thrilled to learn of releases by Interpol, Nine Inch Nails, The Shins, Band of Horses, Rogue Wave, Pinback, The New Pornographers, Kaiser Chiefs, Film School, Bloc Party, Arcade Fire, M.I.A. and Angels & Airwaves.
The Smashing Pumpkins even put out an album in 2007.
Some of those lived up to my expectations (NIN, Band of Horses). Others didn't (Bloc Party, Kaiser Chiefs). Others well, we'll pretend the Smashing Pumpkins never reunited.
Now it's time for the list. My best of 2007 list. As with every top-10 list in the history of the written word, it's an imperfect one. When I did a list for 2006, I hadn't even heard albums from TV on the Radio, the Deftones and Brand New -- all of which warranted a spot. Similarly, I haven't had time to give appropriate listens to several albums that I think may eventually impress. I think Panda Bear has potential. The newest Bruce Springsteen is probably great. After two listens, I love the aforementioned Holy F---. (And no, not because I wanted to write their name twice.) But I can't say that they're list-worthy after two listens. Especially since the bulk of one of those listens took place while I was in the shower. And who doesn't like what they hear while they're in the shower?
Take this list as a starting point. Find some of these bands' music -- go to their Web sites, or to their MySpace pages, or, God forbid, to one of their shows. Whichever it is, give them a listen, while you're checking e-mails or playing poker or while you're trying to see over the inconsiderate 6-foot-10 guy who has planted himself right in front of you.
If you like what you hear, buy the album. Actually, buy two. Keep one for yourself, and give one to some kid on his 16th birthday. You never know, he might remember it more than he remembers the time that five girls spent the night at his house.
10. Animal Collective -- "Strawberry Jam"
Apparently, these folks have been around for a while -- since 2000. Such news is always both disheartening and encouraging to me. Disheartening in a "I don't know nearly as much about music as I thought" kind of way. Encouraging, in a "there's always hope that I'll find something new and so I shouldn't kill myself today" kind of way.
The music is, admittedly, weird. I would compare them to Menomena, but no one's ever heard of Menomena, so that comparison would fail. They're pop/rock/electronica with herky-jerky rhythms and arrangements.
Which makes so much sense.
9. A Place To Bury Strangers -- "A Place To Bury Strangers"
I'm disappointed in myself. My first two (last two) selections are obscure ones. Don't worry, there will be bands you've heard of. Unless you live in a cave. Then they'll all be new.
I cheated and downloaded this album via BitTorrent. But, slow down, dudes from A Place To Bury Strangers. I'll buy the next one.
This album has the potential to be one of those that I remember from the year. It's dark and moody, kind of like me in Menorca. The band's fuzzed-out guitars remind me of Interpol or the Warlocks, while the claustrophobic effect of the electronic side of their music brings to mind Depeche Mode and My Bloody Valentine.
8. Cold War Kids -- "Robbers and Cowards"
I have a feeling that this album may have been released in late 2006. But iTunes tells me 2007. I'll let Apple be my guide; I'm too lazy to start this list over.
With good albums, there's always a listen that causes me to "get it" -- a moment when I'm no longer confused by the newness of the album, but not yet tired of it. With Cold War Kids, that happened last spring on a beach in Menorca, sometime during one of my last two weeks on the island. I was in a good mood. I hadn't yet broken my ankle, and I was staring at topless girls on a not-too-crowded beach. The bluesy but catchy songs on "Robbers and Cowards" seemed to fit perfectly. If I could explain why exactly, I would write bluesy but catchy songs and put them on an album. I can't, which is why I was impressed.
7. Radiohead -- "In Rainbows"
Ah, Radiohead. Radiohead has long been the territory of my brother Dan. For a long time, the foundation for his taste in music was occupied by R.E.M. and Radiohead. For me, it was U2 and Tool. (I think he won. R.E.M. has descended into much less suckitude than has U2.) I left him to his love for Radiohead and so was late to the party coronated by Okay, Computer and The Bends. Over the years, I've grudgingly come to admit that Thom Yorke is a genius and that my brother is probably smarter than I am.
"In Rainbows" was famously first released on the Internet. Buyers can pay what they want to download the record. (I chose to contribute two pounds.) The process is a simple one; I can't imagine that it will be long before every album is released this way.
I realize that the prediction is not a bold one.
"In Rainbows" hearkens back to the melodic approach of earlier Radiohead. Which isn't to say that their last effort -- "Hail to the Thief" -- didn't. But this certainly isn't Kid A.
I'm not one to pick out individual songs, but if you listen to "All I Need" and don't like it, you probably don't like puppies, back rubs and hamburgers. And I hate you.
6. Modest Mouse -- "We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank"
Ah, Modest Mouse.
Wait, I already did that.
It seems appropriate here, though. I've known of Modest Mouse for a long time. I downloaded a few of their songs back in my Audiogalaxy days in Greece. I'd listen to one and think, "Huh, not bad." Then, I'd give the next one a try and think, "This is like listening to a cat that's having its tail squeezed in a vice while simultaneously drawing its claws down a chalkboard."
Their consistency left something to be desired.
They've gotten their act together in the last few years. WWDBTSES is no great departure from the band's previous release, "Good News for People Who Like Bad News." (Seriously, with the long titles.) Since that album was, well, wonderful, that's not a bad thing. It's a fun poppy alternative with the occasional meaningful lyric to make easily impressed people like me go, "Awww, he's right."
5. The Go! Team -- "Proof of Youth"
When I asked my brother Matt if he likes The Go! Team, he responded with:
"Oh, I remember why I haven't listened to the Go! team very much: They suck. Sounds like under-10 Olympics promo music."
I think he's wrong. But I bring up his opinion because I can see it.
This might be juvenile music. But it's really fun juvenile music. After "Proof of Youth" made its debut on my computer, I found myself dancing in the kitchen as I prepared the night's meal.
That's right, dancing. I'm no stranger to the by-myself, recorded-music-induced dance party. But it had been some time since it had happened with every song. The Go! Team is reminiscent of another weird, childish band I discovered this year, a band called CSS. And of another band my brother hates: Le Tigre. Maybe my brother just doesn't like fun.
4. Band of Horses -- "Cease to Begin"
As I looked over my list from 2006, I noticed the first Band of Horses album. I found this a little alarming since I could have sworn it had been three years since "Everything All the Time." My life is crawling by.
I should add a disclaimer: I'm really high on this album right now. Likewise, I was really high on "Everything All the Time" at first, but it hasn't stayed fixed in my memory like I thought it would. Then again, as soon as that thought passed through my brain, I went back and listened to the debut and immediately thought, "What's wrong with me? This is fantastic."
It could be that I'm suspicious of how easily everything comes to Band of Horses. In the mold of My Morning Jacket, it's almost as if they can't make a bad song.
3. Nine Inch Nails -- "Year Zero"
As I was putting together my final list, I used the following criteria to come up with an order:
Which of these albums would I be most excited about hearing, right now?
Initially, I wanted to penalize "Year Zero" because I know I'm biased in favor of Trent Reznor and Co. (Co. being some computerized recording devices.) But to hell with that. This summer I actually had to stop myself from listening to "Year Zero." I imposed a "Year Zero" embargo: "OK, Paul, you listened to it this morning. You can't listen to it again until, like, 6 p.m." In my experience, this is never a bad sign.
As for the music it sounds a lot like Nine Inch Nails.
2. Kings of Leon -- "Because of the Times"
I liked Kings of Leon's debut, "Youth and Young Manhood." But I didn't like it enough to buy their second album. That may have been an oversight.
I was reintroduced to Kings of Leon via the long-lost art form known as the music video. Sometimes, European music channels show them. My ears perked up at the opening keyboards of "On Call." Thus, their third album, "Because of the Times," was one of my first purchases when I arrived back in the U.S. I was not disappointed.
I've always wanted to like Kings of Leon more. The band is comprised of three brothers (and one cousin). Which meant that my fantasy -- that my brothers and I could form a band -- is not entirely outside the realm of possibility. Of course, it is only in the fantasy that I (or my brothers) have any musical ability. I suppose Rock Band will have to suffice.
If the brothers Shirley had not been overlooked by the music talent fairy, and if they had grown up in Tennessee, this is what they would sound like: a welcome combination of blues and southern rock that reminds me of all the best parts of the Drive-By Truckers, The Allman Brothers and The Black Crowes.
1. The National -- "Boxer"
Earlier this fall, before she started to break my heart, I became embroiled in a contest with a gorgeous half-Spanish, half-Dutch girl. She contended that the Spanish language has more words than does English. (It doesn't.) As our argument continued, she challenged me to think of all the synonyms for the word beautiful.
(Isn't that cute?)
She promised to do the same in Spanish.
She won. By a lot.
I'm not sure what that says about English -- that the language has twice as many words, but one-quarter as many ways to say "beautiful." Or what it says about my creativity -- that I vaguely consider myself a writer, but couldn't beat her in a game that is directly related to writing.
I do know that, if I wanted to continue down the precious little path I've started, I would write, " thus, the only way I can appropriately express myself is in Spanish."
Thankfully, I haven't learned Spanish very well. Thus, I am confined to English.
"Boxer," by The National, is beautiful. It's rock music at its best: grand, heartfelt and poetic. And that's why it's my favorite album of 2007.
Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams -- the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. Paul can be found at MySpace.com/paulshirley. His book, "Can I Keep My Jersey?", can be found here.