The best 30 albums of 2006
I'm pretty surprised by the year-end lists I've seen on other blogs. The consensus, it seems, is that 2006 turned out to be an off-year. If not bad, then at least mediocre. I've seen lists where the writer claims that he can't think of ten worthy albums and others where people have sounded less than excited about their end results. That wasn't my take at all. I had real trouble capping my list at thirty and seriously considered expanding it to fifty. I was overwhelmed by how much good music there was in a wide variety of genres. In my mind, 2006 was cumulatively the best year since at least 2002, although it may have involved some more digging. Either way, it was an excellent year populated by artists expanding their possibilities or evolving their sound. Here are my picks of the best of the best:
30) Happy New Year - Oneida
Sprawling, obtuse, complex and captivating, Happy New Year is an album that never repeats itself. It never even comes close. Every song has its own stylistic twist, bending and building on various genres with headfirst abandon. It can't be adequately summed up with any sampling of songs; its power lies in its aggregrate of experiments, its almost exhausting barrage of sounds. Its greatness lies in the fact that Oneida, eight albums in, is still refusing to make anything easy, for themselves or for their audience. My thoughts from 7-27-06* MP3: "Up With People" - Oneida from Happy New Year
* MP3: "History's Great Navigators" - Oneida from Happy New Year [Buy it]
29) Lantern - Clogs
Lantern evaded my attention for a while, because it was so subtle and unassuming. When I played it while reading the paper or cooking dinner, it would disappear among all the sonic detritus. But put on a pair of headphones and instantly, it's become a different entity. Producing hyperlovely instrumental music with classical overtones and avant influences, Clogs not only demand your full attention but fully deserve it. The closer you listen, the more generous the compensation, and the more you listen, the farther away from the everyday it will carry you.
* MP3: "Kapsberger" - Clogs from Lantern
* MP3: "5/4" - Clogs from Lantern [Buy it]
28) Waiter: "You Vultures!" - Portugal. The Man.
This Portland-via-Alaska band's album kept slipping off my list and creeping back on. It was just too catchy and too well-designed to neglect. Its raucous crunch of pop and rock felt too fresh and forward-looking, thanks largely to John Baldwin Gourley's Crying Game-like falsetto. Given how many indie bands sound interchangeable or uneventful, it's a small wonder how wholly Portugal. The Man. carve out a space of their own, how needfully they kept me coming back.
* MP3: "Marching With 6" - Portugal. The Man. from Waiter: "You Vultures!"
* MP3: "AKA M80 The Wolf" - Portugal. The Man. from Waiter: "You Vultures!" [Buy it]
27) Us Upon Buildings Upon Us - Tartufi
One of the great pleasures I found in moving to San Francisco was getting to follow an entirely new music scene. Of all the local bands I heard in my time there, the best and certainly the most original was a duo called Tartufi. Their latest album, Us Upon Buildings Upon Us, features a sound that's acrobatic and larger-than-life, stuffed to the gills with ideas and ambition. The songs spill and overflow, each one its own magnum opus. Put together, they add up to something truly towering. My concert review from 10-4-06, my thoughts from 11-6-06, my concert review from 12-8-06
* MP3: "If We Had Daggers They Would Fly" - Tartufi from Us Upon Buildings Upon Us
* MP3: "Until The Ocean Swallows The Stars" - Tartufi from Us Upon Buildings Upon Us [Buy it]
26) The Letting Go - Bonnie "Prince" Billy
By now, a bad Will Oldham outing would be a more remarkable event than a good one. The man has one of the most consistently strong oeuvres in music, and once again, he staves off any sign of creative slowdown with a few sharp tweaks. The Letting Go finds him briefly trying on rock and blues, and including more strings and warmer symphonic elements. His other major polestar is Dawn McCarthy's matching vocals, which sweeten up Oldham's melancholic takes. Even without these additions, the album would've been a pleasure. But with them, it achieves something more special: even among Oldham's highest points, it's a work that must be noted. My thoughts from 9-20-06
* MP3: "The Seedling" - Bonnie "Prince" Billy from The Letting Go
* MP3: "Cold and Wet" - Bonnie "Prince" Billy from The Letting Go [Buy it]
25) Blue Collar - Rhymefest
Rhymefest's greatest asset is his versatility, or more accurately, his ability to pull off that versatility. Whether he's doing a club track, a socially conscious joint or an Ol Dirty Bastard duet, he never sounds out of place or less than in command. He can veer from dirty come-ons to military putdowns with equal authenticity and the same elevated level of wordplay. He can tackle serious topics with welcome humor and lighter subjects with dead-on similes. I can't imagine too many other rappers who can cover so much varied ground so convincingly or expertly.
24) Roots and Crowns - Califone
My thoughts from 10-18-06
* MP3: "The Orchids" - Califone from Roots and Crowns
* MP3: "Spider's House" - Califone from Roots and Crowns [Buy it]
23) We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions - Bruce Springsteen
2006 saw a lot of legends step back into the booth, but surprisingly, it was Bruce Springsteen that came out the most vital. After last year's dreary Devils and Dust, he's a man revived (or at least caffeinated), playing with new reserves of passion and verve. Turning that energy onto Pete Seeger's back catalogue, he similarly jolts it awake, sidestepping the reverence and seriousness in favor of fresh, lively arrangements. In the process, Springsteen's also invigorated my hopes that he has still another classic album left in him. My thoughts from 7-4-06
22) Damaged - Lambchop
The most wrenching album of the year, Damaged finds Kurt Wagner stripped down to the barest, most vulnerable essentials. It's a work hovered over by mortality and disease, a buzzard-shaped shadow darkening the music. But in that spareness and the boulder-heavy verses, there's also real honesty. Wagner writes with a kind of elemental poetry and sings his lines in a voice he can hardly stand to raise. It all results in Lambchop's most challenging release yet, and for the listeners who don't turn away from the task, its impact is also the deepest. My thoughts from 8-28-06
* MP3: "Paperback Bible" - Lambchop from Damaged
* MP3: "The Decline of Country and Western Civilization" - Lambchop from Damaged [Buy it]
21) The Body, The Blood, The Machine - The Thermals
My thoughts from 7-21-06
* MP3: "A Pillar of Salt" - The Thermals from The Body, The Blood, The Machine
* MP3: "Here's Your Future" - The Thermals from The Body, The Blood, The Machine [Buy it]
20) Précis – Benoît Pioulard
It's been a long day; I'm wearied from all the traveling I've done. Through the window, I can still hear the bawl of a fire truck and the low grumble of engines. I consider passing out in front of the TV or reading a few pages of poetry in bed. In the end though, I take off my shoes and socks, dim the lights and make some pomegranate tea. Slipping on my headphones, I slip away into Benoît Pioulard's Précis, which proves to be as restorative as it is transportive. I'm faraway from the din now, from the stress and the clatter. What's left is an album that is mysterious and wholly wondrous, a humbly holy oasis to fend off the outside world in thirty-six-minute intervals. My interview with Benoît Pioulard, part one, my interview with Benoît Pioulard, part two
* MP3: "Palimend" - Benoît Pioulard from Précis
* MP3: "Triggering Back" - Benoît Pioulard from Précis [Buy it]
19) Night Ripper – Girl Talk
Night Ripper is a godsend for cultural studies majors who can endlessly debate questions of appropriation, recontextualization and racial implications. But I don't think this is an album that needs to be intellectualized too much. While Gregg Gillis's gleeful sampling spree does raise a lot of interesting issues, at its heart, Night Ripper remains a party pure and simple. It wants to get you moving, sweating and grinding, pulling out so many crucial hooks and beyond-wild juxtapositions that there's something here for everyone. It's also incredibly libidinal and graphic, as if to snag the attention of those last few stragglers still at work on their dissertations.
* MP3: "Too Deep" - Girl Talk from Night Ripper
* MP3: "Smash Your Head" - Girl Talk from Night Ripper [Buy it]
18) Passover – The Black Angels
Dark and unyielding, Passover is the sound of My Lai and Haditha, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It's a tour of duty through the rubble of American warfare, with protest songs that land as violently as their subjects. They drone, echo and collide. They're claustrophobic and psychedelic, drawing direct parallels between the the unbound '60s and the uncertain present. And just to drive the point home, from the Vietnam quagmire to the situation in Iraq, the Black Angels issue one last call to arms as a hidden track, condemning the current war by name. They must know it won't make much of a difference, but they still stand up when most other musicians have stood aside. My thoughts from 7-4-06
* MP3: "The First Vietnamese War" - The Black Angels from Passover
* MP3: "Black Grease" - The Black Angels from Passover [Buy it]
17) Coal – Devastations
Lullabyes for lotharios and eulogies for abandoned lovers, Coal is all about loss. The loss of innocence, the loss of hope, the loss of your defenses. Conrad Standish laments these moments like a man who knows them all too well, sharing them all with us in a smoky voice. The band sometimes goes along, adding sad accompaniments and hushed instruments, but at other points, they'll get poppier as if they don't want to admit how bad it's getting. I just wish more people had heard Coal this year, because for anyone who missed it, it's really their loss. My thoughts from 10-23-06, my interview with Conrad Standish
* MP3: "Sex and Mayhem" - Devastations from Coal
* MP3: "Coal" - Devastations from Coal [Buy it]
16) Etiquette – Casiotone For The Painfully Alone
My interview with Owen Ashworth
* MP3: "Young Shields" - Casiotone For The Painfully Alone from Etiquette
* MP3: "Bobby Malone Moves Home" - Casiotone For The Painfully Alone from Etiquette [Buy it]
15) Beast Moans – Swan Lake
As Charles Wright writes, "Two and two never make four down here,/ They always make two and two." And so Swan Lake is never quite the sum of its parts so much as the product of its parts, New Pornographers/Destroyer's Dan Bejar, Frog Eyes' Carey Mercer and Wolf Parade/Sunset Rubdown's Spencer Krug. "All Fires" is straight-ahead Krug while "The Freedom" is pretty ostensibly Bejar. Songs that combine the three members more actively still boldfacely reveal their specific contributions. All of this may seem like a criticism, but why worry about their sources when the results are this striking. It may even be better that their signature quirks are left largely intact, because the rewards of this one and one and one only multiply with every listen.
* MP3: "All Fires" - Swan Lake from Beast Moans
* MP3: "The Freedom" - Swan Lake from Beast Moans [Buy it]
14) Tales of The Forgotten Melodies - Wax Tailor
In a way, it's fitting that French producer, DJ and former rapper Wax Tailor has gone overlooked and unheard in America. After all, he himself thrives on culling mostly overlooked and unheard samples to create the core of his work. He uses film snippets that make his instrumental setpieces cinematic in a literal sense, but even without them, his songs have a grand, evocative feel. Wax Tailor also knows how to incorporate Hitchcock as adeptly and avidly as hip hop, and singers as effectively as soundbites. As he prepares to release his next album in '07, I'm hoping that it'll finally put a spotlight on a man still sitting in the dark. My thoughts from 12-4-06
* MP3: "Am I Free" - Wax Tailor from Tales of The Forgotten Melodies
* MP3: "Hypnosis Theme" - Wax Tailor from Tales of The Forgotten Melodies [Buy it]
13) Someone To Drive You Home – The Long Blondes
My thoughts from 11-29-06
* MP3: "Lust In The Movies" - The Long Blondes from Someone To Drive You Home
* MP3: "Giddy Stratospheres" - The Long Blondes from Someone To Drive You Home [Buy it]
12) Mattachine! – The Ballet
It's easy to discount the Ballet for sounding so beautiful. A cursory listen to the dulcet violin and the polished melodies might lead you to conclude there's not much going on below the surface. But through their perfect pop, the Ballet touch on the current state of queer identity and its complicated rites. Online dating, unrequited love, unspoken emotions, dance clubs and whirlwind romances are just some of the topics Greg Goldberg rhapsodizes about with revealing details and an intimate knowledge. Wherever his mood turns though, the music stays imminently pleasant and pretty, like a trusted friend who can make all your weighty secrets seem lighter.
* MP3: "In My Head" - The Ballet from Mattachine!
* MP3: "I Hate The War" - The Ballet from Mattachine! [Buy it]
11) 'Sno Angel Like You - Howe Gelb
His most powerful achievement yet, 'Sno Angel Like You is the culmination of Howe Gelb's career. It finds him distilling the many influences he's picked up along the way into a tighter, more singular aesthetic. It shows him polishing off life's confusing, often contradictory suggestions into sturdy, time-tested wisdoms. Backed by Ottawa's Voices of Praise gospel choir, his songs gain a new grandeur, but they still feel personal and microcosmic. You can still hear the sympathy in his messages when he dispenses advice. You can also hear the weight of experience and the toll it's exacted to get him to this point. My thoughts from 7-4-06
* MP3: "The Farm" - Howe Gelb from 'Sno Angel Like You
* MP3:"Get To Leave" - Howe Gelb from 'Sno Angel Like You [Buy it]
10) Post-War – M. Ward
Oh man, I really need a new MP3 player. The one I own, which is two years old and which I got for free, only holds three to four albums at a time. Ordinarily, that limited capacity is a minor nuisance, but when I went to Thailand in November, it posed a daunting dilemma. What four albums could I count on to entertain and inspire me for two full weeks? The only one from this year that made the cut was M. Ward's Post-War, an album I couldn't seem to tire of. Not only did it meet its duty, through long, scenic bus rides and ambling through random Bangkok backstreets, but it made every activity better and more resonant. And no wonder–M. Ward has put together his best album yet, heavy with love, longing and all the bigger questions. He sings with a mix of honesty and mystery, faith and knowledge. He speaks with such universality and breadth that even the sight of a Thai countryside can be heightened by Post-War.
* MP3: "Post-War" - M. Ward from Post-War [Buy it]
9) The Life Pursuit - Belle & Sebastian
So The Life Pursuit features two songs, "Another Sunny Day" and "Song For Sunshine," with a pleasant forecast in the title. It seems like a gimme at first, with my initial impulse being to say that The Life Pursuit is If You're Feeling Sinister with a pop makeover and doused in copious sunlight. But on closer inspection, that may be more of a red herring. Yes, compared to their other benchmark album, this new offering is a much-needed prescription of Xanax. But their patented brand of lovely depression still faithfully underpins the proceedings. The blues may be bouncier now but they're still blue, and the greatest loves, while more orchestral, remain in the narrator's head. So while Stuart Murdoch may no longer be singing, "Get me away from here, I'm dying," that doesn't make this life pursuit any easier to traverse. My thoughts from 7-4-06
* MP3: "Dress Up In You" - Belle & Sebastian from The Life Pursuit [Buy it]
8) The Air Force – Xiu Xiu
Xiu Xiu's raison d'être has always been to probe the most brutal and uncomfortable realms of sex and violence. Jamie Stewart has inhabited the extremes, either unloading in a deathly whisper or a barbaric yawp. But on The Air Force, the band tries a different tactic. The lyrics are still as intense and disabling as ever, but the presentation is a little more streamlined. The songs try their best to function normally before they break down. They put up façades of pop and smuggle their scars away in more upbeat deliveries. In the end, The Air Force is just as rooted in hurt and horror as its antecedents, but in trying to make pain palatable, even more intriguing. My review of The Air Force, my thoughts from 12-21-06
* MP3: "Boy Soprano" - Xiu Xiu from The Air Force [Buy it]
7) Fox Confessor Brings The Flood - Neko Case
This weekend, I was in Nashville, where I was surrounded by men in cowboy hats and saintly portraits of icons like Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. Yet when people asked me who my favorite country musician was, I gave a stubborn reply: "Neko Case." Some debate followed of course if that answer could count. Wouldn't Americana or pop-folk, it was suggested, be a better label for her? Still, I persisted, because Case has more in common with those rebels painted up and down Music City than many of the current voices in country radio. She's blazing her own path, she draws influence from other traditions but makes them her own, she sings earthily and soulfully in a voice that can't be forgotten. Though Case's image won't be appearing on a Nashville mural anytime soon, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood only confirms her place in the pantheon. My thoughts from 7-4-06
* MP3: "Star Witness" - Neko Case from Fox Confessor Brings The Flood [Buy it]
6) Game Theory – The Roots
My thoughts from 7-28-06, my thoughts from 12-21-06
5) Yellow House – Grizzly Bear
In expanding from one to four full-time members, Grizzly Bear opened up whole new terrains of possibilities. That they already sound so polished and majestic on Yellow House is altogether remarkable. After all, it plays more like their creative peak than their first foray together, already achieving the ethereal, spacey lo-fi sound most bands would spend years chasing after. It's almost too exciting to imagine where Grizzly Bear might tread next if they've reached this point this quickly. Whatever their ultimate direction, Yellow House will always stand as a towering structure, an idyllic retreat built to last by four master architects.
My thoughts from 8-4-06, my interview with Chris Bear, my concert review from 10-4-06
* MP3: "On A Neck, On A Spit" - Grizzly Bear from Yellow House [Buy it]
4) Beat Romantic – Talkdemonic
My New Year's resolution is to catch every opening band from now on. In my stupider days, I'd spurn most I hadn't heard of, writing them off as works-in-progress. Now I'm convinced that it's the best way to scout up-and-coming talent. My best evidence among many is Portland duo Talkdemonic. I caught them opening for the National and their electrifying instrumentals were a big reason why that February show was my favorite concert of 2006. The day after that performance, I got Beat Romantic, which has since gone on to become my most played album of 2006. It's infiltrated and scored so many subsequent events that I frankly can't fathom how different these eleven months would've sounded without Talkdemonic. I'Il be spending 2007 trying to make sure I don't let some equally amazing discovery slip by. My thoughts from 8-11-06, my thoughts from 10-2-06, my interview with Kevin O'Connor
* MP3: "Manhattan '81" - Talkdemonic from Beat Romantic [Buy it]
3) Return To Cookie Mountain – TV On The Radio
Ten thousand bloggers can be wrong, but they were dead-on with their trumpeting of Return To Cookie Mountain. It may be a de facto top ten entry but here it is again because it deserves every accolade. Nothing else so boldly forged its own genre or propelled a band further forward. With its organic blend of art-rock, doo wop, blues, and gospel, it crystallized TV On The Radio's already unique aesthetic. And yet for all of its obvious positives, it wasn't an album I took to right away. With its thick, viscous production and liberally distributed noise, it felt surprisingly remote and impenetrable at first. After about ten active listening sessions though, I could finally hear the layers unpeeling, revealing a deep and very human pulse under all that skin of sound.
2) Shut Up I Am Dreaming – Sunset Rubdown
My thoughts from 7-4-06, my thoughts from 12-21-06
* MP3:"Us Ones In Between" - Sunset Rubdown from Shut Up I Am Dreaming [Buy it]
1) Ys – Joanna Newsom
Maybe it's best to think of Ys as a five-pointed constellation. Each song is its own small sun, its own source of diamond-like luster. But put together, with the help of a little poetic license, these stars will form something grander. The connections between them may be unseen and implied, but peer closely enough and they'll start to take shape. Those glittering specks will suddenly transform into a hunter or a wandering bear; they'll form meanings and relationships in the emptiness of sky. Sidereal, cosmic, astronomical, Ys is unlike anything else in music, an event onto itself and an experience many who simply glance up will miss. It's mythological, monumental, an indelible tattoo on the galaxy I'll still be trying to get my head around five years from now.
My review of Ys, My favorite piece of writing this year about Ys