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    Friday, December 29, 2006

    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

    Thursday, December 28, 2006

    Please stand by

    Sorry guys, I'm experiencing some technical difficulties with file hosting. I'm trying to get it all figured out, and as soon as I do, I'll begin posting my top 30 albums of 2006. To keep you entertained in the meanwhile, here are the three original versions of the covers that were featured on my best songs of 2006 list.

    * MP3: "To Go Home" - Daniel Johnston from The What of Whom [Buy it]
    * MP3: "O Mary Don't You Weep" - Pete Seeger from Live At Newport [Buy it]
    * MP3: "The Orchids" - Psychic TV from Dreams Less Sweet [Buy other Psychic TV]

    Thursday, December 21, 2006

    The best 30 songs of 2006

    If compiling my thirty favorite singles wasn't hard enough, culling a list of my thirty favorite songs proved near impossible. Every entry that was edged off the countdown was given a more drawn-out goodbye than an airport sendoff. With so many standouts in a crowded field, I had to make some very, very tough calls. But with that sonic surgery accomplished, I can happily say that these songs are the ones that have generously defined my year, soundtracked it and vastly improved it. Here are my picks:

    30) "Sacramento & Polk" - Alejandro Escovedo
    San Francisco has changed a lot since Escovedo first wrote this song. For instance, if you go to the titular coordinates today, you'll find a sushi restaurant on the corner, while the hotel for transients where he lived and that he wrote this song about is gone. That's not to say that many present-day areas don't exactly capture the crazed, ragged energy of "Sacramento and Polk." But it still gives me a sense that the people who were lost are now lost for good. The man who was "just a mess on Market Street" and the people in "a Thorazine haze" can't be saved anymore, only eulogized now.
    * MP3: "Sacramento and Polk" - Alejandro Escovedo from The Boxing Mirror [Buy it]

    29) "Coal" - Devastations
    * MP3: "Coal" - Devastations from Coal [Buy it]

    28) "Bishop, CA" - Xiu Xiu
    This song might as well be a therapy sessions set to music. The imagery it's stuffed with is sharp, precise and begging for analysis. Jamie Stewart confesses each line with a weight that's practically oppressive to listen to, as if he raises his voice any louder, he'll lose his will altogether. Near the end, after a psychic block of noise, he gets a step closer to what he needs to share: "
    Should you be ashamed for more than that?/ Than that your daddy raped you silly/ Leaning my head on the refrigerator/ Crying for the stupid world we share." He goes too far here; he says too much, so he retreats back into nonsense, a safeword, maybe even a place (in Washington) of pain, murmuring "walla walla walla walla walla walla hey" over and over until the hour is up.
    * MP3: "Bishop, CA" - Xiu Xiu from The Air Force [Buy it]

    27) "On My Shit" - The Clipse
    * MP3: "On My Shit" - The Clipse [Buy other Clipse]

    26) "God's Gonna Cut You Down" - Johnny Cash
    Johnny Cash's music and persona have always been firmly informed by a fraught relationship with his Lord. On this penultimate posthumous installment of the American series, Johnny goes out with the same troubled authenticity he started out with. God is still vengeful, God is still all-powerful, God is still personal and near. The difference is that Cash sounds more at peace with the situation, more wise to the brevity of life, and finally ready for the Man in Black to meet the Man Above.

    25) "How Shall I To Heaven Aspire?" - Rock Plaza Central
    If the second half of Are We Not Horses? finished as strong as the first, we could've had a champion on our hands. Instead, let's settle for this early winner, which gallops out of the gate with nostrils flaring and legs kicking forward. It establishes itself dominantly in two minutes, thanks largely to Chris Eaton's shaky, pleading vocal and an insistent, string-driven rhythm that won't back down until it crosses the finish line. Consider this track the Secretariat of Rock Plaza Central songs.
    * MP3: "How Shall I To Heaven Aspire?" - Rock Plaza Central from Are We Not Horses? [Buy it]

    24) "Jesus For The Jugular" - The Veils
    A total anomaly on Nux Vomica, "Jesus For The Jugular" is by far its best song, giving bandleader Finn Andrew the room to flex and flaunt his abilities. And he takes full advantage, wailing away like an occult member casting a spell, throaty and dark and possessed. The music follows his cathartic lead, led by a thrashing drum and a moaning guitar in the midst of an exorcism. It's one of the precious few times this year that rock has sounded even vaguely dangerous..
    * MP3: "Jesus For The Jugular" - The Veils from Nux Vomica [Buy it]

    23) "The Grass Is Always Greener" - Barbara Morgenstern
    Any music about or referencing San Francisco immediately held my ear this year. But German electronic artist Barbara Morgenstern's title track easily qualifies as the strangest use of the city in song. Since her lyrics are almost all in German, a language I don't speak, I usually treat the words more like pieces of sound than ideas with set meanings. But suddenly, after three verses of uncomprehended communication, she offers, "Wir sind [We are] in San Francisco/ and the streets tell me I shouldn't care." And then, like one sharp pull unraveling a ball of yarn, it all starts to make perfect sense.

    * MP3: "The Grass Is Always Greener" - Barbara Morgenstern from The Grass Is Always Greener [Buy it]

    22) "I Hate The War" - The Ballet
    Based on title alone, it sounds like it'll be another eye-rolling polemic. But the Ballet are too sweet and thoughtful to do anything so straightforward. Instead, they make their point by couching their message in a singalong-ready pop melody and producing a song even the toughest of warmongers will warm to. Maybe we can make some small dent in the disaster if we all sing it together: "It's over, I'm done writing songs about love, there's a war going on/ So... I'm writing a song about war and it goes/ 'Na na na na na na na I hate the war.'"
    * MP3: "I Hate The War" - The Ballet from Mattachine!
    [Buy it]

    21) "Star Witness" - Neko Case
    With Neko Case, it's about gradations of gorgeousness more than successes and failures. "Star Witness" is not only her prettiest song since "I Wish I Was The Moon," but at over five minutes, it also tells the most complete story. It's not easy to parse out the circumstances of this ghetto shooting exactly, but what it lacks in clarity, it more than makes up for with atmosphere and MFA-worthy details. Leave it to Case to turn such an ugly and violent event in one of the most unstoppably gorgeous songs of the year.
    * MP3: "Star Witness" - Neko Case from Fox Confessor Brings The Flood [Buy it]

    20) “To Go Home” – M. Ward
    Paring down Daniel Johnston's song to its essence, M. Ward hits home as much as he goes home. Even as he celebrates the joys of life, he marvels at how it's all going to end. Matching the message, the music is fittingly celebratory and rollicking, but also occasionally punctuated by an intruding sadness. Because, as it knows all too well, the best we can do is make the most of our time before the song ends and the record stops spinning.
    * MP3: "To Go Home" - M. Ward from Post-War [Buy it]

    19) “The Cold Acre” – Augie March
    The heart is a lonely hunter, as we know, as well as being deceitful above all things. But Glenn Richards has a new metaphor to describe that most explored muscle, declaring that his heart is a cold acre. It's a simple line leading off a straightforward chorus, but Richards' wistful delivery and the way he can't bear to let go of syllables give this song a believable gravity. He doesn't just sing about his life lying fallow, but fully mourns the dead space.
    * MP3: "The Cold Acre" - Augie March from Moo You Bloody Choir [Buy it]

    18) “O Mary Don’t You Weep” – Bruce Springsteen

    17) “Did I Step On Your Trumpet?” – Danielson
    From the nonsensical title to the campfire-communal call-and-responses, "Did I Step On Your Trumpet?" is almost too cute. But between its sheer catchiness and Daniel Smith's unironic exuberance, it's also a total joy to listen to. This is music that is unashamedly fun, both for the musicians and the listener. It's also the sound of Danielson refining its songcraft and trading some of its weirdness for accessibility, two steps well worth a celebration.
    * MP3: "Did I Step On Your Trumpet?" - Danielson from Ships [Buy it]

    16) “Returning To The Fold” – The Thermals
    In 2004, I became very politically minded and very angry. I was so concerned about America's standing in the world and our global influence that I spent a lot of time, energy and money to get rid of George Bush. When that didn't work, I felt pretty burned out by the experience, resolving not to get that angry or involved again. Flash forward to August 2006, when I heard The Body, The Blood, The Machine. That old anger came rushing back via Hutch Harris' nasal indictments, of the Christian hegemony, of the copulation of church and state, of the exploitation of faith. "Returning To The Fold" is my favorite moment on the album among many, a hypercharged calling-out packed into power chords and young outrage.
    * MP3: "Returning To The Fold" - The Thermals from The Body, The Blood, The Machine [Buy it]

    15) “Underwater” – Ghostface Killah
    Ghostface slips past the railing and drops into a stream of consciousness. And so his surrealistic imagery gets refreshingly inspired, depicting "mermaids with Halle Berry haircuts flashing they tail," "rubies, diamonds smothered under octopus" and most wonderfully, "Spongebob in a Bentley Coupe bangin' the Isleys." Against the glug-glug soundscape of aquarium water and liquid-like flutes, he swims toward a buried city and even comes up against religious epiphany. With every few words, Ghostface zags into even wilder and more vivid terrain, painting a fantasy that's nothing short of fantastic.
    * MP3: "Underwater" - Ghostface Killah from Fishscale [Buy it]

    14) “All Fires” – Swan Lake
    I don't know if Spencer Krug had Hurricane Katrina in mind when he wrote "All Fires." Either way, he's produced what can be received as one of the most concise (and potentially most oblique) treatments of the tragedy. With Noah's Ark clearly echoing in the lyrics, Krug writes about the aftermath of a flood: "One thousand people did what they could,/ They found a steeple and tore out the wood./ Five hundred pieces means five hundred float,/ One thousand people means five hundred don't." Whatever his muse, I can't help but imagine the stranded people waving at planes from rooftops and stricken faces trapped at the Superdome. I can't help but contend that Krug's penned one of the most poetic and concise illustrations of the haves and have-nots that we have to date.
    * MP3: "All Fires" - Swan Lake from Beast Moans [Buy it]

    13) “The Greatest” – Cat Power
    Ever since I heard this boxer's ode in December 2005 pre-official release, I resolved to remember it for my year-end review thirteen months later. But it proved impossible to forget, as Chan Marshall's broken-down vocals and pained piano accompaniment demanded to be replayed almost daily. The breadth of longing and loss, the in-your-face failures, the greatness of yesterday replaced with the regrets of today all ensure that Cat Power lives up to her eponymous promise.
    * MP3: "The Greatest" - Cat Power from The Greatest [Buy it]

    12) “The Men Are Called Horsemen There” – Sunset Rubdown
    "Oh I speak in tongues," Spencer Krug proudly professes on "Us Ones In Between." There's no better evidence of this than "The Men Are Called Horsemen There," in which he relives a girlfriend's infidelity (!?) by extemporizing on the meaning of caballero and imagining his life as a horse. Yet as he dances around the real issues at stake, he inadvertently reveals even more beautiful tangents, hiding the rawest sentiments ("When someone says 'Fuck me,' someone else says, 'Okay.'") in startling riddles, images and codes ("If I was a horse, I'd have bricks in my mane.") we may never hope to crack.
    * MP3: "The Men Are Called Horsemen There" - Sunset Rubdown from Shut Up I Am Dreaming [Buy it]

    11) “Manhattan ’81” - Talkdemonic
    Talkdemonic's Beat Romantic is a work that deserves to be appreciated in full, each song
    building toward some grander, more magnificent purpose. And yet whenever "Manhattan '81" would come on, I'd fish my MP3 player out of my pocket to figure out which song was on. It happened over and over, at different moments. Sometimes, it was the beguilingly inviting intro. Other times, it was the frail piano ending. But mostly, it was that impossibly warm violin, humming with compassion, hope and so much soaring life that it makes the skyscrapers seem small.
    * MP3: "Manhattan '81" - Talkdemonic from Beat Romantic [Buy it]

    10) “Thin Blue Flame” – Josh Ritter
    Most nine-minute-plus songs are my personal version of The Gong Show. Give me a few false starts and I'm switching on the next playlist offering. "Thin Blue Flame" could've easily received that treatment, as it starts out slowly and ponderously and takes time to reveal its stride. But even before its piano crescendo, striking images start to emerge. There's "a bullfighter on the horns of a new moon's light" and "streets a-swimming with amputees" among so many other vibrant fragments. As the song ramps up and zooms out its wide-lens, its power only accelerates. As it reaches its climactic conclusion, I find myself playing it all over again, just to catch all the great things I missed.

    * MP3: "Thin Blue Flame" - Josh Ritter from The Animal Years [Buy it]

    9) “Paperback Bible” - Lambchop
    * MP3: "Paperback Bible" - Lambchop from Damaged [Buy it]

    8) “In The Music” – The Roots
    I'm not sure if my interpretation of the Roots' "In The Music" is the intended one, but here it is anyway: To start out, Black Thought tackles the looming problem of young, gun-toting thugs in Philly. He condemns their paper-chasing ways and for being "
    all fucked up, tryin' to get the gingerbread/ A few stacks be the price for a nigga head." So far, his approach appears straightforward enough, before he heads into the chorus and switches things up. "It's in the music/ Turn it up, let it knock,/ Let it bang on the block/ Till the neighbors call the cops," he rhymes, turning up the complexity considerably. On the literal level, he's admitting that hip hop is both documenting this lifestyle and feeding it, a simultaneously reflection of the ghetto and a shaper of it. But it also seems, more abstractly, he's comparing the gunfire to a kind of street music, with the constant bang of bullets standing in for the drum beats. Like with overzealous stereo-blaring, people are helpless to control the violence in their neighborhoods, a fact which "the cops ain't gonna do shit" about.

    So Black Thought takes matters into his own hands, following his own advice and getting into the music. He dives headfirst into his own song, switching from sidelined observer to willful participant. In his second verse, he becomes one of the thugs he was previously criticizing, now bragging that "My mind it will spill, my nine it will kill/ Of course, bro, like crossbow/ Hittin' your guts, splittin' your torso." It's a more vivid and alluring look at the banger life, but his about-face raises inevitable questions. Is he now glorifying the behavior he just condemned? Is it really "all in the music" or does it have external consequences? What's the line rappers should draw between biography and persona, responsibility and representation? They're difficult questions for a difficult song, but I do really do believe there's much more to discover "In The Music."

    Note: While doing research for this blurb, I found out that apparently, "In The Music" was actually released as a limited "promo" single. I'm going to keep it on this songs list anyway, because I don't really think that qualifies it for the singles list.

    7) “The Orchids” - Califone
    Simply put, "The Orchids" is an absolute stunner. The only reason it doesn't rank even higher on this list is that its source material, the original version by Psychic TV, is already so great to begin with. But still, Califone's update manages to improve upon it, contributing Tim Rutili's mellow yearning and a slightly psychedelic rustle behind it. A psalm about finding grace in the everyday, Califone's "Orchids" is usually all I need to turn on to find mine.
    * MP3: "The Orchids" - Califone from Roots and Crowns [Buy it]

    6) “Post-War” – M. Ward
    I'm not sure if I've ever heard a song shimmer before, but M. Ward has made it happen. It's the first day of peace after an endless battle. The sun is freckling a quiet ocean with spots of gold; the wind is whispering against your neck. Things have been wrong for such a long time, but suddenly, all of that feels irrevelant and faraway. A sense of overwhelming peace sweeps over you, followed by a even greater surge of hope. And above all, the scene does that aforementioned shimmering. The sand is glowing, the water is beaming, the sky is radiating light. With "Post-War," M. Ward proves himself not just a songwriter but also quite the able spellcaster.
    * MP3: "Post-War" - M. Ward from Post-War [Buy it]

    5) “Buzz Saw” – Xiu Xiu
    Jamie Stewart has never made for easy listening, but his quiver that opens The Air Force especially dares you to flinch. Stewart already sounds debased and abandoned from the first word. He's already discussing bondage by the second line. But after the timid have turned back, what follows is a complex exploration of love and fetishism. Daniella wants to get hurt without getting hurt; her more experienced partner is too caught up in self-hatred to notice her needs. And yet for someone who claims to be so cruel, he may really care a lot about her after all. Set to appropriately jarring music, it makes for a twisted tale involving more knots than their sexual acts.

    * MP3: "Buzz Saw" - Xiu Xiu from The Air Force [Buy it]

    4) “Dress Up In You” – Belle & Sebastian
    Fittingly, "Dress Up In You," a song about people not fitting in, is itself a bit of an outcast on the sunshine-rich The Life Pursuit. The song is more fragile and less poppy, with a sound closer to an If You're Feeling Sinister outtake. Much like Neko Case's "Margaret vs. Pauline," it's the tale of two girls on two completely different social strata, and the feelings that inequality dredges up. Stuart Murdoch captures their simultaneous love and rivalry exactly, with generously lovely asides and knowing descriptions. And yet as precise as his lyrics are, it may be the trumpet solos that steal the show, as untouchably amazing as the famous, more successful friend.

    * MP3: "Dress Up In You" - Belle & Sebastian from The Life Pursuit [Buy it]

    3) “Living In Sin In The USA” – Oakley Hall
    There are, what, a million female singers out there today? And yet "Living In Sin In the USA" has long stood as my favorite female vocal moment of the year. Rachel Cox sinks everything she has into it, her delivery overflowing with excitement and energy and joy. She transforms what could have been an average song into a lovely paean, a humble anthem and a soul-stirring call-to-arms. When I saw it performed this summer, it became even better and more moving, a song about life's wild detours that actually brings you to life.
    * MP3: "Living In Sin In The USA" - Oakley Hall from Gypsum Strings [Buy it]

    2) “Dry” – William Elliott Whitmore
    Good God, that voice. It's so unaffected and oracular, digging up dusty truths like crops from the soil. Whitmore came to my attention only in the last few months, but his voice is already one of my favorites. It's on no better display than "Dry," a song that aches with life and experience. And yet, his vocal abilities are only one thing that make the song so remarkable. There's also the strum of a respecfully mournful banjo, an instrument that perfectly matches him, and his sharp, careful writing which yields so many wonders. Even when the parched earth has no more to give, this song continue to provide.

    * MP3: "Dry" - William Elliott Whitmore from Song of the Blackbird [Buy it]

    1) “Us Ones In Between” – Sunset Rubdown
    All in all, 2006 was a dark year. There was the deterioration of Iraq, there was the deterioration of Darfur, there was the nuclear race and Kevin Federline's rap career. It seemed like most of my favorite music this year was soft-spoken and sadness-tinged, and my favorite song is no exception. "Us Ones In Between" is an elegy for all the people caught in the crossfire, torn apart and cast aside. Remarkably empathetic but never maudlin, Spencer Krug mourns the half-innocent, half-guilty middle so well because he's standing there among us. In a startling verse, he remarks, "And I've heard of creatures who eat their babies/ I wonder if they stop to think about the taste." Then later, he includes himself in the carnage, emoting, "So when you eat me/ Mother and baby/ Oh, baby, mother me before you eat me." In a year that saw a lot of blood and a lot of irrevocable damage, "Us Ones In Between" is the most humanistic, the most humane and ultimately the most human response I've heard.
    * MP3: "Us Ones In Between" - Sunset Rubdown from Shut Up I Am Dreaming [Buy it]