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]