countless hours of listening, head-scratching, sorting, writing, re-writing, and this is all you've got to show for it? (or a better question--are YOU really going to read all this?) my superfriends and i will soon join our powers for a composite list of 15 unquestionably awesome 2006 albums, but in the meantime here, in the great 5-year long tradition of musical nerdery of matt and i, are my favorite records of 2006. without further ado, the list:
10 Califone, Roots & Crowns
It’s probably mostly because I haven’t read much about this band or this album, but I can’t understand why this album isn’t more often (and favorably) compared to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Like that album, Roots & Crowns sees Califone with one foot firmly planted in folk and dusty, brittle singer/songwriter stylistic traditions while bravely stepping off with the other foot into uncharted and experimental production values and sonic textures. Far from a spin-off of YHF, though, this album has its own sound, its own textures, and its own thematic concerns—its own identity. It’s hard to imagine the lazy horns of “Spiders House” and the electric energy of “A Chinese Actor” and the slow aching beauty of “The Orchids” appearing together on any album from this or any other year.
Highlights: Spiders House, A Chinese Actor, The Orchids
09 Peter Bjorn and John, Writer’s Block
I nearly missed this album. It didn’t immediately grab me, and I’d nearly tossed it aside when Aaron told me a favorite lyric from “Objects Of My Affection”: “And the question is was I more alive than I am now? / I happily had to disagree. / I laugh more often now, I cry more often now. / I am more me.” That seemed to me to be a pretty good lyric, and it was talking about a lot more depth and melancholy nostalgia than I’d heard on my first trips through the album. I went back and listened a little more closely, and I discovered that the entire album was written with the same sentiment, the same earnest reflection and depth, and a surprising wisdom. What I’d dismissed as a lack of content was actually evidence of great subtlety and restraint and brave writing and production. Suddenly the fancy percussion and whispery, reverb-drenched vocals were the finishing touches on perfect pop songs and not just interesting accoutrements attached to a collection of several intervals of four empty minutes, and suddenly I was hearing a really great, smartly written, and expertly produced pop record so subtle I nearly missed it altogether.
Highlights: Objects Of My Affection, Young Folks, Amsterdam
08 Ratatat, Classics
On their second album, Ratatat broaden their scope, widen their sound, and make another fantastic record of hip-hop tinged beats and stadium-sized near-metal hooks. This album has a few more mid-tempo numbers on it, which is probably part of the reason it wasn’t as giddily received as the debut, but the slower songs here are better than the ones on Ratatat, and the jams this time are just as towering and danceable. The biggest difference between the two albums, though, is the layers and intricacy of Classics. Each song feels a bit more carefully planned (and perhaps unfortunately a bit less spontaneous), with a few more ideas packed into the corners, and develops a little more slowly. If this sounds like a bad thing check out the swirling guitars in “Lex” or the low-end moves in “Wildcat” or the funky shuffle in “Loud Pipes” and be assured that, although they’re "just" an instrumental band, Ratatat has enough ideas and willingness to experiment for more than one undeniably excellent album.
Highlights: Lex, Loud Pipes, Tacobel Canon
07 The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America
How does an album aping a musical icon I never really loved, celebrating a reckless adolescent existence I never lived nor wanted to live, and lifting lines from Steinbeck novels (for the title, no less!) get me to turn my stereo up too loud and jump around my bedroom working up a sweat on my air guitar? One word: RAWK. Marshalls stacked probably two stories high play classic rock riffs like it’s 1975, Craig Finn gets pretty close to actually singing a few times, and the band only slows up to catch its breath twice in the whole 40 minute onslaught (and the ballads are actually good enough that you don’t skip ahead to keep your heart rate up). If you can sit still during the bridge/breakdown of “Stuck Between Stations” or that awesome towering chorus on “Southtown Girls” you were probably complaining about “that awful noise” when Springsteen wrote the spiritual ancestors of these songs 30 years ago. And that almost makes you old enough to be dead, so maybe that’s why you’re not rocking out in your bedroom like me.
Highlights: Stuck Between Stations, Chips Ahoy!, Chillout Tent
06 Sonic Youth, Rather Ripped
When I heard Sonic Youth’s new album was going to be composed of shorter songs than their usual, I was worried they were going to sacrifice some element of their makeup that I really liked. For being a departure in their approach to songwriting, though, Rather Ripped sounds remarkably like a SY album. The shorter songs don’t result in less of the explosions of guitars that I’ve always loved—they’re simply more concentrated. The more traditional song structures give the songs a more compact, explosive feeling, like if you squeezed a million liters of hydrogen into a pop bottle and then threw a match on it. In place of the long drawn-out feedback sequences of previous records, here we have more focused and economical playing—each note feels more important, each crescendo more carefully placed and paced. And yet even in this context they still find space for moments of expansive beauty like the “why won’t you show me what’s inside?” post-chorus sigh in “The Neutral” without making it feel rushed or squeezed. It’s not Sonic Youth lite, it’s Sonic Youth dense.
Highlights: Do You Believe In Rapture?, Turquoise Boy, The Neutral
05 Band of Horses, Everything All the Time
Why do people say “that guy sounds like My Morning Jacket” like it’s a bad thing? Jim James or James Mercer hardly invented the style, and besides that, we should probably be thinking of singing like this as more of an ideal to strive for than an affectation to fake. And anyway this album’s success does not depend on the extent to which Ben Bridwell sounds like Mike Love or your favorite soulful brass-colored vocalist, but rather on whether or not the band brings it and if the lyrics and melody can support the emotional weight Bridwell instills in every note. In the slow-burning, crystalline opener, in the “I’m yours!” release of “Wicked Gil”, and in pretty much every syllable in “The Funeral”, the answer is a resounding, fist-pumping, exclamation point-laden yes. Yeah, this album sort of trails off on the back half, and maybe those acoustic ballads sound a bit like…those acoustic ballads, but this fact never stopped me from putting this on every time I wanted to hear something raw and powerful. Albums like this remind me that flashy ideas or even great playing skills are not requisite to making a great rock record—Band of Horses just play like they mean it and believe it, and I believe it, too.
Highlights: Our Swords, The Funeral, Great Salt Lake
04 Fujiya & Miyagi, Transparent Things
But they were just pretending to be Japanese! Not only is the sonic approach here relatively simple, it’s also been done before (a lot)—why do I flip out every time I hear it? Well, let’s see. There’s the head-tipping beats, the busy bass locking in the backbeat, the thin guitars skittering along on top, the occasionally non-sensical and scatter-brained lyrics coolly spoke-sung, and there’s the warm, warm synths, flawlessly placed in just the right amount in those big gaping holes of sound, like filling a nice sponge cake with a good cup of cream. Mmm…that’s a tasty sonic confection! But more than the individual ingredients, it’s the group’s grasp of the overall feel of their songs and their carefully layered builds and climaxes that send the album’s best moments straight through the stratosphere and into orbit, bringing me right along for the ride.
Highlights: Ankle Injuries, Transparent Things, Cylinders
03 Islands, Return to the Sea
Nick Diamonds returns to make another playground of sound in which to sing songs about love and death and demons and the end of the world. To say no one writes a pop song quite like him is to stake an early claim for the lead in your high school’s big production of “Captain Obvious: The Understatement” next year (break a leg, buddy!). I suppose I’m probably in the minority, but I like this work better than Unicorns—it’s still a little off-kilter, but the production is more advanced, the arrangements more accomplished, the songwriting at once more focused and just as playful. At times it seems the band set out to prove there’s nothing they can’t pull off: creepy spooky hip-hop song? “Where There’s A Will There’s A Whale-Bone”. Sunny Graceland “doo doo doo doo” sing-along moments? “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby”. Synth-pop freakout with solid gold payoff closing verse? “Rough Gem”, anyone? I could go on, but suffice it to say there isn’t a misstep on the whole album—this is a perfect collection of imperfect pop songs.
Highlights: Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby, Rough Gem, Jogging Gorgeous Summer
02 Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Neko Case’s voice is so velvety smooth and powerfully sexy, so smoky and sultry, so volatile and versatile that President Bush actually considered asking her to sing his State of the Union address this year so it would be more positively received. (He changed his mind when he found out she’s Canadian. That’s the last thing America needs!) While it’s probably true that Case’s voice could save even a terrible song from hard drive deletion (is there a more ignominious fate for 4 MB of music in this day and age?), the songs here are haunting stories of death at the mouths of wolves and dirty oil pans, of dead loves or lost loves (and fingers), of crazy gospel characters and the apocolypse. They are in other words the perfect setting for Case’s considerable vocal mastery and uncanny knack for subtle expression. The instruments know exactly how to behave, giving the perfect touch of tension (and terror!) to lines like “and the blood runs crazy / with a giant’s strides / and the woodsman failed to breach those fangs in time / so they dragged him through the underbrush / wearing three winter coats and a dirty knife”. If Bush doesn’t change his mind maybe she should look into singing Jack London stories.
Highlights: Margaret vs. Pauline, John Saw That Number, The Needle Has Landed
01 TV On The Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain
Allow me to dispense with all the superlatives for just a second. This album is my favorite of the year because from the busted brass horn samples of “I Was A Lover” until the freak-out fuzz bass dies out in “Wash the Day Away”, it just doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve ever heard before. It’s not like they invented a new genre in the quest to sound unique—this is rock and roll, but twisted up, turned inside out, stretched, squeezed, and cranked to 11. Tunde Adebimpe’s voice and harmonies, as on previous records, are their own incredible entity, capable of carrying conviction, creepiness, and an overwhelming sense of urgency at the same time. Dave Sitek’s production and waves of guitar noise are nearly impenetrable, and the rhythm section has so many rhythms and ideas happening it sounds like they recorded two trap sets, each manned by cloned vishnus. And sonically the album is all over the map—the open, soaring harmonies of “Blues From Down Here”, the driving 4/4 rock of “Wolf Like Me”, the handclaps and garbage can percussion of “A Method”…and so on. Since the very first listen, this album has continued to captivate and enthrall me, providing equal measures of close-eyed cerebral challenge and fist-pumping visceral pleasure.
Highlights: Wolf Like Me, A Method, Blues From Down Here