Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Best Music of 2006

Okay, it says "The Best" up there, but that's obviously not what I mean. I can only really give a fair listen to 1 or 2 CD's a week, to be honest. I'm typically listening to music while engaged in other activities, so I don't ever give new albums my full attention until I'm certain that I really like them. And it takes me about 4 or 5 listens to get into anything enough to have a considered opinion.

So this is my favorite music of the year, considering what a small fraction of the total music released in my favored genres I had the opportunity to really hear. In light of this caveat, I'm going to start with a list of great music that came out last year that I didn't get to listen to until 2006.


The National, Alligator

I chose Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine as my favorite album of 2005, and I still think it's really good. But I listen to Alligator songs about 4 times as often, judging by my mp3 player's statistics. Just an incredibly dense, epic collection of hard rock songs. I first heard the record in Jaunary of this year (it was on a ton of music blogger's Top Ten list) and I still discover new little flourishes in the songs that I never noticed before. I also really dig the cryptic lyrics. Many of the songs are addressed to a woman named Karen, which leads you to believe that there's some narrative going on, but if so, I haven't been able to piece anything together. Just a lot of strange imagery and fragmented memories. But man, this thing is extremely listenable, moody and compelling.

Okkervil River, Black Sheep Boy

Listening to this record is like having a strange, overnight conversation with someone you just met recently about their horrific, scarring childhood and recent efforts at emotional recovery. It's inspiring and beautiful, but also wrenching. Sometimes, honestly, Will Sheff and Tim Hardin's raw honestly and confessional tone gets overbearing. Perhaps I just identify and sympathize with the notion of unrequited love, a theme to which the album returns again and again, but the urgently half-screamed vocals sometimes get int he way of the lean, bouncy songs themselves. But they are terrific songs, particularly the standout (and the album's lone single), "Black."

Wolf Parade, Apologies to the Queen Mary

How could I have missed this album last year? Everyone was talking about it, I remember hearing the name over and over again, and they first got noticed opening for fellow Canucks Arcade Fire. I think I had it confused with Wolf Eyes, maybe. I don't know why that would cause me to avoid hearing them, because I haven't heard Wolf Eyes either, but there you go. Anyway, this album's awesomely weird, full of spazzy energy and even kind of funny at times. The song "Modern World" still gets stuck in my head all the time, but in that good way.

John Vanderslice, Pixel Revolt

I'm only now getting around to listening to John Vanderslice's albums, which are incredibly subtle, atmospheric, lilting affairs full of ambiguous little sung stories. For some reason, this album reminds me of one of Bowie and Brian Eno's collaborations, even though it sounds nothing like those. Maybe it's the willingness to drift within the songs, the use of tape loops and keyboards. Hell, I don't know. I just heard "Trance Manual" once on the satellite radio and became hooked.

Okay, so bear all that in mind. Plenty of great music does not appear on this list because of my own blind ignorance.

Moving on...


20. Mew, And the Glass-Handed Kites

A bunch of Danes who play '80s metal ballads unironically. It's peculiar that I like this music, because I'm not really that into the music it's directly inspired by, but there you have it.

(Watch the video for "Zookeeper's Boy" off the album on YouTube.)

19. Cadence Weapon, Breaking Kayfabe

This Canadian rapper was the big hip-hop find for me this year. Really unusual beats teamed with convoluted, insightful rhymes that mix contemporary and old-school pop culture references (MySpace gets mentioned more than once) with sometimes baffling absurdity. The overall effect kind of reminds me of Aesop Rock, but Cadence's album is more smooth and stands up better to repeat listens.

(Download single "Black Hand" here.)

18. Peter Bjorn and John, Writer's Block

As the name suggests, these are three guys from Stockholm who write perfect, cozy little folk rock songs. I usually hate songs with whistling, but these guys pull it off. Now that Belle and Sebastian have imploded into cutsieness on a Care Bearsian level, Peter Bjorn and John have seemingly come along to carry the mantle of listenable, restrained twee Northern European pop.

Here's the video for "Young Folks," one of the very best songs I've heard all year.

17. Lily Allen, Alright Still

My friend Nathan confessed to me the other day that he's been digging on Lily Allen's girl-power raps secretly for a while now. I assured him that he wasn't alone; I too was won over by the sheer poptastic joy of lead single "LDN," in which Lily walks around London and notes how everyone is gross and full of shit. All the tracks share this flip, surprisingly hostile attitude, married to unbelievably bouncy, summery melodies and catchy hooks.

Here's "Smile," Lily's first music video:

16. Joanna Newsom, Ys

It's not possible to pick up everything that's going on lyrically in one of the five epic-lengthed songs on Ms. Newsom's record just by listening. You get wrapped up in the music and then forget to pay close attention to everything she's singing, and before you know it, the complex tangle of metaphors and allusions have slipped through your fingers. It's like trying to read abstract poetry with music turned up really loud. I'm not always in the mood for complicated, subtle singer-songwriter material like this, particularly when sung in Newsom's Kate Bushian (and occasionally Joni Mitchell-esque) wail, but there's no denying the power and emotional weight of some of these songs.

(Download "Monkey and Bear" here from My Old Kentucky Blog)

15. Swan Lake, Beast Moans

2/3 of Swan Lake will appear later on in this list in different bands. You'd expect that a supergroup like this would add up to something greater than the sum of its parts, but it didn't really happen that way. Rather than playing like a collaborative effort between Dan Bejar, Spencer Krug and Carey Mercer, it feels like a shared B-Side collection. Now, as shared B-Side collections go, this one is pretty kickass. But still, nothing else on the album lives up to the potential of advance single "All Fires," another one of my favorite songs this year.

(Check out Swan Lake on MySpace here)

14. Tapes n' Tapes, The Loon

These guys sound a lot like Pavement. Now, the way I see it, that's a good thing. There isn't a Pavement any more, and though Stephen Malkmus is still making some interesting music, I don't like it as much as I like classic Pavement. So I'm alright with a new band coming along that sounds a lot like Pavement and writes old-school-sounding Pavement songs. I'm not sure if they're going to be able to keep this up forever, but it's good enough for #14 in 2006.

Here's the video for one of the best tracks on the album, "Cowbell":

13. Bob Dylan, Modern Times

Let's face it - even a bad Bob Dylan album is better than anything most bands will ever produce. Fortunately, this is a pretty solid Dylan album, a mix between some original compositions and reworkings of some standards, all of them infused with a old-fashioned blues and rockabilly sound and Bob's iconic snark. As the title implies, he makes a conscious effort to update his language and throw in some contemporary references, and it comes off pretty well for the most part, considering the guy's age. (For all you haters who dislike Old Fart Rock, I swear this album is really good...Pitchfork gave it an 8.3!)

12. Neil Young, Living With War

Had to give Neil the leg-up in this particular fogey-off, because his record was so vital and timely. Likewise, along with the more mellow Prairie Wind last year, Living With War represents such a comeback after years of merely adequate, mediocre releases. (Does anyone really still listen to Greendale? And let's just forget Are You Passionate?, if possible.) The album was sold on the back of "Let's Impeach the President," but that's probably the weakest track. Fiery anthems like "The Restless Consumer" and "Flags of Freedom" represent not only welcome anti-Bush political statements, but the best straight-up guitar rock Young's recorded since the '70s.

Here's Neil hilariously facing a CNN reporter from April of this year who attacked him as unpatriotic:

11. Ghostface Killah, Fishscale

There's not much I can say about this album that other writers who speak more eloquently about hip-hop have not already said. Tony Stark dares to say what the rest of us are only thinking. Namely, that a kilo represents 1,000 grams and that this is easy to remember. The vivid storytelling that just seems to tumble, free-form, out of the guy makes for the best solo Wu-Tang effort since GZA's Liquid Swords. (At least, of the one's I've heard. I'm sure several have slipped by me unnoticed.)

10. Voxtrot/Cold War Kids/Professor Murder, EPs

Totally, totally cheating. Three different EP's from three different bands congeal into a single slot on a 10 Best Albums of the Year list? It makes no sense at all. You might as well disregard the whole post. But the thing is, I burned these three EP's on a single CD together, and so I got used to listening to them together, and it seemed unfair to leave them off since I listened the fuck out of them all year. Voxtrot's "Mothers, Sisters, Daughters and Wives" is definitely one of the catchiest indie pop songs of 2006, a fuzz-rock throwback that recalls Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, or Dinosaur Jr. if they were fronted by Steve Perry. Cold War Kids' best songs are little mini-narratives built into gloomy, atmospheric piano ballads. And Professor Murder, in addition to being named after a hilarious "Mr. Show" reference, have released a tightly-coiled, spastic little EP that reminds me of early Liars. Back when they released music I could actually listen to.

(Download Voxtrot's "Mothers, Sisters, Daughters & Wives" here)

09. Starlight Mints, Drowaton

The first song I heard from this album was "Seventeen Devils," which is a near-exact replica of a Hunky Dory-era Bowie song. I expected the whole album to sound like that, but instead it's more traditional Brit Rock. The band's not British. They come from Oklahoma City. But the album nevertheless reminds me of The Kinks and The Beatles, particularly the sugary pop confection "Inside of Me."

(Download "Inside of Me" here.)

08. Midlake, The Trials of Van Occupanther

Quite possibly my favorite song of the year, "Roscoe," kicks off Midlake's ode to '70s country rock. It's a bit uneven, and occasionally descends into an almost-unforgivable Fleetwood Mac-ism, but Midlake successfully resurrects the spirit of CSNY on most of the genial Southern rock songs. I actually prefer the slower tracks to the more jammy rockers, particularly the title track, a graceful, quiet ballad that's the album's centerpiece.

Here's the video for "Young Bride," which is the first single from the album even though it's one of the weaker tracks:

07. Hot Chip, The Warning

I saw these guys play earlier this year at the Troubadour, and almost caught myself moving in time with the music. That would be a major develop for me, as I don't so much dance as arhythmically sway when at concerns. But what else are you going to do when presented with a juggernaut of groove like "Over and Over"? Nothing? I suppose that's what Los Angeles decorum subscribes for such a situation, now that I think about it. After all, genuine celebrities were rumored to be present!

See for yourself! Here's the video for "Over and Over":

06. Man Man, Six Demon Bag

Man Man take the experimental, gravelly noise-rock sound of Captain Beefheart and Tom Waits and transform it, using flying and magic, into something I can actually listen to. Now, that's not a knock on Mssrs Waits and Van Vliet. It's a knock on my stupid brain for not being able to get them. (Also, Frank Zappa.) But I can dig the hell out of Man Man's whacked-out meta-soul. A word of warning: These songs get stuck in your head, but you should be careful walking around singing them to yourself, because it starts to sound like demonic chanting. The other day, I caught myself humming "You should always run/With a loaded gun in your mouth." Weird...

(Check out a song and video from the album at Hate Something Beautiful)

05. Thom Yorke, Eraser

Not a huge surprise for anyone familiar with my tastes, I suppose. As of this moment, I actually prefer Thom's solo effort to the last Radiohead album, though this is subject to change at any time. The spare electronic sound carried over from Kid A and Amnesiac just suits his new songs better than the more thunderous, guitar-heavy sound of Hail to the Thief. "Harrowdown Hill," "The Clock" and "Black Swan," the last of which is featured in the film A Scanner Darkly, are the standout tracks.

Here's the music video for "Harrowdown Hill":

04. Silversun Pickups, Carnavas

This album from local heroes The Silversun Pickups takes me right back to high school. It recalls the golden era of The Breeders and Smashing Pumpkins (namely, the Siamese Dream era). For some reason, the music you listen to at age 15 becomes the template for all other music. This kind of rock sounds right to me, immediately accessible. I knew all the words by the third listen. Back in my day, we'd have called it alternative, and then immediately declared that this categorization was stupid, because what is it alternative to?

Here's the video for he bestest song on the whole album, "Well Thought Out Twinkles":

03. Sunset Rubdown, Shut Up I Am Dreaming

So, yeah, I missed the boat on Wolf Parade last year, but this aggressive, spacey headtrip from WP keyboardist Spencer Krug is even better, more soulful and sophisticated. The stomping alien march of "They Took a Vote and Said No" will probably always remind me of 2006 from here on out, and "Stadiums and Shrines II" builds to a frenzied, hyperactive finish that's practically exhausting. There's something eerie about these songs that stuck with me after a few listens. In "The Empty Threats of Little Lord," Krug warns "If I ever hurt you/It will be in self-defense" before practically whimpering "If you ever come at me/I'll hurt you." It's wounded and direct, sort of like Neutral Milk Hotel or Arcade Fire. (High praise indeed).

The band performs "They Took a Vote and Said No" live in Chicago:

02. Destroyer, Destroyer's Rubies

Dan Bejar, whom I knew previously only from his contributions to New Pornographers albums, really blew me away this year with his collection of hallucinatory Dylan-esque story-songs. It's hard to pick a favorite out of so many creative, unpredictable ballads, each with its own unique voice and personality, but you really can't fade the cynical, sardonic treatise "Looter's Follies," that concludes "and win/or lose/what's the difference?." It takes a little while to get used to Bejar's plaintive wail, but like Dylan's nasally whine and Neil Young's signature croak, the flaws are what make his vocals distinctive. This came out early in the year and I still listen to it all the time. Maybe I'll feel silly a year from now, but this feels like a perennial favorite in the making.

(Download "Painter in Your Pocket" here, with props to Largehearted Boy)

01. TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain

TV on the Radio make music that's so bold and idiosyncratic, I imagine it being transmitted to our time from 20, 30 years in the future. No one else is making a sound anywhere close to this. From Tunde Adebimpe's Peter Gabriel-by-way-of-Mickey Mouse vocals to the droning tape loops, listening to this album is an involving, disorienting experience unto itself. I've been a fan since their first EP, the majestic Young Liars, but this album represents a great leap forward for TV on the Radio as a band (not to mention a brand!). The aggressive "Wolf Like Me" and the mournful "I Was a Lover" (whose mournful horns make it the most cathartic, melancholy song in the band's catalog) start the record off on an incredible high point, and it still manages to build in intensity. The band's getting some deserved commercial attention from this record, which is impressive enough for material this difficult and non-traditional, but it's above all else a great creative achievement, easily one of the best rock albums of the decade thus far.

Behold! The suitably cinematic music video for "Wolf Like Me":


"Police Sweater Blood Vow," The Fiery Furnaces (from Bitter Tea)
"Master of None," Beach House (download here from the band's website)
"You Know My Name," Chris Cornell (from the Casino Royale soundtrack)
"When I Am Gone," Sparrow House (download here courtesy of Gorilla vs. Bear)
"Down to Rest," O'death (download here through the beauty of MySpace)
"More is Enough," Epic Man feat. Plan B (download here courtesy of Good Weather for Airstrikes)
"Complete or Completing," The Annuals (from Be He Me)
"Drunk by Noon," Birdie Busch (from The Ways We Try)
"Smiling Faces," Gnarls Barkley (one of only two listenable songs from St. Elsewhere)
"Calling Thermatico," Centro-Matic (from Fort Recovery)
"I Spread the Disease," Black Fiction (download here)
"Frozen Feet," Tacks the Boy Disaster (download here on music blog 5Acts)
"Deathhands," White Flight (download here courtesy of Said the Gramophone)
"Your Kisses Are Wasted on Me," The Pipettes (from We Are the Pipettes)
"Funeral," Band of Horses (download here)
"Louisiana," The Walkmen (from One Hundred Miles Off)
"Wrong Choice," The Lovely Feathers (from Hind Hind Legs)
"Postcards from Italy," Beirut (download here)
"Springtime Can Kill You," Jolie Holland (download here)


There was a lot of great music this year, but there were also a surprising amount of disappointments. Several of my favorite artists released highly disappointing new material. I assumed, before the year began, that most of these records would be on my Best of the Year list. Instead, newer artists pretty much took the place of veterans who weren't getting the job done.

Beck, The Information

This was okay for a few listens, but I got tired of it very fast. I think most people probably felt this way about Guero last year, but it's just hitting me now...I'm starting to get tired of Beck's Odelay-era sound, which he has come to rely on with increasing frequency. I never thought it would happen, but there you have it.

Flaming Lips, At War With the Mystics

The Lips slip into self-parody when they try to recapture the magic of The Soft Bulletin, clearly their best-ever release. Seriously, listen to "The No No No Song," the first track on this album, and tell me it doesn't sound like a send-up of a loopy, pseudo-metaphysical Wayne Coyne song. The songs are flat and uninteresting, the lyrics increasingly silly and juvenile and there's an unplesant insincerity I started to detect as the album went on. Every Lips album has had its share of childish, pedestrian sub-philosophy, granted, but it was always heartfelt - more about the tactile experience of encountering the Great Unknowns than a serious discussion of their ramifications. Songs like "Vein of Stars," "It Overtakes Me" and "W.A.N.D." feel like hollow imitations in comparison, the band going through the motions because they've finally found a formula that connects with mainstream audiences.

The Decemberists, The Crane Wife

I feel reprehensibly indie turning on Colin Meloy & Co. just as they begin releasing albums on a major label, but what can I say? I really don't like this bloated, rambling concept album. Great Decemberist songs compress storybook historical narratives into catchy little 4 minute packages. The Crane Wife songs tend towards 6-8 minute repetitive slogs. There are a few exceptions - "Yankee Bayonet" and "O Valencia" are great songs in the classic D'rists tradition - but this represents a significant step down from Picaresque, the band's previous and arguably best album to date. I can't even listen to the Hall & Oates-esque whiteboy soul number "The Perfect Crime" because it makes me personally embarrassed for the band.

Built to Spill, You in Reverse

This sucks. Built to Spill's Keep It Like a Secret is probably one of my favorite rock albums. I love these guys. I started liking them after seeing them play a free show on the UCLA Campus when I was a wee little freshman there. Their previous album was disappointing, but nothing could prepare me for the soulless shell of the band on display on You in Reverse. They just sound bored. I hate to say it, but as Phish learned a few years back, if a wan, half-assed effort is all you can put together after several years on hiatus, it may be time to hang it up for good.

The Islands, Return to the Sea

The Unicorns broke up after one ingenious album, the strange and unwieldy Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone. Then, two of the three members of that band got back together and started releasing similar-sounding singles as The Islands. (Well, okay, first they formed a hip-hop/rock combo called Th' Corn Gangg, but that turned out to be short-lived.) These early singles, which included my favorite album track, "Rough Gem," were great, and I was eagerly anticipating the album, but it just doesn't come together. The Unicorns album had around 3 terrific hooks per song, but this new one kind of ambles around for a while, occasionally picking up tempo for a minute before backing off and returning to grim, death-obsessed meandering. It doesn't hold my attention for more than a song or two.

Grandaddy, Just Like the Fambly Cat

2006 was kind of a victory lap for Grandaddy, who announced they were breaking up at the beginning of the year. So it's pretty mean-spirited of me to put them on this list now that they don't even exist any more. But fuck it, this album's no good at all and I used to really like this guys. It's almost as if songwriter Jason Lytle intentionally released a dull, dreary album full of songs about how he doesn't like writing songs any more, so fans wouldn't mind seeing his band exit as much. If so, well played.

As large music conglomerates fade further and further into total insignificance, the industry-fueled hype machine became an increasingly less reliable indicator of exciting new talent. In past years, you could at least count on extremely "buzzy" new acts to stand out in some way. Instead, a lot of music received months upon months of feverishly excited prose only to land with a total thud in the marketplace. Which was the more hotly-anticipated disappointment: Gnarls Barkley's limp St. Elsewhere or The Raconteur's ridiculously inane Broken Boy Soldiers? Whose major label debut ignited less fervent enthusiasm: Morningwood or We Are Scientists? Can we ever trust the British again after The Arctic Monkeys? Aren't The Killers, in fact, far worse than Paris Hilton as recording artists, because while she understands that "Stars Are Blind" is retarded disposable pop entertainment designed with only marketing and profit in mind, those idiots think they're speaking for their generation?

And there's one album I'd like to single out, if I may. For the first three months of this year, I read endless (endless!) online raves about Danielson and his new album, Ships, which was to be a soaring epic and blah blah blah. This was the guy behind Danielson Famile, a Christian rock collective that previously gave us Sufjan Stevens. So, okay, yes, it's faith-based rock, but I tried not to hold that against them. (I like Page France, and a lot of their songs are about how much Jesus likes the little children. "A whole lot," in case you're interested.)

So I gave Ships a chance...and it's one of the most excruciating things I've ever heard. Not because of any Christianity. It's just obnoxious and random. There are a few reasonably catchy, okay songs right at the front - particularly "Did I Step on Your Trumpet" - but then it quickly descends into intermittedly quiet and then noisy blather. This is sound, not music. A typical song will have a few notes played on a piano followed by a lot of silence, then Daniel Smith singing one or two words, then more silence, then another note, then one more word. The effect is a lot like being partially deaf and underwater in an inflatable pool on the floor of your high school gymnasium while the glee club does their vocal exercizes. The whole album fills me with an inexplicable urge to beat the fuck out of a Seventh Day Adventist.


Tom Bailey said...

"The whole album fills me with an inexplicable urge to beat the fuck out of a Seventh Day Adventist."

Wow, can you be any crueler. What did they do to hurt you?

Lons said...

Okay, see, Tom, two things that you missed. (1) It's a joke. See, I hated this one Christian rock album, so then I commented that it made me want to hurt an obscure sect of Christians. (2) I used the term "inexplicable" specifically because the Seventh Day Adventists did nothing whatsoever to me, thus I have no good rational reason to want to hurt one of them. If I had been wronged by a Seventh Day Adventist, my urge to beat them up would be highly explicable.

Anonymous said...

have you heard yellow house yet? if not, give it a good listen, if you have, listen again. 4 real

Lons said...

Haven't heard Yellow House, but I will definitely check it out. Thanks for the recommendation.

GimmeDaWatch said...

Word. I just picked up Wolf Parade's album again last week, and all of a sudden Im digging the shit out of it. I think the problem previously was that, unlike most albums, theirs has a much stronger 2nd half than 1st half, so before I was getting too impatient to keep up the listens. Also, there is no "secret" with me regarding Lily Allen, I tell anyone who will listen but of course they think Im joking or dont believe me. My roommate Matt believes me b/c he's heard me play "Friend of Mine" on my computer 40 times in 3 days. Also, "Eraser" better than "Hail to the Thief"? Reallllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllly? Guess most people dont like HTTT as much as me. And yes, "Drowaton" does have some ridic catchy moments, Blur and Kinks all the way. "What's Inside of Me" is more or less the tits. Im still not tired of Man Man. ALBUM OF THE YEAR!!!

Lons said...

So I've checked out a couple of tracks from the Grizzly Bear album (the aforementioned "Yellow House"), and the Anonymous Person wasn't lying...Look for it on my "Oh Shit I Fucked Up The 2006 List" post approximately one year from now.

Lons said...

Oh, and also, everybody click on Tom Bailey's name above to check out his hilarious Power of Positive Thinking self-help circle jerk of a website. Hi-larity.

Steve said...

I have very little to say, but whenever a blog I'm reading mentions Neil Young in any context I am powerless to resist commenting. I'm kind of mentally ill that way.

Also, I thought Are You Passionate had its strong points. And the weakest track on Living With War - the moment, mandatory on all Young albums, that makes you embarrassed on his behalf - is "America the Beautiful". But yeah, most of the tracks on there are better than "Impeach the President".

Jonathan said...

I have not yet finished my Best Music of 2006 list yet as there are still a few things I hope to listen to before year's end. At the appropriate time, however, I will post my own list. If you could be so kind January 1st as to write a brief music post so that I can comment on it. Or maybe I'll just stick it along with my Best Movies of 2006 comment, which I will be write around the same time.

Lons said...

Or, Jon, just e-mail them to me and I'll give them their own post.

(This goes for any other regular readers as well. If you have 2006 Lists, send them along and I'll post them.)

Anonymous said...

Jesus loves you, but the rest of us think you're an asshole.

That Danielson album ROCKS and is underrated (in my opinion).

Anonymous said...

Wonderful, varied list. Adore it.

GimmeDaWatch said...

"It's a bit uneven, and occasionally descends into an almost-unforgivable Fleetwood Mac-ism"

Oh, by the way, Fleetwood Mac P'wns, and I won't have anyone I know saying otherwise. If you don't believe me, refer to "The Ledge" off of Tusk.

Calogero said...

Thanks a lot for the videos.