No, it’s not the end of the year. But we’re in the traditional dead time in which no self-respecting musician/band releases new music. So, working on the assumption that no masterpiece will be forthcoming when people are distracted by turkey and tinsel, I offer you my favorite albums from 2006.
In spite of the moaning from Corporate Musicdom, it’s actually been a great year for music, one of the best since the early ‘90s. Old farts like Paul Simon and Donald Fagen have released their best music in decades. Bob Dylan arose from his wheelchair and delivered another great album. Thanks to the Internet, the proliferation of new indie labels, and a DIY aesthetic, new musicians and bands can release the music they want, regardless of pressure from A&R types at big music conglomerates. As a consequence, all kinds of new and interesting sounds are readily available. And people, for whatever reasons, have mostly stopped buying albums from whoever happens to win the latest I Wanna Be a Star in Vegas reality karaoke program. All of this is cause for great rejoicing.
The Top Ten
10. The BellRays – Have a Little Faith
Take one singer with the biggest Afro you’ve ever seen. Give her Aretha Franklin’s voice. Then put her in a room with a bunch of guys weaned on Led Zeppelin, The Stooges, and The MC5. Except for one anomaly (“Third Time’s the Charm,” which sounds like Aretha Franklin fronting the Stax/Volt band), that’s what Have a Little Faith sounds like. I like Robert Plant as much as the next Boomer, but he’s no Aretha. And Aretha never did an Iggy Pop cover, either. That’s the strange mashup that characterizes this album, and it’s a wondrous thing.
9. Lambchop – Damaged
One of the most idiosyncratic of bands, Lambchop keeps its string of great albums intact. Damaged is ersatz lounge music that is anything but easy listening. Dripping with countrypolitan strings, Kurt Wagner’s music sounds, on the surface, like the backdrop to classic tunes from the likes of Patsy Cline or Ray Price. Eventually you decipher the enigmatic mumble, though, and discover oddly telling reveries about loss and regret, aging and death. Just like Patsy, Kurt Wagner falls to pieces, but he does it in a way that only he could do.
8. Iarla O Lionaird – Invisible Fields
Iarla O Lionaird, leader of Afro Celt Sound System, has the soaring tenor and warm brogue that melts hearts in every faux-Irish pub throughout America. But he’s not singing “Danny Boy”; he’s singing the traditional Gaelic songs of his native Galway. More impressively, he’s welded those ancient melodies to the decidedly modern beats of Beck and Royksopp and a wall of sound that recalls Sigur Ros and Mogwai. It’s a glorious din.
7. Donald Fagen – Morph the Cat
Donald Fagen is still too cool for school, and if sonically he has never really moved beyond the ‘70s Steely Dan classics Katy Lied and Aja, he’s at least updated the sentiments. This time out he explores the claustrophobic, fearful world of post-9/11 New York, and in the process creates a masterful song cycle about aging and death. Consider “Brite Nitegown,” an incredibly funky, booty-shaking song about the Grim Reaper, as Exhibit A in how to dance on your own grave.
6. The Decemberists – The Crane Wife
The major label didn’t hurt at all, did it? Colin Meloy still writes with thesaurus in hand, and he’s still hung up on the traditional folk music of the British Isles and esoteric historical themes. His band has also been listening to Emerson, Lake and Palmer and early Peter Gabriel and Genesis, and on the two twelve-minute prog rock suites here they feature everything but the rotating drum kit. It’s okay. They’re saved from Penultimate Pomposity by the idiosyncratic writing and by Meloy’s undeniable melodic gifts. “Yankee Bayonet” is as fine an anti-war statement as you will ever want to hear, even if its subject matter is the American Civil War, and the two prog-rock suites make me want to put on a cape. Ask my wife if that’s a good thing.
5. Birdmonster – No Midnight
The debut album has been greeted with lukewarm reviews. I don’t care. I still love it. It’s literate, it features a great, unhinged lead vocalist (operating in the fine tradition of Talking Heads’ David Byrne and Arcade Fire’s Win Butler), and it rocks like crazy. If The Strokes or Interpol had a lead singer who dropped the bored, ironic affectations and was actually involved with the proceedings, this is what they might sound like.
4. Scott H. Biram – Graveyard Shift
Biram is a one-man-band who does White Stripes/Black Keys minimalism one better. He handles lead and harmony vocals, CB radio, loudspeaker, breathing, harmonica, gut, all acoustic and electric guitars, Hammond B3 organ, homemade footstomp board, hi hat, tambourine, claps, hambone, table thump, special effects, and random noises. He doesn’t so much play the guitar as bludgeon it. He sings about sin and salvation, Jesus, weed, 18 wheelers, the wonders of inebriation, how much he hates work, wanting to find someone to love, and wanting to murder his lover. This is a raw and dirty tantrum, more Saturday night than Sunday morning, but there’s still a fascinating spiritual tussle at work here. It all ads up to amateurism taken to a breathtakingly belligerent, soulful level. If Hank Williams had grown up listening to Johnny Rotten, this is what he might have sounded like.
3. Jolie Holland – Springtime Can Kill You
Jolie Holland sidesteps the whole folk vs. jazz debate that characterized the reviews of her first two albums, and heads straight for the front parlor. Her music evokes images of a far different time; Woody Guthrie riding the rails during the Great Depression, maybe, or the years when a blues lament was more likely to be heard from the front porch of a tarpaper shack than a concert stage. But Holland’s lyrics – sultry, deeply sexual, intensely poetic – stand in sharp contrast to the sepia-toned nature of the music. She’s a marvelous writer. She’s also the best singer working today, period, and her phrasing is impeccable. Some have argued that her voice is an acquired taste. Only if you have to work really hard to listen to Billie Holiday.
2. The Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America
Boys and Girls in America is great rock ‘n roll – the archetypal Americana of Bruce Springsteen and the ramshackle glory of The Replacements, all rolled into one. It features a songwriter who is dead set on writing the 45-minute musical equivalent of the Great American Novel. It’s sweeping and grand and desperate, full of hope and fear, and if you’re a longtime student of the genre, it will make you want to do cartwheels even at a relatively advanced age, because it will remind you of everything that is good and great about the icons, from Elvis, Lennon, and Dylan right into the present day. It’s almost perfect. And maybe next time Craig Finn can figure out a way to make rock ‘n roll about something other than sex and drugs. They’re great themes. But I suspect they’ve been done before. Once or twice.
1. Camera Obscura – Let's Get Out of This Country
Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell is a throwback to the Brenda Lee’s or Leslie Gore’s of the early 1960s. She’s sweet, she’s wholesome, and she’s slightly nondescript. That is, until you start listening to what she has to say. Let’s Get Out of This Country is the ultimate breakup album, and Campbell’s vocal sweetness masks a deep sorrow. She’s a wondrous writer, capable of touching deep wells of heartache, and on songs like “Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken” and “Tears for Affairs,” her Everywoman delivery is all the more profound because of its universal appeal. These are breezy three-minute pop tunes about having everything you live for sucked right out of your soul. In short, it’s a perfect pop record, the kind that would have sounded great in 1962, and the kind that sounds just as great in 2006.
The Best of the Rest
After that it gets murky, but these are albums I liked a lot this year:
00100 – Taiga
Band of Horses – Everything All the Time
Beck – The Information
Beirut – Gulag Orkestar
Benevento Russo Duo - Play Pause Stop
Blood Meridian – Kick up the Dust
Solomon Burke – Nashville
Don Byron – Do the Boomerang: The Music of Junior Walker
Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Johnny Cash - American V: A Hundred Highways
Dirty Dozen Brass Band - What's Goin' On
Johnny Dowd – Cruel Words
Bob Dylan – Modern Times
Elanors – Movements
Jeremy Enigk – World Waits
Melody Gardot – Worrisome Heart
Vince Gill – These Days
Gnarls Barkley - St. Elsewhere
Gomez - How We Operate
Steve Goodman – Live at the Earl of Old Town
Horse Feathers – Words Are Dead
Alan Jackson – Like Red on a Rose
James Hunter - People Gonna Talk
The Kennedys – Songs of the Open Road
Ray Lamontagne - Till The Sun Turns Black
Mastodon – Blood Mountain
Scott Miller – Citation
Van Morrison – Pay the Devil
Jim Noir - Tower of Love
Pernice Brothers – Live a Little
The Sails – The Sails
Silversun Pickups – Carnavas
Paul Simon – Surprise
Mindy Smith – Long Island Shores
Chris Smither – Leave the Light On
Bruce Springsteen – We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
Sufjan Stevens – The Avalanche
Subtle – For Hero: For Fool
Sugarland – Enjoy the Ride
K.T. Tunstall – Eye to the Telescope
Derek Trucks Band – Songlines
TV on the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain
Tom Waits – Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards
M. Ward – Post-War
Tom Ze – Estudando o Pagode
Best Box Sets/Reissues
Karen Dalton – In My Own Time
Brian Eno and David Byrne – My Life in the Bush of Ghosts
John Lee Hooker – Hooker
Willie Nelson – The Complete Atlantic Sessions
Gram Parsons – Fallen Angel
Andy Partridge – Fuzzy Warbles Vols. 1 - 8
Most Overrated Albums of 2006
They’re not terrible, and Kevin Federline is in no imminent danger of losing his Most Loathsome Album of 2006 crown. But in the absence of a new Coldplay album this year, I offer you:
T Bone Burnett - The True False Identity
Flaming Lips – At War with the Mystics
Grandaddy – Just Like the Fambly Cat
Lady Sovreign – Public Warning
The Raconteurs – Broken Toy Story
Most Likely Home-Schooled Hippie to Release Pretentious Twaddle
Joanna Newsom – Ys