With the advent of the iPod and its insidious Shuffle Mode, I find myself more and more focused on individual songs and less and less focused on albums. This is not necessarily a good thing, but it has led to a renewed appreciation of the song as a viable unit of musical goodness.
These are some of the songs that have meant the most to me this year. Most of them come from albums I like a lot as well, but a few of them are gems surrounded by dross. In no particular order, other than alphabetical:
1. Apples in Stereo – Beautiful Machine, Parts 1 – 4 – An eight-minute psychedelic freakout that reminds me of all that was weird and great about the late ‘60s.
2. The BellRays – Third Time’s the Charm – This is Stax/Volt soul forty years after the fact. And it’s great, although very different from the rest of the album, which is Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath thirty-five years after the fact.
3. Birdmonster – ‘Cause You Can – The Strokes, sped up, with a lead singer who sounds unhinged instead of bored.
4. T-Bone Burnett – Every Time I Feel the Shift – The best political commentary I’ve heard this year, with ominous Orc drums for accompaniment.
5. Camera Obscura – Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken – Sad, lovely, and sweet in a Phil Spector Girl Group kind of way.
6. Johnny Cash – Like the 309 – Johnny sounds broken, old, and barely hanging on. Which he was. And that lends a certain creepiness to this death-haunted song, but also a great sadness, and a great dignity.
7. Catfish Haven – I Don’t Worry – A white guy from Chicago tries to sing like Otis Redding, and mostly succeeds. For this song, at least.
8. The Decemberists – Yankee Bayonet – Your basic jangle pop song about a soldier dying at the battle of Manassas, and the pregnant girl he left behind.
9. Donald Fagen – Brite Nitegown – The Grim Reaper as Funkmaster. Three verses, three different ways to die, and you can shake your booty to it.
10. The Gibson Brothers – We Won’t Dance Again – I am a sucker for cornball country schmaltz. This is cornball country schmaltz of the highest order, involving mournful fiddle, a sobbing pedal steel, and a deathbed confession of love. But it’s so sweet, and so unaffected, that I can’t help but cry in my beer.
11. Gnarls Barkley – Crazy – Pure fun. Probably the best single this year.
12. Gomez – See the World – Do you recall the era when Michael Stipe could both enunciate and still write memorable songs? This will help you remember in case you forgot.
13. The Hold Steady – Stuck Between Stations – Great lyrics, power chords, references to Jack Kerouac and John Berryman, and an ode to disaffected youth. What more could you want?
14. The Kennedy’s – Gypsy Rose – Actually a song by Dave Carter, but it’s gorgeous, and it has the kind of timeless feel that folks like Gillian Welch are able to conjure. The lyrics could be from 2006, or 1806. It’s also wonderfully chiming folk-rock in the tradition of The Byrds and The Searchers.
15. Scott Miller – Freedom is a Stranger – In the absence of Steve Earle and John Prine this year, I dub this one as the gravel-voiced record of 2006.
16. Iarla O Lionaird – A Nest of Stars – Sigur Ros meets The Chieftains. Beautiful. This song has ended up on every mix CD I’ve made this year. I don’t care. If you requested Cajun, blues, jazz, whatever, you heard it.
17. The Raconteurs – Steady As She Goes – Really don’t like the album. Really like this song. It’s great power pop.
18. Silversun Pickups – Little Lover’s So Polite – Yeah, I guess it was time for a Pixies and Smashing Pumpkins revival. I love the fuzzed-out guitars.
19. Paul Simon – Wartime Prayers – The heavy-handed gospel choir at the end ruins it slightly for me, but it’s hard to improve on “I'm trying to tap into some wisdom,/Even a little drop will do/I want to rid my heart of envy/And cleanse my soul of rage/Before I'm through.” How ‘bout that? Me too.
20. K.T. Tunstall – Black Horse and the Cherry Tree – The rest of the album can’t sustain the wonder of this single, but this song’s a beauty. Hook-filled, effervescent, and a marvelous “wooo-oooo” chorus.
What are your favorites?