2006: Favorite albums
This isn't what I expected at the beginning of 2006 either. But isn't it wonderful when music surprises you? And I think it says something (and I don't want to draw any hasty conclusions) that my top two are five-track song suites. Other than that, no trends to speak of. Just good music, I hope. I rearranged the room til the last minute, which unfortunately required some additional writing. So if everything isn't perfectly feng shuied, rest assured that I'll sweep through later and straighten up.
10. Writer's Block - Peter, Bjorn & John
I knew I'd forget something on my songs list. Somehow between drafts, PB&J's "The Chills" -- a rumble of drums and inky organ lines -- slipped off. (The song earns extra credit for paying bright homage to the bleak "Pink Frost," one of my all-time favorites.) But that's okay. I tried not to do too much piecing when it came to albums that are all-around amazing. And Writer's Block, a box of cereal packed tight with toy prizes (and maybe a few of those colored marshmallows), is certainly that. There's very little assembly required, either; these pop treasures come readymade and impossible not to play to death.
9. Water Everywhere, Big Buildings
Big Buildings doesn't have much use for the indie scene, I betcha. And that's a significant chunk of its charm. A big ol' Midwestern no-worries shrug, Water Everywhere masks its efficient songwriting behind sloppy riffs, loping basslines and ragged harmonies, veering between mournful beer bawls ("Other Days") and brisk, night-out chugs ("Submarine" and "Grease Fire") -- most of which owe prodigious debt (though not to the extent actual intellectual property claims might be asserted) to the Replacements. This album came out of nowhere for me and bears little resemblance to my usual listening habits. But it's easily my favorite local (Chicago) LP this year. It totally rocks.
(Amp Camp, iTunes)
8. Words Are Dead, Horse Feathers
The first time I wrote about this album, I talked about it's interior design (neat, uncluttered, warm), its personality (smart, earthy, modest), its poetry (spare, telegraphic). On further consideration (listening to it lots in early autumn, tucking it away, returning in December and loving it even more), I'd also like to mention a little about its motion. You know, the way its moves. "Falling Through the Roof," my favorite song, begins with a long stretch -- fingers brush the sky, toes burrow in the earth -- then, a slow stalk, tense and gingerly through thick underbrush, a helmet of trees leaking occasional sneaks of sun. "Dustbowl" is different. Fleet-footed, sprightly, propelled by hops and twirls, leaps and then, weary lopes. Both modes work.
7. Lanzafame, Tap Tap
If you're one of the couple dozen who received a mix CD from me in the past six months (I'm a mixaholic), you've been performing behind-the-wheel shoulder jigs, under-desk toe-tap parades or, if in the privacy of your home with the blinds drawn, out-and-out full-body boogies to one of three songs: "Off The Beaten Track," "To Our Continuing Friendship," or "On My Way." So this is just like old news to you: Tap Tap is absurdly, criminally fun! The new news if you don't already own this album? Almost all of it is as good as those three songs. Dismiss Tap Tap as this year's Clap Your Hands Say Wolf Parade or crow about nine a nickel indie boys tossing words like hot rutabagas over three giddy chords and a ham-fist of moto-beats. If that's how you feel, how you really feel, I can only assume you like being miserable.
Off The Beaten Track
6. Colour Green, Sibylle Baier
Between the pages of a thick-thumbed cookbook, you might find these loose drawings, hastily folded and hidden. One, a sweater with a half-drawn sleeve, another, a cat curled tight as a loaf of bread. And here, here, here, a half-drunk glass of wine, a book of poetry, a battered acoustic guitar. In her dusky alto, Sibylle Baier sings sketches of domesticity -- of confiding spouses and trips to the zoo and conflicts lovingly resolved. And she offers light whimsies in the form of fan letters to T.S. Eliot and Wim Wenders. But this bare, acoustic album, home recorded between 1970 and 1973, isn't always so easily drawn and defined. Longing, searching car songs are streaked with melancholy. Sometimes the road runs to renewal. In "Remember The Day," an unwelcome trip to the market morphs into a voyage of discovery. Baier sings "I found me on the road to Genoa" and her guitar blooms, her voice flushes and she describes the sea and "all that was good." Other times, the landscape rolls with dread and resignation, haunted by an uneasy trade -- ambition for duty. An initially simple record, Colour Green can be very complex. I find that where I am determines whether I hear the bitter or the sweet.
I Lost Something In The Hills
5. Derdang Derdang, The Archie Bronson Outfit
When Archie Bronson Outfit's brazen "Dart For My Sweetheart" single swaggered through the coffeehouse doors in big black boots this past spring, I was receptive. There's only so much Sufjan-style indie pop passive-aggression a girl can take. Sometimes you just don't want to be BSed, and ABO's laddish wolfwhistle, lager-girded bravado and smirky schtick is charmingly refreshing. Plus, as I said earlier, "Dart's" an undeniable hip-shaker. Derdang Derdang surprised me by living up to that song's promise. These boys aren't the most inventive songsmiths: They repurpose brickle-chip guitar sounds, classic blues progressions and mathematically precise drum patterns (the intro to "Dart" and "Dead Funny" are almost identical and not dissimilar to "How I Sang Dang's") throughout with little editing. Distortion pedals are deployed with impunity. But if ABO only has a song or two, they're killer.
Dart For My Sweetheart
4. Silent Shout, The Knife
Much of my youth was misspent on synth pop. So I know a thing or two about the cold music of technology as proxy for warm-bodied emotions. But honestly, I don't remember Blancmange or even Ultravox being this consistent or profound. Those kinds of long-players tended to bunch and sag around one or two very good, if typically overwrought, singles. And a lot of contemporary dance albums with eyes on the clubs (as it should be) suffer the same issues. Silent Shout has some standout songs alright -- the title track, "We Share Our Mother's Health," "Marble House" and maybe even "Forest Families" are unassailable, slate solid classics of glacial grace and withering pathos. But as much as my heart skips a tiny beat in sympathy every time I hear that initial boom boom boom of "Silent Shout," it's the sinewy joints, the connecting tissue around the vital organs that make Shout such an essential record. The way a single, eerily rising note in "Still Light" or the radiological half-life of "The Captain's" long intro remind me that silence can be as rich and rewarding as noise.
Search Hype Machine for tracks.
3. Palo Santo, Shearwater
I find that most live shows -- from the disappointing to the astonishing -- tell me little about the album they're ostensibly supporting. It's just an entirely different experience. But seeing Shearwater this past summer in a one-third filled room on a holiday weekend when the city had cleaned out, reframed Palo Santo for me in crucial ways. People tend to focus on the pretty with this band. And God, Shearwater's songs can be ridiculously beautiful. But with his close-clipped crew cut and steely eye, his hand hammering, Meiberg told me that those lovely rippling songs were also fierce and ferocious, that his choir-boy croon hid a mean growl. "The walls came down, it was a fucking disaster" Meiberg spits in "Red Sea, Black Sea," as urgent as the angriest punk (better heard, to be fair, in the original, "Turn Your Transmitters Off" demo). And it is, it is a FUCKING DISASTER -- a tsunami, a Katrina, a house fire that infects adjacent buildings and engulfs a neighborhood. Then there's the "wild and unbroken" cataclysm of noise that closes "Hail Mary," calm sliding into chaos. Loud/soft dynamics are one of the oldest tricks in the book of indie rock, but I'll be damned if I can think of a record that's done it better, or more movingly, lately.
2. The Complete Guide To Insufficiency, David Thomas Broughton
This is a total cheat. The Complete Guide To Insufficiency was officially released in the middle of December last year. But I don't think much of anyone heard it until 2006, if they heard it at all. Which is too bad. As much as I love polish, production values and meticulously blueprinted details (see #1 on this list), I love equally the music of chance. And Insufficiency performs both kinds of chance, accident and risk -- the flubs and fortunes of a single-take recording and the high-wire walk of the unapologetically weird. Broughton's voice is wonderful -- a rangy, register-jumping instrument that's as authentic in its blues moans as its falsetto sighs. But human in its frailty. Just under a minute of "Ever Rotating Sky," he changes keys (on the second syllable of "delight"), reaches for a high note and misses. Errors abound. A miracle of bells come clanging through the roof at the end of "Unmarked Grave" (apparently Broughton didn't know the Leeds church where he recorded these songs had scheduled them). And loop pedalled echoes used to round out lone voice and guitar are almost always a heavy half-beat behind. What's risky? Everything. I hesitate to draw on the troublesome outsider art term, but these id-driven confessionals are a tad touched. Peopled with nightshade eaters, ghosts, cannibals and guys who declare their love by promising not to (literally) shit on their girlfriends or take them to live sex shows, it's the below and between, the demimonde of liminality. Sounds ludicrous, I know. But I can find no other way to express how touching it is, except to say, listen.
Ever Rotating Sky
1. Ys, Joanna Newsom
My conversion narrative began as August leaked into September, and Ys spilled all over the Internet. If I'd thought of Joanna Newsom at all before then, it was as that precious, screechy voiced harp-slinger who hung with the unwashed crowd. I was not a fan and she did not speak to me. No blinding lights or seizing of hearts, though. Just seduction by agile verse and melodies that wrap themselves like whisper-weight cashmere shawls. A luxury then, this record. I'll try to temper my superlatives, but you know how the newly converted are: eager to proselytize, impervious to criticism.
Jon and I were chatting about how it's pretty hard to evaluate orchestral arrangements such as Van Dyke Parks' if you're not a musician (I don't think Jon is sold on Ys -- at least not when we last spoke). To these classically untrained ears, they sound sympathetic and only occasionally disconnected from Newsom's harp base. But with a long, voracious reading habit, a reasonably rigorous education in interpretation and some experience writing the stuff, I suppose I can speak confidently about Newsom's verse. Her command of sound as sense, her empathy for the way words flower and throb on the tongue or rub one another and spark, is almost unrivalled in popular music now, if not ever. (Bob Dylan, who's usually championed in this regard, is a very good poet, I'll admit. And there are certainly many hip-hop artists who know what they're doing with words. But none of that product means much to me personally.) I have a lot of examples, but this, from "Sawdust and Diamonds" is perhaps my favorite:
And the articulation in our elbows and knees
make us buckle;
we couple in endless increase.
Or, from "Only Skin":
Last week, our picture window
produced a half-word,
heavy and hollow
hit by a brown bird.
Then in my hot hand, she slumped her sick weight.
We tramped through the poison oak, heartbroke and inchoate.
Oh sure, I'm probably just biased because Newsom leans hard on some of my own preferred devices -- alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia. And always dangling is the very valid question of whether the music of the lyrics should upstage the, uh, music (this is one album where it's essential to own the physical copy for its thick volume of verse). But you know what? I don't care -- I love it anyway! And that's where blogger parts way with critic. I'd prefer to be a hard-nosed contrarian (I often am) and chuckle at the fools who fall for such an excruciatingly ambitious project and obvious ploy for adulation. But I can't. I like it too much to lie.
Search Hype Machine for tracks.
Twelve other records I really enjoyed in 2006 (unranked, but all well worth your pennies):
Precis, Benoit Pioulard (Amazon, eMusic)
The Letting Go, Bonnie "Prince" Billy (Amazon, iTunes)
Wind-Up Canary, Casey Dienel (Amazon, eMusic)
Ships, Danielson (Amazon, eMusic)
Transparent Things, Fugiya & Miyagi (Amazon, iTunes)
Yellow House, Grizzly Bear (Amazon, iTunes)
Drum's Not Dead, Liars (Amazon, iTunes)
Food & Liquor, Lupe Fiasco (Amazon, iTunes)
Stay Afraid, Parts and Labor (Amazon, eMusic)
Are We Not Horses, Rock Central Plaza (Amp Camp, eMusic)
Happy Days, Victor Scott (eMusic, iTunes)
The Body The Blood The Machine, The Thermals (Amazon, iTunes)
In case you missed it, my favorite 2006 songs list is here.
Edit: I'd really like to hear from some regular visitors for a change -- I know you're out there. Please drop a comment and let me know what your favorite albums were this year.