Here's where I try to say something about the songs I really liked in 2006. I could talk about skill and technical virtuosity, artistic ambition, ideological good intentions, recording quality, even originality (that obsolete concept). But basically, the list below is made up of songs that meant something to me -- for lots of reasons, often personal ones. Most aren't there simply because they're beautiful or thrilling (though they often are), but because they seized a mood the first (or third or tenth) time I heard them, tied red ribbons around my fingers for the people and places and events I didn't want to forget, completed mental puzzles I had begun with other songs or albums or books or films. They are songs that crawled and slithered, burrowed and lodged in my head and refused to budge. I've written a few thoughts on some of them.
I didn't rank my song list, but if you flash polled me as I type this, Bonnie "Prince" Billy's "Strange Form of Life" (mp3) might be the 2006 song I like best. I have a old and complicated relationship with Will Oldham. In 1994 as Palace, he made one my all-time favorite records, Days In The Wake, but he's also responsible for, in the late 90s, the worst, most self-indulgent live performance I've ever had the misfortune to experience (for about 15 minutes before I found the door). It wasn't until this year that I was fully prepared to forgive him for it, either. However, Oldham's long-running hillbilly project dovetailed with some of my major interests this year -- a class I took this fall on American ballads, readings on folk music and Appalachia, this film, this collection and thinking I've been doing on knotty issues of cultural representation and the stories Americans tell about themselves. Ok, but ultimately, this is not an intellectual exercise, right? I mean "Life" is great because it's a wide saucer of sweet nectar, a tender blend of male and female voices, layers of soft surging guitars and tiny tap of stick on surface, a sneaky, subtle thing of deep and mesmerizing beauty.
Not that it's always about aesthetic pleasure. The track I've listened to more than any other in the past 30 days is Burial's "Southern Comfort" (mp3) -- Southern as in South London, comfort as in not really comfortable at all. I suppose the electronica slicers-dicers call this dubstep (though it's as much a slab of garage or breakbeat as anything). What I hear are the mechanics and menace of urban environments, the rushing and then standing in place and waiting, the grind and groan of trains on tracks, the splash and sputter of gray puddles, disembodied shouts, sudden breaks of silence and ... again the onslaught of noise. I've lived in big cities my entire adult life and it reminds me that I don't really feel alive unless I'm also a little afraid.
"Daydreamin'" (mp3), from Lupe Fiasco, has a city story too, though Jill Scott's Betty Boop sighs, Lupe's nimble nerd rhymes and that ridiculous-sublime sample would be enough to recommend it. This song -- and the whole, very good album (I also would have included "Kick, Push" on the list if I weren't limiting it to one track from each artist) -- makes me think of the sunny Tuesday morning in September when I walked to the bus stop down the street in front of Lane Tech High School (the same institution where two of my great, great uncles taught architectural drawing almost 100 years ago) and discovered that the lightpoles and street signs had been papered with Food & Liquor ads overnight. And while I waited for the bus, how I watched a kid -- kind of a smaller boy -- try to scrape off a souvenir of this latest hometown hip-hop hero.
Speaking of heroes, God bless Vetiver's Andy Cabic. He saved me, saved everyone from expiration by way of boredom during Devendra Banhart's interminable drone of a Pitchfork Festival set this past summer when he took the stage and set it aflame with "You May Be Blue" (mp3). I already loved the song and its wide hippie grin and travelin' man vibe, more orange than blue, if you want to be chromatically honest. The drum, all driving anticipation, leads a pied-piper march, gesturing to organ, rhythm and lead guitars and voice, c'mon, shuffle in. Even if the song only travels in circles, it goes somewhere good.
I used to belong to the International Mixtape Project and in the summer of 2005 received a mix from a guy named Nick in Aberdeen, Scotland. Enclosed with his mix CD was a funny little Polaroid picture of a fence and some greenery, and in the lower left corner, the fuzzy wing of a crow. Nick had written beneath the image, Crow takes flight! We got to chatting via email and I learned he was in a band called Hookers Green No. 1. He sent me a copy of their first album and I posted about the band. This past spring, Nick sent me a new song, "Bloody Great Big Fucking Party" (mp3) and I confess, I didn't listen very carefully; I dropped the ball. Then I saw it posted on Said The Gramophone in June and I listened again, and it was, naturally, really great. If the song were American, it would be a college football game -- except fun and joyous. It would be devoid of bloody fucking football players and frat boys and teeming with cool kids stowing flasks full of absinthe.
If there's a single song that marks for me the direction this blog has been taking lately -- a turn toward musical memoir, for lack of a better term -- it's "Apple Orchard" (mp3) from Beach House. Its soft organ fuzz and spider silk guitar lines might be the soundtrack to the first couple of seasons after my parents bought a house with a miniature orchard and embarked on a grand, quixotic harvesting adventure, of pesticide spraying, pruning and picking. The picking! My brother and I were a child labor force -- an especially sulky and inept one. Most of our apples, cherries and apricots found the ground, becoming a feast for the birds and bugs and sticky, squelchy gum on the bottoms of our sneakers. And that's the sound of this song -- the soft twittering repast of critters and gentle squish of shoes. But also kitchen warmth. Because the fruit that did find its way to the house was transformed into pies and breads and preserves to keep us in the encroaching winter.
I wish I had space and time to talk about all 50 songs like this. But I'll end with the 2006 track I listened to most according to my iTunes counter: Tap Tap's "Off The Beaten Track" (mp3) (81 times, and that's only since late July!). Why such a high count? I used it as a wake-up song on my morning commute, and as a testament to its goodness (I am not a morning person), it still has no lasting negative associations.
The following qualified if they were released in any form, as actual singles, album cuts (some deep -- bet I'm the only one who chose "What Goes Around/Comes Around" from the Timberlake record), compilation tracks or were posted on artists' Web sites or Myspace pages and appeared current. They could be either domestic or foreign releases. And as I mentioned before, they are not ranked.
We've hosted some of the tracks and I found a couple links to songs hosted by record labels and bands. As for the rest, you can find some for download or stream on artists' websites or Myspace pages (each artist link takes you to one of those). You also might find songs by searching Hype Machine. And you can always buy the album or the track. I won't remind you why that's important.
Bring The Good Boys Home - The 1900s
Dart for My Sweetheart - The Archie Bronson Outfit
Funeral - Band of Horses
Apple Orchard - Beach House
Mount Wroclai (Idle Days) - Beirut
Another Sunny Day - Belle & Sebastian
Pile Of Gold - The Blow
To the Shore (Pathaan's Ray of Sunshine Remix) - Bombay Dub Orchestra
Strange Form Of Life - Bonnie "Prince" Billy
Mandarine Girl - Booka Shade
Lesley Parlafitt - Bromheads Jacket
Southern Comfort - Burial
Young Shields - Casiotone For The Painfully Alone
Dead Ends - Chad VanGaalen
Deep Safety - Chas. Mtn.
Did I Step On Your Trumpet - Danielson
Valentine - The Delays
Venus In Furs (Velvet Underground) - DeVotchka
Genie, Genie - Eric Bachmann
Don't Know Why (You Stay) - The Essex Green
Rivalry - Figurines
This Lamb Sells Condos - Final Fantasy
Months And Money (Dubwhore mix) - Flying Matchstick Men
The Modern - Frida Hyvonen
Conductor 71 - Fujiya & Miyagi
Crazy - Gnarls Barkley
Bloody Great Big Fucking Party - Hooker's Green No. 1
Falling Through The Roof - Horse Feathers
And I Was A Boy From School - Hot Chip
Eanie Meany - Jim Noir
Show Me - John Legend
What Goes Around/Comes Around - Justin Timberlake
For A Haystack - Kahoots
Silent Shout - The Knife
LDN - Lily Allen
Little Red Bird - The Lisa Marr Experiment
Daydreamin' (ft. Jill Scott) - Lupe Fiasco
No Party - Marit Bergman
Maybe Cocaine - Nick Jaina
Why We've Become Invisible - The Playwrights
Window - Richard Buckner
Anthem For The Already Defeated - Rock Plaza Central
Swallowed In Grace - The Shrinking Islands
Lavendermist - Si Schroeder
1 2 - Sol Seppy
Off The Beaten Track - Tap Tap
Cloth Coat Revolution - The Two Koreas
You May Be Blue - Vetiver
Gotta Go - Victor Scott
Dirty Blue - Woven Hand
My favorite albums of 2006 will be posted on Thursday.