Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Best Albums of 2006

That familiar December chill is in the air, and as you shudder from the cold biting at your neck you might turn around to see that it isn't the windchill factor cutting you after all...but rather a thousand year end lists telling you what was "good" and "bad" from the year in music.

Knowing that I'd like to try a more comprehensive list this year than I did last year (and because I wasn't altogether satisfied by my year end list last year) I kept track of essentially every album I heard in its entirety this year. There were about sixty albums in all, and here are my top twenty. I have attached a somewhat arbitrary number to each of them called "iRanking." I made that up, and it is really just poppycock. The number is derived from taking each indvidual song ranking from my iPod (a five-star system) and averaging them to reveal the album's iRanking. Sometimes it reflected my love for the album accurately, and sometimes it did not. All this list business, its just a bunch of hooey anyway.

By the way, this is my 100th post. I feel good about that.

So without further ado, here is my Best Albums of 2006 list:

20. Richard Buckner: Meadow
iRanking: 3.40

Colby introduced me to Richard Buckner years ago and I didn’t give him the attention he deserved then. I’ve listened to and bought several of his albums since then and have come to appreciate the great music he makes. Meadow is a little coarser than its predecessors, in production, but his writing remains beautifully linear.

19. Emily Haines & the Soft Skeleton: Knives Don’t Have Your Back
iRanking: 3.40
I know very little about Emily Haines. This record is apparently a solo project aside from her band Metric (who I’ve never listened to). She is armed with little more than a piano on most of the record. The songs that shine the most are the ones that have the most production. There are too many songs that share the same plinking piano, else this could have been a "great" record, but as it stands now it remains a satisfyingly "good" record.

18. Regina Spektor: Begin to Hope
iRanking: 3.41
Regina Spektor is an eclectic artist who has a great touch on the piano. Begin to Hope is accessible and poppy, but doesn’t stoop to industry conventions. Many of the songs are narrative based and enjoyable to listen to, but this isn’t life changing stuff, nor ever will be. She is entertaining and whimsical and on those levels this album best succeeds.

17. Page France: Hello, Dear Wind
iRanking: 3.42
The toughest thing when singing about Jesus, is doing the subject matter justice while maintaining a sense of musical artisty/integrity. Most efforts turn out cheesy and oversentimental. This is why I have a general aversion to most Christian music, and even though Hello, Dear Wind may not fit neatly into that category, I think it does a pretty honest job of keeping it real without slipping into the common faux pas of the genre. This is definitely one of the more listened to records on my list this year.

16. Gnarls Barkley: St. Elsewhere
iRanking: 3.42
This is one of those groups that blew up commercially this year. It was fantastic to see Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo Green working their gig via outlets like the Tonight Show and Late Night. "Crazy" is just one of those infectious songs you can’t not like. Forget the Taylor Hicks soul patrol, Cee-Lo has arrived. I’m familiar with some of the work he did with Goodie Mob, but he really gets to let his voice shine on this album. Not all of the songs are good, but the ones that are, are really good.

15. Grandaddy: Just Like the Fambly Cat
iRanking: 3.46
R.I.P. Grandaddy. They are no more, and this is their last record. I still think Sumday is one of the best pop records released in the last few years, and though Just Like the Fambly Cat doesn’t hit on all of the cylinders Sumday did, it gets close in several moments. Jason Lytle is a craftsman and I love his whispy voice. I’ll be looking forward to hearing his solo material in the future.

14. Damien Jurado: And Now That I’m In Your Shadow
iRanking: 3.46
This album sees the minimalist Jurado hearkening back to the Ghost of David era. He tells his stories in a simple vernacular, stories of forbidden love and one-way leavings. This is not a cheer-you-up record, but the welcome dose of empathy you are looking for on the cold, lonely nights. The record suffers a bit from lack of variation in tempo and feel, so by the end you are pretty beat, but the songs all well-written.

13. Kris Kristofferson: This Old Road
iRanking: 3.50
I love Kris Kristofferson. I didn’t read many reviews of this album this year, but it is a great one. It is timely and delivered with force, passion, and grace. This is the type of album that Willie Nelson and other contemporaries who are still treading water only wish they could release. What Neil Young was trying to do with Living With War (parts were terrific), was done here with more effectiveness and refinement.

12. Islands: Return to the Sea
iRating: 3.79
In April of this year I heard "Rough Gem" and became infected with the pop bliss of Islands. It is the best song on a record that has some weak moments, but is by and large a great first effort for ex-Unicorn Nick Diamond and company. Lyrically I’m not blown away by this record, but it inventively balances twinges of country, rock, and pop. They seem to be a band in flux, already losing founding member/drummer J’aime Tambeur, and their future may be cloudy, so take advantage in the meantime.

11. Half-Handed Cloud: Halos and Lassos
iRating: 4.00
John Ringhofer, whose moniker is Half-Handed Cloud, has a unique voice that can turn someone off immediately. But I find it endearing. He brings a new definition to the idea of musical economy. Even Jerry Lee Lewis wrote longer songs than this guy, and there aren’t many people you can say that about. Here we have 19 songs that clock in at just under thirty minutes. You do the math. Halos and Lassos is loaded with Biblical allusion, but not in some primary Sunday School way. He deals with his subject matter with respect, awe, irony, wonder, and all out pop prowess. After one listen you’ll be "do do do do"-ing just fine.

10. Destroyer: Destroyer’s Rubies
iRanking: 3.60
I know very little about the ubiquitous Dan Bejar, aside from his work with TNP. What I do know is that it takes talent to hold my attention for an entire ten minute song and "Rubies" does that. Dan’s voice will grate on some—its not always on tune, and his style often relies on talk-singing and "da da da" choruses. His lyrics are an extremely elusive conversational poetry, open to interpretation. I’m afraid even Dan Brown in all his code-unraveling trickery couldn’t dismantle a Destroyer record, much less me. So if you enjoy a lyric solely because of its flow and sound and imagery, this tea cup is yours.

9. TV On The Radio: Return to Cookie Mountain
iRanking: 3.65
This one must be a creative tour de force beyond my understanding based on all the critical praise it’s been given this year. I’ve listened to it quite a few times, and it still has yet to resonate with me on a genuine personal level, but I can’t deny that they’ve tapped into something intense and enormous. I don’t love everything here, indeed I dislike some of it, but there are parts that are amazing (Wolf Like Me). Some are comparing this album to OK Computer, the standard by which all things are apparently judged by indie bloggerdom. There were enough highlights on this album to keep me returning to it for relistens, but a front to back journey does requires a portion of patience.

8. Figurines: Skeleton
iRating: 3.75
I was tipped off to Denmark’s Figurines by 3hive, and have been excited about them all year long. I had to special order the album because stores just don’t seem to carry it. Figurines will inevitably draw comparisons to Modest Mouse, but they aren’t trying to tread the same ground. These songs are catchy, melodic rockers. Structurally they are doing nothing new, but the hooks are so chiseled they make me want to hop around my living room.

7. Peter and the Wolf: Lightness
iRanking: 3.75
Red Hunter has that incredible baritone that I kind of wish I had. Not as deep and mysterious as Richard Hawley, but with enough gravitas to give his contributions a special room in the mansions of indie rock. He sings on the title track, "Every morning’s another chance, to see a different meaning. Carry on the memory, maybe then the lightness will come to me." I love the idea of how time can bring clarity to experiences and situations that never quite reveal their full meaning until proper reflection is given. This is a great album that never quite commits itself to any particular genre.

6. The Decemberists: The Crane Wife
iRating: 4.00
There was no dialing back on the oddities from this major label debut. Colin Meloy and company moved forward with a musical spectacular based on a tragic Japanese folktale. Not exactly the money-making formula typically employed by corporate big whigs. But that is because the Decemberists are not a money-making formula, just artists delving joyously deeper into their craft of storytelling songsmanship. For me there were a few musical hiccups on the record, but overall (and including the iTunes extras) it is another fantastic release from these Oregonians.

5. Sufjan Stevens: The Avalanche
iRating: 4.12
The first thing that must be noted about The Avalanche is that it is a compilation of outtakes and extras from last year’s monumental Illinois. These songs did not make the cut for various reasons, and were doomed to perhaps never be released. Thankfully Sufjan reconsidered this year and we were graced with an album of extraordinary songs peppered from time to time with some mediocre ones. But the great ones are outstanding. "Springfield" is a channeling of CSNY, and "No Man’s Land" is a parade of new patriotism, answering as the foil to Woody Guthrie’s "This Land is Your Land." You can easily pick out the dross from Illinois, but at least half of this record is as good as its predecessor.

4. Cat Power: The Greatest
iRating: 4.15
Believe it or not, the title of this album is not pretentious in the least. Chan Marshall has unleashed her most commercially viable record yet, and done so without compromising her artistry. The music unfolds like dark tapestry on winter windows, full of slow tempo longings. Her voice carries the beautiful gravity of the lyrics, putting bite on the wit, sadness to the resignation, and humor to the irony. Oh, and she’s absolutely beautiful.

3. Band of Horses: Everything All the Time
iRating: 4.15
I first heard "Funeral" on the blogs right around the new year and knew that I was listening to something anthemic. "At every occasion I’ll be ready for a funeral." When I got the whole album I was pleased to find it was a stinging, head-bobbing, spine-swaying, straightforward pop rock record. But pop records are released by the dozens each week, why should this one be so good? Solid song craftsmanship, great melodies, and the terrific tenor of Ben Bridwell that is reminiscent of Jim James, only better.

2. Joanna Newsom: Ys
iRating: 4.20
There is certainly a level of novelty here. Ys has but five songs—each of them expansive, reaching 8 minutes on the short end, and on the long end 16. There are orchestral arrangements that include, from time to time, the hard-to-incorporate mouth bow. The harpist appears on the album cover in a Renaissance-style painting. Given her childlike voice, and quirky annunciation, all these elements combine to make a bizarre combination that will estrange some, but will be magnificent to others. As cryptic and idiosyncratic as she might be, there is not another album released this year that has the lyrical poeticism that this album has. These are sprawling narratives filled with gorgeous, specific imagery: "I dreamed you were skipping little stones across the surface of the water / frowning at the angle where they were lost, and slipped under forever / in a mud cloud, mica-spangled, like the sky’d been breathing on a mirror." The music itself isn’t as enjoyable for me as it was on Milk-Eyed Mender, but Newsom is in top form on "Emily" and "Cosmia."

1. Neko Case: Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
iRating: 4.25
Ever since I began writing music myself, I’ve always been dazzled by what some artists can do with two chords and a voice. Quality isn’t necessarily a derivative of complexity, and what Neko Case does so magnificently on this album is pound you into glorious oblivion with her simple musical bars. Her voice soars in absolute brilliance. She plays such a seemingly backseat role with TNP that I didn’t expect to be swept off my feet in this way. There is really no wrong turn on Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Each song fulfills the very measure of its birth.

1 comment:

Colby said...

Wonderful list Les. Your appreciation (and description) of music never ceases to amaze me.

Thank you.