Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Top 10 Albums of 2006

I've finished my list for my favorite albums of 2006. Chris beat me to the punch yesterday; if you haven't had a look yet, go here. There's a lot of overlap, admittedly, but that's no surprise after about a dozen years of shared appreciation for similar music. Usually I produce a large list of my favorite 100 songs in addition to my ten favorite albums of the year, but this time I made the effort to describe each of my album choices, so I will be delayed in creating a song list (if at all).

A disclaimer: before reading further, you should know that the tone in some of my reviews is a little too critic-like. That's intentional. It's hard to write about ten albums without at some point stretching to come up with some abstract analogies  to describe them. Know that I don't for a second pretend to have the skills nor the time to have the ridiculous breadth of knowledge actual critics have (especially those hypercritical nuts at Pitchfork) and most of my writing is largely a play on that fact. I just like making lists.

I encourage all of you to make a similar retrospective tome for the year, whatever your respective area of interest.

Enjoy and Happy Holidays!

10. The Decemberists – The Crane Wife
I really didn’t feel like giving this album much credit for the extremely superficial reason that The Decemberists are too often praised as some sort of indie-rock messiah. As such, the collective eulogizing that The Crane Wife got, I thought, was somewhat unmerited. Still, there are a handful of extremely melodic, varying, and inventive songs on this album. The three parts (divided into two songs, strangely) of the Japanese folk tale for which the album gets its name are the highlights, but the album closer “Sons and Daughters” lives up to a margin of the hype for this release.

9. Sufjan Stevens - The Avalanche: Outtakes & Extras from the Illinois Album
I loved 2005’s Come On, Feel The Illinoise! so much that an album made up of its ugly step-children and packaged a year later still made for one of my favorites of 2006. There are several songs that really should have made it on the original, including the title track, “No Man’s Land” (with its rockin’ hand claps), and “The Mistress Witch from McClure” (a great song about childhood, with a verse about snooping with his sister, only to find his father committing adultery, presumably…“Oh my God, you see it on the floor, the woman on the bed, the ankle brace she wore!!”). It’s hard not to like Sufjan, I’m convinced, if you can appreciate the tremendous musicality and the talent required of his songs. Plus, you know, he’s pretty prolific.

8. Electric President – Electric President
The Postal Service landed themselves in car commercials, heaps of praise, and a solidified fan base for Jimmy Tamborello and Ben Gibbard's other projects with their combined effort of Give Up, so I’m a little bit confused as to why Electric President didn’t get anywhere near the attention with their self-titled album released early in 2006. The style on Electric President is not a derivative of Give Up, but a lot of the same elements are at work here; particularly those elements that made Postal Service popular back in 2003. As a duo (two Florida artists named Ben Cooper and Alex Kane) that relies on heavy production, an emphasis on keyboard loops, and some inescapable, poppy choruses – the similarities seem pretty obvious to me. “Good Morning Hypocrite,” “Insomnia,” and “Metal Fingers” could all just as easily be appearing in some Volkswagen commercial next year. Although that sort of popularity produces a knee-jerk backlash in many people, it’d be okay in my book. They deserve a little attention.

7. Bonnie "Prince" Billy – The Letting Go
I’m way late on the bandwagon on this guy. I’m so late, I still don’t yet understand the transformation of his earlier works, done under previous monikers Palace, then Will Oldham, and on to Bonnie “Prince” Billy. I tried to catch up, but, I still feel a little lost. I think I might even be missing a few of his bands. Nevermind that. He seems to have momentarily stuck with the BPB label and that is where I finally was able to pick him up. On The Letting Go, his really gentle folk doesn’t offer anything mindblowing; just some soulful crooning and inventive narratives. It’s music meant for a rainy day or deep introspection. Though there’s an abundance of that kind of gloom in a lot of modern music, Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s folksy brand is refreshing.

6. Figurines – Skeleton
I was standing in some hipster clothing store (in a bout of self-loathing, perhaps) in June when I heard the best song on Skeleton, “Rivalry,” and sort of recognized it as something I had heard before (I eventually remembered Chris bought the album at Reckless Records and played it). The “wah...wah-wah...wah...wah” Muppet-esque chorus at the end of the song stuck with me. By the time we were driving up to a Wisconsin cabin in August and stopping at a Culver's, I was forcing my roommate to listen to the whole album. “Back In The Day” is equally, and as immediately accessible, but there are a lot of other great songs on Skeleton.

5. Peter Bjorn and John – Writer’s Block
Is it wrong of me to take credit for Schneider’s mention of this in his recent interview with Radio Free Chicago as what he’s currently listening to? No? Then I also take credit for pushing a full listen on Chris (I’m the unsourced “friend” I believe, in his blurb for this album). That said, I myself had a little trouble getting very far in this album because it keeps changing styles and doesn’t really lend itself to one mood. I kept repeating “Objects of My Affection” over and over when I wanted something upbeat, but then some quirky Belle and Sebastian riffs would kick in during the next track (“Young Folks”), and I’d have trouble keeping interest. They are Swedish, after all. But once I was able to just deal with the foibles of the album, I really began liking it.

4. The Frames – The CostHey, The Frames made my list. Not a surprise to those of you who regularly make fun of my admitted enthusiasm for this band. It’s another likeable output from them, assuming you liked their other stuff. Perhaps The Cost should be further down on the list, one might argue, because it really doesn’t show the band as evolving as they perhaps could or should be by this point, but that’s okay. Because they were a good thing to begin with, and they’re still a good thing this time around and I'm not yet tired of their sound, found in spades on this album. And so, they keep pressing on in much the same vein as 2004’s Burn The Maps. “Rise,” “People Get Ready,” and “True” all portray that kind of inescapable gravitas that makes me love this band. At the very least, their failsafe sound is a unique and lively one.

3. Josh Ritter – The Animal Years“Girl in the War” and “Thin Blue Flame” are two of the best songs I heard this year. Both songs found their way into my heart for the honesty of Ritter’s emotions – you can’t fake the sincerity and confusion in his voice and as a result, the songs' impact seem that much more legitimate. I’m still not done interpreting “Girl in the War,” but “Thin Blue Flame” I’ve sort of been able to peg down as both a song of spiritual protest and religious struggle. The lyrics subscribe to an agnostic cynicism, but you can tell it’s more about the ugliness he sees around the world and perhaps in the organized practice of religion than in the concept of a diety. It’s a really, really fascinating thing to listen to, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s a genuine lyricist. “Heaven’s just a thin blue line, If God’s up there he’s in a cold dark room, The heavenly host are just the cold dark moons, He bent down and made the world in seven days, And ever since he’s been a’walking away, Mixing with nitrogen in lonely holes, Where neither seraphim or raindrops go, I see an old man wandering the halls alone, Only a full house gonna make a home.” If you don’t feel like absorbing this album, just try out these two and brace yourself for Ritter's enormous aspirations.

2. Calexico – Garden Ruin
A few weeks ago, after I said I really enjoyed Calexico’s Garden Ruin, Will called my taste in music, “a little vanilla.” That may be the case, overall, but I think this album is as far from vanilla as anything released this year. It hits a lot of highs and lows, segues in some coy Latin grooves without being heavy-handed about the whole display, and changes pace enough to require repeated listening to really get this album. Sure, I could point to the closer, “All Systems Red,” and its monumental crescendo as reason enough stick this one out, but there are some great songs spread evenly on this somewhat shorter album. “Letter to Bowie Knife” treads on that latin-guitar vibe I was talking about. “Smash” offers a lull toward the end, when you begin to think things are going to calm down, and then all of sudden, bam, dark piano galore, as if villains took over the studio for a bit. This album grew on me over the late summer and fall, and it’s got a change-of-season spirit that makes sense to me now as to why I liked it so much then, and still keep on playing it this late in the year.

1. Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
There’s been much praise for this album, with many critics hailing it one of the best of 2006. Well, they’re right. It’s rare that a lone female voice can get my attention, but Neko Case’s clean, twangy vocals ring out like the Sirens call. Fox Confessor is loaded with transfixing, beautiful songs (and I don’t tend to like the twangier style of the folk-rock that I’d put this one in), all of which Case pulls off seamlessly. In fact, the first time I listened to it all the way through, on a road trip returning from Oklahoma, I didn't like it at all. But at some point, its recurring, thematic authenticity wins you over. My favorites are “Star Witness,” (about witnessing a murder in Chicago, I've read), “Maybe Sparrow,” and one of the best lead-off tracks I’ve heard in a long time “Margaret vs. Pauline.” Case delivers the line, “Two girls walk down the same street, one left a sweater sittin’ on the train and the other lost three fingers at the cannery…” in total nonchalance, before hitting a chorus that really makes you feel bad for poor Margaret, whoever she is. Overall, that’s what makes this album so likeable. You begin thinking about the people behind all the short little one-liners found throughout and somehow empathize with whoever served as Case’s inspiration for this fantastic album.

For posterity, here are my lists from previous years:
2005 2004 2003