Best Albums of 2006 #30-21
Japan’s Boris has been artfully combining the sludgy riffs of the Melvins with the doom-ridden drone of Earth and subtle shoegaze influences for well over a decade. As strong as previous albums like Akuma No Uta and Heavy Rocks were, Pink gives us the full spectrum of the Boris sound with a cohesion that we’ve never heard from the trio. You want melody? The dreamy “Farewell” treads the line between cacophony and tenderness in a way that would make Kevin Shields jealous. You want rawk? “Pink”, “Pseudo-Bread”, and “Electric” channel Blue Cheer, the Stooges, and the MC5. You want heavy? “Blackout” is a vicious blast of stoner/doom, guitar goddess Wata sounding more imposing than biker metal dudes twice her size. You want to be beaten senseless for 18 brutal minutes? The epic tour de force “Just Abandoned My-Self” does just that. There’s a reason indie kids and metal fans alike have been buzzing about this album online since late 2005: it’s first-rate heavy rock ‘n’ roll at its most magnificent.
Below the Branches
(Sub Pop; US: 7 Feb 2006; UK: 13 Feb 2006)
This was the year that Kelley Stoltz graduated from underground home-taper to full-fledged indie star, but you won’t find any evidence of slickness in this wonderful psyche-pop manifesto. Recorded mostly at home on an old piano that wasn’t tuned until after the sessions, Below the Branches has a goofy sweetness, a wholesome eccentricity that makes listening less like intellectual appreciation and more like falling in love. Whether he’s nodding to Carl Wilson (“Ever Thought of Coming Back”) or pulling his mom to the mic (“Memory Collector”) or swiping a metaphor from Blind Willie McTee (“The Rabbit Hugged the Hound”), Stoltz hits just the right mix of vulnerability and exhilaration. Find the thing that makes you happy, Stoltz urges in the opening “Wave Goodbye”. For me, it was Below the Branches.
Kelley Stoltz - Ever Thought of Coming Back
- “Memory Collector” [MP3]
(XL; US: 11 Jul 2006; UK: 10 Jul 2006)
Yorke’s immaculate musicianship is on show again: but The Eraser came out and like that, you could almost feel the rush of wind from a thousand critics’ relieved sigh. Phew! We can finally give a Radiohead-associated project less than a nine out of ten! Truth is, never has the line between fandom and criticism been as blurred as for Yorke and his band: for a large percentage of this generation of critics, the awareness of rock music’s depth and almost limitless potential coincided with OK Computer, and was extended and stretched by the post-Kid A albums. The thing about The Eraser is, it’s totally successful in realizing Yorke’s most modest aim. No swelling choruses or crashes of welling sound, the album trades in familiar themes in miniature. The album plays out in shades of alienation and paranoia—nothing new for those familiar with Radiohead, of course—but pared to the simplicity of piano, synths, drum machine, and Yorke’s haunting angst. We’re reminded again of the pale beauty of the artist’s voice and the integrity of his musicianship. But listen to “Atoms For Peace” or “Black Swan” closely, and you’ll notice a subtle development, a slight twisting of the song form that says: Yorke’s still got it. Here’s an intricate, non-obvious, and quietly experimental album that deserves recognition as one of the year’s highest quality achievements.
Thom Yorke - Harrowdown Hill
The Shine of Dried Electric Leaves
(Six Degrees; US: 2 May 2006; UK: 2 May 2006)
Everyone who hears this album falls in love with Cibelle—it’s just a question of where to start. For some, it’s her perfect voice, so full of Brazilian saudade and open-hearted wonder. For others, it will be her songs, which have one foot in sexy Tropicalia and another in avant-garde electro-folk, and maybe another in traditional bossa nova, and yes, we know how many feet that works out to be. But her true genius might actually lie in her sculptor’s approach to music: she loves to show the joins between all her genres, so she and her producers (Mike Lindsay in London, Apollo Nove in Sao Paulo) let us hear how the album comes together, how each song keeps falling apart, and how it all builds itself back up again. Her influences (Bjork, Tom Waits, Caetano Veloso) are strong, but this is her baby, and she rocks it home.
Cibelle with Devendra Banhart - London, London
Pick a Bigger Weapon
(Epitaph; US: 25 Apr 2006; UK: 24 Apr 2006)
Golden Era purists, Public Enemy holdouts, and discriminating music listeners often criticize contemporary hip-hop for lacking a political voice. While a cursory scan of radio and sales charts may suggest a predilection for white tees, low-hanging chains, and condensed soup, the fact is hip-hop has always maintained a solid foot in the ass of the Man. One of the foremost carriers of “stickittothemanitis” has been East Bay duo the Coup. For over a decade, emcee Boots Riley and DJ Pam the Funkstress (and former co-emcee E-Roc) have wed Chuck D’s middle finger with a platinum ring of funk dedication and wicked wit. Pick a Bigger Weapon, the group’s fifth album, may be an ideological echo, but also expands their songwriting smarts. With the help of esteemed merrymen like Tom Morello, Dwayne Wiggins, and members of Parliament-Funkadelic, even PE never sounded so sexy.
The Coup - Get That Monkey Off Your Back
Casey Driessen may come billed as a bluegrass fiddler and he’s on a world-class American roots label, but no easy classifications can bound this ingenious musician. He actually shares a lot more stylistically with Vassar Clements than Bobby Hicks in that his sound is more akin to jazz than country. It’s not just the electric violin that he so often employs that evokes a jazz sensibility, it’s also the improvisational feel of the tunes and the toying with the melody and swirling textures. Like Clements best work, this is highly soulful music with a mournful quality that stays true to the dark Appalachian roots of bluegrass while constantly pushing against the conventions of bluegrass. Not as bluesy as Clements or as swingy as Johnny Gimble, but possessing elements of both, Driessen’s closest musical fiddling companion may be Mark O’Connor, another genre-busting violinist from north of the Mason Dixon Line. Look for this young twenty-something Grammy nominee to have a career every bit as brilliant as O’Connor.
- Multiple songs [MP3]
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
(Anti-; US: 7 Mar 2006; UK: 6 Mar 2006)
With Fox Confessor, the easy labels—country chanteuse, front-porch torch singer, noir siren—fall from Case in useless tatters. Make no mistake, that voice still inflames the twang-loving part of your brain, but it can finally claim Case’s songwriting and lyrics as equals. Throughout Fox Confessor, Case walks a twilit landscape where grief bookends stolen moments of happiness, a man fights madness by singing “nursery rhymes to paralyze the wolves that eddy out the corner of his eyes”, and realization dawns that sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is to just go home alone. Case has trafficked in such themes before, but Fox Confessor stands as her best record yet, one where the darkness is deeper and more textured than mere noir trappings, and where the earthy roots of classic country are a stepping-off point for something much more luminous.
Neko Case - Hold On, Hold On [Live on A&E]
(Six Degrees; US: 17 Oct 2006; UK: 27 Mar 2006)
Its hands firm on the swinging hips of flamenco, Ojos de Brujo guides the world to the dance floor to rub shoulders and bump with bhangra, hip hop, reggae, drum ‘n’ bass, rumba, Afro-Cuban, Latin jazz, and undeniable funk, to name but a few sounds in this joyful mix. This is multilingual Spanish (“Techari” is Calo, a Gypsy language, for “free”), sung and played with fearless perfection by talented, enthusiastic, and undeniably professional musicians. No matter one’s native tongue, or one’s grasp of another language, there’s no mistaking the meaning, here. Stretch your ear out to this one, and your heart will be glad.
Ojos de Brujo - Sultanas de merkaillo
Sometimes, you can hear the hunger. You can feel it rattle your bones, feel it wipe your brain of the conflict that clouds your emotions, and you must give in. Game Theory is the only album that made me give in this year. Every second of it is necessary, every inch of it dripping with sorrow, or outrage, or triumph. “Don’t Feel Right” is enough to capture the emotions of a population jaded by an administration who let them down, by a government body more concerned with grasping power than doing any sort of good. “False Media” turns the focus on those that tell us about that administration. The album’s not just political, either—it gets to the personal, as “Clock with No Hands” deals with the loneliness and letdown that too often accompanies unconditional love, “Can’t Stop This” beautifully eulogizes the lost-too-soon J. Dilla, and the fiery “Here I Come” is a demonstration of bravado, summoning up the will to overcome the pain and frustration of the collapse that surrounds us collectively, and Black Thought in particular—for a guy with a rep for being too detached to connect with an audience on a visceral level, he lets it all hang out here. Game Theory is the musical encapsulation of the type of disillusionment that led to Congressional upheaval made personal. For that, it deserves to be recognized.
The Roots - Here I Come [Live on Letterman]
On Show Your Bones, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs merge the sounds of the stadium with those of the underground dive. The band continually flirts with the anthemic, but never gives way to the option of a cheap release. Karen O and company rely as much on craft as brute force, and they subtley cloak both so that you don’t know which way to look even as you let yourself be bowled over a second and third time. With every melody matched by noise and every straightforward hook contrasted with fuzzy atmospheres, the album reveals a group capable of doing whatever they want. Tracks like “Gold Lion” and “Phenomena” provide all punch of a seedy bar while numbers like “Cheated Hearts” open up a slightly cleaner club. Not too epic and not too garage, not too shy and not too outspoken, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have got it just right.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Gold Lion