Best Albums of 2006 #20-11
Hell Hath No Fury
(Star Trak; US: 28 Nov 2006; UK: 27 Nov 2006)
After releasing mixtapes in spite of the corporate grain, Clipse jumped through hoops for their sophomore release to descend from the iron shelves of Jive. With the Neptunes cranking out comic-book beats of industrial clanks and futuristic whops, Pusha and Malice were given one of the best-produced musical playgrounds of the year to spin tales of life on the corner. In terms of lyrical aesthetic, the brothers deliver consistently complex rhymes as extravagant and lavish as the life that they glamorize. The duo uses its track time to deliver mind-numbing drills in fantasy, making jovial puns on cocaine on the ethereal “Keys Open Doors” and blending its yearns for “innocent bitches” and Louis Vitton on the electrified “Dirty Money”. But despite the threat factor associated with drug raps, the brothers manage to be as intellectually compelling as they do entertaining, leaving the listener bedazzled with both lyrical and fantastical satisfaction.
Clipse feat. Pharrell - Mr. Me Too
The Crane Wife
(Capitol; US: 3 Oct 2006; UK: 3 Oct 2006)
For some long-time fans of the Decemberists, “The Infanta”, the lead-off track from last year’s Picaresque, was a jolt of prog-rock inflections from a band whose folk roots were its initial draw. With The Crane Wife, this trend has only deepened on tracks like the mini-suite “The Island”. The British folk elements are still in evidence on The Crane Wife, and there are still the usual stories of sailors and soldiers, and haunted murder ballads, but the pop and prog may continue to divide fans of the band’s first couple of releases. No matter, because as long as Colin Meloy continues to wield the best vocabulary in pop music, the Decemberists have a lock on being one of the most literary contemporary bands on the scene. “Shankill Butchers” calls back to Castaways and Cutouts‘s “A Cautionary Song”, and “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)” reaffirms Meloy’s curious fascination with nineteenth-century romanticism. But the central anchor of “The Crane Wife” songs (particularly the gorgeous build-up of “The Crane Wife, Pts. 1 & 2”) prove that Meloy and company not only can maintain their hyper-literate and grounded-in-the-past sensibilities, but they can build on them with new sonic palettes, rather than re-treading their past retro sounds. The Decemberists may not be the only band capable of making folk-rock magic from a retelling of a Japanese folk tale, but they’re one of the few who can do so compellingly and with the graceful lyricism of master storytellers plying their craft.
The Decemberists - O Valencia
Cat Power’s Chan Marshall challenged her existing indie-darling street cred by daring to return to her Southern roots for her seventh studio album. Recording the album over three days in Memphis, she enlisted the help of the city’s most celebrated session musicians, including Al Green guitarist “Teenie” Hodges and Booker T & the MGs’ replacement drummer Steve Potts, and booked time in an alternative Stax studio. It was a daring move for an artist whose fans had originally been drawn to her work that typically featured a passionate voice of angst-ridden attitude and rough, fuzzy guitars. Marshall still wraps her distinctive purr around heart-wrenching tales of some pretty dark themes here, but the difference in this album is that the songs are no longer weighed down. Purists may have cried out over the additional orchestration and the shaky hopefulness expressed in the songwriting, but the soulful and full-bodied arrangements and production provide the real meat that Marshall’s obviously growing musical bones have been looking for, and it’s a gorgeous combination.
Cat Power - Lived in Bars
- “The Greatest” [MP3]
With his recent memoir, a DJ stint on satellite radio, and recent albums spanning from Delta blues to Tin Pan Alley pop, Dylan has generously, if improbably, repackaged himself as a folksy cultural historian, deploying his seemingly limitless knowledge of American musical traditions with just enough inimitable idiosyncrasy to keep us eager to learn from him. Not that he doesn’t still confound; we’re barely a verse into Modern Times before he casually name-checks Alicia Keys. The album repeats the wizened-entertainer approach of 2001’s Love and Theft and yields similarly strong results, though with these songs’ leisurely running times and familiar structures, played a bit lackadaisically by his band, Dylan’s comfort exploring this style can come across as complacency. But you don’t come to Dylan records expecting fresh, hooky tunes; you want intriguing lyrics, and this deceptively straightforward set, given Dylan’s masterful delivery, proves subtle and deep, posing different riddles upon every listen.
Bob Dylan - When the Deal Goes Down
Let’s face it: in the wake of James “Jay Dee” “J Dilla” Yancey’s untimely passing early this year, the producer/emcee has had a posthumous release life comparable to a certain rapper whose name rhymes with 2Pac. However, while Shakur’s post-life life has been wrested from his control, Dilla’s recent output has stayed true to the artist’s view. Which may explain why Donuts, the last album to be released during Jay Dee’s life, may be so engrossing and difficult to listen to. On one hand, it is a pure artist’s statement: raw idea sketches that rebound and reform in quick succession. On the other, the spectre of a terminal condition permeates its essence, from forcing Dilla to make the album out of records and equipment delivered to his hospital bed to his prescient departure a week after the album’s release on Valentine’s Day. Show love for a man who showed his.
- Multiple songs [MySpace]
Through the Windowpane
(Polydor; US: Available as import; UK: 17 Jul 2006)
Surely the boldest, most ambitiously imaginative debut album of 2006, Through the Windowpane, by London (via Birmingham, Scotland, Brazil, and Canada) four-piece Guillemots, is a dreamy magic carpet ride that takes in elements as disparate as joyous orchestral pop, samba rhythms, and soaring birdsong. Wilfully eccentric and at times gloriously unrestrained, every song seems to burst from the speakers in brilliant color. For every giddy, careering moment like “Trains to Brazil”, there’s a track like “Redwings”—a swoonsome duet between singer Fyfe Dangerfield and Joan Wasser that sounds like the aural equivalent of hot chocolate. Somehow all this madness is brought together in the epic closing song “Sao Paulo”, which, after starting as a tear-jerking ballad, ends after some ten minutes in a samba snowstorm of clattering percussion and swooping strings. Of course, compared to the Arctic Monkeys, Guillemots were about as cool as knitting—but that was part of the fun. Through the Windowpane is an unforgettable record, drawn from a boundless sonic palate and inspired by the most audacious of imaginations. Put simply, more than any other band this year, Guillemots redefined what pop music could still be capable of.
Guillemots - Trains to Brazil
- Multiple songs [MySpace]
Modern reggae music needs Tanya Stephens like lungs need oxygen, and this year she delivered her angriest and most beautiful album yet. So refreshing to hear a singer stand up against casual homophobia and racism (“Do You Still Care”) and puritanical religious nuts (“Keep Looking Up”); shocking to hear her call Condoleezza Rice a “house nigger” like she does on “Rosa”. But it is her empathy that connects with the listener, especially on the year’s best song in any genre, the instant classic “These Streets”, a heartbreaking ode to a boyfriend whose thuggish hobbies drag him down. But Stephens is able to have fun too—she’ll still pull your man and laugh at you, and full marks for anyone who refers to Rowdy Roddy Piper in a love song and lives to tell about it.
Tanya Stephens - These Streets
Taking the Long Way
(Sony; US: 23 May 2006; UK: 12 Jun 2006)
Honest, intimate, melancholic, and brave, typified by plangent strumming, stunning vocals, and glorious harmonies, this is the country, rock, and pop album of the year. Taken as a whole, Taking the Long Way is less an indirect plea for understanding and forgiveness than a clear and determined acceptance of The Way Things Are, and a bold statement of future intent. So, although The Incident rears its head frequently (“Not Ready to Make Nice”, “The Long Way Around”, “Easy Silence”), there’s far more here than just that single headline issue. “Lullaby”, for example, pitter patters enchantingly while Natalie Maines and the sisters sing of their undying love for their children. While “So Hard” is a heartfelt portrayal of the problems that infertility can bring to even the strongest relationship. And “Silent House” is a remarkable country rock song of remembrance for a relative lost to Alzheimer’s. The absolute stand-out, however, is “Voice Inside My Head”. An impassioned and hook-laden song of regret that might relate to adoption or even to young love gone awry, but which almost certainly refers to a youthful abortion. Taking The Long Way is a record Nashville and country radio should have embraced with open arms. Because as the Chicks continue to evolve, they’re capable of extending the artistic boundaries of the music they clearly love, and helping to promote country music far beyond its current constituency. Perhaps it’s time for the Chicks’ critics to make nice?
The Dixie Chicks - Not Ready to Make Nice
Eight years after Diwan, Algerian singer and rai troubadour Rachid Taha has issued its sequel. Although arguably more roots-oriented than his heavily produced 2004 album Tékitoi, Diwan 2 still rocks. Rai is, primarily, an aggressive sound, which is why its early acoustic incarnation translated so well to its dance form in the 1980s. Taha leans toward the older style here, but hits the beat hard, even with the Cairo String Ensemble, who beautifully augment several of the entrancing tunes found here. A sound all its own, rai transcends the sounds of Africa and the nearby Middle Eastern flavors. With Diwan 2, eclectic world pop star Taha proves once again that he transcends all styles.
(Ninja Tune; US: 21 Feb 2006; UK: 30 Jan 2006)
“Before you abuse / Criticize and accuse / Walk a mile in my shoes”, sings Robert Owens in the chorus of Coldcut’s “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” from the duo’s latest offering Sound Mirrors, and it might as well be a shout to the critics wondering why in the world they’d release a guest star-laden album that takes so much of the emphasis off of themselves this late in their career. The answer to such a query, of course, is another question: Why not? It’s true that the two members of Coldcut have nothing left to prove musically, and that’s not even touching their eye for talent as founders of a fantastic label, but it’s obvious that their love for making music still exists. So what they did do was call a bunch of friends and record two mini-albums: a party album (the first half of Sound Mirrors) and a chillout album (the second half). The skill with which John More and Matt Black make your head and feet move combined with the skill at which they can make you truly listen to their more minimal moments is still near-unparalleled. Anyone who missed it, thinking they’d heard all they needed to hear from Coldcut, would do well to rectify that mistake immediately.
Coldcut - Sound Mirrors
- Multiple songs [MySpace]