As you’re well aware, year-end lists are never complete, but I hereby declare my own Top Ten Singer/Songwriter Albums of 2006 list to be the Number One Most Incomplete List of 2006. After all, “Singer/Songwriter” has already won the coveted Most Vague Popular Music Descriptor for the past 30 some-odd years, and the streak has no end in sight. Just who in hell doesn’t qualify for consideration? Singer/Songwriter is not a genre unto itself—it spans all others. In my experience, nearly everyone who self-appropriates the term has been a dweeb. So this list will inevitably seem like it’s missing a whole lot of someone(s) you love, because chances are, I really have missed them. I’ve tried to devise my own particular standards for “Singer/Songwriter” that won’t easily cross-pollinate with other lists. The top nine is populated by distinct voices, musical and lyrical, whose work stands out not just because it sounds great in this moment, but because their songs transcend style, trend, and popularity (or lack thereof). These records, to me, exemplify the idea that emotion is as much derived from craft as vice versa. And number ten? Well…
Lost in the sheer tonnage of praise and adulation (including my own) championing Newsom’s stunning command of language, is how her melodies and song structures support the weight of such grand stories. As much as the Aesop-visits-Narnia fable “Monkey & Bear” impresses with its verbal playfulness, it’s the catchiness of the ever-twisting melody that keeps the song, and entire album, from ever growing tiresome. Fourteen-minute epics flit through the air like hummingbirds, through harp strings, over banjos, in the hollows of horse skulls, buffeted by Newsom’s endlessly-debated voice. But whether or not her unique pipes make or break the deal for you, her attentiveness to no more and no less than what each moment requires is undeniable. Newsom lives honestly in these songs, and her translation of personal experience into imaginative verse is what allows us to live in them as well. Ys sets itself leagues apart from the very best of the rest of ‘06 (admittedly also damn good) because the entire undertaking was built to satisfy its own desire and ambitions, to tell its own story, and to allow listeners to find their own catharsis, or none, within its borders. After all of this best-of hullabaloo, and for years to come, we will continue to pull ourselves up toward the beauty and sorrow and wonder of Ys while other records are forgotten because they stooped to meet our expectations.
Two roads diverged in the John Fahey Woods, and David MacLeod took the one less traveled by. Where a lot of devotees of Fahey have latched onto his legacy as a platform for psychedelic, Montreal’s MacLeod (also the front man for the excellent Timber) writes clear-eyed, realistic observations of modern life, overlaid on intricate, autumnal guitar figures. Strange Biology constructs gems like “One by One” and “Moving Like a Poltergeist” out of perfectly executed fingerstyle and MacLeod’s sonorous vocal delivery. “Long Goodbyes” opens the album with a slow-burning intro like the foot of a mountain. Beautifully harmonized by Katie Moore, MacLeod’s lyrics are ruminative, somber epiphanies for the reluctantly mature. He sings the opening lines to “Poltergeist” so gentle and natural, you’d never suspect they’re poetry: “Harbors trap the waves that lift the ships across the sea / But arms can’t keep their hands from waving / Banished from the slipstream of a speeding brigantine / The wind just keeps them flags from falling.” But such subtle charms are par for the course with MacLeod, crafting timelessness, one of music’s best-kept secrets.
On “The Decline of Country and Western Civilization”, Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner goes after both Civil War terrorist and KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest and Internet music rag Pitchforkmedia with surprisingly equal venom and vigor. In the song, both represent deeply misguided elitism and exclusivity with damaging legacies for two things Wagner holds close to his Nashville heart: the South and pop music. “You see your pitchfork I-rock saviors / And I’m sorry I still prefer Jim Nabors” goes the daily growl on my stereo, referring to the celebrity crooner (and Alabama native) of such hipster-derided tunes as “The Impossible Dream”. Damaged beats the retreat from everything you’d expected from a 15-piece ensemble most often labeled “country soul”. It’s a quiet-storm, Sunday-afternoon album full of subtle brilliance. “Paperback Bible” is the saddest song about classified ads (buy/sell, not personal) you’re liable to hear this year; “I Would Have Waited Here All Day” is another Wagner classic examining domestic clutter and miserable relationships (see “The Gettysburg Address”, from a b-sides comp put out earlier this year). The album is sun-dappled and warm even when Wagner grows aloof, dropping lines about cheating lovers: “You’re dripping wet from a midday shower / Soon you’ll be drying off your dick / I want to be romantic about it / But there’s really not much more to it.” The balance between the lite-symphonic splendor of Wagner’s musical vision and his dry lyrical wit is nearing ever closer to perfect.
Last Days of Wonder
(Carrot Top; US: 13 Jun 2006; UK: 29 May 2006)
Nicolai Tesla and grass-stained underwear, Ghost Dances and a couple of extra ketchup packets: no subject is too strange, too private, too mundane for the Handsome Family. Rennie and Brett Sparks cannot turn away from the depressingly realistic (“Bowling Alley Bar”) or the dreadfully imagined (“After We Shot the Grizzly”) because they constantly find opportunity to tease the humanity out of the creepy and absurd. Sliding Rennie’s sometimes macabre, always poignant fables into Brett’s oak-barreled country ‘n’ western often results in scratched heads or embarrassed titters, but it never fails to provoke. The verses of “Hunter Green” are straightforward and unadorned, as is the banjo and bowed bass arrangement, but the song nonetheless is a mystery for the listener to ponder for the ages. A hunter is continuously confused as to whether he has killed his lover or simply shot a deer or hooked a fish. Which is the reality, and what has caused the confusion in the first place? No answers but a ghastly implied image of a make-out session with a wild boar. “Somewhere Else to Be” closes the album, a string and pedal-steel laced country weeper about the profundity of a fast-food drive-thru worker’s smile. It’s no wonder the Handsome Family are relative superstars overseas. They sing of the truth in moments most Americans would rather ignore, forget, or are simply oblivious to—but which make us fascinating little creatures.
This one’s kind of a stretch, because I can’t make my mind up if Califone visionary Tim Rutili is a songwriter or a composer. Could any of the songs/compositions on Roots & Crowns be played by any other band without either studying elaborate sheet music (squeak the string here, bang on a bedpan there) or radical restructuring? Plus, although Rutili is the identifiable front man, rasp, and drawl of the increasingly hard-to-describe Califone, many of the tunes are credited to the whole ensemble, shaky little numbers growing up through the dirt of improvisation into beautiful weeds. But traditional “singer/songwriter” album or no, credit must be given to Roots & Crowns, and Califone’s continuing efforts to splatter American song forms, particularly the blues, with mud, sweat, maybe a little hemp oil, and a healthy amount of reverent irreverence. “The Eye You Lost in the Crusades” , “3 Legged Animals”, and the divine “Spider’s House”, to borrow from the album’s title, provide rootsy music with teeth—from Rutili’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics to a museum’s worth of strange and exotic instruments and textures. Evolution in song, like all things, is supposed to be too slow to notice. Roots & Crowns gives American song craft a hefty push.
(Lujo; US: 12 Sep 2006; UK: Available as import)
Whenever I start to miss city life, I throw Bees on and soak up the straight facts: office drones sending themselves to work in cubicles, bombarded by corporate media culture that tells you you’re not good enough, not smart enough, not pretty enough, then turns around and sucks up to your precious, precious attentions. Peter Andreadis fills his songs with plenty of harmonized oohs, ahhs, and cascading sighs, live horns, fake (and real) beats, keys, and bees. And he sings so sweetly about injected thigh fat into one’s face that I instinctively reach for a hand mirror. There is rage on Bees, but it’s well concealed as it vies with empathy for the dominant reaction to the foibles of modern life. A popular high school football player dies, and watches horrified at the charmed world of cheerleader girlfriends and endless possibilities goes on without him. A relationship dissolves into bitter revenge fantasies and silent, awkward dinners. And these are not morbid or downbeat tunes: instead a blend of Queen, dub, cabaret, funk, reggae, and jazz. They are funny, honest, addictive, insightful, optimistic, self-deprecating, like cities themselves. I just booked my ticket.
These Are the Clothes We Wear
(Fractured Discs; US: 24 Jan 2006; UK: Available as import)
The songs of Jenny and Lee Waters are archetypal growers, faking you out with modest production and odd-duck moves like the thrift-store shopping semi-narrative “Warped Records”. The song starts off almost laughably melodramatic with its reverbed minor chords supporting benign lyrics like “Let’s go to market / Sell the paperbacks you own”. But the pairing of sad-sack melody with hipster domestic life pays off by the end, with husband and wife both crooning “I can’t believe just how adorable that dress is when you spin around”, like a faded snapshot of a happy couple dug out of a shoebox by their grandchildren long after the funerals. The declaration by Lee to Jenny on “Over the Moon” further backs this up: “Jenny I love you honey / That ain’t a lie / Yes I’m over the moon / And I just want to live till you die.” Reminiscing on the sweet, college-town folk of “Fort Bragg Summers”, more details emerge: “How could you know that she would go? / Oh to gently touch her back again.” Oh my, it all hurts so good: the falsettos and nostalgia, life’s tiny details given dignity in three-minute doses of curtained bedroom pop.
On the brisk and unsettling “Man Down”, Mark Schwaber’s soft tenor voice and jerky strum will undoubtedly recall the pre-major label work of Elliott Smith. And the dark and melodic pop dirge “The Pressure It Feeds” could also find a counterpart in the tragically capped Smith catalog. “Why did drugs break scenes?”, Schwaber even asks on the sweet downer “Stamp and Release”, and we all nod and ponder the tough answers. But The Killing Card is nothing close to XO redux. The sometimes-Spouse member and Western Massachusetts scene vet has a penchant for virtuoso nylon-string guitar figures for example, and, um, heavy metal. After a surprising scream finishes off the somber yet strangely lilting “Torture Ground”, “The Combing of the Bottom of the Sea” bludgeons its way onto the album, a totally convincing metal instrumental, belying the author’s penchant for Septic Death as much as “You Are Just Like Me You Will Never Be Free” lays down more miles of the Harrison-Chilton-Smith highway. For anyone interested in hearing thoughtful songwriter fare taken to wholly unexpected places.
Hot damn. For such an icon, the vultures sure do like to circle overhead. Hi-fi, lo-fi, sticking his finger in your behind or covering Elton John, doesn’t matter. Everyone’s waiting for the other shoe to drop on the Bonnie Prince, but it never does. The Letting Go finds Will Oldham moving further away from haunted toward haunting. Dawn McCarthy (of Faun Fables) plays an even mightier role than on the mighty Master and Everyone, adding ye olde odd harmonies to “Lay and Love” and a cool, smooth counterpoint to Oldham’s humble mumble on “Love Comes to Me”. “Cursed Sleep” takes Billy’s earthy folk to new heights with every swell from its Icelandic string section; “Cold & Wet” hearkens back to the brokedown Palace days of disintegrating delta blues and innuendo. And although the abrasive and discordant “The Seedling” rubs this fan’s shark in the wrong direction, it wins points for defying expectation in the middle of an album that does the same. Whether lean or fleshed out, Oldham’s work always has the muscle and spirit to move you.
Here’s your chance to fill in the blank, to insert that one amazing artist that I unjustly passed over. But here’s the catch: the artist/band that you provide must have been discovered, by you, via that website that everyone loves to hate but secretly can’t wait to get home and waste two or more hours dicking around on. No entire albums to be found here directly, true, but the music-browsing capability of this erstwhile social networking site is a wonder to behold. Although the percentage of dreck is astoundingly high, there are more than enough treasures out there to make hunting worthwhile. Your favorite quarry is number ten because the phenomenon that helped you find them, in some ways, has brought back the good old-fashioned feeling of being a music fan in the days before the Internet, when every town and scene had its prodigy, writing unsung masterpieces without major- or indie-label support. Or even further back in time when families and friends would gather around the parlor piano, or front porch banjo, or outback didgeridoo, and share their songs.