Here’s the problem with year-end lists that no one mentions: they cost the reader too much money. After sorting through a few lists, you run out to the record shop and fritter away some food money for records that end up forgotten by the end of the next year. But that’s partly OK, because that’s what music fans do. The real downfall comes when you realize that after comparing polls from your favorite magazines, newspapers, blogs, web sites, and stores, and after spending all your holiday cash and gift cards, your music collection ends up looking exactly like everyone else’s.
This is where PopMatters comes in. We gave you our collective best 60 albums of the year, but now we’re giving you the discs that slipped through—the records that most matter to our writers that no one else seemed to notice, whether it was because of weirdness, poor marketing, or bad luck. Here you can find that import-only that’s going to be next year’s Stateside blog darling, those indie rockers that are as talented as they are poor, and even the songwriter who’s the next Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash rolled into one, without the sartorial affectation.
But don’t think we designed this unranked, barely alphabetized list simply to increase your hipster cred. Sure, some of these picks might require ordering directly from the band’s made-up label, but we’re not after esoterica; some might appear to be driven by distinct contrariness, but we don’t want to be combative. What we want is to share those few records from 2006 we just can’t keep to ourselves, even if we will absolutely not loan you our only copy.
And if you still think it’s about hipness, let me just point out that Cheap Trick is on the list.
Ashes Against the Grain
(The End; US: 8 Aug 2006; UK: 15 Aug 2006)
Who says a metal band can’t explore in more subtle, introspective, expansive directions? Portland, Oregon’s Agalloch effortlessly combines the dark, atmospheric sounds of black metal with more pastoral, folk-inspired sounds on their fourth album, and while Ashes Against the Grain may be deeply rooted in that bleakest of Scandinavian metal forms, the overall contradiction of light and dark, uncannily reflecting the drearily pretty Pacific Northwest, makes for a sound that is completely original, not to mention drop-dead beautiful. Sure, Ashes is loaded with wicked metal moments (the Viking-themed “Not Unlike the Waves”, for one), but more often than not, headbanging gives way to reflection (as on the gorgeous “Falling Snow”), blunt force succumbs to soaring melodies, black metal is eschewed in favor of post-punk. It’s a dazzling album, one that deserves a much broader audience than just the metal community, one that’s guaranteed to surprise many people with its mere accessibility.
Multiple songs [MySpace]
Agalloch - Falling Snow
Lily Allen’s career was likely launched through nepotism and has been buoyed so far, in England at least, by manufactured controversies and ill-considered public statements. But in America, where no one has ever heard of her or her father, Welsh comedian Keith Allen, or had to confront her inauthenticity, the fact that her signature brattiness stems less from streetwise necessity than private school privilege, she comes with no baggage. Still, you wouldn’t expect deadpan white-girl raps about casual sex and London low-lifes over ska and reggae samples to work as well as they do on this, her debut record, set to be released in the States later this month. Allen’s not much of a singer—no overemotional, ear-shattering melisma from her. Instead she shrugs her way through with a talky singsong that suits her omnipresent attitude, epitomized by her first hit, “Smile”: She off-handedly notes how she caught her boyfriend “fucking that girl next door” before gloating in his inevitable misery. The album leaves you feeling that none of your feelings, or anyone else’s for that matter, are worth taking too seriously, and moreover makes this seem not entirely antisocial but fun.
Lily Allen - LDN
Years from now rock historians will gather to speculate about what Amplifier songwriter Sel Belamir said to his bandmates before commencing their second full length album, Insider, eventually concluding that it was something along the lines of “Gentlemen, this time we’re really gonna push the envelope”. This is a Da Vinci Code of an album, an unstoppable rollercoaster full of mysteries demanding further investigation. Skirting the undefined land between classic metal and unapologetic prog rock, Insider is a maelstrom of tightly-wound ideas boldly going where none but the most ambitious riffsters have dared to tread. It rewards patience, gradually unveiling its rich contents over repeated listens. Google song titles like “Elysian Gold”, “Oort” and “Hymn of the Aten”. It almost begins to make sense. Worshiped in Europe, unloved at home, and unknown in America, Amplifier remain one of rock’s best-kept secrets.
Multiple songs [MySpace]
Moo, You Bloody Choir
(BMG; US: Available as import; UK: Available as import; Australia release date: 12 Mar 2006)
It took a number of years for Augie March’s sophomore effort, Strange Bird, to be released in the US; hopefully the same won’t be the case with the band’s haunting third album. Moo, You Bloody Choir may be difficult to get a hold of outside Australia, but the effort pays off: Glenn Richards nails one emotion after the other with his smooth, expressive voice; the lyrics waltz around familiar—but never cliché—ideas; and the band finds quiet innovation in understatement. And months after this I’m no less a cheerleader, because Augie March’s dusty, literate folk-pop is simultaneously time-/place-less and characteristically Australian. The band deliberately restricts its harmonic palette and instrumentation, allowing the poetry and depth of the lyrics to shine. The gamble pays off, and if these songs catch you at the right time, you may even be justified in ranking Richards in the same circle as acclaimed lyricists like Dan Bejar—a vital songwriter for our generation.
Multiple songs [MySpace]
Augie March - One Crowded Hour
In the swampy heat of Chicago’s Empty Bottle in August of 2006, I was part of a packed, sweaty crowd of hipsters that collectively wet themselves with glee over Beirut (happy tears of course, don’t be gross). So where were they on the big End Of list? Eastern European brass band music played by a wicked cute 18-year-old from Albuquerque ain’t good enough for ya, McCarthy? Geez. “Postcards From Italy” alone was enough to steal hearts faster than gypsies steal passports. But while official live documentation of the honest-to-god phenomenon that is Beirut is still forthcoming, Gulag Orkestar remains the feel-good melancholia of the year. Why so beloved—the exotic quality of Balkan sounds refreshing indie rock ears trained on the legacy of Western balladry, or the seeming Sufjanesque gambit of a conceptual record with kooky song titles? A new EP, Elephant Gun, dropping in February will reveal either new direction or tried and true, but from the stomp of “Bratislava” to the sweetness that follows in “Rhineland (Heartland)”, it is clear that Zach Condon is already writing and playing beyond his years, never mind his country.
Beirut - The Gulag Orkestar
Have a Little Faith
(Cheap Lullaby; US: 2 May 2006; UK: Available as import)
Few bands walk it like they talk it, and the BellRays are one of the few. With the 2006 release of Have a Little Faith, the band has taken another step from the shadows of “best kept secret” toward the mainstream. But the BellRays will never be fully matriculated into the status quo, as Lisa Kekaula and Co. are simply impossible to contain. Morphing the best elements of soul, punk, and hard rock, the band covers all bases on the album, while offering a fair approximation of what fans see on stage. Guitarist Tony Fate, bassist Bob Vennum, and drummer Craig Waters careen in a multitude of directions, as vocalist Kekaula soars above the mayhem, alternating between smooth, bluesy crooner and ear-shattering rock dominatrix. Have a Little Faith is a double-barreled exercise in musical gear shifting… it’s exquisitely energizing, exhilarating, exhausting, and flat out fun. Buckle up and prepare yourself for a wild ride, it’s time to “Pay the Cobra”.
Multiple songs [Streaming player]
The BellRays - Have a Little Faith in Me
(Capitol; US: 24 Jan 2006; UK: 23 Jan 2006)
Rosanne Cash lost her father, Johnny Cash, her stepmother, June Carter Cash, and her mother, Vivian Liberto Cash Distin, in the same short span of time. But Black Cadillac isn’t one long, unrelenting dirge; instead, it captures the wild, dangerous range of emotions lurking beyond raw grief. Sadness and rage swirl through Black Cadillac like undertows ready to pull Cash under, but a faith-informed peace creates a balance equal to those dark forces. For every sentiment like “one of us gets to go to Heaven / One has to stay here in Hell”, there’s a counterpoint like “God is in the roses, and the thorns”. Black Cadillac is a deeply literate, finely crafted record, with recurring images that rarely hold the same meaning twice. More importantly, and more impressively, it’s also a human record, bristling with conflicting human emotions.
(Big3; US: 6 Jun 2006; UK: Available as import)
After years and years of waiting and more than a couple false alarms, Cheap Trick fans finally were rewarded with just what they wanted: Rockford was, at long last, a return to the sharp, spirited, hook-heavy mix of pop-rock and heavy metal that the band perfected during its glorious late ‘70s run. Somehow, the band were able to alchemize the raw intensity of their live shows, which have never let up steam, into a dozen strong, confident tunes that sounded like the work of guys 30 years younger. Actually, Rockford was indeed Cheap Trick’s strongest album in nearly that long—since 1979’s Dream Police, which was coincidentally reissued in 2006. But, more important, it was arguably the only Cheap Trick album in those 27 years that can legitimately stand beside that ‘70s work in a lineup of the band’s most essential material. After so much disappointment, you could hardly be blamed for missing out on Rockford, but you really owe it to yourself not to.