[23 December 2006]
Listening to the Scottish group’s latest is like being in a depressed teenager’s bedroom, suffused with lethargy but dreaming of escape, not so much consumed with regret but distracted by rumination, with no one to commune with but pop records, as on the album’s opener, “Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken”, a rejoinder to Lloyd Cole’s taunting “Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?” from 1984. You empathize, because traumatic heartbreak would beat the muted melancholy that threatens to gently suffocate listeners with church organ trills and weary, deprecating vocals. Camera Obscura perfectly captures the inevitable moment we all face, when we must decide if we’re going to get over ourselves and leave teen malaise behind or surrender to the succor of sweet self-absorption. The record plumbs the sweetly lulling depths of the latter to make the former ultimately that more attractive.
Camera Obscura - Let’s Get Out of This Country
Bernstein, a downtown trumpeter who combines puckish humor with a history lesson, has a brilliant mini-big band that plays with raucous exuberance. Here, the group tackles 1930s jazz alongside soul classics like “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and “Darling Nikki”. The past and the present never feel uncomfortably “fused”—rather, Bernstein’s arrangements make it seem like Prince and Duke Ellington were always meant to hang out. Combining the cheek of Lester Bowie’s old Brass Fantasy band and an archivist’s love for the grit of the past, Bernstein has found a new way to honor the masters.
Stephen Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra
Invoking the wrath of God and inventing a modern fascist dystopia may not be your run-of-the-mill topics for a pop-punk album, but this Portland trio tackles these and other grandiose themes with reckless abandon. The Body, The Blood, The Machine is Hutch Harris’s Orwellian allegory, sort of like 1984 set against a backdrop of ultra catchy power-pop hooks and a rollicking rhythm section punctuated by the buoyant bass lines of Kathy Foster. Harris’s emotive nasal twine is reminiscent of contemporary indie-rock troubadours such as the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle and Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Magnum, but the soft acoustic touches are replaced by soaring punk guitar riffs. During this ominous effort, Harris emphatically chronicles a dialogue between God and Jesus, eerily forebodes the future of mankind, and narrates a daring escape from a bastion of radical Christianity. The Thermals’ third, and most prolific, album is a raucous and explosive tome. The tunes are cerebral yet still fun, and utterly enjoyable.
The Thermals - A Pillar of Salt
The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle is increasingly recognized as one of the best lyricists in music, and rightfully so. Over the last 15 years he’s written many memorable characters, settings, and stories into song, in clever, insightful, and original ways. But this is the first Mountain Goats album where all of the other aspects of his songwriting—melody, mood, expressions of emotion—are just as accomplished. In that regard it surpasses even last year’s critically revered The Sunset Tree. The musical landscape is expansive, filled with unique sonic touches. Darnielle ties post-break-up tales of absolute heartbreak together with Frankenstein-esque monster birth/death stories in fascinating ways. And he sings these songs in an unexpectedly soft, sensitive way that complements the album’s themes and melodies. Get Lonely is one of those assured musical statements where every piece fits together perfectly, the end result sounding like no other album, old or new.
The Mountain Goats - Woke Up New
56As fans and listeners, we’ve been eulogizing Cash since his death in 2003, but American V is like hearing his voice from beyond, uttering his final thoughts on this whole mortal coil business. These are the recordings he was working on as his death approached, when Rick Rubin kept a band on call for the increasingly rare moments when Cash felt well enough to record. Religion and death intertwine, as they often have for Cash, throughout this record. American V, though, finds Cash’s mood ranging from accepting (“Like the 309”, “Further on Up the Road”, and “On the Evening Train”) to apocalyptic (“God’s Gonna Cut You Down” sounds like a marching song for the armies of judgment), showing that Cash didn’t lose his focus even in those final days.
With bassist Jim O’Rourke out of the band, Kim Gordon says she was nervous about everything—from writing lyrics to playing bass again—but she still emerges the hero here, her cool-toned singing taking “Turquoise Boy” to spiraling, spacious places, her deadpanned chant the blue-fired heart of “Jams Run Free”. Thurston Moore counters with the unexpected serenity of “Do You Believe in Rapture?” and the off-kilter but instantly addictive “Incinerate”. A smooth ride throughout, Rather Ripped mutes the noise and buries the dissonance, letting feedback rule only occasionally (at the end of “Turquoise Boy”, in the interstices of Lee Ranaldo’s “Rats”). That Rather Ripped is not Washing Machine or Daydream Nation or Goo may rankle in some quarters. Still, any band this long-standing battles its history with every new release. Only Sonic Youth comes out a winner most of the time.
Sonic Youth - Reena
When it comes to best-of-the-year lists, my primary criterion is artistic achievement, the sowing of new seeds. From this teleological view, Destroyer’s Rubies was one of the most fruitful plows of 2006. Dan Bejar (of the New Pornographers) has added a full (and rotating) band throughout the years to the Destroyer moniker, and it is here that the group hits its stride, from the jazz-piano ditty “Looters’ Follies” to the ripping guitar solo in “European Oils” to the nine-minute epic title track. But it is Bejar’s distinct vocal style that earns Rubies its (and this) honor. The lyrics in and of themselves are hit (“Never had a chance / Never had to choose / Your blood versus your blues”) and miss (“I woke up / I looked around / A famous Toronto painter shot me down”), but the slicing, flowing, stilted vocal style relegates words to second-class citizenry as Bejar pathologically convicts listeners through his fluid manipulation of the nondiscursive elements of rhythm, rapidity, and cadence.
The reunion of N’Dea Davenport with the Brand New Heavies produced 12 of the funkiest sides released this year, if not the 21st century. Get Used to It is an indispensable reminder that organic, unfiltered funk is alive and well in 2006. Anchored by Jan Kincaid, Andrew Love Levy, and Simon Bartholomew, Davenport purrs with a sinuous sensuality on “Sex God” and wails like a soul siren on a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Don’t Know Why (I Love You)”, effortlessly usurping Wonder’s original. Track for track, the boys in the band maintain a simmering groove and are as much in command of their musical prowess as Davenport is with her voice. More than two decades into their career, the Brand New Heavies exemplify the “rhythm” in rhythm and blues better than ever.
The Brand New Heavies - I Don’t Know Why (I Love You)
M. Ward has always displayed an uncanny ability to channel a sound and vibe that emanates from another time entirely. Ward’s deft work on the fretboard coupled with his breathy, ethereal voice has consistently been a powerful vehicle for transmitting his fascination with a traditional American music born of an era more honest, more straightforward, and more romantic than the one we live in. Albums like Transistor Radio and Transfiguration of Vincent relied on little more than Ward’s voice and guitar. While those albums had an undeniable charm and showed him to be a songwriter of note, his need to play the role of old-time troubadour could make his albums as anachronistic as celebratory. So what happened on Post-War? For starters Ward worked with a full-time backing band for the first time. These additional collaborators seem to have freed Ward from his penchant for musical revivalism and encouraged him to hang flesh and muscle on songs that otherwise would have been skeletal. Lyrically Post-War contains Ward’s best work. Sounding as hopeful and fulfilled as he ever has, his wordplay is clever and deft recalling Newman, Bacharach, and Costello as much as traditional folk lyricists like Dylan and Guthrie. Post-War‘s greatest success is how Ward has blended his sounds both modern and venerable to create a richly romantic album and, indeed, a collection of some of the best songs of the year.
M. Ward - Chinese Translation
While Beth Orton’s quirky and expressive voice gets most of the attention, and Jim O’Rourke’s clean and sparkling production receives lots of notice, the best thing about Comfort of Strangers is the high caliber of songwriting. Orton creates little soundscapes that constantly move and merge in meaning. One never quite knows what Orton’s singing about as she constantly shifts the lyrical tones and implications (i.e. “I get too weak to fight / From all this laughing”) of the lyrics so that the everchanging rhythms make sense as they try to keep up with the words. Her thoughts and feelings can be intricately concrete in detail one verse and then metaphorically vague the next without missing a beat. Meanwhile, guitars and drums, pianos and harmonicas—and was that an accordion?—weave in and around the melodies. And then there is Orton’s wonderfully different voice, somewhere between a chortle and a sigh, and O’Rourke’s inventively simple-yet-complex production skills.
Beth Orton - Conceived [Live on Letterman]
Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor was certainly the most intelligent mainstream hip-hop album released in 2006 (with the Roots’ Game Theory its only real competition). While the Chicago rookie’s got a little work to do on his flow, the album’s thoughtful lyrical content and rock-solid production put Lupe a step ahead of his flashier but less substantial contemporaries. With little in the way of recognizable samples or big-name guest appearances (Jay-Z being a BIG, BIG exception), Lupe’s debut harkened back to the golden era of hip-hop, when all you needed was hot beats and rhymes to make a statement. Touching on everything from terrorism to growing up without a dad to his own conflicted love affair with hip-hop, Fiasco showed that young hip-hoppers are about more than stunna shades and dope deals. Not only that, but with “Kick, Push”, he recorded quite possibly the coolest skateboarding anthem of all time. Food & Liquor is the album that Pharrell wishes he was capable of making.
Lupe Fiasco - Daydreamin
49Tradition means a lot in folk music, and this guy has got it spades. There aren’t many people left who can claim to have hoboed America with Woody Guthrie and later toured with Dylan, but this isn’t why the 75 year-old Elliott heads the list. His latest record is a triumph in many ways, from its brilliant mix of talking blues, topical tunes, train songs, and strange, silly one-offs to Elliott’s hard-plucked guitar playing that sounds like a carpenter hammering nails on a frosty morn. At the center is Elliot’s pickled-in-whiskey voice, which reveals a crusty personality that’s seen and done it all and is ready to experience everything again. Whether he’s singing a love song with Lucinda Williams, clucking over Jean Harlow, complaining about arthritis, or moaning for his dog, this ramblin’ man knows that it’s important to suck all the marrow out of life that you can, even if it’s a funny bone you are sucking on.
For those who can’t be at a live performance, here’s how to get the best of singer songwriter Michelle Malone from the speakers: pour a strong drink—whisky, scotch, name your poison—straight up; kick off your shoes; push those speakers right up to the screen in the window and go out on the porch. Bring your cigarettes, if that’s your thing, and your dog. Malone won’t mind. Stand up and shake it or sit down and watch your foot jiggle to a sound that swells up from this woman’s soul, right through your very bones ‘til you have to grit your teeth to keep from shouting, “YOW!” (Don’t want to scare the neighbors.) Put Sugarfoot alongside CDs by Lucinda Williams and Shelby Lynne and Janis Joplin. Dirty south, bluesy rock. Sweet slide guitar. You’ll feel the earth move under your bare feet.
Michelle Malone - Tighten Up the Springs
Emerging after one of the darkest periods in bandleader Kurt Wagner’s life, Lambchop’s ninth album sounded like their greatest achievement to date. After surviving a cancer scare and undergoing major surgery to have bone from his hip grafted onto his jaw, you could have anticipated that Wagner’s songs on Damaged would be concerned with the dark and desperate themes of mortality and decay. That they unfurled with such bruised humanity, black humour and gentle insight is nothing short of wondrous. Over a backdrop of shimmering guitars, singing pianos and the murmurs of cut-and-paste electronica, Wagner spun stories about love, infidelity and small town hopes and fears, which were alive and bristling with passion. He gave a stark, poetic voice to men on the verge of breakdown, and women who were crying with boredom—revealing more about our fragile human states in the process than a pop singer had any right to. Damaged saw Lambchop continue to move away from the country-soul pigeon hole they have long since grown out of, and take up an almost untouchable place as one of the finest bands of their generation.
Keiran Hebden is a mastermind of modern electronic production who records as Four Tet; Steve Reid is one of the most storied jazz percussionists in history, having worked with the likes of Miles Davis, James Brown, and Fela Kuti, in addition to his work as a session drumemr during the formative years of Motown. Perhaps on paper the pairing might seem odd, but in reality this is one of the most inspired team-ups of recent years. Straddling the line between free jazz and dense experimental electronic music, The Exchange Sessions are musical artifacts of unparalleled imagination and confidence. Split into two CDs seemingly at random, both discs present a picture of effortless musical rapport that surpasses generic boundaries and easily qualifies as the most viscerally exciting musical event of the year. In her review of the second disc, PopMatters’ own Jennifer Kelly put it perhaps as succinctly possible when she said:
Hebden and Reid have locked onto some sort of transmission from a higher consciousness here, and if you listen hard enough, you can feel it right along with them.
If you haven’t yet heard The Exchange Sessions, all this hyperbole might seem excessive—once you actually do hear them, however, no amount of rhetorical excess could possibly seem excessive. Simply flawless.
John Legend’s debut, Get Lifted, positioned him as the male Alicia Keys. Blending traditional hip-hop/R&B with a sense of musicality that only someone who plays a piano can have, Legend won three Grammys at the top of ‘o6, including Best New Artist. His sophomore set, Once Again, blows Keys to bits and eliminates any possibility of either the sophomore or “Best New Artist” curse. He removes the hip-hop influence to create a timeless album of classic tunes that is pure soul. With influences ranging from Stevie Wonder to Jeff Buckley, this mainly down-tempo set is the year’s best treasure.
John Legend - Heaven
44Tangotronica! I don’t know if Astor Piazzolla would have approved, but Paris-based Gotan Project’s second album, Lunatico, is so sexy that even a purist would fall headlong for the sultry vocals of Cristina Villalonga, the group’s corpuscular downtempo beats, and the haunting string and bandoneon playing of the traditional tango quartet Gotan Project took on for these sessions. While some artists might have been content to slide a trance beat under some standard melodies, Lunatico presents a broad range of tempos, feels, and recipes for their signature stylistic mix. Mournful blues sit alongside clubby dance tracks, and all are blended seamlessly into an elegant whole.
Spare yet soulful, this follow-up to Larrieux’s stellar Bravebird finds the jazzy, emotive singer at her best. Morning is a family affair, with husband Laru adding production, composition, and musicianship, as well as contributions from her children. It is also a celebration of awakenings and epiphanies, in which Larrieux stretches her sound from a cozy, laidback tune like “Weary” to the folksy croon of the title track. Vocally, Larrieux has never sounded better, pushing the ten-song, 39-minute set to the max, from campy high-end performances (“Trouble”) to her hypnotic lower register (“Mountain of When”). At a time when pop and R&B are often seen as faceless and formulaic, Larrieux approaches love and loss from a personal angle that highlights her individuality. Musically, the team of Larrieux and Larrieux craft a record brimming with ideas that are quirky (“Earn My Affections”), tender (“Unanswered Question”), and soulful (“Gills and Tails”). Morning‘s tight production and imaginative lyrics demand multiple listens on your headphones to experience the full effect. Larrieux could have traded her freewheeling creativity for more mainstream success—but thank goodness she didn’t.
In the wrong hands, the music of The Life Pursuit could easily have become a set of mediocre pop songs: redundant, monotonous, and stale. But almost magically, Belle & Sebastian transform seemingly simple melodies and deceptively naive ideas into tracks filled with bouyant life and vibrant color. The group’s seventh studio album achieves far more than mere “chamber pop”. Jangly guitars and keyboards present a sweet pop persona, but in reality The Life Pursuit is filled with an eclectic mix of country twang, blues shuffle, and straight-up rock, retaining the bright harmonies of previous albums while building on and broadening their scope and strength. Stuart Murdoch’s brand of pop is anything but simple; it is polished, impeccably so, and the songs are intricately produced and tightly constructed. This disc’s vivid beauty lies in the fact that it is not pure sunshine. The album is mysteriously enchanting, lovely because it dares to be darker than we initially assume. Its charm is that it never brags about its power. Instead, it gently hints at it, subtly revealing—track by track—true beauty. Bittersweet trumpet lines and irresistible grooves find niches within the human body and linger there for what might be forever. To craft so carefully songs that so accurately convey human emotion is nothing but the earnest pursuit of music, of art, and of life.
Belle & Sebastian - The Blues Are Still Blue
Affability may be Band of Horses’ biggest weakness. A friendly albeit sometimes rollicking affair, their debut is so instantaneously familiar and relaxed that first impressions are often understated. Still, there’s just enough initial appeal to keep coming back and upon returning the album seeps in. Sounding like much more than a less ambitious Flaming Lips or updated Neil Young, Band of Horses demonstrate a humble yet masterful take on subtle bombast and triumphant grace. While some songs like “Our Swords” roll on amicably enough to pass for labelmates the Shins, certain others such as “The Funeral” balance parading stomp against aching fragility. All lacquered over with echo and reverb, these songs seethe with transcendent darkness and the impulse to emerge from that black into ascending light. Rocking with refined restraint, such shimmering anthems make Everything All the Time better than it is on first listen and position Band of Horses as artists on the rise.
Band of Horses - The Funeral
This sound comes through like a radio signal on a foggy night; sometimes playing on static, others times, sharp and clear. It’s meant for interior spaces; dark, subterranean, soothing—but one still feels the cool air creeping in the cracked window panes at one’s back. Noirish jazz, sweet funk, and heavy soul will have your head nodding, but you’ll have to set your brandy and cigarette down to groove to “Night I” and “Night II”. If someone’s talking at you while this is on, you’ll only be pretending to listen to them. The sound here is simultaneously cerebral and soulful, and it will draw you in, like a light in a basement window on a chilly night.
The musical landscape was already rife with post-punk influences by 2006, but few bands captured quite the early-post-punk visceral excitement that informs Love Is All. Based in Sweden but releasing on New York City’s What’s Your Rupture? imprint, Love Is All bypasses usual ‘80s influences for New York circa 1979, pairing lo-fi punk riffs with no-wave sax blurt and a clever, fresh production angle. Creating a thrilling controlled noise, the meticulous production manages to sound straight off of a basement four-track without sacrificing excellent instrument separation throughout, which is important given how much is going on in any given track. Within that approach, the band never seems to rest too long on any precise sound, swerving through downtempo glockenspiel and echo-chamber disco when it suits its purposes, and the sheen of reverb and distortion obscuring keyboardist/singer Josephine’s voice on most tracks only makes her words all the more personal when it lifts.
The Flaming Lips discovered politics, rediscovered guitar, and uncovered a love of early Pink Floyd and other psychedelic influences on their current release, At War with the Mystics. Chief Lip Wayne Coyne shows a pissed-off side that’s both eye-opening and refreshing. The keys are the first two songs; if you can wrap your head around “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” and “Free Radicals”, you’re hooked. There are a good mix of anthems (the two aforementioned songs, “Haven’t Got a Clue”, and “The W.A.N.D.”) and cosmic psychedelica (“Vein of Stars”, “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion”, “The Sound of Failure”). Steven Drozd’s guitar work is exceptional, and there are many hidden touches that unearth themselves with repeated listens. At War with the Mystics is as challenging and as rewarding as any release in 2006. The Flaming Lips have got the power now, motherfuckers—it’s where it belongs.
The Flaming Lips - The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song
Lindsey Buckingham fans (and there’s a crucial distinction between these and most Fleetwood Mac fans) usually cite the solo album that Buckingham couched within 1979’s Mac opus Tusk as irrefutable proof of the man’s musical and technical genius. Under the Skin is more akin to that work than anything Buckingham’s done in the last 27 years. Except that, instead of being driven by fame, personal tragedy, and drugs, Under the Skin is inspired by Buckingham’s belated domestic bliss and his fear of the clock winding down on his solo aspirations. The results are shot through with tension, longing, and gratitude—emotions reflected in these 11 breathy, odd, yet captivatingly melodic songs, including Stones and Donovan covers that Buckingham makes his own. Don’t call this an “acoustic” album, either: All of the multi-tracking, click tracks, and effects make that irrelevant. Instead, call it Buckingham’s most intimate, affecting case yet for being the major singer/songwriter he so wants to be recognized as.
Lindsey Buckingham - Show You How
Quantic, one Will Holland, is a globetrotter and it shows. He’s bound by the chains of no genre conventions and no geographic definitions. While traveling from Puerto Rico to Ethiopa and America, he worked on the ambitious An Announcement to Answer on his laptop, soaking up regional sounds and applying his own abundant imagination at every juncture along the way. There’s hip-hop and soul, sure, but there’s also salsa, funk and jazz. Quantic is one fine crate-digger. These sounds are diverse, while resonating as unified and whole. It takes a great artist to use a broad palette and capture seemingly disparate and wide-ranging elements and bring them together into a coherent (and beautiful) statement. Quantic’s work is always adventurous and yet accessible, a very difficult thing for any musician to achieve. This is among his finest statements.
Tom Waits’s songs have always been a motley bunch of mangy ruffians—in the department store of American popular music, they’re the ones relegated to the “irregulars” bin in the corner. And so a title like Orphans is only too representative of Waits’s musical world, which, while inextricable from the musical world at large, maintains our only consistent connection to the unpopularized nooks and crannies of American musical history. The three-disc set, housed in a beautifully bound booklet, takes a whopping 54 songs—some new, some newly re-discovered, some previously available on compilations and soundtracks—and divides them into three thematic demarcations. Brawlers has the b-movie rockabilly, grunting Chicago blues, and frothing-at-the-mouth spirituals; Bawlers collects the classicist balladeering and folk-based strums; and Bastards oozes the detritus of batshit subconscious, from bedtime nightmares to oral dissections of insect life. Much more than a closet-cleaning odds ‘n’ sods collection, Orphans is a comprehensive summation of Waits’s craggy persona and a rough reflection of the dirty water flooding the tidal pools of American music.
Tom Waits - Lie to Me
Down an abandoned alley in deepest, darkest Hoboken, Yo La Tengo finds itself cornered by a multitude of fearsome contemporary music gangs. The last vestiges of nü-metal, coughing and tearing their goatees out, but still lethal, advance on the veteran indie-rock band. Crunk stars sport brass knuckles; emo-kids prepare to launch homemade Molotov cocktails brewed with the collected tears of their tormented hearts, but Yo La Tengo is not cowed. Frontman Ira Kaplan steps forward, backlit by sodium light, and declares I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass. The alley erupts in derisive laughter. But before the gangs can react, the band unleashes a lethal volley: the cowbell-and-falsetto of “Mr. Tough” which compresses “Let’s Be Still” (from 2003’s Summer Sun) into a hard nugget of R&B-flavored pop, the gorgeously stretched-out instrumental “Daphnia”, and the catchy-as-fuck “Beanbag Chair”. Gold teeth go flying with impact of the garage-band beach party of “Watch Out For Me Ronnie”. Explosions of self-absorbed angst are rendered into powdered sugar by the calm wisdom of Georgia Hubley’s “I Feel Like Going Home”. The gangs are routed every which way including Sunday by Yo La Tengo’s mastery of an arsenal of styles, its record unmatched in 2006 for its diversity and charm. Many asses are kicked this day.
Yo La Tengo - Today Is the Day [Live on CNBC]
The premise: an aging rock star explores his musical roots by devoting an entire album to remakes of traditional folk songs recorded by someone semi-popular 60 years ago. To do so, he will forego recording with his world-famous, ass-kicking band and assemble a collective of unknown musicians who play such rocking instruments as the… uh… washboard. Sounds like a hit, eh? Not exactly, but when the rock star is Bruce Springsteen and the folk singer is Pete Seeger, you’ve got an undeniable slice of Americana.
We Shall Overcome is not only a concise anthology of American folk music (and its roots in Great Britain), it’s also a lesson in American mythology. From outlaws to biblical figures to heroic laborers, Springsteen mines the depths of our heritage. All of this would be worthy for purely academic reasons, but the album also sounds really damn good. Dylan may be America’s most revered artist, but he could only dream of sounding this inspired.
Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band - Jacob’s Ladder
As her song “I Never” on Rilo Kiley’s More Adventurous first suggested, Jenny Lewis sees the deep clear honest beauty in country music. Presumably she responds not only to the melodies and textures, but also to the great storytelling tradition of the form. And perhaps to the way strong females can thrive and even dominate within the genre. Rabbit Fur Coat is both a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Folk, country, pop, and Southern gospel are fused into an ageless, captivating record that, in quite the oddest way, reminds me very much of Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose. Wrapped carefully within the soft soprano harmonies of the Watson Twins, Lewis’s voice is deep, sensual, and extraordinarily expressive, handling all measure of emotions with a constant mesmerising grace. Like Neko Case, she bends her voice at will around her intricate, twisting lyrics as if it was the easiest thing in the world. If I could own only one record that was released during 2006, this would be the one.
Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins - Rise Up with Fists
For all his scrupulous intentions and inarguable punch, Eddie Vedder’s aggressive earnestness is what has probably turned a lot of people off to grunge’s sole survivors over the past few years; additionally, though Pearl Jam’s live shows have remained thrilling, its last two records were the spottiest of its 15-year career. That makes Pearl Jam one of the most welcome comebacks of 2006, a roaring monster that finds Vedder’s righteous rage focused on those most worthy of targets: a messy war, a garish president, and the vulgar abuses of power unleashed on honest men by both.
Vedder and his enduring company swear up and down that Pearl Jam isn’t a concept disc, but it’s tough to think the carpe-diem meteor “Life Wasted” (and its brief reprise), the majestically melodic “Marker in the Sand”, the fireball sucker-punch to the administration “World Wide Suicide” (“Tell you to pray while the devil’s on their shoulder”), and the heartbreaking “Come Back” don’t star the same cast. But Pearl Jam‘s power is not just Vedder: Mike McCready and Stone Gossard have relocated the bite sometimes missing from Riot Act and Binaural, and Matt Cameron’s all but perfected his thrash. War is good for nothing, but there’s great worth in responses as thoughtful and driving as this.
Pearl Jam - Life Wasted
30Japan’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.
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
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
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
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.
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]
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
12Eight 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.
“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
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Vietnam era classic recording What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye is reimagined by the Crescent City’s very own Dirty Dozen Brass Band in this compelling updating of an American classic. The rage over black and poor disenfranchisement and neglect couldn’t be more timely in the aftermath of Katrina. Reflecting the great musical stew that is New Orleans, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band works with a host of guest performers (Chuck D, Bettye Lavette, G. Love and more) to create a gumbo of brass jazz, soul, hip-hop and funk. For those poor souls who labor under the misconception that jazz has lost its soul and gone all cerebral and up-market, this record will blast away all those assumptions. Jazz remains a vital, cutting-edge art form, capable of articulating anger and hope and also being a form of protest music. What’s Going On is the proof. It’s a simultaneously elegant, angry and stunning recording with lyrics that sound like they were penned just the other day in washed out yards in the Lower Ninth Ward.—Sarah Zupko
The most unlikely major-label release of the year proves to be one of the most exciting and engaging, and Return to Cookie Mountain evidences that the oft-lamented notion of major labels stripping indie bands of their unique character can be dead wrong. TV on the Radio follows up a surge of critical groundswell and indie hipster cred with a major-label debut that proves as mysterious and unclassifiable as ever. Continuing to merge droning rock and electronic textures with jazz and doo-wop, the magnetism of TV on the Radio is stronger than ever, and Return to Cookie Mountain is the most layered and complex production work yet from musical pioneer David Sitek, while the charismatic voice of Tunde Adebimpe remains the focal point, and Kip Malone’s gorgeous harmonies the counterpoint. “I Was a Lover” proves to be a challenging opening shot, while the luminous “Wolf Like Me” is the best expression yet of the band’s familiar mix of sensual and sleazy, and the tempestuous “Dirtywhirl” returns TV on the Radio to its moodily erotic territory. “A Method” delivers both the traditional a cappella and offers the most focused message that TV on the Radio has yet delivered. When you finally get to “Wash the Day”‘s closing surge and chant, Return to Cookie Mountain proves to be an emotional experience that hits at the gut level. Much of the time, the lyrics are impressionistic and obtuse, relying more on tone and feeling than dialog and message. The music is sometimes challenging and strange, full of familiar elements pulled like taffy into alien structures. In short, TV on the Radio seems practically unmarketable. But this once raw, now refined and undeniably unique band is compelling because of, not in spite of, this genre-less identity. Return to Cookie Mountain is the sound of new music, and in an era when rock, hip-hop, electronic, you name it seem to made out of recycled material, that alone makes it the most intriguing release of the year. That TV on the Radio manages all this while emerging from the underground and continuing to evolve its strange blueprint makes it irrefutably one of the best.—Patrick Schabe
Judging from the amount of shushing at recent concerts, even public performances of Joanna Newsom’s Ys are intensely personal experiences. No one’s plastic cup of Pabst is in any danger of tipping at these shows. Instead, every pluck of a harp string plucks heartstrings; every syllable uttered from the glorious and iconographic five-song folk masterpiece conjures exponential images blooming like frost inside the listener’s mind. It’s telling that the one or two negative reviews of Ys out there (yes, they do exist) focus on trivial details, like an aversion to Benjamin Vierling’s (exquisite) medieval-themed cover portraiture or the fact that Newsom’s songs will never be featured in a Simon Cowell-produced shitstorm. But yay and nay reactions to albums of this caliber are always extreme; Ys blows minds in all directions. Using Van Dyke Parks’s orchestral arrangements and Jim O’Rourke’s divine ear not as crutches but as vitamins, Newsom brought craft and passion together in heretofore unheard ways because she understands that the latter cannot exist without the former. “Emily”, “Sawdust & Diamonds”, and the rest are as potent for their melody, meter, and rhyme as for their meaning. While other artists spent the year making records, Newsom was busy building worlds.—Michael Metivier
In his earlier years, the late guitarist and singer Ali Farka Touré (1939-2006) was inspired by legendary bluesman John Lee Hooker. This stylistic connection is brought to the fore on Savane, Touré‘s final recording. Our first hint is the album cover’s proclamation that he is “The King of the desert blues singers”, a slogan that purposefully mimics the label attached to Robert Johnson (here substituting “desert” for “Delta”). The music, too, is Touré‘s most overtly blues-leaning. With a wailing harmonica and the ripened voice of its leader calling out between melodic licks, the opening track, “Erdi”, could be Lightnin’ Hopkins. “Beto”, meanwhile, pushes forward the hypnotic melodic spirals common to much North African music, while aided by the sultry combo of a female backing vocalist and some restrained bursts of weeping saxophone. The title track slowly struts, as flashes of electric guitar are complimented by mellifluous flourishes of kora. All throughout, Savane pulls off the greatest trick of the album format: It offers plenty of variety, but it also corrals its songs into a unified sound. Although in his last year of life, this final record shows Touré still brimming with vitality. Savane is his wonderful farewell gift.—Michael Keefe
The most uncompromising major-label debut by an American metal band since Slayer’s Reign in Blood 20 years ago, this highly anticipated third album has the Atlanta band making huge improvements on all fronts. Unafraid to embrace as uncool a lyrical theme as fantasy, yet smart enough not to let it overwhelm the music, Blood Mountain is first-rate progressive metal; intricate, yet remaining both disciplined and hook-laden, from the monster riffs of “The Wolf Is Loose” and “Crystal Skull” to the challenging “Capillarian Crest” and “Colony of Birchmen” to the psychotic, near-grindcore of “Bladecatcher”. Co-vocalists Troy Sanders and Brent Hinds are now a formidable tandem, frenetic drummer Brann Dailor provides both muscular percussion and lithe, jazz-influenced fills, and Matt Bayles’s massive production sounds much richer in comparison to 2004’s Leviathan. We’re witnessing something special here, as just three full-length albums in, Mastodon has created a musical hybrid all its own, emerging the unquestionable leader in American metal.—Adrien Begrand
Who knows why the Ark didn’t whip the US into a rapturous state of musical arousal when it formally introduced itself to North America earlier this year. Its native Sweden has long fawned over the dirty-sweet neo-glam band that impeccably channels Queen’s razor-pop, the flamboyance of Bowie, and the stadium-dreaming scissor kick of Cheap Trick. Hooky pop music is rarely better than it is on State of the Ark, a viciously funny record that lambastes phonies and scenesters and the solipsistic universe from which they all hail. Of course, the Ark hails from that universe, too, but every time it strikes a pose, it’s backed up by some stone-cold hot rocks.—Zeth Lundy
New York hip-hop seemed to be dwindling in consistency and quality at the beginning of the year, but with the release of his fifth solo album, Ghostface proved that merciless hood clarity mixed with top-of-the-hat rhymes and soul-chiseled production could elegantly capture the grit that made City music so originally appealing. At a comfortable 36 years old, Ghost remains gravely sharp-witted and effortlessly poetic on every track, whether he’s spinning enlivened narratives of a flubbed jacking on “Shakey Dog” or merely recalling the days when parental abuse adequately played its position on “Whip You With a Strap”. Despite ladles of straight-faced content, the album is littered with comedic rivulets, leaving each track with a helium tint to dig the listener out of trivial solemnity. As the production on The Pretty Tony Album may have hinted, Ghost’s affinity for soul-spattered beats is his poetry’s fantastic musical counterpart. The album is set to an eardrum-caressing landscape, with contributions from heavyweights MF Doom, J. Dilla, and Just Blaze, all of whom deliver some of their fleshiest work for Ghost to paint. But while New York rap may have seemed flay-worthy before the release of Fishscale, Ghost unquestionably proves that a City’s musical worth rests on the line between trusting musical instincts and commanding the English lexicon, even if it does occasionally involve a dash of slang or some petty drug-talk.—Steven J. Horowitz
Always in danger of crumbling under the weight of word-of-mouth hype—which saw sell-out gigs before record contacts had even been signed (let alone any actual records released)—the Arctic Monkeys delivered a noisy and triumphant V-sign to all the doubters and doom-mongers, and found themselves with the fastest-selling debut album in UK history. Sharp and jagged as a chainsaw, these three-minute bursts of adrenalin recalled the focused anger of the Jam, except that singer/lyricist Alex Turner turned his gimlet-eyed social observations toward his hometown of Sheffield instead of London. On songs like “Mardy Bum”, “Riot Van”, and “When the Sun Goes Down”, Turner gave us tales of grimy discos, underage boozing, prostitution, and urban heartache that were suffused with wry humour and killer lines, all delivered in his uncompromising Northern vernacular. The music displayed a depth and maturity that belied the youthfulness of the band, managing to be raw, discordant, angular, and irresistibly catchy all at once. The result was an album of biting observation and strident originality that also had enough pop hooks to fill the dance floors.—John Dover
Much has been rightly made of the Hold Steady’s resemblance/homage to the ideals of Bruce Springsteen: the disoriented adolescences, the insane trials of teenage love, the wackiness of Catholicism, the hard-edged but loving portrayals of often anonymous mid-sized American cities.
But while Bruce paints his pictures with sweeping masterstrokes, Craig Finn tends to focus with wonderful precision on specifics: liquor runs, backseats, chillout tents, and those accidentally massive single nights, available only to teenagers, that start out as nothing and end up as magic (or, for that matter, horror). The marvelously executed and 100% American Boys and Girls in America—the title is lifted from On the Road, for God’s sake—finds holy truths in these random people even when, as is often the case, they’re lost, drunk, faking it, or all three.
Tad Kubler’s guitar here is more insistent and Replacements-y then ever, and the idea of operating under something approaching a concept has crystallized Finn’s writing. His man Bruce’s youthful operas found redemption in open highways and pragmatic optimism; Finn’s find it in the daily operation of enviably restless teens and their props: prom dates and bowling alleys and empty bongs and burned-out malls that don’t seem like anything when you’re living them and everything when they’re gone.—Jeff Vrabel
It begins with the click of a film reel. Then, it explodes into a manic gospel-circus fronted by a multi-octave ringmaster. Two minutes later, this year’s most infectious single cuts through the cacophony. In case you slept through 2006, that album is St. Elsewhere and that song is “Crazy” by Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo, a.k.a Gnarls Barkley. Who knew that existentialism with a go-go beat could be so catchy? Like the album cover’s voltaic mushroom cloud, the songs on St. Elswehere captured small slices of life, death, love, fear, and joy. Gnarls Barkley penetrated the collective psyche of its listeners and uncovered the angst underneath all the “bling” and bravado permeating popular culture. Remarkably, the album crossed over to an unlikely mix of hipsters, rappers, glitterati, boomers, yuppies, indie kids, and suburban dwellers to prove that St. Elsewhere is, in actuality, everywhere.—Christian John Wikane