Friday, January 19, 2007

Michael’s Mega Mix for 2006

The beginning of a new year means lots of things, but for me one of the best is the realization that in the next twelve months dozens of terrific songs I’ve never heard before will appear before my ears. Over the past six or seven years, I’ve documented my discoveries at year-end, typically with a two-disc compilation. This year, it grew to four. The first two discs roughly approximate what I’ve done in the past, with one song each from a bunch of different 2006 releases (one album pulls double duty). This year, a bonus third disc features more tunes from those same releases. And disc four includes songs from reissues, compilations, remixes and outtakes released in ’06, plus a handful of older things I finally got around to buying. Here’s the annotated track list (Trip promises a similar post next week):

Disc One

1. The Hold Steady, “Stuck Between Stations.” For me, 2006 was the year of The Hold Steady, and so the year-in-review starts the way the band’s Boys and Girls in America album does, with this wordy scorcher that tracks the isolation felt by a guy whose significant other is a better dancer than a girlfriend, and that details the despair that demons, soft bodies and cold winters visited on the late poet John Berryman. Instant classic.

2. Steve Wynn & The Miracle 3, “Cindy, It Was Always You.” Another peel-the-paint rocker, with Wynn collaborating with writer George Pelecanos on one of the darkest tales of sexual obsession ever caught on tape.

3. Centro-Matic, “Covered Up in Mines.” A lyrical melody on slide guitar and a fierce rhythm section underpin Will Johnson’s abstract words, all the while evoking an endless horizon.

4. Beth Orton, “Conceived.” From an album short on songs, this one sounds revitalized in the mix.

5. The Format, “Time Bomb.” Queen meets the Beach Boys.

6. Yo La Tengo, “Mr. Tough.” A bouncy piano, some sunny horns and Ira’s falsetto make for some breezy, dreamy pop from a band better known for framing melodies in noise and harmonics.

7. James Hunter, “People Gonna Talk.” With a Caribbean lilt and an absolute belief in the power of soul music, the title track to Hunter’s 2006 release is instantly memorable and totally timeless.

8. Neko Case, “Margaret vs. Pauline.” Is there anything this woman can’t sing? If there is, we haven’t found it yet.

9. Bob Dylan, “Thunder on the Mountain.” The song on which Alicia Keys becomes a totem of Dylan’s imagination, its easy-rolling momentum captures the bard in his current incarnation, the king of the retro-modern blues.

10. Josh Ritter, “Lillian, Egypt.” “He kept her like a princess, I stole her like the Fort Knox gold.” A minority opinion, for sure, but I think this is the best tune on Ritter’s very fine The Animal Years.

11. Los Lobos, “The Road to Gila Bend.” A distorted guitar, a sturdy chorus, and David Hidalgo’s pure voice. Just another great Los Lobos tune.

12. M. Ward, “Chinese Translation.” Spooky and beautiful, Ward always evokes another time, but I can never put my finger on just what time that is.

13. Portastatic, “I’m in Love (with Arthur Dove).” Prime indie ear candy with a shout-along chorus and a guitar line that would make the Buzzcocks proud.

14. Joseph Arthur, “Slide Away.” A man out of time, no one else currently mines the same territory as Arthur, who has the confidence to go for grandeur, where other indie singer-songwriters are content with small obscurity.

15. Sonic Youth, “Incinerate.” I wanted to like the Rather Ripped album more than I actually did, but this swaggering, insistent single is an undeniable pleasure.

16. Pearl Jam, “World Wide Suicide.” Lean and nimble, it’s one of PJ’s best singles in ages, and Mr. Vedder is in full, glorious throat.

17. Arctic Monkeys, “Riot Van.” The quietest moment on the clatter and kerrang of the Monkeys’ audacious debut, it gives stark relief to the lads’ gifts for melody and detail. “Have you been drinking son?/You don’t look old enough to me/I’m sorry, officer/Is there a certain age you’re s’posed to be?/’Cause nobody told me.”

18. Tom Waits, “LowDown.” A simple, bluesy groove, but polluted and dirty in a way unique to Waits, who rocks like few times before.

19. Field Music, “It’s Not the Only Way to Feel Happy.” So simple and elegant, yet so different than anything else currently happening, this shimmering Brit pop ballad calls to mind XTC in their prime.

Disc Two

1. The Futureheads, “Skip to the End.” The kings of the New Wave revivalists strike again with a spiky, funky, harmony-heavy slice of pop perfection. One of the best singles of the year.

2. Gnarls Barkley, “Crazy.” And speaking of singles of the year . . .

3. Art Brut, “Good Weekend.” With a guitar line right out of “Cool Jerk” and the enthusiasm of a guy who’s getting luckier than he’s ever gotten in his life, this tune has buzzed around my head for months. And yes, he’s seen her naked. Twice.

4. The Kooks, “Eddie’s Gun.” More spiky Brit pop from a band with a name I’m shocked hasn’t been taken before.

5. The Minus 5, “Out There on the Maroon.” Scott McCaughey, indie superhero and sideman to the stars, comes up with one of the year’s best opening lines: “I had six white Russians tonight/And two of them were people.”

6. Rosanne Cash, “Burn Down This Town.” Even when she’s vulnerable, she sounds confident.

7. Alejandro Escovedo, “Dear Head on the Wall.” The hardest rocking cello since “Good Vibrations.”

8. Jason Collett, “We All Lose One Another.” Why didn’t this guy get more attention? Not much this year was any easier on the ears than this song, which is the best tune Ryan Adams and/or the Jayhawks never wrote.

9. Bruce Springsteen, “Jacob’s Ladder.” A glorious New Orleans-style romp and a completely unexpected turn from the Boss.

10. Lucero, “The Mountain.” A gruff, double-barreled blast of the kind of mythic Southern rock that Steve Earle perfected, featuring the whiskey and cigarettes drawl of Ben Nichols, the Shane MacGowan of the Smokey Mountains.

11. The Raconteurs, “Level.” Tales of a fourth-grade lyric, but the ridiculous words are redeemed by a steady rocking groove and a double-voiced guitar solo that would make Ace Frehley and Paul Stanley blush.

12. Eagles of Death Metal, “I Like to Move in the Night.” The year’s most disappointing album produced this one prime example of the kind of easy-grooving sleaze-rock that made EoDM’s first record such a grand guilty pleasure.

13. Belle and Sebastian, “The Blues are Still Blue.” This piece of Scottish boogie-pop is the best song set around a laundromat since the Pretenders’ “Watching the Clothes.”

14. Pernice Brothers, “Somerville.” Pure pop for now people, Joe Pernice’s dreamy voice was made for songs like this.

15. Cat Power, “Living Proof.” Lusty in Memphis.

16. The Decemberists, “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Soon).” Colin Meloy’s great gift is his ability to make this sort of formal lit-pop sound not only unpretentious, but inviting.

17. Dirty Pretty Things, “Bang Bang You’re Dead.” Sounds just like you’d think.

18. Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3, “N.Y. Doll.” Thirty years into his career, Hitchcock is still capable of magical things, like this gorgeous, dream-like ballad about late New York Dolls bassist Arthur Kane.

19. Van Hunt, “At the End of a Slow Dance.” Imagine it’s 1985 and Prince has traded the Revolution for Talk Talk. Sound great? It is.

20. TV on the Radio, “Wolf Like Me.” Holy #&$%! The year’s most relentless tune from a band like none other working today.

21. The Hold Steady, “First Night.” Disc two ends like disc one begins, with the best band going detailing the boys and girls in America and the sad times they have together, but this time, instead of rocking like lions, they lament like lambs, the “Jungleland” to their earlier “Born to Run.”

Disc Three

1. Belle and Sebastian, “Funny Little Frog.” The kind of brilliant R&B inflected mod pop that seems to emanate only from the other side of the Atlantic.

2. Dirty Pretty Things, “Gin & Milk.” Not much of a recipe for a drink, but it makes for an intoxicating punk rock tune.

3. The Format, “The Compromise.” Arizona’s preeminent desert melodicists try to start a dance craze out of the fragments of a relationship gone wrong. Makes at least as much sense as “The Mashed Potato.”

4. The Futureheads, “Fallout.” What they got that the other nouvelle wavers ain’t got? A drummer who swings time and some sparkling harmonies, that’s what they got, that’s what they got.

5. Gnarls Barkley, “Smiley Faces.” Head bobbin’, finger poppin’, new soul. These guys aren’t just “Crazy.”

6. Steve Wynn & The Miracle 3, “All the Squares Go Home.” Fuzzy garage clatter that could’ve come straight from Nuggets. The highest compliment.

7. Jason Collett, “Hangover Days.” Remember above when I asked why this guy didn’t get more attention? Really, why? Somebody answer me, dammit.

8. Bob Dylan, “Someday Baby.” OK, so this guy and this tune didn’t lack for attention, as they starred in an iPod ad. “Someday baby, you ain’t gonna work for meee anymoo-ore.” Listen to that band. Like liquid.

9. Portastatic, “Sour Shores.” Orchestral pop that snaps, crackles and rocks, with a twang-guitar solo that would make Duane Eddy proud.

10. Joseph Arthur, “Too Much to Hide.” He makes me feel a little drunk with his miniature reveries, these pretty melodies and a voice that rings like a bell.

11. The Hold Steady, “Massive Nights.” With giant, spacious bass and drums straight out of Van Halen’s Women and Children First, and a story that David Lee Roth surely lived but could never write, it’s a prom anthem for early-21st Century hipsters who fondly and hazily remember their late-20th Century salad days. “I had my mouth on her nose when the chaperone said that we were dancing too close.” Does it get better than that?

12. Josh Ritter, “In the Dark.” So simple, so elegant.

13. Arctic Monkeys, “Fake Tales of San Francisco.” The eye for detail, the confident strut and the completely un-self-conscious belief in their own power. What a band.

14. Art Brut, “Formed a Band.” OK, so it’s all a big put-on, but it’s a thunderous one, with the Cockney ratcheted up and the subtlety dialed down. See if you can keep from shouting along.

15. Neko Case, “The Needle Has Landed.” Four minutes of swoon in the sweltering heat.

16. Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3, “Underground Sun.” This one would sound perfectly at home on Underwater Moonlight, thanks in part to the presence of the criminally underappreciated Kimberly Rew and fellow Soft Boy Morris Windsor. And if you don’t own Underwater Moonlight, you should rectify that.

17. Yo La Tengo, “I Feel Like Going Home.” It seems like once per album, Georgia Hubley moves from the drum kit to the piano bench to come up with something lovely and haunting.

18. Centro-Matic, “Calling Thermatico.” I have no idea what it means. I just know it makes the walls shake.

19. Alejandro Escovedo, “Break This Time.” A solid if unexceptional rocker distinguished by Al’s “come on Dee!” just before guitarist Jon Dee Graham spends the next thirty seconds shredding on his axe. The world would be a better place if singers still called out solos.

20. Troy and Gabriella, “Breaking Free” (from High School Musical). The pop culture moment of the year, when our young would-be lovers dazzle the assembled East High student body. Don’t tell me you don’t know what I’m talking about, and don’t tell me you don’t like it.

Disc Four

1. Pete Townshend, “Let My Love Open the Door.” Inspired by the reissue of All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes (see track 18) and the $5.99 price on, I finally replaced my old copy of Empty Glass. Yeah, I’ve heard this one a thousand times. Can’t wait to hear it a thousand more.

2. The Pretenders, “The Adultress.” The undervalued Pretenders II got the deluxe reissue treatment in 2006 (check out the choice live set from the original quartet on the bonus disc), and this track is the opener, all balls, brass and sass. When Chrissie says bad boys get spanked, you’d best believe.

3. The dB’s, “Love is for Lovers.” The first song on the first post-Chris Stamey dB’s disc (finally reissued this past year), “Love is for Lovers” is Peter Holsapple’s finest hour, an enduring power pop anthem. I’d been toting around a cassette of Like This for years, and was grateful for the upgrade.

4. Brian Eno & David Byrne, “Help Me Somebody.” From the flat-out brilliant My Life in the Bush of Ghosts reissue comes this irresistible slice of urban guerilla funk, which draws heavily on the legacy of Afro Beat legend Fela Kuti. Anyone who loves Remain in Light should own this album.

5. Ojah with Hugh Masekela, “Afro Beat Blues.” Speaking of Fela, this tune from the wickedly brilliant new compilation Hugh Masekela Presents the Chisa Years (1965-1975) is the great radio single the man never made, but which couldn’t have been made without him.

6. Lette Mbulu, “Mahlalela.” Also from the Chisa Years comp, this dance floor scorcher is part African, part American, and shares pieces of a band that was simultaneously recording the first Jackson 5 sessions.

7. Jorge Ben, “Take It Easy, My Brother Charles.” The highest profile world music compilation of 2006 was Tropicalia, A Brazilian Revolution in Sound, which chronicles the heady, trippy days of a style that reached its zenith in the late 1960s and early 70s. From that set comes this bit of sly, sophisticated Latin pop by one of Brazil’s enduring legends.

8. Os Mutantes, “Ando Meio Desligado.” Also from Tropicalia comes this effort from the delightfully loopy Os Mutantes (often cited as a Beck influence). Part Brazilian bliss, part Haight-Ashbury acidity.

9. Lulu, “Feelin’ Alright.” Lulu – yes, that Lulu – walked into the famed Muscle Shoals studio in 1970 and proceeded to wrap her pipes around this Traffic tune and rip it up. But why is it here? Because it’s part of the recently released (and completely spectacular) anthology, What It Is! Funky Soul and Rare Grooves (1967-77).

10. Ananda Shankar, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Also from What It Is! comes this mostly instrumental, completely psychedelic, frenetically funky, sitar-driven cover of the Stones classic, that delivers a contact high from simply listening.

11. Chemical Brothers, “The Boxer” (DFA Remix). From the 2006 DFA Remixes album (the same brain trust who brought you LCD Soundsystem). I’ve never heard the original version of this, but the remix is nine and a half minutes of mid-tempo, hypnotic, dance-floor bliss pulled straight from Kraftwerk’s playbook.

12. Gary Numan, “Metal.” One of the best books I read last year was Simon Reynolds’ Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, which caused a flash back to a pivotal moment of my childhood. It’s 1979, and I’ve just had my mind blown by a video and song called “Cars” (which I probably caught on The Midnight Special; memory fails). This is what the future will sound like, I tell myself, and I spend the next 48 hours glued to my radio hoping to hear the song again. Finally, I do, my mind is blown a second time, and I race to the local five and dime and pick up the single, bring it home and spin. The song loses no magic upon the third, fourth, fifth or tenth hearing. And then I flip it over. And what I hear is equally mind-blowing and doubly subversive, a song that sounds like its name, the crash of heavy machinery dancing over an industrial-strength beat. I finally bought the album, The Pleasure Principle, in 2006, a mere twenty-seven years late.

13. Wire, “Outdoor Miner.” The sublime Chairs Missing album got reissued this past year, and this single marks the division between Wire’s artsy vision and the punk orthodoxy of the time, a pop song that evokes space and not rage.

14. The Hold Steady, “Girls Like Status.” Left on the cutting room floor of the Boys and Girls in America sessions, this rockin’ little number showed up on the web and on the B-side to “Chips Ahoy!” The best song most bands would ever write can’t quite make it on to The Hold Steady’s third album in three years. Craig Finn, quite literally, has talent to burn.

15. Mott the Hoople, “All the Way From Memphis.” One day this past year, a horrifying thought hit me: I’m 38 years old and I’ve never owned a Mott the Hoople album. I quickly rectified the problem.

16. Rod Stewart, “True Blue.” Primed by a newfound fascination with the Faces, and urged on by my writing partner, I picked up Never a Dull Moment in 2006. This track, the opener, lives up to the album’s title.

17. Tom Waits, “New Coat of Paint.” In 1985, one of the coolest high school teachers ever introduced me to Waits by lending me his then-new copy of Rain Dogs. That means I picked up the story in the middle, during Tom’s wild years, knowing of, but never really knowing, his earlier incarnation as piano-playing barfly. This year, I went back to the beginning, and this track from The Heart of Saturday Night had me at hello.

18. Pete Townshend, “Slit Skirts.” I was fourteen when All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes came out, and I loved it. A sure-fire desert-island disc through my high school years, it slowly fell out of rotation, and I never bothered to own it on CD until the 2006 reissue. Hearing it now, I’m struck by how weird a record it is, full of melodrama and preening, stuff that blew by me twenty-five years ago. But this tune has never felt melodramatic or preening, just perfect, one of the best things Pete ever wrote, for himself or the Who.

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