Friday, December 22, 2006

2006 Top 10

As 2007 beckons, we (Michael , the renaissance man, and Trip, the soon to be grandpa) feel compelled to present our 2006 Top 10 lists. We thank you for reading our just-for-fun blog this year and promise more silliness in 2007. Feel free to leave comments or questions. And for goodness sakes, get out to a club and catch a band up close and personal. You won’t be sorry.

Michael says: A few qualifiers. First, I didn’t actually hear everything released in 2006. Justin Timberlake? I like the singles, never picked up the album. Joanna Newsom? Critical huzzahs by the boatload, but I wouldn’t know her were she yodeling in my ear (and speaking of yodeling, go with your muse, Gwen, and don’t let the bastards get you down). My universe consists of the 45-or-so new releases I’ve invested in over the past twelve months.

Second, I make no claim of “greatest,” “best” or “finest.” What follows are my favorites, the discs that appealed to me for often inscrutable reasons that may have little to do with aesthetic value. For instance, I listen to Rosanne Cash’s Black Cadillac, and it’s obvious to me that it’s a terrific piece of work, full of deeply resonating meditations on love, life and loss. And I’m sure that it’s “better” than half of the albums on my list. But it didn’t get under my skin like the others did.

Third, if you really want to know about my favorites of 2006, ask me some time in the middle of 2007. I’ve lived with some of these albums for nearly a full year, but with others for just a few weeks. I won’t make sense of some of them without the benefit of time and further listens. The good stuff reveals itself over time.

Trip says: Top 10 lists are so arbitrary, so fleeting… because they change day to day. When compiling my top 10, I always adhere to one simple rule – air time – which new releases got lodged in my cd player the most (and yes, I know, I need to get an ipod). But for now, it’s still the little silver discs that thrill me – these provided the most thrills in 2006.

1. The Hold Steady - Boys and Girls in America (Michael)

Rarely have I put such colossal expectations on a new release and not been disappointed. But Craig Finn and the Hold Steady delivered with their third straight batch of smart, funny, wordy, blistering rock and roll songs, one that took me back twenty years to a time when I wasn’t too old or tired or jaded to have a favorite band. Boys and Girls finds the Hold Steady shedding some of the idiosyncrasies of the first two records in favor of a more streamlined and somewhat more conventional sound (choruses, which were optional before, abound here). It also finds Finn in a more world-weary and contemplative mood. His characters still party with abandon (see, e.g., “Massive Nights”), but their going-nowhere-fast lifestyles start to take a toll this time around. Holly, the glorious hoodrat from albums one and two, isn’t invincible. In fact she’s in the hospital. But she still looks incredible.

1. The Format – Dog Problems (Trip)

The Format are two high school buddies – Nate Ruess and Sam Means – that have conjured up a latter day Pet Sounds, the record Lloyd Dobler would have made had he taken up guitar instead of kick boxing. In what appears to be a song cycle about one volatile relationship with either a record company or girlfriend (both?), the Format throw everything in the mix to create the album of the year. Soaring harmonies, handclaps, orchestral arrangements, melodies seemingly plucked from show tunes and the astonishing clarity of Nate Ruess’ choirboy tenor all come together to produce a blue spark of a record. How can I convince you to buy this record? It’s got the quirks and sophistication of XTC, the broken heart of classic Jackson Browne, the giddiness of early 70’s AM radio and the timeless quality found in your favorite records. I got these guys as complete nerd perfectionists obsessed with not only Beach Boys/Beatles popadelia but Brill Building craftsmanship and the theatrical melodies of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Cole Porter and the Gershwins. I'm hearing all that in 3 to 4 minute pop songs. Usually this type of kitchen sink production comes off fey and precious. These guys make it seem effortless... which is what the great ones do, don't they?

2. Belle and Sebastian - The Life Pursuit (Michael)

This isn’t your kid sister’s Belle and Sebastian. The sound is muscled up and infused with a knowing affection for R&B that British bands so often seem to assimilate without imitating. This is pure pop, and while it’s delicate in places, it’s never twee, the descriptor that has defined and limited the band for much of its career. In fact, at times, the bottom-end boogie produces faint echoes of T. Rex or Paul Weller’s various incarnations. A sunny, buoyant, irresistible trip.

2. The Hold Steady - Boys and Girls in America (Trip)

Craig Finn gets all the details right… even if they seem wrong. Smart guy rock for aging hipsters that reconnects to high school highs (and lows) they lived through or dreamed about. If I can’t have the Replacements anymore and the E Streeters are pushing 60, I guess the coronation line for greatest band in America begins and ends with The Hold Steady. And after two glorious and near perfect records, Boys and Girls in America expands their musical palette, focuses the writing and also coughs up some massive hooks. All your favorite characters return for more drug addled fuzzy logic and adolescent heartache. Seems like a bummer… but The Hold Steady creates an undeniably joyous racket while Craig Finn croaks line after line destined for the yearbook.

How good is this album? Each of the 11 songs has taken its turn as my favorite and currently I’ve got the perfect opener “Stuck Between Stations”, party call-to-arms “Massive Nights” and desperate plea “You Can Make Him Like You” imbedded in my skull. Tomorrow it’ll be “Southtown Girls” with it’s gorgeous a capella backhanded compliment opening that turns into a fitting swan song. I dig ‘em.

3. Neko Case - Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (Michael)

Our greatest contemporary chanteuse? On the New Pornographers’ albums, band leader Carl Newman often has Case reaching for the top of her range for the sugary pop effect it conveys. Here, on her own, it’s all medium register honey, as she inhabits songs that destroy any boundary between alt-country and torch music. With enough reverb to make you feel like you’re listening inside a cathedral, Case delivers a sophisticated, immensely satisfying cycle of rustic, melodic songs.

3. Josh Ritter – The Animal Years (Trip)

I was aware of Josh Ritter before The Animal Years but besides “Kathleen” he hadn’t really made a dent in my music consciousness. But the opening salvo of “Girl in the War” (“I got a girl in the war Paul I know that they can hear me yell / If they can’t find a way to help her they can go to hell”), “Wolves” (with the best piano hook of the year) and the muted beauty of “Monter Ballads”, Ritter’s now dug in. And that’s before the stark a capella stunner “Idaho” and epic, rambling, stream of conscious mindblow “Thin Blue Flame”. Easily the singer-songwriter album of the year and in most years would have been album of the year.

4. Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (Michael)

I love this moment, when a band comes out of nowhere, cocksure and with a cupboard full of songs, and makes a hellacious racket. For thrills and chills this year, nothing else could match the two guitars, bass and drum clatter of this underage band of old souls, simultaneously petulant and poetic. And it’s oh so very English, chock-full of the sort of angular melodies that seem to originate only on that side of the Atlantic.

4. Jenny Lewis & The Watson Twins – Rabbit Fur Coat (Trip)

Similar to Cat Power’s The Greatest in scope and execution, I preferred Jenny Lewis’ take on Laura Nyro due to her undeniable warm and luxurious voice, which seems to beckon you into her world while Cat Power keeps you at arm’s length. Restrained sometimes to a fault, JL & TWT have given us a peek at an imaginary “Dusty in L.A.” Highlights include the cautionary tale “Rise Up With Fists”, the galloping country honk of “The Charging Sky”, the fly-on-the-wall tell all title track and the gospel hoedown “The Big Guns”. And don’t dismiss the seemingly needless cover of The Travelling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care” – it fits perfectly with the damaged but tough story she’s telling and it’s a blast hearing oh-so-serious Conor Oberst, Ben Gibbard and M Ward cut loose a little.

5. Bob Dylan - Modern Times (Michael)

He’s lived a thousand lives, and in his middle sixties Bob Dylan has morphed into the living emblem of a musical tradition, like Son House in 1965. No longer a trailblazing troubadour, Dylan is now a curator and a conservator, leading a master class of musicians who absorb history so thoroughly that it fuses with their DNA. They breathe, they sweat, they play the blues.

5. Rocky Votolato – Makers (Trip)

Rocky Votolato is set apart from the general singer-songwriter populace by his detailed lyrics and sweat soaked delivery. He’s got the acoustic pop simplicity of Elliott Smith, the lyrical cadence of Paul Simon, the raspy vocals of early Jeff Tweedy and the dark, broken, deathly world view of Steve Earle. But all that means nothing without songs – and he’s got at least half a dozen good ones including the breezy pop opener “White Daisy Passing” and “Streetlights”, the alt-country of “Tennessee Train Tracks”, the killer chorus of “She Was Only In It For The Rain”, the Simon & Garfunkel doppelganger “Uppers Aren’t Necessary” and the death, drink and “what does it all mean” elegy of closer “Makers”. Thanks Feeney.

6. Yo La Tengo - I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass (Michael)

I’ve been an unabashed fan now for a long time, and I Am Not Afraid Of You – in addition to being the album title of the year – is the trio’s best work since 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, and maybe their best ever. A sprawling effort (could a Yo La album be anything but?), it features some of the band’s more restrained takes on Sonic Youth-style abstraction, and Ira Kaplan’s lyrical playing even approximates Television’s twin-guitar attack in places (I hear echoes of “Marquee Moon” in “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind”). The album also features some of the prettiest and most accessible songs of their career. When the bouncy piano and falsetto of “Mr. Tough” come in, resistance is futile.

6. Jason Collett – Idols of Exile (Trip)

I owe this one to my partner for his strong recommendation… so thanks Michael. It’s sparkling soft rock for those who would disdain that term. Strummy, upbeat melodies wedded to mostly downbeat lyrics giving us little snapshots of romance on the run. Highlights include the wistful lament “We All Lose Another”, the irresistible sunshine pop shouldabeenahit “I’ll Bring The Sun” and the boy-girl pop almost made it but not really, doomed hazy affair that is “Hangover Days” (“We try so hard to love”)

7. Jason Collett - Idols of Exile (Michael)

This early ’06 release has been a year-long companion, a sterling collection of Canadian Americana (Canadiana? Canadarama?). As comfortable as a pair of worn leather boots, Idols is to this year what Crooked Fingers’ Dignity and Shame was to last. And “Hangover Days” is a bitter boy-girl duet for all time, a “Fairytale of New York” appropriate for playing all year long.

7. Art Brut – Bang Bang Rock And Roll (Trip)

I’m still not sure if these guys are putting us on. But this cd keeps me coming back for more – it’s the wondrous sound of things falling apart to make an absolutely joyuos racket. Eddie Argos’ ironic, bewildered, giddy speak-singing (not to be confused with Craig Finn’s world weary, blustery, spittle-filled croaking speak-sing) guides the band through turbo-charged ditties that charmingly state the obvious joys of making music (“Formed A Band”, “Bang Bang Rock & Roll”, “My Little Brother”) and making time (“Emily Kane”, “Good Weekend”). And “Good Weekend” is a sure fire party starter and mix tape opener containing this unforgettable tribute to the first blush of lust that will make every 10 year old giggle (“I’ve seen her naked… twice / I’ve seen her naked… TWICE!!). I expect Art Brut have already peaked – I’m glad I got to enjoy their sure to be brief run.

8. Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3 - Ole! Tarantula (Michael)

More shimmering pop songs from one of our finest writers. A tad less cockeyed than past offerings, the four-minute bursts of melody are well-served by the Venus 3 – less prickly than the Soft Boys, more loose-limbed than the Egyptians – who join a proud legacy of Hitchcock bands. And “N. Y. Doll,” the album-closing ode to glam rock pioneer Arthur Kane, is as poignant a song to come along all year.

8. Scott McClatchy – Burn This (Trip)

First of all, yes, Scott is my little brother… but I ain’t letting that stand in the way of extolling the high water mark of his now 30 year career. Freed from the shackles of his own expectations, Burn This is the sound of a relaxed, experienced craftsman making music with his friends. There’s the simple truths of “Burn This”, the fiddle driven shuffle with back porch harmonies of “Take A Walk With Me” and the rollicking declaration of “Just One Kiss”. And don’t skip the final unlisted cover of Springsteen’s “No Surrender”, which is a tender and fitting tribute to a giant of a man… we miss you Bud.

9. Portastatic - Be Still Please (Michael)

A recent acquisition, Be Still Please has come on strong at year’s end. Previously, I knew Mac McCaughan only through his bone-shaking work with Superchunk, so imagine my surprise at hearing Portastatic’s pristine indie-pop complete with glorious string arrangements. McCaughan’s voice remains as thin as a young Hollywood socialite, but the melodies are thick and the pay-offs are huge. Check back in six months and don’t be surprised is this one is a few spots higher up my list.

9. Lucero – Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers (Trip)

Memphis favorite sons, Lucero are the hard-charging, balls out flipside to Rocky Votolato’s obsession with drink and death. Same obsession, different attack. Each Lucero song screams life and death as singer and songwriter Ben Nichols’ gin-soaked vocals either leave you winded in their furious desperation or reaching for the eject button… I understand both reactions. But the new records adds more textures (piano, Hammond organ) and is instantly more accessible. Tales of losers, lovers and rock and roll lifers sifting through the pain of getting to tomorrow make this the year’s best southern rock record.

10. Centro-Matic - Fort Recovery (Michael)

My first reaction was to laugh when I heard the bass and drums roll in like thunder, blasting a hole in the floor, as if to declare WE WILL ROCK YOU even while playing lovely, gentle alt-country tunes. But it’s serious business by a serious band, a triumph of aesthetics over commerce, a grand achievement on a tiny label. In Heat, one of my favorite recent books, author Bill Buford, after a culinary odyssey that takes him from a three-star New York restaurant kitchen to a rustic Tuscan butcher shop, concludes that glory is in smallness, food made by hand with centuries of wisdom behind it. In that sense, Centro-Matic makes small music, crafted by hand, without concession to the marketplace.

10. Willie Nile – Streets of New York (Trip)

Whatever happened to literate alt country power pop? If you’ve asked yourself that question lately, pick up Willie Nile’s latest cd. Streets of New York is a warts-and-all valentine to the New York of Lou Reed, Carole King and Dion. The disc pulses with local flavor (“Faded Flower of Broadway” romanticizes an octagenarian who still sells her paintings on the sidewalk) and the universal blush of first crush (“Asking Annie Out”), not to mention a perfect homage to Joe Strummer with a faithful version of the Clash via Eddy Grant’s “Police on My Back”. Welcome back Willie.

Michael's Extras

Honorable mention: Various Artists, High School Musical Soundtrack. Failure to mention this disc would be an act of sheer denial. Thanks to two young kids at home, I’ve listened to this music more than anything else all year long, and truth be told, I’ve enjoyed the hell out of it. Got my head in the game.

Reissue of the Year: Brian Eno & David Byrne, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Thank goodness for reissues. I had known of this 1981 masterwork before, but I had never bothered to investigate until it was re-released this year. Why? Good question. Given my immense affection for the Talking Heads albums of that period, and my more distant appreciation of Eno’s oeuvre, I should have owned it years ago. It was worth the wait. As much one long, varied soundscape as a collection of songs, Bush of Ghosts is a hypnotic, challenging labyrinth of west African rhythms and found sounds and voices, instantly likeable but strangely stand-offish. Daring, bold and completely successful, it marks a high point for two of the most interesting artists of the past 35 years.

Compilation of the Year: Various Artists, Hugh Masekela presents the Chisa Years, 1965-1975 (Rare and Unreleased). Though overshadowed by the very fine world music compilation Tropicalia, A Brazilian Revolution in Sound, this one hit me right where I live. Featuring fourteen songs by five artists who recorded for the legendary South African musician’s custom label, The Chisa Years sounds way ahead of its time, bursting with hot, fluid tracks that work as pop songs every bit as much as cultural artifacts. Far more accessible than the knotty extended works being produced at the same time by the likes of Fela Kuti, The Chisa Years was my undisputed outdoor party record of the summer of 2006.

Trip's Extras

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say how much I enjoyed the 2006 releases by the following: Arctic Monkeys, Bruce Springsteen, Primal Scream, Belle & Sebastian, Head Automatica, Ben Kweller, Drive By Truckers, The Hiders, Jim Noir and Roddy Frame.

Concerts of the Year – the joyous celebration of rock and roll passion by the Hold Steady at The North Star Bar in November tops my list. The best band in America… go see them now and tell them Teenage Kicks sent you.

Lucero (at Rex’s in West Chester and the North Star) – Ya gotta see these guys… they burn with intensity you didn’t know you needed. And you're sure to sweat and get a face full of beer. Can there be a higher compliment?

John Doe – Tin Angel – punk icon plays to 40 people on a midweek night and proves why he’s one of rock’s most underrated vocalists and grittiest songwriters. Bonus points for mesmerizing cover of Joni’s “A Case of You”.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One quick comment about Byrne/Eno's my Life... awesome sound quality and remastering and bonus tracks make this one a no-brainer to pick up. It's just unfortunate the political climate has been cause to leave off one of the most interesting tracks from the original vinyl issue.