The List – 2006 – Loring Wirbel
There’s a visible impact of the turn to online music files as the sole replacement for both CD and LP, as the significant studio releases for 2006 numbered less than 100 – of course, there’s plenty of significant very-indie releases coming out on MySpace and the like, but it’s hard to sort out the jewels from the dross. Does that mean music is in a slump? Not if you listen to the really great stuff bubbling up from below, but the major labels, even the major indie labels, certainly are floundering. What is important to acknowledge, though, is that some of the good stuff from this year was very, very good, and even some of the releases listed in the 20s, 30s, and 40s represented the best efforts from the artists involved.
Once again, women and noise saved the list, and both came together in the astonishing “Women Take Back the Noise” three-disc compilation near the top of the specials list. Women rescued the first quarter of 2006, which would have been close to negligible without releases from Jenny Lewis, Cat Power, and Neko Case.
Noise/improv reached new heights of professionalism, with Inca Ore pulling off an astonishing coup with her collaborator Lemon Bear, Yellow Swans expanding studio tricks and collaborative efforts with “Psychic Secession” and “Global Clone,” Starving Weirdos moving out of the world of self-production with the arcane and beautiful “Father Guru,” and Art Ensemble of Chicago reviving from the loss of members with a boundary-pushing double disc. And on top of it all, new releases from the likes of Sunburned Hand of the Man,
Best online efforts went to Robert Gray and National Public Radio. The former compiled a vast collection of Guided by Voices live radio shows, “Broadcastor House.” NPR gave us a wealth of live shows from the 9:30 Club in
OK, somehow we all just knew Modest Mouse would never make the Dec. 19 release date for their new studio effort with Johnny Marr, but fans have reason to believe it will be a best-of contender for 2007, provided they keep up the sweat and don’t lose the muse. Other than that, Deerhoof’s new “Friend Opportunity” for January sounds like a wistful effort. The Shins’ “Wincing the Night Away” already has been labeled a disappointment, but the early outtakes deserve credit just for being different from the last two albums. Arab Strap will give us their parting compilation of rarities before sobbing off into the sunset. Other than that, there’s not a lot rumored to be in the hopper for 2007.
Regular Studio Albums, 2006
1. Built to Spill, “You In Reverse” – Surprise, surprise. I’ve never been a huge Doug Martsch fan, though I certainly appreciate the band’s better efforts, and their similarity to Neil Young/Crazy Horse counts for something. Somehow, though, everything about “You In Reverse” clicked the way no other album this year did. First prize.
2. Neil Young, “Living with War” – Parts of this are corny and maudlin, but it’s a strong political album with that single-take sloppiness that makes Neil albums like “Time Fides Away” and “Tonight’s the Night” so loveable. Yes, many old-timers like The Who, Dylan, and Springsteen had great efforts this year, but notice who’s up near the top. Again.
3. TV on the Radio, “Return to
4. Pere Ubu, “Why I Hate Women” – David Thomas is such an acquired taste, it’s easy to put Pere Ubu albums on the strange shelf. This one, though, combines the edgy terror of 1970s Ubu with the better song structure of late-80s Tenement-era Ubu, giving us one of the band’s best albums in 30 years of musical Dadaism.
5. David Rovics, “Halliburton Boardroom Massacre” – It’s no surprise that Rovics has been writing some of his best material since the beginning of the Iraq war, and that this album is particularly juicy because it has remixes of some of the best songs from his recent online-only album “Waiting for the Fall.” What really makes this album worthwhile, though, is the DVD with performances of some of his most pointed 21st century material. Only a spiritually dead person could fail to be moved by “There Is a Wall.”
6. Califone, “Roots and Crowns” – Given the personal decline Tim Rutili experienced, it would not have been surprising to see “King Heron Blues” be the last Califone album. Instead, this stunner appears out of nowhere and trumps all existing Califone work. Califone is not usually counted among the new Americana/blues/country bands because they’re weird around the edges. Wilco is weird around the edges! Califone should be up there as a swamp-infested version of Wilco!
7. Eric Bachmann – “To the Races” – Crooked Fingers’ front man goes solo with a simple acoustic album that some say is too predictable. Sometimes he may be a gruff-voiced rambler with a typical folkie demeanor, but then you hear an eerie, multi-dimensional hallucinogenic number like “Man o’ War” and realize why Crooked Fingers has been so magical. Welcome to
8. Richard Buckner, “Meadow” – While every Buckner album is a mystical event, this time he grabbed Doug Gillard and Kevin March of Guided by Voices to add a musical depth not seen since “Impasse.” Not only a good sad-folkie album, but a CD you can listen to over and over for its musical quality.
9. Inca Ore and Lemon Bear Orchestra, “Birds in the Bushes” – Inca (Eva Saelens) has been giving us strange chanting recorded works that sound like a poet on acid, but when she gets together in a remote Oregon cabin with Lemon Bear providing woodwinds, found sounds and strange yowlings, the result is an orgasm set to non-music. Indescribable.
10. The Decemberists, “The Crane Wife” – Colin Meloy has this tendency to always write great material, but to make every Decemberists album sound like a sad British sea shanty. The difference with “The Crane Wife” is that it’s more jovial, rollicking, and self-deprecating than “Picaresque” or just about anything else the band has done.
11. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Show Your Bones” – Critics were ready to hate this from the day it came out because the knives were drawn for Karen O. Sure, she’s full of herself, and this was an album built on the band’s internal turmoil, but the important thing is that it sounds great, with substantive, riffy songs.
12. Xiu Xiu, “The Air Force” – Every Xiu Xiu album is difficult to assess, as though Bright Eyes in its earliest, whiniest days had met up with the most abstract of modern-music specialists. It’s hard to know when to take Jamie of Xiu Xiu seriously. You can’t really say that “The Air Force” is more listenable than any other Xiu Xiu, though some tracks are definitely melodic, but something about this album just makes it more accomplished than anything else the band has done.
13. Rainer Maria, “Catastrophe Keeps Us Together” – Uh, no it doesn’t. After Caithlin DeMarrais and her band finally came up with the most perfect Rainer Maria album ever, they announced they were breaking up. Truly sad, as they finally learned how to make music and lyrics click.
14. Belle and Sebastian, “The Life Pursuit” – It was hard to follow up an album like “Dear Catastrophe Waitress,” and this album doesn’t pretend to exceed it, but Stuart is comfortable writing really happy and fun pop tunes these days, and it shows.
15. Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins, “Rabbit Fur Coat” – Maybe it’s my obsession with redheads and with Rilo Kiley, but this countrified kicker beats out the Cat Power and Neko Case solo efforts for 2006, though just barely. Jenny sometimes can get overly-clever with her theological musings and tough-girl acts, but dang she can write and dang she can sing.
16. Tom Waits, “Orphans” – Is this a unified studio release? Is this a collection of outtakes? How can you assess a three-disc set of tales of outcasts and bums? I was disappointed this didn’t contain the wonderful Lebanon War protest song Waits released on MP3 in the fall, but this work may have failed to crack the top ten simply because its size made it difficult to digest. And what is true for Tom Waits is true for four discs of Vince Gill, as we see below.
17. Joanna Newsom, “Ys” – Many folks have this in their Top Ten or even Number One position, maybe for the complex and long arrangements, maybe for Van Dyke Parks’ orchestral enhancements or Steve Albini’s production. I love Joanna, I love the deep wisdom of songs like “Emily,” but you have to be careful of the pwog-wock-opera syndrome.
18. Neko Case, “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood” – Many reviewers have this WAY up there, simply because of Neko’s usual talent for brilliant and varied songs. I like this a lot, but it’s short and oddly-engineered and not as bowl-over as earlier works. The live renditions of songs, though, are killer.
19. Cat Power, “The Greatest” – It sounds trite to compare this to Dusty Springfield’s “Dusty in
20. Starving Weirdos, “Father Guru” – This was the breakthrough year for the strange improvisational geniuses from
21. Flaming Lips, “At War with the Mystics” – Given the booming popularity of Flaming Lips, I’m surprised this didn’t land on most critics’ Top Ten. I’m only mildly gung ho on Wayne Coyne anyway, but this album is the most comical and unselfconscious of their recent work, which makes it WAY better than the last couple FL albums.
22. Mogwai, “Mr. Beast” – Mogwai keeps getting better and better as they adopt that “Red”-era King Crimson sound. You could notice it on the BBC live album of last year, and even more so in this new studio work.
23. Liars, “Drum’s Not Dead” – An exciting, adventurous album that shows the band’s innovation a lot more than “They Were Wrong, So We Drowned.” The “heart attack” theme is brilliant, particularly on the accompanying DVD, but Liars are not a band that you listen to on regular CD rotation, unfortunately.
24. Art Ensemble of Chicago, “Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City” – It’s a testament to Roscoe Mitchell and friends that the group can come back from the death of so many members and record a double disc of such innovative jazz.
25. Destroyer, “Destroyer’s Rubies” – I have to admit to prejudice here. Many reviewers deservedly include this in their Top Ten, but I have a certain problem with Dan Bejar, as he’s kind of an aloof and off-putting member of New Pornographers. This is the most inventive and accessible of Bejar’s Destroyer albums, but there’s still a snobby inside-joke quality to the album.
26. Yo La Tengo, “I Am Not Afraid of You and I Am Going to Kick Your Ass” – Yo La Tengo’s style is so soft and unassuming, they were in danger of becoming Starbucks’ favorite featured band. This is precisely what Ira and the gang needed to give the crowd: a varied, strident album full of strange period pieces like surf music. A very fun YLT effort.
27. Joy Eden Harrison, “Blue Venus” – OK, it’s 24 points down from 1999’s top-ranking “Unspoken” album, but hey, that’s bound to happen as she goes slightly more traditionalist. It’s wonderful to know that the hidden and mysterious Joy is still around, and her song “This is Grand” has all her old magic.
28. Arctic Monkeys, “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” – There are many people who despise this album because the
29. Robert Pollard, “From a Compound Eye,” – Still the best of Pollard’s wild batch of 2006 studio work, sure it’s down from GbV band listings of the past, but the man still writes killer tunes.
30. The Strokes, “First Impressions of Earth” – It’s amazing how many reviewers forgot that this album was released Jan. 3, 2006. Two albums ago, The Strokes were the darlings of the universe. The second album was a bit slow, but this third release just roars. Let’s hope it’s not forgotten.
31. The Who, “Endless Wire” – If Robert Pollard needs proof he can still out-Who The Who, here it is. Make no mistake, this is a much better album than might have been hoped for after a 20-odd-year hiatus. Townshend and Daltrey still are in excellent form, and they are brave enough to try things like a mini-rock-opera. Ringo’s son Zak Starkey is drummer, and the album is thrilling beginning to end. But it’s still derivative, like the opener that sounds too much like “Baba O’Riley.” Nevertheless, it is The Who back again, and it’s not useless codger stuff by a long shot. Be sure to get the Best Buy version, with a studio CD, a “Live at Lyon” CD, and a “Live at
32. Arab Strap, “The Last Romance” – Just like Rainer Maria, Arab Strap is calling it quits just as things get interesting. The boys did a fine
33. Yellow Swans, “Psychic Secession” – This is only low because it’s a fancy commercial release, thus it has to compete with all the pop stuff out there. Yellow Swans own the noise world right now, and this is their most complex 2006 outing, with appearances by Christina Carter and Inca Ore. If noise had its own ranking, this would be in Top 5.
34. New York Dolls, “One Day it Will Please Us to Remember Even This” – Like The Who, little should be implied from this relative ranking, not bad for geezers. Particularly since the only original Dolls are Johannsen and Syl Sylvain. It’s no surprise David can still write and sing, and the band wails like a stomping transvestite. Maybe not as relevant as in 1973, but still very good.
35. Grandaddy, “Just Like the Fambly Cat” – Once again, a band dissolves just as it gets things right. This takes off from last year’s EP into a lusher sound, but does it matter now that they’re gone?
36. The Hold Steady, “Boys and Girls in America” – There are people who love The Hold Steady as the promise of 1975-era Springsteen swagger, yet criticize The Killers when they attempt the same thing. Hold Steady albums are great fun at parties, but this high-school-romance-and-parties-forever consciousness being touted by a bunch of guys pushing 40 doesn’t make me count them as the best band around. Still, fun for what it is.
37. Be Your Own Pet (s/t) – These Nashville teenagers followed a trajectory similar to Arctic Monkeys – big hype on MySpace, Sonic Youth loved them, etc. But they haven’t experienced the backlash of Monkeys. These are great songs by teens, but BYOP’s songs don’t have the riffs of Arctic Monkeys, no matter what anyone says.
38. Thom Yorke, “Eraser” – I may not have liked this album from Radiohead’s singer as much as most reviewers, but it’s much better than I expected/feared. Instead of electronica-sadness-drone, there’s lots of funk and funny things going on around the edges, making it worth almost as much as a Radiohead release.
39. Matt and Kim, s/t – Asks the musical question, what if a bubblegum couple was really a punked-out vicious noise band with a good beat and an attitude? White Stripes meet the Archies meet Throbbing Gristle. Too much fun.
40. Charalambides, “A Vintage Burden” – This gets unfair ranking for the same reason Yellow Swans did. Charalambides released many underground “specials” this year, and this overground commercial release was as close to traditional folk music as the band gets. Consequently, it has to compete in the Big Leagues and gets knocked down, despite being as excellent as its predecessor “Joy Shapes.”
41. Nellie McKay, “Pretty Little Head” – A great and delayed release, but I must admit I can understand the big bad record company (Sony) side here. Nellie composes two albums in a row with more than an hour of material, and insists on releasing both as double discs. Modern technology allows single discs to be 80 minutes long. One can even indulge Nellie her hyper-composing talents, and say that it’s perfectly fine to squeeze this down to one disc. The new one is not quite as stunning in lyrics and arrangement as the first one, but that’s a typical sophomore trait. Nellie just has to quell the diva tendencies.
42. Band of Horses, “Everything All the Time” – This band is often referred to as the successor to Carissa’s Wierd (stet), with many of the members of the former
43. Beck, “The Information” – Most of what I said about “Guerro” last year applies here. Beck gets credit for trying interesting publish-and-mix-yourself tricks, but the content within is very much the chameleon Guerro style. I like Beck when he picks a genre, like “Sea Change”, and rides with it.
44. Fiery Furnaces, “Bitter Tea” – OK, we’re done with the concept album for grandma, and back to the exciting lyricism and piano-driven strangeness this band does best. I worry about the touring Furnaces, though. Eleanor Friedberger is not Joan Jett, and the stylings of she and Matt are best realized in a Rundgren fashion, and I don’t mean Heavy Metal Kids.
45. I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness, “Fear is on Our Side” – The title of the band says it all, but may not convey the slow, quiet nature of some of their sad, Godspeed-you-style tunes.
46. Mountain Goats, “Get Lonely” – As I predicted last year, John Darnielle was racking up such a perfect record, the Mountain Goats simply were due for a snoozer. Compared to the last three albums, “Get Lonely” is it. Too many of the songs are maudlin or forced, with none of the jaw-dropping realism of recent work by Darnielle and friends.
47. Robert Pollard, “Normal Happiness” – There are those who think this album is a bigger pop masterpiece than “From a Compound Eye.” They are wrong. This is good Pollard. FaCE is better.
48. The Killers, “Sam’s Town” – Boy, people loved to hate this one, just because they opted for a pseudo-Springsteen sound. Tear back the pompousness, though, and this album has great riffs and fun tunes. And isn’t that what pop is all about?
49. Pearl Jam (s/t) – Wish I could say this was better, since Eddie and the band tried harder than they had in a long time, there was good political content, the songs were tight, but maybe PJ is just a little past prime. (Still, compare with Dylan or Red Hot Chilis below.)
50. Vince Gill, “These Days” – The mere ambition of releasing 43 songs on four discs is admirable, and there’s really not a lot of filler. The problem is similar to Michelle Shocked’s three-fer last year, or Tom Waits’ three-disc this year. It’s too much to absorb to give it proper due.
51. Danielson Famile, “Ships” – A big step forward for our half-crazed Christian band of street-theater innovators, with lots of guest appearances and some interesting themes.
52. Psycho and the Birds, “All That is Ugly” – Another Robert Pollard studio release, this one along the lines of Circus Devils. Wacky and good fun.
53. The Keene Brothers, “Blues and Boogie Shoes” – Another Pollard release, this one with Tommy Keene. Many like it the least of Bob’s series, since it’s very 4/4 pop-predictable, but I find that kind of enjoyable.
54. Bob Dylan, “Modern Times” – Why do people lionize this when Bob is just rehashing old standards? Sure, it’s better than churning out religion or substandard poetry, but it’s no reason to put his albums on the top ten list of the year.
55. Lonely the Seabird, “From the Top of the Stairs” – There’s not enough practitioners of the lo-fi three-minute pop style left, which makes this particular work so important.
56. Isobelle Campbell and Mark Lonegan, “Ballad of the Broken Seas” – In which our ex-Belle and Sebastian chanteuse gets together with Mark from Screaming Trees, and they do this Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazelwood thing. Fun.
57. Jackie-O Motherfucker, “America Mystica” – A bit more to absorb than the tightly-focused “Flags” of last year, but a worthy effort by one of the most changing and adventurous bands around.
58. Mission of
59. Regina Spektor, “Begin to Hope” – I really like this Russian chanteuse, though I don’t find her quite as compelling as Fiona Apple, Martha Wainwright, or any of the many other people she’s compared with.
60. Bardo Pond, “Ticket Crystals” – Oh, hell, this should have been higher, Bardo is really getting their official studio side down well, and Isobel’s flute and stylings really carry the day.
61. Dixie Chicks, “Taking the Long Way” – This isn’t essential because they’ve stayed Bush-haters among country-music reactionaries, it’s essential because they write great songs about folks with everyday problems.
62. Pretty Girls Make Graves, “Elan Vital” – A step ahead for this band, and one that should give them the better attention they need.
63. Christina Carter, “Electrice” – The mysterious Christina’s bid for commercialism via Kranky, but I like her unaccompanied voice and her work with Andy of Gown (listed in specials) better.
64. Don Caballero, “World Class Listening Problem” – There’s a lot of debate over whether drummer Damon Che has the right to call this band “Don Caballero” when he’s the only original member, but it’s nice to hear instrumental/math rock that sounds nice, even if it’s maybe not up to the original DonC name.
65. Dead Machines, “Olsen Street” – John Olsen’s most interesting project since Universal Indians, even better than most Wolf Eyes material.
66. The Takeovers, “Turn to Red” – Many Robert Pollard fans find this one of their favorite of his special releases this year, I’m still waiting for it to grab me as much as his other albums.
67. Pernice Brothers, “Live A Little” – Maybe Joe Pernice is trying to do too much, but this one hasn’t been as kickass beautiful folkie-harmony as some of Pernice’s most recent.
68. And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, “So Divided” – Trail of Dead still haven’t lived up to their album of a few years’ back, “Source Codes and Tags,” but this is a really nice one nonetheless.
69. Black Heart Procession, “The Spell” – Despite a lower ranking, this has been one of the better BHP releases since the band started getting into movie scores and uber-drama.
70. No-Neck Blues Band, “Embryonnck” – After a stellar 2005, these guys are slowing a bit, but this collaboration with Embryo is certainly interesting.
71. Astral Social Club s/t – And speaking of slowing, the Vibracathedral Orchestra released nothing but an older show from ATP in 2006. The band is kind of in hiatus, as Bridget is collaborating with Melanie, and Neil Campbell is busy with two kids. But Neil’s had a side project called Astral Social Club that has about eight impossible-to-find EPs, so VHF Records collected the best into this handy and interesting CD.
72. Zaimph, “Sexual Identity” – Maybe the best of all of Marcia Bassett’s bizarre noise projects this year, Zaimph is a testament to noise, primitivism, and lust.
73. Sparklehorse, “Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain” – It’s been so long since we forgot what a good Sparklehorse CD sounded like, it’s good to have Mark Linkous back again. The only problem is that it’s like the sci-fi movie “The Fountain” – ambitious, but is it just too weird for anyone to get?
74. Barenaked Ladies, “Are Me” – Give these guys credit for going the Beck route in trying various forms of user participation to generate interest. The material is good here, but popular audiences can be so fickle. BNL now has a fan base that can sell out stadiums in any event, but it’s a shame this isn’t better received.
75. Golden Smog, “Another Fine Day” – These guys are pleasant enough, but they’re really just another mellow sweet band without the fact that Jeff Tweedy sits in from time to time.
76. Bardo Pond, “Alumbrades” – Not quite sure if this is special release or studio album, but it’s good stuff, albeit not as rich as “Ticket Crystals.”
77. Six Organs of Admittance, “The Sun Awakens” – This should have been up higher, as Ben Chasny graces all he touches, though maybe this was not as impressive as other recent events.
78. The Residents, “River of Crime” – The Residents actually had several interesting weirdo releases in 2006, but this was the most clever, solving crimes on line and burning CDs as we go.
79. The Pipettes, “We Are the Pipettes” – Sure it’s novelty, sure they’re like a bubblegum Shangri-Las, but didn’t you love the first time you heard “Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me”?
80. Ani DiFranco, “Reprieve” – Actually a much more straightforward and interesting album than some of her more recent stuff, maybe I’m just at Ani burnout.
81. Comets on Fire, “Avatar” – OK, for a Ben Chasny project that has done so much interesting things in the past, this sounds a little too 70s-space-rock-pwog-wock for my tastes. Come back to the scary side, kids!
82. Excepter, “Alternation” – This noise band always does interesting things, but it’s like Gang Wizard – kinda odd, kind of an acquired taste, but this has a double-album length of all kinds of sound experiments.
83. Josephine Foster, “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” – Many folks have her up near album of the year, but as a curated art experiment sung in German, it’s just a little too specialist for me.
84. Pete Yorn, “Nightcrawler” – Pete faces the curse of record-company producers liking him. Even when he does really great stuff, you get the feeling some A&R type is cramming him down your throat.
85. Fursaxa, “Myriad of Satyrids” – Maybe this is a special release. It’s good. At least we get new Fursaxa this year.
86. Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Stadium Arcadium” – At once, this is an ambitious work by being a long double CD, and also an example of where RHCP fails in excess at times, just like the southern California they love to sing about.
87. Sonic Youth, “Rather Ripped” – Sorry to put anything by the mighty Thurston Wurlitzer so low, but I didn’t find a whole lot of new exciting things going on.
88. Radio Birdman, “
89. Paul Simon, “Surprise” – With Brian Eno doing production and engineering and Paul doing some interesting lyrics, this might have been a killer. It seems the problem is not Simon, but Eno – his soundscapes are sleepy. That’s sad to say about Eno.
90. Beth Orton, “Comfort of Strangers” – Breaks my heart to list this low, Beth is just a stellar writer and arranger, but this is one of her flatter efforts.
91. Drive-By Truckers, “Blessing and a Curse” – DBT is at that point of doing the southern redneck joke so well, they have to work at finding new licks to play and new things to say.
92. Dashboard Confessional, “Dusk and Summer” – The tough part is that this is one of Chris’s better efforts, but honestly, has there ever been a more wussy album cover? Has there ever been a better example of the excesses of emo?
93. Spiderwebs et. Al., “Strands Formerly Braided” – A collaboration album of various Charlambides-related people, not bad, but hard to classify.
95. The Mars Volta, “Amputechture” – And here’s one that deserves the final slot, much as MV can be fantastic with albums like “