Thursday, January 04, 2007

2006: Nix on 06

After collapsing under the weight of blurb-itis at year's end, I humbly offer the last of my lists. Normally I'm a big fan of the process and the controversial results, but this year it felt like my only worth as a writer was being able to conjure 100-word witticisms distilling the essence of a work of art that moved me deeply. Nothing makes a writer feel more like little more than a consumer guide than year-end lists. I feel promptly scolded here.

That said, here's another 25 records that almost made the master list. These all had some stumbling block that preventing me from loving them outright. Some impressed me if only because they exceeded any expectations of them, unlike the plethora of albums released by some of my favourite artists this year that simply left me indifferent. Some of these are culled from my more mainstream gig as a columnist at a daily paper, and as a consequence are records whose worth I value more objectively than subjectively. Nearly all of the blurbs below are reconstituted from my previously published material in Eye Weekly, Exclaim and the K-W Record.

After this, that's it for lists, I swear.

Again, this is in alphabetical order, no ranking is implied.

Christina Aguilera – Back to Basics (Sony/BMG). Four years and an image makeover did wonders for Aguilera, who dropped this double disc of dynamite soul. Despite its occasional indulgences, even the most hardened hater had to cop to her exhilirating performance on “Ain’t No Other Man.” Qualifier: More than a bit of filler over the two discs, especially the execrable “Thank You,” comprised of little more than gushing fan messages.

Barmitzvah Brothers – A Century of Invention (Permafrost). Thrift store folk pop doesn’t get any better than this. This Guelph band’s much more mature third full length shows that they still have plenty of tricks in their treasure chest, while retaining the wide-eyed innocence that was always central to their charm. Qualifier: Because this band keeps improving, I think their next one will be their masterpiece.

Brightblack Morning Light – s/t (Matador). The sound of zero gravity. These Californians create opiated daydreams and ghostly whispers that made it sound all too easy to grow out your hair, move to the forest and live on solar power as a respite from such a volatile year. These hippies make drugged-out dirges so that you don’t have to take drugs: their guitars and Rhodes are drenched in reverb and tremolo, their hushed harmonies are spine-tingling, and the soul claps and shakers save the whole affair from sinking into the sand. Qualifier: They’re caught in the middle between not being freaky enough to get away with threadbare songs. It’s great as a mood piece, but something else has to happen before they reach greatness.

Solomon Burke – Nashville (Shout Factory). As good as his 2002 comeback album was, the blustery Burke sounds even more relaxed and natural surrounded by some of Nashville’s finest. Not that he needs starpower to sell the sizzle. His gospel blues vocals mixes seamlessly with more conventional country arrangements, making this Exhibit A in a lecture about what Americana music is all about. Nashville rings with joy and exuberance, and Ray Charles would be mighty proud. Qualifier: This is entirely subjective and a slightly ridiculous thing to say about such a great soul man, but to me Burke always sounds constipated—granted, less so here.

Danielson – Ships (Secretly Canadian) Whereas once it was hard to get past the chirpy vocals and seemingly self-conscious artiness, the Danielson aesthetic has now coalesced into a fascinating and majestic vision —not to mention wonderfully obtuse—that dares to blend country music, Broadway show tunes and progressive pop music. There was no better example than the single “Did I Step On Your Trumpet”: while easily the catchiest song Daniel Smith has ever penned, he’s still aware that “pleasing people is so predictable.” Qualifier: I fell in love with this record when it came out because it’s what I’d wanted Danielson to achieve for years now, but it hasn’t remained in high rotation.

Editors – The Back Room (Sony/BMG). Editors make it look easy, tapping their deepest darkest angst and translating it to stadium rock. Nobody broods like the Brits, and this band is one of the few who understand why U2 are huge Joy Division fans. Qualifier: Bad timing, as the much clunkier Interpol already has this market cornered.

Nelly Furtado – Loose (Geffen/Universal). Loose was liberating and libidinous for Furtado, who only hinted at this abandon in her pretty pop past. With the help of Timbaland—who also tried his best this year with the less talented Justin Timberlake (who only came up with half of a great album)—Furtado found her groove and maintained it for more than just a few great singles. Qualifier: The vastly overrated single “Promiscuous,” about Furtado playing hard to get, is the worst lexical mishap in pop since Alanis mistook bad luck and coincidence for irony.

The Gossip – Standing in the Way of Control (Kill Rock Stars). This title track is one of those songs that simply too exciting to simply stumble across while driving—it’s guaranteed to make your accelerator stick to the floor while your better judgement is buried in the glorious chorus. The Gossip’s hybrid of blues, punk, and gospel has always been tailor made for a rock’n’roll revival dance party, but new drummer Hannah Blilie gives this bassless trio the bottom end it’s always needed, allowing them to slip into disco and provide a Tina Turner transformation for singer Beth Ditto. Qualifier: None, really, other than the fact that I didn’t get around to buying this album until recently.

Ben Harper – Both Sides of the Gun (EMI). For all his inherent talent, Ben Harper has always been too reserved for his own good. No more. His country’s political situation has prompted him to make the finest album of his career, a double disc of fiery tirades and gentle reflection. Qualifier: I still don’t actually like Ben Harper.

Kevin Hearn & Thin Buckle – The Miracle Mile (Celery/Warner). This rainy day collection of planetarium pop marks a career best for the Toronto songwriter and Barenaked Ladies sideman, whose analog keyboard tapestries provide perfect colouring for his fragile voice and meditative mood, written in exile amidst the humid haze of Los Angeles. Qualifier: “Map of the Human Genome” drives me up the wall, and “In the Country” sounds like a Flaming Lips-lite Volvo ad. I prefer the ballads best.

Herbert – Scale (!K7). The man who made a name for himself by sampling the destruction of McDonald’s packaging has entered middle age. Sure, there were signs before: the expertly chilled jazzy house of Bodily Functions, the cut-up big band swagger of Goodbye Swingtime. But less than a year after his concept album about industrial food production, Herbert drops the conceptual conceits to encase his pointed societal critiques in a cushion of bumping, lush disco, complete with big strings and brass, balanced by beautiful blips and blurps that he and singer Dani Siciliano weave into seductive pillow talk. Activists—both aesthetical and political—need to unwind at the end of a long day, too. Qualifier: It doesn’t come close to the brilliance of 2001’s Bodily Functions, which I suspect most Herbert latecomers and Scale boosters haven’t heard, or at least spent quality time with.

Hylozoists – La Fin du Monde (Boompa). Any band that regularly employs two vibraphone players and a glockenspiel all at once runs the risk of sounding like a long shift at a wind chime retail outlet. Bandleader Paul Aucoin, a longtime MVP in Canada’s indie scene, knows better than that, and here his compositional skills match the brilliance of his arrangements. Alongside all the shimmering keyboards and mallet percussion, it’s pedal steel guitarist Dale Murray who is the secret weapon here. Qualifier: The three vocal tracks here fall flat compared to the instrumentals; the vocalists also sound dry and dusty next to their ornate surroundings.

Greg Keelor – Aphrodite Rose (Warner). Considering the lacklustre last couple of Blue Rodeo releases, was Keelor stockpiling his songs for this sadly unheralded solo record? Unlike his last couple of lullaby collections, this was a lo-fi, 60s-inspired incarnation of Keelor’s best Blue Rodeo moments, coupled with a more experimental side nurtured by his side project the Unintended. He also pens some welcome political material for the first time in 15 years; that may have fired up his muse more than anything. Qualifier: I can’t help but wonder if I love it simply because I haven’t liked anything else from the Blue Rodeo camp since 2000’s The Days in Between.

K-OS – Atlantis: Hymns for Disco (EMI). Along with Buck 65, who guests here, K-OS is the rare breed of Canadian artist whose eclectic tastes actually translate into great pop music while retaining their individuality. That he can do this on a major label and on MuchMusic is a minor miracle. Qualifier: Two songs here are horribly obvious attempts at rewriting his last two hits, “B-Boy Stance” and “Crabuckit,” and neither of them top the originals (actually, the former was the dog on Joyful Rebellion, too).

John Legend – Once Again (Sony/BMG). Finally, a neo-soul heartthrob who has the songs to match the suave voice, and doesn’t sound like a precocious youth while pulling it off. Marvin Gaye and Bill Withers can rest easy. Qualifier: As much as I like this, it’s too slick for my regular rotation.

Malajube – Trompe L’Oeil (Dare to Care). The francophone lyrics weren’t the only thing that set this Quebecois band apart from the pack. Their musical dexterity and genre jumping meant there was never a dull moment on this dark horse favourite. Qualifier: Even though they’re really good at it, the rock radio moments here ring less true than their weirder idiosyncracies.

More or Les – The Truth About Rap (Public Transit Recordings). Usually it’s a sign of supreme sour grapes if an MC spends the better part of an album lamenting the state of modern hip-hop. But over 19 solid tracks, Toronto busker More or Les backs up his bitching with solid beats and reminding us that: “It’s about fluency with rhyme and ingenuity.” By releasing an embarassment of riches over 19 tracks and 72 minutes, Les sounds like he’s hungry—literally, as we hear on “Brunch!” and “Eat Your Food!” And what better sign that he’s a class apart from today’s hip-hop pack than the bottle of red wine he’s rocking on the album cover? Qualifier: Way too long.

Joanna Newsom – Ys (Drag City). Easily the most misunderstood album of 2006, by both its champions and detractors, Ys deserves points for its lofty aims alone, even if almost half the album falls flat on its face from intrusive string arrangements and breathless Costello-itis lyricism. On the odd-numbered tracks, however, Newsom keeps us rapturous and removed from verse-chorus regularity, awash in wondrous imagery and no shortage of melodic invention. Qualifier: If this was a three-song EP—or even if the best three songs were sequenced at the beginning—then this wouldn’t be so maddening and frustrating. Despite all the fuss, Ys doesn’t come close to the masterpiece that was The Milk-Eyed Mender.

Republic of Safety – Vacation EP (Ta Da). “Let’s do something meaningful before we die,” pleads the opening track here, but even if this fleeting ten minutes were the extent of their public record, their legacy would be guaranteed. Without sounding like soulless gravediggers, there are trace elements of a Dead Kennedys/Go-Go’s double bill circa 1980, though Republic of Safety are far more preoccupied with the present. Singer Maggie MacDonald embodies everything a punk entertainer should be: smart, sexy, overarticulated and able to prick your political instincts with melody and charisma to burn and a kick-ass band behind her. Sure, some of the lyrics could be accused of sloganeering, but these are more rouse than rabble, inspirational calls to action that should be immediately stenciled on the walls of Torontopia and beyond. Qualifier: It’s a four-song single that’s over in eight minutes—which might be an ideal format for a band like this, but for obvious reasons doesn’t qualify as a full album.

Sloan – Never Hear the End of It (Sony/BMG). Sometimes it takes an ambitious project to save a band from irrelevance: just ask Green Day. This 30-track song cycle plays like a rock opera, even if the only thread is the band’s persistence on challenging themselves and topping their past discography. Qualifier: One can’t help but wonder how much better this would sound at half the length.

Regina Spektor – Begin to Hope (Sire/Warner). This precious pianist and songstress sets herself apart from a crowded field with pizzicato pop songs that always seem to be set on snowy New York City streets during the closing credits of a better-than-average quirky rom-com. Qualifier: The fact that I just used the phrase “better-than-average quirky rom-com.”

Bruce Springsteen – We Shall Overcome (Sony). This is the first Springsteen album in 20 years that hasn’t been a minor chore to listen to. Faint praise aside, every note here is infused with joy and spontaneity, these ancient songs brought to life by an ace band and a clearly inspired bandleader. Qualifier: Why the hell doesn’t he sound like he’s having this much fun with his own material? Here’s hoping he writes some originals for this new band, and alternate between them and the E-Streeters for his next few releases.

Swan Lake – Beast Moans (Jagjaguwar). The ghostly groans and beastly moans emanating from the depths of Swan Lake are likely to put off any fairweather fans of father bands Destroyer, Sunset Rubdown and Frog Eyes—wait a minute, do Frog Eyes have any fairweather fans? Here, Dan Bejar, Spencer Krug and Carey Mercer retreat into a murky fog where disintegrating keyboards drape themselves over acoustic guitars, and distant percussion colours the mirage of melodies that reward the patient. Traces of their day jobs are apparent, but the focus on texture here gives them a tabula rasa to start anew. Closing track "Shooting Rockets" may be more of a séance than a song, but otherwise they remain ever so slightly on this side of the spirit world. Qualifier: It’s not exactly in high rotation, if only because it’s not easy to slip into the sonic swamp this creates for itself.

Ali Farka Toure – Savane (Nonesuch). When he passed away earlier this year of bone cancer at the age of 67, “The King of the Desert Blues Singers” Ali Farka Toure was a world traveler who had retired to an agrarian life and became mayor of his Malian hometown. His last session, recorded live in a Bamako hotel room in 2005, produced two albums: his award-winning collaboration with fellow Mali musician Toumani Diabaté, In The Heart of the Moon, and now this, a thoroughly satisfying final statement that finds him in full strength. Saxophones and harmonicas conjure a mirage of classic Chicago blues behind his ngoni string band, with Toure’s delicately electrifying guitar work at the forefront. The rhythmic repetition and occasional reggae lilt create a narcotic effect, a perfect antidote to urban heat waves on the other side of the world, not to mention a valuable lesson to young freak-folkies attempting transcendence. Toure himself pens the extensive liner notes, detailed dedications to heroes and spiritual traditions that shaped the life he lived. An entrancing epitaph. Qualifier: As a sufferer of Seasonal Affective Disorder, I only seem to enjoy this when the weather is warm.

Scott Walker – The Drift (4AD). David Lynch fans searching for the audio equivalent of Mulholland Drive should turn off the lights and turn up this baffling, disorienting, mysterious and magical record that is as confounding as it is intriguing. This 63-year old artist has a storied career that keeps getting stranger, much like this album itself. But no context will help you by the time the donkeys start braying and Walker’s tremolo-ridden croon sings “I’m the only one left alive!” like Antony of the Johnsons singing a Diamanda Galas libretto at the end of his sanity. The Drift is a terrifying enigma that’s either a masterpiece or a hoax, but either way it demands your full attention. Qualifier: As brilliant as this is, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve listened to it all the way through.


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