Monday, December 18, 2006

2006: Top 25

I've spent much of the last two weeks in bondage to blurbs, writing year-end material for various outlets. It's a miracle I'm still able to use adjectives in everyday conversation anymore. So for the next little while you'll get my top 25 of 2006, along with another 25 I found interesting.

One of my colleagues just emailed out his top 66 or something, on top of his reissue list, singles list, import list, and best of posthumous releases... you get the picture. All ranked, of course. Rob Gordon/Fleming walks among us. As much as I think that's rather ridiculous, I didn't have any trouble coming up with a list of 50 myself.

This material is shamelessly frankensteined from material I've written for Exclaim, Eye Weekly, the K-W Record, and my Idolator ballot. This is 95% post-consumer recycled material, folks.
[Edit January 30, 2006: this was originally spread over five posts. I've condensed it all into a single one for archival purposes.]

I'm a little concerned at how conservative it is, but this is the album format we're talking about. Many other acts thrilled me for the duration of a few singles, or while witnessing the live show, or with the audacity of their approach, but that doesn't mean I kept their album on the shelf and in high rotation. Hence, no Matmos, who nonetheless put out their finest album this year. Non-existent hip-hop. A handful of electronic releases. This isn't an objective list of what I think is cool or important or artistically cutting edge. But for whatever reason, these are the albums that effected me the most, the ones I'd recommend without any hesitation, the ones I'd put in a time capsule for 2006.

One final caveat: there's still a bunch of 06 releases I haven't heard yet, for a variety of reasons. I can't figure out why I haven't seen Jon Rae and the River since they put out their new record, but I haven't. And because I prefer to buy at the merch table than stores whenever possible, nor have I heard it, and therefore it's not here even though it was one of my most-anticipated albums of 06.

Here we go. Happy Hannukah.
In alphabetical order...

The Acorn – Tin Fist EP ( Pacing is everything. Opening with the brooding, insistent pulse of "Heirlooms," Tin Fists begins as beautifully ominous as the first snowfall, foreshadowing a season of melancholy and long distance love affairs. From there, this EP's thematic thread of urban decay and withering faith slowly blossoms four songs later into the anthemic "Spring Thaw," where windmill guitars and flurries of drum fills suddenly don't seem out of place. This is epic Canadiana at its finest, tapping similar texture and rhythms from Melville-era Rheostatics, while distilling the tension of Godspeed's brooding epics and injecting melodic optimism into the mix to create tiny perfect pop songs. After two years of most-promising status, it's frightening to realize that this slice of brilliance is merely a stop-gap before their full-length early next year.

Ellen Allien & Apparat – Orchestra of Bubbles (Bpitchcontrol). No wonder Ellen Allien is considered queen of Berlin: she’s one of the few from that city’s notoriously navel gazing electronic scene to inject a genuinely radiant warmth and ever-so-subtle pop touches to pulsing minimalist club music. Here, she and one-off collaborator Apparat (a fellow label impresario: he runs Shitkatapult, she Bpitchcontrol) detune pianos, employ skittering synths and slices of schaeffel beats, and unleash crackling microtonalities that embark on ear-tickling ping-pong panning, all with the sombre elegance of Kraftwerk at its most oblique.

The Awkward Stage – Heaven is For Easy Girls (Mint) The cover image depicts an orthodontic-ridden man (singer/songwriter Shane Nelken) in the back of a limo, trying to pin a corsage on his blow-up doll date. Lyrically, Nelken’s sugary pop songs doesn’t directly revisit prom night, but they do dwell on the perils of prolonged adolescence and fragile psyches. They’re populated with anorexics, psychopaths, deluded paranoiacs, and vengeful circus animals—all of them just a few genetic mutations away from a Barbara Gowdy short story. Match that with music that equals Nelken’s former employer A.C. Newman, and you have the hallmarks of a classic pop songwriter.

Belle and Sebastian – The Life Pursuit (Matador). Their second album in sunshiny pastures brings Belle and Sebastian a backbone, a large leap away from their typically foggy, rain-drenched melancholy lit-pop. The Life Pursuit is the first B&S album you’d actually put on at a party—not at home alone when you’re wondering why you weren’t invited. They tried this before, on 2003’s aptly titled Dear Catastrophe Waitress, which simply tried too hard. Here, however, every track here stands with their best work, drawing heavily from Motown and R&B, with tasteful new wave moments and even some—gasp!—screaming guitar leads. And yet all the band’s vintage strengths still shine through: the songwriting that’s clever without being cloying; the classy 60s pop arrangements; the tender vocals cooing incongruous offhand profanity. It’s rare that an already decent band suddenly comes into their own on their seventh album, but long gone are those days of Belle and Sebastian being a secret passed on a mix CD between two geeks at the library.

Beirut – Gulag Orkestar (Ba Da Bing!). After the bombs tear apart the fertile landscape, you make do with what you have left. In the devastated battlefields of his imagination, Zach Condon scavenged a ukulele, hand drums, accordions, and a blast of Balkan brass to accompany his plaintive, practically wordless melodies that simultaneously invoke hope and the saddest music in the world. Every time he lifts his stately trumpet it evokes a new national anthem for a nascent country, a tabula rasa where we’re free from the suffocation of history. And being a debut album, the possibilities here are just as enticing as the immediate gratification.

Benni Hemm Hemm – s/t (Sound of a Handshake/Morr). Now that we’ve lost the late great Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, this Icelandic band is ready to step up with their own take on pastoral orch-pop sung in an exotic European language. Benni Hemm Hemm is the name of both the band and the bandleader, who wrote this material on an Italian vacation. Some of the passion of that country’s indigenous music is fused with the more elegant restraint that other Icelandic exports are known for, with lovely layered vocal harmonies backed up by jangly guitars, glockenspiels and stately brass sections that rarely coalesce into expected patterns—even with the recent proliferation of traditional European music in indie rock. Benni Hemm Hemm can play it straight, too—perhaps not coincidentally on two songs sung in English: the wispy country song “I Can Love You in a Wheelchair, Baby,” and the downright dorky “Ku-Ui-Po,” a horn-y pop song with swelling slide guitar about his Hawaiian sweetheart. Fans of our very own Hylozoists should take note—in fact, so should Mr. Hemm Hemm, if he’s looking for a North American back-up band.

Blood Meridian – Kick Up the Dust (Outside). Dead-end jobs. End times. Unrequited love. Urban alienation. Religious wars. Sounds like a good time, right? The kind of lyrical material that makes you want to link hands with your surrogate family of friends and sing to the heavens? Yet that’s what happens on this album’s title track, which is an atheist anthem, a grungy, godless gospel song that laments: “We’re God’s little jokes, so let’s show him how little we care.” And the dust of the title? “It’s just the bones of our friends.” Musically, Blood Meridian is Western Canadian gothic at its finest: twangy guitars, murderous blues, mountainous percussion, and ranch-hand whistling, performed with a façade of classic rock confidence masking the over-the-shoulder paranoia that subtly imbues Camirand’s fragile vocal delivery throughout this ghostly masterpiece. When the apocalypse comes, these are the songs we’ll take to the Rockies and sing around the campfire every night. Cormac McCarthy should be proud of his spawn.

Johnny Cash – American V: A Hundred Highways (American/Universal). Death is at the door, but the old man still has more stories to tell, more conscious than ever not to waste a single breath. In a voice of vulnerability, he confesses, “I never thought I needed help before. I came to believe in a power much higher than me.” Choking at the recent memory of his losing his beloved, he whispers as if she’s still in the room: “Love’s been good to me. You are the rose of my heart. I’ll meet you further up the road.” As Death becomes impatient, the knocking sounds like an army coming to carry this mighty spirit away while the old man tries to bellow “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” Only instead of judgemental righteousness, his fragile voice is a word of warning from one who’s already felt the crushing wrath of the Almighty. As a reprieve, he retreats into an old Canadian pop song that seems like a non-sequitur until he croaks with what sounds like his final breaths: “The feeling’s gone and I just can’t get it back.” Surrender never feels this satisfying, sobs and all.

Decemberists – The Crane Wife (EMI). Much is made of how difficult the Decemberists supposedly are. And what is it, exactly, that we're supposed to be afraid of? Vocabulary! Long songs! Graduate degrees in creative writing! Are our expectations of our songwriters really so low that these traits are considered anomalies? The Crane Wife marks the band's first foray into major label territory, so they're made out be even more of a freak show in the larger pop culture discourse. Yet his epic narrratives survived intact, simultaneously broadening his pallett and providing bonafide pop thrills. Meloy's literary pursuits are matched by melodic ambition, and his backing band is a remarkably versatile unit—not everyone can pull off a track that sounds like Emerson Lake and Palmer covering the Pogues.

Angela Desveaux – Wandering Eyes (Thrill Jockey). Heartbreak is the most common theme in country music, but not many singers can evoke the sentiment at first breath. Angela Desveaux, on the other hand, can have you weeping at her opening lines. The melancholy Montrealer excels at both radio-friendly roots rock in the Lucinda Williams mode, the dead slow, haunting heartwrenchers best experienced during post-breakup 3AM drives. Wandering Eyes draws equally from both, taking a tried-and-true formula and adding some killer songs to the canon. Desveaux stirs the ashes of heartbreak and infidelity, managing to reflect with wisdom and strength, questioning the natural flurry of irrational emotions that come with the territory. Sarah Harmer should watch her back.

Devotchka – Curse Your Little Heart EP (Ace Fu). Devotchka are a melancholically Eurocentric quartet of Denver multi-instrumentalists—playing bouzoukis, theremins, tubas, violins, accordions, and a “tenor triangle”—led by the swoony, soaring voice of Nick Urata, whose Orbisonic operatics provoke escapist fantasies of carny bands roaming the American west. Their own songwriting is nothing to snicker at—check 2004’s How It Ends for proof—but here they turn to cover material as diverse as the Velvet Underground, Frank Sinatra, and Siouxie and the Banshees, giving each their own unmistakable stamp.

Mark Feldman and Sylvie Courvoisier – Malphas: Book of Angels Vol. 3 (Tzadik). You know you spend too many nights in rock clubs when, during a groggy early morning jazz festival gig, an unamplified violin/piano duo cause you to smack your forehead and utter: “strings and wood, who knew?” The cutest married couple in the Tzadik roster deliver a spinetingling performance of some of John Zorn’s most delicate Masada material to date, literally crawling inside their instruments at times to deliver exquisite performances.

Feuermusik – Goodbye, Lucille (independent). Believe it or not, but one of the year’s most intriguing records features only saxophones, clarinets, and bucket percussion. Jeremy Strachan and Gus Weinkauf extract a variety of tones and rhythmic possibilities from these traditional tools, and over eight originals and a cover of Gershwin’s Summertime they balance an unusually funky approach to composition with more improvisatory flights.

Fiery Furnaces – Bitter Tea (Fat Possum). Bitter Tea is the Fiery Furnaces’ fifth full-length in three years, and once again it’s chock full of playful pop songs overflowing with melodic ideas, delivered with angular tempo and mood shifts. Unlike the sprawling 2004 classic Blueberry Boat, most of the songs clock here in around five minutes, making the jarring moments more digestible. Even the strangest moments still fit into a pop format. Matthew Friedberger has stripped almost all the guitars from the mix, utilising an arsenal of ancient synths. Sometimes they’re sweet, sometimes they’re sour, but most of the time they’re run on backwards tape, along with vocals and drums, to give a discombobulating effect to otherwise lovely pop songs. His sister Eleanor drops the rhyming couplets and stretches her vocal range to great effect; the single edit of “Benton Harbor Blues” is perhaps the swooniest three minutes in the band’s entire discography.

Final Fantasy – He Poos Clouds (Blocks Recording Club). Even more than the fact that Owen Pallett makes a compelling concept album about D&D schools of magic, it’s the musical coup he pulls off here that’s most impressive: balancing dynamics, dexterity and the delightfully ridiculous in a combination of the Beatle-y, baroque and Bartok. Pallett pens classical compositions in a pop format, deftly dodging many of the string section clichés that litter the rock landscape, both past and present. This isn’t a full record of “Eleanor Rigby”: Pallett’s principal strength is his ability to turn the complex into the catchy, to write longform melodies that lodge in the brain as readily as the most obvious rock riffs. The album’s most-discussed track was “This Lamb Sells Condos,” where the subversive lyrics—about a ubiquitous and allegedly impotent Toronto real estate maven—made great gossip fodder for anyone oppressed by condomaniacal gentrification. It opens with ragtime piano and riffing harpsichords, with soaring strings hovering lightly above the surface. A perfect pop melody eventually unfolds into an angel’s choir underscoring a domestic dispute, escalating in a spiralling scale of a coda that winds its way into the stratosphere even quicker than the “conjured erections” of the Toronto-specific title. All in four and a half minutes: all pop, no pretension.

Gnarls Barkley – St. Elsewhere (Warner). An inspired mash-up of old-school Motown, sci-fi hip-hop, and funkadelic pop, this ran laps around all the competition in 2006 and forged a template for 21st century soul. Danger Mouse unleashed a whole new genre of “go-go gadget gospel” that took trip-hop beats, 60s psychedelic pop, secret agent guitars, and spooky strings to score Cee-Lo’s lyrical visions. Because for all its pure pop pleasure, St. Elsewhere probed much deeper into Cee-Lo’s dark and paranoid mind than the generally upbeat music would suggest: he thinks he’s crazy, he’s tried everything but suicide, and he’s staring in the mirror trying to find the man he used to be and scared of the man he might become. When these conflicts of identity pair up with such a sonic smorgasbord, the end result is sheer brilliance.

The Gothic Archies – The Tragic Treasury (Nonesuch). A gleefully Gorey-ous series of songs that not only are the most nefarious nursery rhymes you’ll ever hear, but they’re set to some of the most evocative melodies Stephin Merritt has ever penned—and this from a guy who unleashed 69 Love Songs that never once sounded repetitious.

Habitat – s/t EP ( This innocuous EP from the cutest couple in Guelph, Ontario has stayed in high rotation ever since I first heard it in January, making it four songs that more than any other shaped my own personal 2006. Sylvie Smith (Barmitzvah Brothers) and John O’Regan (D’Urbervilles) document the breathless hesitation of a relationship about to take the big plunge: hoping desperate to build a house, not a home, and promising to each other not to mess it up. It’s all set to charmingly simple Casio-pop and acoustic guitar, and their individual voices croon while we swoon in ways not evident in their other projects—which I also recommend, but this is a dart to the heart.

Jamaica to Toronto: Soul Funk and Reggae 1967-1974 (Light in the Attic/Koch). Unlike most reissues, this collection of forgotten Caribana Canadiana is so good it almost seems like a hoax: how could stone cold soul classics like these have been neglected and forgotten for all these years? You could blame the growing pains of 70s Canadian multiculturalism, or the country’s classic inferiority complex—after all, this did come out on an American label. But no matter, because the triumphant revisionism didn’t end with the disc itself. At the CD release in Toronto, watching sixtysomething Jamaican soul men sing “I Believe In Music” while dancing and singing into one shared microphone—in front of thousands of multigenerational new fans on a swoony summer night by the water—was enough to make this grown man cry. Lloyd Delpratt’s ace house band backed up consummate showmen like the dynamo Jay Douglas and the 500-per-cent man known as The Mighty Pope. Their collectively electrifying vitality made this much more than a museum piece.

Love is All – Nine Times That Same Song (What’s Your Rupture). As soon as the tenor saxophone swoops into this herky-jerky post-punk pop fronted a strong female vocalist, the ghost of Romeo Void immediately shows its face. In a year when disco punk died yet again and the Slits rose from the grave, these Swedes succeeded not only because they had the songs to match the attitude, but they didn’t seem calculated in the least, due largely to the deliciously lo-fi production. It also helped us forget the appallingly blasé Comet Gain album.

Man Man – Six Demon Bag (Ace Fu). Gnarls Barkley scored the single of the year questioning their sanity. Zach Condon dreamt of Balkan fields from afar. These Philly greasers, on the other hand, got their hands filthy with some musical mayhem that, in its darker moments, sounded like the last waltz of a defeated man losing his shit during some Eastern European extraordinary rendition. Not that they’re a downer: this is music to celebrate the fact that we’re all still standing, even if barely. Led by a lycanthropic lunatic, Man Man come off like a drunken Deerhoof doing cabaret tunes in a Belgrade brothel, backed up by a Russian chorus revelling in its hoarseness on the night before the war. After being infuriated by yet another year of incredulous headlines, Six Demon Bag is what I’ll be playing on December 31 to put the nix on 2006.

Paul Simon – Surprise (Warner). He’s opening the book of his vanishing memory, paying off his debts. He’s ridding his heart of envy and cataloging his regrets. He’s the grumpy old grandpa muttering: “Anybody care what I say? No!” Cracking a 15-year old creative coma, the 65-year old songwriter bounced back with meditations on mortality set to folk music of the future, aided by collaborators old (Steve Gadd) and new (Brian Eno). The lyrics are steeped in hindsight, yet the sparkling electronic soundscapes successfully sidestepped any potentially embarrassing bids for Botox techno-pop. Unlike his geezer peers’ 2006 output, Simon’s wartime prayers and crises of conscience proved to be both resonant and relevant.

Sunset Rubdown – Shut Up I Am Dreaming (Absolutely Kosher). Spencer Krug’s cascading keyboard melodies and pirate-ship vocal approach are an integral part of the sonic avalanche that is Wolf Parade. But in the—dare we say it—more mature Sunset Rubdown he puts the same skills to work with less amphetamines, more mushrooms. New wave synths collide with accordions, saloon pianos, and—because he hails from Montreal—the inevitable glockenspiel, alongside electric guitars that sing countermelodies to Krug’s surrealist tales. He scores a few direct pop hits and genuinely affecting ballads, though the best moments unfold patiently—the epic title track moves from fragile acoustic guitar to a rousing indie rock middle and Men Without Hats closer. His unique gift is his ability to make a series of 90-degree left turns seem like a straight line.

TV On the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain (Interscope/Universal). TV On the Radio’s post-millennial zeitgeist is one where paranoia battles hope, one about life during wartime, one where opiated gospel harmonies clash with electronic dissonance. The guitars sound like they’re dissolving before our ears, the beats stutter like the dystopian hip-hop of their neighbours at the Definitive Jux label, and the fog of electronic textures often obscure the album’s inherent beauty. Early Funkadelic records are run through an apocalyptic futurist filter, articulating the struggles of courageous hearts battling “cruel, unusual fools.” It sounds like 9/11 happened yesterday.

Tom Waits – Orphans (Anti). The only real surprise here is this 56-song collection's consistent excellence, considering some of the filler that's padded every album of his post-1999 comeback. Sure, he has his formulas, but underneath his signature arrangements—which continue to delight, 25 years after Swordfishtrombones and his marriage to Kathleen Brennan—are undeniably great songs that he can obviously spit out whenever he wants to. These collected secrets confirm Waits's status as the most consistent songwriter and performer of at least the last quarter century, casting a downright towering presence over the rest of his generation. (And if anything, that sleepwalking Dylan album this year only confirmed this.) "Through the wind, through the rain of a cold dark night—that's where I'll be" We always know where he is, though how he leads us there is never a given.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Crap wish I had heard of Idolator earlier so I could of tried to get. Probably wouldn't of made it but would of been fun to try.

Love the Decemberists recap. Can't wait to read the rest. Have a good holidays.