Top 50 Albums 2006
By The Staff
50 :: Sonic Youth
Confession: at one point these past few months, I’d have vouched for Rather Ripped crowning my year end list. What can I say? I was excited—even Make Believe seemed riotous for all of a minute. But the law of diminishing returns need not apply to the Youth, seemingly stuck in a perpetual Indian summer, and Sonic Nurse’s hotly anticipated follow-up saw the band trade in the arabesque of age for some of the most jubilant, melodically-driven songs of their career, carousing with spurts of dissonance but never careening off into un-chartered territory—this is Sonic Youth™ juiced, filtered and iced, the sandpaper roughness eschewed for smooth, pulsating tonal leads. It inverted the formula, as well as submitting to it: whereas the shards of savage feedback drown out the rhythm for a few, intense seconds on the aptly-titled “Incinerate,” it merely weasels its way around the mapped out path of the song. What it loses in replay value, it gains by being such a weird, unexpected diamond in the rough of the band’s back catalogue.
49 :: Ned Collette
Jokes & Trials
Please read this. If you read any blurb on this list, please read this one.
Not because it’s the best-written blurb. It’s not. I think Dom’s blurb about Subtle is the best one. I mean, my Figurines blurb is pretty impeccable, too—pretty happy with that one, actually. But Dom killed it.
You should read this one though. I’ll show you some gossip.
This is the last thing I’m writing before I go to bed. I live in Australia, everyone else on the editorial staff is in Canada or the States, waking up and doing stuff with their days. This allows me to check the cokemachineglow.com mailbag, which is usually just Scott’s domain, but Scott’s on a boat in the Atlantic right now. I’m not supposed to show these e-mails to “the public,” and I’m going to get shat on when this goes up, but it’s the holidays and I’ll just blame Greenwald anyway, because he’s a hacker. So I’m going to show you what some people have e-mailed about Ned’s “Hours” cover. One of our colleages at Popmatters wrote “His cover of “Hours” is amazing.” A celebrated Canadian rapper dropped a line simply saying “Hours: HEAT ROCK HEAT ROCK.” Emperor X e-mailed, “Some of this stuff, especially that “Hours” cover, is really, really good.” Then there’s a shitload of people asking for ysi’s of his album. They can screw off. Anyway, that song is one of a couple on the podcast that made roughly all of us go “They did that for his …” and then clean the pebbles off of our chins.
Ned’s from Melbourne, Australia. He’s a new author to the Canadian and American readership, so he needs other authors giving testimonials on the back of his novel, so sceptics don’t think “Oh it’s just another token foreign writer, how exotic.” I’d like to hunt down Leonard Cohen to add something cheeky like “I’d bet the rest of my fortune that Mr. Collette will do for Melbourne what Robertson Davies did for older men with crazy hair.” But I might have to settle for Buck 65 saying: “It took me six rap albums and three alternative-rap-folk records to invent characters and vague storylines almost this compelling.” Ned used to be in a krautrock band called City City City. This is his first folk record.
It’s not entirely just a folk record, but that’s the easiest way to describe it. There’s this organ solo on “Boulder” that rolls out like long fingernails tickling your neck in the morning, and the vocal harmonies on “Laughter Across the Street” can define an entire year. But there’s this odd, almost noir sense pervading the record, it’s almost a mist or a spectre. Ned’s a classically-trained, well-studied guitarist. The “technical” side of his playing is a given. But he also has a natural ear for melody — especially gentle, eerie, fragile melody. His writing takes complicated human emotions and teases them apart, dissecting, slowly. There’s this one story about struggling with expectations, coming clean, lodging caveats. It’s an internal conflict. It goes:
Have you seen him? He looks like me. Only Taller. Wrapped in laughter. Pay him no mind, he’ll leave you short-changed.
When you realize that Collette is writing a note about himself, to someone he’ll never give it to, you sort of catch on why poetry in popular music made a big return this year. Mostly being Spencer Krug’s fault, but here’s something a little more direct, with less snakes, less allusion, more poignancy, equally subtle, delicate, conniving.
I picked up a copy of a local newspaper this morning; it’s a trendier, easy-read daily version of the most respected paper in Victoria. Critics’ top-ten lists were featured. “Smart” albums like Silent Shout and Ys and Return to Cookie Mountain all placed. The biggest paragraph started “Who’d have thought that a folk record from a little-known singer-songwriter from Melbourne would be the best album of the year?”
That’s all. I hope it was ok.
48 :: Liars
Drum's Not Dead
In CMG’s review of Drum’s Not Dead, Sean Ford wrote that 2003’s They Were Wrong So We Drowned was divisive. No way: if there was consensus on anything, it was that the record was as ill-conceived and horrendous a miscarriage as any can get. This is the divisive one, on our list solely because two of us had it so high on ours, making this list a potential source of embarrassment for some. Chet, mostly.
The upside is that Drum’s Not Dead gives the rest of us a cause, and it’s one worth fighting for. Rather than abandon the murky atonality of Drowned, the Liars instead refined and infused it with Faust and Boredoms-like compositional sensibility, to say nothing of its reliance on percussive rather than melodic themes. The result is that it’s often kind of beautiful, even on a fairly unhinged track like “Drum and the Uncomfortable Can.” If it’s not an iPod record, it’s definitely one best heard through headphones (though the DVD comes with a 5.1 mix, I’ve not heard it). Forget the libretto, and forget the fact that there really isn’t a proper “song” on the record except for maybe the closer; even their first record was spare on actual hooks, but it was buoyed by a white-hot intensity: in other words, creating texture and mood. Like Radiohead’s Kid A (a more obvious parallel is hard to find), this record manages the twin feat of being cold and yet captivating, an album of great rewards that’s as unwieldy as the day you bought it, no matter the familiarity. Also: both have really stupid titles.
47 :: The Thermals
The Body The Blood The Machine
People call this punk; I call it Mountain Goats-with-distortion. Then again, I already loved this band before this Jesus-apeing title that consumed industrialization as a snark tactic reached my ears — the band made waves when they turned down a whole huge bloody sack of coin to stop one of their songs from supporting Hummers. But, politics aside, the real attraction here is the union of wicked three-member Wire interplay and gorgeous Neutral Milk Hotel melodies. Everything is “Holland, 1943,” Hutch Harris’s voice cracks; it’s only a floorboard between you and the ferocious fires Kathy Foster (bass) and Kathy Foster (drums, though Lorin Coleman now sits on the kit) are cooking up in the basement. Okay: not politics aside at all, since here they’re ferocious, whittling complacent attrition to a short point everybody can use to prod themselves into action. Against what? Sure—the goals here are wide and unmanageable, but sometimes I think that’s okay in punk, ‘cause so is the enemy, and when the quality of the music is this good, I don’t mind a little naivety. In other words, these three might not be your ideal leaders for the revolution, but they’d be just about the greatest pinko pep squad ever.
46 :: Nina Nastasia
Coming three years and one label change after Run to Ruin, Nina Nastasia’s gorgeous new album cements her position as a capital-I Important American singer-songwriter. Significantly sparser than her previous work, On Leaving often seems like the outline of a record: the important bits are here—brilliant lyrics, dreamy imagery, excellent melodies—but the music seems almost an afterthought. Of course, with Jim White’s skittish-yet-flawless drumming, Dylan Willemsa’s beautiful string arrangements, and Steven Beck’s gorgeous, tentative piano lines backing her up, Nastasia proves the outline can be as haunting as the whole.
On Leaving has proven to be one of those records that I seem to like more on every listen. Everything from the weird dissonance of “Jim’s Room” to the quiet, heartfelt beauty of “If We Go To the West” grows with multiple listens. You start to notice how White never really seems to rest in a groove for more than a few bars, but is constantly shifting and moving. It took me a dozen listens to grasp just how good Beck’s piano lines are, especially on tracks like “Our Day Trip” and “Counting Up Your Bones,” where he manages to define the songs with a remarkably small number of actual notes played. And then there are the lyrics, laden with child-like images, recollections of love, and weird, evocative passages. Nastasia’s always been an impressive songwriter, but she’s pared the lyrics back as much as she has the music, leaving only the most vital, heartfelt, and touching elements in place. Songs like “Treehouse Song,” “Lee,” and album-centerpiece “Why Don’t You Stay Home” are the musical equivalent of exposed nerves: so brutally honest and compelling, they’re breath-taking every time through.
45 :: Phoenix
It's Never Been Like That
It’s Never Been Like That looks utterly ridiculous on paper. It’s the faceless session men behind Steely Dan’s Gaucho (1981) covering Room On Fire (2003) with Daryl Hall on vocals. You can practically see the coke flying off the mixing board with every thwack of that oh-so compressed snare sound—one jacked wholesale from “Hey Nineteen.” Make no mistake: this is a soft-rock record.
But it’s also an extremely lively and compact one, with a catchiness usually reserved for highly communicable diseases. Phoenix makes a conscious effort to go ever so slightly more rock on their third full length, and it suits them nicely. The tempos are faster, and despite still featuring that smooth veneer that makes them a fine musical choice for renegade doctor’s offices, they’ve ditched most of their lounge jazz excursions in favor of duck’s ass-tight pop-rock that zips through ten songs in a compact thirty-five minutes. It’s a breezy delight that you don’t need to concentrate on too hard to enjoy, and the first record since that one decent Pete Yorn album that I can play in the car with my Dad. He likes it because it reminds him of Hall and Oates, and his aging ears can easily make out Thomas Mars’s digestible, perpetually lovelorn lyrics with minimal effort. That latter aspect of Phoenix speaks volumes about French education; dude claims to be a born and bred Parisian, and yet only Clipse rivals his pronunciation of the English language.
David M. Goldstein
44 :: Love is All
Nine Times That Same Song
(What's Your Rupture?)
Ten times that same song: those same drawn crashes, terse hi-hats, those same bloozy, bleating horns, leering and lilting vocals, same trilling guitars, those echoes, these echoes, same echoes, et cetera and then some. Love is All’s debut record is a blast of sounds, all of them repeating, surfacing again in other forms on other songs but still, inarguably, the same sounds in the same songs. Ten times.
But unlike, say, Beirut’s Gulag Orkestar, which fired nifty sonic bottle rockets off an otherwise staid ground, Love is All shoot these elements out with precision and aplomb, creating brilliant nighttime displays that bloom, explode, crash, shudder and fizz in righteously structured harmony. The limited elements aren’t schtick: they draw attention to the band’s considerable songcraft, as if to say, “Look at all the tricks we can do with this slight handful of sound.” And so those horns and hi-hats and cat-calls build against each other, tense and dynamic. This is calamitous, ass-shaking stuff — “hip,” to be sure, very Brooklyn, but in the correct way, and by that I mean not actually from Brooklyn but from Sweden. This band sounds like bands that are from Brooklyn are supposed to sound but never do. The influences are all there: Love is All burns through Wire, X-Ray Specs, some fills from Entertainment! (1979) with a Slits sneer, but the depth of commitment to their sonic aesthetic and limited palette imbues the music with veracity, virility, and an all-important sincerity.
Credit them, too, for weaving through this blast a respectable post-Radioheadian take on media overload. Josephine Olausson’s saturating vocals give loud, emotionless recall of movie marathons, unfeeling and still, until she turns the radio off to get some rest. Her vocals sound bored of media but unable to shake the habit. Her boredom and disaffection find their necessary counterpoint in the music, though, in the handful of sounds arrayed with incendiary care.
43 :: The Hold Steady
Boys and Girls in America
I saw the Hold Steady a few weeks ago, forced to stand three feet from the stage because my buddy insisted on taking photos. The predominantly college-aged crowd was easily the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable group of fans I’d witnessed since Mclusky. The keyboard player sported a pencil-thin moustache; the guitarist was rocking a double neck; female audience members were jumping around and screaming, despite the fact that none of the middle-aged guys onstage were conventionally attractive. “Shit!” I thought, “this is what it must have felt like to see Cheap Trick in the late ‘70s!”
Boys and Girls in America is an anomaly in this staid indie-rock environment that normally rewards gloom and indifference; it’s an unabashedly “fuck, yeah!” rock album created by dudes who are obviously having a blast. And while fans of their previous two releases have already griped that gregarious front man Craig Finn doesn’t spout quite as many mouthfuls of words this time out, the emphasis on actual verses—as opposed to stream of consciousness rants—actually inures to the band’s benefit. Accessibility needn’t be an awful thing, and the more traditional song structures will probably win the Hold Steady new legions of fans—I didn’t fully appreciate Separation Sunday (2005) until already having fallen madly in love with Boys and Girls. The subject matter remains the same; Finn still manages to tap into that portion of a seventeen-year-old’s brain reserved for sex and drugs with rather creepy accuracy considering he’s thirty-five. But, ultimately, these guys just know what works. It’s no secret that kicking off your record with a succession of G to D power chords is a surefire mainline to arena rawk salvation, as is ending said record with a communal, pint-raising sing-along. Boys and Girls In America is unafraid to be fucking enjoyable, and in this current climate, that’s more than enough.
David M. Goldstein
42 :: Ellen Allien & Apparat
Orchestra of Bubbles
Like a technical animal, less ebullient and joyous than Ellen Allien’s other work, less mechanizing and precise than Apparat’s, Orchestra of Bubbles is simply efficient techno: undemanding but very and almost immediately rewarding. So distinctive are each of the two artists’ relative styles, and so different the techniques that they each bring to the songwriting table, the collaboration of these two developing icons of electronic music doesn’t seem like it should be a home run. But it has an ease of being, a naturalness that is undeniable in the listening.
Allien’s club sensibilities are poured with so much warmth over Sascha Ring’s atmospheric, slanted dimensionality, the wonder is that there is little in the way of power struggle to be heard here. Two paradigms are complementing each other and working together to trim excess from these thirteen tracks. “Retina” counter-poses a repeating and omnipresent cello sample over a gradually building polyrhythm in what turns out to be both one of the album’s best and defining moments. Again, something this repetitive and straightforward shouldn’t work, but it’s almost endlessly enjoyable to listen to. Similarly, “Way Out” harkens to Berlinette’s (2003) “Trash Scapes” but with the benefit of the mounting tension of Apparat’s complex beats. As the title suggests, the record is something of a contradiction: analogue synths and digital beats, playfulness and seriousness, intuitive and cold. Female and male if you want to go stereotypical and conceptual. But it’s not an experiment for experiment’s sake, or a poster board collaboration: Orchestra of Bubbles is sovereign of the two artist’s individual work. More importantly, it’s easily one of the best techno albums of the year.
41 :: The Horror The Horror
The Horror The Horror
In a year that saw the Strokes pretty much crash and burn (I mean they fucking re-hashed Weezer’s “Hash Pipe” with “Juice Box” and couldn’t even match the smarmy mediocrity of that limp Weezer “hit”), The Horror The Horror, along with Phoenix, put the hooks back in that special brand of easy-listening post-punk that the Strokes used to own. Even though they make a few nods to their predecessors, including straight up homages to Marquee Moon and the Talking Heads amidst nods to the early ‘00s NYC bands, the album avoids the recycled feel the latter day Strokes choke under. Maybe it’s the distance the Swedish band has from whatever the NYC scene has turned into, or maybe it’s that they have hooks where a lot of bands playing this type of music don’t anymore. Whatever the case, the self-titled debut pops with tight call and response riffs, melancholy lyrics and liberal use of the cymbals, featuring highlights like the mid-tempo rocker that explodes into that Television ode, “Twice In a Lifetime” and the knifing angular guitar cool of “Counterfeit”—why it’s enough to make a former New Yorker sniff about his halcyon days. Sniff.