Top 50 Albums 2006
By The Staff
30 :: The Walkmen
A Hundred Miles Off
I’ll admit that it is smarmy and problematic to situate your album as “a hundred miles off.” From what? Their early-career Saturn-jingling piano days? (The album cover would suggest as much, with a big spoonful of irony). Or from the posturing scene that they are inevitably also a part of? Amir might find their self-exile limiting, but I take it differently: refreshing and fun. These guys break rules, they get loaded, and they make music that suggests as much. They’ve sold out six ways to Sunday, and just within the past year they’ve challenged notions that I thought we had all pretty much agreed upon: no band should write a collective novel, and no one should cover Nilsson’s Pussy Cats (1974) in its entirety. Cue the Walkmen, who enter stage left and collectively raise their middle fingers.
A Hundred Miles Off embodies their not-giving-a-fuck approach to music-making and retains all of the charms that always made them such a deeply affecting band: noise, melody, energy, earnestness, humor, and booze. Opener “Louisiana” is a sleepy highway number about the South, which seems to go farther south for its influences. It sounds like a Mexican dirt road littered with mariachi instruments and broken tequila bottles. Leithauser’s delivery makes the words feel like they are casually crawling out of his mouth as much as he is actually singing them, but the real genius of the song is in the tossed off “whoo!” that follows the second verse. It feels unplanned and kind of stupid and, for the Walkmen, perfect.
What defines this album for me, though, is “Emma, Get Me a Lemon,” a tightly constructed, furiously percussive number that is easily the album’s catchiest song. Leithauser’s now-familiar wail gives totally mundane commands the edge of death threats, which makes them even more ridiculous. I feel the same playful excitement screaming along with lines like, “Go let the dog in / I hear him howlin’” as I do with other absurd classics like “I am un chien / Andalucia.” A Hundred Miles Off is a sloppy, sometimes lazy, often freakishly beautiful nowhere-near-masterpiece. Which is probably much more than anything we’re going to say about that novel.
29 :: Chad VanGaalen
Skelliconnection’s a sneaky little bastard; mannered to your face, but that’s a guise for its grabbing — something like Roots & Crowns’ younger cousin. While Califone dig their feet down in Americana past so to stretch up toward the future, VanGaalen’s subverting within the more limited lifespan of the contemporary folk-pop scene. One for the fine fulfillment of genre and one for the internal friction: both David Greenwald and I can dig Skelliconnection to death, but I suspect our points of adulatory emphasis might differ.
Me, I’m in love with the buzzes, the drum machines, the crude keyboards, the wheezy loops, the fibrillating trills, the frayed recordings, and the flutters in his voice that VanGaalen uses to sandblast his pretty melodies, abrasion creating its own natural smoothness and sheen. Normally, injecting artifice to kill conventional artifice might seem a petty and ultimately superfluous feat, but everything’s complicit to VanGaalen’s jagged self, a hall of broken mirrors where introspection is a collagist task that spills plenty of red hot. Chad doesn’t need to damage “Graveyard” and “Dead Ends” to make them strike, for on this record they thrill as the clear-eyed, clarion-voiced statements which follow the clattering likes of “Flower Gardens,” “Burn 2 Ash,” “Gubbish,” and “Mini TV’s.” The gently streaming aftermath of “Sing Me 2 Sleep” runs deep.
Aptly accompanied, the cerebral entrails of VanGaalen’s perceptually acute, dream-drenched lyricism are as serpentine, as winding yet united, as the eternal morphing of the animated music videos he fashions for himself. The man writes, plays, sings, produces, and draws practically everything, and it all bears his distinctive mark; few are they who come so close to deserving a record under their name alone, and fewer still those who infuse the idea of “solo artist” with this kind of holistic power.
28 :: OOIOO
I like this better than the Boredoms. I don’t know if Mark can say the same, but his excruciatingly thorough review (no, really, what am I supposed to add to that beast?) does a good job of articulating my reasons: “They work through the same themes as the Boredoms without making every moment transcendental, and it comes off not as a failure to achieve those heights but rather a statement of purpose: if the Boredoms play out like a friend suddenly getting stigmata, OOIOO is the aftershock, when they reveal to you in secret that it was all a premeditated act.” Taiga is weird, indubitably foreign, squirmy ‘n squiggly music that also somehow happens to sound rather matter-of-fact and full of composure. When OOIOO do set out for some ball-breaking, the level fighting ground allows for their electric blows to fall pointedly and peal out the thunderclaps.
For example, ying yang twins “uma” and “umo” are some fucking gangbusters. They nearly bookend Taiga, and where the former quakes with an impossible density under the call-and-response vocals—like a cheerleading squad frantically trying to make itself heard above a football game played by mechs — the latter boils the same percussive stew down to a hollow-ringing yet more potent reduction. I imagine Stefani’s Cal-Asian girl posse running off and forming a noisy rock band, which is probably an injustice to OOIOO, but this whole record really is dangerously cute. On Taiga “uma” and “umo” dramatically function like the early foreshadowing and then inevitable climax where the femme fatale, the one you knew was trouble all along, decides to go ahead and slay you. Ears will bleed catharsis.
27 :: Tom Zé
Estudando O Pagode
Estudando O Pagode bursts out of your speakers, Technicolor music exploding in fifteen directions at once, pulling at the far edges of rhythm and melody and refusing to dumb it down for the listener. This is a Brazilian neo-tropicalia rock opera, created by a seventy-year-old mad genius and pushed to the limits by his orchestra of chaos. It is dense, complex, long, and occasionally exhausting. Simply put, I don’t think there’s another record on this list as consistently rewarding, innovative, or absolutely vivacious.
That being said, I still barely understand what the thing’s about. If you haven’t read it, Mark Abraham’s review attempts to clarify the politics and the storyline of the record, but it’s also worth picking up the actual disc, complete with extensive liner notes and further explanation of what exactly is going on. Of course, it hardly matters when you throw the disc on; from the opening bars of “Ave Dor Maria” (complete with a reed section playing ficus leaves), the music absolutely drags you in. Zé’s compositions are both unexpected and absolutely fantastic: the gorgeous, soulful closing minute of “Canção De Nora (Casa De Bonecas)”; the psychedelic chipmunk funk of “Pagode-Enredo Dos Tempos Do Medo”; the sexed-up swagger of “Vibração Da Carne”; all blow away any conceptions of restraint or musical limits. And then there are the jaw-droppers: “Elaeu” never fails to blow me away, “O Amor É Um Rock” is streamlined pop greatness, and while Mark was right to call “Prazer Carnal” the prettiest song of the year, “Duas Opiniões” is almost as good. Albums don’t get much more out-there, creative, or uncompromising than this.
26 :: Herbert
Scale’s algal overcoat is teeming with green, beset by fungal misgivings. It’s a shame: Matthew Herbert’s earned his soil, and to release an album as organically bonded as this is open to throw the burden of proof into a tally of Herbert’s impressive found sounds. True, the guy’s begging for an audit, ripping out themed slow funk, tech-jazz, and experimental albums (human relationships to household items, to food, to each other, etc.) before and then scaling his bytes back into endlessly accessible disco grooves. Of course, calling this album some sort of neo-march of glycerin ’70s floor-slapping numbers is limiting its scope; hundreds of normally “atonal” tools, products, and assorted doohickies are given as much creative air, cadence, and musicality as in any of his other outings; now more than ever, we’re compelled to see the flora for the protozoa.
This is assuming the regular listener—aren’t we all?—is trapped between two methods. Can it be, can we only decide to hear Scale as either a consolidation of disparate parts, and therefore a base political statement related to “scaling” sound itself, or only as an ass-whomping electro-dance record that both craps on and romanticizes internalized pop synecdoche? I’ve found a third approach, ya’ll, or I should say that it found me. Let the scene set itself, since my existence is limned in public transit. See, one day, “The Movers and the Shakers,” past the wet, squeezed intro, encouraged a hirsute man opposite me on the train to chew his gum along with the song’s snare. This was peculiar. Then, later, “Birds of a Feather” sent the car, gorged, into a subterranean tunnel. I didn’t even think a tunnel existed there in the first place. Dani Siciliano’s voice echoed between low, reedy synth and the beat found steamed grace where the train couldn’t. Even later, “Just Once” simmered, and the crowd on the train grew in unison with the song’s urban noise, only to split and crawl from underground into the sunlight again, simply because Herbert tacked the wandering Siciliano to a rising string arrangement. And that was one train ride in one city, one Herbert album in one pair of headphones, and even then my environment became a vulnerable blank slate for Scale’s rigorous order. Forget how deep this thing goes, how horns, violins, oboes, 700-something typically self-recorded minutiae, and arterial programs climb over each other as a factor of songwriting fact. Forget the world cooped up inside, Scale will harness shit backwards, and that’s as close to found sound as I can imagine…
25 :: The Blow
…But that means Herbert’s scope is huge, shying from its own depths, and the antithesis is the Blow. This year, for the most part, with the most heart, the Blow seemingly came out of nowhere. Devour the puns of the last statement carefully; Paper Television, the Blow’s fourth album (abouts) and first LP with full-time boardster Jona Bechtolt, is as sinister as it is bold and bare, an analogy so thatched with portent that addiction—to those cosmos deep thuds, those barbed wire cobwebs of melody that stretch and stick into/to surrounding melodies only with growth, veiny growth, in mind, like fucking Tetsuo from Akira, and to Khaela Maricich’s voice, preternatural scourge to all other indie pop — is the only soluble way to make sense of the bathos at play: between quirky asides and politico-sexual heft, between chordless synth and skittering beats, and throughout an accessible rekkid (represent, Abraham!) rife with shrouded wordplay and organ-thick slashes. OK, I’m killing myself with loaded sentences here, but that’s how the band do.
What’s so sinister, besides the keyboard from “Eat Your Heart Up” all the way to “Fists Up,” is that for most of Paper Television, Maricich’s and Bechtolt’s flesh never reaps the burden of their message (and the album is their flesh because it’s a commodified piece of art, both economic and organic, both representationally removed and immediate). Instead, both vocal lines and arrangements operate some distance from the action, carrying on infused with a ghostly, back alley warmth. In other words, they sound disembodied, and it’s intentional, because their imperfect, genre-bending music is clothed in layers of perfection, clean, neat, and in its own believable step. The mix, the effect, is both so harrowing and so damned likable that, like Mark’s said, the complicated politics and complicated measures can’t help but turn into one shameless—no, blunt—party. I call that fantastic pop music, some of the best of 2006.
24 :: Charalambides
A Vintage Burden
The Charalambides’ seventh long-player, A Vintage Burden, is a fragile spider web of aching strings and melancholic vocals. The Texas-based band, pared down to its founding duo, Christina and Tom Carter, has crafted a mesmerizing set of achingly beautiful and morbid folk. Once again, the atmosphere is dark, a glacial mix of John Fahey/Neil Young guitar loops and Joni Mitchell-on-ludes vocals, but as CMG editor Mark Abraham noted, there is deceptive warmth here that makes the Carter’s metaphysical lullabies more engaging than some of their earlier work. Indeed, the slow-building songs and thick atmosphere the band creates require a willing audience, but the rewards come quicker here than on previous albums.
The lulling opener “There Is No End” features a wonderfully subdued performance from Christina that breezes around and through Tom’s mournful minor key guitar work. The shimmering, ghostly guitar work and Christina’s gorgeous alto create a the mildly upbeat “Spring,” which recalls some of Low’s better work on Things We Lost in the Fire (2001). “Dormant Love” is dreamy perfection and as much as I love the instrumental epics they’ve made, hearing this dose of sweet sadness makes me secretly wish they’d write a few more almost-pop songs like it. But the album has a measured ebb and flow to it and the trip from “Dormant Love” through Tom’s desolate, hypnotic work on “Black Bed Blues” and out again to Christina’s jaw-dropping performance on “Two Birds” is both exhilarating and devastating. I’d be remiss in leaving out Tom’s stellar guitar work on “Two Birds,” as his droning guitar solos in the middle of the song build tension and release in a golden high that Christina rejoins and the two combine for a gossamer coda. The way the song builds recalls another Texan band for me: the sublime work of Bedhead. And that’s really as high a compliment as I can pay a band. The Carters don’t stay on these high moments for too long, setting them up by exploring the slower, sadder ones. But there’s a sense of finding reason and beauty and hope within utter despair that permeates this entire album, things I had a harder time finding before in their work. It is that sliver that the band holds onto that makes this album incredibly rewarding.
23 :: Mission of Burma
Motherfuckin’ “2wice.” That’s all you really need to know. Seldom is a lone tune powerful enough that it completely negates the rest of its parent LP, but you could place The Obliterati into a year-end top ten based on that one song alone and nobody would blink. Remember those ads with the easy chair bound Maxell guy getting his face and hair completely rearranged from the sheer clarity of the ensuing sound?
That the other twelve songs on The Obliterati rock nearly as hard is admirable, and even a little comforting. It’s a beautiful thing when three dudes in their early fifties are able to release a complex punk album, twenty-six years after their debut, which completely laps their younger competition in terms of inventiveness and utter power. With both Fugazi and Sleater-Kinney seemingly on permanent hiatus, Mission of Burma have found themselves in the unlikely position of standard bearers for cerebral punk rock, and they accept this mantle with aplomb, chugging along with a collection of sarcastic fist-pumpers like “Man in Decline” and “1,001 Pleasant Dreams.” They also have a hearty sense of humor, whether bragging about “eating dinner on Matador’s dime” in the chaotic “Spider’s Web,” or cooing in the only somewhat ironic soul breakdown in the middle of “Donna Sumeria,” an amusing tribute to the disco diva for MoB’s shared hometown of Boston.
Age has robbed drummer Peter Prescott and bassist Clint Conley of a little bit of their litheness. They can no longer turn corners as quickly as they did on “Secrets” or “That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate,” and some of the faster songs seem to lumber as opposed to race. But what they sometimes lack in speed they more than make up for in anthemic push and musicianship. Roger Miller is still capable of throwing out the clouds of psychedelic feedback that doomed him to tinnitus years ago, and Clint Conley’s gutteral yet defiantly melodic basslines still sound revelatory, and completely paved the way for the likes of Joe Lally and Shellac’s Bob Weston (ironic because the latter is now a full-time Burma member entrusted with tape loops).
So yeah, three years after their reunion (although they prefer to say they simply “resumed”), Mission of Burma have settled quite nicely into an elder statesmen role, the rare group of fifty-somethings that can use “I’ll fuck you up” as a lyric and be taken seriously. They’re the trio of non-descript fellows you see in the back of the club, obviously drunk and giggling to themselves while half-heartedly watching a group of kids onstage twenty-five years their junior. They’ll coolly proceed to rip said kids’ hearts out ninety-minutes later, Sub Zero-style.
David M. Goldstein
22 :: Danielson
(Sounds Familyre/Secretly Canadian)
I guess I was right: fundamentally, a cult really is just something to which it might be nice to belong. For years Daniel Smith’s jubilant, spastic, Christian-pop meltdown has been something I remembered having cultish, inbred qualities. The albums to which he played Beloved Leader were either to be gotten or to fly clear over one’s head with not really much room for what’s in between. All the more impressive, then, that with Ships Smith has ushered forth from such fractured, insular revelation an accessible, inclusive magnum opus of twee. Ships is great for the same reasons indie fans, for whom Sufjan’s religion might be a bitter pill to swallow, have learned to live with the rapture of Seven Swans (2004): it fumbles and falls in the direction of the universal because of how undeniably appealing Smith’s songwriting has become.
Smith’s evolution from a self-involved imagist to imagist-storyteller is one reason to hear Ships, but again that depends on one having been a part of the cult a little sooner. What makes Ships worthwhile for everyone else is how that development was so surprisingly married to the most cohesive musical statement of the man’s career, speckled with songs equal to this year’s unlikely favorite “Did I Step on Your Trumpet” despite the fissures a plethora of guest artists might imply. As its cover suggests, Ships is twee gone cosmic, a possibly genre-defining record that can be both easy and lasting. Listen to it, then meet me in the Kool-Aid line.
21 :: TV on the Radio
Return to Cookie Mountain
Damn, what a terrible album title. Push past it, though, and fall into a morass of sound, David Andrew Sitek stirring the stew with a distortion pedal on a stick and quoting Macbeth’s witches. TV on the Radio have a better release in the Young Liars EP (2003). They have better songs in the likes of “Staring at the Sun,” “Dreams,” and “Ambulance.” But, somehow, I don’t think they have ever been as promising as they are on, ugh, Cookie Mountain, and that’s because the promise here sounds like a whispered-in-your-ear threat. Or a threat to love you to pieces, like Emily Watson in Punch Drunk Love. What this album does so well is conflux the differences between amicable and obtuse, soft and harsh, pristine and dirty.
Adebimpe’s baptismal vocals don’t quite tower over everything as they did in the past, and maybe that’s indicative of the band stepping up their game, or Adebimpe stepping into place, but whatever the case, the unit’s a real all-asses-in team this time out. More TV Mission: Impossible than the movie versions. Remember when “Wolf Like Me” was “Playhouses”? Still confuses the shit out of me, but the song didn’t lose anything with the name change; it’s an event that rings, pulses, blares, and subsides like the functional chronologies of a barn fire, an alarm, and a fire truck all rolled into one, their temporal frames overlapping completely instead of in their natural linear sequence, their starts and ends coinciding rather than dependent on the one prior and leading to the one next. This might be why the song drops on top of the listener like a grand piano, followed immediately by a fucking anvil: it’s all causality, all at once. So, for all its little sonic eccentricities and doo-wop, it’s basically rock in its essential form; most of these songs, equally, go nowhere. They find stucco in their stasis and sublimity in their fractions (Sitek’s clipped sampling of horns is the fulcrum that allows “I Was a Lover” to lurch forward on its straight piece of track). Sometimes all the simultaneity distracts; I guess it took a Ned Collette to make me hear what a great song chills at the core of “Hours.” But that’s okay. That’s a promise. And a Cookie Mountain on top.