December 31, 2006

The year in bands that are highly unlikely to appear on Guitar Hero 3

Hello, everyone. As you can tell, I've been taking time off from blogging for Christmas break. But it's almost 2007, so I suppose I had better get this list of my favorite CDs of 2006 posted. I kept myself to 20 this year:

1) The Decemberists: The Crane Wife
2) Scritti Politti: White Bread Black Beer
3) Belle & Sebastian: The Life Pursuit
4) His Name Is Alive: Detrola
5) Danielson: Ships
6) TV on the Radio: Return to Cookie Mountain
7) The Mountain Goats: Get Lonely
8) Loose Fur: Born Again in the USA
9) Regina Spektor: Begin to Hope
10) The Pipettes: We Are the Pipettes
11) Richard Thompson: 1,000 Years of Popular Music
12) Nellie McKay: Pretty Little Head
13) The Futureheads: News and Tributes
14) Yo La Tengo: I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass
15) The Sadies: In Concert, Vol. 1
16) The Gothic Archies: The Tragic Treasury
17) Spanky Wilson and the Quantic Soul Orchestra: I'm Thankful
18) Neko Case: Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
19) Paul Simon: Surprise
20) The Raconteurs: Broken Boy Soldiers

Comments and way more stuff after the break.

1) The Decemberists: The Crane Wife

Last year I mentioned how pleased I was about the resurgence of prog as a viable option for hip young musicians, but I really didn't expect the Decemberists to be the next band to take up the standard. Rose listened to it and said, "How did they know I was wishing for a new [Peter Gabriel-era] Genesis album?" I thought it was more Jethro Tull-meets-Talking Heads, but, you know, same difference.

Download O, Valencia!

2) Scritti Politti, White Bread Black Beer

I'm a big dork about Scritti Politti. I like all their incarnations: the freaky low-fi skronk-punk collected on Early, the alterna-soul of Songs to Remember, the smooth New Wave pop of Cupid & Psyche 85 and Provision, and the hiphoppy mishmash of Anomie and Bonhomie. So it's no surprise to me that I love this album too, nor is it any surprise that it doesn't sound much like any of those other albums. It has the unexpected section-to-section shifts of Anomie, but it's mostly intimate and acoustic, and a little Beach Boys-esque in its harmonies.

I went to see Scritti play at Bowery Ballroom and ended up standing next to a guy who was a much, much bigger fan than I am. He went to every venue on their North American tour. That's devotion. After the set, I could kind of see the attraction, though -- I could have stood to watch that show more than once. The best song intro (to my favorite song from the album, "Robin Hood"): "I like to say that this song is about the end of utopian socialism, but it really has more to do with the end of utopian socialist theories." Now that's rock and roll.

Download Robin Hood

3) Belle & Sebastian: The Life Pursuit

I love the way Belle & Sebastian has gone from an introspective band with precisely observed lyrics to a jubilantly over-the-top band with precisely observed lyrics. It's Burt Bacharach + The Smiths. Plus about five dozen other things.

Download White-Collar Boy

4) His Name Is Alive: Detrola

I haven't seen this album on anyone else's end-of-year lists, from which I can only assume that I'm the only person still listening to this band. This is another in a series of albums featuring freaky, haunting soul music from the future, but it's the best one so far.

Download Seven Minutes in Heaven

5) Danielson: Ships

I listened to the Danielson Familie a bit when they first appeared (my friend Veronica made me a copy of their first album, Tell Another Joke at the Old Chopping Block), but the piercing voice and rah-rah-for-Jesus perspective got to me after a bit and I lost track of them. I'm more tolerant of people who aren't atheists nowadays, and I'd heard enough good things about this album to make me curious again. Turns out Brother D.'s songwriting has come a long way since I last checked in. The arrangements on this album are incredibly full and joyous.

Download Cast It at the Setting Sail

6) TV on the Radio: Return to Cookie Mountain

I didn't think I would like this album as much as I do. I've always felt like I should be a fan of this band, but they've never really grabbed me, so I almost didn't even bother buying this -- but then I saw someone selling a promo copy on the street for a dollar, so I figured, what the hell. It's far and away the catchiest experimental album I've heard in a while. The song structures drift weirdly but compellingly, managing to make very strange and dissonant noises feel soothing.

Download I Was a Lover

7) The Mountain Goats: Get Lonely

I feel dumb for taking so long to get on board with the Mountain Goats. I bought their early EP Nine Black Poppies because of the dark, funny song "Cubs in Five" ("And the Chicago Cubs will beat every team in the league / And the Tampa Bay Bucs will take it all the way to January / And I will love you again / I will love you like I used to"). But then the rest of the EP didn't grab me, so I internalized the idea of the Mountain Goats as being "an inconsistent band", and even though I kept hearing songs of theirs I liked, I never picked up any more of their CDs. I finally bought two of their recent albums, and I expect I'll be picking up more, based on how much I liked them. I hope it doesn't make me too much of a Philistine that I like the nice 4AD production values and more-fleshed-out arrangements.

Download Maybe Sprout Wings

8) Loose Fur: Born Again in the USA

Loose Fur has always sounded great on paper -- Jeff Tweedy plus Jim O'Rourke! -- but that first album, yawn. This one shortens the songs and brings out some excellent 70s-style guitar riffage. Actually, some of these songs might work very nicely on Guitar Hero.

Download Hey Chicken

9) Regina Spektor: Begin to Hope

It's tempting to mark this one down for preciousness, but my impulse to do that is solely based on one song, and it's not really a song from the album itself -- it's one of the tracks on the limited-edition bonus CD: "Uh-merica", which features an unpleasant grunt as the first syllable of the word "America", every time, many times. Grueling. But the album proper really is as charming as she thinks it is. Best lyric: "Summer in the city means cleavage, cleavage, cleavage."

Download On the Radio

10) The Pipettes: We Are the Pipettes

Is it wrong to be so crushed out on such a high-concept prefab group? I don't care, I don't care! The Pipettes (as Jeffrey Rowland puts it) "are three girls who wear polka-dot dresses who sing about how they are kind of jerks." In a classic Brill Building girl group style! Practically every song sounds like an alternate-universe hit single. (Note: don't accidentally try to buy this one from Amazon -- it's much cheaper to get it from Amp Camp.)

Download Because It's Not Love

11) Richard Thompson: 1,000 Years of Popular Music

Inspired by a Playboy article which asked musicians for their list of the 10 best songs of the millennium, Richard Thompson decided to take them at their word and include songs actually from other centuries, which he suspected was not their intent. They didn't use his list, but it did inspire a series of concerts featuring songs drawn from all over the temporal map -- although I confess to preferring the more recent tunes, particularly "Orange Coloured Sky". (He also does a very nice job with "Oops, I Did It Again".)

Download Orange Coloured Sky

12) Nellie McKay: Pretty Little Head

Now, I did actually drop this one a few places for preciousness, because I can't. Fucking. Stand the intro to "Mama & Me" (which features Nellie mimicking a crying child). And there are a couple other bits that make me roll my eyes. And yet I still wouldn't have wanted this album shortened, as Sony wanted to do before they cut Nellie loose from her contract instead, because what if they'd cut songs I like? Because most of the album is super fun. And there are two winning duets, with Cyndi Lauper and k.d. lang.

Download Swept Away

13) The Futureheads: News and Tributes

It's really not as immediately catchy as the first Futureheads album (except for the first single, "Skip to the End"), but it definitely grew on me after repeated listenings. It sounds like they made a conscious decision to have only two hooks per song instead of five. At any rate, they clearly made an effort not to record a CD that was just a carbon copy of their last one, and they succeeded, and it was still a solid album. So, right on.

Download Favours for Favours

14) Yo La Tengo: I Am Not Afraid of You And I Will Beat Your Ass

All the critics seem to love the super-long guitar freakouts that open and close this CD. I can take or leave them, but I love the stuff in between, which is all over the map in that I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One way. Many people have said they consider this album a welcome return to form after Summer Sun...except I really liked Summer Sun. Oh well.

Download The Weakest Part

15) The Sadies: In Concert, Vol. 1

We saw the Sadies perform a killer fucking show at Prospect Park two summers ago, but fellow concert attendee James said that he found the CD he bought after the show to be kind of disappointing, so I held off on buying up their oeuvre. But then they put out a live CD, so I figured, well, crap, that's got to be pretty good, right? Hell yes! CD 1 is basically all Sadies, and CD 2 is guest-star-o-rama, with Neko Case, Jon Spencer, and Jon Langford, and wrapping up with an awesome freaking cover of the Mekons' "Memphis, Egypt". Killer.

Can't find the CD! Sorry, no download.

16) The Gothic Archies: The Tragic Treasury

Of course a novelty album by Stephin Merritt is going to be good. All his best albums are novelty albums. "Look, I wrote 69 songs about love!" "Look, I made an album where every song title starts with the letter I!" "Look, I wrote a song for every book in Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events." Grim. Fun.

Download The World Is a Very Scary Place

17) Spanky Wilson and the Quantic Soul Orchestra: I'm Thankful

Quantic is a techno composer who periodically records hyper funk jams with a live band. This is one of those albums, except featuring a fierce soul singer ready to make a comeback. Sounds in many ways like it dropped out the sky from another era, except when drum-and-bass rhythms appear. (Of course, the basic drum-and-bass rhythm is just a drum sample from 1969 sped up, so it's hardly out of place.)

Download Waiting for Your Touch

18) Neko Case: Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

This is an excellent album, although I ended up feeling a little lukewarm about where to place it in the top 20 because I don't feel it especially stands out overall from her other CDs. There are three songs that blow me away every time, though ("Star Witness", "Hold On, Hold On", and "That Teenage Feeling").

Download Hold On, Hold On

19) Paul Simon: Surprise

Yep, I still like this. See here for commentary.

Download Sure Don't Feel Like Love

20) The Raconteurs: Broken Boy Soldiers

Come for the Jack White. Stay for the Brendan Benson!

Download Store Bought Bones

Honorable mention (alphabetically sorted):
Jon Auer: Songs from the Year of Our Demise
The Beatles: Love
Beck: The Information
T-Bone Burnett: The True False Identity
Cat Power: The Greatest
Dosh: The Lost Take
Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint: The River in Reverse
Jeremy Enigk: World Waits
Him: Peoples
Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3: Ole! Tarantula
Kaki King: Until We Felt Red
Michael Leviton: My Favorite Place to Drown
Los Lobos: The Town and the City
Mission of Burma: The Obliterati
Morrissey: Ringleader of the Tormentors
Jim Noir: Tower of Love
Pet Shop Boys: Fundamental
Prince: 3121
Sufjan Stevens: The Avalanche
Kelley Stoltz: Below the Branches
Mia Doi Todd: La Ninja
Toothfairy: Formative

That Beatles album totally would have made the top 20 if it had all been as gloriously freewheeling as the incredible Drive My Car/The Word/What You're Doing mash-up. But it felt a leetle too respectful, overall.

Albums I wish I'd bought in time to put on last year's list:
Field Music: Field Music
Dominic Frasca: Deviations

Speaking of last year's list, how did I do? I'm still pretty happy with all my choices, although the Go! Team album has worn off me a bit, and I've come to like that Kate Bush CD more over time, so I'd probably slide those both a few places in the appropriate direction. Anyway -- onward.

Best albums I've heard but haven't bought yet, but probably will buy at some point:
Joanna Newsom: Ys
Muse: Black Holes and Revelations
The Scissor Sisters: Ta-Dah

Best compilation:
Andrew Bird: Fingerlings 3

No, I haven't heard Tom Waits's Orphans yet.

Best reissue:
Eno/Byrne: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

Best MP3-only EP from 2005 that I only just heard about, so it's like it's new, to me anyway:
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists: Sharkbite Sessions

Best box sets:
Sufjan Stevens: Christmas
Tortoise: A Lazarus Taxon

Flaming Lips: At War With the Mystics
Miho Hatori: Ecdysis

Best albums from a long time ago that I just now got around to buying, or albums from just a few years ago by people you've never heard of but should maybe look up:
Jack Frost: Jack Frost
Jack Frost: Snow Job
Jennifer Trynin: Cockamamie
Tom Waits: Bone Machine
Brinsley Schwarz: Nervous on the Road
Brinsley Schwarz: New Favourites of...
Elton John: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy
Fleetwood Mac: Tusk
The Free French: All 3 albums
Statuesque: Choir Above Fire Below

Read about Jack Frost here. The Free French is a band I heard about because I attended the Scritti Politti show -- I discovered Scritti's keyboard player, Rhodri Marsden, had a livejournal, and I thereafter discovered that he had his own band. I listened to some online samples and knew I needed the albums, so I e-mailed Rhodri, who sold them to me himself. I highly recommend taking the time to download the zip file filled with sample tracks here.

(Obligatory disclaimer: MP3s are for promotional purposes only, yadda yadda yadda, and will only be available for a limited time. Do make an effort to buy CDs now and then. Goodness knows I do.)

Posted by Francis at 03:23 AM

Wow. I never thought we'd have the same favorite album at the end of a year. (I haven't put together a list, but I know the Decemberists edged out Wired All Wrong for the top spot.)

Posted by: The Dan at December 31, 2006 09:12 AM

This list, plus the iTunes gift certificates I got for Hanukkah, make a dangerous combination. I've already downloaded the Richard Thompson and the Pipettes ...

Posted by: Debby at December 31, 2006 12:12 PM

I've been liking that Jennifer Trynin album for years; didn't understand why she didn't seem to get anywhere after that.

Posted by: I. at December 31, 2006 03:06 PM

I haven't sat down and made a Real Official List yet, but that His Name Is Alive album will be close to the top of it.

Posted by: Aaron at December 31, 2006 03:16 PM

Of your top 20 albums, I have heard of eight of their artists. This seems to prove that I am woefully unhip.

Posted by: Trip at December 31, 2006 05:19 PM

Dan: Yes, the Decemberists are clearly the band that emo boys like you and indie rock posers like me can all agree on.

I: I think it's just another example of the thing where someone really talented comes along but not enough people hear about them (like the Balancing Act). Apparently Jen Trynin put out a book last year (now in paperback) about her adventures in the music industry, which probably explains in great detail why she didn't get anywhere. I'd be curious to read her story myself.

Trip: Well, go download some of the songs and get hipper!

Posted by: Francis at December 31, 2006 07:46 PM

This list alerted me to the existence of #16, yesterday at around 7 PM. After listening to the track you posted, I decided that 2007 was NOT SOON ENOUGH to own this album and rushed out to my parents' local suburban music stores (Borders and Best Buy) not realizing that they would already be closed on New Year's Eve. Also, if the blinding flash of light that nearly drove me off the road is any indication, I got a speeding ticket in the process (or alternatively, was abducted by aliens and probed in unpleasant ways). I hope you're happy.

Posted by: Scott at January 1, 2007 02:00 PM

Delighted, yes.

Posted by: Francis at January 1, 2007 05:51 PM

I've heard maybe 50 albums from 2006, and yet I've heard none of the 42 you list here. (I did buy the Futureheads disc in the Tower sale, but I haven't gotten around to listening to it yet.) But I'd probably like most of them. There's just too goddamn much good music.

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