Saturday, January 13, 2007

Best Albums of 2006

It's that time once again, by which I mean for the first time. 2006 has been a relatively solid year for music, particularly coming from unexpected areas, as will likely be obvious from my list. Still, as much as I love music, I admit I really don't get to devote as much time to it as I'd sometimes like, which of course lends itself to an incomplete list. For a better list that explores a larger variety of music, and demonstrates there are too many albums I've missed as usual, see Barzelay's list (also, hat tip to Barzelay for the idea of including a sample lyric from each album, though I like to think he got the idea from my patented Song Lyric of the Day). Also, keep an eye on Aaron's blog, from which I expect a list very soon.

Without further ado...

  • 10. TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain
    My first thought is that this album lacks the immediacy of many albums in my collection, but that's misleading (after all, it's hard to claim "I Was A Lover" doesn't strike you right away). What I mean when I say that is, after all the accolades I had heard about this album, I expected to be blown away, and I wasn't. But then I kept listening to it, and each time new subtleties revealed themselves, and I began to notice that the songs were getting stuck in my head. Once songs like "Hours", "A Method", and the excellent "Wolf Like Me" (a strong contender for song of the year) grab hold, they don't let go.

    "It's a rough wild world, could you please chaperone?
    It's a mind field trip, oh leave it the fuck alone
    This is hardly the method you know"
    - TV on the Radio, A Method

  • 9. The Killers, Sam's Town
    Setting egos and claims of vast importance aside, this is a fun album. I enjoyed Hot Fuss, and I like this one about the same. "When You Were Young" may be the best single to hit alt-rock radio this year; overplay hasn't diminished its impact yet, which in itself is impressive. Songs like "Bling (Confessions of a King)" rise above their ridiculous titles to produce memorable numbers. The "I see London" bridge of "Sam's Town" seems a little silly, but can't override the relentless chorus. "Bones" is a pure catchy single, "Uncle Jonny" stands as a strong tale of a relative who couldn't lay off the rock, and highlight "Why Do I Keep Counting?" is a life-affirming song about the uncertainty we all face. Lead singer Brandon Flowers tries to hit notes not meant for his voice, and usually fails (consider "This River is Wild") but somehow that just makes the album more endearing. The Killers avoid the sophomore slump and manage to craft a second catchy, appealing album.

    "When I offer you survival,
    You say it's hard enough to live,
    It's not so bad, it's not so bad
    How do you know that you're right?"
    - the Killers, Bling (Confessions of a King)

  • 8. Band of Horses, Everything All the Time
    "The Funeral", a healthy candidate for track of the year, makes this album noteworthy all by itself, but the rest of it is pretty damn great too. There's the optimistic promise of certain failure in "Our Swords", the yearning of "The Great Salt Lake" (which also has a fantastic outro), and the sheer fun of "Weed Party". All these songs work to perfection. And then, of course, album highlight "The Funeral", an anthemic testament to the fragility of life that somehow avoids too much emoting. The lead singer's voice is remarkably appealing, and the guitars chime majestically.

    "Count on us all stepping on our own toes tonight
    Count on us all falling on our own swords tonight"
    - Band of Horses, Our Swords

  • 7. The Long Winters, Putting the Days to Bed
    John Roderick just writes great pop songs. It's that simple. "Pushover" is a rollicking two-and-a-half minute number that hooks into your head and doesn't let go, and "Hindsight" is unforgettable (in particular, the question "Was this new move just to keep moving?" resonates with me). The music isn't bad either, from the joyous trumpets in "Teaspoon" to the exuberant guitar fills of "Fire Island, AK". The electrified version of "Ultimatum", which originally appeared in acoustic form on last year's EP of the same name, works just as well as it's predecessor, even though it changes the dynamic. The quieter moments, such as the would-be-amusing-if-it-weren't-so-heartfelt "Honest" where Roderick plays the part of a mother warning her daughter away from singers such as Roderick, are amazing too. If this album never produces an anthem like "The Commander Thinks Aloud", it's still more consistent than the Ultimatum EP and its full length predecessor When I Pretend To Fall. I continue to expect great things from Roderick and crew.

    "In hindsight you're gonna wish you were here
    You keep scratching at the old paint
    But the wood is still there"
    - the Long Winters, Hindsight

  • 6. Five Dollar Friend, XOXORx (Kisses, Hugs, and Prescription Drugs)
    Well, the Texas underground did it again. The same scene that brought (sadly now defunct) iSOLA's Loud Alarms last year has now whelped FDF's debut LP. The album is hit-or-miss, but when it hits (which is more often than not), it hits hard. The production is more spare than most people are used to, but the album yearns to be quieter anyway, as indicated by practically whispered lyrics like "I show up at your door, it's 3 am and I'm drunk again" (from closer "Bad Words and Warnings"). Other great moments are on album highlights "In Tune" and "Spilling the Blood of the Hipsters" when pianist Michelle Hudson's vocals drift in and mingle with lead vocalist Jacob Trevino's for truly beautiful moments.

    "Keep it simple when I lie
    Is there anyone here who's sober enough to drive?
    I'll get home, but I don't know how
    I'm obsessed with the memories I cannot change now"
    - Five Dollar Friend, Dancehall

  • 5. Blue October, Foiled
    It's a testament to the diversity and strength of this album that I originally thought it didn't really take off until track 4 ("What If We Could"), and now tracks 1 and 2 ("You Make Me Smile", "She's My Ride Home") are my favorites. "Hate Me" has suffered somewhat from radio overplay, and "Into the Ocean" is trying to catch up, but fortunately this album has a lot to offer besides its singles. Quieter songs like the sad "Let It Go" and the hopeful "Sound of Pulling Heaven Down" sit comfortably alongside more upbeat songs like the bouncy "Overweight" and the chaotic "Drilled a Wire Through My Cheek" (the latter featuring the catchiest barking sound this side of the Baha Men). Also, I'm not sure I've heard a song that better captures the exuberance of new love better than album closer "18th Floor Balcony". All in all, Blue continues to craft quality albums of music and remains a great representative of my former home city.

    "Is that seat taken?
    Would you like to take a walk with me?"
    - Blue October, Congratulations

  • 4. The Decemberists, The Crane Wife
    I originally told friends requesting an opinion on this album that it was good, but not as good as Picaresque. The more I listened to this album, I realized that I was mistaken. While it lacks any songs quite at the level of "Engine Driver", it's a more solid effort on the whole. The "Yankee Bayonet" duet and "O Valencia" are both tales of doomed love that makes you wonder if Colin Meloy is ever going to allow his characters to find romance and actually keep it (but that wouldn't be nearly as compelling, would it?). "Summersong" is a beautifully enchanting track and "Sons and Daughters" brings the album to a triumphant close. And most of all, the 12-minute "The Island" suite is absolutely entrancing from beginning to end, especially during the rollicking Celtic middle section ("The Landlord's Daughter"). The strangely-ordered title suite ("The Crane Wife Part 3" precedes "The Crane Wife Parts 1 and 2" by eight tracks) is also excellent. High marks for the Decemberists.

    "Oh Valencia
    With your blood still warm on the ground
    And I swear to the stars
    I’ll burn this whole city down"
    - the Decemberists, O Valencia!

  • 3. Built to Spill, You in Reverse
    To anybody who says guitar rock is on the way out, I offer the first minute of "Conventional Wisdom", which may be the greatest lead riff ever. This album returns largely to the epic song lengths of Perfect From Now On, but without as much rhythmic variation; that's both a positive and a negative, as songs feel more cohesive and less like multiple parts strung together, but this also makes the length more apparent. The dense layers of guitars are toned down somewhat, but the rawer approach doesn't diminish Doug Martsch's status as a guitar god. There are slow, pensive songs like "Liar" and "The Wait", as well as more upbeat rockers like "Wisdom", "Goin' Against Your Mind", and "Wherever You Go", all featuring Martsch's trademark clever lyrics. The vocals and instrumentation blend wonderfully to create a cohesive album filled with great songs.

    "Some things never change
    Nothing's gonna change that
    Some things you can't explain
    Like why we're all embracing conventional wisdom in a world thats just so unconventional"
    - Built to Spill, Conventional Wisdom

  • 2. People in Planes, As Far as the Eye Can See
    How can you not be intrigued by a band whose first single is entitled "If You Talk Too Much (My Head Will Explode)"? The silliness of the intro to that song leads into one of the more impressive singles this year. Elsewhere, the album rocks with "Barracuda" and "Moth", but balances out with slower, atmospheric songs like "Falling by the Wayside". The call-response chorus of "Token Trapped Woman" and the meandering, shifting dynamics of album closer "Narcoleptic" (which flows by much quicker than its 7 minutes) are also highlights. All in all, a very impressive and appealing debut from PiP, and I look forward to hearing more.

    "If I came from outer space
    And you're the first thing that I see
    Then I'd be pleased"
    - People in Planes, Narcoleptic

  • 1. The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America
    October 3 saw the release of two albums I had been eagerly anticipating: the Decemberists' The Crane Wife and the Killers' Sam's Town. I still don't remember how, but the same day I heard a song called "Chips Ahoy!" from a group I'd never heard of called the Hold Steady. Upon my weekly Tuesday trip to Best Buy, and after grabbing the aforementioned albums, I noted a single copy of Boys and Girls in America lingering in the rack and figured what the hell? It's barely left my CD player since. Each song is about people whose lives didn't turn out how they expected. They have fun but underneath is a longing for that something more they used to believe in. They seek solace by dulling the senses with beer or drugs and engaging in meaningless physical contact, but ultimately remain unsatisfied. In other words, I'm not sure whether my ascetic or married friends will enjoy it, but most of my friends that don't fall into those two categories have loved it. (My buddy Bill Gates called me six tracks in to inform me that the last 2 minutes of "Party Pit" might be the greatest 2 minutes of music ever recorded.) The album launches with the immediacy of "Stuck Between Stations", whose lyrics such as "She likes the warm feeling but she's tired of all the dehydration" introduce the universal themes that will be addressed throughout the album (it's about drinking, and yet more than drinking). It continues through "Chips Ahoy!", with its impossible-not-to-sing-along chorus, and the raucous "Hot Soft Light". "Same Kooks" is the lone misfire, but it leads into the beautiful ballad "First Night", which tells the stories of characters we don't know yet can somehow picture (especially Holly) and culminates in an amazing coda. Later, if "You Can Make Him Like You" doesn't remind you of at least one girl you used to know in high school or college, you just didn't know enough girls. "Citrus" is the song I want to play for every other rock band that's felt compelled to do a token acoustic song and scream, "That is how you're supposed to do it!" The final songs are "Chillout Tent", an amusing song which features guest vocals from Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum fame, and "Southtown Girls", imbued with the desire to find permanence. I've rambled long enough, you can obviously tell I'm a huge fan of this album. I'm not sure if it will change any lives, but it's the most fun, accessible, and relatable album I heard this year.

    "On that first night, she was golden with barlight and beer
    On that first night, she slept like she'd never been scared
    And then last night, she said words alone never could save us"
    - the Hold Steady, First Night

Honorable mentions:

  • Guster, Ganging Up on the Sun - they're still pretty good, but they just don't sound like Guster anymore.
  • Portastatic, Be Still Please - it's really good, particularly "Getting Saved" and "You Blanks", but I haven't been able to listen to it enough to give it top ten status.
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stadium Arcadium - a good enough album, but a disappointment only because it doesn't come close to the utter awesomeness that was By the Way.
  • Swan Lake, Beast Moans - another one that just hasn't received enough listens yet. High marks in particular to "All Fires".

If you actually got this far, wow. Just wow.


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