Friday, December 15, 2006

Best Albums of 2006: 5-1

5. Hot Chip - The Warning
One constant theme through this list seems to be the lack of time I had to digest an album, because the binge I went on for the past month, where I probably went through 30 albums, if not more. Somewhere along the line I just didn't find enough time for Herbert, Califone, Love is All, or Beirut, though I have them all and can't wait to give them more than one spin. But I don't need any more time with Hot Chip. I already know it's stacked with single, after single, of infectious dance pop. But what always grabs me, and why I can't seem to stop listening to this album, is the dark undertone that keeps cutting at all these songs, even as the keyboards glare and the melodies remain peppy. "We tried, but we don't belong" reads like it should be over syrupy strings. But it's not. How they made one of the most impersonal genres into something so genuine is hard to grasp, but it hasn't stopped me from trying to figure it out.

4. Belle and Sebastian - The Life Pursuit
Me and the Belle had a little romp this year that lasted roughly 4 months, where I didn't let anything else get between me. I'm not sure why Stuart Murdoch's voice can appease my head, but I was wrapped up in it for the longest time. And it's all because of this album. Sure I'd heard their earlier albums, I had even liked Dear Catastrophe Waitress and loved "Your Covers Blown", but here was an album where they their pop fantasies sat firmly on top of their newly found hips, which they swung with big bassy grooves for the entire disc. It doesn't have the same kind of importance as If You're Feeling Sinister, but Belle and Sebastian have never really ever been this much fun before.
Much has been said about indie rock's recent love affair with 70's AM rock, a genre that seems far removed from the raw pop of most indie. And to be sure, the Decemberists came nowhere near this list because of their recent foray, which keeps getting worse every time I listen to it. But instead of highlighting the bombast of some of the worst music ever made, they've taken the glam sheen and adapted it to their personal tales.

When I downloaded this album, I for some reason I stopped at "The Price for a Cup of Tea", meaning that sweet melancholy joyride song always ended this gleeful piece. So when I finally realized it wasn't the last track, I got rather offended and went ahead a deleted the weepy ballad that took it's place. This is a giddy free-fall of a record, and it should stay that way.
3. Mylo - Destroy Rock n Roll
So I took off on my bicycle. I don't go to many shows anymore. Sometimes I kind of wish I'd spend more time doing that, but I really don't feel that guilty. The bands I do see are ones that I dearly love, because I want to get drunk and sing every word. It could be my upbringing. Back in rural Indiana, going to a show meant organizing a huge expedition, and I still haven't gotten used to walking down the street and seeing someone perform. My excuse is old and tired, but I always grew up listening to music on headphones, and that's what I love the most. I think that's an artist at his most pure. Everything else heightens the experience, but it can never replace it. I love examining every crevice of my favorite music, and that can only be done with repeated close listening, and I can't think of anything more intimate then music being pumped straight into your ears at a outrageously loud volume. I think Mylo gets that, too. This dance music at it's most geeky and edited. Playing this at a club would probably stop the action in it's tracks, but on headphones it's sounds quite nearly perfect.
For headphone albums there is always an ideal situation, or at least one that pushes understanding beyond anything you could imagine, like listening to "Let Down" during rush hour in Times Square. And I can't imagine a better scenario than illegally listening to "Muscle Car" fully buckled in during a hairy take off from Laguardia in a very small plane that gets bumped around a lot. Actually, I can't think of too many bad times to play this album.
2. The Hold Steady - Boys and Girls in America
"Gonna walk around and drink some more."
Rock lyrics are often criticized about only talking about girls, sex and having a good time. The thinking is that the human condition is much more complex, and that this narrow focus doesn't quite capture the many other shades of life. But the only time you're ever going to listen to the Hold Steady is when you want to go out, meet girls, and have a good time. Not that the characters ever get what they want. "Boys and girls in America, have such a sad time together." And they do. None of the hookups work out, none of the drugs arrive on time, and there's this lonely girl walking around trying to find some more beer. What are all these boys and girls looking for? Sure they're looking for each other, but I think they're just looking for a better soundtrack. "We had some massive nights/ every song was right." There is one dud on this whole disc, but it's a short punky, raveup that you can't dance to. Every other song is either a rock anthem with a catchy chorus, or a weepy ballad about sad girls and boys where you'd have to get close with someone. And that's the way it should be. Rock needs to bring these sad groups together, even if it's just for one night where everything won't go to plan. But that won't stop them from wandering around trying to find the next person, that next experience, or even that last glass of beer. I liked Seperation Sunday, but nothing prepared me for this sad and joyous record, where failing sounds like the best soundtrack to wasted nights you could ever imagine.
1. The Pipettes - We Are the Pipettes
I feel like I should be deeply ashamed about this, and I’m sort of cowering now as I think of placing this at number 1. But please let me explain.
Austin's right. I do know all the names to the Pipettes (Becki, Rose, and Gwenno-they kicked Julia out about a year ago). I know the name of their backup band (the Cassettes), and where they are from (Brighton). There is, actually, not much I don't know about the Pipettes compared to most heterosexuals. I can't really explain why I've placed a pastiche girl band from England on the top of the list except that they make me really, unbelievably, uncontrollably happy every single day. There is not a single album that came remotely close to the giddy rush that this album gave me this year. I love the way they dress, the way they dance, and how bratty they are on television interviews, but mostly I'm just in love with the songs.
"Your Kisses are Wasted on Me" and "Pull Shapes" are the two most infectious singles released this year, and they are both on the same disc. "Your Kisses" mixes bratty Got Team energy with some heavenly chorus snatched out of some Diana Ross song. "Pull Shapes" was ripped straight from ABBA by way of "Hey Ya" except they break it down three times. And while the intoxicating heights of those two singles are never really topped, it's ridiculous to hide what would otherwise be a outrageous collection of perfect nostalgia, whether that's the cool sexiness of "Judy", "Dirty Mind", or "Tell Me What You Want."
There were better crafted albums this year, ones with deeper themes, and better production and you'll never excuse any of these singers for Beyonce. With a clear head, I'd probably pick the Hold Steady or even Mylo, and who knows, when I post this and realize what I've done, I might knock it down. But when I think of the album that I cared about the most, listened to the most, and wanted to tell the most people about, there really was no contest.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Best Albums of 2006: 10-6

10. Asobi Seksu - Citrus
Some things I don't understand. Like why I have a job that I hate so much, why they won't pave the road outside my apartment, or why I like this one particular kind of cart food on 28th and Madison with greasy chicken and fried eggplant. But absurdly loud guitars over atmospheric white noise with a breathless cooing in the background, that I get. I adore shoegaze or dream pop, or whatever this is, because it hits that part of my brain that other people reserve for angelic choirs and church organs. And that's what the entirity of this record does for me.

9. The Rapture - Pieces of the People we Love
People don't dance no more? Last time out they were banging their gear as loud as they could to create the furious sound of a sweaty club. They've cleaned up their act somewhat, but instead of ditching their dancing shoes and loosing that akward falsetto, they've decided to push the beats further. Tics and blips come from every angle of the speaker, pushing each song in unexpected ways. The guitars don't pierce in the same way, instead adding a new counterpoint, which the bass finally falls behind. They may never surpass the manic energy of their debut, but they have just made one that I feel is better in almost every way.
8. M Ward - Post-War
This list should be dedicated to Mr. Ward, for without this little gem, there probably would be no list. I get approximately 10 channels, and four of them are Brooklyn Free Speech. When they are not showing secrets of the Subway they are showing junior high basketball games shot on a handheld camera by screaming dad in the third row. Except once real late for some odd reason they were showing music videos and the first one I saw was M. Ward's cartoon parable "Chinese Translation". I'm not sure what hit me, why the chorus "What do you do with the pieces of a broken heart?" gets me every time. Maybe it's the sweeping guitar strings or the dream like atmosphere, but the next day I downloaded it, and really haven't stopped listening to it. I was never a big fan of M. Ward before this album, but I didn't realize how varied it would be. From the sad strumming of "Poison Cup" to the sing-a-long happiness of "Magic Trick". It's a record I had no intention of finding, and for some reason that makes it that much sweeter.

7. Beth Orton - Comfort of Stranger
I don't have any use for Beth Orton the techno singer songwriter, who apparently blazed the trails with Will Oldham and created such interesting records in the 90's. She was not part of my life, and when I returned to her past record after becoming infatuated with this one, I realized how hard she was trying. I'm sure they have their place, and some people love them, but it's hard to go back when your point of reference is this gorgeous, warm record that feels like old love letters. Those don't sound like powerful adjectives, but they have their place, and for some reason this year I needed this record a lot. Whether it was the sunshine of "Conceived" or the easy breeze of "Countenance". It's made all the more divine thanks to Jim O'Rourke homey production and understated playing. The pleasures are infinite, even if they never reach too deep. Quite like that rainbow on the front cover.
6. Bruce Springsteen - We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
There are essentially two kinds of Springsteen. There's the rock n' roller, whose explosive albums Born to Run, Born in the U.S.A., and half of the River, search for meaning in relationships through the music of his youth. And there is the troubadour of folk, whistfully putting out quiet albums about quiet people in a rural towns like Nebraska, Ghost of Tom Joad, and the other half of the River. They butted heads in playslists, followed each other in concerts, but rarely have they ever appeared in the same song. This could have been a pleasant record, one with lots of earnestly sung protest songs. But apparently the other Bruce showed up for recording, and took those damaged protest songs sung by Seeger and turned them into one of the most triumphant recordings of his career. Make no mistake, this is no folk album. He weaves New Orleans jazz, dixieland, bluegrass, and other desperate sources in the same song, creating a rich celebratory band that sounds great really loud. It's his best album since Born in U.S.A., but more importantly, it's Bruce at his most fun.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Best Albums of 2006: 15-11

I'm posting a little early today for I have a date with Rufus at Carnegie Hall tonight. I've always been a sucker for sentimentality, and Christmas songs and Rufus Wainwright plan to bring that to a whole new extreme. So here's an early present for you guys to look at before the real deadline comes.

15. Yo La Tengo - I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass
It was a fine summer day in Brooklyn just like any other. All of us laid under a tree sipping wine and eating fine cheese, watching an old nature film by a dead Frenchman on sea creatures with newly improvised background music by Yo La Tengo. They stood behind a screen, and for all we know, it could have been any band on the planet. But we all knew it was them, because while they were playing instrumental passages to coincide with the mating of jellyfish, they sounded EXACTLY like you'd think Yo La Tengo would sound. So even on this album, when they hammer on the distortion in one song, then cool back and sing little pop ditties, it's all recognizably our favorite band from Hoboken. Less exploratory than their past classics, this one is the reassured hug of a band that knows it's powers and is not afraid of what noise they create.

14. Bob Dylan - Modern Times
For some reason, I think this is the last album good album Dylan can make. As his voice keeps disappearing into the hole where it was born, all instruments seem to bully for prominence in the song. On Love and Theft he was content to let the band really swing, but he's not as cocksure as he once was. The songs, long winded Americana standards, are still here and they are still mesmerizing. But his band has backed off considerably, letting brushes substitute for drumsticks, and letting guitar solos merely fill the time instead of ripping it apart. And in that way, it's a sad album, even if Dylan is still lively and cracking jokes. But as his voice leaves, so does the essence that makes Dylan Dylan, and it's impossible to say where he can go from here. So this will remain the last time a Dylan album can truly be compared to his brilliant and manic output from the 60's.

13. Girl Talk - Night Ripper
I'll try not to debate the merit of the art too much, for Michael's excellent post yesterday stands on about as solid ground as there is. Enjoyment for its own sake shouldn't be discounted as a means of understanding pop music, and in the case of Girl Talk the essential question comes down to whether you'd derive any pleasure out of this album if you didn't recognize the samples. It's an interesting question, because the lasting nature of the disc depends upon people discovering it and relating back to the music that it cuts up and rearranges.
But I do know the samples. I know when "Scentless Apprentice" looped under "Tiny Dancer" and "Juicy". For most of my life I assumed that rap acts had the beat and rock acts had the melody. Think about how hard rock acts tried to incorporate beats into their sound so they could be hip. But here alternative bands lay down the beat, while rappers lay claim to anything that is put before them. It's fascinating that it works at all, let alone consistently over this disc. There is nothing particularly shocking about this collection. In fact, the best complement that be paid to this album is how fluid and listenable it is. Sure the styles are twisted, the beats run over, but the stitching is impeccable (Listen to how "Galang" ties together two tracks). Anything that brings this much enjoyment needs to be praised, because collections this engaging don't just happen all the time.

12. Clipse - Hell Hath No Fury
Oh Mike's going to have to pay for this one. I was perfectly content to not have this record in my life. Things would definitely have been more pleasant. This thing is cold and unrelenting. It's also perfectly edited, exceptionally produced, and flawlessly performed. Another case of running out of time, this would probably have scored much higher had I actually had more than a couple weeks to listen and break down all the songs. But while it is quite dark, I somehow found the little things to love about this album. Whether it's the wicked humor, "By no means am I in love with a stripper/You understand that then you fittin the glass slipper," the clinging metal in "Keys Open Doors", or other witticisms that they seem to spit out every other line: "While i'm shovelin this snow, man, call me frosty!" This is lean focused album which other rap albums can only dream of.

11. Tom Waits - Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards
I didn't need any convincing about Tom Waits, so he didn't need to drop a minefield of odds and sods so bewitching it ranks among his best work. I'd been happy with another Alice, Bone Machine, Swordfishtrombones, or hell even Real Gone. But instead of picking and choosing his form of attack, he decided to drop them all. It's an enormous embarrassment of riches that I still can't plunge deep enough into. Once I think I've gotten far into Brawlers, I jump to the middle of Bawlers where I lose myself on some weepy tune before I skip to the spoken word exchanges of Bastards.
Deciding which album works best is a taxing job, and one that I just can't decide at this moment. The Brawlers are the ones that are the most immediately engaging, but really it's whatever Waits that you identify with the most. As for me, I'm an Alice fan, and the Bawlers disc is stuffed full of torch songs to bring a tear to any old sap.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Best Albums of 2006: 20-16

20. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Show Your Bones
Of the bands left from the Return to Rock! hype machine of 2002, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are the only ones to change their style with any sort of success. The Strokes tried to go commercial, the White Stripes tried to get weird(er), and Interpol tried not be the most depressing band of all time. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs just cooled things down a notch and focused on the songs. What were manic raveups two years ago, or sturdy mid-tempo rockers. And where Karen O used to yell brazenly, is another guitar to pick up the load. Because it's not as confrontational, it's easy to quietly dismiss this album. But the best songs here are the ones that come from odd angles, and attack in ways you weren't prepared for.

19. Peter Bjorn and John - Writers Block
I wish I could whistle. In the past three months I've been trying hard to master this form of music with fairly limited success and to the confusion of much of the subway traffic I pass. But it does make me feel generally good about the world, which is much the same feeling I have listening to Peter Bjorn and John. They can whistle, or at least one of them can. And they can lay down a groove and then completely forget about it, because they are that cool. I've never heard so many beats take the background to a cute little melody. And it is a little record, one that needs to be examined closely. Unfortunately, it's one that I probably haven't given enough time.

18. Cat Power - The Greatest
This year, I think you were either a Neko Case acolyte or a follower of Cat Power's pain, and count me in the later. Neko has a set of pipes, but it sounds like a gift from god that she wants to flaunt. Cat Power's voice was shaped hardened experience, and I'll wallow in her misery anytime. Abby describes it as "that voice", and I know exactly what she means. Nearly all the female artists I listen to have it. It's a rusty, world-weary drawl best be exemplified by Lucinda Williams. When they sing the weight of the world comes crushing down. I don't get giddy listening to this stuff, it's not some fantasy of being with such tortured women. I usually just want to lay out on my couch and weep. I love that feeling. I know there are some upbeat numbers here, but I don't much care for them. I like the ballads where the band seems to ache every note out, nimbly stepping around broken hearts. But it would be nothing without Cat Power and "that" voice.

17. Neil Young - Living With War
How different things used to be. When this record was released, America was smack dead in a war that we were losing but refused to admit. There was no "Lauer-Certified Civil War", as the Daily show recently Christianed it. Just some Republican antics that in their 6th year were growing increasingly desperate and futile. It was easy to play ignorant to all this in the streets of New York, but all that changed when I entered the airport to head home. The faces changed, the television channels changed. I remember walking around the terminal with this album pipping in my ears and feeling completely futile. It's a topical record and it's violent and blunt. And there hasn't been an album this year that has touched me in the singular way this one has when I was walking through the airport worrying about the worlds sins and I'm not sure why. This is undoubtedly one of the worst produced albums I've ever heard. Sure it was produced quickly, but why make the drums sound like they were recorded in a concrete bunker? Whole bars of music are left blank where is sounds like Neil should be soloing but he forgot. But it's hard to imagine an angier record, or one that is as powerful as this, no matter how glaring its faults are. What started as an angry kick turned, thanks to the recent elections, into a record of righteous vindication.

16. Sonic Youth - Rather Ripped
"You keep me coming home again." No, it's not a recent foray into country for our favorite New York lads, but drastic refocus of basic rock essentials. After Sonic Nurse landed a little flat with me, I realized that Murray Street was probably some kind of minor miracle, and that I should be happy plunging into their back catalog instead of waiting on a new classic to be handed to me every other year. Then comes a stripped down, distortion free cruise through the most catchy album of their career. With zero fat, no extended jams, and enough tight solos to keep things interesting before they return to the groove. Their drummer was always a cut above rest, but it's wonderful to hear him so confident here.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Best Albums of 2006: 25-21

25. Band of Horses - Everything All the Time
It can be a long slog to get through this record sometimes, what with the self-serious air and grey rain that seems to be always falling. And that can be okay for some moods, but I'll be honest and say I'd never return if it weren't for those guitars. Ah that reverb. I'll always swear my undying love for a wave of distortion flickering around my brain, but a close second comes the ringing chimes of shimmering reverb sparkling out from the speakers. It can make one of the most depressing albums of the year seem almost joyous.
24. Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not
Their shtick can be maddening in execution and I often want to smack their lead guitar player a few times to teach him to really let go and play a real goddamn solo with more than 5 notes. But though the music is technically simple, their tales of adolescent life are shocking and refreshing. Although they're as brash and ignorant as Oasis, they aren't afraid to let a song go past without an anthemic chorus or slow fade out. That kind of gall needs to be rewarded, especially when they can really lay it on when it counts.

23. The Beatles - Love
They have greatest hits collections but this one puts that on acid, which is all quite convenient because my favorite period of the Beatles is the 1966-1968 period they highlight here when they were nose deep in lots of drugs trying to write pop symphonies. Though it will never replace one of their albums, as it stands, this encapsulates what I love about the Beatles better than the Red Album, Blue Album, or that awful Beatle's 1 did. Sure, we do miss those 4 minutes that were chopped off "Hey Jude", and no one needs "Yesterday" with "Blackbird" tacked on the beginning. What we needed were more mashups like the "Drive My Car" medley. But I'll settle for a project that was far more interesting than it had any right to be even if most of the joy came from hearing the fab four in newly remastered glory.

22. I'm From Barcelona - Let Me Introduce My Friends
I was sure I was going to hate this band. I don't have much patience for twee that teeters too close to children's cartoon shows and here was one man not from Barcelona singing infectious sing-a-longs with some 15 of his closest friends with nary a bad vibe throughout. And they come so close so often to that horrible edge that I had to turn on some guitar fueled rock to clear my system every once in awhile. But the melodies are contagious and bottomless. That choir changes this from an album of precious melodies to an album full of indie anthems that will stick themselves to your skull.

21. Ghostface Killah - Fischscale
I don't think if I've ever come even close to finishing this monster and I don't mind. I'm not here for the message, I don't need to know a kilo is a thousand grams, because that's easy to remember. I've got the first half stacked with singles 8 long to try and plow through where he never throws a bad rhyme. Unstoppable even at his most deplorable, it's hellishly long and all the skits are awful. Paired down to 10 and this would have plowed to my top 10. But rap albums aren't for music geeks worrying about the posterity of individual albums, and that's how it should be. Rap like this is an esacape from the maundane, and at 37, I think Ghostface even feels that way.