Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Albums Of The Year 2006

Wot, no Arctic Monkeys? No Razorshite? No Fratellis? No Kooks?

Hopefully those revelations won't spoil your enjoyment of this list too much! Every year that goes by, I consume a wider variety of music, and every year that goes by, these lists get harder to compose. That is, of course, what I love about it - but I increasingly wonder how magazines manage to cover the whole year with just a top 30 or even a top 50. There was so much great music this year, although it’s worth stating that the top 10 of this list really are clear standouts for me. Some caveats as usual - there are plenty of no doubt great albums that I haven’t heard in their entirety yet - particular apologies must go to MJ Hibbett, as I’ve been meaning to purchase his ‘We Validate!’ album for some time. Also absent are the likes of Clipse, Booka Shade, Nathan Fake, Current 93, James Holden, Bill Frisell/Ron Carter/Paul Motian, Branford Marsalis, Grizzly Bear, Gotan Project, Andrew Hill, Micah P Hinson, The Knife, Ooioo, Old Crow Medicine Show, Brad Mehldau and Pat Metheny, Prefuse 73, Tomasz Stanko, Tilly and The Wall, Adem, Blood Brothers, The Hot Puppies, Islands, Dabrye, Destroyer and many others, simply because they haven’t landed in my collection yet. Oh, and I’ve left out Joanna Newsom simply because I’m not quite convinced yet, and it strikes me as the sort of album that doesn’t invite indifference. It’s either got to be near the top or nowhere… An honorary mention must go to Exercise 1’s superb 50 Minutes compilation, which I haven’t included here due to the fact that my own band Unit (sadly now defunct) are included on it. All proceeds go to the Medical Care Foundation for victims of torture, and it’s a consistently enthralling collection of 50 1 minute long songs from 50 artists. With the likes of After Christmas, Piney Gir, Jeremy Warmsley, Emmy The Great, The Hot Puppies and the beguiling Laura Groves (definitely one to watch in 2007), it’s a great cast of mavericks and tunesmiths. Of the final list, I inevitably leave myself vulnerable to accusations of ‘genre tokenism’ - but I’d much rather reflect the range of music I enjoy in any one year than focus on one particular area. So, without further ado, here’s part one (100-51)….

100. A Hawk And A Hacksaw – The Way The Wind Blows (Leaf)
Having worked with Neutral Milk Hotel and on the excellent Beirut album (more on that later), Jeremy Barnes’ project were always going to be worth investigating. This actually traverses very similar ground to the Beirut record, drawing on some unusual influences, particularly Eastern European folk music. A quick look at the later, bawdier films of Serbian director Emir Kusturica will give a good idea where this sound is coming from, but it’s filtered through that instantly recognizable US indie spirit. Good to see the Leaf label continuing to branch out, it’s still one of the most interesting and dependable labels out there.

99. Pet Shop Boys - Fundamental (Parlophone)
Comfortably their best album since ‘Very’, but given the poor standard of the intervening releases, that wasn’t too difficult. It’s sadly weighted a little heavily in favour of mood pieces and ballads, but it’s where the band return to their 80s pop roots that they are at their most musically effective. That they coupled this back to basics approach with some thoroughly contemporary and neatly observed social and political ruminations has saved them from marginal irrelevance. A smart, incisive record that should have come from a much younger band.

98. Morrissey – Ringleader Of The Tormentors (Attack/Sanctuary)
Another of those ‘mixed bag’ albums, this saw Morrissey veer between his most inspired and his most predictable. If ‘The Youngest Was The Most Loved’ was another rewrite of the corrupted young criminal song Morrissey has been writing since the mid-80s, ‘Dear God, Please Help Me’, ‘At Last I Am Born’ and ‘Life Is A Pigsty’ introduced entirely new elements to his work – a sense of epic grandeur and what seemed like sincere personal experience. Some may read too deeply into this material, and Moz undoubtedly still loves nothing as much as provocation, but the best of this album sounded strangely joyful and triumphant.

97. Mystery Jets – Making Dens (679)
A strange line-up involving a father and his son, two drummers and a whole collection of weird and wonderful songs in the best English pop tradition, Mystery Jets immediately seemed like an exciting prospect. If the loss of Syd Barrett was one of 2006’s sadder moments, this band are doing more than any other right now to keep his madcap spirit alive.

96. Tom Petty – Highway Companion (Warners)
This dusty, dirt-road gem was one of the surprises of the year for me. It soundtracked a good part of my long car journeys between London and Aberystwyth and back during the summer, and proved itself the perfect driving album. It’s Petty’s best collection of songs for some time, and even Jeff Lynne’s production, usually uncomfortably smooth and glossy, fails to intrude. Petty’s deceptively simple lyrics also include some worldly wisdom too.

95. Lindsey Buckingham – Under The Skin (Warners)
If anyone had told me at the start of the year I’d be including a solo album from Fleetwood Mac’s lead guitarist in my albums of the year list, I’d probably have laughed out loud. Yet this album is genuinely excellent. It’s an acoustic singer-songwriter album, but one that breaks with so many traditions and conventions that it sounds largely unprecedented. This is one of the few solo acoustic albums in recent years to really make full use of the studio – so much of it sounds strange and refreshingly inventive. There’s also denying the technical virtuosity of the playing, which frequently serves to add gravitas.

94. Flipron – Biscuits For Cerberus (Tiny Dog)
I first saw Flipron at the free festival Strawberry Fair in Cambridge (sadly currently under threat because of changes to the way policing at big events is funded), and they proved one of the discoveries of the year. Although there’s definitely a retro/psychedelic influence on display here, this was no reverent musical history lesson. In the song titles alone, there’s a wickedly inventive wit at work, and the songs themselves are playful and exceedingly entertaining.

93. Various Artists – Rogue’s Gallery (Epitaph)
An album of sea shanties and pirate ballads? Curated by Hal Wilner on commission from Pirates Of The Caribbean director Gore Verbinski? What a bizarre prospect. If a sizeable chunk of the cast list didn’t exactly look inspiring (Sting, Bono, Brian Ferry), it’s remarkable what artists can achieve when given an interesting project. With the band comprised of members of Akron/Family and Pete Thomas from Elvis Costello’s band, the music veers between the raucous and the desolate, whilst the lyrics are frequently outrageously bawdy.

92. Jarvis – The Jarvis Cocker Record (Rough Trade)
One of those albums that I really wanted to place at the top end of the list, but is just slightly let down by strange sequencing and a couple of ineffectual tracks (concluding on a note as banal as ‘everything is gonna be all right’ just doesn’t seem right for Jarvis). It’s actually the natural successor to ‘We Love Life’, and might just as well have been the next Pulp album. The emphasis is again on mordant reflection refracted through characteristically sharp wit, and some of the instrumentation is spend (the rare deployment of a marimba on ‘Baby’s Coming Back To Me’, the thunderous thud of ‘Black Magic’). The highlight is still ‘Running The World’, not only politely titled, but hidden away 30 minutes after the end of the album proper – a delightfully righteous, and mostly accurate, rant about the improper order of things.

91. The Long Blondes – Someone To Drive You Home (Rough Trade)
One of the few hyped indie bands I actually warmed to this year, mainly by virtue of Kate Jackson’s thrilling bellow of a voice and a set of immediately winning tunes. The lyrics are every bit as cannily observed as those of the Arctic Monkeys, but somehow don’t seem to have been gifted as much attention. In particular, they seem to deal very thoughtfully with the variety of relationships between women – from sisterhood to sexual experimentation.

90. Piney Gir’s Country Roadshow - Hold Yer Horses (Truck)
A lovely album, with Piney’s witty and occasionally touching take on country conventions ably supported by a band who play with authenticity and vigour.

89. Bat For Lashes - Fur And Gold (Echo)
One of those albums where you have to completely yield to the world it creates for itself. The preoccupation with fantasy, mysticism and magic in the lyrics leaves ‘Fur and Gold’ open to accusations of pretension, but there’s a mystery, grace and fairytale quality to this album that renders it spellbinding. Natasha Khan has huge potential.

88. Midlake – The Trials Of Van Occupanther (Bella Union)
My review of this album from a few weeks ago had an underlying suspicion of blandness that I’m already beginning to retract. The nuances keep coming through on each repeated listen, and the blend of exquisite vocal harmonies, piano backing and exotic instrumentation sounds increasingly sophisticated. Crosby, Stills and Nash and Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac may be unfashionable influences, but it’s precisely this that set Midlake apart from the generic indie pack in 2006. Midlake have constructed a mysterious and antiquated landscape in much the same way as The Decemberists, and they have populated it with a collection of rewarding, slow-building songs.

87. I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness - Fear Is On Our Side (Secretly Canadian)
Like Interpol jamming with Ministry, this was a pulsating, relentless and highly effective bulldozer of a record. It’s loud, propulsive and dramatic, and there’s no resisting it!

86. Paul Burch - East To West (Bloodshot)
Not perhaps Burch’s very best work, but still with plenty to offer, and, in the case of ‘John Peel’, a genuine, sincere and profoundly moving tribute. He remains one of America’s best unsung songwriters, and a master of that authentic barroom country sound. He’s also a superb singer, with a deceptively laid-back, conversational style that really elevates his material.

85. Loose Fur - Born Again In The USA (Domino)
Perhaps more conventional than the first Loose Fur album, but actually much better than many suggested, with vibrant playing and plenty of real freedom. Without having to conform to conventional expectations, Loose Fur continue to play with form to delightful, occasionally comic effect.

84. Junior Boys - So This Is Goodbye (Domino)
Not quite the masterpiece some thought, mainly because the second half drifts too far into the ether and becomes dull, but the good points comfortably outweigh the bad. At its best, it’s a marked improvement on the more-than-promising first album ‘Last Exit’, and Jeremy Greenspan’s endearingly smooth voice makes for an effective instrument in itself. The synth-heavy backings are frequently unusual and highly creative – ‘In The Morning’ in particular is one of the most interesting sounding tracks of the year.

83. Sparks - Hello Young Lovers (Gut)
‘Hello Young Lovers’ was a bonkers, highly ornate and totally hilarious pop irony master class from these old heroes. They’re actually right back at the top of their game, and this sits comfortably alongside ‘Lil Beethoven’ as a fine example of their best work.

82. Tortoise and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy - The Brave and The Bold (Domino)
This one has been very peculiarly ignored. Those who wanted to hear straight covers of these songs would certainly have been disappointed - every track the two bands selected for this project has been completely remoulded, perhaps even reclaimed, and the results are frequently inspiring.

81. Magnolia Electric Co. - Fading Trails (Secretly Canadian)
Another year, another succession of Jason Molina albums. This one gathers together some songs that didn’t make the cut for their forthcoming ‘proper’ albums next year. Molina’s voice is more resonant and confident than ever, and the music veers from the strident to the decidedly haunting. The work of a maturing, increasingly superb songwriter.

80. The Gothic Archies - The Tragic Treasury (Nonesuch)
This is Stephin Merritt at his most playful, recording a collection of songs for the Lemony Snicket audio books. They pretty much encompass all his genre experiments, from deliberately wonky synth-pop to ukelele dominated modern folksong. As such, this may be as good a starting point for the uninitiated as ever.

79. Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint - The River In Reverse (Lost Highway)
An important record, first because it unites two major musical figures, but secondly because it marks a long form response to the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and a joyful celebration of the musical heritage of the city of New Orleans. Some of this is wonderful - with Costello sounding gritty and impassioned, and full of righteous fire. The only gripe is that it would have been good to hear more of Toussaint’s laconic voice - the contrast in styles between the two is marked and intriguing

78. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Show Your Bones (Dress Up/Polydor)
Anyone suggesting the Yeah Yeah Yeahs had lost some of their lustre on this follow up to the acclaimed ‘Fever To Tell’ may simply have been listening for something that wasn’t there. This is a superbly produced record, characterised by inventive deployment of rock dynamics. Karen O’s voice has developed into something rather more controlled than the untamed howl that dominated on ‘Fever…’ and the whole album sees the band in confident, imaginative form. A more nuanced record than its predecessor, but no less feral.

77. Band Of Horses - Everything All The Time (Sub Pop)
Song for song this is one of the best albums on the entire list, although the nagging sensation that the band have simply aped the My Morning Jacket reverb-laden rock sound leaves it lingering further down the list than I would ideally have liked. It’s a forceful record nonetheless though, made all the more impressive by its relatively concise running time.

76. Wilderness - Vessel States (Jagjaguwar)
Perhaps only marred by the fact that it sounded exactly like the previous Wilderness record, this spindly, occasionally frightening record, heavily influenced by ‘Metal Box’ era PiL, is included here largely in recognition of the fact that I missed their debut last year. More of the same, but it’s a compelling sound.

75. Steve Coleman and Five Elements - Weaving Symbolics (Label Bleu)
Probably the most ‘difficult’ record I’ve heard this year, and not one I’ve been inclined to return to very often, simply because Coleman remains one of the most defiantly serious musicians at work. With his emphasis on conceptual structures and thematic approaches, he might even be considered pretentious, were it not that he has the compositional skill and sublime quality of musicianship to back it all up. ‘Weaving Symbolics’ is dense, furious and provocative – the work of an undoubted major talent exploring the wilder margins of contemporary music.

74. The Flaming Lips - At War With The Mystics (Warners)
Not as immediate a record as ‘Yoshimi…’, and certainly not as inspired as ‘The Soft Bulletin’, ‘At War With The Mystics’ still had much to recommend it when taken on its own terms. The infatuation with bleeps and silly sound effects was mostly superceded by the dense atmospheres the band craft so well, and a maverick lack of respect for conventional structure pervades the record. Wayne Coyne was in fighting form too, although some of the lyrics elected not to confront geopolitical issues directly. As ever, the results were supremely ambitious and touchingly humane.

73. James Hunter - People Gonna Talk (Rounder)
Hunter, together with increasingly infamous London engineer Liam Watson, crafted a really charming record that effortlessly combines the influence of the peerless Sam Cooke with a splendidly authentic pop-blues sound. There were hints of ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’ in the punchy horn arrangements, but the remarkably crisp rhythm section and smart phrasing of Hunter’s understated vocal added originality and depth.

72. Psapp - The Only Thing I Ever Wanted (Domino)
‘Toytronica’ may be one of 2006’s more unpalatable genre terms (much like when Hot Chip were unfortunately labeled ‘game boy music), but Psapp’s playful electronic pop proved thoroughly charming. There’s something of Tom Waits’ junkyard approach here, but there’s also humour and a real sense of fun and adventure.

71. Ne-Yo - In My Own Words (Universal)
Well who cares about image or fashion? Most readers here might be surprised at my admiration for this record, but I still think it’s one of the most sophisticated and entertaining albums to have come from the US R&B market in a long time. It’s incredibly smooth, and the influence of R Kelly is palpable, particularly in Ne-Yo’s remarkable self-confidence in his own seduction skills. The reason this works is because it mostly eschews production trickery in favour of good old fashioned songcraft. Ne-Yo’s writing will hopefully mature, but there is enough to enjoy here already.

70. The Lemonheads - The Lemonheads (Vagrant)
The press may focus on his years of drug abuse, or his slightly shambling appearance, but in terms of songcraft, Evan Dando can simply do no wrong. The new line-up, particularly with Bill Stevenson from The Descendents on drums, have crafted a crisper, more defined sound for this outing, and the songs remain memorable and punchy as ever. Mercifully in this case, very little has really changed in The Lemonheads sound. The one niggling gripe may be that others have now captured the signature Evan Dando style better than the man himself – the most successful (and characteristic) contributions here come from Stevenson and longstanding collaborator Tom Morgan.

69. The Broken Family Band – Balls (Track and Field)
BFB comfortably remain my favourite UK live rock act, and with ‘Balls’, they finally produced an album that distils the raucous essence of their live shows. Perhaps this time emphasizing the punk over the country, these were mostly loud and energetic songs that provided the perfect complement for Steven Adams’ savage dry humour.

68. Ellen Allien and Apparat - Orchestra Of Bubbles (Bptich Control)
One of the most fascinating and subtle electronic albums of the year, this was music for the head as well as the feet, with distant sounds, propulsive beats emerging and disappearing, and some cleverly processed, slightly detached vocal parts. It all melded together effortlessly, sounding mysterious and compelling.

67. Calexico - Garden Ruin (City Slang)
Another record inexplicably missing from a number of end-of-year polls, especially as the integration of rock dynamics marked something of a sidestep for this well established band. This is not to say that their desert Mariachi concerns have been abandoned completely – but there’s a definite shift of emphasis to the basics of songcraft here that works surprisingly well.

66. The Roots – Game Theory (Def Jam)
‘Don’t Feel Right’ alone in worth a thousand 50 Cents or Chamillionaires. Here was a hip hop album with something to say, and with expertly produced music that as as tight as anything in the seventies funk canon. This may come to be recognised as The Roots’ finest achievement. ‘Phrenology’ might have been more obviously ambitious – but this is both taut and concise, and highly effective for it.

65. Kode 9 and Space ape - Memories Of The Future (Hyperdub/Kode9)
2006 was the year that dubstep became a recognised genre outside its own scene, and ‘Memories Of The Future’ was one of the major statements emerging from the field. Enjoyment of it does largely depend on one’s opinion on Spaceape himself, his deep, West Indian intonations may either enthrall or irritate. I find this album peculiar and almost alien in its sound and atmosphere, yet, like its counterpart in the even more substantial Burial album, there’s a real sense of urban alienation here that is recognisable.

64. The Handsome Family - Last Days Of Wonder (Carrot Top)
This ended up one of those ‘take for granted’ albums, given that it didn’t exactly represent any major development or progression in the established Handsome Family gothic Americana sound. Still, it’s as a good a collection of songs as they’ve produced. In ‘Beautiful William’, they had an eerily beautiful ballad to match ‘Birds You Cannot See’ or ‘The Giant Of Illinois’. There’s also the sense that the music is gradually becoming less rudimentary and more expansive, but without compromising the ethos behind it.

63. Donald Fagen - Morph The Cat (Reprise)
The Steely Dan man continues his rather futile quest for musical perfection, and I can’t help but think that a little more of the life and energy of earlier Steely Dan works continues to be purified out with each new release. The writing remains exquisite though, and this contains some typically weird, yet also pointedly contemporary songs. Fagen’s voice has now weathered a little with age, and he sounds even drier than ever here.

62. Ralph Towner - Time Line (ECM)
One of the few ECM releases I’ve managed to hear this year, Towner’s latest is a solo guitar album of real contemplative beauty. The themes are stately and simple, but they flow effortlessly into improvised passages of astounding fluency. Towner long ago invented a new language for his instrument – it is a source of wonder that he is still drawing new meaning from it.

61. Soweto Kinch - A Life In The Day Of B19: Tales From The Towerblock (Dune)
This is a very good album, full of pithy (and very British) observations and, where the towerblock concept could have been patronising and forced, Kinch had real empathy for his characters and their stories. It could have been great, had Kinch not compromised his aesthetic by programming the drums on the hip hop tracks and keeping live drums for the swing jazz. This created an artificial divide between the two forms, where in live performance the outstanding Troy Miller grooves as hard as he swings. Still, I’m very much looking forward to the second installment of this two album project next year.

60. Glenn Kotche – Mobile (Nonesuch)
The Wilco drummer’s solo work was completely unexpected – with an intriguing take on Steve Reich’s ‘Drumming’ forming a substantial part of it, but also a whole range of interesting experimental percussion work on offer throughout. It sounded completely unlike anything else released in 2006, and was the work of a brave and questing musician distancing himself from some of the more conventional aspects of his band work.

59. Lambchop – Damaged (City Slang)
Business as usual without doubt, but a much more succinct and effective offering than the laboured double set from a couple of years ago. Wagner’s lyrics are somehow both elusive and elucidating, and there is a whole world of hard-won wisdom on offer here. Musically, it’s become yet more sedate, and if there’s an adequate reference point, it would probably have to be the gentle barroom blues of the Tindersticks.

58. Susanna and The Magical Orchestra - Melody Mountain (Rune Grammofon)
This extraordinary covers album continues to grow on me with every listen. I initially thought the uniformity of mood was an obstacle – but actually the consistent tone is crucial to its success. Susanna has taken an intriguing set of songs, many well known, and reinvented them. She does this brilliantly, and the nuances of her Nordic vocals charm and beguile whilst the skeletal accompaniment gives only the stark minimum of support.

57. Stephin Merritt - Show Tunes (Nonesuch)
The better of the two Stephin Merritt records this year by means of its slightly different context (‘The Tragic Treasury’ could in fact have easily been another Magnetic Fields record). However, those who failed to see any connection between this and the rest of the Merritt canon simply because his own voice is absent are simply failing to listen properly. ‘Showtunes’ is jam packed with customarily wry Merritt humour. The music, whilst incorporating a newfound interest in all things Chinese, still follows Merritt’s tendency towards playing conventional harmony with unusual sounds and instruments. The songs are mercilessly concise – and given that they are mostly presented out of chronology, it’s arguably difficult to get a good sense of the shows themselves. It would be great if this could be rectified by having them performed on the stage in this country.

56. Matthew Herbert – Scale (Accidental)
Scale may just be something of a grower. I initially felt it suffered in comparison with the previous Herbert albums in that it sounded much more conventional – at times almost just a highly sophisticated pop album. Yet perhaps there’s really nothing wrong with this, and its more reflective moments do require a degree of work on behalf of the listener that most dance records have no intention of demanding. As ever, the array of sampled sounds is completely bewildering, and Herbert is still a pioneer and an innovator in this area.

55. Jeremy Warmsley – The Art Of Fiction (Transgressive)
Warmsley’s talent continues to develop, and this first longform statement was significant and impressive. Although essentially a collection of pre-released tracks previously spread across Eps and singles, it had been lovingly remastered and sequenced as a complete whole, only interrupted by a brief intermission. Its ambitious scope means that its very difficult to pin down or define Jeremy’s sound – and thank goodness for that! There’s no reason on earth why all music should be confined to neat genre classifications. He is learning to tame and control his voice, and recent live shows have demonstrated that he is using it to even greater effect. I think there is a more mature and consistent record to come from Jeremy – but he is a songwriter and musician of tremendous promise.

54. Comets On Fire - Avatar (Sub Pop)
Heralded as part of a nu-psychedelic movement, what actually struck me most about this album is how rhythmically exciting it is. Regardless of the number of noodling guitar solos, it’s the relentless drive and clatter of the drums and the distant rumble of the bass that do most to sustain my attention. That the vocals are rich in intelligent harmony, and melodic in a quite singular way, helps make it all the more fascinating.

53. Boxcutter - Oneiric (Planet Mu)
Perhaps more typical of the jittering and stuttering of what the Americans would term IDM than the dubstep movement that informed it, Boxcutter’s album was less dense and more exuberant, with a playful skip in its step.

52. M Ward – Post War (Matador)
It’s difficult to judge this when I keep returning to Ward’s outstanding ‘Transistor Radio’ album from last year. This doesn’t affect me so much on a personal level, although the songs are consistently excellent. Some of Ward’s idiosyncrasies may have been buried in the full band arrangements, although the sound is full and powerful. Lyrically, he continues to improve though, and there is the sense that he is maturing and progressing as a writer.

51. The Pipettes – We Are The Pipettes (Memphis Industries)
Killjoys be damned! If there was a more recklessly joyful album released in 2006, I haven’t heard it. The Pipettes are of course lacking originality and depth – but that’s basically the point. This is essentially a loving recreation of the 50s and 60s girl group sound, complete with school proms and a cast of sterotyped characters. It’s hugely infectious and ridiculously enjoyable, as all good pop should be.

50-1 will be with you by the end of the week....

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