Happy New Year! It’s long past time for me to rank my favorite music of the past year; the Grammys (Grammies?) have been given out and I think Pitchfork is about to release its “Best Music of the First 19 Days of January” list. In the past, my best-ofs were just distributed by e-mail to those as obsessed as myself. This year, though, inspired by Kugelmass and Irrelevant Narcissism and new UCI blogger Sur la Carte (note the new link on the right), I’ve decided that broadcasting my music opinions is exactly what a blog like this exists for. So, below please find my top albums and songs of the year. I’ll give commentary on the albums/songs when I have something to say, which isn’t very often but sometimes something occurs to me you know.
The 12 Best Albums of 2006:
12. Cat Power, The Greatest
11. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Show Your Bones
This album posed something of a conundrum for me, because it is wickedly uneven. It has three stone-cold classic songs—”Gold Lion,” “Cheated Hearts,” and “Dudley.” On the other hand, it has a bunch of songs I’m indifferent to (“Warrior,” “Mystery”) and one I actively dislike (“Phenomena”). So normally it would fail the “good album” test, but those three songs really improved my quality of life significantly over the course of the year, so there really isn’t a way for me not to include it. Also, hint to aspiring bands: a great Coachella performance, like the one the YYYs gave, is a sure-fire way to get on this list next year! If I end up going to Coachella and attending your performance.
10. The Coup, Pick a Bigger Weapon
For a long time, this album kept me from posting this entry. (Sure, Tom, blame it on the Coup.) See, I bought this album on impulse back in September, and then put off and put off and put off listening to it. Like Aesop Rock, the Coup spend a lot of time (and words) not living up to their potential, and an uneven concert at UCI just deepened my fears that this album would mostly meander. And I didn’t feel right about ranking the best music of 2006 when I had a pretty well-regarded 2006 album gathering dust on my shelf. So today I finally forced myself to put it in my CD player, fully expecting to reject it…and it’s actually good. And since I bought the Clean version by mistake, I can only imagine that the real version is better yet. (One note, though: Boots, stop talking about sex. Forever. It’s hard for any rapper to pull off, particularly a Marxist, and in this case it doesn’t even work as a joke.)
9. Islands, Return to the Sea
8. Shearwater, Palo Santo
These guys seem to have been universally overlooked. I didn’t see them on any end-of-year lists, and I’ve only ever known one fan. It’s almost unheard of for me to be into something that some of my friends don’t also follow, so part of me fears that when I say I like them everyone is embarrassed to be around me and just isn’t letting on. But screw my friends, becuase Shearwater are great. If you like Iron & Wine but aren’t in a very gentle mood, give them a listen.
7. Ghostface Killah, Fishscale
6. Joanna Newsom, Ys
Some people I respect rated this album very highly. Well, so do I, in a way; every song sounds great, and the ambition of the project is really admirable. However, it’s hard for me to think really highly of Ys, for the simple reason that I liked the compact, exciting songs of The Milk-Eyed Mender too much to be unambivalent about her abandoning that format completely. I mean, what’s my favorite song on Ys? It’s hard to say, because you can’t just pick out a song and have fun with it; the shortest song is seven minutes long, and the highs and lows of her voice and instrument mean that while it’s good all the way through, it’s off-putting all the way through too. I don’t say that no one should make complex, challenging music, but those who can make beautiful, pithy, strangely singable songs should not cast that aside lightly.
5. Yo La Tengo, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass
Also somewhat overlooked, though there the answer is easier: there is no one ideal Yo La Tengo album, because all of their albums do a million things at once. They often do them brilliantly, but it makes them difficult to characterize. What I am learning is that the best Yo La Tengo album is all Yo La Tengo albums strung together, and since this wonderfully-titled record is part of that procession I am happy to list it here.
4. Bruce Springsteen, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
Confusingly, none of the songs here were written by Pete Seeger. This makes sense, because Seeger did not really write Bruce Springsteen songs (though I could see a great Springsteen version of “If I Had a Hammer”). The characters of American folk music—canal workers, outlaws, preachers, widows, and steel-driving men—did. So this album is such a natural combination that I’m astounded that Bruce didn’t get to it until 2006, by which time he had already covered “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” (magnificently, but still). NB: What’s funny is that, not only did Pete Seeger not write any of these songs, I’ve only heard him singing one of them (“We Shall Overcome,” an uncharacteristic song on the album). However, that’s just because I haven’t heard enough Seeger performances. So I’ll get on that.
3. The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America
2. The Decemberists, The Crane Wife
1. Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Honestly, not to end on a grumpy note, but the fact that this was my favorite album of the year sort of indicates that this was not a great year for music. Last year I had a bunch of new discoveries—Wolf Parade, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, M.I.A.—clambering over each other in search of the top spot, rounded out by great albums by established favorites (Franz Ferdinand, the Mountain Goats, Sleater-Kinney, the Decemberists). This year, Neko Case is by far the most important act I got into. If the stars I gave songs in iTunes meant everything, Fox Confessor wouldn’t get the crown; it only has two or three great songs (compare to Show Your Bones, above) and sometimes lags a bit. But whenever the quantitative side of me wanted to demote it, I remembered that, for days at a time, I listened to nothing else, just hearing her voice do everything. That says “album of the year” to me.
The Best Songs of 2006, from albums that didn’t make the cut:
The Editors, “Munich”
“Weird Al” Yankovic, “White & Nerdy”
Just shut up. I don’t want to hear it. This song is great. “I was in AV Club and Glee Club and even the chess team”? You can’t front on that.
She Wants Revenge, “These Things” or “Tear You Apart”
Oh my God, their lyrics are SO DUMB sometimes. “Either way, he wanted her, and this was bad.” As my friends will tell you, one thing I said again and again this year was that I would like to get a version of these songs that just consisted of the instrumentals and the chorus. But you know, the reason I said that again and again was that, despite myself, I just couldn’t stop going back to these songs. The thrill is insubstantial and transitory, like the melting popsicle in “These Things,” but five minutes later you’re hungry again.
Ladytron, “Destroy Everything You Touch”
Belle and Sebastian, “The Blues are Still Blue”
TV On the Radio, “Wolf Like Me”
This song also features one of the best videos of the year, directed by the good people at Waverly Films, those guys that I totally know some of them.
Gnarls Barkley, “Crazy”
What can you say? I stuck up for this album for a long time, just certain that the rest of it must be good too. Hell, I even swore that the cover of “Gone Daddy Gone” was a valuable reinterpretation of the Violent Femmes original. But eventually I realized that I was never playing this album; when I tried to make myself listen to it, I just vaguely wandered away. Now I’m putting all of my Gnarls eggs in this basket, which is the best rap/electronic/r&b (damn if I know how to classify it) song in years.
Of course, the best rap single of this year may be coming from a source somewhat…closer to home. Just check this space. I’ve said too much already.
So, to conclude: let’s have more great music this year. I mean, more than we had last year. The Shins, the Arcade Fire, I’m looking at you.
1/20/07, 3:00 a.m.: Superficial edits made.