The Best Music of 2006

Posted 01/15/2007 by cal

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Another year in the books, and music is becoming more fragmented and genrecized than ever, even as acts from all over the spectrum scramble to find other completely incompatible acts to collaborate with, and terms like random and eclectic suggest intrinsic goodness or badness in the eyes of many critics and listeners alike. Perhaps the stylistic mash-up trend is an attempt by artists to escape the media's labeling of everything as post-this, or that-core, or some new mangling of the arbitrary emo designation. Thankfully, although the early going seemed slow and a lot of reliable artists turned in disappointing efforts, 2006 yielded a superb harvest. Let's dispense with all the buzz words for a minute and pay tribute to the great musical statements of the year.

THE TOP TEN:

1. Mute Math, Mute Math
Thank God for the listening station at the local indie record shop. This debut album grabbed my attention from first listen. A lot of times this leads to a quick fix that reveals itself to be fleeting over time, but this is an album whose layers are peeled away slowly only to reveal more depth and beauty as exposure breeds familiarity, if not obsession. Assembled from the remnants of Earthsuit, New Orleans-based Mute Math has retained none of its predecessor's 311-esque rap/rock sound or Christian focus. Instead, the eponymous album showcases a brilliant blend of mid-career Police pop/rock sensibilities and atmospheric post-jam (sorry) experimentalism reminiscent of Lake Trout, creating songs brimming with punkish immediacy, meditative drone, and unforgettable melodic hooks mixed with medicated soundscapes, all lushly produced and sewn together into a cohesive whole. Lyrically, singer/keyboardist Paul Meany brings a busload of faith and optimism, weaving clever wordplay together with moody reflection and heartfelt sentiment for those not too jaded to recognize it. The instrumentation is tight and smooth throughout, not a beat or strum wasted. Songs like the frenetic "Chaos" and "Noticed" bring major drumming talent Darren King to the fore; others like the eerie "You Are Mine" and the dreamy waltz of "Stare At The Sun" seem destined to be classics if the winds blow the right way, but even if the Warners promotional machine fails Mute Math, the bonus live EP that comes with the re-release of the album is evidence enough that this band has the chops to get wherever it wants to go. Meanwhile, I'll still hope that this album becomes a beacon for what pop music should be: expansive, meticulously crafted, and emotionally charged.

2. Grizzly Bear, Yellow House
This is an album that wades through a dreamlike bog between electronic weirdness and organic folky rock, often superimposing the two to the tune of classic-period Moody Blues. The result, while not always smooth, is often haunting and dramatic, always purposeful. Yellow House is a densely textured, endlessly rewarding album that conjures up wild feelings and soothing images, often within the same song. Its more organic moments feel arboreal, almost fantastically medieval, but the electronic bursts aren't as jarring as one might expect; they feel natural and meaningful. Some of the most yearning synthesized sounds committed to tape are on this album, such as on "On a Neck, On a Spit," whose manufactured noise sounds more primitive than the acoustic guitar. The various sounds heard here are so uniquely tweaked and smudged together that it couldn't be mistaken for something just tossed off. It sometimes drifts towards chamber pop ("Easier"), sometimes edges into post-rock territory ("Central and Remote"), but there is a supernatural-meets-technological vibe that holds everything together and powers the climactic moments of these pieces. This album is an epic thrill that retains the intimacy of a DIY aesthetic--a rare and magnificent thing.

3. Negură Bunget, OM
Building off the brutal, chaotic assault of its previous album, 2005's 'N Crugu Bradului, Romania's Negură Bunget has begun an evolution toward a more progressive, melodic approach to black metal. It's difficult to pinpoint what makes guitarist Hupogrammos Disciple's sound so distinctive, but it's there the minute you hear that first abrasive chord. The frantic riffing is madness barely contained, and while OM branches out much more than any of the band's previous work, it still delivers ample bludgeoning. While there are quieter moments like the spooky ambience of "Primul OM" and the carnivalesque chanting and flute(!) of "Hora Soarelui," there is nothing soothing here; even the clean vocals border on lunatic ranting, and the brass and other orchestral instrumentation only enhance the circus-like freakishness of the proceedings. Though the dynamic of the whole album is impressive, "Hora Soarelui" encapsulates everything that's great about Negură Bunget's evolution: a slowly developing creepy theme building to a roaring metal crescendo. It is increasingly common for death and black metal bands to forsake the confines of those strict designations for a more diverse sound, but few have done so as effectively as Negură Bunget while still retaining the primal essence of their roots.

4. Estradasphere, Palace of Mirrors
This band may have graduated from the confines of Mimicry records, but its style remains firmly grounded in the eclecticism of that label's vision. On Palace of Mirrors, it draws all of its various ideas and influences together more cohesively and articulately than ever before. The cinematic swirl of "Title" lets you know you're in for some grandiose musical statements, but things only get more intricate from there, often surpassing the powerful thrust of the opener just on sheer virtuosity. Timb Harris's violin playing is a force to be reckoned with; "Smuggled Mutation" played at high volume will leave you jittery and panting, and on tracks like "A Corporate Merger," the violin combined with Jason Schimmel's grinding, sludgy guitar creates a tense, exotic whirlwind of sound that will startle you even after you know what's coming. Theres no denying that Schimmel's guitar evokes Trey Spruance (who co-writes one track), and that the group's middle-Eastern spice is straight out of the Secret Chiefs 3 playbook, but Estradasphere brings a more focused vision to the proceedings, creating complete and immensely satisfying pieces without the meandering whimsy. The often symphonic ambition of the album would undoubtedly lead some critics to cry pretension! but the music here is too passionate and immaculately crafted to be dismissed. Dive in, close your eyes, and swim in whatever imagery this stuff conjures in your mind.

5. Liars, Drums Not Dead
A fitting title for the Liars' third long-player: this album churns with a percussive force that will move you physically even in the midst of its abstruse cacophony. The opacity of the album's lyrics lends them a naturally instrumental role, and on songs like "Drum Gets a Glimpse" and "Drum and the Uncomfortable Can," the vocals are little more than slightly melodic beats on your eardrum. In its slower moments, like "The Wrong Coat for You Mt. Heart Attack," the listener is enveloped in a soupy, foreboding fog before the tribal rhythms are resurrected and begin to propel us forward again. This is pure sonic intoxication, thoroughly sedating you, pulsing through you, occasionally jolting you but never quite out of the haze it's got you lulled into. On the first few listens, it's hard to cut through; there's little to grab hold of. You have to wait for it to grab you, and once it does, you can wander through its dense atmosphere over and over and continue to discover new textures and forces at work. It's an album whose mysteries you'll never feel like you've completely unraveled, which leads to an endless series of rewarding listens.

6. Flook, Haven
There is no group today making traditional Irish music as melodic, vibrant and innovative as Flook's, and with their third studio album, flutists Brian Finnegan and Sarah Allen, guitarist Ed Boyd and bodhran master John Joe Kelly have taken yet another step forward in their evolution at the forefront of the genre. Haven finds the group working with its most diverse assortment of guest instrumentalists yet, Andy Davies Hammond organ on the two-part "Padraig's" being the most ostentatious example of this band pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable in the trad community. But the guests are purely background accompaniment to the stars of the show. The flutes and whistles are played alternately with breathtaking tenderness and mind-boggling speed, sometimes hard to believe until you actually see them do it live. Boyd's guitar is incredibly crisp and resonant, and often just as rhythmically propulsive as the percussion. Kelly is widely acknowledged as the greatest bodhran player on Earth, and on tunes like "Mouse Jigs" and "Road to Errogie" he not only plays the unwieldy drum with superhuman speed, but also taps more different tones on the skin than anyone else who ever played one. The songs are all so beautifully written and arranged that even people who begin to bristle when St. Patrick's Day approaches can't help but be impressed. There's no telling where this group will take its sound in the future, but it's only gotten better and better so far.

7. Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury
Yep, its another coke-pushing gangsta saga, but this album has much more to say and much more interesting ways to say it than the rest of the pack. While the rhymes are full of clever bravado, there are pangs of doubt and subtle sensitivity that slip in, in tune with the eerie, minimalist beats that make up most of the tracks. You feel yourself pushed and pulled between emotions throughout the journey, but never able to shake the paranoia of the streets. The combined delivery of Pusha T and Malice shifts between a stiff, bitter staccato ("Keys Open Doors") and the smoothest of flows ("Trill"), their witty barbs clearly stemming from a kindred past. Production by the Neptunes weeds out all but the choicest chunks of sound, sticking primarily to spare, acoustic samples that serve more as punctuation than as grooves (think old-school DJ Quik without the sythesizers), framing the upfront vocals so you can hear the spit flying in the negative space. This is an album with as much brain as brawn, and you'll find yourself grinning as you hear the words twist around each other even as they weave a very dark tapestry. These guys may shout about the trials and triumphs you've heard a hundred times before, but rarely will you find such a synergistic combination of sleight-of-mouth backed by the perfect beats.

8. Bonnie "Prince" Billy, The Letting Go
Will Oldham is one of the most frustrating and unreliable songwriting forces operating today. Since 1999's brilliant I See A Darkness, he has released a string of uneven-at-best albums, mostly under the Bonnie "Prince" Billy moniker. It isn't as though there haven't been glimpses of greatness amongst the half-baked ideas, but The Letting Go is the complete album that fans have been waiting for, full of insightful and heart-wrenching lyrics, (mostly) bare-bones accompaniment, and Oldham's shaky baritone permeating the proceedings with a sort of unselfconscious uncertainty. It must be said, however, that this is his strongest vocal album to date. While still in and around the actual melody, he stays on key more often than not, and he really belts it out with some authority on tracks like "Cursed Sleep" and "The Seedling." These tracks are also the best examples of the tasteful use of orchestral flourishes that end up being climactic moments on the album. Then there are spacious acoustic folk duets like the succinct lovestruck ballad "No Bad News," featuring the voice of Dawn McCarthy as the lilting complement to Oldham's weathered crooning. Overall, this is a downer folk rock album on the surface (its twangy accents aren't really sufficient to label it alt-country), but its moody ambience camouflages the romantic optimism, even joy, of "Big Friday" and the album's closer, "I Called You Back," while amplifying the ambiguity of uneasy emotional rides like "Lay And Love." The complexities and uncertainties of human passions are what Oldham has always been great at expressing astutely and poignantly, and with The Letting Go, he has made another potent statement with more tangible hope than ever before.

9. Man Man, Six Demon Bag
This has to be the most fun album of the year, if not the decade. Philadelphia's Man Man sounds like a band of traveling goblin troubadours, mischievous and raising hell because they can't help themselves. The group channels the esoteric philosophical ramblings of Captain Beefheart with none of the intricate musicianship but all the caustic enthusiasm. Rhythmically, the band will have you spilling your stout as you swing it madly side to side in an attempt to stave off seasickness. Lead singer Honus Honus recalls Tom Waits in full throat, grinding his vocal cords amidst a chorus of full-bellied drunken male cheerleaders. Each member of the band is listed as playing about ten various instruments, and you get the feeling that each of them just picks up whatever's lying around and starts banging on it or blowing into it while intermittently yelping and hitting each other. Okay, it's only occasionally that random and chaotic, but there's certainly a freakish current of insanity that gives this music much of its power and appeal. Still, there are plenty of clever (if generally frivolous) lyrical turns, and it's hard not to sing along once you grow familiar with the rousing choruses. There are also insidiously catchy melodic hooks in the instrumentation, whether they come from a marimba or a vintage-sounding organ or some other unknown device, but theres no way to construe this as pop music as it relates to our known universe. It's just a joyous and unclassifiable romp through a primitive but progressive musical experiment that is as exciting for what the future may hold as it is for the visceral pleasure of listening to it today.

10. Etienne de Rocher, Etienne de Rocher
The debut album by Berkeley-based singer/songwriter Etienne de Rocher does have a few awkward lyrical moments that show his inexperience, but that youthful energy also translates to a refreshing honesty, optimism, and belief in the ability of humans to really make a difference in the world. De Rocher plays carefully crafted folk pop showcasing acoustic guitar skills a cut above the norm and an expressive and confident voice that ranges from syrup to swagger effortlessly and convincingly. His lyrics encompass vivid human portraits and stories ("Juniper Rose") and personal political treatises that prod but never preach ("There's Real And There's Moonshine"), and there is some real insight and weight to the soulful tunes. This music could easily hobnob with the best of modern Americana, but it also bounces off strong echoes of seventies acoustic balladry and heartland-style countryish soul. De Rocher's singing and playing is bolstered by master bassist Todd Sickafoose, a strong presence throughout, and ex-Cake drummer Todd Roper, plus numerous other guests that ultimately help to create a sound that's big and ambitious at times (especially effective on the swampy groove of "Bama Bino Goodbye") but never feels cluttered or overwrought. The album is a compelling journey through one man's personal vision, narrow enough to be utterly convincing but universal enough to make anyone want to come along for the ride.


THE NEXT TEN (in alphabetical order):

Beck, The Information
Blut Aus Nord, MoRT
Buckethead, Inbred Mountain
Isis, In The Absence Of Truth
Mew, And The Glass Handed Kites
Peeping Tom, Peeping Tom
Subtle, For Hero: For Fool
Suga Free, Just Add Water.
Tapes 'N Tapes, The Loon
Xiu Xiu, The Air Force


ESSENTIAL SONGS NOT ON ANY OF THESE ALBUMS:
(This is what iTunes is for! Pay 99 cents and you can sample a tune before you buy the whole album...or just collect fodder for a great mix cd.)

Busta Rhymes, "I Love My Bitch"
Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan, "Revolver"
Celtic Frost, "Ain Elohim"
Les Claypool, "One Better"
Cosmic Psychos, "Kill Bill"
Ani DiFranco, "Unrequited"
Dr. Octagon, "Aliens"
The Dresden Dolls, "Sing"
Ghostface Killah, "The Champ"
Gnarls Barkley, "Crazy"
Jesu, "Dead Eyes"
Katatonia, "Soil's Song"
Kopecky, "Infernal Desire Machine"
Matisyahu, "Youth"
Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood, "Down The Tube"
(The) Melvins, "Rat Faced Granny"
Ministry, "Fear (Is Big Business)"
Mouse On Mars, "Skik"
Pearl Jam, "Inside Job"
Quasi, "Presto Change-O"
The Roots, "False Media"
Samiam, "Do You Want To Be Loved"
Paul Simon, "Wartime Prayers"
Therapy?, "Walk Through Darkness"
Tool, "Rosetta Stoned"
U2 and Green Day, "The Saints Are Coming"
Hank Williams III, "Low Down"
Thom Yorke, "Black Swan"
Young Widows, "Bruised Knees"
John Zorn, "Abraxas"


OOPS, THEY WERE FROM LAST YEAR:

One album that was destined for my top ten until I found out that it came out in '05 is Twista's The Day After. After years of just trying to be the fastest rapper on the planet, the Chicago native has truly developed his own style, melding funky syncopation and even some syrupy southern slink and some smooth R&B with his hyper-precise vocal attack. Some choice guest spots (Lil Kim's is particularly intoxicating) add the perfect spice to one of last year's best rap albums. Shifting gears completely, Sweden's Burst spewed forth with a stunning display of so-called metalcore (wince) on last year's Origo. The album combines melodic and screaming vocals with a musical style that is a very progressive mixture of practically every style of extreme metal you could think of, but it's held together by an omnipresent energy and technicality that will floor you. The monstrous force coming from the speakers will stretch your face backwards, so it's probably best to listen via headphones...


...AND THESE WERE FROM EVEN LONGER AGO:
I made a couple of monumental discoveries this year of albums that I now cannot imagine having gone through life without hearing. The first was Slint's 1991 masterpiece Spiderland. As a huge fan of the Melvins and other lo-fi dark punk bands who influenced the 90's grunge explosion, I don't know how this album escaped my attention for so long. This music is so precisely dialed in that there's a palpable gravity to every note and every space between; when the tension becomes almost unbearable, the release is transcendent and complete. I dread the day when I can't listen to it and discover something new any more, but I think it's entirely possible that this day will never come. The other major discovery this year was Lou Reed's classic New York, which I now see as essential listening for any fan of music, poetry, or the world we live in. Reed pulls no punches on this album, laying bare the circuitry of his heart and soul, lashing out but also offering solutions, in top poetic and rhetorical form. If you find his singing generally lacking in melody and power, his vocal performance on "Straw Man" alone is worth buying the album for, and once you've really sunk yourself into it, you'll hear its resonance in the music of countless artists who came after.


TOP TEN LETDOWNS:
1. U2, U218...U2 just released two exhaustive best-of albums a few years ago, and now they're squeezing us again because this new collection has two new songs. Could we at least just buy those two mp3s on iTunes? Nope. Who's to blame for that? I don't know, but its the fans who get the shaft, and from a band that generally puts its fans on a pedestal.
2. Willy Porter, Available Light...Willy has proven himself as a singer, songwriter, and guitar player over and over again, but on his latest release, he begins digging himself into an adult contemporary hole, complete with cheesy synth tones, plenty of sickly sweet sentimentality, and obtuse commentaries on life that you'll see coming a mile away.
3. Tortoise and Bonnie "Prince" Billy, The Brave And The Bold...Two (intermittently) great tastes that evidently taste horrible together. This misguided collaboration on a handful of oddly-chosen cover songs comes off sounding not much like either of the two separate artists; rather, like a tuneless mess of disparate sounds and styles.
4. The Decemberists, The Crane Wife...What has Colin Meloy been listening to lately? Well, judging by this album, it's been jam bands, prog rock, 70's jazz pop, and maybe a few of his own old records, and these influences have helped him produce a disjointed collection of unrelatable and derivative songs that just make you want to listen to the originals.
5. Mogwai, Mr. Beast...Even though expectations are never high for Mogwai's studio output, this album finds the group actually trying to write rock songs (or something) and failing to come up with anything that even sounds like it has much potential in a live setting.
6. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Thug Stories...Sorry, but its just not Bone without Bizzy, and this collection of run-of-the-mill, um, thug stories lacks any of the spark, wit, or originality that made Bone Thugs the greatest rap collective on the planet at one time.
7. Primus, They Cant All Be Zingers...Wait, I thought these guys were the "Antipop." So how does a greatest-hits package fit into that philosophy? And are they really trying to get fans to buy it just for an extended version of "Shake Hands With Beef?"
8. The Mars Volta, Amputechture...This album is so prog, it totally forgets to rock, falling into self-indulgent randomness that even the diehard Mr. Bungle fan will lament as a passionless exercise in chaotic-sounding intricacy for its own sake.
9. Pearl Jam, Pearl Jam...Not a terrible album, but a victim of high expectations, this one pales in comparison to 2002's Riot Act; the worst part is Eddie Vedder's seeming unwillingness or inability to offer any alternatives as he rails against the Republicans.
10. The Hold Steady, Boys And Girls In America...After a terrific debut album, this so-called bar band has taken its Springsteen-meets-Thin-Lizzy sound and dulled it down further with each successive release This latest one isn't that bad, but with all the indie critics falling over themselves praising it, only a classic could've avoided being a letdown.


BEST WAY TO DISCOVER NEW MUSIC:
I just couldn't finish with a list of disappointments! If you haven't heard it from me already, then hear it now: the International Mixtape Project has been one of the most exciting discoveries I've made in years. Each month, you make a mix, you send it to someone you don't know, and someone you don't know sends you a mix. You'll get some stinkers, but you'll ultimately be impressed with the time and love some people put into these things (hopefully including you), and you'll discover all kinds of music from all over the world that you'd never hear otherwise. Interested? Send an email to: international.mixtape.project@gmail.com, and in the subject line, put (you guessed it) International Mixtape Project. Too much effort? The Project is now online at www.internationalmixtapeproject.com; head over and sign up. Happy 2007, everybody!

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