The Year In Review: The 25 Best Albums of 2006
25. Camera Obscura-Let's Get Out of This CountryLet's Get Out of the Country is a charming collection of 10 relentlessly pleasant twee pop songs. I only have one problem with it. Every time, I hear its breakout single, "Lloyd, I'm Ready To Be Heartbroken," I become convinced that the song is about Lloyd Christmas, Jim Carrey's character in Dumb and Dumber. I can't help but picture Camera Obscura's lead singer Tracyanne Campbell holding hands with Lloyd Christmas in a video montage set in Aspen Colorado. The entire time they have goofy smiles on their faces and they constantly pour beer like it was wine. People claim this song was written for Lloyd Cole, the British singer/songwriter behind the song "(Are You) Ready to Be Heartbroken." I know differently. It was for Christmas, damnit. It was for Christmas.
But if you can get past that unforgettable revelation, Let's Get Out of the Country reveals its remarkable consistency, its delicate orchestral arrangements filled with swooping strings sighing organs and the elegiac poetry of its lyrics. Perpetually compared to fellow Glasswegians Belle & Sebastian, Let's Get Out of the Country remains introspective literate pop in the vein of If You're Feeling Sinister. But rather than seem derivative, Camera Obscura's lyrical melodramas set to skipping sing-a-long melodies have their own unique and evolved sound. This is the perfect album for a long drive on a blindingly bright summer day or a lazy hungover Sunday morning cleaning up a living room littered with empty beer bottles. Even Lloyd Christmas would be hard-pressed not to admit that Camera Obscura are better than the Monkeys, who were a huge influence on the Beatles.
MP3: Camera Obscura-"Lloyd, Let's Get Out of the Country"
24. The Rapture-Pieces of the People We LoveSometimes I worry about myself. In the past year, I've really liked records from both The Rapture and LCD Soundsystem. I'm not neccesarily worried about my taste in music. I'm worried that I'm become taken over by the hipsters. Its like James Murphy is Soylent Green. Sure, I don't own a blazer, nor have I let my beard get beyond a day or two of growth. But I do have a pair of black plastic glasses and even though I almost never wear them, this Rapture/LCD Soundsystem thing has me worried.
Ian Cohen has said before that we have no tangible proof that Luke Jenner, lead singer of The Rapture is not retarded. And at times throughout this album it's perfectly reasonable to question whether or not Corky from Life Goes On handles the vocals , particularly when the Jenner opens the albums with the lyrics: "high...high as the sky. Low....low as it goes. Purple dragons fly into your eyes. Milkshake shimmy, cry and cry and cry." Seriously, who writes this guys' lyrics? A precocious kindergartener being paid in high-powered blotter acid. But lyrical inanities aside, this is the party record of the year. Propulsive head-nodding rhythms, catchy as hell breakbeats. Forget that Justin Timberlake brings Sexybackk blah blah B.S. that everyone's been spouting. Luke Jenner should be the hipster candidate for the King of Pop. Take a look at this man. There is just no way that he has a right to be this funky.
MP3: The Rapture-"Down for So Long"
23. Golden Smog-Another Fine Day
Another Fine Day is one of the most underrated albums released this year. It makes sense. The group hadn't recorded an album since 1998's Weird Tales, letting any and all buzz die down in the interim. After all, in 1998, half the blogosphere was in high school, myself included. To add to the momentum-killing hiatus, Another Fine Day, only has one Jeff Tweedy-solo song. It also has a former member of Soul Asylum writing most of the songs. No, not Dave Pirner, but the name Soul Asylum alone can conjure enough shivers to frighten away interested listeners (though you know that you got choked up the first time you saw "Runaway Train" video...it's okay to admit it.) So when the mostly middling reviews for this album trickled in weeks if not months after its release, no one really paid much attention.
But in a year without a Wilco record this was the next best thing. Sure, Tweedy's actual presence is scarce on the album, but his sound is evident throughout. Like Wilco, Golden Smog have broadened out beyond alt-country, while retaining that familiar twang. The sound is pure Americana in the vein of Wilco and The Band. The organ and two-part harmonies on "Strangers" sound straight from Big Pink. The album is sprawling but consistent, experimental but traditional. It might never reach the stratospheric heights of the bands name-dropped above, but Another Fine Day remains a very strong record, 15 warm upbeat tunes seemingly tailor-made for a summer road trip through the midwest.
MP3: Golden Smog-"Long Time Ago"
22. Britta Persson-Top Quality Bones and a Little Terrorist
Pull out a copy of Top Quality Bones and a Little Terrorist in front of your friends and there is a sizeable chance that within 50 seconds one of them will crack a groan-inducing joke about the album title that will involve our limited skirmish in the middle east and/or pornography. However, other than its absurd title, this album is nearly perfect, a spare, personal and trance-inducing work of art. As for what it sounds like, think of Joni Mitchell's penchant with quivering pianos and acoustic guitar confessionals with Bjork's off-kilter falsetto. And like both Mitchell and Bjork, Top Quality Bones excels at creating moods: at various times brooding, haunting and even up-beat and (almost) danceable.
Released in September, Persson's import-album flew largely under the radar. Stylus was the only major website to review her import-only record (though Brooklyn Vegan praised it it here) but we gave it a Stylus Recommends, and for good reason. Britta Persson is a compelling songwriter and real knack for indulging an eccentric streak while balancing it with pleasant lo-fi folk melodies. So maybe her skills at naming an album aren't fully formed. But give the girl a break. She's just 24 years old and she's Swedish. Which means she's pretty much infallible (or so the world of 2006 popular music would have you believe).
MP3: Britta Persson-"Bellamy Straat Straat"
21. Camp Lo-Fort Apache (The Mixtape Album)
You're probably thinking, this album again? Granted, it seems like overkill, considering I blogged about Fort Apache here, reviewed it for Stylus here, and named it the fourth best rap album of the year here. And no, I'm not getting a blizzard of PR e-mails from Lo's publicists. Hell, it's hard to figure out if these guys even have a real label, let alone a publicist. So consider the repitition a testament of my esteem for Sonny Chiba and Geechie Suede, one of the finest and unluckiest rap duos of all time. If you aren't familiar with Lo's saga, (covered at length in the Stylus piece), it isn't hard to summarize: these guys got screwed. Hard. By label politics. Like these guys but much much worse.
You might recall the glistening sheen of "Luchini (This is It), or the brassy horns and nostalgiac stomp of "Black Nostaljack" on Lo's 1997 debut, Uptown Saturday Night, but its follow-up, 2002's rarely-heard Let's Do it Again was similarly excellent and wildly underrated, a fate it seems certain to share with its follow-up, Fort Apache. I've written about Fort Apache's virtues ad nauseum before, so it seems a bit redundant to impress exactly how technically brilliant Sonny Chiba and Geechie Suede are. All satin-smooth flows, complex slang and Golden Age-era chemistry, the pair call to mind a hybrid of Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang. But all the comparisons in the world can't do these guys justice. In a rap world of carbon-copy cokeslingers, Lo are true originals.
Go to my original post for MP3's (links still active)
20. Comets on Fire-AvatarI once read an interview with Ethan Miller, lead singer of Comets on Fire and in this so-called "interview," this so-called "Miller" tried to claim that he and the rest of the band don't take acid. I call bullshit. First off, Comets on Fire are from Santa Cruz, a town where it's easier to get acid than red meat. Second of all, Avatar itself sounds like the missing link between Moby Grape and the Quicksilver Message Service, all squalls of blistering psychedelic freek-outs set to howling bluesy vocals. Third, the fucking Sub Pop website itself describes Avatar as having "riffs from mighty warriors on acid." Nice try Miller, but all those "kids, don't do dope" proclamations don't fool me.
So stoners and trippers of America, get yourself a copy of Avatar, the album of the year for the narcotically inclined. (Don't believe that DARE shirt Miller was trying to rock. It's just hipster irony) College kids this means you. Throw it on right after bong rip #4 and watch it perfectly soundtrack a night of staring at the black light with glazed eyes, studying the trippy suddenly glowing Pink Floyd poster on your wall. (Not that there's anything wrong with that). Don't be fooled by the respectable but unspectacular reviews that this album got (Pitchfork: 7.7...Stylus: B), Avatar is consistently mesmerizing. Retaining the thrashing guitars of their Sub Pop debut, Blue Cathedral, the Comets have expanded their sound to include slower, stoned ballad/jams, perfect to play on repeat when that high is waning. If you somehow aren't convinced by the album, be sure to check out this band's live show. The sound is so thunderous it practically melts faces.
MP3: Comets on Fire-"Dogwood Rust"
Out of the 100-plus albums I listened to this year, Ships is by far the best album that I expected to hate. That doesn't exactly sound like a ringing endorsement, but it is. And to be completely honest, I can't see how I would've thought otherwise, considering that reviews often compared Ships to the Blueberry Boat and Sung Tongs, two albums that will forever have a special rung in Passion of the Weiss hell for making me waste my hard-earned money on such indie-rock wankery. But it wasn't just the Animal Collective and Fiery Furnaces comparisons that had me convinced Danielson would be Public Enemy #1 (or at least #3) in my mind. To quote Pitchfork's review:
"In his decade-long run as the ringleader of art-rock collective the Danielson Famile, Daniel Smith has practically defined the term "cult artist." His records-- most of them highly conceptual paeans to God-- can be exhausting, barraging listeners with surprise twists and turns and tangled song fragments. Smith himself has an inimitable vocal style: a twisted melange of bleating, twinging yelps, whoops, and screeches."
I like my music listenable, so needless to say "bleating, twinging yelps" usually aren't my thing. But beneath its penchant for avant-garde experimentation, Ships has a pop heart. Sure, it retains certain annoying qualities endemic in indie rock (song titles include "Ship That Majestic Suffix" and "He Who Flattened Your Flame is Gettin' Torched) and sure, half the time I listen to it, I debate who would win the ultimate nautical-themed indie rock celebrity death match between Danielson and Colin "Herman Melville Gets Me Hot" Meloy (coming in 2007 on the Passion of the Weiss...stay tuned), but its quirkiness feels like real authentic weirdness rather than obnoxious gimmickry. Ships should serve as a blueprint for how to balance experimentation and melody, bleating yelps with infectious keyboard strokes and triumphant trumpet blasts. It might suffer at times under the weight of its own pretensions, but Ships is a fun and compelling record, one way better than it should have the right to be.
MP3: Danielson-"Did I Step on Your Trumpet"
18. The Game-Doctor's AdvocateI've written at length about this album before, giving it a glowing review and naming it the third best hip-hop album of the year, so I won't spill many more words in its defense. It's earned a great deal of praise and an equally great deal of criticism, some of it warranted, most of it not. But I'd just like to add one more thing that Doctor's Advocate's detractors should consider. Namely, the high caliber of the guest appearances that it features. Now I know it seems a tad strange to defend a Game album by lauding people who aren't the Game. But there's often more to a guest appearance than meets the eye. Rappers are notoriously competitive and are loathe to get one-upped. That's why it was such a big insult when Nas chided Jay-Z for getting killed by Eminem on "Renegade."
In truth, the better a rapper is, the better his guest appearances are. Compare Kanye West's pathetic and empty braggadocio on the Pharrell track "I'm #1" to his well-written and funny verse on The Game's "Wouldn't Get Far." But it wasn't just Kanye who stepped up to the plate on Doctor's Advocate. Veterans like Snoop, Daz, Kurupt, Nas, Xzibit deliver fierce verses recalling their mid-90s heyday. Why? Because they all know what you should: that like it or not The Game is one of the best five best rappers in major label hip-hop.
MP3: The Game-"Let's Ride"
17. LCD Soundsystem-45:33No, I haven't jogged to this yet. But I imagine it'd be kinda' cool. 45 minutes of light airy instrumentals, with soul samples and eerie voices scratched into the background. After all, what says "I really shouldn't have eaten all those chips and guacamole when I had the beer munchies" than a ghostly voice buried in the mix, whispering "Shame on You." Or something.
Forget any "sell out" accusations that people might've thrown at James Murphy, this is damned good stuff, even if Phil Knight is using the profits made from this Nike tie-in product, to buy his fourth vest made of real gorilla chest. Truth is, I'm becoming convinced that James Murphy is a genius. Yeah yeah yeah, I know that's "like so totally dance-punk/2003" (seriously guys, not everything's a trend) but truth be told, I dismissed it as mere hipster blathering. But that all changed with 45: 33 and the recently leaked and staggeringly good, Sound of Silver. I'm convinced that this guy could write jingles for Cosco hot dogs and it would come out sounding transcendent (and tasting delicious.) Forget all that jogging nonsense that this track was made for and just focus on the fact that this might be the best electronic album made in 2006.
LCD Soundsystem-"Daft Punk is Playing at my House" (not from 45:33)
16. Brightblack Morning Light-Brightblack Morning Light
I have a feeling that if Brightblack Morninglight had gone to my alma mater Occidental College, they would've fit right in with the sizable hippie population, which generally broke down into two distinct tribes. The first were a sour-lipped and self-righteous bunch, future-hipsters-to-be, who listened to Rage incessantly (not like there's anything wrong with that) and never seemed to do anything other than issue vague proclamations about "the man" despite having never actually worked a job or known anything other than their upper-class white bread private school lives. The other sect of hippies was more peaceful and fun-loving. The kinds of kids who might've belived in all that hippy dippy nonsense but were less prostylizing in their approach. The kinds of kids who you might've disagreed with occasionally, but were more than happy to kick it with for a quick game of hacky-sack or a trip down to their dorm room to take vaporizer hits underneath their poster of Bob Marley. In short, good people.
Brightblack Morning Light would seem to fall into the latter category. They aren't about to shove their beliefs down your throat, even if it isn't hard to tell where they stand (their website boasts links to the Circle of Life Foundation, Coyotes and Wolves Forever and Free Leonard Peltier). And like the friendly tribe of hippies at Occidental College, Brightblack Morning Light's music seems less about convincing you to start the revolution and more about good vibes and like "the tunes... man!!" Accordingly, the tunes on Brightblack Morninglight, their Matador debut, are nothing short of stellar, 10 druggy songs emerging from the shadows, full of whispered vocals, rolling drums and drowsy Rhodes organs that sink fast into your dazed cerebellum. This isn't protest music. This is the music for the after-party, around 3:00 a.m. when most of the guests have left and the girl next to you starts telling you about the cosmic experience she had at Burning Man 2002. Far out, man. Far out.
MP3: Brightblack Morning Light-"Everybody Daylight"
15. Swan Lake-Beast MoansOut of any album on this list, this is the one most likely to inspire nasty anonymous comments. Hell on the Stylus message board, admitting to liking this album seemed tantamount to admitting that you'd gotten an obscure sexually transmitted sexually disease from a one-legged prostitute in Papua New Guinea. (sorry for the Papua New Guinea jokes...that's the last time I get drunk and look up esoteric countries on Wikipedia...but seriously, did you know that Papua New Guinea has a greater density of languages than any other nation on earth except Vanuatu. I didn't.) Okay, now where we? Yes, the Swan Lake album and how in spite of its sprawl, self-indulgence and occasional down right awful moments, it remains one of the finest records made in 2006.
The secret to enjoying this album? The wonder of iTunes. Uncheck the dud tracks (I recommend doing away with "City Calls," "The Partisan He's Got to Know," and "Shooting Rockets") and Beast Moans hits level of brilliance reached by few albums. For my money Dan Bejar's work on "A Venue Called Rubella" "Widow's Walk" and "The Freedom" outshines anything he did on Rubies. Meanwhile, Spencer Krug continues to make a case for best songwriter of his generation with gems like the reverb-soaked lament "All Fires," the chaotic twinkles of "Bluebird" and the folky acoustic murmerings of "Are You Swimming in Her Pools." If you aren't a Destroyer or Spencer Krug fan, you'll probably hate this album. But with some judicious editing, Beast Moans grows on you with each claustrophia-inducing listen.
MP3: Swan Lake-"A Venue Called Rubella"
14. Califone-Roots and Crowns
For some reason, every time I listen to Roots and Crowns, I get a vivid image of Beck sitting on a throne somewhere in a hidden annex in the massive Scientology Center on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Surrounded by Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, their strangely coiffed alien baby and half the cast of That 70's Show, this devious cabal plots how they are going to take over the world. Suddenly, one of the lower level Scientology minions bursts into the room, hanging his head with sorrow and holding a copy of Roots and Crowns in his hand. Approaching the stereo, he inserts the compact disc and presses play. Immediately, Beck runs out of the room crying, devastated, understanding that this was the album he was supposed to have made.
Not that there was anything so bad with The Information, the album that Beck released earlier this year. The tunes were catchy and all, but its just that things felt like Guero redux, which in turn was Odelay redux. And it certainly doesn't come anywhere near Roots and Crowns. Sounding like a cross between Beck and Jeff Tweedy, Tim Rutili, the mastermind behind Califone has released a masterpiece of twisted folk, found sounds and poppy world music-inspired guitar licks. More than just a singer/songwriter album, each track on Roots and Crowns sounds meticulously constructed, brimming with snaking sitar lines, elegiac violins, fuzzy white noise and tear drop bass lines looming beneath the surface. If Mutations is your favorite Beck album, Roots and Crowns is the album for you, a moody wistful collection of 13 rootsy numbers, each of them intricately constructed and unmistakably gorgeous.
MP3: Califone-"A Chinese Actor"
13. Kelley Stoltz-Below the Branches
If I were Kelley Stoltz I'd be pissed. After all, the guy dropped one of the best records of 2006 on one of the best labels around (Sub Pop), got to tour with one of the biggest bands in rock music (The Raconteurs) and still, couldn't get any buzz. (No buzz vertigo). Sure, a couple tracks appeared on Aquarium Drunkard and Fluxblog, but extremely negative Pitchfork and Stylus reviews helped squash any chance he had of getting much-deserved recognition for Below the Branches. (That's unless you read You Set the Scene, who named this the #1 album of '06.)
Truthfully, I can't figure out for the life of me why bloggers and the online music magazines didn't pick up on this, considering its pedigree, its significant level of pop craftmanship and its sheer undeniable sense of fun. Indeed few records made in any year are more pleasant than Below the Branches, a breezy collection of 13 songs that at times recall Brian Wilson, Ram-era Paul McCartney and even Lou Reed (on the Velvet Underground-esque "The Rabbit Hugged the Hound)" Unlike the other singer/songwriters on this list, Stoltz's melodies are imbued with a genuine sense of joy, bursting with upbeat percussion, rollicking pianos, warm sunny-day vocals and round jangly guitars. It's enough to make you think that in spite of the minimal publicity, he's received, Stoltz is doing just fine. And maybe next time he won't release the summer album of the year in the middle of Feburary.
MP3: Kelley Stoltz-"Memory Collector"
12. The Decemberists-The Crane Wife
I certainly understand how people have problems with the Decemberists. In a way, listening requires a certain suspension of disbelief, You can't ask yourself questions about how Colin Meloy picked up an English accent in Helena Montana. Or where he picked up the extensive nautical experience allowing him to non-ironically write songs entitled "The Island, Come And See, The Landlord's Daughter, You'll Not Feel The Drowning." And of course, you have to try to pretend that you didn't see this picture of him sitting on Janeane Garofolo's lap.
But if you can forget all those things and focus on the music, there's no denying that Meloy is fiercely talented. Read some of the Decemberists lyrics (bring a thesaurus), the guy can write. Truth is, few rock lyricists can match Meloy's spare and elegant poetry. But lyrics had never been the problem for Meloy, pre-Crane Wife. The problem had been the simplicity of his arrangements, which often seemed boring and too-similar sounding over the course of a full LP. Not to mention, they put his strange voice front and center, never a good thing when you sound like Billy Budd. With The Crane Wife, the Decemberists simulaneously complexified and relaxed their sound adding funky organs, crashing drums, and an added sense of majesty, which served to enhance Meloy's epic intentions. Hell, "The Perfect Crime 2" is almost danceable. Meloy's never going to be James Brown. But with The Crane Wife he succeeds in being the slightly cooler-than-the-rest college professor who starts doing the funky chicken after a few too-many drinks.
MP3: The Decemberists-"The Perfect Crime 2"
11. Benoit Pioulard-Precis
Great albums rarely blow your mind on first listen. Sure, every now and then a Funeral or a Yankee Hotel Foxtrot will be released and immediately embed itself into your musical DNA, as though it had always existed. But more often than not, great albums reveal themselves with slow subtle strides, each track quietly soundtracking some random task: a drive around the city, folding laundry, or writing sessions that spill into a ragged gray morning. Precis is that album that emerges in the squinting dawn, swirling with 15 songs full of haze and dust, smoky vocals and carelessly crafty acoustic guitars.
The first time I heard Precis I wasn't very impressed. Singer-songwriters are a dime a dozen, and the bar to mediocrity is set rather low. (Bright Eyes, I see you). But every now and then, one emerges from the miasma and issues a debut so striking that you can't help but notice. Just 22 years old, Benoit Pioulard is one of those rare talents. I hate to compare someone to Elliot Smith, but at times Precis seems reminiscent of Smith's pre-Dreamworks records. The sound of a precocious talent, whispering hushed vocals seemingly on the verge of desperation. But whereas Smith attacked directly with plain vocals and hauntingly simple melodies, Pioulard buries his in a mess of ice and wind, and a rain of extra sounds that wash through the the album. His lyrical chops might not yet match Smith's but his talent for composition is already fully formed. This is an outstanding debut, startlingly graceful but laden with heart and emotion. It might not yet be on the level of classic Elliot Smith or the artists mentioned above, but Pioulard flashes enough talent to leave you convinced that he might one day produce something equally brilliant.
MP3: Benoit Pioulard-"Triggering Back"
10. Belle & Sebastian-The Life Pursuit
Garnering prominent placement on most of the Year-End lists, headlining at the Hollywood Bowl with the LA Philharmonic and even peaking at #65 on the Billboard 200, Belle & Sebastian had a strong 2006. But when The Life Pursuit was released in early February, more than a few long-time fans grumbled about the band's evolution. Indeed it seemed jarring to hear Stuart Murdouch sounding this funky, loose and confident. Gone was the timid sickly sounding vocalist behind If You're Feeling Sinister, and in his stead, a real rock n' roll frontman that led one of my friends to declare, "this isn't why I listen to Belle & Sebastian. If I wanted this, I'd just listen to T. Rex."
Indeed Marc Bolan's sound repeatedly that comes to mind when hearing The Life Pursuit. But these aren't exactly T. Rex's champagne and coke fantasies, this is sunny gorgeous funk with a distinct pop sheen. You can take the boy out of the city. But you can't take the twee out of Stuart Murdoch. Kinda. Never in my wildest 1997 dreams would I have expected B&S to produce blistering guitar solos as seen on "Sukie in the Graveyard," or the gorgeous stomping piano and life-affirming horns of the single, "Funny Little Frog." I suppose you could've seen this coming from Dear Catastrophe Waitress, but The Life Pursuit is the fullest realization of B&S's new gloriously symphonic sound. It might not satisfy the kids who had Tigermilk posters taped to their bedroom walls, but Life Pursuit more than succeeds in its ambitions to provide a fun, intelligent pop record, that might one day be considered the best in the band's already storied discography.
MP3: Belle & Sebastian-"Funny Little Frog"
9. Grizzly Bear-Yellow House
Yellow House seems refreshingly anachronistic in this age of MP3's, the all-too-rare album that sounds incomplete when broken into individual songs, as though its full power is only released by its fluid sequencing and odd sounds bleeding from track to track. Nearly every review has compared Grizzly Bear to Animal Collective, but that comparison seems unfounded. Recorded at Grizzly Bear leader Ed Droste's mom's yellow house in Cape Cod, the band's music has a wamrth and earthiness that Collective lack. Sure, their version of folk is freaky (No Silk), with strange campfire harmonies supplemented by a penchant for experimentation coming from bird chirps, weird electronic squiggles, the occasional Pro-Tools strings. But this album's roots lie in deceivingly simple 60s pop, reminiscent of The Beach Boys, and at times even The Band.
On first listen, Yellow House can seem boring. Another pleasant lobotimized record with pretty gentle melodies and enough "avant-garde" clicks and hisses to justify its critical acclaim. But each listen reveals another layer, as the harmonies pile up on each other and the drums crash harder, adding a needed weight to each track. The songs on Yellow House seems almost composed of mini-suites, melodies building to a crescendo, gliding for a spell, then finally soaring once more on the back of a spare but beautiful chord. The music made at the Yellow House might not match that made at Big Pink, but its certainly a step in that direction and one of the finest albums of 2006.
MP3: Grizzly Bear-"Knife"
8. Beirut-Gulag Orkestrar
There's nothing left to say about Zach Condon's Beirut project. In one year, he turned himself from an unknown college dropout with a thing for the mandolin, into the toast of the blogosphere. But it didn't stop there, Stylus bestowed him Stylus Recommends, the blogophobic Pitchforkians gave him a respectable 7.7 score and a Recommended tag, and he even turned his live show from disastrous to spectacular in 12 months flat. Not bad. But the truth is, somehow Beirut is still underrated. He barely cracked Stylus' Top 50 and didn't even make Pitchfork's list, apparently due to their desire to play Mr. Grinch to the blogsophere's Whoville.
Gulag Orkestrar is so much more than an homage to the Balkan Brass Bands of Eastern Europe. The album creates a hypnotic exotic feel that manages to resonate on a personal level. It is a monstrous achievement for any musician, let alone a 20-year old. A conflagration of pianos, accordians, mandolins, xylophones, melodicas and haunting, spectral trumpets, Gulag Orkestrar feels as though you should be listening to it while sipping tea in a Sarajevo cafe, overlooking a large body of water, watching accordian notes and cigarette smoke crash through the clean air. In a year, where a lot of publications (Internet and non-Internet alike) tried to rip the blogosphere apart for over-hyping bands, this should be held up as one of the medium's greatest successes, an album that not only lives up to the hype, it exceeds it.
MP3: Beirut-"Mt. Wroclai (Idle Days)
7. Ghostface Killah-More Fish
As predicted in my 10 Best Hip-Hop Albums of the Year post, this album was destined to be underrated, considering its release proximity to this year's masterful Fishscale. Reviews of the album were been mostly lukewarm, with Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, the LA Times, the NY Times and Pop Matters all giving it decent but unspectacular marks (though Mallory O'Donnell's B+ Stylus is highly recommended.) Bottom line is every reviewer had the same critique: this isn't Fishscale. But you can count on one hand the number of hip-hop records made in this decade that are better than Fishscale. While there are a few too many guest appearances that doesn't change the fact that the anvil-tough "Block Rock," the technicolor vivid "Alex (Stolen Script) and the moving "Josephine" are as good if not better than anything on Fishscale.
Forget the critiques and focus on a song like "Ghost is Back" where Ghost flips Eric B. & Rakim's Juice (Know The Ledge). Few rappers possess the chops to even attempt to spit over a tricky old-school beat, but Ghost up and bodies the track, lowering his shoulders and trucking through it like an all-world linebacker, with a rapid-fire flow effortlessly showing off his range. Or take a song like "Good" which would be an unimaginable catastrophe in the hands of a lesser rapper, with a weak beat and an ever weaker hook. But by sheer charisma and skills, Ghost wills it into a raucous joyous celebration. Sure, it isn't as good as Fishscale, but it's better than Pretty Toney and serves as a fitting finale to a year where Ghostface made a legitimate case for being considered the greatest of all time.
MP3:Ghostface Killah-"Ghost is Back"
6. The Black Keys-Chulahoma
Chulahoma, is a fantastic record, the most underrated made this year. In just seven tracks, 28 minutes and six songs, The Black Keys pay tribute to their idol, Junior Kimbrough, in the process unleashing some of the most dirty and raw blues you'll ever hear. Psychedelic but still unmistakably rootsy, the album seems immediate and primal on first listen. But it took on a new whole new meaning for me when I read what Dan Auerbach, the lead singer of the Keys wrote in the liner notes.
"This is a short recollection of the day I was transformed. And I'll start at the beginning but not when I was born. I was 18 years old....There was a black and white piano on the front cover. It was of an old man seated by a jukebox.He was playing an electric guitar while some women, frozen in time, swayed to the music that he seemed to be making. I was away at college, in that little Ohio town. There, alone in my room, I was transformed. It was by this man and the music on that CD. I've heard people say this before, that they were forever changed by so and so and this or that, but I have to tell you truthfully, fuck all that.
Nature, humanity, my feet on the floor, the fake wood laminatged deskrop, the moon and stars, the heat from my body, my reflection in the mirror, my whole existence was flipped on its head and back around twice. I was in a trance for days and I didn't even know it. Very suddenly, I was skipping class to play guitar. Shortly thereafter, I'd be dropping out of college altogether. Setting out to find my own way. The bar had been set impossibly high and there was nothing more those professors could help me with. I'd found a new teacher.
Well, I'm a musician now. It says so on my passport. Though, it's gotta be more than just that. I feel like a man blessed with some sort of mind and heart connection to the vibrations I find in the music that I love. Junior allowed me to feel that way, to open the once hidden driveway. My family had steered me in the right direction and pushed me when I needed it but the walls came tumbling down and the earth shook when I locked into Junior's groove. I'll be forever grateful, forever in awe, and forever indebted to Junior Kimbrough. Someday, I'm gonna meet him in the city and I'll shake hjis hand and maybe he'll play a few songs for me."
Auerbach never got to meet Kimbrough, who died in 1998, but he recorded this album as a tribute. The last track is a voice mail from Kimbrough's widow telling The Keys how she'd never heard anyone cover Junior's songs that well. Chulahoma is what music is about. It is a brilliant gutsy record. It would've made Junior proud.
MP3: The Black Keys-"Work Me"
5. Peter, Bjorn & John-Writer's Block
It's no secret that over the past few years, Sweden stepped up its export game. No longer do we get just mediocre vodka, mass produced furniture and attractive blonde secretaries named Bjergen Kjergen (Shmergen!). Now Americans get a flood great Swedish pop artists too. But out of this rising tide, no imports have created an album as consistently brilliant as Writer's Block .
The genius of Writer's Block lies in its sense of populism. This isn’t the brooding impenetrability of Pynchon and Radiohead, this is the everyman pop sensibility of Catcher in the Rye and The Beatles. Try playing this in front of people. Watch how the single “Young Folks” sucks in your blue-haired grandmother with its faraway but familiar whistling and sets her babbling about the price of Depression-era stuffed cabbages. Play “Amsterdam” for your stoner friend and watch him snort smoke out of his nose and talk about how “totally awesome” Amsterdam (and the song) are. Or take “Paris 2004”’s opening line: “Sunday Morning / On the bed / To have fruit and croissants.” Really, how can one be opposed to fruit and croissant breakfasts in bed on Sunday morning? It’s like hating Holden Caulfield or “Strawberry Fields Forever” or Peter Bjorn and John.
MP3: Peter, Bjorn & John-"Young Folks"
4. Islands-Return to the Sea
Islands mastermind, Nick Diamonds has described Return to the Sea as having a Brian Wilson/Neil Young vibe to it. Each year about 812 bands say the same damn thing. Except that unlike the rest of them, Diamonds actually has a point. Don't get me wrong, this isn't Everybody Knows This is Nowhere part II. Far from it. But there are more than a few similarities between Diamonds and Young, beyond a shared Canadian heritage and a knack for alienating members of their bands. Paramount above all though, is their compulsive need to push their own musical boundaries forward, experiment with other genres, and follow their muse wherever it takes them. And both don't give a flying fuck what anyone thinks about their vision.
So it should make sense that Diamonds finds nothing wrong with starting Return to the Sea with a 9 and a half minute song, the gorgeous and operatic "Swans (After Death)." Even better is how well it works. Unlike the schizophrenic pop of the Unicorns, Return to Sea is musically sharp and focused. Lyrically, Diamonds creates a story-book fantasia of volcanoes, swans, whales and weird Bobby Brown references. He even manages to salvage the reputation of rock and rap with the head-tripping "Where There's a Whalebone." He experiments with calypso and country, spitting strange lyrics, and stranger snippets of "demons" talking on radio call-in-shows, predicting the apocalypse. If you need any more convincing of their greatness, read Skeet on Mischa's account of their Cinco De Mayo Show at the El Rey, where after tearing through an hour-long set, Diamonds led the entire crowd out onto Wilshire Blvd. and started letting off celebratory fireworks in front of a thousand stunned smiling onlookers. It was awesome.
3. Ghostface Killah-Fishscale
In Fishscale, Ghostface released arguably his greatest work. It might not have the gritty underground vibe of Ironman or the cerebellum shattering Rza beats of Supreme Clientele, but Fishscale is Ghostface as Barry Bonds, taking the juice late in his career to smack 73 bombs. "Shakey Dog" ranks among the finest hood stories Ghost has ever crafted. "Kilo" sounds like it could've came from the Only Built For Cuban Linx outtakes. "9 Milli Bros." is every rap nerd's fantasy, a fierce Wu-Tang posse cut over a stoned MF Doom beat. "Whip You With a Strap" is filled with childhood anecdotes so vivid and colorful that you'd think Ghost had been studying The Mountain Goats' The Sunset Tree. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if "Underwater" ends up starting a new hip-hop movement: psychedelic rap.
Or as Just Blaze said about Fishscale just this month: "Fishscale made me feel good about making raw hip-hop again. If you look at today's market, the first thing you say is that there aren't too many artists doing that any more and then you realize there really aren't that many artists that know how. What would Jibbs do if you gave him the beat from "Dogs of War?" Ghostface is one of the last hopes for hip-hop as we know it and this album proves why."
MP3: Ghostface Killah-"Underwater"
2. The Hold Steady-Boys and Girls in America
For some reason, I've become convinced that great albums almost always have great third songs. I think it's a pretty decent theory. Maybe its not always right, but more often than not, the third song always has that one crucial second where you look around and mumble to yourself, "this is a great fucking record." So when I heard Boys and Girls in America for the first time, I knew I was going to love it. At precisely, at the 1:08 second mark on track 3, "Hot Soft Light" Tad Kubler lets off a guitar solo that cannons out of the stereo with round rings of sound, a blistering coiled and powerful riff that overwhelms the woozy piano keys and thunderous drum stomp. The Hold Steady are a band in the classic sense. In the tradition of Zeppelin, E-Street, and Cheap Trick. Except with a Berryman and Kerouac quoting frontman who has the sly knowing wink of a con-man.
The Hold Steady are a cult. Like Scientology. Or Kaballah. Or Cory Kennedy (No Vincent Gallo). Except that they don't want your money, your time, or your ability to make Cobrasnake's site traffic spike. They just want you to have a good time. That's all. They offer everything you could want. Boozy anthems for the frat-boys, introspective lyrics for the ladies, relateable tales for the teens, literary leanings for the book dorks and enough substance abuse references to satisfy Mel Gibson. Boys and Girls is the Hold Steady's best album yet, a complex and articulate collection of 11 short stories of growing up in America. Inspired by a Kerouac quote about "boys and girls in America having such a sad time together," they too will live on like the deceased novelist. People will always need things to make them a little less sad.
MP3: The Hold Steady-"Hot Soft Light"
1. Sunset Rubdown-Shut Up I Am DreamingThere are two ways I can describe this album. The first appeared in my blurb for Stylus' Top 50 Albums List:
"Shut Up I Am Dreaming is Spencer Krug’s symphony for the damned, a tour through a dystopian universe populated with collapsing buildings, late night graveyard rambles, venomous snakes placed in ovens, wild beasts and fiery four horsemen visions. Pure apocalypse. Forget Wolf Parade. That’s the stuff for the masses. Sunset Rubdown is high-art, ten haunting lo-fi dirges, stuffed with sinister organs, possessed piano licks and Krug’s eerie off-kilter bray that sounds perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The energy builds until the finale: the seven-minute-plus miracle of “Shut Up I Am Dreaming of Places Where Loves Have Wings.” For those who weren’t convinced by Apologies to the Queen Mary, this song is the proof. Spencer Krug has Arrived."
This is the other way:
It's rare that albums mean anything to me these days. But Shut up I Am Dreaming is the rare exception. Earlier this year, I was working on a novel, which I finally finished this fall. I always write to music, preferably new music. But there are only so many new records a year that I can actually write to, so whenever I find one that sticks I end up playing it every single day, in the hope that it will be the right soundtrack for a particular mood or event in the text.
So when I first heard this album, I was indifferent. I figured it was your typical indie rock record, all whiny white guys, guitars and David Bowie imitations. Sure, it was interesting, but it was tough to get through in one sitting. It was just too intense and unvarnished, too homemade and lo-fi, as though Spencer Krug wanted to create the feel of an unknown kid making rough demos in his basement, instead of his real title: co-leader of one of rock's most talented young bands. Finally, I had my breakthrough on the fifth or sixth listen. I was writing, of course, racking my brain for the right word, when suddenly the record reached out and grabbed me by the throat with a powerful darting burst of energy. I had to stop what I was doing and just listen to what I suddenly realized was the best thing I'd heard in a very long time.
I think I listened to Shut Up I Am Dreaming for the next 50 or so days, straight, often twice in the same session. I couldn't listen to anything else. I didn't need to. I can understand how someone wouldn't like this album. It's certainly not for everyone. On some level, it is typical indie rock in that yes, Spencer Krug is white, he's sad, he plays and he sounds a little bit like David Bowie. But ultimately, you either have to believe in a record or you don't. I believe in this one. If art is at all a subjective thing, then all you can go by is what hits you the hardest. And nothing else made this year, in nearly any year, can even come close.
MP3: Sunset Rubdown-"They Took a Vote and Said No"