Monday, December 11, 2006

Best Albums of 2006 - Part 1 (Cary Clarke)

Disclaimer: I have broken up my master best albums list into a few installments, the first of which you will find below. I will post a few more down the road. This is because I am too tired to write it all now, and because it's turning out to be so long that I think this will make it more likely that anyone will actually read my commentary. I suppose it's unorthodox to start with number 1 in a gradually unfolding list, but so be it - that's how it's going down.


If 2005 shook my faith in the future of music, 2006 restored it. In the former year, I was disheartened by a cavalcade of albums by good bands that were so bad I thought that my interest in their work had come to an end. This year, however, I was amazed by some thrilling debuts, some incredible follow-ups, and some return-to-forms. It was even possible to hear some of this year's best music on FM radio, something which has not been true for quite some time. Whether or not this attributable to the decline in FM radio's massive reach is a question I'd prefer to ignore in this regard. Last year I struggled to come up with ten albums that I thought were even good. This year I am including twenty-six albums in my Best-Ofs because that many records were really very good - no filler, no trim.

1) Joanna Newsom - Ys
The first time I heard Ms. Newsom's debut, "The Milk-eyed Mender" I was amused but not particularly interested. Two weeks later I could not get the album's songs out of my head, nor did I want to. Somehow, I failed to learn from this experience. Upon first listen to this record, I was left cold. Joanna's chops were undeniable, and her ambition and willingness to try something new were very admirable, but I thought this record just wasn't going to be for me. i was wrong. I was an idiot. Less than 24 hours later I could not get enough of this album. It is incredibly rare to find music simultaneously this complex, this heartfelt and this catchy. The fact that Newsom has released only two albums and each has been my favorite of its respective years means I'm a fan for the long hall. A major talent. Plus I've never had such a crush on someone I don't know.

2) TV on the Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain
This was my favorite record for most of the year, and it may be the runner-up here just because it's less fresh to me. Record labels take note - this record leaked months and months before it was released stateside. If your music is readily available to even a casual user of the internet, it's ready to be mastered and released. I was intrigued by "Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes" and at times loved it. The follow-up is less bizarre and less unique, but better, catchier, and still totally unlike anything else out there. It is still As my friend Will pointed out, probably the best vocal lines going in music today. Political music that doesn't irritate me. Plus, the best live show I saw all year. Portland audiences are generally sedate and still, but this felt like a revival, and not just because of the soul stylings. People moved and touched each other, but there was no aggression. A cameraman who was documenting the show for a live DVD was so trustful of the audience that he stood on the lip of the stage and leaned backward into the audience to be passed to the back of the room and again to the front, camera in hand and rolling all the while. Any band that can make an audience be both respectful and energetic is doing something really right.

3 Grizzly Bear - Yellow House
This was one of the most exciting discoveries of the year for me. I wasn't familiar with the band's earlier work, and still don't love it. But this record is fantastic. Maybe the most well-matched production and song-writing of the year. Quiet exuberance is tough to pull off.

4) Beirut - Gulag Orkestar
Let me just say that i wrote my college thesis on Roma/Gypsies, and have spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe. Maybe I love this record because of its relationship to the Balkans, but I don't think so - the fact is, although the music is certainly referential of Gypsy music, it is hardly authentic, and that's to the album's benefit. If I want to hear real Gypsy music, I'll listen to real Gypsies. It sounds like a gimmick, but it's not. I don't really know what kind of music this is, but it's great. This dude is 19 and full of talent with a unique voice. Best debut of the year.

5) Sonic Youth - Rather Ripped
This is the band that made me love rock music. The band who made me want to be in a band myself. There have been very few moments in their career that I did not respond to with utmost enthusiasm. "NYC Ghosts and Flowers" was one, and, honestly, "Sonic Nurse" was another. I love Jim O'Rourke, but it's clear that that affair came to a timely end. Sonic Youth have not rocked this hard...ever? How can a band this old sound so young in all the right ways? Plus, the album includes the only moment I can think of right now in which SY play out of 4. Freeing Kim up from having to think of her vocals and bass lines in conjunction with one another was a great move compositionally, and made for a fantastic live show. Incidentally, I met Thurston Moore this summer at a Mexican restaurant on the Embarcadero in San Francisco. Kim and Coco were there. I have never been nearly so star-struck, in spite of having met Thurston a couple times before. My heart may still be racing. This time I tried to let him know how important his life's work has been to me. His nose hairs were very prominent, but this does not change my feelings about Sonic Youth in the least.

6) Liars - Drum's Not Dead
This is the first record that I've heard that I think can be legitimately tagged as neo-No Wave. It certainly wears its influences on its sleeve, but something original is contributed to the discourse nonetheless. Never before has so tuneless an album been so memorable. I never cared about this band before, but they've certainly got my attention now.

7) Aloha - Some Echoes
This is an album that got a fair bit of attention when it was released, but I get the feeling it's been largely forgotten since. I hope that's not true. This is a great album - certainly Aloha's best. It sounds the way I wish 70s rock sounded - inventive, smooth, controlled, with heart. Anecdotally an inspiring band - one of the few signed on the strength of demo, and one of the few to keep things going strong with band members living in different cities. Also anecdotally, TJ, Aloha's percussionist, mastered my band's album "You Can Know Danger" from this year. He was patient with us, did fantastic work and charged far less than I would ever guess someone of his considerable talent would. I wish this band the best.

8) Akron/Family - Meek Warrior
How can a band be this prolific and this consistently good? These guys march to the beat of their own polyrhythmic drum, and I'm happy to get to hear it. As I understand it, this album was mostly recorded after driving and not sleeping for several days after months of touring so as to make the recording session set up with famed jazz percussionist Hamid Drake, who is a prominent collaborator on the record. The album sounds like giddy, confused exhaustion. I hope these weirdos keep it up.

9) Parenthetical Girls - Safe as Houses
Man, it's gratifying when a terrific local band puts out a self-released record that gets the attention it deserves from something like Pitchfork. Constantly compared to Xiu Xiu, which is fair, but I love this record, and I don't much care for Xiu Xiu, so something more is going on clearly. Glockenspiel, toms, androgynous vocals, free song structures. Sounds something like a graphic novel, if graphic novels were music and not novels.

10) Alan Singley & Pants Machine - Lovingkindness
The guy who recorded this album refers to moments of it as a "dude party," which is probably the most accurate description I could imagine for the half of the album's songs which are boisterous, good-natured rock 'n roll. The other half is introspective, gentle singer-songwriter fare. All from the same wonderfully damaged mind. Great songs and great variety. Think Pavement, Burt Bacharach. Very in debt to the 60s, but unmistakably of the present day.

11) Sandro Perri - Plays Polmo Polpo
Polmo Polpo is the name Sandro Perri generally records under - enthralling, warm, massive, electro-acoustic ambient music. Since putting out a terrific record call "Like Hearts Swelling" a few years ago, Perri began performing his Polmo Polpo compositions live with an acoustic ensemble, and without computer or loop assistance . This record is the live documentation of that instrumentation, and it's wonderful, gentle and new. A remix record for people who don't like electricity. The best euphonium of 2006.

...More to come soon...


Thom McMahon said...

Cary: Excellent notes. I still haven't warmed up to the Joanna Newsom album, although Milk-Eyed Mender was one of my favorites of its year. Need to give the new one more time, I think. Love the Liars album, though. Just went to Aloha's website and listened to Some Echoes; I like the sound of it.

Also, I went to the Largehearted Boy site and saw that your list is now listed along with Paul's. I wonder how the guy found this place.

P. Bost said...

Great post, Cary. I'm gonna have to make my answer piecemeal b/c I still have a lot of studying to do, but I'll start w/ the J. New album. Like Thom, I loved "Milk-Eyed Mender" but "Ys" hasn't yet made a mark on me (aside from the third track). I think it will but I think it will take time. Interestingly, the album has made me reevaluate my thoughts on Van Dyke Parks. His arrangements are so distinctively his own.

TV on the Radio: I just don't totally get it. For some reason, I've tagged them as a band that is willfully difficult and I always shy away from those types. I've only heard about 3 or 4 cuts from the album, though, so I need to check it out. Also, Dave Sitek was intimately involved w/ the Celebration record, so I know that he's capable of good stuff. That concert must've been incredible. Strangely, the last concert I went to w/ such a communal vibe may very well have been a Rancid (?!?) show.

More later from me. And hopefully more from you, as well.

michelle m said...

Hi Cary,
Maybe you can help me understand why so many men love Joanna Newsom.  I'm glad you can take so much pleasure in her music, but I have to say I just don't get it.  I feel intense pain and rage when I hear her sing.  I have this theory that there must be something that makes men love her, something sexual, some secret power she has that has nothing to do with musical ability.  It seems that only guys like her.  Maybe I'm wrong.  But you did mention that you have a crush on her. 

Cary said...


As to Joanna, I fell in love with her, so to speak, through her music. Someone that full of talent and very cute to boot is tough to resist. So while I'll admit that there is a sexual element to how I relate to her as a celebrity, sexuality doesn't really figure in to how I relate to her music. I can totally understand why people would not be able to get into her voice. I was put off at first, as I said, but then was totally overwhelmed with admiration. It's tough to hear a voice that idiosyncratic and not think of it as affected - but I really believe that that's just how her voice comes out when she sings it like she means it at this point. I'm a sucker for polyrhythm, and the way that it comes throug on the harp through her kora training gets me. Her vocal melodies are wonderful and, truthfully, I have come to find her voice wonderfully expressive. It's changed range a little bit between albums - probably the combined effects of aging and singing a lot - and I guess I would say that I prefer it by a hair on the first record. But I love it in eitehr instance. Give it some time? Or maybe it's just not for you.

P. Bost said...

More from me: the little bit I've heard of Grizzly Bear piques my interest, and I need to give the Beirut another chance.

I really like the first Akron/Family record but haven't yet had the chance to hear the new one. I'm expecting to love it. In a similar vein, I got into the first Espers record this year but still haven't heard the newest one, which I'm inclined to think I'll enjoy.

I dig the Liars album but I got a bit tired of it. Thom and I saw them in early June and it was a very strange performance made stranger by the fact that some of the members' parents were watching from the Troubadour balcony. Odd.

Gotta check out the others.

I find it interesting that no list has listed "Destroyer's Rubies," yet. I bought that the day it came out and immediately took to it. Over the past 6 months, though, it's become insufferable; just this dude pretentiously babbling. I hate that it's turned out like that b/c I love most of his other stuff (although "Beast Moans" is a pretty tough listen).

Magister Ludicrous said...

Excellent post, Cary. I'm also a mad Sonic Youth Fan from way back. I'm a bit disappointed that The Obliterati by Mission of Burma didn't make your list, though. This record is as raw and enervating as anything from guys 25 years younger than the Burmas, and for my money was my best purchase this year. I have to admit to some bias, however, as they were one of my favorite bands during my college days.

P. Bost said...

The only song I heard off the new Mission of Burma was "2wice." That song's incredible.

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