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...