Saturday, December 16, 2006

Best Albums of 2006 - Part 2 (Cary Clarke)

12) Gnarls Barkley - St. Elsewhere
My mom saw Gnarls Barkley at Coachella this past year, having no real prior knowledge of them other than the mix CD - 1 track by each band - I had put together for her trip to the festival. My mom totally lost her mind for this band. The success of "Crazy" as single was one of those rare moments when the radio powers-that-be seemed to remember that their programming was supposed to have something to do with quality and relevance. Not since "Hey Ya" have I seen a song so beloved by such a diverse audience - from me, to my mom, to students at my school, to the dude you pass on traffic singing along in his Hummer, to the hipster cyclist also singing along next to him, listening through the Hummer's open window. The whole record is terrific and hearing a DJ and hip-hop production methods paired with a vocal style other than rap is pretty revelatory.

13) Evolutionary Jass Band - Change of Scene
This Portland small jazz ensemble seems to be risen from one half of the combined original Jackie O. Motherucker lineups. Jackie O. Motherfucker was, for a few years there, the poster improv/noise/experimental collective, appearing on the cover of Wire, which is the journal of record for that scene. You wouldn't necessarily know it listening to The EJB, though. The Evolutionary Jass band was the big surprise discovery for me at this year's PDX Pop Now! festival. They play a brand of jazz I frankly thought was done - something floating between mid-era pre-totally-crazy Coltrane and early-crazy Ornette Coleman. Flirting with both big band melodies and noise-improv sonorities, but committing to neither, this 5-song album is really my favorite jazz record in recent memory.

14) Flaming Lips - At War With The Mystics
I was not a big fan of the Yoshimi record. It seemed as if The Flaming Lips had lost their passion for new ideas and terrific hooks and had gotten in a bit of a stylistic rut. This combined with the fact that I'd seen them play more or less the same stage show 4 or 5 times made this band seem very stale for a couple years. How exciting to see them rescue themselves from the brink! I feel like this record doesn't really get the credit it deserves, and I fear that the Lips may always be living in the shadow of The Soft Bulletin as far as fans are concerned. But this record opens up some new sonic territory for them, while recovering the memorable melodies that really make this band great underneath the LSD and Fridman. Good for them!

15) Peter, Bjorn & John - Writer's Block
I somehow missed the couple of days when this Scandinavian album's effective internet single "Young Folks" appeared on every blog. I just heard that song last week when beginning to consider my favorites of the year. I could not get it out of my head and went on a fruitless quest to buy the whole album at several local record stores before I discovered that it did not yet have American distribution. Shame on the US! There's just no good reason for this. So, I resorted to other means to obtain the album. And boy am I glad I did. Sure, this record is a throwback - there's some definite 60s worship going on, and, specifically, a pretty good John Lennon impression throughout on the vocal end of things. That said, how good are these songs?! This is the record I heard this year that my dad we be most likely to like as much as I do. Totally infectious melodies, great percussion work and a production aesthetic that harkens to bygone standard in a smile-inducting, non-ironic way. Who knows where I would rank this album were I to have lived with it for as long as my other entries, but for now this seems about right. Pick it up when it inevitably gets release here next year.

16) Talkdemonic - Beat Romantic
I have an emotional investment in this band, I'll admit. This band's rise from local obscurity to Pitchfork tracks more or less closely with the progress of PDX Pop Now! But they're undeniably a great band. An instrumental duo, consisting mainly of Kevin O'Connor's drums and Lisa Molinaro's violin, with same sequences, beats and synths thrown in tastefully as well. I liked this band when I first heard them on record, but I didn't really get it until I saw them live. The trick is to understand that the drums are not simply a backbeat to provide context for the strings and synths, but, rather, the drum kit is the FOREground. They are, so to speak, the frontman that everything else highlights. Without this knowledge, I might be tempted to think that this album was a placid, electronic affair. With it, I realize that this record, while beautiful, tuneful and radiating a sense of inner calm, is essentially a showcase for fantastic, live, loud drumming. Lisa Molinaro recently became the new violinist for The Decemberists, which caused Talkdemonic to cancel their tour. I truly hope that her commitment to Talkdemonic is not diminished, for as much as I talk up Kevin's rhythmic contributions, Lisa makes the band, too. Which brings me too...

17) The Decemberists - The Crane Wife
I have a hard time thinking of another band that has released both a record that I like as much as "Castaways and Cutouts" as well as one I hate as much as "Picaresque." Really. I never want to hear that latter one again. I can't stand the production (incidentally, can anyone tell my what happened to Chris Walla's production skills around the time of "Travistan"?) and despite repeated attempts to take something from that album, when I try to conjure up a melody in my head, I get nothing. I thought I was simply done with The Decemberists. But lo and behold - The Crane Wife is great and ambitious! "The Crane Wife 1 & 2" is a sprawling, captivating success, and "Sons and Daughters" is the catchiest the band has been since its early days. I don't love the 70s-style prog experimentalism, but I do like it, and I'm pretty darn happy listening to this whole record from start to finish. This is the album that my girlfriend and I most agree on from the year, completing the family-approved trio including Gnarls Barkely/My Mom and (I'd guess) Peter, Bjorn & John/My Dad. Plus it will always remind me of the week we spent together in Yosemite this fall. The Decemberists made a great record when it counted - on a new big label, with the potential to wrangle a bunch of new fans. Keep going! Of course, the Russian-major in me will never stop being irritated by the incorrect extra "e" in their name, between the "b" and "r." Really, a band with literary pretensions has certain obligations.

18) Thom Yorke - The Eraser
The mere fact that Thom Yorke could release a solo album, frustrating Radiohead fans' expectations for an album from the full band in 06, and have it not be despised is pretty remarkable. That the record was often beloved by said fans, as well as by those who never really totally dug Radiohead is nigh on miraculous. And for good reason - wide-open, memorable songs, and different enough from Radiohead to warrant the separate moniker.

19) Alela Diane - The Pirate's Gospel
This was another PDX Pop Now! discovery for me. Ms. Alela Diane had just recently moved to Portland from Nevada City, a Central-Northern California city that was home to only one other musician that I knew of - Joanna Newsom. And there's certainly a relationship - musical and personal - between the two. Diane is not the compositional genius that Newsom is, but she has an amazing, powerful, captivating voice and nice chordal sense on guitar. Upon first listen to this record - at the recommendation of my PDX Pop colleague who is himself from Nevada City - I thought "Eh. I don't really go in much for female singer-songwriter-guitarists." And that's true. But Alela Diane breaks the rule. The album isn't an ideal reflection of the talent that she radiates live, but for a first shot, it'll more than suffice.

20) M Ward - Post War
Truthfully, I don't love this record. I'm all for trying new approaches, and I like louder, bigger, rockiner ensembles as much as the next guy, but I miss the intimacy and quiet grandeur of Ward's last couple efforts. But I'm so nuts for a handful of this album's songs that they carry the slack for the forgettable numbers. "To Go Home" is just awesome. I'd heard Daneil Johnston before, but never really got him until I heard this cover. "Chinese Translation" is another classic. The dude can play guitar, and the dude can sing. Sadly, Matt moved away from Portland this year to New Hampshire to follow his girlfriend to grad school or something. Bummer. His rendition of "Paul's Song" - which is, as I understand it, a paean to Portland - at his show here was predictably moving. We'll miss you!

21) Final Fantasy - He Poos Clouds
Wow, is this record weird. Not as catchy and, well, likeable, as Owen Pallett's last outing as Final Fantasy, but probably more interesting. Can anyone tell me what kind of emotional space this album occupies? I can't figure it out. Hearing a born string-player with actual compositional training really throws into harsh light how stupid and trite most string arrangements in pop music are. Whether this is itself pop music, I'm not totally certain. I keep listening and keep hoping I'll figure it out, which means that the obtuseness of the album isn't off-putting, as it might be, but mystifying. Something about listening to this album reminds me of reading those Graham Baese puzzle books, like Eleventh Hour, when I was a kid. But with more gay sex.

22) Horse Feathers - Words Are Dead
Am I a hometown hack or what? Horse Feathers is another Portland band that came out of nowhere this year and, yes, played PDX Pop Now! Horse Feathers is a two-dude folksy duo - fragile male vocals, acoustic guitar, and a bevy of Americana-tinged acoustic instruments played by a 19-year old prodigy. This exists on the border between Iron & Wine and Tracy Chapman, but better than either of those referents. Actually, this album was just positively reviewed in Pitchfork today, so check it out here - I mostly agree with what this reviewer makes of things. Interestingly, this album was recorded at the same studio - Miracle Lake - by the same engineer - Skyler Norwood -as my band's ( At Dusk) last album. Additionally, Skyler recorded two other albums I've included on this list (Alan Singley & Pants Machine, Talkdemonic), so I guess that makes him my pick for producer of the year. Right on.

23) The Futureheads - News & Tributes
I think this is a transition record for The Futureheads. They began to find their own voice and to lose the overwhelming specter of post-punk that haunted their debut, and this album has some great tunes. However, the gains they made for originality and sonic variety weren't quite enough to make up for what they lost in backing away from the the single-mided frenzy of their last album. A good record - not as good as their last, and not as great as the one I feel that they'll give us all sometime soon.

24) Strength - Going Strong
Portland is full of twenty-something, skinny, hiply ironic lovers of dance music. This got in the way of my appreciating Strength for a few years. But after seeing them in a few new contexts this year - including as a wedding band - and hearing this record, which had been in production under the guidance of my friend, Chris Anderson, for what must have been a couple of years, I finally was ready to accept this band for what they are - SINCERE twenty-something, skinny lovers of dance music. This is disco music with the sound of a Quincy Jones album. It's unbelievably slick in a great way. You will groove to this, I promise. I remember Beck, when talking about what he found appealing in R Kelly and slojamz, generally, said something about how clearly sincere it was - you never doubted for a moment that Kelly DID like the crotch on you. As soon as I was willing to hear this album's lyrics about driving around together in trucks and bloody noses, I got it. I forgot about this when I typed up my best of Portland list; it should have been on there.

25) Juana Molina - "Son"
Juana Molina has made 4 albums, 3 of which I've heard. They're all terrific and bare no resemblance to other music that I've heard - except, to each other. "Son", in spite of its break from Molina's previous ordinal album-naming strategy, is pretty interchangeable with her other records. It's great, relaxing, convention-defying, deeply personal music - but I'm ready for Molina to try something strikingly different the way she did when she walked away from her career as Argentina's reigning comedic television actress to start recording beguiling electro-acoustic albums some years ago. Molina played what has to have been the best sound-check I've ever heard. She gave directions to the sound-guy in song, creating a melody with tech-talk, as she began playing her first number. I never realized what a fluent musician she was and how reproducible the best qualities of her music are in a live setting.

26) The Plastic Constellations - Crusades
We got to meet this tighter-than-tight Minneapolis quartet of lifelong buddies here in Portland this past spring and play a show with them. Man are they a fantastic live act. In hanging out with them post-show, I mustered the courage to ask them how they felt about 311, as their music suggested to me - and continues to suggest - that I might have found in them fellow connosieurs of the deeply unhip, but excellent, irrefutably original band. Alas, they were not fans. But 311 crossed with a late-90s Dischord band is still the best comparison I can come up with for these guys. "Crusades" is absent the playfulness of their last album "Mazatlan" but tries to compensate with relentless forward-moving intensity. This plan works pretty well.

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order by band):
Pretty Girls Make Graves - Elan Vital
Six Organs of Admittance - The Sun Awakens
Swan Lake - Beast Moans
Caetano Veloso - Ce

Biggest Disappointments:

Red Hot Chilli Peppers - Stadium Arcadium
The Strokes - First Impressions of Earth
Kaki King - Until We Were Red
Matmos - The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast
Outkast - Idlewild
Yo La Tengo - I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass
The Walkmen - A Hundred Miles Off


Best-Of Friends said...

Just a note on The Decemberists. You aren't the first person I've seen criticize the "incorrect" spelling their name, but I've read many times that the name was chosen as a combination of the Russian revolt and the actual month of December. If I was less lazy, I'd get you some sort of reference link. But at any rate, that extra "E" is not a mistake.

Cary said...

To be fair, you're right. The story, as I recall, is that their first show was to be billed as "The December Brides" which they decided they didn't like and Decemberists was then put forth. Nonetheless, it irks me. Incidentally, they played a secret show here at a small club a few months back under that original December Brides name.

Mr. T. McMahon said...

Like the band Korn -- I've read that their name is a combination of the North American cereal plant corn and, um, the letter "K." That is brilliant.

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