I wish it didn’t feel so outdated to type “album.” I’m feeling nostalgic at the moment because I just got back from a going-out-of-business sale at Tower Records. For my non-USA readers, Tower is a massive music retail store along the lines of Virgin or HMV. A few weeks ago, Tower went bankrupt and the whole chain of stores across America is closing down. It was sad to look at all of those lonely CDs on the shelves that won’t find a good home. And with CD sales dropping dramatically, and downloads gaining in popularity, the album as we know it seems to be a format awaiting “relic” status.
This musical malaise might be a reason why it seems that while a fair amount of great singles were released in 2006, there were few solid albums. More than ever, in 2006 you were lucky if you got 3 great tracks on a CD, much less five. In previous years I had to winnow down my album picks to a mere ten. This year it was difficult to even come up with ten. But I kept at the task, and here are the results.
1. BELLE & SEBASTIAN – The Life Pursuit (Rough Trade/Matador)
Recorded in Los Angeles with Beck producer Tony Hoffer, The Life Pursuit finds Belle & Sebastian aging gracefully, and releasing their most stylistically diverse collection to date. Listening to this album in its entirety presents one sugar rush after another as we are treated to Beach Boys harmonies (“Act of the Apostle”), junkshop glam shuffles (“The White Collar Boy”), Bolan choogaloos (“The Blues Are Still Blue”), tasty country licks set to indie disco (“Sukie in the Graveyard”), faux Motown in a Weller style (“Funny Little Frog”), and oodles more. The CD booklet also merits lecherous praise as it’s loaded with color images of fetching Scottish lasses in kilts shot by band leader Stuart Murdoch.
2. DUELS – The Bright Lights and What I Should Have Learned (Nude UK)
Duels is the great white hope of Nude Records, the resurrected British label that in the ‘90s brought us Suede, Geneva, and the final Billy Mackenzie album. Always arbiters of stately pop, Nude once again delivers the goods. Comprised of two dapper brothers from Leeds, Jon and Jim Foulger, alongside a cousin on keyboards and a rhythm section from Bradford, Duels make sleek majestic pop that sounds like a perfect splicing of Suede and Blur at the height of Britpop.
Brother Jim wields his guitar with all the swagger and verve of a young Bernard Butler, while brother Jon brings to mind Brett Anderson on the epics “The Slow Build” and “Once In the Night.” The single “Animal” recalls Blur’s hysterics, and “Potential Futures” is full-throttle Britpop. But Duels is hardly a carbon copy of what has come before. With a rich production palette that includes strings and an array of keyboards, each track sounds like the work of Duels, and the album delivers a strong opening statement.
3. THE KILLERS – Sam’s Town (Island)
Yes, this album is calculated. “When You Were Young” is over the top in its attempt to bottle the stadium pomp of Bruce Springsteen, and the sleeve photography by Anton Corbijn is a shameless attempt at putting the Killers in the same rarefied stratosphere as U2 and Depeche Mode. But I find myself casting aside such quibbles because when it comes to peerless radio pop, this Las Vegas quartet are kingmakers. I like everything on this album but my personal favorite is “Uncle Jonny,” the story of singer Brandon Flowers’ real-life cocaine casualty uncle which is set to a tense monster groove. The Killers’ also score points for reining in this album to clock in at a lean 35 minutes.
4. THE KNIFE – Silent Shout (Rabid/Mute)
In the tradition of Altern 8, the Residents, and the Mummies, the Swedish brother and sister who comprise the Knife are only photographed wearing masks. After gaining a cult following last year with Deep Cuts, the duo managed to sell out two large club dates in NYC this fall on the strength of the darkly futuristic Silent Shout. Nearly every song is built around heavily processed vocals punctuated by washes of ricocheting electronics and synthetic claps. Most of the tracks are constructed with the dancefloor in mind, but it’s a dancefloor squarely set in the future. I can easily imagine Daft Punk’s robots getting jiggy to this stuff, or even the Cylons from “Battlestar Galactica” cutting a rug. While the Knife sounds more like the future than anybody else today, they still want you to touch their monkey.
5. MUDHONEY – Under a Billion Suns (Sub Pop)
Mudhoney is the odd band in this year’s Top Ten because they are the only hard rock act to make the cut. It‘s down to the fact that just about every punk and hard rock album I heard this year was too derivative to take seriously. Under a Billion Suns also has the distinction of being the most blatantly political entry on my list. This band is pissed off about America’s current direction, and they state their frustration in a variety of strong and artful songs.
Any male of a certain age can relate to “Where Is the Future?” the album’s opening salvo that expresses disappointment in the fact that instead of the late ‘60s promise of space exploration, humanity is still bogged down by ego and war. The war in Iraq is more directly addressed in “Hard-on For War,” “Empty Shells,” and (I Saw the Enemy and) “It Is Us.” “I Saw the Light” is perhaps the album’s high point, a lean bluesy growl with an undeniable chorus. Several cuts benefit from jazzy horn arrangements that are evocative of the MC5. Kids in flannel were still stage diving when the band made a recent stop at the Knitting Factory in NYC, but Under a Billion Suns clearly illustrates that Mudhoney isn’t simply mining the same old grunge vein of yore.
6. THE OPEN – Statues (Loog/Polydor)
A lack of ideas wasn’t just relegated to punk and hard rock releases this year. The affliction also hit indie rock. I could name well over a hundred acts that released less-than-inspired retreads of the post-punk blueprint. So it’s important to single out for adulation young bands like the Open who take chances and swim against the tide. For their second album, Liverpool songwriter Steven Bayley looked to the sophisticated pop of late-era Talk Talk and jazz instrumentation for inspiration. The gamble yields rich dividends on “Forever,” a full six minutes of slow-burning atmosphere — underscored by trumpet and piano — that by song’s ends reaches a dizzy stratosphere pop rarely attains.
Bayley nearly matches the achievement with “Moment In Time,” another moody journey that deserves to be heard by Coldplay’s legion of fans. All ten tracks are wrapped in a sleeve designed by Vaughan Oliver of v23, the legendary design group responsible for giving 4AD its singular style. Sadly, all the style and innovation apparently wasn’t enough to shift units for the Open, and by year’s end the group had announced its split.
7. PETER BJORN AND JOHN – Writer’s Block (V2 Europe)
I fondly recall the day earlier this year when I was surfing myspace and chanced upon a photograph of three happy dogs in a line. They were identified as “Peter Bjorn And John.” I clicked on the photo and was taken to a page where I discovered that Peter Bjorn And John was actually a pop trio from Sweden. Upon arriving at their page, “Young Folks” kicked in and I knew I had stumbled upon something special. I tracked down the accompanying album (their third, it appears) and it’s been Peter Bjorn John And Randy ever since.
The aforementioned “Young Folks” is the crown jewel, a spry light-on-its-feet dance track that features the best use of whistling in a pop song since Bryan Ferry’s cover of “Jealous Guy.” “Amsterdam” is almost as good and once again features whistling. And bongos. And a shaker. In fact, sweet instrumentation abounds on the album -– Spanish guitar, wood blocks, tambourine, harmonica, dulcimer. Writer’s Block provides ear therapy –- it’s pure joy for your aural canals. Buy this immediately if you are a fan of the Go-Betweens, C86, Nada Surf, or Flying Nun Records (is it just a coincidence that they have a song called “The Chills”?).
8. SCRITTI POLITTI – White Bread Black Beer (Rough Trade/Nonesuch)
Coaxed out of retirement by his label, Green Gartside takes a break from the postmodern rap of 1999’s Anomie & Bonhomie and instead goes back to basics. This effort most closely resembles his 1982 debut, Songs To Remember, in that the music is warm, acoustic-based, and stylistically diverse. Upon hearing the space age burble of the first single, “The Boom Boom Bap,” I was stuck like a fly in amber, having to play it five times in quick succession. “Dr. Abernathy” is another marvel as it morphs from sweet lullaby to Beatlesque pop and eventually careens into stomping glam territory. “The Road To No Regret” is one of Green’s most beautiful songs to date, a folky country shuffle that throws fairy dust in your tear ducts.
Throughout, Green’s voice remains as magical as ever, smooth and golden as honey, but funky. At 51 minutes, the album overstays its welcome a bit, but regardless it’s wonderful to have Green back.
9. SOUND TEAM – Movie Monster (Capitol)
The debut album by Austin’s Sound Team reminds me of Neu!, La Dusseldorf, the Strokes, Spoon, Supertramp, Jon Brion and the Greys, New Pornographers, OMD, Talking Heads, the Rapture, and Brian Eno. Irresistible melodies meet motorik rhythms. Me likey.
10. YEAH YEAH YEAHS – Show Your Bones (Interscope)
Gold Lion told me where the light is.
Wish I could have heard the Jarvis Cocker CD before finalizing my Top 10 but, alas, it hasn’t been released in the States yet and I couldn’t get my paws on a copy.
HEY WILLPOWER – “Hey Willpower” (Cochon Records)
CASIOTONE FOR THE PAINFULLY ALONE – “Young Shields” (Tomlab)
BEST DANCE ALBUM:
BLACK DEVIL DISCO CLUB – 28 After (Lo Recordings)
BEST NYC ALBUM:
KUDU – Death of the Party (Nublu)
BEST BOX SETS:
THE CLASH – The Singles (Epic/Legacy)
PRETENDERS – Pirate Radio (Rhino)
VARIOUS – Rockin’ Bones (Rhino)
VARIOUS – Zero: A Martin Hannett Story 1977-1991 (Big Beat)
VARIOUS – The Trip: Curated by Jarvis Cocker & Steve Mackey (Family Recordings)
VARIOUS – Queer Noises 1961-1978: From the Closet to the Charts (Trikont)
TRIFFIDS – Born Sandy Devotional (Domino)
DICKS – Live!: Hungry Butt (HotBox Review)
DEAD MOON – Echoes of the Past (Sub Pop)
MUTANTS – Fun Terminal (White Noise)
THE LUCY SHOW – Mania (Words on Music)
LOU REED – Coney Island Baby (RCA/Legacy)
HEAVEN 17 – first 3 albums (EMI UK)
ULTRAVOX! – first 3 albums (Island UK)
ROY ORBISON – Lonely & Blue; Crying; Only the Lonely (Monument/Legacy)
SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES – first 4 albums (Universal UK)
DANA GILLESPIE – Foolish Seasons (Rev-Ola)
MERLE HAGGARD – twofers (Capitol)
JOHNNY CASH – Personal File (Columbia/Legacy)
HELLO – The Glam Singles (Cherry Red)
MOST DISAPPOINTING CD:
PEACHES – Impeach My Bush (XL/Beggars Banquet)
WORST TREND: Tiny impossible-to-read type in CD booklets.
BEST MUSIC DVD:
THE TUBE: BEST OF SEASON ONE (Network UK)
BAD BRAINS – Live at CBGB: 1982 (MVD)
ROY ORBISON – In Dreams (Orbison Records/Legacy)
MOST SORELY MISSED: CBGB, Grant McLennan (Go-Betweens), Syd Barrett, Arthur Lee, Sandy West (Runaways), Tony Ogden (World of Twist).
March 2: BELLE AND SEBASTIAN with NEW PORNOGRAPHERS at Nokia Theatre
March 15: RAKES, EIGHTIES MATCHBOX B-LINE DISASTER, TOWERS OF LONDON, THE OTHERS at SXSW
April 22: SCISSOR SISTERS at Bowery Ballroom
July 27: DICKS at Southpaw
Sept. 22: REDD KROSS at Irving Plaza
Oct. 14: PET SHOP BOYS at Radio City Music Hall
Oct. 15: PATTI SMITH GROUP at CBGB
Oct. 22: TAV FALCO’S PANTHER BURNS at Joe’s Pub
Nov. 10: SCRITTI POLITTI at Bowery Ballroom
Thanks for reading and Happy Holidays to you all!