Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Best Albums of 2006

Several things became clear as I re-listened to and ranked my favorite albums of the year.

1) Despite paying pretty close attention to all the right filters, I've only heard a fraction of the albums I might have a reasonable chance of loving, let alone all that have been released. A look at PopMatters' year-end folk and singer-songwriter lists was sobering.

I have a garish yellow bag from a certain retail casualty full of new-to-me 2006 albums that looked pretty good for two-odd dollars. Then again, after an hour of sifting through the likes of overstock Peter Gammons CDs, ones's faculties aren't what they used to be.

2) There are an awful lot of competing urges in play when making your year-end list. You might want to be distinctive, make a statement, champion someone no one else is touting. You might want to balance it out. Despite my best efforts at simply listing my favorite records, these factors undoubtedly creeped into things.

3) Despite the title, this site is basically "music I like". Most of which could be classified as indie-folk; but who knows what that means? No attempt was made to restrict this list to fit the blog. It's just that Silent Shout ranked somewhere between the Root Canal EP and This Album Gives You Scabies. Anyway, here goes.

10) Fionn Regan - The End of History (Bella Union) (buy it)

For all the austere pickers named heir to Nick Drake's legacy, Regan might be the best. Not to say the label is at all accurate, but unlike many he brings plenty of originality, feeling and depth to the songs on his US-import-only debut, along with the requisite arpeggios. If he doesn't blow up I'll be flabber-founded.

Stream several songs: At his MySpace

9) Centro-Matic - Fort Recovery (Misra) (buy it)

Totally inscrutable, dirty, swirling tunes that all sound like they're recorded live (I have no idea if they are or not). It's the best example I've heard this year of a strong songwriting voice (Will Johnson) elevating his tunes within a rock-band context to something much more than they could ever be as solo songs.

MP3: Centro-Matic - Triggers and Trash Heaps

8) Boat - Songs That You Might Not Like (Magic Marker) (buy it)

Youthful exuberance minus all the really bad parts. Glammy bedroom pop that's just goofy, loose and balls-out enough without overdoing anything. There's just enough sadness, doubt, restraint and flat-out great songcraft to pull it all together. Great music for the ages, for all ages.

MP3: Boat - Last Cans of Paint

7) Various Arists - So Much Fire To Roast Human Flesh (Bastet) (buy it)

Josephine Foster curated this anti-war album, proceeds of which go to counter-recruitment and pacifict organizations. As far as I can tell, most songs are exclusive to this release and are just short of brilliant.

This comp makes the list for being aesthetically cohesive as much as topically thematic, and as good an introduction into the neu folk scene (plus godfather Michael Hurley) as any. And while directness has its virtues when it comes to protest songs (see: Young, Neil, 2006), Rachel Mason's batshit-unhinged protaganist in "The War Clerk's Lament" and John Allingham and Ann Tiley's soldier in the low-key sob story "Big War" work on a whole different level. This is packed to the breaking point with distinctive voices singing haunting, passionate tunes (Foster, Dave Pajo, Kath Bloom, Diane Cluck). Subtler Neil also surfaces on a knockout cover of "Powderfinger" courtesy MV&EE. In short, at $12 (ppd!), you have no excuse.

Stream the whole album

6) Jeffrey & Jack Lewis - City and Eastern Songs (Rough Trade) (buy it)

"I took my darling out to the aquarium/sea creatures stared at us and we stared back at them/my baby freaked when she peeked at that eight legged blob with a beak/she was too scared to speak/I said, "don't be upset, it's only an octopus/don't bother it and I'm sure it won't bother us/ please don't be upset my darling, please don't get upset" (from "Don't Be Upset").

No one else writes songs like Jeffrey Lewis, delivered with such neurotic, twisty, funny, true matter-of-factness. You'll be squirming and nodding along, and even singing sometimes ("Something Good"). A champion of the everyday that music almost never covers, let alone in a way that makes you want to listen. Folk hero.

Stream several songs: At his MySpace

5) Liz Isenberg - Seeports Seaports Seeports (Leisure Class) (buy it)

A totally immersive and intimate album of miniature epics from Liz Isenberg, full of great melodies, incredible texture, and an elastic, inscrutable voice that makes every line into an aside you maybe shouldn't hear. Fans of Lou Barlow's Sentridoh, Mirah, Julie Doiron and early Cat Power are all missing out if they haven't got their hands on this. Comes in a gorgeous hand-sewn cardsleeve, which I should have a picture of when I give this album a fuller treatment in a few weeks. The track below is one of my favorites; more songs are availble for download at her website.

MP3: Liz Isenberg - Two Weeks Til the Midwest

4) Micah P. Hinson - And The Opera Circuit (Jade Tree) (buy it)

Eric Bachmann did the strings on this epic, glorius celebration of woe. Hinson's got the goods: great, unique voice perfectly suited to the winking, joyous darkness contained herein. The almost-cheery "Jackeyed" and deliriously over-the-top closer "Don't Leave Me Now" make you believe because he sort of doesn't.

MP3: Micah P. Hinson - Jackeyed

3) The Places - Songs for Creeps (High Plains Sigh) (buy it)

Might as well refer back to my take on this album from a few months back, from the on-hiatus Pick of the Month feature. I don't know why it's on hiatus. But I know you should hear Amy Annelle's small masterpiece of skewed-folk dislocation.

MP3: The Places - Miners Lie!

2) M. Ward - Post-War (Merge) (buy it)

This is something of an all-purpose record- it'd work for lonesome bedsits and summer car rides, background music or headphone session. M. Ward's got a voice that's highly distincitve but always pulls short of affectation, and here turns in romps (Johnston's "To Go Home", "Magic Trick") and lazy ballads ("Rollercoaster") that reveal themselves slowly. First you're happy enough letting the great tunes roll over you, and the depth of his songwriting is there waiting if you need it. M. Ward's your friend. His best yet by a good measure.

Stream the whole album

1) Jennifer O'Connor - Over the Mountain, Across the Valley and Back to the Stars (Matador) (buy it)

A real rarity: an album that deals honestly and engagingly about loss and the process of healing, but is never once maudlin or self-pitying. Even better, O'Connor keeps the music stripped down to the basics, showcasing the great melodies, smartly direct lyrics and her strong, conversational voice. Britt Daniel, who knows a thing or three about great skeletal songs, lends some background vocals to an album way, way more people should hear.

MP3: Jennifer O'Connor - Exeter, Rhode Island


Anonymous said...

Hey, thanks for this list. You've turned me on to lots of new stuff.

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