2006 Top 20 list….

January 5, 2007 at 8:53 am (Uncategorized)

I s’pose it’s that time again, huh?

To preface my list, which is gonna be 20-records long again, (and about which I’m going to blather on and on about way too much for anyone’s conceivable interest) I should mention that I turned 40 this year. No biggie or nothin’, but going over the hill absolutely colored in one way or another the choices for my favorite discs of 2006.

I should also mention, as always, that there are a lot of great, utterly fantastic records that won’t make my list this year. No patch on those records or the artists who recorded them, but this is my list, of stuff that I liked the most and thought was the best. If you want more indie, less indie, or somewhere inbetween, find another list…and stay off my lawn!

(All song samples are full length, unless otherwise noted!)

20. The Exploding Hearts, SHATTERED
You cannot read a single article about the Hearts from after July, 2003 in which their tragic, horrific demise isn’t discussed, and as such a record that collects their early singles, studio outtakes from their one proper album (2003’s GUITAR ROMANTIC), and alternate versions would almost seem to promise either ghoulish thrills or cheap, overwrought nostalgia.

That it manages instead to affirm the incandescent brilliance of this band of beyond-their-years 20-year-olds from Portland–and that it manages to do so while making it easy to forget the tragic circumstances that surround it’s release–is a testament to what a special, magical group these fellows really were. Kicking off with the vaguely Clashlike ska of the title track, and then continuing through the early releases like “So Bored”, the anthemic “(Making) Teenage Faces”, and the silly, sublime “Sniffin’ Glue”, the Hearts simply deliver one manic pop thrill after another. It is as though Damien O’Neill, Feargal Sharkey, and Joe Strummer got together in 1978 and recorded a full album and sent it to these boys in the Northwest to release 25 years later.

Only the latter section of the album, consisting of alternate versions of songs that ended up on GUITAR ROMANTIC falls a little flat; the versions on the 2003 album are much better. (And if you still don’t own a copy of that and profess to like rock and roll at all, believe me when I say that you are missing one of the most essential records of the last 5 years from your collection. Rectify that.) Still, this is a nifty collection of stuff that collector scum were making way too much money from on Ebay…and this is it. This is everything there is “in the vaults”, and somehow I sorta wish these guys had been given the opportunity to fade away, rather than burn out.

“Shattered (You Left Me)”
“(Making) Teenage Faces”
“We Don’t Have To Worry Anymore” (Clip)

19. The Bellrays, HAVE A LITTLE FAITH
I tell you what: I’ll keep blathering on and on about how dope The Bellrays are, and eventually you gotta promise me you’ll buy one of their discs or go see ’em live or something…because that’s all it takes to convert to this church. The hook here is way too obvious, but it’ll do: “imagine Tina Turner fronting The Stooges”. Lead singer Lisa Kekaula is a soul shouter with the Aretha Franklin vocal chops to take up against any wannabe new-soul princess you wanna bring to the fight.

The cool thing about the new Bellrays disc is that they’re starting to get that as a band they’re ten times better when they’re playing soulful takes on hard rock rather than the other way ’round. While it’s cool to hear guitarist Tony Fate rip out blazing hard rock riffs, it’s even cooler to hear him harness that to a killer groove and a solid funk/soul skeleton. Thus, tunes like “Tell The Lie” and “Everyday I Think Of You” have an amazing yin-yang of garage rock loudness and Memphis soul stew working for the band in ways they never have before. And then there’s “Third Time’s The Charm”, with it’s chugging horns that re-casts the band as Tina Turner backed up by a hard-rocking MG’s and the Mar-Keys. The Bell Rays have the chops, the look, and the live show to make them superstars. They just need a parcel of good songs and they’ll arrive. “Tell The Lie” and “Third Time” are absolutely a step in the right direction.

“Tell The Lie”
“Third Time’s The Charm” (sorta lower fi)
“Tell The Lie”, live on the Craig Ferguson show.

18. The Raconteurs, BROKEN BOY SOLDIERS
Making my year-end list history by being the first record I’ve ever mentioned in a “most anticipated” thread the year before to actually end up in my year-end list the following year. It’s unclear to me whether Jack White needed Brendan Benson more than Benson needed White, but I think it’s the former rather than the latter. Although the last two White Stripes discs were interesting, they were interesting failures. Teamed with a song craftsman and studio wonk like Benson, White rises to the occasion with some inspired playing and singing that allow him to indulge his art-rock tendencies without totally selling out his White Stripes image. Benson, meanwhile, given a chance to break loose from the sometimes-too-considered meticulousness of his work, gets to rock out a little more than usual. The results are hit-and-miss, but when they hit, (“Steady As She Goes”, “Intimate Secretary”, “Together” and “Yellow Sun”) they make music that exceeds the sum of what either prodigiously talented performer brings to the table individually.

“Steady As She Goes”

17. Yo La Tengo, I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass. I will happily confess that I was about as hyped for this Yo La Tengo disc as I’d be for a root canal. There was a time once where I loved Yo La Tengo and everything they stood for. A song like “Autumn Sweater” or an entire album like FAKEBOOK or ELECTROPURA made my heart glad with a kind of joy that few bands before or since could match. Somewhere around 1998, I separated from these folks though. They wanted to do explore experimental, artier sonic landscapes…and I wanted them to write good songs and play and sing them with heart.

So imagine my surprise when I put this hilarious-titled disc on for the first time and “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” came roaring out of the speakers. Ten-plus minutes of roaring, noisy, raucous rock and roll to start an album off? Holy crap! It’s like “From A Motel 6” all over again! That the band followed that up with the sublimely catchy and charming “Beanbag Chair” and then Georgia’s lovely “I Feel Like Going Home” which gave way to the awesome fake-soul of “Mr. Tough”….yeah, suddenly this felt like the disc I’d been waiting nearly 8 years for these folks to get around to making.

Picking a favorite song here is tough, but I think my favorites are “Going Home” and “Black Flowers”, both of which capture the heart and songwriting prowess Yo La possess when they have a mind to do something with them. I probably docked this disc about 5 places because I’m not sure whether my love for it is colored by how disappointed I’ve been in the last 3 or 4 YLT discs.

“Feel Like Going Home”
“Black Flowers”
“Beanbag Chair”

16. Califone, ROOTS & CROWNS
Is there a more sonically interesting and aurally pleasing band out there than Califone? Taking disparate elements like folk, blues, and Appalachian stomp and wedding it all to loopy electronica, squiggling percussion, squalling feedback, and then bringing main man Tim Rutilli’s smokey, earnest, down-home vocals to top it all off is an amazing combination, one which Califone routinely exploits to great results.

The best jumping-off point for beginners new to the strange and beautiful world of Califone to hook in is to think of the oddest, most-jarring of Wilco songs, and then imagine them arranged just a little better than that and sung by a guy who’s voice sounds like good bourbon tastes. Such imagination leads you to the skronking rock of “A Chinese Actor”, or the nearly danceable “Pink And Sour” or the gorgeous “The Orchids”. Califone are a national treasure, making a kind of American Folk Music that no one’s ever made before.

“The Orchids”
“A Chinese Actor”
“Pink And Sour”

15. Jarvis Cocker, JARVIS
Let’s get one thing out of the way on this right from the start. Jarvis Cocker’s first proper solo album isn’t as good as any of his best work fronting Pulp. I should also mention that Mount McKinley isn’t as tall as Everest either…but it’s still pretty freaking tall.

In other words, JARVIS is just a dandy record on it’s own merits, even if it doesn’t quite hit the heights that Pulp hit on DIFFERENT CLASS and WE LOVE LIFE. Every review is going to point this out, sadly, but it doesn’t mean that Mr. Cocker has lost his sense of bravado, daring, or lyrical insightfulness…or his way with a stunning melody. Take “Black Magic”, for instance. Here’s a song that opens up by hitting you over the head with just how blatantly it rips off “Crimson And Clover”, and you’re thinking that Jarvo has gone off into a Noel Gallagheresque land of unwittingly nicking others…and then the goofy “ah ah ah ah ah ah” backing vocals come in on the chorus, and you realize that Jarvis meant to rip the song off, and he’s as in on the joke as the listener is. “A to I”, “Heavy Weather”, “I Will Kill Again”, and the wonderful “Fat Children” prove that if Jarvo is not quite up to his best work, he’s damn close and narrowing that gap. The hilarious “hidden” track at the end of the record, “Cunts Are Still Running The World” (sample line “You say that cream rises to the top/Well I say shit floats”) marries a gorgeous melody and an over the top delivery to the first overtly political statement I can really remember Jarvo making…I mean yeah, he’s always been a class warrior, but this…and it works!

“Cunts Are Still Running The World”
“Black Magic”

14. Ugly Duckling, BANG FOR THE BUCK
Ugly Duckling are not brilliant musicians able to wed a groove to social statment like The Roots. They do not have the “Hey! We’re coke dealers!” danger chic of Clipse. UD are three very, very dorky dudes from Long Beach who get slotted in with folks like Pharcyde, Jurassic 5, and others, hip-hop artists who pay homage to the “old school”. Unlike many of their peers, UD’s angle seems unable to acknowledge that the last 15 years actually happened, so BANG FOR THE BUCK comes off as one of the few records in recent memory that can sit alongside THREE FEET HIGH AND RISING and the first Digital Underground record and not sound fraudulent.

Duckling has never been about huge depth. Their previous album was a concept record about working fast food jobs. BANG FOR THE BUCK doesn’t have a unifying concept, just song after song of the boys giving up the history of…well, themselves, along with some hilarious battle raps. What makes it all work is the sense of humor and fun present throughout…and also DJ Young Einstein’s incredible work on the turntables, which is utterly unassailable. UD have taken a lot of shit in the hip hop community for staying outside the topical and keeping the lyrical concerns lighter, but this time around, they get a seal of approval from critical darlings People Under The Stairs on “Shoot Your Shot”, and then go straight from that to the most socially-aware song they’ve ever tried, “The End Of Time” (which just so happens to be the best song on the disc.)

Ugly Duckling’s Myspace page, where I recommend you check out “The End Of Time”, “Andy vs. Dizzy”, and “Shoot Your Shot”.

The Minders put out a great debut album back in 1998, and then a series of sub-standard followups that, combined with main Minder Martyn Leaper losing the rest of his band to Steve Malkmus seemed to consign this act to oblivion. The Minders were always the Elephant 6 band for folks who hated The Elephant 6 (E6 being the erstwhile recording home for folks like The Apples In Stereo, Neutral Milk Hotel, and the Olivia Tremor Control…as well as a bunch of far lesser lights.) While most of his labelmates understood how to sound the notes and sing the right phrasing, Leaper always stood apart from them by having an innate songwriting acumen that lifted him above the competition. Unfortunately, it seemed as if he blew that wad on the Minders early singles and debut offering.

And then came this disc. Armed with an album’s worth of fantastic songs and ideas, Leaper has maybe the best record of his career on his hands; GUILTY WORLD is most certainly the best pure classicist pop record to come out in recent memory. Aided and abetted by longtime friend (and onetime Minder), Apples In Stereo svengali Robert Schmidt, Leaper rises to the occasion with the raucous opening tracks “Don’t You Stop”, “Red Admirals (Gonna Pass Me)”, and “Accidental Joy”. Leaper also shows off some range with the lovely “Savour All The Days”, the terrific cover of a deserves-to-be-heard Regia song “Same Time, Same Place”, and a postpunk winder in “357”. Welcome back, folks.

“Don’t You Stop”
“Accidental Joy”
“Savour All The Days”
The Minders Myspace site where you can hear “357” and “Same Time, Same Place”

12. Cheap Trick, ROCKFORD
It is a cruel trick the mind plays on Cheap Trick fans. For nearly 25 years, we’ve heard a never-ending litany preceding each new release along the lines of “THIS record is as good as the early stuff…” Sadly, that hype has never been true. Even on their ’96 “comeback” attempt, and their 2003 second try at relevancy, the hype only went so far, and after some initial excitement you realized that nothing on those two records could ever stand shoulder to shoulder with “He’s A Whore”, “Southern Girls”, or “Downed”.

And so the same pre-release hype started circulating before the release of ROCKFORD, and this time I decided I was gonna be immune to it. That feeling lasted me through the first song, the pedestrian “Welcome To The World”, and the second, over-produced number “Perfect Stranger”.

And then it happens. Cheap Trick flick out a steady stream of instant classics that finally, happily, inexplicably really, really, DO stand up to their best work from nearly a quarter-century ago. “If It Takes A Lifetime” could easily settle into IN COLOR, while the fiery, Albini-produced “Come On Come On Come On” can stand right alongside “He’s A Whore”. The fragile beauty of “O Clair” (an answer to their own “Eau Claire”?) hits next, before more should-be FM radio hits like “Give It Away” and my own personal favorite “Every Night And Every Day” come splashing back in.

ROCKFORD represent a stunning return to form by The Trick. Part of me hopes that this is the first in a string of latter-day wonderful Cheap Trick albums…but part of me also hopes that this is the swan song, finally after 25 years allowing the boys to bow out on their own terms.

“If It Takes A Lifetime” (clip)
“Come On, Come On, Come On” (clip)
“O Clair” (clip)

This record is bumped ahead about 8 places to do penance for maybe the greatest oversight I’ve ever made on a year-end music list. I’d always known about the Figgs, and even have a couple of their early releases…but those discs never really hit me right. Until this summer, the last I’d heard of them they were pulling dual duty as UK legend Graham Parker’s and at different times ex-Replacement Tommy Stinson’ backing bands.

Then my buddy Rob suggested we do some themed mix CD’s over the summer, and the first one we tried was, oddly, centered around a theme of “murder”. Perusing some tunes, I stumbled upon a Figgs song called “Kill Me Now”, and after about a dozen listens I was convinced it was one of the better rock songs I’ve heard in a while. Turns out that song is from a 2004 double album that The Figgs recorded and released on their own, and it turns out that if I could re-write my entire 2004 list, I’d have to figure out a way to slot that album, PALAIS, into the top 3 for the year.

Which brings us to FOLLOW JEAN THROUGH THE SEA. Only one disc this time out, and it all clocks in at a brisk half-hour. While the whole enterprise isn’t quite as good as PALAIS, there are individual moments that surpass it. The most noticeable thing here is that despite backing Graham Parker, The Figgs are most adept at channeling the sound of the first Joe Jackson Band album–and a much cooler influence I’d struggle to name. “Don’t Hurt Me Again” sounds like the best song Jackson never wrote, while the album-opening “Breaking Through These Gates” offers a terrific driving garage-rock opener.

But none of those songs can prepare you for “Jumping Again” which might be one of the best 3 or 4 songs to see release this year. Sounding like vintage mid-1980’s Replacements with the aforementioned Mr. Jackson belting out his best vocal, it stands as a brilliant spot to anchor the remainder of the record on, and lifts songs like “Chasing After Words” to higher highs than they might have otherwise occupied standing alone.

“Don’t Hurt Me Again”
“Breaking Through These Gates”
The Figgs Myspace site, where you HAVE to give a listen to “Jumping Again” and “Chasing After Words” and where I also recommend you take a listen to the two songs from PALAIS they have up, especially “I Brought Kicks” so there.

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