Nate came home from his studies at U Mich yesterday, and brought with him a list of last year’s best releases in response to my own. Since he actually knows what he’s talking about when it comes to music — his area of specialization is a kind of music criticism that I hadn’t even heard of before he tried patiently to explain it before my glassy eyes — with his permission, I append his analysis of the last year’s best music releases.
I didn’t listen to nearly enough new records this year to fairly say what the “best” releases were, but I can say what I enjoyed listening to the most of the records that were released in the past 12 months. I couldn’t make myself rank them specifically, but here they, roughly in the order of “most impressed with” to “not quite as impressed with:”
Matthew Herbert – Scale
Herbert is more than a DJ, more than an electronic musician, more than an arranger; he’s a songwriter, a really really good songwriter. All of the pieces on this album are not only notable for the creative use of sounds, but for their perfect structure. They’re great songs. They sound amazing. The opening track, “Something Isn’t Right,” is probably my favorite song of the whole year. It’s catchy, the vocals are gorgeous, the texture is full and rich and complex, and even though the key is in constant flux, the melody seamlessly holds everything together. Track 3, “Moving Like A Train,” is Luciano Berio on ecstasy.
The Decemberists – The Crane Wife
I knew that at the least I’d be able to say that 2006’s Decemberists release would be my favorite album of the year by a band that uses big words and sings sea chanties, but I was certainly not expecting it would be one of the best albums of the year, and I really think it is. If you were previously unimpressed by the Decemberists, then listen to this anyway, because it’s so much more mature than their older work that it almost sounds like a different band; but only different in that it’s grown, not changed its core. While older songs tended to be on the rougher side, each track on this album is tightly constructed and polished, but still just as original and sincere. “The Island” is my other favorite song of the year, it sounds like everything prog-rock should sound like: epic and exciting and interesting without being too esoteric or conceited or proud of its own sophistication. And even though it gets all E.L.P. in the middle, it concludes with one of the most beautiful lullabies Meloy has yet written. Also notable on the album are “Yankee Bayonet,” “O Valencia,” and “The Perfect Crime 2,” all of which characteristically manage to be both poppy and far too unique to be mainstream.
TV On The Radio – Return To Cookie Mountain
I was really excited to hear this after getting really into 2004’s Desperate Youth Bloodthirsty Babes, but unfortunately I couldn’t get my hands on it until relatively recently. I’m not even sure yet if I like it as much as DYBB, partly just cause I haven’t gotten to listen to it much yet, but even so it is easily one of my favorite albums of the year. They just sound terrific. But more importantly, behind their novel sound is real, evident, engaging musicianship. Which brings me to a different topic: what is the DEAL with the hype around Joanna Newsom? I mean.. yeah, it’s different, it’s even kind of cool, but I am straight up baffled by all the people who think Ys is one of the best records of the year. Granted I haven’t listened to it much, but I didn’t think there was really anything that stimulating about it, nothing that made me WANT to listen to it again, or that made me think it was at all more significant than any other release. In other words, it’s special because it’s different, but besides that, it’s nothing that special. Unlike (to get back on track) TV On The Radio, which is different AND special.
Electric President – Electric President
I really like this album. There is something so charming and comforting about it. The affect is all so subdued that I’d expect it to get tedious, but creative use of electronic sounds and acoustic instruments, supporting the almost whispered vocals, really draws me in. The songs are folky, but post-modern. I bet it would sound amazing if they covered some Pink Floyd songs. They really remind me of Pink Floyd, actually; just a little bit more cheerful. Favorite track: “Farewell.” They lull you into a false sense of security, then…
Islands – Return To The Sea
How could you not be crazy about this?? The Unicorns died, but this is what rose from the ashes. Jamie might have already left, but Nick -promises- that Islands are forever. If you’re a fraction as into Canadian indie rock as I am you need this record, and even if you’re not, you should listen to it.
John Legend – Once Again
John Legend is an amazing musician. He has a great voice and more talent than he’s figured out what to do with yet. I truly believe he should become the next great soul music superstar, and although he is not yet, his 2006 album is certainly progress. 2004’s Get Lifted was good, but Once Again is better, and shows off a pretty wide spectrum of styles, from the somewhat generic R&B of his debut album to alternative rock to Cole Porter-style jazz, and back to Motown. He practically channels Marvin Gaye on a couple songs. And all of it manages to stay solid and original.
The Roots – Game Theory
Best hip-hop record of the year, I think. I just love The Roots, and their “arty” aesthetics. And Game Theory is a good Roots record, not just a good hip-hop record.
Sidenote: other 2006 hip-hop (etc.) albums
Ghostface’s Fishscale got all the hype… I like it a lot, definitely, I just didn’t find it as engaging as Game Theory, and not quite top-ten material. Certainly honorable mention, though. Rhymefest’s Blue Collar was another one of my favorites, but after a few listens I thought it was a little formulaic or something. That said, I loved the sound (“Dynomite” is another favorite song of the year), and I’m pretty confident his future work will only get stronger. I haven’t heard Lupe Fiasco’s record yet, but apparently it’s really good. k-os’s Atlantis probably deserves its own paragraph, but I just got it and don’t have enough to say about it yet. I love k-os though, and so far this sounds even better than Joyful Rebellion. Of course, I don’t know if he’s strictly “hip-hop,” if he’s a genre it’s more like “whatever-genre-Lauryn-Hill-is.” This record is beautiful and catchy and fun and original and strong.
The Raconteurs – Broken Boy Soldier
Definitely didn’t expect to love this. But I do. The songs are all just good, accessible but smart. The opener is ridiculously catchy. “Hands” could be a b-side from Revolver, with its close harmonies and adept navigation of poppy powerchord progressions. A couple later tracks sound like Zeppelin. Basically, this is more than just a side-project supergroup, they really figured out how to be a band, and a really good band, in the legacy of classic rock and roll bands. Hopefully they can keep it up, but if not, this is still a great record on its own.
Two records that might or might not be good enough to be included here if not for the fact that they were by two of my favorite artists:
The Flaming Lips – At War With The Mystics
It’s kind of hard to judge any Lips album that isn’t Soft Bulletin; this isn’t Soft Bulletin, but it’s different, not bad. More guitar-oriented rock songs than their recent work, but still characteristically balloons-and-confetti-dreamy. And it’s just fun to listen to, whether or not it’s as great as Soft Bulletin.
Beck – The Information
I’m still not sure what to think about it. It doesn’t seem nearly as cohesive as any of his previous albums, or as accessible, but there are some terrific songs on it too. I recommend it automatically because it’s Beck, and he has yet to do anything to dissapoint me artistically.
Sufjan Stevens – Songs for Christmas
I think he’s one of the greatest songwriters of the decade, if not generation. His creativity is limitless, and like every brilliant composer he just makes things work, and sound good. This collection isn’t a real “album,” it’s a box set of the EP’s of christmas carols he’s put together for his friends over the past few years. But each EP still has more ingenuity and musicianship than the average regular release by an established artist, even though the content is christmas music. I hate christmas music—that is, I hate the commercial christmas music you hear on the radio, not traditional carols—but between Stevens’ ingenuity and sincerity and the fact that most of the material he uses is more on the hymnal side of christmas carols than the easy listening side, and the inclusion of several original compositions, this set is a truly great song-cycle, in spite of its narrow holiday theme. And the original “It’s Christmas Time!” with its rocking Hey Jude chorus is my new favorite anthemic christmas song.
I’m going to offer Nate webspace for music reviews any time he wants to send them to me — maybe it’ll save effort at the end of the year (it took me ages to paste in links for all those albums).