If video killed the radio star, the Internet killed both, and the album along with it. While some could make the case that ‘artists’ filling CDs with 70 minutes of crap killed the album, the Internet age has not been kind to it either. Today, with attention spans reduced and instant gratification the norm, audiences expect to be blown away with the press of the play button, not immersed in a complicated tapestry of song.
Their loss, really. I love a great single as much as the next person, but I was raised on the album, I live by the album, and I will likely be listening to albums until I meet my end someday in the distant future. There are few greater pleasures in the world of music than putting a record/CD/download on from start to finish, sitting back and letting yourself be genuinely surprised by where the journey takes you.
2006 was a decent year for music, but something tells me that it won’t linger with me the way previous years did. I looked back at my best-of lists from the past two years when putting this together, and I’d take the Top 5 from those two years ahead of this one any day of the week. It’s a notable list, though, because it emphasizes new discoveries over old favourites: eight out of the 10 artists have never appeared on one of my Top 10 lists before (although three of those eight artists have appeared in other projects), and I’d consider a good six of five or six of these as completely new discoveries, bands and artists whose work I really dove into for the first time this year.
As usual, there’s some wonderful music that I really dug this year that just wasn’t able to break into my top 10 for whatever reason. While they might not be getting a writeup and photo, they at least deserve a namedrop in case you’re inspired to check them out. They are (in alphabetical order): Band of Horses – Everything All the Time; The Dears – Gang of Losers; Gnarls Barkley – St. Elsewhere; Bruce Springsteen – We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions; Neil Young – Living With War.
10. Girl Talk – Night Ripper
The mash-up, as an art form, tends to be more novelty than anything else; even the genre’s highest point – Danger Mouse’s combining Jay-Z and the Beatles to make The Gray Album – still didn’t have much of a shelf life beyond the concept itself, and relied on your enjoyment/interest in the source material to keep it going. But Girl Talk has taken the mash-up to its next level, finally realizing its ultimate potential by putting together songs you love into something completely different but still vital, interesting and most of all, damn catchy.
Like a pop/hip-hop version of The Avalanches, producer Greg Gillis has built an entire album out of samples; the difference is that they’re all recognizable. Over 150 artists are mashed together to make up the concise, 45-minute album, and I spent my first listen in a joyous game of “name the sample.” There’s a healthy dose of hip-hop that holds the album together, but it sits alongside pop, alternative, classic rock and pretty much everything else under the sounds. “Hold Up” alone samples Mariah Carey, James Taylor, 50 Cent, the Pixies, M83, Nas and Weezer (among others). With Night Ripper, Girl Talk has produced the intertextual soundtrack of our lives.
9. Sufjan Stevens – The Avalanche
Last year, Sufjan’s Illinoisfinished at the top of my list, and in three years time when I’m putting together my list for the top albums of the decade, I expect it will have a place almost as prominent. There are very few artists out there who could put out a collection of b-sides and outtakes that would warrant my attention, let alone end up on my year-end list. But there’s something different about Sufjan Stevens, something in the way he writes and arranges that turns him into one of those unique artists whose castaways are still worthy of a good listen.
The pieces, leftovers and fragments from Illinois opus come together into a cohesive and satisfying album with The Avalanche, Sufjan’s Amnesiac to his Kid A. The same themes emerge here as on last year’s ode to the state of Illinois: love, friendship, history, travel, geography. And while hardly the masterpiece of its parent album, The Avalanche is filled with a similar charm, the fragile ballads and orchestral bombast soundtracking meticulously-researched personal and folk history. Part of me grumbles that releasing The Avalanche has only further delayed Sufjan from returning to his loveably-ambitious 50 States Project, but the part of me that has ears attached to it finds little to complain about here.
8. Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Neko, goddess with the voice of gold, what pleasures do you have for us this time around? What wonderful ways will you evolve your country sound? Biblical hymns? Stream-of-consciousness lyrics? Songs that lack proper endings and formulas? All of the above? Really?
Really stunning, that’s what. Fox Confessor, the third studio record from the alt-country crooner and part-time New Pornographer, might be among the oddest country albums you’ll hear. It’s akin to a dream, with words and songs dropping and returning out of nowhere, adding a welcome abstract dimension to Case’s sound that up until this point has been pretty traditional. And while the songs and arrangements are the best of her career, the star is still Case’s voice, quite possibly the most beautiful musical instrument in the world, full of power, poise and grace.
7. Thom Yorke – The Eraser
A performer releasing a solo album while the band that made them famous is still together is a risky endeavor. Such albums have a tendency to go in one of two directions: either they are so similar to the original band’s work that their release seems pointless, or they’re overly indulgent and take one aspect of the band’s sound to an unwelcome extreme. No artist is entirely immune to these faults, not even the frontman of the greatest band of our time.
Despite sounding quite similar to how you think it would – Thom Yorke singing over bleeps, bloops and keyboards – The Eraser is able to walk a fine line between these two extremes by not trying to be a grandiose statement; instead, it’s content with being a confident and catchy electronica album. The highlight of The Eraser is the vocals, where Yorke ditches the studio trickery that has defined his work on the last few Radiohead albums and proves that he deserves all the praise he’s ever received for his singing. It all comes together for a claustrophobic and intimate offshoot of Radiohead’s work, one well worth the trip (and if nothing else, a good tideover until the long, long, LONG overdue Radiohead album arrives – in theory – sometime this year).
6. TV on the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain
Sometimes I’m really slow on the pickup. I missed jumping on the TV on the Radio bandwagon a couple of years ago when Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes was making its way around the internets. Thankfully, in 2006, that train made another trip around the track and I was more than happy to jump on. Return to Cookie Mountain – a runner-up to Final Fantasy’s He Poos Clouds for the worst album title of the year – features prominently on most music critics’ lists this year, and with good reason.
I’m trying to think of a way to nail down the multilayer, mutigenre music the band produces in a simple phrase, and the best that I can come up with is “Motown on psychedelics.” They ‘get’ classic pop music but soundsmith Dave Stiek and the band have decided to screw with it, with fascinating results. The album drags a bit towards its end, but the highlights are among the highest heights of the year. The album leaked early to the Internet with an altered tracklisting that turned out to be incorrect; the real album opens with “I Was a Lover,” the perfect primer for the beautiful insanity that lies ahead.
5. The Decemberists – The Crane Wife
This is the second year in a row that the Decemberists have ended up at number five on my list, which is interesting because I don’t think The Crane Wife is as good as last year’s Picaresque. That says less about The Crane Wife, though, than it does about how much stronger 2005 was for albums than 2006. While the songs on this Colbert-thwarted rock group’s major label debut are a tad bit weaker than on its predecessor, The Crane Wife is a welcome development in the band’s work and is, sonically at least, is a much more interesting album.
How well you enjoy the album will depend on if you buy the merging of Pink Floyd-esque progressive rock with the band’s classical folk traditions. Me, I found they fit perfectly within the band’s taste for the epic, and reminds me quite a bit of their five-part EP The Tain (one of the best things they’ve ever put to tape). The Crane Wife suite, split over the album, is like a 15-minute distillation of everything that makes Colin Meloy and his band so wonderful. If they can merge these new influences with the songwriting poise of their previous work, they might have a new classic in them. For now, The Crane Wife remains another notch in the band’s impressive belt of work.
4. The Knife – Silent Shout
In a year in which Jose Gonzalez’s “Heartbeats” became a huge hit thanks to appearing in a Sony TV commercial, the band who originally wrote and recorded that song – Sweedish brother-sister electronica duo The Knife – released an album that couldn’t be any further from it. In fact, Silent Shout almost sounds like a calculated response against Gonazlez’s easily-digestible (though admittedly great) take on their work: an album so off-putting that I didn’t initially give it a fair chance, perplexed as I was by the single track that I downloaded. Thankfully, a few weeks ago when starting to think about this list, I decided to give it another shot. This worked out well when Pitchfork named it their album of the year, and I was able to nod with knowledgeable respect for an inspired choice.
To choose the most obvious of indicators (for people like me who aren’t electronic music junkies), Silent Shout sounds like an attempt to marry the cold, industrial techno that Kraftwerk used to make with the dance hall anthems of Daft Punk. It ends up a bit more the former than the latter (which perhaps explains my esteem for it), but the completed whole is nothing short of stunning. The duo’s trump card is vocalist Karin Dreijer Andersson, whose pristine performances are distorted in all sorts of unnervingly wonderful ways. This is creepy electronica, a collection of songs that aims for the dance floor but ends up best with a set of headphones in a dark, dark place.
3. The Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America
And now for something completely different: an album about kids who dance, drink and screw because there’s nothing else to do. Yes, for all the talk about the Springsteen influence in this album (and it’s there – “Stuck Between Stations” wonderfully reeks of it), the first time I listened to this album my Reference-O-Meter turned to Pulp’s 1995 British sensation Different Class. Not only do the same themes of youth and indulgence run throughout Boys and Girls in America, but it shares with Pulp’s classic the distinction of being one of the best party albums in my collection.
Of course, just like when British punk was imported to the States, the Hold Steady downplay questions of class and turn up the romance, producing a blisteringly poignant and powerful album about sexual politics in the 21st century. This was my first exposure to The Hold Steady, but Craig Finn’s down-to-earth lyrics and dance-around-your-living-room anthems have instantly won them a place in my rotation. Whether playing behind glory days or remembering ones that never quite existed, Boys and Girls In America is one hell of a soundtrack.
2. Sloan – Never Hear the End of It
One of the reasons that I find that I’ve reviewed more movies than albums on this blog is that it’s easier to come up with a quick opinion of a movie; music takes time, and in most cases deserves to be lived with before dropping an opinion on the world. One exception to this that I made this year was Sloan’s Never Hear the End of It. Thankfully, my initial opinion of this album has pretty much remained unchanged: this is an amazing return to form for a band that I had completely written-off.
The big question is whether or not the album’s more eccentric knockoffs justify an album that’s 75 minutes long. For me, the answer is a resounding yes: these “filler” tracks are what give Never Hear the End of It its character, eschewing the calculated pop of the band’s last few albums for something more interesting, more diverse and frankly, more fun. Plus, four songwriters this good deserve a chance to shine, and this album is their showcase. Perhaps Sloan find themselves near the top of my list for subjective reasons, my surprise and delight at seeing an old friend back to form. But what are lists if not subjective? Glad to have you back, gentlemen; you’ve been missed.
1. Sunset Rubdown – Shut Up I Am Dreaming
For me, this is an obvious choice, a fact which I wrestled with for quite a while. After all, it was my top album back at the year’s midpoint, and it might be in this spot by default just by being my most listened-to album this year. But even though there are many worthy contenders for this spot, and even though it’s an album that’s been neglected by many a Top Albums list this year, I once again return to Shut Up I Am Dreaming as my definitive album of 2006.
Like Silent Shout, this is an album that is often more unnerving than inviting, but once you strip away the reverberated keys and distorted guitars there lies an intimacy to Spencer Krug’s work that stays with you long after the album reaches its end. Through his work here, with Wolf Parade and with Swan Lake, Krug has emerged as one of Canada’s best songwriters and vocalists, using his Bowie-esque howl and quirky, enigmatic arrangements to create miniature pocket symphonies of twisted pop. Yet never does it feel gimmicky or false; instead, it sounds vital, relevant and essential. It sounds like my favourite album of 2006.