Tuesday, December 12, 2006

2006: Top 20 Albums

Ah, boys and their end-of-year lists. I'm confident that one year before I'm 80 I'll perhaps grow out of it, and that it will suddenly strike me as unimportant to document what music I liked best that just happened to be released in the previous 12 months, and why. And I'll realise that no one else much cares, and that these lists are like people recalling their dreams - we're only really interested in our own. 

On the other hand, I enjoyed reading back my Top 40 albums entry from 2004 yesterday because it's going to make me go back and listen to a lot of that stuff again (I tell you, I'm through with twothousandandbloodysix for now). So I'm doing this for me too, because the chances are I'll have forgotten I even own half of this stuff in twelve months' time.

A great year for new music, incidentally. But then I always say that.

1. Syd Matters – Syd Matters
A French band singing in English, crafting low-key songs from acoustic guitars and synthesisers that sound like they’re coming from somewhere in the heart of America. Sublime.

2. Grandaddy – Just Like The Fambly Cat
Oh how I’ll miss them. The sweetest pop, conjured from sugar-coated guitars and creamy vanilla keyboard riffs that catch you in mid-air and take you, time and again, to a strange sort of upbeat melancholia. Which doesn’t make sense, but it makes you tingle.

3. Pat Metheny & Brad Mehldau – Metheny Mehldau
Metheny produces an astonishing album every year, and this time he hooks up with pianist Brad Mehldau to produce this masterpiece. Maybe there are people who could criticise music like this, but I’m not worthy. They probably knocked this out in a couple of days and had another ten tracks they didn’t use. They just sat down and played. Genius on tap.

4. Damien Jurado – And Now That I’m In Your Shadow
Jurado gets quieter every year, though possibly better too, plaintive vocals dragging his acoustic guitar almost reluctantly up to the mic to serve up yet another superb set of songs. One of America’s greatest and most prolific living songwriters.

5. Bonnie “Prince” Billy – The Letting Go
At last we can see the melody through the misery. Although Will Oldham is a superlative songwriter, this is his first album I can say, hand on heart, that I’ve actually enjoyed listening to. Less clouded arrangements and the singing of Dawn McCarthy seem to have helped engineer the breakthrough. On the CD insert there’s even a picture of him smiling. Because there’s nowt as funny as folk.

6. Brisa Roché - The Chase
Another French singer delivering mainly English-language numbers in a stylistic smorgasbord marked by its confidence, its coquettishness and its quality. Jazzy, folkish, and some vintage indie too: there are all kinds of every song delivered in a voice that tells you you’d be an idiot to fall in love with Brisa. But you’re probably doing it anyway.

7. The Handsome Family – Last Days of Wonder
The Handsome Family are the logical successors to Johnny Cash, writing deep, dark tunes that are underscored by a healthy gallows humour and irresistible singalong choruses. Check out ‘Flapping Your Broken Wings’ , which is not a morbid paean to an injured bird but a love song about a drunken night trespassing on the golf course.

8. Hem – Funnel Cloud
Just gorgeous from start to finish, Hem’s third album is another feast of elegiac, slow-burning threnodies. Quietly brilliant.

9. The Hidden Cameras – Awoo
And to think I found this band by accident because I got them mixed up with Camera Obscura. With tunes coming out of every orifice, THC love to sing things like ahoo and hehay and doowoop, punctuating their punchy socio-sexual commentaries with sardonic harmonies. Their sparse but aggressive pop attacks might be an acquired taste, but if it’s your kind of twang then the reward is this: these boys don’t come close to writing bad songs.

10. Sonic Youth – Rather Ripped
I can only think of Van Morrison in terms of such longevity and consistence built around a single style of song. This is yet another cracking foursquare album of Sonic Midlife, with only the odd half-hearted track (‘Sleepin Around’) you might expect to dog entire recordings in a band of this age. The mellow ‘Turquoise Boy’ is even one for your Mum’s iPOd.

11. Lila Downs – La Cantina
What’s not to like about US-Mexican singer Lila Downs? She celebrates eating, drinking and worthy trans-border causes in a voice like expensive chocolate – sweet, strong and a joy to taste, but with the slightest edge of bitter roughness. You’ll dance and weep all in one go.

12. Electric President – S/t
Electronic lo-fi songs pumped along by mutating beats, button-twiddling, the odd guitar, and fragile but endearing vocals. Low-budget-made-by-unknowns album of the year.

13. Solomon Burke – Nashville
Isn’t country music just soul music with a pedal steel? Burke goes back to his career origins with this gutsy, absorbing collection that takes American music on a journey within itself, emerging triumphant in every song.

14. Johnny Cash – American Recordings V: A Hundred Highways
The last of the last recordings, facing death in a sombre, resigned frame of voice, occasionally breaking out to wave the Bible and shout to the heavens. Not the best of the American Recordings, but by no means a slouch either, even though the arrangements were added two years after his death. Not that I’d have noticed if I hadn’t been told.

15. Lambchop – Damaged
If Kurt Wagner ever has grandchildren, he’ll tell them stories by sitting them around the fire and murmuring narratives over the top of a barely audible guitar. Hopefully they’ll be mesmerised, because this music is timeless, unique and so mellifluous that, if I could only take one band with me to my coffin, it would have to be Lambchop.

16. Stuart A. Staples – Leaving Songs
Although this singer wouldn’t be far behind. Staples’ voice seems to barely touch the air, yet it’s as affecting as the loudest operatic tenor. Just like The Tindersticks, it’s great clear-the-party fare, leaving you on the sofa, soaked in sadness but happy that everyone went home to leave you alone with the music.

17. Juana Molina – Son
Argentine electro-folk singer, who weaves all kind of weird and wonderful noises in and out of her softly softly compositions. A dreamy, hypnotic Latino-trip.

18. Alejandro Escovedo – The Boxing Mirror
The nearest I can come to categorising Escovedo, now happily recovered from hepatitis C, is to call him a Texan Nick Cave, making songs of dry discord and dark-eyed stories steeped in jagged riffs that call on all kinds of musical traditions associated with the border area and far beyond too. Start, as the record does, in ‘Arizona’, and if you like that (and you couldn’t possibly not), take it from there.

19. Vienna Teng – Dreaming Through The Noise
This record is almost perfect. It might strike you as very Californian in its positive sincerity, backed with pristine, music school piano. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, because the songs are so strong they’ll wipe away any reservations you have that Teng is just too damned clean. A huge talent.

20. Califone – Roots And Crowns
Wilco bumps into Brian Eno in a bluegrass parallel universe. They do drugs and accidentally sit on some instruments that are lying around. (By the way, that’s not a bad thing.)

Other albums I really liked:
Flaming Lips – At War With The Mystics
Ali Farka Toure – Savane
Josh Ritter – The Animal Years
Bettie Serveert – Bare Stripped Naked
Half-Handed Cloud – Halos and Lassos
Gomez – How We Operate
Willard Grant Conspiracy – Let It Roll
Lisa Germano – In The Maybe World
Frank Black – Fast Man, Raider Man
Sufjan Stevens – The Avalanche
Mindy Smith – Long Island Shore
Camera Obscura – Let’s Get Out Of This Country
Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan – Ballad of the Broken Seas
Chatham County Line – Speed of the Whippoorwill
Drive-By Truckers – A Blessing and a Curse
Golden Smog – Another Fine Day
India Arie – Testimony, Vol. 1
Richard Julian – Slow New York
Roddy Frame – Western Skies
Sleepthief – The Dawnseeker
The Sleepy Jackson – Personality
TV On The Radio – Return To Cookie Mountain
Beth Orton – The Comfort of Strangers

Other albums I liked, but with minor reservations :
Calexico – Garden Ruin
Isolée – Western Shore
Mogwai – Mr. Beast
Morrissey – Ringleader of the Tormentors
Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings The Flood
Ollabelle – Riverside Battle Songs
Stereolab – Fab Four Suture
Shawn Mullins – 9th. Ward Pickin’ Parlor
Sarah Harmer – I’m A Mountain
T-Bone Burnett – The True False Identity

Lambchop – The Decline of Country and Western Civilisation Part II
Hem – No Word From Tom (check out their version of ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’)

Belle & Sebastian – The Life Pursuit (too slick, too flat, too few decent songs)
Cat Power – The Greatest (Not by a long way. No power or cat left there either)
Yo La Tengo – I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Kick Your Ass (but this record will still be rubbish)