Ah, 2006. I think it was a great year for music — but then again I think that if you’re open to listening to a whole bunch of different things without much regard for major/minor/no label, “coolness” factor, or obscurity, then every year can be a very good year.
I’ve been refreshed in 2006 to be reminded that music is literally an endless fount that is constantly gushing. You plug up one hole only to have a new leak spring up somewhere else, a new voice, a fresh sound. It’s really quite freaking fantastic.
Now of course I am not any sort of musical expert just because I tip-tap away on this blog. I am just a melodiphile (I made that word up) who loves to share — and these are the albums that I wanted to share the most this year with everyone I met, the ones I listened to over and over, and the selections that I feel have the staying power to stick with me for a while. I don’t think there’s many surprises here since I’ve been pretty verbose about all these artists.
It’s not exhaustive for all 2006 releases (and I must not be cool cuz there’s very few of these folks); it’s just my personal tops.
HEATHER’S TOP TWENTY OF 2006
20. WESTERNS EP
Pete Yorn (Columbia)
I find myself listening to this much more than Yorn’s full-length album of 2006, Nightcrawler (which does have its strong points); Westerns is a seamless little 7-song odyssey that fits together just right with all the flow that Nightcrawler lacks. Yorn called it “twang-rock” and indeed it is a golden and scratchy-warm rootsy collection of tunes. It may be a little cruel to put this on the list since I don’t think it commercially available at the moment (except to those who were fortunate enough to make it to shows on his recent tour where it was sold), but it’s out there to be found by the diligent. And worth your hunting.
The Good Advice â€“ Pete Yorn
19. NIGHT RIPPER
Girl Talk (Illegal Art)
Undeniably exciting, a thousand samples a minute: Songs you know in ways you never thought you’d hear them. My first comment on this said “This looks horrifying,” and to please ignore the album art. And though it’s nothing I ever thought I’d put on a best-of list, I cannot deny how much I like this instant party-on-a-disc [previous post]. And I find that sometimes when I hear the original songs now, I hear this overlaying it in my mind, so it’s forever warped me. But that’s okay.
Bounce That â€“ Girl Talk
18. THE LEMONHEADS
The Lemonheads (Vagrant)
The Lemonheads come in more flavors and incarnations than almost any other band I know of (the current lineup includes former members of The Descendents and Black Flag), but the one constant is Evan Dando and he still sounds as good as ever. After several solo albums, he’s brought back some of the rocking sounds and undeniably great pop hooks that made me love his music in the first place. I feel like I should be contentedly laying on my back on my dorm room loft bed listening to this one loudly on headphones with a huge smile on my face.
Become The Enemy â€“ The Lemonheads
17. PEOPLE GONNA TALK
James Hunter (Rounder)
I still sometimes mistake this for Sam Cooke or Van Morrison for a split-second when it comes up on my shuffle, even though I know better. James Hunter flawlessly channels the spirits of smooth sounds from decades past with this perfect summer BBQ soundtrack. This feels like a record full of oldies that you somehow missed – you pull it out, put it on the turntable, and there is a sense of recognition, like you’ve heard them before. Solid retro-goodness.
People Gonna Talk â€“ James Hunter
16. WHAT’S MINE IS YOURS
Eliot Morris (Universal)
I mean no disrespect to Mr. Morris by saying this, but he’s put out the best Counting Crows album of the year. By all means, he has his own unique lyrics and sound, but the similarities are undeniable — and that’s quite alright with me. The entire album is filled with great piano breaks and vocal builds, heartfelt tunes that you will have a hard time not tapping your toes to. Featuring guest appearances by Glen Phillips, Inara George, Gemma Hayes, Lisa Germano and David Immergluck, he’s got an all-star cast of friends who believe in his music, and I think we’ll definitely be hearing more from him in the future.
Anyway â€“ Eliot Morris
15. CORINNE BAILEY RAE
Corinne Bailey Rae (Capitol)
Absolutely charming and never over-cloyingly sweet, this British belle circles back from her days of fronting a â€˜90s rock band with this enchanting disc. Corinne’s smoldering voice really shines in front of these songs with a neo-soul vibe & a variety of alluring influences from rock to swing to jazz. Plus she cites the moment that she knew she had â€˜arrived’ as when Eddie Vedder grabbed her for an impromptu waltz on British television, so she’s definitely a girl after my own heart.
Put Your Records On â€“ Corinne Bailey Rae
14. ANIMAL YEARS
Josh Ritter (V2)
From the first time I heard Ritter’s epic song “Thin Blue Flame,” I knew I had heard something special and unique. Ritter comes from the heartlands of America with a rambling folk masterpiece of sweeping lyrical panoramas and intelligent, thoughtful songwriting. A light hand in production by Brian Deck (Modest Mouse, Iron & Wine) gives these tracks an immediate and unrehearsed quality. Literate and eminently listenable, this is an album whose depths I still feel I haven’t completely plumbed despite multiple listens. And I love that richness.
Girl In The War â€“ Josh Ritter
13. RATHER RIPPED
Sonic Youth (Geffen)
It’s a rather formidable task to remain as consistently good as Sonic Youth, with their own distinctive fuzz-laden sound, and yet keep exploring new boundaries and sounds after 25+ years and as many records. With Rather Ripped, Sonic Youth has shown that they are still absolutely unlike any other rock band out there, with a foot strongly in the art-experimental rock world, but with compelling rhythms and harmonic guitars that still seems to talk to each other; a parallel story being told alongside the singing of Thurston Moore or rock-goddess Kim Gordon. Incinerate indeed.
Incinerate â€“ Sonic Youth
12. SUPPLY AND DEMAND
Amos Lee (Blue Note)
I still think his debut album is pretty hard to top, but Amos Lee brings back that achingly incisive tenor and a gentle soul vibe (with tinges of gospel) to his sophomore album. A former schoolteacher from Philadelphia whose debut album first blew me away one rainy weekend in Seattle, Lee returns with another collection of heartbreaking songs — although he’s having a little bit more fun this time around (check out the delightful “Sweet Pea” with ukulele). The way he sings the simplest lyrics on this album just devastate me: “Now she’s left me for something more sure . . . I don’t know if I can do this anymore.”
Skipping Stones – Amos Lee
11. TOWER OF LOVE
Jim Noir (Barsuk)
An exceedingly fresh sound from this 24-year-old from Manchester who clearly has done his sonic homework, and that BBC named “the musical oddball find of the decade.” The base of the album is formed from typical guitar pop with some heavy â€˜60s undertones, but updated with elements of indie electronica. Noir sings winsome odes to his computer and how difficult it can be, the musical note of C and how “it’s easier to sing it,” and other minor things in life that often go unnoticed, or at least unsung. Fun but never silly, and thoroughly enjoyable.
Key of C â€“ Jim Noir
10. THE GREATEST
Cat Power (Matador)
There’s an instantly-recognizable way that Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) can nail a note with that melancholy voice of longing; it’s distinctive, it’s brutal, it’s fantastic. While this album still has the elegiac piano ballads and the wrenching rainy-day songs that I love about her, we also see Chan kicking it up into a bit more of a romp with brass-heavy swingers like “Could We” or soulful jukebox grooves like “Lived in Bars.” Recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis (made famous by Stax Records) with Al Green’s musicians, that soul is painted all over here in wide strokes. It’s a delicious album which still retains her trademark suggestive longing, but it’s a longing you can mooooove to.
Lived in Bars â€“ Cat Power
9. AMERICAN V: A HUNDRED HIGHWAYS
Johnny Cash (Lost Highway)
This is a gritty posthumous release from The Man. Not even “The Man In Black,” he’s just The Man in my book. Each song possesses both a surety and a sadness (like the picture on the cover). As Stephen King recently wrote, “This is the voice of an Old Testament prophet on his deathbed, eerie and persuasive, full of power and dust and experience.” I admire how Cash wasn’t afraid to experiment with different sounds, even right up to the end of this life. Many songs on this album are comforting in their traditional Cash feel (even his take on Springsteen’s “Further On Up The Road” sounds like his own), but each album in this American series has had a few tracks that were unexpected (note the stomp-clap worksong feel of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”). What a legend.
God’s Gonna Cut You Down â€“ Johnny Cash
8. AMERICAN MYTH
Jackie Greene (Verve Forecast)
Kid’s all of 26, skinny as they come, but despite his unformidable presence he rocks and he wails as he creates rambling jewels of songs with a wisdom and a mastery that is well beyond his years. Discovered by Dig Records at an open mic in California’s Central Valley, then garnering rave reviews for his performance at a Bob Dylan tribute, Greene has released a string of albums with strong blues influence and folk-rock sensibilities. American Myth continues to showcase his abilities to let it loose on the harmonica or the keys, he tells rich stories with a lyrical depth and a rockin’ feel.
Farewell, So Long, Goodbye â€“ Jackie Greene
7. BEDROOM CLASSICS, VOL. 2 EP
Josh Rouse (Bedroom Classics)
Rouse’s other 2006 release Subtitulo had some ace tracks and was in the running for this list, but overall I just love the vibe and feel of this little collection more, which the talented Rouse says was largely inspired by his love of film scores. It’s indeed cinematic the way the songs blend pleasantly together under a common theme, and although two of the songs are strictly instrumental, they nonetheless speak volumes. Superb and atmospheric, the EP paints an intimate downtempo picture with that smooth-as-butter voice.
The Last Train â€“ Josh Rouse
6. DOG PROBLEMS
The Format (Nettwerk)
I became obsessively addicted to The Format after seeing them perform most of the songs off this album live, where they spring to life in front of a full band (of 9 people or more at times), with a charismatic lead singer and plenty of opportunities for audience participation. No sophomore slump here, The Format have put out an effervescent disc of sheer pop goodness. Sometimes it sounds like a circus of trumpets, accordions, and xylophones, and sometimes they channel Queen a bit (and I really don’t even like Queen), but there is no denying the well-crafted nature of their songs, the creative lyricism, and the downright danceability.
She Doesn’t Get It â€“ The Format
5. BOYS AND GIRLS IN AMERICA
The Hold Steady (Vagrant)
I was surprised by this one, which at first I wasn’t sure I’d like â€“ but it irresistibly taps into something within me that I can’t even describe. This album makes me feel sad sometimes, and captures the urgent moments of youth — like I want to drive off somewhere at night and drink in a dimly-lit bar, and lose myself in the loudness of the music to ease the sadness. Craig Finn is a master with the details in his story-songs, and these are some of the best lyrics all year, hands down. Start with “Stuck Between Stations,” the first track on the album: “Most nights were crystal clear, but tonite its like it’s stuck between stations on the radio. . .”
Stuck Between Stations â€“ The Hold Steady
4. BEN KWELLER
Ben Kweller (Red Ink/ATO)
A magnetic and well-crafted pop album from former wunderkind rock prodigy Ben Kweller, the songs here are catchy and melodically expansive, with new levels of depth in the words — plus Ben plays every single instrument on the album himself. That’s dang impressive since it sounds so good. I’ve listened to this album over and over and I don’t foresee getting tired of it anytime soon.
Penny On The Train Track – Ben Kweller
3. OPEN SEASON: REMIXES AND COLLABS
Feist (Arts & Crafts)
With all charming honesty, Feist says of this album, “At first I didn’t really understand what remixes were. If I squinted into the air I knew I could hear old songs with added beats piping out of radios, but I didn’t know why or how that happened. It was so bizarre and exciting to hear a song that we had so carefully dressed, be undressed and re-addressed, and put into clothes it would have never thought to wear on its own.” As if I didn’t have enough reasons to love her with Let It Die, here those songs take on added dimensions, with her transcendent and throaty voice layered over it all. Irresistible.
Mushaboom (Postal Service remix) – Feist
2. PEARL JAM
Pearl Jam (J Records)
Just don’t call them the grandfathers of grunge. In being as unbiased as I can with Pearl Jam, I will enthusiastically say that this is without a doubt their tightest effort in years, scorching and soaring back into #1 with passion and style. From the opening gates with the incendiary howls let loose on “Life Wasted” and “World Wide Suicide,” through the gorgeous Beatlesesque “Parachutes” and the absolutely masterful blues-soul ballad “Come Back,” there is a lot to love on this superb disc, which shows that after fifteen years they undeniably still have It.
Marker In The Sand – Pearl Jam
M. Ward (Merge)
I cannot get enough of this album. With all its warm textures and fuzzy goodness, rich songwriting detail — hands down the best thing to spin my turntables this year. M. Ward has crafted a distinctive album permeated with a humid beauty and a close immediacy that recalls sounds of eras past, but with an edge that’s all his own. So much to love here: from the Daniel Johnston cover “To Go Home” which thrums along to borderline dischordant piano and Neko Case on BGVs, or the spirited and loose harmonies of “Magic Trick” about a girl whose only skill is the way she disappears (co-written with Jim James from My Morning Jacket) — the varied tracks all work together in a very compelling way. If you only pick up one new album this year, make it this one.
To Go Home – M. Ward
Thanks for playing along this year, and I’ll certainly lay awake tonight rehashing what I may have forgotten on this list, endlessly rearranging the list in my borderline OCD mind. I still have dozens of albums that I haven’t had a chance to listen to yet from this year. I am sure that there are favorites I haven’t even met yet.
Bring on 2007.