Friday, January 19, 2007

The Top Albums of 2006

Usually when music critics, professional or otherwise, sum up the Year in Music they like to make lists with neat numbers like Top 10 or Top 5 (like... so). It’s rather arbitrary. What if two albums set them apart and then four or five others are sort of in a “second-tier?” Why do we have to think in terms of five and ten anyway? This year, three albums truly distinguished themselves in terms of pushing musical boundaries and challenging the preconceptions of music. After that there were a lot of good albums left over, but I didn’t feel justified in putting them in the same list as the following three. So instead of forcing a couple extra albums in to make a contrived list of five, as far as I’m concerned there were the Big Three, and then the rest – still excellent albums, but a shade below these masterpieces.

3. Nellie McKay, Pretty Little Head.

Nellie McKay is absolutely vexing. One minute she’s crooning about a lover, the next she’s going on an expletive laced tirade about conservatives, still the next, she’s singing about a cat. In fact, with every song of hers written from a different voice, it’s hard to figure out which one – if any – is hers.

What we do know is the tumultuous story behind her latest release. After being given unprecedented leeway with her debut album, Get Away From Me, a double-album with no real focus, is a testament to both her talent and how highly Columbia Records thought of her. When McKay came back with her second album, it once again sprawled to 23 tracks over two discs. Even though the album could have fit on one disc, McKay reportedly liked the nostalgia of having to switch discs in the same way music listeners once had to flip the record over. At this juncture Columbia became indignant to their budding 23-year old showcase artist to the point of sending their shortened 16-track single album to critics to review. While reports are sketchy and conflicting, it can be pieced together that McKay in essence, threw a hissy fit. She either gave the email address or the cell phone number of the Columbia CEO at a concert. At this point Columbia dropped McKay from the label.

Eventually, Pretty Little Head, was released in its full glory as McKay intended it under her own label. She produced it herself. This very fact shows the incredible talent that Columbia Records saw and presumably reluctantly let go.

While Pretty Little Head is just as sprawling musically as Get Away From Me, McKay is much more confident in her own ability and apparently had a nice time producing it. Pretty Little Head, in true Nellie McKay fashion, touches on everything from gay marriage to animal cruelty to single motherhood to euthanasia. But what sets this album apart is the production that showcases McKay’s amazing songwriting. Musically and lyrically, McKay can be whimsical and dark, heartwarming and troublesome. She croons; she raps; she yelps; she yodels; she even meows.

The album begins with an ode to gay marriage in which McKay takes on the voice of a gushy-in-love bachelor asking his boyfriend to marry him in “Cupcake.” However, for the first two or three minutes of the song, it’s unclear what the true focus is. It appears to be a simple song to a generic lover. But that would be too easy for the listener. McKay plays a kind of musical “gotcha!” It is with this spirit that one must venture into this album. Know that McKay will lead you through twists and turns.

She does noir jazz exceptionally in “Pink Chandelier” and “I am Nothing.” “There You Are In Me” traces the anger associated with genetics in which McKay furiously spouts out phrases of varying degrees of understandability such as “right wing” and “shellfish.”

“The Big One” is McKay’s first rap track on the album. To be sure, it has a catchy hook, even if lyrically it’s left wanting. However, the production makes this one of the best tracks on the album. More than any other, this track gives the listener glimpse into the boundless talents as a producer and her part as jazz pianist. In this song McKay seamlessly mixes a looped piano track with her high-pitched shrieks and electronica beats. It’s something that we’ve never really heard before and what puts McKay’s potential in the stratosphere. In addition to those three elements, throughout the song you hear distorted guitar, latin picking, and horns added one after another until the song itself is undeniable.

McKay gets help on this album from Cyndi Lauper in “Beecharmer,” an homage to Lauper’s musical era, and k.d. lang in “We Had it Right.”

McKay’s sarcasm kicks off the second disc in a tribute to Emo music in “Real Life” and living the good life in “Tipperary.” And just when you think that McKay’s sarcasm can’t get any more biting, she responds with probably the most honest, heartfelt and genuinely beautiful song in her repitoire in “Gladd,” an elegy for peace activist Gladd Patterson. But then of course she juxtaposes that song with the succeeding track, entitled “Food” and simply put: it’s about food.

This musical juxtaposition rears it’s head again towards the end of the album in which McKay bookends her second rap track “Mama and Me” with an unsettling reenactment of a mother and daughter yelling at each other, only to follow that with a 56-second jaunt “Pounce,” in which McKay actually meows in this way-too-bouncy tune. These “gotcha!s” can be frustrating (these are two of the tracks axed by Columbia) but it’s also what makes you fall in love with her.

“Columbia is Bleeding” was originally the last track on the shortened album. No, it’s not an indictment of the Columbia Record Company, but rather a protest song about allegations of animal cruelty at Columbia University. After a brief, smooth intro, the song turns into a hyperactive scat that builds throughout the track. It may very well be the penultimate Nellie McKay song: it’s dynamic; it’s biting; it’s politically charged; it’s Nellie McKay at her Nellie McKay-est.

And while some of the songs miss the mark, without them it wouldn’t be Nellie McKay. And it is her willingness to explore and push the boundaries of what is accepted that made Columbia so willing to invest so much in her up front to begin with.

Suggested tracks: “Columbia is Bleeding,” “The Big One,” “Gladd,” “Long and Lazy River”

Below: "Real Life"

2. Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere

I hope that history is not unkind to Gnarls Barkley. I fear that while people were bobbing along to “Crazy” on one of the many radio stations – from alternative to rap to pop stations – they may have missed how truly great this album is. Not only that, but the album itself is amazingly dark. “Crazy” is in fact one of several tracks dealing with psychosis. After the first track, “Go-Go Gadget Gospel” the entire album is drenched with dark imagery and tributes to schizophrenia, suicide, and all the “Boogie Monsters” that lurk within the mind of lead vocalist Cee-Lo. Nowhere is this more prevalent in “Just a Thought” when Cee-Lo confesses, “I’ve tried everything but suicide; but it’s crossed my mind.” Alternating between bombastic crash cymbals and echoed vocals, Gnarls Barkley creates a distance and alienation between the central character and the listener. On this level the listener can possibly remain disengaged emotionally, but Gnarls Barkley demands a thorough examination of the lead’s psyche.

The album, which is generally classified as “Rap & Hip Hop” truly only has one rap track: the clever and smooth one and a half minute “Feng Shui.” The genre bending though, is one of the things that makes the album truly great as a whole. From a cover of the Violent Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone” to the gospel intro, it’s tough to really peg the style. But that’s the point of St. Elsewhere. Just as the central characters suffer from schizophrenia, so too does the album itself. “Smiley Faces,” which is an extremely catchy tune, emphasizes this and it can catch you off guard. It wouldn’t be a shock for someone to listen to the song several times, memorize the lyrics and sing it back a few times, before the darker, more disturbing meaning of the song becomes clear.

This kind of forethought in the thematic outlay of St. Elsewhere is rather bold for a new undertaking for producer Danger Mouse and lead vocalist Cee-Lo. Before the Gnarls Barkley project even got its feet on the ground, this dynamic duo decided to give it teeth and a brain.

Of course, let’s not kid ourselves: the finest gem on this album is the mega-hit “Crazy.” It ran the gamut of radio play, topping dozens of different charts in the U.S. and worldwide. It’s smooth and goes down easy. Even though you hear it all the time, you’re still not sick of it. It’s easily the most infectious song of the century thus far. From the moments the first few halting beats of the track hit the speakers, there is an instant anticipation of what is to come. It’s tough to explain what exactly it is that makes the song so great, so across the board. Sure it’s got a catchy chorus that every one knows. But the verses with their lo-fi production and ominous choir vocals are what really set this song apart from other rap-pop-alternative crossovers. It’s almost too simple. It’s got a simple beat, a simple bass line, and a relatively simple melody. The choral effect, however, creates a rapturous, ethereal feel. Meanwhile the lo-fi chord progression makes the song instantly accessible, while at the same time not overdoing it. It is almost as if Gnarls Barkley simply “takes it easy” throughout the verses. For this reason repeated plays do not get exhausting.

Whatever the reason, “Crazy” will be the most remembered song of the year. It invaded every station on the radio and stayed there for months with no backlash. St. Elsewhere is an album worthy of such a truly great song.

Suggested tracks: “Crazy,” “Smiley Faces,” “Just a Thought”

Below: "Crazy"

1. TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain

I’ve already waxed poetic once about this album, and I really have no more words to describe it’s brilliance, save for the following parallel.

During my Junior year of college, Dear Mr. Supercomputer was just beginning to take upper level Physics courses. What struck me was how much more we have yet to learn about Physics. I had pretty much figured that we had discovered most of the Physics there was to discover. Sure there might be some fine details that we can get a few MIT geeks to solve for us in a decade or two. But more or less we could use Physics and the laws that Man had discovered to pretty much figure out anything we need. As my Junior year got going, I came to a startling conclusion:

We don’t know shit.

We have no idea what principals run the universe. I had thought up until that point we pretty much had a decent idea of what was going on. We don’t. I foolishly figured one could, with time and diligence, discover everything there is to discover and then that would be it. Like there was a top level of Physics and once you reach that level, that’s all there was.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by this conclusion though. Every year brilliant minds win Nobel Prizes in things like Economics, as well as Physics. If there are still principles being discovered in the field of Economics, then there must be a shitload of Physics knowledge that is currently untapped.

I share this because every year I look backwards at the great music that has been “discovered” and wonder if there are truly any more boundaries left to push. In 2004, the Arcade Fire put out the aggressive and emotionally charged Funeral and it was like waking up to a new version of rock. In 2005, Sufjan Stevens put out the eloquent, sprawling, and beautiful Illinois which takes you on a journey both musically and geographically. In 2006 TV on the Radio is introducing us to the sound of anthemic rock falling apart. And the other aforementioned 2006 albums, Nellie McKay and Gnarls Barkley, both push their genre – if you can even find one for them – in a new direction that this world has not seen before.

And sure enough, at this point I look at 2007 and shake my head wondering, “well, is there anything else really out there?” Once again, I’m doubting that artists will continue to forge new ground musically. Thankfully, if history is any indicator, these doubts will soon be alleviated.

Suggested Tracks : “Wolf Like Me,” “I Was a Lover,” “Dirtywhirl”

Below: I've already linked "Wolf Like Me" twice from this blog, so let's just make it three. This is TVOTY on Letterman. Now, I never watch Letterman so I don't know how he usually reacts to musical guests, but he seems genuinely impressed, which I would think is saying something because usually he acts like a condescending prick.

The Rest. Other great albums of 2006, in no particular order:

Regina Spektor, Begin to Hope. Spektor classes it up a bit for her sophomore album. What it is lacking in it’s rawness, it makes up for in polish and sincerity. “Fidelity” opens up the album with a flicker of strings in a gambit reminiscent of Fiona Apple’s “Extraordinary Machine.” “Samson” is certainly one of the more gorgeous songs released this year. “On the Radio” hints at the cleverness of Spektor’s first album Soviet Kitsch when she refers to “December Rain” by Guns n’ Roses, singing, “the solo’s awfully long, but it’s still a pretty song” and “we listened to it twice because the DJ is asleep.”

Suggested tracks : “Fidelity.” “On the Radio”

Midlake, The Trials of Van Occupanther. It’s bold of a band to change their sound entirely on only their second album. It’s even more risky to make that second album a concept album, but Midlake pulls off both stunts beautifully. The album centers around backwoodsy folks in generations past. Accordingly, where as their first album was more Flaming Lips, Van Occupanther is more Iron and Wine. Midlake puts aside the carnival-like feel in favor of a more toned down natural sound. It fits them well.

Suggested tracks: “Roscoe,” “Young Bride”

Yo La Tengo, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass. Aside from having probably the greatest album title in history, YLT puts forth an exceptional album that would almost pass as a “Best Of” album. The various signature elements of what has made YLT a mainstay on the indie-rock scene since before there was an indie-rock scene is all here. Noise tracks, sweet piano ballads, occasional falsetto vocals, and the humor to intentionally misspell the track “The Story of Yo La Tango.” In a year where so many bands pushed the limits of their genre, Yo La Tengo continue to push the limits of themselves.

Suggested tracks: “Sometimes I Don’t Get You,” “The Weakest Part”

Built To Spill, You in Reverse. After the rousing nine minute opener "Goin' Against Your Mind" you'd think the rest of the album would be a letdown. Built to Spill has made an entire career on rousing songs though. They're able to somehow shrink time. Nine minutes seems like five. Six minutes seems like three. They're a guitar band that somehow doesn't get put in the same group as other guitar bands. You In Reverse ends five years of waiting and wondering for impatient fans awaiting a next release and it doesn't disappoint.

Suggested tracks: "Goin' Against Your Mind," "Conventional Wisdom"

Sufjan Stevens, The Avalanche: Outtakes and Extras From the Illinois Album. As an unabashed Sufjan fan, I was hesitant to put this album on this list, let along amongst the top three. However, were the title of the album, say, Rhode Island, and some of the geographical references altered a bit, I would probably be placing it right alongside Pretty Little Head. However, the stigma of an “extras” album is too powerful for it’s own good. If you can get past that fact, you find the same great songwriting that made Illinois the best album of 2006. You find the same layered instrumentation that makes repeated listens enjoyable and even necessary. It speaks volumes of Stevens’ immense talent that his “extras” album is better than most artists’ best efforts.

Suggested tracks: “The Avalanche,” “Dear Mr. Supercomputer”


Adam said...

This is a dumb question but I'm really interested. And it might be more than one question, we'll find out.

Do you buy cds or download music? Basically how do you get your music? Or do you just listen to the radio and find "free" music online?

How many cds/songs do you buy?

How do you find out about good music? Radio? Online? Friends? Probably all the above I guess. Should I really answer the question myself? No, I'll let you.

Ok, like I said, dumb questions. I've just slowly over the past 10 years completely lost touch with the musical world (it doesn't help being in Waco). I don't want to dive in but I want to wade in a little. I also don't have any money (another problem). But I've always really loved music and I want to enjoy more of it. Help me 'o musical genius.

jo said...

crazy makes me think of aneil

gk said...

Wow it's like 20 questions. It's a valid bunch of questions though. It's almost as if there's so much music out there to hear, where does one begin?

Well have no fear Adam, DMS is here to help.

You're right, living in Waco is a hinderance to the hip music scene, but not like it once was. The internet has dramatically equalized things. And the really nice thing is that most bands offer their music to listen to for free on their website and/or myspace page. So the problem is: how do I find these bands?

Well, this list is as good a place to start as any. Not to toot my own horn, but go to the websites of the artists that I've listed. You can probably hear a track or two from their most recent (well reviewed) albums. For example, is streaming three songs from You in Reverse. Give a listen. TV on the Radio has a myspace page with songs.

Uh oh. Addy's waking up. More to come.

gk said...

Ok and we're back.

So yeah, so how do you find new music? Well, Ash would tell you to download rhapsody and pay $10 a month and you can listen to whatever and get suggestions. But some of us aren't made of $10 bills.

Top Album lists are a good place to go to and there's no shortage of those. Gorrila vs. Bear blog has a few with the added bonus of mp3 downloads of some of the tracks:

You know, since you're into the whole blogging thing.

Yes, living in Austin helps, but it's not the end all be all. People in Hannover, Indiana can be hipsters too. Having access to Waterloo Records - I think the only independent records store left in the U.S. - which lets you listen to the record before buying it sure helps.

Radio? Not really. Online? See above. Friends? Certainly. It's good to be surrounded by people as interested as you and can always find you cool bands. Though, Ash probably hates all the CDs I've listed. He thinks that there hasn't been a good album released since Bush's Sixteen Stone (ok, that was a low blow. nuttin but luv Ash!)

How many? Well, I probably buy about 10-12 new albums a year, maybe 5 used. Steph gets maybe 6-7. And I probably rip about 8-9 from friends.

Seriously, I think you'd like Built to Spill. And probably Midlake ( who also have three songs streaming from their website (two of which are "DSM Suggested Tracks" as are two of the Built To Spill tracks. "Roscoe" by midlake is one of my favorite songs of the year.

Hope that helps to start, since you're just wading in after all. Luckily, I know you (lucky for so many reasons) and I know what you like and can make the occasional recommendation - ESPECIALLY SINCE YOU'RE A SUFJAN FAN!

On a related note, if you love Sufjan's Illinois album, read the lengthy explanations of the songs. It's really amazing :

Adam said...

Thanks Geoff - your reply helps. I'm looking forward to checking out some of this music.