The Brilliance of 2006 - Part One
by Joel Caris
I discovered a lot of great music in 2006. In particular, the second half of the year treated me very well, which is always exciting. Just a year or two ago, I often went through long stretches during which I could find little new music I really liked. I would purchase CDs that looked promising, but they would often be mediocre at best and would garner no more than a couple listens. This year, though, I've really gotten into the new forms of folk and delved deeper into the plethora of great indie rock that exists, all while supplementing it with some more traditional tastes of mine, such as the occasional decent emo album and main stream alternative release. Using that strategy has made for a fantastic year of music.
Now, since it's the end of the year and everyone's doing their lists and talking about the best albums of the year, I'm going to join the party. If there's one thing I am, after all, it's a follower. So this column is the first part of my best of 2006 list. Before I delve into it, though, let me clarify exactly what this list is. It is not my favorite albums released in 2006, though many of the following albums are from this year. Instead, the list consists of my favorite discovered albums in 2006. All of these are albums that I really started to listen to and love this year. Typically, that means I both acquired them and first listened to them in 2006, but for a few of these, it means that I acquired them before this year and perhaps even listened to them once or twice pre-2006, but that I didn't really discover them until this year.
Also, I did not limit the list to a specific number. I included all of my favorite albums from this past year. There were other albums I liked, granted—including others I really liked—but these are the best-loved. The elite, as it were. This column, Part One, will have seven random favorites from the year. Part Two—which should run next Thursday, December 28—will have the rest of my 2006 favorites, as well as a few near-favorites and perhaps a couple other random musings.
Again, there's no order to this list. There's no way I could actually rank these albums.
Cursive - Happy Hollow (2006)
I've been listening to Cursive for a few years now and they've become one of my favorite bands. They perform some excellent, crazy indie rock. I see them classified as emo at times, but I think that's a stretch. I don't actually know how you would describe their sound. Discordant, cacophonous melody? It's a crazy mishmash of guitars and a wide array of other instruments—a horn section, piano, accordion, god knows what else—and it all roils together into an off-kilter but compelling package that serves to underscore the lead singer's crazed, tortured voice. However you want to describe their sound, it's great.
This is their newest album, released this year, and at first I didn't like it nearly so much as their other discs—particularly the brilliant The Ugly Organ and the even-more-brilliant Domestica. The album ended up winning me over as I listened to it while spending hours partaking in futile-seeming weed whacking. I was able to completely concentrate on the music during this time and I started to really listen to the lyrics. I realized the whole damn album was about this one small town rife with problems and dysfunctions, misery and heartache, and I fell in love with the album. It all clicked into place and my entire opinion of the CD was transformed for the better. (And yes, I can be a little slow on the uptake when it comes to paying attention to the lyrics in music. It's something I'm working on.)
I still wouldn't put this album up there with their previously-mentioned releases, but it's a strong, cohesive, and compelling album that tells a relatively complicated and complete story. It's an accomplished and ambitious album, creating and describing an entire small town, all with the trademark Cursive sound. I can't help but love it.
Dorothy At Forty (MP3)
Bad Sects (MP3)
The Decemberists - Picaresque (2004)
Every time I listen to this album, I will be left thinking about my orientation in the AmeriCorps program at the beginning of 2006. I was listening to this album non-stop in my car at that point, having finally discovered it after knowing about it for at least a year. I kept seeing it, hearing about it, having it recommended to me, but the one time I tried to listen to it, whatever song I had on just didn't grab me. So it faded to the background and I paid it no more heed—until the first couple weeks of 2006 when, for whatever reason, I decided to give it another shot. The damn thing grabbed me and wouldn't let go. I must have listened to it for a couple weeks straight, becoming particularly obsessed with the nine minute, accordion-backed, sea shanty story-song, "The Mariner's Revenge Song.”
Trust me, you would be obsessed with it too, if only you knew it.
The whole album is fantastic, though, and the sound is quite unique. The lead singer's voice is strange and their lyrics are complex and literary, often with a focus on maritime themes, and usually with a historical bent. The songs typically tell a fairly straight forward story, as well, rather than dwelling primarily in ethereal emotion. It's really something you need to hear for yourself, and Picaresque is a fine starting point, if you're interested. It's well worth a listen if you're unfamiliar with them.
The Mariner's Revenge Song (Link to website with MP3)
The Engine Driver (MP3)
The Clash - London Calling (1979)
Yeah, yeah, I know, I'm behind the times. But it's never too late to discover a brilliant album. Of course, this album may be straining my guidelines for this list, because I knew many of the songs on it before I actually, finally bought the damn thing this year. I was introduced to The Clash long ago by my roommate—who's kind of obsessed with Joe Strummer—and I have heard many of the songs off London Calling multiple times in her presence. Yet, this is the year that I actually bought the album and I feel compelled to include it in this list simply because it's so fucking good. Here's the simple reality: there were multiple songs off the album I already loved, but this thing has 19 goddamn tracks on it and almost every single one is great. What do you do with an album like that, other than just worship it?
Before I actually bought the album, I didn't know about "Jimmy Jazz," I wasn't too familiar with "Brand New Cadillac," I had no great knowledge of "Clampdown." "Spanish Bombs?" Jesus! And so on and so on. This is just a purely great album, start to finish, and it has to be one of the most justified, hugely popular albums I've ever had the pleasure of listening to. So sure, I knew all about "London Calling" and "Train in Vain" but I didn't really know. Thus, while I may be about 27 years late, I'm happy I finally made it to the party.
Two Gallants - What The Toll Tells (2006)
I think I discovered these guys simply while browsing around the Saddle Creek website. I listened to "Las Cruces Jail" and was knocked on my ass. The song was some kind of crazy Old West punk. That's always how I think of them. Every time I listen to them, I'm left picturing deserts and cactus, sagebrush, old and dusty ghost towns and squat, concrete prisons, thirst and dehydration and desperation. You can't go wrong with that. I've never heard another band that sounds quite like them.
"Las Cruces Jail," which is the album's first song, opens with the sound of wind whistling over a barren desert landscape, setting the mood perfectly for what's to follow. Much as The Decemberists trade in historical and maritime themes, Two Gallants deals in themes of the Old West—murder, revenge, individualism, the harsh realities of an unforgiving landscape. The instrumentation is essentially just guitar and drums, but they bring folk and blues influences that play perfectly into their unique, story-driven lyrics. I don't know what else to say about these guys. Just give them a try. You might find yourself fascinated.
Las Cruces Jail (MP3)
Waves of Grain (MP3)
Sufjan Stevens - Songs For Christmas (2006)
I used to love Christmas music. I was a sucker for all kinds of sappy, traditional songs. I loved Jewel's and Mariah Carey's Christmas albums, amongst others. But for years now, the Christmas music just hasn't worked as much for me. I can still listen to it without wanting to kill myself, but I avoid it for the most part. Of course, that's impossible this time of year, but I at least don't specifically put on Christmas music when I'm outside of, you know, any and all public places, where you have to listen to it whether you want to or not.
The last two weeks, however, have returned to me the joys of Christmas music, thanks to this album. More specifically, it's five albums (albeit, short ones). Since 2001—excepting 2004—Sufjan Stevens has recorded a Christmas EP each year, distributing it to friends and family. For 2006, his record label gathered them all together, along with this year's recording, and released this box set a month ago. The result is utterly fantastic. There are 42 tracks in all, 17 of which are original.
Stevens has an indie folk rock thing going on that's worked brilliantly on his regular albums and works just as brilliantly when applied to traditional Christmas songs—as well as original Christmas songs. He creates unique and beautiful takes on old classics while crafting new songs that have the signature sound of his other work, but which still properly incorporate Christmas and religious themes. I really can't say how much listening to this album has rejuvenated my interest in Christmas music—or, this Christmas music, specifically. While I've always felt many traditional Christmas songs beautiful, they often are not done justice. Stevens does them justice and, at the same time, makes them new and unique, applying his own sound to them to great effect. His voice and musical style is perfectly suited to Christmas songs.
If you like Christmas music at all, get this set. Unfortunately, it seems to be hard to find. (You can, however, listen to a stream of it right here.) I got it through eMusic, and if you're willing to sign up with them at least temporarily and shell out about ten bucks, you can get it, as well, in the form of legal, high quality MP3s without any ridiculous copy protection schemes.
(I swear, I wasn't paid to write that last paragraph. I just love eMusic and don't hesitate to sing its praises.)
Songs For Christmas (Stream of entire box set)
Spoon - Gimme Fiction (2005)
Why the hell did it take me so long to start listening to these guys? This is another band I kept hearing about back in 2005, but I never got around to actually listening to Gimme Fiction, even though it had been recommended to me multiple times. I think I may have listened to a couple songs once, but they didn't really pull me in. Then I gave the album another try, listening to it all the way through a few times, and pretty quickly I fell in love with it. There were quite a few days when I loaded up the iPod, turned on this album, and went for a long walk along a nearby hiking trail, content and in musical bliss. "I Summon You" is a particular favorite off this album and is a song that's never really grown old for me. Strangely enough, while I had been listening to the album and enjoying the hell out of it, it wasn't until I read an article by Stephen King proclaiming the genius of "I Summon You" that I really gave the song a couple of close listens and realized that he was right—it truly was an amazing song. I went from liking it to loving it and it's stayed my favorite track from this album.
As I said, I'm nothing if not a follower.
I Summon You (Stripped Down Demo – MP3)
I Turn My Camera On (MP3)
Eric Bachmann - To The Races (2006)
I have a long love affair with Eric Bachmann. He's the lead singer of Crooked Fingers, which is one of my favorite bands. This year he released a solo CD through Saddle Creek (a label which pretty much dominates my music soul) and it's a great album. Interestingly, though, I didn't come to fully love it until the last few weeks, after I saw him live. I liked the CD leading up to that, definitely, but listening to the songs live just altered them for me, shifted them in my mind, and left me in love with much of the music. The concert was mesmerizing—both for the amazing performance by Bachmann as well as for the general fascination I had with Miranda Brown, who is also in Crooked Fingers and performed back up vocals as well as various instrumental work during the concert. She was incredible and I couldn't take my eyes off her for much of the concert.
But don't think this is just an infatuation with a woman. This really is a great album and very much in the same vein as Crooked Fingers, yet more sparse and stripped down. Bachmann can do some nice picking on his guitar and his music has a definite folk tinge to it, but goes beyond that. Outside of the excellent guitar work, you'll find some harmonica and violin and possibly other instrumentals I'm forgetting.
The first song, "Man O' War" is incredible. That's all I really need to say about it. If you're curious about this album at all, listen to "Man O' War." You'll know if you want to keep listening.
Carrboro Woman (MP3)
Lonesome Warrior (MP3)
That's it for Part One. Come back in a week for the rest of my 2006 picks.
Joel claims that despite all appearances, he is not a hippie