Another year is drawing to a close, and that means its time for my annual meme, in which I select the top ten albums (in no particular order) that came out in 2006. This year, I’m also going to look at some of the albums I think were particularly disappointing (not merely bad, which is far too easy).
2006 was not a particularly impressive year for music—I can’t recall a single release that really blew me away as in past years. I suppose it’s still likely that I’ll find an undiscovered album, or listen to one that grows on me in such a way as to become my favorite (it wasn’t until this year that I really learned to appreciate Ulver’s Blood Inside for instance). I had to really work to come up with just ten albums I thought were really worthy of a “best-of” list. Then, too, I was rather conservative in my finding new music this year, so perhaps that has something to do with it.
It could be worse, however: I could be the sort of hack who includes goddamn Justin Timberlake on a Top 50 list. Not even that, but one who ranks Timberlake ahead of acts like Danielson or The Decemberists1.
So, without further ado, here are the albums (remember that these are in no particular order).
Comity • As Everything is a Tragedy
The real tragedy here is that Comity’s new album isn’t yet available west of the Atlantic. Comity, for those who don’t know, are a hyperliterate hardcore act from France. Their first EP, Andy Warhol Sucks was released with extra tracks in America by United Edge, but I’m still waiting for such an event with the new one.
This time, the album takes the form of a single long song, split up into 99 short tracks. The breadth of material doesn’t differ significantly from their debut, but Comity knows how to grindrockfunk it up with the best of them, and As Everything is a Tragedy doesn’t resort to any sophomore half-measures like clean vocals or ballads: this is 40+ minutes of solid, polyrhythmic madness.
Regina Spektor • Begin to Hope
Now that the opening track “Fidelity” has appeared on Grey’s Anatomy, Regina Spektor is everyone’s new darling. It doesn’t help that she’s a fox like Fiona Apple without the scariness and waifishness.
But as is sometimes the case with indie pop, her acclaim is well deserved: Begin to Hope is a really solid pop album, with Spektor and her piano at the helm, belting out songs that manage to be both light and quirky (“Fidelity”) and dark and moody (“Apres Moi”). If I may continue my comparison to Fiona Apple (and it’s my blog, so I may), she doesn’t have the sultry pipes that Apple does (though she comes awfully close), but Spektor uses her voice in many more ways than Apple has dared to in years, and to her credit, she manages to pull it off splendidly. This latest album also sees her experimenting with some less organic flourishes that weren’t present on her previous Soviet Kitsch, but not in an obnoxious way.
Red Sparowes • Every Red Heart Shines Toward the Red Sun
Whatever genre it is that Isis pioneered (post-something, I suspect. Post-hardcore? Post-metal?), the Red Sparowes take to new artistic heights, with the help of some of Isis’ members. This latest album from the group doesn’t blaze any new territory w.r.t. their debut, but given how damn good the debut was, that’s just fine. Every Red Heart Shines Toward the Red Sun uses as its conceptual fodder Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward; more specifically, the “Great Sparrow Campaign,” in which it was decreed that everyone should kill sparrows in order to stop their eating of grain. As a result, millions of sparrows died and even more locusts—now in the absence of their natural predator—came in, causing a famine in which millions of Chinese died. The concept forms a simple fable—ostensibly, one that remains topical even now—but of course if you didn’t read the long song titles, you’d never guess, because the style of music is soundscape-influenced instrumental.
The Decemberists • The Crane Wife
I had the pleasure of seeing The Decemberists play in Chicago last month, and it was truly awesome. Now, of course, they’ve been catapulted higher than ever by their brilliant (staged? genuine?) marketing ploy with The Colbert Report. I think that The Crane Wife is easily their best album, not only because their skills are more sharply honed each time, but because their songwriting chops are really getting a workout: the major thematic piece is a 3-part song based on a Japanese folktale, whose constituent parts comprise 15+ minutes of music. Add into that another 12+ minute prog rock piece based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest and you’ve got a combination of funky indie rock and hyperliterate songwriting that would make even the most hardened and cynical of music trendwhores squirm with auditory glee.
Kayo Dot • Dowsing Anemone With Copper Tongue
As much as a mourn the loss of the particular lineup, philosophy, and/or æsthetic that brought us Maudlin of the Well, I admit that I thoroughly enjoy its new incarnation, Kayo Dot. Browsing Anemone with Copper Tongue veers dangerously close to noodling itself into oblivion. The band’s figurehead, Toby Driver, is such a fan of odd and experimental musicmaking (in the spirit but not the style of Mike Patton’s weirder stuff) that he takes Dowsing… to some pretty dangerous precipices. It’s considerably less immediate and listenable than the previous offering, Choirs of the Eye2, and it’s certainly not for everyone, but I still find it fascinating and layered enough to be an amazing album.
Magyar Posse • Random Avenger
As if there was ever any doubt that Magyar Posse would make my Top Ten list, I now introduce Magyar Posse’s Random Avenger, the strangely-named3 Finnish group’s third album. It’s something of a departure from Kings of Time, insofar as the latter was more epic in feel, almost like a soundtrack, and Random Avenger has considerably more atomicity, even though the songs themselves are still long.
It feels like a genuine pop album this time, because the music is infused with a ceaseless beat, and is orchestrated such that it sounds bright and piquant, even when it’s supposed to be dark and brooding.
Russian Circles • Enter
This is another band that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing live (and buying their demo). They’re an upstart local band from Chicago, playing instrumental rock in the vein of Isis or the Red Sparowes, but not so grand or epic in scope. It’s rather grungy, actually: thinly scored and muddy (in a good way), stripped-down art rock. Enter, the band’s commercial debut, builds on the 4-song demo/e.p. that they self-released: it polishes the sound (it didn’t actually need much polishing) and added some more songs—nothing surprising or different—which makes for what I think of as essentially a 40-minute song.
I picked Enter not because I think that Russian Circles necessarily bring anything new and exciting to the table, but because they are a local band in its infancy that has already managed to pull off a really solid album (and a great live show), and I’m suitably impressed.
Tool • 10,000 Days
2001’s Lateralus might go down as one of my favorite albums of all time. It also makes it extraordinarily difficult to follow up. In the interim, frontman James Maynard Keenan has spent a lot of time recording with A Perfect Circle and doing other projects. When 10,000 Days finally came out, I was a little leery, and not without good reason. It’s a divisive album, and I find myself really liking only the first half (see the following section for more). The opening, “Vicarious,” hearkens more to the confrontational style of Ænima or even the more mild “Judith”-style spleen of A Perfect Circle. The highlight of the album for me is the two-part “Wings for Marie,” which Keenan wrote about his mother, Judith Marie. It has some really great motifs going on.
For a more in-depth look at 10,000 Days, see my earlier review.
A Hawk and a Hacksaw • The Way the Wind Blows
I am a relative newcomer to A Hawk and a Hacksaw, having only recently learned to love Darkness at Noon. To my considerable surprise, I learned there was a new album this year and rushed to find it. It is, if possible, even better than its predecessors, introducing an album-wide theme and other musical flourishes that make it a joy to listen to.
The style of music is still largely instrumental, incorporating plenty of Hispanic musical elements as well as those of Eastern Europe4, but introduces some vocal work in the mode of A Silver Mt. Zion: rough ensemble singing that has a certain warmth and softness to it. In this case, it’s used as the introductory and concluding themes, when listeners are told, “May you live every day of your life.”
Muse • Black Holes and Revelations
I said it before, and I’ll say it again: the new Muse album bit the big one. Unless you pine for the 1980s, there’s very little on Black Holes and Revelations to like. It’s a vastly overblown, exaggerated, synthesized… comic. Any of the solemn bombast of Absolution has vanished like a table cracker in a sandstorm. It would perhaps be tolerable if the album was merely boring, as most of the songs are: disposable rock ballad pieces, the sort which Muse does (already did) so well. But they don’t stop there; rather, they manage to go over the top and become completely tacky, be it in minute ways, or the entire length of “Knights of Cydonia,” which more or less defies description.
It’s either a novelty, or it’s a coaster. A serious album? Never.
The Mars Volta • Amputechture
Even though one commenter thinks I’m an “idot” for not liking it, I have nothing good to say about the latest Mars Volta album. Certainly, I liked their first two albums, even though they had begun to indulge in their own excesses by the time Frances the MuteAmputechture is a feckless rehashing of old ideas, without any of the neat hooks or interesting musical ideas that were present before. Oh goodness, they still try: Amputechture is full of the same 10+ minute songs, the same indecipherable I-have-a-dictionary-and-I’m-not-afraid-to-use-it approach to lyricism (which, ok, can be charming in an esoteric kind of way), the same musical postmodernism. But it never makes me want to rock out. I never feel like popping in Amputechture while I’m driving and pound the steering wheel in rhythm with the drumset, like—I admit it—I’ve done for both Deloused… and Frances the Mute.
Maybe it’s just a slump. Or maybe The Mars Volta always simply had a limited stock of ideas that have now been expended. At the very least, it seems that they can ride their accumulated good will with the indie crowd for another few albums, but I’m going to be wary from now on.
Tool • 10,000 Days
It’s something of a surprise that the same album should be on both my Top Ten list and my Most Disappointing Five (as it were) list at the same time. This year, Tool manages it.
I mentioned that the first half of the album is actually quite good, either with singles like “Vicarious” or the mini song cycle “Wings for Marie.” But after track 5—”The Pot”—the whole album slumps in irrelevance. It’s comprised of odd and unfulfilling interludes (one about LSD, apparently) and the 11 minute “Rosetta Stoned,” which might very well be the most boring Tool song ever put to tape. It feels like Tool just ran out of steam, recording something formulaic just to fill out the rest of the album. I can’t even bring myself to listen to the whole album anymore, generally just taking the first five tracks and excising the rest from my playlist. What a shame.
Mastodon • Blood Mountain
In today’s lesson, Mastodon show us how to get worse by not changing at all. Long the darling of metal magazines in the way that The Mars Volta were fellated by every trendy pop and indie columnist in existence, Mastodon must figure that the best way to stay on top is to record the same album every single time. I loved Remission, and even Leviathan was great, despite the fact that it only blazed new territory in the sense of being a concept album for a classic work of literature. Now, Blood Mountain, Mastodon’s first album for major player Reprise Records, is the same thing all over again. If you really, really like Mastodon, I suppose this is just fine, but you could save money just by listening to their first two albums an extra time.
- Every day, it seems, Pitchfork cements their irrelevancy in my mind—trendiness tends to fission once it’s reached a critical mass[↩]
- Choirs of the Eye was, after all, essentially a Maudlin album, mostly written before the dissolution. Dowsing… is Driver’s creation, much more like his solo work than anything done under the Maudlin umbrella[↩]
- The magyars are an ethnic group in Hungary[↩]
- Yes, it’s as interesting a combination as it sounds[↩]