Guest Perspective: The Year In Music 2006

As I said before, though Crackle & Pop will primarily be me ranting through the night on topics none can follow, on occasion I will be passing along thoughts from friends and family. Today I am happy to share the thoughts of my friend Paul, who is actually able to listen to music and enjoy it(!), instead of merely looking to ridicule and judge with vitriol and condescension. This should come as a pleasant change of pace to my regular readers. Without further ado (and with how much I love ado, be grateful I’m practicing moderation over the Holidays), Paul’s best of ’06.

BEST ALBUMS OF 2006

2006 was a good, but strange, year for music in the genres that I enjoy.

There were very few memorable records in hard rock or straight rock. Other than the release of Monk and Coltrane’s Live at Carnegie Hall album, I can’t think of a great new jazz record that I heard.

I only heard a handful of really, really sharp progressive house mixes laid down in 2006 that moved me, unlike 2005, which was packed with superb grooves.

But 2006 saw an embarrassment of riches in what I call the “Americana” genre, which is a mish-mash of alternative country, Southern rock, roots rock, folk, folk-rock and acoustic music. It seemed at times of the year like there was a superb record in that genre being released every week.

And what made that output even more surprising is that my favorite artist in that genre, Wilco, didn’t release a studio album in 2006. Usually nothing tops a Wilco release for me in a certain year, but many of the new Americana records I heard this year stand up to anything Wilco ever has recorded.

It was a year for comebacks, too, as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and The Who released albums to critical acclaim. But were the albums really that good, or were the most-recent releases by these artists so mediocre to bad that even a decent record would be met with hosannas by critics? I lean toward the latter.

Dylan’s Modern Times was a strong record, but does it really compare with Blood on the Tracks? Hardly. Same with Endless Wire by The Who and The Seeger Sessions by Springsteen. Both solid records, but neither will be confused for Who’s Next or Nebraska.

Most year-end reviews list the top 10 albums of the year. But, like the amplifier used by the legendary Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap, this one goes to 11.

11. Vince Gill – These Days

Very few artists in any genre have the balls – or the material – to release a four-disc set. Ryan Adams released three albums in 2005, with one a double album, and the results were mixed at best. But damn it if Vince Gill didn’t pull it off with These Days. Gill had a distinct musical theme for each record – country rock, jazzy torch music, straight country and bluegrass/gospel – and each was superb. Put them together, and it’s the crowning achievement of Gill’s career, and a work that separates him from the rest of the Nashville set as the most talented male working in that often sterile, unimaginative world.

10. M. Ward – Post-War

Post-War proved that an artist doesn’t need volume or screaming vocals to be powerful. This is one of quietest, low-fi albums you’ll ever hear, but M. Ward’s excellent acoustic arrangements and understated, quiet delivery combine for one of the most enjoyable listens of the year.

9. Rosanne Cash – Black Cadillac

Very few artists in any genre of music lay their emotions bare more often or better than Rosanne Cash. She chronicled all of the emotions of her divorce from Rodney Crowell in the superb Interiors and matches the honesty and power of that masterpiece with Black Cadillac. The grief that Cash feels over the loss of her father, the legendary Johnny Cash, oozes from nearly every song on the album without being sappy, maudlin or depressing.

8. Eric Clapton & JJ Cale – The Road to Escondido

This is one of the best “front porch” albums I’ve heard in a long time. The Road to Escondido is a breezy, strumming record made by Clapton and one of his idols, JJ Cale. Most of the songs sound like they were recorded on the first or second take, with fairly simple arrangements. That led to a bit of a repetitive feel to the record, especially since Clapton and Cale sound so similar vocally. But the entire vibe of the album is so relaxed, and tracks like “Danger” are so strong, that I really enjoyed this record.

7. Derek Trucks – Songlines

Somewhere Duane Allman must be smiling, because his spiritual successor as the modern master of the slide guitar released a superb record. Trucks has been a prodigy almost from the minute he started playing guitar, but he has resisted the Steve Vai/Joe Satriani-like urge to show how technically superb he is at every instance. Instead, Trucks plays with passion, soul and technique right from the first notes of “Volunteered Slavery” to the very end of the record.

6. Drive-By Truckers – A Blessing and a Curse

Let’s get this out of the way quickly: A Blessing and a Curse is not as good as Southern Rock Opera. Then again, there are very few bands that release an album as masterful as that disc, and A Blessing and a Curse is still very, very good and would be a masterstroke for many bands. DBT moved away a bit from their Skynyrd influences with A Blessing and a Curse and became more sludgy and bluesy, sort of like The Stones in Exile on Main Street. And there’s not a damn thing wrong with that.

5. Dixie Chicks – Taking the Long Way

Lost in hubbub over Natalie Maines’ well-placed concert rant against George W. Bush at the start of the Iraq War was that The Dixie Chicks were one of the best bands in country music. But the girls advanced their craft to an entirely different level with Taking the Long Way, which is easily the best country album of the year. The vocal harmonies and musicianship of Maines and the Robison sisters are top-notch, and Maines takes aim and connects at her critics in “Not Ready to Make Nice.” The Dixie Chicks are way too good for Nashville, so the bumfuck-minded industry backlash from that insular, stifling town might be the best thing that ever happened to this band.

4. Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

The Voice. Ah, what a voice. Neko Case’s vocal chords clearly were blessed by the heavens, and she sounds absolutely sublime on this record, especially in “Margaret vs. Pauline” and “Hold On, Hold On.” The musical arrangements also are varied and interesting. But the lyrics indicate that Case either spent too much time in art school or reading literature that was out of her grasp, as references to harlots with ingots burned into their breasts reach way too far. If Case can corral her lyrical excesses and match those refined words with the music and vocals of this record, the result could be a masterstroke for the ages.

3. The Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America

Derivative? Check. Annoying vocal phrasing? Check. Make all the complaints you want about Craig Finn and The Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls in America, and it still stands up as the best straight-ahead rock album of the year. Boys and Girls is a rock album full of stories, not a collection of songs assembled by a record company. True rock albums are rare treats these days, and rock albums as cohesive and kicking as Boys and Girls are even more rare. Finn’s observational, confessional lyrics have been done before by the likes of Springsteen and Westerberg, but if you’re going to put your influences on your sleeve, those are pretty good badges to display. Plus The Hold Steady has more range than most think, as rockers like “Stuck Between Stations” and “Chips Ahoy” were balanced by ballads or slower tracks like “First Night” and “Southtown Girls.”

2. Robert Randolph and The Family Band – Colorblind

I’m starting to believe that there’s no style of music that Robert Randolph and The Family Band can’t play well. Colorblind is an exciting mix of funk, blues, hard rock, and soul. You hear plenty of hints of Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder on this record, with a sprinkle of the recently departed James Brown. But then Dave Matthews appears on “Love Is the Only Way In” and Eric Clapton guests on the sizzling cover of “Jesus Is Just Alright.” Most bands that attempt to mix and match this many styles on one album either miss the mark in a style or two or flail and fail. Not Randolph and The Family Band. This album just drips with energy and talent and deserves to be played louder than any other record on this list.

1. Los Lobos – The Town and the City

Los Lobos is a victim of its brilliance. As I scanned various year-end music reviews to see how many of my top 11 records ended up on critics’ lists, I didn’t see The Town and the City on one top-10 list. Are you shitting me? But that’s what happens when a band that has released superb record after record for nearly 30 years issues another gem. Brilliance almost becomes expected. And make no mistake about it – The Town and the City might be Los Lobos’ best record, standing up with Kiko among the band’s “greats.” The theme of the album is the plight of illegal Mexican immigrants, from fleeing their native land to making a living in America. There isn’t a weak track on this record, with “The Valley,” “The Road to Gila Bend” and “Little Things” the standouts. There is no “La Bamba” or “Don’t Worry Baby” on this record, as it’s an album of quiet, dignified power and one that makes more and more emotional connections with repeated listens.

On The One

James Brown is dead. Details and adulation available elsewhere.

I have a troubled relationship to James Brown’s music (I never knew the person, only the persona; his personal triumphs and failings – as documented in public – are a mixed bag, to say the least). I appreciate him greatly as an innovator, one of the greatest of the second half of the 20th century, but find it hard to like much of his recorded output. I’ve never warmed to him as a singer, which greatly limits the appeal of his pre-funk heights such as the lauded Live at the Apollo; he had more power to me as a vocalist, and I find I can somewhat get behind the emotive grunts, exhortations and exuberant sighs of the later funk recordings. I’ll freely admit that he seemed to always have a top notch backing group, from the Famous Flames to the JBs; the music was tight, the band seemingly united in a hive mind, and the grooves they could cut were a pleasure to hear.

Though I’ve heard the Star Time box set countless times (It came out just a few months before I began my stint as a record clerk, and James was one of the few musical meeting points between the older owners and the lowly grunts), I’ve never owned it; in a now somewhat eerie moment Sunday morning I again passed on a used copy at my local store, opting instead for the magisterial Mingus set Passions Of A Man. I find I don’t even listen to the one James Brown album I’ve ever owned, the pre-Star Time best-of The CD of JB (which I will gladly argue is better than 20 All-Time Greatest Hits merely because it includes my favorite Brown track, “Licking Stick – Licking Stick”). He just isn’t an artist that grabs or compels me to listen in more than a cursory way.

JB is a trailblazer, and without him I wouldn’t have artists I love, such as Sly & The Family Stone, the extended George Clinton/P-Funk family, Prince, and Fela Kuti. Though his music may not have touched me the way it did so many others, he indirectly has had a great effect on my musical tastes, and for this I offer my respect and thanks.

Rest in peace Mr. Brown.

Motion Picture Soundtrack (Another Rip List)

I usually get my meme on via Alex, but today Ian provides the latest variant list-making framework.

The rules:
1. Open your library (iTunes, Winamp, Media Player, iPod, etc).
2. Put it on shuffle.
3. Press play.
4. For every question, type the song that’s playing.
5. When you go to a new question, press the next button.
6. DON’T LIE! That’s not cool!

Opening Credits: “Transfiguration #1” – M. Ward.
A quiet opener, maybe like the slow move through the swamp in The Muppet Movie. Kermit could do the “sitting Muppet nod dance” to this quite easily. But then Dom DeLuise comes in and it all goes sour.

Waking Up: “Rich Girl” – Hall & Oates.
Great eighties montage song. You could see Ferris Bueller mirror primping to this, working in a nice peg-pant spin. Would work well with the themes of money and happiness in that movie as well. Hmmm.

First Day Of School: “Artificial Heart” – Yo La Tengo.
A sort of generic post-punky YLT song with lyrics from poet Ernest Noyes Brookings of Duplex Planet zine fame. Striking resemblance to “Warsaw” by Joy Division. I guess it would be okay for the cool kid’s arrival in a Zach Braff version of Footloose. And yes that is damning with faint praise.

Falling In Love: “Pop, Popcorn Children” – Eldridge Holmes.
Great falling in love song! Who doesn’t fall for someone who can shake it? Plus, you can’t help but smile and be happy hearing this as James Brown doing “Dancing In The Street.”

Fight Song: “I Hold No Grudge” – Joy & The Hit Kids.
From a Krautrock sampler put together somewhere on the net (I’m sorry, but I don’t remember where), this is a Moog-driven psychedelic take on an early sixties girl-group style song. Not great for a fight, but works as an “aftermath of a win by the underdog” sequence. You know, fixing the collar, hands running back to straighten the mussed up hair kind of thing.

Breaking Up: “Goody Two Shoes” – Adam Ant.
Got to show your cards, amiright? Untraditional – it sure ain’t sad, but could be an interesting take if the focus is on the dumper v. the dumpee. No scat jokes, please.

Prom: “Joy Of Sound” – The Make-Up.
Born to hand jive, baby! We got clapping, grooves, and if you could get Ian Svenonious and co. to actually be the prom band in your movie, this scene would be classic.

Life: “Requiem For O.M.M.2” – Of Montreal.
Like Ian I don’t really get this category, but it is a great “looking back at better times” song. So, I guess that works…

Mental Breakdown: “Count Five or Six” – Cornelius.
Ha! I’m not cheating people. The energy and repetitive vocals here are perfect – just counting, with some orientation directives. Your mind goes out with a harmonic feedback squeal. Fitting.

Flashback: “Aquarium” – Robyn Hitchcock.
As if I could play a dozen tracks without him popping up. Looking back and not understanding makes this a good flashback song. Not a happy one, not with these lyrics: “Everything revolves around the sun/You know I’m gonna miss you when I’m gone.”

Getting Back Together: “Little Nut Tree” – The Melodians.
All about seeing true love in front of the little nut tree, and thanking the Lord for it. Kinda weak for this category – it is a “love at first sight” song. That rocksteady swing though – still magic.

Wedding: “Flying” – The Beatles.
Pretty melody, wonderful McCartney bass line. Stately, could be a good “walk down the aisle” song, as long as you get there before the flute part at the end (Yuck!). Not a wedding reception song.

Birth Of A Child: “Runnin’ Wild” – Django Reinhardt & co.
People give birth in Woody Allen films, so why not? That chugging Gypsy swing could be matched nicely with those shots of laborious breathing – “hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, arrr!”

Final Battle: “The Bed’s Too Big Without You (Mono version)” – The Police.
The menace in the introduction is palpable. Shame that Mary J. used it to no great effect a few years back. Wish it was slightly further into dub, though this mono version does compress and limit Sting’s voice in interesting ways. Let’s see – maybe cutting from eye to eye, no movement beyond a blink like in The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. I’m trying to make it work.

Death Scene: “Charlotte Anne” – Julian Cope.
Fragile, but a bright one, like a melting icicle. The lyrics are darker than the music, so
it might work for a happy passing, a redemptive sacrifice. Man, that spoken bit is a little too Spinal Tap. But then, Julian seems to be Nigel in some ways.

Funeral Song: “Tiny Steps” – Elvis Costello & The Attractions.
Someone isn’t happy with the mourners and wants to point fingers or something. Doesn’t work in the least.

End Credits: “Maggie’s Farm (live at Newport)” – Bob Dylan & his co-conspirators.
Dylan goes electric and drives the people out of the aisles. What’s done is done, and Pete Seeger and his apocryphal ax can’t change it. Go home, it’s over.

Public Thanks

I was just going to drop an email, but this started as a comment here and should be acknowledged here. Ian took the time to read my ramblings, think about the stuff I was praising and recommend me something he thought I would really like. I hereby thank him, praise him, symbolically wash his feet for the DEAD-ON recommendation of The Goslings.

Thanks to Ian, I have purchased the Spaceheater/Perfect Interior EP collection available on Crucial Blast Records (possibly available from your local purveyor of fine recorded goods, as mine was), and their latest work Grandeur Of Hair, which I ordered online from the Archive Records shop.

I listened to the new one first (because it arrived in yesterdays mail), but want to post my first impressions of the EP collection to start. Spaceheater/Perfect Interior is a compilation of the first two releases from this husband and wife team, originally on the Asaurus label in 2003 & 2004. These releases find the duo playing with feedback drone, guitar reverb and harmonic resonance in an ambient way, with moments of outright noise and/or reverential early nineties shoegazing loops. The song “Landing” brings to mind My Bloody Valentine. Throughout, vocals are buried, echo-ed and fuzzed into sounds human but not lyrical. There is some percussion, but not for timekeeping. Nothing on this album adheres to any pop sense of structure; no hooks, little repetition, no discernible overarching melodies. The Goslings may be a “nosie” band, but here they explore the noise as discreet elements.

Grandeur Of Hair shits all over the idea of discreet elements of sound. On Spaceheater/Perfect Interior a slow, rumbling wash of reverb-heavy guitar would repeat itself, forming a base from which to color the surrounding space with a clatter of tinny percussion or a high harmonic held just to the point of discomfort; on Grandeur Of Hair that heavy reverb is the tinny percussion, as pulsing, pounding storms of noise fill every nook, cranny and atom of space, overwhelming nuance in short order, an assault like the opening of Brotzmann’s Machine Gun. This is sound that rattles your innards.

The only thing comparable, for me, was seeing My Bloody Valentine live. The volume was overwhelming, but it was a livable level of discomfort before they launched into “You Made Me Realise”. For roughly fifteen minutes, pure noise berated and bludgeoned me, and the band took it up a notch every time that drumroll hit – the sound would peal downward, like it was sucked into a vortex created by the rapid-fire drums, then scream upward, seemingly louder and both angry and gleeful at it’s escape. After the show my head was perfectly clear – I was deafened but renewed, a slate wiped of all thoughts and worries. My body, however, was broken; my joints ached, my back screamed at me as I climbed into my car, my kidneys defined by their throbbing outlines in the small of my back.

Grandeur Of Hair somehow recreates that in the comfort of my living room. I chose to listen first with headphones, as my wife was home and I know full well this is not going to be her thing. After an hour I tried to get up and it seemed I could feel each separate vertebrae, a Jenga tower that could not possibly keep standing. And I had no thoughts. I was clean, brain-scraped like I hadn’t been in nearly fifteen years.

Thanks Ian. I needed that.

A Quick One While I’m Away

Random MP3 connection of the day – The Ramones “Beat On The Brat” and Joy Division “Love Will Tear Us Apart”.

“Beat On The Brat” is slower than I sing it in my head, very controlled and restrained in many ways. There is tension, as the song builds and you expect it to lurch forward wildly, but instead The Ramones hold it on the edge. Rather coolly in fact; they lock in the groove, and don’t really modulate at all. No song about gleeful, wanton violence has ever been this controlled.

Joy Division are clenched equally but for an opposite reason – no explosion, no outward aggression, just an impending implosion held in check. The simple keyboard line on “Love Will Tear Us Apart” does double duty, giving guidance to the notes of the chorus Ian Curtis hints at but doesn’t reach, and to blunt the attack of the drums. That drum tone is shockingly crisp, a biting cold snapping at your ears.

Neither Tommy Ramone nor Stephen Morris are given much credit in their respective band’s critical biographies, though Tommy’s replacement Marky has often pointed out the difficulty of replicating Tommy’s style. The aural distinctiveness of the time keepers hold both these songs on a razor’s edge, and back-to-back listening made me appreciate them both all the more.