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.
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.
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.