2006: The First Six Months
My Ten Favorite
Scott Walker - The Drift (4AD)
What it is: Experimental avant-pop
Undoubtedly, Scott Walker's The Drift is the most hyped album so far this year. Before I had even heard it, I had been reading reviews for weeks in the Guardian, NME and Pitchfork, all saying the same thing -- brilliant, genius, unparalleled...hell, Stylus even called it "the best record so far this century". So what if I had some high expectations? Think about it: a master of the pop and the avant-garde, releasing a record he had been writing for over a decade with a 40-person orchestra.
The album plays like a concept album about the freakishly bizarre: an obliterated Elvis Presley hunched over the toilet, talking to his stillborn brother, cossacks charging into fields of white roses, donkey-punching in the streets of Dublin. Topics such as these might be ruined with a less formidable force, but (forgive me for saying this) Walker knocks 'em out of the park. His delicate croon sits atop a soaring atonal string section, never once relenting. Have you ever thought about what it would be like to hear the soundtrack to every Hitchcock movie compressed into 58 minutes? Welcome to my life.
I think what Mojo said about The Drift is the most correct, though: "It could be high art, or it could be bollocks. Either way, it's lovely."
Thom Yorke - The Eraser (XL)
What it is: Thom Yorke
What puzzled me in my first few listens of this record was that it sounded very much like a Radiohead record. In fact, it may as well be, because Thom Yorke seems like he is Radiohead on The Eraser, playing an assortment of instruments and crooning his famous off-kilter wail. I think Alex Martin gave the best summary of this album when she called it post-modern classical. "You have to listen for the notes he's not playing." The often silly jazz adage is in this case true -- Yorke makes it very clear, especially in tracks like "Skip Divided" and "Cymbal Rush" that he's willfully depriving us of structural integrity -- that we are to construct it for ourselves.
At the end of the day, The Eraser is something we have come to expect from Thom Yorke, a masterful piece of art on par with any of his other works. And that's not to say it's by any means mediocre -- Yorke may very well be our generation's most innovative musician.
Sufjan Stevens - The Avalanche (Asthmatic Kitty)
What it is: Orch-pop
I am absolutely appalled by the fact that 22 songs Sufjan rejected for his last record is one of my favorite ten records of the last six months. Does that say that music just sucks these days? Or that Sufjan really is one of the most prolific songwriters today? I would vote the latter, because I don't think my ears fool me when I hear a song as touching as "Pittsfield" at the end of an outtakes album. Or how about "Adlai Stevenson" which, after a couple dozen listens, still manages to confuse with its five string counterparts.
Like Illinois and Michigan before it, The Avalanche tells of pain and desertion, ascension and absolution. The songs are no less complex, poetic or engaging. Change the words and this could be Sufjan's album about Indiana, Rhode Island, Minnesota, or Wyoming, and it could be indie rock's latest masterpiece. What Sufjan continues to accomplish is the creation of truly original, inspiring music. Black Francis, tomorrow this could be you.
Liars - Drum's Not Dead (Mute)
What it is: An indie dance band with two drummers and a delay pedal
I had completely abandoned my personal copy of Drum's Not Dead until a transmission from Thom Yorke's Dead Air Space blog gave me reason to have another listen. It's message was simple: Thom Yorke fucking adores this record, and, therefore, I must give it a second chance. Turns out, Mr. Yorke was right -- this is a much more mature, personable, and satisfying record that anything I could have expected from a band that penned "There's Always Room on the Broom" just two years ago.
"It Fit When I Was a Kid" is predictable territory for Liars, but they put a unique spin on it this time -- two minutes into the monotone, pulsing droner, the drum line fades out and a melodic guitar line blends into soothing "oohs" and "ahhs". It worked on They Threw Us In a Ditch and Put a Monument on Top, and it still works now. "The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack", on the other hand, is a completely new direction for the band -- a gentle and pleasurable ballad that many blogs I've read have called the unparalleled song of the year. It's not that I don't agree, it's that I'm too overwhelmed by the quality of the album as a whole to focus on its details. You just have to listen -- it's more than Berlin, a history, or the sum of its parts.
Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid - The Exchange Sessions (Domino)
What it is: Experimental jazz
"Hebden's own taste tends toward those people who have always been outside of the fashions of the day, among them the free-jazz musician Pharoah Sanders and the German avant-garde rock band Can. "I think the ultimate achievement in music is when you manage to change people's perception of what's possible while, at the same time, producing something that connects with them instantly," he says. "Windowlicker by the Aphex Twin and Get Ur Freak On by Missy Elliott are not like anything ever done before, but everyone who hears them understands them straight away. That's the kind of music that changes history. It's pop music that does not rely on nostalgia."
The current climate of pop music doesn't sit well with Hebden. For the past two years, one band after another has got huge by rehashing the classic rock sounds of the 1960s and 70s, and the tide doesn't look as though it's going to turn for some time yet. The Australian retro-rock band Jet, in particular, inspire Hebden's wrath. "I'd rather listen to 15 Emma Bunton albums than a single song by Jet, who I think are the most offensive band in the world right now. They are militantly retro, combined with this ugly arrogance. Jet say that they want to be like the Rolling Stones, who are, they claim, the only good band in the world. But when the Stones made their great albums, that wasn't their attitude at all - their ears were open to so much." -- The Guardian, April 2006
Beirut - Gulag Orkestar (Badabing!)
What it is: Balkan folk music meets indie rock
We said it couldn't be done a hundred times before -- a teenage boy putting pen to paper and crafting a truly enjoyable work of art with purpose and technique. Zachary Condon exceeded all of our expectations by not only making us dance, and think, but using a fucking Balkan orchestra to do so. There's two accordions, a full string section, a timpani played by the other guy in Neutral Milk Hotel, and even some belly slapping -- take that, Broken Social Scene!
There's more to Gulag Orkestar that simple teenage aggression -- "Postcards from Italy" is probably the best song of the year, opening with a gentle ukelele bounce and exploding into a full-on waltzing parade. That's not to say that we don't have the typical bombastic dirge here and there -- "Scenic World" is a page out of the Jens Lekman book, leaving plenty to the imagination as Condon sings a simple melody over Casio melodica. What keeps us coming back for more, though, is not that Gulag Orkestar is the best or most intelligent record of the year. It's that Condon has the ability to become this generation's saving grace.
Matmos - The Rose Has Teeth In The Mouth of a Beast (Matador)
What it is: Concept art/ambient electonica
Ambient electronic group Matmos (a.k.a. Bjork's backing band) have built a career out of peculiarity and secrecy, but their latest on Matador, The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast takes the cake. On their seventh full-length, the San Franciscan duo have taken the concept album to new heights, dedicating each sound collage to a person who has influenced them. There's a song about Darby Crash (late lead singer of the Germs), Valerie Solanas (famed feminist writer) and even the famous pervert, Boyd McDonald. The best, however, is Matmos's take on William S. Burroughs. The track opens with the clack of a typewriter. Soon a blur of backwards-looped snares join and the typewriter noises swing into a dizzying pulse. I think there's even some excerpts read by Drew Daniel himself.
For a group that is so frequently overpraised, Matmos have really succeeded in making their sound simultaneously captivating and blindingly dissonant. And they actually released an album without bragging about the laundry list of "instruments" used in the making of the record. Here's a list of some of them, straight from the horse's mouth:
amplified crayfish nerve tissue, the pages of bibles turning, a bowed five string banjo, slowed down whistles and kisses, water hitting copper plates, the runout groove of a vinyl record, a $5.00 electric guitar, liposuction surgery, cameras and VCRs, chin implant surgery, contact microphones on human hair, violins, rat cages, tanks of helium, violas, human skulls, cellos, peck horns, tubas, cards shuffling, field recordings of conversations in hot tubs, frequency response tests for defective hearing aids, a steel guitar recorded in a sewer...
Tom Zé - Estudando o Pagode (Luaka Bop)
What it is: Brazilian samba operetta
A seasoned session guitarist by age 20, and a legend by his early 30s, Tom Zé is the epitome of Brazilian pop stardom. Throughout his illustrious career, he has continued to challenge classic pop structure and narrative by singing about things that pushed people's buttons. Zé's latest, Estudando o Pagode, is a look into our modern world: one where we have not moved forward, but backwards. Women are still treated unjustly, quakes Zé, and we must do something immediately. That is not to say that Zé's effort is merely feminist -- it touches on all important social issues of our time: homosexuality, racism and social injustice.
Of course, albums cannot be successful on concept alone, and Zé succeeds in creating a work that not only evokes great passion but also will make you fuckin' dance. How could you go wrong?
Danielson - Ships (Secretly Canadian)
What it is: Indie pop
I was a little skeptical about the new Danielson record when people started praising it. I know he was Sufjan's mentor and everything, and, as a fan of indie folk, I'm supposed to want to rub myself in anything Mr. Stevens is vaguely related to, but I still wasn't ever that psyched about Daniel Smith. Until now. Ships is Daniel Smith's most unique record so far, featuring an impressive cast of players: members of Why?, Deerhoof, Serena Maneesh all contribute. Plus, I can actually listen to it without getting a headache! It's wonderful and catchy! I like it a lot, I think.
I'm going to recommend this record to anyone who likes indie pop, especially the Shins or the New Pornographers or anything else that sings about strange things. It's fun, and definitely worth your time. It even got a resounding thumbs up from Jens Lekman!
Adem - Love and Other Planets (Domino)
What it is: Folk-pop with some electronics
It's a rare and unique occurence when I feel genuinely safe with a record, though that was the case with Adem Ilhan's 2004 release Homesongs. The album was a sprawling opus, malleable in form and texture, gentle and bewildering without sacrificing power. I listened to "Gone Away" so much that the words started blurring together and meaning nothing. It was the sound I desired, the cooing of the melodica, the aura of safety.
Two years later, not much has changed. A step farther from his experimentalist role in Fridge, Love and Other Planets shows Adem working with a full-time percussionist -- adding a depth that Homesongs never truly achieved. But Adem never lets percussion overshadow the brilliant songwriting. "Launch Yourself" buzzes into a frenzy of handclaps and delicate harmonies before a driving 4/4 beat even enters. "Spirals", on the other hand, is classic Adem territory...just him and an acoustic guitar, gently picked arpeggios, singin' about love...ah. I don't think I breathed once through the whole song.
Am I always going to brag about how I played tambourine for him at the Avalon? Until the day I die.
Johnny Cash - American V: A Hundred Highways (Lost Highway; July 4) - Finished a mere few days before his death, American V: A Hundred Highways proved to be Cash's final recording (duh), and will be released on July 4th (how fitting). Rick Rubin produced it and says it's Cash's most powerful statement in years. Will it be the Olatunji Concert of our generation? We'll find out on Independence Day...
James Figurine - Mistake Mistake Mistake Mistake Mistake (Plug Research; July 25) - Though he very recently signed to Sub Pop under his Dntel moniker, James Tamborello will be releasing his debut as James Figurine on Plug Research this August. Unlike Dntel, which showcases Tamborello's ability to sound like the Postal Service on amphetamines (or just being in the band), James Figurine is an ol'-fashioned man and his guitar...and a lot of electronics. Mmm.
TV on the Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain (Interscope; August 1) - There's a record floating around on the internet since February that claims to be an unmastered version of the Brookyln sextet's Interscope debut, but I have yet to get up the courage to try it on for size. It comes out in September.
Matthew Friedberger - Winter Woman/Holy Ghost Language School (859; August 8) - With the first week of August comes this Fiery Furnace's solo debut. It will surely be a double album full of the blips, backwards vocals and ripping atonal guitar solos we've come to expect from this guy.
Bob Dylan - Modern Times (Sony; August 29) - Dylan's first real studio album since 2001's Time Out of Mind...lots of questions. Is he going to come out of the gates blazing like our ol' bud Neil Young did? Or is it just going to be back to business for "the greatest living songwriter"? I think this is going to be a pleasant surprise. He helped us out in every war he's been alive for thus far, how could I believe this would be different?
Grizzly Bear - Yellow House (Warp; September 5) - According to all literature even vaguely referencing the creation of Yellow House, this is a record that was set out to be a "difficult listen". I always like to hear that, especially from a band that has, until now, prided themselves on the poppier and more accessible side of free-folk. Of course, with the "cool" scene of the moment, there will always be doubts, but I have faith in Grizzly Bear.
Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Then the Letting Go (Drag City; September 19) - Last year's Superwolf collaboration with Matt Sweeney was positively dreary, and 2004's Greatest Palace Music was a glorified covers record with slick Nashville production, so I'm hoping this one will be a return to basics for Big Willie Oldham. I loved I See a Darkness and Days in the Wake...I don't want to lose him before at least one more grand statement.
Decemberists - The Crane Wife (Interscope; October 3) - The Decemberists have finally announced a title and date for their major label debut -- it's The Crane Wife, and we'll hear it on October 12th. According to a Capitol rep, the album was originally supposed to be a double album and was fashioned down to fit on the standard 80-minute CD. Meloy, have you lost your mind?
Micah P. Hinson - Micah P. Hinson and the Opera Circuit (Sketchbook/Jade Tree; October 10) - He's been compared to Elliott Smith, Conor Oberst, Alex Chilton and Bob Dylan (huh?), but Micah P. Hinson is his own depressed self, as we saw on 2005's The Gospel of Progress, a thinly veiled piece on broken romance. I'm a sucker for it all -- his voice, the mushy topics, singer/songwriter droopiness...ah.
Akron/Family - Meek Warrior (Young God; October 10) - The fact that Akron/Family were even in the studio was revealed last week, and two days ago, they announce the October release of Meek Warrior. This one promises to be an even more controlled chaos bath which will hopefully get them a lot more attention than last year's superb self-titled affair.
Guns 'n Roses - Chinese Democracy (A&M; ?) - It's been in the making for a decade and a half, and according to walking time bomb Axl Rose, the album is being completed and will be released sometime this fall. Do we believe him this time? It's on the list, now, isn't it?