The *ahem* "long-awaited" list of my best of the year picks. I puzzled over this for quite some time, initially intending it to incorporate the experimental/instrumental/ambient/whatever albums I loved this year as well. When it got right down and dirty it was too difficult to rank such disparate albums side by side. So I split the difference and decided to put a top 30 experimental/instrumental/etc. album of the year over at the Surgery Radio blog. Check it soon (i.e. around January 15th)
(reviews will be filled in slowly and painfully over the next couple of weeks)
01 TV On The Radio - Return To Cookie Mountain (Interscope)
Can an album be considered the best of the year and not necessarily your favourite? That is the case with TVOTR's funky ladder climb to post-indie excellence in 2006. Cookie Mountain finds a sound that arc-welds RnB, Industrial, Jazz and a half dozen other styles but doesn't come off as a soulless patchwork. The five piece unofficially bear the torch that Prince dropped post-Black Album and light the way for new acts daring to challenge notions of genre's relation to race. It's density of sound and content is the album's best friend and worst enemy, warding off those who prefer their modern rock in quick fixes. I may not continue listening to it the most in 2007, but each time I put it on I'll try to listen at my best.
02 Xiu Xiu - The Air Force (5 Rue Christine)
Challenging was a big watchword in my listening choices this year. Band leader Jamie Stewart has thrown his gauntlet down five times previously and the reasons for addressing the taunts have been great but uneven. The trajectory begun with 2003's A Promise, zipped through 2004's Fabulous Muscles but got a little off course in 2005's La Foret. This effort crashes back on track and speeds onto new broken ground. The tipping point for Xiu Xiu has always been how far they are able to push the song form (quite far here) and still have a melody to let it collapse around. The Air Force appears to have been crafted on a marble pivot that facilitates all the teetering and tottering any stomach can stand.
03 The Walkmen - A Hundred Miles Off (Record Collection)
Yes, Hamilton Leithauser sings a little like Bob Dylan circa Blonde on Blonde... however, given that Dylan himself is widely gifted with accolades for an album that transparently pickpockets all his familiar forebears (and his own back catalogue) where's the harm in a little side betting? The NYC five piece never generated the buzz fellow travellers like The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs have enjoyed, probably because they neither sounded as lived-in or lifted-out as either of those bands. What they've managed to craft for three albums now is a personalized template of sound where the bass is the best one note pulse since early Adam Clayton, the drums are the messy crash of cutlery from the next room and a guitar whose distortion pedal is soaked in absinthe from the last pre-reunion Velvet Underground show. You can beat that? Show me.
04 Yo La Tengo - I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass (Matador)
I am not a YLT mega-fan, though I am one of the few in my select circle who enjoyed Summer Sun (their last studio album from 2003). Hearing this record and seeing them in Montreal this past October ups their stock for me. The album that got me interested in them initially was Electr-O-Pura in 1995, and this new album is every bit as eclectic... i.e. sounds like a mix tape of singles by 10 different great bands... and has the best title of any album this past year.
05 Sufjan Stevens - The Avalanche (Asthmatic Kitty)
While it didn't have the same over-arcing structure that made last year's Illinois so unputdownable (2005's #1 album here), the overflow of tracks from that same project makes one wonder if SS has a bottom to his songwriting chops. As heretical as perhaps it is to say, there are better songs here... like Adlai Stevenson, a clap-along history lesson about cold war gamesmanship, and Pittsfield, a gentle homily for absentee parents. Perhaps three different versions of Chicago was unnecessary, but that's a minor league quibble.
06 Rock Plaza Central - Are We Not Horses? (Rock Plaza Central)
Just over ten years back a copy of Quantum Butterass fell into my hands through a complicated series of machine-driven coincidences. In this first RPC release (not counting an early cassette demo) I found a creaky poetry that was equal parts tongue-in-cheek and heart-on-sleeve. It was that rare (more-or-less) self-released CD that didn't either disappear into the shelf or get recycled for it's jewel case. This fifth release has a producer, Dale Morningstar, in common with the debut... but while RPC started as mostly Sackville, NBs Chris Eaton it has lately become a full fledged band. Are We Not Horses is a cycle of laments, elegies, ecstatic exclamations all written from the horse's point of view. It seems they have a lot on their minds.
***metacritc (not available)
07 Arab Strap - The Last Romance (Transdreamer)
Sixth and final studio album for the professionally miserable duo from Scotland, capping a decade long career of charting the way relationships can be fucked up. Upon first listen it sounds remarkably upbeat and bouncy given the group's proclivity for inch-along minimalist drum machine/guitar arrangements that match their bone dry observations. Giving the lyrics a twice over, the illusion of a kinder gentler Strap goes poof with the opening lines, "Burn the sheets that we just fucked in...." Confessions of a Big Brother is a satirical warning to a new generation of lotharios against the woman-as-object approach to romance. If you approach broken hearts from both the give and get directions Arab Strap have your soundtrack ready.
08 Ekkehard Ehlers - A Life Without Fear (Staubgold)
This is a strange choice, I suppose... and might belong more in the experimental list... but for all that it is a blues album first. Ehlers is a German artist that has a sterling track record for undertaking projects that seldom duplicate style or function. Betrieb was a miniaturization of Classical music themes into bits 'n clicks electronica. Plays was a series of homages to mavericks in both music and film such as Albert Ayler and John Cassavetes. This album explores the blues tradition in different angles, such as standards like Stanley Bros. O Death, sounding as though it's being sung from the trunk of a Cadillac being pulled into the bowels of the earth. Ehlers also casts his gaze further back to the roots of both blues and its ecstatic Christian parallel with a visit to African folk music and mbira themes upon the "Marys," both Mother and Magdalene in that continent's tradition. The end result is a work that has a foot in the boneyard of blues tradition and a jagged step into its possible future.
***metacritic (not available)
09 Grizzly Bear - Yellow House (Warp)
Edward Droste's first release as Grizzly Bear, Horn of Plenty, has been gradually swept aloft on the shoulders of hip critics for its atmospheric confessional take on bedroom pop. After it spawned a companion disc of remixes by equally hip electronic artists (Four Tet, ), Droste expanded membership to include a group of jazz-trained sidemen who convened in a Yellow Cape Cod house to work out a new but stylistically consistent chapter for Grizzly Bear. The band borrows little sparkly bits from 70s progressive rock (ELO, Genesis), 60s psychedelia (Beatles, Pink Floyd) and 80s romanticism (OMD, Spandau Ballet). The album is warm and fuzzy, like a favourite sweater; but one you've just gotten back from an ex-girlfriend who has pulled threads and infused new scents, making it also strangely new, and melancholy.
10 Liars - Drum’s Not Dead (Mute)
Like Xiu Xiu, NYC's The Liars play rock music that pushes the boundaries of what songs and song cycles can accomplish. Following the their last release, a critically undervalued album about witches and their persecution, The Liars unabashedly crack open the code of concept albums for a tale of struggle between the characters Drum and Mt. Heart Attack. What all of this is about is up for debate and chat room insults, but it's undeniably forward thinking, rhythmically driven and aggressively unbalanced in the way that the best Wire, P.I.L. and Mission of Burma albums were in the 70s and 80s.
11 Damien Jurado - And Now That I'm In Your Shadow (Secretly Canadian)
12 The Decemberists - The Crane Wife (Capitol)
13 Joanna Newsom - Ys (Drag City)
14 Califone - Roots & Crowns (Thrill Jockey)
15 Band Of Horses - Everything All The Time (Sub Pop)
16 Bonnie "Prince" Billy - The Letting Go (Drag City)
17 Adem - Love and Other Planets (Domino)
18 Islands - Return To The Sea (Equator)
19 Thom Yorke - The Eraser (XL)
20 The Ladies - They Mean Us (Temporary Residence)
21 Alexander Tucker - Furrowed Brow (ATP)
22 Jason Molina - Let Me Go Let Me Go Let Me Go (Secretly Canadian)
___Magnolia Electric Co. - Fading Trails (Secretly Canadian)
23 Oxford Collapse - Remember the Night Parties (Sub Pop)
24 Ladyhawk - S/T (Storyboard)
25 Six Organs Of Admittance - The Sun Awakens (Drag City)
26 Juana Molina - Son (Domino)
27 David Pajo - 1968 (Drag City)
28 Benoît Pioulard - Précis (Kranky)
29 Micah P Hinson - Micah P Hinson and the Opera Circuit (Jade Tree)
30 Tapes 'n Tapes - The Loon (XL)
31 Destroyer - Destroyer's Rubies (Merge)
32 CSS - Cansei De Ser Sexy (Sub Pop)
33 Charalambides - A Vintage Burden (Kranky)
34 Eric Chenaux - Dull Lights (Constellation)
35 Pink Mountaintops - Axis Of Evol (Scratch)
36 Centro-Matic - Fort Recovery (Misra)
37 Eric Bachman - To The Races (Saddle Creek)
38 Midlake - The Trials Of Van Occupanther (Bella Union)
39 The Mountain Goats - Get Lonely (4AD)
40 Boduf Songs - Lion Devours The Sun (Kranky)
41 Swan Lake - Beast Moans (Scratch)
42 Carla Bozulich - Evangelista (Constellation)
43 Joan Of Arc - Eventually, All at Once (Record Label)
44 The Hidden Cameras - AWOO (Outside)
45 Sparklehorse - Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly Of A Mountain (Astralworks)
46 Wooden Wand & The Sky High Band - Second Attention (Kill Rock Stars)
47 Blood Meridian - Kick Up The Dust (Outside)
48 Cursive - Happy Hollow (Saddle Creek)
49 ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead - So Divided (Interscope)
50 Mogwai - Mr. Beast (Matador)