Best of 2006

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Top 10 2006; 1

[ed. note: if you didn’t see this coming, well … I must not have talked about it enough. No one had the guts to guess except Chad! His #1 was M. Ward’s “Post-War,” which is a great album even though it didn’t make my list.]

The Mountain Goats
Get Lonely
In Corolla (removed. contact me for a copy.)

When the villagers come to my door,
I’ll be all tucked away with my face to the floor and my eyes closed.
And no one knows how to keep secrets ’round here;
they tell everyone everything, soon as they know.
And then where is there for poor sinners to go?

If John Darnielle’s Alpha saga were actually a Campbellian monomyth, “Get Lonely” would be the moment that the hero emerges from the underworld, rubbing his eyes against the light. He has spent a long time in the underworld and fought many evils, but has emerged triumphant, with a new vision of himself. He’s a hero … isn’t he?

He asks passersby what year it is, and they name a date at least a hundred years in the future. Everything has changed; people don’t greet him the same way; the language is faster and the weather is colder. When he walks down the street, he can feel the looks like bugs on his skin. Eventually he goes outside only when he needs to; then he starts staying inside all the time. He’s waiting for something — he just doesn’t know what. It will probably be bad, though.

Saw you on the crosstown bus today.
You were reading a magazine.
I turned my face away and I shut my eyes tight
and dreamed about the flowers that hide from the light
on dark hillsides
in the hidden places.

I feel sorry for those people that dismissed “Get Lonely” because it didn’t drip with vitriol like “the Sunset Tree” — they missed the point so hard. This isn’t an album that lashes out, smacking at enemies in that self-centered teenage way. Instead it’s grown up, sadder but wiser, and its protagonist alternates between noticing the smallest details of his new world and crawling inside himself to cry in a metaphorical corner. Darnielle’s creation is as flawed as the rest of us — maybe more so — and so his loneliness alternates between the hope of “Woke Up New,” which [gets] ready for the future to arrive, and the bleak resignation of waiting for exposure in “New Monster Avenue”:

Greenhouse full of butcher’s broom, breezes at my back.
Some time before the sun comes up, the earth is gonna crack.
I look down at my hands, like they were mirrors.

Fresh coffee at sunrise, warm my lips against the cup.
Been waiting such a long time now, my number’s finally coming up.
All the neighbors come on out to their front porches, waving torches.

The lyrics go around and around in circles, a man saying his prayers every morning with a whip. Memories become overwhelming: spend all night in the company of ghosts, always wake up alone. The listener reaches the conclusion that maybe the solution was just as bad as the problem. Now the hero is alone, having shed his worst enemy, but he has gotten lonely. And lonely is like the island in Narnia where all your dreams come true — you thought you knew what you were asking for, but it turns out that what you asked for wants to eat you, whole.

On the last track, “In Corolla,” the hero sinks into a swamp — literal or metaphoric, it doesn’t really matter — unable to leave behind the past, unable to enter the future.

And no one was gonna come and get me.
There wasn’t anybody gonna know.
Even though I leave a trail of burnt things in my wake
every single place I go.

Because he is an extraordinary writer, Darnielle must have known that he couldn’t top bitterness with bitterness. If poetry doesn’t evolve and move on, it dies. “Get Lonely” is evolution, beautifully chronicled in all its stark pain. Best album of 2006, I salute you.

[see Best of 2006 for more]


Top 10 2006; 2

[ed. note — anyone that wants to guess #1, feel free to drop a comment. If you guess right, I’ll upload one (non-protected) song of your choice from my iTunes playlist (careful, it’s a long list).]

Regina Spektor
Begin To Hope
On the Radio (removed. contact me for a copy.)

Another album that blindsided me; I was not a Spektor fan before this year. Her vocal pyrotechnics made me sort of uncomfortable — even though I used to listen to Tori bang on her piano and howl, listening to “Uh-Merica” was just a little much for me. Just a personal thing, I think, and it kept me from beautiful songs like “Ne Me Quitte Pas” and “Reading Time With Pickle.” So I was very glad to find on “Begin To Hope” that she’s polished everything up. The pyrotechnics are still there, but damped a little bit. This probably bugs the heck out of devoted listeners, but it increases Spektor’s accessibility and since she gets VH-1 time and a Logan/Veronica kiss scene on “Veronica Mars,” I’d say that it’s successful on the whole.

Spektor’s songwriting is gold caliber — it’s almost impossible to pick the best-written. They feel classic, almost archetypal — let’s consider “On the Radio” for a minute. It starts out irreverent:

This is how it works — it feels a little worse /
than when we drove our hearse right through that screaming crowd

and eventually segues into this beautiful, minimal summary of the human condition:

This is how it works — you’re young until you’re not /
you love until you don’t / you try until you can’t.
You laugh until you cry / you cry until you laugh; /
and everyone must breathe until their dying breath.

and then she goes and tops it with:

No, this is how it works — you peer inside yourself /
You take the things you like and try to love the things you took /
And then you take that love you made and stick it into some
Someone else’s heart pumping someone else’s blood /
And walking arm in arm you hope it don’t get harmed /
But even if it does you’ll just do it all again

Basically, a more succinct representation of the joy and folly of love, you could not find. I could go on all day, but it wouldn’t do that song justice. And what’s more, all the songs on the album are like that. “Apres Moi” is in three languages, for crying out loud. “Summer in the City” juxtaposes the cheerfulness of summer with personal loneliness: Summer in the city, I’m so lonely lonely lonely / so I went to a protest just to rub up against strangers. And “Lady” is beautifully bluesy, with that fabulous refrain I can sing this song so blue / that you will cry in spite of you / little wet tears on your baby’s shoulder / little wet tears on your baby’s shoulder.

Spektor has managed to strike a balance between songwriting, singing, originality, and theatricality that is unmatched this year. I have listened to “Begin To Hope” about a hundred times so far, and I’m sure I’ll listen to it a hundred more. And if you’re like me and you would have liked “Soviet Kitsch” but it was a little raw, please give this album a try. It’s practically perfect in every way*.

[see Best of 2006 for more]
[*please don’t sue me, Disney.]


Top 10 2006; 3

The Black Keys
Magic Potion
Black Door (removed. contact me for a copy.)

I have categorized, analyzed, and agonized over the selections for this list. I killed brain cells trying to figure out who should be #11 and who #12, etc. But luckily my top three were easy; and this album would have been #1 if there hadn’t been, you know, those other two pesky records in the way. It’s the only album that I bought, full price, from Borders, just because I saw it on display and had to have it.

This album has no contemporaries, but it has peers: it reminds me intensely of many hours I spent in my room at seventeen, memorizing every word to every album Led Zeppelin ever put out (and subsequently Pink Floyd, etc.). Auerbach and Carney simply lead a war on idiot pop, from the charge of the very first chord to the guitar-smashing that (I presume) occurs at the end of each song. I know they don’t like to be called bluesmen, but I hope they don’t mind me calling it blues rock, because this is blues rock at its finest — witness the fuzzy 70s-esque “Black Door,” which could have easily appeared on a Zeppelin record. I imagine a Black Keys concert (if they ever come out here!) will be the substitute for the Zeppelin concert I could never attend, with the added bonus that I’ll never have to hear “Living Loving Maid” or “The Lemon Song.”

I’ve said “I” too much in this overview, but this is the only album on the list that is just … visceral. This is music for my blood, which is blues, and my muscles, which are rock (if you’re wondering about my brain, it’s indie. Heh). It’s music in a grand tradition, one that shouldn’t have died out but basically has. Luckily, the Black Keys can bring it back to life like a lightning bolt.

[see Best of 2006 for more]


Top 10 2006; 4

[ed. note — lots of other cool top 10 posts at Largehearted Boy. I love seeing how my top ten compares/contrasts with everyone else’s. Neatski!]

[ed. note 2 — YANP has a radio rip of the new Arcade Fire song that premiered on the BBC. It is AWESOME, people. It gave me chills.]

Jeffrey Foucault
Ghost Repeater
Signature Sounds
Wild Waste and Welter (removed. contact me for a copy.)

Having spent six years studying contemporary American poetry, I admit a certain impatience with the deliberately obfuscating lyric. I’m not of the Ashbery school; if I have to dig through every line to make sense out of a song, (i.e., Ms. Case at #7), then it falls in my estimation. I like a certain amount of beautiful, easily interpretable symbolism in my poetry; I like a well-built, concrete image. And since I consider music to be the last bastion of accessible poetry, one of the factors I look for in a best-of-year album is … accessible poetry. That’s probably why my favorite albums are blues, alt-country, and folk/Americana. Foucault could fit each of these genres, so I guess I love this album three times as much.

“Ghost Repeater” is a Midwest elegiac; Foucault’s leitmotif is the human soul’s breakdown in the face of relentless hedonism. It’s part nostalgia, part grief, and it’s beautifully stark. Over top of the mourning guitars comes Foucault’s voice and the sparing harmony: They’re selling heart attacks on credit, and shadows on a screen / And they’ll grind your bones to dust in this American machine. ‘They’ is like the protagonists of American Gods — the faceless entities who want to acquire your humanity in exchange for currency.

The album isn’t a warning that we’re about to wreck our hearts and souls — it’s already buried us and is crying over our graves. Even the narrator isn’t exempt: in “Train To Jackson,” he says, so I set all my clothes on fire; sold my soul to any buyer / wrapped my heart in concertina wire and showed it for a song. It’s an old theme, tied up in the blues, and Foucault just does it up so beautifully that it makes you promise, just a little, that you’ll be better. That you’ll look inwards for a minute and see if there’s anything still there.

[see Best of 2006 for more]


Top 10 2006; 5

The Decemberists
The Crane Wife
After the Bombs (removed. contact me for a copy.)

First, I’m going to concede all points. Yes, the Decemberists make music for nerds. Yes, they’ve been overhyped this year. Yes, they have a schtick. Yes, Colin Meloy does sing out of the side of his mouth. All right? Moving on. I’ll grant that the music isn’t for everyone, but it has excellent qualities that still put it head and shoulders above the pack.

Second, let’s note the problems. The album is supposed to have a theme, but it isn’t executed very well. The crane wife sections are put in backwards (which is fine) and slapped in randomly with the Civil War songs, sea chanties, murder ballads, etc (not fine). On previous albums, since they weren’t trying for a theme per se, the random mix of songs was great. On this one, the crane wife story, such as it is, gets subsumed by the (shorter, better) other songs.

I know Meloy talked in most of his interviews about trying to buck the “major label” label by recording longer songs, not just those pop-friendly four minute dealies. Two problems with that — first, what’s wrong with pop-friendly four minute dealies? Secondly, trying too hard results in songs like the literally (but badly) titled “The Island/Come And See/The Landlord’s Daughter/You’ll Not Feel the Drowning.” If this tripartite monster had been separated, then the listener would have been able to have a great nautically flavored 70s rock takeoff (“The Island/Come and See”), a Jethro Tull murder ballad (“The Landlord’s Daughter”), and a rough sailor’s lullabye (“You’ll Not Feel…”). And 12 tracks instead of 10 (don’t even get me started on some great songs that were left off the album and made into “bonus tracks,” either).

So thirdly, let’s put all that aside and let’s consider the songs that meet and match the gold standard that Meloy has executed since “Her Majesty…”. Consider “O Valencia,” so overplayed because people love a duel with pistols at dawn, girls getting shot by mistake, and a brokenhearted lover vowing to burn the city down. Or Laura Veirs’s smooth duet on “Yankee Bayonet,” and classic lines like But you are in the ground / with the wolves and the weevils all achew on your bones so dry. And my absolute favorite line from “Sons and Daughters”: we’ll fill our mouths with cinnamon. I interpret “Sons and Daughters” as an emigration song, and those six words subtly encapsulate all emigrants’ hopes for luxury and wealth. Some of these songs approach sheer perfection, and more than make up for any picky flaws. Congratulations to the Decemberists — they’ve done it again.


Camera Obscura
Let’s Get Out Of This Country
I Need All the Friends I Can Get (removed. contact me for a copy.)

This album came out of left field and smacked me in the face. I’d never listened to any Camera Obscura; never mind that they’ve been around ten years, I’d never even heard of them; and I don’t even listen to Scottish bands (unless you count that one song by Big Country), so “sounds like Belle & Sebastian” is a meaningless term. Sure, the blogs have been all over “Let’s Get Out” for months, but I’m slow on the uptake. But what makes this album so ultra-consumable? In spite of its uber-confessionalism, everyone’s put it on their year-end lists. And in a world where indie bloggers are male and early twenties, it surprises me. What does everyone like so much about this album?

Here’s my working theory. Number one, Tracyanne Campbell’s beautiful but accessible voice. You can imagine her coming into your place, plopping down on your couch, and telling you all about the rough night she just had. She’s your friend. She’s good-looking, but in an approachable way. Number two, the music is what it says it is. No having to dig through it trying to find out what it all meeeeans. This is music for anyone who wants to break up with a girl or boyfriend; with a job; with their parents; with their rent; with life. It’s a simple theme, but it resonates deeply with the listener, who is likely disaffected in some way (if you’re perfectly happy, feel free to put your head on your desk till I’m done talking).

Number three, every song on the album is a variation on the theme — you know the theme. It’s the title of the album. So I took one line from each song (10 total) and mixed them up and made my own Camera Obscura song. Now I just have to get Campbell to sing it for me:

Tell me where it all went wrong
Oh let’s not pretend I needed the lesson that you taught me well
I can tell you this for nothing / you won’t win
You can’t see that she’s just the same as all the stupid people you hate

I’ll admit I am bored with me
I like it my way with no limitation
I’ve got my life of complication here to sort out
Do you think it’s time I put it out of my mind
Expecting softness can lead to foolishness
Who’s being pessimistic now?

It’s deceptively easy music; you think to yourself, but why did she need to write ten songs about the same thing? Well, my answer would be that it’s in human nature to rehash your complaints. This album is the girl friend that calls you up every night to ask you why her man left her, what did she do wrong, next time she won’t make that mistake, he was a jerk anyway. Or the guy who comes in every day and says, “Today I’m definitely finding a new job. I can’t work with these people anymore.” We work through our problems that way, rethinking the problem in order to solve it.


Top 10 2006; 7

Neko Case
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
John Saw That Number (removed. contact me for a copy.)

Putting a finger down on “Fox Confessor” is difficult. Case has crafted an album out of vagueness and specificity; myth and religion; murder and love; saints and serial killers. Finding the points where they intersect requires all the listener’s attention. In an April interview with Pitchfork, Case noted that her songwriting was “kind of a collage style. I realized that it had more emotional weight that way.” That affects the larger aspects of the songs — even the P’fork reporter admitted that he couldn’t follow what she was saying half the time. Perhaps that’s part of the collagey oeuvre, though — you’re supposed to look at the collection of words, but not try to separate them from one another.

When she wants to be, however, Case is a mistress of the concrete image. Everyone who’s heard “Star Witness” can recite that creepy first line: My true love drowned in a dirty old pan of oil that did run from the block / of a Falcon sedan, nineteen sixty-nine, / the papers said ‘seventy-five. I love the little detail of “did run” instead of “ran.” It’s archaic, more formal; like the murderer is writing it down in his (or her?) journal so he can remember it later. There’s also a great line from “That Teenage Feeling”: We can only laugh at these regrets, common as a winter cold / they’re telephone poles. They follow each other / one, after another, after another. Short, sweet, to the point.

In the same P’fork interview, Case says, “I tend to work in a way where I say what I need to say and get out rather than revisit things.” This is one of her greatest strengths. Since her subject matter is esoteric, there might be a tendency to overexplain (I’m looking at you, C. Meloy). But even when employing the mysterious Fox Confessor archetype, Case gets in and gets out; the song is short, cryptic, and saturated with myth, leaving the viewer with the same doubts as the narrator: Will i ever see you again? / will there be no one above me to put my faith in?

The best track to my mind is “Hold On, Hold On,” which harks back to the alt-country (or country noir, if you ask Case) genre that most people peg her as. It hits my weak spot, with its sarcastic, lucid lyrics: I leave the party at three a.m. / alone, thank G*d. With a valium from the bride / it’s the devil I love. Another standout is “John Saw That Number,” a little religious ditty that describes an angel as having the moon in his fists / and the stars round his wrists. Even just considering Case’s beautiful voice and harmonies, “Fox Confessor” has outsung most of the female output this year. So I’m toeing the party line with this album — it’s not a disc where you get it all on the first listen, but the more you hear it, the more there is to like.


Top 10 2006; 8

Rocky Votolato
Makers (removed. contact me for a copy.)

At the risk of getting disgustingly personal, I want to talk about a feeling. No, no, don’t run off! I think you’ve felt it too. Let me try to describe it — suppose you’re standing somewhere very beautiful. In the area that I live, it’s the beach; facing the Pacific Ocean is a transcendent experience, no matter how many times you do it. So anyway, you’re standing somewhere very beautiful. Your choice of place. But you know you have to leave that place — you can’t stand there forever. So at the same time that you’re awash in beauty, you’re sad because you have to leave it. Now it’s important here; you can’t be sad after you leave. You have to be sad at the exact same time that you’re the happiest. Have you had that feeling? Of course you have. Well, there’s probably a word for that feeling in German or French. In English, it’s called Votolato.

Minimalism is the name of Votolato’s game; in less words than it takes me to write that first paragraph (thankfully!), he nails the heart of it. Life keeps on changing / tell it to stay still but it won’t listen / I just want you near me like you are now for good, he says, and All those evenings on the back deck of our first apartment / they meant everything but the wind just carried them off / and you can’t go back now / just a passing moment gone. Perhaps some of you reading this are making a face at the screen. Sentimental nonsense, you’re thinking. Well, it isn’t something that the 18 to 24 demographic can quite pick up on, but as life goes on, it speeds up. Where is the secret magic past world that you only notice when you look back at it / and all I want to do is turn around? One day you look up, and years have gone by like miles on the highway, and you aren’t really sure where they went.

Though he sometimes descends into the same twisted phrasery that made “Suicide Medicine” hard to follow (i.e., from “She Was Only In It…,” she swore out the lights when she dammed herself to sleep / her thirteenth finger my whiskey drink), almost every song on “Makers” is perfectly listenable. In homage to Votolato’s talent for turn of phrase, I named this site after one of the finest images I have had the pleasure of hearing: heaven or heavenless, we’re all headed for the same sweet darkness.

This record is the best definition of folk music, in that it’s music by a person, for people, about things we’ve all felt. I’ve seen Votolato perform twice, and he’s an unassuming guy. You’d walk right past him on the street, but then he picks up a guitar and starts tapping his boots and suddenly he’s bringing life to life. And to my mind, it’s music like this that stays with you: it is the function of music, after all, to resound with the listener; to say, “I understand”; to strike true.


Top 10 2006; 9

Band Of Horses
Everything All the Time
Sub Pop
I Go To the Barn Because I Like the

I put Band of Horses into my top ten to prove that I’m a liar. I always tell myself that lyrics make the music, and if they’re no good, then the music fails. But deep down in my heart I know it’s not true. I also know that millions of folks out there place little to no value on the lyrical quality of music. Some even listen to (gasp!) pieces that are completely instrumental. And it would be a shame to give into my first impulse and dismiss “Everything” based simply on Bridwell’s garbledy lyrics.

As justification, I use an article I read at The Red Alert. The interviewer, Adam McKibben, addresses this very point (conveniently):

McKibben: I wanted to get your take on something one reviewer said: basically, he wrote that your lyrics are deliberately impressionistic, that there’s no lyric sheet because the listener isn;t really meant to follow along with the words.

Bridwell: Yeah, that would be correct. There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors with the way I try to express things, just to kind of let the listener choose their own kind of adventure. Or let them find different meanings by garbling some words here and there. In the demos, I did a lot more of that, but Phil was pretty insistent on my enunciation. I mean, I knew what I was talking about, but I try to leave a little mystery there.

First of all, Phil, whoever you are: thanks from the bottom of my tiny, ice-encrusted heart. Second, let’s get the mean things out of the way: I think that in part, “leaving the mystery” is a cop-out. The interview also says that “Everything” is Bridwell’s first turn at songwriting, even though this is his second band. I’ve spent a lot of time in textual analysis, and “I knew what I was talking about” is often enough an excuse on the writer’s part in order not to have to explain him or herself. Add in Bridwell’s mushy delivery, and there’s a lot of breakdown between the medium and the message.

But what’s the message anyway? If I take Bridwell at face value, then the smooshiness and the repetetive, blanky lyrics are all deliberate. (For instance: If ever beat down, we know who we are / They know we all want more, from “The Great Salt Lake,” or Count on us all stepping on our own toes tonight from “Our Swords”). And if the message is known only by the singer, then it’s perfectly writerly: listeners are free to impose their own interpretation, or, likelier, to ignore interpretation altogether. This goes completely against my grain. I can barely do it — you see how I just spent three paragraphs talking about lyrics even though Bridwell doesn’t care if I do or not.

Maybe instead of superanalysis, the listener needs to treat “Everything” like a Pissarro or a Morisot — step back, squint a little, and take it in without thinking too hard. Impressionist music, to misuse a term, seems to invite the listener to hear how sound creates ambience. Bridwell’s distinctive voice; the slow, silky harmony on “Saint Augustine”; the bits of phrase that float up to the surface once in awhile; the blippy guitar that leads “Funeral” and then the beat kickstarting what could arguably be my most popular song of 2006 (certainly I listened to it about five million times). This is as close to shoegaze as I ever get, and it’s enjoyable, as long as I step outside my comfort zone and take the disc for what it is, rather than what I wish it were.


Top 10 2006; 10

My Brightest Diamond
Bring Me the Workhorse
Asthmatic Kitty
The Robin’s Jar (removed. contact me for a copy.)

What separates a person’s music and puts them ahead of the pack, so to speak? How can an artist make her or himself so well known that within three bars, the listener will say, “I recognize that”? In this age of consumption, names and sounds blend together. Songs are downloaded and discarded, as ephemeral as the pixels that strike your screen. Artists work hard for a recognizable musical identity, and many fail.

In an interview at The Torture Garden, Shara Worden commented:

. . . so when a rock or pop singer comes for [voice] lessons, they often find themselves in this dilemma of identity. What is me? What is my voice? How much of the voice can I change with study and technique, and still be me? . . . But changing takes time, consistent work and a flexible mind that is willing to try new things to discover a different outcome. That is a very vulnerable and sometimes scary process. To gain control sometimes you have to let go.

“Bring Me the Workhorse” is a disc where the artist takes her own advice, trying vocal experimentalism. It works in some places, and in some it doesn’t. Half the artists on the 11-20 list can outwrite her; some examples are: this is a ride going nowhere but somewhere that I despise, from “Gone Away”; I once saw a dragonfly caught in a spider’s web / as I looked at her once more, I though that she was … dead, from “Dragonfly”; and the very awful “The Good And the Bad Guy,” so aptly titled, because she mentions about eighty times that he’s … you know … the bad guy (except when he’s the good guy, of course). And she’s oddly preoccupied with animals: robins, rabbits, insects, spiders, horses, etc.

But! In execution, she is daring, spellbinding, investing her text with enough interest to make it worth listening to. The way she uses her voice reminds me of indie nonpareil Jeff Mangum; they both simply drip with passion. In “Freak Out,” her voice rises from the lower registers of tear his heart out, tear his heart out to a manic command — freak out! Freak out! The beautiful instrumental backup is the springboard for her lyrical high dives.

The best track on “Workhorse” is number eight, “The Robin’s Jar,” which combines the best of her writing with the passion in her voice. The song starts out with finding a dead robin:

We found a robin in our backyard
it was already dead, but we were so sure
that things weren’t gone too far
so we prayed to God above that he’d bring it back to us
and we put it in a jar and waited; and waited.
but mommma made us bury it
momma made us bury it in the backyard

Standard enough fare for the album, but the second verse juxtaposes the robin (in the jar) with the death of the narrator’s best friend. Said friend is “the brightest star in the room” and when something mysterious happens to her (I can’t make it out in the lyrics), Worden’s voice intensifies some already creepy lyrics:

we prayed to God above that he’d bring her back to us
so we put her in a box
we put her in a box and waited for something to happen;
but nothing happened
momma made me bury her
momma made me bury her
momma made me bury her
in the backyard

If you add up the childish faith of the narrator and her stubborn refusal to believe that dead is dead, it’s a memorable set of images. “Bring Me the Workhorse” has moments where everything comes together just like that. Worden’s ability to take a leap out into experimental territory and try something new resulted in a disc which isn’t perfect by any means, but the potential in it, and the result when lyric and vocals click together, goes a long way toward creating an identity memorable enough for any listener to connect with.



[Forgive any spelling errors (if I missed something). I was up half the night with an annoying almost-two-year-old.]

Rhett Miller
The Believer
The Verve Forecast
Fireflies (with Rachel Yamagata)

It’s no secret how much I love alt-country, and Rhett Miller embodies everything that’s right about it. No pretensions here (except perhaps in the area of his hair and his purple suit), no tarting up country to make it sound like something else. No screwing around with the format, damn it. It doesn’t need tarting up; it just needs broken hearts and love and sadness and Miller’s signature voice on “My Valentine” mourning, you say you love me / but you treat me unkind.

I read that the title track was also written as a reaction to Elliott Smith’s suicide, something that might interest all you Smith fans. Miller addresses a variety of themes, including the adorably cheesy “Question,” which ends the disc with on a note of sweet optimism.

Karsh Kale
Broken English
Six Degrees
Dancing At Sunset

“Broken English” is like the ultimate mashup, where instead of combining two songs, Kale combines three cultures. And of course it’s all original, so no one gets sued. And it’s perfect for the car, the grocery store, or whatever mundane errand needs a little spice.

Kale called the disc “Broken English” in reaction to the assumption that some people made about him — that he is Indian, so he couldn’t possibly speak English well. They are, of course, wrong, and Kale laughs at their shallowness with his flawless prose: People want to be free / free to decide / free to follow the wind / to see what they may find.

Casiotone For the Painfully Alone
Toby Take A Bow

Casiotone For the Painfully Alone has no equivalent; if you’re a fan, you’re a fan, and if you’re not, you’re off listening to something else anyway. It must be nice to be free of anxiety of influence; the only previous releases Ashworth has to be worried about are his own.

The album is just full of standalone pieces, each one telling a story: the strange, defiant Toby; Bobby Malone, who has to go back to his folks; the girl who wishes last night had never happened; the boy who is desperate to know where his lover has come back from. Ashworth (and sometimes Jenn Herbinson, and a rotating cast of backup) bring you into the story, and then part of it stays with you. Or perhaps you never leave it.

Amy Millan
Honey From the Tombs
Arts & Crafts
Come Home Loaded Roadie

From beginning to end, Millan spins a perfect ambience of country-rock-folk around the listener. Whiskey is mentioned, and broken hearts, and someone is called “baby.” I love it; I love every minute of it. It’s only as far down on the list as it is because it’s not new in any way. But it’s so flawless that I will probably end up listening to it most often next year.

Millan’s voice is perfect for the material; when she sings, what’s the use / you go to war at daybreak / so pour me up another before bed, you’re at the bar with her and she’s telling you all about it, and you understand perfectly, even if you have no broken heart of your own. What I’m trying to say is, she brings out the whiskey in us all.

Dreamt For Light Years In the Belly Of A Mountain
See the Light

Mark Linkous was creating rock tinged with alt-country before it had a cool moniker, which makes it even sweeter that he can turn out such a beautiful piece of poetry eleven years after “vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot.” If you overlook Sparklehorse for any reason, you are missing out on North Carolina’s best export.

Whatever Linkous has gone through in the past few years, it seems it’s only made him stronger. I stayed in a lake of fire / my bed was an ancient pyre, he sings in “See the Light,” and his poetic gift turns the music from simply mic-whispering into something almost oracular, foretelling your future in his own burning experience.

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I’m going to change the blog’s focus for a little while. Partly to avoid Good Hodgkins syndrome and partly because if something is the best of 2006, it deserves a little more time than three paragraphs, and partly because I’m a writer, and I need to write about different stuff sometimes. So instead of having a wide, enormous focus like I’ve had since June (and will have again), I’m going to focus the rest of the year on the … best of the year. Hopefully it will turn out all right.

I literally spent weeks agonizing over my best of 2006 list. Is this normal? Doubtful. But I hate making lists; that is, I prefer to look at other peoples’ lists and yell, “What? Where’s so-and-so! Loser!” So now you get to yell at my list. I got my top three all right; then I had to keep going, and rearranging, and relistening … well. I actually have a top 20 now. So today we’re going to look at numbers twenty through sixteen in my list. You can click on the album for a buy link, and there will be a sample mp3 in the blue square. Keep in mind, I firmly believe that you could not go amiss buying these albums (or at least picking through them on iTunes if you’re not an album buyer).

Scott H. Biram
Graveyard Shift
Bloodshot Records
Long Fingernail

In spite of some of the skeevier elements of this album, the rest of it remains impossible not to listen to. Biram’s growly lyrics conjure up those old religious days of hellfire and brimstone, when Jesus was a narrow-eyed disciplinarian, leaning over you to make sure you did your lessons right. If you did — salvation! If not, well … Biram’s there to console you.

The strongest songs on the album are at the beginning and end of the album: the middle descends into good-old-boyness and songs about trucks; too country for me. But everything starts off with a bang: “Been Down Too Long” is a great opener, with a perfect summary of Biram’s aesthetic: Well, all I want in this creation / is a good-lovin’ woman and a long vacation. “Only Jesus” is the impetus for the paragraph above, and “Long Fingernail” brings up the Devil to torment a man with a broken heart. All in all, if you ever need someone to scream with you someday, there is no one better than Biram.

Nouvelle Vague
Bande A Part
The Perfect Kiss Records
Sweet & Tender Hooligan (live)

All I ever hear about this album is how it’s not as good as the first one. Lucky me, then — I never heard the first one. Also, I’m so fond of this idea that they can put out five more albums and I’ll buy into them all. How is it that a French band gets the idea to take “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” and add bossa nova to it, and then sing it so sweetly that it’s even creepier than the original? With bells and running footsteps and that heartbeat of a bass? How did that happen? It’s not a fluke, people; it’s artistry.

The strength of the covers are also the band’s weakness — if you don’t like the songs they picked, you’re not going to like the cover either. For instance, I can’t stand “Pride (In the name of love)” so a cover is so uninteresting. But if you do like the songs, the covers aren’t just given minimal makeover. “Heart of Glass” is stripped of that annoying original voice (heh! sacrilege!) and made danceable; “Human Fly” becomes punk bossa nova. Sure, maybe this is the “same old schtick” as the first album, but who else is doing this, and doing it so well? Come on now.

A Hawk and A Hacksaw
The Way the Wind Blows
The Leaf Label
Song for Joseph

In this paragraph will be my only mention of “Gulag Orkestar.” I was a big fan of it, and then I got hold of “The Way the Wind Blows.” And I realized two things — the two albums are inextricable, but since I could only pick one, “The Way” is better. When you put them side-by-side (and I did — I told you I agonized about this list), Condon sounds like an insipid shadow of Fanfare Ciocarlia. His album is put together better, in that faux-concert format, but musically, A Hawk has him beat hands-down.

Which doesn’t really work anyway, because Condon plays trumpet on “The Way,” so like I said, inextricable. This is a great album, period. It has a joyful, festival feel to it, and it’s obviously a labor of love by expert musicians. My only complaint is that it sometimes makes you feel like you’re in a restaurant and some dude is playing accordion over in the corner and it just … goes on … forever. I often have to listen to the album in two sittings because I guess there’s only so much Balkan orchestra a girl can stand.

Ray LaMontagne
Till the Sun Turns Black
RCA Records
Three More Days

Ray LaMontagne’s best asset is his genuinely soulful sound. Everything he sings sounds like he’s cutting out a little chunk of his heart and handing it to you. Even in the “guy-with-guitar” genre, which is super-soulful, LaMontagne manages to ratchet it up a bit. He’s got a great backing band, with piano and violin just a perfect complement. Everything works together very well.

What keeps him out of the top ten is that all the songs are really really really similar. They tend to run into one another until it’s all one big long song — a format I’m not fond of. Even “Thick As A Brick” changed up its style once in awhile. And there’s almost nothing left of the desperate howling that charged up “Trouble” or “Burn.” It’s like he’s playing a whole album underwater. Nevertheless, tracks like “Empty” or “Three More Days,” even played underwater, still blow away the competition.

Vienna Teng
Dreaming Through the Noise
Zoe Records
Blue Caravan

I have such a soft spot for Teng. She’s young and sometimes silly, and I don’t even know if she counts as indie, but she’s such a great songwriter and singer and piano player. She’s beautiful and talented and if you don’t like her, you’re just a sad sad person. “Dreaming” is an excellent release. I’ve also heard the this-is-not-as-good-as- [insert-album-name-here] criticism from devoted listeners, but I can’t understand why.

It’s the same type of material she’s released before — “1 bd/1 ba” is about finding an apartment and “I Don’t Feel So Well” is apparently about grammar. Everything is semi-autobiographical, and as listeners followed Teng through her early twenties, now they can follow her into the stretching period that goes with growing up. Teng thinks, probably harder than any of us did, about turning 40, about having children, about hurricanes and gay marriage and how much to give to your spouse without losing yourself. Standout tracks: “City Hall,” “Whatever You Want,” “Recessional.”

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In preparation for a slight format change in the next few weeks, today I’m putting up my top two gym albums of the year, because I wouldn’t have gotten through all those miles on the treadmill (and the elliptical machine, the rowing machine, the bike thingy, and the treadclimber) without them. Sorry, Justin and Alison! It’s not your fault I’m still fat.

Top Two Gym albums of the year

Justin Timberlake
Jive Records
What Goes Around Comes Around (removed. contact me for a copy.)

Justin has captured the niche that appeals to all (straight!) women – the boy next door who could be bad if he wanted, but he doesn’t really want to. He wants to please his girl instead, and that’s a powerful archetype. No wonder those records fly off the shelf.

Mute US
Number 1(removed. contact me for a copy.)

I think “Ooh La La” was my most-listened-to gym song of the year. In spite of the album’s oddly spelled song titles (I’m old, okay? I don’t automatically think of “you” as “U”), I’m in love with Alison’s siren voice.

Other gym songs that can help you get through that last tenth of a mile:

1. Shakira – Hips Don’t Lie: Bamboo (2006 FIFA world cup remix)
2. Aika – Glittering Lights
3. Jay-Zeezer – Yeah in the Sun
4. Yum! Yum! Orange – Don’t Worry!
5. Falco – Rock Me Amadeus

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