I present you...the best discs of 2006, according to me.
Thank you for bearing with me during this momentary interruption of my typical posts. We will commence with the usual Dim blathering entries sometime next week.15. EYE TO THE TELESCOPE-KT Tunstall (Virgin)
Scottish songstress KT Tunstall deservedly took the world by storm with her catchy stomp "Black Horse and a Cherry Tree", but there's so much more to this disc than just a tune with an odd title. Tunstall is wise beyond her years; a seasoned songwriter and excellent musician and Eye To The Telescope showcases all this and more. The piano-based shuffle of the closing track "Through the Dark" expertly wraps up this bluesy, jazzy, sassy, and smooth collection of twelve tracks. Tunstall's soulful and clean vocals shine throughout, particularly on "Other Side of the World", the groovy "Another Place to Fall", and "Miniature Disasters". If this release is any indication of her potential, the future is assuredly bright. Oh, and she's cute, too.14. SHADOWS RISE-Travel By Sea (Goldenwest)
The only thing more remarkable than the music on this disc is the story behind how it was made. A two-man group, Kyle Kersten and Brian Kraft, who have never been in the same room, or even the same state. They have only known each other from on-line interactions and sharing musical ideas electronically. The result is a stunning and atmospheric collection of mostly acoustic alt-country-type offerings in the vein of an optimistic Ryan Adams. While most of the songs are mellow, Travel By Sea's sonicscape is anything but boring. Tunes like "I Won't Let You Down", "Brightside", and "Hopefully" are executed perfectly and sublimely, with a wash of guitars, mandolins, and vocals. While the process of recording this record may be unique and quirky, don't believe that this offering is all gimmick and no substance. Kersten's and Kraft's vision here is clear and it is a beautiful one.13. AMERICAN V: A HUNDRED HIGHWAYS-Johnny Cash (Lost Highway)
An immensely melancholy listening experience, the final Cash release is wrought with frail songs that mirror the physical state of their singer. Cash's vocals fluctuate from the somber and shaky ("Help Me", in which a deep cello lays a desperate veil) to the strong and righteous (the fire and brimstone of "God's Gonna Cut You Down"), but the overall mood of the disc is one of reflection and facing an inevitable end. It's too bad Cash wasn't around to have input on the arrangements, but producer Rick Rubin stayed true to the sound of the other American recordings. The music is perfect for the disc and, despite the fragility here, there is understanding in Cash's voice that he might be winding down a life on this earth, but he's confident there's another place he'll be singing.12. A MATTER OR LIFE AND DEATH-Iron Maiden (Sanctuary)
Shut up. I like Maiden. This disc has everything one would come to expect from the band: ridiculously long songs, a completely absurd triple-guitar attack, operatic vocals, galloping basslines, and ominous lyrics. And it is friggin' great. Maiden's concept album ruminating on the tragedies of war is easily their best since vocalist Bruce Dickinson returned and possibly their best since the mid-80s. With drummer Nicko McBrain and bassist Steve Harris conducting crazy time changes on epics like "The Longest Day" and "For The Greater Good Of God", A Matter of Life and Death
does a lot to prove that Maiden is back and about as good as ever.11. AMPUTECHTURE-The Mars Volta (Umvd)
The third disc from prog-rock extraordinaires The Mars Volta picks up where 2005's Frances the Mute left off. The songs are long and complex. The music, frantic, frenzied, schizophrenic. The lyrics, mindboggling. The end result is yet another release that challenges the listener like no other, but leaves you in wonderment of the warped minds that created it. As usual, the centerpieces are Cedric Bixler Zavala, who shows his vocal dexterity with quiet whispers and shrill screams throughout, as well as guitar virtuoso Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, who shreds and creates subtle moods, often in the same song. The songs change tempo with breakneck speed ("Tetragrammaton", "Day of the Baphomets"), yet still find interesting grooves. The all Spanish "Asilos Magdelena" and the strangely ambient and cathartic "El Ciervo Vulnerado" are also strong. Amputechture will certainly clear a room of typical music fans, but if you spend a lot of time with it and accept its challenge, you will be rewarded.
Previous list appearances: DE-LOUSED IN THE COMATORIUM (#1 in 2003), FRANCES THE MUTE (#3 in 2005)10. DREAMT FOR LIGHT YEARS IN THE BELLY OF A MOUNTAIN-Sparklehorse (Astralworks)
Mark Linkous, for all intents and purposes, is Sparklehorse and he is rapidly approaching prodigy status for his incredible gift of songwriting, arrangement, and noise. The songs are anything but formulaic. Some are buzzed out pop numbers ("Ghost in the Sky") and others are introspective and strangely soothing (despite the deeper subject matter). All of this, however, would be for naught if not for Linkous' vision (or hearing perspective) to deeply craft a musical onion, where you hear one layer and it only exposes you to another. Strings are expertly used here, and the melancholy mood the disc emits makes you scratch your head. You're not sure how something that can be so joyous to listen to can have a mysterious and spacey feel. But in the end, your confusion doesn't really matter. Linkous' sound has made you forget it all.9. THE LETTING GO-Bonnie "Prince" Billy (Drag City)
A challenging recording, even after many listens, Bonnie "Prince" Billy's latest is still deeply rewarding if you stay with it and let it wash over you. The disc is laden with Billy's frail vocals, acoustic guitars, and songs that seem so delicate that they are on the verge of breaking apart before they reach you. The addition of a duet partner, Dawn McCarthy, forms an interesting and welcomed vocal tandem, especially noteworthy on "Strange Form of Life" and the strings-driven "Cursed Sleep". It's not an easy-listening record, but its beauty eventually shines through brightly.8. 10,000 DAYS-Tool (Volcano)
The long-awaited follow-up to 2001's Lateralus
took me quite a bit of time to get into. And, as a cohesive album, I'm not convinced it is among the prog-metal band's elite, but the great songs here are truly inspiring: brutal and sad, suffocating and sparse. The issues arise when the band decides to break up the disc with musical interludes (3 of the 11 tracks are such) with little substance. But the rest of the disc is pummeling, sad, and emotional. Sounding a lot like the brilliance of Lateralus
, 10,000 Days further cements the band's reputation as the quintessential metal band of its time. Drummer Danny Carey and bassist Justin Chancellor have never been tighter or more intricate. Adam Jones' guitar has never been filthier and singer Maynard James Keenan taps into his A Perfect Circle emotion and soars on the amazing tracks, "The Pot", "Rosetta Stoned", and the title track, which is so emotionally ravaging, lyrically and musically, that it might be the band's (and specifically Keenan's), best song yet. This one takes a little work to appreciate, but if you look at the songs and blow off the instrumental wankings, it is Tool's most gut-wrenching disc yet.
Previous list appearances: LATERALUS (#2 in 2001)7. I AM NOT AFRAID OF YOU AND I WILL BEAT YOUR ASS-Yo La Tengo (Matador)
What is unquestionably the best album title of the year begins with a 10+ minute opus called "Pass The Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind" in which the metallic bassline never changes throughout the entire song, yet the song never gets monotonous. That's a sign of a great band. And the disc gathers momentum from there. There are horns, strings, ambient pieces, shameful pop, all wrapped up in a tidy 15 song disc. The 50s/punk of "Watch Out For Me Ronnie" is pure brilliance and the toe-tapping pop of "Beanbag Chair" just makes you feel good. Slower tunes, like the piano-based "I Feel Like Going Home" and the ethereal "Daphnia" also work perfectly. Yo La Tengo has a remarkable album here. One that fluctuates from the sublime to the rocking and everything in between. And the whole journey is quite rewarding.6. ENDLESSWIRE-The Who (Republic)
To say this is the best Who album in decades would be damning it with faint praise, considering just how long ago the last Who album was. This disc deserves so much more. Put aside the fact that the production is iffy at best and only 1/2 of the original band has survived (literally). What's here is actually quite fresh, inspiringly written and played by Pete Townshend and bellowed and emoted earnestly by Roger Daltrey. The mini-opera in the middle of the disc, Wire and Glass, could be Quadrophenia's baby brother and the uproariously catchy "Mike Post Theme" is another strong point. Strangely, though, it's when Townshend decides to strip down his raucous sound that the disc truly soars. The acoustic "Man in a Purple Dress", wonderfully sung by Daltrey, is an amazing piece of songwriting and the tempered "Black Widow's Eyes" and "Tea and Theatre" are emotionally moving and proof positive that Townshend still has "it". And even when the band shamelessly teases the beginning of "Baba O'Reilly" on the disc's opener, "Fragments", it's completely forgivable because the new tune is so good. If this is the end of the Who, they have gone out with a surprisingly powerful effort.5. BALLAD OF THE BROKEN SEAS-Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan (V2)
I think it was Entertainment Weekly that described this disc as if Little Red Riding Hood and the Big, Bad Wolf did strange folk duets. That's about right. At first, it is offsetting to hear Lanegan's whiskey and cigarette-ravaged voice among the airy and ethereal Campbell, but not only does this strange couple work, it excels. Whether it is Campbell's delicate voice dancing over "Saturday's Gone" or Lanegan rasping "The Circus is Leaving Town", it doesn't matter. The disc is alluring and captivating and regrettably short, despite its twelve tracks. Sonny and Cher they are not. What they are is a compelling and mesmerizing vocal duo, practical polar opposites, who put out one of the most beautiful discs of the year.4. IN BOCCA AL LUPO-Murder By Death (Tent Show)
The wailing metal guitars, the guttural growls of the singer, the double bass drum extravaganza make this disc...oh, wait. Despite their name, MBD doesn't sound like this at all. What they do sound like is kind of hard to put a finger on. Sleazy, dusty saloon shanties sung by a guy with a Johnny Cash fixation and a brilliant female cellist who lays a thin veil of intrigue and ominousness. The lyrics are dark, but brilliantly emoted by guitarist Adam Turla. The acoustic "Shiola" is one of many high points, which include a stomping twisted ode to fraternity ("Brother"), the horn-fueled (and Cash homage?) "Sometimes the Line Walks You") and the slow drone of the sinister "Steam Rising". Sarah Balliet's cello is an often breathtaking accent, slicing through the excellent backbeat provided by Matt Armstrong (bass) and Alex Schrodt (drums). It might be hard to categorize Murder By Death, and that's a good thing. What's important is when the disc ends, you're a little taken aback by what you just heard and how something that is so hard to describe can be so good.3. POWDER BURNS-The Twilight Singers (One Little Indian)
Ex-Afghan Whigs frontman is slowly but surely perfecting his unique brand of breezy, sleazy, R&B infused rock and Powder Burns is certainly no misstep along the journey. To know that this was recorded in New Orleans shortly after the Katrina disaster just lends to the aura and mystique behind the disc and it most certainly sounds like a soundtrack to walking through the French Quarter in better times. Sure, Dulli's vocals are a little gruff and a little off-key at times, but the emotion with which he belts it out only makes those tiny faults part of the collective charm. And charm is what he is all about. "I'm Ready" is about as great an opening tune you are going to find and the unabashed Beatles reference in "Forty Dollars" is so overt, it's brilliant. The rest of the disc barely lets up, fusing low-key numbers with fast beats that get your body moving. And like a perfect bookend, the wonderfully bombastic closer "I Wish I Was" solidifies Dulli's role in modern rock and also cements his amazingly talented band as one of the best of a lost genre.
Previous list appearances: TWILIGHT (#15 in 2000), BLACKBERRY BELLE (#7 in 2003), SHE LOVES YOU (#2 in 2004)2. BROKEN BOY SOLDIERS-The Raconteurs (V2)
OK, let's get this out of the way first: Most of the lyrics are lame. But that certainly doesn't detract from this record and make it one of pop rock's best of the last few years. Infused with 70s and 80s rock, some Beatle-esque harmonies (on the glorious "Hands"), Jack White (he of the White Stripes) and Brendan Benson choreograph a well-orchestrated musical and vocal duel throughout. Beginning with the frustratingly infections "Steady As She Goes" (try getting that tune out of your head), the disc proves unequivocally that this is a complete band effort, with Greenhornes members Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler providing pristine rhythm. "Broken Boy Soldier" is 60s psychedelia at its best-meets-Led Zeppelin and "Level" is groovy and wonderfully split between White and Benson's vocal parts. Even the slower, acoustic numbers work brilliantly and as boozy and bluesy notes of the closer "My Blue Veins" resonate, you are struck with one stunning criticism: that the disc is woefully short. But the songs, just about all of them, stick in your head long after the disc is over, making Broken Boy Soldiers one of the year's absolute best.1. FOX CONFESSOR BRINGS THE FLOOD-Neko Case (Anti)
Neko Case's live shows have often been lauded for just how pristine and beautiful she and her band are able to pull off their unique brand of alt-country. And while each of Case's studio efforts has trumped the previous one, she had yet to record that breakout, career-defining album. Until now. Fox Confessor is as close to a perfect record as you will find. From the enigmatic title to the brief spurts of songs that leave you wanting more ("At Last" and the sparseness of an almost a cappella "A Widow's Toast") to the best cast of musicians she has had on a record (including Kelly Hogan, who complements Case's voice perfectly) and, last but not least, Case's own pitch-perfect and powerful vocals which slice through the gorgeous music with such precision, no wound can be found. The songs here are unconventionally written; there aren't a lot of verse/chorus/verse tunes, but they are all surprising catchy and wondrously encapsulate the alt-country genre that Case is methodically capturing as her own: sad sounding slide guitars, the drone of strings, a plucked banjo, some tasteful piano. All expertly wrapped around some contemporary gothic folk tale lyrics, like "My true love drowned in a dirty old pan/Of oil that did run from the block/Of a falcon sedan 1969" from "Star Witness". The strong points here are many: the head-scratching title track and the gospel-infused "John Saw That Number" all come together in a flawless synergy to create the best disc of 2006.
Previous list appearances: BLACKLISTED (#8 in 2002), THE TIGERS HAVE SPOKEN (#1 Live album in 2004)