Top Ten Albums of 2006

In this, what is probably my last post before I turn 24, I discuss my top ten albums released in 2006.

  1. The Decemberists, The Crane Wife.

I’m almost hesitant to put this at the top of my list, since I got it less than a month ago and started really listening to it only recently, but I can’t rank anything else above it. Several of the songs are stunning, and remarkably the Decemberists are at their best on this album when they’re trying new things. For examples of this, see the three-part title track, the third part of which opens the album and is probably the most poignant song I’ve heard all year based on the strength of its melody alone. The first and second parts then come as the second-to-last song on the album, enfolding it nicely and giving it a feeling of completeness. And what good stuff there is in between those two bookends. “The Island” sprawls elliptically, “The Perfect Crime #2” bumps and shakes like a literary “Ocean’s Twenty-five” (though God help us if such a movie is ever actually made) and “When the War Came,” though it’s probably longer than it needs to be, rocks harder than anything the Decemberists have done before.

Most of the rest of the tracks, especially “Yankee Bayonet” and the single “O Valencia!” are classic Decemberists, which is never a bad thing; the only one that’s even slightly weak is “Summersong,” and even it isn’t bad. Overall The Crane Wife is such a natural extension of what made the Decemberists a remarkable band in the first place, and such a great album, that I had to give it #1 for the year.

  1. Destroyer, Destroyer’s Rubies.

This was my number 1 until just about ten minutes ago, actually, when I thought about it, realized that it kind of peters out at the end (for me, at least) and had to give The Crane Wife the edge. It’s still an incredible album, though, a great introduction to Destroyer’s – I don’t know – mythos, and a good starting point from which to dive into (its? his?) back catalogue.

It’s hard to write about Destroyer, because so many other reviewers like to write about it, so I’ll just say that no one else writes lyrics like Dan Bejar: others might match his level of impenetrability, but no one can hold a candle to the sort of musical architecture he’s built up, about which I’m trying to dance right now, with its countless self-references and idiosyncrasies. By itself, this would be enough to make Destroyer fascinating; the fact that it’s married to some fantastic tunes makes him thoroughly enjoyable, too. The nine-minute opening track “Rubies” is one of those long songs that seems, to me, very short, and by and large the rest of the album maintains that level of quality.

  1. Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere.

Considerations of quality, for the moment, aside, I think one of the reasons this album is so high in my list is its potent combination of eccentricity and universal appeal. It’s a really weird album, swinging from gospel to hip-hop to rock back to some kind of soul or something, but everyone I’ve talked to about it has liked the majority of the songs on it, and I can’t really imagine anyone disliking the whole thing. Sure, everyone’s sick of “Crazy” by now, but try and think back on the first few times you heard it: didn’t it deserve to be ubiquitous for a while? I can’t think of any other “played-to-death” song quite like it, and for that matter I can’t think of any other album like St. Elsewhere.

Everyone has their opinions on the high and low points of this album, and I’m no exception: I could take or leave “The Last Time” and “Who Cares?” but I love the hectic two minutes of “Transformer,” which some probably find annoying, and the dark groove of “Necromancer,” which probably turns some people off as well. And I don’t think I’ve met a person who dislikes “Just a Thought.” My point is, I guess, that this album is a uniter and a divider, like most great pieces of art are.

  1. The Fiery Furnaces, Bitter Tea.

It’s no secret that I love me some Fiery Furnaces, so this was bound to show up on here, but I don’t think it’s just because it’s the Furnaces that it’s in my top 10. In some ways it’s like the other stuff they’ve done, but in some ways it’s not: “Teach Me, Sweetheart” and “Black-Hearted Boy” are dark and subdued (two words which could almost never have been applied to the Furnaces before this), “The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry” is genuinely frightening and totally unexpected, and “Oh Sweet Woods” is groovy and deliciously weird in a way that only the Fiery Furnaces can pull off.

Of course, the crazy synths that the Furnaces have employed gratuitously since Blueberry Boat are still around, and the backwards vocals are overbearing at times. But even Jess, who hates the Furnaces with a passion whose heat matches the band name’s referent, can put up with “Waiting to Know You,” and “Benton Harbor Blues” is just sweet and sad and totally well-executed. In some ways Bitter Tea is more of the same, but it’s also more delicate (though that’s not saying much) and emotionally complex than anything I’ve heard from the Furnaces before. In my weak moments I think I like it even more than Blueberry Boat, which totally rocked my world the first time I heard it. That’s high praise.

  1. Sunset Rubdown, Shut Up I Am Dreaming.

Along with Destroyer’s Rubies, this album probably took me the longest to get into, but as with many slow-growing albums, it rewarded my patience with it richly. Sunset Rubdown has at its core Spencer Krug, who’s probably most well known for being (the better) half of Wolf Parade, a band that got a lot of buzz a couple years ago. Here he doesn’t share the lyric writing or the singing, and the result is that his weirdness is more focused, and eventually more effective.

Krug has a hell of a singing voice. It’s the kind that makes you sit up and take notice, but not because it’s grating or takes getting used to, like Destroyer’s or Joanna Newsom’s; if I had to describe it in one word, I’d say “strident.” If that isn’t enough, he writes a mean lyric as well: “Us Ones In Between” in particular is a song that I found sort of pedestrian until I read the lyrics, after which it was devastating. At first I thought this album was no fun, and I still maintain that it’s kind of a downer. But it’s also ridiculously brilliant.

  1. Joanna Newsom, Ys.

This spot was a bit of a toss-up, but I had to put Ys here partly because it’s (to use a tedious and overused adjective here) such an ambitious album and partly because it matches its ambition so well. And partly because it’s the kind of album that confounds people when they hear it for the first time, because it’s five songs totaling 55 minutes long and Joanna Newsom – there’s no way to overstate this – basically sounds like an eight-year-old a lot of the time.

What’s great about Ys is that it doesn’t matter that Newsom sounds like an eight-year-old, because she uses that voice to such great effect and her lyrics make it clear that she’s no kid. Also her harp playing is so good and so appropriate that it makes the strings that flood this album seem kind of extraneous a lot of the time. I don’t know. I have a hard time describing why this album is so good; I guess it’s just that everything on it is so well done and fits together so perfectly.

  1. Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood.

I had only heard the New Pornographers’ Twin Cinema before this, so it was really my introduction to Neko Case. And I’m glad it was, because even after diving into both the Pornographers’ and Case’s back catalogues, I still think Fox Confessor is her strongest work.

Basically what everyone talks about, when they’re talking about Neko Case, is her voice; and while it is a hell of a voice, Fox Confessor wouldn’t be so successful if it didn’t put it to good use. The songs here are moody and powerful, and to my mind, the best are the shimmering sadness of “Star Witness” and the dark, relentless descent-into-madness tale “Dirty Knife”: two total opposites that encapsulate all the things that make Neko Case a musician, a complete package, rather than just a singer.

  1. Islands, Return to the Sea.

The best pop album released in 2006 that I heard, by a long shot. But it’s more than just a pop album, as the nine-and-a-half minute opener “Swans (Life After Death)” indicates and the hip-hop-infused “Where There’s a Will There’s a Whalebone” makes clear. Those are both strong tracks, to be sure, but where Return to the Sea really shines is in its pop: “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby” and “Rough Gem” are two outstanding tunes, sequenced right next to each other for a super duper power pop punch.

Unfortunately, Return to the Sea loses its momentum in the last few tracks, which are passable but not up to the standard of what precedes them. This isn’t enough, though, to keep the album from being a thoroughly enjoyable listen.

  1. Thom Yorke, The Eraser.

Not as good as a Radiohead album, okay. But still pretty damn good, in my opinion: mostly what you’d expect from Thom Yorke, in a way, due to the instrumentation being mostly electronic and the lyrics, well, typical Thom Yorke in mood. But it’s also more straightforward, lyrically and musically: the songs have choruses and melodies and lines like “I don’t care what the future holds / Cause I’m right here in your arms today.”

For me, the best stuff is near the end, which is unusual: there’s “Skip Divided,” which is almost like a redux of “A Wolf at the Door,” the weird faux-rap that concluded Radiohear’s last album; “Atoms for Peace,” probably the boldest song on here; “And It Rained All Night,” with its driving lyrical rhythm; and “Harrowdown Hill,” apparently the angriest song Yorke’s ever written and maybe the strongest song on the album overall. The Eraser is a bagatelle when held up against Radiohead’s recent albums, but taken on its own it’s still a fine batch of songs.

  1. Danielson, Ships.

I need to spend some more quality time with this one, but even after not too many listens its strengths are already pretty obvious to me: it’s fun, optimistic, and hectic, part typical indie rock and part weird spazzy art-twee. Also the lead singer sounds like the Modest Mouse guy, but without the half-baked philosophy and cynicism. Also, I can’t listen to “Did I Step On Your Trumpet” or hear him say “C’mon” at the beginning of “Cast It At the Setting Sail” without being totally sold.