Or boringly: The Year in Music: Part 1 – The Albums

While I still do most of my home music-listening in the form of physical CDs that I listen to as entire albums (in other words, in the mode of the last century), each year it seems I listen to more and more music as isolated songs. One reflection of this might be the mixes I put together each December for friends: for years, these were simply a CD with tracks drawn from the 20 best CDs of the year. A few years back, to provide a home for the stray tracks that I enjoyed but which weren’t on CDs I owned, I started adding a second CD of songs from those stray tracks. And this year, I’m sending out a single CD-R (titled Blue Flag, after the cover image which I shot last summer) with 20 tracks from the top 20 CDs…and more than 80 stray tracks. Granted, I haven’t let go of the concept of the album completely: those 80 extra tracks are themselves sequenced into album-like portions (four of them) rather than being merely plopped on the disc to come up in alphabetical order or left to the whim of the recipient’s shuffle mode. (There’s also a secret key: each sequence’s initial track has something in common, a something I discovered when putting the mixes together on three of the sequences, after which I altered the other two to make them consistent… The mixes are up at Art of the Mix (scroll to the bottom to see the most recent ones): see if you can guess what the secret key is.

Anyway, today I’ll say a few words about the top CDs of the year, in my usual contingent-upon-daily-whim fashion and with the usual provisos about stuff I haven’t bought yet, stuff I haven’t really familiarized myself with yet, and the disqualification on technical grounds (my own) of live albums, compilations, and EPs.

Top Tier:

Destroyer Destroyer’s Rubies
Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3 Olé! Tarantula
TV on the Radio Return to Cookie Mountain
The Willis bathtub.lightbulb.heartattack.

Split here between two relatively traditionalist approaches (Hitchcock’s return to pop-rock; the Willis’s melodic rock, albeit damaged by ’50s scifi movie-soundtrack electronics) and relatively expansive ones (the eccentric songcraft of Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, and TV on the Radio’s hyphen-hungry sample-jazz-tech-pop-funk-rock-folk-whateverness). I suppose that’s pretty characteristic of me – I still love melody and clever chord sequences, but sometimes pure texture can drag me in as well (even if, in some cases, there’s barely a song there at all). The Willis, incidentally, is an Oshkosh-based band that I discovered because its main writer is a graduate student in my university’s creative writing program, but it’s also a smart, powerful band with its own distinctive vision. That scifi soundtrack thing isn’t an affectation; it fits with the CD’s lyrical approach, whose songs’ narrators often seem adrift amongst a mix of outdated and current technology. (I wrote a whole entry about them last year.) I’d spotted out “Are We Are” in last year’s “singles” mix…and unfortunately, forgot that fact in putting together this year’s “albums” mix. To make up for it, here’s a different track, “Are Language” (they seem to like titles beginning with “Are”…), in some ways the most straightforward rock track on the CD.

Next Tier:

Grizzly Bear Yellow House
Lilys Everything Wrong Is Imaginary
The Loud Family with Anton Barbeau What If It Works?
Scott Walker The Drift

Grizzly Bear impressed with a blend of styles and genres that makes one imagine a ’90s-bred Brian Wilson moving to broader sonic palette but beginning not from surf-rock but Guided by Voices, Helium, and the like. Two old favorites, perpetual entrants in my year-end charts, return: Lilys and the Loud Family. The latter act returns for its first album of new material in six years, augmented by simpatico Sacramento-based songwriter Anton Barbeau (see below for one of his solo albums). Scott Walker – not to be outdone – releases his first CD in eleven years – but it’s worth the wait. The Drift is powerful, creepy, odd, yet moving and (at least after multiple listens) tuneful in a peculiar way. The richness of Walker’s voice has curdled slightly, giving it a somewhat frayed and abraded texture but one that suits the sometimes grim subject matter of his songs. “Cossacks Are” (man those plural forms of “to be” are getting the love this year) is probably the most “normal” song on the CD. You’ve been warned.

Third Tier:

Robert Pollard From a Compound Eye
The Minus 5 (self-titled a/k/a The Gun Album)

Two albums from two busy acts. Pollard (as usual) released at least two CDs this year; I prefer the more textured approach he and co-conspirator Todd Tobias follow on this CD to the bash-em-out style generally assayed on Normal Happiness. Amusingly, on my mix CD I chose the somewhat atypically bouncy “Dancing Girls and Dancing Men” – “amusingly” because it’s musically quite close to the Yo La Tengo track I chose for the mix (“Beanbag Chair”). To rectify that redundancy, here’s “I’m a Widow.”

Most of this incarnation of the Minus 5 appear as Robyn Hitchcock’s backing band on his own album; here’s Scott McCaughey making the most of his own songs. The band has pretty much solidified both as a band (rather than an all-star pickup act) and as McCaughey’s main song outlet (versus the Young Fresh Fellows, who seem to be on hiatus).

Next ten (in grouped order):

The Decemberists The Crane Wife; Don Dixon The Entire Combustible World in One Small Room (“In Darkness Found“); Matthew Friedberger Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School; Momus Ocky Milk (“Moop Bears“); Pernice Brothers Live a Little

Anton Barbeau In the Village of the Apple Sun; His Name Is Alive Detrola; Squarewave Dullhead (new band from leader of Madison’s popular late-eighties/early-nineties Ivory Library; here’s the opening track “A Name That Isn’t Mine” – and yes it ends like that)

Tom Verlaine Songs and Other Things (not as good as I’d hoped, but at least he’s recording again); Yo La Tengo I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass

Honorable Mention: Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint The River in Reverse; Elvis Costello & the Metropol Orkest My Flame Burns Blue; The Fiery Furnaces Bitter Tea; Tommy Keene Crashing the Ether; Tris McCall and the New Jack Trippers I’m Assuming You’re All in Bands; Morrissey Ringleader of the Tormentors; The M’s Future Women; Pere Ubu Why I Hate Women; Robert Pollard Normal Happiness; Stereolab Fab Four Suture; Tom Verlaine Around; We Are Scientists With Love and Squalor; Thom Yorke The Eraser

Best EPs: The Bye Bye Blackbirds Honeymoon; PAS/CAL Dear Sir; The Sky Drops Clouds of People

Relatively Disappointing: Mission of Burma The Obliterati; Sonic Youth Rather Ripped

Haven’t had time to really evaluate yet but potential contenders:
Anton Barbeau Drug Free; Jon Langford Gold Brick; Lansing-Dreiden The Dividing Island; Eric Matthews Foundation Sounds; Mouse on Mars Varcharz; Joanna Newsom Ys; Now It’s Overhead Dark Light Daybreak; Gil Ray I Am Atomic Man!; Relay Still Point of Turning; The Strokes First Impressions of Earth

Busy Beavers (released at least two CDs of new material during 2006): Anton Barbeau, Elvis Costello, Matthew Friedberger (also counting his work with the Fiery Furnaces CD), Robert Pollard, Tom Verlaine

Next time: stray tracks!

The Willis “Are Language”
Scott Walker “Cossacks Are”
Robert Pollard “I’m a Widow”
Don Dixon “In Darkness Found”
Momus “Moop Bears”
Squarewave “A Name That Isn’t Mine”


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