About this list:
Once again, I find myself looking forward to hearing a long list of albums that have come highly recommended… but I haven’t had the time to give them proper attention. (That’s what a full-time job, weekly review-and-column deadlines, and three book deadlines will do to you.)
For example, I have yet to discover The Decemberists’ critically acclaimed new release The Crane Wife; or Solomon Burke’s Nashville; or M. Ward’s Post-War; or Elvis Costello’s My Flame Burns Blue.
I also find myself sorting through albums that I eagerly anticipated, and that were celebrated by other critics I respect, but that failed to capture my imagination or move me… such as Cat Power’s The Greatest, Neil Diamond’s 12 Songs, or Donald Fagen’s Morph the Cat.
But that hasn’t stopped me from enjoying – and, in fact, relying on-a wide variety of music this year.
Before I get my list of favorites, I want to thank Thom Jurek, Andy Whitman, Josh Hurst, and the folks at Paste Magazine and AllMusicGuide and Seattle’s KEXP for giving me so many rewarding recommendations. Their counsel has taken me on a rather bumpy ride, but for every album that made me say, “Huh, I don’t get it,” there were two more that increased my trust in their discernment. I’ll continue to work my way through their 2006 lists.
And one more qualification: This is not meant to be a list of the BEST albums of the year, as I haven’t heard enough to make such a claim. Nor am I rating these works solely on their technical excellence, although that certainly factors. Instead, I’m sharing those that dazzled me with a mix of musical ingenuity and lyrics that entertained, enlightened, and sometimes even enthralled me. In other words… they made a difference in my life.
1. Tom Waits…..Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, & Bastards
Lie to Me, Lucinda, Lord I’ve Been Changed, Road to Peace, Buzz Fledderjohn, Little Drop of Poison, Take Care of All My Children, Books of Moses
Generously prolific, Tom Waits has spent the last few years dazzling fans, old and new, with multiple collections of surreal, satiric, and scoundrel-ish songs.
But here, in an unprecedented display of talent and imagination, he opens up his closets and lets us browse the many brilliant, bizarre, and broken inventions that never made it onto the albums. He throws in a few surprising covers (including “Sea of Love”!) And then, to sweeten the deal, he peppers the project with new songs that fuse it all into a cohesive, crackling whole.
The result: Two discs that stand with his best albums yet (Brawlers and Bastards), and a third (Bawlers) that finds him indulging his piano-balladeer whims, achieving occasional flourishes of beauty and melancholy.
Don’t be deceived – these aren’t “leftovers.” Orphans is a sizeable menu of memorable songs, fantastic played all at once or carte. Make your own mix of favorites, and then, in a few months, make another.
For Tom Waits fans like me, it’s like having your birthday and Christmas come at the same time (double the presents!). Even if it sounds more like Halloween than Christmas. Even if it feels like the best kind of New Year’s hangover instead of the coming of the Redeemer.
Whether he’s crying into his beer over a lost love, lamenting the unbreakable cycle of violence in the Middle East, or pulling your leg with some elaborate monologue, Waits never fails to surprise, compel, and entertain. In a year heavily populated with rock-and-roll veterans doing some of the best works of their career, this one tops the heap for the proliferation of treasure to be found here.
The Decemberists…..The Crane Wife
I posted this list on January 1, 2006, and I heard The Decemberists’ album The Crane Wife on the very same day.
I am absolutely giddy with the joy of discovery. I’ve been reading raves about it for months, but the isolated tracks I’ve heard didn’t grab me. Now that I’ve spent some time with the whole project I understand…. You have to sit down with it in its entirety, and read slowly through the lyric book, in order to appreciate it fully.
It really is a work of art. A collection of provocative poetry. A deeply moving meditation on violence, heartbreak, and history. And a riveting display of ambitious musicianship.
Even more exciting to me: These guys are from the town where I grew up.
Normally, albums that are hyped as heavily as this one end up disappointing me. And I’ll be honest… I listened to this one like I listened to about 20 different albums this year… more out of a sense of obligation than curiosity. The rest of those albums impressed me, but failed to make their way into my heart. But this one? Well… wow. I’ve only just begun to spend time with this album, and it knocked me down on the very first listen in a way that nothing else did this year.
Under Byen…..Samme Stof Som Stof
(added to the list in a 2007 revision)
No, I don’t know what they’re singing about. But this intoxicating mix of sounds and styles is entrancing. If Bjork took music invented by Radiohead, performed it with Sigur Ros and the rhythm section from Tom Waits’ Bone Machine… it would probably sound something like this. I can’t wait to hear where this band goes next.
Here’s the All Music Guide review.
Johnny Cash…..American V – A Hundred Highways
Help Me, On the 309, Further On Up the Road
I don’t think we could have asked for a more fitting final act to Cash’s career. I feel nothing but respect and gratitude to Cash for making the effort, and to Rick Rubin, for crafting it with such reverence and respect. The covers are carefully selected, to serve as definitive versions of the songs even as they become autobiographical statements. And Cash’s originals are deceptively simple, giving him a few last words that find him filled with the hope of heaven, and possessed of a remarkable humor considering his condition. What a blessing this album is.
(Read Jeffrey’s full review here.)
Bob Dylan…..Modern Times
Rollin’ and Tumblin’, Beyond the Horizon, Workingman Blues #2
Bob Dylan’s latest is, as we should expect, surprising.
Time Out of Mind surprised us with some of the most soul-searching work of his career. 2001’s Love and Theft was a career peak of musicianship and energy, a record in which the band itself was half of the reason to tune in; and it found Dylan more nostalgic for American rock-and-roots than usual.
So what’s the surprise on Modern Times? Dylan’s voice. The band continues their journey through the haunted corridors of American music history, but they restrain themselves this time, turning up Bob and letting him explore even more texture and tone. I don’t know that he’s ever sounded more confident. And for the first time in as long as this Dylan fan can remember, there’s no need for a lyric sheet to help us translate the singer’s stylized delivery.
The lyrics demonstrate that he’s still wrestling with old ghosts and viewing the future through the lens of prophecy and poetry.
In “Beyond the Horizon,” Dylan recasts “Red Sails in the Sunset” as a contemplation on a future where redemption waits for him… or, at least, he hopes so…
It’s dark and it’s dreary
I’ve been pleading in vain
I’m wounded, I’m weary
My repentance is plain
Beyond the horizon o’er the treacherous sea
I still can’t believe that you have set aside your
love for me
The playful lilt of the song keeps us slightly skeptical, wondering if the whole thing might be tongue in cheek… a sort of ironic clowning. But in the context of the other songs about struggle, regret, and hope, I think sincerity wins out.
In “Spirit on the Water,” the lyrics take the shape of a spiritual lament. The singer has an insatiable longing for union with the beloved, who seems elevated and unreachable. Even as he years, he seems trapped in a world of wrongdoing. The mix of rough, dirty details and sublime desire recall U2’s “With or Without You”:
From East to West
Ever since the world began
I only mean it for the best
I want to be with you any way I can
I been in a brawl
Now I’m feeling the wall
I’m going away baby
I won’t be back ’til fall
High on the hill
You can carry all my thoughts with you
You’ve numbed my will
This love could tear me in two
I wanna be with you in paradise
And it seems so unfair
I can’t go to paradise no more
I killed a man back there
His troubles usually come from worldly preoccupations, sometimes personified by a seductress, as in “Rolling and Tumbling,” where he sings:
I got troubles so hard, I can’t stand the strain
Some young lazy slut has charmed away my
It’s hard to shake the sense that “this woman” who is tormenting him symbolizes the unhealthy addictions and compulsions that hold us back from pursuing our higher calling. “Ain’t nothing so depressing as trying to satisfy this woman of mine,” he sings. (And I can’t help but wonder if “this woman” might not be the audience, or the press, or those who continually rush to judgment of his work.)
But then he adds, “Well, I got up this mornin’, see the rising sun return / Sooner or later, you too shall burn.” He might mean that we, too, will eventually realize the “burn” of that higher calling. Or, he might mean that we will suffer, as he does, for his failures and sins, in the light of what might of been.
This is followed by yet another song of anticipation in the age of apocalypse: “When the Deal Goes Down.”
My bewildering brain, toils in vain
Through the darkness on the pathways of life
Each invisible prayer is like a cloud in the air
Tomorrow keeps turning around
We live and we die, we know not why
But I’ll be with you when the deal goes down
Well, the moon gives light and it shines by
When I scarcely feel the glow
We learn to live and then we forgive
O’r the road we’re bound to go
More frailer than the flowers, these precious
That keep us so tightly bound
You come to my eyes like a vision from the
And I’ll be with you when the deal goes down
While he seems eager for some kind of blessing and solace, there are plenty of assurances that the world is bound for a disastrous end, as in “The Levee’s Gonna Break.”
Some people on the road carryin’ everything
Some people got barely enough skin to cover
their bones …
Few more years of hard work, then there’ll be a
1,000 years of happiness
… If it keep on rainin’, the levee gonna break
Some people still sleepin’, some people are
I have no trouble viewing Dylan as one of those who’s wide awake.
And in “Nettie Moore,” it’s that true, higher love that wins out again:
Everything I’ve ever known to be right has
been proven wrong
I’ll be drifting along
The woman I’m loving she rules my heart
No knife could ever cut our love apart.
In the closer, another epic journey song along which bears a strong resemblance to “Highlands” from Time Out of Mind, he sings once more about the faith he maintains, which is both his guide and his torment:
Heart burnin’, still yearnin’
Got to get you out of my miserable brain.
All my loyal and my much-loved companions
They approve of me and share my code
I practice a faith that’s been long abandoned
Ain’t no altars on this long and lonesome road
As Dylan himself has said in recent interviews, his faith is inseparable from his music, and that approach to music is, indeed, a “code” shared and understood by very few artists anymore, practically “abandoned.” Those with ears to hear, let them hear.
With each and every album, Dylan seems to be writing as if these songs may be his last. That’s not a bad way to work. It drives you to focus on what matters, to deliver it with passion, and to keep things in humble perspective. So long as he works with such end-of-the-world fervor, I’ll stay alongside him, nourished for the journey.
In his first release since 2000’s You’re the One, and his best collection of songs since 1990’s The Rhythm of the Saints, Paul Simon finds new energy and inspiration in collaboration with producer-extraordinaire Brian Eno. In fact, Eno’s participation is so significant, that the album should have been labeled as a Simon/Eno project.
Together, the electronics and synthesizers that might have obscured Simon’s vocals and subtleties instead enhance them, making these adventures in experimental pop songwriting that are rich in warmth, passion, poetry, and insight. It’s like the sentimental, optimistic flip-side of 1. Outside, David Bowie’s underrated pop horror show (which Eno also produced).
Simon has never sounded better, and he’s not afraid to sing from the point of view of an aging sage rather than dressing himself up as some youthful upstart or merely appealing to our nostalgia for his previous incarnations. It’s an astonishing reinvention. Clearly, he’s still full of curiosity and questions about faith, life, and conscience. And he gives us refreshing perspective on the state of the world, refusing to sink into bitterness and turning our attention to prayer… the only possible source of comfort in a world where even well-intentioned human endeavor seems to degenerate into chaos.
The only slight misstep here is the inclusion of “Father and Daughter,” the song he recorded a few years back for the Wild Thornberrys soundtrack. The song makes for a fine closer, but it would have been nice if he’d re-recorded it in a style that better suits the rest of the album. (The song received heavy radio airplay when the movie came out, and thus it feels like a radio flashback than a finale for an otherwise masterful performance.)
There were many albums this year that were more audacious, “relevant,” and energetic. But I doubt you’ll find many albums this year that offer so many lasting melodies… songs that will still speak to us in five, ten, and twenty-five years. In spite of the flashy new paint job, this baby’s gonna run for a long, long time.
Gnarls Barkley…..St. Elsewhere
Crazy, The Boogie Monster, Transformer
Like an explosive collision of Sgt.-Pepper-era Beatles, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, Prince, Seal, and Gorillaz, Gnarls Barkley fuses funk, soul, hip-hop, and just about any other genre you can name. Their monster hit, “Crazy,” is just as contagiously fantastic now as it was when it first hit the British charts. Producer Danger Mouse and the surprisingly agile vocalist, Cee-Lo Green, cook up several irresistible pop inventions here, stuck together with Krazy Glue. While the lyrics, taken on their own, might make us worry about the songwriter’s depressed state of mind (they explore suicidal impulses, madness, paranoia, and even necrophiliac tendencies), the music makes it very clear that this is just a bunch of inspired clowning.
My Brightest Diamond…..Bring Me the Workhorse
Something of an End, Gone Away, Workhorse
Many fans of Sufjan Stevens came back from his concerts this year raving about the opening act – My Brightest Diamond – and claiming that “the amazing lead vocalist just about stole the whole show.” The band’s first full-length album makes those claims easy to believe.
Soaring, haunting, scary – Bring Me the Workhorse – ranges through so many sounds and multi-layered textures that you’ll need to sit still for a while afterward just to catch your breath.
My Brightest Diamond’s diva, Shara Worden, proves herself more than capable as a vocalist, ranging from the PJ Harvey rage of To Bring You My Love to the Bjork pop opera of Homogenic to the sorcery of Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, with hints of Portishead, Radiohead, and several more heads besides.
And she backs up the sound with intriguing, delicate, dream-state lyrics that give us just enough detail to wonder what personal crises… or hallucinogens… inspired them. Emphasizing winged things-dragonflies, robins-and a fear of flight, she quietly confesses longings, appetites, and regrets, while stirring up soundscapes that invite us to soar.
Imaginative, confident, complicated, this is the most promising debut I’ve heard this year, and I’ll be in line for whatever MBD does next next. Maybe we’ll be fortunate enough to see them headline a tour all their own.
Camera Obscura…..Let’s Get Out of This Country
Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken; I Need All the Friends I Can Get; Dory Previn; Let’s Get Out of This Country
(Read Jeffrey’s review here.)
Bruce Springsteen…..We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
O Mary Don’t You Weep, Jacob’s Ladder
A spirited revival par excellence, sung with passion and joy, trembling with the hope of glory, and so loud that you can hear the timbers of the house shivering. It’s a wonder the place didn’t come crashing down around this inspired party. I’ve never been a full-fledged Springsteen fan, but this is a fantastic record that won’t ever get old.
Bruce Cockburn…..Life Short Call Now
Alejandro Escovedo…..The Boxing Mirror
Mystery, Tell the Universe, See You Tomorrow
In his best album since The Charity of Night, Bruce Cockburn breaks new ground in style and substance. This time, the songs are accentuated by a string section, and producer Jon Goldsmith gives the songs dimension and complexity. Cockburn’s lyrics are familiar in their meditative, poetic, and sometimes playful flourishes. While he stumbles into a rather simplistic political protest in “This is Baghdad,” the follow-up song, “Tell the Universe,” feels less bitter and more reflective. His songs about relationships reveal that he’s still struggling with failures and regrets, but “Mystery” is both playful and transcendent in its humble affirmations of the Divine. Three instrumentals provide further demonstrations of his guitar-playing genius. And while the concluding number, “Nude Descending a Staircase,” concludes with a rather dispiriting punchline (the sound of a gun being abruptly cocked to fire), the effect of the whole album is to draw us into deeper appreciation of grace even as the world goes to hell.
(Read Jeffrey’s full review here.)
Break This Time, Arizona, Died a Little Today
In a similar show of introspection, sadness, hope, and first-rate guitar playing, Alejandro Escovedo recorded The Boxing Mirror. In it, he reflects on loss, his own near-death experience with Hepatitis C, and an increasing appreciation for the opportunities of each day.
In “Died a Little Today,” he sings, “It’s a strange way we live/ To have been here before/ And leave nothing behind/As we move towards the door/ No there’s no one to blame/ We died a little today.”
And with such passionate guitar-driven songs, which range from poignant poetry to searing rock riffs, he delivers one of the year’s most memorable performances. His band, which brings a violin, a cello, and an accordion to the mix, give the songs surprising dimensions.
I’ve enjoyed Escovedo’s music in the past, but once in a while an album just reaches out and grabs you, and convinces you of a songwriter’s brilliance. Okay, so I’ve been a little slow, as he’s released some highly acclaimed work before (and even inspired a tribute album). But The Boxing Mirror is the one that captured me. I’m really paying attention now.
T-Bone Burnett…..The True False Identity
Every Time I Feel the Shift, Shaken Rattled and Rolled
(Read Jeffrey’s review here.)
Sonic Youth…..Rather Ripped
Reena, Incinerate, Do You Believe in Rapture?, Turquoise Boy, Pink Steam
Rather Ripped is the best rock guitar fix of 2006. I’ve been listening to Sonic Youth faithfully since 1988’s Daydream Nation. And while I’ve enjoyed almost every release since then, nothing has quite fulfilled the potential of their glorious guitar jam-sessions like their latest. Their lyrics are by turns sly, barbed, sardonic, wistful, and confoundingly cryptic… but I don’t listen to Sonic Youth for the lyrics so much as for that gauzy, glorious ocean of sound.
Ray LaMontagne…..Till the Sun Turns Black
Empty, Till the Sun Turns Black
It’s rather trendy right now to be a white folk-rock singer with a whispery delivery. But the substance and bittersweet majesty of Ray LaMontagne’s new album earns him a place beside Sufjan Stevens and Iron and Wine. This is my pick for the late-night album of 2006.
Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint…..The River in Reverse
On Your Way Down, Broken Promise Land, Ascension Day
Soulful, spirited performances for the days after the fall of New Orleans. It’s a great collaboration that served as a fine introduction for me into the work of Allen Toussaint.
Beth Orton…..The Comfort of Strangers
(Read Jeffrey’s review here.)
Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys
A great idea, a fantastic collection, and an admirable cast of characters: This is an essential collection for those days when the waters are choppy and you’re short on rum.
Thom Yorke…..The Eraser
(Read Jeffrey’s review here.)
20, 21. (tie)
Neko Case…..Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Kim Taylor……I Feel Like a Fading Light
Two impressive, compelling singer/songwriters; two albums that grow on you with every listen.
The Hold Steady…..Boys and Girls in America
Stuck Between Stations, Massive Nights
Pounding out the power chords and tearing into their guitars with more Clash-like energy than any band I’ve heard since Chagall Guevara, The Hold Steady are the “it” band of the year.
I can’t say I’m terribly fond of Craig Finn’s voice, whose delivery becomes rather obnoxious at times, making these songs that you snarl rather than sing, and that can become wearisome after a while. But his compelling, literary lyrics – which narrate stories of recklessness, indulgence, and the damage done – are the strongest threads in this thoughtful, heartbroken whole, bringing to life a time and a place with abundant details.
It took me some time to warm up to all of the hype, but their intensity and their poetic conviction eventually won me over. Let the hooks sink in, and I can almost guarantee you that you’ll eventually be drawn in by their odd blend of brains and brawn.
23, 24. (tie)
Don Peris…..Go Where the Morning Shineth
Two strong, lasting collections from singer/songwriter/ musicians with distinct styles. One is full of spiritual inquiries that will trouble your nightmares, while the other will offer gorgeous consolation.
Beck’s albums seem to be leveling out, each one featuring a handful of brilliantly catchy numbers, and a bunch of numbers that would have served better as b-sides.
The Information, while arguably better than last year’s Guero, is more memorable for its sonic fireworks displays than for lyrical substance. Still, “Think I’m In Love” is unusually candid and endearing, and “Strange Apparition” is one of the most soulful, spirited numbers of his career. While Beck remains as cryptic as ever, he still puts on a show worth catching.
Over the Rhine…..Live from Nowhere, vol. 1 (and) Snow Angels
Live form Nowhere, Vol. 1, the first in what Over the Rhine promises will be a series of annual live compilations, is a heck of a way to get started. It captures the 2005 live experience of Over the Rhine beautifully, a show that was as hushed and haunting as their 2003 shows were elaborate and house-shaking. Drawing largely from the Sweet Intoxication tour, which followed the release of 2005’s Drunkard’s Prayer, it features memorable covers (“Son of a Preacher Man”) and a preview of the song “White Horse” from their next release, a Christmas album called Snow Angels…
… which was also released this year. And it too was memorable, not only for the way that they made a Christmas collection sound like a natural extension of Drunkard’s Prayer, but for the increasingly jazzy vocal performances by Karin Bergquist.
Other albums I enjoyed and recommend:
Sufjan Stevens…..The Avalanche
Sarah Harmer…..I’m a Mountain
Jolie Holland…..Springtime Can Kill You
Lindsay Buckingham…..Under the Skin
Eels…..With Strings: Live from Town Hall
Joseph Arthur…..Nuclear Daydream
Yo La Tengo…..I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass
Leigh Nash…..Blue on Blue
Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins…..Rabbit Fur Coat
PJ Harvey…..The Peel Sessions