Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Greatest: My Top 20 for 2006

I'm just riffing on the title of Cat Power's latest. I don't really present any of these titles as "the greatest." They're just my favorite records, reissues, and singles of the year--nothing more to it than that.


Top 20:
1. Gnarls Barkley - St. Elsewhere (Downtown/Atlantic)

Who saw this one coming? Two shape-shifting tricksters who forged their reps via hip-hop, producer Danger Mouse and rapper-turned-soul man Cee-Lo Green, greet a welcoming world with the most exuberant pop platter of the year. Adding to the funky feat are lyrics that couldn't cut deeper. It's all here: depression, schizophrenia, suicide...necrophilia. And hey, isn’t that the ghost of Sly Stone lurking between the lines? St. Elsewhere is a chocolate cupcake slathered in dayglo frosting and sugary happy faces. Inside: blood red filling.
If there's a hell below, we're all gonna go. Dance while you can.

2. Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am... (Domino)
3. Cat Power - The Greatest (Matador)

After You Are Free, Cat Power could've knocked out You Are Free: Part II and the cult of Chan wouldn't have cared. Instead Marshall hopped a train to Memphis, booked a room at Ardent Studios, where Big Star laid down their most sublime sides, and crafted this soulful gem with help from Al Green secret weapons Mabon "Teenie" Hodges and his brother, Leroy. What could have been an epic white girl-gets-her-black-on embarrassment ranks as Marshall's most subtle offering—this time, the now-sober singer takes a page from the Dusty playbook and trades catharsis for restraint. Reinvention doesn't come much sweeter.

4. Lily Allen - Alright, Still (Regal/EMI UK)

A pretty girl with a filthy mouth: it should be a recipe for success.
More often than not, it’s sound and fury signifying a major bummer.
In the case of this trash-talking Londoner, daughter of comedian Keith Allen, the exception proves the rule. With the voice of an angel,
the 21-year-old sings words so true—about Tony Blair’s England,
about two-faced geezers—they couldn't be funnier, set to jaunty
ska-pop grooves that'd turn Prince Buster emerald with envy.
Alright, Still is A Clockwork Orange as interpreted by Bananarama
on an epic bender. In other words, it's really about sex.

5. Juana Molina - Son (Domino)

Like Seattle's Rosie Thomas, Juana Molina plies two trades:
comedienne and musician. Not at the same time, naturally. On her fourth full-length and second domestic release, the Buenos Aires-based polymath, best known to South Americans as the star of Juana and Her Sisters, comes on playful and pretty, rather than comic or crude. With a clear and gentle voice that evokes Astrud Gilberto and Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier--she lived in France as a child--Molina whisper-sings atop woozy keyboards, exotic sound effects (bird calls, radio static), subtle percussive elements (cymbals, gongs), and airy acoustic guitar (delicately finger-picked in the Nick Drake style).

The singer/songwriter, who recently returned to Argentina after a sojourn in LA, speaks a universal language. On the self-produced follow-up to Segundo, she splits her breezy vocals between Spanish phrases and wordless utterings. Rather than Ella Fitzgerald-type scatting, Molina employs multi-tracked "ahs," "oohs”--even a whistle
or two. Spanish for "they are," Son is the answer to the musical question: Are Juana Molina's new songs as beautiful as before?

6. Be Your Own Pet - Be Your Own Pet
(Infinity Cat/Ecstatic Peace)
7. The Black Angels - Passover (Light in the Attic)
8. Starless and Bible Black - S/T (Locust Music)
9. Wax Tailor - Tales of the Forgotten Melodies (Decon)
10. Marisa Monte - Universo Ao Meu Redor
(Metro Blue/Blue Note)

11. Lady Sovereign - Public Warning (Def Jam/Universal)
12. Thee Emergency - Can You Dig It? (BlueDisguise)
13. Delta 5 - Singles & Sessions 1979-1981 (Kill Rock Stars)
14. Broadcast - The Perfect Crayon (Warp) [compilation]

Spanning 1998-2003, The Perfect Crayon blends B-sides, EP cuts and other enchanting ephemera into 18 tracks of audio bliss. At their gauziest, the British quintet-turned-duo, vocalist Trish Keenan and bassist James Cargill, conjure up Twin Peaks-era Julee Cruise ("Small Song IV"). At their spaciest, they float through the atmosphere like a jazzier Tones on Tail ("One Hour Empire") or Swinging London songstress Lulu fronting Cologne’s uncompromising Can ("Still Feels Like Tears"). All three selections, incidentally, come from 2003’s entrancing Pendulum EP. At other times, when they strip away the vocals and crank up the drums, they approach harder-edged Daft Punk territory ("DDL,” from All Tomorrow’s Parties 01). For those who found last year’s Tender Buttons a tad too reserved, this convenient collection presents a more unbridled version of the Birmingham band.

15. Brightblack Morning Light - ST (Matador)
16. Spoon - Telephono/Soft Effects (Merge) [reissue]
17. The Decemberists - The Crane Wife (Capitol)
18. Nellie McKay - Pretty Little Head (Hungry Mouse)
19. Gomez - How We Operate (ATO)
20. Black Merda - The Folks From Mother's Mixer
(Funky Delicacies) [reissue]

Top Reissues:
1. Tom Waits - Orphans (Anti-)
2. Al Green - The Belle Album (Hi/Capitol)
3. PJ Harvey - The Peel Sessions (Fontana/Island)
4. Bill Withers - Just As I Am (Columbia/Sony)
5. Various Artists - Brothers on the Slide:
The Story of UK Funk (Discotheque UK)
6. Dead Moon - Echoes of the Past (Sub Pop)
7. Michael Viner's Incredible Bongo Band -
Bongo Rock (Mr. Bongo)
8. The Gentle Rain - Moody (Sunbeam)
9. Sisters Love - Give Me Your Love (Soul Jazz)
10. Skull Snaps - Skull Snaps (Aztec Music)

Maximum Mixtape:
1. Gnarls Barkley - "Crazy" (St. Elsewhere/Downtown/Atlantic)
2. Thom Yorke - "Black Swan" (The Eraser/XL Recordings)
3. Lavender Diamond - "You Broke My Heart"
(Cavalry of Light EP/Matador)
4. Johnny Cash - "God's Gonna Cut You Down" (American V:
One Hundred Highways/Lost Highway)
5. The Gossip - "Listen Up" (Standing in the Way of Control/
Kill Rock Stars)
6. Lady Sovereign - "Love Me or Hate Me"
(Public Warning/Def Jam/Universal)
7. Beck - "Nausea" (The Information/Interscope)
8. Lily Allen - "LDN" (Alright, Still/Regal/EMI UK)
9. The Roots - "Don't Feel Right" (Game Theory/
Def Jam/Universal)
10. Love Is All - "Busy Doing Nothing" (Nine Times That Same Song/What's Your Rupture)

Bonus track: The Dropkick Murphys - "Shipping Up to Boston" (The Departed/Warner Brothers) [original soundtrack]

Northwest Notables:
1. The Gossip - Standing
in the Way of Control
(Kill Rock Stars)
2. The Old Haunts - Fuel for Fire (Kill Rock Stars)
3. M. Ward - Post-War (Merge)
4. The Long Winters - Putting the Days to Bed (Barsuk)
5. Unwed Sailor - Circles/The White Ox (Burnt Toast Vinyl)

As the old ad slogan goes, "If you want to capture someone's attention, whisper." Few musicians have taken that adage closer to heart than Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford. Hot on the heels of the hyper-minimalist "Circles" EP, consisting of two expansive instrumental tracks, The White Ox witnesses the addition of vocals to his musical modus operandi. On "Gila" and "Numbers" Daniel Burton's whispered words rest gently atop a bed of acoustic guitar, bass (Ford's weapon of choice), flute, and spare percussion. As with the EP, James Marsh, the modern-day surrealist behind every Talk Talk album cover, supplies the eye-catching artwork. Not so coincidentally, Ford's ambient waves of sound seem likely to appeal to fans of Spirit of Eden-era Talk Talk, along with other tuneful minimalists like Brian Eno and Tones on Tail.

And here's the mini-essay I contributed to the Jackin' Pop poll.


Every year, it's as much about discovery as re-discovery. Since I graduated over two decades ago (!), I decided to concentrate on music from my high school and college years. Of particular interest: Those artists who didn't seem quite cool enough back then (ah, the 20s...). Hence, it wasn't until 2006 that I added Parallel Lines to my collection. I mean, how can I embrace Be Your Own Pet and Lily Allen, but not Blondie? While I'm at it, why should I pick up Show Your Bones when I can head straight for that new Bow Wow Wow collection? On the other hand, I see no reason why I can't enjoy Standing in the Way of Control as much as anything by ESG--and Keep on Moving proves they still got it.

I've also been getting in touch with my Irish roots through the music of That Petrol Emotion and the Pogues (new remasters plus bonus tracks!). Overall though, I can't imagine being nostalgic about the 1980s--it was such a crappy decade in so many ways--but with more and more modern-day musicians taking their cues from post-punk and new wave, I find myself gravitating towards the original inspirations. Sometimes in addition to the acts they've influenced, sometimes at their expense. Then again: Reagan vs. Bush II. It often feels like the 1980s all over again... Unless things change radically between now and then, I predict I'll be taking the same approach towards 2007.

Endnote: Click here for my 2003-2005 lists. Reviews from Amazon, Resonance, and Seattle Sound. (Yes, I realize I referenced Tones on Tail twice.) Images from Google (Danger Mouse), Wax Tailor (same), and Burn to Shine (the Gossip).

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