Top 30 albums of 2006

After weeks of agonizing (and despite a gnawing fear that tomorrow I will hear a record so good that I’ll feel intense guilt for leaving it off), here’s the list. I know 30 is sort of a weird number, but I really wanted to find a place for a couple of my favorite old-timers, and the line between 30 and everything below is a lot more clear than the one at 25.

I may have put more work into this than I did for my thesis, so I hope you enjoy it.

30. Sound Team – Movie Monster

Sneaking onto the list is the much-discussed recipient of a 3.7 smackdown from Pitchfork. That review wasn’t really wrong, per se, but that doesn’t change the fact that this record is a lot of fun. Plus, the more I hear “Handful of Billions,” the more I think it’s one of the best songs of the year.

Highlights: Handful of Billions, Movie Monster, Afterglow Years

29. Bruce Springsteen – We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions

For the second year in a row, The Boss makes my year-end list, albeit in a low slot. I prefer it when he writes his own songs, but there’s no denying how much fun he seemed to have with this one. That someone of his stature can make a record like this and have it feel so alive says something pretty amazing about the guy. Sure, he isn’t exactly cranking out a Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town every couple years these days, but still, how many people have three records this decade as good as this one, Devils and Dust, and The Rising? Not many.

Highlights: Old Dan Tucker, Mrs. McGrath, Pay Me My Money Down

28. Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris – All the Roadrunning

I have a not-so-secret crush on Mark Knopfler and if you toss in some Emmylou Harris, how could I say no? The partnership doesn’t always fit perfectly, but when they click, it’s fantastic.

Highlights: This Is Us, Beachcombing, All the Roadrunning

27. Bedroom Eyes – Embrace In Stereo E.P.

A 4-song EP, but these twee-pop loving Swedes pack a huge punch into a small package. I described their music as “everything a twee song could hope to be” and I’ll stand by it.

Highlights: Dancing Under the Influence, Blueprint for Departure

26. Tilly and the Wall – Bottoms of Barrels

Tap-dancing for percussion, endlessly bright and bubbly tunes…they may have actually transcended cute, but great energy and great songs keep it from ever getting annoying.

Highlights: The Freest Man, Lost Girls, Bad Education

25. Hello Saferide – Would You Let Me Play This EP Ten Times A Day?

Another EP out of Sweden, this one is deeply personal – bedroom music at its best. And unlike most records of this nature, her wry sense of humor, clever references, and jaunty melodies rescue it from being a total drag. “The Quiz” is one of the most beautifully disarming songs of the year, with its list of essential compatibility questions (“do you talk in the middle of Seinfeld?”), and “2006” turns the tradition of New Years resolutions on its head, including the touchingly ironic: “I will learn a new word each day / today’s word is ‘dejected.'” As if that wasn’t enough, “The Best Night of Your Life” includes the line “I came here dressed like Audrey Horne.” Anyone who name-drops characters from Twin Peaks gets serious bonus points in my book.

Highlights: The Quiz, 2006

24. Mojave 3 – Puzzles Like You

Their most upbeat and sunny record yet, with a number of great songs. Still, I can’t help but feel a little disappointment, mostly because the more I listen to the three released demos vs. the final cuts, the worse the finished product sounds. The demos are looser and more carefree, and since that’s pretty much the whole motif for the record, it’s kind of a problem. It just makes me wonder if a version of the whole thing along those lines would better capture its essence. Still, great album as it is.

Highlights: Breaking the Ice (demo), Puzzles Like You, Ghost Ship Waiting

23. Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings The Flood

I’ve had this one for almost the whole year and as much as I liked it, I never once thought it would make this list. Still, when the time came to justify to myself exactly why, I just couldn’t leave it off. It’s worked its way deep into my subconscious and the more I listen to it, the more I enjoy its subtleties, the fascinating lyrics, and of course her voice. Good lord can the woman sing! Highs, lows, wrapping itself around notes, slithering through chord changes, and soaring into the endless infinity. I like Jenny Lewis just fine but the people ranking Rabbit Fur Coat ahead of this one and hyping her voice over Neko Case’s need to get their ears checked.

Highlights: Hold On, Hold On, The Needle Has Landed, Maybe Sparrow

22. Dan Bern – Breathe

Dan Bern gets more personal and turns in one of the best records of his career. Only a fantastic effort from Josh Ritter keeps this from taking the “best coffeehouse record of the year” title. And, as always, he channels the early Dylan better than Dylan himself.

Highlights: Breathe, Visit in My Dream, Trudy, Past Belief

21. I’m From Barcelona – Let Me Introduce My Friends

The Swedish Polyphonic Spree, except with better beats and not, y’know, crazy. They do their very best to prove that sometimes more really is more. I don’t even KNOW 29 Swedish people.

Highlights: This Boy, Oversleeping, Chicken Pox

20. Band of Horses – Everything All The Time

Once I thought this was the best album of the year. At this point, I’m just sick of people talking about how much they love “The Funeral.” More tellingly, the only times I’ve listened to this record in the last 3 months were to review it for this project. None of this is to say it’s bad – it’s just not as good as I’d hoped. I wanted Band of Horses to be the heir to Carissa’s Wierd so I anointed them right away, and it didn’t hurt that “The Funeral” is a killer song. But in retrospect, while this wins the “best southern rock plus reverb” title, it’s got a little too much filler and not enough “wow” moments to keep me truly excited.

Highlights: The Funeral, St. Augustine, Great Salt Lake

19. The Bittersweets – The Life You Always Wanted

I reviewed this one a little over a week ago, so I’m lacking the critical distance needed to come up with something new to say. So instead I’ll just quote that review: “Crisp melodies with jangly guitars and songs about love, long nights on highways, and hope for forgiveness. Most of them are quick-paced and light on their feet, but they toss in a couple slower numbers to give you a change of scenery. And if they don’t delve too far into the deeper meanings of life, that simplicity is part of the charm.”

Highlights: Long Day, Adam, Houston

18. Josh Ritter – The Animal Years

This is Josh Ritter’s breakout album. Most songs hold to the traditional singer-songwriter line, which he can do as well as anyone. “Good Man,” for example, is would be sure to make the crowds swoon in any coffeehouse across America. But what makes this album great are those moments when he really lets himself loose. “Thin Blue Flame” is 10 minutes of fire and brimstone, tempered by a hopeless idealism, and “Girl in the War” dabbles in Biblical metaphors to tell an anti-war story untrammeled by the usual cliches. A dull set of 3 songs in the middle is all that drags it down a bit, but apart from that, this is one of the strongest folk-influenced records of recent memory.

Highlights: Thin Blue Flame, Good Man, Girl in the War

17. Jeremy Enigk – World Waits

Jeremy Enigk sounds older, wiser, more world-weary, but also has a new sense of optimism tempered by the fire. It doesn’t quite match up to his best work, but neither is it close to his worst. His voice, haunting as ever, if a little more crackly, is still the hook, and he works the loud/soft dynamic to great effect, but in his best moments is able to take this motif in directions previously unheard, such as on the stellar “Been Here Before.”

Highlights: Been Here Before, World Waits, Cannons

16. Damnwells – Air Stereo

You like Paul Westerberg? If so, you’ll probably like this record, too. It occasionally dips too much into the alt-country-clichĂ© grab-bag, but more often than not the flourishes are deftly done. It’s solid from top to bottom, with 6 or 7 different songs that still vie for a spot as my favorite from week to week.

Highlights: Louisville and Golden Days are my favorites right now, but you could really pick a song at random and not be disappointed.

15. Rosanne Cash – Black Cadillac

While Johnny Cash built a career on the deep, dark parts of the human psyche, I’m not sure he ever delved into them with as much care or as much love as his daughter does on this record. It’s harrowing, with her heart hanging on a thread so weak so can’t believe it doesn’t snap. But fragility is undergirded by a stubborn embrace of love. However, this love is the not the fanciful “puppies and flowers” variety but is lined with steel.

Highlights: Dreams Are Not My Home, I Was Watching You, Black Cadillac

14. Rainer Maria – Catastrophe Keeps Us Together

It doesn’t have the one song that catches your heart on fire like some of their previous albums, but neither does it have any of their weaknesses. This is just an record full of sometimes tender, often bitter, occasionally wry, and always emotionally rich songs from a band carefully balancing between their emo-roots and the singer-songwriter core inside Caithlin DeMarrais. And it is a fitting swansong to their turbulent career.

Highlights: Catastrophe, Clear and True

13. Sufjan Stevens – The Avalanche: Outtakes and Extras from the Illinois Album

Fresh off dominating the field with the #1 record of 2005, Sufjan released this album of Illinois outtakes and extras. Which invites a serious question: how insanely talented is Sufjan that his outtakes almost crack the top 10? And can you even imagine a world where he just never got around to releasing “The Henney Buggy Band?” It would be like The Beatles just leaving “I’m Looking Through You” to sit in the Abbey Road archives. It has a lot more misses than Illinois, of course – I didn’t really need one remake of “Chicago” much less three, and most of the rest are clearly second tier material – but second-tier Sufjan is still pretty darn good.

Highlights: The Henney Buggy Band, The Mistress Witch From McClure, The Perpetual Self, or “What Would Saul Alinsky Do?”

12. Birdmonster – No Midnight

These guys have been one of the most divisive bands of 2006, a focal point of the backlash against blog buzz bands. Now, it’s not entirely unfair – if you’re looking for innovation, you’d better go elsewhere. And, while I happen to enjoy it, their music isn’t really “better” in any objective sense than dozens of other bands out there with the same equally obvious influences. But who cares? They rock my socks off and that’s good enough for me.

Highlights: Balcony, All the Holes in the Wall, Sparrow

11. She, Sir – Who Can’t Say Yes

One of my best (and truest) pieces of writing on this blog was my first response to “It’s My Way of Staying Connected” back in July. Rather than trying to grasp the ineffable twice, I’ll just quote it:

“Shades of My Bloody Valentine, Mogwai, and pretty much any other band known for creating layers of sound, but there’s something beyond that. This is not your typical fare; this is what would’ve happened if shoegaze was around when Bach was growing up. “Intricately crafted” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Every sound has its counterpoint, every note is in place. You can almost hear the mathematical precision. But it is not cold or lifeless. It reminds me of a quote attributed to Douglas Adams: “Mozart tells us what it’s like to be human, Beethoven tells us what it’s like to be Beethoven, and Bach tells us what it’s like to be the universe.” Seriously. That’s the kind of music we’re talking about here.”

The other songs can’t quite live up, but there was no reason to expect them to. Instead of attempting to capture pure magic in a bottle a second time, they set a more modest goal of developing the components, broadening them, and building outwards from the basic structure with “It’s My Way of Staying Connected” as a focal point.

Highlights: It’s My Way of Staying Connected, I Love You, Blowtorch Eyes, You Can’t Change a Thing

10. Headlights – Kill Them With Kindness

I’m such a sucker for this kind of music: pretty female vocals over some amalgamation of New Wave, shoegaze, and rock and roll. The best New Pornographers songs (the ones with Neko Case, basically) have it. So do Stars and Broken Social Scene. And The Headlights have it in spades. If you’ve ever been bowling, you’ll have seen when someone hits a perfect strike: one second the pins are just standing there, the next there’s this crash and it looks like they’ve spontaneously erupted. That’s what this record reminds me of.

Highlights: TV, Put Us Back Together, Words Make You Tired

9. Voxtrot – Mothers, Sisters, Daughters, and Wives

The last EP on the list. It’s only five songs, but they are five fantastic songs. It’s easy to rag on blog buzz bands, but if they were all as good as Voxtrot, there would be nothing to complain about. “Soft and Warm,” in particular, verges on the Platonic ideal of indie pop. Go ahead, try and name a better one.

Highlights: Soft and Warm, Mothers, Sisters, Daughters and Wives, Rise Up in the Dirt

8. Asobi Seksu – Citrus

You can’t talk about Asobi Seksu without bringing up “shoegaze” but it feels wholly inadequate. It’s like trying to describe Audrey Hepburn by talking about the color of her hair. At its best, Citrus is the aural equivalent of the Mandlebrot set, with tiny flashes that on closer examination explode into entire universes of endless complexity. It’s chaos without madness, structure without reason, joy pursued with reckless abandon.

A rock skims across a perfectly still pond – the ripples expand slowly until they hit each other and suddenly there are peaks and valleys, cascades and eruptions. Elsewhere, a blade of feedback slashes through you, the wall of sound rises impossibly high before it smashes itself into a million fragments, and her voice envelops you like a caress.

And for some reason, I can’t help but picture the band as Anime superheroes with this as their theme music. Give it a listen, and by the time you’re through with “New Years” and “Thursday,” you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Shoegaze has never been this fun.

Highlights: New Years, Goodbye, Mizu Asobi, Thursday…okay, the whole thing

7. Decemberists – The Crane Wife

For 25 minutes, the Decemberists recall every bit of the dreamy pop landscape which made Castaways and Cutouts one of my favorite albums of all-time. On top of that landscape, they apply thick dabs of lovelorn soul searching (The Crane Wife 3), bright splotches of a pop West Side Story (O Valencia), gauzy strands of an ill-fated Civil War love (Yankee Bayonet), and the broad swoops of proto-prog rock (The Island). And the final two tracks are just as good, including an absolutely stunning build-up in “The Crane Wife 1 and 2” and a rousing send-off in “Sons and Daughters.” But the middle…yuck: two disco-synth-heavy-metal piles of flaming poop and two Decemberists-by-numbers folk songs that bore me to tears.

It’s really too bad. This is the first Decemberists record since Castaways that’s truly excited me, with four or five songs that I like more than anything from Her Majesty or Picaresque (as much as I enjoyed those records). With a middle as strong as the bookends, The Crane Wife could have been the best of the year.

Highlights: The Crane Wife 3, Sons and Daughters, The Crane Wife 1 and 2, O Valencia, Yankee Bayonet

6. Johnny Boy – Johnny Boy

I’m cheating a little to even rank this album. While it wasn’t released until 2006, the two best songs (“You Are the Generation That Bought More Shoes and You Get What You Deserve” and “Johnny Boy Theme”) have been out for years. The former might just be my all-time favorite song and the latter sits comfortably in the top 50. The newer material that’s actually unique to 2006 is solid (with “College” and “Fifteen Minutes” capturing a spark of what made the singles great, if not more than that) but unspectacular. Without the two big-hitters, it wouldn’t sniff the list.

Still, the songs were only singles before 2006 (and difficult to come by, too), and this gives me another chance to stress just how essential it is that you experience “You Are the Generation…”

Highlights: You Are the Generation That Bought More Shoes and You Get What You Deserve, Johnny Boy Theme, College

5. Mates of State – Bring It Back

They finally made the record they’ve always been capable of, building beautifully layered pop songs to make your heart go boom without losing any of the DIY charm of a boy and a girl with a drum set and an organ. This is the perfect record for driving around all summer with the windows down and the stereo on repeat.

Highlights: Fraud in the 80s, Beautiful Dreamer, For the Actor

4. Lawrence Arms – Oh! Calcutta!

This album is so good that I hesitate to call it punk for fear it will create associations with A New Found Glory and Gap commercials. So let me be more specific: Oh! Calcutta! channels seething tensions into music so devastating that it’s being investigated by the IAEA, occasionally letting loose a chorus that reminds you what a pure joy it is to be alive. It’s chaotic and beautiful, hardcore and honest, a 36-minute firestorm filled to the brim with emotions so genuine you can feel them in your gut. It’s the best punk record since London Calling. Yeah, that’s right, I said it. This is the real deal.

Highlights: Are You There Margaret, It’s Me God, Great Lakes/Great Escapes, Beyond the Embarrassing Style, The Rabbit and the Rooster, and the whole rest of the album

3. Camera Obscura – Let’s Get Out Of This Country

Camera Obscura come into their own with this record, distilling all the best components of the girl groups of the 50s and 60s, Belle and Sebastian, and the sensitive folk-singer. The conventional wisdom holds that 2006 lacked any stunning albums, which might be true. But if Let’s Get Out of This Country isn’t stunning, it’s something far better: simply beautiful. I recognize that some of my other favorite albums might not appeal to everyone, but I really can’t understand someone unable to find something to love here.

Highlights: Let’s Get Out of This Country, If Looks Could Kill, Lloyd I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken

2. Antarctica Takes It! – The Penguin League

As bright and bubbly as any twee record and with lyrics every bit as intriguing as the Decemberists (heck, as intriguing as a great Ray Bradbury short story) – in another year, this could easily have been my #1. It’s about as lo-fi as it gets but the lack of production only heightens its resonance. In fact, this record serves as the incontrovertible proof that the essence of transcendent music is often its simplicity. You let down all the barriers and all that’s left is the exuberance of the song.

As I wrote back in October: “this record is the shy and unassuming girl with pigtails and glasses who sits in the corner quietly reading a Harry Potter book, but who still manages to far outshine a crowded room full of beauty queens, intellectual superstars, and aspiring hipsters.”

Embrace it. Strip all the pretense, suspend your disbelief, and discover a record that really can change your life.

Highlights: Antarctica, The Song is You, Circuits

1. Submarines – Declare A New State!

This has been my favorite album of the year since the first day I heard it. It’s not big on scope or ambition, isn’t particularly innovative musically or lyrically, and the backstory is almost too cute for words (boy and girl move to LA, break up, write songs about how they still love each other, get back together, get married, and turn the songs into an album). So why is it #1? Because ultimately I like music that makes me feel good, and nothing makes me feel better than this record. And it’s really not even close.

Grand themes, complicated chord progressions, inpenetrable literary allusions: all these things have a place. But there is another kind of magic in simplicity and a hopeless romanticism. It’s often far too easy to embrace cynicism and maintain ironic detachment, but incredibly difficult to open yourself up, risk the cliches, and express the most basic elements of life: love, loss, pain, and hope for tomorrow. Declare a New State! takes the risk, shares something truly intimate, and reminds us all that even some of the most painful stories do have happy endings. And I love them for it.

Highlights: Every single song, but especially This Conversation and Peace and Hate

And that’s the show. If you made it this far, thanks for reading. And check back later this week for my list of favorite songs and other assorted year-end tidbits.

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