Known Johnson

July 7, 2006

Overlooked Alternatives: the best of 2006 – so far

Filed under: Music,Overlooked Alternatives — Tom @ 11:41 am

Because this is one of those odd weeks of where almost nothing of consequence is on the release schedule, and because it happens to fall smack-dab in the middle of the year, it makes a perfect opportunity to look back at the previous half-year’s releases to highlight the best that music has had to offer. My rules are simple: no live albums, no compilations. One pleases almost only die-hards, one is almost only meant for casual fans, and there’s no need to take up space on a list for them.

In alphabetical order, because it’s too early to really rank ’em, the 13 best and brightest of 2006 . . . so far:

Built To Spill – You In Reverse: You just don’t think of too many great guitarist in indie-rock. It’s practically built into the genre to not emphasize your skills. So what a refreshing treat a band like Built To Spill is where they most definitely fall into that meaningless “indie rock” category (since they are on Warner Bros.) and guitarist/singer Doug Martsch can absolutely wail. Marsch hails from the Neil Young school of guitar and uses every opportunity to squeeze out beautiful squeals of solos that manage to remain tasteful and yet still get your blood pumping. You In Reverse isn’t anything shockingly new from the band, but it sums up them in one perfect, extremely satisfying album of new music.

Calexico – Garden Ruin: Calexico’s trademark southwestern flare has been toned down quite a bit with this album, allowing the songwriting to take the spotlight in a way it never has. A quiet outing, Garden Ruin needs time to plant its roots in the listener, however. Where previous albums grabbed attention because of their cinematic drama, Garden Ruin finds the band somber and introspective. The horn section, such an aggressive and thrilling part of the music in the past, finds itself functioning more as a textural element here. Like all of the elements fans love about Calexico, they are all present in Garden Ruin – they will just take some digging to reveal. The work is worth it.

Cheap Trick – Rockford: Easily my number 1 pick for best album of the year right now, Rockford never lets me down. There’s not a bad moment on the entire disc, and, in fact, the band seems to act as if the dark days of the mid-late 80s never occured – it’s as if they picked up where Next Position Please left off. Rockford is fresh, invigorating, and surprisingly new sounding from a band that shouldn’t have any right to sound this excited about playing music 30 years into their career.

Def Leppard – Yeah!: It’s easy to scoff at a covers album, and some even find it easy to scoff at Def Leppard in this day, but those are the people are just plain missing out. Yeah! is big ball of ridiculous fun as the band covers the songs that inspired them as young kids to become musicians, with the one rule being that they couldn’t be the big hits. The result is a covers album that doesn’t tread well-worn ground and, in many cases, may introduce the listeners to songs they’ve never experienced before. Read my review for tips on where to pick up the many bonus tracks.

The Futureheads – News and Tributes: You can put away your stuff by the Killers and the Bravery and every other band in between them that sounds just like them because you’re going to get sick of them. Mark my words: you will be sick of them very soon, and you’ll wish you’d instead invested in something that apes the same territory with some real conviction and an obvious display of real love of the style they’re lifting. The Futureheads cannot deny that they’re stealing the sound of early XTC and the Jam, but at least they do so with an ear toward doing it right. On this, their second album, however, they reveal a new, intriguing influence that many might not have guessed at: Killing Joke, which makes for some interesting cross-breeding of styles.

Keene Brothers – Blues And Boogie Shoes: It’s July, and Robert Pollard has only put out four albums this year so far? Keene Brothers, his pairing with fellow ex-Guided By Voices guitarist Tommy Keene is by far the strongest of the lot, including Pollard’s own solo release (listed below.) Short, strong, and full of huge guitars and incredible hooks, it’s the kind of things GBV fans were hoping to hear after the band broke up New Year’s Eve 2004, but didn’t get with the consciously difficult From A Compound Eye. (If you’re looking for the other two Pollard projects so far, check out the Takeovers and Psycho & The Birds – neither work quite as well as Keene Bros. or FaCE, but Pollard fans are a dedicated bunch and will probably want everything anyway, just like I do.)

Killing Joke – Hosannas From The Basements Of Hell: Like Built To Spill’s You In Reverse, Killing Joke’s latest also seems to serve as a summary of their entire career. It’s nothing new, in other words, but it works to cover most of the ground they tread in the past 26 or so years, with an emphasis on the direction hinted at on 1994’s Pandemonium.

Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris – All The Roadrunning: This pairing seems so natural that it makes you wonder why it never happened before. Knopfler’s deep drawl and southern guitar stylings wrap so comfortably around Harris’ angelic, lilting voice that the album seems to have come together so effortlessly, but it reportedly took nearly 7 years to complete.

Pearl Jam – Pearl Jam: It should come as no surprise that Pearl Jam waxes political on their latest album, and that the politics are clumsy and ham-fisted. The music, however, more than makes up for it. Clunky politics aside, this is Pearl Jam at their most vital since, well, Vitalogy.

Peeping Tom – Peeping Tom: Mike Patton wants you to believe that Peeping Tom is his new, more commercial outing, but don’t let that fool you – Patton is hardly “selling out” here. Peeping Tom takes the rock elements of Faith No More and combines Patton’s interest in dark hip-hop (like Lovage) for one of his most successfully satisfying projects in years. Only Tomahawk has rocked harder, but it hasn’t been as fun as Peeping Tom.

Robert Pollard – From A Compound Eye: Pollard’s first solo album after Guided By Voices finds him digging into prog-rock. As is usual for Pollard, there’s a million great hooks and choruses all over the album, but they happen to be a little more buried than usual for a higher-profile release such as this. Still, the number of great songs begging to get stuck in your head make this a frequent repeat listen.

Paul Simon – Surprise: Simon isn’t kidding with the title. Sounding more like an Eno album with Paul Simon guesting on vocals, Surprise is one of the year’s most intriguing albums. Not only that, but it’s proving controversial – fans seem evenly divided on whether it’s a good surprise or a bad surprise. One thing’s for sure, this is not “Mrs. Robinson”‘s Paul Simon, but if you’re a fan of Eno and Simon, you will probably find much to love here.

Sonic Youth – Rather Ripped: Can a band mature and continue to challenge themselves and listeners? Rather Ripped answers yes. Sonic Youth may not wail away with walls of squealing distortion like they used to, but Rather Ripped‘s lyrical focus on relationship troubles is backed by their trademark angular pop that will never be mistaken a band taking the easy way out.

And that’s only 13! There’s more to come, not to mention what I’ve missed!



  1. There’s a promo copy of the new Cheap Trick sitting in the back room of my store, waiting to be taken. Maybe I’ll take it, based on your enthusiastic recommendation.

    Sonic Youth, on the other hand…they get my vote for the most overrated band of the last 20 years.

    Comment by Chris — July 10, 2006 @ 6:37 pm | Reply

  2. Do it, Chris, do it! Especially for free!

    As for SY, I don’t generally prescribe to their noisy aesthetic. I find some really intriguing nuggets of melody in their later music, however, and this one is packed full of unusual, but tasty melodies. I can definitely appreciate why people wouldn’t enjoy their thing, however. They’re a band I only need so much of and can only tolerate in certain doses. These latest two albums are really all I care about right now, actually. I like where they’re at with these two.

    Comment by Tom — July 10, 2006 @ 8:23 pm | Reply

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