Known Johnson

January 8, 2007

Overlooked Alternatives – 2006 Spotlight, Part 1: The Rest of the Best

Filed under: Best of 2006,Music,Overlooked Alternatives — Tom @ 1:01 am

No numbers, no ranking, just the best of the best that rock had to offer in 2006. My number one pick can be found among the Blogcritics list (where there’s a good discussion about them) or on my site, but, of course, I can’t live on just my number one alone. Here’s the rest that dominated my ears in 2006:

  • Built To Spill – You In Reverse: After a long break, Doug Martsch stormed back with his band for an unlikely comeback that is stronger than anything else the band has ever released. While it’s not necessarily anything “new” from Built To Spill – if you’re familiar with the band, everything here is going to sound familiar, too – but it’s all done perfectly and with such raw abandon and emotion that this could almost be considered their best performance on record. You would be hard-pressed to find better straight-up, driving guitar rock than “Mess With Time” or “Conventional Wisdom” this year, and if album opener “Goin’ Against Your Mind” doesn’t grab you, well, you’re just dead inside.
  • Calexico – Garden Ruin Sometimes bands make a big change and it just leaves you thinking “Why, why?!” This time out, after a strong, pleasing EP with Iron & Wine, Calexico decided to emphasize the “north of the border” sound and de-emphasize the horns that gave them such a tantalizing Southwestern flavor. In writing, this sounds like a disaster – “the Calexico horns,” as they are often called, are a key part of the appeal – but once the album was given time to find a spot in listeners’ hearts, the more straight-forward pop-song format worked extremely well. Calexico still manages to write dark, dramatic songs with an emphasis on the cinematic and the exotic. The songs are just slightly more accessible this time around.
  • Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings The Flood: I found myself initially disappointed with Fox Confessor, and I haven’t quite grasped why. Case has made a fan of me with her Loretta Lynne/Patsy Cline vocals set in modern alt-country surroundings, but this album threw me at first. Perhaps, being swept up in the thrill of finding Case with Blacklisted and The Tigers Have Spoken, it was impossible for her follow-up to surprise me. Fox Confessor ended up being a sleeper for me – I bought it, listened repeatedly, and didn’t find it evoking a deep love that her previous albums had, and it wound up sadly shelved and ignored. But then it slowly started working its magic on me, first by snagging me with the hooks of “Star Witness” and its lilting, soaring melody, and then uncovering genuine perfect pop songs sprinkled all throughout the album – they’re just more subtle than her previous albums would have you prepared for. This was a very strong contender for that number 1 spot by the end of the year.
  • Cheap Trick – Rockford: This was, without a doubt, my main “go to” album of 2006. When I was scrounging for something to listen to and just didn’t know what to turn to, when I needed a lift, when I was in a good mood, when I was in a bad mood, whatever the occasion, this album was it. Rockford delivered every time. Full of exactly what you always hope for in a Cheap Trick outing – incredible hooks, great, catchy songwriting, and Robin Zander’s incredible voice. There isn’t a flaw on the damned thing. I had a hard time not calling this album of the year, actually.
  • The Church – Uninvited Like The Clouds: Like Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, this was a surprise: an album that didn’t immediately grab me, then worked its way under my skin over a matter of months.

    The Church has managed to maintain an amazingly solid career for a band whose biggest hit, “Under the Milky Way,” was nearly 20 years ago. With a few minor stumbles in the 90s and some drug problems in the past decade, it doesn’t seem like the band should be so vital, but in the past few years, they’ve turned out some of their best albums in well over a decade. Steve Kilbey’s chant-styled vocals may not be for everyone, but if you ever enjoyed the Church, now’s the time to check back in on them.

  • Def Leppard – Yeah!: No one would have expected a Def Leppard album in 2006 to be good enough to be on any list, let alone an album of covers by them, but here it is, 2006 and they’ve done a killer covers album – the best thing they’ve released in nearly 20 years. What makes it work best is that the covers are primarily songs that weren’t hit singles, unlike most covers albums that rely on songs that everyone knows so well that instant comparisons are impossible to live down. Here, it’s possible to just let the obvious fun the band had creating this album overtake you instead of mentally A/Bing theirs with the originals. Serious fun.
  • Bob Dylan – Modern Times: Sure, he’s starting to look like a creepy, cranky old man, but you’ve never heard a creepy, cranky old man turn out music quite like this. Picking up where the infectious and strangely jubilant “Love And Theft” left off, Bob continues to just sounds like he’s having fun, and that’s fun for listeners.
  • Jeremy Enigk – World Awaits: Another little surprise – I didn’t expect that much from Enigk’s second solo album and it wound up pretty much blowing me away. If you’re familiar with Sunny Day Real Estate, you already know what to expect – I’m loathe to apply the term “emo” but SDRE was at the heart of the genre before it become corrupted by what it’s become today, but this is emotional rock, full of heartfelt declarations and grandiose movements. However, there are moments on this album that approach prog-rock excesses and for that I’m appreciative – Enigk clearly allowed his muse to take him where he needed to go and the end result is one of 2006’s most beautiful rock albums. Don’t miss it.
  • Keene Brothers – Blues And Boogie Shoes: The first of two Pollard releases to make it into my “best of the best” list (and that’s of seven Pollard-associated releases in 2006,) the Keen Brothers might just be the best and most successful all around. Named so because of his association with former Guided By Voices band member Tommy Keene (no, they’re not brothers,) this project focuses on extremely catchy hard rock, with Keene turning in some of the best guitar performances you’ll find on any Pollard release, and Pollard cranking out some incredibly catchy tunes. This ranks up there with some of the best GBV releases, believe it or not.
  • Mike Keneally Band – Guitar Therapy Live: The best way to experience Zappa alum Keneally is live and finally he’s put out a the perfect live document – a CD and DVD set (the previously available Half Alive In Hollywood is currently out of print but has never been a favorite of mine, but it it is supposedly being remastered in the coming year for those who are seeking it.) This set also features him at the top of his game with arguably his best band, featuring his best music (although I might argue that Wooden Smoke, an acoustic album, is truly his best album, but that’s another matter.)
  • Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris – All The Roadrunning: A match made in heaven – Knopfler’s throaty rumble and Harris’ angelic lilt seem too perfect and, in places, the album comes across a bit glib in nature, but when it works it’s absolutely wonderful.
  • Ray Lamontagne – Until The Sun Turns Black: I admit it. For whatever reason, I find myself drawn to Van Morrison-esque singers, yet I don’t particularly enjoy Van The Man himself. Add Lamontagne to that list. There’s something hypnotic about the darkness that surrounds this album, and it’s not just the black album cover – the music is dramatically draped in low strings that compliment Lamontagne’s husky, smokey voice. Modern, yet timeless, Until The Sun Turns Black feels like the kind of album that will never get old.
  • John Mayer – Continuum: And here’s the other big surprise of the year. Not only am I surprised that I even bought a Mayer album, I’m shocked that it rocketed up so quickly to the top of my most-played list. Aside from a few sore-thumb songs, the album is a mature artistic statement of love lost and found, hope and yearning, and growing up, and contains some of the tastiest guitar in any pop album I’ve heard all year. Completely unlikely and almost completely satisfying.
  • Mission Of Burma – The Obliterati: No one could have predicted that this post-punk band, formerly a one-album wonder in the 80s, would return in 2002 and turn out two albums that blow away their groundbreaking debut. Nor could anyone have said that they’d manage to one-up themselves with each of those three albums. But they did – The Obliterati is by far the band’s most mature and most intense piece of work.
  • My Brightest Diamond – Bring Me The Workhorse: One of two huge surprises for me this year, a complete unknown turning in an album that absolutely enslaved me. Vocalist Shara Worden is gifted with one of those voices that doesn’t seem possible in indie rock – deep, rich, and operatic. Every review will point out that she’s actually a trained opera singer, but you can ignore that – she doesn’t sing opera, but it’s obvious she has the ability to blow away just about every pop diva dominating the top 40. She just chooses not to. What she does do is enchant listeners with a mix of dark modern dream pop with the sensibilities of a Nina Simone or a Billie Holiday, much as Portishead’s Beth Gibbons does with a slightly less capable voice. There’s no telling how she will fare with fickle audiences, but one thing is for sure, if Bring Me The Workhorse is merely a debut album, this is a stunning beginning to a career for music aficionados.
  • Tom Petty – Highway Companion: There’s nothing even remotely “new” sounding about Highway Companion, but it doesn’t matter at all. Some artists you just want more. Petty wisely picks up where Full Moon Fever and Into the Great Wide Open left off, providing another album of lush ballads and driving rock.
  • Robert Pollard – From A Compound Eye: Pollard’s “first” solo outing (that is, first after leaving Guided By Voices at the end of 2004) finds him diving headlong into a full-length prog-rock epic. It’s a big, difficult, often ridiculously convoluted smorgasbord of just about everything Pollard can do – which is why I’m apprehensive to recommend it to everyone because unless you know what you’re getting into, this might be way more than what the casual listener can handle (I’d direct them to the Keene Brothers release, frankly.) But patient, adventurous listeners will be rewarded with an epic that reveals its reward little by little – for every difficult twist, there’s a deliciously Who-esque turn around the next corner.
  • Sonic Youth – Rather Ripped: In what seems like a bit of a trend in 2006, bands returned with albums that may not have done anything “new” and yet somehow managed to absolutely kick ass, sometimes all over their previous releases to the point of almost rendering them unnecessary. They’re no longer “youth” in anyway, but that’s the case with Rather Ripped. Sonic Youth, already on a high after Sonic Nurse, stepped it up a notch and turned out one of their best performances while managing to actually sound mature. What’s more, the subject matter often gives grown adults something meaty to chew on. Jim O’Rourke may have jumped ship in between albums, but they gained back that hunger that makes young bands sound so fresh and exciting.
  • TV On The Radio – Return To Cookie Mountain I have been saying for some time now that if you want to hear where rock can go, listen to this band. Opening track, “I Was A Lover,” alone demonstrates the avenues that rock has yet to fully explore with its stuttering drum machines, sampled guitars and horns, and Bowie-esque vocals. This is the sound of the future.

Coming soon: the best of the rest. They didn’t quite make the cut, but they’re still good albums and they deserve some extra attention. And you don’t want to miss my picks of jazz and metal, either.

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