Known Johnson

February 6, 2007

Overlooked Alternatives: 2006 Spotlight, Part 4: The Best of the Rest

Filed under: Best of 2006,General,Overlooked Alternatives — Tom @ 9:57 pm

What? Part 4?!” you may be saying to yourself. Did you miss something, you wonder? Nope, not at all. Part 3 is still in its infancy, a list of my favorite metal-ish albums of the year, partially written, awaiting the delicate plinking at my keyboard that will take it to fruition. In the meanwhile, this, the final installment in this far too lengthy series, has sat nearly finished for weeks, waiting on Part 3 so it could take its rightful place in line behind it. After all, shouldn’t the “best of the rest” follow the “rest of the best” of every genre I cared to talk about? Technically yes, but it’s already February, and since I’ve already poured so much time into this, I just decided that during this quiet release week, why not unleash this monster instead.

So here it is, the albums that didn’t quite make the cut for the best of rock, 2006. Although they are often pretty close to doing so, they often just narrowly missed the cut, so that’s why I decided to go ahead and give them the spotlight, too. They may have some flaws, but they’re also going to provide a lot of enjoyment for years to come. And who knows? Given a few months, and a few mood changes, things might change a whole lot – have you revisited your previous year-end lists to see if they’re still valid?

  • Jay Bennett – The Magnificent Defeat: It took Jay Bennett a few years, but in 2006 he finally released the kind of album that made listeners sit up and think “Maybe Jeff Tweedy should have kept him around in Wilco after all.” Full of heartfelt ballads and Stones-influenced rockers, The Magnificent Defeat hearkens back to the Being There and Summerteeth years of Wilco, only stumbling on a few tracks where Bennett stretches too far for experimental sounds that don’t completely work toward the songs’ benefit. Minus those minor stumbles, this is some extremely strong material.
  • The Black Keys – Magic Potion: The Black Keys keep taking small steps away from their swampy blues-rock origins and, depending on how you feel about staying true to roots, that’s either a good thing or a bad thing. Here, the Keys are found incorporating some Sabbathy metal licks into their early ZZ Top sound. It’s a grower, to be sure, but one thing’s certain: “Your Touch” is one of the year’s best songs. Go ahead, try getting it out of your head.
  • Decemberists – The Crane Wife: For their major label debut, the Decemberists didn’t pull any punches. If anything, they seem to have gone off the deep end, as if attempting to get the label to cry foul. But they played along (“13 minute songs? Sure, why not?”) and we the listeners benefited with this odd, beautiful alternaprog album that’s destined to be an underground classic.
  • Kaki King – …Until We Felt Red: When we last heard from guitarist King, she was wowing audiences with her astounding technique, which had a worrying effect on many who wanted more from her musically. Well, she delivered this year. …Until We Felt Red lays off of the showy guitar fireworks and instead focuses on textures and songcraft. Having Thrill Jockey mainman John McEntire producing and manning various percussive duties also doesn’t hurt: the album feels like a typical Thrill Jockey release but with the added benefit of King’s incredible guitar skills peeking out here and there.
  • Glenn Kotche – Mobile: The Wilco drummer turns in a surprisingly beautiful and effective minimalist classical drum suite reminiscent of the best works of Phillip Glass and Steve Reich. It’s not something that will get played a lot, and it’s probably not terribly original because it is territory that’s been covered before, but it still manages to be a good listen for sympathetic ears.
  • Lambchop – Damaged: There’s a country tendency to Lambchop’s soul, but that’s only because it’s leftover from their origins in Nashville. Singer Kurt Wagner tells stories like the best country songwriters, but his are darker and weirder than you might hear coming from the songwriting capitol of the world. The 15-person band turns in music that fans will expect – sweeping ballads full of strings and complex melodies, but with Damaged, its the narratives that take a slightly more personal angle than usual, with less dependence on the wry observations that made Lambchop’s music so fun in the past. That’s not to say that Damaged is a let down – it’s just a different animal than fans may be used to, and maybe more disturbing than they’d like.
  • Liars – Drum’s Not Dead: Easily one of the weirdest albums of the year: a story about a conflict between a drum and a mountain. AllMusic suggests that this is about “the struggle between energy and productivity” and “stress and self-doubt.” I honestly don’t know if they’re dead-on or not, but with Liars, anything’s possible. Sparse, tribal music and simplistic singing is the order of the day here. In writing, this doesn’t sound very interesting, but it makes for an intriguing listening session for adventurous ears. Definitely not for everybody, but if you’re into Animal Collective already, or like noisy things like Einsturzende Neubauten’s early works, give this a try.
  • Muse – Black Holes And Revelations: The most completely self-indulgent, ridiculously over the top fun album I’ve heard in a long, long time that didn’t bear the name Queen. Maybe it doesn’t quite live up to or even near that massive throne, but that’s certainly what Muse is striving for – they’ve forsaken their Radiohead fetish and grabbed their sceptors, and luckily it actually works for once where so many have tried and failed.
  • Willie Nelson – You Don’t Know Me: The Songs Of Cindy Walker: Once you’ve heard this strong album of covers, it’s easy to see where Nelson gets his knack for songwriting – he obviously studied Walker’s template and then took it in his own direction. What’s surprising here is that an album of 50-60 year old music could sound so vital today.
  • Willie Nelson – Songbird: If Songbird doesn’t sound quite as vital as You Don’t Know Me, it’s probably more the source material than Willie himself. Perhaps releasing a companion album of mostly covers was not such a good idea so soon after such a powerful set as You Don’t Know Me, but Songbird has its share of good pieces, too, my favorites being his cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Stella Blue” and his very Willie-like reading of the Leonard Cohen classic, “Hallelujah.” You wouldn’t think it would work, but he makes it work. This album isn’t Stardust certainly, and neither is You Don’t Know Me, but there’s enough here to keep coming back for more.
  • Robert Pollard – Normal Happiness: The album that I initially thought was better than From A Compound Eye, but which finally revealed that, over time, it just isn’t quite as strong. While it contains more pure-pop Bob, the quality overall just isn’t there to sustain it through out. It’s still a fine disc, but you’ll find a better value in the Keene Brothers release as well as From A Compound Eye.
  • Duncan Sheik – White Limousine: After an embarassing attempt at recapturing the limelight he had with his first big hit (“Barely Breathing,) Sheik focuses once again on the dark-hearted pop that he’s so good at. He misses the mark here and there, but more often than not, this unfortunately overlooked disc delivers some decent tunes and has kept at least this reviewer returning for more.
  • Paul Simon – Surprise: “Surprise” is right – sounding more like a spiritual and sonic brother to 1990’s fantastic Eno and Cale album, Wrong Way Up, Surprise hardly sounds like a Simon album at all. And that’s what seemed to have long-time fans scratching their heads – the odd instrumentation and textures, not to mention Simon’s take on modern lyric writing, didn’t add up to the man they knew. But for Eno fans and open-minded listeners in general, this wound up being a fantastic, fun little album.
  • Sparklehorse – Dreamt For Lightyears In The Belly Of A Whale: It’s impossible that Mark Linkous could possibly follow-up the masterpiece that was It’s A Wonderful Life with another, and so I won’t hold it against him that Dreamt For Years doesn’t live up to those expectations. That said, when the album works, it’s full of stunning beauty, the kind of dusky sunlight-filtered-through-tree-branches feeling one gets deep in a forest, and when it doesn’t, as when it tries to rock out, it simply starts to feel depressing. Fortunately, there’s more of the former than the latter.
  • Tortoise – A Lazarus Taxon: Three discs and a DVD that cover the entire career of Tortoise (so far – I assume they’re still together?) That’s generally a formula for something pretty spotty, but like Tom Wait’s magnificent Orphans box, this one works on the virtue that it covers so damn much territory that it keeps listeners on their toes. And what we’ve got here are all those loose ends that so badly needed tying up – remixes, b-sides, covers, you name it: pretty much everything the band did that didn’t wind up on a regular, domestic release is here, and that makes for a great thing. In fact, there’s better listening here than on some of their albums, believe it or not. A recurring species? Let’s hope.
  • Tragically Hip – World Container: The Hip felt a little lost on 2004’s In Between Evolution, and some feared that the end was near for the band. When word came that the band had paired up with producer Bob Rock, feelings were mixed – would Rock come in a significantly alter the band’s sound as he had Motley Crue and Metallica? The answer, thankfully, is a resounding NO – Rock seems to have simply helped the band tighten up their sprawling songs and refocus their songcraft. It only goes to show that a strong band can resist the urge to let the producer bend them beneath their weight, and that a good producer knows when a band is strong enough not to need bending.

    But shame on the band’s label letting this be released everywhere but America for 6 months – the bands fans will surely have bought the import version before the US release date (March 6, 2007 if you’re one of the few who didn’t.)

  • Yo La Tengo – I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass: One of the year’s more eclectic and, for lack of a better word, spazzy releases, Beat Your Ass actually works because it lacks focus. Rather than get bogged down in one particular style, the band instead pretty much covers every bit of territory they have ever touched upon. It may seem a bit schizophrenic, but it makes for a hell of a fun listen.
  • Thom Yorke – The Eraser: Radiohead frontman Yorke must have had a bunch of material laying around after Kid A because, as every review seems to point out, that’s exactly what this album feels like. The major difference with The Eraser is the tendency toward more organic textures, especially on Yorke’s vocals. Strangely, the album comes across slightly colder and more distant than you’d expect.

1 Comment »

  1. “Mobile” was probably my favorite 2006 release. Man, I love that album. It’s rare to see drummers in indie-ish bands who are skillful and technically proficient. Kotche reminds me a lot of Stewart Copeland in that respect.

    I snagged a promo copy of “Surprise” but I haven’t really given it my full attention yet. I like the idea of Simon and Eno collaborating.

    Comment by Chris — February 7, 2007 @ 7:02 am | Reply

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