Year in Review: My Top 5 CDs of 2006
Man, I bought a lot of music this year, but I didn't seem to buy a lot of music from this year. I went through my well-documented Bob Dylan and The Who phases, gathering up frantically my holes in their discography like I was a squirrel on crack hunting nuts. Yeah, I became one of them demented folk what listens to all the music from before they were born. But what I did buy that came out this year, I really dug. Here's my favorite CDs of this year in no particular order:
Bob Dylan, Modern Times – Speaking of the man, here's the one in which Robert Zimmerman is possessed by the spirit of an 80-year-old black bluesman from Mississippi, and comes out with a creaky, jaunty near-masterpiece. Dylan's 2001 CD "Love and Theft" got lots of love, but I never quite adored it; but this one has a bounce and gait that have had it on constant rotation all fall. At 65, Dylan recaptures some of the playfulness of his youth — this isn't his most profound work – but he still views the world from a wizened perspective. And heck, it was his first #1 record since the '70s and Dylan even starred in an iPod commercial. A wink-filled ode to America's past without being too retro, it's a gem.
The Decemberists, The Crane Wife — Based on a Japanese folk tale … wait, wait, don't leave. The Decemberists might be one of the most literary bands going, but they've got a sure sense of melody and storytelling, and use this folk tale of a 'crane wife' as a springboard for some wonderful music. It's kind of like early Genesis and Yes meets Elvis Costello, with a timeless, ancient feel. The Decemberists love to sing songs about sea voyages, lost lovers and dying promises, and this sprawling album aims higher than any of their previous work. There's enough on this record to chew on for weeks, which is kind of what I love about it – that and the songs often possess a staggering beauty. It's the kind of thing that could collapse into pretentious wankery like most prog-rock bands did, but frontman Colin Meloy brings a real intelligence and charm to it all.
Tom Petty, Highway Companion — The perfect disc for listening to while zipping around the interstate for 5,500 miles this past September and October, "Saving Grace" and "Square One" playing in gentle harmonies as the New Mexico sunset came down over unknown fields. It's not cutting edge, but it's beautiful pop music. Petty regains his songwriting mojo for a wistful, restless, memory-soaked album that is his best since 1994's "Wildflowers." Introspective and rootsy, it's one of Petty's warmest records. Full review here.
Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood — This Northwest chanteuse has been bubbling away on the fringes of country, pop and rock for a few years, and is a member of the swell New Pornographers. With her latest solo album, Neko breaks through and becomes the modern Patsy Cline. Her gorgeously lonesome wail of a voice highlights strange, surreal and impressionistic tunes that simmer and sway. It's a moody, brooding album, one that takes a few listens to cast its spell fully, but once you fall into it, "Fox Confessor" seems like a postcard from a shadowy neo-country world. And it certainly doesn't hurt that she's a glamorous redhead, a species I have a certain weakness for.
TV On The Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain — Somewhere between noise and melody, TV On The Radio hang out. If anything, the raucous clatter and moans of this second album was even less accessible than their first. But the machine-meets-tribal rhythms of this sound is daring, original stuff, given its blessing here by a cameo appearance by David Bowie himself. The cuisinart of sound in "I Was A Lover," the anthemic boom of "Wolf Like Me," the Pixies-meets-Motown slam of "Let The Devil In" — this is a band that takes chances and makes them work. Full review here.
Runners-up: Just barely missing the top five, Elvis Costello and Allan Toussaint, "The River In Reverse," Cat Power, "The Greatest," Tom Waits, "Orphans" (which probably would be on the top half of the list but it's a box set with some older material, y'know); Johnny Cash, "American V," Jolie Holland, "Springtime Will Kill You," Heartless Bastards, "All This Time," Gnarls Barkley, "St. Elsewhere."
Weakest hits: Everclear, Welcome To The Drama Club. Man, what happened to this band? "Sparkle and Fade" was one of my favorite albums of the '90s, but with every passing year frontman Art Alexakis sounds more and more like a parody of himself. With only Alexakis from previous albums fronting a group of newcomers, "Drama Club" sounds like leftover angst that no longer sounds fresh at all.
* For about a zillion other top music lists, go check out the swell mega-list Largehearted Boy has painstakingly assembled! Hours of list reading if you're like me and a nut for these year-end things.