2006: The Year Of...?

by Sean McCarthy

Ghostface Killah proved that rap is not exclusively a young players' game. The weirder Tom Waits gets, the more popular he becomes. And Cee-Lo, a person whose career was as commercially dead as K-Fed (but for all the wrong reasons), is now set for a long time with “Crazy,” perhaps the only shoo-in for “Top Ten Songs of the Decade” in a year that saw virtually no shoo-ins for “Best Albums of the Decade” – even though there was a ton of great stuff out there.

Bob Dylan achieved “instant classic” status again with Modern Times, though some fans began to question whether it was because of the strength of the album or the fact that he’s Bob Dylan and he did not release anything embarrassing. As one critic noted in MetaCritic: If Modern Times rates a 95 out of 100, what the hell does Blonde on Blonde rate? 130? Pitchfork, a site overcome by music elitists who are way too full of themselves, overshadowed Rolling Stone as a “make or break” site for music reviews. And in a trend that would make Thomas Friedman beam, the music world has become more and more flat due to sites like Myspace and YouTube.

Though I had a hard time narrowing down this year’s list to just ten, I can’t honestly say my top pick of this year will land on my decade’s “Best of” list. Still, all of the CDs on this and my ‘honorable mention’ list are well worth hearing.


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10. Tom Waits -- Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards

Some of the music on this disc was even too weird to land on an actual Tom Waits CD. Still, this is not a ‘cleaning out the cupboard’ CD collection. Instead, listeners get a remarkably solid collection of three CDs worth of seedy bar ballads, lovelorn howlers and even some corn thrown in for good measure. 

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9. My Chemical Romance -- Welcome To The Black Parade

My “If you were to tell me this band would have landed on my Top Ten this year, I would have either said this entire year had to have sucked all ass or asked that person when I had the lobotomy” award for 2006 (it's a very big award). Taking some pointers from touring with Green Day, MCR recruited producer Rob Cavallo to create a miserably fun album about death, cancer and vampires. Darken your clothes and dust off those Queen albums; Welcome To The Black Parade brought a much-needed pomp to the music world this year.

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8. Sonic Youth -- Rather Ripped

Sonic Youth’s discography could fill up half a CD tower (including compilations) -- and the godfathers (and godmother) of modern alternative music have yet to settle into complacency. Rather Ripped comes just about a year before their near-certain induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For the curious, Rather Ripped may be the best CD to introduce yourself to Sonic Youth. For diehard fans, it’s a perfect companion to their late-era classic Murray Street.

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7. Cat Power -- The Greatest

Released the same say as Jenny Lewis’ Rabbit Fur Coat, January 24 was arguably one of the best days for music releases, kicking 2006 off on a very good note. Chan Marshall hunkered down in Memphis to record an album that won her a ton of new fans (an probably a few thousand more once “Could We” gets national exposure via a movie or TV plug) and probably a few hundred calls of “sellout” from her dedicated fan base. When you are in the middle of listening to “Living Proof,” you swear you are listening to an album at its creative climax, and then you realize you are only on the second song.

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6. The Roots -- Game Theory

Yes, recall notices should be mailed out to everyone who purchased The Tipping Point, the much-maligned last full-length album from The Roots. But Jay-Z saw a band that deserved the freedom to take a few creative falls. For from those falls can come greatness, which is exactly what Game Theory is. The album starts off shaky with “False Media,” which is basically Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe The Hype” on repeat, but after that the band is unstoppable. Each angry indictment of social injustice is followed by some of the catchiest, head-bobbing melodies The Roots have ever created. Don’t let the subject matter and cover fool you; Game Theory is as fun as it is provocative.

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5. Destroyer -- Destroyer's Rubies

It’s about 50 minutes in length, but Destroyer’s Rubies is so dense it feels like you’ve listened to a Tool album by the end. It doesn’t help that the first song clocks in at about ten minutes. Dan Bejar’s vocals may take some getting used to, but his rapid-fire lyrics and layered guitar work will have you revisiting Destroyer’s Rubies to catch what you missed on the first listen. After an additional 30 listens, you’ll still think you’ve only absorbed a little less than half the album.

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4. Bob Dylan -- Modern Times

Bob Dylan is cool enough to sing about being a horny old man and not come off as creepy. Some thought Modern Times was Dylan’s third straight masterpiece or even the best of an unprecedented winning streak began by 1997’s Time Out Of Mind. Others thought it was Dylan doing a victory lap for his Love and Theft triumph. I was in the latter category. Still, listen to the album front to back and you’ll hear at least five or six songs that stand toe-to-toe with the best of Time or Theft. “Some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains” may not exactly be “The answer my friends is blowing in the wind,” but songs like “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and “Someday Baby” capture Dylan at his cantankerous best. “The Levee's Gonna Break” may be an obvious nod to Hurricane Katrina, but Dylan’s cover is mercifully devoid of exploitation. It may not be a classic, but it continues one of the most enduring comebacks in pop music history.

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3. Ghostface Killah -- Fishscale

If Game Theory wasn’t enough, Def Jam added a second classic to their collection this year with Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale. With age wrecking havoc on Public Enemy and even Eminem, it seemed like rap was a young person’s game. Many critics have even overpraised De La Soul’s last few albums just on the basis that they didn’t suck. But Fishscale proved detractors dead wrong with perhaps the best concept album ever written about … cocaine. Like most albums with skits, Fishscale could have cut out a few skits, but the storytelling will have you going to a printer to print off the lyrics. Anyone who was too young to catch the Wu Tang Clan during their first go around need only to listen to “9 Milli Bros.” to find out what all the hype was about.

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2. Neko Case -- Fox Confessor Brings the Flood 

It could have been 70 minutes and still felt too short of a listen. Fox Confessor Brings the Flood has Neko Case singing about animal mythology, losing faith and packing up and leaving everything. The first half of the album contains some stunning highlights, such as the “you are there” descriptions on “Star Witness,” a song about an auto wreck whose victims are so unnoticed that the cops don’t even turn on the siren, or the opening class divide song “Margaret vs. Pauline.” But the album truly gains momentum smack in the middle with the title track. Out of all the CDs released this year, this has yet to leave my CD player.

 

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1. TV On The Radio -- Return To Cookie Mountain

Even with the quality and diversity of the crop of music in 2006, TV on the Radio’s Return To Cookie Mountain was one of the only albums that could make a listener say “I have never heard anything like this before.” That said, there was plenty of stuff on Return To Cookie Mountain to lure in shy listeners (namely a cameo by David Bowie in “Province”). Tunde Adebimpe’s vocals seem like a cross between Prince and Corey Glover of Living Colour. His vocals, along with Dave Sitek’s guitar work created slow burners like “A Method” and “I Was a Lover,” but could also unleash a hurricane-like fury on tracks like “Wolf Like Me” and “Province.” Return To Cookie Mountain was a fiercely original as it was instantly appealing.

 

12 for Number 11:

The Hold Steady’s Boys And Girls In America, The Decemberists’ The Crane Wife, You La Tengo’s I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass, Los Lobos’ The Town And The City, Gnarles Barkley’s St. Elsewhere, Pearl Jam’s fiery self-titled album and the Dixie Chicks’ Taking The Long Way, Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins’ Rabbit Fur Coat and Bruce Springsteen’s We Shall Overcome – The Seeger Sessions, Johnny Cash’s American V: A Thousand Highways and M. Ward’s Post-War could have easily been in the top ten.


Singles of the Year

3. “Taking The Long Way” and “Not Ready To Make Nice” (tie)– The Dixie Chicks

The story about how the Dixie Chicks endured the past few years of criticism from the right has been told into the ground. Fortunately, Rick Rubin helped create an album that could withstand all of the tabloid sensationalism. On the other end, “Taking The Long Way” is a great, breezy anthem. The pained lyric “It’s been two long years now since the top of the world came crashing down” could put a lump in Sean Hannity’s throat. And “Not Ready To Make Nice” wisely keeps things vague, doubling as a response to the country music community that shunned the band as well as a call to arms against a deadbeat lover.

2. “Crazy” – Gnarls Barkley

I can’t write anything about this song that hasn’t been written. It started as a phenomenon in the UK. Then it became a summer anthem. Then it found its way into Muzak. Cee Lo and DJ Dangermouse created a song that was so good that thousands of musicians no doubt probably slapped their foreheads and said “I could have written that!” Maybe. But it would still be nowhere near as good as Gnarls Barkley.

1.  “Running The World” – Jarvis Cocker

 

Jarvis Cocker wrote “Running The World” in response to the lack of action taken after Live 8. Sure, awareness was raised, but what about action? Over a simple piano line, Cocker reemerged onto the music scene with his sense of humor intact. Cynical, bitter and biting, “Running The World” is the “time capsule” song of 2006.


Reissues of the Year

There were enough reissues to plunge most music geeks into financial debt this year. With more and more people opting to skip out on the CD purchase and go straight to download, record companies have responded by putting together elaborate packages filled with lengthy liner notes and a few outtakes. Some (read Cat Power) have already had a reissue for an album that came out this year. But even for the cynical, there were two reissues of albums that begged for the "ultimate package" treatment:

The Cure’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me: An album where the b-sides are genuinely as interesting as its sprawling, double-album companion.

and…

Pavement’s Wowee Zowee: Even if the reissues weren’t quite as epic as the stuff found on Slanted And Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’s reissues, Wowee Zowee’s reissue was vindication for probably half of Pavement’s fans who continue to swear that this was Pavement’s best disc.


Disappointments of the Year
: Tool, The Flaming Lips and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs should have been no-brain selections for a top ten spot, given their previous outputs. But Tool’s 10,000 Days and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs Show Your Bones didn’t come close to achieving the peaks of their previous releases and The Flaming Lips’ At War With The Mystics smacked of “Haven’t I heard this before on a B-side?” syndrome. And though Jay-Z needs to be commended for nurturing bands like The Roots, he needs to learn that you generally come out of retirement only when people genuinely miss you. His Kingdom Come may have debuted strong, but Jay Z is in danger of becoming the KISS or Ramones of the rap world when it comes to broken promises of retirement.


We Miss You Already

Sleater-Kinney could not have ended their career on a higher note with The Woods. That said, they could have recorded another three or four albums that no doubt would have blown 95 percent of what’s out there today off the map just by going through the motions. You are missed already.


Bring on 2007

Even if a new Radiohead release doesn’t become a reality, 2007 will still satisfy music geeks with releases by Modest Mouse, The New Pornographers, Spoon, PJ Harvey, Kanye West and, dare I say, Guns N’ Roses?



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