Tuesday, January 02, 2007

#15 through #11

15. Califone - Roots & Crowns
Califone’s newest record starts out modestly enough. A steady drum beat keeps rhythm while Tim Rutili sings his typically surreal lyrics. It becomes quickly apparent, however, that there’s something much more profound going on this time around. There’s an undercurrent of darkness running through this music, not just lyrically but musically as well. The band adds these mechanical flourishes that unsettle the listener so subtly that the music seems both hopeful and despairing, both a throwback and distinctly modern. Something about the way Rutili writes his songs make them sound a hundred years old, and hearing these odd whirrs and hisses in the background roots the music in a postmodern landscape that seems itself to be a manifestation of that older time and place. The album raises questions about time and place without even raising a finger. This is an album to listen to while driving through the wasteland that was and will be Louisiana, or while exploring a place as scarred by its own history as Berlin. It demands that sort of magnitude.

14. Calexico - Garden Ruin
Calexico has to be the most criminally underrated band on this list. They have released album after album of wonderful, literate pop, only to be ignored by the vast majority of indie rock listeners. Garden Ruin made them impossible to ignore any longer. It’s nothing too fancy. In fact, nearly every song starts in the same way: an acoustic guitar that introduces the musical theme around which each song will revolve. Each opening, however, bristles with originality. The guitar never becomes cumbersome or over-present. In fact, the songs on the album really show why the guitar is the instrument that it is in pop music. It can serve as the melodic backbone of the song (as in “Yours and Mine”), a percussive element (as in the exquisite “Bisbee Blue”), or as a way to start down the road to musical catharsis (as in “All Systems Red,” the most ambitious song yet in their oeuvre). Calexico has never gotten the respect that they deserve, and it makes me want to stand up and cheer that they have made an album this good.

13. Band of Horses - Everything All the Time
My first thought upon hearing Band of Horses was something about how much they sounded like My Morning Jacket. Which is by no means a bad thing. But like most comparisons of that sort, it does a disservice to both bands. Truth be told, you can find any number of bands in the songs on Everything All the Time. Chris Bell’s ghost haunts “First Song.” “Wicked Gil” could be the best song the Flaming Lips never recorded. I hear elements of “Sloop John B” all over “The Great Salt Lake,” and “St. Augustine” smacks of Neil Young’s best work. Their influences are all over this record. And I love them for it. Too often bands are scared of wearing their influences on their sleeves. A good friend of mine hates Ryan Adams for this very reason. I think it’s an incredibly endearing quality for an artist to have. It makes for reverential and extremely heartfelt music. That almost always rocks.

12. Josh Ritter - The Animal Years
Josh Ritter’s second album, Golden Age of Radio, has always had a special place in my record collection. It’s one of those albums, like Josh Rouse’s 1972 or Patty Griffin’s Flaming Red, that you love giving to people because you know that they are about to discovering something they will love. They’re fucking great albums, start to finish. The Animal Years is a bit of a different beast. While it doesn’t have the consistency, the easy-flowing grace of The Golden Age of Radio, it makes you realize just how talented this guy really is. I’ve become more and more cynical about what I listen to as I have moved into my late twenties. I don’t listen to albums like Blue and Pet Sounds as much as I used to. They kind of make me uncomfortable, I think because they express things that are so pure and naïve. I’ve lost touch with that sort of music lately. Right from the opening notes of “Girl in the War,” you know this is going to be one of those albums. Josh Ritter is a hopeless romantic, and he has released an album that reawakened some of that in me. When an album moves something inside of you, when it makes you remember what you had forgotten, it’s something special.

11. Joanna Newsom - Ys
Oh God. Here we go. Another asshole who’s putting this album on his “Best of 2006” list when he hasn’t even been able to make it through the album yet. It’s true that I have a hard time listening to more than one of the songs on Ys in one sitting. Part of this is the length, of course. The shortest song on the album is just over seven minutes long, and the longest is nearly seventeen minutes long. Long songs have never bothered me too much though. The real reason is much harder for me to put my finger on. Yes, her warbling, elfish voice can be pretty jarring at first. Yes, there are only strings on the album, and very few of them are percussive. Yes, her lyrics can be precious and hard to identify with. The songs on Ys are brilliant though. Not brilliant in a listenable sort of way, but brilliant in a Phillip Glass sort of way. I have never really liked listening to Phillip Glass. He is too much an artist of his own head for my liking. And he’s depressing. Newsom falls into that same category, except medieval rather than depressing. But by God, I love the fact that Phillip Glass and Joanna Newsom are out there making music. Artists like them elevate the game. They don’t back down from insanely ambitious projects. They make music that is impossible to put in the background, music that must be studied with intense concentration in order to be rewarding. They put work out into the world that they know will be mocked, ridiculed, and panned. They simply do not give a damn. I will never fault anyone for having that kind of courage. And once I got past my own snobbish assumptions about her music, the album took me to a fantastic place. No matter what you think about her voice, these songs are amazingly beautiful. The kind of beautiful that hurts sometimes.

Sorry it took me so long to continue this list. I promise the rest will come in a more timely fashion. Also, Tara has posted her top fifteen albums of the year over at her blog. It's remarkably similar to mine, but I've still got a few tricks up my sleeve. Stay tuned.


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