As my listening habits have become more conservative and predictable (so sad!), I offer you, several months after the fact, my...
TOP-TEN POP/ROCK ALBUMS OF 2006:
(1) The Hold Steady - Boys and Girls in America
The third time is the charm for this band that's getting too big for the world. While their debut had a certain charm, it didn't have much staying power, and though "Separation Sunday" took a surprising turn for the spiritual, it was also chock full of solid rock songs. Here Craig and the boys get downright poppy, sounding like the New Pornographers if they were a Springsteen cover band. Craig Finn especially shines as he starts singing again (versus the usual poetry slam ranting) and seems to be working harder than ever on his lyrics, to his credit. Throw in some amazing riffs and an unusual but effective Dave Pirner cameo and you've got a fairly surprising evolution that takes this pretty darn good band into truly great territory.
(2) Long Winters - Putting The Days To Bed Probably the album I listened to the most this year, even though I'd be a little ashamed to recommend it to some people. Sort of a Crash Test Dummies for the indie rock set, with similarly smarmy vocals and minimalist, screwy lyrics, but also with a lot more power pop energy and general not-suckiness.
(3) Yo La Tengo - I am not afraid of you, and I will beat your ass "Summer Sun" looks pretty shitty in comparison to this, another homerun in the rather large Yo La Tengo catalog. Beginning, middle, and end jams can be a bit tedious on repeated listenings, but there are some amazing pop and punk songs here, leaning heavily toward a Byrdsian '60s rock feel (e.g. “The Race Is On Again”). A surprising James McNew lead vocal graces one of the highlights of the album, the gorgeous "Black Flowers,” which also wins points for best use of euphonium on a pop album. Ever.
(4) Belle & Sebastian - The Life Pursuit Hey, they don't suck anymore! The new "Twee-Rex" sound fits them well and the current band seems to be shining at last. Stevie's "To Be Myself Completely" in particular captures the glory of the B&S that was and reminds me why I ever loved this band to begin with. Best thing they've done since "If You're Feeling Sinister."
(5) Johnny Cash - American V: A Hundred Highways I'm gettin' more sentimental as I get older, and Cash's warbly cover of Gordon Lightfoot's "If I Could Read Your Mind" has put me to tears more than once. Not limited to weepies, "God's Gonna Cut You Down" shows that Cash could still rock pretty hard when he wanted to. Not even the creepy liner notes from Rick Rubin marr this great last statement from the man in black.
(6) Califone - Roots & Crowns A real triumph after the lackluster "Heron King Blues," "Roots & Crowns" treads a bit of new ground with songs that enter into High Llamas pop territory as well as melodic Iron & Wine-ish folk lullabyes.
(7) Robert Pollard - Normal Happiness I've been waiting for this for at least a year, ever since we were promised an album of 16 two-minute long pop masterpieces. Well, it isn't that, and it really couldn't be due to the involvement of producer and multi-instrumentalist Todd Tobias, who leans toward trebly, screechy mixes, prog-lite arrangements, and general weirdness. Fortunately there's still a lot of good stuff here, and overall it's a disc worthy of more repeat-play than From A Compound Eye (if for no other reason than its brevity). Despite vocals that are below Bob's usual quality in some places, songs like "Towers and Landslides" and "Tomorrow Will Not Be Another Day" prove that he's still capable of putting out instant-classic rockers as well as sweet pop masterpieces.
(8) The Takeovers – Turn To Red Yeah, I couldn't really get away with putting only one Bob Pollard release on my list. This collaboration with Chris Slusarenko comes in as favorite number two, getting closer to the unpredictable weirdness of classic-era GBV than anything he's done in a long time. A nice combination of quirky acoustic numbers, fuzzy punkish rockers, and gussied-up treasures from the vault ("Be It Not for the Serpentine Rain Dodger" features an old Bob-and-guitar track with new drums, bass, and other overdubs). Not for the humorless.
(9) His Name Is Alive - Detrola It's been way too long since we've had a proper HNIA album, and this one is a delightful return to form after the Lovetta Pippen-dominated last two albums (one can only assume that she and Warn have had a falling out). In all, a nice summation of the many different sounds of HNIA past. They put on a great live show, too.
(10) Neil Young - Living With War Long a favorite artist of mine (who I've never seen live, sadly), I haven't heard a good album by Neil in, oh, 13 years. Last year's "Prairie Wind" I found particularly unmemorable, so it was pleasurably surprising when Neil churned this sucker out soon thereafter. Available in both choral and non-choral versions (I've got both thanks to Christmas and the liberry), a few simple-minded platitudes for the most part are buried in pure heart and outrage, in simple but effective songs that have some staying power as straightahead rock songs, politically thematic or not.
RUNNERS-UP (any of these could also be top-ten material):
The Flaming Lips - At War With The Mystics I just can't decide if I like this album or Yoshimi better, but I can agree with myself that I don't like either one as much as The Soft Bulletin (although both have superior surround mixes if you're into that sort of thing).
Howe Gelb - Snow Angel "Snow Angel" might be one of those albums that I quickly forget about and never listen to again, but it needs to get its due. Gelb recorded this one with a church choir and it works way better then you would ever guess it would. Gelb's voice and guitar are as rich as ever, and a nice spacious recording manages to make the assembled masses seem rather intimate.
The Keene Brothers - Blues and Boogie Shoes '80s power pop with a side of candy corn. Bob belts out a few bum notes, but there are some real works of beauty here, especially "Death of the Party.”
Beth Orton - Comfort of Strangers Panned by Pitchfork while everyone gave Cat Power's similar "Greatest" all kinds of accolades, Beth Orton and Jim O'Rourke created a lovely pop/folk album to rival, oh, say, Norah Jones or something. Mastered really quiet (which probably helped it sink into obscurity), this record is full of memorable tunes and creamy acoustic arrangements.
Lilys - Everything Wrong Is Imaginary
Strokes - First Impressions of Earth
Essex Green - Cannibal Sea
Amy Millan - Honey from the Tombs
Scissor Sisters - Ta-Dah
Whitest Boy Alive - Dreams
None of the above were great enough that I wanted to listen to them a million times over, but they all had highlights or were pleasantly better than I thought they would be. Worth checking out if you haven't heard them.
On the other hand, we have THE LET-DOWNS:
Built To Spill - You In Reverse
The Minders - Bright Guilty World
Calexico - Garden Ruin
Islands - Return to the Sea
Portastatic - Be Still Please
Sparklehorse - Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly of a Mountain
Futureheads - News and Tributes
The Flaming Lips - Soft Bulletin 5.1 surround mix DVD
All of these albums had good-to-great songs on them. In fact, Built To Spill's "Goin' Against Your Mind" was probably one of my top twenty or so songs of the year, but nothing else on the album interested me; a lot of it seemed quite dull and pedestrian for Martsch 'n' the gang. The Minders record suffered from a similar dullness, odd for a band which often excels at creating memorable, hummable pop nuggets. The Calexico album was actually fairly good, but nowhere near as good as "Feast of Wire" and frankly not that exciting (until the surprising emotional outburst of "All Systems Red" at the very end). "Return To The Sea" from youngsters Islands suffered from the classic syndrome of having a couple of great singles surrounded by a lot of forgettable filler, and Portastatic failed to keep their winning streak going with "Be Still Please" ("Sour Shores" is the standout here). Futureheads lost a lot of good will when they lost a lot of catchy hooks, though there's still a lot of strong stuff on their sophomore album, and Sparklehorse gave me the big letdown of the year with the long-awaited, awkwardly titled "Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly of a Mountain," which didn't completely dissapoint but seriously lacks in originality (and, like "Return to the Sea," features an interminably long, pointless final track to needlessly pad out the running time). Finally, the surround mix of the classic "Soft Bulletin" was a real screw-up for the Lips, starting off with a whimper by burying Wayne's vocals on "Race for the Prize" in the front right channel. Stick to the stereo version, kids.
I listened to a bunch of other stuff this year, not as much as in years past, but the above are all I really had anything to say about. The end.