For the Grammys this year (I doubt I'll be watching, but I still have a jones for blogging about awards shows), I thought I would comment on selected items from Rolling Stone's top fifty albums of 2006.
Here we go.
- 1 Modern Times
- BOB DYLAN
"Thunder on the Mountain" kicks off with a salty old Chuck Berry riff, stretched out into a six-minute lust letter to Alicia Keys, and things only get weirder from there. Dylan hasn't sounded this frisky since John Wesley Harding in 1968, and like that underrated masterpiece, Modern Times is a groove album disguised as a poetry album, leaning hard on the rhythm section. Dylan breathes fire while his current road band beats up on some tough blues and country licks: the Muddy Waters stomp "Rollin' and Tumblin'," the Irish parlor ballad "Nettie Moore" and the mean Slim Harpo strut "Someday Baby," which as an iPod commercial became the closest thing to a hit single he's had since the Traveling Wilburys. Where can he go from Modern Times? Anywhere he goddamn wants.
I'm still trying to decide which Bob Dylan album will be my first. The man isn't making it any easier on me.
- 3 Rather Ripped
- SONIC YOUTH
Their mean age now up to forty-eight with thirtysomething troublemaker Jim O'Rourke gone, indie's gray eminences made a light, simple, terse, almost-pop album. Granted, the guitar hook on, for instance, "Do You Believe in Rapture?" wouldn't sound so lovely if they and all their progeny hadn't long since adjusted our harmonic expectations. But who better to play to our expanded capacity for tuneful beauty? The vocal star of Rather Ripped is Kim Gordon, breathlessly girlish at fifty-three as she and her husband evoke visions of dalliance, displacement, recrimination and salvation that never become unequivocally literal.
I would like to hear this and see if maybe I can finally palate them Youthers. If you follow.
- 4 Return to Cookie Mountain
- TV ON THE RADIO
This Brooklyn band's major-label debut comes with David Bowie's seal of approval -- the Thin White Duke contributes vocals to "Province." More important is the fact that you can hear Bowie so clearly, nestled into the distinctive vocal blend of Kyp Malone's police-siren falsetto and Tunde Adebimpe's R&B tenor. The deliberate enigma of TV on the Radio's art rock has given way to a spacey magic, especially in the dark drone and drive of "Wolf Like Me," which sounds like the Bowie of Low -- with a pair of Arthur Lees at the mike.
I can't not be interested in these blokes after all the hype. But I think I'll wait a couple years before I make any effort to hear what they sound like. Let my high expectations come down a little.
- 6 The Greatest
- CAT POWER
Chan Marshall faces up to death and despair on a record that justifies every lofty claim her devoted fans have always made for her. On The Greatest, she cuts deep soul with Memphis session men, which brings out the country in her Georgia-bred voice on hard-won ballads like "Could We." Ten years after her first great album, What Would the Community Think, she sounds like she's just getting started.
I've heard just enough to know Chan is a woman with a voice, and I can't think of anything more exciting than that.
- 9 Blood Mountain
When it comes to metal, subtle is just another word for not trying hard enough. So glory be to Mastodon for piling it on like there's no tomorrow, in the most acclaimed, most innovative, most iron-tusked and just plain heaviest metal album since Metallica ran out of gas. The lyrics go over the top with warrior-fantasy mythos, full of lion slicers, ice gods, ogres and dwarves, not to mention something about "the sheep's- head curse." These four Atlanta dudes grind it out fast or slow, or leap between math-prog tempo shifts without losing their sense of primal paranoid thunder.
Metal must be the most boring brand of music there is. Everytime I try to give it a chance, I get bored to tears and turn to something more interesting. And I fully expect to hate Mastodon as well. But I have to admit that I would give them a chance. I keep doing this for metal. I never learn. But what I keep hoping is that someday I will find something worth listening to. Could it be Mastodon?
- 11 Continuum
- JOHN MAYER
Mayer's sixth disc made one thing clear: Homeboy has his shit together. Continuum is Mayer's most assured album yet, channeling familiar gifts -- fluid guitar-playing, sexy white-boy croon, strong tune sense -- with more subtlety, more focus and less lady-baiting cheese than ever. The result is a breezy pop-rock record that surrounds supremely crafted songs like "Vultures" with soul like "Gravity" and weightier stuff like "Waiting on the World to Change."
Now, I like John Mayer as much as the next guy, but what in the world does anyone need with two discs of John Mayer?
- 13 Pearl Jam
- PEARL JAM
Pearl Jam's best studio album in a decade is like Vs. with politics -- iron-rock riffing and a lyric righteousness forged in real battle. "World Wide Suicide" and "Army Reserve" don't just protest the Iraq War and its disastrous consequences. These are songs about universal accountability (you need two sides to have a war) and the still-revolutionary power of individual dissent. "I will not lose my faith," Vedder sings on "Inside Job," a climactic fusion of Zep and Seventies Who. Now that's classic rock.
I like avacados.
- 14 American V: A Hundred Highways
- JOHNNY CASH
The man in black was dying when he made this record, and he did not hide the truth of his condition. It is shocking to hear Cash fight to stay on pitch in "If You Could Read My Mind." But there is a deep strength and dignity in his performances and in the wisdom of songs such as Hank Williams' "On the Evening Train." V also includes the last song Cash ever wrote, "Like the 309," on which he growls and cracks wise like a guy on his way to a party instead of his last reward.
And I like Johnny Cash.
- 15 Wolfmother
This wild-haired Australian trio flattened crowds all year with organ solos, 'nad-crushingly tight pants and riffs heisted from Zep, Sabbath and the Purp. Andrew Stockdale brings the Ozzy-Plant screech, the lyrics are true metal poetry, and when "Joker and the Thief" hits its power-drive climax, there isn't a bat in the room with its head still attached.
This band totally perplexes me. Other than the lead singer's mango hair, what's to like? They are supposed to be New and Original and Exciting and a Throwback to a Lost Era, yet "Joker and the Thief" sounds like all the other crap on the radio. Can somebody explain this to me?
- 16 Food & Liquor
- LUPE FIASCO
"Now come on everybody, let's make cocaine cool/ We need a few more half-naked women up in the pool": Fiasco's debut is smart, ballsy hip-hop both backpackers and Jay-Z fans can love. The A-list production helps: Kanye pumps "The Cool" full of dark funk, and the jazzy "I Gotcha" has the best Neptunes beat the Clipse didn't get.
This guy sounds clever. I like clever.
- 20 The Black Parade
- MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE
This New Jersey band's third studio album is the best mid-Seventies record of 2006 -- an ingenious, unrestrained paraphrasing of the over-the-top glam theater of Queen and classic Alice Cooper. The relentless message of Parade is: Life sucks, and death is no great escape. But My Chemical Romance rev up the pathos with an arena-ripe panache that ensures their trip to the mausoleum will run right through Madison Square Garden.
I don't hate very many songs, but I hate the title track to this album. I'm sure it's partially to blame to why my return to commercial radio was so short. Because I hate this song. And it's s'dam'pop'l'r. Ick.
- 21 Begin to Hope
- REGINA SPEKTOR
On Begin to Hope, the Russian-born New York singer-songwriter offers her thorniest collection so far, building on the poetic, eccentric, piano-based style that won her so much acclaim for early records like Soviet Kitsch. Her vocals are intense, whether she's singing dark love songs like "Apres Moi" or urban-single vignettes like "Summer in the City" ("I went to a protest/Just to rub up against strangers"). The bigger production augments her songs instead of drowning them out -- although it's hard to imagine what could drown out Spektor.
Now we're talking. I've only heard a couple songs from this album and read a couple sample lyrics but I ready and willing and able to fall in love with Regina Spektor. Somebody buy me this album!
- 22 Night Ripper
- GIRL TALK
One remarkable fact about Pittsburgh DJ Gregg Gillis: To date, he hasn't been sued. On his virtuoso mash-up record Night Ripper, Gillis uses hundreds of unlicensed hip-hop, pop, rock and dance samples. The bedfellows are strange: One short stretch strings together Neutral Milk Hotel, Juelz Santana, Panjabi MC and Sophie Friggin' Hawkins. But he also blends them into something coherent and sublime, like when Biggie's "Juicy" blends with "Tiny Dancer."
I don't think I'ld like this, but I'm willing to give it a try. Because even if I don't, I'm sure it will still be somewhat interesting.
- 23 The Crane Wife
- THE DECEMBERISTS
Real life seems light-years away from the fantastical murder ballads and desperate-love stories that singer-guitarist Colin Meloy wrote for his band's major-label debut. In the title suite, a man marries a bird, then literally works it to death. The soldier serenading his pregnant wife in "Yankee Bayonet" is already quite dead. But the union of arcane folk and Eighties Brit pop on the Decemberists' indie albums is pumped up here with electric guitars, prog-rock bravado and even Seventies funk in the Elmore Leonard-like tale "The Perfect Crime #2."
To the best of my knowledge, this may be about the only illegally copied album I own, but before I go out and rob a liquor store, I just want to say So Far So Good.
- 24 The Information
The Information is the best of both Becks -- the sample-delic warrior of Odelay and the confessional troubadour of Sea Change. Beck has wily fun with loops and historical references in songs like "Soldier Jane," a compact blend of droning sitar, John Lennon-like vocals and star-shine electronics. But there is a moving clarity to Beck's cleverness, summed up best in the gentle shimmy of "Think I'm in Love." When he sings, "I think I'm in love/But it makes me kind of nervous to say so," it is the sweet, plain-spoken sound of a loser about to reverse his fortunes.
Don't tell Lady Steed, but I already have a copy of this.
- 28 Broken Boy Soldiers
- THE RACONTEURS
The Raconteurs are a side project that rocks like a main dish. Jack White brings the raw garage-rock aesthetic, Brendan Benson shows pop sense and brightens the vocals with heavy-Badfinger radiance, and bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler nail it all down with elementary muscle. The album's only drawback: Everything here -- especially "Steady, as She Goes" and the closing glam-Zeppelin blues "Blue Veins" -- sounds even better live. Maybe they should have cut the album after the tour.
It starts with the best song of the year then moves into Beatlesesque harmonies and other freaking awesome stuff. It took a few listens to get into but it was most certainly worth it. Theric recommends.
- 29 We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
- BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN
The stories in these songs are as old as the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and sixteenth-century Scotland. But the truths and lessons of natural disaster, war and citizenship are as immediate as New Orleans, Iraq and the midterm elections. These big-band treatments combine Dixieland brass, cantina accordions and barn-dance fiddles and feature Springsteen in rough but vintage jubilant voice -- as if John Henry himself is hammering those spikes through the stage at the Stone Pony.
I'm not going to listen to this because I want to like it but fully expect not to. How's that for openminded?
- 30 Robbers & Cowards
- COLD WAR KIDS
The Cold War Kids' debut wasn't quite the best indie-rock record of the year, but it might have been the most original: all cracked, soaring croons and shambling story-songs about alcoholics, killers and other shady characters, courtesy of L.A. boys doing Seventies-style rock with a dash of Southern gothic.
A music/design collective? Guess we Thteeds should be getting into this.
- 31 Like Father, Like Son
- BIRDMAN AND LIL' WAYNE
New Orleans' Cash Money Records may be past its heyday as a hitmaking cartel, but with Like Father, Like Son two of the label's biggest names were able to reinvigorate a familiar sound: thick, exuberant drawls about guns, cars and girls backed by locked-in, hard-charging bounce.
Don't be gross.
- 32 Supernature
So you thought they stopped making dance-pop records like this in 1988, when the Eurythmics started to slow down? Or in 1998, when trip-hop hit the wall? Goldfrapp exist beyond time and space, in a metropolitan interzone of sleek computer beats and dark melodies and after-hours club-slut ambience. First lady Alison Goldfrapp's sex-robot vocals hold it it all together -- when she sings "Ooh La La," it sounds like a threat.
I keep forgetting Goldfrapp isn't from thirty years ago. What does that mean?
- 34 The Eraser
- THOM YORKE
Major Thom managed to keep his first solo album a secret until just before it dropped -- the reason, he explained, is that he didn't want to raise any questions about whether Radiohead were breaking up. The sound recalls Kid A's quiet glitch-tronic moments, in disarmingly straightforward verse-chorus-verse tunes. But even in morose ballads such as "The Clock" and "Atoms for Peace," Yorke's steely intelligence shines through.
Yes, yes, yes. Of course I'm interested. Sheesh.
- 37 Alive and Kickin'
- FATS DOMINO
Topped only by Nonesuch's Our New Orleans 2005 among Katrina records is an old man's album recorded in and around 2000. Like the levees, but with far better follow-through, these tracks had to await the disaster before they got the funding attention they deserved. The sense of irrepressible fun that made Domino the biggest African-American rocker of the Fifties is replaced by a reflectful calm that never turns blue. Rhythmically it's so astute you can only assume his reflexes are as sharp as ever.
Hey! Look! It's Fats Domino!
- 38 10,000 Days
The pointlessly elaborate packaging (the 3-D specs just give you a headache) contradicts the no-gimmicks fury of everything else Tool does, to obsessive perfection, on Days -- and that includes actual songwriting. Even at seven and six minutes apiece, respectively, "Vicarious" and "The Pot" are packed with clever twists on instant-hit-single kicks: Adam Jones' nagging, grinding guitar riffs; the catchy, mounting-fear stammer of drummer Danny Carey's odd time signatures. That's more than enough to leave you seeing double.
I've never liked Tool. And I frankly don't care if they're geniuses.
- 39 The Tragic Treasury
- THE GOTHIC ARCHIES
These songs, aimed at the precocious youngsters who jones for the gleeful gothic gloom of the Lemony Snicket novels that have made sometime Magnetic Fields sideman Daniel Handler very rich, are of a thematic piece. Perfect for Stephin Merritt's melancholy baritone, they also satisfy his appetite for rhyme. "The world is a very scary place, my dear," Merritt intones. "It's hurled and it's twirled through outer space, I fear." Comedy album of the year.
I like these songs. But listening to fifteen at a time must do something unhealthy to one's brain. Don't you think?
- 41 Friendly Fire
- SEAN LENNON
As the son of a Beatle, Sean Lennon certainly has the right to make music in his father's mode. Indeed, Sean's boyish, nasally voice is a near-spittin' image of his dad's Rubber Soul-ballad croon. But there is also a lot of the Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson and Brazilian tropicalia in the disciplined sparkle and feathery distress of Friendly Fire. Actually, the most overt Beatlesque moment on this record is the bottlenecklike effect of the lead guitar in "Spectacle" -- it sounds like George Harrison's spirit dropped by to say hi.
Sean Lennon's first album has been on my to-buy list for, um, ten years now? But I really haven't had a chance to pick it up yet. So, STOP CRANKIN OUT THE ALBUMS SO FAST, LENNON!!!!!
- 44 Show Your Bones
- YEAH YEAH YEAHS
The New York mod squad's hotly awaited second disc is a triumph: dark, spooky, lithe, broodingly sexy, with Karen O venting her heartbreak and libidinal heebie-jeebies into post-punk tunes with a new kind of goth-cowgirl twang, and Nick Zinner deploying a fresh array of vampire guitar-noise splatters. Bonus: "Gold Lion" made it onto Pants-Off Dance-Off, the ultimate rock & roll desideratum of 2006.
I once spent an entire afternoon listening to the sample clips from this album on Amazon over and over and over and over again. Is that so bad?
- 45 Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
- NEKO CASE
For the country-rock fan who wonders why they don't make them like they used to, Case brings her smoky voice (Emmylou Harris meets Liz Phair), rootsy band (featuring members of Calexico and the Band's Garth Hudson) and cryptic songwriting, as in the scary "Dirty Knife."
Before ever reading about this album, I saw it in a Target and almost bought it simply because is has the blankety blankest most awesomest album artwork ever. That the music also good is just sop much gravy.
- 46 You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker
- WILLIE NELSON
The outlaw-country king of Texas pays loving tribute to the state's songwriting queen. Nelson played many of the songs on this album in his youth, on the way to his own songwriting fame, and he revisits them with such affection and Texas-dance-floor authenticity that you can almost smell the sawdust.
I feel guilty for not drooling. Sorry, Willie.
And that's that.