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Friday, December 22, 2006

Lars's Top 30 Albums of 2006

Sparing you the lengthy introductions that often accompany these lists, I must preface this by mentioning that the top ten are solidly-placed. #11-#30 are up for position moving at any time because some days that NOMO record is better than Return to Cookie Mountain. It's just how I work.

Also, I'd be remiss if I did not at least acknowledge Pink by Japanese heavy-rockers Boris. They put out one of heckuva rock album that really gets me going, but it wasn't released state-side until this year. I heard it in '05 when it came out and, well, I never know what to do in those cases. Needless to say, recognition is due.

On with it!

01. Scott Walker- The Drift [4AD]
There is literally nothing like The Drift. No concrete precedent exists for its simultaneously flat and three-dimensional sound palette – a canvas being the best image to compare, albeit one of truthful horror. The architectural compositions of Iannis Xenakis give us something to work from, but even that's an intangible source. The "blocks of sound" are meticulously, and some would say, maliciously placed with long sweeps of strings, dark Ennio Morricone guitar, unconventional percussion (e.g.: a slab of meat), horrible silence, and Walker's voice, a fascinating, piercing instrument of its own. And the pulsating tension never gives way. The oddly compelling thing about The Drift is that despite its impenetrability it is overwhelmingly human. Such an ambitious and seemingly antagonistic work both presents and attempts to answer the purpose of music as the only genuine form of human expression. Nothing's explicitly laid out, mind you, but the subtext lies in these blocks of sound, of the bleak human condition in which the only way Walker can relate is through the death and dying bodies of Elvis Presley's twin brother and Benito Mussolini. For many years to come, The Drift is an album that will continue to dialogue with our conscious, even those unwilling to speak back.
This is the blurb I wrote for the Tiny Mix Tapes Top 25 Albums of 2006 article.

02. Harvey Milk- Special Wishes [Troubleman Unlimited/Megablade]
Special Wishes carries the gut-wrenching resonance I’ve always felt a heavy record should. It’s no coincidence that Harvey Milk occasionally covers a man of such emotional intensity as Leonard Cohen because the band’s detuned heaviness is not one for the sake of being heavy, but one that’s burdened and aching.
See my full review.

03. Josephine Foster- A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing [Locust]
I defer completely to Phillip’s exceptionally written review on this one. Out of all the neo-folkies, Foster’s actually doing something powerfully unique.

04. Joanna Newsom- Ys [Drag City]
I didn’t *hate* Milk-Eyed Mender, per se, or necessarily dislike it, but I certainly couldn’t digest it all in one sitting for all the excessive preciousness given in three-minute spurts. Then the 24 year-old harp-slinging elf comes out with a five-track, 55-minute concept album about… well, something to do with the title (pronounced “eese,” by the way) and I instantly take to it (hrm, what does that say about me?). Her compositions are stunningly crafted, then accentuated by Van Dyke Parks’s lush orchestral arrangements. And just when it goes over the top, Newsom magically grounds the song to earth. My love for Ys was confirmed tenfold when I saw it performed by a five-piece Appalachian folk ensemble. Someone please release a live recording of this past tour.

05. Califone- Roots & Crowns [Thrill Jockey]
Califone's been at the "New Weird America" folk movement longer than most. In fact, they were abstracting American music years before the annoying term was even coined. The trend has thankfully had its perks for the band and Roots & Crowns happens to be the most fully realized and exciting Califone album to date. It's spindly, alternate universe backporch-folk with some of the best modern interpretations of the Beach Boys sound ("Spider's House," for example) that I've ever heard. Love love love this one. I can't recommend it enough.

06. Keith Fullerton Whitman- Lisbon [Kranky]
Not too often you’ll find a live album on my year-end list, but then again, KFW has been on these lists for the last couple of years, so I can’t imagine one without him! I read somewhere (might’ve even been Whitman himself) that compares Lisbon’s musical arc to Miles Davis’s In A Silent Way, which, in some abstract way, makes complete sense (or at least makes for a great listening exercise). Whitman’s “playthroughs” system (to put it very simply, an acoustic guitar run through a laptop) sees a 45-minute exploration that brilliantly unfolds and deconstructs on itself around the 30-minute mark. Blows my mind every time.

07. Loren Connors- Night Through [Family Vineyard]
Essential 3xCD collection of his 7"s, compilation tracks, private CD-Rs, and plenty of extras. The attraction to his solo guitar work (and collaborations with partner/vocalist Suzanne Langille) comes in how one can visually hear Connors’s fingers on the fretboard, on the strings themselves. He stretches notes with a violently delicate vibrato both solo and in the on/off-again psych/stoner-rock band Haunted House (two unreleased jams presented here). One can see the notes right next to each other, like Mark Rothko’s paintings who Connors considers his greatest influence. The music is spare and simple, even at its most distorted, but intense and full of texture.
See my full review.

08. Juana Molina- Son [Domino]
Of the 30 albums on this list, four are solo female artists. All four reside in the top 10. Just realized that now. Anyway, this one in particular was a fast favorite, though very much a sleeper hit for most. The Argentine always seems to get positive press, but never much of a concrete fan-base, which is a shame because her organic/electric folk music (acoustic guitar with live loops and manipulation) is even more pronounced live. Son’s a bit more subtle in its electronic textures than past albums and shows off Molina’s songwriting.

09. Comets On Fire- Avatar [Sub Pop]
Cathedral was my #2 album of 2004, but whereas their Sub Pop debut was one of an endless cave of reverberating psychedelic freak-outs, Avatar is its bluesy, jazzier companion with honest-to-goodness songs and blue-eyed soul vocals. Is Sub Pop slowly taming its wilder roster (Wolf Eyes being the other) into some alternate pop universe? Might be one of the few shady Sub Pop business practices I can get behind! Hrmmm, who should they tame next?

10. Neko Case- Fox Confessor Brings the Flood [Anti-]
Full disclosure: I actually bought this album because Kelly Hogan sings backing vocals on it (please, please, Kelly, record a new album!), but quickly fell for the Playboy-nominated female-indie-hottie’s spirit of the Grand Ole Opry. Not that it’s actually country or even “alt-country,” just that Neko’s recorded something heartbreakingly timeless.

11. Current 93- Black Ships Ate the Sky [Durtro]
It is on Black Ships Ate the Sky that David Tibet finally realizes the vision he began with Thunder Perfect Mind (1992), a gothic folklore that's achieved an underground mythology, a sound that is both harrowing and delicate. Loosely framed around eight versions of "Idumea" sung by eight different vocalists (Antony, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, and Shirley Collins, to name a few), a song about God's judgment on the Edomites written by Charles Wesley in 1763, the album's almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Well, at least in the narrative Tibet's built out of his reoccurring "black ships" dreams that challenge our conceptions of the sacred and the profane. The thing is, like David Eugene Edwards (16 Horsepower, Woven Hand), Tibet presents a God that's to be feared for His power to redeem, so his profanity becomes sacred. Once again, an outstanding cast of musicians joins him: newcomers Ben Chasny (Six Organs of Admittance) and drone master William Basinski as well as the usual suspects Steven Stapleton (Nurse With Wound) and Michael Cashmore. The guitar interplay between Chasny and Cashmore is particularly inspired: it drones with impending death in its strings, yet retains a redemptive melody like an Orthodox liturgy. Tibet's half-sung/half-spoken delivery has finally found its rightful accompaniment.
This is the blurb I wrote for the Tiny Mix Tapes Top Eureka Albums of 2006 article.

12. Wolf Eyes- Human Animal [Sub Pop]
The poster boys of noise writing actual songs? It’s not the definitive statement modern noise has waited for, but Wolf Eyes is getting there. Expect to hear more folks follow suit in 2007.

13. Rafael Toral- Space [Staubgold]
I’m actually still wrapping my head around this one, especially since I’m queued to write a review for TMT, but given the position on this list, it’s obvious that Space has struck me. The Lisbon experimental guitar pioneer ditches the six-string for his “space program,” an electronics-based medium that realizes a kind of space-jazz neither Bill Dixon nor even Sun Ra could have possibly imagined.

14. Liars- Drum's Not Dead [Mute]
Amazing what a change of location can do to a band. Germany turned these mediocre dance-punk Brooklynites into an emotionally compelling avant-rock band.

15. TV On the Radio- Return to Cookie Mountain [Interscope/4AD]
Am I little upset that TVOTR didn’t lay down as many sweet doo-woppin’ harmonies on their major label debut? Yeah, but it’s still one helluva rock album, one that still has a lot of soul behind it. I still have to ask, though: Trent Reznor? Really?

16. Marc Leclair- Musique pour 3 femmes enceintes [Mutek]
What I imagine Keith Fullerton Whitman would sound like recording a minimalist/ambient techno album (although he probably did). I love the story Leclair evokes through his instrumental concept album about pregnancy: the music develops more “life” as the album progresses and almost goes all-out “pop” (gross) once Musique’s child is born.

17. Create (!)- A Prospect of Freedom [Sounds Are Active]
I think a large part of why I never wrote about A Prospect of Freedom was because I was listening to it at a dark point in my life (this, by the way, is one of the few times I’ll be this personal on this blog): fresh out of college, spiritually decrepit, discouraged by unemployment, uncertain about my future, and generally doing a whole lot of nothing during the day. In many ways, Create (!)’s third album, a study in patience and meditation, was my musically inspiring grace during this time. I imagine someone could have had the same experience with Pharoah Sanders’ Jewels of Thought or Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock (both of which are good reference points for Freedom) when these albums were first released.

18. Xasthur- Subliminal Genocide [Hydra Head]
Unlike most of his black metal companions and influences, Malefic places his emphasis on atmosphere, an oppressive, funeral-paced, lo-fi descent. Guitar riffs are obscured by multiple washes of murky, buzzing distortion (riffs almost post-rock in their deliberate choices), gothic keyboards and synthesized choirs overtake the drone, and drums, if audible or even present, are only there to establish a basic rhythm.
See my full review.

19. Jack Rose- Jack Rose [aRchive]
Beautiful lap slide guitar album that, I believe, is already sold out of its 1000-copy limited pressing. Probably the best musician and songwriter of the emerging experimental folk guitarists looking back to the Takoma Records (John Fahey, et. al.) hey-day.

20. Herbert- Scale [!k7]
Herbert may not have broken through on his most accessible electronic-pop album to date, but he still made a more cohesive and exciting release than Hot Chip and Junior Boys.

21. The Goslings- Grandeur of Hair [aRchive]
Noise for people who don’t like noise: The Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat re-imagined as distorted, droning bliss.

22. Melted Men- Rotten Hut Florist [Nerve Rust]
Besides having my favorite cover artwork of 2006, the Athens, GA wacky noise-sters finally manage to record an album that captures the bizzaro performance art of their live shows. It’s like fractured, broken-beatz hip-hop by the Knights Who Say ‘Ni’ with lots of gongs and other assorted gamelan instrumentation. Yeah, that’s probably the best description I can muster.

23. Andrew Hill- Time Lines [Blue Note]
Hill’s third return to the legendary Blue Note label is nothing short of a minor jazz miracle. The pianist has never released a bad album, but he’s definitely been mining the same material over and over again in his older years. The compositions are meticulous, but never feel constrained. One of the essential jazz records of 2006.

24. Ali Farka Toure- Savane [Nonesuch]
King of the Desert Blues’ final album recorded in his native Mali. Strangely haunting and hypnotic. Even after his death, it still feels like no one knows about Toure.

25. Keiji Haino & Sitar-Tah!- Animamima [aRchive]
Japanese psych-rock legend playing the droning hurdy-gurdy with twenty sitar players (!) and a Tuvan throat-singer?! It’s like Haino pulled out a dream I never knew existed! The two discs run through your chest like hands made of barbed wire and goose feathers.

26. The Necks- Chemist [ReR/Fish of Milk]
The Australian kraut-jazz-by-way-of-Terry Riley trio never seems to do wrong. The addition of the electric guitar in their extended semi-composed improvisations was a long time coming and produces explosive results, yet doesn’t shine above the individual pieces.

27. Bizzart- Bloodshot Mama [Sounds Are Active]
Bizzart did the smart thing and went Soul-Junk-less on his sophomore full-length – not that the abstract hip-hop genius of Slo-Ro and Glenn Galaxy didn’t make Ear Drung a Soul-Junk clone, just that the influence loomed heavily over. You can tell that Bizzart chewed his lyrics grit, blood, and all on Bloodshot Mama –- his flow impassioned by the world failing around him. The music and production, too, take on the same issues much heavier and defined as ever with carefully controlled noise bedding Bizzart’s words.

28. NOMO- New Tones [Ubiquity]
Definitely brings out less of the "hipsters digging on Fela Kuti" vibe and more of a genuine vision that doesn’t really need or want to adhere to a specific style as long as the aesthetic jam remains.
See my full review.

29. Blame Game- Ask Someone [Stickfigure]
There were hints of greatness in this Atlanta quartet scattered throughout their evolving existence from a screamy hardcore band to some kind of jazzy Don Caballero/Ornette Coleman/Captain Beefheart monster, so this long-ish four-song EP is exactly what I’ve waited for. Blame Game ingests their influences, but come out writing/improvising seamless pieces with remarkable maturity. Even better heard live.

30. Owl Xounds- Toxic Raga [Colour Sounds]
Andrea Centazzo had Ictus Records, Derek Bailey had Incus Records, why shouldn't drummer Adam Kriney have Colour Sounds to release his own material and various collaborations? Owl Xounds has the biggest output and for good reason: disgusting, psychedelic freak-jazz in the spirit of the ESP-Disk' fire-music of the '60s and '70s. Featuring fellow New Yorker Gene Janus (upright bass) and Old Time Relijun main man Arrington De Dionyso (bass clarinet, voice), this particular incarnation of the revolving Owl Xounds unit hits pockets in all thewrong places creating harsh textures and an all-around racket. But it's a damn good racket. One that thrusts out of the grimy spaces of the room, hits the corner table, bangs the hell out of its knee, trails blood and scabs through the doorway, but convulses with delight at the bad-ass scar its gonna get. Lest you think this yet another punk-jazz sparring match, though, Kriney's got the chops and sense to let the racket swirl (or, to be nasty, maybe even swill) from time to time instead of the constant quarterback blitz of most punk-jazz. Too good to stay a limited edition release.
This is the blurb I wrote for the Tiny Mix Tapes Top Eureka Albums of 2006 article.


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