MUSIC IN 2006: TOP 15 ALBUMS.
The Long Winters
Putting the Days to Bed
The Hold Steady
Boys and Girls in America
I'm a compulsive list-maker by nature, and a strict one when it comes to these end of the year lists. So deciding to name co-#1's took a lot of going back and forth between these two albums. Ultimately it was realizing their surprising similarities and one big difference that led me to list them this way.
The Long Winters made my favorite power-pop record of a crowded 2003 with When I Pretend to Fall, and they take it a step further on this one. I was a little worried when I heard the stop-gap Ultimatum EP because it was all acoustic and slowed-down, but the title track appears on this album as one of several rollicking barnstormers late in the set. "Ultimatum," "Rich Wife" and "(It's a) Departure" all push farther into the territory of straight-up guitar rock than any of their previous material has.
Earlier in the album, they run over a wide swath of the power-pop genre, with tracks such as "Pushover," the opener; "Honest," a paean to the attractiveness of the fake connection between a singer and an audience; and particularly "Sky Is Open," a bright piece of key and guitar pop that rivals any of the upbeat material produced by the likes of former labelmates Death Cab For Cutie.
I noted recently the crazy money I'd be willing to pay to see these guys live, and the reality of it turned out to be at least $13. But for as great as this record is, I'm skeptical about what kind of staying power it's going to have. It is a pop record, first and foremost, and pop is nothing if not disposable. The reason I ultimately had to give the Hold Steady the #1A slot instead of #2 is that I think Boys and Girls in America is going to be around for a while.
This is not to say that it's not also a pop record -- in some ways its tunnelvisionary's focus on parties, drugs, girls and adolescent loss make it even more pop than Putting the Days to Bed. But along with its essential pop nature, this is a genre watershed album. The Hold Steady's last album was an unlikely success -- Springsteenian and Mellencampy bar rock seems an odd appeal for the 2005 indie scene that feted Andrew Bird, Sufjan Stevens and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah -- that could have set them up to crash this time out. They moved to a big name indie label with a major label distribution deal, they started playing more theaters and fewer clubs and they played on network TV before midnight on the east coast. And the material was not just enough to support those changes, it demanded them.
There are a million reasons why this comparison is not strictly apt, but it's an album that reminds me a lot of Nirvana's Nevermind -- a much-loved indie band takes the next step up and manages to deliver an amazingly catchy record with mainstream appeal, but without toning themselves down at all. As I said previously, the first three tracks of this album could sell a million records if only the general public got to hear them. Anyone who ever grew up switching between Springsteen and the Replacements, all the kids that grew up in Chicago and Detroit and the Twin Cities in the last 20 years, and scores of others who just know what it's like. Everybody who's ever walked through a winter day with a headful of static, waiting for the massive night to come. Everybody who's ever stuck with a dirty scene to make him like you. Everybody who's ever partied and settled and run away and wanted a fake kiss to be real. We'll all be feeling this one for a long time to come.
We Are Scientists
With Love and Squalor
It took a long time for me to love this record. I first heard it in late 2005, just after its early release in the UK. I felt, at the time, like I should like it a lot, but I couldn't get over the ways in which they sounded like a reheated Interpol. At some point my mind changed and I suddenly couldn't get enough of the one-two punch of "Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt" and "This Scene Is Dead" to open the record.
What seemed to separate the band from others with that dry Interpol sound was a desperate punchiness, especially on those two songs and "Inaction," "It's a Hit" and "Great Escape." On the tracks that lack much of their own personality, the band's superbly enjoyable style carries the weight. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much of an audience for cheeky dance-rock acts in Fall Out Boy's America -- the record and singles have gone nowhere in the US, and when we saw them live last summer it was in a small room that wasn't quite full. They're probably also hurt by the de-albumification of the modern music industry, as one of the really nice things about this record is how it flows through the entire sequence. Several hot tracks precede a couple smoother ones, then it's cranked back up in a very organic way. I suspect they're just too pop for many who would be in their target audience, and not pop enough for the mainstream.
Catastrophe Keeps Us Together
Who would've expected that an album called Catastrophe Keeps Us Together would presage Rainer Maria splitting apart? Sometimes you can hear a band break-up coming in their last record, but so much of their material was about break-ups, relationship trouble and despair in the first place that no one could possibly have decoded band strain from these lyrics. Whatever problems the band was having were masked even further by the fact that two of the record's stand-out tracks -- "Clear and True" and "I'll Make You Mine" -- are, if not necessarily happy, about just the opposite of a relationship ending.
It's hard to be a band, though, and it's probably harder when you're writing relationship songs with an ex. Rainer Maria put out three outstanding records this century and found themselves gaining little ground with each one. They left Madison for New York, but it wasn't enough to break through into even the Ted Leo or Of Montreal level of indie rock success, let alone anything bigger. As sad as it is to lose them, I can't blame them for wanting to try something new.
Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins
Rabbit Fur Coat
When we saw Jenny Lewis last year in Milwaukee, it was one of the oddest shows I'd ever attended. Lewis is a former minor child star -- remember Nickelodeon's Salute Your Shorts? -- but her more recent and relevant claim to fame is as the frontwoman of Rilo Kiley, who spent several years as indie pop darlings before jumping to Warner in 2004. Once there, their sound didn't change much, and neither did their situation. They remain loved by the indie pop scene and basically unnoticed by commercial radio et al. So what does Jenny Lewis decide to do in her downtime? A gospel-pop-soul-folk record in the vein of Dusty Springfield or Laura Nyro, of course.
I think few people would've guessed how well-received this album would become before it came out, or that Lewis and her secular revivalist revue would be selling out theaters so quickly. But her simultaneously bright and cynical poetry proved a winning combination in a time when cynicism has become a survival skill. "You Are What You Love" and the title track, in particular, made for an impressive back-to-back pair, moving with ease between expressive and narrative songwriting. To see that come from an artist who'd just suddenly shifted career paths again is especially satisfying.
Centro-matic's been around since at least the mid-90s, but they didn't hit my radar until this year. Fort Recovery landed on my iPod in the middle of a sparse first quarter of 2006 and made a quick impression -- I must've listened to "Monument Sails" and "Patience For the Ride" more than anything else during the late winter months. Their combination of 80s college rock with 70s southern rock was a real revelation. For a while now, I've been trying to get into bands like the Drive-By Truckers and Lucero, but it just hasn't happened, and this record let me see that really, it's not me, I just hadn't found the right album yet.
I haven't noticed them getting much more attention for this album than they ever got before, but they seem to have a solid enough fanbase to tour regularly, and I guess that's all you can ask for. When I saw them last April it was a terrific show, and I'm looking forward to frontman Will Johnson's upcoming appearance in Madison.
Margot & the Nuclear So and So's
The Dust of Retreat
How could this formula have worked? An eight-piece touring act -- including one piece who just plays trumpet flourishes and one who plays fringe percussion and dances -- whose name is apparently derived from The Royal Tenenbaums should be a recipe for disaster, especially their material is so twee and relatively sparse. And yet, Margot's thinned-out approach to chamber pop turned out to produce of the most engrossing records of the summer for me. Their show on the Terrace was in many ways a revelation, and the fact that they came back to play Club 770 a few months later won them a lot of brownie points. The sheer listenability of songs like "Skeleton Key," "On a Freezing Chicago Street" and the surprisingly not ridiculous "Paper Kitten Nightmare" has me quite looking forward to their next album, which will hopefully be as simultaneously soft and raw as this one.
Standing in the Way of Control
Kill Rock Stars
Until this album came out, all I'd heard from the Gossip was their live album, Undead in NYC, which is terrible. The recording is bad, the production is bad, and you simply get no sense of what the band really sounds like. On Standing in the Way of Control, not only do you get a sense of what they sound like, you get a sense that they have a vision for where the band is going.
There is a bit of a sameness to some of the songs on this record, but they all are a step above the band's previously work and are, for the most part, insanely catchy -- dance numbers and ballads included. Now that the Gossip have landed on a major label, I expect Beth Ditto to become a Major Media Figure, and their next album to be an Event.
Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not
Travis. Starsailor. The fucking Vines. Arctic Monkeys appeared, in 2005, to be simply the latest in the long line of overhyped, overproduced, shitty British "indie" bands, and with the worst name of the bunch, to boot. And yet, despite a broadly overexposed hit single to build on, they managed to produce maybe the catchiest, most self-assured rock debut to come out of the UK since, dare I say it, Pablo Honey. With a breakneck sound not unlike that of some of their NME-approved peers, but much above the Libertines or McLusky, the main question is can they keep it up. With their quick arriving follow-up, Favourite Worst Nightmare, I'm not sure they have, but they're moving fast enough that it may not matter in a year.
Shipwrecked on Shores
What's really unfortunate about even the decentralized, fractured music industry we've got today is that discovering a band like 1090 Club is still an absolute crapshoot. I only encountered them because they played at WSUM's Party in the Park last September, which I suspect had something to do with their being on the same label as then-local favorite Charlemagne. Their sound is not just wildly different from what the top-down music industry wants to sell, it's also not something that the blog/Pitchfork-driven hype machine is into. College rock full of strings and harmonies doesn't seem to have a great market behind it just at the moment, and I couldn't be happier to have bumped into it at this band's short set. They remind me, loosely, of a band called the Jeyds that I went to college with, and I hope that I've been able to turn some more people onto them.
And with that, I must stop. Seriously. The rest of these records are good and enjoyable, but simply not much worth writing about and generally a cut below what's made this list in the past few years. I'm hoping 2007 winds up a little better, but so far it's not.
System and Station
Here Is Now
Be Still Please
Waiting For the Next End of the World
The Hush Sound