Best Albums of 2006: #10 to #01
10. Jarvis Cocker – Jarvis
The definition of the word “witty” is generally defined as one who combines clever conception and facetious expression, though if you would like an enjoyable example, I would suggest listening to most songs by Pulp. Indeed, “witty” is one of the many complementary adjectives that could be used to describe Jarvis Cocker and Pulp. Ever since Cocker formed the band at the tender age of 15, the public has had eyes and ears focused on Cocker, their oddly enjoyable frontman. After some amateur but promising albums in the 80s, they propelled in the 90s as a huge success with such classic albums as Different Class and His ‘n’ Hers. In fact, they were my favorite band of the 90s. Now at the wiser age of 43, Cocker has released his first solo album with the simple title of Jarvis. While those few who disliked Pulp will probably feel the same concerning Cocker, Pulp fans and admirers of well constructed pop music should find Jarvis particulary pleasing. Cocker’s lyrical wit is still present, especially in the productive ‘Big Julie’, in which Cocker describes the perilous ordeals of an overweight girl in a superficial suburban society, only finding enjoyment in life by listening to the great joy that is music. Cocker’s descriptive lyricism manages to be hilarious, somewhat perverted, and emotionally touching all at once. In ‘Big Julie’, he motions momentum by exclaiming that Julie “knows sex is just for dummies anway, something you do when you’ve run out of things to say”, before a fury of strings build up an emotional closing. Cocker successfuly engages us in the troubled mind of someone half his age, something that other artists have often trouble doing. The diversity of Jarvis is also impressive, with the dark strings and soft vocals in ‘Disney Time’ reflecting on the loss of childhood innocence, while the rougher and more frantic pieces like ‘Tonite’ and the silly fun in ‘Fat Children’ do the album a great deal of excitement for those who prefer not to tread in melancholy. Though I was displeased at Pulp’s inactivity for the past five years, Cocker’s emergance as a solo artist is very gratifying in the grand scheme of things.
09. Some By Sea – On Fire! (Igloo)
It’s a shame that Some By Sea will never gain much recognition outside of their native Washington. Now that the band has announced that they are no more, it means that On Fire! (Igloo) is their ode farewell. With that in mind, it’s at least a fantastic way to go out. Compared to the other artists on this list, Some By Sea is arguably the least publicized. I could take the easy route and blame whoever was their publicist, but truly I think it lied in the length of their songs. Not often do you find electric folk artists creating songs that, on average, reach over six minutes in length for each and every track on the album. That would equate to a lack of commercial radio outside of colleges in Washington, with most looking for easily accessible three-minute pop songs. Lead songwriter and singer Chris DuBray certainly has the musicianship to create memorable songs of this length, though the album is certainly not recommended to impatient listeners who take songwriting for granted on first listen. Those who are patient will almost certainly be rewarded with Some By Sea’s musical grasp, with cellos, horns, fiddles, keys, and harps being a few of the dozens of instruments that Some By Sea packages neatly in each song. ‘The Beginning Of The World Often Comes’ is a perfect example of the band’s collaborative talents, with a variation of strings leading the emotional track upwards in quality. As the song displays, their appreciation for classical music is no secret, as DuBray has the proper longetivity and passion throughout the entire album to guide even the rougher spots out of the doldrums. ‘Fables (Kentucky Social)’ is exclusively one of the accessible songs on the album, something they achieve without completely selling out. DuBray’s nasally voice gains fervor as the effective backing feminine vocals of Rachel Bowman harmonize well with her musical surroundings. Some By Sea’s larger than life songwriting ambitions may have been what tore the band apart but their fantastic music is still in tact, whether it remains undiscovered or not.
08. Tokyo Jihen – Adult
Honestly, it takes quite a lot for a foreign album to place in my top ten for the year. I know that music is universal but I am one who finds lyrical comprehension to be an important aspect of a listening session. If I can’t understand them it takes a slight factor out of the decisionmaking on whether I enjoy it or not. That said, some foreign bands tend to grip you on catchy melodies and instrumental participation alone. Tokyo Jihen is one of those bands. Led by Shiina Ringo, who is genius in her own right, Tokyo Jihen is a collection of proficiently trained musicians who range in styles from blues and jazz to shibuya-kei and hip-hop. Ringo has been such a musical presence ever since being declared a musical prodigy in her teens. She is not only one of the best songwriters in Japan, but one of the most naturally gifted in the world. Those who speculate can take a look at her solo career, which always seems about ten years ahead of her time. The variation on Tokyo Jihen’s second album Adult is astonishing, with the subtle classical guitar in ‘Keshou Naoshi’ serving as example of Ringo’s natural ear for musical consistency. The backing band works incredibly well together, live and in the studio. This can be heard throughout, as most songs sound as if they were crafted by a perfectionist, giving indication for great production. Whether it’s the R&B influences in the catchy ‘Blackout’ or the intensifying blues combination in ‘Himitsu’, Ringo’s Tokyo Jihen has put together an extremely impressive selection of eleven original songs.
07. Junior Boys – So This Is Goodbye
Jeremy Greenspan and Matt Didemus both were issued large expectations for the Junior Boys’ second abum, So This Is Goodbye. The duo avoided the infamous sophomore slump with a lack of modification. Why fix something that isn’t broken? While the electronic style of some songs such as excessive trance influence in ‘Like A Child’ or the synthetic effects used in ‘FM’ are new in comparison to the acclaimed Last Exit, the new album exists in a similar world in terms of production and musical usage. Greenspan still has the slick vocals that execute perfectly with the late-night electronic sounds that Junior Boys are reputable for, with actual vocal improvement concerning the harmonics and melodical figuration in songs where Greenspan is most reliant, such as the restful cover of Frank Sinatra’s ‘When No One Cares’. So This Is Goodbye is more frantic than the debut, partly in thanks to the lively percussion, whether it be programmed claps or a robotic reverb. That is not to say the songs are particulary energetic, as the song has the mindset of a relaxing Sunday. Those who let the album take over an open mind will find it most enjoyable, unlike those who attempt to analyze every electronic component. ‘In The Morning’ and ‘First Time’ are both representitive of the surprising hooks that Junior Boys are known to create, with mastered ease and abruptly rewarding choruses that cause even the toughest critics to grin with satisfaction.
06. Islands – Return to the Sea
Formed from the ruins of The Unicorns, Nick Diamonds and J’aime Tambeur brought the same type of musical delight to their new project, Islands’ debut Return to the Sea. While The Unicorns were lovingly aspirant in traditionally lo-fi fashion, Islands tends to be more mature and self-conscious of their surroundings. Diamonds has always shown clear aspirations in his creative touch, from The Unicorns’ unique blend of lo-fi indie pop to the rap-pop-electrohop of Th’ Corn Gangg, with Tambeur at his side for each project. Unlike old Unicorns favorites like the simplistic ‘The Clap’ or ‘Jellybones’, the leap in songwriting skill is recognizable right off the bat in Return to the Sea. The nine-minute opener, ‘Swans (Life After Death)’ teases us with a hook right after the two-minute mark before jumping back into the usual verse. With The Unicorns, one would expect the usual verse-chorus/hook-verse-chorus, but Islands tends to have a different philosophy. That hook is not used once again in the song, instead Islands capitalizes on the song’s flow and uses it to craft a series of brand new hooks, mainly evident during the distorted guitar outburst in the last three minutes. The song presents a great first impression, though all other songs on the album are of a different, more traditional nature. I mentioned in July that ‘Volcanoes’ was my favorite track of the year and that has not changed. Indeed, ‘Volcanoes’ is my favorite song of 2006. What establishes this song as a marvel is the fact that it is merely a building point for about four minutes. The third time that the chorus comes around, Islands utilizes already familiar chord changes and adds several layers of strings and keys on top of the chorus to present an explosion of sorts. The structure acts like a volcano itself, slowly showing signs of an eruption until the apparent burst. Other sensations range from the tropical ‘Jogging Gorgeous Summer’ to the light synth glaze of ‘If’. Though Tambeur has left the band, Islands has planned to carry on as usual without him. This is certainly good news, considering the band’s already evident amount of potential.
05. Scott Walker – The Drift
It seems that anything Scott Walker touches, I fall in love with. From his brilliant 60s cover albums to his contemporary ambient works of art, I have enjoyed every morsel of Walker’s historically ambiguous career. It’s interesting to see the reaction of my friends when I play Scott Walker’s Tilt or The Drift. They are either stunned or completely disgusted, remarking that they could make the same type of noise by croaking and smashing pans together. While it is true that not all can embrace Walker’s unique idealization of sound, those who can have discovered that The Drift is much more than a common album. Walker’s booming vocals have not lost a touch at all since his days with the Walker Brothers, though this time instead of singing coherent popular songs on black and white television sets, he is crooning in what appears to be the darkness of his own residence. His vocals sense a rush of sadness on the verge of tears, all while propelling anger towards all his vaguely presented characters. In ‘Jesse’, Walker sounds disturbingly personal over a series of direct strings, as he asks a musical shadow, “Jesse, are you listening?”. You can almost feel Walker breathing down your neck in moments of vocal intensity like this, as disturbing as that sounds. That would make sense though, as disturbing would be one way to describe Walker’s nature. At this point, Walker claims that he just improvises every bit of each song, which is not surprising considering he has been in the industry for about fifty years. The Drift is one of the only albums that I have heard that is entirely unpredictable. Walker creeps out of the darkness with several surprises, such as the infamous “Donald Duck” vocal maneuvering in ‘The Escape’. I won’t spoil which part of the song that it appears at, though if you want to jump in your chair and you have not heard it before, I suggest playing the song at full volume. Whether the chills on my spine are due to the thought of Walker’s amazing career or The Drift itself is up in the air, but whatever it is, Walker has proved himself to be one of the most visionary songwriters of all time with his second masterpiece in a row.
04. Sunset Rubdown – Shut Up I Am Dreaming
Spencer Krug just seems invincible these days. Wolf Parade, Frog Eyes, Swan Lake, AND Sunset Rubdown? Wow. Someone sure knows how to pick ’em. Though collaborators are involved, Sunset Rubdown is largely considered Krug’s first solo project, which is evident by the meandering production of Shut Up I Am Dreaming. Predictably, the songs aren’t that far off from the quality of Wolf Parade. Krug uses his multi-instrumental ability to play a variety of keys, harmonicas, xylophones, guitars, and compressed drums to create an album that in the end focuses on Krug’s talented ear for melody. His signature vocals now seem common in the Canadian indie scene, with murmuring and yelping being main components in matching with each song’s unique formula. ‘They Took a Vote and Said No’ is the most accessible song on the album, working around Krug’s vocal harmonization with the keys and beyond. His lyrical instincts are particulary interesting, posing questions such as, “I’ve heard of creatures who eat their babies, I wonder if they stop to think about the taste” in the rather mellow ‘Us Ones in Between’. When the music gets all too familiar, Krug always seems there to offer some sort of lyrical line that either makes you grin or scratch your head. The brightest moment on Shut Up I Am Dreaming comes in ‘The Men Are Called Horseman There’. The seven minute epic is of outstanding nature, being one of the best songs that Krug has ever written. His yelps of emotion almost echo back, “If I were the horse, I would throw up the reigns, if I was you,” taking a slight pause as the chorus reverb gathers itself, “but I am no horse and you are no angel”. The song is deliberately poking fun at those who are intimidated by anything foreign and new to them, doing so in an effectively creative stance. Krug is one of the most active songwriters at the moment, also undoubtly one of the most talented.
03. The Veils – Nux Vomica
The Veils’ fascinating debut The Runaway Found showed a band with a a collection of talented musicians, the promising voice of Finn Andrews and an organically unique sound. The debut displayed something incredibly promising, though it was confidence that the band lacked to break through to the elite. One would have hoped that The Veils’ second album would bring more success and live up to the promises that the band foreshadowed in The Runaway Found. After all, frontman Finn Andrews has been considered a “child prodigy” of music, ever since Columbia Records offered him a record deal at the age of fifteen. Oh, did I mention that his father is Barry Andrews of the great XTC? Of course, Finn’s childhood must have been filled with pressures of society that caused him to drop out of school at the age of sixteen to pursue his musical career. When The Veils formed two years later, they had no clue what sound to pursue. Switching back and forth between alternative, glam, folk and even New Orleans-inspired blues brought them to one final conclusion: play whatever comes naturally. Nux Vomica is the type of album that bystanders have been expecting from Andrews for years. While only ten songs long, there is not one weak track on the album. ‘Calliope!’ demonstrates a wider expansion of their sound, with Andrews’ influence of Bob Dylan present, as his quivering vocals are devastatingly effective throughout the song’s common message of motivation, with a waivering, “you’ve come such a long way, with no one to comfort you to tell you you’re needed” being the glue of the chorus and the song. The sparkling keys of ‘Advice For Young Mothers To Be’ even touches on a bit of reggae, though Andrews still manages to maintain his studious vocals in perfect fashion. Andrews’ vocals are most certainly more welcoming than in The Runaway Found, though there will always be those who dislike his unique style. The album’s ballad, ‘Under The Folding Branches’ is particulary touching as well, with a melody that is one of the most beautiful I’ve heard all year. Nux Vomica is exciting, heartbreaking, original, and… well, you get the point. It’s most certainly worth your time.
02. The Divine Comedy – Victory for the Comic Muse
I have been praising Neil Hannon and The Divine Comedy all year long, so I don’t expect any of you to be taking this to a state of shock. I consider Victory for the Comic Muse to be Hannon’s strongest album in ten years, bringing a bit of everything to the table. Humor, depression, satire, and artistic appreciation are all present in the album, each separated by song. In simpler terms, it is easy to listen to Victory for the Comic Muse in any type of mood. Hannon’s powerful vocals have always shown shades of prominent frontmen like Morrissey and Scott Walker and while it is not an insult at all, Hannon has taken his vocal delivery to a different level for Victory for the Comic Muse, sounding the least linear he has in his career. The hilarious ‘To Die a Virgin’ is sung with a grin on his face and vocal flamboyancy present, recalling Hannon’s previous ‘Generation Sex’. Like Jarvis Cocker, Hannon has always been intrigued by the topic of sexuality, half-mocking society’s infatuation with the subject. The song remains true to heart though and some may even feel some sympathy for Hannon, though we can be rest assured that the song couldn’t possibly be written from his point of view. Could it? ‘Diva Lady’ is another humorous gem, this time poking fun at the celebrities who treat materialism like their own flesh and blood. “”She’s got thirty people in her entourage,” Hannon snickers, “just in case her ego needs a quick massage”. ‘Diva Lady’ also contains the line: “She’s got special needs, she wants chocolate candies, but no blue ones please”, which is an oblivious reference to Van Halen’s antics (refusal to eat brown M&Ms). Such wit often comes overrused in music, but Hannon makes it fit into each and every song with ease. Hannon’s shining moment comes in the touching ‘A Lady of a Certain Age’, where Hannon chronicles the life of a lonely widow with a husband who left her and kids who are gone and do not care for her. The setting of a dark and misty pub is relevant, as Hannon’s beautifully arranged melody is perfectly complementary to the vivid image of an old woman sitting in a pub telling her life’s story for a shot or two. The mixture of acoustics and strings do great justice to the troubling emotion conveyed, as Hannon is at his best in the entire album.
The Divine Comedy – A Lady of a Certain Age
01. Xiu Xiu – The Air Force
Whether it’s the innovatively love-obsessed poetic touch that Jamie Stewart formulates into each and every song, or the eclectic instrumental fury that is touched upon in each and every musical layer, Xiu Xiu’s The Air Force is my album of the year. There is a feeling of wholeness whenever I listen to The Air Force, an album that I have been playing for the past seven months and have yet to grow tired of. This is the most diverse collection of songs I’ve heard this year, with the catchiness of ‘Save Me Save Me’ and ‘Boy Soprano’ in comparison with the edgy experimental touches of ‘Wig Master’ and ‘Buzz Saw’ are beyond me, but I do know that the album manages to flow cohesively despite the wide diversity. This time around, Stewart discusses the topics of bondage, rape, unrequited love, shielded homosexuality, racism, and various other unappealing topics. As disturbing as it may occasionally be, Stewart captures such emotion even in the barest of songs. ‘Wig Master’ is the best closer Xiu Xiu has done based on lyrical effect alone. There is nothing more than shrieking ambience in the background, but honest and sympathetic lines such as “Loneliness isn’t being alone, it’s when someone loves you and you don’t have it in you to love them back”, which details the rants of a madman envisioning an actual “night out” with someone to accompany him, is designed to offer a new perspective on loneliness and how other pathetic puppet musicians portray the feeling.
‘Save Me Save Me’ is a simple pop song, even disguised under all the complex strings and cleverly executed percussion. The shrieking chorus is played to remain stuck in your head for quite some time, forced or not. Along with ‘Vulture Piano’ and ‘Boy Soprano’, it is the one of the only tracks on the album with a predictable structure. The predictability comes at a right time for these songs though, as even Stewart recognizes when a break from the morbid is necessary. The musical verse in the intro of ‘Bishop, CA’ lasts throughout the entire song, even unknowingly as dozens of instruments and synth pile themselves on until a counted “walla-walla-hey” signals a furious onset of percussion and buzz effects, followed by some sort of odd extraterrestrial sobbing. It is these sound effects that are somehow planted masterfully into each and every song that is another impressive aspect concering Xiu Xiu’s credentials. ‘Hello From Eau Claire’ is the only innocent sounding song on the album, mainly because it is sung by the charismatic vocals of Caralee McElroy, though the lyrical content vaguely portrays a woman who is in an abusively controlling relationship. As Xiu Xiu continues to expose societal flaws in the most unpredictable ways, it seems that both poetic license and skilled musicianship are only two components of many ideas at play. Xiu Xiu has accomplished their greatest album yet, with a trend that just keeps getting better.