One of the great things about blogging is that I can do things that I always wanted to do but would never get hired in a million years to do, for example, to be a rock critic. Prior to blogging, the only time I ever got to indulge my critic wannabe side was in high school, where I wrote a couple of (in retrospect) badly done reviews of a couple of prominent albums from the 1979-1980 period. I don’t know if I’m any better at it now, but I am a lot older and have developed much more varied tastes in music. Consequently, even from the very beginning of this blog, every year I’ve done a “Top Ten” list of what I consider to be the best CDs from the year before. (I notice that fellow ScienceBlogger Chad Orzel has also done the same thing.)
A word about my list: There’s no way I can sample every (or even most) CDs out there. I may buy a lot of CDs (well over 50 a year on average), but that’s just a drop in the bucket, and many of the ones that I buy aren’t even new music; rather, they’re old music, either replacing old LPs with CDs or just filling in holes in my music collection. Even so, I don’t think I do too badly for a forty-something year old guy. One thing I did notice about this year, something that warms the heart of a guy like me, is how many acts whose heydey was in the 1960’s and 1970’s have put out solid efforts this year. So, without further ado, my picks for the top ten CDs of 2006, presented in no particular order:
- My Chemical Romance, The Black Parade. Yes, I’ve mentioned this one before. Yes, it’s like a fusion of Queen-like bombast with punk/emo, all tied together as a concept album about a character known as “The Patient” facing death from cancer. (There’s even a song about chemotherapy!) Yes, Liza Minelli does guest vocals on one song. Yes, it’s not even clear whether The Patient lives or dies at the end of the album. Yes, My Chemical Romance members have all donned dark marching band uniforms to become what appears to be Hell’s marching band. Yes, I know how that all sounds. But somehow, in spite of all the excess, bombast, and silliness, it all works, and The Black Parade is arguably the best pure rock spectacle album released during all of 2006.
- Secret Machines, Ten Silver Drops. A solid follow-up to Secret Machines’ revelatory 2004 debut, the boys don’t entirely avoid the sophomore slump, but it’s a very shallow slump, and no shame given how good their first album was. This time around, the music is more varied, and Machines doesn’t wear its Zeppelin influences on its collective sleeve as much as before. And, heck, David Bowie loves these guys. It doesn’t get much better than that.
- Bob Dylan, Modern Times. I know it’s a cliché, but Bob Dylan’s been in the midst of a late career renaissance, and this CD builds on the chops of 1997’s Time Out of Mind and 2001’s Love and Theft. From the toe-tapping whimsy of the album opener Thunder on the Mountain to the ominous drone of the closing track Ain’t Talkin’, Dylan continues to amaze.
- TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain. If you were to pop this CD into your player, you might be put off by the stutter, falsetto, and hip-hop stylings of the first song, I Was a Lover, but, oddly enough, the song rewards repeated listenings, and it rather grows on you–much like the rest of this album. There are times when, because of all the experimentation, this album risks becoming more admirable than actually enjoyable, but in the end TV on the Radio avoids this fate, spicing up their works with sounds reminiscent of Peter Gabriel, Pere Ubu, and even U2. If you’re feeling adventurous, this one’s worth a try. Oh, and David Bowie does a turn at background vocals on Province.
- The Decemberists, The Crane Wife. After discovering this band with their breakout album, Picaresque, I was looking forward to see what they could come up with for their major label debut. The Crane Wife picks up basically where Picaresque left off. Although there’s nothing quite as lovingly bombastic and hummable as 16 Military Wives or quite as epic as The Mariner’s Revenge Song (although Island: Come and See/The Landlord’s Daughter/You’ll Not Feel the Drowning and The Crane Wife, Parts 1 & 2 come close, even exceeding in length anything on Picaresque), the songs here tend to have a sharper edge, with less shoe-gazing and more guitar.
- Sufjan Stevens, The Avalanche. It ought to tell you something about just how amazingly, unbelievably talented Sufjan Stevens is that he can release an album consisting of over an hour’s worth of outtakes and leftovers from last year’s magnum opus Illinois, and the collective effort is still head and shoulders above 99% of the music that was released this year. And, no, it’s not because the music this year was so bad (heck, Britney Spears didn’t even release any new music this year); it’s because Stevens is just that good. My only complaint is that none of the versions of Chicago included on this CD are as good as the one from Illinois.
- Tool, 10,000 Days. After a five year hiatus, they’re back, and that’s a good thing. This time around, the dark prog-metal gods reconnect with their inner thud and deliver a collection of heavy tunes ruminating upon everything from information overload to the death of Maynard James Keenan’s mother during the band’s hiatus. (She had been paralyzed after a stroke 27 years before her death, and 27 years = approximately 10,000 days.) Sure, the tunes are long and occasionally indulgent, but the musicianship is stellar. It’s hard to find better long-form metal anywhere.
- Elton John, The Captain & The Kid. Here’s another old warhorse who’s in the midst of the veritable late career renaissance, starting with Songs from the West Coast in 2001, stumbling a bit with the only OK Peachtree Road in 2004, but bounding back with The Captain & The Kid. Billed as a sequel to Elton’s smash album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, much of it sounds as though it fell from the 1970’s through the proverbial temporal rift that sits above Cardiff in the new Doctor Who series (there’s even a song called Postcards from Richard Nixon), and you know what? That’s just fine. Elton’s voice is older and richer, and, even after all these years, no one can do piano-based pop/rock as well as he can.
- Morrissey, Ringleader of the Tormentors. OK, I have a weak spot for The Smiths and Morrissey. This album, following hot on the heels of Morrissey’s comeback album You Are The Quarry, is pretty much exactly what you would expect it to be. Who else could sing songs like I’ll Never Be Anybody’s Hero Now or Life Is A Pigsty and make you like it, nay, make you want to hear more? I know there will be people who say that this is just another standard-issue Morrissey album–as if that’s a bad thing.
- The Who, Endless Wire. I’m beginning to feel really old here. Bob Dylan, Elton John, Morrissey, and now The Who? All on my list? Is this 1976 or 1986, rather than 2006? I have to admit that I was seriously skeptical when I first listened to this album, but–surprise, surprise!–it’s actually quite good. Roger Daltry’s in fine form, and the songs here are alternately sad, reflective and, despite it all, cautiously optimistic. Sure, this album is no Who’s Next (but, then, what is?), but it’s a far more fitting closer to the career of a great band than 1982’s awful (except for Eminence Front) It’s Hard.
While we’re at it, here are a few honorable mentions:
Paul Simon, Surprise. Paul Simon meets Brian Eno? Believe it or not, it actually works (mostly).
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Show Your Bones. I almost included this one in the Top Ten. Maybe I should have.
The Mars Volta, Amputechture. More prog metal, and few bands do it this well.
The Flaming Lips, At War With The Mystics.
And here’s a “What the hell were they thinking?” moment:
The Beatles, Love. I’ll admit that I haven’t heard the entire CD, but I’ve heard a few tracks. I’m singularly unimpressed at the remixes here that critics seem to be fawning all over as some sort of work of genius. I view the whole project more like this review did: “You know those radio jingles in which they stick a bunch of current tunes into a big-beat mess? This has the same effect – a whizzbang confectionery, serving more to advertise the band’s back catalog than to be any kind of durable document.” Or this one: “But when there’s a multi-multi-million dollar production at stake, creating something truly mind-blowing is not really the goal: offering the familiar dressed up as something new is, and that’s what LOVE delivers with big-budget style and flair, and more than a touch of Vegas gaudiness. It’s an extravaganza, bright and colorful and relentless in its quest to entertain but beneath all the bluster, LOVE isn’t much more than nostalgia masquerading as something new.”
And finally, my two wishes for 2007, music-wise:
A new David Bowie album. Come on, David, you’ve had more than two years to recover from your heart attack and are even now popping up in TV shows, on other people’s albums, and in movies. It’s time to get back in the studio!
New material from Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Guys, it’s been over four years since your magnum opus Yanqui U.X.O., and quite frankly the side projects like A Silver Mt. Zion just don’t cut it with me, nor are they anwhere near as great as when your entire Montreal collective gets together. You can even move the exclamation point to somewhere else in the band name if you want; just get back in the studio.
Happy New Year, and I look forward to another year of laying down more Respectful Insolence™, interspersed again with the occasional music critic wannabe moments…