Friday, December 29, 2006

Dark Stuff's Top 20 Albums of 2006 (Part Two)

Here is the second half of my Top 20 Albums of 2006 (part one). Check back soon for the second "best of" podcast.

10) BETTIE SERVEERT - bare stripped naked (Minty Fresh)
I cannot think of a single artist in the history of popular music that has re-recorded their own songs and made them better. It would seem that the first way is always the best way; and why would someone want to re-record their own songs unless they have dried up creatively? Well, an exception to the rule has emerged. Holland's Bettie Serveert has assembled a new collection called bare stripped naked that merges new, "stripped down" versions of some of their older songs with a few new ones thrown in for good measure. The song choices are not the ones you might expect. They didn't re-record their best known songs; instead, they brought new life to some lesser known album cuts. Carol Van Dyk's voice has never sounded better, and these new arrangements of the older songs are a real treat. The first time I ever heard this band back in 1993, I described them as "Chrissie Hynde (Pretenders) singing with Crazy Horse (Neil Young's band)." Well, that sort of describes it, but I think Carol has a better voice than Ms. Hynde. The CD comes with a DVD which features an entire concert from Holland, and the standard backstage shenanigans that are always included in any music DVD. Stand Out Tracks: "Hell = Other People" "Roadmovies" and "What They Call Love"

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9) THE BLACK KEYS - Magic Potion (Nonesuch)
When music historians look back on the early part of the 21st century, there will be no other blues band to discuss other than The Black Keys. This Ohio duo (just drums and guitar) has been making some of the most intense, raw, no-nonsense blues of the last decade or so, and with their new album, Magic Potion, they have perfected their craft. This band has more great riffs per song than any Zeppelin or AC/DC record, despite not being a hard rock band. While most of the The Black Keys audience are indie rock fans, and not traditional blues fans, those into old school blues should take a look at this band.

The Black Keys
clearly understand both the rich history and traditions of the blues, but are not tied down by many of the genre's lyrical cliches. The band presents its stripped-down, thudding blues with an eye on the contemporary. On this record, guitarist Dan Auerbach's voice sounds as deep and hurting as any 80 year-old Delta bluesman. Hard to believe that it comes in the form of a barely 30 year-old guy from Ohio. It really is a magic potion. Stand Out Tracks: "You're The One" "The Flame" and "Your Touch."

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8) TV ON THE RADIO - Return To Cookie Mountain (Interscope)
I have absolutely no idea how to describe the music of Brooklyn's TV On the Radio. I really don't. So much of their sound is based on the mood or atmosphere that they create, that it is impossible to talk about this band's music in traditional terms. Pitchforkmedia opened its 9.1 out of 10 rated review of the record this way, "Often when we say a record has 'atmosphere,' we mean it as a put-down. From Sgt. Pepper's to the present, a record's sonic appeal-- the effects, the mood, the spaces between the notes-- is inextricable from how it hits us. But when an artist pushes atmosphere in place of songs, it's frequently thought of as a crutch. Most listeners don't trust a mood to grab their hearts the way they trust, say, a human voice; nobody counts on production to deliver the 'money note.'"

Return To Cookie Mountain is an almost wholly original take on pop music. Deep down, beneath all those layers of samples and noise, there are pop songs there. You just have to let the band take you there in a different way. This is the type of album that will likely be discussed 10 years from now as being the beginning of a whole new sound or movement. Check back with me in a decade so I can say "I told you so." David Bowie also makes a guest appearance on the album. Stand Out Tracks: "I Was A Lover" "Wolf Like Me" and "Let The Devil In"

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7) NEKO CASE - Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (Anti)
Someone I know really well said a few months back that, if he could, he would merge Neko Case's voice with Jenny Lewis' (see #5) lyrics to make the perfect artist. I know exactly what he means. Not that there is anything wrong with Neko's songs or Jenny's voice (they are both quite excellent), but could you imagine how unbelievable it would be to merge the two together?! Setting that aside, the newest CD from Neko Case shows her continuing to progress by leaps and bounds. Her voice is already a thing of perfect beauty, so there is no need to mess with that. Her songs on Fox Confessor are deceptively simple sounding. It is very easy to say they sound like "classic" country music. Patsy Cline is often referenced when talking about Neko Case.

While that is a good reference point, it does not really touch her very literary lyrical style. This new album is almost like a collection of short stories. Each song has its own set of characters, and takes place in a different location. While that might leave the listener with a sense of detachment from the artist (since she is not clearly referencing her own experiences), Neko's voice is so great and her singing so intimate, that she makes the connection in a different way. I certainly cannot say that I always understand where she is coming from lyrically, but I can always "feel" what she means. Stand Out Tracks: "Maybe Sparrow" Hold On, Hold On" and "Margaret vs. Pauline"

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6) WE ARE SCIENTISTS - With Love and Squalor (Virgin)
Is it a bad thing to call a band "new wave" in 2006? If it is, then I apologize to We Are Scientists, but I am at a loss as to how to describe this NYC band. Their songs are short, catchy, and full of sarcastic lyrics (think early XTC crossed with Buzzcocks). This band has attitude to spare. I have to give the band points for the album cover (I like the three cat design) and for their "unique" fashion sense. I'm sure these guys were part of the pocket protector crowd when they were younger. Regardless, this album breezes by very quickly (no time to get bored with the band), and you will find yourself singing along by the second listen. I don't know how long this band will last, or if this will be their one and only stab at the mainstream. Either way, We Are Scientists have crafted the best pop-punk record of 2006, without question. Stand Out Tracks: "This Scene Is Dead" "Nobody Move Nobody Get Hurt" and "It's a Hit."

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5) JENNY LEWIS WITH THE WATSON TWINS - Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love)
I have never considered myself much of a Rilo Kiley fan. Sure they have had a couple of good songs -- even a great one with "Portions For Foxes." But I never really connected with the band, nor its singer, Jenny Lewis, until now. Jenny has set aside the electric guitar and the indie pop that has been so successful for Rilo Kiley, and crafted a set of songs that crosses early 1960s country with gospel music. Though they sound, superficially, like they could pass for something on a Nashville radio station circa 1962, the lyrics to the songs on Rabbit Fur Coat would never have made it to the Grand Ole Opry. Lewis' songs are often confessional, first person narratives about her struggle to make it today's world despite all of the ugliness that can often be found by simply opening your eyes.

compliments the overall feel of the record with the addition of The Watson Twins -- gospel singing, identical twin sisters. The Twins add such an authentic gospel feel to the songs that it's almost comical when you realize they could be singing a song called "Born Secular." Though I would probably give a slight edge to Neko Case in a contest over who has the better voice, I defintely feel I can relate much more to the songs of Jenny Lewis. I really like her direct style, and sometimes I even get a little verklempt when listening to her sing them. Jenny also does a great cover of Traveling Wilburys' "Handle With Care" and has Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) sing Dylan's part on the song. Stand Out Tracks: "Rise Up With Fists!!" "The Charging Sky" and "You Are What You Love"

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4) THE FAGS - Light 'Em Up (Idol)
This is a record that should have made the Best of 2005 list. However, due to the general shittyness of the current crop of executives at Sire Records, Light 'Em Up, the first full-length CD from Detroit rockers The Fags, was shelved. More than a year-and-a-half after its initial scheduled release, the CD is finally available via Idol Records. Better late than never is all I can say. This album picks up where their 2002 EP left off (in fact, most of that record has been re-recorded for the new album). The Fags have perfectly melded 70s hard rock with 80s Midwest college rock, and they have described their sound as "power pop with balls." Think of a cross between Cheap Trick and The Replacements. If that sounds good, then you will love this CD. This kind of music should be all over the radio. Sadly, that is not the case. Stand Out Tracks: "Rockstar" "Back of the Line" "Light 'Em Up."

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3) THE LEMONHEADS - The Lemonheads (Vagrant)
Evan Dando's Lemonheads were only gone for ten years, but they are approaching their "comeback" in the right way (take note Pixies). Rather than simply doing an oldies tour that focuses on the band's past, Dando chose to give the ol' Lemonheads name a "present" first. The Lemonheads have been solely Dando's baby since 1990, and he had a revolving cast of players with him until the breakup (or retirement of the Lemonheads moniker) in 1996. For this version of the band, Dando brought in Karl Alvarez (Descendents, ALL) and Bill Stevenson (Descendents, ALL, Black Flag) for bass and drums, respectively. The trio rocks with serious conviction on every track on the new album. Bill Stevenson even wrote two songs on the album, and one of them is my favorite track ("Become The Enemy").

I think it was pretty bold for The Lemonheads to return with an album rather than go the nostalgia route, and that boldness has definitely paid off. The Lemonheads is a better album than some from the band's mid-90s heyday -- it is certainly more consistent than say, Car Button Cloth. Unfortunately, this record, and the entire return of The Lemonheads seems to have been largely overlooked by the music media. That is a real shame; because creatively, The Lemonheads have set the bar pretty high for any other bands of that era considering a reunion. I'd like to see who can do better. Stand Out Tracks: "Become the Enemy" "Let's Just Laugh" and "No Backbone"

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2) SONIC YOUTH - Rather Ripped (Geffen)
Sonic Youth is easily the most consistent band in the history of rock. For a band that is often described as "experimental," that would seem like a contradiction in terms. Though Sonic Youth has experimented with noise and feedback throughout their career, after 25 years of making music together, they have honed their sound to such a degree that it is now instantly recognizable as theirs. Like Ramones or Motorhead, Sonic Youth's songs can "all sound the same" to the untrained ear. But for those that listen a little harder, the amount of subtle difference is mind-blowing.

Over the course of the last two or three albums, Sonic Youth have slowly been perfecting the pop elements of their sound. That perfection has now been achieved with Rather Ripped. For Thurston Moore, this album is especially strong. Thurston has always sung on the most "traditionally melodic" Sonic Youth songs, and on Rather Ripped's "Incinerate" and "Do You Believe In Rapture?" he has crafted the most radio ready songs of the band's career. That should not be seen as a dis. It isn't. You and I know that Sonic Youth will never be played on the radio. But radio no longer has any legitimate excuse for refusing to give this band airplay. This is a great album for longtime Sonic Youth fans, and it is also a great place to start for those unfamiliar with this legendary band. Stand Out Tracks: "Rats" "Do You Believe in Rapture?" and "Incinerate."

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1) SILVERSUN PICKUPS - Carnavas (Dangerbird)
So, here we are at #1. Finally. The band at the #1 spot was completely unknown to me at the beginning of 2006, yet they were able to leap past longtime favorites like Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, and Bettie Serveert with their stunning new album. Silversun Pickups have been plugging away in the Silverlake section of Hollywood for years, slowly refining their sound through constant trial and error. With Carnavas, they have been able to create a stunning collection of songs that perfectly blend the best elements of classic 90s bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead and My Bloody Valentine. Silversun Pickups are not merely mimicking those bands, they are picking up where those bands left off and running with it. These guys (and gal) create huge and epic rock music: the songs are long, the production is dense, and the playing is spectacular. Their only modern peers in this style are Autolux.

I am embarrassed to admit this, but when I first heard Silversun Pickups, I thought they had a female singer. Brian Aubert's voice is a little high, and somewhat processed, but I felt pretty stupid once I saw the band's video. I have a feeling that Silversun Pickups are going to explode in 2007-2008. There doesn't seem to be anything stopping them. The buzz is enormous at this point, and it is growing rapidly. Buy this album now so you can tell people how much cooler you are for having picked it up first. Stand Out Tracks: "Well Thought Out Twinkles" "Lazy Eye" and "Little Lover's So Polite"

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J. Marquis said...

Great reviews, Howard. I will definitely have to check out some of these...especially Silversun Pickups and the new Sonic Youth.

TransformerGeek said...

Nice, nice list. I was surprised to see Silversun Pickups at no. 1 - not that they're bad - just that I didn't expect it to land at no. 1. I think Neko Case's lyrics are actually a bit better than Jenny Lewis - not to discount Jenny Lewis at all.

Dave Splash said...

I was blown away by Silversun Pickups. I really like that kind of feedback drenched guitar playing. When it is done right, I always like it.

We can agree to disagree about Lewis vs. Case. They are both excellent.

Snave said...

Thanks for the rest of your Top 20! I only have one of those titles (TV On The Radio), so I will have to investigate some of the other CDs you wrote about. Thanks again, and have a great New Year's Eve!