Music in 2006 – Favorite Albums

December 24, 2006

2006 was a good year for music – every month, it seemed, there was a new album to listen to endlessly. Some bands followed up promising albums with even better ones, like the Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls in America, or Phoenix’s It’s Never Been Like That. Others followed up with less than great albums – as much as I was looking forward to the Magic Numbers’ new album, it just couldn’t get into it.

Most of all, each album soundtracked a little bit of my year; inside are three of my favorite albums from 2006 – if you missed any of these, check them out and let me know what you think.

cover-astallaslionsAs Tall As Lions – self titled – link

If there was one album my roommates heard all too much of this year, it was As Tall As Lions’ second album. Emotional without being overtly emo, and accessible without being too obvious, ATAL hooked me from the first track and never left my playlist.

2005 had been all about the bass and the baritone singers for me; Nick Cave and The National were constant features, and previous favorites – like Death Cab – fell away. But this year was all about Dan Nigro’s Buckleyesque range and the interlocking guitars of “Ghost of York” or “A Break A Pause”. When lead and backing vocals cross and recross on “Song for Luna”, it’s all you can do to not smile, right before the instruments drop away and ATAL leaves us with a chorus of Singing to the moonlight – who could ask for more? And there were few songs as beautiful as “Love, Love, Love” this year.

Joanna Newsom – Ys – link

My first exposure to Joanna Newsom, I have to admit, wasn’t through her first album, but instead through the Decemberists’ cover of “Bridges & Balloons”. Later, when I heard the original, I couldn’t quite get over her voice; in a world of Pro-Tools’ed singers, Newsom was just too different at first. But when I heard her new album had Van Dyke Parks (Beach Boys collaborator and composer in his own right) doing the orchestration, and consisted of only 5 songs (that add up to 55 minutes!), I couldn’t wait.

There’s little to add beyond the heaps of praise that she’s gotten for this album – it’s beautiful, heartbreaking, clever, and intricate, and has lyrics that could only work with this music – and music that could only work with these lyrics. Every time she throws a tiny squeak into the beginning of a phrase, one can’t help but give a slight shiver of surprise (and also can’t help listening for it the next time around). And every time the 16-minute epic “Only Skin” wraps up, the feeling isn’t relief, but desire for just a little bit more of the song.

The worst part of an album like this is how some of its listeners will use it as a litmus test for music taste – “Oh, you don’t like Ys? You must not get it“. Of course, that’s ridiculous. There’s a good chance you’ll fall in love with it and listen over and over again, “Emily” to “Cosmia”, and wonder why music like this doesn’t get made more often. There’s also the chance that it won’t resonate with you – and so what? There was plenty of other great music this year.

The Long Winters – Putting the Days to Bed – link

The Long Winters’ 2005 Ultimatum EP, a short but sweet run of songs that sounded as autumnal as their cover, seemed to point a new direction for the band – open tunings, strings, less rock. Putting the Days to Bed makes it seem like that EP wasn’t as much a new step, as a clearing of the decks, as if the band were saying, “now that we’ve got that out of our system, what’s next?” Instead, they pick up where When I Pretend to Fall left off, tighten their sound, and record the best album of their career.

There’s nothing radically different about this album – “Pushover” is a heavier run through “It’ll Be A Breeze”, right down to the ringing G Am C progression, and the title track of the Ultimatum EP is included in an amps-to-11 rendition. But nowhere in the Long Winters’ career so far did the elements that could make them great – lyrics that manage to avoid the traditional love-song cliches, John Roderick’s ever-characteristic voice, and melodies that stick for days – actually come together to fulfill that promise. The one-and-a-half hour light rail rides that took up a part of my summer almost always included one run through this album (which also has some great photography in its liner notes), and I only regret that I wasn’t able to see them live in San Francisco when they played late September.

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6 Responses to “Music in 2006 – Favorite Albums”

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