Everyone else does it, so I'm doing it too. I haven't listened to every album out there, so I won't pretend that these are the best albums. Besides, there's plenty of candidates out there that are "better" than lots of the ones I picked (Neko Case's Fox Confessor Brings The Flood comes to mind) but which just aren't my style. And then there's all that subjective horseshit that comes into play when you talk about "best." So I've instead assembled my ten favorite albums of the year. Those come later.
First, I make no bones about saying what the worst albums of the year are.
Worst Album Of The Year
Grizzly Bear - Yellow House
No contest. After several tries, I remain entirely confused by Yellow House's critical success. It's a boring, meandering, unremarkable turd. Even their idea (beautiful lo-fi pop) is a piece of shit, never mind the fact that they failed to execute it. Since when did Beach Boys harmonies become the indie scene's top priority? This band sucks.
Put it this way. Car trouble caused them to miss a gig here in DC. opening for TVOTR, back in October. Their absence on that night ranks as one of the luckiest things that happened to me all year.
Album Diss Jeff Is Most Likely To Regret
Joanna Newsom - Ys
What a uniformly frustrating album. I don't have as much rancor for this as I do for Grizzly Bear, but the people going nuts about it are way, way off-base. Again, when did the lo-fi crowd become experts on "beautiful" music? Of course it's beautiful next to the four-track crap you listen to all day. Take away that phony-baloney faux-Bjork affectation, and she's chamber music. And if I read one more review praising Van Dyke Parks and his pointless, distracting, non sequitur string arrangements, I'm going to buy a cello just so I can smack him in the chops with it.
At the same time, it's not an ineffective album. I get why her music affects people. And I appreciate the talent on display. She's got this magical, "Peter And The Wolf" thing going on... you can imagine yourself floating around in Narnia with talking rabbits and squirrels and shit. It's more a matter of whether I feel I'm missing out on something. Which I don't. She may slap together something praiseworthy later on. This isn't it.
Jurassic 5 - Feedback
I got your feedback right here: Cut Chemist was your sound. His skills allowed us to forgive your corny rhymes. If you can't get him back, spare us the derivative Black Eyed Peas crap. Depressing.
Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, Because Even Though I Pretend Not To Care What You Think, Really I Do, Because I'm A Complete Fucking Douchebag Who's Manipulating The Grass-Roots Publicity System To His Advantage Instead Of Making Music Good Enough To Speak For Itself
These guys are fuckin' fakes. Except their drummer. That guy's a fucking demon. I'll grant them that.
...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead - So Divided
...And you will know them by the trail of stupid horn and string arrangements. I have no idea what the point of this album is. It's neither as ingenious as Source Tags & Codes nor as mainstream-fabulous as the unfairly savaged Worlds Apart. And it rocks a lot less than either of them. There's good stuff here and there, but why bother? If I want piano rock, I'll listen to Ben Folds' scattershot Supersunnyspeedgraphic for a few minutes, not your heavy ode to whatever indignant shit just upset you. It's a shame that Pitchfork chose to hatchet Worlds Apart when they could have torn So Divided a new one instead.
Top Five Disappointing Follow-Ups That Are Merely OK
None of these are bad albums, but they are notable turns for the worse.
1. The Streets - The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living
It's not that bad, but he makes the dip to irrelevance with this. His whole thing is that he's gritty and evocative! This is just a bunch of whining.
2. Snow Patrol - Eyes Open
I've made my feelings abundantly clear on this.
3. OutKast - Idlewild
They get a mulligan for this, since it's not supposed to be a proper album, and they were clearly focusing on the movie more than the songs. But lackluster nonetheless, with the blazing exception of "Morris Brown." God-damn.
4. Guster - Ganging Up On The Sun
Keep It Together is one of my desert-island albums. This has none of the bounce, and little of the charm. Not worthwhile.
5. Red Hot Chili Peppers - Stadium Arcadium
So instead of just giving us one carbon copy of By The Way, they gave us two carbon copies at once? They could have saved the second disc for 2010 and called it San Francisco Disco or something.
Midlake - The Trials of Van Occupanther
Great stuff. They're not a "special" band, nor are any of them individually that brilliant. But they make a nice sound, and Van Occupanther is a mellow, pleasant, and highly likable album. That said, the excellent lead track "Roscoe" elevates the rest of the album to relevance. Without "Roscoe," I doubt the rest of the album would be noteworthy. Still, I really like it.
Thom Yorke - The Eraser
"Black Swan" is one of my favorite tunes of the year. If it were more radio-friendly (its chorus doesn't just contain an F-bomb, it balances upon it) it could have made a significant impact on above-ground pop. But that's more a problem with the radio scene than the song. The rest of this loop-fest of a solo project I can do without. All the songs are pretty much the same format, with eight misses surrounding the lone hit. At the very least, Yorke gets props for not subjecting us to any of this for the upcoming Radiohead album. But for my money, "Black Swan" is indispensable on its own.
Robert Randolph and the Family Band - Colorblind
I'm no fan of the blues or gospel, but RRFB is one of those cases where a musician's genius transcends his genre (or genres). The songs are little more than constructs for showcasing his singular musical ability with the Sacred Steel, but this is a group whose collective talent renders the songwriting process unnecessary. Give them a riff, and they will burn it into the ground. On Colorblind's up-tempo numbers, specifically "Ain't Nothin' Wrong With That" and "Deliver Me," the band comes as close as possible to reproducing their legendary live energy (and irrepressible joy) in the studio. Unfortunately, the studio albums also subject us to a series of disposable, cookie-cutter ballads that have more in common with The Jets (or, less flatteringly, Franklin Comes Alive!) than Robert Johnson. It's their prerogative, but I think they'd do well to stop wasting their massive talent on that garbage.
Ben Folds - Supersunnyspeedgraphic
Re-worked versions of songs from the EPs he threw together from 2003-04. More a collection of songs than an album. I give partial credit because the best songs were in pretty good shape as they were, making this LP kind of unnecessary. But I still like a lot of it. And I like it better than Songs for Silverman.
Spank Rock - YoYoYoYoYo
Speaking of penetration (hey-ooo)... the ass-and-boobs obsession on display here is equally awe-inspiring. He makes 2 Live Crew look like a bunch of whiny Morrissey-style asexuals. And the beats are as filthy figuratively as the lyrics are filthy literally; you're immediately transported into a car full of people driving home from the club at 4 AM. Unfortunately, I can't discuss this album without using a lot of "buts." Spank is a compelling MC, and pretty talented... but he trips over that fine line between "ribald" and "perverted" a bit too often for my taste. I enjoy listening to it... but I feel like I need a shower and a shot of Pepto afterwards. It's a fun album... but how can I love an album that I'm ashamed to listen to in public? You get the idea. I think he should call his next album "NSFW," just so everyone's clear.
LCD Soundsystem - 45:33
This Nike-commissioned 46-minute concept track is further evidence that James Murphy is better suited to long-form tracks, like 45:33 and "Beat Connection," than the shorter efforts such as those found on the self-titled LP from last year. He can fill an extended track to the brim with ideas and variations, such that it avoids monotony and entertains from start to finish; in that sense, short tracks don't really allow him to do what he does best. The upcoming Sound of Silver, a collection of longer tracks that will certainly appear on any list I make next year, supports this theory. But in the meantime, 45:33 is pretty sweet.
Elbow - Leaders Of The Free World
I really liked this album. They've caught some flak for emulating Coldplay, but I think Elbow's rollicking take on the sound is much more fun. The title track, lead track "Station Approach," and best track "Forget Myself" are brilliant.
10 Favorite Albums Of 2006
10. Destroyer - Destroyer's Rubies
Rubies is catchy and appealing in an ADD kind of way. But the ADD thing prevents it from affecting me much... it's enough of an achievement just to keep up with Dan Bejar, let alone connect with him. Still, there's plenty to like, even if it's not all that penetrating. And I do have to stand in awe of Bejar's maniacal poetry.
9. The Rapture - Pieces of the People We Love
They're the disco version of !!!... less funk and techno, more high-hats and cowbell. "Whoo, Alright..." is an amazing song. If there's a weakness to this album, it's that their sound feels very small and unassuming, despite the boisterousness of the songs themselves. Another case of "if they ever manage to capture their live presence in the studio..." syndrome. But Pieces is still a fun listen.
8. The Flaming Lips - At War With The Mystics
Most underrated album of the year. It's not as mind-blowing as Yoshimi or The Soft Bulletin, maybe, but for all that those records are brilliant, they are equally inconsistent. The Lips don't have to redefine themselves and their music every time out. Mystics is no slouch.
7. Gnarls Barkley - St. Elsewhere
The most relevant album of the year, and certainly the pop album that will identify 2006. But it didn't have much staying power with me. When I get my fill of candy, I usually don't want much more. But anything that makes Cee-Lo Green a superstar is worthy of inclusion.
6. The Roots - Game Theory
Still at the top of their game, and still pumping out criminally underrated music. Game Theory is the kind of focused effort that makes you wonder why it took them so long to figure out that 15-minute spoken-word soliloquies don't play so well with general audiences. I listen to Game Theory and wonder what could have been, had Things Fall Apart or Phrenology been this tight.
5. Calexico - Garden Ruin
Another great, straight-ahead rock album. This one, however, comes from a band that had previously been more interested in evoking Mexican mariachi music than rocking out. That stuff is okay and all, but I'm glad they toned down the expansive multicultural thing this time around. Garden Ruin is deep, mature, and rich... still clearly grounded in the Southwest, but without the ersatz bandito stuff. It's an extension of what they accomplished with Iron & Wine last year on the excellent In The Reins EP.
4. The Hold Steady - Boys And Girls In America
Between this album and Sam's Town, accusing bands of ripping off Springsteen has become the new vogue in music criticism. It used to be "this guy thinks he's the new Dylan, but he's so not." Now it's The Boss. Please. Since when is it a crime to follow in a tradition? Bar rock is simple and derivative in its nature, but that simplicity is what makes it so much fun. Besides, they get extra brownie points for being the first NYC band to buck the Joy Division/Interpol/Franz Ferdinand trend in indie pop. And you know what? Good for them.
3. TV On The Radio - Return To Cookie Mountain
TVOTR are as relevant and important as it gets. The only valid comparison Cookie Mountain inspires in my mind is to Radiohead. That's how big they are. Tunde Adebimpe is a major vocal talent, and their sound is one of a kind. Ultimately, though, I think they have better songs in them. I eagerly await those songs, because they'll fucking blow everyone away.
2. Belle & Sebastian - The Life Pursuit
I only recently stopped listening to it on a regular basis; it came out in February. It's absolutely brilliant stuff. If something this good had come from an unknown band, one that hadn't released If You're Feeling Sinister and didn't have the "they're so different now" stigma attached to them, The Life Pursuit would have been a runaway success. Instead, it carries the extra baggage of having to accept B&S for what it is... which I could give a shit about. I, for one, welcome our new chamber-twee overlords.
1. The Decemberists - The Crane Wife
I cannot, and have not, shut up about how much I love this album. The songs are simple, but simple in a "making it look easy" kind of way. I'm not hedging with this one... this is both my favorite and the best.