The written version, hopefully clearer and more precise than the fevered ramblings on the podcasts. Again, these are not the objective "best" albums of the year, because there are plenty of releases I know are better than my picks. These are just the albums I listened too, obsessed over and thoroughly enjoyed.
Six: Midnight Oil - Flat Chat
One of the reasons I decided on a top six was I wanted to include this album but felt guilty as it isn't a new release. In fact, not only is it a compilation of previously released material, but it is one that didn't come out in the States. Flat Chat isn't a greatest hits (see 20,000 Watt R.S.L. for the tracks you know) - instead it is a collection of the Oils being the buttkickers they mostly were, those hits being cleaner and softer than much of their material. Growing up a friend had a "thing" for Midnight Oil, overpaying for short (though very good) EPs like Bird Noises and Species Deceases - thus exposing me to such great songs as "Progress" and "No Time For Games", both included here. Midnight Oil was always more than their hits, and this album does a great job of exposing that to the uneducated throngs. Since this isn't available domestically, I put together an iMix duplicating the tracklist. At $18, it is probably cheaper than tracking down the import. You should own all the Oils albums, but assuming you don't Flat Chat is not only a great collection but one that will get you hooked and wanting more.
Five: M. Ward - Post-War
First things first - it doesn't grab me like The Transfiguration of Vincent. However, it seems a step forward; Ward's embrace of a solid backing band, guest vocalists and a fuller production sound are a welcome move after the flat blandness of Vincent's unjustly lauded follow-up Transistor Radio. Post-War is front loaded to it's detriment - the first six tracks are, both singly and collectively, better than the last six by a large margin. This sequencing leaves the listener a bit let down, an unfortunate situation that was easily avoided. Given this, it isn't surprising that this is a record made for shuffle. Out of sequence, the sweetness of "Rollercoaster" and the sing-along fun of "Magic Trick" are a chance to breath and smile after the weighted poignancy of "To Go Home" or "Right In The Head". Not a perfect album, but one I return to with much regularity.
Four: Gyptian - Untitled (Reggae by Spliff) mixtape
[Disclaimer: I feel silly - in the podcast, I mentioned I didn't know anything about him, or when anything official was coming out, etc. I just searched on "the Google" and see he released an official album My Name Is Gyptian in September! Not the first nor last time I'll act like a buttmunch, so please be forgiving.]
This young Jamaican singer had an international hit late in 2005 with "Serious Times", an alternate version of which is found on this mixtape. The blend of roots reggae, soft R&B reminiscent of the "Quiet Storm" styles of the eighties, vocoder cheesiness, acoustic guitar earnestness and a flat-out wonderful voice has made this one of my most listened albums of 2006. The fact it doesn't easily fit a single category keeps it interesting - Gyptian is certainly an artist willing to defy market expectations by performing the songs he likes, as opposed to the rigid delineation so prevalent in radio friendly music.
Three: Witch - Witch
A thudding monstrosity of Sabbath-y guitar slinging and tom-tom bludgeoning goodness, the debut album from Witch was my soundtrack to summer driving. A blind buy based on a recommendation from my favorite record store manager, this ode to the joys of old-school riffidge and the cheesy appeal of "black magic" lyrics is as much fun as music can be. Is it artful, or even skillful? Not really. Bands like Mastodon blow them clean out of the water with technique and pretentious reach, but Orthodon (a friend's name for the Blood Mountain-eers, as he says listening to them is as appealing as a trip to the dentist) just don't seem like they're having as much fun as Witch. Sloppy as they may be, it in no way detracts from the pleasure of listening nor the obvious joy the band has in playing. Though it may only be a sideline for these musicians, it is one I hope continues. I always wanted the Bevis Frond to be this fun.
Two: Benoit Pioulard - Précis
I'm unsure sometimes on whether a description does more harm than good, and this is one of those times. Pioulard (the nom de tune of one Thomas Meluch) has created a soundscape around what would, in many other hands, be simple poppy folk songs. But here the wash of distortion, the layers of oscillating sounds, the sublimation of the vocals (and accompanying lyrical clarity) are reminiscent of the shoegazing era of the early nineties. But this isn't a dated sound; in the same way the Moonbabies did a few years ago with The Orange Billboard, Pioulard's Précis evokes more than apes the sounds and precedents of My Bloody Valentine and the Cocteau Twins. The ghost of alt-troubadour Elliot Smith is a commonly quoted touchstone in the reviews of Précis, but I think it is a cheaply dismissive one. Every douche with an acoustic guitar gets compared to Smith, and though Pioulard has one track that is arguably Smithian ("Sous la Plage"), it is more due to the fact that Smith in no way ever transcended his influences, so anyone with similar tastes can get painted with that casual smear. I hear more of the ghost of Jeff Buckley, though one who doesn't get trapped by the power of his own voice. Whether Pioulard can sing rings around Saturn is unknown; that Jeff Buckley felt obligated to because he could is well documented. But I do hear an occasional tremolous quality that hint at a Buckley influence. I find myself hypnotized by this album, never wanting it to end and listening all the way through at every listen. In this fragmentary age I can think of no higher compliment.
One: Man Man - Six Demon Bag
The soundtrack to the most fabulously twisted and emotionally charged Punch and Judy show never seen, Six Demon Bag has held off all comers since it's release in February. The gravelly-toned leader Honus Honus and his falsetto voiced multi-instrumentalist companions churn up a sound that is often likened to Captain Beefheart or Tom Waits, but Man Man's sound is one all their own; a blend of gutbucket blues and Weimar cabaret, with a touch of Screamin' Jay Hawkins theatricality and a dash of WTF from Witchiepoo and her H.R. Pufnstuf cohorts. From the manic screams of "Young Einstein on the Beach" (my favorite song title of 2006) to the sadly loving sounds of "Van Helsing Boombox" (with my favorite lyric of the year, beating out Lambchop with "I want to sleep for weeks like a dog at her feet/even though I know it won't work out in the long run"), Man Man's skewed pop - and it really is a pop album - is both inventive and engaging, a combination I found in short supply this year. Man Man reminds me, strangely enough, of the Pogues; incredibly tight (on record; though Man Man is drum tight live as well), gifted musicians, unafraid of a broad range of sounds, far ranging in taste and influence yet forging a sound uniquely their own from that stew. I'm probably - in fact most definitely - making more of them than what is there, but I'll be damned if I've enjoyed an album this much in a very long time.