Enough of This Terror, We Deserve to Know Light
The 2006 Top 10 List

I don’t know about you, but for me, 2006 flew by.

It honestly felt more like six months, or even three, than the full 12. I remember reading somewhere that time gets faster as you get older – summer vacations used to be small eternities, but now I’m just getting used to the warmer weather when fall sets in. Soon I’ll be 75 years old, the theory goes, and I won’t have any idea how it happened.

More likely, though, is the fact that 2006 was a year of stability and routine for me. I don’t know if I’ll ever really settle down, but in Aught-Six, I certainly settled in. I have a job I love, and people I love seeing and hanging out with. It was like I turned my back for a minute, and somehow I got a life. A pretty good one, too. I’ve ended this year happier than I’ve been in a long time, and I’m oddly hopeful for the future. It’s kind of a new experience for me.

My year was almost entirely absent drama, and the music of 2006 followed suit. I’m tempted to write ’06 off as a bad year, but it wasn’t, really. It was a solid B-minus, with only a couple of outstanding albums, but dozens of pretty good ones. Such a year makes these annual lists much more difficult, since (except for my choice for #1) there wasn’t much of anything that grabbed me by the throat and took over my life. The past two years have seen obvious choices land at the top spot (Brian Wilson’s SMiLE in 2004, and Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois in 2005), but this year, there was no undeniable masterpiece.

In a way, though, the lack of no-brainer choices made it easier, because the 2006 Top 10 List is almost entirely made up of little favorites. I always try to balance out the albums I love just because they push my particular buttons with a healthy dose of clinical observation, and I include records I admire more than love pretty often. I had no need to do that this year – most of the records I heard in 2006 were about the same level of quality, so I got to pick nine just because I adore them, if that makes any sense.

The exception is the #1 choice, which, yes, I both admire and love. I knew 2006 was an off-kilter year when we’d entered November without a clear choice for the top spot. I usually know when I’ve heard it – my first run-through of Illinois last July was like a sign from the heavens, for instance. But this year, I wrestled with it, swapping two albums back and forth, in and out of the summit slot for months.

And then, you know, I heard it, finally, and the two records I’d been considering were bumped to #2 and #3. (They fought over those slots, too, but I’ll get to that.) All it took was one listen to the album that sits atop this list, and I knew I’d heard it. The next seven listens only confirmed it, and although I seem to be in decent company this year, I know some of my faithful readers are going to think I’ve lost my mind.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First up, the rules, which I’ll keep short this year, since it’s been pointed out to me that everyone who’s ever made a top 10 list uses pretty much the exact same set of regulations. Here it is: only new studio albums count. No live records, no compilations, no soundtracks, no EPs, no best-of collections. I try to hear everything I can within a given year, which is difficult and expensive, and even with all the albums I buy (more than 200 in 2006 alone), I find things on other critics’ top 10 lists every year that I’ve never heard of. But I do try.

A few tidbits about the list this year. For the first time in a while, there’s a notable absence of old favorites – only three of the 10 have appeared on prior lists. Three of the albums are debuts, and one is a solo debut, which is a good average for a new music column, especially one run by a guy who can’t stand most of the overhyped new bands he hears. There’s only one woman represented here, but given how effusive I’m going to be about her, I don’t think anyone will mind.

And I owe three of these selections to Dr. Tony Shore, without whom I may not have heard them. The band at #4 and the guy at #6 are both Shore recommendations, and the album at #5 may have slipped right by me without Tony’s review. Shore also turned me on to a few other records I liked this year, including Mew’s And the Glass-Handed Kites and Fair’s The Best Worst-Case Scenario. If you think I’m ahead of the curve, this guy’s three curves ahead of me on his slowest day.

Anyway. Because the year was only a B-minus, and so many decent albums came out that failed to truly distinguish themselves from each other, I have a ton of honorable mentions. A couple of these could easily slide into the #10 spot, while most of them would vie for #11. It was just that kind of year.

We can start off with Belle and Sebastian’s The Life Pursuit, which had an early lock on my top five. I still think this breezy pop gem is a delight, but it just didn’t stick in my memory strongly enough. The same goes for Yo La Tengo’s deliriously titled I Am Not Afraid of You, and I Will Beat Your Ass, an album whose diversity is both its finest asset and its greatest liability when it comes to this list. Honestly, this record gets an honorable mention largely because I wanted the chance to write I Am Not Afraid of You, and I Will Beat Your Ass a couple more times.

Neko Case made an early-year highlight with Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, a sweet slab of country-rock that shines. The Violet Burning also came out swinging early with Drop-Dead, sporting Michael Pritzl’s finest batch of songs in a long time. Ester Drang sparked my interest (but oddly, not a full review) in January with Rocinate, their most complex and melodic album yet – opener “Come Back Alive” jams four or five styles together seamlessly in five quick minutes, and the rest of the album is just as challenging and terrific.

Spiritual supergroup the Lost Dogs returned with their finest album in years, The Lost Cabin and the Mystery Trees. Also making a long-awaited comeback was Paul Simon, whose Surprise appeared on early drafts of this list for combining modern production techniques with Simon’s trademark folk melodies. That just sounds like it would be awful, so the fact that Surprise is pretty much superb is kind of a miracle. And Built to Spill made a comeback and a half, rediscovering their classic sound with You in Reverse.

Nellie McKay also made her return after battling with Columbia Records over the length and sequence of her sophomore album, Pretty Little Head. The record finally made it out as McKay intended it, almost a year after it was first expected, and it’s a doozy – oddball jazz-pop at its finest. Speaking of length and sequence, there’s the Early November’s epic The Mechanic, the Mother and the Path, a triple-disc rock opera that succeeds on some well-written songs on its first two chapters, and pure zany ambition on its third.

Two of the most beautiful records I heard all year were mostly instrumental affairs. Hammock added another slice of ambient beauty to their ever-growing catalog with Raising Your Voice… Trying to Stop an Echo, featuring some of the most otherworldly guitar sounds you’ll ever hear. And Brian Transeau, better known as BT, outdid himself and then some with the amazing, intricate album-slash-movie This Binary Universe, which sounds both as delicate as a single moment and as big as time itself.

And then there is Weird Al Yankovic. (Seriously. Don’t look at me like that.) With Straight Outta Lynwood, Yankovic proved once again that he’s among the sharpest critics of popular culture, and without doubt one of the funniest. Anyone who still doesn’t believe that Yankovic is a real musician, or that his band is one of the most capable on the planet, just check out “Pancreas,” a perfect tribute to Brian Wilson performed on an array of instruments that would make Sufjan Stevens jealous.

Finally, we have Grandaddy, and in the case of Just Like the Fambly Cat, I do mean finally. Fambly Cat is the last album from Jason Lytle and his band, and while I was initially overcome by the finality of it all, and rated it a bit higher than it deserved, I think this is where it belongs – at #11, just outside the list. Lytle’s last statement is sweet and sad, but in the end, just not as compelling as it should have been, and it deserves an honorable mention, but that’s all.

Are you ready for this year’s top 10? Well, too bad, because here they are:

#10. Quiet Company, Shine Honesty.

Quiet Company is largely a front for songwriter Taylor Muse, and his debut album on Northern Records signals the arrival of a major talent. Shine Honesty is one of the few albums this year that I enjoyed more each time I listened to it, unlike most of the honorable mentions, which diminished in stature with each play. Muse’s songs have a breathtaking sense of dynamics, and he never loses focus of the most important thing – his melodies. I said this in my initial review of this album, but I’m at a loss as to why indie darlings like Conor Oberst get so much praise when there are songwriters like Taylor Muse, toiling in obscurity and simply blowing the competition away. Listen and buy here.

#9. The Alarm, Under Attack.

I will readily admit to a sentimental bias here. I have no objectivity when it comes to the Alarm – I grew up with this band, and I’ll never stop loving their stuff. But even with that bias, Under Attack blew me away. It’s the second album from the “new” Alarm, including only singer-songwriter-soul Mike Peters from the original lineup, but this one makes 2003’s five-CD In the Poppy Fields sound like a warm-up. Songs erupt from the speakers with an energy Peters hasn’t shown in years, and the whole album surges forth on fury and hope. Peters was battling cancer at the time of this recording, and it seriously sounds like he thought it would be the last album he’d ever make. If you’ve ever pumped your fist to a song, or reveled in the wonders of a good “whoa-oh” chorus, this is the record for you.

#8. Roger Joseph Manning Jr., The Land of Pure Imagination.

If you know who Roger Manning is, then chances are you probably have this record already. Manning made his mark as part of Jellyfish, one of the finest pop bands to ever grace the planet, and he’s gone on to a number of other projects, like Imperial Drag and the Moog Cookbook. But this is his solo debut, and man, what a blissful pop record this is. If he had done nothing more than write and record “Too Late For Us Now,” I’d still be considering this album for the list, but he also included the wondrous title track, the delicate “Sandman,” and the groovy “I Wish It Would Rain,” along with seven other gems. Manning played and sung virtually every note here, but this is no lo-fi basement affair – this is a rich, layered, glorious slice of innocent pop music that just knocks me out. It’s almost (though not quite) like having Jellyfish back.

#7. Sloan, Never Hear the End of It.

Canada’s best band returns with a monster of a new record – 30 songs, 75 minutes, all stitched together like an extended homage to the second side of Abbey Road. Better still, this is a return to the self-produced ‘60s and ‘70s sound of One Chord to Another and Navy Blues, and if those albums weren’t so damn good, I would be tempted to say that Never Hear the End of It is the one you should pick up first. There are a dozen one-minute wonders here, but no fillers, and as the album leaps blithely from style to style, perfectly segueing from light to shade, from hilarity to sensitivity, it ends up as the perfect summation of Sloan’s career. Yep Roc is releasing this in the United States next month, and if you’re a fan of classic pop, you won’t want to miss it.

#6. David Mead, Tangerine.

Without Tony Shore, I’d probably still have no idea who David Mead is. It turns out, he’s a songwriter of remarkable skill, and after years of being shuffled about by record labels, he’s made his masterpiece in Tangerine. Though he enlisted a small army of instruments and players, the star of this show is Mead’s songwriting, rooted firmly in melody and a classic folk-pop sound. Just try to get “Fighting For Your Life” out of your head, and when you’re done with that, try the a cappella melancholy of “Reminded #1” or the low-key epic “Hunting Season.” This is a relatively quiet record, one that got lost amidst the bluster of the year, but it deserves a spotlight, because Mead’s talents are extraordinary.

#5. Ross Rice, Dwight.

I’m so happy I didn’t miss this album. Ross Rice gets lifelong love from me just for his work with Human Radio, one of the most unjustly ignored bands of the 1990s. Their two albums (one released, one not) are pretty much perfect, and I looked forward to what Rice, the band’s mastermind, would do next. And for a while there, it seemed like he’d do nothing – he released one middling solo record in 1997, and that was it. But ring out the bells, because Dwight is magnificent, the best set of songs he’s come up with since the first Human Radio record. From the punch of “Hard Times for the Revolution” to the proggy thunder of “Blindman” to the sweet foibles of “Words Fail Me,” this is Ross Rice finally back at the top of his game. Get it here.

#4. The Feeling, Twelve Stops and Home.

This is another Tony Shore special, and another album that hasn’t reached these shores yet. But when it does, America is in for one of the niftiest fizzy pop platters in years. The Feeling encapsulate 50 years of British music in 12 silly, wonderful songs, and even if the record goes slightly downhill in its second half (but only slightly), the first three tracks here are classics, among the finest shiny pop confections I’ve heard. “I Want You Now,” specifically, is just relentless in its pursuit of pop nirvana, especially when it explodes into Queen-like harmonic overload. But slower numbers like “Sewn” and “Kettle’s On” are winners too, and overall, Twelve Stops and Home gets the prize for the most fun you’ll have listening to music this year. It’s only available as an import right now, and I have no news about a U.S. release, but take a listen.

#3. Mute Math (original release).

I can’t tell you how much I hate having to include that parenthetical. It’s one of the main reasons why Mute Math’s knockout debut is below my #2 choice on this list, despite putting up a fight for second (and even first) place earlier in the year. The record I’m honoring here is the original, self-released iteration, not the more widely available Warner Bros. version that includes old songs and cuts one of the best new ones (the epic “Without It”). The simple truth is that the album was basically perfect to begin with, and messing with the track listing and sequence resulted in an inferior record. But not by that much, since the music is still incredible – Mute Math sounds like the Police if they stayed together and stayed awesome. This is a deeply searching, spiritual disc, but you’d never know it from a cursory listen, since the grooves and melodies are so unstoppable. With “Chaos” and “Noticed,” Mute Math delivered a one-two punch that few bands could match, especially on their full-length debut. It’s a shame you can’t get the superior version anymore, but whichever Mute Math you end up buying, you won’t regret it.

#2. Keane, Under the Iron Sea.

But in the end, Keane made the year’s best pop album, and I had to give them full credit for it. Under the Iron Sea was ignored on this side of the Atlantic, which makes no sense, since it’s in every way superior to their popular debut, Hopes and Fears. Here Keane reached deeper, crafting a darker album, but one with more great melodies per minute than most bands manage over an entire career. Tom Chaplin sings like a bird, his effortlessly powerful voice always front and center while Tim Rice-Oxley layers keyboard sound over keyboard sound, crafting the most original pop backing tracks of the year. Keane manages to create soaring rock without using any guitars, a tremendous feat in itself – seriously, have you heard “Is It Any Wonder”? No guitars. It’s amazing. But they also delivered great song after great song here, never running out of ideas. It’s an album that never lags and never falters – even the iTunes exclusive bonus track, “Let It Slide,” is excellent. And it becomes even more rich when you realize that most of the songs are little letters of desperation from Rice-Oxley to Chaplin, begging to keep their friendship together. Simply put, Keane outdid their already smashing debut many times over, and Under the Iron Sea is everything I could have hoped for and more.

Which brings us to number one. As I said, this was a late-year surprise, and it’s not often that I get to November 14 without knowing what the top album of the year will likely be. The most surprising thing about my choice this year is just how different it is from the makeup of the rest of the list. As such, I can’t really recommend my #1 album to anyone who enjoyed the other nine – the list does not peak with this record as much as it does take a strange 45-degree-angle turn into another dimension.

So anyway, here it is:

#1. Joanna Newsom, Ys.

That’s right. The album I described as ‘70s prog played on 16th Century instruments and sung by an intoxicated pre-teen. But you know what? It took merely one listen for me to realize that this album is extraordinary, and subsequent listens have convinced me that it’s brilliant and magical. No other artist this year created a world and then drew you into it like Newsom did, and no other artist displays such supreme confidence in her own vision of music like Newsom does.

Nothing on Ys should work. On paper, it’s a disaster. It’s five long songs, ranging from seven minutes to just under seventeen. Newsom plays the harp (beautifully, I might add), and the only other instruments you can readily pick out are the strings, arranged by Brian Wilson’s favorite confidante, Van Dyke Parks. Newsom’s lyrics are all rambling symbolic poetry about meteorites and stuffed animals, and she sings them in a magnificent elfin squeak of a voice that must be heard to be believed.

It sounds like it would be awful, but the miraculous truth is, it’s mesmerizing. Newsom displays a staggering range of emotions with her strange voice, and her songs are stunning, working through themes and movements and entrancing melodies. Parks’ strings provide just the right touch to hold the whole thing together, stepping back when necessary and adding nearly mythical grandeur when called for. The songs on Ys are very long, but they never drag – Newsom and her collaborators keep coming up with new ways to keep you interested.

But I’m describing it in very cold, clinical terms, and this is anything but a cold album. The reason Ys tops this year’s list is that it is emotionally transporting in ways no other 2006 record even attempted. Newsom’s masterpiece, “Monkey and Bear,” will send you through child-like innocence to desperate longing to genuine fright – from “somewhere there’s a place for us” to “someday you’ll bare your teeth” – in the space of 10 minutes. Her other masterpiece, “Sawdust and Diamonds,” is an emotional journey through deeply personal pain, using nothing but harp and voice to cut right to your heart.

The record ends with “Cosmia,” which I foolishly called the weakest track in my initial review. I have come to view it as perhaps the most affecting and startling thing here, one of the most passionate songs of separation I own. “And I miss your precious heart,” Newsom sings with all of hers while her harp and the strings explode beneath her, and the moment is beyond moving.

And that’s it – Newsom tops this list because she made me feel like no other artist this year. Everything else on this list is enjoyable and well-crafted and easy to recommend. Joanna Newsom’s album is challenging, heart-wrenching and transcendent, even though I have difficulty urging anyone to buy it. You will either want to grind this CD into dust, or love it like your own child, and there will be no middle ground. Your experience with Ys will be as personal as mine is, and your mileage may vary.

I would not be upset or surprised if many of my long-time readers hate this record. If you do, here is a suggestion – call Grandaddy #10, and bump everything else up one notch so that Keane becomes #1, knocking Newsom off entirely. That’s a perfectly respectable list – Grandaddy, Quiet Company, the Alarm, Roger Manning, Sloan, David Mead, Ross Rice, the Feeling, Mute Math and Keane. I would put my name to that list in a heartbeat.

But I’m willing to bet that there are some of you out there who will hear what I hear in Ys, and who will love it like I love it. For me, there’s no other choice, and I knew it immediately. This album is courageous, masterfully crafted, and utterly bizarre, yet completely magical. It is, for me, the best album of 2006.

One last thing – the folks at Litho Express in Minnesota were apparently upset that I didn’t mention the packaging in my initial review of Ys, so here’s my chance to correct that oversight now. The album is sumptuously designed, with a raised slipcase and a thick bible-style booklet with gold-leaf pages. It’s beautiful, and regal, and quite fitting for the album inside, and it deserves a Grammy for best packaging. Just another reason to love this album, really.

That should do it for this year. Next week is Fifty Second Week again – I have about 45 records to review, which, if I do it right, should take less than an hour. And after that, we start year seven. Thanks to everyone who stuck with me through year six, and to everyone we picked up along the way – I hope you stay a while. We’re just getting warmed up here. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, and enjoy the time off from work. Do something worthwhile with it, and play some good music while you do it.

See you in line Tuesday morning… and to all a good night.