Thursday, 28 December 2006

2006: A Year in Music [Part 4: Top 5 albums of the year]

Without further ado, these are my top 5 albums of the year. Let's start the countdown!

5. Yo La Tengo - I am not afraid of you and I will beat your ass

If this was a best album title award, this one would easily get the top gong. I'm not a huge Yo La Tengo fan -- I have what is considered their best album (I can hear the heart beating as one from 1997, which I really like) and one of their later-period efforts (And then nothing turned itself inside out from 2000, which doesn't do a lot for me).

This album shares the pop eclecticism of I can hear the heart, while mixing in some of the more ambient textures of And then nothing and 2003's Summer sun. It's a long listen at almost 80 minutes, bookended by two distorted guitar freakouts (Pass the hatchet and The story of Yo La Tengo), with the beautiful instrumental Daphnia being an excellent centrepiece.

Overall, there's enough diversity on this album to make it an interesting listen despite its long running time. It isn't quite the classic album that I can hear the heart was, but it's impressive nonetheless.

4. Jarvis Cocker - Jarvis

I don't think anyone was expecting this album to be as good as it is. Even though it is Jarvis Cocker's solo debut album, it's pretty much another Pulp album in all but name (erm, and the fact that Richard Hawley is the only other member of Pulp who plays on the album). For Pulp fans, this is a godsend.

It took me a few listens to warm to this album, but its charms have revealed themselves to me over time. It mixes the various facets of the Pulp sound, from Britpop (Don't let him waste your time, the political From Auschwitz to Ipswich) to brooding Scott Walker-esque ballads (I will kill again, Disney time). And if the hilarious profanity-laden hidden track "[Cunts are still] Running the world" doesn't bring a smile to your face, you don't have a sense of humour.

3. Belle & Sebastian - The Life Pursuit

The 2nd album from B&S since they turned their back on their early melancholic sound, opting for a more indie pop sound. While previous album Dear catastrophe waitress was transitional in all senses of the word, this album (with the exception of Dress up in you) pretty much sounds like it's from a different band than the one who released If you're feeling sinister.

I was a little worried when I heard how pop this album was, as this term usually implies something that sounds pretty good for the first few listens but (like feta cheese) doesn't have a very good shelf life. But this is a strange pop album, as it has quite a bit of depth and reveals more with each listen.

Not all the songs do it for me (White collar boy and Sukie in the graveyard being the biggest culprits) but there is an embarrassment of riches on this album -- from the T-Rex swagger of The blues are still blue, perfect pop of Another sunny day and Funny little frog, and the stax pastiche of Stevie Jackson's To be myself completely. And the two Act of the apostle songs tie the album together, making the whole album a little more than the sum of its parts.

Where they go from here is anyone's guess. B&S are still releasing interesting albums 10 years into their career, and that itself is something to be proud of.

2. Augie March - Moo, You Bloody Choir

Let me start this entry by saying something incredibly controversial. This album was, and still is, a disappointment for me. Yet it's still my 2nd favourite album of the year? It's all relative. Sunset studies and Strange bird were idiosyncratic masterpieces and easily the best albums of the year they were released in (2000 and 2002 respectively). We waited four years for this one, and the expectations was definitely raised into the red zone.

On the surface this is a bloody impressive album. I could also see how many fans could consider this to be their best album, as it is easily their most consistent and polished effort to date. To make an analogy with Brisbane band The Go-Betweens, this album would be their 16 Lovers Lane. Every note seems to be in the right place and every melody is pretty much perfect. But while 16 Lovers Lane is my favourite Go-Betweens album (and one of my favourite albums of all time), this album is my least-favourite Augie March album.

Why? Everything seems a little too polished, a little too perfect. I guess I like my Augie March a little rough around the edges, and their previous albums often had a left-field oddity like Angels of the bowling green and There's something at the bottom of the black pool to up the quirk-o-meter when required. This album feels a bit too much like their shot at commercial glory -- I wouldn't go so far to call it a sellout (that's way too unfair) but it's missing a lot of the magic for me.

All that being said, One crowded hour, Bottle baby and Victoria's secrets are some of the finest Augie March tracks to date. I'm glad that they are finally getting some more commercial success, because these lads deserve it. Who knows? Maybe it's just sour grapes, and I preferred when they were "my" band and not getting songs played on commercial radio.

1. Joanna Newsom - Ys

I caught up with a few old friends Adam and Leora for a coffee today. I asked Adam if he liked Joanna Newsom, and he said Ys is a masterpiece and one of the best albums of the year. As you can see from its position in my top albums of the year, I tend to agree with him.

This is not an album for everyone. And I don't mean that in an elitist sense; I'm not saying that if you don't like it you aren't as good as me. To use a movie analogy, some people would be quite happy watching an Adam Sandler movie, getting a few belly-laughs, and having a good night's entertainment. I have nothing against Adam Sandler movies, but every now and then I like to watch something deeper with more meaning. This is one of those albums. Nice segue?

I honestly can't think of a precedent for this album. I guess the closest comparison (and I don't mean musically) is Van Morrison's Astral weeks, in that this album creates its own world in which you as a listener get lost in. The constants throughout the 5 epic songs on this album are Joanna's otherworldly voice, her gentle harp playing and Van Dyke Parks' beautiful string arrangements (with the exception of Sawdust & diamonds which just contains voice and harp).

The lyrics are archaic poetry, but at no point does this album feel pretentious. The songs are long, but they don't feel that way because each song is made up of multiple movements where different musical textures and lyrics are explored. And just look at that album cover. In this age of commercial pop designed to make a quick buck, who takes risks like this?

Her debut album The milk-eyed mender didn't even hint at what Joanna Newsom has achieved here. She has come from out of nowhere and shoved a red hot poker up the ass of almost every other artist releasing music nowadays (with the exception of Tom Waits, another innovative genius).

The benchmark has been set; I look forward to another Beatles/Beach Boys ante-upping contest, a fight to the end in the name of musical genius.


  1. Just bought Ys today (based on a few people's recommendations - including yours!). Looking forward to getting into it!

    And I suspect that you are sufferring sour grapes as Augie's Moo is an absolute corker and I just don't understand how you can consider it a disappointment. :)

  2. Great to hear that you bought Ys, Matty. I'm very interested to know what you think of it, please let me know your thoughts!

    And yes, Moo is a great album (it was my #2 album of the year after all) but that's the problem with always releasing great stuff, the standards by which their albums are judged are way too high!

  3. Strange moo review, Jeromesville, but I ain't going to take the bait! Yes, you still gave it number 2, I know, but where I come from number 2s are also known as shit.
    You're not the first person I've heard criticise Moo for being too perfect (in fact, you're the second).
    A great trilogy of 2006 to note; Funny Little Frog/To Be Myself Completely/Act of the Apostle 2 from The Life Pursuit. Moo was my favourite of the year, but I'm quite biased and narrow-minded when it comes to music. :)
    p.s., listening to the track "Emily," vocals reminds me of Bjork, music reminds me of a nursing home. Don't even get me started on Bob "The Kid's Aren't Alright" Dylan...

  4. > Moo was my favourite of the year,
    > but I'm quite biased and
    > narrow-minded when it comes to
    > music. :)

    > p.s., listening to the track
    > "Emily," vocals reminds me of
    > Bjork, music reminds me of a
    > nursing home.

    I've never seen 2 comments straight after each other back themselves up so perfectly :)

    And I agree about your top B&S trilogy! It's up there with BDB's "water" trilogy from Bewilderbeast (Fall in the river, Camping next to water, Stone on the water).

  5. > p.s., listening to the track
    > "Emily," vocals reminds me of
    > Bjork, music reminds me of a
    > nursing home.

    Oh come on, don't you know champagne comedy when you see it? :)
    While those 2 cuts did sweet fanny adams for me, quite enjoyed the Camper Van Beethoven and Feelies cuts.


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