Best of 2006: Top 10 Albums

In previous entries, I discussed my criteria for selection, the Best 5 Songs of 2006 and the Honorable Mentions of 2006.

    Top 10 Albums of 2006 

  1. Taking The Long Way by Dixie Chicks: I became a fan of the Chicks last year when I first heard their 2002 release, Home, and named it number 6 on my Best of 2005 list. After I heard that one of my favorite producers, Rick Rubin, would be producing their new album, I had great expectations. I was not disappointed and, in fact, this album exceeded all of my expectations. Although the production is fuller than what Rubin often delivers (see Johnny Cash or Neil Diamond), it’s not “slick” by any means. Natalie Maines’ voice has gotten better and soars on songs like “Voice Inside My Head” and “Baby Hold On”. Although the Chicks utilized a bevy of co-songwriters this time (see the review I wrote on for more details), the lyrics for each song feel personal and cover themes such as regret over lost lovers, appreciation for present lovers, rebellion, being an outsider, and Parkinson’s disease. Of course, “Not Ready To Make Nice” is a big middle finger to the shameful country music establishment which was so quick to cast them out in 2003. It’s alright with me, though. The Dixie Chicks are better without Nashville and Nashville is poorer for their loss.
  2. Stadium Arcadium by Red Hot Chili Peppers: I saw the Chilis live back in 1989 in Mexico on the eve of my 23rd birthday and instantly became a fan. I loved Mother’s Milk but with each release after I found myself less and less interested. Starting with Californication, it was obvious to me that they had turned in a new direction and were evolving into a new band. Stadium Arcadium is the result of that evolution and what could well be the best album they ever make. In addition to the beautiful harmonies they added on the previous two albums, they also turned loose guitarist John Frusciante who unleashed a masterpiece of lead guitar wizardry. It’s the kind of playing to which you can just close your eyes and let the guitar take you away. Like U2 from last year’s list, it struck me that RHCP has matured into a truly great band where each member has really mastered their instrument and they all know exactly when and how to integrate themselves into the whole sound. Songs like “Snow”, “Charlie” and “Especially In Michigan” really illustrate this point. Even though this is a two disc set, there’s no filler here – every song is good and most are great. Earlier this year I wrote a review for Finally, this album was also produced by long-time Chili’s producer Rick Rubin.
  3. Rainy Day Music by The Jayhawks: Every great album must start with a great song and this album is no exception. It opens with the classic line “You’re so in love, little girl” and continues to dazzle for the next 50-odd minutes. Each song is a testament to the beauty of two-part harmony done right. Easily classified as “alt-country”, this disc harkens back to old CSN, Byrds and even early Eagles. Like many of their alt-country counterparts, the influence of Gram Parsons is also quite evident. Unlike all those obvious influences, the production here is quite modern and the sound is crystal clear. That makes the harmonies all the more beautiful on songs like “All The Right Reasons”, “The Eyes of Sarah Jane” and “Angelyne”. The instrumentation is pretty sparse but it serves the vocals just fine. The guitar solos definitely have a Neil Young feel at times but never take over or feel out of place. I added this disc to my “Want List” knowing only that The Jayhawks were a respected alt-country outfit. What a pleasant surprise to get one of the best discs of this year!
  4. Lifted Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground by Bright Eyes: Although calling someone the “next Bob Dylan” has been a curse to almost everyone it has been foist upon (see Steve Forbert, Loudon Wainright and John Prine), I can’t think of a better description for Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst. His songs are revolutionary with incisive, cutting lyrics that really twist you inside. His voice, like Dylan’s, can be charitably described as “unique”. But, like Dylan on “Like A Rolling Stone”, his vocal delivery is perfect for his material. His delivery on “Waste of Paint” really underscores the point, especially when he questions the worth of his own work and notes that it’s “trite and cheap and a waste of paint, of tape, of time”. Tina can’t stand to listen to Bright Eyes, but I think she misses the implicit hopefulness that lies between the lines. Other songs like “Bowl of Oranges” and “Make War” are more obviously joyful but still retain Oberst’ trademark angst. Of course, if you want angst, there’s plenty in songs like “Don’t Know When But a Day Is Gonna Come”, “Nothing Gets Crossed Out” and “Method Acting”. Like the Dixie Chicks, this is the second straight appearance for Bright Eyes, even if he did drop from number one last year to number four this year.
  5. Has Been by William Shatner: OK, stop laughing. You think of William Shatner as a washed-up over-actor who is best known musically for the campy cover songs he did back in the 60s. Well, that’s all true, but he’s also a poet and master of the spoken word. With Ben Folds at the production helm and providing musical accompaniment, Shatner reads poetry about his estranged daughter, failed ambitions, the ideal woman and the drowning of his wife. In the latter he agonizes about how he tried to save her and failed. But it’s not all dark – in the title track he ridicules those who call him a “has been” with “never-was talking about still-trying” and concludes that “has-been was, has-been might again”. All this over a spaghetti western soundtrack motif! Guests on the album include Lemon Jelly, Henry Rollins, Aimee Mann and Brad Paisley. I enjoyed this album much more than I would have ever guessed.
  6. The Millennium Collection by Buddy Holly: Rock and roll grew up because of Buddy Holly. Although his career was cut short in that famous plane crash, he inspired the next generation of rockers (include the Beatles) to take rock and roll places that nobody had ever dreamed it would go. Aside the huge influence he’s had on rock, Holly’s music is feel-good music at it’s very best. One can’t help but sing along and smile to all of these songs. Some standouts are “Everyday”, “Rave On” and “Peggy Sue” but they are all very good. Holly fans can also check out Not Fade Away, an excellent tribute to Buddy.
  7. Dreamboat Annie by Heart: It opens with “Magic Man” followed by a short version of “Dreamboat Annie” that segues into “Crazy On You”. The rest of the album flows together and includes two more versions of “Dreamboat Annie” as a kind of running theme. You’ve probably never heard the tracks in between but they are full of guitar hooks, Ann Wilson’s poignant crooning and a mellow groove. It’s classic rock at it’s best.
  8. De-Loused in the Comatorium by The Mars Volta: This concept album tells the story of Cerpin Taxt who attempts suicide by overdosing on morphine at the beginning of the album. He spends a week in a coma and has visions. When he awakes, he jumps to his death. While the plot is certainly compelling, it only plays a small part in my appreciation of this album. Much like OK Computer (definitely a “Best of” that year), vocals are treated as an instrument and the lyrics are secondary and sometimes unintelligible. The music is very dissonant at times, but it is a beautiful dissonance that fits the larger vision of the overal sonic picture.
  9. Wingspan by Paul McCartney & Wings: I picked this up primarily because it’s the only CD that contains “Mull Of Kintyre”, which I named one of my Top 5 Songs of 2006. I was quite surprised to find myself listening to both discs repeatedly. Although there is some duplication with the other McCartney albums I own (Ram and Band on the Run), this set fills in the gaps very nicely for those that I won’t buy. For example, I would never consider buying Back To The Egg or McCartney II, but I quite enjoy “Goodnight Tonight” and “Waterfalls”.
  10. Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses by Slipknot: Another blind pick from based only on a video I had seen on Fuse and the fact that they are from Des Moines, Iowa. Previous experiments in modern metal bands (At The Gates, Blind Guardian) were not as successful as I would have liked. Most of my preconceptions (i.e. hard-to-understand vocals, monotonous instrumentation) concerning listenability proved to be true for most of these bands. That is until I found this album brimming with grinding guitars, pounding drums and vocals you can understand. Perhaps producer Rick Rubin should get the credit for this because their previous album (Iowa) is completely unintelligible. All the gladder I am that I found this gem whose highlight is probably electric and acoustic versions of a brilliant song called “Vermillion”. The latter version is mellow enough that even Tina likes it.

Vital Statistics

Miles driven yesterday: 227
Weight lost: 44 lbs.
Hours of sleep last night: 9
Hours billed this week: 37
Current reading: The Prince by Machiavelli, Running With Scissors: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs
Recent listening: XO by Elliott Smith, Stadium Arcadium by Red Hot Chili Peppers, Coverville, Taking The Long Way by Dixie Chicks
Recent viewing: Colts at Cowboys, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Battlestar Galactica, Dr. Who, Scrubs, Bruce Almighty, Buccaneers at Cowboys
Recent playing: n/a
Recently accomplished: Numerous Harvey runs, recycled cardboard, cleaned and lubed bike, paid bills
Imperative To Do: Finish old blog entries, build new computer for Thomas, rake, clean garage, fix laundry room door, RMA old Tivo drive
Cool Link: The Mill Casino: From where I write this

Vital Statistics

Bike odometer: 301 miles
Average speed: 12.3 mph
Weight lost: 40 lbs.
Hours of sleep last night: 9
Hours billed this week: 49.5
Current reading: I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe, The Prince by Machiavelli
Recent listening: Greendale by Neil Young, Half Nelson by Willie Nelson, Box Set by Buffalo Springfield
Recent viewing: The Daily Show, Saturday Night Live, House of 1000 Corpses, Sportscenter, Storytellers: Dixie Chicks
Recent playing: Zuma, Klax
Recently accomplished: Re-installed iLife ’06, returned cans and bottles, cleaned gutters and downspouts, cleaned off deck and sidewalks, chopped out some more blackberry vines
Imperative To Do: Follow-up with Thomas’ principal, recycle cardboard, finish old blog entries, get Thomas’ computer to boot, rake, clean garage
Cool Link: Noah takes a photo of himself every day for 6 years

Vital Statistics

Today Tina and I celebrated losing 20 lbs. each by having sushi for lunch. It’s been remarkably easy on the South Beach plan. Tina tells me everything I can and can’t eat which makes it even easier. I wouldn’t be able to do this well without her.

On Saturday I rented a power washer and spent the rest of the weekend cleaning the deck and all of our concrete. After 8 hours on Saturday and 6 hours on Sunday, my whole body is complaining today but especially my back. It doesn’t feel like I “pulled” anything, though, so I’m sure it will be OK in a few days.

My mom is getting here on Wednesday and we’re having a big (for us) birthday party for my 40th birthday on Saturday. You are invited!

Bike odometer: n/a (drove today)
Current reading: I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe, The Prince by Machiavelli
Recent listening: Coverville, MC Front-A-Lot, MC Chris, It’s The Jump Off
Recent viewing: Dead Zone, Countdown, An Evening with the Dixie Chicks, Sportscenter, The Simpsons, The Alternative, The Daily Show, National Pie Championship
Recent playing: Zuma
Recently accomplished: Recycled styrofoam, power washed the deck and concrete, emailed birthday invitations
Imperative To Do: Clean CPAP stuff, bank, refinish deck, hair cut, service van, new rear fender for bike, mow lawn, follow-up phone calls for birthday
Cool Video: Four-year-old drumming prodigy

Vital Statistics

Despite the moderate headwind that I rode into this morning, I had an absolutely great ride to work. The sun was shining and the roads were not wet. We had a downpour a little while ago, but the sun is out again. I hope it lasts.

Bike odometer: 5862 miles
Current reading: Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now by Barry Miles, 9-11 by Noam Chomsky
McCartney Trivia: Although “Norwegian Wood” was mostly John’s idea, Paul contributed the ending to the story of infidelity. Although you might read “So, I lit a fire, isn’t it good, Norwegian Wood” as the teller just making himself at home, Paul intended it to mean that he burned the girl’s place down and left.
Recent listening: Lifted or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground, De-Loused in the Comatorium, Frances the Mute, Crooked Fingers
Recent viewing: Sportscenter, Gonzaga vs. UCLA, LSU vs. Duke, The Office, My Name Is Earl
Recent playing: Poker Room
Imperative To Do: Get motor mounts fixed on truck, buy lug nut wrench and jack for van, start taxes
Cool link: Not Ready To Make Nice: The Dixie Chicks kick off their new album release with a song about all the attention they got for declaring the President to be shameful. Check out the press release – Rick Rubin produced!

Best of 2005

Note that criteria for inclusion into the list did not include a 2005 (or even recent) release. To be eligible, an album only had to be added to my CD collection in 2005. Some long-time favorites with which I had familiarity but had not previously owned on CD were only eligible for “Honorable Mention” along with a few others that didn’t qualify for the Top 15.

In order to make it into the Top 15, a CD has to saturate my listening time for an appeciable length of time. These fifteen CDs took up more than 75% of my listening time during the year, a clear sign of appreciation. Although I have ranked them, distinguishing between any two is very difficult indeed. When I obtained each it probably remained in heavy rotation at home, on my iPod and at work for several weeks, often receiving two or three plays per day. This is the quality level required to make the Top 15.

    Top 15 Albums of 2005   

  1. Letting Off The Happiness by Bright Eyes: Exquisite wordplay, riveting storytelling and a twisted dark side combine with sparse instrumentation to sear this album into my brain forever. Although it can seem overly depressing at times, it also veers into the realm of uplifting. In either case, the songs smack of a realness that is not often found in music. So real it’s scary.
  2. Guero by Beck: Eclectic and smart, this is the best Beck album since Mellow Gold. After some genre experimentation on previous albums, I’m glad he didn’t pidgeon-hole himself with this one. Despite the variety of styles represented here, his seemingly innate funkiness is always swimming somewhere below the surface.
  3. Liz Phair (eponymous): Although touted as Liz’s entry into mainstream pop, I didn’t find it to be a sellout at all. Incredibly heartfelt, touching lyrics and her trademark catchy melodies are no longer buried beneath the DIY indie production. What I’ve always appreciated about Liz Phair (as well as many of my other favorite artists) is the fact that her songs are so personal. Listening to this album is like catching up with an old friend.
  4. The Queen Is Dead by the Smiths: Released almost 20 years ago but with lyrics and music that sound timeless to me. Clever, witty, biting and romantic are just a few ways to describe what is probably Morrissey’s best lyrical effort. And it’s got a song about plagiarism! How cool is that?
  5. Mermaid Avenue by Billy Bragg & Wilco: Having experienced a recent Wilco awakening, I purchased this album of previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs in order to get a more complete view of their work. What a pleasant surprise to find that Guthrie’s work has held up so well after so long.
  6. Home by the Dixie Chicks: I’m not a big fan of the Chicks, but this rootsy outing ranges from humorous to serious without ever losing its heart. I’m hoping that this is the first release in which the Chicks were allowed to make the music they wanted and look forward to their future recordings.
  7. Franz Ferdinand (eponymous): Reminiscent of early New Wave (the good Television kind, not the kitschy Knack kind) but with a harder edge, this album rocks from start to finish. I will undoubtedly be checking out their newest album in 2006. (Thanks for the recommendation, Laine.)
  8. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb by U2: I’ve lived with a hard-core U2 fan since 1992 and this is the first album by them that’s really grabbed me. The most obvious difference here from their past albums is the hard rock sound they have embraced, but there are also some really great melodies on mid-tempo and slow songs. Bono’s always incredible voice has matured and has more life in it than it ever has. Oh, and his backing band has gotten to be really good.
  9. The Devil’s Bris by Voltaire: Upon first listening, Voltaire seemed like some kind of demented Andrew Lloyd Webber. Perhaps it was his basso vocals that led me astray, but I no longer hear any schmaltz here — just pure, unadulterated and very dark irony.
  10. Get Behind Me Satan by the White Stripes: I remember the first time I saw the Stray Cats on TV, I thought, “How do they get that much sound from three musicians?” Since then I’ve learned that sometimes in music less is more. There’s no better example of this than Jack and Meg White, aka the White Stripes. Their latest album has more hooks than my dad’s tackle box and they get an incredibly big sound for just two musicians.
  11. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco: In 2004, we watched an excellent movie about the making of this album called “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” which eventually led to this purchase. Although it’s tempting, I’m hesitant to classify this as “pop” or even “power pop” because it’s so much more transcendant than those labels. I’m a sucker for acoustic guitars in a rock setting and this album panders to that weakness.
  12. License To Chill by Jimmy Buffett: This album was touted as Jimmy’s move into mainstream country, a genre that I detest as much as any. So when my sister introduced it to me in May, I was skeptical to say the least. Despite the various cowboy-hat-wearing George-Straight-wannabes that sing along with Jimmy on many of the songs, I still think this one classifies as classic Buffett. Favorite line Jimmy must have written: “…and it’s amazing what they pass off as a bathing suit.”
  13. 12 Songs by Neil Diamond: OK, I know what you’re probably thinking. I thought the same thing when a co-worker mentioned that I might try this one out. I daresay that I scoffed at the thought. But then he said, “Rick Rubin produced.” Whoa! Rick Rubin, the producer of Beastie Boys and Masters of Reality fame? Rick Rubin, the man who single-handedly revived Johnny Cash’s career and made him relevant up until the moment he died? Yes, that Rick Rubin. Taking a similar approach that he took to Cash, he’s captured Neil Diamond with a minimal backup band that never steps on Diamond’s acoustic guitar playing or the sincere honesty of his crackly voice.
  14. Trio by Michelle Shocked: Many of you know that I am a longtime Michelle Shocked so it should be no surprise that her first album since 2002 would make this list. In fact, she released three albums in 2005 and made them available in a single package called Trio. Although I didn’t have an immediate appreciation for these three albums, they have really grown on me, particularly Mexican Standoff, the first in the three disc series, which is dominated by Latin rhythms, instrumentation and melodies. The second is called Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and mixes genres similarly to the way Short Sharp Shocked did back in the late 80s. The third, Got No Strings, features Michelle’s voice at its loveliest as she sings classic songs from Disney movies. Aside from the Disney songs, these discs are also interesting because they feature many of the songs that Michelle has been performing for several years but have not seen CD release until now.
  15. Extraordinary Machine by Fiona Apple: This is a late entry into the 2005 derby, so I have placed it at the bottom of the list since it takes more than a couple of weeks (as is the case here) to reach the exalted honor of “Best of the Year”. Having said that, I never hesitated about including this in the Top 15. Although it’s similar in nature to Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me, it’s livelier and more intimate than that album. I inadvertently saw her on The Today Show one morning and her two riveting performances were enough to sell this album for me.
    Honorable Mention   

  • Transcendental Blues by Steve Earle: Barely missed the cut for the Top 15. Rootsy, bluesy and country-ish without every being any of those.
  • Bat Out of Hell by Meat Loaf: Bought for $4 at a yard sale and surprisingly good. Moreso than I had remembered.
  • Blast Tyrant by Clutch: Perhaps classifiable as “heavy metal” but very listenable compared to many of the metal purveyors around these days. (Thanks for the recommendation, Dain.)
  • Encore by Eminem: Relegated to this list only for a lack of consistency from track to track.
  • Tom’s Album by Various Artists: Purchased after Coverville did a show featuring many of the songs. For anyone who was a fan of alternative music in the late 80s, this album is a must listen.
  • From The Mars Hotel by the Grateful Dead: Possibly the Grateful Dead’s last good studio album.
  • Ram by Paul McCartney: My favorite post-Beatles McCartney album, it didn’t make the Top 15 because I’ve known these songs backwards and forwards for almost 25 years.
  • Tenacious D (eponymous): If rock and roll is all about fun, Tenacious D is the embodiment of rock and roll.