2006 Retrospectacular
by Marc Hirsh

I worry about the strangest things. For the third time in the last eight years, I’m simply unable to pick a top album, and it ate at me for a while. But three times is a pattern, not an anomaly, so I’ve come to grips with the fact that there will be years when there’s no overwhelming favorite that claws its way to the top. (It doesn’t hurt that some of my colleagues at the Boston Globe acknowledged a similar problem when listing their own top tens.) There were plenty of albums that I enjoyed this year, and if many of them could only sustain their greatness half the time (some of which contributed widows and orphans below), that sure beats the vast majority of what finds its way to iTunes and the rapidly dwindling shelfspace of brick-and-mortars. The following eight albums would make fine additions to any of my previous Top Ten lists. All they lack is a leader.

We can lose all the pain and misery The Dixie Chicks, Taking The Long Way (Open Wide/Columbia). After everything that’s happened to them over the past few years, the Dixie Chicks had to have known that making an album like Taking The Long Way meant that there would be no going back, but there’s not an ounce of hesitation to be heard anywhere. Offering a middle finger to their attackers and a hug for their loved ones, they offer not righteous anger but well-considered, perfectly modulated anger, which is far rarer and infinitely more effective. It’s hard to know whether country music will ever have them back; the genre has always had room for independent-minded spitfires, but songs like “Lubbock Or Leave It” and especially “Not Ready To Make Nice,” where Natalie Maines is so angry that tears come to her eyes, may cut too close to the bone. So be it. If Nashville refuses to open its ears to the blue-eyed soul of “I Hope” or the impossibly gorgeous harmonies of “Baby Hold On,” it’s their goddamned loss.

God is in the roses and the thorns Rosanne Cash, Black Cadillac (Capitol). It’s obvious by now that Rosanne Cash is constitutionally incapable of making a bad album, but some are better than others, and Black Cadillac is one for the plus column. Having weathered a brutal period that saw her lose the people from whom she got her very identity, Cash addresses the question of how to live in her new world and structures her album like a wake, not a funeral. There is pain (the title track, “The World Unseen”) but there’s also spirited celebration of those being mourned (“World Without Sound,” “Burn Down This Town”) and, in “God Is In The Roses” and the concluding “Good Intent,” an understanding that our mortality is one of the things that makes us human. So are our tears.

Thank God for Dracula The Subways, Young For Eternity (Sire). Sometimes excitement supersedes such niceties as perfection and consistency, and no album and no band excited me with their energy and explosiveness as the Subways did this year. Equally adept at the dead simplicity of “Rock And Roll Queen” and “Oh Yeah” as with the gradually unfolding headrush of “I Want To Hear What You Have Got To Say,” the Subways got buried as hype steamrollers the Arctic Monkeys nabbed all the press and publicity despite being inferior in practically every way. Hell, even the Subways’ story – involving a music fanatic barely in his twenties, his drummer kid brother and the teenaged, bass-playing girlfriend that he’s loved for years – is sexier. The Arctic Monkeys’ story is purely about money.

On and On, I'm excited by that noise The Duke Spirit, Cuts Across The Land (Star Time). It’s rare that any band has its sound so honed down and distinctive that electric blitzkriegs like “Stubborn Stitches” and “Lion Rip” can still sound like close siblings to echo-laden slow-burners “Hello To The Floor” and “Bottom Of The Sea.” The fact that the Duke Spirit reached that point with its first album is just plain unnerving.

Nothing is ever as good as it was Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins, Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love). Rilo Kiley’s frontwoman may have launched a thousand rock critic crushes, it’s true. But in a neat reversal of the norm, it seems to be because her physical appearance, rather than being the fuel that fires our ardor, doesn’t contradict the illusion that we’ve created based on what we hear in her music and her sublimely empathetic vocals. I initially greeted Rabbit Fur Coat with disappointment after succumbing to the considerable charms of Rilo Kiley’s More Adventurous, only to find myself gradually warming to its charms over the course of the year, thanks in no small part to the two times I saw Lewis and the Watsons in concert. I finally got to see it as a collection of sweet and occasionally heartbreaking songs that’s tethered to the folk (“Rabbit Fur Coat”), country (“You Are What You Love”) and western (“Happy”) traditions while still wandering far afield. Lewis gets most of the credit, but Rabbit Fur Coat is indeed just as much a triumph for Chandra and Leigh Watson, who reintroduce us to the art of the backing vocal, deepening the self-fulfilling prophecy of “Melt Your Heart” and turning “Born Secular” into atheist girl-group gospel. For me, the sleeper of the year.

I'd hang out with you all the time if I didn't have to work The Smoking Popes, At Metro (Victory). A live reunion album – the best of the Smoking Popes’ career, with sharp performances, focused enthusiasm and almost perfect song selection – that portended a delayed but well-deserved renaissance for a previously ignored band that combined punk wallop with a sense of melody seemingly taken from the pre-rock era. The second time the Popes played Boston after its release, they could barely fill a quarter of the club. I hope you enjoyed it while it lasted, fellas.

She's got soul You Am I, Convicts (EMI Import). Australia’s best band’s worst album was emblematic of the aforementioned problem that I had with so many of the albums that I enjoyed this past year, in that half of it came and went with barely a wave, no matter how many times I tried to get its attention. So why does You Am I make the list when, say, Regina Spektor doesn’t? Tradition, mostly, though it certainly helps that songs like “Thuggery” and “By My Own Hand” light a fire under bandleader Tim Rogers, who is tired enough of being a drunken mess that he pulls out of it with the help of his mates while still longing for it enough to write paeans to the condition of being a drunken mess. It comes out in the U.S. in a few months, so don’t bother searching for the import unless you want the live Convict Stain bonus disc. Which you probably should.

They said all teenagers scare the living shit out of me My Chemical Romance, The Black Parade (Reprise). a.k.a. Ashes To Ashes, Ziggy Stardust to Ziggy Stardust. Admittedly, I don’t know how this glam-punk concept album about making some sense of (and giving some meaning to) death is going to hold up, as I’ve only listened to it for the first time with less than 14 hours to spare until 2007 comes knocking. But even though I know I run the risk of jumping the gun (at this moment in time, I lack the proper data to decide whether “Teenagers” is funny, disturbing or crass marketing to a naïve demographic, or possibly all three), to my ears, it’s already better than American Idiot.

Widows and orphans:

1) Regina Spektor, “Apres Moi,” live at Avalon in Boston, October 6. I was more than a little relieved that the swell Begin To Hope ultimately wasn’t strong enough to grab the #1 position this year, since if topping my list with quirky, piano-playing women three times is a pattern, then four makes a fetish. “Apres Moi” is a gem in its recorded version, but onstage, Spektor gave it the epic treatment that it deserves. From the solo-piano beginning to the full-band bombast later on, with guttural noises punctuating Spektor’s vocal and an interlude in Russian along the way, the thing felt like the world was threatening to come crashing down around our heads. There are certain transcendent moments that I always look for but rarely get from live performances. Spektor nailed hers.

2) Christina Aguilera, “Ain’t No Other Man.” Here’s what’s wrong with Rtina’s speakeasy hip-hop funk track: a by-now mandatory tendency to oversing the thing, the gleeful dorkiness disguised as strut on the line “You’re badass,” the curious fact that she sings “Something moved me deep inshide.” Here’s what’s right about it: every blessed thing, including the above. “Dirrty” tried so hard to announce that Aguilera had gotten laid proper. “Ain’t No Other Man” is actually convincing. Ebullience can be a beautiful thing.

3) The Secret Machines, “Lightning Blue Eyes.” In which the band’s robot heart suddenly gets what human love is all about and starts rhapsodizing about it before it can remember that it’s made of nothing but circuits and wires.

4) Damone, “Out Here All Night.” In early September, I named the relentless, razor-sharp title track to Damone’s second album Song Of The Day. Three weeks later, it won Song Of The Year at the Boston Music Awards. Way to steal my thunder, jerks.

5) Ray Davies, “Stand-Up Comic.” The title track to Other People’s Lives, Davies’s first collection of new material since I was a teenager, was dull, obvious and hamfisted, and the placement of “Stand Up Comic” immediately afterwards seemed to indicate that he knew it. Sharp, funny and insightful, it took the exact same subject matter – the obeisance of a populace numbed by media overexposure to matters of little import – and turned it into a marvelously nasty and satirical gem with the added shock of an actual call to action. The Georgie Fame groove didn’t hurt a bit, either.

6) World/Inferno Friendship Society, “Brother Of The Mayor Of Bridgewater.” Most erudite punks are content just to read Lipstick Traces. World/Inferno Friendship Society is actually doing something about it.

7) Nellie McKay, “Gladd.” It’s strange to catch her being lucid for a change, though it’s probably a more sustainable career path (to say nothing of her mental health). Where most folks talk about what they want played at their funerals, McKay has decided that she’ll be singing to her mourners from beyond the grave herself, thank you very much.

8) Gnarls Barkley, “Crazy.” Well, sure. Just think: two years ago, Danger Mouse was at risk of being shut down completely, thanks to his creatively brilliant, legally dubious Jay-Z/Beatles mashup. Now he runs the place. Copyright law is for losers, kids.

9) Rainer Maria, “Terrified.” I have yet to hear a Rainer Maria album that thrills me nonstop, start to finish. I also have yet to hear one that fails to thrill me at all. Catastrophe Keeps Us Together upped the band’s average over the last two studio jobs, and “Terrified” was part of the reason, a sweet and gentle recognition of vulnerability that singer Caithlin De Marrais vows never, ever to take advantage of.

10) Tool, “Vicarious.” I could be mistaken, but I thought I saw the air around my stereo rippling the first time I played this. Discomfiting, to be sure, but once I found its wavelength, I just rode the thing to safety.

I can see by what you carry that you come from Barrytown When I started playing guitar in the late 1980s, one of the recurring themes than ran through the guitar magazines that I bought by the pound was the superiority of the guitarists that found themselves in the employ of Steely Dan over the years. (The lack of praise for the exact same guitarists’ work with Joni Mitchell quietly underlined another recurring theme.) But no matter how much my interest in learning about my new hobby opened my eyes to bands like AC/DC, Metallica and Van Halen, all of which I had previously disregarded, I could never crack the shell surrounding what Steely Dan was doing. And so, despite the vinyl copy of Aja that I have no idea how I acquired (I can guarantee that I didn’t buy it, that’s for sure) and my adoration of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” I closed the door on them. So why have I suddenly fallen in love with Pretzel Logic (MCA, 1974) and given it this year's Better Late Than Never Award? Beats me; my best guess is that I’m finally old enough to both appreciate and look beyond the collegiate smartassery of what Steely Dan doing in their mixing of jazz melodicism and pop structure (though it should be noted that both Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were in their mid-20s when they pulled it off). The entire first side (or what was once considered same) is some kind of marvel, veering from the atypically openhearted romanticism of “Rikki” to the cynical, biting funk of “Night By Night” to the gentle but unresolved “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” and so on and so forth. The playing is immaculate, of course; even the band’s detractors (including me, way back when) admitted that. But even with that and a passel of strong songs, it’s Fagen’s vocals that really shine. Afflicted with a voice that would get him mocked during the first week of American Idol, he spots his limitations, learns how to use them to his advantage and becomes devastatingly expressive in the process. If a man that sounds like Fagen becoming one of the best singers of the 1970s isn’t pretzel logic, then I don’t know what is.

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