Lou's Top 20 of 2006, Part 1
This post begins a four-part series revealing my choices for the Top 20 records of 2006. Feel free to submit your own Top 5, 10, 20, or 25 to firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll strongly consider posting them.
16) Wooden Wand & the Sky High Band- Second Attention (Kill Rock Stars)
The prolific underground darling known as Wooden Wand takes a necessary step on this record from "Wow, this is weird" to Wow, this is good." Most of the loosely played, acoustic-based country-folk presented here has a decided Basement Tapes aura, while "Hot Death" is a little closer to "It's Alright, Ma..." territory. But there's something to grab a hold of in each of the songs here other than how unusual they might be. In fact, there's really not much at all that's unusual about this record, which suggests that Wooden Wand may actually be a talent to take note of.
17) National Eye- Roomful of Lions (Park the Van)
The second long player by this Philadelphia outfit finds them a bit more tightly in the Eno-Bowie orbit than on their debut, 2003's The Meter Glows, which doesn't detract at all from the pleasantly unconventional indie-folk/pop they offer up. These aren't exactly songs you'll find yourself humming in the shower, but they're put together well and the array of sounds and unique instrumentation keeps them all interesting. Still, the pop chops of "Juno 3" and "The Switch" are undeniable and the specter of Neil Young that was more prevalent on the debut remains on "Casimir."
18) Albert Hammond, Jr.- Yours To Keep (Rough Trade-U.K.)
First things first: I dislike the Strokes. Not even a passing interest. Hammond is rhythm guitarist and occasional songwriter in the Strokes. There's not much here that puts me in mind of the Strokes. ELO on "In Transit," yes. Weezer on "Everyone Gets A Star," a bit. The Shins on "Bright Young Thing," sure. A John Lennon or Pete Ham solo demo on "Blue Skies," a lot. Guided By Voices on "101," uh-huh. Ray Davies on "Call An Ambulance," you bet. My personal taste for these audible influences ranges from idolatry to distaste, but the common thread is well-constructed and well-packaged pop. That's the essence of this record, and the sound doesn't fall victim to its progenitors, but calls on them and brings them together without sounding like a rehash. Hammond's father is the legendary songwriter who wrote "The Air That I Breathe" among others, and it must be in the genes.
19) Paul Brill- Harpooner (Scarlet Shame)
Paul Brill's evolution from very straight-up rootsy singer-songwriter to near-avant-gardist over the course of four albums has been pretty remarkable, but so incremental from release to release that you could be forgiven for barely noticing it. Still, you're sort of left looking for the song during a couple tracks from Harpooner, and "Paris is On," the second track, is the only one you could convincingly call a pop song. Yet I'm perfectly happy when this one winds up. Maybe if I took the time to try to pick up the significance of each lyric and appreciate the sometimes otherworldly soundscape Brill puts together (I'm sure meticulously), I'd dismiss it as pretentious crap. But if you listen as passively as you would to anything you don't expect to be tested on, you're more likely to notice a reassuring presence in Brill's strongly image-evoking lyrics despite their inherent despair, and backing tracks that could have been the result of a few mad geniuses thrown into a recording studio with an array of instruments. I'm not sure which way Paul would rather have it, but I give him credit for making a record as easily enjoyable in its complexity as any of his more simplistic work.
20) Willie Nelson- Songbird (Lost Highway)
I'm a huge fan of Willie's material from his '70s heyday, but admit I probably wouldn't have been much interested in this record were it not for the involvement of Ryan Adams, who produced and whose band--the Cardinals--backs Willie. It comes out sounding unlike other records by either of them, veering stylistically from the bulk of Nelson's material and showing Adams and band carefully playing to the legend's strengths even as they compel him to stretch out of his well-worn comfort zone. It's easy to imagine Nelson singing Christine McVie's title track (and it's almost incredible he hadn't covered it before now), but what's on the CD--a rootsy jangle that hearkens to Adams' days in Whiskeytown--is markedly different from what you'd expect but still allows Nelson's aptitude for the song to show. It's clear that Adams wrote "Blue Hotel" with Nelson in mind, but it must have been Willie a long way back, as the track comes out with Nelson sounding more authentic and soulful than on almost anything he's done since his Atlantic Records days before he became a household name. The vintage Nelson original "Sad Songs and Waltzes" is faithfully reprised from that era, which should be a comfort to stalwart fans unsure of the direction he's sent in on a few of the other tracks, along with "We Don't Run,"--resurrected from 1996's Spirit--which wouldn't seem out of place on any Nelson album or set list in the loose and sprightly reading it's given here. And while Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" may seem like a far out choice, Nelson and the band make it sound like it could be one of his own. The only disappointment here is the reading of Gram Parsons' classic "$1,000 Wedding," which sounds like a genius match between singer and song, but Nelson just doesn't quite seem to grasp the melody and the arrangement is a bit ambitious. All in all, though, this is a satisfying record that those who would like to reembrace Willie or get a contemporary view of the beauty and virtuosity that occurs throughout his immense body of work should give a chance.