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Monday, December 04, 2006

Lou's Top 20 of 2006, Part 3

Here's the third in 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 purgegeeks@gmail.com and I'll strongly consider posting them.

6) Neil Young- Living With War (Reprise)

No one but Neil Young could have made an album almost wholly about a political topic without it coming off as heavy-handed and pretentious. Hell, probably no one but Neil Young could have made an album prominently featuring a 100-voice choir and trumpets without the same result. The legend does both here, and he makes it great. Taking raw emotion and alternately pummeling or caressing it into timeless music is what Neil has done best throughout his career. When he wails "...Don't need no stinkin' waaarrrrrrr!" in the first seconds of the opening track, it is clear that he means it, and he takes it from there. Whatever is inside Neil Young that has made him the most powerful single force in the history of rock comes out in his voice and guitar all over this record. It just happens that the songs are political, though I'll admit no one singing what amounts to a political slogan has ever made my ears perk up like Young does here--with the possible exception of Phil Ochs, who Neil thanks for inspiration in the liner notes. In both cases, this isn't beacuse of the words they're singing, but who they are and they power they bring to the song as individual performers. On a purely musical level, this is the most inspired and authentic record Young has made since Rust Never Sleeps. Sure, he could have chosen a better word here or there, or paid a little closer attention to fitting the melody into the backing track just so, but name me a Neil Young record that is conventionally perfect. Through its courage and timeliness, but especially for the energy, quality, and authenticity here, this album does more to add to his to his legend and mountainous stature than any Neil Young has made in decades.

(Note: Reprise will release Living With War Raw, undubbed rough mixes of the basic album tracks, with a bonus DVD December 19.)

7) The Minus 5 (Yep Roc)

Scott McCaughey has been writing and recording great songs for upwards of 20 years now as leader of the Young Fresh Fellows and now this solo project cum supergroup, making its seventh full-length release here. But his writing has truly become more inventive--especially lyrically--over the years, while sacrificing none of its most refreshing and engaging qualities. In some ways, this is a back-to-basics release for McCaughey, with the studio accoutrements of his recent Wilco-backed releases mostly giving way to solid yet simplistic backing by core support players Peter Buck, John Ramberg, and Bill Rieflin, and unquestionably strong pop sensibilities that have sometimes been muted in the M5 coming to the fore. The Help! through Revolver Beatles are a palpable influence throughout, especially in the well-placed guitar breaks, middle eight harmonies, and Harrison-esque solo of "Out There On the Maroon." The bouncy piano- and organ-driven "My Life As A Creep" veers closer to early solo McCartney territory with its barked title vocal hook followed by a bright-sounding bridge. Despite his deserved reputation as a fun and occasionally downright goofy songsmith, McCaughey has never shied away from darker themes, though they're sometimes kept nearly undetectable through sprightly presentation. The M5, though, has been an outlet for his more overtly "downer" material over the years, and McCaughey takes both tacks here. "Aw Shit Man" is maybe the most apparently painful lyric that he has committed to disc, but is immersed in a brisk cartoon punk tune, while "Bought A Rope" is almost eerie in its melding of discomfiting lyrics, whining pedal steel, pulsing synth, and echoey electric piano. To wrap things up, Scott lets his garage roots show on the totally rocking "Original Luke."

To say that an album ranks among the best in McCaughey's catalog is no faint praise, and this one fits the bill.

8) Skygreen Leopards- Disciples of California (Jagjaguwar)

This is probably the most aptly titled release of the year, as the Leopards (who are in fact Californians) revisit the bygone era straddling the turn of the '70s when the Golden State turned out the best music in the world. You'd almost swear these guys had to have been there listening as the Notorious-era Byrds rehearsed a set of new tunes for the first time, or as the classic original Flying Burrito Brothers lineup coalesced at the storied "Burrito Manor." Disciples doesn't come across as an imitation or a tribute to the timeless music that transpired in that time and place, but seems to capture the very essence of what makes it great without attempting duplication. The songs are stripped down and starkly presented, with free spirit and the love of simple, yet beautiful music more identifiable as a link to their predecessors than any sonic element. Truly just about every song here is majestic in its simplicity, with aching vocal hooks and plaintive twelve-string making the best moments more powerful than any more complex or sonically faithful rendering of the era. This record is not only worthy of its influences but a heartening illustration that their spirit lives on.

9) Ben Kweller (ATO)

Kweller's third full-length taps the strenths of each of his first two records, combining the alternately uplifiting and heartrending pure pop of 2002's Sha Sha and the more developed and serious song structures of 2004's On My Way. Kweller's incredibly expressive voice ably exudes sorrow, longing, and jubilation, it seems all within one song on "Sundress," augmented with more than a hint of Spector-style production. "I Gotta Move" is simple of both melody and mind, but totally fun and infectious. "Thirteen," an emotional solo piano ballad, is a series of lyrical snapshots that could make anyone who's ever been in love a little misty. It's just the kind of track that makes you love the soaring melody and propulsive backing of "Penny On the Train Track," which follows, even more. "Until I Die" may have a little too much of the overt sentimentality that somewhat burdened even some of the best songs on Kweller's debut, but he effectively counteracts it with the hard rocking knock-out punch of "This Is War." Anyone who loves pop music should find plenty to embrace in this record.

10) Vetiver- To Find Me Gone (DiCristina)

Vetiver's Andy Cabic is lumped into the "weird folk" category with the likes of his sometime collaborator Devendra Banhart, though I'm hard pressed to see what's all that weird about his simple, acoustic-based songs and smoothly delivered vocals. True, the raga-like album opener "Been So Long" isn't exactly Top 40 material, but it features a conventionally pretty melody. Cabic sounds like Jerry Garica on a downer on the next couple tracks, then moves on to the delightful "Idle Ties," which sounds akin to a Melanie side or some other '60s psych-pop gem. "I Know No Pardon," another highlight, follows, with Cabic combining a longingly poetic lyric with a perfect country-rock backing track that conjures Gram Parsons or early Jackson Browne. The track is nearly seven minutes long, but I wouldn't mind if it went on all day. Variations on these fairly normal themes continue throughout the rest of the record, though you do get some swirling atmospherics on "Double." The closing "Down At El Rio" gets the Dead out once again to good effect. Rather than take simple music based on timeless influences and make it spooky or odd, Cabic strips it down to its essence, which isn't weird but is in its own way unique on today's music scene.


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