Pittsburgh Union of Record Geeks electronic

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Rob's Top 20 of 2006

Rob is a record geek from Regent Square.

1. Boris - Pink (Southern Lord)

Records these days don't really get any more whalloping than this one. For the better part of Pink, this near-legendary underground trio sound eerily like a Japanese Stooges on cheap trucker's speed colliding with the breathtaking psych freakout guitar of the lovely Wata (every music geek's fave-rave pin-up guitar-hero waif--think Faye Wong in Chungking Express for a quick reference point). Warning: Don't be lulled/fooled by the uber-shoegazing/MBV-inspired wall of gauze that is the opener, "Farewell"; it's the piercing feedback wail at the start of the title track that more accurately sets the tone for the rest of this wild ride. (And yes, oh Jap-psych snobs, I realize that a version of this was released outside of the U.S. last year. I even like the old cover more than the new cover. However, the nine extra freak-ee-out-ee minutes added to "Just Abandoned My-Self" gave me--in my mind, anyway--enough justification to count this edition as a new release for this year.)

2. Nina Nastasia - On Leaving (Fat Cat)

Nina Nastasia has based her career on peddling faintly-queasy (in a junk sick kind of way)-but-absolutely rapturous beauty, and this album may be her most beautiful. The songs here are often not more than fragments, yet they always leave me wanting more. That she's consistently recruited the Dirty Three's Jim White to drum on her records (as well as the mighty Steve Albini to produce them--only Steve could get acoustic records to sound this way) further compounds my admiration.

3. Joanna Newsom - Ys (Drag City)

I can't really add to the heaps of adjectives that have already been showered upon this unbelievably ambitious and heartbreaking release, so I won't even try to address it on those terms. I do want to say, however, that although Van Dyke Parks can certainly arrange an avant-pop tune, it's not so much his much-vaunted contributions to this record that have knocked me on my proverbial ass, but rather the songs (I'd almost call them "compositions" if such a word would not summon up unpleasant memories of my teenaged trawling through ELP records) themselves and the unbelievable amount of emotion that every boy's favorite indie-rock harpist pin-up is able to convey through her vocals. "Sawdust & Diamonds," the song that most resembles her past work, is actually my personal favorite on the album, although to me, anyway, this album is superior in every way to her prior releases.

4. Colossal Yes - Acapulco Roughs (Ba Da Bing)

This album really sneaked up on me just prior to my completing both my "best of '06" mix CD and this list. Eleven luxuriantly orchestral piano ballads served up in the noble tradition of Plush's Liam Hayes by... well, the drummer from psychedelic cowboys Comets on Fire! Go figure. As much as I love Comets (three Comets-related projects are actually on my top 40 records for the year), this album has really found a way into my psyche. I simply cannot stop listening to it and the epic "Poor Boy's Zodiac" could well be the greatest single songwriting and arranging achievement from this year. I look forward to seeing what Utrillo Kushner cooks up next.

5. Thom Yorke - The Eraser (XL)

Although I own every Radiohead release from The Bends through Hail to the Thief (Pablo Honey's warmed-over U2-isms are flat-out inexcusable), I don't really want to like the band and, in particular, I don't want to like Thom Yorke. As a result, I resisted this record for the better part of six months, thinking, "Thom Yorke is the most pretentious part of Radiohead (see all of his comments relating to Kid A at the time of its release). Surely his first solo album will suck...." Well, I was wrong. Dead wrong. This record is gorgeous, all warm & fuzzy analog synths, close-mic'ed vocals, and treated guitars. There is a strong possibility that "Harrowdown Hill," "Black Swan" and the title track could be three of my absolute favorite songs of the year. And, as an added bonus, Yorke mercifully keeps his Bono-esque vocal malapropisms to an absolute minimum.

6. Bob Dylan - Modern Times (Columbia)

Another record that, prior to listening, I couldn't imagine liking. I'm a *huge* of Dylan in his prime, but aside from 1997's somewhat overpraised Time Out of Mind, I haven't really dug a Dylan album since 1978's chronically underrated Street-Legal. When Love & Theft was released five years ago, I read the intensely positive critical reaction to the record and rushed out to buy...a completely unfocused set of blooz shuffles that featured His Bobness wheezing unbearable cliches. I assumed this record would be more of the same until my buddy Sam pressed a copy of it onto me a few months ago and I was knocked out on first listen. The nimble and loose R 'n' B poetics of the opening triumvirate--"Thunder on the Mountain" (with its completely disarming reference to Alicia Keys), "Spirit on the Water" and Bob's mighty reworking of Muddy Waters' "Rollin' and Tumblin'"--are worth the price of admission alone, and other standout tracks like "Workingman's Blues 2" and "Ain't Talkin'" are more than just icing on the cake.

7. Sparks - Hello Young Lovers (In the Red)

Sparks' latest release is bold, refreshing and dazzling, with Ron Mael's caustic, absurdist wit completely intact (see the "Dick Around" opener as Exhibit A) and Russell Mael's operatic vocals sounding better than they have any right to sound in 2006. After years of languishing in the post-New Wave delete bin, Sparks--via the brisk pop of "Perfume,” sleekly ironic protest of "Baby, Baby (Can I Invade Your Country?)" and sprawling grandeur of "As I Sit to Play Organ at Notre Dame Cathedral", to name just three--have certainly returned to the vanguard of contemporary music.

8. Jarvis Cocker - Jarvis (Rough Trade-U.K.)

I've been fairly infatuated with Jarvis Cocker's persona (lyrical and otherwise) since I first became aware of his (former? I'm unclear as to whether they've formally disbanded) band, Pulp, in the early '90s. Classic singles like 1992's "Babies," 1993's "Do You Remember the First Time," 1995's "Common People" and 1998's "Help the Aged" defined Jarvis’s lyrical niche as the louche kitchen-sink voyeur with the clever turn of phrase and heart of gold. On this, his first solo record, he explores and refines his usual themes—soured middle-class relationships, sex, alienation, state-of-the-world existential angst—with a more straightforward attack that emphasizes guitars over keyboards. This approach pays off in general and fares exceptionally well on Jarvis classics like “From Auschwitz to Ipswich,” “Black Magic” (complete with “Crimson & Clover” riff sample), and “Running the World” (the brilliantly corrosive anti-Live 8 anthem premiered on MySpace and included here as a bonus track).

9. Tom Waits - Orphans (Anti-)

Jesus, this is something—a welcome three-disc clearinghouse that’s bursting at the seams with every conceivable type of Tom-ness. On disc one, we get the Beefheartian carnival barker cranking his hurdy gurdy over varying degrees of clamoring cacophony (some of which, like "Bottom of the World," my personal favorite on the whole set, can still be downright melodic). On disc two, the Piano Man--you know, the archetypal piano ballads that tug at the heartstrings and fire up the synapses in a way that the Long Island Antichrist (read: Billy Joel) couldn't even conjure in the most inflated recesses of his own ego. And on disc three, well... there are both of those guys and some genuinely creepy fellow travelers (the droll narrator of “Army Ants” springs to mind). Strangely, this collection of outtakes and uncollected tracks somehow holds together as his most essential, potentially most cohesive work since 1984’s jaw-dropping Rain Dogs (although arguments in favor of 1991’s Bone Machine or 2004’s Real Gone will be certainly be considered in the alternative).

10. The Flaming Lips - At War With the Mystics (Warner Bros.)

On their latest release, the Lips--once one of rock's most cheerfully unhinged, genuinely challenging art-punk outfits--regain some much-needed cajones after the mind-blowing (yet scintillatingly cerebral and cinematic) blast of The Soft Bulletin and the faintly warmed-over, drum-machine-led philosophizing of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. (Note: Before I get death threats for undervaluing the universally-acclaimed Yoshimi, let me mention that I at least *like* it... it's just hard for me to actively worship a record that's universally championed by just about every uber-precocious child spawned by one of my friends.) Standout tracks like the skeletally propulsive “Free Radicals,” the oh-so-Floydian “Pompeii Am Gotterdammerung,” and “The W.A.N.D.” find these Oklahomans rediscovering their freak flag and find multi-instrumental force of nature Steve Drozd rediscovering his drumkit after a heroin-enforced layoff (he’s now clean and sober after years of abuse). On the other side of their sonic spectrum, “The Sound of Failure” (with its tsk-tsk shout-outs to Britney Spears and Gwen Stefani) and the lovely closer “Goin’ On” explore their more incantory qualities with great success. The end result is one of the most consistent albums in the Flaming Lips’ oeuvre.

Bubbling under:

11) The Essex Green - Cannibal Sea (Merge)

12) Sir Richard Bishop - Fingering the Devil

13) Albert Hammond, Jr. - Yours to Keep (Rough Trade-U.K.)

14) Mission of Burma - The Obliterati (Matador)

15) Wooden Wand & the Sky High Band - Second Attention (Kill Rock

16) Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (Domino)

17) Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy - The Letting Go (Drag City)

18) Graham Coxon - Love Travels at Illegal Speeds (Transcopic)

19) The Pink Mountaintops - Axis of Evol (Jagjaguwar)

20) Simon Joyner - Skeleton Blues (Jagjaguwar)


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