My Favorite Albums of 2006
First, Muse, performing their single “Starlight”:
I like this album because it pretty perfectly fills a long-absent slot in my list of musical needs, which is the slot of “Vaguely ridiculous and sf-obsessed rock band whose sheer force of operatic musicality overwhelms any feeling they’ve watched too many episodes of Doctor Who for their own good.” The last band that really filled this slot with any competence was Queen; I thought The Darkness might manage it, but they totally cratered with that last album. But Black Holes and Revelations is the gift that just keeps on giving. On one hand, it’s sort of deeply silly, and just the sort of pseudo-space opera that you might expect out of, say, Emerson Lake and Palmer, back in the day . On the other hand, unlike ELP or any other number of prog-rock bands of the 70s who took a swan dive into their own assholes with their over-read but under-comprehended ambitions, Muse figured out that along with all your old-school SF reading, you actually have to write sharp, smart pop songs that people can jerk their bodies around to.
And as they say, that makes all the difference. This album is packed with crankable pop tunes, with immediately catchy bits strategically deployed to hook into your memory center, from the “Mony Mony” bassline and piano cascade of “Starlight” to the Cure “Disintegration”-era bass and drum line of “Map of the Problematique.” And even when Muse finally goes off the rails and commits the heinous act of true rock opera, as they do with the closing track “Knights of Cydonia,” they at least keep it to just over six minutes — and, as the video of the song shows, the boys are entirely aware how deep they are into the cheese. But they commit to it, you know? And it works.
I think this may be their most successful album (they’re apparently huge in the UK) so part of me fears the unholy mess their next album could be, now that they will be entirely released from the need of having to rein in their whims. But that’s a problem for the future. For now, yeah, this works for me big.
Second, Regina Spektor, performing “Fidelity”:
Folks, I have a really embarrassing crush on Regina Spektor, partly because I have a notable weakness for smart and pretty Russian Jewish girls anyway (just ask my college girlfriend). Just so that’s out there. However, even without my hormones hammering away at my critical faculties, Begin to Hope would be an album I’d be interested in, because — when she’s not just being quirky for quirky’s sake — Spektor genuinely captures what it’s like to love and be loved.
“Fidelity” is a lovely example of this, as she describes both falling in love and being frightened of what it means for her — the desire for love pitted against the desire not to get hurt by someone else, and Spektor (or the character she’s playing) in the middle of these desires, detailing what it’s doing to her. The video, which somewhat unusually complements the song to which it’s attached, takes the theme of the song and uses it as part of a storytelling arc, in which a broken heart literally releases the singer from her indecision and allows her to love. It’s a lovely and complex idea, which is not exactly what one expects to see in a video these days.
Later on in the album, in “On The Radio,” Spektor manages possibly one of the best encapsulations of what it means to love someone else that I’ve seen in a while:
No, this is how it works
You peer inside yourself
You take the things you like
And try to love the things you took
And then you take that love you made
And stick it into some
Someone else’s heart
Pumping someone else’s blood
And walking arm in arm
You hope it don’t get harmed
But even if it does
You’ll just do it all again
I’m not typically one of those writers who draws direct inspiration from music while I write, but I will say that this particular verse, and the song “Fidelity,” were strongly on my mind when I was writing “The Sagan Diary,” because much of TSD is about Jane Sagan trying to describe how she feels love, and in particular love for John Perry. These songs were actually useful for me, because they were on topic with what I was trying to write, and at some points, what I was having difficulty getting out. I’ll have to send Miss Spektor a copy, clearly; she wasn’t the muse of the story, but she helped me get at what the muse was trying to say to me.
For all that I do confess a mild exasperation with Spektor, in that I think she settles for cleverness at times where I think she should be aiming for something else. “On the Radio” is actually an example of this — the second verse is one that I’ve clearly engraved into my brain, but the first is mostly clever surrealism in which the main virtues of the images she pops up seem to be that Spektor can make them rhyme with the other images. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it means the song is hopelessly thematically unbalanced. I love the song, mind you, but I’m aware of its flaws.
While I’m vaguely scared of what Muse’s next album will be, I’m very interested in what Spektor has up her sleeve. The artist Spektor reminds me a bit of is Jane Siberry, who made a series of emotionally complex but fragmentary and imperfect albums, and then got it all together and knocked it out of the park with When I Was a Boy, which is a devastatingly gorgeous meditation on life and death that I think is one of the best albums of the 1990s. I think Spektor is still in her fragmentary stage, and I’m looking forward to the one album of hers that entirely knocks me on my ass. In the meantime Begin to Hope is still one of my two favorite albums of 2006, which should suggest what I think I have to look forward to from Spektor.
Now: What music did you love in 2006? Tell me! I yearn to purchase new music!
(* I’ll note that embedding the videos for Muse and Regina Spektor I am, strictly speaking, violating copyright. But here’s the thing — these videos have been on YouTube for months, and YouTube isn’t exactly low-profile, nor does it hesitate to remove videos at the request of the copyright owners. After a certain point, I rather strongly suspect that if a video from a high-profile artist remains on YouTube, it’s because someone who can make a decision about it has decided that it should stay up. Which is to say I’m not feeling particularly guilty about embedding them at this point. And anyway, I bought Begin to Hope after watching the “Fidelity” video on YouTube, which suggests something, now, doesn’t it. Also, of course, if you check out this stuff and these artists and like them, then you should buy the albums. You guys know how I feel about these things.)