My Favorite Albums of 2006
Posted on December 30, 2006 Posted by John Scalzi 34 Comments
Because I know you’re wondering: They are Black Holes and Revelations by Muse, and Begin to Hope by Regina Spektor. Why? Well, I’ll tell you, with the help of multimedia aids.*
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.)
Beck- The information
Cold War Kid- Robbers and Cowards
Arctic Monkeys- What ever people say im not
Hard-Fi- Stars of CCTV
Asobi Seksu- Umi no Jiastsu
The iO’s- Resident Alien EP
pandora internet radio
For genre content, there’s The Crane Wife by the Decemberists. It’s very catchy, with some early Tull tendencies. The only sticking point is the lyrics. I’ve often seen them described as “literate,” but that’s taking the intention for the deed. They don’t stop me from enjoying the record, though.
John, if Muse ever comes to your corner of Ohio, you must see them live. I caught their shortened set at the Virgin Festival in Toronto in September and was completely blown away by it. Apparently their full show here in July was even better, but I missed it. *kicks self*
I think they’re a younger, prettier* Rush more than ELP myself, with David Icke standing in for Ayn Rand as their intellectual inspiration. But as you’ve said, they have the pop sensibility, hooks and willingness not to take themselves to seriously, and that puts them well ahead of Geddy and the boys for me.
* OK, their fashion sense isn’t always there. My single favourite non-musical moment during the show was a text message from an audience member that appeared on the scrolling display: “I think it’s great that Mork has gone out and formed a band.”
And Regina’s music, especially that song and video, is great. I’m definitely getting her CD in my next batch.
2006 was the year when I finally started listening to a lot of female singers again. From YouTube:
* Fiona Apple: here she is covering her Tymps (Sick in the Head Song) with Costello, although I find the version by her producer’s little girls immensely charming. (Hunt through the http://www.fiona-apple.com site for the video section that includes it).
* Lily Allen: she’s not to everyone’s taste, but I think she’s just wonderful — in small doses. Smile and Littlest Things
* Emily Haines: she’s part of the Broken Social Scene collective (which, oddly enough, has never impressed me much, even though I love the women like Emily and Feist who have done solo work). This is Dr. Blind, which was enough to get me to buy her whole CD, which lives up to this, thankfully.
Regina Spektor makes me want to bleach my eardrums with a turkey baster.
As you asked for recommendations, I’ll take a second opportunity to vigorously plug another UK rock band called ‘Amplifier’. They don’t have the high-camp histrionics of Muse, but they have a great sense of the epic and are also very fond of galaxy-spanning sf imagery in their lyrics. There are free sample songs to listen to on their website.
This year I have also been liking, in no particular order:
The Mars Volta
Godspeed You Black Emperor!
We Are Scientists
But seriously – Amplifier are the one. Trust me.
As someone said to me recently: everyone’s music taste is “eclectic” these days. There is no “canon” anymore.
But since you’re asking… here are the tunes I loved in 2006:
– Weird Al Yankovic: “Don’t Download This Song” (available for free and legal download on weirdal.com or YouTube)
– Game-music remix: “Athena (Tigress Remix v2.0)”
(free download at http://remix.kwed.org/index.php?search=tigress)
– Robert Rodriguez, John Debney & Various: SIN CITY Motion Picture Soundtrack
Editors – The Back Door – An album that mixes just the right composition of ennui and solid pop-tunage. Their sound is something like a mix between Interpol and The Killers, I suppose.
Yoshida Brothers – III – Take the Japanese Biwa and Shamisen. Mix with an orchestra, western slide guitar, blues, jazz, rock and traditional. Shake well and enjoy. Mostly instrumental. If you’ve seen the TV commercials for the Nintendo Wii, that’s them playing in the background.
Thomas Dolby – The Sole Inhabitant – Following on his summer/fall US tour, Dolby released a CD and DVD of the reworkings of some of his biggest hits and best tunes. Recorded live, it sounds better than many studio albums I can name. Most amusing is that Dolby reminds people he’s not an 80s star…he started in the 70s. :)
Lemon Jelly – ’64-’95 – Sure, it’s mostly electronic jibber-jabber, with an overfondness for sampling….but It’s got William Shatner! A nice atmospheric background album.
Gnarls Barkley – St. Elsewhere – What do you get when you mix a DJ made famous for infringing on Beatles copyrights with a gospel-influenced rapper? A Damn Fine Album, that’s what. Filled with sophisticated rhythm constructions, clever lyrics and solid singing, this is one is constant rotation.
‘Weird Al’ Yankovic – Straight Outta Lynwood – Yes, Weird Al. No apologies will be forthcoming on this point. His most successful album to date, this is where his copy of Chamillionaire, “White and Nerdy” can be found. Often overlooked, however, are his solid songs that parody styles, such as the Sparks-inspred ‘Virus Alert’ or Rage Against the Machine-esque “I’ll Sue Ya!”. The inclusion of a DVD-A flip-side with a 5.1 mix and six bonus videos animated by some fairly famous flash animators? Just awesome.
Keane – Under the Iron Sea – Catchy lyrics and solid hooks, Keane returns with their sophomore effort, and it’s arguably superior to their first outing. Some impressive guitarwork supplements the lilting vocals and thoughtful lyric content. One of the best-sounding ‘man’s inner battle’ albums since the Smiths.
My favorites of 2006 that I’ve heard so far:
Destroyer – Destroyer’s Rubies
Genghis Tron – Dead Mountain Mouth
In Flames – Come Clarity
Intronaut – Void
Isis – In the Absence of Truth
Joanna Newsom – Ys
Mastodon – Blood Mountain
Nels Cline – New Monastery: A View into the Music of Andrew Hill
Tool – 10,000 Days
Wolves in the Throne Room – Diadem of 12 Stars
As Tim Walters noted above, The Crane Wife (and pretty much everything else) by The Decemberists is also very good. If you’ve never heard this group, you can listen to a free streaming concert from earlier this year at NPR’s site.
Damn. I’m gonna have to go get that Muse album.
2nd of the Beck one. It’s a goodun.
How about Konono #1. Awesome-folk-noise-African-trance music from Kinshasa. Guaranteed to make you either want to party all night long or use it to eject unwanted houseguests.
I don’t think I got anny new music this year. Shoot.
I’ll second the vote for Keane because Pandora keeps popping it up on my radio station, and I love it.
Other good ones:
Panic! At the Disco–A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out
Bruce Springsteen–We Shall Overcome-The Seeger Sessions (absolutely awesome album)
Shakira–Oral Fixation, Vol. 2
Here are some of my favorite albums of the year. I’m glad to see some of them have been mentioned already.
Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings The Flood
Belle and Sebastian – The Life Pursuit
Bonnie “Prince” Billy – The Letting Go
Band Of Horses – Everything All The Time
M. Ward – Post-War
The Decemberists – The Crane Wife
Destroyer – Destroyer’s Rubies
Jenny Lewis & The Watson Twins – Rabbit Fur Coat
Sufjan Stevens – The Avalanche
I’m not listening to anything particularly new. In terms of what’s getting the most play on my iPod:
Jethro Tull – Stormwatch
Jethro Tull – The Broadsword and the Beast
Joe Jackson – I’m the Man
Jem – Finally Woken
Aside from the last one, it’s like I’ve regressed to age 13.
In terms of single songs:
Weekend – Into the Morning
Luna – Bonnie and Clyde
Muse fans: Also check out Origin of Symmetry. Great, great album; I like it even more than Black Holes.
I’ve never heard of Regina Spektor until you posted her.
Wow. for that I say a heartfelt thank you.
If I ever get the chance to meet you in person I wholeheartedly plan on NOT letting you meet my wife who would fit exactly into your danger zone of pretty smart jewish girls. ‘Course she can’t sing so that might be okay.
Really though. Thanks for the Spektor. I cannot believe she’s escaped me for this long.
“If I ever get the chance to meet you in person I wholeheartedly plan on NOT letting you meet my wife who would fit exactly into your danger zone of pretty smart jewish girls.”
Well, you know. I’m married myself. Your wife is probably safe from me.
I’ll second the votes for Gnarls Barkley and Weird Al (Al gets bonus points both for incredible slate of videos for the latest album, and for actually pulling worthwhile material out of R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet”).
Courage & Patience & Grit – Great Big Sea In Concert (a CD/DVD set) is also one of my favorites. GBS is incredible live, and this is as close as anything can come to capturing that experience.
Taking the Long Way (The Dixie Chicks) is just beautiful.
And can we count Love (The Beatles) as a 2006 release?
A big Yes to The Crane Wife by The Decemberists. Also 9 by Damien Rice, The Seeger Sessions by Bruce Springsteen, Comfort of Strangers by Beth Orton, All the Roadrunning by Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris, How We Operate by Gomez, and Aphrodite Rose by Greg Keelor.
What’s playing on my IPOD alot is
God Moving over the face of Water – From the Heat soundtrack
Requiem for a Dream – From the movie Requiem for a Dream
Regina Spektor makes me want to bleach my eardrums with a turkey baster.
Plus that Muse album wasn’t their strongest. Albums of this year, Give Me A Wall, Back Room, Working For A Nuclear Free City…
The only thing Love is actually good for is for showing pretty damn convincingly that the Beatles’ actual albums need to be remastered damn quickly.
I spent most of the latter part of the year listening to old, depressing/angry music (Leonard Cohen, the Wedding Present, Tindersticks) but in addition to records by Hot Chip, the Knife, the Mountain Goats and Camera Obscura that I mention every time, I should note that the new Phoenix (It’s Never Been Like That) is by far the best post-Strokes album out there, and if you ever want a kind of folk take on the feel you talk about with regards to Muse, you might want to try Espers’ II – or, on an old school metal type of angle, Witch’s self-titled debut. Along with all the weirder stuff people should check out (Burial, MONO & world’s end girlfriend, Excepter, the Goslings).
Next year is already looking up (not that this one was bad) – the new Bloc Party is growing on me, the new Low is fantastic and the weirdest thing they’ve done yet, the new Shins… okay, I haven’t listened to that one yet but my colleagues are busy falling in love (same with the second LCD Soundsystem album), and Spiritualized are supposed to have a new one at some point.
Oh, and Konono No. 1 is fantastic – Congotronics is just entrancing.
Ummm. New music?
I think the biggest deal for me this year is Pandora, which a few other people have mentioned. This is the first time in about four years that I’ve had regular internet access, so it’s a new thing to me, and I’m very impressed with it.
As has already been pointed out, Gnarls Barkley is crazy (hah), and Neko Case is Johnny Cash with ovaries. I haven’t gotten ahold of Fox Confessor yet, but I’ve heard about half of it on Pandora, and of course it’s badass.
Some random stuff I’ve been listening to, though none of it is circa 2006 (with the exception of The Forecast):
Styles of Beyond, Megadef
The Forecast, In the Shadow of Two Gunmen
Magnolia Electric Co.
Randy Rogers Band
Robert Earl Keen
Me First and the Gimme Gimmies (Such a ridiculous idea, but they do it so well. If I didn’t know better, I’d say their version of “On the Road Again” was an original; it just sounds so right.)
And may I also add to my list:
Lemon Demon’s “The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny”:
One tremendous album that really flew in under the radar but has finally been getting a lot of attention recently is The Slip’s newest album, Eisenhower. It’s completely different from anything they’ve done before, and more importantly, much better as well. If you’re looking for fantastic, catchy rock with wonderful lyrics and damn good musicianship, you need look no further.
Also, they’ve been courted by none other than your favorite employer, AOL, who have streamed Eisenhower in its entirety and blogged about the album on AOL’s new site, Spinner. Enjoy!
My daughters are right now demanding that I play the “spekker-lady” song again. They’ve been dancing around the house to it all day.
Bands that I have started listening too in 2006…
Jedi Mind Tricks: Rap album from long-time Philadelphia crew. Manages to fuse several genre into their music (classical, heavy metal, spanish guitar). Music is dark, violent, but also relevant and sometimes incredibly poignant. Check out latest album, ‘To serve in Heaven, to reign in Hell’.
Nightwish: Finnish Opera Metal. Who knew? Absolutely catchy which tremendous instrumentals. While American heavy metal has degenerated to ‘death grunts’ and other silliness, these guys are actually into making music.
Flogging Molly: Old Irish Punk Band. Heard them for the first time at a wake of all things, and subsequently had to buy all the albums. ‘Raise what’s left of the flag for me’ still tears me up.
Gogol Bordello: Romanian Gypsy Punk. Any concert for a naked gypsy girl jumps off the stage and pulls your shirt off, and leads you into a friendly mosh pit is the most fun concert you will ever go too.
Portishead: Another one of those older bands that I somehow missed out when I was in college. Awesome trip-hop band.
I am a regular lurker on Whatever comment threads, but I am moved to risk a post for the first time by this subject, because I have experienced a personal musical watershed event this past year…
Although it’s not new music (latest album I’ve found is Deadwing, 2005), I discovered Porcupine Tree this year, and they are my new favorite band.
Internet reviews have called them Pink Floyd ripoffs (in fact, I stumbled on them via a Yahoo Launchcast recommendation that related them to my Floyd obsession), but I am in violent disagreement with those opinions.
Porcupine Tree may not be news to most of you, but I just had to chime in.
Try A Decade by Our Lady Peace for music released this year. Of course, it’s their best of album, which features music back to the early 90s, but I still recommend it.
Adding my vote for The Crane Wife by The Decemberists.
Regina Spektor is pretty. The style of music she’s singing, with the broken up “ah-ah-ah” thing, is the kind I hate with a passion.
But I did enjoy Muse. :) I’ve heard both of the linked songs on the radio but hadn’t worked out who sang them yet.
As for my musical life in 2006… I discovered the wonders of Internet Radio this year. Expanded my horizons quite a lot when I found a good German metal station. Rammstein, Megaherz, Nightwish, Flogging Molly, Eisbrecher, Wizo, In Extremo, Schock, Schandmaul, …
Then, sadly, they started to play commercials in the middle of songs (and I hear that’s a common practice there!), so I stopped listening to it. Haven’t found another good German station to replace it. Tried out a Dutch station but all their songs are in English. Still looking…
Here’s a list of my top 20 of the year, if you’re still looking for more music recommendations:
I know it’s ridiculously late to be posting to this entry but I just read it and couldn’t let it go by. I went through all the previous comments and there’s some great stuff there, but I was stunned to see that TV on the Radio’s “Return to Cookie Mountain” was omitted. (http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/article/record_review/37203/TV_on_the_Radio_Return_to_Cookie_Mountain) This album has become a complete addiction for me. It has a little touch of My Bloody Valentine to it, but filtered through some incredibly catchy pop sensibility. These songs are so densely layered they begin to feel minimal, but they are also completely accessible. I can’t recommend this album strongly enough John.
This is a 2005 CD but I discovered it in 2006:
“Paradise Hotel” by Eliza Gilkyson. Some amazing songwriting here, and music which is a mix of folk/country, and pop. Some very political songs as well as songs with interesting philosophical points.