Today is the 1st of September, and at the time of this writing, there are four months left in 2006 — a full third of the year remaining. For the music industry, it’s typically the year’s most exciting stretch as labels roll out big releases just in time for the holiday season. For the discerning listener, however (and this is where you and I come in), the year’s just about over.
The premature release of Joanna Newsom’s Ys this week signaled the end of the pregnant potential of 2006; aside from a few scattered contenders such as Swan Lake and the Clipse, if you’ve been playing — er, downloading — along at home, you’ve already heard marquee releases up through November, which include acts ranging from Justin Timberlake to Yo La Tengo to Bonnie “Prince” Billy. I’m still waiting on Badly Drawn Boy, but I don’t have high hopes for it despite an above-average first single. Whatever’s left to come, there’s been more than enough to be excited about (and not excited about) in 2006. Let’s talk it over.
Yo La Tengo – “Beanbag Chair”: mp3
Not to get too reductive or cliche, but in indie-rock land, it’s been a year of blue collar records, full of consistent albums with more work ethic than inspiration. Whereas 2005 was characterized by the innovative and the unexpected — the unprecedented rise of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, the genre-defying idiosyncrasies of Akron/Family and Chad VanGaalen, Eluvium’s ambient classic Talk Amongst The Trees — the story of 2006, unfortunately, parallels that of Tapes ‘N Tapes. Unlike the more distinctive Clap Your Hands, the Tapes dudes used their New Media success to follow an old path: gain undeserved buzz, sign a record deal, release mediocre-to-decent album, poke fun at selves in Aziz Ansari video. Somehow I don’t see Alec Ounsworth starring in the prequel, and that’s the difference between ’05 and ’06 — the best records of this year tried really hard, and I can respect that, but they didn’t try to blow my mind.
The upside is that all of the albums I’ve really loved this year — and there have been many, don’t get me wrong — have been unbelievably consistent, great from start to finish. Take Lambchop’s Damaged or Centro-matic’s Fort Recovery, albums I have trouble talking about without using the word “solid.” Sondre Lerche recorded an album that found him embracing his nascent jazz sensibilities and finding his niche; Maritime stopped being three guys from broken-up bands and made the year’s strongest punk-oriented indie-rock record. There were even a pair of lauded near-masterpieces in Danielson’s Ships and Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, but neither made a compelling emotional connection with me.
Then there are the women. Oh man, the women. The Pipettes made a transcendently great album (which, like that of fellow Brit Lily Allen, is due out on American soil next year) that married the Wall of Sound with jangle-pop, the female-fronted Camera Obscura finally beat Belle & Sebastian at their own game (think Let’s Get Out of This Country doesn’t sound like B&S? Pick up Push Barman To Open Old Wounds), and my heroine, Rose Melberg, rose to my unrealistically high expectations with songs as soft and subtle as her work with the Softies. All in all, a very good year, but a straightfoward one. I won’t be spending December cramming on albums and sweating over the sequencing of my year-end top 10, and you know what? It’s kind of a relief.
Still, it’s our best and indie-rock brightest who let us down this year. The glories of Joanna Newsom’s hype-fulfilling full-length (and the fucking monolith that is Destroyer’s Rubies) aside, take a look at the heavy hitters: Sufjan Stevens’ The Avalanche was uninspired, Thom Yorke’s The Eraser merely rehashed the electronic-leaning moments of the last two Radiohead albums, and even Akron/Family and VanGaalen reined in their more esoteric material on their latest releases. Which is not to say that most of these albums weren’t good — VanGaalen’s, especially, is stellar — but after Destroyer, Newsom, and portions of TV on the Radio and the Fiery Furnaces’ releases, the only album that verged on brilliance was Grizzly Bear’s Yellow House. The only thing that’s really innovative about that album, though, is that it managed to translate Animal Collective’s aesthetic into something more digestible. (I should mention that the Grizzly Bear and Akron/Family albums still haven’t actually been released, so when I use the past tense, I’m talking about the future. Promos go out early these days.)
Grizzly Bear – “On A Neck, On A Spit”: mp3
Ironically, but maybe unsurprisingly, most of the year’s most brilliant music has been mainstream. For all the promise that online writers and bloggers have shown in the last few years in discovering bands — from Broken Social Scene to Wolf Parade — I heard a lot of my favorite songs on the radio. I know, right? Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous” and Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” are all completely brilliant songs, futuristic genre mash-ups that demonstrate the sleek new sounds of modern urban pop. In the quest to establish the next big movement and desperate for album sales in a dying industry, hip-hop and R&B are actually pushing themselves artistically. Even last year’s “Hate It Or Love It” — a song featuring 50 Cent, proud winner of the award for worst ratio of MC skills to popularity — had a killer beat that was so smooth even Fitty couldn’t help but glide on it. Artists like Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera aren’t necessarily innately talented enough to carry their ambitions to their maximum potential, but they’re dreaming big. They’re dreaming big, and that’s more than I can say for our precious American underground in 2006. But with all that in mind, I offer a toast. To 2006, and to motherfucking Radiohead on a motherfucking tour.
David’s favorite album of 2006 is a live compilation of new Radiohead songs. Don’t tell him it doesn’t count.