:: Friday, July 07, 2006 ::
The year in music, so far: new British invasion vs. roots revival?
Prepare your slings and arrows, readers. A music countdown is straight ahead. - The Blogger

As I look over my collection of music from the first half of 2006, and sift through my favorites to try to come up with a top 10 list (which ended up turning into a top 11 list), I see two trends emerging:
  1. Some of the best music hails from across the pond.

  2. The rest of the best music shoots from twangy American roots.

    (Skip to the list)
    (The top 10 11 of 2006 podcast)
Whether the second half of 2006 follows these trends is anyone's guess. But from my view, the first half has produced some good stuff in both categories. Which is more than I can say for the offerings in the punk or rock departments. There have been a couple of decent punk releases -- Pretty Girls Make Graves' Elan Vital is OK, as is post-Goth Film School (Film School). But they're both predictable, which translates to boring after awhile. Better, but still not top 10 material, is Mission of Burma's recent release The Obliterati. I hear Sonic Youth has a new CD out, but I haven't gotten to it yet. Maybe it'll be in the second half or end-of-year countdown.

As for the purer rock forms? No good garage yet this year. None that I've discovered, anyway. I was hopeful that the Strokes' First Impressions of Earth would rival the band's first two offerings. But first impressions were that it was a dud. Heavy metal? Other than the Led Zeppelin/Black Sabbath-inspired metallurgy of Wolfmother, an Australian band, it's slim pickings for headbangers, too. I hear Red Hot Chili Peppers' Stadium Arcadium is pretty good, but I've never heard the full album, just the single "Dani California" (aka "Mary Jane's Last Dance Redux"). The best thing about that song is the clever video chronicling the history of rock and roll, RHCP-style.

So, that leaves the poor punk wannabe with an odd mix of artists for the top 10 11 albums of the first half of 2006. It's a combination of rootsy American and Canadian groups and performers that mix dashes of soulful R&B with folk, southern rock and some bonified country twang, and British (mainly Scottish) pop/rock.

The bloggedy blog top 10 11 albums for the first half of 2006

Death of the Party

11. Kudu, Death of the Party
OK, time to 'fess up to y'all: the aging punk wannabe is also a closet dance/techno freak. I loved Confessions on a Dance Floor, last year's triumphant comeback by Disco/Dancing Queen Madonna. (Yes, I also like show tunes. And no, I'm not gay.) This year's fab dance disc is from Kudu, a duo out of the New York dance scene. Death of the Party is dominated by lead singer Sylvia Gordon's vocals. The style is a predictable potpourri of dance-techno-disco beats, the lyrics are vapid and poppish (all about sex, of course), and in the final analysis Kudu builds on the shaky foundation of '80s glam-dance groups like Deee-Lite (remember "Groove Is in the Heart"?). Kudu borrows heavily from all sorts of musical genres -- witness the "Low Rider" cowbell intro to "Hot Lava" -- so you won't find much originality here. But if you need a break from the painful earnestness of neo-punk and indie, and just want something fun to listen to (and maybe even to dance to), then Kudu might just be the cure.

Favorite tracks: "Love Me in Your Language," "Hot Lava," "Magic Touch."

Kudu MySpace page

Broken Boy Soldiers

10. The Raconteurs, Broken Boy Soldiers
Jack White of the White Stripes decided to take a break from drummer girl Meg and got together with singer-songwriter Brendan Benson and members of the Greenhornes to form the Raconteurs. The result, Broken Boy Soldiers, draws on all the R&B and '60s rock influences White is known for: some Led Zeppelin riffs and Robert Plant caterwauling here and there, the usual Jack White experimentation with various musical styles, and of course echos of White's Delta blues heroes. But this one also has some unusual elements: a bit of the Kinks (listen to "Yellow Sun" on the podcast), perhaps a touch of Pink Floyd, too. And nothing against Meg, but it's nice to hear the beat of a different drummer backing up White's vocals. All in all, it's solid album, but it ain't the White Stripes. Let's hope this little side project doesn't derail the Whites from some new creative work in '07.

Favorite tracks: "Steady As She Goes," "Broken Boy Soldier," "Yellow Sun."

The Raconteurs official website

Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

9. Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
After immersing myself in the languid, Patsy Cline-inspired crooning of Canadian Neko Case, it's hard to believe she's the same singer who collaborates on the power-pop band the New Pornographers. The same sweet vocals are there, but the style is very different -- and a tribute to Neko Case's versatility. While I typically prefer the jingly power pop of a band like New Pornographers to alt-country, there's just something about Case's saccharin vocals that draw me in like a Siren's song. But it's more than that. The lyrics are vivid and earthy, poetic. (From "Margaret vs. Pauline": "Girl with the parking lot eyes/Margaret is the fragments of a name/Her bravery is mistaken for the thrashing in the lake/Of the make-believe monster whose picture was faked.") Every song is a story wrapped within a poem -- beautiful tales of tragedy and loss, of car crashes and women who lose fingers in the canning factory. The compositions are beautifully arranged, too. I've been listening to selections of this album off and on for a good four months, and it hasn't grown old yet.

Favorite tracks: "Margaret vs. Pauline," "Hold On, Hold On," "The Needle Has Landed."

Neko Case on MySpace

The Loon

8. Tapes 'n Tapes, The Loon
The Loon is a latecomer to the list, and maybe it's premature to include it. I don't believe the album has been officially released yet (at least, according to eMusic). But I've been soaking up the sounds of it, thanks to eMusic's pre-release, and I like what I'm hearing. The style is kind of sloppy and all over the board, and kind of tough for me to write about right now. I think they're taking a page from the Sufjan Stevens playbook, with place-name songs like "Omaha," "Manitoba" and "In Houston," and the same sort of strumming, but less contemplative. The band hails from Minneapolis, so it's no surprise they name the Replacements as n influence. But the list also includes some seminal 70s-era punk groups -- Talking Heads and Wire, among them -- and songs like "Crazy Eights" aned "Jakovis Suite," with their steady, urgent rhythm guitars, fuzzy electronica and herky-jerky switches in beat and rhythm, seem to fall more into that category. I'm not sure what to make of this whole album yet. But I like what I'm hearing, and I have a feeling it's going to be one of the year's finest in the lo-fi alt-indie niche.

Favorite tracks: "Just Drums," "Crazy Eights," "Jakovis Suite."

Tapes 'n Tapes on MySpace


7. The Bottle Rockets, Zoysia
Hailing from my home state of Missouri, the Bottle Rockets, by their very name, reflect one of the greatest pleasures of summertime for a Midwestern boy: shooting off firecrackers around the Fourth of July. Bottle rockets are common and plentiful in the Midwest this time of year. And the BR's 2006 release, Zoysia, is named after the common lawn grass, which is also plentiful in these parts but also hearty and capable of weathering extreme cold or heat. It's this connection with the common, everyday things of Midwestern life that makes this album so enjoyable. The songs, like Neko Case's, tell little stories about the heartbreaks and tragedies of life, but also expand to address the political issues that divide our nation. Three of the best songs on the record ("Middle Man," "Align Yourself" and the title track) all critique the politics of identity and belonging -- not the typical fare of a redneck southern rock band. But even as they offer wily dissections of politics, they treat you to some good foot-stomping, git-tar heavy jams in the best tradition of Lynyrd Skynyrd. You don't even have to listen to the lyrics to enjoy it. But it's better if you do.

Favorite tracks: "Middle Man," "Mountain to Climb," "Align Yourself."

Bottle Rockets official website

News and Tributes

6. The Futureheads, News and Tributes
As far as the Tributes part of the title goes, the Futureheads sound like they owe a lot to their rock and roll past -- or from the past 25 years or so, anyway -- and they pay it back in a big way. This Scottish band draws on late '70s Clash ("Skip to the End" ), early '80s U2 and Big Country ("Cope," "Worry About It Later"), and even some dance-techno ("Decent Days and Nights (Shy Child Remix)"). The tunes are infectious earworms, and songwriting isn't half bad, either. The Futureheads unpack big, gorgeous sounds -- tribal drumbeats, solid swirls of clean but choppy rhythm guitar, and harmonious vocals.

Favorite tracks: "Fallout," "Skip to the End," "Decent Days and Nights (Shy Child Remix)"

The Futureheads on MySpace

5. Arctic Monkeys, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not
Let's get this much out of the way: Are the Arctic Monkeys overhyped? Definitely. Are they overrated? Definitely not. These four young lads from Sheffield, are the real deal. (Or at least they were until their bass player left the band a few weeks ago.) I love me some Arctic Monkeys. I don't care what anybody says. Their songs are raw and grungy, highly caffienated, and mature beyond the band's years. They draw on reggae-inspired punk, the proto-punk sounds of Velvet Underground and the Stooges, and just good old, raw rock and roll. Plus, to prove their toughness and rough edge, their album cover pictures a photo of one of them smoking a cigarette. Wow. Talk about devil-may-care. Who knows whether the Monkeys will be a flash in the pan? I say, enjoy their first album for what it is. Never mind whatever people say it is.

Favorite tracks: "I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor," "Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured," "From the Ritz to the Rubble"

Arctic Monkeys on MySpace

The Greatest

4. Cat Power, The Greatest
Another sultry songstress, Cat Power (aka Chan Marshall) delivers a powerful punch with this album. Recorded in Memphis with the help of some musicians who helped make the "Memphis sound" famous, The Greatest delivers more soul than her past offerings. It's a new sound for her, but she's up to the task with most tracks ("Living Proof," "Lived in Bars" and "Could We" are the most notably blues- and soul-infused tunes). And on tunes like "Empty Shell," her voice is smooth as a shot of Southern Comfort in a hazy roadhouse. A few of the songs don't quite hit the mark, but overall this is a worthwhile effort and a smooth, sultry album that hits the right notes for certain moods. It may not be her greatest. (That title still belongs to her 2003 album You Are Free, in my opinion.) But it's close.

Favorite tracks: "The Greatest," "Living Proof," "Could We," "Empty Shell," "Love and Communication."

Cat Power on MySpace

Bang Bang Rock & Roll

3. Art Brut, Bang Bang Rock & Roll
Where to begin with this hilarious, absurdist critique of art, pop culture, rock and roll, the music business, relationships? Perhaps with the band's name itself: Art Brut, as Heather Phares explains in the All Music Guide article on eMusic, takes its name from "French painter Jean Debuffet's definition of outsider art -- art by prisoners, loners, the mentally ill, and other marginalized people, and made without thought to imitation or presentation." With Bang Bang Rock & Roll, Art Brut creates music from a definite observational perspective, but with plenty of personal opinion injected. The title track has lead singer Eddie Argos proclaiming, "I can't stand the sound /of the Velvet Underground" while the rest of the band chants "White light! White heat!" in the background. The other tracks are just as wry and cynical. The first track, "Formed a Band," puts the entire record in perspective with a tongue-in-cheek critique of rock delusions of saving the world ("We're going to write the song/that makes Israel and Palestine get along"). I like to think of Art Brut as the B-52s with a British accent and a heavy influence of Dada absurdity and Monty Python humor.

Technically, this album came out in 2005 in the UK. But it didn't reach American shores until this year.

Favorite tracks: "Formed a Band," "My Little Brother," "Bang Bang Rock and Roll"

Art Brut official website

A Blessing and a Curse

2. Drive-By Truckers, A Blessing and a Curse
The Drive By Truckers have come a long way from their Skynyrdesque Southern Rock Opera, a concept album about a boy from the south who moves north, tries to become a punk, then reconnects to his musical roots. (Hmm, sounds familiar to the aging punk wannabe.) These days, however, their influences include a shades of punk as well as the jagged shards of Neil Young/Crazy Horse. But make no mistake: they're still a southern rock band, and A Blessing and a Curse still builds on the southern-Gothic storytelling techniques that brought their earlier albums critical acclaim. The songs are still tales straight out of a Barry Hannah short story: ruined relationships, loved ones who died too soon, crystal meth in the bathtub, cigarettes in the ashtray -- "and they weren't your menthol lights". (OK, maybe Barry Hannah never wrote about crystal meth, but you get the picture.) Three different lead singer-songwriters -- Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell -- create a troika that lends variety and multiple viewpoints to the Truckers' songs. This is a hard-rocking album that any southern rock aficianado should enjoy.

Favorite tracks: "Feb. 14," "Wednesday," "A Blessing and a Curse," "A World of Hurt"

Drive-By Truckers on MySpace

The Life Pursuit

1. Belle and Sebastian, The Life Pursuit
A lot of B&S purists hate this record, because it departs from the standards of past releases. But that's one reason I like it. It doesn't sound that much like the Glasgow band's older stuff. It's pure pop, with clever lyrics that hold more humor and light-heartedness that past B&S songs. It's the feel-good album of the year. The musical stylings of this record are clean and effervescent, reminiscent in many ways of late '60s mod from Swinging London, baby. Tunes like "Another Sunny Day" are shiny, happy toe-tapping stories about young lovers and love, while "Sukie in the Graveyard" melodically recounts the travails of a girl who hung out at the art school, modeling "for all the scholars of art" ("She had an A1 body and a face to match/She didn't have money, she didn't have cash"). It's upbeat, even as it lays out the sordid details of the poor girl's experiences. The latest single from this album, "White Collar Boy," features a chunky "Spirit in the Sky" fuzz-guitar opening and bassline that sticks in the ear, and conjures up nostalgia for Norman Greenbaum's one and only hit. That alone should be enough of a reason to get this album.

Favorite tracks: "Another Sunny Day," "White Collar Boy," "The Blues Are Still Blue," "Sukie in the Graveyard," "To Be Myself Completely"

Belle and Sebastian on MySpace

Top 11 podcast


1. Belle and Sebastian - "The Blues Are Still Blue"
2. Drive By Truckers - "Wednesday"
3. Art Brut - "Formed a Band"
4. Cat Power - "Empty Shell"
5. Arctic Monkeys - "From the Ritz to the Rubble"
6. The Futureheads - "Fallout"
7. The Bottle Rockets - ""Align Yourself"
8. Tapes 'n Tapes - "Crazy Eights"
9. Neko Case - "The Needle Has Landed"
10. The Raconteurs - "Yellow Sun"
11. Kudu - "Hot Lava"

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:: Andrew 13:55 + ::

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