More of the music year in review (With accompanying podcast.)
Best album in a language I don't understand
Asobi Seksu: Citrus This, the second album from the New York-based quartet is one of the year's best offerings in any language. As it is, Citrus is bilingual, so I can actually understand a few of the songs. Not that it matters. Lead singer/keyboardist Yuki sings in both Japanese and English, and her sweet, sparkling voice, in tandem with the shimmery, reverb-heavy guitar of James Hanna, makes for some beautiful shoegaze sound for the whole world.
Prototypes: Prototypes Now that the French are once again our allies, I suppose it's safe -- or at least not altogether unpatriotic -- for me to profess my love for a certain Parisian electropunk band, Prototypes, whose self-titled album hooked me from its first electronic riffs and nasally, undecipherable Frenchie-girlie vocals. The band has gotten a lot of blog love in recent months, as well as extra exposure thanks to an iPod commercial (YouTube) that features a Prototypes song. This trio blends grungy, garage-rock guitars with new wave synths, pop yeah-yeahs and somee delicious, throaty vocals from lead singer Isabelle LeDoussal. It all adds up to some enjoyable, sassy, funky, danceable sounds, with a certain je ne sais quio. Or however you say it.
Best "roots"/country rock album
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. With their 2006 release, A Blessing and a Curse, the Truckers meld a variety of influences, from punk to Southern rock to the jagged shards of Neil Young/Crazy Horse. Even with this stream of eclectic influences, they're still a southern rock band at heart, and A Blessing and a Curse builds on the southern-Gothic storytelling styles 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.
Macon Greyson: Translate Here's one of those artists I discovered too late. But thanks to Paste, I found out about this group in the fall. Paste gave Translate a four-star review and called Macon Greyson one of the best rock bands you've never heard of (or something like that). One listen to this, and you'll know why all the praise. The band can flat-out rock. Guitar riffs fly freely in Translate, and the lyrical content is terrific stuff, at once earthy and spiritual, transcendent. The sound is familiar -- southern band guitars and a laconic, bar-band lead singer with just the right amount of gruffness to his voice. But it comes together -- scorching guitars, steady bass/drums sharp, ironic lyrics with a Texas twang. On Translate, they even do a decent cover of Ramones' "My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down." How could they go wrong? Translate transcends the southern rock genre; it's one of the best rock-and-roll albums of the year.
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. And 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 server as vignettes about the heartbreaks and tragedies of life, but they 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.
Best of the old punks Punk lives! Some of the heroes of my youth decided to make 2006 their comeback year. And the winner is:
Buzzcocks: Flat Pack Philosophy Remember the Buzzcocks? One of the most important bands to come out of the mid-70s punk scene in the UK, they were also too often overshadowed by more recognizable, high-profile outfits like the Sex Pistols and the Clash. But the Buzzcocks defined the DIY ethos of punk by bypassing the corporate music scene and pressing their first record, Spiral Scratch, on their own in their industrial hometown of Manchester. Now, they're the only surviving band from the '77 scene to actually create something new. With Flat Pack Philosophy, the Buzzcocks return with intelligent, relevant tunes. The original duo of Howard Devoto (formerly estranged from the band) and Peter Shelley infuse this album with the energy of old. The voices are older and perhaps frailer, but they're unmistakably Shelley and Devoto. In Flat Pack Philosophy, the 'cocks also pay tribute to their early punk brothers in arms, the Clash. Listen to the intro of "Big Brother Wheels" and you'll hear echoes of the London Calling opus, "Clampdown." Focus on the lyrics, and you'll hear an updated variation on the "Clampdown" theme.
The John Doe Thing: For the Best of Us The former front man of the L.A. punk band X, John Doe had a terrific year in 2005. That's the year he released the brilliant, rootsy Forever Hasn't Happened Yet. This year's offering doesn't quite achieve the same heights. In fact, you could see For the Best of Us as a slip backwards. Even so, it's great to know that he's staying active with his craft and is continuing to create new music. Doe emphasized alt-country stylings in Forever Hasn't Happened Yet, but For the Best of Us finds him meandering back toward his punk roots while he flavors it with some of the twang of his 2005 album.
Exene Cervenka and the Original Sinners, Sev7en Speaking of former X fronters, John Doe's ex-X partner, Exene Cervenka, also put out a new album in 2006. This is Cervenka's second album with the Original Sinners (although this is her second set of Original Sinners; the first bunch apparently either weren't original or sinful enough), and of the three by the old punks represented here, it's the one that remains truest to the "punk" sensibility. That is, the most like an old X album, right down to the rockabillyzoom guitar. Last year was a transition year for Cervenka, as she moved to St. Louis (score one for Missouri punks!), home to her new Original Sinners, and is trying to lend some street cred to the Loo's underground punk scene. Who knows? Maybe she'll do for St. Louis punk what Nelly did for St. Louis hip hop? Then again, maybe that wouldn't be such a good thing.
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I'm not going to spend much time on the next two categories (biggest disappointment and most overrated/overhyped). I'm also not including any cuts from them in the podcast.
The Strokes, First Impressions of Earth First impression: Not impressed. Any band that tries to pass off a Barry Manilow chorus and call it a rock tune (i.e., "Razor Blade") deserves whatever it gets.
Leigh Nash: Blue on Blue Without Sixpence None the Richer, Leigh Nash is much the poorer. A couple of decent cuts, but too much of those syrupy Leigh Nash vocals.
The Dresden Dolls, Yes, Virginia Even with songs about sex changes, first orgasms and alcoholic friends, the Dolls' freak show seems to be wearing thin.
Joanna Newsom, Ys People seem to have a love-hate relationship with this album. I know my friend Adam derives some sort of pleasure from Newsom's caterwauling (proof). But I just don't get what all the buzz is about. Call me a philistine. But to Ys, I say yeesh.