I'm still a sick pup, but daytime TV sucks (at least until the bowl games begin) so I might as well blog, no? If I'm less coherent than usual, credit the fever. Or the meds.
Anyhoo. On to today's end-of-year installment: comeback of the year, best male artist, best female artist, best rock CD -- all with accompanying podcast.
Comeback of the year 2006 was the year of the geezer, what with Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, the former Cat Stevens, et. al., all releasing new albums. Many of those releases were outstanding (well, I never listened to the Springsteen one, but I heard it was good) and any of these old-timers have a legitimate shot at this coveted honor. But in the final analysis, the comeback kid is none other than:
Paul Simon, Surprise A surprisingly good album, considering how Simon fell from grace after 1986's brilliant Graceland release. (On some fansite discographies, 1990's The Rhythm of the Saints isn't even catalogued; that's how dreadful it was.) But Simon returns to Graceland form with this album. And thanks to some brilliant production work by Brian Eno, the album features all kinds of swamp things crawling around the soundscape. I still have issues with the album art, though.
This album has become a fascinating obsession for one blogger, who is finding all kinds of hidden ideas within Surprise's lyrics.
Yusuf, An Other Cup Twenty-eight years after his last album as Cat Stevens, Yusuf is back, preaching his views on Islam in a spiritually provocative album. (Stevens converted in the '70s and changed his name to Yusuf Islam, which he has since shortened to merely Yusuf.) There's a lot to like about this CD, but in today's politically charged climate in which so many followers of Islam are being lumped in with the fringe elements that are causing a global ruckus, it's doubtful that An Other Cup is getting a fair hearing. Whether you agree with Yusuf's spiritual beliefs or political point of view, you can still appreciate Yusuf's mellow, tranquil vocals, even as he's singing an homage to Allah.
The Lemonheads: The Lemonheads When I was a kid, I would gorge on the candy version of Lemonheads. Then sometime in the mid to late '80s, along came a power-pop/hardcore band out of Boston that appropriated the sweet candy name for themselves. I wasn't really listening to power pop or hardcore back then, so I couldn't tell you much about them. I think they had a song on the radio one year. And then, in the mid '90s -- poof! No more sonic Lemonheads. Apparently ,front man Evan Dando got caught up in a drug-induced haze. Now, he's apparently out of it, and the Lemonheads are back with a self-titled CD that is, if not great, decent. It's full of flavorful, chiming guitars, if you like that kind of thing (I do). Lemonheads fans everywhere should rejoice.
Best male artist
Johnny Cash: American V: A Hundred Highways Just when you thought that Johnny Cash in the twilight of his career could get no finer than his 2002 release, American IV: The Man Comes Around, along comes this posthumous offering from Cash and light-handed producer Rick Ruben. American V: A Hundred Highways is the fifth and final release in the legendary musician's American series, and it is even more powerful and more touching than any of the previous four releases. It's obvious that Cash was in a race with "Doctor Death" when cutting this album, and that makes it all the more poignant. The vocals are strained and sparse, and that's the way Rubin and Cash both wanted them. This collection of mostly covers is the sound of a man who has lived hard, but well, and who is ready to meet his maker.
Ben Kweller: Ben Kweller At first, I was skeptical. In an earliler review, I poked fun about how young Ben Kweller looks on this album cover. But don't let that youthful appearance keep you from checking out his sound. It's good stuff, and Kweller has been around the music business for longer than you'd think. He was 12 -- yes, 12 -- when he fronted the alt-grunge band Radish. With this self-titled album, he plays all the instruments, he wrote all the songs, and he sings them. Groovy stuff that reminds me of some of the best pop-rock of the '70s.
Best female artist
Cat Power, The Greatest 2006 was the year of the Cat for Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, who wooed and won our hearts all year long with this early '06 release. Sultry is the adjective that comes to mind when I think of how Marshall's voice sounds. And with The Greatest, she enlists the help of several "Memphis sound" musicians to give this a special appeal. Cat Power delivers more soul with this than with her past offerings. Overall this is a worthwhile effort that goes down smooth as a shot of Southern Comfort.
Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood Paging Patsy Cline... Alt-country darling Neko Case seems to be channeling Patsy at times. But Case's own unique, saccharine vocals draw me in like a Siren's song. It's hard to believe she's the same singer who also performs with the power-pop band the New Pornographers. With Fox Confessor, The vivid, earthy lyrics recount episodes of tragedy, love lost, fingers lost in canning factory incidents -- every song is a story wrapped within a poem, beautifully arranged.
Best rock CD
I'm not the rocker I once was. But every once in a while, like when I'm vacuuming, I still love to rock out. This year, the definitive rock album was:
Wolfmother, Wolfmother AH-WOOOOOO! These guys from Down Under make no bones about their influences. Led Zepp, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Jethro Tull and a ton of other metal and prog rock acts from the '70s come blasting thick and heavy from the speakers when you put this bad boy on play. (Yes, that is some White Stripes flavor at the beginning of track one, but stick with the Wolfies and you'll soon hear a young Ozzy wannabe cannibalize Jack White.) So what if it's derivative? It rawks, and that's all that matters. Turn it up to 11 and enjoy.
The Hold Steady: Boys and Girls in America For those of you who get tired of Craig Finn's vocals -- think Springsteen when he forgets to take his Sudafed -- get over it. The Hold Steady is here to stay. These erstwhile alt/indie punkers cranked out a flat-out rocker with Boys and Girls in America. Influenced more by Patti Smith than Springsteen, the songs are still prose-poems. But the solid rock is more reminiscent of the Allman Brothers, Thin Lizzy and old-school punk than the Boss. This is the Hold Steady's third album, and it's their best yet.
Coming next installment: my top 40 favorite albums of the year.