Monday, March 26, 2007

Year in Music 2006 - Part II

Just Missed the Cut

Arctic Monkeys – “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not“ (Domino). It seems like this album came out so long ago that it was a 2005 release. But, it actually was released in the States in January 2006. It took awhile to grow on me and still didn’t really find my sweet spot. If this had come out like 4-5 years ago, it probably would have been one of my favorite albums. But now there are so many bands doing the same kind of thing that the Arctic Monkeys just don’t stand out all that much to me. I give them credit for kind of doing an end-run around the music industry and becoming a Myspace hit and then using that marketing to sell a boatload of albums. But musically, there’s nothing really groundbreaking as you can hear a lot of the Strokes and Franz Ferdinand here with a little old school 70’s punk flavor. It’s a pretty good album and flows well together. But at times it almost feels like you are listening to one long 40-minute song, rather than an entire album, since so many of the songs sound alike. “Mardy Bum”, “Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secure”, “I Bet You Look Good On the Dancefloor”, “Fake Tales of San Francisco”, and “When the Sun Goes Down“ are my favorites.

Cordalene – “The Star Ledger” (Dalloway). I picked up this CD in December. I had started listening to some older Cordalene when I was ripping my CD collection to my iPod and decided to search around to see if Bella Vista resident Mike Kiley and his band had done anything new recently and I stumbled across this. Cordalene’s music has always been pretty hard to categorize. If you were asked to describe their sound to someone, although it’s familiar, I’d still have a hard time nailing what bands they sound like. They mix their influences very well together without leaning too far in any one direction. Kiley has great pop sensibilities and bass player Jim McGuinn (former Y-100 Program Director, current host of Y-Rock on WXPN) has an encyclopedic knowledge of pop/rock music of the last 40+ years – everything from the Beatles to the most obscure garage band.

This album pretty much goes the same way. They still blend 70’s punk with 60’s pop/rock in a very effective way. As with their stellar EPs, the biggest criticism of this album is that it’s just too damn short, although the last 3 songs all tend to drag on a little bit longer than usual. You hear vintage Weezer at times and some contemporary alt/rock bands like Death Cab For Cutie, but you also hear songs reminiscent of the Modern Lovers and the Jam of vintage 70’s punk/new wave, and just great melodic pop/rock songs of the British Invasion. The standout tracks are “Kissed Awake”, “The Lightning Song”, “The Most Earth Shattered in a Single Day”, “If You Didn’t Love Me”, “The Last Break Up Song I Write”, and “You Become So Bright.” It’s a good listen all the way through.

The Long Winters – “Putting the Days to Bed” (Barsuk). The Long Winters’ frontman and principal songwriter, John Roderick, has been compared to Michael Stipe. And I think it’s a fairly apt description. A Long Winters album is really more or less Roderick playing many instruments backed by a different cast of musicians on nearly every song. Members of Death Cab for Cutie, Sunny Day Real Estate, REM, the Posies, and Built to Spill have backed him on previous releases. And on this album he once again gets help from Chris Walla of Death Cab, Chris Funk from the Decemberists, and Kurt Bloch of the Fastbacks among others. Pretty much any like-minded musicians who make their home in the Seattle-area have contributed to Roderick’s albums. It’s only 11 tracks with no filler, so it’s a great listen from start to finish with great harmonies and melodies. “Pushover”, “Hindsight”, “Teaspoon”, “Sky Is Open”, “Seven”, “Rich Wife”, and “Ultimatum” are some of the best pop/rock songs you’ll hear all year.

Loose Fur – Born Again in the USA (Drag City). This is the 2nd release of the Wilco side project featuring the trio of Jeff Tweedy and drummer Glen Kotche from Wilco and bassist/multi-instrumentalist Jim O’Rourke. Besides playing bass in Sonic Youth for a short stint, O’Rourke is probably most famously known for being the noise-rock maven producer who many feel was responsible for influencing Wilco’s experimental classic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. This album was a big improvement over their first self-titled record, which amounted to an extended EP. It was nearly 40 minutes long, but consisted of only 7 songs. And a few of those songs felt more like “ideas”, rather than songs. This is 10 songs with no filler and only one song on here is longer than 5 minutes – the meandering YHF-esque “Wreckroom.”

The album has a cynical religious flavor to it, hence the album title. And even some of the track titles reveal sardonic takes on that. The Jeff Tweedy songs are actually very good and not the b-side level material you would expect on a side project. And the Jim O’Rourke songs are pretty good too. “Hey Chicken”, “The Ruling Class”, “Apostolic”, “Thou Shall Wilt”, “Answers to Your Questions”, and “Stupid As the Sun” are the best cuts on here.

Rhett Miller – “The Believer“ (Verve). This is Miller’s 2nd solo release since Old 97’s started (he had two pre-97’s solo releases in the early late 80’s/early 90’s). And it took awhile for this to grow on me. 2002’s The Instigator just seemed head and shoulders above this at first, mainly because the highs were so much higher. But this was still a good release, even though 2 of the 12 songs were older – “Singular Girl” was a b-side/import bonus track from the Old 97’s Satellite Rides and “Question” appeared on the same album in pretty much the same style. Both are good songs, but unfortunately they are old news to me. I guess I just didn’t see the reason for Rhett to rush a new solo album, when it appears it didn’t have as many quality songs as his previous one. And it’s not like there is material that he is unable to find an outlet for in the Old 97’s. Ex-Jayhawks frontman Gary Louris appears on nearly every song on this, providing mostly background vocals and harmonies, along with guitar work on a few songs. Anyway, “My Valentine”, “Meteor Shower”, “I’m With Her”, “Delicate”, and the title track are the best songs. And a folky duet with Rachael Yamagata called “Fireflies” is surprisingly catchy.

The Rewinds – “S/T” (Livewire). I discovered this band through the recommendations page on Amazon. So I read a little about them and sampled tracks from the album and decided to check them out. They hail from Birmingham, AL, so their alt/rock sound has traces of twang in it, but also with the jangly guitars that were always a calling card of early R.E.M. I hear Superchunk, the Kinks, R.E.M, the Minus 5, and Crowded House in their music. It’s just a really good pop/rock record with no bad tracks. My favorites are “New Shade of Red”, “Something Else”, “Ghostriders”, “Killing Me”, “Sentimental Flow”, “It’s Not the End”, and “See You in the Underground.”

Saves the Day – “Sound the Alarm“ (Vagrant). After Saves the Day’s breakthrough album in 2001, Stay What You Are, they followed that up with the mildly disappointing In Reverie on the Dreamworks label in 2004. It had its moments, but it wasn’t as good as SWYA. The weird thing is they seemed to sound more Indie on the major label than they did on Vagrant. And now that they are back on Vagrant, I actually think this new record harkens back even more to their first two records – Can’t Slow Down and Through Being Cool from 1997 and 1999, respectively. Chris Conley’s voice seems to be even more of an acquired taste than before. But if you don’t mind the voice, there’s a lot to like here. Fans of the band’s sound from SWYA will like some songs on here, but generally it’s a little rougher. The biggest difference between SWYA and their last 2 albums is the lack of memorable songs. The highs on SWYA were a lot higher compared to the alst two records. “Head for the Hills”, “Eulogy”, “34”, “Delusional”, and “Don’t Know Why” capture the band at its best on Sound the Alarm. And there aren’t many tracks you’d skip on here. Overall, I was surprised at how much I liked it, compared to In Reverie.

Sonic Youth – “Rather Ripped“ (Geffen). I really liked this album when I first got it. But my interest in it faded by the end of the summer. Now that I started listening to it again fresh for the first time in a while, I really like it much more. Much like with Mudhoney, is it crazy to suggest that this is one of Sonic Youth’s best records ever, at this late date? Or do I just like this better because its songs are catchier and without too many extended instrumental jams? It’s hard to say. It continues where the shorter songs on Murray St. left off. “Do You Believe in Rapture?” reminds me a little of the Velvet Underground and it’s a pretty inciteful political track too. “…Rapture”, “Reena”, “Incinerate”, “Sleepin’ Around”, “What a Waste”, “Jams Run Free”, “The Neutral”, and “Lights Out” have to be as good as anything they’ve done in a while – at least in the last 15 years or so.

Top 20 Albums of 2006

20. The Black Keys – “Magic Potion” (Nonesuch). They have jumped labels from Fat Possum to Nonesuch. Both labels cater to bluesy, Americana artists, so it shouldn’t change much about their music or how they are marketed, although Nonesuch does have a more eclectic roster of artists. The nuts and bolts of what they do remain the same. They just seem to do it better now. In some ways the Black Keys seem like a more authentic blues band than their peers the White Stripes. But the White Stripes are definitely the more experimental and challenging of the two bands, with seemingly more of a spectrum of influences. Still, although this is a tad disappointing compared to Rubber Factory, I’d still rate it pretty high. I’d put these Dan Auerbach riffs up with any from their previous albums. “Your Touch”, “You’re the One”, “Just a Little Heat”, “Modern Times”, “Elevator”, “The Flame”, “Give Your Heart Away”, and “Strange Desire” all stand up well compared to their previous work. Not too many people today do what they do as well or better.

19. Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Stadium Arcadium“ (Warner Bros). It took me a while to get into this album. I guess I just saw the 2-discs and 28 songs and running time of about 2 hours and felt that it was too long of a slog to really get into it. So I’d listen in bits and pieces and grew to like it over time. It’s just hard to listen to 28 consecutive songs by anyone, so I can’t really offer an opinion with any degree of certainty about how it flows. And the lead single “Dani California” didn’t really do that much for me. I do find myself liking the album better with every listen though. This collection sounds like a more expansive version of 1999’s Californication. My favorite tracks are “Snow (Hey Oh)”, Slow Cheetah”, “Torture Me”, “Especially in Michigan”, “C’mon Girl”, “Desecration Smile”, “Tell Me Baby”, “Make You Feel Better”, “So Much I”, and “Death of a Martian.” Overall, I like it a lot. But I just think it suffers a little bit from just having so many songs on it. At 28 tracks, they tend to repeat themselves a little with a few too many songs that sound alike. It might have worked better as one huge 18-song release.

18. You Am I – “Convicts” (EMI). This is You Am I’s 7th full-length studio album and somehow this band remains as strong as ever. After 7 albums and over 17 years together, this hard-rocking Aussie trio is still making great music. They’ve been one of the most underappreciated bands in the world over the last 15 years, even though they’ve always been loved in their homeland, with several #1 albums, and a string of platinum albums. But I thought there was a little drop off with their last 3 releases. Of that bunch, only Dress Me Slowly is really stellar, while #4 Record and Deliverance were lacking. But after listening to their catalog again recently, I’d say that was just a minor downturn. Convicts ranks up with their best releases (Hi Fi Way, Hourly Daily, Sound as Ever, and Dress Me Slowly). And the title pays tribute to who founded their motherland – the convicts from England. They’ve always been the great sum of their influences – The Who, the Kinks, the Replacements, and the Clash. And that doesn’t change on here. This is a short, sharp collection of songs averaging about 3 minutes a pop. The highlights are “Thuggery”, “Thank God I’ve Hit the Bottom”, “Friends Like You”, “The Sweet Life”, “Explaining Cricket”, “Secrets”, and “It Ain’t Funny How We Don’t Talk Anymore.” But really all 12 tracks are good. You won’t be hitting the skip button. You’d think this was a band in their early 20’s releasing an edgy debut album. Instead, it’s just great garage rock at its finest by a trio in their late 30’s.

17. Cracker – Greenland (Cooking Vinyl). I heard some advance reviews of this album, calling it the best album by Cracker since 1993’s Kerosene Hat. And I liked a lot of the tracks on subsequent releases like The Golden Age and Gentlemen’s Blues, but I would tend to agree that this is the strongest album front to back since Kerosene Hat. It gets better and better every time I listen to it. Former Whiskeytown member and Ryan Adams cohort Caitlin Cary guests on a few songs, giving them more of a pop/twangy feel. And long time guitarist Johnny Hickman does a great job on here. “Something You Ain’t Got”, “Where Have Those Days Gone”, “The Riverside”, “Gimme One More Chance”, “I Need Better Friends”, and “Everyone Gets One For Free” are the best of a strong set without any filler.

16. The Minus 5 – “The Minus 5 (Gun album)” (Yep Roc). This outfit started out as a side project for Young Fresh Fellows’ Scott McCaughey. And now it’s evolved into a full time project with a lot of guests on each release. Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer from the Posies and Peter Buck from R.E.M. appear on almost every release. And the last album, 2003’s Down With Wilco, McCaughey obviously had Wilco backing him. Members of Wilco appear on a few songs here as well. McCaughey’s voice and pop/rock sensibilities have always drawn apt comparisons to Alex Chilton, George Harrison, and Tom Petty. I’m just amazed that McCaughey hasn’t gotten more notoriety as a major songwriting talent over the years. Really up until the attention he has gotten the last few years, the most I know about him is that he and the rest of the YFFs played at Paul Westerberg’s first wedding in the late 80’s.

There isn’t a bad tune on here. “Cigarettes Coffee and Booze” has a twangy alt/country feel to it. “Rifle Called Goodbye”, “Out There on the Maroon”, “Twilight Distillery”, “Bought a Rope”, and“Cemetary Row” are great pop/rock songs. “Aw Shit Man” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Sebadoh album. “Leftover Lilfe to Kill” and “Hotel Senator” are two of the Jeff Tweedy collaborations. For fans of any of the aforementioned groups and styles, this record is highly recommended.

15. Mudhoney – “Under a Billion Suns“ (Sub Pop). When I first listened to this album, I thought ‘Am I crazy or is this one of the best things Mudhoney has ever released?’ It really took me by surprise, inspite of the nearly universal good reviews it received. It’s definitely their best since My Brother the Cow. And amazingly, the group who penned such songs as “Suck You Dry”, “Touch Me I’m Sick” and “You Got It (Keep It Out of My Face)” now seems to have a pretty heavy socio-political conscience. They raise questions in songs like “Empty Shells” and “Where Is the Future?” questioning the emptiness of the culture and the lack of accomplishments of their generation. And when you wonder where they are going with this, they point the finger directly in the mirror and outward with “It Is Us.” And “Hard-On for War” pretty much sums up their feelings about the Iraq endeavor and the “horny old men with a hard-on for war.” “I Saw the Light”, “Let’s Drop In”, “Endless Yesterday”, “On the Move”, and “Blindspots” sound like vintage Mudhoney with their heavy Stooges and Animals influences, augmented by horns and keyboards at times. And Mark Arm’s voice may have never been better. It’s hard to notice any difference between Arm in 2006 and Arm in 1991. This does not sound like a group who will soon be entering their 20th year together. It was definitely one of the most spun discs for me this past summer.

14. Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins – “Rabbit Fur Coat” (Team Love). Early last year I was just discovering Rilo Kiley and digging their 3 albums, when I read about Jenny Lewis going solo. You can definitely hear the difference. This album draws more on Lewis’ folk and country influences, than the pop/rock of Rilo Kiley’s last two albums. It’s probably most similar to Rilo’s debut album. And with quieter and more subtle music backing her on this, she really gets to showcase her versatile voice. She recorded this with the Kentucky duo the Watson Twins. And they helped add great country/bluegrass harmonies. And some other guests include Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie.

For the first part of 2006, this album was an early favorite to be my top album of the year. It fell out of favor with me a little bit, but still holds up well. This album is sort of part of a trilogy of 2006 rootsy white-soul albums by female artists, along with Cat Power’s The Greatest and Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. This is definitely a record that gets better on subsequent listens. The highlights are “The Big Guns”, “Rise Up With Fists”, “Happy”, “The Charging Sky”, “Melt Your Heart”, the title track, and a solid cover of the Traveling Wilbury’s “Handle With Care” with guests like Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) and Ben Gibbard (Death Cab For Cutie) sharing the vocals. And for fans of Lewis and Rilo Kiley, news got even better during the summer when word got out that she was back with the rest of Rilo Kiley working on their next album. I guess this is going to be a Rhett Miller/Old 97’s kind of thing with her, where she will do her solo thing and band thing at the same time.

13. The Raconteurs – “Broken Boy Soldiers” (V2/Third Man). I kind of dismissed this album when I first got it. Then after about a month or two it just clicked with me. I guess I went into it with a negative bias, thinking of it as a “side project”, figuring we’d be getting b-side type material here. But meanwhile, this is actually a pretty solid band and not just a bloated side project for these gents. And it’s nice to hear Jack White play guitar in a full band setting for a change with a bass player and another guitar player. I just hope this doesn’t mean that the White Stripes are going to continue going in the direction they were with Get Behind Me Satan. I hope White saved some more of this quality rocking material for the next White Stripes album. “Steady As She Goes”, “Hands”, “Broken Boy Soldier” are a great way to start the album. The acoustic-y tracks on here like “Intimate Secretary” and “Call It a Day” are very reminiscent of Led Zeppelin or the Faces. It was a pretty good debut and I have a feeling they’ll be reuniting to continue this side project in the future.

12. The Hold Steady – “Boys and Girls In America” (Vagrant). There’s something about the Hold Steady when you first hear them that doesn’t quite fit. The combination of the singer Craig Finn’s voice with this particular style of music sounds a little odd at first. But the more you listen the more it seems to fit them somehow. He sounds a little like 1970’s Bruce Springsteen and that combined with the kind of music they play, reminds you of Marah or Drive-By Truckers at times. And after many listens the band I think they most closely compare to from recent years is the much-underappreciated now-defunct Slobberbone (now with 60% of the members in a new band called The Drams…see previously), especially on their up tempo songs. The songs have tons of hooks in them. And there are some guitar solos. Then I’m thinking it’s kind of rootsy and punky at the same time. So it’s very appropriate that none other than Dave Pirner shares guest vocals on “Chillout Tent.” Other than maybe David Lowery, not too many others have done the rootsy/punky combo better than Pirner over the last few decades. I’ve really taking a liking to it. This has probably been my most played CD the last few months.

This is another CD without a really bad song on it. My favorite songs are “Stuck Between Stations”, “Chips Ahoy!”, “Hot Soft Light”, “First Night”, “You Can Make Him Like You”, “Chillout Tent”, and “Southtown Girls.” In reading the stories about the Hold Steady over the past 6 months or so, it seems that quite a few critics and industry insiders are hanging their hopes on this band (and some others who I don’t think will ever reach that status – Fall Out Boy, The Arcade Fire, etc) to be the Pearl Jam or Springsteen or U2 of this generation. That is, the cool crossover band that could sell out arenas and many millions of albums and have their music enjoyed by at least two different generations, as well as respected by critics and indie snobs. I think I read the same kind of stories about Dashboard Confessional about 4-5 years ago. That’s a lot of pressure for young bands. And I don’t think any of this generation of bands will be able to accomplish that in a such splintered market place. But this album is very good and I’ll have to start checking out their previous work in the coming months and get ready for their next release.

11. Drive-By Truckers – “A Blessing and a Curse” (New West). I didn’t realize the Truckers have been around since 1997. But from what I’ve read it sounds like they’ve made a smooth transition from alt/country gimmick band to just a really good hard rock band, period. I had just gotten done reading a great review of this record and a few days later I happened to catch a song on WXPN and I bought the album the next week. A Blessing and a Curse sounds like vintage Lynyrd Skynyrd (with the 3 guitar players) combined with the Rolling Stones of the early 70’s. It definitely has the feel of a “live recording” and according to the press releases all of these songs were written in the studio and recorded in very few takes, giving it that sense of urgency. The result is a tight 11-track album with no filler. The highlights are “Feb 14”, “Gravity’s Gone”, “Easy on Yourself”, “Aftermath USA”, “Goodbye”, “Daylight”, and the title track. But almost all of them are pretty good. This record was definitely one of the most pleasant surprises of the year for me. The only downer for me was that I missed their set opening for the Black Crowes in July.

10. Cat Power – “The Greatest” (Matador). Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) has been at this for over 10 years now. I heard a song of hers on a compilation album about 4-5 years ago and kind of dismissed her as being, well, a little weird. Then in 2003 her latest release received some hype because of guest appearances by Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl. It was well-received, but I still didn’t give it a chance. Finally, after reading some great reviews of The Greatest, I sampled some tracks and went out and bought it and it was surprisingly good. It was made as sort of a homage to southern soul and pop songs from the 60’s. And she is backed by cast of legendary Memphis soul musicians on this. When you think of southern soul and pop, it also encompasses gospel, blues, and country. It’s just part of the broth of the soup that makes up that sound. And she did a great job of bringing it all out on here. One reviewer called this “the most listenable album she has ever made”, and I agree. I actually think her piano-based songs on here are the strengths, but it’s all good. The title track, “Living Proof”, “Where Is My Love”, “The Moon”, “Lived in Bars”, “Islands”, and “Love & Communication” are my favorites. It all flows well together though, so there aren’t many clunkers.

9. Built to Spill – “You In Reverse (Warner Bros). I took a crash course in Built to Spill 101 last spring before their scheduled shows at the Trocadero (which were eventually rescheduled). This is only Built to Spill’s 6th full-length studio album in their 15+ year existence, so I was able to catch up quickly. There’s something about Built to Spill that reminds me of vintage R.E.M., at least on their slower songs. But overall they have many more jams and guitar solos – ala Sonic Youth or Pavement or even old Dinosaur Jr.. The opening track runs nearly 9 minutes. And it probably wasn’t until about the 15th listen before I fully appreciated “Goin’ Against Your Mind.” It’s a definite highlight on the album. And “Wherever You Go” rocks like vintage Neil Young. Other favorites include “Liar”, “Conventional Wisdom”, “The Wait”, “Gone”, and “Just a Habit.” All of the tracks are stellar, though. Many reviewers regarded this as one of Built to Spill’s finest, if not the best, albums to date. And I can’t really argue with that assessment.

8. The Subways – “Young For Eternity” (Sire/Reprise). I picked up this album after downloading “Rock & Roll Queen” after hearing it in an episode of Rescue Me. And it crept up pretty high in my list of albums this year. The band formed in 2002 in England when the trio was still in their teens. And the list of influences includes AC/DC, T Rex, Nirvana, the Pixies, Oasis, the Ramones, Mudhoney, and the Sex Pistols, among others – a veritable who’s who of punk/alternative music from the last few decades. So it’s kind of a fine line between honoring the influences and being contrived copycats. But then again pretty much every recent rock band sounds like some mixture of those influences, so how would you be able to tell?

It is sort of a more catchy version of what the Arctic Monkeys, Art Brut, JET, and others have done the last few years. It was just a great listen for me all the way through. Along with, “Rock & Roll Queen”, “I Want to Hear What You Have Got To Say”, “Holiday”, “Mary”, “Oh Yeah”, “With You”, “She Sun”, and “Somewhere” are all extremely catchy pop/punk/neo-garage rock styled songs. The album lags a bit at times with a few slower songs. But it’s hard to complain.

7. The Living End – “State of Emergency” (Adelina). I heard the Living End described as the world’s most popular punkabilly band and that description fits pretty well. Try to imagine a combination of the best parts of the Clash, Green Day, AC/DC, and the Stray Cats and that’s what you have. They’ve been a platinum-selling act in Australia since the late 90’s, but they first garnered notice in the States with their minor alt/rock radio hit “Roll On” in 2001 (also featured in a beer ad). This album is their strong follow-up to the disappointing ’04 release Modern Artillery. It debuted at #1 in Australia, but its release was delayed in the States due to distribution issues. Finally, the label that Green Day’s Billy Joe Armstrong co-owns, Adelina, released it in the summer. Seeing them play live, I have a newfound admiration for singer/guitarist Chris Cheney. His guitar solos were amazing. The 4 singles they released in Australia were “What’s On Your Radio?”, “Nothing Lasts Forever”, “Long Live the Weekend”, and “Wake Up.” They were 4 excellent choices, as they are probably the 4 best songs on the record. But some others like “We Want More”, “’Til the End”, “Reborn”, “No Way Out”, “One Step Behind”, “Into the Red”, and the reggae-tinged “Nowhere Town” are pretty close. Overall, it was a stand out record for me in ’06.

6. The Strokes – “First Impressions of Earth“ (RCA). This album came out in early January ’06, probably the worst time of year for a high profile release. Usually any CD or movie that is released in January is considered something that was a stinker and the label or studio didn’t want to waste any money promoting it during the holiday rush. I’m surprised the label didn’t hold this until at least March, considering it had to be regarded as one of their highest profile releases of the year.

It took several listens to really appreciate this album. Many of the songs cover familiar territory and you will enjoy it if you are a fan of the previous Strokes albums. And while those songs are good, there are also a few new wrinkles. And I find the more I listen to this album the more I like it. It’s still pretty fresh for me, unlike Room on Fire, which I recall tiring of in my regular rotation within about 6 months after it was released. I just listened to First Impressions again recently and still enjoyed it immensely.

There’s not a bad track on here, in spite of having 14 tracks, which set off “filler” alarm bells for me. “You Only Live Once”, “Juicebox”, “Heart in a Cage”, “Elecrtricityscape”, “Fear of Sleep”, “15 Minutes”, and “Ize of the World” are the familiar sounding tracks that kick off the album. “Razorblade”, “On the Other Side”, “Ask Me Anything”, “Killing Lies” are a little different. Some tracks have more of a reggae/ska influence. And others have choruses that wouldn’t feel out of place on a U2 album. Overall, it was a worthwhile addition to the Strokes catalogue and one of the best records of 2006.

5. Soul Asylum – “Silver Lining“ (Sony). This was a long-awaited album for me. I’ve been reading about a new Soul Asylum for several years and it kept getting postponed, partially due to the deteriorating health of the late bassist Karl Mueller. Mueller passed away during the recording of this album from throat cancer. He plays on about half of the songs. And producer John Fields handles bass on most of the others with Tommy Stinson filling in on a few songs. Stinson also played some live shows with them. And the drummer is Michael Bland – Paul Westerberg’s touring drummer these days. So it has a very incestuous Minneapolitan feel to it…back to the roots, with singer/guitarist Dave Pirner relocating back to the Twin Cities from New Orleans a few years ago. But the principles still remain – Pirner and guitarist Dan Murphy.

The album has a very socially-conscious, “living in war time” feel to it. The first three songs are all very good and are all about the times we live in – “Stand Up and Be Strong”, “Lately”, and “Crazy Mixed Up World.” “Lately” just might be the catchiest anti-war song ever written. And its subtlety is refreshing, showing war from the side of the solider that must leave his family to go fight and how he deals with and readjusts after he returns home from the war. And this album rocks like late 80’s/early 90’s Soul Asylum. There are still a few twangy songs and ballads on here, but it’s definitely a guitar-based album. But even the slower songs have a very groovable danceable feel to them, reminiscent of their “Sexual Healing” cover from the early 90’s. “All Is Well”, “Bus Named Desire”, “Whatcha Need”, “Success Is Not So Sweet”, and “Oxygen” are the best of the rest. And the album closes with a hidden untitled track. It’s actually an updated version of a b-side of “Misery” circa 1995 called “Fearless Leader” – another political song.

The more I listen to this album, the more I like it. There’s really not a bad track on here. “Standing Water” is my least favorite track on it since it sounds like mellower re-write of “Misery.” But it’s passable. I’d rank it as Soul Asylum’s best since Grave Dancers Union. And that’s no small consolation, since for awhile I thought their somewhat poorly-received GDU follow-up Let Your Dim Light Shine was the better of the two records. And it’s a worthy entry into their long, distinguished catalog, right next to the aforementioned GDU, And the Horse They Rode In On, and Hang Time.

4. The Lemonheads – “Lemonheads” (Vagrant). Sometime in 2005, Evan Dando started using this monicker again. Unfortunately, it contains none of the original members of the Lemonheads other than Dando. But they are a band in the truest sense and not just Dando and studio musicians. This consists of Dando and the rhythm section of the seminal 80’s punk band the Descendents – bassist Karl Alvarez and drummer Bill Stevenson. There are some other guest appearances on the record – most notably Dinosaur Jr guitarist/singer J Mascis who wails away on lead guitar on 2 songs.

And it doesn’t hurt that this is arguably the finest collection of songs Dando has released at one time since 1993’s Come on Feel the Lemonheads, even though the sound of the album is actually more akin to some of their pre-It’s a Shame About Ray material. “Pittsburgh”, “Become the Enemy”, “Poughkeepsie”, “No Backbone”, “In Passing”, and “Steve’s Boy” are my favorite tracks on the album. “December” and “Black Gown” are pretty good too. “Let’s Just Laugh” is a rare political song from Dando. It’s an anti-Bush song, but the theme is that we’re really powerless to do anything about him now, but he’s only got two more years left in office – “Two more years to go \Then you’re supposed to know \How to get back home \Someplace near Waco…..Let’s just laugh \We can never do anything about anything, anyway \Whatever will be, I guess we'll see \So let’s just laugh.” Overall, it was one of the finest releases of 2006, capped off by seeing a drunken trainwreck-in-a-good-way Dando performance at the North Star in December.

3. The Capitol Years – “Dance Away the Terror” (Park the Van). After a disappointing release in 2005 with Let Them Drink, I wasn’t expecting much from them on this. But it blew me away on the first listen. The songs are just so much better than their previous release, even though sonically they remain pretty much the same. It is steeped in 60’s and early 70’s rock – British Invasion, early punk, and even some Dylan-esque folk, but with a Jeff Lynne or Pet Sounds-esque Wall of Sound type of production. The up tempo songs remind me very much of Wilco’s Summerteeth. Yet inspite of the many influences, this album has great flow and it took me dozens of listens before I even identified what my favorite songs were. It’s just like one big party of music. And this album will get you up dancing, as the title suggests. The title was singer/songwriter Shai Halperin’s quaint notion on how to get through these times. Halperin has been an outspoken critic of the current administration over the years and this album almost seems like a therapeutic way of dealing with it. The title track appears on here twice – in slightly different forms – the 2nd time as a reprise. The first time it’s piano-based and the 2nd time it chugs along like a CCR or ELO song.

And Shai gets off some pretty good lines in these songs, like the following:

“I feel like 2000 and every year since has just blown / On the phone/ No one is laughing and no one is clapping/ And I think it's gonna be/ A long time” (Long Time)

“The rock scene in Philadelphia has hit a particular low” and “"Yes it’s a shame/ The Burning Brides Skipped Town..." (Mirage People)

“You can set your brain to stun” (You Can Stay There)

“Did you sing your saddest song/ Right before the bombs” (Oh Lord)

“Revolutions”, “Long Time”, “Mirage People”, “You Can Stay There”, “It’s Only Loveless” (an obvious answer to the Beatles song minus the ‘less’), “Seven Songs”, the George Harrison-influenced “Oh Lord”, and “It’s Not Okay” are my favorite tracks. And a hidden track called “Iraq Is Dead (Rock is Dead)” at least gets an A for effort. Overall, there’s not really a bad song on here though.

2. Pearl Jam – “Pearl Jam“ (J Records). After my first listen to this back in early May I was on record saying I thought this was Pearl Jam’s best record since Vs. and after over 8 months of perspective listening to it, I still agree with that originally assessment. And therefore it was a slam dunk choice to at least be in the Top 5 of 2006. Pearl Jam has really been the most high-profile musical artists, with the possible exception of Bruce Springsteen, to take public political stances and remain vocally critical of the war in the last few years. Some of that criticism showed up in songs on Riot Act in late 2002. But those themes are even more apparent on this record.

The string of rock songs that open this record hit you over the head like a sledgehammer – purposeful rockers highlighting the larger events in the world around them. “Life Wasted”, “World Wide Suicide”, “Comatose”, “Severed Hand”, and “Marker in the Sand” send the message immediately.

Then starting with Beatles-esque “Parachutes”, the record shows a little more variety. “Unemployable”, “Big Wave”, and “Army Reserve” continue where the first 5 songs left off. “Gone” at times reminds me alternately of Dave Matthews and Bruce Springsteen. “Come Back” with its timely usage of its Motown-sounding horns to accent the chorus. From the first time I heard it, I thought of it’s similarity to “Black” or “Yellow Ledbetter” and how it could very well become an encore fixture in their live sets for years. And the album closes with “Inside Job” – another very good track. It reminded me a little of something from the last Wilco album at first.

It just feels like their most focused, tight, and rocking set of songs since Vs. There are no experimental filler tracks on here, as you had on some other albums. For Pearl Jam, this record is very similar to what All That You Can’t Leave Behind was for U2. It was sort of a reaffirmation of everything they do well and a reminder of their greatness. They climbed the mountain and became extremely popular, and then they chose to slowly move away of the mainstream. And by sticking to their guns, the mainstream music scene has come back to them a little bit.

If you look at that generation of great bands who first gained notoriety in the immediate aftermath of Nevermind, Pearl Jam is really the last band standing. And they seemed to be the only ones to have figured out a way to co-exist with their newfound fame and fortune and all those demands, not break up, and still remain vital and relevant, consistently churning out new albums and consistently touring since 1996, all while doing everything on their own terms. They’ve also remained as fan-friendly as any arena rock band has probably ever been. It’s only been in the last 5-6 years that I’ve stopped fretting over albums with too much filler and stopped comparing everything to Ten and Vs. and just learned to appreciate them for doing what they do and staying true to themselves.

1. Ben Kweller – “Ben Kweller“ (ATO). This was another big comeback album. After a tremendous full-length debut album with Sha Sha in 2002, 2004’s On My Way was a big disappointment. On this self-titled offering, Kweller returns to the greatness of Sha Sha and secured the coveted #1 album spot on this list. It’s really hard to put into how words how good this album is. You just have to get it and press ‘play.’ Kweller plays all of the instruments on the album and wrote all of the songs. A few of these were leftovers from the Sha Sha-era. “Run”, “Nothing Happening”, “Sundress”, “I Gotta Move”, “Penny on the Train Track”, “I Don’t Know Why”, “Magic”, and “Until I Die” are superb. The rest are good also.

And to show that eventually great work does get recognized, I read in Kweller’s email newsletter recently that the video for “Penny on the Train Track” was added to MTV’s Total Request Live show recently. Apparently they do still show videos on MTV, but you have to be an insomniac or under 15-years old to actually see them. The video is nothing more than low-budget home video footage of Kweller’s grandmother.

Kweller represents the polar opposite case of Britney Spears as far as what could happen when a young kid gets caught up in show biz. During the mass marketing of alternative rock in the mid 90’s, Kweller and the other 2 members of his teenage trio Radish were signed to a major label and released Restraining Bolt in 1997. I think the label thought they had the next Silverchair. It sounded like a tribute to the Nirvana-inspired soft verse/loud chorus format that a gazillion bands were doing in that era. As you would expect with a 15-year old frontman (frontboy?), it was very uneven. Kweller quit school and went on tour and moved from Texas to New York City. Radish was eventually dropped from their label. And then Kweller went back to work doing what he does best – writing great pop rock songs. He spent 2000 and 2001 touring opening for Evan Dando and Jeff Tweedy, and releasing a well-received EP BK Baby. And from there his solo career has been on a slow rise. And he seems pretty well grounded, 3 full-length albums into his solo career. And he’s still only 24 years old.

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