The Din Of The Day: Music In 2006

Here we go with my picks for the best, most interesting, most rewarding music of 2006. It’s the stuff that staked a claim to my heart even though I swore (as I have for the past three years) that I was so exhausted with pop that Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic would be the last pop record I ever, ever bought. I was planning to give it all up for Mozart, but these fifteen albums wouldn’t let me.

In keeping with the kind of criticism I enjoy writing, let me add that there were some albums that should have interested me, but didn’t. I had some good listens there with Tom Waits, but it was just too much: too many songs, too much thematization, too many soundscapes substituting for songs. Everything I’ve heard from Joanna Newsom’s new album has impressed me, but her voice continues to be an issue. In any case, thank God you don’t need me to recommend Waits or Newsom to you. They’re everywhere.

15. The Twilight Singers, Powder Burns

I listen to this album because of its hopelessness. It’s not necessarily true that I can forgive in the past what I have to forgive in the present. I move on with people, my thoughts turn to other things, but actually it’s a very painful surgery to get rid of scars and the fiercer side of truth. There’s the risk, in forgiving, of starting actually to die, because wanting more than the past allowed is the nature of desire — or wanting to return to a foreclosed past. What I love about this album is that it plays both sides. It is despair incarnate, and nothing could be darker, and yet (like the best Afghan Whigs albums) it expresses the hope that the people lost or crossed along the way do thrive somewhere, and make their own sort of peace.

14. M. Ward, Post-War

This is an album about being a good person. It is remarkably unselfish: it is filled with things like good wishes for a younger brother, and a requiem for a good departed man. The music is raspy and expansive, and the basslines are weighted down with ghosts. His voice is thin, like a story told to a cheap recording deck. Is being good, however one defines that and whatever life precedes it, an experience mocked by ghosts? Ward and Cash both seem to answer yes.

13. Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood

It’s not a very common thing, in rock ‘n roll, to imagine somebody actually possessing repose. Yet that is exactly what I imagine when I think of Neko Case. The effect of those vocals, pristine as a summer night and dewy with reverb, is to call up the image of passion under a glass. This album speaks of a perfect and smooth and unbreakable serenity to which one surrenders, to be soothed.

12. The Hold Steady, Boys And Girls In America

This album name-checks Kerouac in order to affirm his position that true love in America is a deck stacked against you. This album is tolerant of deviant behavior.

I surrounded myself with doctors and deep thinkers
But big heads and soft bodies make for lousy lovers

It is an album about everyday disappointments and how they are woven into the fabric of unpredictable good times. Really, ladies and gentlemen, I don’t spend much of my time clubbing or thinking about God. I spend more time than I like to admit managing my mood and finding ways of getting by. That is what the bohemian ethos seeks to know and transcend. The pianos help.

11. Drive-By Truckers, A Blessing And A Curse

And I thought I liked this band when they were still writing lines this good:

You want to be old after 42 years? Keep dropping the hammer and grinding the gears.

It took a little album called August And Everything After to give me enough momentum to get out of the provinces I grew up in, and who knows but this album might be the one that sees me through another year. I’ve been home. I saw, just after Christmas, the way the town puts its hooks into people. And I like my country music to say something bitter about that. The cumulative effect of this record is probably best summed up by this stanza by another band, Songs Ohia:

Almost no one makes it out
I’m going to use that street to hide
from that human doubt
to hide from what was shining
and has finally burned us out

Except that this album holds out hope for lessons learned. Yeah, I love country. I’m just getting started, actually. Because…

10. The Dixie Chicks, Taking The Long Way

This is what the maverick streak in American life sounds like to me, and you can sing along to it. Something about the country doesn’t settle, and can’t. This is the sound of defiance; whether or not Natalie Gaines is an idiot is something I haven’t been able to determine, having not yet seen Shut Up And Sing, but clearly her and her group have been deepened by the experience of ClearChannel censorship. Every hard-working, independent-minded, non-citified friend I have loved this album. It was a big thing to like the Dixie Chicks, all of a sudden.

Oddly enough, it echoes the wholesomeness and concern that used to speak through albums by the Indigo Girls and Tracy Chapman.

9. The Raconteurs, Broken Boy Soldiers

This album works on two levels. It is heavy-laden with emotional extremes. The first song shows the extremity at work in resignation; one has traveled to the point of giving up, and the act of resignation is a free fall (as Tom Petty once noticed):

Your friends have shown a kink in the single life
You’ve had too much to think, now you need a wife

In the second song, one is saved by the love of a perfect, all-knowing, all-healing woman*. In the third song, there is frenzy and bile and the sense (which is a very popular and literary form of madness) that one’s body is actually breaking apart, ceasing to cohere.

So what makes all this agony and extremity survivable? Well, these are four good-looking lads in comfortable clothes, and the music proves it. It’s not all for show, exactly; the point is to get comfortable out on rough seas.

*Who doesn’t exist.

8. Lily Allen, Alright, Still

Alright so this is a song about anyone, it could be anyone.
You’re just doing your own thing and someone comes out the blue,
They’re like,
But he’s saying,
“Yeah can I take your digits?”
And you’re like, “No, not in a million years, you’re nasty
please leave me alone.”

OK, so it’s a little difficult to describe this album without being able to capture the lilting, laughing tone in which Allen delivers these lines. Let me put it this way: this is an album about how men and women continually miss each other by wanting the same things (companionship, sex, attention, and so on) at different times and from the wrong people. (Allen happens to be hetero-normative, but it’s a universal sentiment.) I listen to this album because it’s a lot quicker than trying to listen to all of Balzac on my iPod. Same thing: the human comedy.

7. The Knife, Silent Shout

I want to die in an ivory mansion. I want to die in a marble house. As Moby wrote:

I don’t want to swim the ocean
I don’t want to fight the tide
I don’t want to swim forever
When it’s cold, I’d like to die

I listen to this album for its ice colors, its cold aquariums of sound. We live a different sort of life with a slowed heartbeat: it’s there in Poe, it’s there in the corniest pop culture (Superman’s fortress of solitude). Blue is my favorite color. It is the most popular favorite color in America. There is no limit to the blueness of this album, except where blades of Northern light show through.

6. Johnny Cash, American Recordings V

I can sing these songs with my eyes closed. I can sing these songs no matter what is playing, no matter how loudly. After just a few months with this record (and after spitting out the indigestible, self-indulgent material on Personal File) I’ve got it scratched into my skin and bones. It’s an album about that kind of deep writing. It carries the listener from the initial stomp of retribution towards final calls of love and faith. It blooms even while it parches. Again, and again, and again, I listened to “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” following the pebbly track of that voice. Like Powder Burns, this was an album that tried to dismiss, by fire, everything except a last freedom.

I watched a friend of mine unpack herself from her car, while the doors were open and the radio going. “I keep hearing this song,” she said. “It’s starting to creep me out. It comes on all the time. I’m seriously wondering if God’s gonna cut me down.” How many songs cast a spell like that?

5. Christina Aguilera, Back to Basics

The great thing about iTunes is that you can just edit out the songs that don’t work for you. I bought this gem for ten dollars and got two discs that I edited down to fourteen songs. Christina’s album was the most accessible piece of melodrama released this year. I can’t think of another singer, mainstream or not, who sings with so much arresting conviction. The album seethes with confidence and reckless laughter. This is passion at its most corrosive, and pathos at the peak of its strength. Also, it was the album that taught me how to dance against the beats. If you hold a penny next to the speakers when Christina sings “Welcome,” the penny burns your fingers.

Been jaded, hated,
Who’ll be around when the limelight’s faded?
Been shut down, pushed out
Made to smile when I wanted to frown

Always taking a bow
Always working the crowd
Always makin’ the rounds
Always playing the clown
Who’ll be sticking it out?
Who’ll be staying around
When the lights go down?

4. Justin Timberlake, FutureSex / LoveSounds

This is, by far, the most insincere album I have ever heard. It’s nothing but words and beautiful, evanescent melodies. Justin sings the lines to “What Goes Around…” so quickly that he never even feels the pain. The overdubbing and overproduction ensure that he keeps interrupting himself and cutting his feelings short for bursts of rhythmic chutzpah. He tells his girl to whip him if he misbehaves, he tells us he’s “love stoned” and then jumps all over some imaginary guy for having a drug habit. I dunno, at some point I just stopped listening. And that’s the point. In other words, this is the finest, frailest flower of Irony. I wish I could have played this album for every character in Trainspotting. It would have saved them. Are we laughing at ourselves yet? I think I’m in church.

The final three albums will posted tomorrow. A good night to you!