First off, a couple of notes:
1 Xiu Xiu - The Air Force
After having personally almost given up on Xiu Xiu, my interest was revived by this release, which is more a reversion back to their stronger "Knife Play" and "Fabulous Muscles" releases while still moving on and developing their music. The most pleasant surprise is that cousin Caralee comes out to sing, adding herself to the forefront on the arguable gem of the album, "Hello From Eau Claire" (she also sings on "Buzz Saw"). It's a wonder why she doesn't sing more often as her voice is very down-to-earth and homely, causing you to focus on it, but not in an annoying way.
For those who appreciate Xiu Xiu's tendency to strike at taboos as subtly as a slap in the face, there are still the oblert sexual references and general innuendos, although certainly nothing that should make the listener overly uncomfortable. Xiu Xiu, aside from making us uncomfortable, are also excellent and capturing a sort of schizophrenic childhood innocence. "Buzz Saw" has that quality. Its beginning as a pretty piano line devolves quickly with what sounds like someone striking a piece of wood against the ground repeatedly. Other random percussion and vocals enter as well, sometimes on a beat and in a key, but usually not.
Other stand-out tracks include "Vulture Piano" and "Save Me Save Me", which are both probably as radio-friendly as Xiu Xiu has ever gotten, the deeply melancholic "Bishop, CA" (one of their best ever, in my opinion), as well as the more introspective "The Fox & The Rabbit". The album as a whole works well together.
The title may give you a clue as to its overall concept, although it does not seem like a concept album in any sense, and the cover introduces an entirely new direction. All of these ideas are explored in an interesting poster project on the group's web site that is worth a look.
2 Ghostland Observatory - Papparazi Lightning
This odd duo apparently made a huge impression at this year's Austin City Limits festival, which itself is no small feat, as they played alongside such established groups as (take a breath) fellow Austinites Explosions in the Sky, Calexico, Cat Power, The Flaming Lips, Massive Attack, The New Pornographers, Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, Thievery Corporation, Ben Kweller, and Iron and Wine, just to name a few. But they have apparently had a large local following for over a year.
The album flows well and has some truly stand-out tracks, especially the aggressive opener "Piano Man", which itself sets the tone for the album while making the listener interested in hearing more. "Sad Sad City" has that same lyrical spark and clever arrangement that worked so well for the early glam of the late 70's making it the perfect sing-along song. However, although Ghostland is retro, they're certainly not cheesy fluff spending all of their energy on image. The live show is usually the two in street clothes (although one usually wears a cape) simply playing their instruments.
But despite the lack of theatrics, that live show sells their music. Aaron Behrens (lead vocals and the occassional guitar) is a fabulous dancer, and his sheer energy and command of the stage seal it for the audience and most in the crowd will find themselves dancing. This is not to say that you can't dance to this CD at home. You certainly should.
Even if you don't buy this CD, take the time to check out this group if they come through or near to your town. It'll be one of the better shows you go to.
3 Hypatia Lake - ...And We Shall Call Him Joseph
Hypatia Lake, a relatively unknown Seattle music collective, have produced less an album and more an audial novel constituting their emotions and influences. The MBV, Swirlies and Pink Floyd list constitutes the obvious inspiration behind several of the tracks, but this disc still flows too well to be a random collection of homages and the style of most tracks is truly unique to this group. Even the track titles themselves, numbered "Scenes" introducing each title, allude to a more comprehensive exploration. Some tracks are more epoch and post-rock, building on a theme until an explosion of layered instrumentation. However, there are also more pop-friendly, even indie tracks, like "Fishes vs. Lines" where the song follows a more traditional progression.
Even though this album itself is, in my own mind, a bit of a masterpiece, the group has continued working and is expecting another sometime in early- to mid-2007. Whether or not it will reach the level of "...Joseph" remains to be seen.
4 Aloha - Some Echoes
The boys in Aloha are good. Damn good, in fact, and no one should ever doubt that. And, although their music, multi-instrumentation and jazz sensibility won't appeal to every listener, they are certainly a musician's sort of band. "Some Echoes" brings the group down a few notches from the more aggressive "Here Comes Everyone", yet it also seems to be much a more mature album. Still there is the poetic nostalgia of a Midwestern childhood and the characteristic vibraphone (it actually opens the album), but this album flows as a more captivating (and not captured) release.
"Weekend" has become a favorite mix CD track for me, "Summer Lawn" is one of those musician songs, almost reminiscent of Iron Butterfly's "In the Garden of Eden" (crazy organ solo at the end), but still strikingly powerful, while the uplifting "Mountain" closes the album.
It took me quite a while to like this album. I had it for close to two months before I finally started to like it, when I took it with me to Chicago. In Chicago, it became a soundtrack for the trip and fit the mood and landscape so well. Maybe some sort of Great Lakes thing.
My only complaint is that this CD seems way too short. There are also a couple of tracks that break the energy the previous ones had built up. And, there is a strange song on here ("Come Home") that is obviously about Jesus' second coming. It's strange because Aloha has never done a religious song and have never struck me as a Christian band. However, this may just be some sort of statement actually against religion, or one of those flukes like Black Sabbath's "After Forever".
So, with all of these complaints, it's difficult for me to justify why I think this is a great album. And, really, like I said, many will not like this. But there is so much going on here, that it's absolutely one of those albums that will keep you interested with progressive listens as the songs themselves unfold and reveal more about their nature and actually make you more appreciative of the band's talent as musicians and songwriters. Aloha fans will already be there because of their previous, strong releases, but this is still an excellent introduction to them, I think.
5 Camera Obscura - Let's Get Out of This Country
Scotland's Camera Obscura were in Tucson in July, at Plush specifically. The Weekly had written them up, so the crowd was relatively large. Tracyanne, the cute-as-a-button lead vocalist, remarked on the turn-out and also expressed a new dream to return to Tucson to buy the bar, which she stated had a very David Lynch-esque quality to it.
The group's third full-length Merge release follows their mantra of creating timeless music, while still having plenty of pop sensibility. "Hey Lloyd..." provides an exceptional opener, whereas "Razzle Dazzle Rose" sums it all up well. In between, the tracks meander between the quiet, sentimental songs ("Country Mile") that are so good at capturing her vocal style, to the stronger, more pop-oriented and danceable numbers ("Let's Get Out of This Country" and, especially, "If Looks Could Kill") that sell the group to some and could easily get them on the radio. But also there are some incredibly well-done, memorable tracks on this album, such as "I Need All the Friends I Can Get", which begins (and ends) with group clapping accented by a simple guitar riff, and layers pieces on from there, but never neglecting any of those layers.
I have the feeling that Camera Obscura will be around for a while. At their show, despite the general grueling nature of US touring coupled with the cross-Atlantic journey, the band was still in good spirits and seemed to genuinely like each other. The singer, maybe still in awe at the turn-out (bands don't seem to expect much from Tucson), wished aloud that she could invite everyone back to their hotel room. I hope for their success.
6 Letting Up Despite Great Faults - MovementI don't know how I found this band, but I'm glad that I did. They have one of the most interesting setups I've ever seen: two guitars, two cellos and a sequencer. The music is excellent. I honestly cannot say enough bad things about the City of Los Angeles and the majority of the bands that are now coming out of its scene, but this group is a very refreshing exception, and I wonder how they could even be from LA.
7 Band of Horses - Everything All the Time
Why has Band of Horses not gotten big yet? It's a little bit of a mystery to me. Emerging out of Seattle (although the singer is originally from Tucson and left at 18), Band of Horses' debut received quite a bit of attention, making its way onto blogs and personal playlists all over the inter web. But, alas, popular radio play seems to have eluded them thus far. But why?
Band of Horses mixes a bit of country (they use a steel guitar for some tracks) with southern rock and the more expected indie rock. That itself makes it difficult to pigeonhole and "genrify" (as I like to say) their music, and they seem to realize and play off of this. Tracks like "Great Salt Lake" and "Funeral" (both which have videos available on their MySpace page) are the more obvious radio friendly tracks, and span several genres while still maintaining a pop sensibility.
Maybe they just need to be requested? Maybe it's just a matter of time.
8 Built to Spill - You In Reverse
Built to Spill, although never overly popular or mainstream, have one of the most devoted legion of fans of any group. On a trip to Seattle this year, I found out that they were playing the night I arrived. When I got to Seattle, I went into a bar (after being directed to the wrong place) and attempted to call the venue about tickets. When the bartender found out who I was going to see, he just laughed at me: "Of course they're sold out. Built to Spill shows always sell out way in advance." He was right, and I missed them. And, although he wasn't going, two other employees in the bar were, and both scoffed at the idea of me getting tickets. Even though I had seen them a few months earlier, I was still very disappointed.
This album was highly anticipated by fans, being their first release since 2001, and, in my opinion, it doesn't disappoint. The opener is a 12+ minute jam song, a style that the band has been slowly moving toward the last few albums (to the chagrin of some of their fans). However, fans of old school Built to Spill (who certainly already own this album) should not be totally alienated: the more straight-forward rock songs still exist.
The only thing that bothers me about this album is its flow, and especially the last few tracks. Track 5-7 really do sound like perfect closers, but the album keeps going. This is not to say that it's repetitive, the tracks are all very different in styles and the succeeding tracks are as good, if not better.
9 Mogwai - Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait
The Glaswegians have been very busy this year. After coming in early with a brand new LP, "Mr. Beast" (their first in three years), they began work composing a score for this soccer film. While the film is set to be released in January 2007 in the UK, Mogwai's soundtrack for it came out in October. Mogwai have also been included in Darren Aronofsky's ("Requiem for a Dream") latest film, "The Fountain", performing in the soundtrack written by Clint Mansell. All of this on top of a rather extensive world tour in support of "Mr. Beast".
I had a hard time deciding which release should go on here (because surely one of them has to make it). I've owned "Mr. Beast" since it came out, and, although I like, it's no where near where Mogwai was or, in my opinion, should be going. There are tracks that strike you with their beauty ("Friend of the Night") or power ("Glasgow Mega Snake"), but there are also the "WTF?" tracks, such as "I Chose Horses" which is essentially a monologue in Japanese backed by ambient guitar and synth noises.
I can't say much about "Zidane" because I don't own it and have only heard sound samples online. Of course, I'd like to own it, but it's currently very difficult to get it in this country, unless you're willing to pay the ridiculous import prices ($20-40 right now). Hopefully though, I will eventually get my hands on this.
10 Stereolab - Fab Four Suture
I don't know that Stereolab could release an album in a year and not have it make my list. In March, "Fab Four Suture", a collection of tracks released on various singles since the group's last full-length, 2003's "Margarine Eclipse", was released. In spite of this disconnected source for the tracks, the album flows quite well, even including a very Stereolab-ish, very repetitive intro and outro (yes, the same track). I think putting the CD into someone who is unfamiliar with the group's car stereo, letting it proceed through the last track's five or so minutes of repetitive incessancy (and trying not to talk during those long minutes), only to begin once again when the CD automatically repeats, is absolutely priceless. Although no one has yet really gotten the joke.
And maybe that's the problem: getting it. Some people just really dislike Stereolab. Others like them but only for certain albums and find other releases (usually the misunderstood "Sound Dust") trite and too abstract. But then there are those like me, who obsessively track their tours and releases, always awaiting the next. People like me will pour over any bit of new material Stereolab (even Monade, front-woman Laetitia Sadier's side project) puts out and will sing its praises regardless.
"Fab Four Suture" is not Stereolab's best, but it is still very Stereolab and, in my opinion, very good. And, just like other previous releases, the album gets better with subsequent listens as your mind works past the initial, less prolific elements of each track and into the gritty core of the 'Lab, forming a better understanding of what the group was trying to accomplish. That said, this is certainly not a good introduction to Stereolab, that being best saved for "Dots and Loops" and "Emperor Tomato Ketchup", but Stereolab fans should still eat this up just the same.
11 Stars of Track and Field - Centuries Before Love and War
Stars of Track and Field's style is a little difficult to pin down, which usually means that it's a good, original band. However, this sounds absolutely like other music, but it's such a plethora that it's still good in my opinion. Those who have written "sounds like The Postal Service" regarding this album and band should actually listen to more electronic music: just because a band is labelled "indie" but uses samples and other electronic instrumentation does not automatically mean that they are like The Postal Service.
The band was in Tucson for Halloween, playing at the Congress. The crowd was unfortunately light and, as is typical with Tucson shows where the band is not well-known, most people stayed toward the back in the dark with their cliques. And, as is typical with Colin at shows, I got right up front and was the only one at the stage for the first few songs. The set was great: very tight (quite a feat considering their instrumentation and set up), powerful and even entertaining. Being Halloween, the singer remarked on how they were the only ones dressed up in costumes. However, when I looked on their web site later, they were literally wearing the exact same thing as in their press shots, which confused me. But, when the set ended, the guitarist, who I had stood under the whole time, extended his hand down toward me, saying "Thanks for coming up front". Class act? I think so.
The CD apparently had initial distribution issues of some kind because, for quite a while, it was only available on iTunes. However, I was in Zia's late one Friday night and stumbled across it, and for only $8 (used, so I guess someone didn't like it as much as I do). The highlight of the album for me is "Say Hello" which comes with a beautiful chorus and marks the band's best use of dynamics and their semi-unique instrumentation. "Centuries" also makes great use of the vocal layering that they seem to really like (which makes me think that they spent a lot of time in the studio on this one) and, again, some fabulous dynamics, really pushing their power.
The downsides of this are the vocals, and possibly even the lyrics, which both get a little whiney at times. And, at other times, the harmonies are so on that the "pitch shifter" (a common thing among mainstream music, but almost a taboo in the indie world) comes to mind, but, seeing them live, this is actually not the case and they're just damn good singers.
But I still like this band and what they're doing, probably because they're doing what I would like to do musically: infusing guitars, drums, synths and samples in a way that is not cheesy or cliche and works so well with the music that you don't really focus on any of it. Like several others on here, they're not for everyone, although Radiohead fans may like it for its novelty, and, even though I hate the Postal Service comparisons, those fans also may appreciate this.
12 Yo La Tengo - I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass
Why 12 on the list? Because I simply couldn't decide between this album, the previous one and Stars of Track and Field, seeing that the choice would knock the other off the list. And they're all good albums.
Yo La Tengo have produced an album that is much more reminiscent of their earlier material, which I think many had missed. Moving to a softer, more ethereal, electronic-oriented sound on "Summer Sun" alienated some fans who were used to the more lo-fi, grittier Yo La Tengo. However, I love "Summer Sun" and thought it was a great direction for the group, especially considering that it was a huge departure from what they had done prior to its release.
But, for Yo La Tengo, this is a much better representation of the group because, as I said, this is more who they really are. As the title leads one to believe, they are not a group that takes themselves too seriously, although they are still excellent at making music and some of the better songwriters out there. And, with just a 3-piece (although, so is Stars of Track and Field), it's amazing what they can pull off.
Mates of State - Bring It Back:
This is a great album, and there are some spectacular songs on here. However, it is not Mates of State's best, and I couldn't recommend it for those who haven't heard of the band. At the same time, this is less emo-ish than some of their earlier work, so that may be a plus (especially for those who despise emo). They're an excellent duo though (husband on drums, wife on keys, both on vocals), so go buy "Our Constant Concern".
Pretty Girls Make Graves - Elan Vital
PGMG lost their guitarist to family life and found themselves completely lost musically. This album sort of reflects that. The band doesn't seem to have a strong writer anymore, and, although the drastic change in style is interesting and certainly commendable, it's just not that great of an album. I still like it, but it doesn't come close to "The New Romance".
The Format - Dog Problems
People seem to really hate The Format, especially in Phoenix. It may just be their success and their more or less abandoning the town (and, really, the state) for the more national recognition they received. Their first full-length (which I hate) was released on Elektra in 2003, which should tell you something about it. This was self-released (cheekily called "The Vanity Label"). Although the disgusting pop songs are still present, they're less disgusting and fewer, and there are actually good songs on here. The reason this is even on my list is because they've exhibited an applaudable transformation. Some of the tracks on here are very good, but will most likely completely alienate their fanbase who are probably expecting a more pop-oriented sound. They don't have the hooks or the poppy nature of their other material. I like it when bands are adventurous and ballsy in this way, and it gives me a respect for this group that I didn't have before.
TV On the Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain
This album made quite a few "Best of 2006" lists. I've never been a big fan of this group. I don't think they're overly inventive or original, and, at Coachella, I thought they sounded awful. This is a good album though. However, I personally think that their last full-length, 2004's "Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes" and, moreso, the 2003 EP "Young Liars" are both much better. Also, this release has possibly the worst album title ever.
Tristeza - El Nuestro Desafio
Having time to reflect on my '05 list, if I went back and ordered them, Tristeza's "A Colores" would be at the top. This would explain why I rushed the doors of the CD store to buy this one right when it came out. The added DVD is a nice touch because I think that visuals work very well with their music, and, since I have yet to see them live, I hope that they incorporate some into their performances.
Maybe I was expecting too much, but this seems to have fallen flat. It's just a little too strange. I had heard a track or two on their MySpace page just before it was released, and had thought the same thing, but held out hope that they would continue on where "A Colores" left off. And maybe they have, because they are certainly evolving their sound. There are some great tracks on here, but others are just out there, and the album as a whole almost seems best saved for a mushrooms trip in the woods.
The DVD is especially interesting because it's basically music videos for the songs on the album, and, in that way it works, because it's very psychadelic. One video solely consists of looking up toward a forest canopy through a lens flare. It's cool, but it gets old after a few minutes. It reminds me somewhat of the first time I took ecstasy. Someone had the idea to hook their computer up to the TV and show full screen Windows Media Player visualizations. The idea seemed lame at first, but as I started to peak, I actually had to leave the room because it became too intense. This may work the same way.
The Album Leaf - Into the Blue Again
"In a Safe Place" is a great album. I've always found it perfect for driving in the remote mountains. There's something about LaValle's soundscapes that make the beautiful things around you seem all the more beautiful.
However, this album was very disappointing. It was almost as though the creative energy is gone. Maybe Sigur Ros has left the picture. Maybe it's a record company thing. I don't know, but I didn't end up buying this based on what I heard from it.
Calexico - Garden Ruin
I think only die-hard Calexico fans are purchasing this album because I have yet to hear of anyone actually owning it who likes Calexico. I still don't have it because nothing I've heard from it has sounded decent. It's unfortunate, because I think that "Feast of Wire" was moving the band in a great direction, and for them to have turned off from the clear path onto some obscure, dirt road to no where seems strange, but maybe this will lead to bigger and better things for the group. Calexico still puts on a hell of a show though, and John Convertino now has a big-ass moustache.
Cat Power - The Greatest
I rushed out to get this one when it come out in January of this year. I have been a big Cat Power fan ever since getting my hands on "The Covers Record" and hearing her cover of "Satisfaction". The album title is pretty ironic, because this is definitely the worst Cat Power album. The problem is that, although the music is excellent, it's not her. Cat Power fans like that gritty, untamed guitar and sung in a voice that makes those sad, tearful or depressing songs sound all the moreso. However, this album lacks that entirely except for one track "Hate" where Chan grabs the guitar. It's disappointing that she's turned away from her own musicianship and concentrated solely on vocals because, although she obviously wasn't the best piano player or guitarist, her lack of musical pretentiousness and more raw, less produced playing are the sort of things that won her her fans. I saw her at Coachella this year, and I think the majority of the audience was disappointed to hear solely tracks from this album, especially when she has such good material. So, go out and buy "The Covers Record" (you'll recognize one of the tracks from "'V' for Vendetta") or "You Are Free" and don't let this be representative of Cat Power's music.
Broadcast - Future Crayon
Although Stereolab did the same thing and I put it on my list, this compilation of various singles and EP's that have been released by Broadcast over the years spans too much time for comfort, especially with a group who has evolved so extensively. To me, it seems solely like a money-making ploy from Warp, who, although an independent, have never seemed too moral to put themselves above doing that sort of thing. If you're a huge Broadcast fan, you'll probably already own many of the releases that were used as few of them are overly rare. The "Extended Play" pair is particularly good, and I would personally rather not see their tracks taken out of context as they are here.
The Walkmen - Pussy CatsAfter last year's disappointing "A Hundred Miles Off" I thought that The Walkmen were surely finished. I saw them twice in 2006: once at Coachella and once in Tempe at The Clubhouse. Both times, there was a pointed lack of energy, especially with some of their more well-known songs like "We've Been Had", although the more energetic "Little House of Savages" was still everything you would think it would be. But The Walkmen came back, probably for just one more. And what an exit! "Pussy Cats" is an obscure 1974 Harry Nilsson album produced by John Lennon, at a time when he was separated from Yoko and he and Nilsson wandered LA in a drug- and alcohol-induced haze. So, the entire album is not only covers, but covers from one, relatively unknown album. In interviews, they've justified this by saying that they used to listen to the album constantly while driving around the country in their van. Okay, I listen to a lot of albums while driving around, but I've never thought of re-producing one of them. What the fuck, Walkmen?!