Sunday, December 31, 2006

Top 50 Albums of 2006 (10-6)

10. Sunset Rubdown - Shut Up I Am Dreaming (Absolutely Kosher)

A bit of a drop-down for Spencer Krug from last year's number two placing for Apologies To The Queen Mary. Wolf Parade's debut was a stupendously dynamic clash of two different songwriting perspectives though (Krug and Dan Boeckner), where Shut Up I Am Dreaming is more of a singular vision. Krug excels in marrying the everyday with the fantastical (a trick he pulls off with more aplomb than his mentor, Frog Eyes' Carey Mercer), and in doing so works at creating his own miniverse inside his lyrical flights of fancy and off-kilter musical motifs.

At its best, Shut Up I Am Dreaming betters most of Apologies..., and while there are few moments as jaw-dropping as that album's 'I'll Believe In Anything', the overall effect of the record is one of startling narrative cohesion. Plus, it rocks pretty hard from time to time too. While the album's more immediate moments are drenched in pathos-eking fuzz and lo-fi accoutrements, the need to sweep away the dirt and pick through the imperfections makes this a thoroughly rewarding listen.

'Stadiums And Shrines II', the wind-blown opener, sounds like it takes place in the middle of that twister at the start of The Wizard Of Oz, but when the house comes crashing down on the band, they just dust themselves off and keep playing, against all odds. The towering, 'The Men Are Called Horsemen There' seems not to have any discernible structure, thus creating a freeform looseness that works against Krug's often impassioned vocal. Best of the bunch, 'Us Ones In Between' is a careworn piano ballad, filled with precious metaphor (very 'indie') but the truth at the heart of the song comes through all the same. Krug is quietly becoming one of the greatest songwriters around today (his songs were the best on that forgettable Swan Lake record), his eccentric, individual way with a song being as strange as it is inviting. Come on in.

Sunset Rubdown - Stadiums And Shrines II (mp3)

9. Junior Boys - So This Is Goodbye (Domino)

So here's the thing; there's not a lot separating Junior Boys from The Postal Service. Both groups take indie-rock formats and templates and recast them in an electronic setting. Both groups are also duos and both feature frontmen who wear their emotions on their sleeves. But, Junior Boys tend to send critics into raptures, whereas The Postal Service, while they haven't been completely laughed off, are much more likely to be derided than praised.

So why is this? Well, TPS have, in Ben Gibbard, a frontman who was already well known on the indie underground as the main man in Death Cab For Cutie, a band who skirt around the boundaries of emo, but appeal to kids who will more likely listen to Pavement than Quicksand. So he was a target already. Here's the main difference between the two bands though; the sentiments in Postal Service songs (and don't get me wrong here, I really like The Postal Service) can sometimes be cloying and obvious, whereas JBs have more of a tendency towards the opaque and the realist. That's not to say that Junior Boys don't hammer home the sap every now and then, as on songs like 'First Time' or 'Like A Child', but their lachrymose leanings are balanced out by more battle-weary, embittered tracks like 'In The Morning', or the superb, 'Count Souvenirs'.

To be honest though, what sets Junior Boys out from the pack is the fact that 'soul' just comes a lot easier for them. Whether it's Jeremy Greenspan's gorgeous croon, the subtle, crisp beats laid down by partner, Matthew Didemus or that they aren't averse to paying homage to the king of heart-bruising, Frank Sinatra, on their cover of 'When No One Cares', but they just do this kind of thing better than anyone else.

Junior Boys - In The Morning (mp3)

8. Fujiya & Miyagi - Transparent Things (Tirk)

Krautrock is an often austere subgenre, more concerned with the mathematics and structure of song than with the actual physical reaction that comes from the listener. While krautrock is inherently based around rhythm and repetition, seemingly built for dancing, most of its practitioners in the 70s early days approached it in more of a cerebral manner. This isn't a bad thing, especially when it produced such great music from the likes of Can, Neu! and Amon Duul, the wit and humanism was often lacking.

Which is where Fujiya & Miyagi come in. Three guys from Brighton who have been kicking around in obscurity for a while, they came to the fore this year with Transparent Things, an album that was a marked improvement on their debut and just the right record that was needed this year. Fusing Can-like modulations with a looseness that brings to mind Happy Mondays, F&M have put the fun into krautrock after all these years.

So we end up with Dave Best's often hilarious, highly quotable epithets, spoke-sung and cut up over the top of metronomic beats and driving electronics and guitars, making for a memorable, infectious listening experience and one that you can't help but go back to, if only to hear 'Photocopier''s "We're just mon-key-ing a-round with your furniture" refrain, or the insidious, meta-sexual throb of 'In One Ear & Out The Other'. It was also the only album this year to feature a song based on 'Dem Bones', which is reason enough to have you reaching for the repeat button.

Fujiya & Miyagi - In One Ear & Out The Other (mp3)

7. Grizzly Bear - Yellow House (Warp)

Yellow House was one of those surprises that we should have seen coming. Horn Of Plenty, Grizzly Bear's debut full-length was an overlong record that showed flashes of things to come in the fuzzy, lysergic 'Deep Sea Diver' and the close harmonising of 'Fix It', but I think that most people thought Grizzly Bear would be one of those bands that would always record interesting stuff but never really make something fully realised. If Yellow House is one thing though, it's definitely a rounded, enjoyable statement.

The fluttery folk of opener 'Easier' sets the scene with its flutes, cascading acoustic guitar and brushed drums. This is a more instantly memorable and likeable album than its predecessor and while the directness is offset by queasy electronics and the odd scything, rousing guitar (most effective on the brilliant 'Lullabye'), the album's idiosyncrasies are there to serve the melody, rather than obfuscate it.

Like that other great psych-folk group, Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear succeed with their latest album in creating something that sounds both 'native' and approachable. Nowhere is this dichotomy more evident than on the ghostly doo-wop of 'Knife' or the shifting, melodic 'On A Neck, On A Spit'. Never forbidding, always natural and instinctive, Yellow House is a subtly adventurous delight from start to finish.

Grizzly Bear - On A Neck, On A Spit (mp3)

6. Ghostface Killah - Fishscale (Def Jam)

After six years of coasting since 2000's Supreme Clientele, Ghostface pulled up his socks this year and delivered an album that not only stands up to his first two, but is also, in many respects, better. Fishscale is an album that sees Ghostface grandstanding, showboating and rendering a lot of modern mainstream hip-hop irrelevant. On Fishscale, Ghostface dips in and out of different guises, trying on multifarious hip-hop styles from club bangers ('The Champ', 'Be Easy') to blunted surrealism ('Underwater') and from lovesick emoting ('Back Like That', 'Jellyfish') to Scarface-enamoured thug-hop ('Kilo', 'Shakey Dog'), excelling in all of them.

But this doesn't at all surprise me, because everyone with a passing interest in rap music and a pair of ears has known forever that Ghostface is one of the most versatile, commanding, intelligent MCs in the game. What is surprising is the amount of hunger that Ghost shows here, as though he is an upstart with something to prove. We're talking about a 35 year-old man here, with two of the greatest hip-hop albums ever under his belt, not to mention the fact that he steals pretty much every Wu track he's ever appeared on (and also his many upstaging collaborations), so why so fiery and desperate?

It's because Ghost has an innate understanding of what makes great hip-hop music. The smarts will always be there as Ghost is too clever to not drop head-spinning science, but the sheer red-eyed conviction and assuredness that he essays here is mind-blowing, never once getting lazy. That's something that the hip-hop old guard could learn from.

Ghostface Killah - The Champ (mp3)


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