10 January 2007

2006 Year-End Mincetacular, pt. 2: Albs

'sokay, that was, on multiple levels arguably, the most narcissistic er at least indulgent bit of thing i've written in a good month at least. it does capably fulfill the official mandate of this blog, for what that's worth. the mix itself, of course, is itself the most substantial piece of fin d'annee recapping i'm probably capable of, and hopefully delving back into it in that fashion gives some helpful context as far as my relationship to the music and artists. which has got to be the relevant part of any personal music blog (except for this one, which is putatively just about deconstructing mixmakery. or something.) so if nothing else, it's a way to avoid delusions of objectivity. anyhoo, this is turning into a recap of the recap of the recap, so i'll nip that nth level of meta in the bud and shift gears.

here's a list:

1. Paris by Ms. Hilton
2. Silent Shout by the Knife
3. State of The Ark by the Ark
4. So This Is Goodbye by Junior Boys
5. First Impressions of Earth by the Strokes
6. Ys by Joanna Newsom
7. Still Me, Still Now by Amy Diamond
8. People Gonna Talk by James Hunter
9. This is my Demo by Sway
10. Let's Get Out of this Country by Camera Obscura
11. Pretty Scary Silver Fairy by Margaret Berger
12. 'Sno Angel Like You by Howe Gelb
13. B'Day by Beyonce
14. The Secret Life of the Veronicas by the Veronicas
15. Cassie by Cassie
16. Writer's Block by Peter Bjorn and John
17. Fundamental/Fundamentalism by Pet Shop Boys
18. A River in Reverse by Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint
19. The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast by Matmos
20. Fox Confessor Brings the Flood by Neko Case

oh-six was, i think, a pretty good year for albums. very possibly better than it was for songs, or at least singles. it was a fantastic year for artists, and a pretty great one for music overall - i'll try to explain what i mean in pt. 3, if we get there (and if i can figure it out myself.) but, um. i certainly bought a lot of CDs last year - i haven't made a final tally, but my average rate of acquisition kept pretty good pace with the days, so it was probably in the low-to-mid 300s. (enough that whenever i get around to putting everything out of binders and away post-mixmkaing, -djing, and -travel, i'll be seriously screwed for shelf space.) probably less than a quarter of those were from '06, but that's still a lot.

meanwhile, i also didn't buy a lot of albums last year - rather, i owe my so-called possession of them to the so-aptly-called acquisition, the tool of choice for my most prolonged and active period of downloading since my first few years of college. records i heard this way included a lot of the capital-p pop that was my obvious obsession for the year, a smattering of hyped indie stuff that mostly left me cold, and four albums that made it onto my top 20 list (three of which are only available by scandinavian import - the fourth is the beyonce disc, which i'm sure i'll find used soon enough.)

those four beat fairly significant odds, in that i'm still decidedly, though not deliberately, averse to the notion that an iTunes playlist (now with a little square jpg in the corner!) can constitute an "album". it may have less to do with the issues of materiality (though they are relevant) than with the simple nature of how i listen to music on the computer vs. off. even though my laptop is connected to my stereo, i'm usually computing while i listen to iTunes, which means i'm not focused on the music the way i would be while washing the dishes or riding the subway (or lying on the rug, which was my deep-listening pose of choice this year.) also, playlists are so easily interrupted, resequenced, and cherrypicked from - often accidentally - that the listening experience keeps changing, unlike the constancy i'm used from CDs (despite my ADD-DJ proclivities.)

well, whatever the cause, it's just the truth that i have a hard time realizing a coherent reaction to an album of mp3s, at least until i've burned it to a disc and sharpied a pretty label on it. (and even then i can never resist filling the cd-r to near-capacity, which for pop stuff usually works out to two albums.) so that was an impediment to my listmaking, an unpredictable variable that lead me to continually second-guess my own opinion. i'm tempted to say amy diamond's high placement is partially in compensation for that (as well as for snubbing her on the mix), since i'm still not sure i'm 100% familiar with every track on it, even though they all have a play count of at least 7 (and that's before i burned it.)

another significant issue was how much to rate pop albums in terms of albumness as opposed to straight-up average song quality - i.e. allowing dynamite singles to compensate for lackluster filler - i discussed some questions surrounding this issue in this post. my answer is basically that consistent quality and some degree of cohesiveness (sonic or conceptual, for example - yo la tengo suffered mightily on that point, as well as length) are more or less crucial to a good album. if that makes me an albumist, well that's okay. actually, the only finalists to which this really applies are cassie - whose album, i decided, really is impressively consistent, with only a few throwaways - and the veronicas, who may not absolutely deserve the placement, but do for sentimental reasons (i think buying that album was the official starting point of my teenpop craze) as well as circumstantial ones (nobody else really released a decent guitar pop album in 06, save the strokes.)

obviously, these lists are always works in progress. [i still owe ciara, lily allen, the pipettes, and probably justin t. some more concerted listens in the itunes camp; ditto juana molina, sparks, nellie mckay, and a few more on cd - not to mention the barbara morgenstern, the gothic archies, hot chip, califone, beirut, lindstrøm, the radio dept., and plenty more i've only heard partially or not at all....i hear some people liked the hold steady album too.] still, it's a good thing we force ourselves to make lists now, because in six months time when i've heard all that stuff it'll be nearly impossible. besides, i'm a fairly firm believer that a list should try to reflect what you actually listened to during the year, and not the albums you spent december cramming into your skull and trying to force an emotional attachment with to make up for all those months of neglect. (ergo, apologies to marit larsen - it wasn't you, it was me; our timing was just off.)

ok, now for some real fun, here's that list again, with cover art assessments (and star ratings) and other assorted commentary.

i hope this isn't a surprise to anybody at this point. i feel like i've written enough about it to give pause to all haters (most of it in this utterly uncompromising post, which i really ought to go back and re-read sometime.) of course that's a laughable notion - and in fact i've barely bothered to take the haters on at all (dave et. al. have done a more than admirable job on her and my behalf, not that that's helped either.)

in sum? short a robyn or come and get it, this is as close as 2006 got to perfection in dance-pop album form, but it's more than that, and it's also more than just the ultimate galvanizing test case for pop prejudice - it is in its own way utterly unique and boldly experimental. take that!

anyway, hm, that cover actually looks halfway decent designwise without all the clutter of the promo stamp, ad sticker, and price tag that are on my copy. (it also looks lighter, which helps.) i like the red floral business in the upper left, and the simplicity of the typeface. still, she looks bored (very inappropriately!), and her outfit and posture are preposterous and nott hott. nor are they going to help encourage anyone to take her srsly.
really pleasantly surprised about the reception this has been getting in the year-end sweepstakes (pitchfork #1 in particular, but also quite a good showing generally.) on the other hand, i've been listening to deep cuts compulsively for the past week or so and am now very confused about why that album was so widely slept on, "heartbeats" notwithstanding.

i love how the cover looks like that kids' art thing where you put little plastic rings together and then bake them (what's that called?) i assume it's supposed to look like a speaker grille, but i might have made that up. anyway, gorgeous and very fitting design, especially with the matte paper. (my copy doesn't have the purple stuff in the corner, it's on a sticker on the case.)

i guess it's not technically '06? whatever. solid solid album top to bottom. great balance of sarcasm and sincerity, and of pop (synths!) and rock (guitars!), for cross-platforming appeal. both more honest and more fun than scissor sisters or the darkness. they should blow up.

nifty cover too.

easily the most beautiful album i heard this year. achingly. and you can even dance to some of it.

i tend to like the jbs design conceptually more than in execution, though this is a step up from the bland uberminimalism of the debut. nice typography.

some kind of odd silent-treatment backlash going on, or the reverse-psychology marketing non-strategy seriously backfired, or whatever, but no way this is mediocre enough to justify the degree to which its been ignored. sure, it takes a couple-three listens (most of it does anyway - tell me "razorblade" doesn't get you in its first ten seconds), but a few minutes ago the strokes were plenty beloved enough to earn the benefit of the doubt. i guess the is this it? bandwagon was overloaded with trend-jumpers, but since when is rock 'n' roll passé?

lurve the blokes' sophomoric bent for appropriating fine artworks, but this one doesn't quite make it for me as the cover, bold though it is. major points off for the fugly PA sticker (which is for visual content, btw, not language.) the overall design concept, inside the booklet is laughably grandiose, but still pretty cool.
oh, dear. i really wanted ys to be my number two album of the year, since according to wkpd, paris was named for being similarly wonderful to its namesake city (in breton - "par-Ys," you see. not that i really believe that.) unfortunately, i can't quite bring myself to love it as much as i'm love with the idea of loving it. o those devilish expectations. then there was the part where i got hit by a car on my way to her concert. aw well, i still have to finish reading this essay; maybe it will help me to fully actualize my admiration. in the meantime, it's still lovely to listen to.

ok. i do seriously love the packaging (that's part of the problem, almost) - the cover portrait falls a little short, in that it doesn't entirely look like her, and also i don't like the way the title is written. it's the gilded edges on the booklet that really make it though.
yay, amy! how can you not grin? she's like, the modern shirley temple. except less annoying. amy reached all kinds of new people in '06 - stylus staffers, barbadian preteens, my dad - who knows how many hearts she'll have conquered by the end of this year - let alone by the time she's old enough to vote.

oh yeah, also "it can only get better" brings me to tears.

this is a completely preposterous cover. the checkered part looks like photoshop before the image has loaded. the font is way too busy it's not even a very good picture of her (the one on her debut's way cuter.) but i don't really care.
was my dark-horse #1 for a worrying while - then fortunately the second half of the year happened. i still love what james is trying to do, almost as much as i love how darn good he is at accomplishing it. i somehow imagine plenty of people not turned off by the one would be stymied by the other. call him a semi-fascist throwback if you must; but really, what's so bad about an uncannily soulful mellowed-out scotsman. btw, he can't possibly be as unlucky in love as his lyrics suggest.

a nice cover all around. nothing flashy; appropriately retro without abandoning tastefulness. good shot of him (though his cartoons of himself are even better.) i especially like the colors and layout of the words.

forget grime - this is straight hip-hop, accent notwithstanding. "when you do UK rap you're number 2" sez mr. dasafo - well not in my book, in this case anyway. i'm grateful to this album for assuring me that i'm not actually losing my taste for rap, i'm just largely unsatisfied with its current trends (though hyphy may merit some further exploration.) is it wrong that i'm just not that interested in coke dealing? sway as a whole package - rhymes, personality, content, even skits - won me over way more than any other rapper this year (rhymefest is a close second, lupe fiasco a distant third), and this album is immensely listenable. "products" is like the hip-hop "LDN," "little derek" oozes charisma, and there's even an old-school summer love jam. i have to rep since even the stylusers that were all 'bout it a year ago seem to have moved elsewhere. shame, really.

actually, the cover's pretty interesting. i like the buildings. not sure why he's wearing that union jack kerchief, does he not want us to see his face?
this one hung on by sheer force of personality, i guess, since i can never convince myself its actually that good until i put it on. the secret highlight is "country mile," though the one i always get in my head (besides the singles) is "dory previn." [was going to say something about b+s, but i changed my mind. that means CamObs win.]

the only way in which this is not an improvement over underachievers please try harder (okay, well except for the title) is the cover art (no longer by stuart murdoch, one might point out.) i like it in theory, but that box with the words is kind of ugly, the wallpaper doesn't work the way it should, and her expression is annoyingly unreadable. y'all know that's not traceyanne campbell, right?
whooo! possibly a benificiary of last-minute enthusiasm (especially since i walked around philly listening to this album yesterday, and that's when it really, really clicked) and mp3-guilt counterbalancing, but who cares. what a joy! "robot song" has surely been sufficiently championed by now, but i'm not even sure that's the best song on the album anymore. "get physical" is gloriously robotic in its own right; "naive (16)" sounds like lily allen without the snark. perhaps amusingly, it was "will you remember me tomorrow" that was in my head when i woke up today.

has anyone noticed how similar this album is to anniemal? just listen to the intro track. if the hipsters don't pounce soon there's no justice in this world. (only, why does the last track make me think of garbage?)

c'mon now. all that and she looks like a '60s fashion icon?

this might have been the most original sounding thing i heard all year; experimental in the true sense of the word, and a resoundingly successful experiment. perhaps it only seems that way 'cuz howe gelb is such a weirdball; it's such a simple, even obvious premise - rootsy-folksy songwriter meets gospel choir - that it must have been done before. but howe's peculiar artlessness lends it a preternatural charm and a refreshingly unstudied optimism, gently but convincingly underscored by the voices of praise.

plus there's the beautiful, preposterous pun of the title. which is aptly mirrored in the perfectly-conceived cover.
still not 100% sold on this as an album - though i like that it only has ten songs - but screw that, it's solid. seems like it should have kickstarted at least a half-dozen new catchphrases ("freakum dress," "get bodied," etc.) most surprisingly, there's more soulfulness here - if not flat out soul ("suga mama," notably) - than much else i've heard this side of sharon jones. well-deployed curtis sample on the closer too.

this cover commits many of the same sins as paris (vacant expression, bizarro unsexy outfit) but at least it's well lit and has nice clouds in the background. i kind of like the gothicy lettering. she does look like a robot though.
this was the year teenpop truly broke for me, and this was the album that did it. "4ever" has come to overshadow the rest of it, and its true that it never regains the awesomeness of the first three tracks (=first three singles), but it's strong straight through, with nothing i'd really call filler even though it seems like it wants to be. the shift in tone is admittedly abrupt. still sorta mad at them for cancelling their opening slot on the ashlee tour.

boring cover although i appreciate that it's something other than a vampy picture of them. given their fashion sense that might have been disastrous.
a surprisingly solid full-length (as i've mentioned before) which gets great mileage out of its (relatively unique) r'n'b-meets-electro-minimalism m.o. much credit due to producer-writer-mastermind-guest rapper ryan leslie, from whom i look forward to hearing more.

for some reason her pose on this cover makes it seem like she's overweight. (which she definitely isn't.) not that it's an unattractive picture, though a little meh. would've been cool to see something more in line with the sleek modernism of the music.
again, struggling with its albumness somewhat. hook for hook and song for song i definitely prefer their earlier falling out. some of the numbers here are too cutesy ("amsterdam") or meandering ("roll the credits") for my taste, but they're balanced out by the nifty "chills,"
weirdly intoxicating "poor cow," and flat-out awesome and nearly epic "up against the wall."

not sure what's going on with this cover. i like the idea of them as buildings, but the title pun is...not even really a pun. cool lettering at least.
ah yes. the return to synthpop form, several years too late to be trendy about it. not that they care. actually the slower, dramatic tracks ("numb," "i made my excuses...," "indefinite leave to remain") work much better than the synthpop ones ("minimal" and "i'm with stupid" are fun to dance to, but their lyrics unfortunately kind of live up to their titles.) that is, at least until the crack team of remixers get their hands on them on the bonus disc. (trentemøller!) why is this on rhino again?

not a lot going on with the cover, though i like the neon idea. probably works better vinyl-size, so they're not quite so tiny.
my elvis-love is possibly at an all-time low right now, though i still bought three of his albums this year out of lingering loyalty (the boring/misguided jazz thing and the juliet letters reissue.) if there's anything he could have in '06 done to regain my affections it's release a soul album. and dang if he didn't do it up right too, even though i still can't embrace it as fully as my mind tells me i ought to. i guess it's no surprise that flawless execution alone isn't enough to sell this stuff. by now my relationship with EC is hopelessly confused (more on that here), but i still gotta give props. i hear he's preggers again too.

okay, but that cover is just lame. at least allen looks mildly dignified. (el is wearing a kind of cool shirt i guess.) oh whoa, i only just figured out that the piano is an upright and they're behind it. (er, right?)
i never thought i had it in me to love matmos, and i still don't think i could explain it to you, but somehow the music on this record outpaced its absurd (but still awesome) conceptual trappings to become, apparently, my favorite electronica album of the year. gee, electronica must kind of suck these days (or just continue to be expensive in album form.) jes' kidding drew; i love yoo.

hmm. yeah, i don't like this cover. lots of neat art inside (the patricia highsmith assemblage especially) but this image is a little too confused.
should probably be higher, but i didn't actually listen to it all that much. not as good as blacklisted. but it is strange and beautiful and haunting. really strange, actually; somehow the songs don't seem like normal songs at all. and i have no idea what's going on in the words, though a few of them connected after my accident.

the jpg doesn't really do it justice, but this is a beautiful package design, and the drawing is wonderfully creepy (on the back it's reversed, with one fox and a pile of severed heads.) though it'd be better if that was real birch bark.


Dave said...

That Neko Case cover is gorjess, but I've only seen it in Starbucks. Uh, why haven't I listened to the Cassie album yet??????

Dave said...

(Hey, you didn't make any comment about how CREEPY it is that you like that Amy Diamond album! You CREEP!)

Dave said...

it's just the truth that i have a hard time realizing a coherent reaction to an album of mp3s, at least until i've burned it to a disc and sharpied a pretty label on it. (and even then i can never resist filling the cd-r to near-capacity, which for pop stuff usually works out to two albums.)

I have major issues related to this, too -- connected to Margaret Berger when I burned to CD and took it on a car ride w/ Emily. But Marit I've never heard on CD(-R), though it REALLY resonated with me during a difficult event this past year listening on iPod. Headphones and distance from sitting in front of the damn computer make a difference for me, arguably more than a physical copy on CD (tho it's nice when the playlist just stops and you have that ringing silence after the last note).

One thing I notice about my own listening habits is that when I really connect to a song, I tend to obsess, sometimes at the expense of (1) the surrounding album and (2) everything else I could be listening to. Happened with "Not This Year," several others this year. (Happened with "I Am One of Them" last year, actually.) So when I judge albums, I very very rarely can remember every song, or have a strong association with every song. More likely, I have a 50%+ great familiarity and the rest mild familiarity, i.e. I recognize it well when it comes on but couldn't nec. hum a bar otherwise.

This year's 100% albums for me (meaning 100% knowledge of all songs/consistency): Veronicas (and I don't even LIKE half of 'em!), Marit, Ark (and that's IT). Close to 100% with Paris (all but that second-to-last one I always forget about!), Marie Serneholt, Pink, Amy Diamond, Fergie, Phoenix, BWO. Some of 'em toward the 20 end I'm probably at very very low familiarity -- Arctic Monkeys, Sonic Youth.

Part of this is laziness -- if I'm not REALLY turned on by an album, I usually just let pleasant nostalgia let it carry for a long stretch of time. But it's also really taxing for me to give full energy to albums in rock-crit mode, getting to know every nuance. Toward the end of my regular review-writing stint I felt like I was just throwing words at the screen trying to keep up with deadlines, because in order to write anything half-decent/intelligent about a piece of music -- even a song much less an album -- I probably have to listen to it anywhere between ten and twenty times. Only a couple albums this year got that sort of attention (basically my top 3-5).