My final year-end list: my favorite five albums of 2006. As with last year, the number 1 choice was easiest and the number 5 choice was hardest. Somewhat unsurprisingly, these albums contributed the top five songs from my previous list (in a slightly different order). The criteria here are a little different though: a good average song quality is necessary, but I also weight coherent themes and the ability to enjoy playing the record all the way through, as opposed to just adding the best few songs to my iTunes playlist. This knocked Pretty Girls Make Graves’ Élan Vital out of the top five, since it had a lot of great songs but didn’t hang together as well as the others.
5. Asobi Seksu, Citrus
This was the year I fell in love with noise pop and shoegazing music, as I looked at classic albums from the ’90s, and I was delighted to find that Asobi Seksu is keeping the genre alive, and putting their own stamp on it. I picked “New Years” for the top songs list as the best example of their fuzzy, dreamlike songs, but all the songs on the album have these textures without sounding alike. The best tracks, “Goodbye” and “Miso Asobi” along with “New Years”, bring a warm and happy feeling out of the noise and distortion, but everything in between is interesting in its own way. It’s one of the most seamless albums of the year.
4. TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain
This is a highly acclaimed album among rock critics, but unlike Justin Timberlake’s, it’s for a good reason: it’s original, inventive, and excellent. It’s hard to come up with something to compare it to, since the sound is so unique—it doesn’t even really sound like TV on the Radio’s earlier work and represents a major step forward for the band. Perhaps a good metaphor could be drawn from one of the best songs on the album: this record is a dirty whirlwind of music. The maelstrom approaches ominously with “Hours”, reaches peak speed at “Wolf Like Me”, slows to a calm center for “Method”, and then picks up again. Not all the tracks are as good as “Wolf Like Me”, but nothing is filler.
3. The Hold Steady, Boys And Girls In America
The Hold Steady topped last year’s list with Separation Sunday, and so it is not a surprise to see them on the list again this year. Their latest album is more song and less story than its predecessor, presenting short vignettes instead of an overall arc and with lead singer Craig Finn taking a more melodic approach. This was initially a little disappointing, but I warmed up to it since the songs are very good indeed. Their Springsteen-esque hard rock rocks harder than just about anything else from this year, and with “Citrus” they showed they could do acoustic ballads too. Even though it’s not the equal of Separation Sunday, it’s still one of the best albums of the year.
2. Belle & Sebastian, The Life Pursuit
This will also be an unsurprising choice, since regular readers know that I hold Belle & Sebastian in high regard. However, this is a standout album even in their catalog, the best since their 1996 release If You’re Feeling Sinister. After several albums that felt like poor copies of Sinister, they’ve tried some new directions starting with Dear Catastrophe Waitress and now, with great success, in The Life Pursuit. The new songs are bright, polished, and sunny (sometimes literally), as well as catchy and infectious. While the pervasive melancholy of their early albums has been left behind, Belle & Sebastian can still write songs that are heartbreaking (“Dress Up In You”) or wistful (“Funny Little Frog”). But the best songs here are simply fun, like “The White Collar Boy” and “The Blues Are Still Blue”.
1. Islands, Return to the Sea
I’m not seeing this album on very many other year-end lists, but it was definitely my favorite of the year. Maybe their quirky blend of indie-rock and tropical music has limited appeal (ok, probably), but I love it. The first couple of songs are epic: “Swans (Life After Death)” is a metaphorical account of how the band was formed after the dissolution of the Unicorns, something I only discovered after I bought the Unicorns’ last album and could decode the references. “Humans” is more straightforward, telling the story of refugees fleeing an (alien?) invasion. After this they move to shorter songs, but no less variety in topics: anorexia, the diamond trade, environmental disaster, and with “Jogging Gorgeous Summer”, a simple and beautiful love song. All these disparate themes are tied together with island and ocean metaphors, which tie in perfectly with the musical style. I never got tired of listening to this album and felt like I noticed something new and interesting in the music every time.
Actually, I do have one more music list to post: at the beginning of the year I made a resolution to fill out my collection of ’90s albums, and promised to post my favorites a year later. So that list will appear next week.