Stretching, grasping for year’s best CDs
December 28, 2006
Aspen, CO ColoradoSo, what kind of year was it in music? My answer, as it has been in years past: How the hell should I know? Or better yet, how the hell can anyone know such a thing?I listen to music as close to constantly as possible. (Various fellow writers have expressed amazement that I listen while writing, and it suddenly dawns on me that what they mean is perhaps I shouldn’t do this.) I often go back to old favorites -this past year was big on the Gov’t Mule back catalog – but I expend insane amounts of energy searching out, getting my hands on, and listening to new CDs. Those teetering stacks of CDs on my desk are virtually all of 2006 vintage; virtually all have been given repeat spins (does my computer actually spin them as they play, or is this phrase a relic from my LP days?).And still, getting a grasp on a year’s worth of music is beyond my reach. I’ve tried to keep up with what other critics are raving about, but still I haven’t heard Joanna Newsom’s “Ys” (can’t even pronounce it, in fact), or the Arctic Monkey’s “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” (another CD whose potential status as a classic is jeopardized by its title), or T.I.’s “King.” On the other hand, a big batch of new names and sounds penetrated my ears and consciousness: James Hunter, the Bellrays, TV on the Radio, and, of course, Gnarls Barkley (now there’s a name).One or two things I can say about musical 2006: It was a very good year for young women and for older gentlemen. In the former category are Sasha Dobson, Sonya Kitchell, Regina Spektor, Chan Marshall (better known as Cat Power), and Jenny Lewis (whose album with the Watson Twins, “Rabbit Fur Coat,” failed to find its way to my desk). On the other end of the gender and age spectrum, septuagenarians Jerry Lee Lewis and Kris Kristofferson appeared with solid efforts, while 60-somethings Solomon Burke, Neil Young and Bob Dylan continued their late-career resurgences. Even Eric Clapton, 61, who had been wasting his talent of late, turned the corner (with the help of 66-year-old J.J. Cale).Here’s how the year sounded to me.Jackie Greene”American Myth”Twenty-six-year-old Californian Jackie Greene, a professional musician since his teens, complained a few years ago of being exhausted and depressed by the grind of touring. He then went and proved the point by collapsing onstage at a concert in Snowmass Village three summers ago. But Greene has recovered brilliantly with “American Myth,” on which he uses his angst to reflect on the state of the union and personal despair. “Hollywood” is scathing; “So Hard to Find My Way” mixes downbeat lyrics with a jubilant chorus. The masterpiece is “Supersede,” a 10-minute epic of how a good romance just might save his soul. The production, by Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin, is exceptional.
Solomon Burke”Nashville”Solomon Burke heads into country territory, but is old and smart enough not to try putting a twang into his voice. Instead he sticks to his burly soul style, while letting the songs (including classics like “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” “We’re Gonna Hold On” and “Tomorrow Is Forever”) and his vocal partners (Gillian Welch, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris) provide the Nashville flavor. It’s Burke’s second standout CD in four years; 2002’s “Don’t Give Up on Me” is an equal sensation.Brazilian Girls”Talk to La Bomb”Brazilian Girls made critical noise with their self-titled, 2005 debut, then surpassed themselves considerably with their sophomore CD. (The fact that the new CD has apparently flown under critics’ radar proves the point I’ve made several times, that my journalist brethren are overly focused on what’s new.)On “Talk to the Bomb,” Brazilian Girls – only one female, and no Brazilians in the quartet – makes dance music with smarts. Their sound is worldly and appropriately apocalyptic; vocalist Sabina Sciubba sings in five languages. It’s the perfect modern mix of beauty and brains.Golden Smog”Another Fine Day”Golden Smog, a side project of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and members of the Jayhawks, reinvigorates folk-rock, country-rock and even ’80s rock, making this one of the most notable albums ever to come from a side project.
Beck”The Information”Beck has for several years and several albums jumped from amped-up techno-funk to stripped-down melancholia. It’s hard to say if his ultimate aim was to find a happy medium between the two, but “The Information” is just that. The pastiche of sampled sounds is there, and at times builds to a groove, but there is also a brooding aura to the way Beck sings here, and to the songs. “Cellphone’s Dead” may put a lift in your step, but that title might make you think twice.Cassandra Wilson”Thunderbird”On her last CD, “Belly of the Sun,” singer Cassandra Wilson took a trip to her native Mississippi. Here, producer T-Bone Burnett guides her on a different sort of trip, a sonic sojourn into gentle hip-hop territory, with faint Latin influences. But the star of “Thunderbird,” as with all of Wilson’s CD, is her sultry, deep voice.Bob Dylan”Modern Times”Nine years ago, on his “comeback” album “Time Out of Mind,” Dylan, then 56, was a dead man walking, contemplating death, sickness and the end of things. Now eligible for Social Security, the Dylan on “Modern Times” sounds like a kid. Not literally; his voice is more of a croak than ever, and somehow as vital as ever. But Bob sounds buoyant, in love with life, as he makes his way through blues- and jazz-inspired songs that seem to come from another age. “Modern Times” has its moments of ambiguity, but the overwhelming vibe of songs like “Beyond the Horizon,” the preponderance of phrases like “Feel like my soul is beginning to expand” (not to mention Dylan’s imagined pursuit of young singer Alicia Keys) makes this yet another reinvention of the former Mr. Zimmerman – and an especially enjoyable one.Gnarls Barkley”St. Elsewhere”It’s a good thing “Crazy” is such a good song, because I’d hate to have something lousy embedded so deep within my brain. It’s also nice that “St. Elsewhere,” the debut collaboration between singer Cee-Lo and producer Danger Mouse, is far more than one killer song and a bunch of filler.
Regina Spektor”Begin to Hope””Begin to Hope,” by Russian-born, 26-year-old New Yorker Regina Spektor, is akin to “Extraordinary Machine,” last year’s critical winner by Fiona Apple. “Begin to Hope” is remarkably ambitious, drawing on the full range of the piano to tap into jazz, hip-hop and rock styles. Spektor’s flexible voice caps these romantic sentiments.Ben Harper”Both Sides of the Gun”After a few years mucking around in breezier songs, Ben Harper gets serious on the two-disc set “Both Sides of the Gun.” His voice is well-suited to gritty-but-inspirational material like “Better Way,” and though he seems to be mining early-’70 Rolling Stones at times, he also mixes in a wealth of ideas for what might be his best album.
Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood”Out Louder”This is often described as the follow-up to 1998’s “A Go Go.” But the earlier album was credited to guitarist John Scofield; this one is credited to the combined talents of Scofield and keyboard trio Medeski, Martin & Wood, and the difference is not just in name. Where “A Go Go” was a classic of easygoing groove, “Out Louder” digs deeper and explores way more corners of the avant-jazz realm.Tom Petty”Highway Companion””Highway Companion” is like a Tom Petty retrospective – only with all new songs. Petty drives through his past, digging into musical ideas from his early days with the Heartbreakers, his time as a Traveling Wilbury, and “Wildflowers,” his high point as a solo artist. While the sounds are familiar, the songs are first-rate.And the next baker’s dozen:TV on the Radio, “Return to Cookie Mountain”The Bellrays, “Have a Little Faith”Cat Power, “The Greatest”Michael Franti & Spearhead, “Yell Fire!”Bruce Springsteen, “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions”The Raconteurs, “Broken Boy Soldiers”James Hunter, “People Gonna Talk”Neil Young, “Living With War”Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris, “All The Roadrunning”Dave Alvin, “West of the West”Neko Case, “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood”Kieran Kane, Kevin Welch, Fats Kaplan, “Lost John Dean”Los Lobos, “The Town and the City”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org