My Best Albums of 2006

One of the reasons that I started Musiclogging is because music’s really important to me, and logging the music as I listen to it forces me to have some discipline about it. I’m seeking even more such discipline in the new year, but we’ll see how that goes. [In other words, there’s probably not going to be a resolution on that. ;)]

In an expansion on last year’s best music, I’m going to break down things into two categories, and then do a final ranking at the end: the best new albums [that is, those I’ve purchased that were released in 2006] and the best old albums [stuff that’s new to me but was released before 2006]. I hope to continue this tradition in the future; tomorrow, I’ll tackle the bootleg best-ofs in a similar manner, as putting this entry together tonight has literally taken me hours.

In case you’re curious how I powered the writing of this entry, here’s how: iTunes Smart Playlists. I’ll describe the conditions of the playlist in each section. From there, it was a simple visual analysis, once each playlist was sorted by My Rating in descending order.

The iTunes Smart Playlist used to pick my best new albums of 2006 is set up like so:

  • Date Added is in the range 01-Jan-2006 to 31-Dec-2006
  • Genre does not contain Bootleg
  • Podcast is false
  • Year is 2006

Using that basis, the best new albums of 2006, in my opinion, are:

Honorable Mention: I’m giving an honorable mention here to Andrew Osenga’s Photographs, which he remastered and re-issued this year. The re-issue sparkles, to be sure, but this isn’t truly a new album. Also, it kept the next album off the list.

We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions 5. Bruce Springsteen’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions is great introduction for mainstream listeners into the wonderful world of Americana. Undoubtedly, many of The Boss’s avid fans are themselves fans of Americana, for listening to wonderful albums like Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad will leave one wanting more of that.

I think that the story of WSO is fairly well-known, so I won’t repeat it here. Suffice it to say that this is one toe-tapping, rollickin’ little album. It’s probably the only album that my roommate and I both listen to and love. The three best tracks on the album for me are:

  • “O Mary Don’t You Weep”
  • “Erie Canal”
  • “My Oklahoma Home”

Eric Peters - Scarce 4. Eric Peters’s Scarce is an inspiring, hopeful album. Pappy makes me want to be a more hopeful person, and I have truly enjoyed getting to know him better this year. He’s a modest, almost-insecure guy, so when I told him that Scarce was going to be on this list this year, I think he was really surprised and touched.

The highlights from this album are as follows:

  • “Save Something for Grace”: The chorus sells this one for me: “Save something for grace / as she’s raising the sky / save something for faith / that there’s hope still in her eyes / save something for grace”.
  • “Squeeze” is a great admission of Eric’s anxious nature. Since he admits to it, I’ll definitely confirm it, and I’m sure that Ronzilla would as well. In fact, Eric’s expressed self-doubt simply frustrates me, because I really don’t think it’s got any merit to it. But if it keeps him making great music, well, okay.
  • You Can Be Yourself“: It’s absolutely, positively the chorus that makes this song: “If love is a fool’s maze / I wanna get lost / if love is a new day / I wanna wake up / You can see, you can see what it’s done to me / You can be yourself”. The power of love to liberate is such a powerful thing, and Eric carves a powerful metaphor here, backing that with a great melody. The second verse is also so great, and a place I want to be someday: “I thought love was a weapon / to conquer and wield / But love turned out humble / and it still conquers me”. I think that it’s this track that sells the album; as a result, I’ve put the iTunes Store link on the track title.

Andrew Osenga - The Morning 3. Andrew Osenga’s The Morning is the album that we all knew Andrew had in him. Osenga’s previous band, The Normals, was a great rock band that never found an audience big enough to satisfy a record label. As such, Forefront killed the commercial enterprise; they didn’t, however, kill Osenga’s career or his flat-out ability to rock.

Andrew’s previous two releases, Photographs and the Souvenirs & Postcards EP, were quiet, contemplative, introspective albums. Given that Osenga’s day job has had him playing in, writing for, and occasionally fronting Caedmon’s Call, some listeners feared that Andrew might never really let fly with a great rock song again. This is probably doubly true if you consider “Bombay Rain” off of Share the Well, which shows a great pop sensibility.

But rock Osenga did. I remember talking to him about this record some time back, and he promised me that he’d bring the heat again. Here’s where it came:

  • “White Dove”: Following the rocking “After the Garden”, which merely served as a signal that, yes, this was going to be a rock album, “White Dove” slows it down a notch in the first verse, with Will Sayles’s and Paul Eckberg’s drum kitting held quiet until the chorus. But then as the song concludes, Andrew lets rip: “and all of this / and all of us / are an arrow / pointed at the heart of God / shot through and pierced his side / blood and water / bread and wine”. Heard live, it truly sizzles. Every sad thing really will become untrue.
  • “Trying to Get This Right”: Coming as the album has passed from morning into evening, this is a deeper, darker song. It’s slow and mournful at the start, and then Andrew wails away in the chorus: “cause I love you, baby / and I don’t want to fight / you love me, baby / I know that we’re both / trying to get this right”. This is another track best heard live. [Admittedly, I’m greatly influenced by the release show for The Morning, which I attended and bootlegged. ;)] I think the thing that I love most about this track is that Andy gets his wife, Alison, to do the bgv’s on the subsequent runs through the chorus. No one else would fit, would they?
  • “Santa Barbara”: Here’s the unabashed rocker of the album. This is another of Osenga’s fictional forays; he often notes that about half of his songs have basis in his life, and the other half are totally fictional and just serve a greater musical purpose for him. The energy builds throughout the song, slowing only during the bridge, which is followed by the triumphal, ultimate verse: “but tonight the moon is preaching his revival, / and I’m breaking like the tide to make a change, / so I’m going to the ocean, / I’m swimming past the pier, / praying, Lord, to wash my sins away”. I think that I was most excited to hear this one live, and … well, Andy didn’t disappoint.

Andrew, I’m really proud of you for making this album. We’ve been friends now for three years [!], and this is the album I’ve wanted you to make ever since you sold me the old Normals discs. [Thank you, Stephen Cavness.] I like your folky stuff, brother, but … you also rock, dude. And remember … nothing rhymes with orange. πŸ˜‰

Over the Rhine - Snow Angels 2. Over the Rhine’s Snow Angels is so much more than a Christmas album, but it’s a very good representative of that genre, too. I’m reminded of my trip to KSC back in August 2005, where the guys in the Sew Shop play a Bing Crosby Christmas album at least some part of every single day. This album has, I believe, the potential to be similarly timeless and listenable any time of year.

The key tracks for me are:

  • “Snowed in With You”: It sure feels like a song Karin wrote for Linford [the liner notes don’t make this clear], imploring him to stay home and spend time with her. It’s certainly got its fair amount of sexual tension to it: “I wanna get snowed in with you / I’m gonna make every effort to be so good to you / that when the snow melts away / you’ll want to stay / snowed in with me”. Sounds like something Alex‘s wife would have written for him in the last couple of weeks. πŸ˜‰
  • “North Pole Man”: Well, if the last track had sexual tension to it, this one has a brazen, instinctual quality to it. I’ll just list the last lines, because the rest is so risqué: “It takes perspiration / to melt the snow”. Karin’s delivery is really what sells it, too. Phew. As Jeff says, “I need a cigarette after that.”
  • Snow Angel“: The title track is just so … achingly beautiful. It’s a ballad of love and war, set in a Civil War timeframe given the Detquists’ purchase of Nowhere Farm and its antebellum farm house—the oldest residential structure left standing in the area, actually. Words simply don’t do this song justice; check it out on iTunes with the URL at the beginning of this bullet.

This album really leaves me ready for The Trumpet Child, due out next year.

Matthew Perryman Jones - Throwing Punches in the Dark 1. Matthew Perryman Jones’s Throwing Punches in the Dark is probably the album I most identified with this year. When I do a new theme for this site—one I’d hope to have done by 2007, but simply won’t—it’ll be subtitled “The Loneliness of Ambition”. I don’t know Jones as well as I’d like, but I’ve just made that a goal for 2007—and this is album is a reason why. Anyone who makes an album like this is someone I need to know. I think we’d find that we share a lot of traits.

The best three tracks all come right in a row on the second-half of the disc. I spent weeks starting this disc on the sixth track in my car:

  • “Refuge”: I’m a sucker for a singable chorus. Refuge’s chorus is singable and plaintive: “(Take me to) A place where love can mend these wounds / where mystery can dance with truth / and the broken soul finds refuge”. That line, “where mystery can dance with truth”, is what drew me into the album on the first listen on his MySpace page. [Yes, yes; Jones doesn’t have a real site right now, and “Refuge” is the song that auto-loaded in 2006 when the page was finished.]
  • “One Thing More”: The aforementioned line about “the loneliness of ambition” comes from this track: “What’s in the mirror / are the tired eyes looking for something new / Is it any clearer? / Does the loneliness of ambition bother you?”. 2006 has been such a professionally successful year for me that this song keeps me in my place. It is the anchor in rough seas, the lighthouse keeping me off the shoals. Sadly, this isn’t on Jones’s MySpace or on iTunes. Guess you’ll have to buy the record to hear it, huh? πŸ˜‰
  • “Hard Times”: This is a great cover of an old Stephen Collins Foster song, sparsely done with MPJ on acoustic and vocals, the lovely Kate York on BGV’s, and Neilson Hubbard playing the keys. It’s a quiet song that really soothes the soul after the last two heart-wrenchers.

I am definitely ready for another MPJ record!

The iTunes Smart Playlist used to pick my best new albums of 2006 is set up like so:

  • Date Added is in the range 01-Jan-2006 to 31-Dec-2006
  • Genre does not containg Bootleg
  • Podcast is false
  • Year is not 2006

With that as my basis, here are the best albums I picked up this year that were released before 2006:

Writing on the Wall 5. Jill Phillips’s Writing on the Wall: I think I can be fairly accused for being a shill for the Square Pegs, given the above list, but I think that you’ll find that this part list is leavened more towards non-Pegs. πŸ˜‰ But this is still a great disc from a lovely, funny, talented woman whom I am getting to know better as time goes by. Jill, you and Andy are a blessing to me in ways you’ll never know. And even when you call me and the folks out at shows and make me blush like a crushing teenage boy, I still like you a lot. πŸ˜‰

Enough personal stuff: let’s talk about what makes this disc a must-have for me:

  • Wrecking Ball“: Many great albums have great opening tracks. Jill’s husband, Andy Gullahorn, penned a goodly chunk of this one [to the point that she wants him to play it live, rather than her doing so]. The chorus’s metaphor is strong and evocative: “So piece together these little mysteries / it isn’t hard to see the writing on the wall / triumph and tragedy, only God can be / both the builder and the wrecking ball”. Jill wrote this album just before her father died, and these songs were a comfort to her in that time. I think it’s clear to see why…
  • God Believes in You” is a cover of a Pierce Pettis tune. Jill does it great justice, even if her sweet, smooth, strong voice is nothing like Pierce’s quavering, rough-hewn tenor. Everything matters if anything matters at all.
  • Grand Design“: The final track of the album, it’s a strong finisher. I believe that Jill is in a different place than I am theologically, but even a Methodist like myself can appreciate the chorus: “I feel the pain but it still doesn’t change who You are / Nothing I feel is outside the reach of Your arms / My whole world could crumble but all of the pieces remain / In Your hands that are waiting to put them together again”.

What I Mean to Say Is Goodbye 4. Tom Brosseau’s What I Mean to Say Is Goodbye really struck me earlier this year. Brosseau’s tenor is so high and reedy that some find it androgynous or effeminate. Though now a resident of SoCal, Brosseau is North Dakota-bred, and it’s written all over this album:

  • “West of Town”: A matter-of-fact, descriptive song that recalls the 1997 floods in the Great Plains and their affect on his home area and provides the setting for the album: “Green cars of the Burlington Northern / slowly going through town / will always be / my favorite sight and sound”. This is a man who has left his home but still remembers it fondly: “Sometimes I go back on my own / sometimes it’s on request / someone’s getting married / someone’s laid to rest. / Can’t do anything, can’t go anywhere / without a jacket and a hood / I even miss how cold it gets / but I never thought I would.”
  • “Wear and Tear”: This is the swift, driving lament of the decay and dilapidation of his home: “too much wear and tear to care”. “Once there was livestock / and hay up in the hay loft / and big machines that worked the land / and smaller tools for simpler tasks.” It’s my favorite track on the album to sit and listen to and also the one that comes up when I picture the album cover in my mind.
  • “In My Time of Dyin'”: No great Americana album is complete without a song about death, is it? This is Brosseau’s, and the opening lines say all that need be said: “In my time of dyin’ / I don’t want you to mourn / All I want for you to do / Is bring my body home / Well, well, well / So I can die easy”. I will leave it as an exercise for the interested reader to draw parallels to the recent deaths of James Brown, Gerald Ford, and Saddam Hussein. [Sidenote: as much as folks are fond of saying that “celebrities die in threes”, can you come up with a stranger trio? The Godfather of Soul, the Accidental President, and the Butcher of Baghdad. What a week.]

I don’t own Brosseau’s other discs, but I’ll remedy this in February.

XO 3. Elliott Smith’s XO really stole my heart and CD player this fall. It’s now my favorite Elliott release. I am sad that he’s no longer with us to create more beauty like this.

  • “Waltz #2”: It’s just so … picturesque. “She shows no emotion at all / stares into space like a dead china doll / I’m never gonna know you now / but I’m gonna love you anyhow”. That, and it’s really catchy. Really, really catchy.
  • “Oh Well, Okay”: I have a hard time explaining why I connect with this album, so I’m left to just throw lyrics at you: “if you a get a feeling the next time you see me / do me a favor and let me know / ’cause it’s hard to tell / it’s hard to say / oh well, okay”.
  • “I Didn’t Understand”: What a devastating heartbreak song about a heartless femme fatale: “Thought you’d be looking for the next in line to love / then ignore put out and put away / and so you’d soon be leaving me alone like I’m supposed to be / tonight, tomorrow and everyday”. What makes the whole thing doubly effective—aside from the well-timed profanity—is the entire a capella arrangement of the song. In a time when Elliott’s fans were lamenting that the big budgets come from recognition post-Good Will Hunting, this stripped-down little gem is a reminder of all that’s good with Elliott’s music, especially his voice.

Transistor Radio 2. M. Ward’s Transistor Radio begins the “Geof Loves M. Ward” portion of the program. As I noted earlier this week, I was all set for this to be the best album I got this year until #1 came along. Why do I love it so?

  • “Four Hours in Washington” is the first track that really hooked me. [“Fuel for Fire” came close.] It’s an ode to insomnia, and … well, right there with ya, brother. “It’s four in the morning and I’m turning in my bed / I wish I had a dream or a nightmare in my head / So I can stop my imagination and get some sleeping done / Now it’s five in the morning and I’m wishin’ it was one”
  • “Paul’s Song”: The steel guitar, which meanders in style between Honolulu and Nashville, just makes it happen. “When I come to town / I ain’t gonna lie to you / every town is all the same”. That’s exactly what all my musician friends tell me. Linford Detweiler once described life as a musician like so: “It’s a beautiful vacation / But you wear Salvation Army clothes”. “Paul’s Song” treads that same ground in a grand new way.
  • “Radio Campaign”: It’s a great little lament about lost love, coming in at a brisk 2:36 and getting right to the point: “I sent signals and signs / from the mountainside / Now I’m gonna try this old microphone line / Now I’m callin’ out your name on this radio campaign / Come back, come back / My little peace of mind”. It’s well-crafted, self-mocking, and enjoyable.

But let’s get to the champ.

Transfiguration of Vincent 1. M. Ward’s Transfiguration of Vincent has simply blown me away the last week. There’s just no other way to put it. I hesitate to make this my top album until I go back and listen to it again (and again), and then I know I’m right. Here’s why:

  • “Sad, Sad Song”: I’m a sucker for songs that use the chorus as glue between disparate conversations or threads in a story. This is one of those songs, and it’s simply well-executed, especially as the ending echoes the beginning and simply … ends. It’s poetic and wonderful. “Make a sad, make a sad / Make a sad, sad song”. I have my new down-in-the-dumps song lamenting lost love. Woohoo! πŸ˜‰
  • “Involuntary”: There’s just something ineffable about Matt’s delivery here. “Have you ever been alone in the nighttime? / And you’re thinking that you just don’t know / And that feeling grows / Without control / And you’re thinking about a place to go / But your body tells you, “Stay at home,” / It’s involuntary”. I totally read this through the eyes of my own depression, so I really can’t evaluate any other perspective on it. πŸ™‚
  • “Let’s Dance”: What a tender, aching love song with Ward’s rendition of David Bowie. Here, Vincent O’Brien’s transfiguration is complete: he’s out of his doldrums and has a tenuous but strengthening grasp on love: “If you say run, I’ll run with you / If you say hide, we’ll hide / Because my love for you / Would break my heart in two / If you should fall / Into my arms / And tremble like a flower”

Now it’s time to rank them 1-10. Here goes:

  1. Transfiguration of Vincent
  2. Transistor Radio
  3. Throwing Punches in the Dark
  4. XO
  5. Snow Angels
  6. The Morning
  7. Scarce
  8. What I Mean to Say Is Goodbye
  9. Writing on the Wall
  10. We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions

This has been as much fun to put together as it has been to evaluate over the year. As midnight Central draws near, I ask you, dear reader: what were the best albums you got in 2006?