It’s hard not to lead off with a mess of provisos, since there’s so much stuff I missed this year, but here goes:
1. Ys, Joanna Newsom
This was one of the easier decisions I’ve made this year. As I’ve chronicled in other posts, I’m madly in love with Ys. Five songs — epic in proportion, with gorgeous orchestration, infused with an intense lyricism. Newsom is a truly brilliant composer, and this record stands head and shoulders above the rest of the year’s fare. The thing that excites me most about Ys is that I’m only getting started with it after 15-20 listens: I am positively convinced that it will continue to reveal new brilliance as I become further acquainted with its intricate twists and turns.
2. Ships, Danielson
Maybe a bit of hometown favoritism on my part: the Smiths hail from my (tiny) hometown, Clarksboro, New Jersey, and I’ve been a fan ever since their first record, A Prayer for Every Hour, was released in 1995. Ships is the album I’ve been hoping for these ten years: the perfect mix of silliness, massiveness, and sheer inventiveness. It’s also rapturous. The group’s entire history is encapsulated in and surpassed by the first four songs on Ships: the slamming chorus of “Ship the Majestic Suffix,” the flying marimba highlighting “Cast It At the Setting Sail,” the snaps, whistles, and breathless vocals of “Bloodbook on the Halfshell,” and the cheerful repartee in “Did I Step on Your Trumpet.”
3. The Crane Wife, The Decemberists
The Crane Wife is uneven and even weak at times; tracks 5-8 are fair, and there is a definite difference in quality between these four songs and the album’s other six. Of the better six, three (“Yankee Bayonet,” “O Valencia!” and “Sons and Daughters”) are sweet, single-worthy rock songs. I love them. However, it’s the remaining three which give The Crane Wife its concept-album feel, holding the record together and making it truly great. The two eleven-plus minute tracks (“The Island,” which is based loosely on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and “The Crane Wife, Pts. 1 & 2”) add to the record’s delightfully magisterial quality.
4. Return to Cookie Mountain, TV on the Radio
Return to Cookie Mountain is a technical masterpiece of sound. How TV on the Radio managed to merge this many sonic styles and techniques into one densely delicious record is mysterious, even a little frightening. The songs seem designed to keep the listener on her metaphorical toes, as they unexpectedly twist around syncopated beats, swirling guitars, and trippy background vocals and noise. Yet the tracks are sufficiently passionate and catchy, again in unexpected ways: the relentlessness of “Wolf Like Me,” the straining melody in “A Method,” and the sick driving beat which pounds through “Tonight.”
5. Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Neko Case
Honestly I’m not sure I’ve put this album in the right place. It certainly is great, particularly because it is sung by Neko Case, who possesses a perfect, vibrant, ethereal voice. The instrumentation on Fox Confessor is generally subdued, allowing Neko’s voice to rise to the forefront of each track. Yet these songs are subtle and sophisticated, with soaring melodies and romantic tones (especially “That Teenage Feeling”). I have a sense that if I made this list three months from now, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood would rank higher. It came out in the first quarter of this year, but I somehow missed it until recently, when it started appearing on plenty of “Best Of” lists. From where I stand now, this record seems sweet and simple, but I think I’ll be coming back to it a lot before winter ends.
6. Post-War, M. Ward
If I were make a list my favorite songs of 2006 that weren’t written by Joanna Newsom, “To Go Home” — Ward’s cover of a Daniel Johnston tune — would probably top it. Together with the first track, “Poison Cup,” “To Go Home” perfectly captures this record’s brand of careful, wise optimism. Post-War has a deep, world-weary hopefulness; it’s clear the songs were written in a very intentional frame of mind. The result is this perfectly bittersweet bit of Americana.
7. The Avalanche: Outtakes & Extras from the Illinois Album, Sufjan Stevens
The Avalanche and I have been through several stages since it’s release, stemming from the fact that Illinois is one of my favorite records. At first glance, I was enthralled by my hope that the The Avalanche would be simply more Illinois. Next came a spell of disappointment, namely in that The Avalanche wasn’t Illinois, and quite obnoxiously had three versions of “Chicago” on it. Eventually, I settled on the realization that Sufjan’s second-best is still better than most people’s best, and that this collection, despite its obvious shortcomings, has a handful of lovely songs on it: “The Avalanche,” “Adlai Stevenson,” “The Mistress Witch from McClure,” “No Man’s Land,” and “Pittsfield” are all wonderful. After my expectations leveled out, I found myself glad that Sufjan had released these “extras” instead of letting them sit around unfinished.
8. The Life Pursuit, Belle & Sebastian
The Life Pursuit certainly is cheery, with plenty of excellent tracks. Sometimes it’s a bit sunny for me, but with enough introspection to — almost — even out the album. The lovely slower number “Dress Up in You,” placed in the five slot, comes at just the right time, sandwiched between “The Blues Are Still Blue” and “Sukie in the Graveyard.” The highlight of The Life Pursuit, for me, isn’t the upbeat poppy numbers that kick it off, but the two finely constructed songs at the end: “For the Price of a Cup of Tea” and “Mornigton Crescent.”
9. The Eraser, Thom Yorke
Minus Radiohead, Yorke is calmer, quieter, and — I honestly think this is the best word — crunchier. The Eraser is full of small, self-contained gems. Its best tracks are catchy and memorable, with “Atoms for Peace” being especially fine. The only thing keeping this record from being higher on the list is its scale: there are only nine songs, they’re all short, and very similar. The Eraser “is what it is” — namely, a tight mini-masterpiece. I’m not sure if Yorke will be doing any more solo work in the near future, but I’d certainly welcome it.
10. Get Lonely, The Mountain Goats
Another album which suffers from comparison to one of last year’s favorites, the main problem with Get Lonely is that it’s very similar to last year’s The Sunset Tree without being quite as good. Like The Sunset Tree, Get Lonely is (at least semi-) autobiographic. Darnielle’s gritty imagery and gutsy vocals are more subdued here, even though his lyrics are stunning, as they always are. As I see it, Get Lonely suffers from being a little too soft and smooth. It’s still the Mountain Goats, and I still love it; but if this record didn’t have “Woke Up New” (the other song in the running for this year’s non-Newsom best) on it, it probably wouldn’t have made the list.
Honorable mentions: Comfort of Strangers, Beth Orton; Modern Times, Bob Dylan; I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, Yo La Tengo; The Letting Go, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy
Albums I was hoping would make the list but then ending up not being very good at all: The Information, Beck; At War with the Mystics, The Flaming Lips; 9, Damien Rice.