Welcome back to part two of our annual music wrap-up. Today we award the Platinum LPs, given for superior achievement. (If you missed part one, click here to review the Gold LP winners, updated to include three inadvertent omissions.) These appear in no particular order.
The Birthday Massacre: Walking with Strangers
Torontoâ€™s The Birthday Massacre is a study in contradictions. While sometimes labeled a â€œgoth revivalâ€ act (and itâ€™s true that youâ€™ll hear all kinds of â€˜80s post-punk and goth influences), thereâ€™s something very contemporary, even forward-looking, about their sound, which manages to be appropriately dark and bright to the point of chirpy. Hard, yet, achingly beautiful. Thematically discomforting, yet not remotely nihilistic. And so on.
This is hands-down my favorite CD of the year to simply listen to – lush, rich, driving and ambient all at once. The worst thing I can find to say about Walking with Strangers is that itâ€™s probably not much better than their previous effort, Violet. Of course, that was a damned fine effort, too.
Blonde Redhead: 23
A lot of times Iâ€™ll fall in love with a dreampop/shoegazer/noisepop band and it feels like Iâ€™m the only one, but this yearâ€™s superb release from NYC-based Blonde Redhead seems to have popped up on a number of year-end lists. Their debt to My Bloody Valentine is obvious, but they also bring a haunting sense of melody to their music in ways that MBV and some of their other followers never managed.
Droning, shimmering, sweeping, dissonant but irresistibly lovely – 23 is a songwriting tour de force in a genre known a lot more for its atmospherics than for its tunesmithing. Simply remarkable.
The Clientele: God Save the Clientele
The most delightfully upbeat CD of the year. From top to bottom, this bright exercise in indie chamberpop feels a carefree stroll through one sunny park after another, and if I make it sound insubstantial, you have my apologies. GStC is anything but trivial. One reviewer, AMGâ€™s Tim Sendra, calls it â€œa stunning batch of songs that will break your heart, pump it back full of life, and send you off to dreamland with a warm feeling filling your soul.â€ Not far off the mark, that – despite the warm, feel-good vibe, there is a lyrical depth here, but even when things go badly weâ€™re never allowed to forget that the sun rises again tomorrow and with it comes a fresh burst of hope.
In its best moments – and there are many – The Clientele reminds me of Luke Haines on a good day. Tonally reflective, musically rich and warm – wonderful to listen to whether youâ€™re paying very close attention or not.
The Good, The Bad & The Queen: The Good, The Bad & The Queen
Once upon a time Damon Albarn produced an iconic CD about life in London, Blurâ€™s classic Parklife. After a couple insanely innovative outings at the center of Gorillaz, heâ€™s now looped that aesthetic back into the task of yet another definitive set of snapshots depicting life in London. This time, though, the mood and storytelling are considerably bleaker.
Albarn has recruited a noteworthy cast this time around, and TGtB&tQ feels more like an actual band than Gorillaz ever did. Guitars are handled by Verveâ€™s Simon Tong, Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen and Clash bassist Paul Simonon, and each brings a healthy dose of what made them famous to the project. Still, the disc feels more like Demon Days than it does Parklife, Urban Hymns or London Calling.
Albarn has now produced epic efforts in three different incarnations, and itâ€™s hard not to number him among the greatest auteurs in rock music today. In sports terms, heâ€™s an automatic first-ballot hall of famer even though heâ€™s still in the middle of his career. Of course, rock doesnâ€™t have a hall of fame….
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss: Raising Sand
Did you see this one coming? Because I know I didnâ€™t. Metal legend teams with one of the brightest lights in contemporary bluegrass? Okay-dokey.
Of course, itâ€™s brilliant, oscillating between folk, Americana and country, and perhaps thanks to T-Bone Burnettâ€™s laid-back influence the whole things comes off as really effortless. Warm, organic, and maybe a little less explosive than I might have expected (Krauss only plays the fiddle on a couple of tracks), the result is what happens when legit superstars are willing to subjugate their individual talents to the requirements of the team.
Over the past decade itâ€™s hard to find a band or performer thatâ€™s been more consistently outstanding than VAST, aka Jon Crosby. April represents a break from past form, though, in that itâ€™s a bit more acoustic and also in Crosbyâ€™s willingness to let other people into the studio, a move that helps infuse the CD with some of the dynamism of the VAST live show, which is simply one of the hugest sounding things Iâ€™ve ever encountered.
April is probably not quite the masterpiece of 2000’s Music for People, but its suite of haunted, stunningly beautiful songs of love and loss still prove the merit of a brilliant artist. Even his second best work is markedly better than the best efforts of most others.
Amy Winehouse: Back To Black
Graham Parker says this is the best thing anyone has done in a very long time, and Iâ€™m very close to agreeing with him. Winehouse has reached back into the vaults, dragged out soul and R&B, dusted it off, and made it new again. This isnâ€™t an easy thing to do – these styles have been done, done some more, and then done to death, so the vibrancy of Winehouseâ€™s neo-soul sound is nothing short of remarkable. The songs are stellar and her performance of those songs suggests a power and experience that you rarely find in a 24 year-old. Itâ€™s a shame her personal soap opera has dominated public conversations about her – really, it should be all about the music.
P. Hux: Kiss the Monster
Track 5 is called â€œCome Clean,â€ and it begins this way: â€œIâ€™m gonna tell her everything / Iâ€™m going to say I slept around.â€ Talk about two short lines that got my attention – I wanted to jump up, grab a phone and see if it was too late to stop him. It was: â€œI heard some feet go pitter-patter / A window on my pick-up shattered / fucking really fucking matters.â€ Parthenon Huxley has been around awhile – is career started in the Carolinas in the â€˜80s – and the experience shows. A lot of power pop seems so constrained by the form and by the need to touch all the right bases influence-wise that it never quite establishes a serious depth, but thatâ€™s not an issue for Hux (and hasnâ€™t been for some time, actually). Thoughtful guitar pop at its best.
The Lost Patrol: Launch and Landing
Damn. Just, wow. Twangy, epic widescreen music for empty western landscapes at sunset. Somehow TLP conjures the Old West and layers it with a twinge of goth electronica in a way thatâ€™s relentlessly cinematic. Their sound is defined, in some ways, by the connotive power of echo and reverb, yet itâ€™s never overpowered by studio tricks. Instead, the focus never leaves the staggering accomplishment of the songs themselves, which manage to be as transcendent in impact as they are simple in structure and conception.
Oh, one more thing – this is a self-release. Somehow music this masterful isnâ€™t worthy of label attention? Youâ€™re kidding, right? Well, that was the fate of the last Jets Overhead record, too, and it struck me as being the best release of 2006.
Radiohead: In Rainbows
Iâ€™ve always respected Radiohead for their willingness to explore and innovate. That respect hasnâ€™t always translated into a high regard for the finished product, though. This year, though, the band has translated some of their experimentation into actual songs, and the result is frankly pretty impressive. In fact, I think itâ€™s probably their best in several years. The commitment to more traditional structures has infused In Rainbows with a direction and a sense of control that hasnâ€™t always been evident on the last few discs, and with luck this is the start of a new phase in the bandâ€™s considerable career.
Join us next time when we’ll award the 2007 Slammy for CD of the year.
Categories: Music/Popular Culture