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Half Way There: The Best Albums of 2006…So Far

Half Way There: The Best Albums of 2006…So Far

By Anthony Kuzminski

I usually do not do year end lists for music, I find them too challenging and all too often music continues to reveal itself to me months and sometimes years after its initial release. However 2006, to date, has been astonishing in terms of musical output. I haven’t just been bowled over by a new release once or twice but dozens of times within six short months. The most startling revelation is these eye opening moments did not come from Prince or Bruce Springsteen, but from a number of artists whom I would have not expected. Below is my list of ten essential albums released so far in 2006. You may have to dig around to find a few of these albums but I guarantee you, it will be worth the search.

1. Will Hoge: “The Man Who Killed Love”
This album could not even be bought on amazon.com for its first few months of release, yet it stands as the album, all others released in 2006, should be compared to. Will has made a name for himself over the last few years busting his butt with numerous in-between releases and performing over 200 shows a year in every bar, club, dive, truck stop and basement across the United States. His studio output, up to now, has been solid, but it was 2005’s live opus “During The Before & After” that seized me by the jugular. The live performance captured on this disc is the most magical since the Who recorded a few shows in Leeds after the mega success of “Tommy” three decades back. The immediacy of the crowd mixed with the bands adrenaline took every song to a level the studio counterparts could not touch. With the release of “The Man Who Killed Love”, this past February, Will finally has made an album as superlative as the energy of his live shows and it’s not just good, but a mesmerizing masterpiece. The energy, aggression and immediacy of Will’s live shows are captured immaculately on these ten songs. There is an understated urgency in Will’s lyrics which are searching for meaning in this music business, his life and his world. For an artist who has seen some of the darkest sides of the music business, it’s miraculous he is still creating and able to even have a sense of humor about it (showcased conspicuously on “Pocket Full of Change”). The no nonsense rock sound, with a bluesy edge, does not fit into any genre of rock music (alternative, emo, metal, etc). However, its lack of radio readiness is it’s blessing in disguise. This album will be timeless for decades to come. In a year where Springsteen, Johnny Cash and Elvis Costello are looking to the past musically for inspiration, Will is taking the best of the past and molding it into his own style. If you love any genre of rock n’ roll, this is an album that will endear itself to you. Despite all of the obstacles he has faced, he intertwined them into art and made the best album of 2006.

2. Johnny Cash: “American V-A Hundred Highways”
I can’t ever recall hearing a voice from beyond that was as thought provoking as Johnny Cash’s. It is rare to find a piece of art that has made me think about the preciousness of life as much as this one. During the last few months of Cash’s life, he worked with Rick Rubin and collaborated on what would be his final recordings. What appears here on this album isn’t just astounding, but is as bone chilling as hearing a confession of a murder in Reno. One thing people continually don’t understand about voices is one does not need stunning vocal capabilities to astound. Sure Celine Dion can out sing anyone every day of the week, but can she express and put forth emotions? This is where American Idol fails year after year. I don’t care about ones vocal ability, but the ability to express emotions. What Cash accomplishes here is nothing short of extraordinary as he was recording these songs knowing that the end was near. Immortality is prevalent on this album, which is not surprising since Cash was faced with death daily while recording these songs and he never knew how many breaths he had left in him. “Further On Up The Road” is a Springsteen song I originally viewed as a propitious throttling hymn of friends parting but whose paths would one day cross again. Cash’s spellbinding voice gives me an entirely different take on the song. I now view the road as a final destination in the promised land. The original composition “Like The 309” and the cover “I’m Free From The Chain Gang Now” represent a man who faced numerous demons throughout his life, overcame them, found and lost his partner in crime and was ready to meet his maker on the other side at the time of its recording. Like the previous four American Recordings and the accompanying box set released in 2003, this album will continue to reveal itself to me with every listen for years to come. That is the greatest compliment I can ever give any album.

3. New York Dolls: “One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This”
Never in a million years did I ever imagine I would see the New York Dolls reunite. They rocked concert stages across the US last year and stunned me with one new tune, “We’re All In Love”, but I had doubts about their abilities to pull everything together and create another dozen tracks as good as “We’re All In Love” and make an album as good as or potentially better than their iconic debut from over thirty years ago, let alone with only two original members in the current line-up. Boy was I wrong. The Dolls not only made an album as inspired as their iconic and influential debut, but surpasses it. There are minimally five or six classic tunes on this album that will not only potentially give rock n’ roll a much needed kick in the ass, but be influential for decades to come. If “Dance Like A Monkey” does not get radio airplay, it will be a crime as it’s the catchiest rock tune released so far this year. In May, I saw the New York Dolls smoke through a blistering 100-minute set for their upcoming Soundstage appearance. I did not believe the band could match the energy of their stage performance on record, but once again I was proven wrong. It is as if producer Jack Douglas and the current Dolls line-up took a time machine back to the past and captured the vigor and sentiment of 1975. Anyone who has bought a Strokes, White Stripes or Franz Ferdinand record in the last few years should rush out to stores and buy this album. If they don’t, they should have their head checked as this is one of the most organic garage albums to ever be made.

4. Will Nile-“Streets of New York”
Where the hell did this album come from? I saw Willie jam with Bruce Springsteen at Shea Stadium in 2003 and it was my first and only exposure to him until recently. I did not feel he was a serious artist worth seeking out but that all changes and the joke was on me when I heard “Back Home”. This extraordinary collection of songs is the album Paul Westerberg has been trying to make since he left The Replacements fifteen years ago; it has some of the best writing and producing on any record this year. There are straight out rock anthems like the album’s opener “Welcome To My Head” while there is a desolate seriousness and sadness to “Cell Phones Ringing In The Pockets of the Dead” (based on the terrorist attacks in Spain a few years back). From beginning to end, these fourteen songs feel like individual paintings with enough abstractness to make them cool but they also possess enough color and structure to make it one of the decade’s most gripping rock albums.

5. Pearl Jam-“Pearl Jam”
After a solid decade where their anger was in exile, the band returns with their most assertive and infuriated album since “Vs.”. The thing that made Pearl Jam’s first three albums so magical was the driving political force those albums shared with melody. Beneath all great music whether it’s a hair band, alternative band, metal or pop, there is usually a melody that you move your body to that stirs within you. Pearl Jam’s first album for J Records has a dozen of these songs. “Worldwide Suicide” is where the band has rediscovered their voice as the band of their generation. While they never slacked on the concert stage, their recent studio output, while virtuous, has not reached the soaring heights of their first few albums. I’m happy to say that Pearl Jam is now no longer a band that has seen better days, but a band whose best work may be in front of them.

6. Cheap Trick-“Rockford”
Who says you can’t go home…literally. “Rockford” is the album Trick fans have been waiting to hear for two decades. The glorious guitars, melodies, beats and songs take you back to the 70’s as the band delivers the most perfect power pop record since “Heaven Tonight”. However, this is not merely a dated album, but one with an updated power pop sound. “Perfect Stranger” is the song everyone is talking about, but it’s “Welcome To The Working Week”, “If It Takes A Lifetime” and “O Claire” which steal the show and will be future classics.

7. The Alarm MMVI-“Under Attack”
I’ve never followed The Alarm at all until a friend sent me mp3’s of this album a few months ago. Why this album made its way into my cd player and others didn’t is beyond me, but I’m glad it did. It’s a tour de force album largely created by Mike Peters who exhibits a sense of who he is, where he’s been and where he’s going. This may appear to be worrisome as great art is usually made from extreme pain, not from complacency. However, this album manages to pull together a number of songs that are not only anthemic but revitalizing as well. The onslaught of aggression on this album is a hybrid of the early 80’s sound and attitude of U2 and The Clash. The mashed up the vigor, sentiment and zeal of those two artists at their peak can be heard on this triumphant record. The Alarm assaults their instruments with a vengeance right from the opening number and do not relent for the following twelve songs. What you have here is a band that is confident in who they are and what they want to express with an injection of hope and endurance. As a result The Alarm (Mike Peters) has created their most poised, self assuring and hopeful record of their careers.

8. Dixie Chicks-“The Long Way Around”
There are sly references to the infamous backlash the Chicks suffered in 2003 on the albums opening title track. However, by the time you hit the albums third track, “Not Ready To Make Nice” it’s apparent the band will not shy away from any controversial subjects on their bravest and most simplistic record to date. I never understood the Dixie Chicks until I was sent to review a concert of theirs a few years back. The Vegas style review was a blast and made me appreciate the arrangements of their songs, especially the material off their third album “Home”. However, Patty Griffin wrote their strongest material, so when I heard they would be writing all of their own songs for this album, I had my doubts. Despite my hesitation, with the guidance of producer Rick Rubin and some fellow co-writers, they may not have made an album as resilient as “Home” but an album that is far ballsier and more truthful than anything they have ever created. While it may shy away from their country roots, the songs are at the heart if the disc proving that home is where the heart is.

9. Snow Patrol-“Eyes Open”
Not only has the group made the best record of their career, but it's arguably one of the best of the year. Right from the albums opener, “You’re All I Have” through the closer, “The Finish Line”, a gorgeous sonic sound pulsates through your headphones. It's heavy on rich melody supplemented by a throbbing rhythm section. Music is about connection and the lyrics of these songs are about reaching out, proclaiming undying love, wanting to be understood, held and comforted. The music that accompanies these emotionally charged dream filled landscape lyrics is just as triumphant as the vocal delivery. While I admired their last album, “Final Straw”, it did not connect with me on an emotional level. While listening to this album, I feel the band has matured, grown up and shows us that there is hope and salvation in companionship and love.

10. Kid Rock-“Live Trucker”
Great live albums have been non-existent over the last decade. With bands putting out multi-disc DVD’s and official bootlegs, there is almost no point to releasing a live disc since the DVD can be the complete experience. However, Rock reinvigorated the live album with this release. There is no fat on this album; intros and solos have been excised and what you are left with is nearly 80-minutes of pure country-rock-rap & roll. The energy of the performances vibrate against your ear drums and kick your adrenaline up a notch just as if you are there in person watching Rock’s band deliver their forceful performance with the pyrotechnics and strippers to boot. Plus there is yet another gorgeous version of “Picture” this time with Gretchen Wilson, recorded before she took off. Will Hoge’s 2005 live disc “During The Before and After” and “Live Trucker” stand as the two best live albums from the last decade and could very well be the last great proper live albums to ever be released. The mixing is exquisite as it puts you right in the pit with the sweat, adrenaline, smoke and beer drenched t-shirts. Now that is something to raise your glass (or beer can) and toast to.

Other albums released this year that should be checked out: Morningwood-“Morningwood”, Bruce Springsteen-“We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions”, Prince-“3121”, Drive By Truckers-“A Blessing & A Curse”, Joan Jett-“Sinner”, The Replacements- “Don't You Know Who I Think I Was? - The Best of the Replacements”, Neil Young-“Living With War”, The Raconteurs-“Broken Boy Soldiers”, Butch Walker-“the rise and fall of butch walker and the let's go out tonites", Art Brut-“Bang Bang Rock & Roll”.