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The Best Albums of 2006

The Best Albums of 2006

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. Despite not wanting to do a list, I found 2006 to be a year of numerous discoveries and felt obligated to give the twenty-five albums below their due. This list is far overdue but better late than never. Hopefully you’ll discover at least one new treasure below.

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.

Besides the stunning final installment (for now) of the American Recordings, “Personal File” is equally impressive as it houses 49 songs ranging from the 19th Century through the early 80’s. These were home recordings hidden until recently. These two releases showcase what a talent this man was not just for his taste in music but how he could vividly create images in our minds and make us believe these were his songs. Like the previous four American Recordings and the accompanying box set released in 2003, these two albums will continue to reveal themselves 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” let alone make an album that I have listened to as much as their iconic debut. And they did this with only two original members. 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. Michael Franti: “Yell Fire”
Franti and his band Spearhead breakthrough in a major way with a deeply powerful and uplifting album full of anthems that make you feel alive. Not only are these songs full of rage, but they’re catchy as well and are better than anything one would hear on R&B or hip-hop radio stations. Franti has a knack for getting his political points come through while ringing true without sounding preachy.

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. Bob Dylan: “Modern Times”
This is Dylan’s third straight masterpiece. For nearly two decades, Dylan’s album output was spotty at best. However, even though he now takes years instead of months between albums, they are worth the wait. His love for the American roots music shines through once again. His aching voice shows its age but the lyrics make you believe that music can still matter. For those who feel Dylan’s best days are behind them I suggest they give “Workingman’s Blues #2” a spin as it’s as poignant and true as anything he’s ever written in his forty-five year career.

10. 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.

11. 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.

12.Art Brut: “Bang Bang Rock & Roll”
Punk rock lives! Here is a band that can’t really write or perform…and somehow, the album is a divinely delicious affair with a sound that is decadent and primal. These guys make the Ramones sound like Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Now anyone can be naive in their performance, but it’s another to make catchy songs that stay with you, minutes, hours, days, weeks and months later. In short, they wear their love of rock n’ roll on their sleeves and as a result won my rock n’ roll heart.

13. The Who: “Endless Wire”
While it’s not quite as good as The Rolling Stone’s “A Bigger Bang” Pete Townshend and Roger Daltry finally create an album worthy of their legacy and talents. While it doesn’t have the trademark Entwistle bass or Moon’s manic drumming, but the melodic gems here are quite a lot and when a song randomly pops up on my Ipod, I am surprised at how much I enjoy these songs. There are classic riffs and melodies while at the same time, showcasing a two virtuoso and maturing artists.

14. My Morning Jacket: “Okonokos”
One of the best bands to emerge in the last decade whose secret weapon is their live show. I was blessed to catch them twice this past year and they’re as good as they sound on this live album. They have been on the verge of breaking into the mainstream and I can’t think of a better representative overview of who this band is. Call me crazy but when I hear these guys it reminds me of Bob Dylan and the Band…but My Morning Jacket will most likely outlive that partnership. Few bands can have a live document that outweighs their catalog but this one is damn close.

15. The Hold Steady: “Boys & Girls In America”
Long live Phil Spector and his wall of sound. If Bruce Springsteen had been able to record a follow-up album to “Born To Run” in 1976 this is what it would have sounded like. With a triumphant sound of guitars, drums, bass and piano riffs the Hold Steady prove they are a band to watch. There is a hyperactive delivery of this material jolts the senses and takes you right to that murky bar where music lives and breathes.

16. The Raconteurs-“Broken Boy Soldiers”
Jack White’s other band released a relatively short record (clocking in at thirty-four minutes) but not one second goes wasted as it’s garage rock at it’s most grandiose with guitars galore. What should have been a forgettable side project has proven to be an album with legs. “Steady As She Goes”, “Hands” and “Intimate Secretary” are proof that Jack White is one of the most important and vital artists living and working today.

17. Butch Walker-“the rise and fall of butch walker and the let's go out tonites"
I was initially disappointed with this album upon its release earlier this year but it has proven to have legs with jet wailing guitar riff’s heralding back to the 1970’s reminding us that the airwaves were full of hooks rather than beats.

18. Marie Antoinette (Soundtrack)
Yes, I do realize these are mostly classic New wave cuts from the 80’s but Sofia Coppola has made the ultimate mix tape shining new light on forgotten favorites from the 80’s and proving that compilations can shed new lights on artists and their music. Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Cure and New Order always had a hip aura surrounding them but here their talents and music not only come to the forefront but for me, this album reintroduced them to me, helping me discover music I didn’t pay close enough attention to the first time around.

19. Joan Jett-“Sinner”
The ultimate female punk returns and it’s about time. “AC/DC” should be a strip club anthem and yet songs like “Riddles” are the most politically relevant song she’s ever written. One could only hope that she doesn’t take as long in between future records. Jett is a monster talent who deserves to be at the top of the heap and this album demonstrates her bite is just as strong as it was thirty years ago.

20. Angels & Airwaves-“We Don’t Need To Whisper”
Blink 182 was always a guilty pleasure for me. Singer/ guitar player Tom DeLonge began this band in the ashes of Blink’s demise and shockingly blended power pop with moody atmosphere and poignant heartfelt lyrics. Months after this album’s release, I still listen to it and probably will continue to for years to come. Say what you want about the pop punk movement but DeLonge has the goods to be formidable artist in the future to come.

21.Neil Young-“Living With War”
Are the lyrics generic? Was the music sophomoric? I don’t believe so…but some do. Regardless of what people say, what Neil created here was revolutionary for the 21st Century. He demonstrated the absurdity of the record industry but writing, recording and releasing this album in one month. The songs speak to the here and now and regardless of the politics, there are some anthems (“After The Garden”, “Flags of Freedom” and “Lookin’ For A Leader”) I wouldn’t be surprised to see future artists embrace in the future. Neil get’s an “A” for effort on this one.

22. Prince-“3121”,
Is “3121” a great Prince album? No, but it’s a damn good one with some of the best songs (“Black Sweat” & “Fury”) he has committed to disc since “Sign O’ The Times”. Now if he would only tour and put the rest of this album in context.

23. The Strokes- “First Impressions of Earth”
If I ever meet Sofia Coppola, I’ll thank her for making me go back to this album. After seeing “Marie Antoinette”, I went back and rediscovered the second and third Strokes records finally realizing how much they embrace the past and yet add their own ingredients to make it their own. Their debut is a masterpiece but their third album will be a cult classic still listened to decades down the road.

24. Neko Case-Fox Confessor Brings The Flood
A flash back to the 50’s country music movement with a voice that could send shivers down anyone’s spine. I felt this album was deeply overrated upon its release but I do find myself returning to it time and time again most often on late night road trips when there’s nothing but me, the sky and Neko’s voice.

25. 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”, My Morning Jacket’s “Okonokos” and “Live Trucker” stand as three of the 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.

Anthony Kuzminski can be found at The Screen Door