Saturday, January 20, 2007

Top 6 records of 2006

There is no particular order to these CD’s. The order is almost always arbitrary, and since all of these records were exceptionally good (though not spectacular), they all get equal treatment – for the most part – and a lot of spins on the old iPod.

TV on the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain

Like my favorites from last year, Arcade Fire’s Funeral and Sufjan StevensCome on, Feel the Illinoise, this was a multi-structured and -layered, genre-crosser/bender that defies industry and audience expectations. But big deal, right? Hundreds of indie releases come out every year that do the same, if not more so. The difference is, this semi-concept record (about personal – and therefore social, cultural and political – war), with its thematic riffs, ROCKS! If Peter Gabriel released a contemporary record with Genesis and some session players from Stax – who are required to mute their instruments – and kept most of the songs under five minutes, this is what it would sound like. “I was a lover / before this war.”

Pigeon John – Pigeon John and the Summertime Pool Party

“Who rocks the mic / who rocks the mic / What?” The MC who never seems to take himself seriously – after all, this is the guy who invented the Pigeon Dance (where he puts his fists on his skinny ribs, struts his pelvis forward and furiously flails his arms from the elbows back and forth) to lift up his spirits, and his audience – tackles subjects as forbidden to mainstream rap as God’s benevolence in an uncaring and dying world, lust, loneliness at the clubs, and his wife. And he does it with flair, humor, a penchant for sunny and childlike melody akin to – though not copped from – Eminem, and hooks that would do his heroes (which he’s listed as various as A Tribe Called Quest and Phil Collins) proud.

Over the Rhine – Snow Angels

“All I ever get for Christmas / is blue.” Although not the classic that Drunkard’s Prayer was last year (#3) or the double-disc Ohio before that, this has the makings of one of the classics of neo-Christmas music. As I’ve said before, the pleasant surprise is in how they’ve combined the something old – in this case, Guaraldi-inspired songs (the shuffle “Goodbye Charles” and “All I Ever Get for Christmas Is Blue”), a Marley-inspired song (“New Redemption Song”), lullabies for lovers (“Hush Now, Baby” – which, like “NRS”, combines images of the apocalyptic redemption with maternal care), and adult love songs ala “It’s Cold Outside” and “Santa, Baby” (the scandalous, Cole Porter meets R. Kelly “North Pole Man”, the retro “Snowed in with You”, as well as the rocker “Here It Is”) as well as a remake of "Jingle Bells" (“One Olive Jingle”). The resulting nostalgia is heart-warming on these cold Chicago nights, and it helps that my wife’s becoming an Over the Rhine fan. This one goes up there with the Charlie Brown Christmas album.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo – Long Walk to Freedom

Most of this isn’t new, culled as it is from Paul Simon’s Graceland and the Simon-produced Shaka Zulu. The difference is the newer production and the cameos. Fortunately, their recycling is good enough to top my list of favorite listens through the year. The joy is evident and transcendental, witnesses to God’s love, their love, and their native South Africa’s long walk to freedom.

Gnarls Barkley – St. Elsewhere

From the wordplay of the name of the group and the album, to the beautifully inspired compositions, to the soul and gospel influenced singing, to the ubiquitous thumping two-note bass-line / irresistible groove that begins the hands-down single of the year, I can’t get enough of this album. I know just about everybody else can, but they’re idiots.

Mars IllPro*Pain

I was going to list this as an honorable mention. But then I listened to it one more time. Loud. I have to admit, it's a bit of a let-down after the two-year anticipation legal woes kept this album on the shelf. And although it's not as good as their other, more recent albums - I'm thinking specifically of their remix, BackWaterProphets - it still boogies, swings, bites and punches with force largely unmatched in underground hip hop. "Heaven Scrapes the Pavement" rocks the mic and "More" lets Ahmad Jones (of soul/rock/hop outfit 5th Avenue Jones) out of his cage while they all opine for justice and something more out of life than its brokenness insists is possible.

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