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Wednesday, December 27, 2006 

The 30 best albums of 2006.

30. Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not

When you're quite possibly the most hyped band in the history of music, that you even manage to produce half an album of brilliant material is a decent achievement. For that is what the Monkeys' debut is - an album that undoubtedly has some of the finest songs of the year on, but which also has more than its share of terrible filler. What kind of person would honestly want to listen more than once to "Perhaps Vampires.." or "From The Ritz to the Rubble"? "Still Take You Home" contains the causal misogyny that afflicts many of the post-Libertines bands, and "Red Lights Indicates Doors..." has this line which would make even Lily Allen blush:
But this lad at the side drinking his Smirnoff Ice
Came and paid for her tropical reef
Thankfully, all this tosh is made up for by the debut single "I Bet...", the social comment of "Riot Van", the tender, affectionate "Mardy Bum", the sheer swagger of "When the Sun Goes Down" and the awareness of the true picture of Britain's streets on "A Certain Romance". That the Monkeys have since gone on to release an EP and a single that have vastly improved on some of the material found on "Whatever" makes their appearance here all the more worthy.


29. Cat Power - The Greatest

2006 was certainly the year of the cat. Chan Marshall, after spending years as a delicate, troubled woman, suddenly appeared to find the confidence that had been denied her. Helped undoubtedly at her live shows by the backing of the Memphis Rhythm Band, her previously erratic performances were transformed into fully-formed bodies of work. Released in the early months of 2006, the Greatest could undoubtedly be described as her most mature work so far. While it doesn't quite contain the emotions that littered 2003's "You Are Free", the Greatest perhaps holds the key to her new-found charisma. This is summed up by the song "Hate", where Marshall, backed only by piano, openly states her desire to die, while on tour the lyrics have been changed to "I don't hate myself and I don't want to die". She still has much to give.


28. Gossip - Standing in the Way of Control

You somehow can't imagine that Beth Ditto thought that 2006 would end with her being voted the coolest person on the face of the earth by the readers of NME. As you've doubtless read countless times already, fat tattooed feminist lesbians don't generally win such awards. Standing in the Way of Control, best described as an indie-soul-dance hybrid, however proves otherwise. Ditto's voice soars, while her band-mates provide the backing that has kicked the Gossip into the limelight. The title track has been the club hit of the year, ably remixed by Soulwax, but the original also holds all the successful elements. Short, sharp kicks to the throat are what the Gossip deal in, and this album contains 10 of them.


27. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Show Your Bones

Show Your Bones wasn't anywhere near as well received as their debut, Fever to Tell, but there was a good reason for that. While Fever was an immediate hit, Bones was that impertinent reminder that sometimes good music has to grow on you. Releasing Gold Lion, one of the weakest tracks on the album as the first single probably also wasn't the smartest move. The guitar licks of Phenomena, the Maps-like Turn Into, and the simply awesome Cheated Hearts, which finds Karen O admitting to her own narcissism, with the line "sometimes I think I'm bigger than the sound" all contribute to what has been a bizarrely overlooked follow-up record.


26. Jeniferever - Choose A Bright Morning

At times, post-rock gets a bad press. Liked only by internet nerds and chin-stroking beardies, no one else cares about it. The likes of Jeniferever thankfully prove otherwise. Predictably compared to Sigur Ros, Jeniferever hail from the similar climate of Sweden, but go about things different Ros. While Ros have gone towards the commercial side of things following their move to EMI, Jeniferever have retained their desire to build slowly, their orchestral semi-ambient soundscapes at times going nowhere, yet still being enthralling. This, their first true album, has hidden depths. It can be both admired for its chill-out qualities, and also for the climaxes, which while never rivalling GY!BE, for instance, still charm and move.


25. Thom Yorke - The Eraser

The Eraser is far, far better than it had any right to be. Announced to general surprise, released within a couple of months, many assumed that it would be a filler record while Radiohead's numerous fans waited for their next album, due to be released this coming year.

Further exploring Yorke's experimental side, and mainly created entirely on laptop, the beats throb and Yorke's voice takes on a mainly hushed tone. The stand-out track and first single, Harrowdown Hill, is one of the songs of the year; describing the final moments of Dr David Kelly's life, Yorke manages to move and ask some awkward questions at the same time. While nothing else here comes close to it, the album further provides anticipation for the next Radiohead record proper.


24. The Futureheads - News and Tributes

The music industry continues to get harsher. Despite creating a more than decent follow-up to their self-titled debut, the Futureheads have found themselves dumped by 679 for failing to create sales, as opposed to praiseworthy music.

For sure, it's less immediate than their debut, and doesn't include any cover versions to excite the pop moguls, but this is a far more mature (yes, that word again) record, finding the band realise their own potential. The title track itself, which remembers the Munich air disaster, is poignant without descending into mawkishness. The singles, Skip to the End and Worry About it Later are fantastic, well-contained three minute indie-rock songs, while the opener, Yes / No, sets the store for the rest of the album. Expect this gem to become more popular in the years to come.


23. Morrissey - Ringleader of the Tormentors

2006 also saw the reappearance of a Morrissey that could honestly be compared to the one who lead the Smiths during the 80s. Dropping the pretence that many have about him, Ringleader is a surprisingly honest record, one that sees him coming to terms with his own limitations and his sexuality. Not only does he admit on "Dear God, Please Help Me" that he has explosive kegs between his legs, he also recognises that he's unlikely to be anyone's hero now. Instead, he's released an album filled with gems, such as the single "You Have Killed Me" and the album closer "At Last I Am Born". Ennio Morricone provides strings on one track, while the band themselves do their best to live up to their vocalist's own high. Not even the appearance of a children's choir, usually the death knell of lesser records, can destroy this one.


22. Howling Bells - Howling Bells

2006 additionally saw something of a renaissance in female indie vocalists. Previously the refuge of the skinny white boy, along with Karen O, Beth Ditto and Kate Jackson, Juanita Stein led the fightback. Despite the band name, her voice is more haunting than howling, being compared by many to PJ Harvey's. The record itself makes full use of her range, which alternates between being intimidating and sultry depending on the song. If there had been any justice, this record would have sold as well as it won critical praise, but it appears not to be.


21. Peter, Bjorn and John - Writer's Block

Another critical success that didn't fly off the shelves, Writer's Block was heralded by the magnificence of the single Young Folks, which featured Victoria Bergeman of the Concretes. The perfect summery indie-pop single, the album from which it came is full of similar catchy numbers. The title is wonderfully deceptive, as PB&J certainly aren't suffering from it; this is their third album, and by far their best.



20. Be Your Own Pet - Be Your Own Pet

With the record hardly begun, when Jemina Pearl Abegg starts snarling that she's an independent motherfucker, and she's here to steal your virginity, she sets the tone for the rest of the album. Be Your Own Pet aren't pretending to be anything they're not; they're a teenage band making songs for teenagers to dance around like idiots to. That they do so with such energy, creating the record that perhaps some Yeah Yeah Yeahs fans were hoping that Karen O's mob would, only bears out that you only get one chance to make an album like this. Be Your Own Pet thankfully have seized the mantle. Where they'll go from here is anyone's guess.


19. CSS - Cansei De Ser Sexy

CSS really shouldn't work. They ought to be in the same realm as the Scissor Sisters - over the top, daft and annoying. Instead, this may well be the best that electro-pop has ever sounded. Add to it foul-mouthed rants about Paris Hilton, tributes to Death from Above and the great "Music is my hot hot sex", which may well be the best description of how the best music really should be, and CSS have produced one of the funnest, most well lubricated albums of the year.


18. The Hot Puppies - Under the Crooked Moon

2006, ignoring the travesties committed against indie-pop by Lily Allen, has been one of the best years for it in a long time. Becky Newman shares with her peers an absolutely gorgeous voice, while the song-writing side is by the guitarist Luke Taylor. That he has produced such feminine sounding songs as Green Eyeliner, The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful and the soulful slow stomp of How Come You Don't Hold Me No More is more of a surprise. Consider this an almost female answer to the Arctic Monkeys male club worship.


17. Mono - You Are There

While everyone waits, hoping, praying that Godspeed You! Black Emperor do eventually reform and record at least one more record, Mono are doing their level best to keep the immense, moving, hugely powerful post-rock movement going. Recorded by Steve Albini, as was the last GY!BE record, this time Mono add strings to their previous reliance on just guitar, bass and drums. The album has three main movements, with two more "quiet" intermissions separating them. This is by far their finest album, kicks off the accusations that they were ripping off Mogwai, and puts them squarely in the premier league of post-rock artists, alongside Explosions in the Sky and Red Sparowes.


16. Hot Chip - The Warning

There were few albums from this year as genuinely joyous as the Warning is in places - Over and Over, in particular, with its sheer infective bounciness is special enough, but add to that the other single Colours, and Just Like We Breakdown, and Hot Chip have created a crossover hit. That they continue to do top notch remix work is an added bonus.




15. Milburn - Well Well Well

It may be potentially heretical, but Milburn's debut album is a far, far more polished and substantial offering that that of their related cousins the Arctic Monkeys. To clear up any confusion in the chicken and egg style conundrum, Milburn came first. Unlike the Monkeys, Milburn have expanded their horizons further than the club. There are songs here about awfulness of reality TV in Stockholm Syndrome, the local thug in Brewster, the oily lad who thinks he's everything that he isn't in Showroom and quite possibly the finest song of the year "What You Could've Won", about being rejected at the end of the night, but done without the histrionics you'd expect from less subtle bands. The expanded version released also features Billy Bragg adding his own touch to Brewster, which is well worth seeking out. Whether Milburn will last as long in the memory or ever touch the success which the Monkeys have grabbed is uncertain, but their debut deserves better than it has probably had so far.


14. The Blood Brothers - Young Machetes

Returning after their 2004 album Crimes, the Blood Brothers are less openly angry about the Iraq war and at times, even more laid back than some of the slower numbers on that album. While "Burn, Piano Island, Burn" may yet turn out to be their finest moment, there remains something to be said for the Brothers when they're not being so damned heavy. The old violent imagery that we know and love remains, with "John Lennon and the Rolling Stones breathing in plastic bags" being one of the more memorable lines from YM. Album closer "Giant Swan" contains the best moment, as in true Blood Brothers style everything goes mental, the guitars sawing and drums pounding, with Johnny Whitney sounding terrified, screaming "Who's at the door? What the fuck!". While they may be an acquired taste, Machetes is in places even more accessible than Crimes was, without losing any of their power to both shock and sonically astound.


13. Red Sparowes - Every Red Heart Shines Toward the Red Sun

Even by post-rock standards, the titles which Red Sparowes give to their songs, are, err, long. The second track from "Every..", for instance, is called "We Stood Transfixed in Blank Devotion as Our Leader Spoke to Us, Looking Down on Our Mute Faces With a Great, Raging and Unseeing Eye". The others are little shorter. While this practice is undoubtedly pretentious, the music itself is far from it. Following on from their previous album, At the Soundless Dawn, Every Red Heart is even heavier, yet without letting up on the seamless soundscapes, or sacrificing the riffs and melodies which are at the heart of the album. In the year in which Isis, who share a member with Red Sparowes, were widely regarded as producing their first disappointing album, the Sparowes immenseness is even more welcome.


12. iLiKETRAiNS - Progress / Reform

Apart from the name, iliketrains are far from your ordinary post-rock band. Emerging from the Leeds DanceToTheRadio scene, they not only use vocals, but make full use on this, their mini-album, of first person narratives. Terra Nova is from the perspective of Scott on his doomed mission to the Antarctic, A Rook House for Bobby examines the exasperation of the chess master Bobby Fischer in his isolation, while Stainless Steel is the story of the revenge of a wife on her adulterous husband. What completes it is the at times utterly peerless guitar work, especially on Stainless Steel, which ends with 3 minutes of Godspeed rivalling crescendos. If this is what they can produce with limited resources, then their eventual full-length is going to be eagerly awaited.


11. The Young Knives - Voices of Animals and Men

When we look back in years to come, we'll have Carl Barat and Pete Doherty to thank for the deluge of quite frankly shit bands who've plagued us to an extent in 2006. That the Libertines were never that great or doing anything new in the first place now seems besides the point: we've got the likes of the Rifles to deal with. While they are the worst of a semi-decent bunch that includes the Fratellis, the Holloways, the On-Offs, Larrikin Love and others I've probably forgotten, the Young Knives, who've been around since their 2002 EP ... Are Dead have been showing them how it should be done.

Never forgetting that wit and humour have just as much of a place in music as they have in everything else, the Knives debut is filled with the sort of infectious melodies and riffing that the Libertines followers have utterly missed. The singles, The Decision, She's Attracted To and Here Comes The Rumour Mill are joined by the insanely catchy chorus of Mystic Energy, the slow-burning In The Pink and the ode to dead towns that is Loughborough Suicide. That they're great live too is simply a bonus.


10. Mystery Jets - Making Dens

Released back in March, Making Dens seems to have been rather unfairly forgotten about. Drowned in Sound named it as one of the best 66 albums of the last 6 years, then didn't include it in their vote for the best 15 of the year. Best described as the most eclectic indie-prog outfit you'll probably ever find, they can change from the near instrumental rhythm of Zoo Time to the love song dynamics of Alas Agnes within moments. They've since rerecorded Diamonds in the Dark, done some b-sides with indie-dancefloor production superstar Erol Alkan, and are soon to release an acoustic EP. Making Dens suggests they'll be around for a long time yet.


9. Liars - Drum's Not Dead

Few would have suspected that when the Liars released their dance-punk debut "They Threw Us All In A Trench.." in 2001 that a few years on they would be producing avant-rock masterpieces, but that's the way the world has turned. Taking solace from their justified belief that their follow up, "They Were Wrong" was far far better than the critics said, they stuck at their game and produced this sort of concept album, based around two characters, Drum and Mt Heart Attack. The percussion is at times utterly hypnotic, while the distorted guitar drones echo and ebb and flow in much the same way. The closing song, "The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack" sees the band turn full circle, as they produce the kind of lush ballad that their friends the Yeah Yeahs Yeah may at some point have tried to have produce. The album comes with a DVD featuring strange, weird film pieces by each band member, recreating the record in their visual perspective.


8. TV on the Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain

Return to Cookie Mountain is the record that the TV on the Radio's first few EPs suggested they could make. While their first album was well received, it never quite reached the heights that their "Staring at the Sun" intimated they could reach. Their second, thankfully, sees them returning to that sort of form.

Return is at turns, dense, harsh and disorienting, but also has more delicate moments, like the single Wolf Like Me. Listening to it all the way through, it sounds like an album of continuing ideas that don't let up, with there being few lulls and no gaps to speak of. Even the appearance of David Bowie, who provides backing vocals, can pass you by completely. Repeated listens though bring out the complexities of what Pitchfork describes as fairly conventional rock record; it's just not like anything anyone else is doing at the moment, and that is the beauty of it.


7. The Pipettes - We Are The Pipettes

Why didn't someone think of doing this before? The Pipettes are a creation just as much as the Spice Girls were, to be honest, formed by the eponymous "Monster Bobby" as a modern take on the Ronettes and Shangri-Las. Their singles, especially "Pull Shapes" though have been anything but the modern dreariness of manufactured pop, instead relying on sassiness and sheer charisma to win the day. While it's no longer an apparent sin to admit that you like the odd Girls Aloud song, the Pipettes have provided the indie-kid with the ability to maintain his full cred.


6. White Rose Movement - Kick

If there has been a better indie-dance hybrid this year, then I have yet to hear it. While the world awaits the so-called new rave wave's albums, WRM spent 2006 kicking back with the best pieces of the 80s, splicing the Joy Division and New Order in with the Human League, Soft Cell and Duran Duran, and coming up with an absolute winner. Produced by Paul Epworth, who worked the board on Bloc Party's debut, WRM come across as the Killers without the egos and shit lyrics, except more set on getting everyone to dance. OK, so they're not going to win any prices for theirs either, but the dancefloor destruction provided by Love is a Number, the contender for single of the year Girls in the Back and identity crisis of Testcard Girl more than make up for it. The assault against senseless violence provided in "Deborah Carne", named after the victim of a horrific crime in Essex around the time WRM formed adds additional flesh to their intellectual bones.


5. The Decemberists - The Crane Wife

It was always going to be difficult for the Decemberists to follow up Picaresque, an opus which will certainly feature in the top ten of the decade, but they could have done a lot worse than the Crane Wife. While Picaresque focused on individual tracks, Colin Meloy's troop here return in places to the form taken by their Tain EP, a seamless 20 minute track with movements. While not experimenting with their progressive side, Meloy duets with Laura Veirs on "Yankee Bayonet", a song which channels the souls of a husband and wife during the civil war to great effect, while the menacing lullaby "Shankhill Butchers is more like to terrify than soothe. "When The War Came", with its droning riff keeps things going nicely, while the Japanese myth of the Crane Wife ties everything together. There may not be anything here to rival "The Bagman's Gambit" or the "Mariner's Revenge..", but it at times comes mighty close.


4. Jarvis - Jarvis

In the year when those from his home town (or near it at least) have attempted to conquer his lyrical crown, it was fitting that the old man of British indie himself made a solo return, and a hugely impressive one it is too. His years spent away have not mellowed Cocker in the slightest, and both his anger and depression are voiced here. "Fat Children", by turns hilarious and horribly accurate, voices the anxiety of wondering if everything is going wrong, while the hidden track and download only single "Running The World" points the finger firmly and repeatedly in the strongest of terms. "I Will Kill Again" is the frustration of a man who sees those like him always getting the blame, while "From Auschwitz to Ipswich", which has acquired a tone to it which Cocker wouldn't have intended thanks to the events of the last couple of months, is the sound of desolation from someone who sees the insanity of the world at large. "Big Julie" is the song the Arctic Monkeys wish they could write: about a girl coming to terms with her sexuality and her teenage life. Let's hope he never stays away so long again.


3. The Long Blondes - Someone To Drive You Home

Without Kate Jackson, the Long Blondes probably wouldn't be sitting here at 3. Her presence and her voice are what drives Someone To Drive You Home. Best heard on "Once and Never Again", Jackson pleads with a 19-year-old girl that really, she doesn't need a boyfriend, and that she knows how it feels to be that age. Only being 27 herself, coming from someone else this might seem patronising, yet here it feels natural and makes for a swirling pop song. This theme is touched on again on "Heaven Help the New Girl", a song about being ditched, while the huge former single and soon to be released again "Giddy Stratospheres", with its glorious chorus features Jackson trying to tempt someone away from their partner herself. "Weekend Without Makeup" is the sort of song that only a female fronted band could do, although it follows that sort of chain of conciousness that Milburn and the Monkeys like to tap into. "Only Lovers Left Alive" though perhaps says it best; something will eventually have to give.


2. Guillemots - Through The Windowpane

This is the album that should have won the Mercury prize. Fyfe Dangerfield's groups record is however going to split opinions; for some it's overblown, trying to do too much all at once. One thing that can't be denied is the emotion that shines through throughout: especially on the almost vocals only "Blue Would Still Be Blue" where Dangerfield's voice soars with only basic occasional instrumentation for company. The real standouts are the two singles, "Made-up Love Song #43" and "Trains to Brazil", which has morphed from its initial beginnings into something of a tribute to Jean Charles de Menezes, and the closing "Sao Paolo", which clocks in at ten minutes, and is all the more enthralling for it.


1. ¬°Forward, Russia! - Give Me A Wall

Is this the best album of the year? Perhaps not, but as well as the music the simple fact that FR have been successful outside the normal strictures of the music industry is something additionally worth recognising.

Despite having released singles on the bassist's label and charting highly for an indie-band using only their own promotion, no one was still prepared to give FR the benefit of the doubt and release their album. Saying fuck it, the band went away and self-released it instead. They've since gained a distribution deal in the US with Mute, and they're getting ready to record the follow up.

As for the album itself? It's best described as what you'd get if you threw Bloc Party and At-The Drive In in a blender. The post-punk is combined with the energy and furiousness of post-hardcore, while the nonsensical lyrics relate well to the latter comparison. Rather than name their songs properly, they're simply titled in the order in which they were written, although the band have since suggested this will change on the next album. Twelve and Nine, both singles, are a good reflection on the work as a whole, yet there are hidden depths, with Sixteen being slow to build before the drummer Katie's yelps combine with Tom's shrieks to form a massive breakdown. The last track, Eleven, ends with Tom pleading for us to "just don't forget". FR should be strong enough to ensure that's the case.


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I've only heard of 3 of these people (unless Milburn is of the Alan variety)!

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