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february 2007

So Justin Timberlake seems well on his way to establishing himself not only as the one real musical talent to come out of the boy band craze, but also as a movie star. Nice going, universe.

Another dark horse that's complicating my year end top 10: the Futureheads' News and Tributes. I didn't see this record show up on many other top 10s, but I don't understand why. It falls somewhere on the spectrum between Bloc Party and Art Brut, and given the praise both of those bands have gotten over the past couple of years, it seems like the Futureheads would have gotten some love too.

Final proof that the Grammys are completely irrelevant to anyone who truly cares about music: the Black Eyed Peas' "My Humps", which may be the worst song ever recorded and is certainly the worst one to ever become a hit (at least until Fergie released her solo singles), was nominated for an award. In a perverse way, I kind of hope it wins, because that will be the final nail in the coffin for this joke of an awards show.

Of course, since the Police are playing it this year, I'm still going to Tivo it and watch that part.

Since I still get a little irritable about music I like being used as the soundtrack for television commercials (it kills me that the Shins' "New Slang" is now forever linked with McDonald's fries and Modest Mouse's "Gravity Rides Everything" with a minivan), I'm usually reluctant to use ads as a source for new music. But the song in the Apple ads for the colored iPod shuffle really got into my head, and I had to find out who recorded it; I couldn't tell if it was some band from the 80s that I somehow missed out on, or a new band aping that style to great affect that I somehow hadn't heard of yet.

It turns out it was the latter: the song is called "Flathead" and comes from a British band called the Fratellis (it would be supercool if this name referred to the bad guys in The Goonies movie). They only have an EP on the American version of iTunes currently, but all the songs sounded pretty good, so I bought the whole thing. And although "Flathead" is my favorite track so far, I like the rest of it too. It's a bit more polished overall than the snippet from the iPod commercial would lead you to believe, and that may wear thin on me after a while, but hopefully not. Supposedly they'll release a full-length stateside in March, which I'm almost certain to pick up based on the EP.

Given their success in the UK, a high-profile placement in an iPod commercial, an upcoming album release, and some damn catchy songs, I'm shocked that the American press hasn't started a buzz on the Fratellis as this year's Arctic Monkeys yet. Of course, that could be because of the iPod commercial; the indie kids don't like us finding out about cool music from commercials first, and I'm guessing that they're going to automatically get negative points from American reviewers based solely on their shilling for Apple.

There were tons of decent releases last year, which I define as records that fans of an artist will likely love, but which might not show much growth from their previous efforts and which would not be the best records to introduce you to the band if you're not already familiar with them.

Among these were Arab Strap's swan song The Last Romance, which isn't their best album but which has one of the best songs they've ever written, the ironically (or optimistically, depending on how you look at it) titled "There Is No Ending"; Sufjan Stevens' The Avalanche, which consists of leftovers from last year's Illinois sessions; Belle & Sebastian's The Life Pursuit; the Drive-By Truckers' A Blessing and a Curse; both Black Keys records, Chulahoma and Magic Potion; the Flaming Lips' At War With the Mystics, which was not as bad as I expected but not as good as I'd hoped; Built to Spill's You in Reverse (a nice comeback after a five year hiatus and a truly awful solo album from frontman Doug Martsch); Beth Orton's Comfort of Strangers, her most compelling work in years; and Chin Up Chin Up's This Harness Can't Ride Anything

The Figurines' Skeleton falls into this category, too, although since it's a debut it doesn't really fit with the definition I gave at the beginning of this entry. It reminds me a bit of 2005's Howl Howl Gaffe Gaffe from the Shout Out Louds——a good solid record that shows a lot of potential for the future.

There's also Sunset Rubdown's Shut Up I Am Dreaming, which is a side project from Wolf Parade's Spencer Krug. If you like his Wolf Parade songs, you'll probably like a lot of the stuff on Shut Up.

The Gossip's Standing in the Way of Control could have gone either way for me in terms of whether it belonged here or in the disappointments category. While their records up until now have been solidly rooted in the blues, Control finds the Gossip playing around with the keyboards and mechanized beats favored by bands like Le Tigre. Although this idea sounds intriguing, it unfortunately doesn't work with the Gossip's angular, minmalist guitar lines and singer Beth Ditto's overpowering voice (it turns out that a lot of what gives Le Tigre their appeal is the off-kilter vocal stylings and slightly out of sync playing). As a fan of the band, I didn't find the record to be a total waste, it was just an experiment that didn't work out. Hopefully they'll abandon it and move on to something better on their next album.

Back in 1993, a young pitcher named Kirk Rueter started playing for the Montreal Expos halfway through the season. At the end of the year, he had a record of 8-0, and in the offseason his rookie card was in high demand among collectors as a result of his as-yet unsullied win/loss record (his value was also enhanced by coming from the Expos, who at that point had a reputation of producing young stars from their farm system).

Of course in 1994, he lost a few games, didn't play the whole season, had a high ERA, etc., and the value of his rookie card plummeted. He went on to have an average but relatively lengthy (13 years) major league career, and as adored as he might have been by the hometown fans for the teams he pitched for, he was never really considered a star or a frontline pitcher.

For Voxtrot, 2006 was like 1993 for Kirk Rueter: they released the second and third of their three EPs to date with not a single bad song on them, building further hype and anticipation for their debut full-length. In other words: they've got a perfect record right now, but they have yet to pitch a full season.

They'll release their first proper album on May 22, and I'm dying to see if they'll flame out and become an average band that is remembered more for using blogs and EPs to build hype for themselves, or whether they'll become one a genuine phenomenon with the possibility of rising to the standards of indie pop set by the Shins or Belle & Sebastian. I'm rooting for them, and they'll probably be a favorite of mine for at least a couple more records based on their output so far, but I hope they can deliver on the promise of their rookie record and establish themselves as real major leage players.

Yo La Tengo's most recent, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, is a pretty good record. But you know what makes it an even better record? When you don't include the 10:46 "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind", the 8:51 "Daphnia", and the 11:48 "The Story of Yo La Tengo".

Actually, "Pass the Hatchet" isn't a bad song, it just goes on way too long, and once "The Story of Yo La Tengo" gets going (about 3 minutes in), it's not too bad either, but again too long. "Daphnia", however, is a utter waste of time.

Picked up a few new discs this weekend: The Good, The Bad & The Queen by a group that formally has no name but which everyone is calling The Good, The Bad & The Queen (members include Blur's Damon Albarn, the Clash's Paul Simonon, and producer Danger Mouse); Bloc Party's A Weekend in the City; the Apples in Stereo's New Magnetic Wonder; and Menomena's Friend and Foe.

The Apples in Stereo record is easily the most appealing initially, but the GBQ is pretty good, too. Bloc Party still seems as razor sharp and deadly serious as they were on their first record, maybe even moreso, and Menomena pairs pretty well with the new Deerhoof disc, which is convenient because they are back to back on my playlist (Friend and Foe followed by Friend Opportunity).

Well, you did it Grammys: you gave an award to the Black Eyed Peas' "My Humps", and that's it, you've officially lost any claim to credibility. I don't care that you tried to balance it out by giving two Grammys to the Flaming Lips——the "My Humps" award trumps everything else. Not that I've watched or cared in years, but I'm going to remember this particular travesty for a long time.

w00t! The Police. Madison Square Garden. Floor seats, section 1, row O.

I say again, w00t!

Okay, back to the year end lists. We're now up to the list of good records, those which were under consideration for the top 10 but didn't quite make it. There were a ton of records in this category this year, all worth owning, and if I had been a different mood the day I made the final lists, any of these could have likely replaced any of the 6-10 spots on the top 10.

Danielson's Ships was an early favorite for the top 10, and it remains one of the more adventurous releases of the year. Cat Power's The Greatest showed Chan Marshall successfully adding some classic soul sounds to her sonic palette, while Robyn Hitchcock's Olé Tarantula found him once again working with a new backing band that really breathed some new life into his compositions.

Sonic Youth's followed up 2004's incredible Sonic Nurse with Rather Ripped, which builds on Nurse's blueprint to the point where it really could have come from the same recording sessions. As a result, Ripped feels more like an appendix to Nurse in the same way the Sufjan Stevens' The Avalanche was meant as an appendix to the Illinois record.

Cursive's Happy Hollow has been growing on me recently, and if I were to wait another month it's entirely possible that it would make a revised top 10. A tough, muscular record that finds Tim Kasher replacing the cello of Cursive's last outing with a horn section and tackling the schism between religion and science, Happy Hollow is not a party record by any means. But it's one of the more thought provoking records of recent memory, and shows that, despite his constant worry that his songwriting well is running dry, Kasher still has plenty of songs left in him.

Other noteworthy records from 2006: Sparklehorse's Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain, TV on the Radio's Return to Cookie Mountain, Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Show Your Bones, the Decemberists' The Crane Wife, Yo La Tengo's I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, Matthew Friedberger's Winter Women, Mates of State's Bring It Back, The Streets' The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, the Guillemots' From the Cliffs, The Rapture's Pieces of the People We Love, and Thom Yorke's The Eraser.

So, finally, the top 10. The list is in reverse order, so the one you see last is my number one. There's not as much vareity as I normally like in a list like this, but for whatever reason, whether it was a lack of quality releases from certain genres or my tastes or changing, these are the records that I found most worth listening to in 2006. Here you go:

The Futureheads——News and Tributes
I think these guys made the list because, in addition to writing some damn good hooks, they're also the band from the current wave of 80s throwbacks who seem most willing to take chances. This record finds them tackling everything from guitar dominated punk blasts to synth driven club rave-ups to britpop throwbacks without missing a beat. I can't wait to see what they do next.

The Hold Steady——Boys and Girls in America
This record makes it on to the top 10 riding the coattails of its predecessor, the brilliant Separation Sunday. This is still a great record, but that's still the high water mark for these guys.

The Minus Five——The Minus Five (The Gun Album)
The most focused, coherent record yet from Scott McCaughey's recording collective, which pinches members from R.E.M., the Decemberists, and Wilco. No one since Anton Fier's Golden Palominos has pulled off this trick as convincingly and dependably as The Minus Five, and from the sound of this record, they're just going to get better from here.

Lupe Fiasco——Food & Liquor
The lone hip hop entry on the top 10, and really the only hip hop record I've spent any time at all with this year. This Kanye West protege follows a few of his mentor's moves, but there's plenty on this record that is all Lupe Fiasco. A few of the songs sound half-finished, like he couldn't find a good way to end them and just cut them off, but as his songwriting matures, I expect he'll rival West in quality if not album sales.

The Strokes——First Impressions of Earth
The Stokes backlash finally hit hard with this record, but I think it was more deserved on their mediocre sophomore outing, Room on Fire. First Impressions of Earth finds the band finally stepping out of the strict production techniques used on their first two records and becoming a bit more playful, both lyrically and musically. If you gave up on this band after Room on Fire, give them another chance here.

Art Brut——Bang Bang Rock & Roll
Wow. Just a flat out amazing record from start to finish. I love these guys, and I'm really rooting for them not to fuck it all up on their upcoming release.

Tapes 'n Tapes——The Loon
I really don't know much about these guys, but this record doesn't sound quite like anything else released last year. It reminds me of the first time I heard a Modest Mouse record——I could hear some influences, but I also knew right away that they had a vision that transcended anything that had come before them.

Arctic Monkeys——Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not
I was initially disappointed with this record, likely because I'd heard many tracks on it before (on the EPs released by teh band in advance of their full length) and because the hype around it peaked just a little early. But as the year passed, I came to love it more and more, and now I think if I hadn't heard of them at all before they release this album, it might have been my favorite record of the year. The timing was off, but it did end up living up to the hype; hopefully they won't stumble when their sophomore effort is released in April.

The Islands——Return to the Sea
The Unicorns are dead. Long live the Islands!

The Thermals——The Body, The Blood, The Machine
This record hits you hard right out of the gate and just keeps going for the throat, intertwining tirades about religion, control, and oppression with tales of personal love and loss. The best punk music has always been able to bring politics into the mix without getting preachy, and although Ted Leo is an obvious comparison (lead singer Hutch Harris even sounds a bit like Leo), the Thermals have set their own standard with this record.

The new Shins record, Wincing the Night Away, seems to get better each time I hear it, and it has definitely cemented its place as 2007's first great album. It's also likely going to be enshrined as the definitive Shins record, taking the best elements of their previous two efforts and blending them seamlessly. I guess what I'm saying is, if you have any love of indie pop/rock and you don't already own this, you should probably get yourself to a record store forthwith.

Wait, so the Smashing Pumpkins "reunion" is just Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin and two as-yet unnamed musicians who are not James Iha and D'arcy Wretzky? What the hell is the difference between that and Zwan or Corgan's solo group?

I mean, it's ALWAYS Corgan and Chamberlin playing together——don't they need to bring back at least one other real member of the Smashing Pumpkins before they can call themselves the Smashing Pumpkins again?

Honestly, at least give us Melissa Auf der Maur. Give us SOMEONE who used to be in the band besides those two, who always work together on whatever band name Corgan is currently working under.

The new Clap Your Hands Say Yeah record, Some Loud Thunder, sounds a bit like what would have happened if David Byrne had been born in the late 70s and had chosen Pavement as his backing band instead of the Talking Heads. And I mean that in a nice way.

Yeah, I'm pretty sure I mean that in a nice way.

Anyway, "Satan Said Dance" is way catchier than any song with such a goofy name has any right to be, but then again, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are a way better band than any group with such a goofy name has any right to be.

The OC made tv show soundtracks popular again a few years ago, but Friday Night Lights is setting the standard now. In addition to having a lot of the music by Texas-based Explosions in the Sky (who also did the score for the film), they also feature tons of other good artists.

A recent episode included tracks by Clinic (I'm pretty sure it was "Family" from Visitations), Ryan Adams ("Political Scientist", one of his better quiet songs), and Rogue Wave ("Eyes", which I didn't own and which was only released as a single, but which is one of their best songs yet and which I now do own thanks to iTunes), and that's pretty typical in terms of quality and eclecticism for the show. If they actually did release a soundtrack for this show, I probably wouldn't buy it because I own so many of the songs they use already, but I'd definitely scan the tracklist for anything I didn't have, because it would likely be something I'd want to pick up.

But no matter how good the music for a show is, there's no way it's worth watching unless the acting and writing are great, too, and Friday Night Lights doesn't fall short in this regard, either. The show is centered around a high school football team in a small Texas town, but you don't have to be a football nut to watch it; saying it's a football show is like saying The Office is a show about people who sell paper. Football is just the backdrop for the drama and the characters, so don't let the sports angle scare you off.

Letting this show get canceled after one season would not be a travesty on the level of canceling Firefly or Freaks and Geeks after less than a full season, but it would be in the same ballpark, so give it a shot if you're the tv watching sort.

I can't decide exactly what I think about The Good, The Bad & The Queen's self-titled new record. It's kind of a trippy, meditative work, a sound we've heard glimpses of in Damon Albarn's other projects, but this album sustains the tone for its entire length. I don't think there are too many mixtape-worthy tracks on here, but as an album, it's very listenable and engaging if you're in the right mood.

Whatever I might ultimately decide about the record, I've now concluded that Damon Albarn is now officially a genius. He doesn't get that title because everything he's done is genius, but he's dabbled in so many different styles over the years with so much success that he gets to be a genius because of the sheer volume of interesting music he's made, like the hall of fame pitcher who won 300 games without ever dominating the league and just stuck around for 20 years winning 15 games each season.

I'm usually prone to calling the shooting star types geniuses, even if we only get 3 or 4 interesting records out of them before they flame out, but looking back on the totality of Albarn's career, it's hard to deny that he's been engaging me with his records for a decade and a half now. Even the ones I haven't loved I've spent serious time getting to know, and really, what else can you ask from an artist other than that he give you something to think about with each new work?