There were no real great albums in 2006. There were plenty of albums that had a few great songs and a few okay ones, but nothing that kept me hypnotized from start to finish. So this is a fairly difficult Top Five list – ask me again next week and it could all change. The best actual album I bought this year was probably Wire’s Chairs Missing, which was originally released in 1978; even though it was reissued this year, I shan’t count it.
Knives Don’t Have Your Back – Emily Haines and the Soft Skeleton: I’ve hard most of these songs at Haines’ solo gigs over the past couple years, but they’re still excellent here. Very simple, slow, and often gloomy piano pieces elevated into hypnotic beauty by Haines’ restrained but emotional vocals. “Crowd Surf Off a Cliff” is the sort of song to put on repeat while laying in the dark, and “The Maid Needs a Maid” and “Reading in Bed” feel like heartfelt personal diaries. Haines brings her sharp lyrics over from Metric; while this is certainly a well-defined solo effort, it’s also clear that Haines is the star of any stage she’s on, whether she’s joined by a rock band or a solitary piano.
The Crane Wife – The Decemberists: I don’t love the whole album, but there are enough songs on here with catchy tunes and genuine emotion to make the list. The three-part title track, an adaptation of a Japanese myth, is lovely, and the civil war duet of Yankee Bayonet is nice and sweet. Closer “Sons & Daughters” is ridiculously catchy. I’ve stayed away from the Decemberists for a while, as they’ve always seemed like a stereotypically indie band that people adore for being lo-fi. But hey, they really are pretty darn good.
You Can’t Break the Strings in Our Olympic Hearts – The Diableros: Back in the Spring, my girlfriend wanted to go and see Camera Obscura play at the Horseshoe. I was fairly indifferent – I like the band, but I just can’t help the feeling that they were all kicked out of Belle & Sebastian for being sissies. Suffice it to say that I cared even less about seeing the opening band, who, judging by the name, was some kind of Mexican pop band. It turned out the Diableros were not a Mexican pop band after all; after a few shaky songs, they revealed themselves to be a fun, shoegazey rock band with a great, dynamic rhythm. I picked up their debut album and was even more impressed: Olympic Hearts isn’t a perfect album, but it’s a consistently fun and well-executed one. Moral of the Story: Always watch the opening act.
Samme Stof Som Stof – Under Byen: A couple months ago, there was an ad and a brief interview about the Danish band, both of which drawing general comparisons to Sigur Ros and a generally Scandanavian aesthetic of dark, depressing, haunting music. Naturally, this was quite enough for me, and I went out to pick up the album a day or two later. There are bits of Sigur Ros here, singer Henriette Sennenvaldt sounds a bit like Bjork at times, and it’s a dark, brooding album. It’s also quite a good one, mixing in louder, harsher tracks like opener “Pilot” and “Film Og Omvendt” with lighter, delicate pieces. Guitars are fairly limited, usually forming a backdrop for synths, strings, piano, and Sennenvaldt’s vocals. It’ll certainly remind you of other albums, but it manages to maintain its own identity. It’d be nice if I could understand any of the lyrics, but they certainly sound cool.
Gang of Losers – The Dears: I have to admit – this was something of a disappointment. I’d heard a few of the songs at some of the band’s incredible live shows, and they didn’t quite measure up on CD. Gang of Losers feels consciously restrained after the grandiosity of No Cities Left, and I’m not sure the change is for the best: The Dears are best when dealing in great big emotion. Still, plenty of discs would look weak when compared to the band’s exceptional shows, so perhaps I shouldn’t hold that against the album. The title track is still wonderful, Ticket to Immortality is surprisingly raw and sentimental for Murray Lightburn, and Death or Life We Want You is a great rocker. A few songs have to grow on you, like the excellent I Fell Deep, but there’s not a bad track on the disc. Even if there’s disappointingly few great ones, it’s still a very good CD.