Greg Simpson is a staff reviewer here at Punknews.org -ed
My name is Greg Simpson and I've been a staff reviewer for Punknews since 2002. I have lived in Bloomington, Indiana for about a year and a half now (after moving from the Chicago area), and still teach music at an elementary school in a small town east of Bloomington. Currently, I'm teaching my 6th grade guitar class how to rock "Ring of Fire," so work is good.
I got hitched to my girl Cara this past summer, so that was the biggie for me this year personally. While on our honeymoon in St. Thomas, I read Our Band Could be your Life and listened almost exclusively to `80s underground rock, SST stuff in particular, as my soundtrack. However, I still bought way too many new albums (enough for my wife and I to consider including âmusic purchases' in our permanent monthly budget) and I had a helluva time narrowing them down to twenty for my list. I've got a load of honorable mentions because there are so many albums that shouldn't go unmentioned.
Long-running (and sometimes reunited) groups had prominent releases this year, with Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, the Slits and the Who dropping new albums. Although none of those made my list, there are a large number of veteran musicians and groups that did. Out of the twenty in my list, eight have been making music for ten years or more (I'm ignoring some gaps), with five groups going back over twenty years and two of those going back way further (I think you'll figure those ones out).
Some veterans also split this year, namely Rainer Maria, Suicide Machines and Hot Water Music. Death from Above 1979 splitting took me most by surprise though. They were young'ns!
I have a feeling my list won't mesh too well with the rest of the staff here, however it doesn't mesh well with Pitchfork's list either, so don't gimme that crap (Scott)! Thanks for reading. My Top Twenty Albums for 2006
20. Sw!ms - Ride of the Blueberry Winter
This took me completely by surprise when Brian sent it to me for review. It's `60s-psychedelic-influenced nerd-pop that goes all over the place throughout its running time. It's funny and serious, familiar and experimental, and all-in-all a damn good time. [review]
19. New York Dolls - One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This
Everything about a new Dolls album pointed to it being horrible. With only two out of five original members and over 30 years since their last album, it just seemed wrong. And yet, the songs here are just too great to ignore, managing to retain that original energy without sounding forced or overproduced, and continuing to showcase Johansen's addictive attitude and rough melodies.
18. Murder by Death - In Bocca al Lupo
Tent Show (EastWest)
The production levels here really help my hometown heroes, as Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them? suffered from just not sounding rocking. The quartet uses cello even better this time around and maintains their Old West style of indie rock with vocalist Adam Turla summoning up the ghost of Johnny Cash.
17. Ben Kweller - Ben Kweller
BK's third album doesn't seem as fleshed out or thought out as his previous two, and I hope it's not his desire to play every instrument that got in the way. Nevertheless, this was one of my most sung-along-to albums of the year, just like his always are. Simple and enjoyable pop-rock.
16. The Decemberists - The Crane Wife
The slick prog nature of this album threw me off a bit, as I thought the Decemberists were my old-timey, theatrical nerd-rock buddies. It still has a lot of those qualities but moves things in a different direction. One of the weirder major label releases this year.
15. The Thermals - The Body, The Blood, The Machine
The Thermals return along with their usual clatter and feedback but better lyrics and a more diverse set in tow. Most of the songs on Fuckin' A had little lyrical substance, or else I couldn't tell what they were about. This one is about religion, right?
14. Ramblin' Jack Elliott - I Stand Alone
It's great that an album like this can get made in 2006, with its days-gone-by folk that sounds more like 1946. It makes sense, with a little bit of a folk revival goin' on (Graffin, Tim Barry), but Elliott is the real deal with 75 years of experience behind him. A friend of Guthrie and a mentor of Dylan who doesn't need backups from Corin Tucker or Flea to make this an incredible record. [review]
13. Ryan's Hope - Apocalypse in Increments
Nothing got me more amped up this year. Alternating between metal riffage, double-time beat and pop-punk melodies (sometimes within one song), the Hope deliver on their potential here. Plus, they finally got the production they deserve and sound as powerful on disc as they do live. Keep in mind I have no business affiliation with Punknews Records, and anyways I knew about these guys waaaaaay before it was cool. Therefore, that makes me the coolest [here, here, and here]!
12. Saves the Day - Sound the Alarm
I'm one of the few who enjoys In Reverie, nevertheless it's nice to hear Conley & Co. rock out again. So many great hooks on here and so much energy, yet they don't re-tread their Lifetime-wannabe days. This is Saves the Day finding their own hard sound.
11. Bob Dylan - Modern Times
At 65 the man is still full of ideas, which spill out onto a bunch of long songs with lots of great lyrics stuffed in âem. Modern Times alternates between bluesy cowboy romps and brilliantly executed ballads; it's another high point in a discography full of them.
10. The Mountain Goats - Get Lonely
This album is the coming-down from the turmoil of last year's amazing Sunset Tree and its soft-spoken nature lets nothing hide, proving the high quality of Darnielle and crew's songcraft. [review]
9. Cougars - Pillow Talk
The band hooks up with Steve Albini to create the loudest, crudest album of the year (yeah yeah, I know it came out in Europe in fall â05). Their songwriting is somehow rougher and more abrasive than ever, shown especially in the nine-minute closer "Delicate Whispers Is in Cahoots with Pillow Talk" which basically disintegrates into clashing chords over a beat that pounds into your skull. [review / interview]
8. Cursive - Happy Hollow
Thank your lucky stars Cursive was resurrected, even though it's minus a cello player. I was disappointed but then I realized that if there's an instrument family I like even more than strings, it's brass, baby! They fit perfectly into this biting jab at small-town living where Christianity tends to have a stranglehold, an album that could very well have been set in the small southern Indiana town I teach in.
7. Sonic Youth - Rather Ripped
How poppy can Sonic Youth get and still sound like Sonic Youth? Your answer is right here. Usually SY albums are a difficult listen especially at first, but this one latched on to me right away and never let go. They used to make us wait four minutes for that 30-second bit where it all came together, but here the whole album is comprised of those parts. Score!
6. Maritime - We, The Vehicles
Glass Floor had its moments, but here von Bohlen and company nail it. Dancey but not in a pound-you-over-the-head kind of way, it maintains a light groove through the majority of the record with memorable melodies laid on top. I just hope that Axelson's replacement on bass can fill the void.
5. Bad Astronaut - Twelve Small Steps, One Giant Disappointment
Fat Wreck Chords
If you remember my list from last year, this one's a no-brainer. I love everything the Caper is involved in and Derrick Plourde was one of my earliest drumming heroes. Cape patched this album back together after Plourde's death, using mostly his already-recorded drum tracks. Despite these obstacles this is another solid album full of varied instrumentation and even more room for Cape to spread his vocal wings. They might call this indie rock by a seasoned punk rocker, but it isn't like any other indie rock I can think of. It's simply Bad Astronaut.
4. Yo La Tengo - I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass
I'm no Yo La Tengo completist, but I think this is their best album in their 20-year career, better than even the amazing comparison pieces of `93's Painful and `97's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One. There are just so many ideas here that the stylistic changes hide the sheer length of this beast. They get noisy with feedback, drone on with repetitive licks, bring it down with cellos, make you dance with horns, even hit ya with 1950s-style rockabilly.
3. Built to Spill - You in Reverse
Much of 2001's Ancient Melodies of the Future sounded flat and forced, but thankfully Built to Spill are back with some vigor. I would have only called myself a casual fan before this, but this album blew me away. It's alive and a bit jammy, yet still retaining their tried-and-true indie foundation. Cover art is ugly as hell though.
2. The Hold Steady - Boys and Girls in America
I almost didn't buy this album. Separation Sunday was good -- I liked the music, I liked the lyrics, but they just never came together in a way that clicked for me. Boys and Girls definitely clicks, with Craig Finn singing (instead of talking) throughout his sordid tales to make them stick. He made the point perfectly for me in his interview for Pitchfork: "Bob Dylan is probably the best lyricist ever, and yet the lines people most remember come from the songs that have the best melodies." I can't get these songs out of my head.
1. Islands - Return to the Sea
Nick Diamonds and J'aime Tambeur took the giddy pop of the Unicorns and matured it just slightly with more traditional rock instruments and less reliance on synth bleeps, and Diamonds crafted his songs in a more structured manner. Yet he doesn't lose his fun eclectic side -- listen to the pseudo-calypso of "Jogging Gorgeous Summer," the light Latin beat of "Don't Call Me Whitney, Bobby," the raw synth-pop of "Rough Gem" or the epic build of "Swans." Despite the cold rockstar-isms of their live set I saw here in Bloomington, this was by far the record I listened to the most in 2006. [show review]
Uncool as I am, I just got educated on Mission of Burma this year, and The Obliterati is amazing but got nudged off the list when Bad Astronaut came out. Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins' Rabbit Fur Coat has great moments and I love her voice and country leanings, but it has flaws and filler. Drums Not Dead by Liars was like no other record this year but I think it scared me too much. I had to force myself to listen to it, so even though I think it's badass I didn't think it should make the list. I liked the whole idea behind Gnarls Barkley -- soulful melodies over big beats and samples -- but I think a lot of the songs on St. Elsewhere could have been developed more. I wasn't disappointed with Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Show Your Bones like a lot of people, and I like when bands take a risk, but it just didn't make the cut. Belle and Sebastian's The Life Pursuit takes their Scot-pop to sugary highs, but it's so polished that they lost some of their charm for me. Band of Horses sound a bunch like the Shins on Everything All the Time and I don't hold that against them, but they're not quite as fantastic as the Shins. Though I'm still a fan, I've grown out of the Mars Volta a little bit, and I think the only way to be âprogressive' after Tremulant is to go the other way and make a stripped-down album. Yeah right. Fiery Furnaces got too weird on me with Bitter Tea -- I love the synth madness and schizophrenic style shifts, but I can't sing along to backwards vocal tracks! And screw you all, I enjoyed Sam's Town by the Killers on some level, even though a lot of it is silly. And thanks to Brian and Punknews, because if not for them I wouldn't have heard the Channel's sometimes country / sometimes bouncy synth-pop double album Tales from the Two Hill Heart / Sibylline Machine. [review] Best EPs of 2006
- I didn't buy a single EP this year. Weird.
The Flaming Lips - At War with the Mystics
I was on a huge Lips kick in anticipation of this album, especially soaking in their older more-rock material, having heard that this was their âreturn to rock.' It sure wasn't, with as much electronics as ever. Outside of a few good songs, it's just too much gimmick and not enough substance.
The Strokes - First Impressions of Earth
The boys broke out of their rigid shells and played some more complicated and loose tunes, and most of the time it feels awkward. Not terrible, and hopefully just a transitional record.
Pretty Girls Make Graves - Elan Vital
This is a two-guitar band. Either it's really missing those interweaving guitar lines, or the songs just aren't as solid.
Mates of State - Bring It Back
It's not you Mates of State, it's me. Your unique yet limiting instrumentation and pure pop vocal harmonies that drew me to you in the first place don't seem to do it for me like they used to.
Tapes ân Tapes - The Loon
Their sound is nothing groundbreaking. It all feels so comfortable and familiar with its `90s indie rock Ã¡ la Pavement base, but the songs are good enough that I'll let that slide. Tiny Ibid Records released this in the fall of 2005 (U.S. release), but even Pitchfork didn't know about these guys until this year and now they're trying to pass it off like it's an `06 album.
Art Brut - Bang Bang Rock & Roll
Another hugely-hyped Pitchfork band, I know, but c'mon -- these Brits are so charming! The unique spoken vocals of Eddie Argos are undeniably captivating and the rest of the band provides a simple art-punk backdrop. Released last year in the UK, we finally got a full taste in the States this May. [I thought about sticking it in the main list anyway, but this gives more room for other stuff. It seems like foreign releases are really fudging things up this year!]
Mew - And the Glass Handed Kites
Thanks again to Brian and Punknews or else I probably wouldn't have heard the out-of-this-world spacey prog from these Danish hunks. [review]
I am really psyched about the almost immediate releases of new albums by the Shins, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Modest Mouse (Johnny Marr, baby!). I'm also looking forward to new albums by Lifetime, Say Anything, Rilo Kiley, Arcade Fire, Against Me!, Smoking Popes, the Weakerthans, Andrew WK (U.S. release, c'mon people!) and as always, the Mountain Goats.