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Twenty-ought-six: albums recap

For the first time perhaps ever, I'm going to make good on a years-old promise and blog my best-ofs for the year. I'm not good at summaries, in part because my memory sucks—I can't figure out the tracklists to my own DJ mixes, much less recall what I was listening to in January. I'm also, I suppose, more partial to the microscopic pleasures of individual tracks than the macro gestures required of a skillful overview. Increasingly I seem to glom onto the pinprick details instead of the broad strokes. Perhaps it's because I'm trying to make my own music, but a lot of what I'm drawn to in a given song is more interesting from a producerly perspective (say, the echo on a snare drum, the torquing timbre of a synth lead) than from a more broadly critical one. I seem to be thinking more in terms of nuts and bolts than social significance: can't see the forest for the trees. (For that matter, can't see the trees for all the branches, gnarled bark and pine needles.)

I had a weird year in listening, too. Until May, perhaps, I was more focused on making my own music than listening to others'. The summer season was the typical whirlwind of festivals and beachside slacking. And then fall found me temporarily living at my mom's house in Portland Oregon—not the end of the world but not the best place for musical immersion, either. Taking daily walks around the neighborhood, though, I rediscovered my iPod—and, not coincidentally, rediscovered albums, despite the fact that digital music was supposed to spell doom for the longplayer format. To the contrary, I've found that my 45-minute suburban loop makes the perfect complement for full-length immersion; I'm sure I wouldn't have spent nearly as much time with the likes of the Guillemots and Jeremy Enigk and early Bob Dylan if not for the back roads and pine trees.

What follows are the albums that made the biggest impact on me in 2006—a few of them I've mentioned copiously in other venues, but quite a few of these fall outside the techno niche that's become my usual purview, at least in recent years. I hope you find something to your liking; all of these records served me well, and I anticipate a long and intimate acquaintance with all of them.

Root 70, Heaps Dub (Nonplace)
Not only my favorite album of 2006; this is probably one of my favorite albums of the last five years. The backstory is almost too clever for its own good: jazz quartet arranges and performs the music of Burnt Friedman and Flanger (Friedman's collaborative hyperjazz project with Atom Heart), then turns over the tapes to Friedman himself, who remixes it all in a dizzying game of round-robin. But there's nothing pretentious or cutesy about the final product, which simply offers 10 tracks of dizzyingly expressive fare. It's the kind of album that makes you think about music in the way you think about language, raising ideas about logic, communication, abstraction, games, connotation, secrets and hints. The playing is wildly accomplished: virtuosic without calling undue attention to its own virtuosity, it's muscular, tender, and brilliantly nuanced. Bonus points for the fact that every track on the album is exactly five minutes long, and yet you'd never know it from listening alone. (I didn't figure out that factoid until after about 20 listens, when I happened to glance at the "Time" column in iTunes; I thought there must be some kind of database error, but no. Mr. Friedman, you are a cheeky bastard.) More bonus points: Nils Wogram's trombone solo on the closing "Nightbeat" is simply the most perfect 24 bars of music this year.

(eMusic subscribers can find the album here; eMusic also has the 2006 album Fahrvergnügen, credited to Nils Wogram & Root 70. Again, it's a delicious balance of songwriting and improvisation; much of it leans closer to tradional jazz idioms. The opening "Breathing," foregrounding shivering intervals played on saxophone and trombone, is an elegiac ballad that stands as the best thing I've yet heard from the group.)

My My, Songs for the Gentle (Playhouse)
Here's what I wrote in The Wire:

"Frankfurt's Playhouse label scored the decade's best House/not House release with Isolée's Wearemonster in 2005; that album paid homage to House music's functional, consensus-based rhythmics while radically expanding upon the genre's compositional possibilities via savvy songcraft and four-dimensional arrangements. The Berlin trio My My's debut album will likely rank as this year's triumph within the quasi-canon, well in keeping with Isolée's strategy but marked by their own distinct personality.

It's curious that there might be a My My "sound," given that the group's members often compose individually, making any release as much a compilation as a group effort. But the dozen tracks here all play wonderfully well together, balancing skippy, shape-shifting drum programming with big, bulbous melodies, and counterbalancing those with rocksteady rhythms and squiggly flourishes as impossible to track as floaters, those amoebic specks that drift across the eye. In other words, theirs is a swollen minimalism, or a big-room House sound compressed as flat as a fruit roll; it's a musical world where the natural proportions are all out of whack, oddly processed vocal samples tangled up with dainty analog blips and zooming oscillators stopped in their tracks by the ringing of a tambourine. Fittingly, this generous, sumptuous album works on multiple levels; "Serpentine" still sounds as massive as it did as a DJ-oriented 12", but it's surrounded by sensitive, swinging tunes infused with strings and rimshots; the whole thing brims with little déjà vu moments recalling favorite songs you can't quite put your finger on, as though My My were listening to you listening—not surveillance, but mind-meld. With so much dance music obsessed with cramming as many sounds into the square centimeter as humanly (or digitally) possible, it's refreshing to hear artists privileging restraint, valuing every sound as though it were, potentially, the last sound you were ever to hear. I could live with that."

Moving into 2007, it looks like there'll be plenty more where that came from: My My's Just Recordings is steadily amassing a worthy catalogue from artists like Pigon, Kock & Wilk, and My My's own Lee Jones; and My My and Jones have plenty of new and upcoming material on Aus Music and its parent label Simple, including a killer new single by Jones called "There Comes a Time," featuring a remix from none other than Prins Thomas.

The Knife, Silent Shout(Brille/Mute)
It sort of freaks me out that I dug so heavily an album that was, by so many accounts, the consensus pick of the year; most years I'm lucky if I've even heard a blogosphere top-10 pick, much less favored it myself. But Silent Shout got under my skin early, and stayed there; in a year in which I was lucky enough to take two road trips up the Chilean coast, this album proved, hands down, the best soundtracking for dirt-road rambling across the coastal desert. Its sense of drama, scope and grandeur went unparalleled for a nominally pop record.

Here is what I wrote about it for Pitchfork's year-end roundup: Entering the year, could there have been a more unexpected consensus pick for 2006 than the Knife? OK, so the Swedish brother/sister duo got a boost from the Sony Bravia commercial featuring José Gonzalez' rendition of their brilliant "Heartbeats", and that exposure served as unintended cross-promo for Silent Shout, helping anoint them among the upper echelons of this year's blog-rock royalty. But nothing else on the blogs sounded like this. Masters of their own record label, Rabid, the Knife may be indie, but nowhere would their shuddering trance arpeggios and steely technoid programming qualify as "rock."

Vocals aside, Silent Shout is deeply rooted in contemporary European techno at a moment when techno remains deeply unfashionable among American listeners, for all but a few Europhilic holdouts. Retaining the merest echo of their last album's electro-pop perk, Silent Shout plunges into the darkest thickets like a Japanese horror flick, turning sunny-day steel drums into instruments of harmonic torture and processing vocals in a way that decouples the "human" from "expression."

Perhaps what stuck out for listeners, despite the shivering digital luster of it all, was the obvious attention to old-school notions of musicality: Here, no matter the synthetic nature of its source, a sound is never a static thing but a breathing, heaving presence that pushes air across the room helter-skelter. It didn't hurt that, no matter the studio-bred nature of their music, the Knife built their popularity the old-fashioned way, by touring-- embellishing their playback-heavy concerts with suggestive video projections and ominous theatrics.

Ultimately, Silent Shout thrives on its uncomfortable balance of mystery and transparency. The way they structure their tracks, every sound sticks out like a lone wire waiting to be stripped, but the more you tug on any given strand, the more all the rest-- unstable harmonics, queered pitches, android shanties, looping tales of forest families-- is plunged into the most addictive kind of inscrutability.

Soylent Green, La Forza del Destino (Playhouse)
Alter Ego's Roman Flügel followed up a banging 2004 and 2005—years of "Rocker" and "Gehts Noch," respectively—with a comparatively understated album as Soylent Green, his deep house moniker. None of these tunes became hits the way those tracks did, but that was precisely the point. Instead of excess, these were all clenched intensity—gravelly drums, showers of percussive white noise, dry-as-a-bone hi hats, gnarled acidic bass lines and lurching genuflections to Chicago. Getting to hear Flügel himself spin the album cut "Stay Stupid" at Amnesia was one of the year's highlights.

Reanimator, Special Powers (Community Library)
The best Pan(a)sonic album that Pan(a)sonic didn't make in 2006, Special Powers quickly showed itself to be more than some kind of Säkho tribute project. Sure, it had all the requisite sinewave scurry and sonar pinging, but these all-hardware, live-to-tape jams gradually reveal a compositional sensibility that's this duo's alone. Reanimator is now kinda sorta split up—one member lives on a green commune in North Carolina, and the other is based in Brooklyn, moonlighting in an anarchic marching band—but the related Impractical Cockpit promises to take the grinding machine aesthetic even further.

Crowdpleaser & St Plomb, 2006 (Mental Groove Ltd.)
File alongside Soylent Green's album: another longplayer of deceptive simplicity, graced with a performed-live feel and slathered in warm analog hiss. Michael Mayer used "18 Years" for his Immer 2 mix, and that wasn't even the album's best cut. It's available as three 12" singles, but this is one of the few recent dance albums that really begs to be heard as an album, veering from the opening Jarre-isms into deep underwater oozing, Urban Tribe-like pulsing, Kate Wax-led deadpanning, and lots of slow-ass funk.

Ben Goldberg Quintet, The Door, The Hat, The Chair, The Fact (Cryptogramophone)
I won't pretend to know much about jazz. But this year I had the urge to listen to clarinets, and somehow that led me to this fine album, published by the same label that did Nels Cline's well-received New Monastery. Led by Tin Hat (Trio) member Ben Goldberg, the record is apparently a tribute to Goldberg's longtime mentor Steve Lacy; the lineup of tenor sax, bass, drums, violin and clarinet bob between structured composition—tightly knotted tone clusters, ragged harmonics trailing like fringe; push-and-pull melody lines; skirmishing counterpoints—and inspired group improvisation. Like Root 70, a deeply lyrical undercurrent leaves it accessible to those of us with little grounding in 20th century composition or in deciphering chord changes. Well worth spending time with.

Grizzly Bear, Yellow House (Warp)
The color and heft of a dust-drunk beam of light. The instrumentation, harmonies, and melodic ideas are exactly what I want out of pop music these days (using "pop" in the loosest possible sense). And to think I once hated the banjo. To be honest, I didn't spend nearly enough time with this record this year, but every time I listen to it (like right now), I kick myself, and resolve to correct that situation post haste.

Jan Jelinek, Tierbeobachtungen (~scape)
Jelinek's Kraut-psyche fury was one of MUTEK's absolute highlights; this is something different, a modest set of sonic baubles and gizmos that whirr quietly in place, indifferent to your presence, at once as comforting and unnerving as a rickety space heater. Like Philip Jeck's work, a reminder that there's always magic to be found in loops.

Loscil, Plume (Kranky)
My number-one ambient album of the year, I listened to this night after night; it's one of the best bedtime records I've ever heard. Some reviewers wrote this off as slight, but it's my favorite Loscil offering to date, a skillful balance of self-propelled drift and understated ideation. The touches of Rhodes top it all off.

Ellen Allien & Apparat, Orchestra of Bubbles (Bpitch Control)
On Pitchfork, I wrote: More assured than Ellen Allien's solo work and more immediate than Apparat's, Orchestra of Bubbles is at heart a pop album, albeit one cloaked in techno's urgency. With both artists working at their moody best, the Bpitch Control label's typical stridency is tempered by an uncommon attention to warm, electro-acoustic sounds-- resonant strings, harpsichords, voices and analog synthesizers. Despite nominally four-to-the-floor cadences, Allien and Apparat layer long phrases in a way that creates a sense of suspended animation, with morphing tones extending to the horizon in undulating waves-- with the exception of one dubstep-inspired cut and Apparat's bashful foray into balladry, both of which usefully break up the record's horizontal sprawl. The whole album, ragged at the edges and bloody with tone, is swollen in the best way, and it crests from peak to peak across 13 tracks that are at once meditative and eruptive.

Susanna and the Magical Orchestra, Melody Mountain (Rune Grammofon)
Susanna = singer Susanna Karolina Wallumrød, "Orchestra" = former Jaga Jazzist-ist Morten Qvenild, now of In The Country. On Melody Mountain, they cover an array of pop standards and unstandards, from "Love Will Tear Us Apart" to Prince's "Condition of the Heart" to Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence." The tempos are uniformly lento, even for Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right"; arrangements are never more than skeletal, usually a simple keyboard melody. The focal point of the record is Susanna's voice, which has range, understated power—just listen to the highs she hits on Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"—and heartbreaking intimacy. The whole thing is flat-out gorgeous. Just buy it.

Egoexpress, We Do Wie Du & Hot Wire My Heart, (Ladomat 2000)
Why don't we hear more about Egoexpress? For that matter, why didn't I write about them this year—and in fact, why didn't I hear this until almost the end of this year? (I suppose the dissolution of Ladomat may have had something to do with it.) This may be a 2005 release—Discogs and Egoexpress' own website are slightly at odds re: dates—but I'll include it here anyway. From cheeky, slightly International Pony-ish pop to analog bangers like the 2005 single "Knartz IV," an album with depth and range, unafraid to look beyond techno as a genre exercise.

International Pony, Mit Dir Sind Wir Vier (Sony)
Speaking of International Pony, why didn't I write about this album when it was fresh out? And why on earth did no label outside Germany pick this up? (Their earlier releases were licensed to Skint in the UK, but not this one.) At first, I didn't think this was as strong as previous material from the trio of DJ Koze, Cosmic DJ and Erobique, but I was wrong. Dead wrong. A funny, engaging, dreamy, funky collection of pop gems and party jams, full to the brim with hooks, distinguished by massive production chops, and with just enough jokes to raise it above the seriousness of their peers. (Get a load of "Gothic Girl," which tells the tale of a girl who likes "black music, but of a different kind.") I've long believed that Pony should be Germany's equivalent to Daft Punk or Basement Jaxx--although, to be honest, I think they're probably more talented than either of those duos. (Heresy, I know.) Just seek this out and get it. And if you're a label, license it already. My personal best for unassuming good-time album of the year.


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