Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Kat's Korner: 2006 in music

Kat: 2006 was an erratic music year. There was plenty of the usual crap stinking up the airwaves whether it was blaring over the radio, over a car stereo or over a cell phone as a ring tone. (On ring tones, as Cedric pointed out, most of you don't have the speakers to blast, turn the volume down before you embarrass yourself further.) Along side the mechanics of commerce, you could find actual art.

The brave ones didn't blink. Those who straddled accomplished very little. So right away, let me explain that this listing of 2006's best doesn't include Bruce Springsteen's We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. I enjoyed the album, thought it was one worth having. Today, I wouldn't even put it on a top twenty list. What happened?

It didn't help that a Starbucks-type college professor couldn't stop yapping about it in a 'deconsructive' way. In fact, that probably helped explain one reason I lost all joy and desire to listen to the album. When you've got to dig into the past to praise an album from 2006, when you've got to start using terms like "musicologist," that's usually an indication that the "idea" has trumped the actual art.

Living with music, you can grow cool to it. Or you can discover even more value to it. In 2006, the biggest surprise for me was how much I was still listening to the Rolling Stones' A Bigger Bang. Still listening is actually too mild, I listened to A Bigger Bang more in 2006 than I did in 2005.

We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions went the other way. Pontification from the Pony Tail Set (Male) was enough to cool me to the album but it wasn't the only reason. 2006 was the year of the gimmick. As 2005 drew to a close, everyone was including extras -- a bonus DVD here or outtakes there. Sales were continuing to slide and there were efforts to offer extras that would make people part with their hard earned cash. The extras really were useless and, in the end, it was the extras that killed We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.

The collection was thirteen songs by Bruce and a bonus DVD on the flip side of the CD. But that was all offered well before summer of 2006 so, to push those Christmas sales, another track got added, "Bring 'Em Home." (Five tracks were added, but let's not pretend like anyone even noticed the other four -- "Bring 'Em Home" was the one pushed all summer with the promise of being on the 'expanded' edition.)

Now that's the sort of thing that really pisses me off. In 1983, I purchased the Pointer Sisters Break Out -- on cassette. Enjoyed the album. Enjoyed blasting it, dancing to it, singing along with it. Your eyes. Tell me that you. Want me. . . . Jump. Jump. For my love. The Pointer Sisters and Richard Perry had created a really strong dance album. The reward to the faithful who bought the album early was . . . "So Excited" being added a few months after the album was released. What? I'm supposed to buy the album twice?

It still ticks me off. Ask Rebecca, who also loves the Pointer Sisters, and she'll tell you it still ticks her off as well. So, on just that basis, adding a track to We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions in an attempt to get some people to buy the same album twice pisses me off.

But the track itself calls the whole collection into question. Why wasn't it included originally? It all feels like testing the waters, as though Springsteen saw that other artists were stepping up and decided Pete Seeger's song about troops being brought home needed to be on the collection. It did need to be. It needed to be from the start. You could argue it didn't fit the concept, you could argue that in the original release. But when Springsteen adds it, your left with the reality that it did fit the concept and the question of why it wasn't originally included?

Some may give the benefit of the doubt and assume that it just got overlooked. To me, it indicates that Springsteen saw other artists standing up and decided to join the crowd. So between that conclusion and the effort to take your money twice for the same collection, the album fell off my playlists. In its own way, the original set now seems as cautious as Justy Timberlake trying to act sexy while asking "Mommy, May I Pet With Danger?"

And possibly that's the best thing about 2006, that tacked on after thoughts don't have to be applauded? When the music was strong, it was very strong.

The best album of 2006? At number one, I'd put three. I've gone back and forth all year over which was the best. I think they all are. So three tie for the top spot. In alphebetical order . . .

Ben Harper's Both Sides Of The Gun. This double disc collection contains a "hard" disc and and a soft "disc." The deluxe edition comes with a third, bonus disc. The album itself is so strong that, like me, you may never find the time to play it, you're too busy listening to "Better Way," the title track, "Morning Yearning," "Waiting For You," all eighteen tracks that make up the album proper. The only way this set can be improved is by releasing live versions -- Ben Harper did the best tour of 2006. Both Sides Of The Gun is the best album Harper's ever done and fulfills the promise found in earlier songs such as "Diamonds on the Inside" for an entire album.

Also in the top spot is Michael Franti & Spearhead's Yell Fire. Easily the most realized set the group has produced, it opens strong with "Time To Go Home" and maintains that level on track after track. "I Know I'm Not Alone" finds the band in the terrain U2 used to chart before they got fat and lazy and decreed of their audience, "Let them eat product." "One Step Closer To You" and "Sweet Little Lies" may best demonstrate the growth of the band. In the past, these songs would sound wonderful on an acoustic, solo Franti album. With the band, there was always a chance they'd sound like a slipped gear that sent you lurching. The band that could always provide the big sound and get you on your feet has now learned to navigate the quieter moments as well. "Revolution never comes with a warning," Franti sings and that just as easily describes the sense of amazement the album leaves you with -- you knew they were good, you never knew they were this good.

While the first two came from artists who made 2006 about living up to all the moments of promise in their earlier work, the third pick for number one is from an artist who had managed the feat before -- many, many years before. With Living With War, Neil Young suddenly mattered again. Before the album arrived in stores, Young offered it online in a stream that forced you to listen all the way through. That you could do so without grimacing is rather amazing for those who remember some of Young's eighties work. Like the other two he shares the top spot, Young found himself by examing the world outside him. For all the talk of the political nature of the album, and it is a political album, it's also a very personal one that says more about Young than anything since his early seventies work. He's angry, he's disillusioned and he's searching for signs of hope. If nothing else, the actions of the Bully Boy returned Neil Young to the singer-songwriter genre and away from the craft that had left many of us cold for years. It stands with his finest work and, a few years down the line, I wouldn't be surprised if it was considered his finest -- it's that good.

At number two, Ani DiFranco's Reprieve. Dilate took all of the threads DiFranco had been exploring in earlier albums and tied them together in one artistic collection. Living In Clip did the same from a live standpoint. After which, she was already off exploring other avenues. Little Plastic Castles, Evolve, To The Teeth, Up Up Up Up Up Up and the various live collections all had wonderful moments; however, it's only on Reprieve that DiFranco takes all those explorations and produces a solid, consice piece of art. She is the Miles Davis of today. Frustrating some fans as she pursues artistic avenues while they're still wanting to hear "32 Flavors Volume 42" or "Napolean 2006," the experiments always pay off further down the line. That's the case with Reprieve where the experiments with less concrete lyrics and more experimental music suddenly demonstrate the method to their madness. "Half-Assed" is amazing enough to bring the pikers who once passed as fans back to the concert venues. This is a deeply textured album in every way -- vocals, lyrics, music and found sounds. To repeat, she is the Miles Davis of today.

At number three, we find another woman, Cat Power who has the audacity to title her album The Greatest and the talent to back it up. "Once I wanted to be the greatest," is how she opens this soulful album and, in that hushed vocal, she immediately is. Call it Cat Goes To Memphis as Power finds the setting for her confessional songs: a lazy morning spent in bed reflecting. It's her mood piece and doubtful that she or anyone could pull it off again but that's the thing about brilliance -- it comes in flashes. If Sade dug this deep, they be erecting statues to her. Because it's a Cat Power album, there still seems to be a lingering "Is it for real?" If you have to ask, you haven't listened closely.

At number four, David Rovics' Halliburton Boardroom Massacre. Where's the songwriter everyone should be covering? On this album. His canvas is probably too wide to garner niche listeners. Some of his songs (all tuneful) might even frighten the weak hearted off. Like many of the great commentators, he's not tied to party politics and you can picture the wincing from the Dem-lite set if they were forced to listen. But that's the realities of the world today and Rovics doesn't shy from tackling them. Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Laura Nyro, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon and others all benefitted early on from other artists covering their songs. If there's justice in 2007, something similar will happen to popularize this set. If not, David Rovics' versions are nothing to hold your nose at.

Number five is Janis Ian's Folk Is The New Black which finds Ian at her most comfortable and most comforting. If all "comebacks" were this natural, Rolling Stone wouldn't have ever had a need to create a "Worst Comeback" for their yearly awards. Singing with a confidence you may have forgotten and writing on a variety of topics, Ian demonstrates that 'updating' doesn't require piling on the latest 'modern' sound, just relaxing in your own skin.

Coming in at number six, the Dixie Chicks' Long Way Home. Musically, it's the album Eagles fans always hope will be made but never quite happens. Vocally and lyrically, it's a great deal more complex than that. It's a further evolution in the group that never turned out the sort of Twang Pan Alley covers that hacks such as Reba McEntire built an embarrassing career with. All along, that's been the true 'war' the Chicks have been fighting -- the war on hackery, the war to bring meaning back. On this album, they continue the fight and also provide many with the anthem of the year, "Not Ready To Make Nice."

Etta James' All The Way comes in at number seven and goes a different way. Working her way through covers of "Imagine," "Holding Back The Years," "Purple Rain," "What's Going On," "Stop On By," and more, James attempts to navigate the world today through a knowing, mature approach and it was rather sad to see so many critics dismiss this album. She pulls it off and maybe they're too upset that she's making quieter statements to get behind it? It's a different shade of Etta James but it's not a light weight album. Any who still can't grasp that should zero in on the last track, "Calling You," immediately. In a year where one of the most talked about albums never emerged -- Aretha Franklin's still upcoming freak show of duets -- James found a quieter track. Those who walked it with her know how much she succeeded.

John Mayer's Continuum comes in at number eight and it's an album The Third Estate Sunday Review reviewed but I never did. I was in Ireland at the time. I wasn't online so I only heard about the album and didn't see the review. When I returned, they were listening to it even more than when they wrote the review. Mayer's early hits were a little too amped up coffee house for my tastes. On Continuum, he finds a stronger groove. "Slow Dancing In A Burning Room" stands as the best groove for me but, much to my surprise, it's an album I can listen to from start to finish. If, like me, you wrote him off as a Too Happy lightweight, the album will offer you many surprises.

One of the best things about 2006 was seeing Disney Kids like Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson finally hit their expiration dates. Possibly one of the reasons this finally happened was the number nine album of the year? Pink's I'm Not Dead Yet demonstrated that she may have shared the charts with the Disney Kids, but she was never one of them. While Britty was happy to state that we should just trust the Bully Boy (the moment she should never live down), Pink teamed with the Indigo Girls to provide one of the finer songs of the year, "Dear Mr. President." She also gave a snub out to "Stupid Girls" and demonstrate that she wasn't play acting, she was a full blooded woman. The album is rock, pop and dance and Pink explores those genres as much as she explores herself providing one of the most ambitious statements about life for a young woman since Janet Jackson's Control. Listening, you grasp why a Justy ended up (briefly) with a Britney, there's no playing or pretending with Pink. She's full out and the talent matches the ambition. Don't miss the hidden, bonus track, "I Have Seen The Rain."

Finally, Pearl Jam. Most bands make their signature album early on in their career. Pearl Jam waited a decade and a half. Like the avocado on the front and back cover, this self-titled album is an abundance of musical richness.

Track of 2006? Josh Ritter's "Girl In The War" off The Animal Years. Brian Wilson made it look so easy, then people tried to ape it and most quickly lost interest. Those who kept at it (Lindsey Buckingham among others) tooled in the studio thinking quirky sounds provided the innocence that listeners were embracing. It wasn't the wizardry. Ritter, intentionally or by accident, tapped into the innocence on this song that, if you heard it, stayed with you.

Best live album of 2006? Ani DiFranco's Carnegie Hall 4.6.02. A powerful set that includes "Educated Guess," "Subdivision," "Not So Soft," and, most importantly, Ani's early working of "Self Evident." So early, in fact, that's it's entitled "Work in Pro." DiFranco made many live sets available at her website Righteous Babe this year but Carnegie Hall 4.6.02 was the one she also released to stores. Give it a listen and you'll understand why.

Best package of 2006? When you've got a new artist who is creating a sensation and you want to milk the cash cow a little extra, what do you do? Release a kind-of live album, kind of DVD set. James Blunt's Back to Bedlam was the sort of breakthrough that makes you long for a back catalogue. Since Blunt had none, Chasing Time: The Bedlam Sessions showed up as an import at many outlets. I never did watch the live BBC concert on the DVD. I did listen to disc two "live in Ireland" which contained twelve tracks, most of which appear on Back to Bedlam. The cash-in also featured a better cover than Back to Bedlam. As a stop-gap measure while many of us wait for the second studio album, Chasing Time was a wonderful package.

Best team up of 2006? Greg Dulli and Ani DiFranco and, no, I'm not joking. The Afghan Whigs' Gentlemen remains one of the benchmarks of the nineties for me. Dulli's cartoonish oversize boy expresses everything you suspect and more. But the character largely goes on ice afterwards. The hope that he'll haul him out again keeps me checking out every Dulli project. 2006 offered The Twilight Singers' Powder Burns and it would have opened strongly had Dulli unleashed the bad boy. Maggie thought he had and was all excited about "I'm Ready" until I shattered her hopes by explaining he wasn't singing "I'm ready, I'm ready to hurt somebody"; he was singing "I'm ready, I'm ready to love somebody." If Kurt Cobain came off like the Grunge Savior, Dulli, at his best, was at his worst as the Grunge Devil. Every 'tude Stephan Jenkins would attempt to recycle when he cast himself as Cock Master were on loan from Dulli. While Jenkins skimmed the surface, Dulli wallowed in the character (and got that it was a character). On track four, "Bonnie Brae", Ani DiFranco provides vocal assists. Possibly, he needs a woman as strong as DiFranco to make sure people grasp that it's a character? (Even Jenkins seemed to not grasp that fact.) With a strong nod to "When We Two Parted," "Bonnie Brae" finds Dulli bringing the Grunge Devil back to life as he snarls lines likes "If she's your master, then get down on your knees and beg for more/ I'm not saying it's easier to live you life like her little whore, 'Cuz when you play with fire, take your fate . . ."

Best reissue for 2006? It came out in November of 2005. It was part of a series that saw all the works of a British group reissued with bonus tracks. Toni and Dak-Ho got Ultimate Collection and couldn't understand why I was so appalled by that until I forced them to listen to Be Yourself Tonight. The group is Eurythmics -- Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart. Ultimate Collection provides you with nineteen tracks, the singles plus two new cuts and if hits are all you're after, it's the CD for you. But if you really want to appreciate the Eurythmics, Be Yourself Tonight is the way to go. Forget the six bonus tracks on the CD, just focus on the first nine tracks which made up the original album. "Would I Lie To You?" found the group shaking up their own image and sound and remains one of their best singles. "There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart)" provided another hit and Stevie Wonder on the harmonica. "Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves" is the hit teaming with Aretha Franklin that's lived on and then some. But it's the less familiar tracks that made the album a breakthrough. "Adrian" features Elvis Costello singing harmonies with Lennox, "Here Comes That Sinking Feeling" remains a better track than about half their singles that charted. Be Yourself Tonight stands as the best album Eurythmics ever recorded.