So here it is at last, my top ten. As always, you’ll have to press play every 30 seconds on the audio clips.
10. Franz Ferdinand — The Fallen / L. Wells
Okay, so this isn’t an album, but did you want me to call this post “my ten favourite albums and / or singles and / or EPs and / or whatever else of 2006”? What a mouthful. Anyway, I’m usually kind of lukewarm about Franz Ferdinand. The hype that surrounds them is a bit off-putting really, but you have to admit that they make quite a lot of good music.
All singles should be like this. The band called it a “quintuple a-side” (although the CD I own only has four tracks, hmm…). All of the tracks were of a high quality; not the sub-standard b-sides that are often slapped onto a CD single. The most glorious moment is the incredible remix of ‘The Fallen’ by Justice. Brilliant stuff.
9. TV on the Radio — Return to Cookie Mountain
Some people have said that they are surprised that I like this album. I don’t know why they should be. There are some fine songs on here, demonstrating that you a good song can be sonically interesting. Opener ‘I Was a Lover’ takes the crown in that regard. Not every song is a winner. There are some quite boring moments, like the collaboration with David Bowie, ‘Province’. Still, the quality of the album overall is still good enough to keep me happy.
8. Steve Reich — Different Trains
This is the CD released by Black Box in 2006. I bought this before I knew of the Phases box set, and I had wanted to hear this for a while so I couldn’t resist really. Luckily enough, I much prefer this performance to the one on Phases. The Duke Quartet’s performance is more passionate than The Kronos Quartet’s rather clinical approach.
This CD also includes ‘Piano Phase’, Steve Reich’s first phase piece that wasn’t for tapes. There is also ‘String Quartet No. 2’ by Marc Mellits, whom I confess to never having heard of before. But it is a very pleasant piece of music indeed. I particularly like the jauntier fun bits in ‘Mara’s Toys’.
7. Matthew Friedberger — Winter Women / Holy Ghost Language School
For how long can Matthew Friedberger churn out such fantastic music at such an alarmingly fast rate? Already committed to making at least an album a year with The Fiery Furnaces, Mr Friedberger has moved into making solo albums. Apparently this is because he is scared of forgetting how to make music. I’m not complaining.
The Fiery Furnaces tend to attract mixed reviews, so you should be warned that this is just like The Fiery Furnaces but with their idiosyncrasies amplified still further. It does feel a bit wrong without Eleanor Friedberger though. Mind you, it also reminds me of Eels’ more recent material. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s a double album, or all of the mellotrons.
This double album hasn’t attracted as much attention as Bitter Tea. I’m not really sure why that should be, because it is almost as good if you ask me.
6. Jarvis — The Jarvis Cocker Record
Another accomplished musician taking his first steps into the world of the solo career. This album is probably exactly what you would expect from Jarvis in this stage of his career. At first I thought it was quite similar to Pulp’s last album, We Love Life. But over time I’ve spotted bits of older Pulp, and lots of bits that are plain new to Cocker’s sound.
Sonically, it is not all that adventurous. But Jarvis Cocker shouldn’t be, because his strength is in brilliant songwriting. And there is plenty of that here. Although I predict this to be a grower, not every song is as great as you’d hope. But four or five of these songs are irresistibly enjoyable. ‘Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time’ is a fine choice for a first single.
Meanwhile ‘Fat Children’ is a delightfully angry song about society, where fat children take your life because “the police force was elsewhere, putting bullets in some guy’s head for no particular reason”.
5. Squarepusher — Hello Everything
How much better can this man get? Hello Everything was well-positioned to be a damp squib. The expectations following the utterly outstanding Ultravisitor were high. But if anything, Tom Jenkinson has improved.
Maybe the album as a whole isn’t on a par with Ultravisitor. But watching the videos of him performing ‘Hello Meow’ and on the BBC’s The Culture Show, I am convinced that Jenkinson must be one of the best musicians on the planet, full stop. It would be enough if he just did the electronic stuff, but with the bass added in it’s just mind-boggling.
I quite liked the cosmic sound of this album, on tracks like ‘Planetarium’ and ‘Circlewave 2’. The b-sides to the Welcome to Europe single were also top-drawer stuff. How much better can Squarepusher get?
4. Team Doyobi — The Kphanapic Fragments
Once again, I am left wondering if I’m the only person in the world who likes Team Doyobi this much. This was definitely the album that I looked forward to the most all year, and it was very frustrating to see the release date being moved back so often. I’m sure it was originally meant to come out in March or April. It was never seen until mid-November.
Still, it was well worth the wait as Team Doyobi took their music another stage further. While the bold 8-bit-style electronics are still there in full force, it is mixed in with a much denser, darker sound. The first two tracks are fairly proggy affairs, lasting fifteen minutes each. These two tracks take up half of the album!
But the Team proves that they haven’t forgotten how to have fun as the best moment comes with ‘Thus Jacked Zarathrusta’. Here is your robot music indeed! What an epic. The end result for the album as a whole is a more mature progression on their familiar sound, but one that isn’t all that alien to what we’re used to from them. A tricky balancing act accomplished. Apparently their next album is already just about finished. I can’t wait to hear what they’ve got in store.
3. Scott Walker — The Drift
I like this album so much because it sounds like Scott Walker has actually put some effort into making this a good album. In a year when so many of my favourite bands have put in so-so efforts, it is so refreshing to hear this.
It’s meant to be difficult to get into. So people keep on saying anyway. But I don’t think his music is much more difficult than, say, Björk’s. Still, it’s hardly a barrel of laughs. At times it is a downright unpleasant listen. It sometimes seems as though he’s written the lyrics to be as dirty-sounding as possible, with his talk of “the pee pee soaked trousers” to take just one example.
The music is just masterful though. It’s so good to hear somebody being genuinely experimental. Why aren’t there more musicians like this?
2. Grizzly Bear — Yellow House
This was the big surprise of the year for me. I expected this to be a so-so album at best. I downloaded ‘On A Neck, On A Spit’ and I was unimpressed at first. A few days later I had a song stuck in my head. It was amazing. But I couldn’t for the life of me work out what the song was. It was one of those moments where I actually began to wonder, “Did I write that myself?” But it turned out, of course, to be ‘On A Neck, On A Spit’. A delightful grower — a beautiful song with a bit of a cheeky streak.
Well that was it. I had to buy the album now. And once again I was slightly disappointed. But once again I was won over by repeat listens. It is impossible not to just sit back and enjoy the music. This album has achieved the rare feat of getting me relaxed on train journeys. It is a basic idea: simple, pleasant songwriting. It’s pulled off masterfully.
The peak of this album is reached with ‘Marla’. It is deceptive. On the surface it sounds like this studio is haunted. But delving deeper, you discover that it’s perhaps the most beautiful and gentle song on the album.
1. The Fiery Furnaces — Bitter Tea
It says something about the state of music this year — at least the music I’ve heard this year — that Bitter Tea has topped my list. It is true that when this album was released, I wrote an effusive review that predicted that this would turn out to be my favourite album of the year.
But this does not come close to being The Fiery Furnaces’ best album. My biggest complaint is that it doesn’t really feel like a complete album. It just starts, quite suddenly, with ‘In My Little Thatched Hut’, which feels more like it should have been in the middle of the album.
But what am I doing, criticising such a fine album? I should be glad that The Fiery Furnaces exist at all. They are one of the most unique bands around at the moment. How could you fail to fall in love with their clattering pianos and antique synthesisers? Well, quite easily actually — but not if you’re me. The point is that fans of The Fiery Furnaces will find everything they want here.