Top Ten — Well, Seven — Albums of 2006

My music listening this past year was so scattered that I don’t even know if I can do a top ten… I have trouble remembering what I heard, and a lot of albums I never sat down and actually listened to all the way through; it would be, like, three songs one day, four more the next, three more a couple of days later… But I will try. Though I seem to have come up with only seven albums, rather than a complete ten. (I could well have forgotten something; often I cannot remember if I first heard a certain piece of music four days ago, four months ago, or four years ago).

1)Burial — Burial. This haunted, dense, downbeat album is the most beautiful, and the most moving, or affecting, music I heard in all of 2006. It is hard to put my finger on just what it is about these fragmented and discreet electronic rumblings and beats that is so powerful… except that this music is insinuating something that forever remains just beyond my grasp. In any case, I couldn’t say anything about Burial that k-punk and Mudede haven’t already said better than I ever could. Suffice it to say that this music has insinuated itself into my dreams, even though I cannot consciously recall or reproduce a single melodic line or rhythm-and-bass pulse from it.

2)Ghostface — Fishscale. Even though I am in that small minority that doesn’t find this album quite as compelling as 2004’s Pretty Toney Album (which I wrote about here), this is still a powerful album, and by far the most compelling hip hop that I have heard in the past year. The wider emotional range of The Pretty Toney Album didn’t sell very well, apparently, so Ghostface went back to doing what the rap audience knows the best, and expects most readily: selling songs and stories about selling crack. Lots of critics have written about — again, better than I ever could — what a great storyteller Ghostface is, his amazing way with words and with brilliantly observed details, so that he’s like a great noir novelist one moment, a whacked-out surrealist the next, an oulipean metafictionalist the paragraph after that. I’ll just add that there’s something amazing about his rapping voice, the way it continually modulates between wacky humor and tough-guy fatalism and romantic whining. And I’ll note, once again, that his use of samples, particularly 70s-soul-music samples (regardless of who is producing any given track) is like nobody else in the business — since he calls upon soul-R&B sounds neither out of nostalgia, nor in order to give his tracks an authority they would otherwise lack, but in order to register difference and distance, to create and express disjunctions, to tear a hole in the heart of the world (the ghetto he grew up in) that he is evoking with such economy and precision. Just listen to how he samples Luther Ingram’s “To the Other Man” in “Whip You With A Strap”; or, even more astonishingly — in a cut that was all over the Net last spring, but got removed from the final album (I presume because of clearance issues) — how a really nasty, knockdown battle-of-the-sexes back-and-forth argument gets built around a lengthy sample of the Pointer Sisters’ “Yes I Can Can.”

3)Kode9 and the Spaceape, Memories of the Future. Kode9 not only produced and distributed Burial’s album, he also released this collaboration with The Spaceape (Kode9’s electronic sounds and the Spaceape’s vocals), which also reaches a rare plateau of intensity — albeit these explicitly, ironically doom-laden visions are quite different in feel from Burial’s intimate intimations. Imagine a collaboration in which Linton Kwesi Johnson is produced by Augustus Pablo, with both the former’s poetry and the latter’s production re-engineered by Deleuze and Guattari. Kode9’s heavy dub is remarkably eclectic, melding together sounds and tones from pretty much everywhere; it’s bass-heavy, of course, but there are lots of things going on that aren’t just the bass. This gives the music, how shall I put it, a kind of resonating space that nonetheless is poles apart from the ganja-induced “spaciness” that we usually think of when we think of dub. The Spaceape’s highly stylized vocal intonations, somewhere in between Jamaica in 1980 and the UK in 2006, don’t quite sound like either, but instill in the listener (or, at least, in me) a hypnotically addictive sort of chronic dread.

4)Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds. Yes, I do listen to American pop music for the masses, and not just to Brit esoterica and hiphop cult figures. Justin is kind of bland and blah as a singer, as well as as a pop icon; but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it emphatically doesn’t mean that he is talentless or awful. Rather, he displays an eerie sort of neutrality: he is really the postmodern “man without qualities,” and for this very reason he is unique and irreplaceable: anybody else who sang these songs, whether they were a brilliant vocalist or a godawful one, would bring one sort or another of an identifiable quality (a nuance, an inflection, a particularity of tone) to the music — and that would ruin everything. You might say that Justin is an entirely generic singer, just as he is an entirely generic celebrity; but he turns the very notion of the “generic” inside out, by turning it into an absolute singularity. This is why he’s the most brilliant “blue-eyed soul” or “white-boy-does-R&B” singer ever. (Even if, as I recall reading, his betrayal of Janet caused him to lose his “ghetto pass,” he has still managed to rebound where she hasn’t). — But of course, what really makes the album is Timbaland’s production; Mr. Mosely’s space rhythms and off beats and odd textures have never sounded better, precisely because Justin’s positive blankness (if I may be permitted the oxymoron) is precisely the perfect foil to set them off. (Jane Dark is absolutely right to see the album — I mean, hear it — as a sort of slash fiction or homosocial exchange “between men”). (I should add that my 4-year-old daughter absolutely adores “My Love”).

5)Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Show Your Bones. Apparently most fans of the band were disappointed by this 2nd album, finding it much weaker than their first (which I wrote about, way back when, here). But to my mind, it was equally strong, even if less overtly punkish, and more (er, um) “mature.” Indeed, this was just about the only New-York-area-alternative-rock album I at all enjoyed listening to this year; the new albums by Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo were well done, but they both basically put me to sleep (this may well be more my fault than theirs — I’ve loved both of these bands madly in the past, and I fear that what has happened is not that they have changed, but that I have — my sensibilities have mutated to the point where I no longer find them satisfying the way I used to. They used to be axioms for me, and now they are just… lifestyle options). (I should also mention TV on the Radio’s album, which I sort of liked OK but which never quite came into focus for me — maybe it will, belatedly, next year).

6)Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury. Lamentably, I am in agreement with the music-critic cognescenti. For what it’s worth, or for what it is, this is really good. TIght rapping, and brilliant Neptunes production, with some gorgeous and unusual timbres (I am especially partial to the harp arpeggios and snare drums, or whatever it is — I’ve never been good at these sorts of identifications — in “Ride Around Shining”). But the continual boasts/dramatizations/expressions-of-regret dealing with crack dealing (at least, for anybody besides Ghostface) and bling are way beyond tired at this late date… hiphop today is in real danger of vanishing up the crack of its own ass because all it can do is obsessively recycle with microscopic variations the narrowest imaginable set of themes… is this really the only thing that sells? the only thing that the fans — white or black? — want? Who can be satisfied in such straightened circumstances?).

7)Ornette Coleman, Sound Grammar. I was just talking about incessant micro-variations upon narrow themes. I suppose that is what Ornette has been doing for the last fifty (!) years as well; but this is the first new release in a decade from the world’s greatest sax player, who is also the world’s greatest composer; and his music is as beautiful, knotty, and exhilarating as ever.

6 Responses to “Top Ten — Well, Seven — Albums of 2006”

  1. meg says:

    just reading through your stuff- not really used to this blog thing. wondering if you’ve read daniel pinchbeck’s latest book?

    if you’re interested in consciousness, oblivion, qualifying existence- fascinating read.

    and interestingly enough, he’s the son of joyce johnson…

  2. Adam says:

    In full agreement about the Ornette Coleman album, which I’ve been listening to compulsively for the past few weeks. About Timberlake, that blankness of his has always been a deal-killer for me. It makes me miss the full force of personality found in Missy, Aaliyah, Jay-Z, et al in their collaborations with Timbaland. With Timberlake (or, to a lesser extent, Bubba Sparxxx, Timb’s other major white vocalist), the production, brilliant as it is, overpowers the vocals and leaves a sort of non-presence at the center of the song. Some website or other had a great line about how the Clipse album was willed into existence by the nation’s population of rock critics. As much as I love the Ghostface album, my favorite rap album of the year is definitely the Coup’s Pick a Bigger Weapon, to my ears their best – their funniest and funkiest – and they manage to make direct political statements entertaining, accessible and as relevant as ever. That is, in an era in which pronouncements about Bush or the state of the economy are more depressing than anything else, Boots Riley can still be inspiring. The jokes have a lot to do with it. So does Pam the Funkstress.

  3. Dejan says:

    Right on spot this reading of Justin as a white RB singer, but how that stands for his ”singularity” is beyond me. White people have always appropriated black stuff and made it commercial (Madonna and the vogue, etc…), where the white simulation seldom sounded as soulful or gripping or immediate as black music. In addition it’s beyond me how this pale little cocker spaniel could ever be construed as a ”sex symbol” and if you wanna do really good RB you better be sexy!

  4. Just thinking about my Top Ten, so thought I’d pipe in on the NY Punk category. I agree that the Sonic Youth album also didn’t do much for me, and it was praised so highly by critics! But to me it seemed like Sonic Youth Retreads but with the youth missing out of Sonic Youth somehow. I know that sounds harsh, but I don’t know, it seems like there’s almost a complacency about the album. But on the other hand, Yo La Tengo also pulled out all their classic cards, but the album really grew on me and made my Top Ten cut.

    On another note, have you listened to Oneida? They’re a Brooklyn based band who, in my opinion, is doing really fresh stuff musically.

  5. Sean says:

    I think I still have to go with Hall and Oates as the best blue-eyed soul group. Remember the use of “Method of Modern Love” in the Wu-Tang track “Method Man”?

    Clipse, though they have their limits, don’t quite deserve to be lumped together with the coke rap that is making rap music trite and predictable. I’m still getting into the second album, but the first adds more nuance to the identifiable boastings and lamentations of the dealing game, and I think the Curtis Mayfield worship puts them above the mess of recent rap music tendencies.

    I’m still trying to train myself to appreciate Ghostface. Fishscale is a good album, but I get more from rappers whose verses read better on the page (the undeniable genius of Only Built For Cuban Linx not withstanding).

    Your comment on Timberlake’s homosocial exchanges reminded me of a remarkable Timberlake interview essay in Rolling Stone years ago. Perhaps it was the work of the writer, but the photos and the prose were furtively (though furtive in an obvious way) homoerotic.

    Speaking of Kode 9, where can I find Kodwo Eshun’s writing since More Billiant Than the Sun?

  6. David Sweeney says:

    RE: Justin Timberlake

    I think both Jane Dark and yourself are right about the homosocial nature of JT and Timbaland’s discourse. It’s the mutual preening of businessmen (imagine Glengarry Glen Ross if they were all closing sales rather than competing for leads). The blankness that you correctly identify in JT is what makes him so successful. And you’re right too to compare him more to Prince these days than to Michael Jackson, who has replaced (perhaps JT’s betrayal of Janet was the final stage in this process?) jackson got weirder as his records became increasingly dulll. Prince, on the other hand, managed, in the 80s, to be both weird and massively popular. Like Missy or the Wu Tang Clan after him (or Outkast sometimes) he was a popular avant garde. In 1988 Simon Reynolds wrote that Prince ‘wants to be everyone to everyone’ (Blissed Out, 1990, 49). Prince is, therefore, incapable of the ‘pandering’ that Jackson participates in on ‘Beat It’ where Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solo is ‘dropped blum in the middle as a calculated bid for MTV exposure and the Middle American AOR heartland’. by Prince’s more rock tinged tracks, such as I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man and, especially, Purple Rain are, as Reynolds observes, ‘as much a part of him as the funk strut.’ He quotes Barney Hoskins: Prince ‘is where all all the desires of pop meet and entangle.’ We might say the same about JT except, of course, that pop, the music and the industry, has changed considerably since the time of Reynolds’ writing (and Prince’s international popularity). In ‘Blissed Out’ the section on Prince is part of a chapter entitled ‘Indecency’, which now seems like a quaint notion. There is nothing indecent about JT (not even his video at the Playboy mansion with Nelly.) And this is something Reynolds’ text both anticipates and attempts to resist. He challenges the contemporary critical orthodoxy that produces ‘a certain schoolmasterly tone’ which criticises Prince for his lack of self-disciplne, his tendency towards self-indulgence (which Reynolds celebrates). Again, this is something JT could never be accused of. But equally, the Prince records that have dated the best are the singles (with the possible exception of ‘Condition of the Heart’ from Around the World in A Day – which sounds *very* Andre 3000 – and ‘The Cross’ from Sign O’ the Times, which remains a vein untapped), which is to say his most disciplined tracks. Having said that, Ciara’s ‘Promise’ indicates a possible return to the lush (self)absorbtion (for all its apparently devotional content; but then wasn’t courtly love all about the lover rather than the beloved, or at least about what the beloved activated within him?) of Prince ballads such as ‘Adore’, which Reynolds describes as ‘supersaturated’.

    I too love greatly enjoy JT’s records (although I still think ‘Like I Love You’ was his peak) and the man himself as a pop star. He fascinates me. He doesn’t want to everyone to everyone. He just *is* – or at least is prepared to be. Because that’s the state of pop these days. There is no indeceny there. It’s not so much that, as another of Reynolds’ favourites, Jane’s Addiction, once put it, ‘Nothing’s Shocking’. Rather, it’s that the very idea of being shocked seems passe’. JT is up for any/everything. (Well, every pop thing: he’ll never kiss Timbaland.) And maybe that’s what makes him so compelling. He’s a – *the* – sign ‘o’ the times.

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