Landmarks: The Year 2006
If I my be permitted a bit of revisionist history, I can say with the benefit of hindsight that my favorite record of 2006 is almost certainly Tom Waits‘ Orphans. Talk about an album transcending its modest roots: Originally meant to be a clearing-house for rarities, B-sides, and soundtrack cuts, the album proved such an inspiration to Waits that he ended up re-recording most of the old material along with a huge batch of new, resulting in an impossibly vast and astonishingly flawless three-disc epic that stands as easily the closest thing out there to the quintessential Tom Waits album. It’s all here: Bluesy, barroom rockers; howling, junkyard hoedowns; whiskey-soaked piano ballads; theater pieces and stand-up comedy interludes; and strange experiments of inspired madness. In terms of pure, unfettered creativity, I’m not sure if there’s any album out there that matches this one in ambition or generosity.
At the time, of course, my pick for album of the year was Boys and Girls in America, the blazing breakthrough album from The Hold Steady. That’s the album where the group really found their footing, something less ragged and less prone to bizarre detours than Separation Sunday but more sophisticated in its songcraft, and more ambitious in its fusion of raucous barroom rock, Thin Lizzy guitar heroics, and E-Street mayhem. It’s another profound and complex masterpiece from some of rock’s most exploratory and artful poets– an album about relationships, about addiction, and, as usual, about redemption.
One of my favorite trends from 2006 was that of veteran rockers reconnecting with their muse to make some of their most vital music ever. Donald Fagen did it with his sleek, life-affirming soft-rock album Morph the Cat, and Paul Simon did it with the vivid Technicolor of the experimental album Surprise. And of course, there was Bob Dylan and Modern Times, a profound and mystical blues album that’s a bit more ponderous and less volatile than Love & Theft, but nevertheless a rich work that finds poetry and meaning in the tropes of classic American blues and folk songs.
But one of my absolute favorites of the years– and indeed, of the decade– is Bruce Springsteen‘s tribute to Pete Seeger and the canon of great American folk music, We Shall Overcome. A joyous affair that captures the spirit and spontaneity of Dylan’s Basement Tapes and rocks harder than any of Bruce‘s albums since the 80s, the set pulls off the neat trick of being not just a tribute to American music lore, but, more vitally, a thrillingly visceral and lively testament to the music’s enduring power, an album of sharp political protest, and a celebration of Christian love and hope.
My favorite performance by a vocalist in 2006 came from Jolie Holland, on a wonderful, low-key album called Springtime Can Kill You. There’s all manner of ghosts rattling around on this recording– those of parlor folk songs, of country-blues, of swinging jazz– but it’s all vivified by Holland‘s remarkable, sultry phrasing and her evocative poetry. The album becomes a complex series of symbols and images that speak to love and lust and longing.
As far as indie goes, 2006 was all about TV on the Radio and the fractured beauty of Return to Cookie Mountain— an album that sounded something like Radiohead performing Prince songs, by way of Berlin-era David Bowie, and spoke to the confusion and malaise of the Bush years with more poetry– and more genuine, spiritual hope– than nearly any other album I can think of. The Decemberists, meanwhile, mixed history and myth, violence and renewal, in their best-ever album, a song cycle called The Crane Wife, and Danielson cultivated a whole new kind of Christian rock in the hard-rocking, campfire sing-alongs of Ships.
And then there was Game Theory, The Roots‘ pitch-black, righteously pissed-off opus– and the 00s’ equivalent of a great Public enemy album. Few albums released this decade match this one in terms of anger, but the music is anything but despairing; this is cathartic, invigorating music that channels hip-hop street poetry through the weary, dark funk of latter-period Sly Stone.
Meanwhile, Gnarls Barkley had one of the year’s most promising and exhilarating debuts with their pop/rock/hip-hop blockbuster, St. Elsewhere. Alan Jackson released his late-night saloon masterpiece, Like Red on a Rose. Solomon Burke went country with his excellent, Buddy Miller-produced Nashville. Vince Gill went for oversized sprawl with his four-disc epic, These Days, and Rosanne Cash made for pure catharsis with her elegiac, tender Black Cadillac.
So that was 2006 for me. How about you?