Pop Rock: Year in Review 2006

Pop Rock: Year in Review 2006
Photo: Roma Barrett
1. TV On the Radio
Return to Cookie Mountain (Interscope)

Looking back at the year’s news of endless war, corrupt politicians and declining environment, it’s safe to say this was not a banner year for optimism. How fitting, then, that the year’s best pop album was one that not only confronted our social disillusionment, but revelled in it, and in doing so found there was still a beauty worth celebrating amid the bleakness.
"It’s a pretty bad time for humanity right now,” says TV On the Radio vocalist Kyp Malone. "I mean, the oceans are dying because of human beings, and if the oceans are dying, the planet is dying. But we all live in the same world, and all this shit is going to affect everybody. These universal issues were on our minds in the studio, for sure. But there are songs that address darkness and sadness in equal amounts as songs that are an expression of joy.”

Picking up where their 2004 full-length debut, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, left off, Return to Cookie Mountain is a confident step forward for the experimental New York five-piece. Fronted by producer David Sitek and vocalists Malone and Tunde Adebimpe, the group delves deeper into the dense, loop-driven arrangements of their previous work to create an apocalyptic soundscape of buzzing guitars, urgent, clanky percussion and swooping shards of white noise through which Adebimpe and Malone’s soaring falsettos and multiple vocal overdubs must fight to be heard.

The struggle for order within an ocean of chaos is a recurring theme on Return To Cookie Mountain. Though an early leaked version of the album led off with the roiling fuzz-rock of single "Wolf Like Me,” the official release surprised fans by opening with "I Was A Lover,” a stuttering, elegiac funeral march that established a far darker, more divisive tone. It’s very first line, "I was a lover / before this war,” is a refugee’s lament, isolated and lonely. The track is the sound of humanity fractured and bombarded as siren guitars and looping industrial samples compound and swirl overhead, before suddenly and abruptly dissipating, broken by ecstatic major chords and Malone and Adebimpe’s, striking doo-wop-influenced harmonies.

As grim as Cookie Mountain is at times, there always seems to be a moment of startling clarity, an reassuring epiphany of sound — like the piercing, off-key piano strikes that shatter the air is the foreboding "Province” — waiting to part the collecting clouds. The balance between joy and sadness is beautifully struck, on both the small and grand scale; for every violent percussive spasm like "Playhouses” and "Wolf Like Me” is a sweet trifle like "Dirty Whirlwind” or "Hours,” and within every track is a message both cataclysmic and surprisingly hopeful. The result of a process of constant refinement, experimentation and collaboration, Cookie Mountain ultimately comes to the conclusion that salvation is other people; that no matter how bleak things may seem, there is strength to be found in unity. The multiple vocal, guitar and drum tracks advance like armies in thick, overdubbed clusters, filling the air with an intoxicating, cacophonic unison that not only reflects the band’s musical philosophy. "There are plenty of musical dictators that come out with some good stuff, but ultimately, one of the higher ideals that music embodies is community and unity,” Malone concludes. "And I think that’s much better expressed through group efforts than it is through a single voice.” Chris Boutet

2. Belle & Sebastian
The Life Pursuit (Matador)
Though they’ve had a bit of a bumpy ride at times, the last couple of years have been smooth sailing for Scots Belle & Sebastian, and that’s why The Life Pursuit is their happiest, most joyous album to date. The attitude is infections, so even when they decide to try their hand at glam rock and funk, it’s hard not to smile affectionately. They are not those precious little indie kids any more; they’ve constructed an immaculate and adult pop record that sours mightily above the rest. Wonderful, essential stuff. Michael Edwards

3. Final Fantasy
He Poos Clouds (Blocks Recording Club)
After helping to define the sound of other notable Canadians, violinist Owen Pallet realises his own potential. He Poos Clouds, Pallett’s second album in just over a year, has an obvious maturity and sophistication. The symphonic harmonies are a sweeping contrast to his tender, coaxing vocals, creating tracks that often border on the epic. Winner of the inaugural Polaris Music Prize, an award devoted to musical integrity, his latest release displays an innate confidence and Pallett can stake his claim as one of the most innovative and genre-defying musicians of the year. An artist worthy of the title. Sacha Jackson

4. Beirut
The Gulag Orchestar (Ba Da Bing)
After the bombs tear apart the fertile landscape, you make due with what you have left. In the devastated battlefields of his imagination, Zach Condon scavenged a ukulele, hand drums, accordions, and a blast of Balkan brass to accompany his plaintive, practically wordless melodies that simultaneously invoke hope and the saddest music in the world. Every time he lifts his stately trumpet it evokes a new national anthem for a nascent country, a tabula rasa where we're free from the suffocation of history. And being a debut album, the possibilities here are just as enticing as the immediate gratification. Michael Barclay

5. The Decemberists
The Crane Wife (Capitol)
Though it might be easier to lament the once-great Decemberists, instead they refuse to put a step wrong and their major label debut exceeds even their most impressive early output. Instead of resting on their laurels, they got even more ambitious with epic, ten-minutes opuses, Japanese folk tales and prog rock touches that should have pushed us all to the breaking point. But it works so beautifully that it’s impossible not to love them for their wit, talent and little idiosyncrasies. Michael Edwards

6. Malajube
Trompe L'Oeil (Bonsound)
This year was a good one for a lot of bands, but only one group did the impossible — become a celebrated Canadian indie act singing only in French. Many acts have tried and failed to break out of Quebec while staying true to themselves, but Malajube, a Montreal-based four piece, not only overcame the language barrier, they destroyed it. Trompe L’Oeil is a loud, in your face blast of power pop perfection that’s so layered and complex, it’ll take listeners months to dissect these clever tunes. And the French lyrics? Surprisingly, they enhance this Polaris Prize nominated disc. Not only does it add to the album’s complexity, but Malajube prove a very important point: if you’ve got great songs, you’ll have a great record. Bryan Borzykowski

7. Beck
The Information (Interscope)
Eschewing the work-in-progress aesthetic of 2005’s Dust Brothers collaboration Guero (and its accompanying remix album), The Information finds rock and roll’s resident shape-shifter joining forces with producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Paul McCartney) to create a cohesive, retro-futurist pop soundtrack for the author’s mostly dystopian observations on modern times. Beck’s trademark musical inventiveness is on full display, from the groovy, textured blip-rock of "Nausea” to a clever folk-pop update on "Think I’m In Love.” Coupled with serious-minded lyrical themes of death and general paranoia, the end result is one of the finest albums in Beck Hansen’s already illustrious canon. Neil McDonald

8. The Hold Steady
Boys and Girls In America (Vagrant)
Hundreds have tried, but few bands in the past decade have painted the directionless angst and wasted nights of Middle American youth sound as vivid as the Hold Steady do on Boys and Girls of America. Dragging the fidgety hoodrat storytelling of last year’s Separation Sunday out of rehab and into the neon glow of barroom beer signs, front-man Craig Finn indulges his classic rock sensibilities, blasting out tight, jubilant common-man anthems brimming with hell-bent hooks, organ explosions and killer guitar solos unfettered by pretension. It’s brightly observed, character-driven rock that finds nothing worth celebrating more than the fact that right now, everywhere, awkward, half-drunk kids are getting into trouble because it’s the only thing to do, and having a damned good time doing it. Chris Boutet

9. Girl Talk
Night Ripper (Illegal Art)
Pittsburgh native Greg Gillis (aka Girl Talk) is one of the more unlikely success stories of 2006. Armed with a laptop, a CD collection, and a truckload of MP3s, Gillis upped the ante on fellow mash-up fiend Jason Forrest with his third album, Night Ripper. It runs the gamut of crunk, dirty South, and manufactured thug-hop faster than one of those old Funkmaster Flex mixes, while simultaneously flaunting guitar solos from Oasis, the Verve, Nirvana, and anyone and anything else you can think of. A new high watermark for the mash-up, and a sneak peek at what popular music could (or maybe should) sound like in years to come. Dimitri Nasrallah

10. The Hidden Cameras
Awoo (Evil Evil)
Awoo is not what it first seems. The Hidden Cameras’ charmingly deadpan ringleader Joel Gibb invents beautiful, buoyant melodies and pairs them with dark poetry. It takes several listens to catch onto the incongruity; Awoo is the aural equivalent of mixing uppers with downers. But the real beauty of the album is that every last song is a melodic, multi-layered, dizzying delight. Call it chamber pop or indie pop, just as long as you also call it what it is: beyond brilliant. Sofi Papamarko

11. Cat Power
The Greatest (Matador)
Chan Marshall has returned with her uncompromisingly raw exposure of emotion, narratives of both hope and loss sung along to what always seems to be effortless instrumentation. The Greatest is particularly special, as Marshall returned to Memphis to gather up her influences to play guest musician on various songs. Serenades of violins, wispy choirs of backup vocals, and funky Memphis horns are what leave this album brimming over with both grace and soul. "Where is my Love?” is perhaps the finest encapsulation of Marshall’s musical style: intimate, yet somehow ethereal. With each ballad being somewhat of a celebration or a reverie, this album is perfect to fall in or out of love to. Stephanie Kale

12. Tokyo Police Club
A Lesson In Crime (Paper Bag)
Pullulating with eager excitability and studied pop ideas, Tokyo Police Club exhibit all of the qualities that you hope for in a young band, but go one step further by polishing all of these qualities into a taut, disciplined whole. A Lesson in Crime, is just a seven-song teaser EP, but spans the better moments of the past two decades in pop/rock, giving one the feeling that TPC, in time, will show the world that Toronto music extends beyond turgid indie all-star amalgams. Andrew Steenberg

13. Joanna Newsom
Ys (Drag City)
The anticipated second release from Drag City it girl Joanna Newsom more than delivers; Ys is a brilliantly composed work of dense lyrical prowess and compelling orchestration. Newsom’s singing has evolved, demonstrating remarkable control and range in intricate story-songs that are both fantastical and deeply personal. Newsom has firmly set herself apart from any scene as she unveils to the world her singular and brazen vision. Ys is a veritable chef-d'oeuvre of brave vulnerability and soaring experimentation. Sara Saljoughi

14. Chad VanGaalen
Skelliconnection (Flemish Eye)
Inside a dusty store near my house, a hand-scrawled sign states, "The Best Stuff is in the Basement.” Recorded in Chad VanGaalen’s own Calgary basement, Skelliconnection similarly flirts with the unexpected. A fearless and prolific experimenter, Van Gaalen stutters through the mighty single, "Flower Gardens,” while instrumental tracks of bleepy synths and trash can drums intercede the upbeat "Burn 2 Ash.” A visual artist, VanGaalen illustrates, animates, writes, records and plays everything: guitar, harmonica, banjo, xylophone, question mark sounds pulled from his arsenal of home made instruments. Brimming with ambition and originality, his sophomore effort leaves us uplifted and, frankly, a wee bit envious. Carla Gillis

15. Grizzly Bear
Yellow House (Warp)
Yellow House finds Grizzly Bear stepping out of their lo-fi persona, as exemplified on their debut, Horn Of Plenty, and into polished Technicolor. The emphasis on cleaner production allows the songs to finally begin to achieve the impossible heights they always hinted that they could. Harnessing a menagerie of instruments and electronic manipulations, the Brooklyn four have created the most unlikely orchestral concoctions comprised of sounds that sigh and swoop around fluid four-part harmonies. Inflicting psych-folk labels on this record do not do it justice; it is a warm, truly beautiful work that defies categorisation. Pras Rajagopalan

16. Band of Horses
Everything All the Time (Sub Pop)
Other albums might have blown people away with their intensity or innovative musical fireworks, but it was the steady, unassuming trot of this twosome that snuck up on everyone. Even before Ben Bridwell’s falsetto seduces the listener, it was the forceful strum of the pedal steel that convinced ears that this album was going to delight. Band of Horses’ dedication to layers upon layers of melody and a magical understanding of an emotional musical climax made this debut endlessly listenable and particularly affecting. Here, slow and steady indeed wins the race. Chris Whibbs

17. Peter Bjorn and John
Writers Block (Wichita)
Why is it that European indie-pop consistently sounds more worldly and distinguished than its North American counterpart? Case in point: Peter, Bjorn, and John, three young chaps from Stockholm who have intelligently funnelled the most revered sounds of Sweden's top indie-acts into the lo-fi masterpiece, Writer's Block. The album brims with the exquisite sounds of solid drum beats, bongos, and maracas over tenderly played guitar, and very detailed and convincing personal lyrics that have a penchant for conjuring up images culled from the streets of the Europe's finest capitals. Anyone that has fallen in-and-out of love while travelling with a backpack and Eurorail pass will understand. Derek Nawrot

18. Serena Maneesh (Playlouder/Beggars)
Serena Maneesh is a 58-minute encyclopaedia of guitar noise. The Norwegian quintet push the limits of the instrument over an angelic duo of girls on backing vocals, simulating a carpet bomb tearing through heaven — a sound that appeals to me more than anything else released this year. And a look through the liner notes shows that Sufjan Stevens cameos on the record, producing the closest approximation of a Billy Bragg/Jesus and Mary Chain collaboration we’ll ever hear. Andrew Steenberg

19. Diableros
You Can't Break The Strings In Our Olympic Hearts (Baudelaire)
Despite their innocuous beginnings as a Jesus and Mary Chain tribute outfit, the Diableros have experienced a sudden and much-deserved rise in Canada's independent scene. This is a record that is hopelessly romantic and unapologetic in its grandeur, distilling its shoegaze and psych-rock influences into an enthralling wall of pulsating, melodic fuzz. It helps that singer Pete Carmichael, who in his quivering, impassioned howl can confidently rattle off lines like "Don't you know / Why people love one another? / It's so they can feel their hearts beat together" without a trace of irony. Pras Rajagopalan

20. Raconteurs
Broken Boy Soldiers (V2)
It was inevitable that Jack White would want to expand beyond the musical limitations of the White Stripes, and it’s hard to imagine him wanting to go back after forging this dynamic partnership with fellow Detroiter Brendan Benson. The balance between White’s garage/blues brawn and Benson’s power-pop brains provided some of the year’s most invigorating songwriting. While the Raconteurs have all the earmarks of a one-hit wonder, with any luck White, Benson and crew will still remember what they’ve accomplished here if their next individual efforts fail to produce such exciting results. Jason Schneider

Domestically Challenged

Blogs are alive with the sound of new music, but some of these hyped albums aren’t so easy to come by in our local record shops. Here are the best records that couldn’t avoid the costly "import” sticker in 2006.

Bat For Lashes
Fur and Gold (Echo)
Pakistan-born, Brighton-based eccentric Natasha Khan’s spooky folk project clearly owes its entire existence to Kate Bush, Cat Power and Björk. But her natural talent for consistently grabbing your emotions is purely of her own doing, much like her kooky goth-lite image.

Hot Club De Paris
Drop it Till it Pops (Moshi Moshi)
Dubious of the term "nice and easy,” Liverpool’s most exuberant trio go for broke with this charmingly slack debut album. Often sounding like the fast-forward button was pushed accidentally, their lo-fi, angular pop punk puts the Futureheads’ hastiest moments to shame.

Howling Bells (Bella Union)
Birthed in Australia, this quartet are as dangerous as they are dreamy. Imagine Kevin Shields scoring the soundtrack to a Southern Gothic opera directed by David Lynch and starring PJ Harvey and you’ve hit it right on the nose.

Johnny Boy (Wild Kingdom)
Responsible for one of 2004’s most memorable singles, these Liverpudlians somehow snuck out this LP without warning. Produced by Manic Street Preacher James Dean Bradfield, it’s a zingy thrill ride with the spirit of Motown and the Go! Team’s cheer.

Larrikin Love
The Freedom Spark (Infectious)
This was the year that klezmer broke, and these London lads took full advantage. With energy corresponding to the Libertines at their peak, this ambitious outfit show as much love for poetic polka breakdowns as they do for being classified "indie.”

The Long Blondes
Someone to Drive You Home (Rough Trade)
Copping Debbie Harry’s chic, hometown hero Jarvis Cocker’s lyrical wit and a sound that’s equal parts ’60s girl group pop and angular jangle rock, this debut album cashes in every bit of promise these Sheffieldians showed during their rise to the top.

Mystery Jets
Making Dens (679)
From the enigmatic Eel Pie Island, these barmy Brits exploit their grand illusions of prog rock glory through short bursts of gonzo pop. With a distinct knack for writing delicious hooks, it’s shocking they weren’t rivalling the Arctic Monkeys for chart supremacy.

The Sunshine Underground
Raise the Alarm (City Rockers)
Snubbed in the press’s bid to make new rave the next lifesaving phenomena, these ardent funk punks from Leeds employ Northern pride instead of glow sticks for their boost. Some baggy goodness and rock manoeuvring dig them out of hazardous pigeonholes.

Jenny Wilson
Love and Youth (Rabid)
Discovered by the Knife and signed to their label, this Swedish songstress is no slouch — writing, performing and producing this entire record herself. With requisite Scandinavian iciness, it’s abstract but heartfelt, like a more compelling Feist doing woeful avant-pop in Bizarro World.

The Young Knives
Voices of Animals and Men (Transgressive)
Out of all the Gang of Four comparisons over the last few years, Ashby-de-la-Zouch’s are the closest thing to the original. But they’re no one-trick-pony, creeping in some unmistakable melodies that prove being a tribute band isn’t on their to-do list.
Cam Lindsay

Turkey’s Unlikely Psych
Turkish psychedelic music was this year’s tropicalia — exotic, arty music that unabashedly rocked out. This year saw more and more Turkish delights from the ‘60s and ‘70s surface from reissue labels in Europe and the States, pointing to yet another global tangent of late ‘60s youth culture. There are surprising similarities between Anadolu pop and tropicalia. Both drew from global inspirations but were unmistakably rooted in their countries of origin. Both Brazil and Turkey were in the midst of major demographic shifts straining against the control of conservative regimes. The music from both countries featured defiant nonconformists who worked with high-level studio-craft supported by inventive arrangers and players. Turkish psych, though, is generally a darker affair with quartertone harmonies and complex rhythms bolstered by Western folk, rock and funk influences.

Thomas Hartledge, who has reissued three essential Turkish discs this year through his QDK Media/Shadoks Music concern relates: "I’ve never come across a Turkish recording, no matter how psychedelic it is, it’s always Turkish music in it. Whereas in other countries in South America or maybe Japan, bands sound American or British because that’s what they want to be. In Turkey the traditional music is so strong that even if you hear Erkin Koray with the most psychedelic guitars, it’s always a Turkish melody. If you listen to a song by Selda it’s like she’s singing from a Muslim mosque.”

In the last year this music has reached new audiences in Western Europe, the U.S. and Japan, and the documentary film Crossing The Bridge raised awareness about Turkey’s music in general. The cream of this year’s many reissues were Shadoks’ compilation of Edip Akbayram’s funkadelic prog and Finders Keepers’ reissue of Mustafa Ozkent’s Genclick Ile Ilele with its gold mine of breakbeats and screaming guitars. Inasmuch as any country’s music can be reduced to a "flavour of the year,” Turkish psych surely flicked a whole lotta Bics in 2006. David Dacks