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Kingblind.com Top 20 Albums of 2006 (#5 thru #1)

Well folks here it is… Our top 20 albums of 2006. From 43 writers in 10 countries we have tallied all the votes, crunched the numbers and POW… this is it… broken down into 4 groups (20 to 16. – 15 to 11 -10 to 6 then 5 to 1.) And now is the time you have all been waiting for.. The final 5.. Any of the below listed top 5 could have easily been the best of the year. So making a final order was in fact very, very difficult. Each album we feel is a total must purchase release in 2006. 4 American’s and 1 group from Glasgow, Scotland fill the list.. Enjoy Kingblind.com’s Top 5 releases of 2006.

#1 Mastodon – “Blood Mountain”
Music journalism is (or at least should be) a constant struggle to keep control of the superlatives. It is hard to resist getting into the habit of comparing everything to Nirvana or The Smiths. So that’s why it’s such a treat when you get a truly mould-shattering band like Mastodon – you really don’t have to watch your step at all. They’re that good. Their second full-length album ‘Leviathan’ (a take on Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’), announced their arrival as the most important metal band since Pantera and the most forward-looking mainstream act since Metallica. So ‘Blood Mountain’, another concept album of sorts, makes another massive leap forward, retreating even further away from their quasi-hardcore inception as it heads Mastodon into the realms of the progressive.

The concept this time is so true metal that even Manowar would be proud of it. The Atlantan four piece are ascending a mythical mountain and encountering all sorts of creatures on the way up, including a Circle Cysquatch and a Colony of Birchmen. It is this unashamed lack of bedroom tidying angst and naval gazing emo self-obsession, in conjunction with a brutally elemental sound that marks them out as true visionaries. Talking of the elements, Brann Dailor, drummer extraordinaire is still the most stunning thing here and is definitely the representation of water. His technical jazz drumming skills, complemented by a looser, more instinctual talent sees his sticks rolling around the kit in and out of tempos like the broiling sea itself.

‘The Wolf Is Loose’ makes an impressive bridge from the ferocity of the last album to this but then almost immediately ‘Blood Mountain’ becomes progressive (with a lower and upper case P). The twin guitar assault of ‘Crystal Skull’, and complex song structure, is somewhere midway between ‘Seventh Son’ Iron Maiden and ‘Ride The Lightning’ Metallica. The diversity of influences range from Slayer and Isis (their producer Matt Bayles is on knob twiddling duties here) to Rush and Jethro Tull. It would be wrong to say that prog metal is going to become the standard for the next five years or anything daft like that, but tellingly enough Cedric Bixler and Ikey Owens of those other forward-looking intranauts The Mars Volta guest here too. Put simply: there isn’t a bad track on ‘Blood Mountain’, which will be seen as the metal release of this year, on whichever level you care to mention.
Mastodon:: Colony Of Birchmen Video – Album Version
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Mastodon:: Colony Of Birchmen Video – Alternate version
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Mastodon:: The Wolf is Loose Video
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#2 Band of Horses – “Everything All Of The Time”
Band of Horses’ jangly twang is borne of heartache and hope- a wistful, atmospheric blend of weathered country blues and insurgent indie rock. Columbia native Ben Bridwell’s voice is slathered in reverb, and it floats above a den of shimmering guitars. Neil Young has met Mr. Bridwell’s turntable on more than one occasion, but the influence is proudly displayed, not smugly intoned. His soporific songs alternate between a mid-tempo sway and a slow, gritty rock. Both he and Matt Brooke are alumni of Seattle, Washington’s Carissa’s Weird (sic), whose fetishistic sad-core met an untimely end in 2003, allowing the duo to kick up the beats per minute, if only slightly.

Everything All the Time is an astoundingly seductive debut. Its elements will not be unfamiliar to fans of The Beach Boys, Palace Brothers, the aforementioned Neil Young, or even R.E.M, but Band of Horses manages to sidestep the trappings of regurgitation by producing songs that sound genuinely inspired. The chimey, arpeggiated undulation of the shrewdly-titled “The First Song” allows Bridwell to showcase his impossibly high-end, crystalline voice, which pushes the languorous music to peaks and valleys it otherwise wouldn’t reach.

There’s just enough clanging dissonance in “Wicked Grill” to offset the infectiousness of Bridwell’s cadence. The music is certainly catchy, but not in a this-is-the-chorus kind of way. The arrangements are more spread out; the hooks are more subtle. Once the heartbreaking majesty of “The Funeral” kicks in you’re a goner. It’s one of those songs that just floors you the moment the guitars surge. Chills, hair standing on end, the works. It’s a passive aggressive anthem of stoicism and restraint with lyrics that wield as much power as the music. When Bridwell ekes out “at every occasion I am ready for the funeral”, his voice betrays a level of insight you just can’t fake.
Band of Horses:: The Funeral MP3
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#3 Tom Waits – “Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards”
What’s Orphans?’ asks Tom Waits, rhetorically, of his new three-disc, 54-song epic, in the accompanying 95-page booklet of lyrics and photographs. Answer: ‘I don’t know. Orphans is a dead-end kid driving a coffin with big tires across the Ohio River wearing welding goggles and a wife beater with a lit firecracker in his ear’ – which probably sums it up as well as anyone else’s attempt at classification might.

It is also an outstanding musical creation – 30 tracks are previously unrecorded – that nods to almost every known genre of American music, and some that have yet to be named, though to say so is pretty much a platitude at this stage in Waits’s history. The late flourishing that began with the million-selling, Grammy-winning Mule Variations in 1999 has continued with rapturous acclaim for subsequent albums, including the most recent, 2004’s Real Gone, where, with typical disregard for taste or fashion, he experimented with the supremely naff art of human beatboxing. Only a musician with Waits’s vision and cachet could take a form that was previously the preserve of white teenagers aspiring to be ghetto and transform it into something feral and disturbing.

There is more beatboxing to be had here, notably on his cover of Daniel Johnston’s ‘King Kong’, but Orphans has been helpfully arranged by genre, so that fans wanting to avoid too much of the avant-garde, the experimental, the monologues or shaggy dog stories can put to one side the third disc, ‘Bastards’, on which all such uncategorisable elements have been gathered and concentrate on the first two.

‘Brawlers’ is vintage roadhouse Waits: hard-edged, piano-and-guitar-driven rock and blues punctuated by wailing harmonicas, growling out stories of American misfits, cons and barflies with names like Blackjack Ruby and Scarface Ron, before giving way to swaying, whisky-rich laments of hobo life such as ‘Lost at the Bottom of the World’. And then suddenly, in the midst of this classic Waitsiana, comes the mo
st powerful and startling song of the entire collection, ‘The Road to Peace’. The lyrics might have been lifted straight from newspaper reports (it begins, ‘Young Abdel Madi Shabneh was only 18 years old’ and goes on to namecheck Palestine’s President Mahmoud Abbas, Ariel Sharon, Henry Kissinger and George Bush); the simple, repetitive drum and guitar backing recalls the rhythms of traditional Jewish tunes, and the result is one of those rare songs that roots you to the spot, makes your scalp prickle and produces an unearthly shiver in a warm room, which may well be the mark of great art. Waits once described the efficacy of political songs as ‘like throwing peanuts at a gorilla’, but this one is like hurling a rock into its face.

The second disc, ‘Bawlers’, is a casserole of country ballads, waltzes, spirituals and bar-room classics to rip your heart right out, including ‘Goodnight, Irene’ and a dirty, gritty version of ‘The Long Way Home’, reclaimed from Norah Jones’s pleasant, sugary cover (which made it sound as if she were apologising for her train being slightly delayed). But the real fun is on the third disc, ‘Bastards’, which mixes up poems by Bukowski and Kerouac, a nature documentary detailing the homicidal tendencies of insects (analogy implied), a monologue, ‘The Pontiac’, in which an all-American father reminisces to his son about all the cars he ever owned, and finishes up with a truly bad joke that can’t help but make you groan and smile just because of the relish with which he tells it.

Orphans is once again co-produced with Kathleen Brennan, his wife and collaborator. Two of his children, Casey and Sullivan, also contribute, respectively, drums and guitar, but the only instrument that matters here is, as ever, that extraordinary voice.
Tom Waits:: Lie to Me- Video
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#4 Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – “The Letting Go”
Will Oldham has usually preached the gospel of less-is-more, but after an own-covers record that emanated from the belly of Nashville itself (Bonnie Prince Billy Sings Greatest Palace Songs), followed by a collaboration with guitarist Matt Sweeney (Superwolf) and a churning live record (Summer in the Southeast), his work began to seem positively indulgent. The Letting Go is not quite as far a stretch, but it is yet another intriguing departure. Granted, its approach would strike most bands as skeletal, but compared to his last solo album of originals, 2003’s Master and Everyone, it sounds downright gaudy. It was recorded in Iceland with a producer, Valgeir Sigurosson, who gets more out of Oldham’s voice and songs than has ever been heard on record. Oldham’s harmony companion, Dawn McCarthy from Faun Fables, takes a much larger role than her predecessor on Master and Everyone, and her credit for harmony arrangements tells you everything you need to know about how important she is to the success of this album. Oldham’s songwriting is breathtaking, close to the best of his career, although little changed from the norm — his surreal, fatalistic take on Americana Gothic. “Cursed Sleep” is especially wonderful, with a string arrangement that harks back to Nick Drake’s “Way to Blue,” haunted vocals from McCarthy the chanteuse far in the background, and a set of lyrics that build up to a tragic peak (“Cursed love is never ended, cursed eyes are never closing, cursed arms are never closing, cursed children never rising, cursed me never despising”). To the other extreme is “Cold & Wet,” a downright jaunty (despite the lyrics), fingerpicked blues of the type that Mississippi John Hurt would have recorded for Vanguard in the mid-’60s, and percussion from Dirty Three drummer Jim White that could be confused with electric drums or the worst recorded organic drum set ever heard. Truth to tell, since the quality of Oldham’s songwriting has rarely wavered, the excellent arrangements and McCarthy’s contributions make The Letting Go the best of his career to this point.
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Cold and Wet Video
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#5 Mogwai- “Mr Beast”
From the very first pompous, crashing piano chords and stern, slow-marching drums of ‘Auto Rock’, it’s abundantly clear that ‘Mr. Beast’, Mogwai’s fifth album proper, is going to be something very special indeed. It’s a grandiose fanfare, heralding an album brim full of self-confidence and attitude, a culmination of all that Mogwai have done in the past ten years of their existence.

‘Auto Rock’ crashes into ‘Glasgow Mega Snake’, a song that builds with a galloping exuberance, luxuriantly obese guitar chords crashing around like a drunken Medieval monarch going for the last stuffed thrush at a banquet. As the live sets at the ICA earlier this year hinted, ‘Mr. Beast’ is Mogwai’s most accessible album to date, but they aren’t creeping upon the listener gradually, instead making it abundantly clear that all they’ve really done is fine tune their trademark dynamics, deft adjustments that aren’t concessions to the mainstream as much as sneaky hooks to lure the unsuspecting listener into the maelstrom.

Take ‘Acid Food’, for instance. A respite from the opening salvo of ‘…Mega Snake’ and ‘Auto Rock’, it drifts breezily by on metronome drums, languid pedal steel, glockenspiel and Stuart Braithwaite’s hazy and modulated vocals. Pull up a chair, say Mogwai, crack open the Sunday papers and digest the roast. ‘Friend Of The Night’, meanwhile, is a gorgeous, piano led bit of drawing room histrionics, and ‘I Chose Horses’ is slow and meditative.

But then the ante is upped once more for ‘Travel Is Dangerous’. Where Mogwai generally use vocals as a monotone atop their more minimal, quieter moments, ‘Travel Is Dangerous’ is the closest they’ve come to an anthem, Stuart singing lustily over a chorus wreathed in poignant tumult that, to me, might be perfect as a soundtrack to old Eastern Bloc propaganda reels.

Any die hard Mogwai fan lamenting a dearth of their start/stop smack-you-round-the-noggin desecrations of noise would do well to note that the mother of all behemoths ‘My Father, My King’ never actually appeared on a Mogwai album. And besides, ghoulish things come to those who wait. ‘Folk Death ’95’ is as taught and vicious as anything Mogwai have recorded, but loaded with the fresh emotive punch that pervades ‘Mr Beast’ as a whole. And then for the dramatic conclusion of ‘We’re No Here’, Mogwai really let themselves go, all theatrical atmospherics of thunder, lightning, driving rain and some mighty commander exhorting his doomed adherents to a final heroic act of defiance. Ten years after they first assaulted us, Mogwai remain as vital as ever.
Mogwai:: Friend of the night Video
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