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Kingblind.com Top 20 Albums of 2006 (#10 thru #6)

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.) Every day we will show you another 5.. Enjoy

#6 Gnarls Barkley – “St. Elsewhere”
Rather like humpbacked whales, they surface rarely but, when they do, they display such exquisite poise, awesome power and unstudied self-sufficiency that you’d swear some swish finishing school was rationing pop releases to maximum their impact. They are those mammoth US chart singles – most recently “Family Affair”, “Crazy In Love”, “Hey Ya”, “The Way You Move” – whose pearlised perfection really has nothing to do with fashion or the contrivance of market forces.

Latest on the list is Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”. A big-lunged, warm-hearted wave of gospel-toned R&B anchored by a snappy, hip hop beat, it’s the first tune ever to make Number One on downloads alone and looks set to make the album from which it was lifted the soundtrack to our summer. Gnarls Barkley’s rule-breaking entrance is less of a surprise when you consider that one half of the duo is DJ / producer Danger Mouse, who recently produced Gorillaz’ “Demon Days” but who’s best known for his corporation-bothering “Grey Album”, which cheekily cut The Beatles’ “White Album” with Jay Z’s “Black Album”. His partner is Cee-Lo Green, former vocalist with Atlantan hip hop crew The Goodie Mob, who’s worked with both The Neptunes and Timbaland.

With “St. Elsewhere”, however, both artists have stepped outside their regular roles to make what feels like a genuinely instinctive, love-fuelled record that zings with an enthusiasm for all spectrums of music. So rampantly creative is it, in fact, that to describe it as a hip hop album is to somehow sell it short. Only the beats – and the old-school homage that is “Feng Shui” – fit that description. Gnarls Barkley’s tunes follow paths from Motown (the sweetly upbeat “Smiley Faces”) to schlocky, horror-movie soundtrack (“The Boogie Monster”), from a modernist take on classic soul (the wonderful “Who Cares?”) to the kind of polyrhythmic adventurism that would satisfy Four Tet or Capitol K (“Go-Go Gadget Gospel” and “Transformer”). All that and a cover of The Violent Femmes’ “Gone “Daddy Gone”.

It’s the album’s easy warmth and trippy, picture-window openness that make it so alluring, however. This despite Cee-Lo’s unbearably soulful baritone and his often sombre lyrics. “Just A Thought”, for instance, has him musing, “So what do I do with all the aggression? / I’ve tried everything but suicide / But it’s crossed my mind.” “Crazy”, meanwhile, is the most existentially honest song to have dented the charts in decades, dealing as it does with identity, madness and spiritual abandonment. Albums such as “Paul’s Boutique”, “The Low End Theory”, “Fantastic Vol. 1” and “Endtroducing…” have all played their part in shifting the shape of hip hop, but the 37-minutes-long “St. Elsewhere” demands a category all of its own. Danger Mouse himself has suggested “psychedelic soul”. Done and dusted. And damn near divine.
Gnarls Barkley – Smiley Faces Music Video
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#7 Jenny Lewis with The Watson Twins – “Rabbit Fur Coat”
Waiting is half the fun. To travel is better than to arrive. Delayed gratification. The platitudes keep coming, but they never help: it’s 2006 and still the Jetsons haven’t happened. No flying cars, no robot servants, bad cheek bones. It’s very disappointing.

Still, maybe the tide is about to turn. The problem with Rilo Kiley has been their frustratingly patchy albums. They write a few sublime songs per record and leave us to wait for when all of them are that good. They don’t keep their promises: last year’s More Adventurous seemed to revel in this. The giddy It’s A Hit ran into the torpid Accidntel Deth; the chiming, impeccable Sennett-Lewis Portions For Foxes met Jenny Lewis’s poorly-scanned, solo I Never.

It’s unexpected, then, that the first album on which all of Lewis’s songs cry genius is the first she has recorded alone, without Sennett. And it’s ironic that, of all previous examples, this record sounds most like I Never – an intimate country-soul delight – though the resemblance is far from complete. This is quite a departure from Rilo, and the record is as defined by its newly warm production (from Mike Mogis and M Ward) as it is by the presence of the Watson Twins (who sing wonderful cooing backing vocals throughout).

You know it’s special from the first bars. Run Devil Run is a minute a capella with Lewis and the Watsons, and it’s a remarkable display of technical skill: Lewis does, after all, have one of the most wonderful voices of them all. But this is also surprisingly affecting – the harmonies cut through with a deep Hank Williams sadness. After this is The Big Guns, all busy guitars and prominent vocals until the second verse, when a thumping bass drum comes to build things to their exultant hand-clapping conclusion. There are no lapses: The Charging Sky, a jaunty pedal-steel spiritual crisis; the quiet, hymnal Born Secular; the rootsy, state of the nation cover of Handle With Care, with Ben Gibbard as Roy Orbison and Conor Oberst as Bob Dylan. Three famous vegans for the price of one.

Through all of this, Lewis’s lyrics only get better: Rise Up With Fists!! talks, as so often on a record preoccupied with the mistakes of the family, about a marriage of convenience: “She will wake up younger / and you will wake up 45 / and she will wake up with a baby / There but for the grace of God go I.” If that looks dour on the page, it’s not at all when sung – ‘a baby’ is repeated by the Watsons in a fanatically cliched coo that also, somehow, gives a lot of Lady Bracknell horror.

At the centre of everything is the title track, Lewis for once totally alone with an acoustic guitar and the true story of her absent mother. It could be awful, but it’s heartbreaking – if only for the stunning, fragile vocal. And as with the rest of the record, it’s hard to pin down the mood here. It’s not happy, it’s not sad, but there’s a kind of comfort that wraps around, a worldly acceptance. Such is the alchemy of musical greatness.
Jenny Lewis with The Watson Twins:: Big Guns Live on Letterman
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#8 Yo La Tengo – “I am Not Afraid Of You and I Will Beat Your Ass”
After the elegant, introspective romantic narratives of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out and the beautifully crafted but restrained pop textures of Summer Sun, it was hard not to wonder if Yo La Tengo was ever going to turn up the amps and let Ira Kaplan go nuts on guitar again, and for more than a few fans “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind,” the opening cut from YLT’s 2006 album I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, will feel like the reassuring sound of a homecoming — ten minutes of noisy six-string freak-out, with James McNew’s thick, malleable basslines and Georgia Hubley’s simple but subtly funky drumming providing a rock-solid framework for Kaplan’s enthusiastic fret abuse. After the thematic and sonic consistency of their previous two major albums, I Am Not Afraid marks a return to the joyous eclecticism of 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, though nearly ten years down the road Yo La Tengo sounds noticeably more confident in their embrace of different styles and less hesitant in their technique on this album — even Kaplan’s gloriously unkempt guitar solos start to suggest a certain de
gree of well-earned professionalism. The songs also sound a shade less playful and more disciplined, though the group’s ability to bring their distinct personality to so many different styles attests to their continuing love of this music and the quiet strength of their vision — the neo-Byrds-ian psychedelia of “The Race Is on Again,” the homey horn-punctuated pop of “Beanbag Chair,” the plaintive folk-rock on “Black Flowers,” the aggressive Farfisa-fueled minimalisms of “The Room Got Heavy,” and “Daphina,” which suggests a John Fahey track transcribed to piano and then used as the root for a eight-minute exercise in low-key atmospherics, all function on a different level and each one satisfies. What’s both engaging and impressive about I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass is that, as usual, these 15 songs always end up sounding like Yo La Tengo, whether they’re upbeat guitar pop or dense loop-based drones, and if there’s a bit less childlike élan here than in the past, there’s also an intelligence and joy that confirms Yo La Tengo is still one of the great treasures of American indie rock, and they haven’t run out of ideas or the desire to make them flesh in the studio just yet.
Yo La Tengo:: Beanbag Chair MP3
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#9 TV On The Radio – “Return To Cookie Mountain”
NYC’s art rock darlings have done it again. Return To Cookie Mountain — with its post-apocalypse theme — is a densely tangled masterpiece that floods and floors by straddling swaggering grooves and boggling cacophony. TVotR thicken things up with Jaleel Bunton’s drumming in addition to drum machines. I Was A Lover’s poignantly resigned synth wail and dancing keys are ripped into by noisy static and distorted guitar riffs. Wolf Like Me storms with sticky, pulsing beats and feverish guitar. And A Method is beautifully cavernous, inhabited by eerie whistling, rhythmic claps, sharp staccato beats and a discordant harmony that repetitively swells, surges and sinks. Not to mention that TVotR’s number-one fan, David Bowie, lends his vocals to the smooth Province.
TVOTR:: Wolf Like Me Mp3
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#10 The Raconteurs – “Broken Boy Soldiers”
In hit single and album opener ‘Steady, As She Goes’, The Raconteurs have crafted what must be one of the standout pop songs of 2006, as a simple bassline and kickdrum combination, courtesy of Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler of 90s rockers The Greenhornes, gives way to a perfectly balanced musical marriage of Brendan Benson’s saccharine pop hooks with Jack White’s edgy vocal style. If this is an indication of the quality of the ten songs on debut album Broken Boy Soldiers, then surely The Raconteurs are about to blow Fall Out Boy back to the pit they crawled from and claim the title of Biggest International Breakthrough Act of 2006. But it’s never that simple, is it?

You see, despite ‘Steady, As She Goes’ being the most fun your CD player can have without the need for a post-coital cigarette – DiS, incidentally, does not endorse the forcing of cigarettes into electronic equipment – it is a formula visited just once for the remainder of the album, on probable future single ‘Intimate Secretary’. This is probably a calculated move: whilst you get the impression that Brendan Benson could quite happily churn out serving after serving of glossy guitar-based pop-by-numbers (and has for many years), Jack White has always cut a more varied songwriting figure. It is a surprise, then, that at times it would be easy to mistake Jack White as a mere special guest rather than co-writer, as songs like pop gem ‘Hands’, ‘Call It A Day’ and the acoustic-led ‘Yellow Sun’ barely show White’s influence at all, and could have been culled directly from Benson’s previous album The Alternative To Love.

There is another side to The Raconteurs, though. Far away from the gleaming pop lies a much more complex side – a foot-stomping, tie-dyed, long-haired hark back to 1960s psychedelic rock led largely by White. The Led Zeppelin-esque third track ‘Broken Boy Soldier’ stands out particularly, as White’s reverberating vocals peak on the desk, distorted at the edges, his high-pitched voice fracturing occasionally over swirling Hammonds and kick-heavy, thumping drums. It’s all delivered with such gusto on White’s part that he’s in danger of making Benson look pedestrian.

Although for the most part psychedelic fury or unbridled pop, Broken Boy Soldiers isn’t entirely uptempo. As well as a Benson/White ballad, ‘Together’, in the middle of the album, closing track ‘Blue Veins’ detracts the rock and ups the drug intake, inserting into the introduction and instrumental break reversed sequences of music that include White’s straining, haunting vocals, leaving it eerie and tripped-out despite having the same groove as Sam Brown’s ‘Stop’. Of course, the various styles leave Broken Boy Soldiers slightly less accessible than ten variations of ‘Steady, As She Goes’ would, but with repeated listens it goes from strength to strength.

What you make of Broken Boy Soldiers will largely depend on the angle from which you approach it and as such, the rating at the bottom of this piece is more a guide than a verdict. Given the artists involved and the hype that was bound to ensue, this album could never cater for everyone, and clearly it was never set to become the Nevermind-ousting symbol of a musical generation that some suggested. Amongst its inevitable critics, supporters of Brendan Benson’s solo work may take issue with the psychedelic wig-outs, whilst those hoping Jack White would drag Benson’s happy, clappy Beach Boys pop into an alley and give it a lesson in White Stripes’ twisted reality might end up disappointed with how light-hearted the majority of it sounds. Others will take issue with its occasionally uninventive lyrical stance (“I’ve got a rabbit, it likes to hop/I’ve got a girl and she likes to shop” being one of the more painful instances) and grumble at how it all could’ve been much better if they’d just taken it more seriously.

Perhaps the point is missed. This is all Broken Boy Soldiers was ever meant to be: an off-the-cuff collaboration between two friends and one which, despite its imperfections, is an effort worthy of applause.
The Raconteurs “Steady, As She Goes” Video
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