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The Black Dog inspires creativity -- its high ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows and spacious tables encourage daydreaming, journaling, doodling and other precursors to art making.


Twin Town High (vol. 8)

Your Locally Grown Alternative Newspaper

Year-End Best: The 20 '06
Thursday 28 December @ 15:22:40

People seem to think that critics are somehow supposed to be objective when it comes to reviewing things. Leaving aside the base-level ridiculousness of an objective opinion, would you even want that? Show me the scientific formula for a great album, or the checklist to mark off when it comes to judging a great single. If such a system could result in an Olympic gymnastics-style event, including graft and bribery, sign me up. I could use the scratch.

Which brings us to the year-end best list, the forum which appears to be the most objective on the outside (numbers, rankings) and yet is really the most subjective thing a critic will write all year. Looking over all the other lists I've seen so far, I'm struck by how many of the albums were ones I heard and just didn't get into, or maybe that I never got to hear, just because, well, I didn't. But these are my picks, and I'm stickin' by 'em.

This year, I made up separate Top Ten National and Top Ten Local lists, but then instead of just rehashing what I've already said about their albums, I decided to make a mix out of the whole shebang and thus dive deeper into individual songs. I'm not saying these are the best cuts from these albums, necessarily; I just thought they made a nice mix. Alternating national and local picks, I present you 20 songs from the 20 best local and national releases for 2006: The 20 '06.

1. Snowden :: "Counterfeit Rules" :: Anti-Anti
It never hurts to grab 'em right off the bat with something infectious and undeniable. Snowden's debut album, Anti-Anti, combines the somberness of Interpol with the rhythmic sensibility of Bloc Party in a way that shouldn't be anywhere near this good. "Counterfeit Rules" is the best example of their clever way with a simple motif: Why round it up to a full 16 bars when 12 would work just as well? By cutting the form short, the gaping whole in the drumbeat that defines the top of the form always manages to surprise just a little bit. Stitch it together with a snarlingly punchy bassline and you've got pop magic, not to mention a great mix starter.

2. P.O.S. :: "P.O.S. Is Ruining My Life" :: Audition
Split the snarl from the low end on the Snowden track between the bass and guitar and you get this P.O.S. gem that still manages to thrill a full year after it was first released. For all its kinetic ferocity, it's the subtlety at work here that gives it staying power. Witness the verse that starts, "And it's strained I think it might break / Scratch, crack / Silence, a voice." P.O.S. begins to repeat the line, but after he delivers the word "crack," there's just silence, followed by his voice roaring back to life on an exclamatory "I!" that brings the song back to life. His delivery becomes more stentorian, less nimble for a few lines before snapping back to full speed, and it's that push-pull between delicacy and power, dexterity and brute force that makes the track.

3. Crystal Skulls :: "The Cosmic Door" :: Outgoing Behavior
We now turn from the visceral to the dreamy with Seattle's Crystal Skulls. There was a mini-wave of bands this year (Midlake, Small Sins, these guys) who eschewed angst and overdrive in favor of '70s AOR polish and shine, and "The Cosmic Door" is a fine standard-bearer for the lot. Christian Wargo spins a daydream fairy tale about a mysterious woman who leads him on before suddenly disappearing. The vocals are couched in a Beach Boys-meets-Steely Dan mashup-- surprisingly winning combination--and Wargo's deft touch with implication and innuendo is perfect. The last verse ends with him being questioned by the police: "Believe me, sir, I know this looks bad / I can't explain the effect its had / But there's a part that I must admit / I was leaning in for a kiss."

4. Haley Bonar :: "Us" :: Lure the Fox
There's something about the structure of the melody and the construction of the lyrics that makes this song what it is, but I can't quite put my finger on it. It sounds like Bonar starts in mid-thought, addressing someone in the second person: "Your daddy came and left / He bought you a safety gun / and when you won the rodeo / he bought you a safety pin / so you could keep it all in." It's an arresting image, and the song twists and turns through different relationships: daughter/father, father/son, lover/lover. The song's fulcrum rests on the transistion from the verse's second person singular to the chorus's first person plural: "Call them on, the dirty liars / They can deal with us." Who the song is actually about is immaterial--Bonar crafts this delicate lament's emotional power from that two-step across the line between the slings and arrows we feel we have to bear alone, and the comfort that comes from finding someone to bear them with us.

5. Islands :: "Rough Gem" :: Return to the Sea
This is the track that made me love Islands. It's built around an odd assortment of instruments (bass clarinet, keyboards, strings) that somehow sounds as natural as can be. Nick Diamonds' sweetly nasal voice unfolds a story about his namesake jewel, jumping from diamond mines to wedding rings and everywhere in between. It seems completely rambunctious and eclectic at first, but repeated listens reveal tiny treasures embedded in the song itself: the gloriously funk bassline from the verse, the quietly meandering fuzz guitar solo on the bridge, the killer single stroke drumroll that leads into the final verse. Slap it altogether along with the sweetest payoff couplet of the year ("They don't want flaws; I'm a girl's best friend / Can you cut? I can cut! 'Cause I'm a rough gem!") and you've got a mixtape winner.

6. Awesome Snakes :: "Awesome Snacks" :: Venom
From the other end of the snarky spectrum comes one of the half-dozen or so songs from Awesome Snakes' debut album that featured the word "awesome." It's impossible in print to do justice to the tone of the sampled woman's voice that opens this track when she laments the fate of children born to two fat parents, but it's something like, "OBViously your fat parents couldn't teach you how to eat NORmally." I have no idea what Annie is on about in the verses of this song, but I know the chorus is a call for action: "That's the time for ... SNACKS! SNACKS! SNACKS!" I couldn't agree more, and I think more bands should sing their harmony guitar parts. No other band this year packed as much fun into their album as this Soviettes-spawned duo.

7. Boris :: "Pink" :: Pink
The title track from Japanese art-metallers Boris' 2006 release is the only one that shows up in English on my iPod--good thing it's the best fit for this mix or else I would have had to learn Japanese. The paint-stripping intensity of the guitar tones here is what makes Boris special, although the clean and fuss-free drum production deserves a hand as well. As a matter of fact, maybe I should say the blowtorch levels of distortion are the central part of what makes them special, because the vocals, which sidestep screamy hardcore convention in favor of real melodicism, along with the Smashing Pumpkins-biting lead guitar tones, make Boris at once familiar enough to be listenable, but giant enough to feel dangerous and maybe a little overwhelming. In a good way.

8. Kill the Vultures :: "Vermillion" :: The Careless Flame
I already nearly quoted this song in toto in my Kill the Vultures cover story, so I'll just reiterate my conclusion: There's no finer wordsmith working today than Alexei Casselle, here or anywhere else. The fusion of the personal with the poetic, of the metaphor of nightmare with the lucidity of cold reality, is beautiful and grandly imaginative. The unraveling of a relationship inspires a lot of different things--anger, despair, uncertainty--but rarely have I heard a song evoke so well the unraveling itself, the sudden realization of the hollowness at the center of a thing. "I'm used to the silence, used to the distance," says Casselle, evoking the uneasy routine of a long-distance relationship, "I'm used to the long night, used to the fall / I ain't used to not having nobody to call."

9. The Knife :: "Forest Families" :: Silent Shout
It's hard to make genuinely terrifying music, much as it is to make a genuinely scary movie. But like David Lynch, The Knife know that it's as much restraint and a kind of tectonic shift in base assumptions that makes for the most unnerving effect in art. This Swedish duo followed up the poptastic Deep Cuts with an exercise in menace, and "Forest Families" is the peaceful cut at the center of an entirely disruptive album. The steady but ever-shifting keyboard line that drives the song evokes nighttime travel at high speeds, while the lyrics tell the story of a family exiled from an authoritarian state straight out of "1984": "I saw her by the organ / She was laughing while pressing the keys / She said her favorite book was dirty / You should not show you can read." The album really needs to be listened to as a whole to be appreciated, but check the subtle keyboard overload at about 2:36 for a taste of the checked aggression that bubbles under the surface throughout this disc.

10. Dosh :: "Mpls Rock and Roll" :: The Lost Take
It's interesting how Martin Dosh can work from such a similar palette built of loops, sequences and keyboards as The Knife and come up with something that couldn't be further away in tone. This track is pervaded by a feeling of release and openness, tempered with just a bit of wistfulness. Man, that makes it sound like a fine wine, which I guess it kind of is. The way that Jeremy Ylvisaker's shimmeringly fuzzed-out guitar part plays off Dosh's double-tracked snare and the scurrying sequences has a conversational feel, and the track demonstrates what makes Dosh such a compelling artist: He revels in the process of making music, somehow turning his sandbox playtime approach into beautiful finished products.

11. Grizzly Bear :: "On a Neck, On a Spit" :: Yellow House
It was difficult to pick a single track from Yellow House, since it works so well as an entire suite, but this tune has a kind of fractal quality to it--it's at least three different songs in one, and it embodies in miniature the grand dynamic sweep from intimate to epic that made this my favorite album of the year. The liltingly beautiful melody and pastoral imagery ("The yards around your feet / Fall away while you're asleep") of the first part give way to the nearly epic middle section, which teases resolution multiple times before giving up. Suddenly the song is overtaken by a jangly and dark acoustic guitar that paves the way for the bracingly cacophonous coda, a lament that could be sung by a man slowly going mad: "Each day, spend it with you now / All my time, spend it with you now / Out here no one can hear me." You simply have to get this disc.

12. Mouthful of Bees :: "I Saw A Golden Light" :: The End
Mouthful of Bees' debut album came as a year-end treat, and you can look for a full-length article in the near future, but in the meantime, I'd like to direct you to "I Saw A Golden Light" as an example of how far attitude and a unique sonic fingerprint can get you. Honestly? This song kind of sounds like crap from a traditional recording standpoint. The layers of vocals fizz and push the levels into the red, and when the drummer comes in with the crash cymbal at the chorus the entire track almost gets lost in the wash of sound. But that's where the beauty is: It all comes off as so generously-hearted and full of a lowlit warmth that the lo-fi sound of the track becomes its greatest strength. It's a little like watching a lavish stage production lit entirely with bedside lamps, and there's a very real beauty in an approach that implies grandeur through a distinctly human sloppiness.

13. Midlake :: "Head Home" :: The Trials of Van Occupanther
I just interviewed Tim Smith, the singer and lead songwriter for Midlake, the other day and I regret to inform you that their 2006 release was not, in fact, a concept album. Not to mention that Smith had not even read Thomas Hobbes' "Leviathan" before he wrote this song. In the chorus, when he sings, "There's someone I'd like to see / She never mentions a word to me / She reads 'Leviathan,'" he's actually referencing a poem by W.S. Merwin. Oh well. None of that can stop this from being the best song Fleetwood Mac never wrote about socialism and communal economics. Midlake take their cues from '70s lite rock acts, but replace the often gauzy and lightweight lyrics of those songs with stories that explore Victorian themes like science as religion, marital fidelity and the social unit. All that, plus "Head Home" probably has the guitar solo of the year.

14. Jeremy Messersmith :: "Beautiful Children" :: The Alcatraz Kid
"Beautiful Children" is the kind of carefully constructed crystalline song that only a handful of songwriters can carry off. It's a ripe opportunity for sentimentalism, but Messersmith plays it close to the chest, milking the setup for all its worth. A late night visit from a man suffering from unrequited love for his best friend opens the song, and the chorus is an all-too familiar one for many: "We'll be friends forever / but you'll never love me." The girl falls for someone else, and it's devastating, but the hammer really drops in the bridge: "Does he love you? / Does he love you? / I hope he loves you," sings Messersmith, "If he doesn't / At least you'll have beautiful children." Ouch. Someone take this knife out of my eye, please.

15. Ghostface Killah :: "Underwater" :: Fishscale
This MF Doom beat with Ghostface on the mic only further whets the appetite for their long-promised album-length collaboration, but it'll do for now. On an album ripe with darkly poetic tracks that tell twisted narratives overflowing with gritty and sometimes obscure details, this one is by far the furthest reaching and most surreal. In it, Ghost leaves the city streets he usually inhabits for a trip under the sea, and the list of bizarre touches he laces throughout are impossible to ennumerate. Rubies and diamonds smothered under an octopus, mermaids with Halle Berry haircuts, Spongebob bumping the Isley Brothers in a Bentley; it's all there and just strange as hell. Doom's beat is appropriately watery and dreamlike--I can't wait to hear what a whole album from these two will bring.

16. The Plastic Constellations :: "Bring What You Bring" :: Crusades
The Plastic Constellations have quietly had a huge year, beginning with the release of Crusades and ending with a well-deserved break before starting work on the follow-up. In between, they did nothing less than hit the road seven separate times (putting over 20,000 miles on their van in the process), sell out First Avenue with their pals, Tapes 'n' Tapes, and score a couple of Minnesota Music Awards. Crusades is uniformly great, never letting up for even an instant in its tireless pursuit of rocking your ass off, but "Bring What You Bring" may be the high point. "I see us busting with ambition," sings Aaron Mader, "I know the last couple years have been a rough transition," and the cracks in the band's monolithic facade are a welcome and humanizing touch. But before doubt can overcome them, they've rushed back into the song's burning bridge, pulling a heroic, epic and stainless steel coda from the flames.

17. Small Sins :: "Stay" :: Small Sins
Sometimes, it's the simplest thing that elevates a song from good to great, and that's the case with "Stay." It rides in on a sunny, winter day keyboard line, while lead Sin Thom D'Arcy croons a tale of a fickle lover. It couldn't get more simple: barely-there acoustic guitar, steady bass and a drum line with the kick on the downbeat, the snare on the back beat. But that's the genius, because when a chorus of voices rises up to sing the chorus ("You can stay if you want to / but you can't sleep in my bed"), the kick drum starts dropping on every beat. It's an incredibly subtle shift in the pulse of the song, but remember: it's the little things that count.

18. One for the Team :: "Good Boys Don't Make Noise" :: Good Boys Don't Make Noise
Afternoon Records labelhead Ian Anderson finally got around to making his very own album, and boy, was it worth the wait. With a disarming lack of lyrical pretension, Anderson told it straight here, copping to his own doubts about his songwriting, his lyrics and his looks, and it doesn't hurt one bit that he pinned these paper hearts to a smashingly power-pop sleeve. Like many classic pop tunes worth their salt, the title track from his album really launches into overdrive with the bridge, which niftily loops the line "You're taking off your ..." to conflate the images of a flight from adversity with the first step over the edge of a hook-up.

19. Band of Horses :: "St. Augustine" :: Everything All the Time
Band of Horses rose from the ashes of fractured indie rock band Carissa's Wierd like a shining beacon--in place of damaged and fragile introspection was a kind of wounded heroism borne aloft on Ben Bridwell's high lonesome wail. But on the tender lullabye "St. Augustine," guitarist (and the male voice from Carissa's Wierd) Matt Brooke stepped back up to the mic to duet with Bridwell, making it a perfect mix closer. BOH rely on free association and euphony more than narrative cohesion when it comes to their lyrics, but whatever you end up taking away from it, I bet you feel a twinge somewhere inside when they plangently sing, "I know you tried / I know your curse / I know your best / was still your worst."

20. The Danforths :: "Good Night in German" :: Look Out for the Wolves
So "St. Augustine" isn't really the last song on the mix, but think of this one as a kind of epilogue. It's got a little bit of everything: It opens with some faintly ridiculous, but nonetheless kind of beautiful German choral singing, morphs into a bouncy little lo-fi rock instrumental with a killer guitar melody and finally arrives as a full-blown stadium-rock anthem complete with doo-doos. What does it all mean? Maybe nothing, and maybe slightly more than that. Kind of like a year-end best list. ||

For the full lists (ranked! in order!), plus some honorable mentions, check out pulsetcmusic.blogspot.com. Also, here's a link to an iMix on the iTunes store that's got 90% of the mix on it.
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