Friday, December 22, 2006

Top Ten 2006 (By Defensive Listening)

10. Mission of Burma: The Obliterati

It was already incredibly shocking when Mission of Burma released their first full length in 22 years with the strong effort of 2004's OnoffOn. Even more shocking was that their newest release was even better. Somehow Burma have grown more furious in their old age. Roger Miller's guitar playing is every bit as innovative and experimental as in the days when he freed the U.S. punk/indie scene from being stuck in power chord oblivion forever. Also noteworthy because Bob Weston hardly engineers records anymore.

9. Noxagt: Noxagt

How many bands could destroy the most outstanding element of their sound and still be worth a damn? With their '06 self-titled release, Norway's Noxagt did just that. Noxagt owed much of it's worldwide popularity to the powerful viola playing of former member, Nils Erga. With Erga as a focal point, the band's music was a bizarre mix of thudding hardcore rhythms and distorted yet gorgeous string accompaniment. The difficult task of making convincingly extreme music with a classical instrument was no easy feat, yet Noxagt kept it up on a string of compilations, albums and 7 inches. So when I heard that they had dropped the viola altogether I was doubtful that the band could remain relevant. One listen to this record and all doubts were crushed under the weight of the seven tsunami-like tracks that comprised the album. The precise stop-start song structures mixed with an almost nauseating repetitiveness made for one of the more intense listening experiences of the year. I thought this smoked just about anything on Southern Lord, not to mention that new Don Caballero record.

8. Dr. Dog: Takers and Leavers EP

This EP was excellent enough to hold it's own with most of these full-lengths. I was glad that Dr. Dog released anything to tide me over after 2005's triumphant Easybeat, an album so good it was like finding out the White Album had an unreleased third disc. Takers and Leavers finds Dr. Dog mining some dangerous territory. When a band starts veering off into spoken word you always get a little concerned that they're losing it. Luckily, they keep it together with their unforgettable harmony-choked melodies. And the talk-singing (and talk-talking) grows on you after a few listens. Two of these tracks will be on their newest full-lenghth which is tentatively scheduled for a February release. Judging by the quality of the EP that full length will most likely make it on the Best of list in December 2007.

7. Nina Nastasia: On Leaving

I was pleased to find Nina Nastasia had somewhat of a return to form after what I thought was a just okay third record. A curious change in labels from Touch and Go to super trendy Bristish imprint FatCat also didn't bode well for this being as good as it is. I should have had more trust in the woman that gave Boom Bip his finest moment. This album didn't seem as dense as the truth-in-advertising desolation of 2003's Run To Ruin. The songs are more obviously pretty without being cute and the chamber rock elements don't threaten to outweigh the strength of the material with cornucopian novelty. Nastasia seems genuinely comfortable in a sound she has worked on for quite some time. You can always tell it's her and that's pretty remarkable in a sea of singer-songwriter soundalikes.

6. Japanther: Don't Trust Anyone Over Thirty

Japanther has the kind of career a lot of bands can only dream of, constantly being asked to perform in world renowned art galleries and being considered "important" enough to be written about in highbrow periodicals that aren't traditionally the intellectual stomping ground of rock groups. They outdid themselves by performing live as part of a multimedia puppet rock opera that was a collaboration between conceptual artist/theorist/critic Dan Graham and master puppeteer, Phillip Huber. The story is a satire of 60's youth culture and actually has some really funny references sprinkled throughout. The "Crimson and Clover" sample that pops up briefly before disappearing I found especially genius. The inclusion of this album on the list is kind of cheating really, since there are some of Japanther's best songs from other releases included or reworked here. But they are mixed in with the narrative from the art piece with Japanther providing beats and sound-scapes behind the storytelling. The result is an enjoyable concept album that not only leaves you wishing you could have experienced one of the performances, but also pulls off the rare accomplishment of being both accessible and intelligent.

5. Finally Punk: Finally Punk

This Austin, TX quartet released a debut that is every bit as joyous and fucked up as I hoped it would be. The sixteen songs on their self-titled CD capture a uniquely gifted band drawing on influences I wish were more commonplace, especially in Texas. The homemade Kleenex shirt that one of the band members wore said it all when I got to see them live after waiting most of the year to do so. There is definitely that German group's chirping and squeaking spirit of quirkiness that runs through most of the songs. There are also charming subtleties like the tossed in jazz chord or a little runoff lyric that you might miss at one of their frantic live shows. I really enjoy Finally Punk's unparalleled ability to piss people off. I always play the song "Missile" for people to gauge their reaction because it's sure to be extreme when dealing with a song this rebelliously inane. With the opening verse of "What the fuck, missile?!!...What the fuck?!" in between de-tuned chord bursts, this is either a real crowd pleaser or the stupidest, most infuriating thing you've ever heard. I say it's the best song I've heard all year. Don't hate them just because Karen O thinks they're beautiful.

4. Blonde Girls: Husky Deluxe (7-inch)

It's been a long time since a local band has made it into my year-end list on the strength of a 7-inch. This isn't just an a-side single with a throwaway b-side. This is a handful of some of the most exciting pieces of recorded music to come out of North Texas in some time. Whenever I've thrown it on I can't believe it didn't come from Baltimore, Providence, Chicago or some obviously "cooler" locale. Instead they hail from North Texas' best kept secret, the culturally superior Fort Worth. Hearing a song like "Duchess" makes it evident to me that Blonde Girls would have fit right in on Skin Graft Records circa 1996 or so. That's high praise indeed considering what was going on then with bands like Lake of Dracula leading a full on No Wave resurrection that has just now caught on in the past few years. Throw on this little white slab of vinyl and let it resurrect another almost forgotten musical concept: completely fucking shit up.

3. Uzeda: Stella

Can a group of docile middle-aged Italians be the most commanding band on the planet? Apparently so, judging by the acrobatic performances on Uzeda's "Stella", the group's first full-length in eight years. The songs unfold and constrict with long winding structures that are spiked with an array of hammer-ons, pull-offs, and all of the other aluminum scrapings of guitarist Agostino Tilotta. These high pitched theatrics are anchored by the bellowing rumble of a rhythm section that would almost never be caught dead playing the laymen's 4/4. Uzeda would be a terrific instrumental band but they have the added bonus of Giovanna Cacciola's breathtakingly beautiful vocals that stretch and ache like a widow wailing at a funeral. In fact the terrific first track is called "Wailing". I was lucky enough to catch their performance at Touch and Go's 25th Anniversary party back in September, and was ecstatic to find this recording lived up to the intimidatingly good live show.

2. Danielson: Ships

This was the year that Danielson really arrived. From their unlikely beginnings on Tooth and Nail, to their triumphant turn at All Tomorrow's Parties, to their feature-length documentary, it seemed like a band with so much to offer would always be overshadowed by a less talented collaborator. For better or worse, they probably owe a lot of the attention they've garnered this year to a single review on that notorious website which shall remain nameless. But this is no fly-by-night act that could be made or broken by any handful of "tastemaking" blogs or one critic's gushing praise. There is substance and a history to this group that makes their well deserved rise to fame much more akin to a band like Deerhoof, who make guest appearances on this crowded record. Both bands released great album after great album, progressing exponentially with each release, until the public had no choice but to notice. The luxury of a band conducting themselves that way is certainly endangered in today's instant gratification symbiosis between the New Media and the insatiable info addicts we've all turned into. On the contrary, this might be the first Danielson record since their second album that I don't feel is necessarily better than the last. But I do know that it's much more imaginative and engaging than just about any of this year's excessively hyped records. "Ships" wastes no time and dives straight into a song crackling with the energy of an unwavering intent and sense of purpose, the powerful "Ship The Majestic Suffix". By the time the fourth track and main single "Did I Step On Your Trumpet" kicks in with it's minor acoustic intro, it's obvious that what you're hearing will be considered classic. This is in spite of the singer having one of the most widely debated vocal styles in music today. I recommend the documentary to anyone who scratches their head anytime they hear this band. I want to add that I thoroughly enjoyed watching Daniel Smith scold a young crowd at Emo's last summer for not knowing who opening act Jad Fair was. Even Christians value being up on your underground music history.

1. Coughs: Secret Passage

So I'm at this party and it's that weird twilight hour where everyone has that glazed look in their eyes and are staring vacantly at each other from across the room. Things are winding down, the band is loading out, couples are leaving with arms crossed, ready to give each other the silent treatment all the way home. The lights go up in the kitchen and everyone is dispersing from the fridge, stuffing whatever beer they can in their pockets like a bunch of little rats who have somehow scammed cheese from a trap. It's the part of the night I hate, when the desperate and the lonely reveal themselves. And then a horrific sound shatters the silence, the band, the beer thieves, and the couples. Someone puts on a record that is completely the opposite of this pathetic scenario. It's sharp sax bleats, poly-rhythms, and the clicking stabs of percussive guitar noise. Then a tortured shriek and the party starts over at two in the morning, only much improved. It's sounds like Lydia Lunch collaborating with Einst├╝rzende Neubauten, completely potent and toxic. A small group of kids start stomping around the room and yelling all the lyrics out in unison and they're frightening the stragglers. The music is so immediate and vicious, that I swallow my pride and ask someone who it is. "Coughs", I'm told. Don't you love when you ask who a band is and they have some ridiculous name like Coughs? The LP was recorded by rising recording stars, Bill Skibbe and Jessica Ruffins, whose masterful engineering allows the music's sharp edges to bare themselves and cut through all of the bullshit I had to hear this year about how cool it is to be influenced by Bread. This record was a sobering reminder that not all indie rock is the yuppied-out Jetta commercial that publicists, advertisers, and even the bloggers want you to believe it is. "Secret Passage" is the proof that all those yellowing back issues of Forced Exposure, Chemical Imbalance, and Puncture really did predict the future. A lot of the challenging ideas in independent music from the past thirty years still leave much to be explored and this album completely embodied that for me. It helps that every song is pretty much perfect but for that alone, I say it's the best record of the year.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

that bit about danielson choked me up a little bit. i love that band.

12:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

all math rock, all the time!

2:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you got to see Jad Fair open up for Danielson? That must have been a great show.

2:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People still use that term?

2:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw the Blonde Girls at 1919 Hemphill and it was amazing.

2:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

AMAZING call on noxagt and coughs....
ps the party DL was refering too where she heard the COUGHS was a show at HOUSE OF TINNITUS>>>> they always play rad music!!

7:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr. Dog.....great music

3:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

beatles love remix...AMAZING. try it.
beatles remixes SUCK.

11:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

like love winter

4:58 AM  
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