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Highway 2006 Revisited

malajube.jpgAs our website returns from a winter hiatus, poll results are everywhere, and not just in Presidential politics. When I still voted in the Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop critics’ poll, I remember thinking how absurdly fast it seemed to rank the previous year’s best music in January. But this time, when Pazz and Jop followed the Idolator poll and dozens of other young rivals, it already seemed like old news. With a few variations, the top poll results roughly resembled the “year-end” list the now-defunct Stylus Magazine posted in late October.

I can’t complain about multiple poll winner LCD Soundsystem, the brainy dance band that tossed off the best rip I’ve heard on New York’s Michael Bloomberg (“your mild billionaire mayor’s now convinced he’s a king”). I’m also thrilled at the top-ten consensus for M.I.A.’s Kala, which gave a trans-global boom-boom-boom to those of us who have, like the National, spent too long feeling half-awake in a fake empire. Still, there’s a problem in treating lists like these as canons of coolness. They call to mind my favorite 2007 music review, which was so fake it’s real. The Onion reported that Pitchfork gave a rating of 6.8 to “music”—not any one recording or genre, but its entire history. It seems music, while brilliant at times, is weighed down with too many “mid-tempo ballads,” and worse, “the whole medium comes off as derivative of Pavement.”

Maybe I’m just getting as cranky as the music geek in LCD’s earlier song “Losing My Edge”—the guy who was “there at the first Can show in Cologne,” only to get upstaged by “the Internet seekers who can tell me every member of every good group from 1962 to 1978.” But I decided to avoid premature evaluations and go where nobody else seemed to be heading: 2006. With a year’s reflection, I wondered, how had my presumed favorites of a year ago held up, and what had I missed that meant more to me now? The results weren’t quite what I expected.

caetano.jpegI wanted to retrace my steps because music never follows a prescribed calendar. Every year, I make late discoveries that, for various reasons, fall through the cracks in the usual critics’ circles. In 2007, it took me until December to realize that Brazil’s Caetano Veloso had taken a break from breathy tropicalia to make something Mick Jagger hasn’t pulled off in a quarter-century—a new album of vital, relevant rock. For these efforts, his Cé finished 241st in the Village Voice album poll, 179 rankings below Britney Spears. I spent months listening to Miranda Lambert’s highly touted cover of Patty Griffin’s “Getting Ready” before concluding that Griffin’s original, from the blandly titled Children Running Through, rocked even harder. And it took me at least twelve traffic jams to discover that I loved Wilco’s sublime and sometimes derided Sky Blue Sky as much as its more experimental predecessors.

By going backward, I’m not finding fault with 2007, a good year for new releases. It’s just that I’m not sure what any of these will mean to me a year from now, when these albums will be thoroughly merged with the rest of my collection. Will I listen to Panda Bear’s updating of Brian Wilson for the new millennium when Pet Sounds and Smile are just as easily within reach? Will Battles, which features Anthony Braxton’s son on guitar, still sound gleefully funky or merely ponderous? Will Radiohead’s In Rainbows give me my self-chosen $6.50 worth once the novelty of its marketing experiment has worn off? Will Brooklyn-based R&B volcano Sharon Jones hold up in a mix with Aretha Franklin, Bettye LaVette, and what’s left of Amy Winehouse? Ask me again sometime next January.

Way back in 2006, most critics other than Ghostface Killah and his mom seemed torn over which of three ambitious 2006 releases was the year’s standout: Bob Dylan’s thirtieth act of creative reinvention in Modern Times, TV on the Radio’s gutsy art-rock in Return to Cookie Mountain, and the Hold Steady’s pugilistic lit-rock in Boys and Girls in America. I like all these records a lot, and in certain moods consider them near great. Yet to my surprise, I didn’t listen to any of the three all that much in 2007, for different reasons. Fine as Modern Times is, there are ten or fifteen other Dylan albums that simply crowded it out of the rotation in 2007. Cookie Mountain, other than the propulsive single “Wolf Like Me,” just became too chilly a climb. The Hold Steady’s lack of hold is perhaps the hardest for me to explain, considering that I’m still passionate about the John Berryman-inspired leadoff song that gave this site its name (which in turn, seems to have inspired Okkervil River to take on the Berryman legend). I think it’s because the characters in Craig Finn’s songs just didn’t quite match my mood. And when I craved the dense rush that his songs deliver, I could just as easily hop on YouTube and channel his Minneapolis forebears, Hüsker Dü and the Replacements.

So what from 2006 kept on giving a year later? Three names were predictable enough, since they all made my short list decades ago: Ornette Coleman’s soulful Sound Grammar, Tom Waits’ sprawling retrospective Orphans, and Mission of Burma’s latest slice of overachieving art punk, The Obliterati. But none of these seemed indelibly 2006; the Burma guys, great as they are, were still ranting about the size of Nancy Reagan’s head, for chrissakes. Two more contemporary keepers, M. Ward’s Post-War and Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, also came from long-familiar faces.

oconnor.jpegBut two new discoveries unexpectedly reframed 2006 a year later. Both were favorably received when they came out, but so far off the year’s critical consensus that they placed, respectively, 185th and 192nd in the Idolator poll. I first ignored Jennifer O’Connor‘s Over the Mountain, Across the Valley and Back to the Stars because of its dippy-sounding title, and because I thought I’d heard this sort of confessional singer-songwriter a thousand times before. And I have. But in some of my darker moments in 2007, when I just needed music to pull me to some other place, I discovered she was world-weary and word-wise enough to do the heavy lifting. Some of the record sounds like Exile-era Liz Phair with a better vocal range and a fixation on death rather than sex, while other parts deliver taut roots-rock in a Lucinda Williams/ Kathleen Edwards vein. The classic driving song “I’ll Take You Home” is one for the ages—she picks you off of the pavement, laughs your way out of your pathetic stupor, and delivers you to the Buddy Holly wonderland of your dreams, all in less than three and a half minutes.

If Jennifer O’Connor was my refuge of choice in moments of desperation, Montreal-based Francophone band Malajube’s Trompe-L’Oeil was where I turned for sheer exhilaration and joy, a rare example of power-pop that actually packs some power. There are enough twists and turns here to fill a David Lynch movie, with dreamy melodies that lure you in before they start to scream and howl and pounce. It’s nice to know that if you look hard enough, there are still kids out there finding new ways to make a delirious racket, and you don’t have to read a top-ten list to find them.

Malajube, “Le Métronome”

M.I.A., “Paper Planes”

LCD Soundsystem, “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down”

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings “100 Days, 100 Nights”

Jennifer O’Connor, “I’ll Take You Home”

Malajube, “Montréal -40° C”

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