It’s truly a rare thing when a handful of albums from one calendar can crack my “Top Whatever of All Time” list. But 2006 was just such a year for music, and I was buying CDs like it was 1999.
New albums that spent more time in my life than any other this year were: AFI’s “Decemberunderground,” The Bouncing Souls’ “The Gold Record,” Johnny Cash’s “American V: A Hundred Highways,” Gnarls Barkley’s “St. Elsewhere,” Pearl Jam’s “Pearl Jam,” Bruce Springsteen’s “We Shall Overcome,” and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Show Your Bones.” And the great thing about that group is it features strong efforts from my old standbys and essentially new personal discoveries—I got the best of both worlds this year.
There was much, much more where those came from, though. I know it’s a little early for a traditional year-end best-of list, but I figured in honor of Black Friday I’d give everybody a holiday cheat sheet. An homage to one of my favorite new TV shows, I’m calling this list “The 26,” because I had to come up with a cutoff point somewhere. I highly recommend every single song and (almost) every single album on this list. Several records deserved multiple nominations, but I limited the entries to just one per band for obvious logistical reasons.
Song of the Year
• “Life Wasted,” Pearl Jam (from 2006’s “Pearl Jam”)—If you click the “Play Count” tab on my iPod, this song jumps straight to the top. I loved it the moment I first heard it when, weeks before the album came out, the band released it as a streaming video online. I was on the fence about the new record until I heard this song, and from then on it was all-out excitement. It opens and sets the tone for the album perfectly; it’s uplifting and contemplative without being cheesy; and it marked the band’s best album since 1998’s “Yield” and a throwback to “Vitalogy”-era intensity. There are several other cuts off this deep release that deserve to make the list (ah, “Come Back,” “Severed Hand,” “Unemployable,” and “Inside Job”), but “Life Wasted” encapsulates the entire record in just under four minutes.
The Other 25
• “Ain’t Talkin’,” Bob Dylan (from 2006’s “Modern Times”)—This beautiful, haunting epic is tucked away at the end of Dylan’s first studio album in five years. At nearly 9 minutes, you’d think it would drag, especially given its crawling tempo and near-whisper vocals. Um, no. It’s fantastic, to the very last second.
• “Air Said to Me,” Trey Anastasio (from 2005’s “Shine”)—An excellent rocker from his first post-Phish release. I only bought the record because he was opening for Tom Petty this summer. I bought this year’s effort, “Bar 17,” because “Air Said to Me” made me a fan. That Phish catalog is daunting, though …
• “Company in My Back,” Wilco (from 2004’s “A Ghost Is Born”)—The reason for this song’s inclusion is covered in my review of April’s Wilco show, so I won’t rehash. Simply put: It unlocked that album for me.
• “Don’t Wait,” Dashboard Confessional (from 2006’s “Dusk and Summer”)—If I had to make one cut from this list, “Don’t Wait” would be it. And not because of the song, which I’ve loved since hearing it live more than a year ago. No, Chris & Co. seem to be going in a bad direction these days. Here’s hoping the next record’s better.
• “For the Best,” Straylight Run (from 2004’s “Straylight Run”)—I don’t know if the members of this band (which formed after a defection from Taking Back Sunday) are Christians, but this gorgeous piano-driven song nevertheless touches on a spiritual battle I’ve been fighting for years: knowledge vs. faith.
• “Further On Up the Road,” Johnny Cash (from 2006’s “American V”)—It’s like Bruce Springsteen wrote this song for the Man in Black. I could have picked any one of five or six songs off arguably the best “American” series entry (ah, “Like the 309,” “I Came to Believe,” and “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”), but “Further On” seems to crystallize Cash’s defiant battle with death and loss in his last days. You are missed; I wish I knew you better when you were still here.
• “Gold Lion,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs (from 2006’s “Show Your Bones”)—WOW. That’s about all needs said about this album-opening tsunami. If you want more, check my collection of album reviews from June. Oh, and as I discovered this summer, “Show Your Bones” for some reason matches perfectly with William Gibson’s 2003 novel “Pattern Recognition.”
• “Hands Open,” Snow Patrol (from 2006’s “Eyes Open”)—An excellent early cut from a stellar album (even if it does namecheck Sufjan Stevens, I still love it). It’s funny how things can change over the course of time. When I first posted my review for this album, I gave it a B+; after multiple, multiple listens, I would definitely upgrade that decision now. This album has few missteps, and no glaring errors.
• “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,” Arctic Monkeys (from 2006’s “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not”)—This album came across the pond burdened with so much pre-release hype, it would be easy to dismiss—and probably was by many. But these British brats actually made a record that stands up to scrutiny. It’s not the Best Rock Album of All Time that some in the British tabs were slobbering early this year, but I defy you not to bounce your head and tap your foot to this batch of tunes.
• “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” Dropkick Murphys (from 2005’s “The Warrior’s Code”)—I first heard the Irish punk of Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys at basically the same time. I liked Molly more (and still do), so the Murphys kinda got pushed to the background. Until, that is, I was sitting in a movie theater watching “The Departed” a couple months ago and this exhilarating Woodie Guthrie cover came BLASTING out of the surround-sound in all its glory. Thanks, Marty. The movie was good, this choice was golden.
• “Insistor,” Tapes ’n Tapes (from 2006’s “The Loon”)—Any new song that wouldn’t sound out of place on the “Pulp Fiction” soundtrack is good enough for me.
• “John Henry,” Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band (from 2006’s “We Shall Overcome”)—Again, an album that could occupy multiple slots on this list (ah, “Mrs. McGrath,” “O Mary Don’t You Weep,” and “Pay Me My Money Down”). I picked “John Henry” because it’s the powerhouse of the bunch and an absolute punch in the face live. Like “Life Wasted,” this song, too, was streamed online weeks before the release and really got my blood boiling for The Boss’ new venture. Kudos to Springsteen for having the guts to make such a departure and pulling it off so well.
• “Just a Thought,” Gnarls Barkley (from 2006’s “St. Elsewhere”)—Another album that absolutely, positively lives up to the overwhelming hype. The omnipresent “Crazy” would be the obvious choice here, but “Just a Thought,” singer/rapper Cee-Lo’s frank discussion of depression and suicide, is a monster track in the middle of this glorious concoction with DJ extraordinaire Danger Mouse.
• “Laura,” Flogging Molly (from 2006’s “Whiskey on a Sunday”)—This song’s been around for awhile but wasn’t released as an official studio recording until this summer’s bonus disc to the enlightening documentary DVD “Whiskey on a Sunday.” If you’re curious about this band, “Laura” works as both an introduction and a summary of their best work. This is probably my favorite Molly track now.
• “Not Everyone,” Nine Black Alps (from 2005’s “Everything Is”)—The Brits are on a roll, that’s for sure. Yeah, the Alps are very reminiscent of Nirvana, but it’s been more than a decade, already. At this point it’s gotta be considered more homage than straight-up copying, right? Whatever it is, this album rocks.
• “Penny On the Train Track,” Ben Kweller (from 2006’s “Ben Kweller”)—I covered this song in my review for RELEVANT, so it should be no surprise it makes an appearance here. This album only gets better the more times I listen to it.
• “Prelude 12/21,” AFI (from 2006’s “Decemberunderground”)—Yes, yet another album that could have demanded multiple entries (ah, “Miss Murder,” “Summer Shudder,” “Love Like Winter,” and “The Missing Frame”). I chose “Prelude” because, even though it’s not even really a complete song, it sets the tone for the entire record. The heavy drumbeat and ethereal background chorale of voices gets your heart thumping in preparation for the assault to come.
• “Rusted Wheel,” Silversun Pickups (from 2006’s “Carnavas”)—I actually bought this record only a few weeks ago based on strong word-of-mouth, so I haven’t had time to fully digest these trippy fuzz-rockers yet. “Rusted Wheel” is definitely the early standout, however. Theme parks use the term “placemaking” in their designs, meaning an area not to be missed, a singular location that draws people in. That term seems to apply to this song; it lives in its own space and place.
• “So Jersey”/”For All the Unheard,” The Bouncing Souls (from 2006’s “The Gold Record”)—These glorious songs are absolutely inseparable in my mind, so the Souls get the only multiple-entry on this list. I was shocked how much I loved this album, and blown away be these two tracks, in particular. For me, they’re two halves of one sentiment: In “So Jersey,” the band shares its gratitude for what music has done for them; in “Unheard,” they pay tribute to people out there just like them who, for whatever reason, weren’t able to realize their dreams and find release for their troubles through music.
• “Square One,” Tom Petty (from 2006’s “Highway Companion”)—Again, territory covered already in RELEVANT. A stunning return to glory. After all these years and all those hits, you’d think he’d be incapable of adding another classic to the repertoire. Think again.
• “Store Bought Bones,” The Raconteurs (from 2006’s “Broken Boy Soldiers”)—Jack White and Brendan Benson call down the hammer of the gods in this all-out rocker. Unveiled online well before the album release, “Bones” built up expectations for this side project that ultimately went unfulfilled. The record was really good, but it just wasn’t quite as momentous an occasion as I was expecting/hoping for. Still wish I had caught these guys on the road, though; word is they put on an awesome show.
• “The Train,” OutKast (from 2006’s “Idlewild”)—Big Boi, you’ve outdone yourself with this one. Funny enough, my favorite part is right before the last chorus when, in a quiet aside, Big Boi tells the backup singers, “I can take it from here, ladies. Y’all have done a good deed tonight.”
• “You Don’t Love Me,” Kooks (from 2006’s “Inside In/Inside Out”)—No need to reprint anything from RELEVANT. This album will always stick out to me because I heard about it while spending a week in England for work. I hadn’t heard of them before (because the album had just dropped in the UK about a month prior and had yet to hit the States), so I wandered around Staines one night looking for a CD shop and picked this album up, based on a local recommendation. Excellent advice.
• “Walk On (UK Single Version),” U2 (from 2001’s “Walk On” single)—I place this song at the end of the list (slightly out of order) because it works perfectly as a closer—as proved during the 2001 Elevation Tour. U2 is pissing me off right now, though, with this ridiculous “18 Singles” compilation that just hit the shelves this week. I understand it’s probably a record-label thing or a way to garner new fans or whatever, but at least let the diehards buy the two new songs individually off iTunes—no such luck. There’s no way I’m buying yet another version of “Where the Streets Have No Name” or “One.”
Anyway, the real reason I put this version of “Walk On” here is it helped me this year realize my favorite word in all of language is “hallelujah.” For those that haven’t heard it, this remixed version is far superior to the original album cut off 2000’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” because in the final minute the band breaks into a hallelujah chorus; it’s one of my favorite sections of any U2 song.
When used in the context of real praise and said/sung with conviction (as the band does here, brilliantly), I can’t think of a more beautiful word, a word that not only represents a powerful notion, but embodies its sentiment just in the way it’s uttered. It gives me gooseflesh.