catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 1 :: 2007.01.12 — 2007.01.26


Top ten albums of 2006

Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Neko Case has been one of my favorite artists since a friend introduced me to her work several years ago.  Her exploration of gospel and country music in search of the spirit behind the performances of these genres has been an enjoyable journey to listen in on.  Her new studio album finds Case in a familiar, country-tinged soundscape (provided by Calexico, the Sadies and the Band’s Garth Hudson, among others) while her unmistakable voice sings beautifully spun lyrics about loss and longing.  Considering her creative output in recent years—she’s also a member of the Vancouver indie supergroup The New Pornographers—it’s all the more impressive that she’s able to maintain such a high level of artistry throughout her work.

Johnny Cash, American V:  A Hundred Highways
Johnny Cash’s final studio album is a testament to a kind of musician who doesn’t understand the idea of retirement because it doesn’t make sense.  How do you retire from seeing the world through the eyes of an artist?  Once again, Cash teamed up with Rick Rubin, the producer who helped Cash regain his proper place in the pantheon of rock/country legends in the early 90s.  An unlikely pair (Rubin had previously recorded bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Beastie Boys), Cash and Rubin developed a strong relationship and intriguing bond.  In fact, they shared the sacrament of communion every day over the phone during the last months of Cash’s life, despite the fact that Rubin wasn’t a believer.  Cash’s character is on display on American V, as per usual, with equal servings of sentimentality, judgment (God’s), grace, pragmatism, wonder, mortality and hope.  On Bruce Springsteen’s “Further On (Up the Road)”, Cash sings “One sunny morning we’ll rise, I know / And I’ll meet you further on up the road” in the full knowledge of his resurrection hope.

Guster, Ganging Up on the Sun
Though Guster’s lyrical content has never been their strong suit, they more than make up for the deficiency through their infectious melodies and harmonies.  Dropping their trademark hand percussion in favor of a full drum kit (and healthier hands for their drummer), Guster offers up a pop gem in Ganging Up on the Sun.  From the anthemic arrangement of “C’mon” to the sweet balladry of “Hang On,” Guster is living up to the potential shown on earlier efforts.

Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere
I spent most of 2006 never having heard anything by Gnarls Barkley.  Despite seeing mentions of the song “Crazy” on just about every music web site I frequent, I chalked its popularity up to the American public’s epically bad taste.  And then I heard the song, which reminded me that, every once in a while, good art and mass appeal can intersect.  St. Elsewhere is a well-constructed pop, R&B, hip-hop, mash-up collaboration between Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse (formerly infamous for his Grey Album mash-up, combining Jay-Z’s Black Album with the Beatles’ White Album) that hits an almost perfect combination of soul, melody and beat.

The Decemberists, The Crane Wife
A lot of fans worried that the Decemberists’ first major label release would signal a decline in artistic prowess, but the band quickly dispelled any cause for concern.  If anything, this album marks a decided up tick in an already-creative group’s creativity.  I can’t say that I’ve had nearly enough of the time necessary to spend with this album.  I simply know that the melodies, musicianship and writing are compelling in ways that invite repeated listening—which I plan on making time for in the near future.

Cat Power, The Greatest
Cat Power (Chan Marshal) threw a curveball last year with her release of The Greatest.  Starting with the album art—a hot pink background with two miniature gold boxing gloves hanging from a gold chain—and continuing through the last chords of the album, Marshal is clearly showing the world what she’s capable of.  Known previously for her dour vocal delivery and understated arrangements, she’s transformed her writing and performance with the help of Memphis session musicians who seem to have drawn classic R&B sensibilities out of her.  The result is an album that sounds old and new at the same time, with a powerful, nuanced vocal performance over a melancholy groove that few could have expected.

Bruce Springsteen, We Shall Overcome:  The Seeger Sessions
I’ve tried really hard to like Bruce Springsteen, mostly because a lot of folks whom I respect love The Boss and because his blue-collar ethic appeals to me.  But I’ve never been able to get into his E Street Band stuff; I guess I find it all a little boring, leaning toward trite.  I suppose it could be successfully argued that it sounds trite now because of how many artists have been influenced by Springsteen.  A while back, I started listening to Nebraska and found that I really enjoyed the sparseness of it, the focus on storytelling.  And so I gave We Shall Overcome a shot—because it was a folk album of Pete Seeger tunes (though not all written by Seeger) and because the E Street Band didn’t participate in the recording.  Wow.  The spontaneity and exuberance of Springsteen and the large group of musicians is on display throughout, resulting in the kind of recording we rarely get to hear anymore:  a live studio album, with all its accidental discoveries intact.  Springsteen is obviously enjoying himself, evident in his wonderfully unguarded vocal performance.  I think I might be more willing to hear his back catalog now…

Over the Rhine, Snow Angel
Over the Rhine’s second Christmas album, Snow Angel, takes up where the first left off.  While it doesn’t feature as many atmospheric instrumental pieces (due to the absence of former guitarist Ric Hordinski), it retains a similar introspection through its intense focus on forgiveness and grace.  But what sets this work apart from other Christmas releases is the abundance of original material that is good enough to sit next to all of the Christmas classics that everyone else seems to insist on recording to death.  Instead of covering material, Over the Rhine writes tributes and musical allusions to other great work.  For example, a highlight of the album is a jazz trio instrumental hat-tip to Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack.

My Brightest Diamond, Bring Me the Workhorse
Shara Worden, performing under the moniker My Brightest Diamond, broke onto the music scene in 2006, after having worked for several years as a solo artist and as a member of Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan Militia band.  Her operatic voice and epic arrangements beg further investigation and consideration.  Interestingly, My Brightest Diamond was recently added as an opening act for the upcoming Decemberists’ tour, which promises to introduce thousands of new listeners to her compelling work.

Bob Dylan, Modern Times
Bob Dylan’s 44th album is a fantastic romp through American songwriting history, mixing up blues, jazz, ragtime, swing, roots and rock ‘n’ roll.  Recorded with his touring band and produced by Dylan under the pseudonym Jack Frost, the songs are tightly arranged around Dylan’s typically poetic lyrics.  And Dylan’s voice—raspy, croaking and slightly off-pitch—emotes and phrases his words in subtle contortions fitting to the text, turning a potential liability into another instrument in the mix (though, admittedly, some might like a more euphonious rendering).

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