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Thursday, January 4, 2007

Lee Templeton's Favorite Recordings of 2006

Neumu's Michael Goldberg writes: In case you're wondering why things slowed down to a crawl at Neumu last year, the answer, in a word (and in a web site), is MOG (www.mog.com). I've been spending most of my time working on MOG, the awesome music-focused social networking site, and Neumu has suffered (and if you haven't been there yet, check out my MOG: www.mog.com/Michael_Goldberg ). Still, with 2006 over, I asked Neumu contributors to share some of the albums that rocked their world. Today, Neumu Senior Editor Lee Templeton provides us with his faves of last year. Lee, by the way, has a MOG that you'll find here: www.mog.com/Chaucer.


Neumu's Lee Templeton writes: I've felt a bit disconnected from music this year — both listening and writing about it — due, no doubt, to the relentless and at times oppressive demands of work. The void this left within me has been palpable, and it's been difficult to fill as the days rolled on with a determination and viciousness that at times was truly startling.

And so, sitting down and listening to my collection of music released in 2006, I began to hear it all as if for the first time, despite the numerous plays these albums received over the course of the year, occupying a tiny corner of the room, patiently waiting, while my attention was held captive elsewhere. But this time around, they received my full attention, and the process has been spiritually renewing. So here are some thoughts on the music that is bringing me back to myself, now, as the year hurtles to its end.

Bob Dylan, Modern Times (Columbia): Dylan manages to step outside the flow of time and create the music he's been hinting at his entire career. More subtle than Love and Theft, Modern Times finds Dylan sifting through the history of American music, conjuring, as he says in "Rollin' and Tumblin'," "all these long dead souls from their crumblin' tombs." The results are songs that expand outward even while pointing toward the past.

The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant): I thought it would be impossible for Craig Finn and the boys to trump Separation Sunday, but I was wrong. Anthemic, rowdy, and smart — this is rock 'n' roll at its best, full of promise and the pain of living.

The Decemberists, The Crane Wife (Capitol): With each release, The Decemberists' sound gets more muscular, their songs more complex and ambitious. Which is saying something, since they've always been an ambitious group. Check out the Emerson, Lake, and Palmer-style freak-out in the middle of "The Island." Yowza!

The Thermals, The Body, the Blood, the Machine (Subpop): America as a fascist Christian state. The Thermals offer this as the backbone of The Body, the Blood, the Machine, and the songs explore the control, the hypocrisy, and the need for escape such a place would create. Hutch Harris's vocals cut through the ragged edge of the music, and is one of the more compelling aspects of this album.

Alejandro Escovedo, The Boxing Mirror (Back Porch): Given the circumstances informing its creation and its subject matter, The Boxing Mirror could easily have been a clichéd, maudlin, and self-important album. And in the hands of a lesser artist, it would certainly have turned out that way. Escovedo, however, easily avoids this trap and creates an album full of vitality that is smart and intelligent without being boring.

Drive-By Truckers, A Blessing and a Curse (New West): It's not as thematically coherent as previous Truckers albums, but A Blessing and a Curse is just as powerful. These guys take their southern roots seriously, and create smart, kick-ass rock 'n' roll out of this deep, often conflicted, love.

Destroyer, Destroyer's Rubies (Merge): Dan Bejar's most accomplished work under the Destroyer moniker. A sprawling, intricately arranged collection of songs that reflect Bejar's take on artistic expression, the music industry, and just about everything else under the sun.

Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3, Ole! Tarantula (Yep Roc): Let's admit the obvious — Robyn Hitchcock is a bit loony. But he knows how to create impeccable pop songs. Joined by Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey, and Bill Rieflin — the Venus 3 — Hitchcock offers a rollicking, rocking assortment of oddities, including meditations on rocket ships, death, birth (somehow connected with tarantulas), and a moving elegy for former New York Dolls bassist Arthur Kane.

Chris Smither, Leave the Light On (Signature): Smither is a virtuosic guitar picker with a husky, smoky voice perfect for singing the blues. Which is what he does — remarkably well. On Leave the Light On he offers a strong collection of intelligent, heartfelt originals and a handful of covers from his contemporaries (Dylan) and musical forebears (Lightnin' Hopkins).

The Pernice Brothers, Live a Little (Ashmont): Everyone should be listening to the Pernice Brothers. Consistently great songwriting and musicianship. What more do you want? Go. Listen. Now.

Portastatic, Be Still Please (Merge): Everything I said about the Pernice Brothers is true for Portastatic. So, when you run out and pick up Live a Little, pick up Be Still Please as well. And everything else they've done. Seriously.

Lambchop, Damaged (Merge): It's hard to articulate exactly what it is about Damaged that draws me to it. Perhaps it is the slow, deliberate way the songs unfold, the ever-present hint of melancholy in Kurt Wagner's voice, or the warmth of the music. Probably all these things and more. Put this CD on and let it envelop you.

Other albums that I haven't listened to much but would more than likely make it onto this list: Yo La Tengo, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass; Beck, The Information; M. Ward, Post-War; Richard Buckner, Meadow; TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain.

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