One For the Thumb, and a Few for the Ears (Adam Strohm)
2006 marked my first full year in Chicago, as well as a Steelers Super Bowl victory, the addition of a new feline addition to the household, and the first feel-good election in years. But, for some reason, 2006 was a year in which very few albums really imprinted themselves on my brain. As years pass, I become less and less susceptible to specific albums finding near constant encampment in my ears. I’d like to blame it on the amount of promos that I receive, but I’m not as industrious in terms of catching up with those as I’d like to be, so that’s probably, at best, only a partial excuse, as is the acquisition of our pet, whose adamant desire for my attention continue even as I write this. For whatever the reason, though, I’ve found the need to redefine how I determine my favorite releases of a given year. In the past, they were the albums that I found myself returning to on an almost daily basis upon their release, unable to shelve in the knowledge that I’d be pulling it out again in short time anyway. This year, there were a scant few releases that would qualify under these criteria, so in mulling over the best of 2006, I’ve decided that some of the year’s most interesting releases to me were albums that I didn’t necessarily find myself hungry to engage on a daily basis, or didn’t grow to appreciate until after I had gone through a period of separation. With the shelf life of my initial infatuation with new music at a seemingly all time low, there were, however, a few albums that worked their way into my brain, and encamped in my stereo/computer/ipod for an extended stay.
Joanna Newsom – Ys (Drag City)
This was perhaps the most anticipated release for me. Newsom’s debut was an blind impulse buy on a friend’s recommendation and ended up a fast favorite. To me, as well as many others, Ys, initially, was perplexing. It seemed Joanna was stretching too far, and constructing the long songs in a way that seemed inorganic. But, after a few days and more than a few listens, I found that the album became completely enchanting (and definitely I’m not one likely to use that word), with an pathos unhindered by the track lengths, Newsom’s more complicated composition, or Van Dyke Parks’ instrumental arrangements, which vary from incredibly suiting to rather intrusive. In Ys, Newsom has made a very ambitious album, but the risk pays off, resulting in my favorite release of the year.
Phill Niblock – Touch Three (Touch)
Phill Niblock’s Touch Three was not only his heftiest release yet (three discs) but contained some of the master minimalist’s most engaging work yet. The variety of sources results in a far more diverse collection of drones than one might expect, even from Niblock. Digesting all three discs in succession is a mighty task, but I found this music in the stereo almost constantly when it came out, and Touch Three seems to have finally caught the ears of casual listeners, hopefully bringing Niblock in from the fringes of wider minimalist appeal. For my money, there’s not a better dronesmith working today, in terms of concept or final product, and Touch Three is exhibit A as to why.
Coughs – Secret Passage (Load)
Coughs’ debut, Fright Makes Right wasn’t a dud, but to anyone who saw the Chicago band live around the time of its release, there was something in their performance that didn’t come close to being translated on the cd. Luckily, Secret Passage packs more of a punch, and while there’s still nothing quite like seeing the sextet live, this album’s not a bad substitute. Coughs’ songwriting is also improved, and Secret Passage shows their aggression undiminished by a more streamlined approach, the band’s battering ram of clatter and clout at its most focused and jarring.
The rest of the albums on this list might not have been my ears’ consistent (or even frequent) company in 2006, but they’re all releases from the past twelve months that impacted me in some way, making their musical mark on my own personal listening history in 2006.
Chris Corsano – The Young Cricketer (Hot Cars Warp)
Paul Flaherty – Whirl of Nothingness (Family Vibeyard)
Corsano’s best known as an improv percussionist extraordinaire, a frequent onstage companion of Paul Flaherty, whose saxophone salvos threaten to singe the ears of all who hear them. Of course, the duo were responsible for some great cooperative releases in 2006, but their solo efforts were more significant for me, for wholly different reasons. Flaherty’s Whirl of Nothingness delivered on the promise that his recent solo work had only hinted at, a work of substantial emotional impact and a beautiful, as high in passion as it is unrefined firepower. Corsano’s The Young Cricketer finds him in unfamiliar territory, relying on far more than his drum kit for the music. It’s a diverse recording, and what it lacks on cohesiveness is made up for by the inventiveness of Corsano’s musical imagination, which, no matter what he’s playing, is always on exhibit.
V/A – Congotronics Vol 2: Buzz ‘n’ Rumble from the Urb’n’ Jungle (Crammed)
Volume 1 of Crammed’s Congotronics series was dedicated to Konono No 1, but for the second in the series, the label focused on a collection of like-minded groups from Konono’s home in Kinshasa, Congo. And while the initial impact of the music isn't as forceful as it could be, given Konono's widespread introduction of this brand of DIY rewiring of traditional music, the artists on the disc (and additional dvd!) each have a distinct sound, and there are at least a few inclusions that it's safe to say would have no problem generating the buzz that Konono rode on their first US tour. Let’s hope when they come back to the US in 2007, Konono have some of their countrymen and countrywomen in tow.
Ovo – Miastenia (Load)
Ovo, originally from Milan, are criminally underappreciated in the US, though it could have something to do with the fact that their music’s always been fairly hard to get American hands on, unless the duo are caught on tour. In 2006, Load issued Miastenia, and while it’s not head and shoulders above their other recent releases, and sometimes rehashes their sound just a bit, the disc is still a very worthwhile listen, especially to Ovo virgins. They’re often lumped in with noisy contemporaries, but Ovo’s primal rock sound, focused on Stephania Pedretti’s otherwordly vocals, is something of its own, a rhythm-driven monster of many faces.
John W. Fail – The Icewhistle (Sharks and Pfennigs)
A full disclosure policy dictates that I mention that John’s a friend of mine, but that doesn’t negate the enthusiasm that I’ve felt about his recent move towards more touring and recording. Sharks and Pfennigs is Fail’s cdr label, run from his new home base of Glasgow, and The Icewhistle is a disc of solo improv, played by Fail on the israj. It’s a ghostly recording in which the atmosphere surrounding Fail is as much a part of the music as the sounds his instrument makes.
These weren't the only good things about 2006. There were plenty of great shows, and some other albums that probably deserve mention. Scott Walker's The Drift, Monotract's Exprmntl Lvrs, Spires that in the Sunset Rise's This is Fire, and the bevy of fine Table of the Elements releases are a few that come to mind. And even if 2006 didn't contain a great deal of music with which I became wholly enthralled, there was still plenty of great music released throughout the year, and this feature only begins to cover it. From what I've heard already, Zs have the early lead in 2007 releases with Arm, the final full-length recorded by their full sextet line-up, and an album that, though not eligible for inclusion here, took hours of listening time away from some of the aforementioned albums. I hope it's only the beginning of a 2007 trend, because even we grizzled music scribes enjoy being swept off of our feet by music from time to time...
By Adam Strohm