10. Voxtrot, Mothers, Sisters, Daughters & Wives EP
Myspace success story Voxtrot put out one EP – Raised By Wolves – that sounded like your little brother covering The Queen is Dead (in a good way). Their second is toothier, but no less indebted to sounds birthed in Manchester. Very good, but seriously – where’s the album?
9. Tom Waits, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards
A sprawling mess of unreleased, hard-to-find, and re-recorded stuff. Three discs, 56 tracks, a hundred voices. Most artists’ vault-clearing exercises are less than essential, but this contains so much prime material that it’s a must-have for those of us who come down on the pro-Waits side of the fence. There’s a couple of hundred years’ worth of American music on these three discs - buried beneath layers of dust and static, but as relevant and affecting as anything else on this list.
8. Califone, Roots and Crowns
An uncategorizable amalgam of indie, folk, psychedelia and laptop fuckery that is among the prettiest, most brittle and most compelling releases I heard all year.
7. The Big Sleep, Son of the Tiger
A sludgy, heavy, droning mess, shot through with moments of levity and pop reverence. As the Velvet Underground are to Sonic Youth, so is Sonic Youth to the Big Sleep.
6. Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
The Voice has crafted her finest album to date, aided by the likes of Howe Gelb and the Sadies. By turns bombastic, yearning, dark, lulling and reassuring, the constants are Case’s mastery (no – ownership) of the songs, and the sense that she means every word she sings.
5. Cat Power, The Greatest
Ah, the mature album. What could have been a terrible cliché of a record – troubled indie ingénue co-opts soul sounds and winds up making shopping-and-coffee music – sounds instead like the record Chan Marshall has been inching towards from the first. It’s smoky and world weary, and just as perfect the night before as the morning after.
4. Beirut, Gulag Orkestar
Young Zach Condon’s geography sucks, but his musical sensibilities are solid. In the year of Borat (and Gogol Bordello? and DeVotchKa?), the old Eastern Bloc was the unlikeliest of cultural hotspots. That’s probably all coincidence; either way, this record comes off sounding how Neutral Milk Hotel might’ve had Jeff Mangum done that Bulgarian gypsy record before In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
3. Band of Horses, Everything All the Time
Thank god for indie rock. It’s like 1992 up in here! Shout out to Neil Young, too. Hey now!
2. Pernice Brothers, Live a Little
Let’s be honest: as Pernice superfan #1, would I be capable of leaving this off the list? Probably not. But with a handful of songs that stand among Pernice’s best, and production that places it closer to the PB’s lush first album, Overcome By Happiness, than the more Brit-copping and hard rocking recent efforts, it deserves its spot at number two. The remake of the Scud Mountain Boys’ “Grudge Fuck” is a well-intentioned misfire – Pernice nailed the desperate vocal and nervous/pathetic sound years ago as a Scud – but almost everything else works.
1. The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America
This is where I cop to an unapologetic fondness for what a certain graphic designer I know refers to as "dad-rock." Alright, fuck it, I like old guy rock, and in 2006 nobody did it better than the Hold Steady. They took Springsteen, the Replacements, some Thin Lizzy, and a bit of what made lead singer Craig Finn’s old band, Lifter Puller, kind of intriguing, and made a recombinant record that sounded relevant (to some of us) because the parts they borrowed were less about simple sound and technique, and more about feeling. They invoke the spirit of Springsteen rather than merely the template (ahem, Killers), recognizing certain themes as truisms, not just keyboard riffs worth recycling. In Finn’s world, like those of both Springsteen and Westerberg, the loser is heroic for his losing, and everybody’s looking for a decent buzz.
Lyrically, Boys & Girls in America is casually literate and indebted to Bukowski, the San Francisco Renaissance, Kerouac and John Berryman (the latter two are referenced on the record). It’s also unswervingly faithful to the history of rock & roll. Finn and company have been hitting on these points for several records now, but Boys & Girls sees the music finally living up to the words, and more broadly speaking it is the point at which the execution finally matches the overall ambition. That in itself is worth celebrating. But when a record features great songs front to back, songs that would be rousing even if the lyrics were gibberish, it is a record you’re likely to pull out for years to come, during beer stained evenings spent in lawn chairs, when Born to Run is finished but the night’s just begun.
There was a picture floating around the Internet of an obviously elated Craig Finn onstage in New York, sporting a vintage Twins jersey the night his hometown team snuck into the playoffs. The album had just been released to massive acclaim and the world was the Hold Steady’s for the conquering. In that picture, as on Boys & Girls, they’re a band you want to cheer for, a band whose failures seem terribly real, and whose victories kind of feel like your own.