2006: The Year in Music

Week of December 28, 2006

The Rule-Breaker — Astronautalis:Astronautalis (né Andy Bothwell) made his name as a battle-rapper, a fierce presence on the underground circuit. At Scribble Jam, Cincinnati's famed annual hip-hop festival, Astronautalis vanquished opponents on the same stage that helped birth the careers of Eminem, Sage Francis and Buck 65. That was more than eight years ago. Today, the model-handsome emcee combines his love of hip-hop, classic country, shoegazey pop and freak-folk into an act that cheerfully, willfully defies categorization. This year's Mighty Ocean and Nine Dark Theaters embraces everything from sweeping strings to barroom piano, from old-school beatboxing to voice modulation, from gossamer-delicate harmonies to harsh spoken-word rebukes. Astronautalis makes a happy home in paradox. "Fuck your bleeding heart," he growls, before sweetly enthusing, "Meet me here later and we'll make out!" This album is like nothing else you've heard this year, yet its roots in rap battles — specifically the sharp phrasing and cut-to-the-quick lyrics — are evident on every track. And while Mighty Ocean's mood is as dark as the inside of a garbage bag at midnight, the emcee's attitude is admirably sunny. Some underground hip-hoppers try like hell to sound menacing on their MySpace pages. But Astronautalis? His viewpoint is, to paraphrase, "I'm playing music I love! And you love it too! Perfect! Yippee!" Hey, Andy — meet us in St. Louis later and we'll make out.

The Mad Genius — Girl Talk:While many mash-up tracks play like blatant cash-grabs (hola, Jay-Z y Linkin Park), Girl Talk's exuberant albums are a celebration of hip-hop itself. Girl Talk is just one dude (Pittsburgh's Greg Gillis), but that one dude creates music that could rock a thousand parties and make even the staunchest hip-hop purists take notice. This year's Night Ripper is a triumph. By the numbers, the record contains sixteen tracks that together sample around 200 songs. But this isn't just a name-that-tune exercise for music geeks. Instead, Night Ripper is one of the smartest, most jubilant hip-hop albums of the year. Gillis loves music — all music — and his selections exhibit a depth and breadth of knowledge that most other mash-up artists lack. From the first track (on which the Ying-Yang Twins growl, um, "Wait'll you see my dick" over the Verve's iconic "Bittersweet Symphony"), we were absolutely hooked. And then there's Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" and the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy." Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" and Juelz Santana's "There It Go (The Whistle Song)." Mike Jones and Seals & Crofts! The Smashing Pumpkins and, holy crap, the Three 6 Mafia! Greg Gillis knows his theory, his editing tricks and his software. But more important than any of that, he knows his music's fundamental power: to delight, to inspire and to create one hell of a party. — Brooke Foster



Musical Warfare

Music has long been a tactic of war, stretching back to the days when kilt-wearing Scotsmen used bagpipes to scare the bejeezus out of would-be attackers. But since the start of the Iraq War, American Psychological Operations (PsyOps) interrogators have started using music in torture sessions. In addition to the waterboarding or electric shocks prisoners had previously been subjected to, the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay have endured the likes of Metallica and Christina Aguilera at full volume for hours on end. But if the American military is serious about winning the "War on Terror," they'd better beef up their torture technology. To lend a hand, here are our top album recommendations of 2006 for the interrogation expert in your life.

Norma Jean, Redeemer(Solid State): They're hardcore metal, they're Christian — and they sing about it. In what way could they not exasperate a) anyone over 30 or b) Muslim prisoners at prayer time?

Kevin Federline, Playing with Fire(Federation): Perhaps "America's Most Hated" will spawn interrogator rap-alongs, thereby doing what critics thought was impossible: making the year's most untalented rapper sound even worse.

Paris Hilton, Paris (Heiress Records/ Warner Music): Based on her morality alone, subjecting strict Muslims to the come-hither coos of this hussy heiress ought to be enough for a plea bargain after the first three songs — five if they're really tough.

Walls of Jericho, With Devils Amongst Us All(Trustkill): Imagine the enraged screams of your most intimidating bitch of an ex-girlfriend. Then put a roaring hardcore band behind her. It's enough to shatter anyone's sense of self.

The Matches, Decomposer(Epitaph): On repeat for hours, the poppy hooks and slightly off-key vocals of this emo-punk band would have the same effect as a stomachful of ipecac syrup. — Andrea Noble



Underachievers, Please Try Harder

The bands in this list can (and usually do) perform at higher levels. In fact, with the exception of Yo La Tengo, these acts' previous albums were their best to date, which perhaps made the weight of expectation too great. Still, even though the following discs are the most disappointing ones of 2006, there's still gold to be found on them (we've included a "redemption song" for each). But think of this list as a parent talking sternly to a errant child: We're not angry, we're just disappointed.

The Walkmen, A Hundred Miles Off, (Record Collection): The album on which Hamilton Leithauser finally ruins his voice. A fine singer, Leithauser has always preferred a vein-popping scream in concert, and those howls have taken their toll and left the singer raspy. The band sounds more ragged than usual as they amble around shapeless songs that lack any surprise or (sucker)punch. Redemption Song: "Another One Goes By"

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