Saturday, December 9, 2006

DG's Top Records (I've Heard) of the Year, Part I

I have no idea when this photo was taken, because the site I stole it from was in some indecipherable eastern European language. I dig the guitar, though.

1. Bob Dylan, Modern Times

How outrageous is it that this only got nominated for a Grammy in, like, Modern Folk/Americana? (For the record, those who were nominated were the Dixie Chicks [dull], Justin Timberlake [see below], Gnarls Barkley [meh, whatever], John Mayer [who makes Natalie Maines' political views seem fascinating], and RHCP [whose record was about 1.5 discs longer than it ought to have been].)

This band is tight and the songs are excellent. Dylan keeps reeling them off, and with humor and elegance. Without indulging in too much critical BS-speak, he songs here are often touching and profound; he also is frequently hilarious:

“I’m gonna raise an army, some tough sonsa bitches
I’ll recruit my army from the orphanages.”

Confused? Luckily, he wraps this verse up with the clarifying

“I’ve sucked the milk out of a thousand cows.”

Whatever you say, bud.

As I wrote in recess, Dylan is one of the two greatest artists America has ever produced. This record, with its appropriation/theft, its subject matter, and its attitude captures the American essence. And unlike the other great American artist, Miles Davis, Dylan refuses to become an artifact as he enters old age. At this point in Miles’ career, he was recording Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper tunes; Bob, however, has put out the best record of the year and one of the best of his career.

2. Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds

Middle-school Davey—who wasn’t even that discriminating a listener—is furious with me for this one. Hell, so is my dad. It’s true, though—this record is absolutely stunning. It’s not about Justin; he’s got a fine voice and all, but the props go to Timabland (although JT’s lyrics are insipidly trite; I suppose when you’re him you don’t have to worry too much about effective pick-up lines, but I swear he starts half the verses on this disc with, “I’ve been around the world …”).

I didn’t really get into “Promiscuous” like everyone else did, but this I can dig. The songs are long—often clocking in at five, six, seven minutes—lushly arranged (a synthesizer rainforest, if you will) and marvelously structured. “LoveStoned,” the best track on the record, avoids the static trap of most pop music, moving forward throughout based solely on the merit of the beat with lyrics playing no role whatsoever. The beat drops out and leaves a rhythm guitar part; then things slowly rebuild back up to the finish. This is how all pop songs should be. I’m also infatuated with the synth response to everything JT sings on “My Love”; sounds like fingers on a balloon, if that makes any sense at all. I have a bad feeling this is going to sound absolutely ridiculous and dated in five, ten years, but right now we all ought to just revel in it. Also, bonus points for his thoughts on the K-Fed-Britney break-up.

3. The Decemberists, The Crane Wife

A late rally brings the Decemberists into my top 3. I discovered them last weekend when I downloaded The Crane Wife, which was an excellent decision. It was love from the first chord of “The Crane Wife, Pt. 3.” I’m generally inclined to agree with the assessment Chris Ott laid down in the Voice about Colin Meloy’s general pretension and silliness, but that does nothing to demean the music. “O Valencia!” is a cheerful little ballad about his lover being shot by her brother over some dispute; it’s an absolutely addictive little tune. The preceding tune, “Yankee Bayonet” … well, you can probably guess where that one goes. I could do without the proggier moments and anything even remotely resembling Zeppelin (it’s here), but “Crane Wife” 1 and 3, “Valencia,” and “Yankee Bayonet” make this disc worthwhile. I well understand my own tastes, but I guess I don’t see why other people like this; makes me think maybe there’s still hope for my father’s band.

4. Jack DeJohnette with Bill Frisell, The Elephant Sleeps But Still Remembers

A live record, so I'm kind of cheating here. but I reckon the extensive post-production work from Ben Surman makes this a valid pick. Despite Surman's fingerprints, the amount of sound that the duo puts out is pretty stunning for a live setting. I've heard lukewarm things about the tour that DeJohnette, Frisell, and bassist Jerome Harris were on this fall, but this record works beatifully. Frisell, the best and most innovative guitarist working in jazz, and one of greatest musicians in the world overall, can sometimes get mellow and even soporific, but the veteran drummer keeps him from complacency. Jagged banjo tracks, for example, may not sound so hot alone, but in the setting of the record it works. This disc, to me, sounds like industry, all grit and dust and clanging and metal striking metal and smoke and grime and oil. I'm not a fan of post-production, but this is tasteful. On several tracks, Surman modulates one of Frisell's riffs down an octave or two to create a bassline; this fits in remarkably well and places the jams in a deep and funky pocket. Can we expect a studio effort from these two anytime soon? Here's hoping.

5. Beirut, Gulag Orkestar

Zach Condon, I'm pretty confident, thinks I'm a moron. But he was nice to me anyway. Which wins points with me. It would have sucked to have gotten a lot of condescension off a high-school drop out. Then again, he's not the typical pretentious indie star (see Meloy, Colin, above), a humble, white t-shirt-wearing, trumpet-playing 19-year-old. I'll be damned if I can comment on his lyrics, which seem quite simple but are generally unintelligble. Musically, however, he does successfully conjure up a sepia-toned melancholic nostalgia--a nostalgia for something none of his listeners, I'd imagine, ever experienced. Maybe that's easier than recreating the real thing; I don't know, but it's magical, all gypsy drums, burnished brass and street-corner violin. I'm admittedly skeptical about Condon's ability to sustain this project; his press materials make much of his previous, teenage projects (a doo-wop record?), but for me they suggest a short musical attention span. I don't know if I'll like whatever his next project is, but the buzz around this one was justified.

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