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Mix Suggestion: The Best of 2006

It's that time again. Ladies and gentlemen... I give you... Rumspringa Disco: The Best I've Heard of 2006.

As always, there are honorable mentions, which this year include "How We Operate" by Gomez, "10 Gallon Ascots" by Tapes n' Tapes, "Judy" by The Pipettes, "Colour of a Carnival" by Kasey Chambers, and "3 Freaks" by DJ Shadow. And as always, there is an embarrassing number of albums I simply didn't get around to hearing and there will be songs I discover in the coming year that I wish I'd known of in time to assemble this thing. (Most regrettable omission of ignorance from 2005's mix: "Everything Looks Beautiful on Video" by The Epoxies.)

However, this is the first year in which I've had to bend the rules a little to get the best mix I possibly could for my public. (You know, the rules that say, "Just drag songs originally released in 2006 from their album's folder on my computer into Easy CD Creator and arrange in a pleasing fashion." You can see why I felt this cumbersome.) I feel inexplicably guilty about this even though it's pretty much a victimless crime on the level of cheating at solitaire, so to that end, I have appended Dogme 95-style confessions to those songs whose inclusion is not in accordance with a strict interpretation of the "Best of 2006" mix CD constitution.

Inspired by Omar at Terribly Happy and GroovesInOrbit, each of whom do their own annual best-of mixes, I've also decided that this year, anyone who wants a copy of this mix on CD can have one. Just e-mail me your address, and I'll eventually mail you out a copy. Furthermore, if you'd like to make your own mix and have it posted on this page, just send it along to me! Anyway, let's make with the descriptions:

1. Isobel Campbell: "O Love is Teasin'" (1:56) I once read a Cracker concert review that described the band as opening their set with the beautiful, understated "Big Dipper," and David Lowery smiling to the audience, who'd expected the show to open with a 100-flower-power bang, "Think of this as foreplay." The same principle applies here. There's nothing splashy about Campbell's wispy, mournful little folk song, but when she breaks the silence of your day with only an acoustic guitar, a triangle, and a cascading melody that delivers a message of nothing-lasts-forever sadness... Well, it's hard not to be beguiled even though she's telling you it's a tease. From Milk White Sheets.

2. Gnarls Barkley: "Go-Go Gadget Gospel" (2:19) Though Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo's first album of R&B-based genre puree contains too many self-conscious duds ("Necromancer," a Violent Femmes cover) to truly earn the "album of the year" accolades that have been heaped upon it, its best tracks are idiosyncratic, soulful gold, topped by this song. With the frenetic energy of a "Weird Al" polka or an early Nintendo soundtrack, Danger Mouse crafts a hooky (accordion-based) funk track... and then doubles the tempo, throwing the whole contraption into hilarious, compelling Raymond Scott overdrive. None of it would work if Cee-Lo didn't completely commit to his vocal character, but he does throw himself full-tilt into lines like "Introduce your neighbor to your savior!" and because of it, the world hasn't seen such brilliant simultaneous parody of and affection for preachermen since Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime." From St. Elsewhere.

3. Electric Six: "Pulling the Plug on the Party" (2:56) Even if they've toned down the endlessly hilarious AC/DC stupidity of their debut (Fire, which I'd call 2003's best album, in retrospect), Detroit's Electric Six can still write a damn catchy rock song. With a riff that charges onward twice as memorably and punkily as Bowling for Soup's undeservingly ubiquitous "High School Never Ends," "Pulling the Plug on the Party" not only lets Dick Valentine show that his larynx is as finely tuned as his sense of humor, it reminds you that sometimes, a couple straightforwardly loud guitars are all you need in this overproduced world. From Switzerland.

4. The Coup: "We Are the Ones" (4:15) There are plenty of hip-hop songs that exist to explain (or rationalize) violent or otherwise illegal "thug life" by blaming The Man for neglecting the poor. It's a fair enough viewpoint, for sure, but not a very novel one by now. However, very few such songs find their vocalist adopting a foppish British accent throughout, unctuously chirping lines like, "So I saved for a kilo, and my step got a little bit taller like Skee-Lo/A street CEO/There was all of this heroin and not one hero!" (Not to mention grooving along to such a deceptively easygoing funk hook.) That's what's great about The Coup in general, and this song in particular. I remember Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker once praising Frank Capra for his ability to make propaganda entertaining, and although it might seem like a stretch, you can think of The Coup as the Frank Capra of rap: as revolutionary as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, as scabrously funny as Arsenic and Old Lace. From Pick a Bigger Weapon.

5. Yo La Tengo: "The Room Got Heavy" (5:10) Point the first: Drummer Georgia Hubley has one of the most appealing singing voices in indie-rock. She rarely attempts to surmount a murmur, but she doesn't attempt to be all breathy and ethereal like Chan Marshall. She's not one for Tori Amos-style histrionics, but her voice also isn't as "boringly perfect" (to borrow a phrase from Rich) as, say, Julie Doiron. Georgia just sings, without making a big showy deal out of it, and that's why it's more fun to listen to her tackle a melody than just about anyone. Point the second: Yo La Tengo, as a whole, is one of the most appealing bands in indie-rock. Why? Because they're the sort of band who'll take Georgia's unbelievable voice and bury it in a song like this, behind what sounds like five or six droning organs and a set of bongos, giving her only two notes throughout the song in the first place, and it will still be more adorably hypnotic than anything since Stereolab's Dots and Loops. Point the third: This song is from an album entitled I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, which earns them an extra 100 points.

6. The Handsome Family: "Tesla's Hotel Room" (3:57) The Handsome Family are my most prized musical discovery of 2006. I picked up this album on an impulse, and this song in particular struck me in such a thrilling, emotional way that I had to immediately get all their other records. (Through the Trees, incidentally, has since made my "top 20 albums of all time" list.) It's a slow, pretty acoustic-pop waltz in which Brett Sparks intones lyrics by his wife, Rennie, about Nikola Tesla, inventor of the radio and troubled soul whose ahead-of-his-time experiments posthumously became the subject of hundreds of conspiracy theories. (The Sparks have named the conspiracy-minded radio program Coast to Coast AM as among their biggest creative influences.) In the song, Tesla is a recluse who subsists on Saltines and makes friends with pigeons as other scientists go on to fame and fortune, and Brett's deadpan grumble elicits as much sympathy for the man as dark snickering. It's gorgeous. From Last Days of Wonder.

7. I Am Robot and Proud: "When I Get My Ears" (3:40) Like Dntel, Mum, and Royksopp, I Am Robot and Proud (the nom-de-electronic-music-stuff of Shaw-Han Liem) trades in tiny, loopy songs that digitally cut-and-paste a bunch of melodic sounds made by happy-sounding musical instruments. Lots of warm keyboard sounds and comfortable IDM click beats, and "When I Get My Ears" stands out from this fine album merely by adding a distant, pitch-shifted vocal track into a tune that's already very smile-inducing. If your favorite stuffed animal from your youth were to sing you a futuristic Anime lullaby, it would sound like this. From The Electricity in Your House Wants to Sing. [Confession: I've read conflicting release dates for this album and have willfully chosen to believe the 2006 one because I wanted to include the song.]

8. The Gothic Archies: "Crows" (2:41) If you replaced Tippi Hedren with a flanged/phased/chorused acoustic guitar, The Birds would be this song from the astonishingly fecund Stephin Merritt: a divertingly dour study of crows' more sinister qualities. It's kind of a silly conceit, but it's more than redeemed by the straight-faced arrangement (which, toward the end, includes a chorus of Merritts cawing in harmony) and his typical wordplay ("Every day, we hear the same dumb lists of those crows' woes/Thinking they're so holy while leaving mementoes"). As a bonus, although the Gothic Archies are officially described as differing from the Magnetic Fields only in that "every glimmer of hope is absolutely extinguished," "Crows" contains quite possibly the most anthemic chorus you'll hear on any of Merritt's records. From The Tragic Treasury: Songs from A Series of Unfortunate Events. [Confession: Technically, this song originally appeared on the audiobook version of Unfortunate Events book The Vile Village in 2001. I'm rationalizing its appearance here because its original release was not on an album of musical compositions. Melodious though Daniel Handler's prose may be when read aloud.]

9. Thom Yorke: "Black Swan" (4:49) Speaking of every glimmer of hope being absolutely extinguished, the first solo album from Radiohead's frontman was coolly received, but shouldn't have been: it's a mother lode of unpretentious, personal pessimism, swaddled in Pro Tools electronic tablescapes that serve only to heighten the album's sense of everything going wrong at once. This is the best of the bunch. Harmonizing with himself over a jittery groove of unaffected percussion loops and direct-into-the-mixing-board guitars, Yorke disconsolately mutters, "This is fucked up," over and over again until the listener can start to see things fall apart before her very eyes. Even though the melody is pretty much lifted from Radiohead's own "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box" (and the guitar line from Radiohead's own "I Might Be Wrong"), it's more easily digestible than anything Radiohead has released in ten years without losing their trademark vibe of trashtopian technorot. From The Eraser.

10. Cat Power: "Hate" (3:38) With nothing more than a repeated handful of chords and a refrain borrowed from the title of a Nirvana rarity ("I hate myself and I want to die"), the best track off Chan Marshall's celebrated detour into Nashville soul is the one to stick out like a blood-blistered thumb. There's nothing here except undiluted self-loathing so powerful that it would cause any YouTube emo kid to go blind, recorded with just the slightest hint of an echo for extra isolated forlornness. It may have fit better on her last record, the perfectly desolate You Are Free, but "Hate"'s contrast against the fluid arrangements on the rest of this album makes it all the more haunting. From The Greatest.

11. Lansing-Dreiden: "Two Extremes" (3:45) Transitioning from something utterly hopeless to something utterly blissful (even if it's in a minor key), this song would've given John Hughes a month's worth of wet dreams if it had been released 20 years ago. It's an unironic new-wave ballad to tug at the heartstrings of those of us who were born too late to enjoy the heyday of Spandau Ballet and OMD. No sharp edges, unfashionable synth-pad noises abound, and it's about damn time. It's like snuggling up for a good cry with an afghan quilt your grandma knitted, that you thought was too dorky to put on your bed in high school but that you now regret every day you lived without. (Yes, I have been reading a bunch of Chris Ware comics recently. Why?) From The Dividing Island.

12. Matmos: "Semen Song for James Bidgood" (5:02) James Bidgood, one of ten public figures serenaded on Matmos's most recent record, is a queer artist and hero of the found-sound-as-electronica duo, but his connection to this tune really isn't clear to me. Doesn't matter, though, because any living creature should be honored to be the inspiration for such a grippingly spacey ambient-house track. With cellos and harps employed to sound like intergalactic transmissions, and half-heard vocals cementing that impression, it's a beautiful and confusing ride even before the grounding elements of a piano and loping beat kick in, taking you on what sounds like a cinematic tour of hedonism, in the most relaxing way you can think of. From The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast.

13. The Majestic Twelve: "Trapped Underwater" (4:05) I nearly included the Majestic Twelve's "Condoleezza, Check My Posse" on this mix instead of this song (as GroovesInOrbit did), but I decided that I like "Trapped Underwater" better than that song's Dead Kennedys-vs.-Barenaked Ladies hyperactivity. This song is more of an Idlewild-vs.-Interpol exercise in post-R.E.M. guitar rock, garnished with a sophisticated sense of dynamics unheard since Mogwai's Young Team. If that description makes the Majestic Twelve sound like more of a collage of influences than a band possessing their own sound, that's not far off. However, when the collage produces songs like this- with its progression from a bass-and-whisper arrangement to all-out yelping, and the sort of goosebump-raising songwriting I haven't heard since For Squirrels' "Under Smithville"- who cares about originality, really? From Schizophrenology, which you can download for free on the band's website. [Confession: This is the one I really cheated on. See, when I finalized the tracklist for this mix, it was three fershlugginer seconds over the available time on a blank CD. And "Trapped Underwater" starts off with fifteen seconds or so of someone messing around with his guitar's echo pedal. And I really didn't want to go through the Sophie's Choice agony of damning one of these songs to oblivion beyond the finished compilation, so... I went into Cool Edit and lopped off the first eight seconds of this one. I promise I didn't delete anything of actual aural value; it's more like a Beauty and the Geek-esque between-the-eyebrows hair-waxing. Just a tiny little deletion that makes the overall appearance so much nicer.]

14. Built to Spill: "Goin' Against Your Mind" (8:42) Guitars! Dozens of them! Making whalesounds, sending the song into noisy hyperspace, or simply holding down the fort with a simple, rhythmic riff, Doug Martsch's overdubbed axework waxes and wanes over the course of nine minutes without ever wasting a note. It's a soaringly inviting explosion of indie-rock chops so epic it could've fit on the band's masterpiece Perfect From Now On, letting guitar hooks appear and fade away with the sort of mature touch whiplash imitators like the Unicorns could never hope to properly emulate. Funny smartass lyrics, too: "When I was a kid, I saw a light flying high above the trees one night/Thought it was an alien/Turned out to be just God." From You in Reverse.

15. Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins: "Melt Your Heart" (2:50) On a break from Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis's indie-country/bluegrass solo record doesn't quite reach the commanding Neko Case heights it aims for, but on songs like this, Lewis proves that it's hard to top her when it comes to unencumbered emotion. It's another acoustic waltz (a B-side companion to the Handsome Family track on the A-side), but with an intimate, regretful mood that recalls nothing so much as Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You." The line "It's bound to melt your heart, for good or for bad/It's like a valentine from your mother" is the one that always gets to me, but if it doesn't send a pang through your chest, don't worry- one of the lyrics will. From Rabbit Fur Coat.

16. Sparklehorse: "Getting It Wrong" (2:16) The thing I love about Sparklehorse is the way Mark Linkous's songs are rarely the sort that leap out at you, but rather are the sort that you would usually notice only the sixth or seventh time you listen to an album, and which are permanently implanted in your head thereafter. This is one of those songs. Almost designed to be overlooked, "Getting It Wrong" finds Linkous's distorted voice battling for attention with a dinky Casio in a fight they both win. Even though it's nearly impossible to devote your full attention to this affecting little song-next-door, the subtle memorability on display makes it worth holding a magnifying glass to your ears. (Oddly, Danger Mouse of song #2 programmed the relatively straightforward beats here. Weird bit of synergy, that.) From Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain.

17. Califone: "Pink & Sour" (4:13) I think I've previously described Califone as a band that sounds like Beck's more laid-back side melding with the rural Southwestern tranquility of bands like Calexico or Fuck. Not to toot my own horn- at least in public- but that's a description that perfectly fits this twitchy oddity. It's nearly pretentious, but I don't get anything more than a fun vibe from the polyrhythms, scratchy guitars, and circular vocals that flutter about here. If you can listen to this song without contorting your torso metronomically back and forth in admittedly unappealing ways, you're less of a slave to the rhythm than I am, good sir. (Please note that I do the same little dance while listening to the "Everybody! Everybody!" intro to the Homestar Runner site, so it may not just be Califone's talents at play.) From Roots & Crowns.

18. The Flaming Lips: "My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion" (4:51) Wayne Coyne apparently holds some sort of personal enmity toward me, in that he feels a need to release one song per album that makes me bawl every time I hear it. This trend started with "Waitin' for a Superman," continued with "Do You Realize??" and continues here, with a Beach Boys-y song so tear-jerking that I've learned not to listen to it at work. Granted, songs about birds are an easy way to make me cry (my dad used to sing the Beatles' version of "Till There Was You" to me and T-Bone before bed, and I don't think I ever made it through dry-eyed), but I suspect my reaction here has more to do with Wayne's typical optimism-in-the-face-of-mortality-and-selfish-evil than ornithological concerns. I love birds a lot, though, so I'm sure that's as much to blame as is the Lips' determination to make me face my own mortality. And even though the subject matter is peerlessly sad, the music is so bright and shimmery and full of echoey keyboards and Clouds Taste Metallic cozy/scratchy guitars that it's kind of a happy sad. Which makes the sad even worse. I have problems. From At War with the Mystics.

19. TV on the Radio: "A Method" (4:26) Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone taking over a detailed drum track to sing an otherwise a capella... what? Warning? Reprimand? It's hard to say, but Adebimpe's underplayed admonishment "There is hardly a method, you know" is as powerful as his band's usual supercolliders of samples, noise, and stylized R&B. It opens with a whistling hook as insidious as the Mr. Show theme song and just gets creepier and more memorable from there. Just because it smiles doesn't mean it doesn't have fangs. From Return to Cookie Mountain.

20. Ms. John Soda: "Hands" (4:16) Although those who know me would probably place my "uplifting quotient" somewhere between Todd Solondz and The Golding Institute, I'll admit that I like my albums to end on a semi-happy-ish note. And 30 seconds into this song, when the teensy beats and keyboards bloom into a relieving, sweet womb of synth-pop, anchored by Stephanie Bohm's voice, it's hard to imagine anything happier. Forget the politics of Stereolab or the twee fantasies of Of Montreal, this is musical optimism without a catch, and it can make you fly. (The verb, not the adjective.) From Notes and the Like.