Monday, December 18th, 2006
Under The Radar
I used to be a big fan of the year-end list. Way back in the days before the internet, there was print media and as such, you were only really exposed to as many lists as you had money to buy magazines. I would devour these lists, count off the number of records accounted for that I owned (I usually batted a consistent .300, no matter what year it was) and made lists of stuff to add to my shopping list. All very simple and innocent.
And while more choice is always a good thing, there’s something very numbing about being told that Return To Cookie Mountain is a good album 4000 times over. And as I scan this year’s lists, be they from blog, magazine or wherever, I find very few records that I’ve never heard or heard of. Most I’ve already formed some opinion on at some point in the past year and while minds can be changed, there’s no longer the thrill of discovery, of reading a synopsis or review that jumps out and says, “you must hear this!” – just the dull satisfaction of having an opinion reinforced. This does nothing to help the musically jaded. This isn’t to say that the records that are being celebrated ad nauseum aren’t worthy – far from it – but after a while it just turns into white noise.
But I also recall that back in the day, Spin had a list after their top 40 or however many titled, “The Top 10 Albums You Didn’t Hear”, wherein they picked out records that flew completely under the alternative radar but deserved recognition. In particular, I remember their top such pick in 1996, one If You’re Feeling Sinister that had me hunting high and low for a copy for months if not years (finally purchased at import prices in Fall of 1998 and worth the wait and cost). And since then, it’s been those diamonds in the rough, those unexpected surprises, that I’ve most enjoyed at this time of year. And so it’s lists of new and underrated discoveries like those in The AV Club and AllMusic that I enjoy reading most – I hardly even bother with the regular lists anymore.
So for my part, here’s a few records that I felt deserved more ink than they got in 2006, either from me or from anyone, for whatever reason. Poor publicity, poor timing or poor distribution but certainly not poor music. Do check em out.
|Howling Bells / Howling Bells (Bella Union)
It’s a crime that no one in North America saw fit to distribute the debut album from these Aussies formerly known as Waikiki. A perfect blend of pop, rock, blues and country and fronted by the seductive twang and ridiculously good looks of Juanita Stein, Howling Bells should have been easier to sell than ninja stars to ninjas. And yet no one did. Mercifully, those across both oceans had enough sense to make them decent rookie successes in both the UK and Australia, so if there’s any justice their conquering the New World is only slightly delayed.
MP3: Howling Bells – “Blessed Night”
|Trespassers William / Having (Nettwerk)
For the record, I loved – LOVED – Trespassers William’s second album Different Stars so the follow-up had some big shoes to fill. And while the new record delivered more of the same beautifully hazy and mournful dream pop, it wasn’t Different Stars so I didn’t take to it fully for a while. Now, however, I am now fully outraged that their atmospheric folk-gaze is not getting love and respect from anyone and everyone. Anna-Lynne Williams’ voice is pure, undiluted sadness and Dave Fridmann’s mix gives the band a thundering fragility that suits it so well. A downcast gem.
And extra fondness points are awarded as they were the first interview I ever conducted, for the University of Toronto’s Varsity.
|The Radio Dept / Pet Grief (Labrador)
I know that back in May I declared The Radio Dept’s Pet Grief a disappointment, but since then I’ve gotten past much of the hard feelings over their turning from a “Belle & Sebastian meets JAMC” into a maudlin Pet Shop Boys. There’s still much to appreciate in their glacial popcraft, and even if no one else was celebrating that, I at least wish there’d been more people bemoaning this new record out of love for their debut Lesser Matters. Instead, it seems no one cared either way and that’s just unfortunate.
The band also released a new song as a digital single called “We Made The Team” and are heading to Peru (!) next year to record album number 3.
|Loose Fur / Born Again In The USA (Drag City)
Certainly the highest profile of these records, Born Again In The USA still seemed to come and go without making a ripple. Sure, a complete lack of touring and almost no press certainly didn’t help, but you’d think a Wilco side-project like this would have gotten a little more attention. I myself only got it out of a sense of Tweedy-completist obligation, having been none too overwhelmed with the first scattershot album, but was more than a little surprised at how much more cohesive, fun and all-out rocking the follow-up was. If, like the first record, it acts as a signpost for what to expect from the next Wilco record is going, well I for one am liking it. And even if you have no idea or interest in what the members of the band do for their day jobs, there’s still a lot here to recommend it and that’s saying something.
So that’s mine. What are some of your favourite albums of this year that are getting no love from the year-end listmakers? I saw some interesting left-field choices in the readers poll submissions, so I know they’re out there. Speak up or forever be buried under the Cookie Mountain avalanche. And if you find any more hidden gem lists, the ones that sidestep the usual suspects – and not in a contrarian, “those albums suck, THESE are the best of the year” way – please let me know.