KEXP’s Year in Review: Don Yates, Music Director - The Music of 2006: From country and rock to hip hop and R&B

I spent the year as usual immersed in music, and loving it. While I host KEXP’s twang show Swingin’ Doors, I also enjoy listening to a ton of other music so my best-of list includes whatever music I liked the most this year, from country and rock to hip hop and R&B.

Beginning at the top, my album of the year was Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Neko has been one of my favorite singers and songwriters for quite some time now, and she just keeps getting better, with her music becoming increasingly more personal and distinctive. Fox Confessor takes in elements of rock, folk, pop, country and more while not being easily pinned down. She’s created her own dark and mysterious world influenced by growing up in the often overcast Northwest, and nearly every song here strikes deep.

Tony Starks (aka Ghostface Killah) is another great storyteller, and Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale is my runner-up album of the year. Fishscale has a cinematic flavor to it, with Ghostface’s gritty street tales and high-anxiety delivery keeping you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end. It takes a few spins to absorb the dense, soul-flavored production, but eventually Fishscale reveals itself as a classic soundtrack to a yet-to-be-made Scorsese mob film. Hell, it has enough richness and detail to be a film in its own right.

A lot of great rock records came out this year, but the one I loved most of all was made by a bunch of young Nashville punks. Be Your Own Pet’s self-titled debut album crackled with an energy and vitality that nobody else matched, with Jemina Pearl spitting out provocative lyrics over an impressive, at times even arty, racket that didn’t neglect the tunes.

Up next is a grand statement about growing up in a land of sex, drugs and rock & roll that manages to sound not the least bit trite or overblown. The Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls in America successfully steered their timeworn subject matter away from cliché thanks to Craig Finn’s strong songwriting and big, empathetic heart. It didn’t hurt that the music sounded as big as the band’s vision, with the record’s muscular production powered by killer guitar riffs and piano melodies.

Seattle also put out more than its share of great rock records this year, with the Blakes’ self-titled album at the top of the heap. This local trio is more versatile than most, and their album ranges from raw, garage-rock stomps to a drop-dead gorgeous ballad. Most impressive, the song quality remained strong from start to finish.

Heading back into the world of hip hop, Virginia duo Clipse didn’t disappoint with their long-delayed second album Hell Hath No Fury. Produced by the Neptunes, the album features some of this year’s most wicked hip hop production, with edgy, minimalist soundscapes combining head-turning creative ideas with ruthlessly hard, cold beats.

Pop music is often the music of youth, but senior citizen Bob Dylan continues his latter-day creative renaissance with Modern Times. Like 2001’s Love & Theft, Modern Times traffics in traditional blues, vintage Tin Pan Alley, cowboy ballads and other antique sources. Lyrically, he’s as enigmatic as always, but also poignant, funny and even a bit lewd.

Rock ruled in the Northwest this year, but our neck of the woods also produced some mighty fine country albums, headed by West Valley Highway’s debut album Marysville. Combining lean Yoakam/Owens Bakersfield honky tonk with some Everlys/Holly roots-pop and a bit of bluegrass, West Valley Highway made creating great, timeless songs sound easy.

From Be Your Own Pet to Arctic Monkeys, it was good to see so many young bands this year releasing exciting rock albums. Up here in the Northwest, Stanwood, Washington’s Skullbot rose to prominence as this area’s most promising teenage band. Their self-titled debut album featured a bad-ass hard-rock sound in the tradition of Sabbath, Nebula and Mudhoney. Even better, the band brings plenty of fine songs and stellar musicianship to their riff-heavy stoner rock.

Rounding out my top 10 for the year is another local rock band, The Hands. Their debut release So Sweet contained just seven songs, but every one of them is memorable. Musically, they carry on the long, proud tradition of Northwest garage-rock, and So Sweet rocks hard enough to make the legendary Sonics proud.

I’d like to bring up a few other things I enjoyed this year, beginning with the resurgence of Seattle rock (I’ll get to some more country later, I promise). While 2005 was the year Seattle hip hop made itself known as a creative force, rock came back big time in Seattle in 2006. Along with the Blakes, Skullbot and the Hands, there were plenty others who made fine albums and put on great shows this year, including the Earaches (whose album Time on Fire rivaled the Hands for best local garage-rock release), Thee Emergency (who combined garage-rock with soul on their promising debut album Can You Dig It? while also putting on some of the most exciting rock shows this city has seen in ages) and New Fangs (whose Bayonets album was more Drive Like Jehu/Fugazi punk than garage-rock, though their live shows were equally as scintillating as those from Seattle’s new breed of garage rockers).

Other favorite local releases include Band of Horses’ great country-fried pop-rock debut album Everything All the Time, the Trucks’ delightfully sassy, self-titled electro-pop debut and Four Easy Pieces’ raw slab of garage-rock Birth of the Uncool. I haven’t even begun to list all the Seattle bands whose music I enjoyed this year, but I can’t forget to mention Iceage Cobra, who are true monsters of rock whenever they hit the stage – they embody the resurgence of Seattle rock as well as anyone.

Taking a look at rock albums from elsewhere, I also loved the razor-sharp post-punk of Arctic Monkeys’ Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, the irreverent arty punk of Art Brut’s Bang Bang Rock & Roll, the blistering psychedelic-rock jams of Comets on Fire’s Avatar, the retro hard rock riffs on Wolfmother’s self-titled debut, the potent blend of hard rock and glam-pop on Earl Greyhound’s Soft Targets, the dark, droning psych-rock of the Black Angels’ Passover, and the high-energy garage-punk of the Heartaches’ Too Cool for School.

I should also give props to Dirtnap Records for putting out Shattered, a compilation of rare and unissued recordings from Portland’s late, great pop-punkers the Exploding Hearts. These kinds of odds ‘n’ ends collections are usually mediocre mish-mashes, but damned if Shattered isn’t nearly as strong as the Hearts’ one and only official album, the instant-classic Guitar Romantic.

In addition to Ghostface Killah and Clipse, other rap records I enjoyed this year include Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor (a socially conscious album brimming over with humanity from one of the most talented new rappers around), The Game’s Doctor’s Advocate (a shameless – and dead-on – evocation of classic Dre/Snoop g-funk gangsta rap), The Coup’s Pick a Bigger Weapon (no one combines militant politics and having a good time better than Boots Riley), The Roots’ dark and brooding Game Theory, Lady Sovereign’s spunky US debut Public Warning and Spank Rock’s playful and ultra-raunchy YoYoYoYoYo.

While not really hip hop, Gnarls Barkley’s genre-blending St. Elsewhere turned lots of heads including mine, and Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds was as adventurous as mainstream pop/R&B got: Timbaland & co’s production was often mind-blowing and “Sexy Back” rivaled Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” as the coolest pop single of the year.

OK, time to head back to the country, beginning with the more hard-core traditional stuff. Apparently Texas ruled the roost for traditional country albums this year – all of the following five are from the Lone Star state. Austin singer Sunny Sweeney’s debut album Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame showcased a fine voice reminiscent of Kasey Chambers and a multi-faceted country sound that ranged from rockabilly rave-ups to honky tonk shuffles and hard-country ballads.

While Willie Nelson’s recent collaboration with Ryan Adams was mostly a dud, Willie’s tribute to the great country songwriter Cindy Walker (You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker) was honky tonk and western swing heaven. Dale Watson put out another fine honky tonkin’ record with Whiskey or God, James Hand released his third album of unvarnished honky tonk with The Truth Will Set You Free, and Wayne Hancock sounded as good as ever on Tulsa, his latest album of old-school western swing and honky tonk.

I also should mention the Northwest’s own Knut Bell. While he didn’t release an album this year, I’ve played his upcoming CD of proudly blue collar honky tonk Wicked, Ornry, Mean and Nasty a ton of times on Swingin’ Doors, and no doubt it will end up high on my list next year. When it comes to barroom hard country music, Knut rules the roost in the Northwest.

I didn’t hear a lot of great bluegrass releases this year, but fiddler Michael Cleveland’s Let ‘er Go, Boys was something special, combining a hardcore traditional bluegrass sound and first-rate song selection with white-hot musicianship and some ace guest vocals. And while more acoustic country than bluegrass, Bradley Walker’s debut album Highway of Dreams was an excellent showcase for one of the most promising country singers around, with a resonant, note-bending hard-country style reminiscent of Keith Whitley.

Other excellent country albums included Johnny Cash staring death in the face and refusing to blink on American V: A Hundred Highways, Chris Knight’s latest album of gritty roots-rock Enough Rope, Paul Burch demonstrating mastery of many country and roots styles on East to West, Rosanne Cash ruminating on the recent deaths of her mom, dad and stepmom on Black Cadillac, Slaid Cleaves paying tribute to a bunch of underacknowledged singer-songwriters on Unsung, and soul singer Solomon Burke’s wonderful, Buddy Miller-produced country album Nashville.

The country mainstream had seemed revitalized the past few years, but this year brought just a handful of quality releases. Rock-sturdy traditionalist Alan Jackson took a surprising left turn with help from Alison Krauss, who produced Jackson’s Like Red On A Rose. The album combined the folksy warmth and intimacy of Don Williams and the elegance of Ray Price with the weary road warrior of Merle Haggard’s “Footlights” to stunning effect.

Fellow country veteran Vince Gill was the king of musical ambition this year, releasing a 4-CD set of all-new songs titled These Days. The set included a CD of barroom honky tonk, a bluegrass/acoustic country record, a soulful rock record in the mold of prime Delbert McClinton and a varied album of ballads. Amazingly, nearly all of it was wonderful. The ever-dependable George Strait put out yet another rock-solid album of traditional country with It Just Comes Natural, newcomer Eric Church came off a bit blustery on his debut album Sinners Like Me, but not enough to hide some strong story-based songwriting in the vein of Steve Earle, and bluesy singer Julie Roberts updated Tammy Wynette heartache balladry on Men & Mascara.

On the more rockin’ side of alt-country, Drive-By Truckers broadened their Southern rock sound with some strong echoes of the Replacements, Stones, the Faces and even some southern soul on A Blessing And A Curse. Bobby Bare Jr. whipped out another batch of brilliantly quirky songs on The Longest Meow, and speaking of quirky, the Gourds returned with one of their finest albums yet, the freewheeling Heavy Ornamentals. Rising from the ashes of Slobberbone, the Drams brought a little more pop to Slobberbone’s aggressive roots-rock sound on Jubilee Dive.

Some promising roots-rockers also emerged from Seattle this year, including the high-energy rockabilly-soul band the Harborrats and North Twin, who admirably upheld the Radio Nationals tradition of raw and rowdy alt-country rock.

Last but far from least, Tom Waits offered up a 3-CD set of rarities titled Orphans that rivaled his best work. The man’s one of this country’s greatest musical treasures, and an inspiration to all of those seeking to create music that truly matters. I could mention plenty more, from the dark electro-pop of Various to the cool, noirish roots-rock of Seattle’s Mark Pickerel & his Praying Hands, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten plenty others, but that will have to do it for me ‘cuz it’s time for a beer!

Don Slack’s favorite albums of 2006:

1. Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (Anti-)
2. Ghostface Killah – Fishscale (Def Jam)
3. Be Your Own Pet – Be Your Own Pet (Ecstatic Peace!)
4. The Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant) (Hot Soft Light - MP3)
5. The Blakes – The Blakes (self-released)
6. Clipse – Hell Hath No Fury (Re-Up Gang)
7. Bob Dylan – Modern Times (Columbia)
8. West Valley Highway – Marysville (self-released)
9. Skullbot – Skullbot (self-released)
10. The Hands – So Sweet (self-released)

Favorite Swingin’ Doors albums:

1. Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (Anti-)
2. West Valley Highway – Marysville (self-released)
3. Johnny Cash – American Recordings V: A Hundred Highways (American)
4. Michael Cleveland – Let ‘er Go, Boys! (Rounder)
5. Sunny Sweeney – Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame (self-released)
6. Chris Knight – Enough Rope (Drifter’s Church)
7. Bradley Walker – Highway of Dreams (Rounder)
8. Drive-By Truckers – A Blessing And A Curse (New West)
9. Bobby Bare Jr. – The Longest Meow (Bloodshot)
10. Paul Burch – East to West (Bloodshot)

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