Put Your Records On
As I mentioned when writing about my favorite albums of 2006, I've listened to more currently popular music this past year than in any recent year. However: I don't presume to have heard everything worth hearing, or anything remotely close to a meaningful percentage of everything worth hearing, because it's just not possible, given the ongoing fragmentation of pop music into genres, sub-genres, and sub-sub-genres.
Not that I haven't tried. I subscribed to Paste in hopes of getting hip to worthwhile new stuff, but the sheer volume of music the magazine covers on a monthly basis made it hard to separate what I might like from what I wouldn't--and the sampler CDs weren't helping all that much, either. Plus, I found I'm lacking the referents in a lot of cases--when one new band was matter-of-factly described as having a distinct Built-to-Spill-influence, but I had no damn idea who Built to Spill was, I realized that before I could get fully hip to what's happening now, I'd have to get hip to what was happening five years ago. At that point, I pretty much gave up.
Having said all that, however, there were a few contemporary artists I managed to get exposed to this year. Some of these artists were mentioned by music bloggers I like; others I managed to catch on TV. Maybe I've heard only a song or two, and I haven't necessarily been moved to buy an entire album, but what I've heard, I like. Here's the list, in no particular order, at first:
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. A friend tipped me earlier this year to the album Naturally by saying, "I can't believe this album came out in the past year or so--it sounds like something straight out of 1972." Which it does, despite being recorded in 2005. Sharon, who was a corrections officer at New York City's Rikers Island Prison in an earlier life, is clearly still a person who don't take no mess. Key track: "This Land Is Your Land," which is like no version of this song you can possibly imagine. It sounds like Woody Guthrie crossed with Al Green, if Al Green were a very funky woman.
The Scissor Sisters. In general, there's little in pop music I find more brain-numbing than dance music. That's the pigeonhole into which you'd drop the Scissor Sisters. However, they list Elton John as one of their influences, and he considers himself a fan. When I read somewhere that a few of the songs on their latest album Ta-Dah sounded like classic Elton, that was enough to get me to check them out. Some of what I heard I liked, and some I didn't, but I especially liked "She's My Man" from Ta-Dah and "Take Your Mama," from 2004's Scissor Sisters, an album that also features the weirdest imaginable cover of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb."
Amos Lee. His self-titled debut album actually arrived in 2005, with a followup, Supply and Demand, coming this year. The easy comparison is with Norah Jones--he's got that same kind of vibe. He's also sometimes compared to James Taylor, albeit with more soul. Key track: "Keep it Loose, Keep it Tight," from his debut album.
Josh Rouse. Compared to almost everybody else on this list, he's a veteran, having released his first solo album in 1998. I discovered him in 2003, when Salon praised his album 1972 by highlighting its 70s influences--folks like Steely Dan, Carole King, and Todd Rundgren. That was excuse enough for me to hear more. Rouse has released two albums since then, Nashville in 2005 and Subitulo this year. I really ought to go and buy 'em, because I have yet to hear anything from either one that I don't like. Key tracks: "Love Vibration" from 1972, "Quiet Town" from Subitulo.
The Dixie Chicks. I have rarely hated an album with as much enthusiasm as I hated the Chicks' 1999 album Fly. Halfway into the very first listen, Natalie Maines' voice started to grate on me, and if the album had been one song longer, I'd have had to flee the room. It hasn't been back in the player since. Yet I was sympathetic to the Chicks' plight when their innocuous anti-Bush remark nearly wrecked their career, and I felt a sort of moral obligation, as a good liberal, to at least listen to their post-furor album Take the Long Way, if not to actually pony up the cash for it. The first single, "Not Ready to Make Nice," was a perfect fuck-you to everybody who'd been demanding they admit they were wrong to take the stand they took.
KT Tunstall. Singer-songwriter from Scotland who grew up digging David Bowie and learned to sing by listening to Ella Fitzgerald records. Key track: "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" is one of the most distinctive records I heard all year. I'd rank it at Number Three on my list of favorite singles of the year, behind Springsteen's "Pay Me My Money Down" (which I posted yesterday) at Number One.
Who'd be at Number Two?
Corinne Bailey Rae. Rae grew up listening to Led Zeppelin and eventually sang in a hard-rock band, but a college job singing in a jazz club led to a record deal--and the record deal led to her self-titled debut album, featuring the utterly charming single "Put Your Records On." People often compare Rae and Norah Jones, but Rae's got an easy manner about her--if this were a jazz album, we'd call it "swing"--that seems to come more naturally to her than it does to Jones.
(Buy a deluxe CD/DVD edition of Tunstall's Eye to the Telescope here; buy Rae's debut album here.)
If you've heard something new in 2006 that you especially liked, please share it with the whole class in the comments.