Whitesnake Christmas

In the waning moments of the year top ten lists are about as omni-present as snow and frigid winds in winter-land chicago (where I find myself now). I feel some temptation to join in such musical end-of-the-year revelries, but rather than trying to gather the blue-ribbon winning bands into a little pen for a casual critic's petting zoo—admittedly an alluring idea when considering options like Grizzly Bear, the Mountain Goats, or Band of Horses—I'm feeling inclined to take a slightly different approach. Looking outside here, there is in fact not a single patch of snow in sight and just as strangely this week it has been warm enough to parade around like it was still the early days of autumn. Maybe I'm just newly enamored with the idea of seasons, having recently returned to the Midwest after a few years in San Francisco, but in place of a best-of list I'm going to wander back through the last half of 2006, considering what made up my soundtrack as summer shifted into fall and then gave way to winter (in it's confused, snow-less state)...

apologies to the queen mary, by wolf parade The Loon, by tapes n tapes I'll start with June and one big hanger-on from the previous year: Wolf Parade, Apologies to the Queen Mary has had staying-power for me since it first hit (admittedly a while ago now), but this summer it was again the fuel for the fire of many an urban San Francisco romp-about. It's such a clamorous, loose-limbed sound that's nonetheless so tightly woven together, and almost every track has an amazing melodic turn somewhere in the middle of the song that stopped me in my tracks, even the fortieth time around. The young eager moments of summer also found me listening to Tapes n' Tapes, The Loon. Some people seem to want to peg these guys as an illegitimate child (read: derivative) of Pixies and Pavement parentage, but that always seemed a bit reductive to me; if that's the bloodline we're talking about this kid has nonetheless grown up with it's own little tics, sounding like it's ended up in a perennial back-country bar brawl with a good ear for tunes on an entirely different jukebox.

Moving on... In July you should be doing certain things—yes, I don't care where you live or what your proclivities are—Ok, maybe not by mandate, but seriously those are days suited to croquet in the park and relaxed sprawling afternoons on bar patios. This of course can translate brilliantly into the night hours as well. (Croquet is never better than when it's on the sly and carried out at the witching hour). A couple albums set the tone: the electro-tinged beats and harmonies of Hot Chip, The Warning and Islands, Return to the Sea, which triumphantly resurrected the sounds of the deservedly beloved and sadly defunct Unicorns, with a distinctly height-of-summer flavor. It was also about that time that I fell pray to the gypsies, or perhaps let's, Balkan music, shall we. Among a few other albums, I really enjoyed Beirut, Gulag Orkestar, a fairly dazzling first record by 19 yr. old Zach Condon, who has taken that music tradition and made it in some sense his own; just goes to show that the accordian can at one moment provide a kick in the pants and the next be startlingly beautiful.

August found its soundtrack in more languorous sounds, as the final days of summer brought me back to the humid nights of Minnesota on my way to the new home in Chicago. Band of Horses, Everything All the Time offered an expansive feel and appropriately seemed to carry, simmering within it, the sensation of a slow transition to something big and new. Trading off with that outing were a couple records with a good back-porch feeling: Wooden Wand and the Sky High Band, Second Attention to suit the heat of day, and Brightblack Morning Light perfectly reflecting the thick nights that seem to just swallow themselves, quiet and endless.

September brought with it the big start of graduate school for me, and the release of what I'd consider the best record of the year (that's the most I'll flirt with the "best-of" list here). TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain is triumphant and challenging, densely-layered and through it all so-so-listenable. Far out-shining the band's previous efforts, I find this record so compelling, and marvelously of a sound that doesn't fall into a familiar category. This choice gets all of September but it hasn't been forgotten any month since. Most of these songs give me shivers.

Is October the heart of autumn? Maybe... I think I got Bonnie "Prince" Billy, The Letting Go in September but it didn't really blossom for me until the following month. (Really, none of this is strictly delineated, it all blends from month to month to a degree). Even if you happen to be sitting at a window looking out over Lake Michigan surrounded by a stack of heavy books, as I happened to be, October seems to be a month for envisioning long journeys and back roads, drifting about like falling leaves. BPB's latest album embodies that for me, and "Strange Forms of Life" in particularly takes me out in to the world and to who knows where. And then M. Ward, Post War brought me home again to roost; at turns subdued and raucaus, this is an album that captures the imminently natural and beautifully anachronistic yester-year feeling that made M. Ward's last effort, Transistor Radio, so satisfying. And he even manages to expand upon it. One more worth noting: Take a pass at The Long Winters, Putting the Days to Bed and also go mine their back catalog. I went to see The Long Winters play around the start of the month, which reminded me how fun and clever seemingly straightforward dive-bar rock songs can be.

In November I was in the thick of things, embroiled in university life, and thus rightly in need of music to fit a cycle of desperate scenarios. Peter, Bjorn and John, Writer's Block has the bouncy hooks that punctuated the occasional moments I found to escape into the world, and also at times made doing work a bit more fun. Swan Lake, Beast Moans offers up the song-writing skills of Spencer Krug of Wolf Parade, Dan Bejar of the also-excellent Destroyer and Carey Mercer of Frog Eyes—who I don't know as well—providing a much welcome dose of things great and familiar sounding, but with new flavors mixed in as well. Somehow the combination proved effective as some sort of initial inspiration for me to sit down to tackle a writing deadline or two. And then Junior Boys, So This is Goodbye provided the right tone for the walk back home across town: it exudes the odd beauties of solitude, and feels on one hand utterly, mechanically precise and on the other just seems to breath in the most human way. Their songs also seem to really fit those crisp moments when winter is starting to peer around the corner.

And then we arrive at December. A friend gave me a number of CDs by Josh Ritter, which have recently been making me very happy. It's nice to come across a good songwriter you hardly knew before. For the sake of grounding this discussion in 2006, I'd highlight Ritter's newest album, The Animal Years, but some of my favorite songs lie in his earlier outings. I've also been getting into the more meandering, experimental efforts of Grizzly Bear, Yellow House, which is a rich rewarding album on the whole, subtle but one that just swells and folds over on itself to a degree. It's just been sounding so right these days and it rewards you as an attentive listener.

So there you have it. When the snow finally comes I may have to turn to something else. Maybe that will signal it's time for a classic Whitesnake christmas...