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”
Stream: Howling Bells – “The Bell Hit” (WMA)
Video: Howling Bells – “Broken Bones” (YouTube)
Video: Howling Bells – “Setting Sun” (YouTube)
Video: Howling Bells – “Blessed Night” (YouTube)
MySpace: Howling Bells

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.

MP3: Trespassers William – “Safe Sound”
MySpace: Trespassers William

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.

MP3: The Radio Dept – “The Worst Taste In Music”
Video: The Radio Dept – “The Worst Taste In Music” (YouTube)
MySpace: The Radio Dept

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.

Video: Loose Fur – “Hey Chicken”
MySpace: Loose Fur

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.

By : Frank Yang at 8:56 am
Category: Uncategorized
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  1. stytzer says:

    Most of the albums that will end up in my year-end list probably fits the "no-love" description. Probably because I’m focusing on Danish/European releases? Interesting Danish releases include albums by Windermere, moi Caprice, Late Night Venture, VETO and EPO-555. And albums by other artists like The Ballet, iLiKETRAiNS, The Oxygen Ponies, The Electric Pop Group and DulceSky are also worth a listen.

  2. Eric Grubbs says:

    I’m a big advocate of Blackpool Lights’ ‘This Town’s Disaster’. The description of the band sounds so vanilla (former Get Up Kids member fronts a Sire-era Replacements/Reprise-era Westerberg rock band), but damn, their songs are catchy and tuneful.

    Also, the pAper chAse’s ‘Now You Are One of Us’ is great. It may not be easy on the ears for some (lots of "wrong" notes, dissonance), but it’s one of their most welcoming albums.

  3. Dan Dickinson says:

    Jolie Holland’s Springtime Can Kill You didn’t get enough love. Also, Mogwai’s Mr. Beast kind of got lost in the noise but I thought it was their best release in years.

  4. ack says:

    The Jolie Holland release is fantastic and William Whitmore’s Song of the Blackbird… I also love J Tillman’s Minor Works. Not sure why other people don’t catch on to that one.

  5. Mick says:

    Nice work, but I really had high hopes for the Radio Dept. album, and it was a let down.

  6. Chris says:

    Apse had a pretty good album this year called Spirit. Worth checking out.

  7. indiefolkforever says:

    The somewhat left-field member of my top 10 list (soon to be posted…) is Liz Isenberg’s Seeports Seaports Seeports on Leisure Class Records. Plenty of downloads at
    RIYL Mirah, mid-period Smog, Sentridoh, early Cat Power, Julie Doiron.

  8. Blair says:

    As for favorites of the year, I can’t understand why Califone and Film School aren’t getting more attention. Especially Califone. And as for under-the-radar…I really liked Belong’s October Language, and Tim Hecker’s Harmony in Ultraviolet, but I guess that’s the kind of sound that doesn’t show up on too many lists. Others are Fleeting Joys, Human Bell, Track a Tiger, and Gob Iron.

  9. Jeremy says:

    I really like the new Lilys album. Its a great mix all of the different styles that the band has gone through. Really melodic and pretty at times, swirly guitars sometimes and really interesting lyrics. Its called "Everything Wrong is Imaginary", check it out.

  10. brads says:

    Finn’s Motel – "Escape Velocity". Might be my favorite album of ’06, and deserves far more attention than I’ve seen online.

    I was so overwhelmed by the deluge of year-end lists in ’05 that I skipped doing my own on the ‘Nac last year. They’ve only increased exponentially this time around… the signal to noise ratio is just insane. And again, I don’t think I’m going to add to it…

  11. brads says:

    Oh, and speaking of The Radio Dept. (and Peru), they just shared up an entire live show that was recorded down there…


  12. mike says:

    Lily Allen, "Alright, Still". C’mon how does she go from blogging/MySpace sensation to not showing up on anyone’s year-end list? It was the album I had to break my rule of not downloading leaks because I thought the domestic release of the album was going to be next year[it turned out that the Canadian release was this past Autumn which was a nice surprise]. Great album.

  13. Matt says:

    The Liverpool band Shack put out one of the year’s best albums, …The Corner of Miles and Gil, on Noel Gallagher’s label. It was never released here in North America, which is a shame. Haven’t even seen it mentioned in the UK "Best of…" lists. Well worth hunting down an import copy.

  14. feats of strength says:

    Mute Math. Underappreciated by listmakers.

  15. Toby says:

    Both Howling Bells and Radio Dept made it into my top 20 records of the year, along with a few other ones that I thought didn’t get the recognition they deserved.

    Another good list with a bunch of good stuff that you might have flown under your radar is at:

  16. pgwp says:

    Wow, for a second there I thought you’d just cut and pasted a post from my blog–until I realized I hadn’t written this post yet. I’m with you on the Radio Dept. – it’s good but not as good as Lesser Matters, but I root for them anyway, because Lesser Matters was so good.

    The band that flew under my radar was Midlake. They seem to be showing up on people’s lists here and there but I swear I didn’t hear word one about them until last week. Just picked up their album this weekend and am loving it to death.

  17. JDS says:

    Jane Weaver, Seven Day Smile. I think it’s a UK only release, but I found a copy on an endcap at Other Music. The handwritten note describing it mentioned that Doves served as her backing band for the record. It’s excellent. If you get excited when Fade Into You comes up on the iPod, you’ll dig it.

  18. Roland says:

    I’ve really been loving Trespassers lately as well; the Ride cover on Different Stars is fantastic. I actually first heard Anna-Lynne on the Chemical Brothers’ track "Hold Tight London" from last year’s Push The Button, which is I highly recommend. Check out their KCRW set, too:

    Keep up the good work, Frank!

  19. wayne massingham says:

    the donkeys record seems to have gone unnoticed, i also think what the toll tells-two gallants was very under rated

  20. Ryan says:

    The Old Soul’s self titled album… I haven’t see it mentioned much anywhere but have really been enjoying it.

  21. craig mailman says:

    pas/cal dir sir
    It is only an ep but still…

  22. Mr Green says:

    Ohhh, i got excited for a new Trespassers William song, but you’ve got it mislabelled… should say Howling Bells, I guess.

    Great blog, I especially like the weekly covers, and any blog named after a RIDE song is ok by me :)

    "Having" is my album of the year.

  23. satisfied75 says:

    i found motel de moka’s year end list to feature a boatload of albums I was unfamiliar with. wow, i just said "boatload."

  24. Sean says:

    The Veils – Nux Vomica

    Another great talent largely ignored in North America. Why?

  25. Thierry says:

    Some of my favourite records of the year were almost completely overlooked over here – Tom Zé, Teddybears, Jane Birkin…The fact that everyone didn’t go crazy for the Tom Zé record is a little shocking, considering that, between the Soul Jazz compilation and Os Mutantes reunion, this was pretty much the year of Tropicalia!

  26. shawn says:

    Man seeing the Howling Bells on here makes me so stoked. Very glad I got you to listen to ONE thing this year :)

  27. mark says:

    The New Tragedies (http://www.thenewtragedies…. uh, duh) make beautiful, soulful pop music somewhere between Whiskeytown and The Shins. My #1 album of hte year followed by punk/indie rock… go figure.

  28. craig says:

    I concur on Loose Fur. The Song "Ruling Class" alone clinches it and is as good as any Wilco song. Everything I write about is under the radar so it’s hard to specify anything in particular and I’m with Bradley this list thing is getting a little absurd. Now there are lists, compilations of lists, lists about lists, etc etc.

  29. bulut says:

    Sean you’re right about The Veils – Nux Vomica which is a very great record. Also, The previous record of The Veils is cool, great band to dig! Lavinia!!!