The other night, I got a call from an old high school buddy who wanted to catch up. When we met for dinner, we asked each other the usual questions--jobs, relationships, did you see how fat what's-his-name got--and then he asked me a point-blank question that, for whatever reason, caught me by surprise.
"What music's good these days?"
After I choked down my Pavlovian response ("Why don't you read my fucking articles?"), I realized his question made too much sense. He's a casual listener who never bothers with music magazines or Web sites, but he's still interested in good, new tunes. Of course, his easiest means of hearing bands--MTV and local radio--are the pits, so where's he supposed to turn?
I burnt him a mix CD, but plenty of other hometown ears are stuck in a similar predicament, and they need help without hassle. As a public service, I present a mid-year primer. It's not necessarily an '06 best-of; rather, it's a catchy, to-the-point mix of some of the sharpest, most interesting tracks bubbling in the underground (and even the mainstream) that will grab casual listeners' attention.
Some backpacker hip-hop, experimental noise and super-folky songs have been jettisoned for the sake of this mission, and some choices may seem too obvious or--gasp--boring, but noble pursuits are never perfect, right?
1. "The Great Salt Lake," Band of Horses: Start the mix off right with the best new accessible rock band of the year. Plenty's been said about the band's mix of the Shins and My Morning Jacket, but this song, more than the rest of Everything All The Time, is the best at rendering those comparisons moot.
2. "Insistor," Tapes 'n Tapes: Pitchfork Media hype's a bitch, but Minnesota's surprise of the year earns it in spades. This Talking Heads-appreciative single's chorus alone will get drilled in your friend's memory for a good while.
3. "Crazy," Gnarls Barkley: Currently racking up insane levels of European hype. Goodie Mob's Cee-Lo deserved this much attention with his sophomore solo album in 2004; then again, that album didn't have a single as soul-pop perfect as "Crazy."
4. "Mysteries," Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Not exactly a new discovery, but it's not like the Edge ever plays it. This song takes the balls of the band's debut EP and wraps 'em up in the catchiness of Fever to Tell, resulting in a Karen O. that is intense, not intimidating.
5. "Summer Lawn," Aloha: Slow the mix CD down with Chicago's best synth-twee quartet as they infuse an almost-Keane piano-pop melody with classic-rock organ and Bonham-leaning drums.
6. "Lydia, You're Fading," Oceanographer: So far, this Denton-to-Brooklyn's album is the best local (well, semi-local) album of the year. Emphasis on the "so far," of course.
7. "Stadiums and Shrines," Sunset Rubdown: I'm cheating, since this disc doesn't reach stores for two weeks, but hot damn, Wolf Parade's Spencer Krug has a beast on his hands with what sounds like the most beautiful love letter ever written to Built to Spill.
8. "Watch The Days Slowly Fade," Norfolk & Western: Here, N&W crams the acoustic, indie charm of Destroyer into an easily digested three-minute single. Trick your buddy if you need to--label the track as a Toad the Wet Sprocket B-side.
9. "It Just Ain't Right," Ne-Yo: This Arkansas-born crooner has stormed the R&B charts with "So Sick," proving that even half-decent songs can make R&B waves these days, but this up-tempo New Jack jam about a long-over breakup has much more meat on its baby-come-back bones.
10. "Free Radicals," The Flaming Lips: Wayne Coyne conjures Prince and Led Zeppelin...easy choice.
11. "Rough Gem," Islands: A string-laced intro leads into a Canadian indie-rock tribute to Brazilians like Os Mutantes. That may sound a little obtuse, but "Rough Gem" couldn't be catchier.
12. "Pyrite Pedestal," Pretty Girls Make Graves: As the Seattle group discards its "dude, we're almost punk rock" costume and assumes a better-fitting pop identity, now's as good a time as any to turn more casual listeners onto 'em.
13. "Just Might Be Okay," Lupe Fiasco: This is how Kanye should've done "Diamonds from Sierra Leone." The track's crazy beat mixes old-school synths with huge horns, a well-sung chorus and Fiasco's smoother-than-West delivery.
14. "The Sniper at the Gates of Heaven," Black Angels: Hopefully, your unsuspecting friend has enjoyed the mix up to this point, because "Sniper" is intentionally hard to grab onto. The song is about intensity, not melody, but its dark, Doors-ish build explodes in a fist-tightening chorus that results in one of the year's best singles by far...
15. "Roscoe," Midlake: ...and this is another one.
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