Music fans are very sequential creatures. Besides thinking of our favorite albums, live shows, songs and so on of the year, sometimes publishing them for others to consume, we eat up the lists provided by others, be they publications, broadcasters, or your older sibling. In fact, it's likely that many of us have a top list of our favorite top music lists, those sources that we favor and trust above all others.
While recently entering my favorite five new albums released in 2006 for the KEXP Top 90.3 countdown, I realized that the B-Side Records annual four-page best-of list extravaganza was likely out and on the shop's counter. Indeed, Madison's most jam-packed end-of-the-year list -- its sixteenth edition -- was ready for reading.
The State Street record store's formula is relatively simple; every current employee and as many past employees as possible are solicited to submit their best-of-2006 list. There are no constricting guidelines, as the lists can be as short as nine albums to nearly as long as one hundred, not counting the supplementary songs and live shows that can listed as well. Then there's always a guest, one person who is invited by B-Side to submit their favorites too. In the end, everything gets tallied up, and the four-page thicket of lists is condensed to their collected "favorite things," with any album receiving three or more picks featured and framed.
The top two albums of the year, as picked by B-Side staff and alumni, are The Letting Go by Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and Fox Confessor Brings the Flood by Neko Case.. More than three-dozen albums follow in this super list.
"The compiling and designing process doesn't change much from year to year," explains B-Side co-owner Steve Manley. "I pry a list from each of the employees by warning everyone a month in advance," he continues, "ticking off the weeks on a little post right on the cash register so it returns to view whenever anyone is working at the counter." Eventually he receives a mix of handwritten, printed and emailed lists, with a few stragglers missing the deadline. "I expect that," Manley says, "it's in the nature of people to procrastinate," so no big deal.
The process for former employees is similar, with email requests and weekly reminders. "Normally, nearly half of the folks I ask send me a list," Manley says. These alumni are allowed to submit 5 to 25 favorites, while there is no limit for the current employees. This year's guest contributor is "Jules," who he describes as "one of our best, most loyal and longtime customers."
The compilation comes next. "After I type up everyone's lists, I count up the 'votes' and summarize them at the end," Manley explains. "It's sort of like handing out ribbons or medals to the most communally admired artists. Sometimes none of us feel that the 'winners' necessarily made the 'best' albums; they simply represent the discs that lots of us enjoy enough to 'vote' for." He also points to the disclaimer following this super list, which indicates that the contributors do not discuss their selections with one another in order to make the list "as personalized as possible."
The final step is production of the list, which is printed on both sides of a folded 11" x 17" sheet of paper. Kind-of like a best of the year zine. Manley explains that he selects a design theme for each edition by looking at public domain art books. "This year I kept it simple by using only one source," he notes, "an Art Nouveau frame book." Stating that he has "extremely limited computer skills," he picks out a font that can be read at 4 or 5 points, prints it at twice that size, and completes the project with an old-school approach. "I take it all down to the copy shop and shrink, cut and paste it all," he says. "Which is why the finished product is less than 'professional' looking, but whatever."
Here are Manley's "Super Six for '06" albums:
Yo La Tengo: I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass -- I am not afraid to say: this band RULES once again. Yeah, yeah... they always appear on my list... but haven't hit #1 in a while. Their strongest in 9 years... or maybe 20. A sprawling, multifaceted, face-melting epic.
Jenny Lewis w/ the Watson Twins: Rabbit Fur Coat -- A real head-turner. Lyrically powerful & cutting, taking on authority & faith & fakery, but wrapped in gorgeous folk-pop melodies. Hauntingly sung by Jenny and her soulful, gospel-styled Watson Twins. An artistic breakthrough.
Califone; Roots & Crowns -- This band's apparent kitchen-sink-and-more instrumentation was awe-inspiring on their debut 5 years ago. The next couple albums were enjoyable, but not as amazing as that first one. The boys have matched (topped?) that disc with this richly textured treat.
Neko Case: Fox Confessor Brings the Flood -- One of the most effortlessly powerful singers of our time racks up another winner. If you're not familiar with this phenom, you owe it to yourself to take the plunge.
Squarewave: s/t/ -- Way back in the mid-eighties, there was a 'sconnie band called Ivory Library. They were my favorite "local" band for over a decade. Their last disc came out 11 years ago. Now Jeff & Pat are finally back with a new band, new disc, new inspiration. Lush, deluxe psych-pop.
the Cush: New Appreciation for Sunshine -- A favorite new discovery. Also on the lush psych-pop train, these thoughtful, creative Vermonters are fronted by a husband & wife team. With dashes of Americana, this disc can compare favorably w/ the best songs of the Mendoza Line or Sparklehorse.
Manley elaborates upon his shout-out to Squarewave. "I must disclaim," he begins, "Jeff [Jagielo] is a longtime friend. So, yes, I am giving my friend props." That's certainly not Manley's only reason, though. He explains that the band is too modest to promote themselves, and has therefore taken it upon himself to spread the word about the album. "Squarewave have no 'career' ambitions in music, they just love to make good songs in their spare time," Manley says. "I just want a few more folks to notice the high-quality psychedelic pop/rock they are capable of."
Besides these top six picks in his year-end gift basket, this serious music listeners lists another eighty-plus albums released over the year that he finds "noteworthy." Among their number is Law, the debut release from a Cougar (MySpace page). They are a post-rock quintet with roots in Madison, in part an offshoot of the Youngblood Brass Band, that creates an (appropriately enough) layered, instrumental, and electronic sound that evokes urgency above all else.
"I don't 'know' those guys, haven't seen them live yet," Manley explains, "but for anyone who enjoys instrumental 'post-rock' as pioneered by Tortoise, Cougar have created an admirable soundscape." He lauds their musicianship, particularly the drumming by D.H. Skogen of Youngblood, describing their "very dynamic" sound as holding "surprising layers of texture, with melodic segments that have a very organic flow."
Released in the U.S. on Oct. 24, many months after getting distribution in Europe, Law has emerged as a darkhorse favorite on an increasing number of year-end lists. It was already getting high-praise in late December 2005, when Irish music journalist Sinead Gleeson forecast it as one of the best albums of this year. More recently, British dance-rock group MaxÃmo Park picked the album as one of their favorites of the year, while respected music blogger Steve Marchese suggested that Law could vie amongst his year-end best-ofs.
What about Manley's favorite live shows of 2006? Here they are, listed in chronological order:
the Dials/Screamin' Cyn Cyn/Brief Candles/His & Her Vanities @ HNS
Drunk Drivers/Shakey/MaeRae (Petefest) @ High Noon Saloon (HNS)
Chris Mills trio/Charlemagne duo @ Chateau Kiki
Richard Buckner + Doug Gillard @ CafÃ Montmartre
Jim White/the Handsome Family @ Stage Door
Undertow Orchestra (Bazan/Eitzel/Johnson/Chestnutt) @ Stage Door
the New Pornographers/Matt Pond PA/Dios (malos) @ the Barrymore
the M's @ Union Rathskellar
Nada Surf/Rogue Wave @ the Annex
Ray Davies (!) @ the Barrymore
Edith Frost + Zincs @ CafÃ Montmartre
Centro-matic/Great Lake Swimmers @ King Club
Josh Rouse @ Stage Door
Low @ HNS
Silver Jews/Why? @ HNS
Robbie Fulks @ Harmony Bar
Rhettt Miller @ the Barrymore
the New Pornographers/Archer Prewitt @ HNS
Aaron Scholz + Forever Changes trio (!) @ Mickey's
Graham Lindsey/Ben Weaver/Charlemagne @ CafÃ Montmartre
WORT Block Party!
Tapes 'n' Tapes @ the Annex
Bill Frisell Quartet @ the Barrymore
Marquette Waterfront Fest!
Rogue Wave @ the Annex
BellRays/the Dials @ HNS
Aimee Mann/Chris Mills @ the Barrymore
Beth Orton @ the Barrymore
Ween @ the Orpheum
Tom Petty @ the Heartbreakers/Dandy Warhols @ the Alliant
Built To Spill @ the Barrymore
Willy Street Fair!
Joel Paterson Blues Roundup (!) the Overture lobby
Heavy Trash + the Sadies @ HNS
Luciana Souza + L.A. Guitar Quartet @ Capitol Theater
Mojave 3/Tim O'Reagan @ HNS
Frank Black @ HNS
Alejandro Escovedo/Robbie Fulks (!/!) @ HNS
Pernice Brothers/Elvis Perkins @ HNS
Chris Smither @ the Overture lobby
Wilco @ the Barrymore
...last, not least... all the FUN shows by local artists:
Charlemagne... New Recruits? His & Her Vanities... Shakey... MaeRae... the Shunken Heads... Primordial Soup... Aaron Scholz... the Runners Up... Gripewater... Sleeping in the Aviary... Houses in Motion... the Gomers
And that.s only one of several favorite shows lists in the four-page music retrospective, never mind the album picks.
"You may have noticed that I always hog the most space," Manley quips. "While it is admittedly excessive, even perhaps offensive to take up half a page with my favorite things, I have a hard time editing out stuff I find worthy of notice. Besides, this has always been my little pet project. This is the sixteenth annual 'best-of' list, and I can be a pig at my own party, right?"
Manley says that the shop's 2006 list will not be posted online anytime soon, so you'll need to stop by B-Side in order to pick one up. Their "Best of the Year" lists for the previous three years are available here, with only another 50 weeks or so until their 2007 edition. This year's will be on paper at B-Side into early next year.