A surprising, but red hot, Album of the Year

Most anyone familiar with my musical tastes may find my selection for record of the year for 2006 surprising. Sure, there was a new Dylan and a new Springsteen. What ultimately won out, though, was Stadium Arcadium by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The selection prompts several observations.

I’d never heard a Red Hot Chili Peppers record before this one. And I didn’t even pick this up until after the first of this year. Why then? First, it was No. 2 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 50 top albums of 2006. Then it was nominated for six Grammy Awards (ultimately winning four). The combination of the two led me to listen to the two-CD set. I was impressed from the opening cut (the Grammy-winning “Dani California”) but was even more surprised when the quality carried all the way through the second CD. This is an amalgamation of a lot of what makes for good ol’ rock music. It melds a variety of influences from 30 years ago to the present. While a few tunes have a similar feel and sound (which might be expected when there are 28 songs in total), the bottom line is this is just one damn fine piece of rock music, incorporating Hendrix to rap to ballads to pop to you name it. It is refreshing to hear rock music today that incorporates and advances the impact of prior artists.

The album is also a perfect indication of why the RIAA’s efforts against downloading music can actually work against artists. As I said, I’d never heard a Chili Peppers album before. In fact, I may have only heard one of their tunes before, their remake of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” While impressed by that, it, Rolling Stone and the Grammys aren’t sufficient for me to buy a two-CD set by a band to which I’ve had such limited exposure. Yet because I was intrigued, I located and downloaded the album. Within a week of doing so, I bought the set. It is a sale that would have never occurred but for having heard it first thanks to the internet.

Why not Dylan’s Modern Times? After all, it was No. 1 on Rolling Stone‘s list and also garnered several Grammy nominations. It continues Dylan’s exploration and extrapolation of what I would call roots rock. That said, Dylan is disadvantaged by my love of Blood on the Tracks and Highway 61 Revisited. It’s not fair to hold each of his releases to those standards but the result is that Modern Times is to me as Love and Theft was: a welcome display of Dylan’s incomparable talents but not something that is going to win out when I look to put a Dylan CD in the player.

If the amount of time spent in a CD player at home or in the car were the test for album of the year, Neil Young’s Live at the Fillmore East might be the hands down winner. This is Neil with Crazy Horse during what I consider to be one of his most productive and creative periods. And the CD plainly demonstrates why he later was called the godfather of grunge. He and Crazy Horse played like that before anybody ever thought of calling it grunge. It ultimately doesn’t earn album of the year honors due to an wholly arbitrary technicality. Coming out of the vault, I don’t consider it a 2006 recording. (Ironically, that same standard made Young’s Prairie Wind my 2005 record of the year instead of Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall.)

Why did I discount other popular or highly praised albums from the year? As I said at the time, Springsteen’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions just isn’t the kind of music I really enjoy. While The Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls in America reminds me of the E Street Band, it didn’t maintain my interest. Falling even shorter was The Crane Wife by The Decemberists, which not only bored me on first listen but increased my boredom on subsequent ones.

Who knows? Maybe two or five years from now I’ll look back and wonder how Stadium Arcadium made the cut this year. I ain’t asking now, though, because I keep listening to it and cuts from it keep running through my head. You’ve got to admire a two-CD collection of songs that can pull that off, especially when your toughest decision is which of the two CDs to listen to.

The more I see the less I know

“Snow (Hey Oh),” Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stadium Arcadium

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