Let me begin by casting my vote for the best national CD released this year: Post-War by M. Ward. When I reviewed it in September, I wrote that Ward was on the short list of musicians who are reinventing folk-rock for the 21st century.
That list includes Sufjan Stevens, Death Cab for Cutie and the Decemberists, among others. Over the past two years they've collectively forged the most interesting pop-music movement of the decade so far.
The best song from Post-War says a lot about this new brand of indie-folk. 'To Go Home' is impassioned defiance against the inevitability of death. Its lyrics are highly romantic, and its blend of rising piano chords, guitar and drums create a dreamy, impressionistic sound.
Today's indie-folk artists seem bent on soothing a nation burned out on war, just as singer-songwriters James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Carole King did in the early 1970s.
Sadly, I never heard Post-War on a local commercial radio station. In 2006, even the most progressive channels on the commercial dial seemed to categorically exclude independent music from their playlists, save an occasional goodwill nod to a local artist. Thankfully, we could count on WSUM and WORT for exposure to all of the best new music.
But now onto the year in local music, which can be summed up as a story of renewal and resilience in the face of change and challenge.
Summer 2006 proved to be a season of goodbyes. In August, we said farewell to Carl Johns, the creative force behind Charlemagne and Noahjohn and a mainstay of our scene for a decade. Johns moved to Philadelphia to be closer to a fertile East Coast gig circuit and to try to make it as a full-time musician.
Weeks earlier, two leaders of the local hip-hop scene, Brody Rose and Rob Dz, joined in a farewell show at the King Club. Dz moved to Chicago to pursue new musical opportunities, while Rose relocated to Washington, D.C.
Rose and Dz had been part of a core group (along with DLO and dumate) that redefined Madison hip-hop during the first half of this decade. Rose's influential Web site, madisonhiphop.com, had evolved as the creative clearinghouse of the hip-hop scene. The 2004 release by the Rob Dz Experience, Soul Anthems, typified the intelligent, spiritually oriented new direction of local rap.
As fans mourned these losses, local music showed why it's ultimately a renewable energy source.
Screamin' Cyn Cyn & the Pons emerged as one of the most popular new local bands. The makeup, costumes and stage antics of Shane O'Neil and Cynthia Burnson had the feel of performance art, and pop-punk singles like 'Garbage Day' were full of irony, absurdity and wit.
Austin-based country songwriter Owen Temple moved to Madison and began playing shows at venues like the Weary Traveler and the Crystal Corner this fall. Having sold more than 25,000 copies of his first three albums in Texas, Temple moved here to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology, having already established himself as a Master of Twang.
Summer brought a steady stream of headlines about violence outside Club Majestic on King Street. A stabbing in early August prompted the city to limit audience size for DJ shows at the club, effectively ending the large hip-hop events that had come to be associated with the disturbances. By the end of August, owner Nick Schiavo had put Club Majestic up for sale.
The violence ignited a local debate: Does hip-hop music incite people to harm others? For so many of Madison's most committed hip-hop artists, the question felt insulting, a little like suggesting to the Badger faithful that a group of bottle-throwing drunkards in the stadium should put an end to the traditions of Game Day.
Some Club Majestic shows attracted an element interested in feeding off a mass party scene, and that had nothing to do with the art of hip-hop. By year's end, Arthur Richardson showed Madison what local hip-hop was really all about.
Richardson's 'Feel the Beat' conference, held Nov. 4 at the UW, was a hip-hop industry showcase for local youth. The conference was an extension of Richardson's Streets of Gold Productions, an organization that promotes hip-hop as a source of positive involvement for local youth. The conference was highlighted by a hip-hop producer competition that gave a rare spotlight to talented beat makers like Josue Guadalupe.
2006's high gas prices may have bit into clubgoers' pocketbooks and caused many to just stay home. 'In general, our ticket volume has been way down,' Barrymore Theatre manager Steve Sperling told The Capital Times in November. According to the Inferno's Apollo Marquez, 'Our summer was really slow.'
But if high gas prices were a problem, other national trends had a positive effect on the Madison scene. In The Year of the Immigrant, Latin pop brought new sounds and new audiences to the local stage. The 10 members of Kali Kalor play cumbia, a style of Colombian music known for its danceable rhythms and regional variations. But they also include two rappers, a sultry lead singer and three underage, high-energy dancers. Their song 'Mi Nuevo Amor' was a Top 10 hit on Madison's La Movida radio for much of 2006.
The highlight of my own Madison music year was the Madison Area Music Awards, held at the Wisconsin Union Theater last March. It was a long show, but for those of us who are energized by this community of local music, time flew.
That night, among that group of people, it was easy to see why Madison music weathered 2006's challenges. Onward to 2007.