Year End Review 2006

Best Music 2006

2006 turned out to be a much better year for music than 2005 or 2004. Before we get to the best of the lot, here are some others that didn’t quite make the cut, and smart-ass commentary about them.

Who cares about CDs when they’ve got iTunes: Justin Timberlake, Pussycat Dolls, Fergie

If only critics had to buy CDs, they’d be loaded: TV on the Radio, Joanne Newsom, The Decemberists

I’m too white to appreciate real hip-hop: Ghostface Killah, Clipse, T.I.

Too British to actually be good: Arctic Monkeys, The Streets, Lady Sovereign

Too young to be as good as they think they are: Panic! At the Disco, My Chemical Romance, All-American Rejects

Aren’t they dead yet? Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, The Beatles

Why do kids have so much disposable income these days: Aly & AJ, the Hannah Montana soundtrack, and the High School Musical soundtrack – the best selling album of 2006. Sigh.

Ok enough goofing around. Here is the list, starting at the top, and going on from there. There is a less clear distinction this year between the “elite” and the rest of the list. Instead what we have is a collection of 14 albums that excite, console, shock, shake, woo, and coo.

Gnarls Barkley – St. Elsewhere Sure signs of the apocalypse: Red Sox win the World Series (check). Paris Hilton gives up sex (check). Borat makes fast money big $120 million in US alone (check). Gnarls Barkley storms the British and American charts and gets an album of the year Grammy nomination (check). Funkier than Gorillaz and freakier than OutKast, DJ Danger Mouse drops a psychedelic blend of beguiling hip-hop, pop, soul, and rock beats, and Cee-Lo unleashes his dirty soul falsetto that turns Justin Timberlake and Ace Young into jealous little schoolgirls. This stuff is some kind of freaky, with songs about feng shui, necromancing, monsters, suicide, and transformers! Performances typically feature the duo dressed in costumes such as chefs, tennis players, or characters from movies like Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, and Austin Powers. Highlights on the disc include the manic “Smiley Faces”, groovy “The Last Dance”, the impeccable cover of the Violent Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone” – and of course THE single that started it all, “Crazy” – the song of the year as well as the most covered song of the year. “I remember when / I remember when I lost my mind / There was something so pleasant about that place.” Gnarls Barkley is like a massive train wreck: just try to look away. High five!

Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins – Rabbit Fur Coat She’s a little bit country, she’s a little bit rock and roll. Lead singer of indie rock band Rilo Kiley recruited the serene Kentucky bluegrass harmonies of the Watson Twins to create an alt-country masterpiece. One part wisenheimer, one part blue-eyed soul, Lewis has enough hipster panache to knock it out of the park. The title track is an evocative, slow-waltz story of a poor girl and her ma straight out of either the deep South or the Hollywood hills. “Rise Up with Fists” connected with the MTV and CBGB sets in equal measures with tongue planted firmly in cheek: “It’s hard to believe your prophets / When they’re asking you to change things / But with their suspect lives we look the other way / Are you really that pure, Sir? / Thought I saw you in Vegas / It was not pretty, but she was (not your wife)”.

The Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America Combine the storytelling of Springsteen with the raw energy of Social Distortion and you get something resembling The Hold Steady. Bred in Minneapolis and now rocking in NYC (who isn’t?), the lyrics here spill over themselves like a Kerouac novel. “She was a really cool kisser and she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian / She was a damn good dancer but she wasn’t all that great of a girlfriend.” The irony here is that the kids in the songs may be too drunk or high to appreciate how beat happening these tunes are as much as those of us twice their age do. How can anyone who rocks this hard be this eloquent? “She was golden with barlight and beer / She slept like she’d never been scared / And then last night she said words alone never could save us / And then last night / She cried when she told us about Jesus.” With a reputation as the best bar band in America, The Hold Steady show how much more than Nickelback and 3 Doors Down American rock can be.

Nelly Furtado – Loose After two albums of trippy and introspective folk pop, Nelly could have headed down a familiar path to cult following or dull irrelevance. Instead, she took a cue from Princess Gwen and brought sexy back, with 80s-inspired big beat jams, courtesy of Timbaland – resulting in one of the biggest pop albums of the year. As before, where Nelly retains her personality and lets her Portuguese roots shine through are where she shines brightest. The new wave electro grooves (“Afraid”, “Maneater”, “Glow”) and the rhythmic, beat-driven jams (the undeniable “Say It Right”, and the hit of the summer, “Promiscuous”) are the cream of the crop here. There are a few moments that border on generic pop; otherwise, this album is close to pure dance-pop bliss. Furtalicious!

Cat Power – The Greatest Born and raised in Georgia and refined on NYC grunge, Chan Marshall (Cat Power) headed to Memphis to assemble a white soul homage to the songs she grew up with, for her seventh record. The arrangements and the voice are subdued, but the lyrics pack a wallop. Her story of a fallen boxer, in the title track, is arresting and poetic: “Once I wanted to be the greatest / No wind of waterfall could stall me / And then came the rush of the flood / Stars of night turned deep to dust”. Whether singing about suicide or long-lost loves or the moon, this is the stuff of smoky piano bars or candle-lit living rooms. Dark and haunting, even after the disc stops spinning.

Snow Patrol – Eyes Open This is power pop. Occasionally a band figures out what they are best at, and they go at it full force, without trying to be more or less. And when it clicks, like Eyes Open does, it’s an exhilarating surprise that gets better with each listen. Powerfully hooky anthems filled with strong melodies and heartfelt (but not cheesy) lyrics pack this disc from start to finish. The simplistic and lazy mega-ballad “Chasing Cars” was all over TV and radio, but “Hands Open”, with its driving guitar riff, is 3 minutes of power pop bliss. As a whole, this is one reaffirming shot in the arm and kick in the pants.

Corinne Bailey Rae – Corinne Bailey Rae Raised on Led Zeppelin and channeling Erykah Badu, CBR is British neo-soul royalty. A refreshing breath of home-grown talent, her debut album is packed with ballads (“Like a Star”, “Til it Happens to You”), adult alterna-pop (“Trouble Sleeping” and first single “Put Your Records On”), and fun rump shakers (“I’d Like To”). Varied enough to be a perfect solo Sunday afternoon backdrop, a summer social soundtrack, or romantic dinner fare. Leagues ahead of the rest of her fellow Best New Artist Grammy nominees.

Zero 7 – The Garden The Garden is another step in the evolution of Zero 7. It started with what is possibly the best chill-out album of all time, Simple Things, and followed with a bit more mixed effort on When It Falls. The third step is a leap into lush and breezy pop territory. The blueprint of the album is based on collaborations with Swedish singer Jose Gonzalez. Gonzalez’ wispy voice makes for an ideal blend with rolling, summery, synth hooks. It’s a match made in electro-heaven on songs like “Futures” and the album highlight, “Crosses”. Surprisingly, the collaborations with familiar diva Sia are the weaker points here, possibly signaling the end of the first phase of Zero 7’s sound, and the start of another.

Damien Rice – 9 Three years ago, Damien Rice appeared out of nowhere with his astonishing debut O – seemingly the extreme antithesis of the Beyonces, Outkasts, and White Stripes that critics and fans were crazy in love with. This time around, the songs are more varied in topic and sound, ranging from scorching, profane rockers that reflect the energy of his live show (“Me, My Yoke, & I” and “Rootless Tree”) to fairy tales (“The Animals Were Gone”) and less dense fare (“Dogs” and “Coconut Skins”), and the opener “9 Crimes”, a tormented adulterous lament that keeps popping up in TV dramas. Not the simple classic that O was, but gripping nonetheless.

Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood Some sort of Patsy Cline/60’s girl group doo-wop hybrid for the new millennium, Case coos over subdued melodies while telling stories of sentiment and nostalgia. Her richly sonic southern voice, dripping with faith, love, and history, is the main attraction here, and it is difficult to resist – listen after glorious listen, constantly bringing your attention to everyday disregarded beauty: “Driving home I see those flooded fields / How can people not know what beauty this is / I’ve taken it for granted my whole life / Since the day I was born”. A bit short, but potent. This siren’s gorgeous vocals match her fire station red hair.

Ray LaMontagne – Til the Sun Turns Black An astounding departure from the smoky soul of his first album Trouble, but the essentials remain: rustic stories sung by a voice as scruffy as the beard. Black is more atmospheric, with strings and woodwinds, making this round more Nick Drake than Janis Joplin. The grittier tunes (“Three More Days”, “You Can Bring Me Flowers”) have more meat on them than the subdued pieces that fill the rest of the album, but the range shows impressive growth and high expectations for the next round.

KT Tunstall – Eye to the Telescope The buzz started in the US after she hit it big in her native Scotland, and reached its peak when Katharine McPhee’s barefoot rendition of “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” nearly made her your new American Idol. What seems at first like an album full of coffee table ballads, you can’t help but feel that you like it a bit more than you should. With repeated listens though, the album grows some legs, and KT’s personality shines through. No clunkers in sight, from “Other Side of the World” to “Through the Dark”, this is what feels like effortless pop, which is exactly what pop should be.

Tina Dico – In the Red Former singer with Zero 7, Tina Dico is a huge radio star at home in Denmark, with good reason. Her first US release is a less contrite version of Dido’s café pop. Reportedly inspired equally by Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman, and Nirvana, her songs are restrained without being frail or bland. The songs stay fresh when the tempo shifts gears, like on “Head Shop” and “Give In”, or when she takes it down on “Room with a View”. Americans looking for a fresh voice can look to Europe when the CD racks here seem stale.

Dashboard Confessional – Dusk and Summer Dusk and Summer was Dashboard’s audition for stadium rock stardom, a collection of “Vindicated”-style fist-pumping anthems to launch them into the mainstream stratosphere. Long gone are the heart-wrenching wailings of “Screaming Infidelities”. D+S, though solid, seems to lack some of the storylines and playfulness that made earlier releases so remarkable. Few others, though, can pen the feel of young love quite like Chris Carrabba: “The first time you looked at her curves you were hooked / And the glances you took, took hold of you and demanded that you stay / And sunk in their teeth, bit your heart and released / Such a charge that you need another touch, another taste, another fix”.

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