Best Albums of 2006: Staff Picks (Part 1 of 5)


    Check out Prefix’s Best of 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003 lists.
    Here is page one of the Staff Picks.

    Brian Belardi

    10. Muse

    Black Holes and Revelations

    Warner Bros./WEA (July 11)

    The members of Muse take their brand of arpeggio-laden prog to new levels on this release, which features some of the band’s best work, even if it fails to match the consistency of 2004’s Absolution. At this point, listening to a Muse album is like hanging out with the girl at your high school who always wore a cape, but songs like the Radiohead-baiting “Starlight” and the unbelievable “Map of the Problematique” (which will leave laser beams shooting out of your eyes) certainly make for a good story to tell your friends.


    9. Islands

    Return to the Sea

    Equator (April 4)

    Though a bit languorous at points, this endearingly goofy album from the ex-Unicorns outfit occasionally reprises the magic that made the 2004 Unicorns release Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? so compelling. Fans looking for another “Les Os” will come away disappointed, but “Rough Gem” and the gorgeous “Volcanoes” prove that Nick Diamonds et al. can still craft some of the most engaging songs around.


    8. The Rakes


    V2 (April 25)

    Unfairly lost in the post-punk shuffle, the members of the Rakes — who are, by all accounts, the nicest guys in rock — play a catchier (read: less pretentious) brand of the (art? dance?) punk that turned Bloc Party into stars in 2005. Full of songs about getting drunk, having no money and sleeping with fat chicks, Capture/Release is probably the closest any band has come to recreating Pulp’s Different Class since its release in 1995. Minus the fat chicks, anyway.


    7. Lily Allen

    Alright, Still

    EMI (July 20)

    Her best song might be a cover of the Kooks’ “Naive”, but Lily Allen’s Alright, Still features the kind of spunky charm that can quickly remind you that a guitar is not a prerequisite for a pop song. There are some duds here, but when Allen shines on such tracks as “LDN” and “Smile,” you should probably reach for some protective eyewear.


    6. TV on the Radio

    Return to the Cookie Mountain

    Interscope (September 12)
    Slotting this record as low as number six might be enough to completely erase my status as a former Brooklyn resident, but doesn’t it seem like something’s missing here? Don’t get me wrong: “Wolf Like Me” was, without question, the best song of 2006, and maybe it’s the brightness of that one track that dims the others in comparison, but where are the singles? I guess I can finally confirm what I’ve been suspecting for years now: I’ve been ruined by my iPod.


    5. The Pipettes

    We Are the Pipettes

    Memphis Industries (August 29)

    The Pipettes are living proof that sometimes, the sexy-librarian look and impeccably constructed pop songs are all you need. The cheese quotient here is pretty high, but there’s enough intelligent self-effacement here (see the wondrous closer, “I Love You,” which might supplant Weezer’s “Only in Dreams” as the quintessential sensitive-guy mix closer) to make you forget that at one point, the only way to win the favor of rock critics was to write songs about robots.


    4. The Long Blondes

    Someone to Drive You Home

    Rough Trade (November 9)

    Yet to be released in the United States, this debut from England’s Long Blondes is the best album you haven’t heard of yet. Depressing yet danceable, empathic yet edgy, this collection of literate pop songs sounds the way you always wanted Yeah Yeah Yeahs to sound. Vocalist Kate Jackson is a star in the making, and “Giddy Stratospheres” looks like the odds-on favorite to become the indie dance-floor hit of 2007. Count me in.


    3. The Kooks

    Inside In/Inside Out

    Astralwerks (October 3)

    Filled with handclaps, catchy choruses and everything else that makes rock music fun to listen to, Inside In/Inside Out is hard not to like. It doesn’t break much new ground, but when you have tunes like these (check “See the World,” “Naive” and “She Moves in Her Own Way,” for starters), who cares?


    2. Dirty Pretty Things

    Waterloo to Anywhere

    Interscope (August 8)

    No longer forced to spend time babysitting the cartoon character that is Pete Doherty, Carl Barat and his merry mates recapture (almost) everything that made the Libertines great with this rollicking debut. It’s a bit top-heavy, true, but no other album of 2006 can boast of a three-song suite as fantastic as “Deadwood,” “Doctors and Dealers” and the Doherty exorcism “Bang Bang You’re Dead.”


    1. Arctic Monkeys

    Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not

    Domino (February 21)

    Going from total obscurity to blogosphere darlings to commercial success to over-hyped poseurs in the span of twelve months is a pretty impressive feat and, wouldn’t you know it, that’s just what Arctic Monkeys did in 2006. They also found the time to release a record that, while grating at points, is filled with wit, pathos and distinctly styled tunes from front to back. This will go down as the year of the new media’s coming out party, and Arctic Monkeys was its band. Whether you’re on board or not, this is the album of the year.


    Seth Berkman

    10. Islands

    Return to the Sea

    Equator (April 4)

    When the Unicorns broke up, I really couldn’t have cared less. But I’m happy that Islands came of that, because Return to the Sea is one of the best rock releases of the year, led by such tracks as “Rough Gem” and my nominee for song title of the year, “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby.”


    9. Asobi Seksu


    Friendly Fire (May 30)

    As an Asian-American, I’ll always give my brethren a chance when it comes to music. With Jin having set Pacific-Rimmers back about a decade with his recent exploits in hip-hop, it’s nice that indie-rockers have decided to carry the torch. Asobi Seksu is one of the best young bands out there — regardless of race — with a shoegazey sound that conjures images of Scarlett Johansson walking the streets of Tokyo.


    8. Kidz in the Hall

    School Was My Hustle

    Red Urban (October 31)

    The duo of Naledge and Double-O are more than Ivy League rappers or the “other guys” to use that “Show Me What You Got” beat (they did it better anyway): They dropped perhaps the best debut by an underground hip-hop group this years, led by head-nodders including “Wheelz Fall Off ’06,” “Hypocrite” and “Move On Up.” The razorblade is back.


    7. T.I.


    Atlantic/WEA (March 28)

    The executives at Atlantic sure went all-in with T.I. earlier this year, and thanks to Tip they came out the chip leaders. Not only did he have a successful movie, but also came out with one of the better mainstream hip-hop CDs of the year, fueled by ridiculous production and some catchy-ass hooks. Let’s just hope he doesn’t roller skate in his next film.


    6. Regina Spektor

    Begin To Hope

    Sire (June 13)

    One of the more hyped indie artists this year delivered a wonderfully crafted album combining bits of Norah Jones, Fiona Apple and Feist, yet with her own twist. “Fidelity” was a good enough single to introduce her to the masses who may have been unfamiliar with her work, but it was such songs as “Samson” that made the album a must-have.


    5. Yeah Yeah Yeahs

    Show Your Bones

    Interscope (March 28)

    I hated Yeah Yeah Yeahs when they came out: I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. After I finally gave in to “Maps,” the material on Show Your Bones — particularly “Phenomenon,” “Cheated Hearts” and “Way Out” — only convinced me this was a band worthy of my attention.


    4. TV on the Radio

    Return to the Cookie Mountain

    Interscope (September 12)

    I will just this: Return to Cookie Mountain is fuckin’ awesome.


    3. Cat Power

    The Greatest

    Matador (January 24)

    Admittedly, I caught onto Chan Marshall late. But I’m sure glad I did, because The Greatest is a beautiful record. Growing up I was huge on Fiona Apple, and I always yearned for a similar voice to fill in when Apple was taking six-year hiatuses. Turns out Cat Power was there all along.


    2. The Game

    Doctor’s Advocate

    Aftermath (November 14)

    How the Game is still standing is beyond me. For someone who has had his card pulled so many times, it’s amazing how he composed himself to produce one of the best albums of the year. Amongst the stripper allegations, changes of heart, butterfly tattoos and singles sans-Dr. Dre, he still put the West Coast back on the map with such songs as “Wouldn’t Get far,” “Doctor’s Advocate” and “Why You Hate the Game?”


    1. Lupe Fiasco

    Food & Liquor

    Atlantic (September 19)

    A few months ago I said Food & Liquor was the best hip-hop album of 2006, but I am changing my opinion: It’s the best album of the year, period. In a publication like Prefix, where the musical tastes are so varied, it’s hard to fathom a rap album being the best. All the other writers will have their Joanna Newsoms and TV on the Radios, but hip-hop is what I grew up on, it’s what fills my iPod, and it’s what I write about, so pardon me if I’m a bit biased. But I still think the proof is in the pudding.


    China Bialos

    10. The Kooks

    Inside In/Inside Out

    Astralwerks (October 3)

    Inside In/Inside Out is the only album I’ve listened to nearly every day since I bought it. This surprisingly great pop record sneaks up on you after your first skeptical listen; “Time Awaits” shows tons of Police influence and “Eddie’s Gun” and “Sofa Song” are perfectly formulaic in their verse-chorus ratios. Plus, little Luke Kook’s got some lovely curls.


    9. Mika Miko


    Kill Rock Stars (July 25)

    Pure teenage slop from start to finish: loads of treble, dueling vocals, a telephone, and a drummer who could beat your ass with sticks. This record makes me proud to be a girl.


    8. The Nice Boys

    The Nice Boys

    Birdman (August 29)

    If “Teenage Kicks” preceded the Exploding Hearts, then Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” preceded the Nice Boys. Thanks to Birdman for giving a new home to Terry Six, the sole survivor and former guitarist of the Exploding Hearts who now fronts the Nice Boys. Like the Hearts, this band has a lot of late-’70s punk and power-pop energy, only with fewer sneers (they are nice boys, after all), more glitter and a touch of cowbell.


    7. Part Timer

    Part Timer

    Moteer (November 7)

    Closer to a Books album than … well, not a Books album. But quite close. The solo project from John McCaffrey of U.K.-based Clickits, this is a gorgeous experiment in laptop folk that leans heavily on the classical-guitar side.


    6. Langhorne Slim

    Engine EP

    V2 (September 16)

    No recording of Langhorne Slim’s does him justice: His albums can’t show you the punk energy or humorous charm of his live sets. But this EP, his first taste of V2 Records (prior releases were on Narnack), offers a great sampling of his soft, folky ballads and country rockers, from the sweet and naive “English Tea” to the gritty “Honey Pie,” and that’ll do for the time being.


    5. Cat Power

    The Greatest

    Matador (January 24)

    All right: this doesn’t really help the anti-drug case, but depressed alcoholics really know how to churn out some great art. This is some of Chan Marshall’s most bluesy, beautiful and complete work, and it’s doubtful that a sunny outlook could have lead to songs like “The Greatest” or “Where is My Love?”


    4. Exploding Hearts


    Dirtnap (October 31)

    Shattered is the group of demos, alternates and unreleased tracks that the Exploding Hearts left behind after a car accident killed three members during the band’s 2003 tour. The Portland, Oregon band had an incredible knack for power pop, easily summed up by such comparable songs as the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks” and the Clash’s “1-2 Crush on You.” And if this is trash, it’s worth digging through. Had the band not ended so tragically, the Nice Boys probably wouldn’t have made this list. But the Exploding Hearts, proudly clad in pink, would have had the chance to become a favorite band of many more people. This album contains videos from Exploding Hearts’ final performance in San Francisco, a bonus for those of us who never made it to the band’s shows.


    3. Mission of Burma

    The Obliterati

    Matador (May 23)

    Admittedly, this album would have crowned the list had it been an EP containing only tracks 1, 2, 5 and 8. But it isn’t. Not that this third album is anything to scoff at: Peter Prescott’s drumming, generous with bass drum and heavier than anything, is what’ll grab you from The Obliterati‘s first moment and sustain you thirty minutes later. And that’s what makes this album worth a big fat “damn.”


    2. The Black Keys


    Fat Possum (May 2)

    The only flaw with this collection of Junior Kimbrough covers is the phone call with which it ends, praise and thanks from Kimbrough’s widow. It caps the EP with a pat on the Keys’ backs, somewhat taking from the magic of the songs themselves. Nonetheless, the Black Keys accomplished something really amazing here by not only performing as well as Kimbrough did with his originals but also, in a few cases, bending notes and adding depth until they’d improved on them. Kimbrough provided some great foundations, and the Black Keys toyed with them until the songs became their own.


    1. TV on the Radio

    Return to Cookie Mountain

    Interscope (September 12)

    Proof that major labels don’t ruin all artists, Return to Cookie Mountain is a sweaty mess compared to the slow, romantic drip of Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes and Tunde Adembimpe’s strong voice ensures that no song loses momentum. The band is always slightly ahead of its time and keeps me from getting overly cynical about current music. The members borrow from shoegaze, jazz, African percussion, electronic music and hip-hop and incorporate falsetto harmonies here and there, resulting in a product that sounds completely new.


    John Bohannon

    10. My Morning Jacket


    ATO/RCA (September 26)

    Live albums are usually not my cup of tea. But this is My Morning Jacket — the best live band in America, period. This album is a fantastic representation of the band’s live show and should be a starting point for all beginners. But if My Morning Jacket comes through your town, don’t miss it.


    9. Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3

    Ole! Tarantula

    Yep Roc (October 3)

    This album caught me off guard. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it’s a damn solid power-pop record — possibly one of the best I’ve heard since Matthew Sweet was in his prime. Hitchcock’s backing band is basically R.E.M. (Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin) and, honestly, this is what I always wanted R.E.M. to sound like.


    8. Ornette Coleman

    Sound Grammar

    Sound Grammar (September 12)

    Jazz is dead? Bullshit. Ornette is still alive.


    7. Espers


    Drag City (May 16)

    Drag City is on top of its game this year. The members of Espers have been following the freak-folk movement closely but not immersing themselves in it, allowing them to create an album that has hints of psychedelia and British folk but doesn’t feel contrived. This makes me feel as if I’m listening to a modern-day Pentangle album, and that’s a hefty compliment.


    6. J Dilla

    The Shining

    BBE (August 22)

    While most were busy eating up Donuts (clever, eh?), The Shining made me a true J Dilla believer. Most of this is due to the special guests on the album, including D’ Angelo and Common on the same track and Guilty Simpson, one of my favorite up-and-comers.


    5. Bruce Springsteen

    We Shall Overcome 

    Sony (April 25)

    I’ve gotten shit for listening to Springsteen from those who can only recall Born in the USA as a Reagan-era, I-love-America chant. But every time I throw this album full of Pete Seeger covers on for a crowd of nonbelievers, I get asked what it is. And then I proudly tell them: the Boss.


    4. Johnny Cash

    American V: A Hundred Highways

    Lost Highway (July 4)

    My favorite of the Cash American recordings, this album is haunting and full of pure emotion. It features some of the most beautiful covers I’ve heard, most notably Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” and the traditional tune “Gods Gonna Cut You Down.”


    3. Matmos

    The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast

    Matador (May 9)

    This album serves as more than just a sound recording; it also serves as a history lesson. If anyone else would have tried this, it would have been mundane and pretentious, but Matmos pulled it off to a near science, delivering one of the most challenging and rewarding listens of the year.


    2. Joanna Newsom


    Drag City (November 14)

    Van Dyke Parks + Jim O’ Rourke + Steve Albini – Your snobby preconceived notions about her voice = Damn near perfect album. ‘Nuff said.


    1. Bert Jansch

    The Black Swan

    Drag City (October 17)

    This British folk legend has been under the radar for nearly a decade now, but with The Black Swan, he enlisted the help of Noah Georgeson (Vetiver), Devendra Banhart and Beth Orton to help put him back in the spotlight. The album is full of beautiful traditional folk melodies and includes a duet between Banhart and Orton that is by far the best I’ve heard all year. As a longtime Jansch fan, this is the album I’ve been waiting for him to make.


    Adrian Covert

    10. The Game

    Doctor’s Advocate

    Aftermath (November 14)

    And again appears the motif of crazy people and great music. I had all but written off the game before he dropped The Doctor’s Advocate at the end of this year. There was the talk that he was going to produce the whole album himself, then he said that Dre was back on board, then he revealed that Dre wasn’t on the album at all. Then with a string of bizarre interviews, beefing with every rapper and their weed carrier (copyright © 2006 Byron Crawford), strong arming Ras Kass in public, and was recently impersonating a police officer, my expectations were in a state of disarray to say the least. However, The Game came through with arguably the most consistent album of the year even if it didn’t have a megaton hit single. Most intriguing is the equally awkward and amazing title track “Doctor’s Advocate” featuring Busta Rhymes which plays out as an open letter/apology to Dr. Dre. Getting the best production out of Kanye and Will.I.Am this year, and a whole slew of bangers out of DJ Khalil, Nottz, and Just Blaze (who silently had a great year), The Game has delivered a successor worthy of The Documentary.


    9. Busy signal

    Step Out

    Network (June 27)

    Ragga/bashment/dancehall/whatever-you-want-to-call-it is not always known for its steady output of quality albums, due to its single-centric musical culture. However, 2006 saw the release of several worthwhile dancehall albums, with Busy Signal’s Step Out leading the way. The up-and-comer from Jamaica had a big year: several singles hit it big on the dancehall scene, including “Step Out” and “Not Going Down.” The only track missing is “Lu-Lu-Lu,” where Busy rips the epic “Smash Riddim” to shreds.


    8. Ghostface


    Def Jam (March 28)

    Show me a bad GFK album, and I’ll call you a liar. After recording a track with French house producer Cassius in 2002, Ghostface showed he isn’t scared to try different things musically. And with Fishscale, he sought out MF Doom and J Dilla, masters of the abstract sound, to handle a significant amount of the album’s production. Add to that a Just Blaze-produced masterpiece in “The Champ” and Ghostface is on a “best of” list yet again.


    7. Junior Boys

    So This Is Goodbye

    Domino (September 12)

    If Vikter Dupliax tends to lean more toward soul with his music, then the two members of the Junior Boys are his opposite, playing around with soul/R&B while embracing the electronic/new-wave sound more. This release is structurally and rhythmically more straightforward than 2004’s Last Exit, the duo’s use of sound textures — vocally and instrumentally — stands in as the highlight of this album.


    6. Vikter Duplaix

    Bold and Beautiful

    BBE (September 19)

    It’s a shame that the release of Bold and Beautiful flew under the radar and will likely continue to do so. Much like upcoming artists J-Davey and Sa-Ra and the well-established Bilal (who, by the way, dropped the best album to be shelved in 2006), Duplaix has embraced the future of soul. Infusing elements of electronica with a sultry soul sound, Duplaix has joined the movement to take music in new directions.


    5. Cat Power

    The Greatest

    Matador (January 24)

    Crazy people make great music. And up until recently, Chan Marshall has been registering a 5.9 on the crazy scale. But it doesn’t hurt when you have a voice of gold, either. The Greatest traverses the boundaries of indie rock, soul, country and the blues. The title track is downright amazing, and tracks such as “Lived In Bars” creep up on you with their diverse sound.


    4. Clipse

    Hell Hath No Fury

    Re-Up Gang/Star Trak (November 28)

    When I heard the title of this album was going to be Hell Hath No Fury, I was expecting a sound ten times as dark and grimy as the already sinister “Grindin’.” I was initially disappointed in the sonic direction the album took, but I soon realized that it still sounded amazing and that it was still pretty damn dark and grimy. And if you think Clipse ran out of tricks, check out “Nightmares,” featuring the Philly-soulster Bilal (who, remember, put out the best album not released in 2006).


    3. The Killers

    Sam’s Town

    Island (October 3)

    Can you really doubt Brandon Flowers when he says he’s going to deliver a cla — okay, I can’t go through with this. It’s just wrong. It’s not even funny. Just imagine I never wrote this. Really, I apologize for this. It was inconsiderate and uncalled for.


    The Real Number 3. J Dilla

    The Shining

    BBE (August 22)

    Sure, the knock against Dilla will be that he’s only getting all this attention because he died. And I won’t really disagree. However, I will say that this album is not here because he died. I’ve stood by and defended nearly all of his projects, ranging from the criminally underrated Jaylib release Champion Sound to Common’s Electric Circus (you read that right). I will even argue that Common’s Be would have been twice the album had Dilla produced most of it. And I will continue to argue all of the above in the future. With that said, both The Shining and Donuts make for compelling listens that are especially haunting when you consider that the man knew he was dying as he recorded them. However, The Shining is a truer farewell album because it encompasses all the different sounds Dilla embraced throughout his career. Whether you like the synthy sounds of “E=MC2” or the soul chop found on “Love,” this album has something for everyone.


    2. Justin Timberlake


    Jive (September 12)

    It’s been almost four years since the release of Justified and I still can’t believe I’m saying stuff like this, but what’s not to love about Futuresex/Lovesounds? Especially when Timbaland mans the production for the most of the album. Sure, there’s a quality single in “Sexyback” and an instant classic in “My Love,” but include tracks like “What Goes Around, Comes Around” and “Summer Love: Set the Mood” and you realize that this is an album that will have replay value for many years.


    1. TV on the Radio

    Return to the Cookie Mountain

    Interscope (September 12)

    I first heard Return to Cookie Mountain in March and I’ve been listening to it consistently ever since. In a year in which the indie world started wallowing in its own clich’s, Tunde Adebimpe and company came out with an album that really pushed a boundary or two. It’s not the easiest album to get into, but one listen to “Wolf Like Me” made me give it the attention it deserved, and once it hit, it really hit. Return to Cookie Mountain comprises great vocals, compelling production, and a refusal to be restricted by any one conceptualization of what indie rock is supposed to be.


    Honorable Mentions

    The Roots Game Theory (Def Jam, August 29)

    Herbert Scale (!K7, May 30) 

    Cansei De Ser Sexy Cansei De Ser Sexy (Sub Pop, July 11)

    Mylo Destroy Rock and Roll (Red Ink, February 7)

    Five Deez Kommunicator (Rapster, February 21)

    Staff Picks Page 2, Page 3, Page 4, Page 5.
    Check out Prefix’s Best of 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003 lists.