10. Peter Bjorn & John
Universal (August 17)
Not content to dominate the world in the areas of perfect cheekbones, standard of living and smoked fish, Sweden flaunts its overflowing pool of genius pop with another stunning release. The doe-eyed whistling single “Young Folks” garned all the attention, but that stellar duet was by no means the only treat PB & J had to offer. In fact, the consistencicy of the low-key hooks throughout makes the album’s title a laughable misrepresentation.
9. The Fiery Furnaces
Fat Possum (April 18)
The dichotomy between sublime and annoying is likely one that will define Matthew Friedberger’s career as long as he’s writing music. There are helpings of both on Bitter Tea, but the newfound Motown bounce of the best material makes treasure-hunting through the backward gibberish a necessity. It’s the haunting deadpan of Matthew’s sister Eleanor that makes the cryptic come alive, though, weaving tongue twisters into heartbreak with ease. As Matthew’s knotted solo albums confirmed, he needs to be saved by her grace.
8. Belle & Sebastian
The Life Pursuit
Matador (February 7)
If his lyrics are to be believed, Stuart Murdoch hung his boots up and retired from the disco floor nearly a decade ago. He apparently never had the heart to throw them out completely: This release sees him cutting a rug in glam, funk and sunshine-pop styles. For the pale shut-in fans of yore, there’s also classic twee laments like the gorgeous “Dress Up in You.” This, the band’s best offering in what seems like ages, offers something for everyone.
Secretly Canadian (May 9)
In which Daniel Smith enlists a legion of contributors to sound more like his brainy, polite self. Whether penning propulsive odes to library books, lovesongs to a suffix, or ingeniously renaming caskets “body baskets,” Smith exudes more casual intelligence than all the cranks who he outranks. His love of the Lord is always going to get more ink in a heathen scene, but it’s the love of language that makes this unmissable.
6. Love is All
Nine Times That Same Song
What’s Your Rapture (March 28)
Almost every line sung by Josephine Olausson on Nine Times That Same Song seems to come with a built-in exclamation point. Bouyed by guitar rips, sprinting drums and irrepressible horn blasts, silly everyday sentiments like “WE LIKE THE SAME KIND OF CHEESE!” come across as if she didn’t notice the caps lock was stuck on. The enthusiasm is contagious, making this perhaps the most life-affirming no-wave pop record ever.
5. The Knife
Mute (July 25)
Silent Shout is an experiment to see how alien a band can sound and still generate genuine empathy. Karen Dreijer’s voice warps and contorts, threatening to completely segregate her from humanity. The dark electro that surrounds her offers no supporting warmth. Yet somehow, these abstracted tales of family ties and mundane living manage to connect. They can wear masks if they like, but the need to share of themselves is thankfully never completely obscured.
4. TV on the Radio
Return to Cookie Mountain
Interscope (September 12)
TV on the Radio’s sound can only be described with sketchy made up terms like . This time, instead of coasting on that shock of the new, TVOTR used their sonics to craft sharp songs. Sleepy neo trip hop, buzzing shoegaze, industrial clamor, and blistering dance rock all held together by huge vocal talent. When you bring Bowie in to sing, and completely blow him out of the studio, you’ve got some to spare.
3. The Long Blondes
Someone to Drive You Home
Rough Trade (November 9)
Back in the Nineties while the British music press tore themselves apart trying to solve the great Blur vs Oasis debate, sullen teens knew that neither answer was correct. They sat in dimly lit rooms with their Pulp and Elastica records and plotted revenge. Stylish, supremely catchy revenge, no less.
Drum’s Not Dead
Mute (March 21)
Saying Liars have colonized already-discovered ground is being dishonest. Perhaps old-timey noise terrorists stumbled across these visceral sounds decades ago, but they never found a way to make them really work. Emerging from their cold war bunker with a cohesive song cycle full of brutal rhythm and surprising melody, Liars acheived what artniks before them couldn’t. Getting a bike with wings off the ground briefly before crashing isn’t inventing flight, after all.
1. Sunset Rubdown
Shut Up, I am Dreaming
Absolutely Kosher (May 2)
Mothers eating their babies, mobs of persuing snakes, subcomittee votes on eye gouging: With dreams like these, you’d think Spencer Krug might welcome an interruption. Looser, weirder and more art-damaged than Wolf Parade, it’s like Spence has always been dreaming of this band. Krug’s uncaged songwriting is darker and more beautiful than that of his peers. A flavor of the month can’t last for two years, can it? I guess that means he’s for real.
10. Booka Shade
Get Physical (May 16)
Easy, breezy danceable goodness from one of the easiest, breeziest danceable labels putting out records right now. Equal turns pretty, funky, dirty, and, um, weirdy. And it’s a record you could play pretty much anywhere at anytime and have it fit the situation.
9. Neko Case
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Anti (March 7)
What else could possibly be said about Neko Case? She’s totally automatic at this point; you know you’re going to get that disarmingly powerful voice that glides from booming to gentle at the drop of a hat with lilting melodies and a touch of twang. Two words: “Star Witness.” If I could have sex with a song, that would be the one.
8. Depth Affect
Autres Directions (February 7)
I’m the biggest Scott Herren apologist on the planet and even I can’t justify putting Prefuse 73’s Security Screenings on a list like this. This record from the French foursome carries the torch nicely, however, stretching from dreamy to head-noddingly badass without any awkward transitions. And that collaboration with Cyne is so nice.
Hell Hath No Fury
Re-Up Gang/Star Trak (November 28)
Ah, the ranking that will haunt me a year from now. The beats are ridiculous, from the tense lingering notes of “Ride Around Shining” to the audio smack-fest of “Wamp Wamp.” And though the broken American Dream that the Clipse paint here is not a new concept, they’ve certainly done it more eloquently than anyone else, including Brain DePalma. I just wish I’d had more time to spend with this record.
6. J Dilla
Stones Throw (February 7)
A fitting goodbye letter from one of hip-hop’s all-time elite. Dilla could keep it smooth and soulful or bring down the house with a clattering symphony of tripped-out elements that have no business coexisting. If the only posthumous work that was ever released from his vaults was “Anti-American Graffiti,” I’d still be satisfied.
5. Whitest Boy Alive
Asound/Bubbles (September 12)
The same thing that makes this album a success is the same thing that makes Erlend Oye a success: Everything seems off the cuff and yet in its right place. It’s warm and gentle and yet danceable and sexy. Erlend probably gets tons of chicks with that routine.
Hyperdub (September 12)
The skittish, dubstep soundtrack to the sketchiest alley in the sketchiest part of the sketchiest city. At night. And it’s raining. And your flashlight just broke.
Ghostly International (June 13)
Okay, so now that we have the instrumental version, the argument can be made that some of the emcees diminish some of Dabrye’s futuristic beats — but not nearly enough to spoil the party. This is loop-based production in a time warp, the logical progression of hip-hop with no details left askew. Well worth the wait.
!K7 (May 30)
From here forward, we will refer to this as Herbert’s masterpiece. It’s dance music that’s almost too pretty to dance to, but too thumpingly perfect not to. Smart, gorgeous and sexy, Scale would be the dance record to curl up in bed with if it didn’t make you toss off the sheets and get down.
Worst Fears Confirmed
Molemen (January 31)
If Dabrye’s Two/Three is the logical evolution of hip-hop production, Worst Fears Confirmed is the logical evolution of the emcee. Nearly every single line Chicago resident Vakill spits is packed with multiple metaphors and truths that don’t glorify or apologize. This is a poet riffing on life, recounting stories, challenging your morals, and attacking his foes. Fearless and brilliant, Vakill has produced a classic hip-hop record.
10. Cat Power
Matador (January 24)
The mess that is Chan Marshall got it together long enough to share with us more damaged catharsis, Memphis-style.
9. Sonic Youth
Geffen (June 13)
Rather than settling into a middle-aged groove, the members of Sonic Youth have continued to refine and rethink their strengths, leading to an album that sounds as alive as the ones they recorded twenty years ago.
8. Josh Ritter
The Animal Years
V2 (April 11)
Ritter has the potential to be the next great songwriter in modern music, and he’s already close to realizing this potential.
Interscope/Modular (February 21)
The mookiest, shaggiest, hoariest cliche of a rawk band. I’m in love.
6. M. Ward
Merge (August 29)
A glimmering succession of besotted valentines, Ward’s latest is closing time music at the bar you never want to leave.
5. Arctic Monkeys
Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not
Domino (February 21)
This was one of those cases where an album is so overrated upon its initial release that its merits are soon diminished as a corrective measure, and that allowed Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not to actually become one of the year’s most underrated albums.
4. Bob Dylan
Sony/BMG (August 29)
What more is there to say? Every new musical chapter of Dylan’s life is as riveting as his last.
3. The Decemberists
The Crane Wife
Capitol (October 3)
Colin Meloy’s songs still trade in soldiers and seafarers, but the music has grown more expansive and engaging with each passing album.
2. Neko Case
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Anti (March 7)
The red-headed, lemon-and-honey-voiced William Faulkner of song, Case filled her elliptical fourth studio album with hints of demons and hope of angels, each song over too soon.
1. Gnarls Barkley
Downtown/Atlantic (May 9)
More than any other album or song, St. Elsewhere and “Crazy” were able to unite an increasingly fragmented musical universe and held us aloft in bliss all summer long. I’m only now starting to come down.
Matt Liebowitz (no particular order)
5. The Format
Nettwerk (July 11)
Phoenix popsters reconcile disparate loves of sugary, all-American rock and swinging Dixieland, resulting in a wildly catchy rock album peppered with big-band audacity and grandiosity (“I’m Actual”) and the ambitious spirit of a band with nothing to lose. It’s the best pop-rock album of the year, and considering their contemporaries, it’s definitely not what you’d expect.
4. Thom Yorke
XL (July 11)
Armed with blippy laptop beats, a hypnotist’s sense of dark melody and phrasing, and the most distinct and honest voices, capable of fractured torture (“The Clock”) and elegant emoting (“Atoms for Peace,” my number-one song of the year), Thom Yorke once again (by himself this time) proved his place as rock’s doom and soothsayer.
3. The Strokes
First Impressions of Earth
RCA (January 3)
Supplementing their enticing small-club swagger with arena-sized ambition (and production), First Impressions of Earth is the most consistently compelling straight-ahead rock album of the year.
2. Simon Dawes
Record Collection (September 12)
This Malibu four-piece loads up the pianos and guitars from the Revolver studio sessions, adds the subtle subversions of Spoon and, led by Taylor Goldsmith’s passionate voice and the expert song craft of a band working together, makes one of the most mature albums of 2006.
1. The Hold Steady
Boys and Girls in America
Vagrant (October 3)
If 2005’s Separation Sunday showed us the trouble the Hold Steady could drag us through in a Minneapolis midnight, what we got with Boys and Girls in America was the harsh light of the morning after. Hyper lyricist Craig Finn learned to sublimate his stream-of-near-consciousness delivery and Jesus jones and let the music — check the background shouts on “Massive Nights” — do the prophesizing. Want to hear the band take what’s if not necessarily a bold leap forward then at least a drunken lunge? Listen to “First Night”: Rarely do reflection and repenting, religion and rehab, sound so refreshing.
Rafael Martinez (no particular order)
Food & Liquor
Atlantic (September 19)
Leaked and then leaked again, Lupe Fiasco’s debut is the holy-resurrection of “80s-babies” hip-hop. In the age of iTunes, Food & Liquor is more than a few stand-out tracks sandwiched between filler. From “American Terrorist” to “Daydreamin”,” Lupe Fiasco has established himself on forefront of artists to watch out for in the coming years. This album is required listening. Highlights include “Hurt Me Soul,” “Daydreamin’ ” and “The Emperor’s Soundtrack.”
The Evolution of Robin Thicke
Interscope (October 3)
Released in the shadow of Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/Love Sounds, Robin Thicke’s minimalist approach largely focuses on ballads back-dropped by soft piano keys and acoustic guitars. As much as Timberlake pushed pop’s boundaries, Thicke proves you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to find success. Highlights include “Cocaine,” “Lost Without U” and “Shooter.”
Roc-A-Fella (November 21)
This is probably the easiest record to hate in 2006. Expectations are in the stratosphere for any product that bears Jay-Z’s name: He’s reached a level of celebrity and influence that is astounding given that he operates in a genre with such humble roots. There are a few questionable beat choices and features, but Kingdom Come is the first successful mainstream hip-hop album for the thirty-and-above set. Not to mention Jay-Z shows that his skills have not dulled during his tenure as Def Jam’s president, peep the change in flow on nearly every track. Highlights include “Oh My God,” “Trouble” and “Minority Report.”
Hell Hath No Fury
Re-Up Gang/Star Trak (November 28)
“I’m sorry to the fans, but the them crackers ain’t playing fair, Jive.” That’s hands down the quote of the year, and it largely points to how antiquated and out of touch the record industry is with artist and fans. Already dubbed a classic by XXL, Hell Hath No Fury is raw uncut hip-hop at its best. Highlights include “At Your Door,” “Wamp, Wamp” and “New World.”
Kidz in the Hall
School Was My Hustle
Red Urban (October 31)
This was a sentimental choice for me, because I can relate to the struggles and mindset of emcee Naledge and producer Double O. The college-educated duo passed on the safe route and dove headfirst into the music biz. Part of Rawkus’s attempt to revitalize itself, Kidz in the Hall is a balance of introspective conscious lyrics without a condescending tone. Highlights include “Wheelz Fall Off (’06 Till),” “Day to Day” and “Cruise Control.”
Ghostly International (June 13)
Representing Ann Arbor, Michigan, producer Dabrye took his craft to the next level on Two/Three, a boundary pushing hip-hop album. Featuring such emcees as MF Doom, AG and Vast Aire, the production leaned toward electronic but stayed grounded in boom-bap hip-hop. Get familiar. Highlights include “My Life,” “Encoded Flow” and “Game Over.”
Def Jam (March 28)
It’s damn shame this album didn’t get more shine. His best effort since 2000’s Supreme Clientele, Ghost reached out to the underground circuit for beats and further worked toward becoming full-blown soul singer. He’s had trouble finding steady support, but Ghostface already has another Def Jam album slated to drop in December and a collaboration with MF Doom slated for next year. Toney for Mayor. Highlights include “The Champ,” “Whip You With a Strap” and “Shakey Dog.”
The Big Bang
Aftermath (June 13)
“Rah, rah, like a dungeon dragon,” indeed. Busta Rhymes, back from a long hiatus, drops his best album ever. If Dr. Dre could resurrect Busta’s career, you gotta wonder what he could have done with Rakim’s. Highlights include “Goldmine,” “You Can’t Hold the Torch” and “Cocaina.”
Love for Sale
Bilal’s follow-up to 2001’s 1st Born Second was never officially released, and rumor is that it was shelved after being leaked on the Internet earlier this year. Apparently the brain trust over at Interscope said Love for Sale was “unmarketable,” but they’re sitting on an incredibly dense and layered project drenched in a soul flavor. Write your elected representatives: It’s a crime this album hasn’t gotten proper treatment. Highlights include “Gotsta Be Cool,” “Something to Hold on To” and “Hollywood.”
Hip-Hop Is Dead
Def Jam (December 19)
They say this album will be released before year end, but my money is on January ’07. But based on the early returns, Hip-Hop Is Dead is another classic for Nasir Jones. Whoever isn’t excited about this album must really believe hip-hop is dead. Highlights include “Black Republicans,” “Hip-Hop Is Dead” and “Still Dreaming.”
Justin Timberlake FutureSex/LoveSounds (Jive, September 12)
Styles P Time Is Money (Ruff Ryders, December 19)
The Game Doctor’s Advocate (Geffen, November 14)
Mr. Lif Mo Mega (Definitive Jux, June 13)
T.I. King (Atlantic/WEA, March 28)
J Dilla Donuts (Stones Throw, February 7)