Norman Mayers (no particular order)
Mary J. Blige
Geffen (December 20, 2005)
This album came out in late 2005, so it just missed making last year’s list, but this return to form for Mary J. Blige is a contemporary soul opus that sets the bar high. Everything you expect from Ms. Blige: personal lyrics, gut-wrenching vocals and the best production around.
The Big Bang
Aftermath (June 13)
Busta killed it with this one: It’s the album we always knew he had in him. Now on Aftermath, Busta cut off his dreads, packed on some muscle, and started writing some incredible material. Play it from beginning to end, and then play it again.
Back to Basics
RCA (August 15)
Christina Aguilera has spread her wings and moved even further from her teenybopper start, releasing a more impressive and mature release than anything her Mouseketeer peers have produced. A sprawling double-disc affair, Back to Basics reinterprets the classic sounds of jazz and blues for a contemporary audience, and it does so with astounding results.
Bliss Life (April 25)
The enchanting Amel Larrieux is one of the most underrated artists in the industry, and her third solo effort is a voyage into her bohemian world. Grounded more in world-music traditions than in contemporary soul, Larrieux melds exotic sounds with her incredibly versatile vocal style to create an elegant masterpiece.
Cubanita Groove (July 11)
The very definition of lounge cool, Malena Perez’s debut is a delicate expression of multiculturalism. Swaying between English and Spanish and through house, trip-hop, Latin and drum ‘n’ bass, Stars is the perfect summer soundtrack.
Dorado (August 29)
The amazing voice that never wavers. The productions that flow like water and mist. The poetic and complex lyrics. Urban Angel is quite simply beautiful.
Fabric (November 14)
U.K. breaks and futuristic production crossed with classic Miami bass and booty-shaking beats. This one is aimed straight at your ass, and it will definitely make it move.
Ministry of Sound (July 18)
Mark Farina delivers a nonstop house party on two discs. Two hours of some of the funkiest, upfront house music, mixed with creative fervor and energy.
Chase & Status
Bingo Sessions Vol. 3
Bingo Beats (April 10)
Drum ‘n’ bass perfection. Chase & Status announce their arrival with a classic mix of party jams, reggae vibes and straight-up funk. This is drum ‘n’ bass as it’s meant to be heard.
Jive (September 12)
This is far from perfect, but FutureSex/LoveSounds is one of the year’s most exciting pop albums, deftly fusing hip-hop style with ’80s-era Prince vibes and techno-flavored productions courtesy of Timbaland. Plus “My Love” may be the best song released in the last five years.
10. J Dilla
Stones Throw (February 7)
Released on his birthday and three days before his death, Jay Dee’s Donuts is a tragically poetic eulogy: It’s all the sounds of one man loving music more than the life that birthed it.
9. The Sword
Age of Winters
Kemado (February 14)
This is what I had in mind when everyone started talking about Mastodon’s Blood Mountain. If all metal sounded like this, I’d stop listening to hip-hop.
8. 7L & Esoteric
A New Dope
Babygrande (June 27)
I’m still bugged out over how they did this, using played-out samples and rhymespeak and buying into every indie-rap stereotype laid before them. Ridiculous robot-beats and self-deprecating swagger = the new soul-baring. To wit: “My Boston accent’s re-tah-ded.” The line gets me every time.
Hell Hath No Fury
Re-Up Gang/Star Trak (November 28)
The album that almost became the coke-rap Smile proves every bit as jaw-dropping as promised, rounded out with eerie Casio alleyscapes and even eerier verses, each one intricate and spit from the pits of fire-belly stomachs. Seriously, no one’s coming close to these guys.
6. Sunset Rubdown
Shut Up, I am Dreaming
Absolutely Kosher (May 2)
I walked into this blindly and curiously, like a naive outcast looking for acceptance in the home of a crazy person. I found Spencer Krug, and he let me in.
5. National Eye
Roomful of Lions
Park the Van (February 14)
Lush, fragile guitars; warped fuzz-tones; crackling melodies: Philadelphia doesn’t feel or sound like this, and I can’t think of a city that does.
Atlantic/WEA (March 28)
Measured, raw, gassed-up and overconfident and yet entirely owed. This is an album begging for its green light, and T.I. was the only rapper this year whose kingdom actually came.
3. The Decemberists
The Crane Wife
Capitol (October 3)
I’m not an advocate of indie bands staying on indie labels, and The Crane Wife (and Return to Cookie Mountain) are reasons why: warm, polished end caps on the production; loose songwriting; same bloated ideas; integrity intact.
Ba Da Bing! (May 9)
Apparently, there was a lot of hype heaped onto this and the shoulders of its creator, Zach Condon, and it quickly mutated into ugly scorn and jealousy — exactly why I couldn’t give a smelly shit about (things like blog hype and Internet pundits). There’s a marching band and drunken sing-alongs blasting out of Condon’s apartment. Can you do that?
Worst Fears Confirmed
Molemen (January 31)
One of the best hip-hop albums ever made.
Quarter Stick (April 11)
Ruin was not the sound of Calexico reinventing
themselves. It was simply the statement
of a band streamlining the foundation of their sound into something more
conventional and digestible. Without
sacrificing their spirit, Calexico turn dusty, lonely Southwestern reflections
into universal studies of loss, longing and angst. Garden Ruin is an
affirmation of a band no longer content being indie rocks best mariachi band.
Never Been Like That
Astralwerks (May 23)
Finally, Phoenix decide to stop being Steely Dan on disco
and start being a band bent on creating great albums instead of great
singles. Its Never Been Like That is consistently urgent, consistently deep
and consistently fun. Hardening the edges of their slick, danceable sound by
becoming more loose and raw, Phoenix pushed over the hump from gimmick to the
Bonnie Prince Billy
Drag City (September 19)
After 3 years of collaborations and a second stab at his
back catalog, the Prince returns to his solo songbook with another fitting
chapter to the weathered, wise and nomadic persona he has developed over the
years. Oldham and collaborator Dawn
McCarthy contemplate life and love over subtle, rich, string laden ballads. Both Oldham and his records get better with
time and The Letting Go is no
The Hold Steady
Girls in America
Vagrant (October 3)
Craig Finn and Co. gained reputation and notoriety both as
great storytellers and as a great boozy bar band. With Boys and Girls in
America neither of those titles will do the Hold Steady justice. Boys
and Girls in America takes the outrageous characters and frantic
storytelling and ups the ante exponentially.
Finn embraces the inescapability of his Midwest roots and the naivety,
recklessness and confusion of wild youth, this time from a reflective narrator
wiser yet still unchanged. Boys and Girls
in America is for anyone who struggles to grow up.
Mute (July 25)
As the sub-genre of indie-electronic continues to discover
the limitations of itself, Silent Shout will
undoubtedly go down as its finest moment in doom. In contemplating the relationship between humans and machines, The
Knife probe feelings of remoteness, cold, distance and detach. Using these emotions to explore the
limitations of electronics and self, The Knife created a masterwork of man vs.
machine. Silent Shout has the rare gift of being both inviting and menacing
with unlimited discovery within its walls.
Belle & Sebastian
Matador (February 7)
Having mastered literary, sensitive twee many years ago, The Life Pursuit finds Belle &
Sebastian conquering soul, lounge and glam.
Never lacking chops, character or a complete palette of sound, Belle
& Sebastian pull off version 2.0 of themselves without a hitch. The Life Pursuit finds the band at their
most poppy, clever and ambitious. With
a second wind this strong, heres hoping for a refreshing third.
Thrill Jockey (October 10)
If there is such a thing as the perfect album, I imagine
it as warm, inviting, earthy, complex, and full of both intricate and immediate
melody. While Roots & Crowns is not the perfect album, it does have many
moment of sheer perfection. Band leader
Tim Rutili combines feedback, ambiance and lengthy list of instruments with
bright acoustic melodies, allowing both experimentation and structure equal
room to breathe. The Orchids may be
the years best song, consummately encompassing Califones mission of
intricacy, delicacy and exploration.
TV on the Radio
Interscope (September 12)
Cookie Mountain is what happens when highly intelligent people have time
to run wild with droning, feedback and noise.
TV on the Radio represents everything that we love about music. They sound like no one else. They create beauty
out of noise. They harmonize falsettos with David Bowie. They are ambitious
without being overindulgent. They are
pristine without being polished. Return to Cookie Mountain is TV on the
Radio fully realizing their vision and that vision continues to reap multiple
rewards on its listeners.
Drag City (November 14)
Ys trumps the magnificent The Milk Eyed Mender in every way. The dream team of album contributors (Jim ORourke, Steve Albini,
Van Dyke Parks) do their part in showcasing what makes Joanna Newsom so
special, but I firmly believe that Ys
would be just as magnificent and memorable without them. Lyrically, she could
not more sharp, both in vocabulary and emotional exploration. Musically, the melodies and harmonies take defined,
joyous turns, always expanding, growing and delighting. Ys is an album that can change you. Now that I have it, I cant imagine life without it.
Band of Horses
All the Time
Sub Pop (March 21)
If you are lucky, every once in a while, an album will
come around and make you remember everything you love about music. Band of Horses are inviting and familiar yet
raw and mysterious. But what strikes me
the most and what keeps drawing me back for more is the tremendous amount of
open space in their songs. By utilizing
echo, reverb, soaring vocals, atmospheric instruments and loose songwriting,
Ben Bridwell has created an album of songs so free and full of space that it
would be impossible not to connect with the music because there is so much room
for interpretation and analysis. When
an album can first draw you then allow you to connect with it on your own
terms, it should be treasured.
10. Tom Waits
Anti (November 21)
Any Tom Waits album will make my Top Ten on principle. It was really nice of Waits to include Orphan‘s fifty-six tracks (thirty of them brand new) in a single package. Otherwise I’d have to use up spots eight, nine and ten for each of its three discs.
9. Serena Maneesh
Play Louder (May 9)
Who knew that there was still so much ground to be covered in shoegaze, a subgenre that supposedly reached its apex fifteen years ago? And who knew that it would come from Norway, a country previously incapable of producing music other than dance pop and the blackest of Viking metal? I’ve thrown away my Annie and Emperor records in favor of this white-hot firestorm of noisy shoegaze. Spike your mead with some acid and soak it in.
8. Josh Ritter
The Animal Years
V2 (April 11)
Don’t place too much stock in the Dylan comparisons. Yeah, Josh Ritter’s ramshackle folk-rock arrangements share the same heartland real estate as Dylan’s, and he’s got the same gift for unearthing a simple, poetic profundity even when his songs get a little heavy on the allusions. But Ritter lacks the bitterness of Bob’s best work and supplants it with warmth and generosity. Animal Years is Ritter’s best, if only because it includes the painfully beautiful “Idaho,” a wistful remembrance of his birthplace.
7. Hawksley Workman
Treeful of Starling
Universal Music Canada (March 30)
Early this year, Hawksley Workman was the opening act at three separate concerts I went to in the same week. It was a happy coincidence, because you don’t often find singer-songwriters who balance wry wit and sentimentalism quite as well as Workman. Plus, the guy smokes on the guitar, makes art out of between-song banter, and has one of the most bizarrely wonderful voices I’ve ever heard. Even if the cabaret pop on Treeful of Starling isn’t quite as revelatory when Workman isn’t standing right in front of you with only a guitar and his right-hand man Mr. Lonely on keys, the album is a total delight from start to finish. Workman is apparently hot shit in his native Canada, yet another reason to migrate northward.
Trials of Van Occupanther
Bella Union (July 25)
This album worries me. There’s nothing wrong with it, mind you (it’s actually a really lovely record, and I think I could listen only to “Bandits” for the rest of my life and be totally happy), it’s just that everyone says Midlake sounds like Fleetwood Mac, and I’m supposed to hate Fleetwood Mac. Farewell indie cred, I knew thee well. It takes balls to venture across the ’70s soft-rock minefield, but Midlake pulls it off with grace, aplomb and a whole lotta piano.
Barriers and Passages
Relapse (May 2)
Between Dysrhythmia’s previous album and this one, the band replaced bassist Clayton Ingerson with Behold ï¿½ The Arctopus mastermind Colin Marston. The stick-like Marston has clearly challenged his bandmates to strive for new levels of complexity, turning what was once a really good prog-metal band into one of the most distinct instrumental outfits in rock. Time signatures are mere playthings, the bass does everything other than play the root of the chord, drums dig holes and then shovel the dirt back in with off-kilter fills, and it all feels chunky and visceral and real.
Relapse (September 19)
It’s hard to describe to a someone who doesn’t like metal just why Suffocation towers head and shoulders above the rest of metal’s sickest exports, but whatever that X-factor is, the self-titled album from this quintet of New Yorkers has it in spades. This was a surprisingly strong year for legendary death-metal bands that some had given up for irrelevant, with Slayer, Deicide and Krisiun each churning out their best albums in years. Suffocation tops ’em all with artfully arranged guitarchitecture, drummer Mike Smith’s creative skinsmanship, and Frank Mullen’s strangely decipherable bellow.
3. James Hunter
People Gonna Talk
Go Records/Rounder (March 7)
If James Hunter recorded in the late ’50s and early ’60s, he’d now be regarded alongside Ray Charles and Sam Cooke as one of the finest singer-songwriters that the soul/R&B genre had to offer. As it is, Hunter is a British dude who happens to be the best soul revivalist around today. His blues and ska-inflected originals are as potent as they are simple, with Stax horns and tasty guitar solos complementing Hunter’s warm ‘n ragged voice. People Gonna Talk is a great listen whether you grew up on this stuff or not.
Mill Pond (May 9)
This group of Brooklynites is marching with toy instruments through the door that Deerhoof and Animal Collective blew wide open. Listen as the band members evoke circuses and visits to the candy shop, then poison your daydreams with their carelessly mumbled vocals and fucked-up percussion.
Goodfellow (August 22)
Every review I’ve read of Intronaut compares the L.A. metal band to Mastodon, but to my mind debut, the band’s debut, easily eclipses Blood Mountain and maybe even the rest of Mastadon’s catalog. Stunning riff collages that morph and develop in nigh-symphonic fashion, atmospherics that beckon and lap at your feet instead of being merely pretty, and one of the most crushing guitar tones in all of metaldom. These guys make death metal sexy.
Smalltown Supersound (November 21)
9. Joanna Newsom
Drag City (November 14)
I’m still trying to wrap my head around this one. And I doubt I will anytime soon.
8. Wax Tailor
Tales of the Forgotten Melodies
Decon Inc. (May 30)
The French producer combines elements of DJ Shadow, Alfred Hitchcock, hypnotism and Dan the Automator to cook up an engaging and quirky debut.
Arena Rock (March 21)
The Portland-based duo Talkdemonic created one of the finest genuinely instrumental albums since Ulrich Schnauss last got behind the keyboard.
6. Cut Chemist
The Audience’s Listening
Warner Bros./WEA (July 11)
With his solo debut, Cut Chemist exposes the brains behind J5’s inventive ways, and he does it in confident and exciting fashion.
5. Justin Timberlake
Jive (September 12)
Guilty pleasure. It makes me feel sexy.”
Def Jam (March 28)
A kilo is a thousand grams. It’s easy to remember.
3. Benoit Pioulard
Kranky (November 7)
Pop disguised as an enveloping womb. Pioulard’s ability to control fragile folk melodies within a morphing cloud of hazy guitar-driven soundscapes seems to get stronger with each listen.
2. The Knife
Mute (July 25)
The record’s first thirty seconds still gives me chills. And for the remaining fifty-two minutes, they never completely go away.
1. J Dilla
Stones Throw (February 7)
Such good beats. Such dope drums. Such sweet samples. Such a blessing to hip-hop.
10. Fujiya & Miyagi
Tirk (May 15)
Part Krautrock, electronica, loopy house party and a celebration of new wave without the posturing that befouls so much of America’s stylishly uncombed fashion-rock retro, Fujiya & Miyagi bust out songs that are transparent enough for groovy background music with a deceptively intricate tonal aesthetic that rewards repeated listens. Or maybe I’m a sucker for any album that opens with a funky song where the band chants its own name.
9. Giant Squid
The End (August 22)
The “post-rock” album of the year from a metal band. Whodathunkit? Giant Squid’s winning combination runs the sludgy gamut from synth breakdowns to Arabian scales through Howard-Shore-blockbuster bombast to borderline sloppy dropped-D crunch and incomprehensible fantasy wordsmithery. With the loose sincerity of a well-rehearsed garage band barely in control of its abilities and ambitions, Giant Squid manufacture an patiently bombastic soundtrack for the stoner on his blurry drive home to return the car before his stepdad gets pissed.
8. Black Spell Procession
Touch & Go (May 9)
Sea shanties on a ghost ship sailing in foggy weather if the captain was a heartbroken romantic, The Spell is the year’s most haunting effort (with apologies to Scott Walker). The band funnels its more experimental leanings into a tightly focused collection of melancholy brooding that’s never whiny and somehow optimistic.
Through the Windowpanes
Universal (July 20)
British invaders actually lived up to the hype this year, but the UK’s finest slipped under the American radar. Guillemots comb through decades of music styles in Through the Windowpanes, genres ranging from soulful balladry to indie lo-fi to anthemic rock to airy melodies to psychedelic pop. It’s eclectic yet organic, accomplished songcraft that’s never showy. Like Elbow before it, Guillemots would get more recognition in the States if only the band didn’t make it look so easy.
Def Jam (March 28)
Ghostface elevates somehow breathes new life into rapping about the drug trade, creating a highly stylized, tightly-knit portrait of kingpins, corner boys and the ‘hos that love them. Somehow his stream-of-consciousness narratives form stories as detailed and lurid as the great crime novelists, campfire tales for the urban wasteland. Descent into criminal madness has never been so lucid.
5. The Hold Steady
Boys and Girls in America
Vagrant (October 3)
America’s boys and girls deal with their anxiety and aspirations for social status with substance abuse. Observational nuance and a musical throwback to the freewheeling, fun-for-fun’s-sake ’70s to create the rare think-piece you can party to. Kudos to Craig Finn and the boys for making alienation and overdose so much fun.
4. Belle & Sebastian
The Life Pursuit
Matador (February 7)
Scottish tweesters step up the funk and find some capital-“S” Soul on their seventh and most accomplished album to date. The rich melodies remain but stripped of its whispery shyness, Belle & Sebastian turn up the tempo and dial up their amps on this compulsively listenable A-one rocker with the taste to match.
Time signatures flex, bend and snap. Melodies leap unpredictably, never to return. The list of contributors is staggering: members of Serena Maneesh and Deerhoof join in, as do production icons like Sufjan Stevens and Steve Albini. Steadfast capitain Daniel Smith not only avoids artistic mutiny but gathers everyone into his vision, resulting in a challenging, rewarding album that celebrates the uplifting power of great pop music at the same time as it deconstructs it.
Drum’s Not Dead
Mute (March 21)
The year’s most thematically befuddling album and one of the most opaque concept albums ever made: who is this Drum? Will he/she/it ever bring down Mt. Heart Attack? Does this make any sense? Liars hole up in a German studio, ditch the trendy rave-punk, and achieve the truly timeless–an album that continues to simultaneously reveal and disguise itself further upon every listen.
1. TV on the Radio
Return to the Cookie Mountain
Interscope (September 12)
A dazzingly original band continues to evolve and push itself, finding music and sounds no one else seems to hear and translating it into pulse-pounding art rock we may not fully understand but know it moves us. Right now all other bands are the apes, and TV on the Radio is the monolith.
Omissions of note:
Arctic Monkeys Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not (Domino, February 21)
The Decemberists The Crane Wife (Capitol, October 3)
Islands Return to the Sea (Equator, April 4)
Loose Fur Born Again in the USA Drag City (March 12)
Mastodon Blood Mountain (Reprise, September 12)
Joanna Newsom Ys (Drag City, November 14)
Paul Simon Surprise (Warner Bros., May 9)
The Thermals The Body, The Blood, The Machine (Sub Pop, August 22)
Thom Yorke The Eraser (XL, July 11)
Yo La Tengo –I’m Not Afraid of You and I Will Kick Your Ass (Matador, September 12)
The Zutons Tired of Hanging Around (Red Ink, April 20)
Staff Picks Page 1, Page 2, Page 3, Page 5.
Check out Prefix’s Best of 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003 lists.