To be quite honest, there wasn't really a lot of great new music in 2006. Good, yes, but great? Not so much. I spent most of the year catching up on some of the stuff I missed during the 80s (The Cars, Bob Seger, Genesis, acquiring most of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' discography) than actually seeking out new music. Much of what I liked this year were new releases by established artists than any new discoveries.
Still, if this year is anything like last year, I'll discover a half-dozen 2006 albums within the next year that I'll fall in love with or find a new wrinkle in a currently mediocre album that turns it from good to great -- thus rendering this list obsolete within 6 months, max. But, as 2006 comes to a close, these are the albums that I like best.
Honorable mentions: A Season in Hell
, Liberation Transmission
, Bring It Back
, As Cruel As School Children
, Over The Wall
10. The Hold Steady
- Boys and Girls in America
: Granted, I only recently got into these guys, but this album really made an impression on me. With lyrics alternately nostalgic and bitter yet that always make you want to sing along, The Hold Steady manage to be both catchy and poignant. I call it dive bar indie rock. Perfect for driving, even better for drinking. This one stayed with me long after I first heard it, and I look forward to exploring backwards into their catalogue.
Standout tracks:Stuck Between StationsMassive NightsChillout Tent
9. Light Grenades
: Being a bigger fan of A Crow Left... than most, I'd definitely say Incubus' newest falls short of that effort. However, it does contain one of my favorite tracks of the year ("Dig"), a throwback to the Make Yourself/Morning View era of the band. The rest of the album is solid, if not spectacular. While some may have thought that A Crow Left... was a bit scattered, perhaps unfocused, I thought it perfectly embodied the eclectic nature of the band's album-to-album progression. Light Grenades, in turn, feels slightly stale, a step sideways instead of a step forward (but a good step, regardless, given what I said about "Dig"). I like it, but I don't love it... yet. I have an inkling that it will grow on me with further listens...
Standout tracks:DigAnna Molly
8. Coming Home
: Pop-punk's finest are at it again. This time, the guys in NFG further mine their softer side, territory previously explored on 2004's excellent Catalyst. Pop-punk melodies infused with heartfelt (if a little tired...) lyrics, driving rhythms, and a few flourishes of strings and keys are the ingredients here, and the end result is a bittersweet, bouncy-yet-downbeat album. Gorgeous female backing vocals supplied by the lovely ladies of Eisely add a haunting touch that lends the album a bit of depth and resonance. Hardly groundbreaking stuff (despite my probably overly-complimentary prose), Coming Home is nevertheless a solid disc. NFG has been one of my favorite bands for years and they haven't disappointed me yet.
Standout tracks:OxygenHold My HandIt's Not Your Fault
7. Stadium Arcadium
: Ever since 1999's Californication, RCHP has been putting out some of the most amazing, complex, sublte, rocking music that these two ears have ever heard. As John Frusciante's guitar has become as important to the band as Flea's frenetic bass playing, the band has been able to consistently stay ahead of the rock 'n' roll curve. Now this year, with Stadium Arcadium, RCHP continues to progress to legendary stature. This album feels more like a compendium of the various styles and identities that the band has embraced throughout the years. Sliding effortlessly from up-tempo quasi-funk ("Hump De Bump") to smooth, polished radio rock ("Tell Me Baby") to soft, understated neo-ballads ("Snow (Hey Oh)") and back again, RCHP shows why they're one of rock's (and last.fm's) most revered bands.
Standout tracks:Snow (Hey Oh)Tell Me BabyDesecration Smile
6. Ben Folds
: Not exactly a new release -- and that's the only reason I kept it out of the top 5 -- it nevertheless still might be my second favorite Folds release ever (after, of course, Whatever and Ever, Amen). Compiling his three excellent EPs -- with a few extra tracks thrown in -- supersunnyspeedgraphic is Mr. Folds at his unequivocal best. He has always had the perfect combination of undeniable talent and self-depreciation, and this album showcases both of these sides of him. Eleven piano-pop masterpieces, with a pop-ballad treatment of Dr. Dre's "Bitches Ain't Shit" as the cherry-on-top. Worth having, even if you own all the songs separately.
Standout tracks:All U Can EatBitches Ain't ShitSongs Of Love
5. Black Holes and Revelations
: When this album first came out, I thought it would be number one when I made this list. That's not to say that the albums ahead of it necessarily blew me away (with the exception of what ended up being number one) -- two of them were alredy out. All of which means that I've cooled a little bit on the album. Not enough to drop it out of my top 5, but still. There are some undeniably great tracks ("Supermassive Black Hole", "Starlight"), but sometimes the band's esoteric lyrics get the best of them -- some of the songs feel pretentious, but without anything you can respect. They just feel flat and uninteresting. Yet, criticisms aside, it wound up as the fifth-best album of the year, so the highs are truly high. Epic and atmospheric, exacting without being demanding, some of the work on the album is truly great. But, as a whole, it remains uneven -- yet you have to give the band kudos for experimentation. Muse is one of the most interesting bands working right now, and one to keep a further eye on.
Standout tracks:Supermassive Black HoleStarlightAssassin
4. Brand New
- The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me
: I'm still not quite sure how I feel about one of 2006's most anticipated releases, other than the fact that I like it. Some of the songs feel like the best the band has ever written ("Jesus Christ", "Millstone", "You Won't Know"), but some just feel like filler ("Not The Sun", both of the instrumentals). It's tough to follow up an album like Deja Entendu, and The Devil and God... is certainly an admirable attempt... perhaps attempt is the wrong word, since the album is, overall, a success. At times haunting, at times beautiful, at times brutal -- yet always affecting. Jesse Lacey's vox (and lyrics) seem to take a backseat to the musicians this time around (most notably Vin Accardi's edgy, chiseled guitar work), and the result is a more cohesive album than any of their previous work. Without some of the more "meh" tracks (of which there were precisely zero on either Deja or Your Favourite Weapon), this might've been number one. Another likely candidate to rise as I grow more familiar with it.
Standout tracks:Jesus ChristMillstoneYou Won't Know
3. Like Vines
: Say what you will about their record label, but I am absolutely in love with this band. Uber-catchy melodies, thoroughly beautiful harmonies, and some of the smoothest vocals I've heard in a long time. Polished to perfection in the studio, Like Vines is a step up from TSH's debut, So Sudden. Featuring more interplay between Bob Morris and Greta Salpeter (both vocally and instrumentally), the album is a more mature, melodic, and memorable. Like Vines is -- and I say it unabashedly -- indie-pop genius.
Standout tracks:Don't Wake Me UpWine RedOut Through the Curtain
2. Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not
: This one took me by surprise. I heard "I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor" on the radio, liked it, and resolved to acquire the album. I did, and it proceeded to remain forgotten about until I put it on my iPod a few weeks later. After a few close listens, it grew on me. And grew. And grew. Et cetera. You know what I mean. The Arctic Monkeys' debut is trashy, invective, addictive, and a helluva good time. Abrasive guitars, devil-may-care vocals, deeply biting lyrics, and a general "fuck off" attitude all add up to one of the year's few great albums.
Standout tracks:I Bet You Look Good on the DancefloorWhen the Sun Goes DownFake Tales of San Francisco
1. The Decemberists
- The Crane Wife
: Flat-out, drop-dead, unequivocally, the best album of the year. Their most polished effort to date, The Crane Wife might also be The Decemberists' best. I'm always a sucker for concept albums, and the band has built this album around the eponymous Japanese folktale. The result is a dreary, folky, at times almost-funky, smooth indie-folk masterpiece. The Crane Wife combines both poppy, accessible tracks ("O, Valencia", "The Perfect Crime #2") and epic, intimidating opuses ("The Crane Wife 1 & 2", "The Island") -- and the listener barely notices as they traverse the album. Listen after listen, the album is constantly unfolding to reveal new details, new twists (especially in the longer songs). With folky, strummy, guitars, soft yet decisive percussion and keys that are almost reminiscent of The Doors at times, The Crane Wife is easily the class of 2006 releases, and an album that only figures to get better with time.
Standout tracks:The Perfect Crime #2Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)The Island
So there you have it. A precious few five-star releases, a smatterig of flawed (potential) masterpieces, and a whole lot of solid music. This is my list as it stands now -- but just remember, there are dozens upon dozens of potentially great albums that I just haven't discovered yet. Some of them may even be sitting in my iTunes as we speak, forlorn and awaiting. May they be discovered and given their due as 2006 rolls into 2007 and beyond. And, if anyone out there would like to post anything they feel I may have overlooked, please do. Thank you, and Merry Xmas.