The top ten albums of 2006

    In a year with so many albums released, it was really hard to come up with just 10 albums to call the "Top Ten." Why is it limited to 10? Is Letterman to blame for this? Whatever the case, this list of 10, in no particular order, is by no means an attempt to represent all the genres. Instead, these are the albums released in 2006 that spent the most time winning my affection and approval.


Joanna Newsom


    This is probably the weirdest and least pop-oriented album on the list. The album is a long player, consisting of only five songs ranging in length from seven to 16 minutes. The traditional elements of pop music such as guitars, bass and percussion are virtually absent. The music is a lush mix of Newsom’s harpistry and the stunning orchestral arrangements of the brilliant Van Dyke Parks, who’s best known for his work with The Beach Boys, Rufus Wainwright and U2.

    Newsom’s vocals have matured some since her last album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, but still retain their utter individuality, reminiscent at times of Bjork, Tori Amos or Joni Mitchell. The music is delicate, epic and passionate, and despite the song lengths, it wants to be listened to over and over again. It’s best not to think of this as indie folk or whatever it would be likely to be classified as. The music here is rich and extraordinary, revealing new layers and intricacies with each listen.


Belle & Sebastian

The Life Pursuit

    Sure, this album has been criticized for being the sound of dancing Smurfs (or something like that), but that’s kind of the point. Remember, it’s called The Life Pursuit, not The Angst of Being Thirty-Something. The music is buoyant and joyful, and is Belle & Sebastian’s most accomplished work to date. You’ll find some of the wispy folk songs from their earlier albums, but mostly the songs take on the influence of the late ’60s and early ’70s, invoking Motown and glam rock, as well as the electric sunshine pop they began exploring with more vigor on 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress. The song "Sukie in the Graveyard" sounds a bit like mid-’70s era Yes, while "We are the Sleepyheads" could be taken from an album of ’70s grocery store shopping music, or even the Brady Bunch family album.



Happy Hollow

    This stunning album of mature lyricism backed by a tight and dynamic rhythm section is a refreshing listen and makes a good argument for the healthy state of modern indie rock. The lyrics of the songs cover a wide swath of topics, from aging ("Dorothy at Forty") to theism and religion ("Big Bang," "Bad Sects," "Hymns for the Heathen"), to the war ("At Conception"). Between the last album and this, the band lost a cellist, and that loss is countered by the addition of a horn section on many of these songs. Not cheesy horns, either. Think of the brass arrangement on Radiohead’s "The National Anthem"–they’re wild and badass and, yes, they rock. Stylistically, the songs range from Bright Eyes-type swinging rock of "Dorothy Dreams of Tornadoes" to the Spoon-ish piano pop of "At Conception." The deft combination of meditative, intelligent lyrics and powerful, clever music makes this a great addition to the indie rock canon.


Neko Case

Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

    Nothing in the world of country songs will break your heart faster than the sound of Neko Case’s voice. It’s that powerful and emotive. You might know her from her work with The New Pornographers, or from her own solo repertoire. The songs on this album are moody Americana, or what someone called "country noir." Whatever you call it, this album is nearly perfect, the only complaint being that it’s too short. Lyrically, the songs range from story songs ("Margaret Vs. Pauline"), to love ("Hold On, Hold On," "That Teenage Feeling"), to biblical themes ("John Saw That Number"). The music ranges from folksy acoustic numbers to twangy electric country rockers, and doesn’t get old, even after a hundred (or so) listens.


Bob Dylan

Modern Times

    What can you say about Bob Dylan that hasn’t already been said? He’s an American master and arguably the most important songwriter of the 20th century. Musically, this is the most blues based of his albums from the last 10 years. Most of the songs are either bluesy or have that kind of old parlor swing that we heard on Love and Theft. He sings about love ("When the Deal Goes Down"), mortality ("The Levee’s Gonna Break"), spirituality ("Spirit on the Water," "Ain’t Talkin"), and growing old ("Beyond the Horizon") in a way that no one else can. His lyrics feel personal yet universal, echoing Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Sleepy John Estes. Even the title of the album has layers of meaning: it’s the name of Charlie Chaplin’s classic film, the album’s lyrics refer to current events but the musical genres covered here are half a century old. This album is a great work that feels like a good finish to the trifecta beginning with 1997’s Time Out of Mind and 2001’s Love and Theft.


The Roots

Game Theory

    This is the only hip-hop album on the list. Unfortunately, there just wasn’t that much good hip-hop out this year. The Roots are the best hip-hop band out there, whether serving as Jay-Z’s backing band on MTV Unplugged or when making their own albums. This album drops some of the studio sheen of 2004’s The Tipping Point, and the results are a batch of songs that generally sound like a live band playing very tightly. ?uestlove’s drumming has never sounded better, the beats are fresh and creative, and the guitar, bass and keyboards help provide an interesting backdrop to Black Thought’s socially aware rhymes. Songs like "Don’t Feel Right," "False Media" and "Take it There" talk about the troubled times we live in and resonate with sentiments of unrest, pain and frustration. These elements combine to create what many people think is The Roots’ best album yet.


Joseph Arthur

Nuclear Daydream
    In case you didn’t know already, Joseph Arthur is a ridiculously talented artist from Akron, Ohio. He’s not just a singer/songwriter. He also plays many of the instruments on his albums, and he’s a visual artist, too. This album is a little more stripped back than his brilliant 2004 release Our Shadows Will Remain, but that’s not to say this is anything close to lo-fi. Most of the songs are lush and richly produced with a full rock band providing a meaty rock backdrop for Arthur’s often bittersweet, poignant lyrics, like on The Rolling Stones-influenced "Slide Away," or synth-driven "Automatic Situation." Even the sparser songs like "Electrical Storm" have layers of vocals and simmering ambient keyboards. His lyrics are insightful and personal. On "You are Free" he sings, "I’m no longer I was/ No longer who you thought I was/ I’m no longer I was/ No longer who I thought I was." The album’s highlight track is the Oedipal song called "Woman," where Arthur is reminiscent of John Lennon: "Mother, mother, are you right here?…I share your fear/ ‘Cause I don’t know if I make it on without you/ I don’t know if I could make it on my own back home." With Nuclear Daydream‘s exploration of genres and sonic textures mixed with Arthur’s personal, literate lyrics, this is one of his best albums to date.



Ringleader of the Tormentors
    Without using music critic cliches like "return to form" and "back at what he does best," it’s kind of hard to talk about this album. Morrissey sounds actually sort of happy, perhaps reinvigorated by his new songwriting partner, the Texan Jesse Tobias, or maybe Moz is still riding high on the success of his 2004 comeback album You Are the Quarry. Morrissey’s lyrics are as clever as ever, with songs about politics ("I Will See You in Far Off Places," "In the Future When All’s Well"), family ("The Youngest Was the Most Loved," "The Father Who Must Be Killed"), and his favorite subject, himself ("You Have Killed Me," "I’ll Never Be Anybody’s Hero Now"). The music is boisterous and more raucous than on the last album, thanks to top-notch production by the legendary Tony Visconti, who you might know from his work with T. Rex or David Bowie. The use of a children’s choir on "The Father Who Must Be Killed" is good, but on "The Youngest Was the Most Loved" when they sing the refrain "There is no such thing in life as normal," it’s absolutely brilliant. This album reminds us why so many fell in love with Morrissey’s wry wit with The Smiths over 20 years ago. Although this album doesn’t top Vauxhall and I, it’s easily his best work since then.


TV on the Radio

Return to Cookie Mountain

    Return to Cookie Mountain is an intense, complex work of experimental post-rock from this Brooklyn-based five-piece band. The songs are largely explorations with sonic elements constantly coming in and out of the mix, while singer Tunde Adepimbe croons odd, multi-layered lyrics like on "Blues from Down Here": "Teeth gnashing/ masticating this dumb tongue/ quiet now…/ hear that supplication/ echo into the void/ been received by no one." Even when the songs might be about girls, you get the sense of inspired doom and foreboding, as on "Dirtywhirl": "The spark in your eyes belies the apocalypse inside you/ Twisting the pits from the particle/ Skull can’t save face." Return to Cookie Mountain‘s dissonant guitars and sinister lyrics remind us of the Pixies, while the creative drum beats, handclaps and occasional saxophones recall local favorites Menomena. At times the music sounds like gospel, at other times, hip-hop, and other times, indie rock, like on "Province," the song with David Bowie on backing vocals. This is a band like no other and no matter how nightmarish the future might be in their lyrics, we can all expect great things from TV on the Radio for years to come.

Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint

The River in Reverse

    No doubt about it, Elvis Costello is a brilliant songwriter and revered artist. To ignore his work would be egregious. This collaboration with legendary New Orleans pianist and songwriter Allen Toussaint is a classic, straightforward mix of blues, soul and old school R&B. About half of the songs here are from Toussaint’s repertoire, one is a Costello original, and the rest are songwriting collaborations, mostly dealing with the Hurricane Katrina aftermath. The new songs grieve Katrina’s devastation, the old songs take on new meanings when viewed in light of Katrina, and even songs like "Tears, Tears, & More Tears" are lyrically bittersweet–the words are belied by the effervescence of the band and Toussaint’s expressive piano playing. This album could have been a despondent novelty, but instead it’s a soulful, inspired elegy with a natural, earthy sound befitting the stature of New Orleans.