2006: Albums of the Year

25. Henrik Schwarz, DJ Kicks / Four Tet, DJ Kicks

The estimable DJ Kicks series has spawned some of the most daring, creative, and envelope-pushing mixes of the past decade, every entry showing off a facet of the creator's personal tastes and musical niche. From the chilled ambiance of Kruder & Dorfmeister, the jazzy elegance of Thievery Corporation, the squirming dark electro of Andrea Parker, the deadly dub of Daddy G, to the brilliant pop reconstructions of Erlend Oye and Tiga, the DJ Kicks series has been consistent in its ability to push the producer to new realms within their styles in a search for the perfect mixtape. This year that trend continued with these two sucker-punches, two highly acclaimed producers (rather than pure DJ's), both of whose mixes are as eclectic as their previous material would suggest. Four Tet's compilation touches on free jazz, hip-hop and African finger music with messy but thrilling mixing, while Berlin producer Schwarz's mix is quite possibly one of the top ten of the entire series, a seamless trip through deep electro, R&B and soul. Not only that, it also came with a free download of a deconstructed mix of the entire album. Sweet! Look out for the next installment, courtesy of the No. 22 album-makers, sometime next year.
24. The Game, Doctor's Advocate
Detox has quickly become rap's Chinese Democracy: in the works for almost a decade, and with no release in sight. Considering Dr. Dre's weak production this year (see: Kingdom Come), perhaps it should not come out at all. Surprisingly, Compton rapper the Game does not enlist any Dre tracks at all on his sophomore album, supposedly out of Dre not wanting to take a side on the 50 Cent-Game dispute. In spite of this, The Game has crafted, with an army of producers, one of the best West Coast rap albums since Dre's 2001, a concrete-solid collection of straight bangers shot through his own unique twisted persona. Dre's presence also looms large here: he is referenced on at least 13 of the 16 tracks, while the beef with Fiddy is laughingly shrugged off. It may not be a perfect album, but Doctor's Advocate is worth your time, and by the time his collaboration with Nas ("Why You Hate the Game") runs to nearly ten minutes, it becomes damn near magical.
23. Tim Hecker, Harmony In Ultraviolet
Every year needs a good sound-scape album, and this year Canadian producer Tim Hecker stepped to the bat to knock it out of the park with this seamless trip through the heavens. Sure, it's divided into fifteen tracks, but listening to any single song, out of context on its own, is like watching a single scene from a three-hour movie - cliched as that sentiment is. Harmony in Ultraviolet is an ethereal bricolage of unearthly sounds, a true harmony in ultraviolet, like hearing the sun's rays hitting the atmosphere. What this album deserves is a dark room, surround sound cranked to the max, and your mind open to the possibilities of sound.
22. Hot Chip, The Warning
This British indie-tronic band's second album dumped the insecure posturing of their debut and created a fiercely streamlined dance album that played like the Talking Heads had they come together in early 21st century Berlin. We could spend time discussing their flawless hipster credentials (signed to DFA Records in the US, while benefiting from the occasional remix from that golden duo), but all we really need to be convinced of their skills in the music. Riding on the shoulders of three stunning singles ("Boy From School", "Over and Over", and "(Just Like We) Breakdown"), The Warning is a modern classic that will no doubt become even stronger as the years go by, and its influence becomes more apparent on wanna-bes who try to, but never will, replicate the formula. Stand still at your own risk.
21. Scissor Sisters, Ta-Dah!
What was wrong with the Scissor Sisters' formula? Not a thing. Hence, there is no need to tinker with it. Their debut album (one of the all-time best-sellers), when seen in relation to other past UK best-sellers like Norah Jones, Coldplay, Oasis, Take That, etc., sticks out like a glittering, pouting sore thumb. So on their follow-up, Jake Shears and Co. keep up the status quo, which is not a bad thing at all. Anytime you have an Elton John collaboration about not wanting to dance (over a beat that requires nothing less) opening an album, you know it's going to be a sugary and feel-good treat. Which is not to say it's all empty fluff - "I Can't Decide" is the poppiest ode to homicide recorded in a long time!
20. Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds
Aside from showing off his wicked retard-face falsetto, Justin's stripped-down-live-band SNL performance of "Senorita" showed off his willingness and ability to do something real with music. Hooking up with suddenly hotter-than-hell pop-maestro Timbaland, he instead did something unreal: created the best mainstream pop album of the past twenty years. Yes, FS/LS is not the organic effort that performance may have hinted at, but rather a gleaming pop monolith beamed from the future, an expansive and daring Album that dares challenge the conventions of pop (what was the last pop song to run nearly eight minutes and two movements, AND be a huge hit, since Prince? Exactly), and which contains a song so unexplainably amazing ("My Love") as to defy everything you know about the world. Only Justin's new masterpiece.
19. Belle & Sebastian, The Life Pursuit
For their whole career, Belle & Sebastian have been chasing the elusive Perfect Song, and they have always come close. Perhaps this is the Life Pursuit? Abandoning their DIY ethics for a glossy sheen courtesy of producer Tony Hoffer (Air, Beck, Phoenix), the Glaswegians make their most accessible album to date, filled to the brim with breezy melodies and the type of narrative lyrics that have been Stuart Murdoch's bread and butter since day one. The commercialization of the music resulted in their highest-charting album to date. Their purist fans may breathe a sigh of resentment, but this type of glorious pop deserves to be heard by as many people as possible. Kudos to the always entertaining Q&A session transcribed in the booklet as well!
18. Destroyer, Destroyer's Rubies
The almost incestuous band-membership that exists in British Columbia and Ontario has spawned some truly remarkable music in the last half-decade, and a part of the sprawling ensemble is Dan Bejar, who returns to his Destroyer moniker after shifts with the New Pornographers and Swan Lake. To say the man is a bottom-less well of songs and lyrics is an understatement: either he divides his best songs between the three acts, or he has never written a bad song in his life. His winning streak continues with this hyper-literate collection of songs, where his usually restrained eccentricities are allowed to flourish, while still creating an instantly accessible and elegant album. Who really knows how he does it, but when it sounds this good, who really cares?
17. Peter Bjorn and John, Writer's Block
It is appropriate that one of the most Beatle-esque albums of recent years should come the same year as a "new" offering from the pop masters. It was not likely that this album would outshine that one, but that's exactly what the Swedish trio manage with this misleadingly titled confection about love-making in the 19th-century sense of the word (friendship, courtship, bedship). "Amsterdam" shuffles happily along, a flute acting like the Pied Piper leading you on, while the duet on "Young Folks" with Victoria Bergstrom conveys love between old friends. Every single track manages to shine on its own, and together they form an endearing collection of perfect pop gems.
16. Lindstrom, It's a Feedelity Affair
One of the most acclaimed producers of the past three years, and a major standard-bearer for the re-emergence of the "italo disco" movement, a style that celebrates the sound of spacey 80's techno from Italy not unlike Giorgio Moroder's production works, Lindstrom's debut album is a collection of previous producing triumphs (the gigantic "I Feel Space") and new tracks. The beats are like being hit by padded leather, while the synths are light and airy. What ultimately makes this album such an essential for the dance fan is Lindstrom's ridiculous consistency: from his solo production work to his collaborations with Prins Thomas and Lindbaek, he maintains his unique sound but manages to always keep it fresh.
15. Boris, Pink
Indie bloggers busted a collective nut over Japanese doom rockers Boris over the past year, and if you like your metal, it's easy to see why. Peeling the wallpaper with their guitar attack (this is what acid metal sounds like), but keeping it dreamy like Kevin Shields did as recently as 2000 with Primal Scream, Boris have created one of the rare metal albums that might have crossed over to the mainstream with a mix of speaker-shredding and pop melodicism, but of course everyone turned a deaf ear, despite a decent promotional push by Southern Lord. Even if this does not go platinum, it will remain an immaculately crafted album - and check out the blotting paper of the booklet, resembling the necessities for consuming LSD. Have people got the hint?
14. Lupe Fiasco, Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor
Fuck Kanye West. There, I've said it. Is there a bigger asshole in music these days? I have no idea where this rage comes from, but his smirking visage and sub-par producing this year has something to do with it. He should thank his lucky stars that he gave the world Lupe Fiasco to justify his continued success. This is arguably one of the finest pure hip-hop albums since A Tribe Called Quest broke up, and Lupe establishes himself as an MC superior to 90% of his competition. However, what ultimately loses this album a few points is the hook department: Lupe's lyrics are a thing of beauty, and they should be complemented by equally magnificent choruses, which are few and far between on Food & Liquor. Also, the Mike Shinoda song is next to garbage (how did he even get near Lupe?), and the outro is just a 12-minute fellatio session where Lupe thanks every insect and grain of sand in the world. However, Lupe has enough self-confident charisma (and the humility that Kanye lacks) and talent that he will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.
13. Herbert, Scale
Matthew Herbert continues his cavalier way of recording music, and provides new ways for his listeners to see his albums. The scale of the title might prefer to the sheer scale of his musical sources: over 700 different utilities, appliances, toys, gadgets, machines, instruments, and even a guy puking (I'm fairly certain you can hear him at about 1:35 and 4:08 into "The Movers and the Shakers") to create a dance album. However, his ambitions do not overwhelm the music: for all his sources, this remains a lushly orchestrated and very listenable album, despite his fervent anti-Rightist lyrics that bring a certain amount of political proceedings into the album. Not only this, but he also enlists his wife Dani Siciliano's silky voice for several tracks, to create his strongest album since 1998's Around the House.
12. Fujiya & Miyagi, Transparent Things / 120 Days, 120 Days

Krautrock was a large presence in 2006's music selection, and was perfectly encapsulated in these two albums, which I have rationally put into a tie. The first is a British band pretending to be Japanese, channeling the best of German krautrock like Can with a cannier ear for pop. Please excuse that terrible pun. In their efforts, they create a deeply groovy album with an absolutely hilarious dead-pan vocal delivery - a totally obvious, but delicious take on Damo Suzuki's unique vocal stylings.. Just take a listen to "Collarbone" to get a taste of the singer's innovative pronunciation.

120 Days in the meantime sound like Joy Division covering Can with Robert Smith on vocals. The Norwegian band's debut album is a dark trip, akin to traveling down foggy pre-dawn, pre-1989 East Berlin streets in an old Trabant. It comes across as dour, but by the time you reach the final track, you realize the Wall has fallen down and the sun is shining yet again.

11. Thom Yorke, The Eraser
In lieu of a new Radiohead album, which will have to wait until next year, lead singer Thom Yorke quietly released a "solo" album with Nigel Godrich behind the decks, an effort that could have come across as Kid C, but instead was one of the year's most quietly accomplished electronic albums. Yorke and Godrich's palette is suitably minimalist, with only Yorke's rich high tenor, skittering beats and warm keyboard washes in a monochromatic ebb and flow. The outlook continues in Hail to the Thief's pessimistic vein, but the end result should more than soothe those anxious masses awaiting a new Radiohead album. It might even provide some clues as to its sound.
10. Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere
Might Danger Mouse be the most important producer of the past five years? His track record since 2004 has been impeccable: first the peerless Grey Album, then last year's pop genius Demon Days for Gorillaz, this year both parts of the Rapture's solid new disc and this collaboration with Cee-Lo, which became a breakout hit and surprise Grammy heavyweight contender. Led by the instant classic standard soul-hop of "Crazy", this album was the most adventurous crossover success of the year, and the dynamic duo was on all important music mag covers, dressed in a litany of movie references (Back to the Future, Donnie Darko, Star Wars, etc.). More important, St. Elsewhere held up well all year, combining Danger Mouse's demented madhouse music and Cee-Lo's eccentric voice (surely the finest R&B rapper/singer since Lauryn Hill) and borderline-schizo lyrics in a chymical combination of Pure Pop.
9. Liars, Drum's Not Dead
If an album continually escapes your comprehension's clutches over the course of nearly a year, you can bet it will be a future favorite. That is precisely the dilemma that faces me, as I have tried to "understand" this album's near-hostile avant-garde since March, with no success. Tribal drumming, feedback wails, falsetto stories about Mt. Heart Attack and Drum - is this genius or shameless obscurism? The band's impressive track record - their debut's unfair association with 2003's dance-punk movement, their sophomore album's true nihilism and critical revulsion - gives hope that one day Drum's Not Dead's hidden riches will be exposed for the layman to understand and enjoy.
8. Junior Boys, So This Is Goodbye
When Johnny Dark left Jeremy Greenspan, he took with him the thick, stuttering beats that embellished their debut Last Exit. However, Jeremy retained the pop savvy, and created this slow-burning masterpiece which expands the JBees's sound exponentially, while creating ever more exquisite melodies. His voice has gotten more expressive since two years ago, and he puts it to good use on these ten tracks, even pulling off a Frank Sinatra cover. The highlight is the rumbling bass attack of "In the Morning", but by the time "FM" breaks down into fragile self-harmonizing, you cannot resist anymore. They also play like demons live.
7. Arctic Monkeys, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not
This British four-some, all in their early 20's, became the first superstars off the MySpace trend, and they rode the hype for all it was worth: the fastest-selling debut album in UK history, number 5 on NME's list of the best British albums of all time some two months after its release, and a fall-out greater than an atomic bomb's. In the end, this album remains remarkable nearly a year after its release for its hyper-realism: Alex Turner is a lyricist with as keen an eye for working-class minutae as Damon Albarn or Jarvis Cocker were a decade ago, and sets these tales over high-end post-Strokes pop-punk that yielded such instant classics as "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" and "When the Sun Goes Down". They have already fired their amazing bassist, and the British music press has moved onto at least three other Next Big Things, but if they can release another solid album, they just might earn that hyped NME rating.
6. Mastodon, Blood Mountain
Mastodon making the metal Nevermind? Forget about it! While they could have easily went the pop route in search of more sales, Mastodon instead burrow deeper into their lethal metal attack, and make the most fierce American metal major-label debut since Master of Puppets or Reign in Blood. Their production, compared to the lean Leviathan, is much more beefed up, and drummer Brann Dailor fills up the bottom with such concentrated intensity that you can only want to start the album again so he can pound your skull again. That's not to say this album is obtuse: Mastodon balance their musicianship with as many melodies as brutal riffs, and the concept about climbing the Blood Mountain while high, fighting your inner demons physically manifested as a Cysquatch, or as a Colony of Birchmen, is as good as Leviathan's Moby-Dick inspired tales of water. With this album, Mastodon place themselves so far ahead of the pack that it's almost ridiculous: I cannot wait to hear their ice-themed album!
5. Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury
After four years spent in rap purgatory, estranged from their label and watching the landscape peppered with bullshit imitators, everyone was hoping Clipse would make good on their We Got It 4 Cheap mixtapes and release the masterpiece this was supposed to be. Surprisingly, this is exactly what they do: riding high on the Neptunes's 12 absolutely filthy, career-apex beats, the Brothers Clipse spin yarns of a cocaine-dealing lifestyle, withholding no warts, nor mercy for the rappers who bit their four-year-gone style. A lean, ferocious, and disturbingly focused rap album that will no doubt be a classic for years to come.
4. Joanna Newsom, Ys
Joanna Newsom's debut album was a freakfolk affair sung by a grating, precocious child: you either loved it or hated it. With her second album, she goes even crazier and released the most polarizing album of the year (unless you were a critic, in which case you unequivocally ran your throat ragged in praise): five songs, 55 minutes long, with 4,000 words crammed in like a Master's thesis essay. Joanna's more controlled voice and sublime harp are the focus here, cast in a golden glow by Van Dyke Parks' sublime orchestral arrangements. Even if this isn't your cup of tea, it made for the prettiest listen of the year, at least until you make sense of the labyrinthine stories.
3. Ghostface Killah, Fishscale
If critical (and fanzine) acclaim translated incrementally into sales, Fishscale would have outsold Thriller after its second week in release. Instead, Ghostface (with newly reinstated "Killah") settles for another insanely loved album that never reached - and perhaps never will reach - Gold status. Having channeled the rambunctious spirit of the late, lamented Ol' Dirty Bastard, Ghostface effectively becomes the Wu-Tang's last relevant rapper and in-resident jester, unafraid of singing off-key, chest-thumping bravado, or dropping a "thousand-bar verse that all rhymes with 'e'" (the three-minute no-chorus opener "Shakey Dog"). He even reminisces about childhood whoopings from his ma like a slightly crazed uncle. To top it off, he ended the year with a superior mixtape (More Fish), which also sold wood. So with respect to Nas, hip-hop isn't dead as long as Ghostface has breath left in him.
2. TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain
Take a second to consider: this album was released on a major label. Let it settle in. Savor the taste in your mouth. The eccentric audio-visual giants from Williamsburg, New York City, have released an album on a major label, the faceless monolithic peddlers of the Song, the labels who place such little emphasis on crafting full-length albums that (mercy me!) require actual repeated listens. So to celebrate, David Andrew Sitek and crew constructed a dense, swirling atmosphere of sound over which Tunde Adebimpe, Kyp Malone and David f'ing Bowie spew shambolic tales of modern dystopia with no emphasis for basic pop song structure (notice the build-up to a chorus that "Province" has which never climaxes?) or pandering to the radio (even though "Wolf Like Me" was a minor hit). The world was pretty messed up, but nowhere near as much as seeing a TV on the Radio masterpiece on a major label. Almost magnificent enough to forgive the atrocious cover art.
1. The Knife, Silent Shout
There was little doubt from the very beginning that this album was very special, and would hold up throughout the year as my number one choice. It fended off several worthy challengers, but ultimately there was no other clear choice as the best album of the year than this third album from the shadowy Swedish siblings. Musically it is rooted is dark European techno: utilizing some of the coldest and most off-setting electronic beats, and strangest vocal manipulations, since Bjork's mid-90s heyday, Silent Shout is a perfectly crafted glitch-pop album that lyrically explores dark topics that few albums would venture near. However, the disconsolate elements stick together like few albums released this year, and it is a flawless 47 minutes that filtered the year's darkness through glorious sound. They now have the formidable task of topping themselves.

Song of the Year

Girl Talk, "Night Ripper"
After serious self-debate, I finally decided to name this "album" the song of the year. Although it is broken into 16 tracks, this mash-up masterpiece by Pittsburgh native Gregg Gillis is in reality a forty-two minute song made of over 150 samples: not of birds chirping, or a single snare hit, but chunks of well-known, discernible pop songs that most everyone knows. Ever heard Boston, Ciara and Ludacris in perfect harmony? "Tiny Dancer" and "Juicy" interposed? Nas ripping it over the Pixies, or Young Jeezy over Nirvana? Girl Talk does it all for you, and with the panache to actually make these well-known standards his very own. A stunning technical and musical achievement, I salute you!

Honorable Mentions

The Decemberists, The Crane Wife
The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America
J Dilla, Donuts
Johnny Cash, American V: A Hundred Highways
The Beatles, Love
Booka Shade, Movements
T.I., King

Disappointments of the Year

3. Jay-Z, Kingdom Come
When Jigga retired on the back of the solid if unspectacular Black Album, nobody expected it to last long. Now, three years later, he is back to rap about his stockholdings, his 401k's and being rich. For a man who has gone from slinging crack to waxing about the world's dwindling water supply with Bill Gates (or in better words, by one of the many MC's who will forever outshine him, "from ashy to classy"), he sure kept his Second Coming mighty uninteresting. Lackluster production from Dr. Dre, a lack of Timbaland tracks, and subpar verses from an over-hyped MC make this a lame album. After all, it speaks volumes when the best track comes from Coldplay's Chris Martin. Ouch.
2. Tool, 10,000 Days
A new Tool album will forever be an intriguing prospect for true fans: they notoriously take half-a-decade to perfect a sonic trip full of knotty time signatures, detailed drumming and thought-provoking lyrics, not to mention increasingly conceptual packaging. Well, at least they got the packaging right on this one. Their last album Lateralus is still one of the decade's best metal albums, made brilliant over time like fine wine. Will time hold the same process for 10,000 Days? The short answer is no. Although some songs stand out, overall the album is plodding and directionless, and Maynard's lyrics and delivery are sorely lacking their usual panache. It will deserve more attention, but right now this wait was not quite worth it.
1. The Streets, The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living
Anyone who has kept up with my album lists since 2002 (all three of you) will know what a devoted champion of the Streets I am, and have been since Mike Skinner's debut album. This makes the disappointment all the more bitter for me: his third album is bland, monotonous and monochromatic, a collection of songs where NO song is OVER or UNDER 3 minutes in length. Fun pun in the title aside, the subject matter - the typical fame-overexposure-burnout of a major star's second or third album - just isn't as gripping as his first two albums, and although it was a big success in the UK, it just didn't keep me interested. Here's to the fourth album being about getting back on track after his cocaine derailment! No pun intended.

Worst of the Year

Kevin Federline, Playing With Fire
I had hope. This time last year, I estimated K-Fed would take the world by storm with a hot album (it has a title that contains "fire", people!), and his marriage would last another four or five months. Well, they both dissolved, and his album was so bad, it wasn't even good bad. It was just bad bad. Well, I guess he always has wrestling to fall back on. Poor bastard.
Fergie is a black hole that sucks everything good and decent from music towards her and destroys it. She is the nadir of the entire music industry, a one-woman wrecking crew of putrefying mediocrity and misguided hipster nonchalance. "London Bridge" has to be the laziest and most obvious metaphor for oral sex in the history of popular music, while the rest of her music is as soulless and vapid as her glossy, airbrushed videos. Shame on all the people who have contributed to this bimbo's shameless march towards the crass watering-down of pop music. By the way, you spelled "Duchess" wrong. I guess that's pubic education for ya!
2006 was an especially sad year for musician death, as we lost many maverick musicians and performers who contributed endlessly to their craft. James Yancey (J Dilla) passed away from lupus at only 32 in February, and left behind an incomplete legacy of pioneering hip hop-R&B production that could have taken the genre to the next level. Legendary keyboardist Billy Preston passed away at 59 after a long illness in June: he had played with both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and was a great natural talent on the keyboards.
Perhaps the most relevant (for lack of a better term, and with no disrespect meant) deaths of the year were two cult figures from the 60s, and one absolute legend. Syd Barrett, co-founder of Pink Floyd, died at 60 in July. The reclusive acid casualty was very infrequently seen in the years since he left the band, and was a major contributor to the psychedelic rock scene blossoming in the mid-late-60s. Arthur Lee, lead singer of the L.A. band Love, died one month after Barrett from leukemia at the age of 61. His band's 1967 album Forever Changes will forever remain one of the greatest "lost" albums of all time, a flawlessly crafted and timely gem whose obscurity continues to confuse me. Finally, just a week ago, the music world lost the legendary James Brown, the forefather of nearly all modern forms of music. Let's not remember his run-ins with the law and the terrible mugshots, but rather the electrifying entertainer who stormed the Apollo almost fifty years ago now, and set the future course of music. May they all, mentioned here and not, rest in peace, their contributions to the artistic expression of music that we love so much not be forgotten!

Email: leftsun7@hotmail.com