2006 was an odd year musically. While hip-hop largely floundered, only producing a handful of noteworthy albums and an endless pit of highly-anticipated flops, rock and folk flourished as many bands rediscovered the elusive decade between the often-mined '60s and '80s. At the same time this revivalist trend was taking place, a smattering of bands saw 2006 as fertile ground to push their own boundaries, producing some of the more forward thinking music in recent memory. Despite all of this, 2006 will probably be remembered as the year Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera deservedly became respected artists and Jay-Z became embarrassing. Even with the likelihood of this fate looming over our heads, media needs their top 10s, so here is one of many.
1. Grizzly Bear – Yellow House
Grizzly Bear's sophomore effort is the very definition of a grower. At first it's merely pleasant, providing a suitable backdrop to waking up or coming down. As it gets more play in these situations though, Yellow House begins to swell. Its lush backdrop of quiet folk melds with a subtle use of electronics creating songs both hummable and engrossing. Frontman Edward Droste's lilting vocals change from nearly indecipherable to spine tingling as he repeats "chin up, cheer up" on "Lullaby." By this point it's too late to see Yellow House as the simple creature its initial impression suggests, it's become a dangerous beast demanding attention. Fortunately, after Yellow House has had room to grow, lavishing it with attention is an easy and rewarding task.
2. Ghostface Killah – Fishscale
Oh sweet fuck yes! This reaction might seem over-zealous in any circumstance, but it's the only one fitting when Fishscale's first real song "Shakey Dog" begins. The reason? For the remainder of the song, and the vast majority of the following album, everything is right with hip-hop. Fishscale is simply a masterpiece. The spit flying out of Ghostface's mouth is actually audible as he recounts tales of drug deals gone wrong, corporal punishment at the hands of his mother and underwater adventures with so much passion it's frightening. The beats equal the rhymes as Ghostface employs a variety of producers who opt for a refreshing old-soul sound, instead of Kanye West-style orchestration or Neptunes-esque beeps. Sadly, Fishscale didn't sell well, a fate almost criminal considering its quality.
3. Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
As far as critically acclaimed indie-kid fantasies go, Neko Case has it rough. Most people, if they know her at all, only recognize her as the hot girl who sometimes sings on New Pornographers' songs. Often overlooked are her solo albums and her voice, which is such a powerful force it could be used to win wars, or halt them. Though Fox Confessor Brings the Flood might not change this, it certainly deserves to as the best thing Case's vocal chords have ever graced. Inviting a prestigious group of her musician friends, Case has finally managed to craft an album as interesting musically as it is vocally. Though it doesn't stray from her folk-country niche, Fox Confessor largely eschews chorus-heavy songwritting, opting for less conventional structures. Surprisingly, this provides more opportunities for Case's voice to wow, producing some of the most beautiful sounds put to tape.
4. Sunset Rubdown – Shut up, I am Dreaming
In 2005 Spencer Krug wrote and sang half of the songs on Wolf Parade's Apologies to the Queen Mary, establishing himself as a competent songwriter. If 2005 was Krug's introduction, then 2006 and the release of Sunset Rubdown's Shut Up, I am Dreaming were his coming out party. Here Krug frees himself of the mania of Wolf Parade taking refuge in more loose, organic songs. This format allows him to shine as he demonstrates an even better grasp of meandering song-stories than three-minute indie-rock ditties. What really stands out on Shut up is Krug's delivery. Though not blessed with the greatest voice, Krug has perfected his to the point where lines like "There's a kid in there / And he's big and dumb and kind of scared / Well he's too old to be here / He's just looking for a ride" sound dreadfully poignant.
5. Joanna Newsom – Ys
Joanna Newsom's sophomore album, Ys, is a 55-plus minute album featuring five songs about meteorites, spelunking monkeys and an "awfully real gun" by a classically trained harpist with a little girl voice backed by a full orchestra. By all accounts it should be the most pretentious album you're ever likely to hear-unless the Mars Volta someday release a 76-minute song filled with nothing but feedback, castanets and an elderly Spanish lady reciting words rhyming with flibbertigibbet. It is as pretentious as its description suggests, but also sounds absolutely fantastic. If it were possible to become lost in an album, this would be the one to do it in.
6. TV on the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain
A couple years ago TV on the Radio released an album full of really great songs. The funny thing was it didn't sound much like a cohesive work. Now, in 2006 they're back with Return to Cookie Mountain, a stunning piece of art when taken as a whole that somehow doesn't sound like much when heard in snippets. Despite this setback, no album released in 2006 was anywhere near as innovative as Cookie Mountain. Drawing inspiration from a number of places yet sounding like nothing else, Cookie Mountain pushes the envelope in so many directions it's practically trying to reinvent music. If TV on the Radio ever manage to produce a work simultaneously great as both an album and individual songs, they might do just that.
7. The Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America
Describing the Hold Steady's appeal is a tricky task. After all, they're a band whose music is mired in '70s classic rock, their songs are exclusively about teenagers and the random experiences they have with drugs and sex, and they are fronted by Craig Finn, who has to be the worst singer in the history of music. Despite all these flaws, they routinely crank out jubilant rock records and Boys and Girls in America is no exception. In the end, their appeal comes down to how perfectly they capture teenage pointlessness and how earnestly they play their stadium-ready riffs. On Boys and Girls' standout ballad "Citrus" Finn hits the nail on the head, describing what makes his band, and this album, so great when he sings "I feel Jesus in the clumsiness of young and awkward lovers."
8. Belle and Sebastian – The Life Pursuit
2006 finally saw Scottish twee heroes Belle and Sebastian return to greatness after their several year odyssey through the lands of mediocrity. Not only does The Life Pursuit contain some of the best folk-pop moments of Belle and Sebastian's career, it also accomplishes something the band had been unsuccessfully trying to do since 2000's Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant: move forward. Though The Life Pursuit contains all the coy lyrics and bookish characters that originally made the band great, it runs them through a smorgasbord of styles once impossible to imagine Belle and Sebastian playing. The result is the aural equivalent of a person emerging from the awkwardness of puberty, realizing they're sexy and developing an irresistible swagger.
9. Band of Horses – Everything All the Time
Band of Horses demonstrates just how powerful simplicity can be with their debut, Everything All the Time. On the surface it's an unassuming rock record with a pleasant country tinge, but with repeated listens it gradually reveals a poignant emotional underbelly. What makes this so successful though, is how the band doesn't dwell on any feeling for long, making Everything All the Time an album able to suit any mood. Whether it's the catharsis of "The Funeral," the summertime nostalgia of "The Great Salt Lake" or the aching love of "I go to the Barn Because I Like the," Everything All the Time succeeds, well, all the time.
10. The Thermals – The Body, the Blood, the Machine
The Thermals' album The Body, the Blood, the Machine is the sound of a band reaching heights no one, including themselves, thought possible. Constructing a vague narrative about the United States being run by a Christian-right dictatorship, The Body lays the politics on rather thick, but somehow escapes from sounding juvenile or preachy. This is largely because where the band abandons their penchant for repetitive lyrics in favour of actually saying something, they perfect power-trio punk, making even the most vitriolic song sound fun. What really makes the album great though, is hearing a band repeatedly surprise themselves as they create one of the most exciting and visceral punk albums in a long, long time.