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Best Albums of 2006

At long last, the annual rite of passage, the "best of" list... Here's PopMatters picks for the best 60 records of 2006.

Best Albums of 2006 #50-41

Artist: Lupe Fiasco

Album: Food and Liquor

Label: Atlantic

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/f/fiascolupe-foodandliquor.jpg

US Release Date: 2006-09-19

UK Release Date: 2006-09-25

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List number: 50

Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor was certainly the most intelligent mainstream hip-hop album released in 2006 (with the Roots' Game Theory its only real competition). While the Chicago rookie's got a little work to do on his flow, the album's thoughtful lyrical content and rock-solid production put Lupe a step ahead of his flashier but less substantial contemporaries. With little in the way of recognizable samples or big-name guest appearances (Jay-Z being a BIG, BIG exception), Lupe's debut harkened back to the golden era of hip-hop, when all you needed was hot beats and rhymes to make a statement. Touching on everything from terrorism to growing up without a dad to his own conflicted love affair with hip-hop, Fiasco showed that young hip-hoppers are about more than stunna shades and dope deals. Not only that, but with "Kick, Push", he recorded quite possibly the coolest skateboarding anthem of all time. Food & Liquor is the album that Pharrell wishes he was capable of making.Mike Joseph

Lupe Fiasco - DaydreaminLupe Fiasco: Food and Liquor

Artist: Ramblin' Jack Elliott

Album: I Stand Alone

Label: Anti-

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/e/elliottramblinjack-istandalone.jpg

US Release Date: 2006-07-11

UK Release Date: 2006-07-10

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List number: 49

Tradition means a lot in folk music, and this guy has got it spades. There aren't many people left who can claim to have hoboed America with Woody Guthrie and later toured with Dylan, but this isn't why the 75 year-old Elliott heads the list. His latest record is a triumph in many ways, from its brilliant mix of talking blues, topical tunes, train songs, and strange, silly one-offs to Elliott's hard-plucked guitar playing that sounds like a carpenter hammering nails on a frosty morn. At the center is Elliot's pickled-in-whiskey voice, which reveals a crusty personality that's seen and done it all and is ready to experience everything again. Whether he's singing a love song with Lucinda Williams, clucking over Jean Harlow, complaining about arthritis, or moaning for his dog, this ramblin' man knows that it's important to suck all the marrow out of life that you can, even if it's a funny bone you are sucking on.Steve HorowitzRamblin' Jack Elliott: I Stand Alone

Artist: Michelle Malone

Album: Sugarfoot

Label: Valley

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/m/malonemichelle-sugafoot.jpg

US Release Date: 2006-10-10

UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 48

For those who can't be at a live performance, here's how to get the best of singer songwriter Michelle Malone from the speakers: pour a strong drink -- whisky, scotch, name your poison -- straight up; kick off your shoes; push those speakers right up to the screen in the window and go out on the porch. Bring your cigarettes, if that's your thing, and your dog. Malone won't mind. Stand up and shake it or sit down and watch your foot jiggle to a sound that swells up from this woman's soul, right through your very bones 'til you have to grit your teeth to keep from shouting, "YOW!" (Don't want to scare the neighbors.) Put Sugarfoot alongside CDs by Lucinda Williams and Shelby Lynne and Janis Joplin. Dirty south, bluesy rock. Sweet slide guitar. You'll feel the earth move under your bare feet.Karen Zarker

Michelle Malone - Tighten Up the Springs

Michelle Malone: Sugarfoot

Artist: Lambchop

Album: Damaged

Label: Merge

Label: City Slang

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/l/lambchop-damaged.jpg

US Release Date: 2006-08-22

UK Release Date: 2006-08-14

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List number: 47

Emerging after one of the darkest periods in bandleader Kurt Wagner's life, Lambchop's ninth album sounded like their greatest achievement to date. After surviving a cancer scare and undergoing major surgery to have bone from his hip grafted onto his jaw, you could have anticipated that Wagner's songs on Damaged would be concerned with the dark and desperate themes of mortality and decay. That they unfurled with such bruised humanity, black humour and gentle insight is nothing short of wondrous. Over a backdrop of shimmering guitars, singing pianos and the murmurs of cut-and-paste electronica, Wagner spun stories about love, infidelity and small town hopes and fears, which were alive and bristling with passion. He gave a stark, poetic voice to men on the verge of breakdown, and women who were crying with boredom -- revealing more about our fragile human states in the process than a pop singer had any right to. Damaged saw Lambchop continue to move away from the country-soul pigeon hole they have long since grown out of, and take up an almost untouchable place as one of the finest bands of their generation.Michael Lomas

Lambchop: Damaged

Artist: Kieran Hebden & Steve Reid

Album: The Exchange Session Vol. 1

Label: Domino

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Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/hebdenkieran-theexchangesessionvol1.jpg

US Release Date: 2006-03-07

UK Release Date: 2006-02-27

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Artist: Kieran Hebden & Steve Reid

Album: The Exchange Session Vol. 2

Label: Domino

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Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/h/hebdenkieranandstevereid-theexchangesessionvol2.jpg

US Release Date: 2006-06-06

UK Release Date: 2006-05-22

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List number: 46

Keiran Hebden is a mastermind of modern electronic production who records as Four Tet; Steve Reid is one of the most storied jazz percussionists in history, having worked with the likes of Miles Davis, James Brown, and Fela Kuti, in addition to his work as a session drumemr during the formative years of Motown. Perhaps on paper the pairing might seem odd, but in reality this is one of the most inspired team-ups of recent years. Straddling the line between free jazz and dense experimental electronic music, The Exchange Sessions are musical artifacts of unparalleled imagination and confidence. Split into two CDs seemingly at random, both discs present a picture of effortless musical rapport that surpasses generic boundaries and easily qualifies as the most viscerally exciting musical event of the year. In her review of the second disc, PopMatters' own Jennifer Kelly put it perhaps as succinctly possible when she said:

Hebden and Reid have locked onto some sort of transmission from a higher consciousness here, and if you listen hard enough, you can feel it right along with them.

If you haven't yet heard The Exchange Sessions, all this hyperbole might seem excessive -- once you actually do hear them, however, no amount of rhetorical excess could possibly seem excessive. Simply flawless.Tim O'NeilKieran Hebden & Steve Reid: The Exchange Session Vol. 1|Kieran Hebden & Steve Reid: The Exchange Session Vol. 2

Artist: John Legend

Album: Once Again

Label: Sony

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Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/l/legendjohn-onceagain.jpg

US Release Date: 2006-10-24

UK Release Date: 2006-10-23

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List number: 45

John Legend's debut, Get Lifted, positioned him as the male Alicia Keys. Blending traditional hip-hop/R&B with a sense of musicality that only someone who plays a piano can have, Legend won three Grammys at the top of 'o6, including Best New Artist. His sophomore set, Once Again, blows Keys to bits and eliminates any possibility of either the sophomore or "Best New Artist" curse. He removes the hip-hop influence to create a timeless album of classic tunes that is pure soul. With influences ranging from Stevie Wonder to Jeff Buckley, this mainly down-tempo set is the year's best treasure.Mike Joseph

John Legend - HeavenJohn Legend: Once Again

Artist: Gotan Project

Album: Lunático

Label: XL

Contributors: Calexico, Koxmoz, Juan Carlos Caceres, Jimi Santos

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Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/g/gotanproject-lun225tico.jpg

US Release Date: 2006-04-11

UK Release Date: 2006-04-10

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List number: 44

Tangotronica! I don't know if Astor Piazzolla would have approved, but Paris-based Gotan Project's second album, Lunatico, is so sexy that even a purist would fall headlong for the sultry vocals of Cristina Villalonga, the group's corpuscular downtempo beats, and the haunting string and bandoneon playing of the traditional tango quartet Gotan Project took on for these sessions. While some artists might have been content to slide a trance beat under some standard melodies, Lunatico presents a broad range of tempos, feels, and recipes for their signature stylistic mix. Mournful blues sit alongside clubby dance tracks, and all are blended seamlessly into an elegant whole.Michael KeefeGotan Project: Lunático

Artist: Amel Larrieux

Album: Morning

Label: Bliss Life

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Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/a/amellarrieux-morning.jpg

US Release Date: 2006-04-25

UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 43

Spare yet soulful, this follow-up to Larrieux's stellar Bravebird finds the jazzy, emotive singer at her best. Morning is a family affair, with husband Laru adding production, composition, and musicianship, as well as contributions from her children. It is also a celebration of awakenings and epiphanies, in which Larrieux stretches her sound from a cozy, laidback tune like "Weary" to the folksy croon of the title track. Vocally, Larrieux has never sounded better, pushing the ten-song, 39-minute set to the max, from campy high-end performances ("Trouble") to her hypnotic lower register ("Mountain of When"). At a time when pop and R&B are often seen as faceless and formulaic, Larrieux approaches love and loss from a personal angle that highlights her individuality. Musically, the team of Larrieux and Larrieux craft a record brimming with ideas that are quirky ("Earn My Affections"), tender ("Unanswered Question"), and soulful ("Gills and Tails"). Morning's tight production and imaginative lyrics demand multiple listens on your headphones to experience the full effect. Larrieux could have traded her freewheeling creativity for more mainstream success -- but thank goodness she didn't.Quentin B. Huff

Amel Larrieux: Morning

Artist: Belle & Sebastian

Album: The Life Pursuit

Label: Matador

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US Release Date: 2006-02-07

UK Release Date: 2006-02-06

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List number: 42

In the wrong hands, the music of The Life Pursuit could easily have become a set of mediocre pop songs: redundant, monotonous, and stale. But almost magically, Belle & Sebastian transform seemingly simple melodies and deceptively naive ideas into tracks filled with bouyant life and vibrant color. The group's seventh studio album achieves far more than mere "chamber pop". Jangly guitars and keyboards present a sweet pop persona, but in reality The Life Pursuit is filled with an eclectic mix of country twang, blues shuffle, and straight-up rock, retaining the bright harmonies of previous albums while building on and broadening their scope and strength. Stuart Murdoch's brand of pop is anything but simple; it is polished, impeccably so, and the songs are intricately produced and tightly constructed. This disc's vivid beauty lies in the fact that it is not pure sunshine. The album is mysteriously enchanting, lovely because it dares to be darker than we initially assume. Its charm is that it never brags about its power. Instead, it gently hints at it, subtly revealing -- track by track -- true beauty. Bittersweet trumpet lines and irresistible grooves find niches within the human body and linger there for what might be forever. To craft so carefully songs that so accurately convey human emotion is nothing but the earnest pursuit of music, of art, and of life.Elizabeth Newton

Belle & Sebastian - The Blues Are Still Blue

Belle & Sebastian: The Life Pursuit

Artist: Band of Horses

Album: Everything All the Time

Label: Sub Pop

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Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/bandofhorses-everythingallthetime.jpg

US Release Date: 2006-03-21

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List number: 41

Affability may be Band of Horses' biggest weakness. A friendly albeit sometimes rollicking affair, their debut is so instantaneously familiar and relaxed that first impressions are often understated. Still, there's just enough initial appeal to keep coming back and upon returning the album seeps in. Sounding like much more than a less ambitious Flaming Lips or updated Neil Young, Band of Horses demonstrate a humble yet masterful take on subtle bombast and triumphant grace. While some songs like "Our Swords" roll on amicably enough to pass for labelmates the Shins, certain others such as "The Funeral" balance parading stomp against aching fragility. All lacquered over with echo and reverb, these songs seethe with transcendent darkness and the impulse to emerge from that black into ascending light. Rocking with refined restraint, such shimmering anthems make Everything All the Time better than it is on first listen and position Band of Horses as artists on the rise.Josh Berquist

Band of Horses - The Funeral

Band of Horses: Everything All the Time

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