Best Albums of 2006 #10-1

Artist: The Dirty Dozen Brass Band
Album: What’s Going On
Label: Shout! Factory
US Release Date: 2006-08-29
UK Release Date: 2006-08-29

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List number: 10

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Vietnam era classic recording What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye is reimagined by the Crescent City’s very own Dirty Dozen Brass Band in this compelling updating of an American classic. The rage over black and poor disenfranchisement and neglect couldn’t be more timely in the aftermath of Katrina. Reflecting the great musical stew that is New Orleans, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band works with a host of guest performers (Chuck D, Bettye Lavette, G. Love and more) to create a gumbo of brass jazz, soul, hip-hop and funk. For those poor souls who labor under the misconception that jazz has lost its soul and gone all cerebral and up-market, this record will blast away all those assumptions. Jazz remains a vital, cutting-edge art form, capable of articulating anger and hope and also being a form of protest music. What’s Going On is the proof. It’s a simultaneously elegant, angry and stunning recording with lyrics that sound like they were penned just the other day in washed out yards in the Lower Ninth Ward.Sarah ZupkoThe Dirty Dozen Brass Band: What’s Going On

Artist: TV on the Radio
Album: Return to Cookie Mountain
Label: Interscope
US Release Date: 2006-09-12
UK Release Date: 2006-07-03

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List number: 9

The most unlikely major-label release of the year proves to be one of the most exciting and engaging, and Return to Cookie Mountain evidences that the oft-lamented notion of major labels stripping indie bands of their unique character can be dead wrong. TV on the Radio follows up a surge of critical groundswell and indie hipster cred with a major-label debut that proves as mysterious and unclassifiable as ever. Continuing to merge droning rock and electronic textures with jazz and doo-wop, the magnetism of TV on the Radio is stronger than ever, and Return to Cookie Mountain is the most layered and complex production work yet from musical pioneer David Sitek, while the charismatic voice of Tunde Adebimpe remains the focal point, and Kip Malone’s gorgeous harmonies the counterpoint. “I Was a Lover” proves to be a challenging opening shot, while the luminous “Wolf Like Me” is the best expression yet of the band’s familiar mix of sensual and sleazy, and the tempestuous “Dirtywhirl” returns TV on the Radio to its moodily erotic territory. “A Method” delivers both the traditional a cappella and offers the most focused message that TV on the Radio has yet delivered. When you finally get to “Wash the Day”‘s closing surge and chant, Return to Cookie Mountain proves to be an emotional experience that hits at the gut level. Much of the time, the lyrics are impressionistic and obtuse, relying more on tone and feeling than dialog and message. The music is sometimes challenging and strange, full of familiar elements pulled like taffy into alien structures. In short, TV on the Radio seems practically unmarketable. But this once raw, now refined and undeniably unique band is compelling because of, not in spite of, this genre-less identity. Return to Cookie Mountain is the sound of new music, and in an era when rock, hip-hop, electronic, you name it seem to made out of recycled material, that alone makes it the most intriguing release of the year. That TV on the Radio manages all this while emerging from the underground and continuing to evolve its strange blueprint makes it irrefutably one of the best.Patrick Schabe

TV on the Radio – Wolf Like Me

TV on the Radio: Return to Cookie Mountain

Artist: Joanna Newsom
Album: Ys
Label: Drag City
US Release Date: 2006-11-14
UK Release Date: 2006-11-06

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List number: 8

Judging from the amount of shushing at recent concerts, even public performances of Joanna Newsom’s Ys are intensely personal experiences. No one’s plastic cup of Pabst is in any danger of tipping at these shows. Instead, every pluck of a harp string plucks heartstrings; every syllable uttered from the glorious and iconographic five-song folk masterpiece conjures exponential images blooming like frost inside the listener’s mind. It’s telling that the one or two negative reviews of Ys out there (yes, they do exist) focus on trivial details, like an aversion to Benjamin Vierling’s (exquisite) medieval-themed cover portraiture or the fact that Newsom’s songs will never be featured in a Simon Cowell-produced shitstorm. But yay and nay reactions to albums of this caliber are always extreme; Ys blows minds in all directions. Using Van Dyke Parks’s orchestral arrangements and Jim O’Rourke’s divine ear not as crutches but as vitamins, Newsom brought craft and passion together in heretofore unheard ways because she understands that the latter cannot exist without the former. “Emily”, “Sawdust & Diamonds”, and the rest are as potent for their melody, meter, and rhyme as for their meaning. While other artists spent the year making records, Newsom was busy building worlds.Michael MetivierJoanna Newsom: Ys

Artist: Ali Farka Touré
Album: Savane
Label: Nonesuch
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US Release Date: 2006-07-25
UK Release Date: 2006-07-17

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List number: 7

In his earlier years, the late guitarist and singer Ali Farka Touré (1939-2006) was inspired by legendary bluesman John Lee Hooker. This stylistic connection is brought to the fore on Savane, Touré’s final recording. Our first hint is the album cover’s proclamation that he is “The King of the desert blues singers”, a slogan that purposefully mimics the label attached to Robert Johnson (here substituting “desert” for “Delta”). The music, too, is Touré’s most overtly blues-leaning. With a wailing harmonica and the ripened voice of its leader calling out between melodic licks, the opening track, “Erdi”, could be Lightnin’ Hopkins. “Beto”, meanwhile, pushes forward the hypnotic melodic spirals common to much North African music, while aided by the sultry combo of a female backing vocalist and some restrained bursts of weeping saxophone. The title track slowly struts, as flashes of electric guitar are complimented by mellifluous flourishes of kora. All throughout, Savane pulls off the greatest trick of the album format: It offers plenty of variety, but it also corrals its songs into a unified sound. Although in his last year of life, this final record shows Touré still brimming with vitality. Savane is his wonderful farewell gift.Michael KeefeAli Farka Touré: Savane

Artist: Mastodon
Album: Blood Mountain
Label: Warner
Label: Reprise
US Release Date: 2006-09-12
UK Release Date: 2006-09-11

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List number: 6

The most uncompromising major-label debut by an American metal band since Slayer’s Reign in Blood 20 years ago, this highly anticipated third album has the Atlanta band making huge improvements on all fronts. Unafraid to embrace as uncool a lyrical theme as fantasy, yet smart enough not to let it overwhelm the music, Blood Mountain is first-rate progressive metal; intricate, yet remaining both disciplined and hook-laden, from the monster riffs of “The Wolf Is Loose” and “Crystal Skull” to the challenging “Capillarian Crest” and “Colony of Birchmen” to the psychotic, near-grindcore of “Bladecatcher”. Co-vocalists Troy Sanders and Brent Hinds are now a formidable tandem, frenetic drummer Brann Dailor provides both muscular percussion and lithe, jazz-influenced fills, and Matt Bayles’s massive production sounds much richer in comparison to 2004’s Leviathan. We’re witnessing something special here, as just three full-length albums in, Mastodon has created a musical hybrid all its own, emerging the unquestionable leader in American metal.Adrien Begrand

Mastodon – The Wolf Is LooseMastodon: Blood Mountain

Artist: The Ark
Album: State of the Ark
Label: EMI Sweden
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US Release Date: 2006-04-11
UK Release Date: Unavailable

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List number: 5

Who knows why the Ark didn’t whip the US into a rapturous state of musical arousal when it formally introduced itself to North America earlier this year. Its native Sweden has long fawned over the dirty-sweet neo-glam band that impeccably channels Queen’s razor-pop, the flamboyance of Bowie, and the stadium-dreaming scissor kick of Cheap Trick. Hooky pop music is rarely better than it is on State of the Ark, a viciously funny record that lambastes phonies and scenesters and the solipsistic universe from which they all hail. Of course, the Ark hails from that universe, too, but every time it strikes a pose, it’s backed up by some stone-cold hot rocks.Zeth Lundy

The Ark – One of Us Is Gonna Die Young

The Ark: State of the Ark

Artist: Ghostface Killah
Album: Fishscale
Label: Def Jam
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US Release Date: 2006-03-28
UK Release Date: 2006-04-04

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List number: 4

New York hip-hop seemed to be dwindling in consistency and quality at the beginning of the year, but with the release of his fifth solo album, Ghostface proved that merciless hood clarity mixed with top-of-the-hat rhymes and soul-chiseled production could elegantly capture the grit that made City music so originally appealing. At a comfortable 36 years old, Ghost remains gravely sharp-witted and effortlessly poetic on every track, whether he’s spinning enlivened narratives of a flubbed jacking on “Shakey Dog” or merely recalling the days when parental abuse adequately played its position on “Whip You With a Strap”. Despite ladles of straight-faced content, the album is littered with comedic rivulets, leaving each track with a helium tint to dig the listener out of trivial solemnity. As the production on The Pretty Tony Album may have hinted, Ghost’s affinity for soul-spattered beats is his poetry’s fantastic musical counterpart. The album is set to an eardrum-caressing landscape, with contributions from heavyweights MF Doom, J. Dilla, and Just Blaze, all of whom deliver some of their fleshiest work for Ghost to paint. But while New York rap may have seemed flay-worthy before the release of Fishscale, Ghost unquestionably proves that a City’s musical worth rests on the line between trusting musical instincts and commanding the English lexicon, even if it does occasionally involve a dash of slang or some petty drug-talk.Steven J. Horowitz

Ghostface Killah ft. Ne-Yo – Back Like ThatGhostface Killah: Fishscale

Artist: Arctic Monkeys
Album: Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
Label: Domino
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US Release Date: 2006-02-21
UK Release Date: 2006-01-27

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List number: 3

Always in danger of crumbling under the weight of word-of-mouth hype — which saw sell-out gigs before record contacts had even been signed (let alone any actual records released) — the Arctic Monkeys delivered a noisy and triumphant V-sign to all the doubters and doom-mongers, and found themselves with the fastest-selling debut album in UK history. Sharp and jagged as a chainsaw, these three-minute bursts of adrenalin recalled the focused anger of the Jam, except that singer/lyricist Alex Turner turned his gimlet-eyed social observations toward his hometown of Sheffield instead of London. On songs like “Mardy Bum”, “Riot Van”, and “When the Sun Goes Down”, Turner gave us tales of grimy discos, underage boozing, prostitution, and urban heartache that were suffused with wry humour and killer lines, all delivered in his uncompromising Northern vernacular. The music displayed a depth and maturity that belied the youthfulness of the band, managing to be raw, discordant, angular, and irresistibly catchy all at once. The result was an album of biting observation and strident originality that also had enough pop hooks to fill the dance floors.John Dover

The Arctic Monkeys – When the Sun Goes DownArctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

Artist: The Hold Steady
Album: Boys and Girls in America
Label: Vagrant
US Release Date: 2006-10-03
UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 2

Much has been rightly made of the Hold Steady’s resemblance/homage to the ideals of Bruce Springsteen: the disoriented adolescences, the insane trials of teenage love, the wackiness of Catholicism, the hard-edged but loving portrayals of often anonymous mid-sized American cities.

But while Bruce paints his pictures with sweeping masterstrokes, Craig Finn tends to focus with wonderful precision on specifics: liquor runs, backseats, chillout tents, and those accidentally massive single nights, available only to teenagers, that start out as nothing and end up as magic (or, for that matter, horror). The marvelously executed and 100% American Boys and Girls in America — the title is lifted from On the Road, for God’s sake — finds holy truths in these random people even when, as is often the case, they’re lost, drunk, faking it, or all three.

Tad Kubler’s guitar here is more insistent and Replacements-y then ever, and the idea of operating under something approaching a concept has crystallized Finn’s writing. His man Bruce’s youthful operas found redemption in open highways and pragmatic optimism; Finn’s find it in the daily operation of enviably restless teens and their props: prom dates and bowling alleys and empty bongs and burned-out malls that don’t seem like anything when you’re living them and everything when they’re gone.Jeff Vrabel

The Hold Steady – Chips Ahoy!The Hold Steady: Boys and Girls in America

Artist: Gnarls Barkley
Album: St. Elsewhere
Label: Downtown
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US Release Date: 2006-05-09
UK Release Date: 2006-04-24

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List number: 1

It begins with the click of a film reel. Then, it explodes into a manic gospel-circus fronted by a multi-octave ringmaster. Two minutes later, this year’s most infectious single cuts through the cacophony. In case you slept through 2006, that album is St. Elsewhere and that song is “Crazy” by Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo, a.k.a Gnarls Barkley. Who knew that existentialism with a go-go beat could be so catchy? Like the album cover’s voltaic mushroom cloud, the songs on St. Elswehere captured small slices of life, death, love, fear, and joy. Gnarls Barkley penetrated the collective psyche of its listeners and uncovered the angst underneath all the “bling” and bravado permeating popular culture. Remarkably, the album crossed over to an unlikely mix of hipsters, rappers, glitterati, boomers, yuppies, indie kids, and suburban dwellers to prove that St. Elsewhere is, in actuality, everywhere.Christian John Wikane

Gnarls Barkley – Crazy [Live on Top of the Pops]Gnarls Barkley: St. Elsewhere

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