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Slipped Discs 2006

Here’s the problem with year-end lists that no one mentions: they cost the reader too much money. After sorting through a few lists, you run out to the record shop and fritter away some food money for records that end up forgotten by the end of the next year. But that’s partly OK, because that’s what music fans do. The real downfall comes when you realize that after comparing polls from your favorite magazines, newspapers, blogs, web sites, and stores, and after spending all your holiday cash and gift cards, your music collection ends up looking exactly like everyone else’s.

This is where PopMatters comes in. We gave you our collective best 60 albums of the year, but now we’re giving you the discs that slipped through — the records that most matter to our writers that no one else seemed to notice, whether it was because of weirdness, poor marketing, or bad luck. Here you can find that import-only that’s going to be next year’s Stateside blog darling, those indie rockers that are as talented as they are poor, and even the songwriter who’s the next Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash rolled into one, without the sartorial affectation.

But don’t think we designed this unranked, barely alphabetized list simply to increase your hipster cred. Sure, some of these picks might require ordering directly from the band’s made-up label, but we’re not after esoterica; some might appear to be driven by distinct contrariness, but we don’t want to be combative. What we want is to share those few records from 2006 we just can’t keep to ourselves, even if we will absolutely not loan you our only copy.

And if you still think it’s about hipness, let me just point out that Cheap Trick is on the list.

Artist: Agalloch
Album: Ashes Against the Grain
Label: The End
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/a/agalloch-ashesagainstthegrain.jpg
US Release Date: 2006-08-08
UK Release Date: 2006-08-15

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Who says a metal band can’t explore in more subtle, introspective, expansive directions? Portland, Oregon’s Agalloch effortlessly combines the dark, atmospheric sounds of black metal with more pastoral, folk-inspired sounds on their fourth album, and while Ashes Against the Grain may be deeply rooted in that bleakest of Scandinavian metal forms, the overall contradiction of light and dark, uncannily reflecting the drearily pretty Pacific Northwest, makes for a sound that is completely original, not to mention drop-dead beautiful. Sure, Ashes is loaded with wicked metal moments (the Viking-themed “Not Unlike the Waves”, for one), but more often than not, headbanging gives way to reflection (as on the gorgeous “Falling Snow”), blunt force succumbs to soaring melodies, black metal is eschewed in favor of post-punk. It’s a dazzling album, one that deserves a much broader audience than just the metal community, one that’s guaranteed to surprise many people with its mere accessibility. Adrien Begrand

Multiple songs [MySpace]

Agalloch – Falling SnowAgalloch: Ashes Against the Grain

Artist: Lily Allen
Album: Alright, Still
Label: Capitol
Label: EMI
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/a/allenlily-alrightstill.jpg
US Release Date: 2007-01-30
UK Release Date: 2006-07-17

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Lily Allen’s career was likely launched through nepotism and has been buoyed so far, in England at least, by manufactured controversies and ill-considered public statements. But in America, where no one has ever heard of her or her father, Welsh comedian Keith Allen, or had to confront her inauthenticity, the fact that her signature brattiness stems less from streetwise necessity than private school privilege, she comes with no baggage. Still, you wouldn’t expect deadpan white-girl raps about casual sex and London low-lifes over ska and reggae samples to work as well as they do on this, her debut record, set to be released in the States later this month. Allen’s not much of a singer — no overemotional, ear-shattering melisma from her. Instead she shrugs her way through with a talky singsong that suits her omnipresent attitude, epitomized by her first hit, “Smile”: She off-handedly notes how she caught her boyfriend “fucking that girl next door” before gloating in his inevitable misery. The album leaves you feeling that none of your feelings, or anyone else’s for that matter, are worth taking too seriously, and moreover makes this seem not entirely antisocial but fun. Rob Horning

Multiple songs [MySpace]

Multiple songs [Streaming player]

Lily Allen – LDNLily Allen: Alright, Still

Artist: Amplifier
Album: Insider
Label: Steamhammer
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/a/amplifier-inside.jpg
US Release Date: Available as import
UK Release Date: 2006-10-02

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Years from now rock historians will gather to speculate about what Amplifier songwriter Sel Belamir said to his bandmates before commencing their second full length album, Insider, eventually concluding that it was something along the lines of “Gentlemen, this time we’re really gonna push the envelope”. This is a Da Vinci Code of an album, an unstoppable rollercoaster full of mysteries demanding further investigation. Skirting the undefined land between classic metal and unapologetic prog rock, Insider is a maelstrom of tightly-wound ideas boldly going where none but the most ambitious riffsters have dared to tread. It rewards patience, gradually unveiling its rich contents over repeated listens. Google song titles like “Elysian Gold”, “Oort” and “Hymn of the Aten”. It almost begins to make sense. Worshiped in Europe, unloved at home, and unknown in America, Amplifier remain one of rock’s best-kept secrets. Robert Collins

Multiple songs [MySpace]Amplifier: Insider

Artist: Augie March
Album: Moo, You Bloody Choir
Label: Sony
Label: BMG
Amazon: 1142154000
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/a/augiemarch-mooyoubloodychoir.jpg
US Release Date: Available as import
UK Release Date: Available as import
Australia release date: 2006-03-12

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It took a number of years for Augie March’s sophomore effort, Strange Bird, to be released in the US; hopefully the same won’t be the case with the band’s haunting third album. Moo, You Bloody Choir may be difficult to get a hold of outside Australia, but the effort pays off: Glenn Richards nails one emotion after the other with his smooth, expressive voice; the lyrics waltz around familiar — but never cliché — ideas; and the band finds quiet innovation in understatement. And months after this I’m no less a cheerleader, because Augie March’s dusty, literate folk-pop is simultaneously time-/place-less and characteristically Australian. The band deliberately restricts its harmonic palette and instrumentation, allowing the poetry and depth of the lyrics to shine. The gamble pays off, and if these songs catch you at the right time, you may even be justified in ranking Richards in the same circle as acclaimed lyricists like Dan Bejar — a vital songwriter for our generation. Dan Raper

Multiple songs [MySpace]

Augie March – One Crowded HourAugie March: Moo, You Bloody Choir

Artist: Beirut
Album: Gulag Orkestar
Label: Ba Da Bing
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/b/beirut-gulagorkestar.jpg
US Release Date: 2006-05-09
UK Release Date: 2006-06-05

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In the swampy heat of Chicago’s Empty Bottle in August of 2006, I was part of a packed, sweaty crowd of hipsters that collectively wet themselves with glee over Beirut (happy tears of course, don’t be gross). So where were they on the big End Of list? Eastern European brass band music played by a wicked cute 18-year-old from Albuquerque ain’t good enough for ya, McCarthy? Geez. “Postcards From Italy” alone was enough to steal hearts faster than gypsies steal passports. But while official live documentation of the honest-to-god phenomenon that is Beirut is still forthcoming, Gulag Orkestar remains the feel-good melancholia of the year. Why so beloved — the exotic quality of Balkan sounds refreshing indie rock ears trained on the legacy of Western balladry, or the seeming Sufjanesque gambit of a conceptual record with kooky song titles? A new EP, Elephant Gun, dropping in February will reveal either new direction or tried and true, but from the stomp of “Bratislava” to the sweetness that follows in “Rhineland (Heartland)”, it is clear that Zach Condon is already writing and playing beyond his years, never mind his country. Michael Metivier

Postcards from Italy [MP3]

Mount Wroclai (Idle Days) [MP3]

Beirut – The Gulag OrkestarBeirut: Gulag Orkestar

Artist: The BellRays
Album: Have a Little Faith
Label: Cheap Lullaby
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Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/b/bellraysthe-havealittlefaith.jpg
US Release Date: 2006-05-02
UK Release Date: Available as import

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Few bands walk it like they talk it, and the BellRays are one of the few. With the 2006 release of Have a Little Faith, the band has taken another step from the shadows of “best kept secret” toward the mainstream. But the BellRays will never be fully matriculated into the status quo, as Lisa Kekaula and Co. are simply impossible to contain. Morphing the best elements of soul, punk, and hard rock, the band covers all bases on the album, while offering a fair approximation of what fans see on stage. Guitarist Tony Fate, bassist Bob Vennum, and drummer Craig Waters careen in a multitude of directions, as vocalist Kekaula soars above the mayhem, alternating between smooth, bluesy crooner and ear-shattering rock dominatrix. Have a Little Faith is a double-barreled exercise in musical gear shifting… it’s exquisitely energizing, exhilarating, exhausting, and flat out fun. Buckle up and prepare yourself for a wild ride, it’s time to “Pay the Cobra”. Adam Williams

Multiple songs [Streaming player]

The BellRays – Have a Little Faith in MeThe BellRays: Have a Little Faith

Artist: Rosanne Cash
Album: Black Cadillac
Label: Capitol
Amazon affiliate: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect?link_code=as2&path=ASIN/B000CETWOY&tag=popmatters-20&camp=1789&creative=9325
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Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/cashrosanne-black.jpg
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US Release Date: 2006-01-24
UK Release Date: 2006-01-23

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Rosanne Cash lost her father, Johnny Cash, her stepmother, June Carter Cash, and her mother, Vivian Liberto Cash Distin, in the same short span of time. But Black Cadillac isn’t one long, unrelenting dirge; instead, it captures the wild, dangerous range of emotions lurking beyond raw grief. Sadness and rage swirl through Black Cadillac like undertows ready to pull Cash under, but a faith-informed peace creates a balance equal to those dark forces. For every sentiment like “one of us gets to go to Heaven / One has to stay here in Hell”, there’s a counterpoint like “God is in the roses, and the thorns”. Black Cadillac is a deeply literate, finely crafted record, with recurring images that rarely hold the same meaning twice. More importantly, and more impressively, it’s also a human record, bristling with conflicting human emotions. Andrew Gilstrap

Multiple songs [MySpace]

Multiple songs [Streaming player]Rosanne Cash: Black Cadillac

Artist: Cheap Trick
Album: Rockford
Label: Cheap Trick Unlimited
Label: Big3
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/c/cheaptrick-rockford.jpg
US Release Date: 2006-06-06
UK Release Date: Available as import

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After years and years of waiting and more than a couple false alarms, Cheap Trick fans finally were rewarded with just what they wanted: Rockford was, at long last, a return to the sharp, spirited, hook-heavy mix of pop-rock and heavy metal that the band perfected during its glorious late ’70s run. Somehow, the band were able to alchemize the raw intensity of their live shows, which have never let up steam, into a dozen strong, confident tunes that sounded like the work of guys 30 years younger. Actually, Rockford was indeed Cheap Trick’s strongest album in nearly that long — since 1979’s Dream Police, which was coincidentally reissued in 2006. But, more important, it was arguably the only Cheap Trick album in those 27 years that can legitimately stand beside that ’70s work in a lineup of the band’s most essential material. After so much disappointment, you could hardly be blamed for missing out on Rockford, but you really owe it to yourself not to. John Bergstrom

Multiple songs [MySpace]

Multiple songs [Streaming player]Cheap Trick: Rockford

Slipped Discs (Part 2)

Artist: Death Ships
Album: Seeds of Devastation
Label: Faithful Anchor
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/d/deathships-seeds.png

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Don’t be thrown of by the band name or album title. This isn’t a dire black-clad excursion into drone and sludge. On the contrary it’s about as far from that as you can get. Iowa City’s Death Ships have crafted a remarkably nuanced rock record that bleeds ever so slightly into alt-country. It’s a sound that, depending on how you hear it, has the band either straining at the confines of their heartland roots or pushing past them with a respectful nod and wave. At the album’s best, the songs on Seeds of Devastation begin as proper salutes to the country rock sounds of John Cougar Mellencamp, Buffalo Springfield or the Byrds, but that propriety never lasts too long. On “City Never Sleeps”, “Great American”, and “Knocks Over Time”, those sweetly-spun melodies spiral into acres of guitar distortion and rising waves of drums and searing vocals. Primary singer-songwriter Dan Maloney’s impressive control over his songs, wringing maximum emotional weight out of a riff or a phrase, is all the more impressive when considering this is Death Ships first release. The bar has been set high. Peter Funk

Multiple songs [MySpace]

Multiple songs [Streaming player]Death Ships: Seeds of Devastation

Artist: The Elected
Album: Sun, Sun, Sun
Label: Sub Pop
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Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/elected-sunsun.jpg
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US Release Date: 2006-01-24
UK Release Date: 2006-01-23

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Rilo Kiley front woman Jenny Lewis’s burgeoning solo career has gotten attention, but vocalist and songwriter Blake Sennett is coming into his own with side project the Elected’s second album, Sun, Sun, Sun. Sennett’s songwriting comes from a place somewhere between adolescence and full-blown adulthood. He sings in his delicate, choirboy voice about lost love, nostalgia, and the ever-growing difference between where you come from and who you are. Sun, Sun, Sun sails along with bittersweet pop songs “Fireflies in a Steel Mill”, the country-influenced “The Bank and Trust”, and the swaggering blues of “Did Me Good”. When Sennett sings, “It made me feel sweet and sad / Warm, proud, and young”, he could be describing the feeling that Sun, Sun, Sun gives you: the feeling of missing, the bittersweet pang of memory. There’s no gimmick to the Elected, they’re just making music to help many of us navigate our twenties, and they do so with a gentle, knowing, optimism all their own. Maura McAndrew

Not Going Home [MP3]

Multiple songs [MySpace]

The Elected – Did Me GoodThe Elected: Sun, Sun, Sun

Artist: Field Mob
Album: Light Poles and Pine Trees
Label: Geffen
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/f/fieldmob-lightpoles.jpg
US Release Date: 2006-06-20
UK Release Date: 2006-07-17

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What made Light Poles and Pine Trees one of the best albums of 2006? Was it Smoke and Shawn Jay’s region-defying lyricism? Was it their elastic delivery? Their ear for wild beats? Their sense of humor? Yeah. But more than anything, Field Mob’s third album is just fun. It’s not disposible. It’s not a guilty pleasure. It’s not escapism. It’s an album full of sometimes-topical jams by a couple of dudes from Albany, Georgia who genuinely enjoy their time in the studio. While many stars in Atlanta dropped albums this year, Field Mob’s sleeper is the only one I’m still playing. Andrew Friedman

Multiple songs and videos [AOL Music]

Multiple songs [MySpace]Field Mob: Light Poles and Pine Trees

Artist: The Figgs
Album: Follow Jean Through the Sea
Label: Gern Blandsten
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/f/figgsthe-followjeantothesea.jpg
US Release Date: 2006-11-14
UK Release Date: 2006-11-20

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Records like the Figgs’ Follow Jean Through the Sea are habitually ignored by year-end lists, because music critics have an unhealthy obsession with ambitious grasps for profundity. Pop music needn’t be epic, obscure, and formless; it demands self-discipline, definition, and strict constitution, all of which Follow Jean Through the Sea — an impeccably written, smashingly performed power-pop record barely over half an hour — has in spades. Guitarist Mike Gent and bassist Pete Donnelly share songwriting and singing duties, as usual, but this time around their predilection for one-upmanship stings like a grudge-spurned sparring match. Gent’s stocky riff-driven songs, like the tongue-in-cheek “Regional Hits” and moody “City Loft Home”, are rousing complements to Donnelly’s fast-moving nuggets, like “Don’t Hurt Me Again” and “Let Me Hold You”. Don’t let records with longer runtimes and loftier concepts keep you from hearing this, probably the most satisfying LP of the Figgs’ 20-year career and certainly one of 2006’s most exhilarating 30 minutes. Zeth Lundy

Multiple songs [MySpace]

The Figgs – Hobble SkirtThe Figgs: Follow Jean Through the Sea

Artist: Lisa Germano
Album: In the Maybe World
Label: Young God
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/g/germanolisa-inthemaybeworld.jpg
US Release Date: 2006-07-18
UK Release Date: 2006-07-24

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An incomparable singer/songwriter/arranger/multi-instrumentalist with vision, Lisa Germano released her best album this year. Did anyone notice? In the Maybe World is intimate and grand, raw and soft, dark and light. Within a dream-state milieu, it presents perspectives on death, the mystery and immediacy of it, on the split between the corporal and maybe-afterworlds, and on the puzzles of mortality, in terms blunt and fanciful. It sounds like no other album, presents its own absorbing universe. Whispered sadness, lust, mourning and questioning are orchestrated with the overblown grace of a golden-age Hollywood musical, but played out inside the quiet, unsteady mind of one person. This album has the precision of poetry and the demeanor of an extended lullaby — a swooning, lush, intoxicating one. Dave Heaton

Live performance and interview on PRI’s Studio 360 (uses RealPlayer) [MP3]

Lisa Germano – Red ThreadLisa Germano: In the Maybe World

Artist: The Green Arrows
Album: 4-Track Recording Session
Subtitle: Analog Africa No. 1
Label: Alula
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/g/greenarrowsthe-4trackrecordingsession.jpg
US Release Date: 2006-02-14
UK Release Date: Available as import

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The Green Arrows was a Zimbabwean pop group whose career spanned the 1970s from beginning to end. It received its first press notice in 1969 and broke up between 1979 and 1980 when the lead singer and two of his fellow band members fell out over an amount of money. This retrospective, assembled by a devotee, came out last February and doesn’t seem to have attracted very much attention, which is a shame because the music is outstanding — brisk guitarwork coupled with the languorously moist, between-the-toes squash of a band in love with its wah-wah pedal. If you think that Zim-pop was a wasteland until Thomas Mapfumo and Oliver Mtukudzi came along then this should change your mind. And the written record of the group’s history in the liner notes is extensive enough to stand as a reference work on its own. All in all, a beautiful piece of work. Deanne SoleThe Green Arrows: 4-Track Recording Session

Artist: Hacienda Brothers
Album: What’s Wrong with Right
Label: Proper
Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Whats-Wrong-Right-Hacienda-Brothers/dp/B000FO6L4A
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/w/whats_wrong_with_right_cover.jpg
US Release Date: 2006-06-27
UK Release Date: 2006-06-26

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In 2006, Van Hunt emerged as the consummate singer/player/producer/songwriter, a fact that was not lost on critics who fatuously compared On the Jungle Floor to the work of The Purple One. The fact is Van Hunt is an exceptional artist in his own right who’s yet to realize mainstream or commercial success with his blistering fusion of funk, rock, and soul. That’s not to say On the Jungle Floor isn’t accessible. Quite the contrary, the 16 full-length tracks (minus one intro and one interlude) on Van Hunt’s second album are the best songs your radio station isn’t playing. From the unbridled rock of “Ride, Ride, Ride” to the sizzling funk of “Hot Stage Lights” to a rousing duet with Nikka Costa on “Mean Sleep”, the songs On the Jungle Floor will surely outlive the multi-platinum competition currently poisoning the barometer of popular music. Christian John Wikane

Multiple songs [MySpace]Hacienda Brothers: What’s Wrong with Right

Slipped Discs (Part 3)

Artist: Jay-Z
Album: Kingdom Come
Label: Roc-A-Fella
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/j/jayz-kingdomcome.jpg
US Release Date: 2006-11-21
UK Release Date: 2006-11-27

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Unjustly derided in willfully invidious and lazily ageist reviews, Jay-Z’s post-retirement return still stands as one of the most engaging albums of the year. A casually unfocused effort entirely atypical against a blockbuster back catalog, Kingdom Come transcends any hubris with newfound humility. While some songs stick to the typical formula of boasts over bombast, others expose regrets and insecurities heretofore kept hidden. Such open disclosure is not only humanizing but incredibly daring for a hip-hop artist of such illustrious stature. Just as boldly, Jay-Z embraces the onset of middle age with uncommon grace and his accustomed swagger. By allowing himself to falter yet refusing to fall off, Jay-Z’s ultimate artistic triumph here is in shaking off expectations to let his love for the form lead the way. Amidst seething teams of aspiring gangstas rehashing the same tired crack raps to try and be the newest version of the same old thing, that approach is incredibly refreshing. Josh Berquist

Jay-Z – Show Me What You GotJay-Z: Kingdom Come

Artist: Th’ Legendary Shack*Shakers
Album: Pandelirium
Label: Yep Roc
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US Release Date: 2006-02-07
UK Release Date: 2006-02-06

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If the Cramps are the elder statesmen of “psychobilly” music (that’s rockabilly that goes to deep, dark, foreboding places), then Th’ Legendary Shack*Shakers are the torchbearers. Their third major release, Pandelirium is a mix of rockabilly, rock, blues, and polka — LOTS of polka. The one constant in the band, Col. J.D. Wilkes, is sharp as a tack and crazy as a loon. Oh, and he’s one of the best damn harp players currently breathing. Wilkes wrote all the dozen songs on the album, which take aim at his usual targets: organized religion, love (or lack thereof), and oddities aplenty. As crazy as the lyrics are, and as frantic as the music is, it all makes sense if you take it as a whole, rather than try to break it down. There are simple melodic songs (try losing the melody to “No Such Thing” after two listens), and songs that throw you on a rollercoaster to hell (“Iron Lung Oompah” is a standout in that regard). Th’ Legendary Shack*Shakers are quite underrated in terms of talent and entertainment value (go see them live, but don’t stand too close to the stage), and Pandelirium is a step up from the fun of their last two albums, Cockadoodledon’t and Believe. They’re destined to be a niche band in a niche genre, but Th’ Legendary Shack*Shakers are still a hell of a lot of fun. Lou Friedman

Th’ Legendary Shack*Shakers – IchabodTh’ Legendary Shack*Shakers: Pandelirium

Artist: Midlake
Album: The Trials of Van Occupanther
Label: Bella Union
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/m/midlake-thetrialsofvanoccupanther.jpg
US Release Date: 2006-07-25
UK Release Date: 2006-06-05

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With one foot planted firmly in melodic ’70s AOR and the other in the rural struggles of late 19th century America, this is an album as defiantly unfashionable as The Band’s Music From Big Pink must have seemed 40 years ago. Far from the world of iPods and MySpace, these songs tell of hunters and trappers, wood huts and campfires, itinerant travellers and bandits. The music ranges widely from the propulsive driving riff of “Roscoe” through the creaky folk of “Young Bride” to the chiming pastoral electronica of “Gathered in Spring”, the constant being Tom Smith’s fragile plaintive voice. In the tradition of Grandaddy and Mercury Rev, this is a band that looks to the misty backwaters and forests of America for its inspiration and finds it in spades. John Dover

Midlake – Young BrideMidlake: The Trials of Van Occupanther

Artist: Mission of Burma
Album: The Obliterati
Label: Matador
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/m/missionofburma-obliterati.jpg
US Release Date: 2006-05-23
UK Release Date: 2006-06-05

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With The Obliterati the Burma story tipped, its second incarnation now as long as the first, its later work arguably just as important as post-punk defining recordings like Signals, Calls & Marches and Vs.. Fiercely intelligent, viscerally loud, unexpectedly funny, jaggedly rhythmed, this third full-length showed us again how life experience seasons rage but doesn’t extinguish it. Cuts like “2Twice” and “Spider’s Web” pummeled and cauterized, while the monster “1001 Pleasant Dreams” rode a doomsday beat to ecstasy. “Donna Sumeria,” cracked a shit-eating grin with its cross of Mesopotamian metaphors and disco choruses, and super-heavy, wonderful “The Mute Speaks Out” demonstrated this hyper-verbal band’s pure instrumental prowess. What pulled the whole album together was the sense that, like late-career successes everywhere, the men of Burma were just so damned glad to be here. “Man in Decline,” indeed. These guys are just getting started. Jennifer Kelly

Multiple songs [MySpace]Mission of Burma: The Obliterati

Artist: My Chemical Romance
Album: The Black Parade
Label: Reprise
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/m/mychemicalromance-welcometotheblackparade.jpg
US Release Date: 2006-10-24
UK Release Date: 2006-10-23

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The stuff of which rock operas are made of, My Chemical Romance takes inspiration from and puts a morbidly modern twist on medieval mystery/morality plays with The Black Parade. Told from the perspective of a young man on his deathbed, The Black Parade meshes the theatrics and musical grandeur of Queen with the catchy bounce of Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles (in ways well beyond the marching band costumes My Chemical Romance currently sports), and throws in some gallows humor for good measure. Achieving the lofty ambition of releasing a concept album that successfully juggles solid musicianship with compelling storytelling, My Chemical Romance jettisons themselves above the runny-mascara rabble, shrugging off the emo label and emerging as a rock band that defies categorization. Shuffling off the ol’ mortal coil never sounded so good! Lana Cooper

Multiple songs [MySpace]

My Chemical Romance – The Black ParadeMy Chemical Romance: The Black Parade

Artist: Office
Album: Q & A
Label: self-released
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/o/office-qanda.jpg

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At the end of 2006, the mention of the words “the office” conjured images of Steve Carell making an idiot out of himself or — if you’re a diehard — Ricky Gervais. Yet the famed show of awkward moments just happens to share its name with a Chicago quartet that knows nothing of awkward. Ex-cubicle slave Scott Masson channeled his anger of a missing red stapler into a stunning, breathtaking set of pop songs. Mixing the perfect amount of guitar-rock and techno-beats, tracks like the glittering “Wound Up”, the Belle & Sebastian-aping “Dominoes” and the adrenaline-rock of “Had a Visit” show not only a remarkable amount of diversity, but a brilliant sense of songcraft. In layman’s terms: it’s catchy as hell. There are no specific highlights simply because every song is just as good as the last one. Q & A isn’t awkward in the paper-merchant sense — it’s flawless in the Album of the Year sense. Evan Sawdey

Multiple songs [MySpace]

Office – Double and Wound UpOffice: Q & A

Artist: Parts & Labor
Album: Stay Afraid
Label: Jagjaguwar
Amazon affiliate: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect?link_code=as2&path=ASIN/B000EMSY20&tag=popmatters-20&camp=1789&creative=9325
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Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/p/partslabor-stayafraid.jpg
US Release Date: 2006-04-11
UK Release Date: 2006-04-10

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Many bands excel in creation of massive blasts of noise; only a select few can make those same noise blasts not only interesting but constantly, compulsively catchy. With breakneck percussion and gleaming melodies as unrelenting as the dense sheen of white noise, feedback, and electronic shriek that compose, support and surround them, Brooklyn’s Parts and Labor could pass for top-quality post-punk with flair for majestic composition. But a closer listen reveals such an array of visceral, searing, original textures that to call them simply a rock band seems a disservice to their finely honed experimental side. Add in a dash of soaring bagpipes, and a full complement of distorted call-to-arms vocals, and we have an exquisitely abrasive statement with a surprising accessibility. Nate Dorr

Multiple songs [MySpace]

Parts and Labor – New BuildingsParts & Labor: Stay Afraid

Artist: Peeping Tom
Album: Peeping Tom
Label: Ipecac
Contributors: Odd Nosdam, Kool Keith, Dan the Automator, Amon Tobin, Dub Trio, Norah Jones, Doseone, Kid Koala, Jel, Massive Attack, Bebel Gilberto, Rahzel
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/p/peepingtom-peepingtom.jpg
US Release Date: 2006-05-30
UK Release Date: Available as import

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Right, so Mike Patton’s Peeping Tom project wasn’t exactly the most profound release of last year, nor was it the most technically impressive. Still, there is something to be said for a sense of fun emanating from an artist who generally has a rep for being deadly serious. And the guest stars! Oh, the guest stars, from Massive Attack doing their spooky Mezzanine thing for “Kill the DJ” to Doseone getting his gangster on for “How U Feelin?” to Norah Jones pulling out the f-word for “Sucker”, probably pretty confident that her established fanbase will never hear it… well, it all comes off as a great big party — a great big skewed, demented, slightly sinister party. Surely, there must be some room on the year-end lists for that. Mike Schiller

Multiple songs [MySpace]

Peeping Tom – MojoPeeping Tom: Peeping Tom

Slipped Discs (Part 4)

Artist: The Raconteurs
Album: Broken Boy Soldiers
Label: V2
Label: Third Man
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/r/raconteursthe-brokenboysoldiers.jpg
US Release Date: 2006-05-16
UK Release Date: 2006-05-15

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Throwing around labels like “supergroup” will inevitably bring on some backlash and, unfortunately, even after people seemed to get over the fact that the Raconteurs isn’t just a side-project for Jack White to tinker with, the band had to deal with the consequences that will always accompany the hype. Such is life. Regardless of what side of the cheering section you’re on, the guys provided one of the most solid rock tracks of the year with their single “Steady As She Goes” and the lineup — also featuring indie superheroes Brendan Benson and Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler from The Greenhornes — ultimately represents one of the best-matched collaborations that the rock scene has received in years. The creative force of these longtime buddies bouncing their contrasting styles off each other’s abundance of talent provided a much-needed breath of fresh air on the pop rock scene. Dara Kartz

Multiple songs [MySpace]

The Raconteurs – Broken Boy SoldierThe Raconteurs: Broken Boy Soldiers

Artist: The Strokes
Album: First Impressions of Earth
Label: RCA
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Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/s/strokes-firstimpressions.jpg
US Release Date: 2006-01-03
UK Release Date: 2006-01-02

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I will freely admit to the fact that for the longest time I didn’t “get” the Strokes. Their first album seemed derivative and callow; their second album was tighter and less blatantly imitative than their first, but still hardly the revelation the critics had initially foretold. Their third album, however — this is where the band finally came into their own, with a newfound muscular sound that went a long way towards refuting the incessant comparisons to Televison and the Ramones, without sacrificing the tunefulness that had also brought comparisons to the Cars. In almost every way that matters, First Impressions of Earth was a far superior album to either of its predecessors: more assured, more adventurous, more passionate. The only way it fell short was in the vital realm of buzz. By 2006, I guess, the world had finally moved past the Strokes, to judge by the album’s absence not only from PopMatters‘ year-end list but pretty much every other comparable ranking. Quite ironic: by the time the Strokes actually got around to producing something genuinely exciting, no one was listening anymore. Tim O’Neil

Multiple songs [MySpace]

The Strokes – Razorblade [Live on La musicale (France)]The Strokes: First Impressions of Earth

Artist: Subtle
Album: For Hero: For Fool
Label: Astralwerks
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/s/subtle-forheroforfool.jpg
US Release Date: 2006-10-03
UK Release Date: 2006-10-02

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With its latest album, Subtle almost created the best underground hip-hop record of 2006. The problem is that to label For Hero: For Fool merely hip-hop is to discount its futuristic stylistic blend. Genre-obsessed fans should file Subtle’s music in the electronic space-rap-rock jazz-fusion section. Guitars, drums, synths, and strings form the sonic fabric while the songs switch between driving beats and ethereal soundscapes. Vocalist Adam “Doseone” Drucker snarls, barks, and croons his way through the album. Half of the fun for listeners is decoding the cryptically poetic lyrics, which touch on everything from social class structure to blood donation. Subtle demands patience and multiple listens, but few other artists can match the group’s dizzying complexity, dazzling richness, and breathtaking originality. Neal Hayes

Subtle – The Mercury CrazeSubtle: For Hero: For Fool

Artist: Trentemøller
Album: The Last Resort
Label: Poker Flat
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/t/trentmoller-last.jpg
US Release Date: 2006/10/10
UK Release Date: 2006/10/09

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Hailed as everything from a rising star to one of the best electronic music producers in the world, Anders Trentemøller managed to even beat out expectations of perfection this year with his debut album The Last Resort. As each beat, each sound, each mood segues, Trentemøller creates a fascinating musical canvas with elements so perfectly in place that it will make your eyes shine and ears melt in disbelief. Like a mix of all that is perfect across electronic subgenres, Trentemøller pulls in the apex of Basic Channel-style brooding dubscapes, Cologne clickhouse, the depths of Detroit techno, electronica moods from lush to desolate, a driving hint of big beat and even a marvelously piercing Angelo Badalamenti-esque guitar. The Last Resort is one of the finest electronic albums ever. And if electronic music wasn’t such a diverse field, with many strains and paths to excel in, this album would set the bar beyond reach. Nicolai Hartvig

Multiple songs [MySpace]

Trentemoller performing live @ P3 Guld in DenmarkTrentemøller: The Last Resort

Artist: Voice
Album: Gumbo
Label: Public Transit
Label: Featherperm
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/v/voice-gumbo.jpg
US Release Date: 2006-10-31
UK Release Date: 2006-10-16

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I know it’s passé to actually have something to say. While underground rappers have long criticized mainstream hip-hop, many have done so with barely veiled sentiments of sour grapes. Voice doesn’t even make a play for the radio single, mixing spoken word and rap over seven-minute songs that flow over pillowy, head nod slices of jazz, trance and electronica. Gumbo unfolds like a foot-thick epic novel: stuffed with stories, characters drawn with an unforgiving eye, and long philosophical asides about misogyny, media ownership and rebuffing the bad come on. Normally such artistry would have the feel of homework, that you kind of think you want to like, but can’t possibly stay awake through. Ever want to know how much the person bagging your groceries hates your guts? This is Dorothy Parker cracking complicated rhyme schemes to the best of Digable Planets and it works hard effortlessly. Terry Sawyer

Multiple songs [Featherperm Records]

Voice: Gumbo

Artist: Virgil Walters
Album: Solid South
Label: self-released
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/w/waltersvirgil-solid.jpg

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Solid South is one of those records that nobody remembers because they never heard it to begin with. It’s as indie as indie gets, hand-burned CD-Rs mailed $5 a pop by the artist himself, a high-schooler from Michigan. It’s also one of the best folk albums of the year. Walters’s voice is a nasally, Midwestern twang, ranging from sharp to shouted but always earnest, and his lyrics are at points hard to decipher — “You can’t wax poetic / And you can’t get pathetic / About how I was diabetic / Theoretic / Aleve” — but the songs ring true in surprisingly poetic ways as he throws himself wholly into them. Tracks like the off-kilter “Portuguese Housewives” disjoint into brilliantly frenzied breakdowns, while even straightforward ballads like “A Pair of Bonnie and Clydes” ride on absolutely sublimely soulful choruses that hit you right there where you stir. Take, for instance, “Ghetto Blastin'”, recently featured on popular MP3 blog Said the Gramophone — while guitar chords burst over skittery programmed drums, Virgil howls his proud and sighing sermon. “I’m sorry your heart doesn’t clatter.” It’s an old soul with young spirit, it’s Obtuse Weird America, and it’s entirely captivating. Michael Frauenhofer

Multiple songs [MySpace]

Virgil Walters: Solid South

Artist: Amy Winehouse
Album: Back To Black
Label: Universal
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/w/winehouseamy-back.jpg
US Release Date: Available as import
UK Release Date: 2006-10-30

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Drenched in ’60s girl-group cool, and sparkling with bad-girl attitude, the Mark Ronson produced Back to Black by London funk-soul diva Amy Winehouse was the most unexpectedly thrilling soul record of the year. Preceded by the stomping, gospel-flecked single “Rehab” with its irresistible “They tried to make me go to rehab / I said no, no, no” vocal hook, the record was a collection of 11 concise, catchy, brilliantly witty songs delivered in a timeless voice that belied Winehouse’s 22 years. The title track was a swaggering, slinky tribute to Phil Spector, whilst album highlight “You Know I’m No Good” was a groovesome and seemingly guilt-free admission of infidelity (later remixed by a suitably impressed Ghostface Killah). Bold, assured and bursting with rare personality, Back to Black was unequivocally one of most memorable records of 2006. Michael Lomas

Multiple songs [MySpace]

Amy Winehouse – RehabAmy Winehouse: Back To Black

Artist: The Wreckers
Album: Stand Still, Look Pretty
Label: Maverick
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/w/wreckers-standstill.jpg
US Release Date: 2006-05-23
UK Release Date: Available as import

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It’s clear Michelle Branch understands there’s more to country music than just American Idol and the Tousle-Haired Interchangeables. In a marriage of apparent equals, she’s blended her pop-rock sensitivity with Jessica Harp’s traditional country values to create a record of undeniable quality and irrepressible charm. “Leave the Pieces” was one of the great pop singles of 2006, and there are plenty of likewise moments on Stand Still, Look Pretty. Meanwhile songs like “Tennessee”, “Rain”, and the title track reveal the duo’s deeper, more thoughtful side, and their version of Patty Griffin’s excellent “One More Girl” thoroughly out-punches the original. The Wreckers may have owed much of their success to the rift between the Dixie Chicks and country radio, but having been handed their golden opportunity they still had to deliver the goods. And Stand Still, Look Pretty is a fine, fine record. Roger Holland

Multiple songs [MySpace]

The Wreckers – TennesseeThe Wreckers: Stand Still, Look Pretty

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