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2006 top albums

May 14, 2012

Top 20 albums 2006 – Pop, rock, edgy country, offbeat folk among the genres that made it into this year’s music list

Herald & Review (Decatur, IL) – Friday, January 19, 2007
Author: TIM CAIN ; H&R Entertainment Editor

It’s becoming increasingly important each year to point out that this is one person’s list of the best albums of the previous year.

As music fragments more and more, it’s more than possible that you can be a fanatic about music and ignore certain forms and genres altogether. It’s PROBABLE.

So while I spent a lot of time listening to music in 2006, and found a lot to like, I know not everything on this list is going to appeal to everyone reading this.

Not to the people who buy albums — four of my top 10 here (including two of the top three) did not make the Billboard charts.

And not to the people who listen to music for a living — I was one of 500 critics who voted in the Idolator blog’s recent Jackin Pop survey, and I was the only person out of those 500 to vote for four of my top 10 (including two of the top three).

You’ll find my favorite musical genres widely represented here: pop, rock, edgier country, a little bit of offbeat folk. That doesn’t mean I dislike other genres (with the exception of polka and opera — just not my thing). It just means there was nothing good enough to crack this list, which is as solid as anything I’ve listed since the Herald & Review started running these back when I was on the sports copy desk. It was a good year for music.

I found it interesting that many commercial and critical favorites (like Arctic Monkeys, The Raconteurs, The Hold Steady and Jenny Watson) went past me with little notice or interest. And many old favorites (like Jolie Holland, Kasey Chambers, Neil Young, The Who and Drive-By Truckers) left me cold.

Albums I’ve seen pop up on some lists this year (“Morningwood,” K.T. Tunstall’s “Eye to the Telescope”) were in my collection last year. And a selection in my top 10 this year (Lily Allen) will probably end up in more year-end lists next year — it’s about to be released domestically (with two extra tracks — better open up the wallet again).

Here goes. Myspace links are listed for each performer, because songs are available to be played at each site. If you like what you hear, explore a little more.

1. The Oohs, “Llamalamp”

Sounds like: Everything I like: The Beatles, Queen, Electric Light Orchestra, Todd Rundgren, Cheap Trick, Steely Dan.

Disclaimer one: These Springfield-based guys are friends. But even if they were the Baldwin brothers, this album would be here. “Get It Straight” is the best single song I’ve heard in years, and they don’t even think it’s the best thing the album has to offer. This is a release of top-to-bottom great songs, each one markedly different than the one before, with love songs, heartbreak and humor — pretty much everything you ought to want from a release.

2. Rosanne Cash, “Black Cadillac”

Sounds like: A more mature, wiser and wearier person than the woman who was one of the first country-pop crossover females of the 1980s.

Dealing with the death of a mother, father and stepfather over a two-year stretch and setting your mood to music may not sound like the key to a successful album . But Cash’s nakedly emotional songs of love, loss, anger, desperation, belief, betrayal and acceptance are breathtaking in their excellence.

3. The Handcuffs, “Model for a Revolution”

Sounds like: 1980s female pop on steroids, as much as the lead singer hates the comparison.

Disclaimer two: I consider these guys friends, and I’m thanked on the CD sleeve. (Which I didn’t even realize until I’d listened to the album a bunch of times, and grown to love it.) Lead singer Chloe F. Orwell is a 21st century version of any member of The Shangri-Las — an attractive woman who’s so powerful on record and on stage that you’re afraid to say anything negative, lest she physically pummel some manners into you. Drummer Brad Elvis is a modern-day Keith Moon, an instrumental drummer who hammers down the beat, puts on a great show, and co-writes (with Orwell) irresistibly catchy and tough pop tunes.

4. The Format, “Dog Problems”

Sounds like: Queen, The Beatles, The Beach Boys

A concept album on par with Cash’s, with a variety of songs and styles, all good. Singer Nate Reuss can mimic Queen’s Freddie Mercury or sound like his own version of an emo belter. A cerebral effort, but many listeners will simply get an hour of enjoyable pop music out of it. Believe me, there are at least four songs on her that should have been hit singles.

5. Christina Aguilera, “Back to Basics”

Sounds like: Everything she’s never sounded like before: A young Aretha Franklin, mid-period Madonna, a maturing artist.

When I was first listening to this, I kept looking at my iPod, baffled. Had I loaded the wrong album ? Had the record company inadvertently pressed a dozen songs from some soulful 1940s swing belter and put it in an Aguilera package? I’d never have guessed I’d have enjoyed a former teen pop star’s album as much as I enjoyed this. I may be overreacting, but the most exciting moment musically for me in 2006 is the 11-second note she holds near the end of “Candyman.” It almost makes me want to dance.

6. Bob Dylan, “Modern Times”

Sounds like: Bob Dylan. What are the odds? Well, Bob Dylan, and an ancient blues master.

Is it so great it’s going to launch a dozen revolutions, or make us forget about his history? No, but it embraces his history, has a bunch of great songs, and is really, really funny. He sounds like the old cranky uncle sitting in the corner of the room telling stories. And he apparently has been thinking about Alicia Keys.

7. Ditty Bops, “Moon Over the Freeway”

Sounds like: The Andrews Sisters singing Western swing.

They write charming songs, their eclectic performances are entertaining, and this summer, they did a bike tour from California to New York. There’s a whole alternate universe of performers like this out there, and every once in a while, I’m fortunate enough to cross paths with one of them.

8. L.E.O., “Alpacas Orgling”

Sounds like: Electric Light Orchestra, ELO, Jeff Lynne, and Electric Light Orchestra.

If you don’t understand the people behind this (kind of a superstar collection of power pop artists, including the infamous “Mmm-Bop” Hanson brothers) are huge fans of Electric Light Orchestra, the 1970s pop hit machine, this album might sound like a cruel joke, almost as though they were sending up the style. But it all appears to be on the level, and winds up being the greatest album Electric Light Orchestra ever made (except for “A New World Record”).

9. Lily Allen, “Alright Still”

Sounds like: An up-front, smart-aleck female Cockney ska star for the new millennium.

Had anyone told me one of my favorite albums of the year would be a ska album by the daughter of a British celebrity, I’d have figured we’d just passed through the looking glass. As it turned out, this tuneful female-empowering set was one of the albums I came back to most this year. Most of you who don’t know who she is now will by this time in 2008.

10. The Beatles, “Love”

Sounds like: Those four guys from Liverpool.

This isn’t really a “new” album — the only new thing about it is a quiet string arrangement producer George Martin attached to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” On the other hand, it’s not a reissue, not with tracks spinning backwards, sped up and placed in locations they’ve never been before. “I Want To Hold Your Hand” is sped up, edited and remixed, and becomes a hot rock track for the Naughties. Cuts from three or four different albums blend into radically new pieces, making what was once familiar suddenly exciting and new. Bet The Rolling Stones copy the idea in the next year or two.

11. David Mead, “Tangerine”

Sounds like: Perfect harmony-laden 1960s pop.

Every couple of years, Mead puts out a quality album that sounds like it was conceived with all the innovations present in music 30 years ago (he’s drawn comparison with Gershwin and Porter, as well as Lennon-McCartney), yet recorded today. A few thousand people buy it, and send messages to each other about how great it is.

12. Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, “The River In Reverse”

Sounds like: Classic Costello in New Orleans.

The only artist who’s frustrated me more than Costello over the course of his career has been Paul McCartney. Both have the skill to write brilliant songs apparently at will, and both have taken wasteful and irritating side trips away from what I see as their strengths. Costello is at his best when he’s angry, vindictive, wronged and sincere, and that’s whence many of these songs come. Legendary New Orleans pianist, writer and arranger Toussaint compliments Costello perfectly. Welcome back, Elvis — for the moment.

13. The Wreckers, “Stand Still, Look Pretty”

Sounds like: Fresh country music for the new century.

Michelle Branch changes genres at will (not unlike Elvis Costello). Somehow, the results are always melodic. Take away the fiddles and steel guitars, and this is a solid pop album . Credit Jessica Harp, co-writer and lead singer on many of these songs, for rounding out the sound and keeping the album solidly in that “new country” territory, which is basically the area where melodic country and tamer pop meet these days.

14. Dixie Chicks, “Taking the Long Way”

Sounds like: An angry bunch of former country singers, trying to find a sound somewhere between pop and country.

This is kind of like The Wreckers’ album — country in name and somewhat in sound, but not really in attitude. “Not Ready To Make Nice” is really a breathtaking song. This is a solid effort. Unlike some folks, I like these guys the further along they get in their career. They’ve forsaken some of their audience to advance artistically. That’s the way it ought to be. Now we can see how those rumors of their impending breakup play out.

15. Lindsey Buckingham, “Under the Skin”

Sounds like: Quiet, complex guitar arrangements with quiet, breathy singing somewhere in there.

Buckingham writes big hits and sings and plays big guitar for Fleetwood Mac. His solo albums are unfortunately few and far between. (This is his first since “Out of the Cradle,” my 1992 album of the year.) This isn’t as up-tempo or as catchy as some of Buckingham’s solo work, but it is a grower, and as with all of his recordings, it sounds fascinating.

16. AdriAnne Lenker, “Stages of the Sun”

Sounds like: A really smart Jewel.

This 14-year-old (honestly) writes songs of higher quality than people twice her age, and she’s already mastered the skill of not making all the songs sound the same, even though they all appear to be written on acoustic guitar. Potential is a curse sometimes, but if anyone has the talent to overcome that curse, it may be this Minneapolis youngster.

17. Barbara Bailey Hutchison, “Breath By Breath”

Sounds like: Your friendly neighbor with a great voice, singing folk and country.

It’s not often that an artist can record for 30 years, THEN produce their best work. But this Nashville-based independent folkie — a regular concert performer in Decatur — has done just that with a combination of homey songs, fascinatingly interesting production and unexpected vocal work. Disclaimer three: Hutchison is a friend, and one of the few people I admire and wish I could emulate in a more satisfactory way. But even if that were not the case, this really is her best album , in my book.

18. A.J. Croce, “Cantos”

Sounds like: A young pop singer who desperately wants to be Paul McCartney. He even does McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed.”

Possibly the most joyful album on this list. Croce (yes, the son of 1970s folk singer Jim) can’t help but write hummable songs, and the production gives it an intimate quality. For some, this might be so lightweight it could float away. For me, it’s a great way to spend an hour.

19. Bruce Springsteen, “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions”

Sounds like: Bruce Springsteen singing Pete Seeger songs. Impromptu.

My favorite moment on this album is when the backup singers come in at the wrong time in “O Mary, Don’t You Weep.” It summarizes the best of what this release is about — spontaneous rediscovery of some music buried deep in a performer’s DNA, and the joy of performance. It’s also an effectively subtle protest album .

20. Gnarls Barkley, “St. Elsewhere”

Sounds like: A winning mash-up of soul, pop, R&B and hip-hop.

The album that sounds like nothing else on this list also sounds like nothing else that came out next year. If not for the hip-hop elements, this could have come out on Motown in 1969, and been well received. These guys did it their way, and they had to — can you imagine going to a record company and proposing a concept album about insanity? On top of all of that, “Crazy” and “Gone Daddy Gone” are simply a couple of great tunes.


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