2006 / Music / Top 10

Soundbytes: Top 10 Albums Of 2006

Gnarls Barkley, TV On The Radio Release Year’s Best Discs

Read The Reviews: TV On The Radio | Eagles Of Death Metal | Gnarls Barkley | The Raconteurs | Yeah Yeah Yeahs | Clipse | Joanna Newsom | Cat Power | Mastodon | Ray LaMontagne

When evaluating the state of the music industry in 2006, some might compare it to being trapped in the eye of the storm.

After nearly a decade of turmoil — record label consolidations, down-spiraling CD sales, illegal downloading and a transformation of the media landscape — there was a prevailing sense of calm and near stability enveloping the music industry this year.

The industry’s chief product, CDs, still don’t move off the shelves like they used to and remain outmatched by DVDs and video games. But new technological developments, like music blogs, YouTube and iPods, are enjoying ever deeper saturation with the public. Add to that the growing number of legitimate, paid-for downloads from iTunes, which is offering a new revenue stream that hadn’t existed before.

There are now reasons for gloom and doomers to pause. One might say that after years of bad news for the music world, 2006 gave some a cause for hope. However, given the industry’s institutional problems and the likelihood of further technological and cultural changes, more upset still looms on the horizon.

Musically, the best albums fit neatly into two categories. They endeavored either to challenge listeners with a diversified sound and complicated structures or they just wanted to make a great pop album. The year’s most praised LP was likely TV On The Radio’s “Return To Cookie Mountain,” and surely the most overrated was Bob Dylan’s “Modern Age,” which universally received favorable reviews but, in my opinion, too often dozed off into Bing Crosby swing.

While trying not to overestimate this, drafting this year’s list wasn’t the torturous process it had been in past years. To be sure, there were plenty of great albums meriting inclusion. Many of the very best discs this year really stood out from the pack and made a music geek’s excruciating decision a bit easier.

Here’s this year’s list, in no particular order.

TV On The Radio “Return To Cookie Mountain”

“Return To Cookie Mountain” is easily the most intimidating record on this list. No album in 2006 was so overrun with baffling structures and complicated mechanized sounds, but simultaneously, so imbued with segments of purely human melodic gorgeousness.

Managing dichotomies is something the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based TV On The Radio excels at. The group can cleverly choreograph elements of falsetto doo-wop, dub, jazz and industrial music into their fractured songs but still wind up with music that sounds visceral and emotional.

Their last record, 2004’s “Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes,” was a penetrating and engrossing passageway into this five-piece’s convoluted, collage-like conception of music. With “Return To Cookie Mountain,” the band’s musical scope has swung wide open.

The songs alternate between high art ambition and obvious pop influences. It’s difficult to guess what kind of track is coming next. The album opens with “I Was A Lover,” a cut based on an odd-sounding, sputtering drum-machine mixed with sitar-like guitar effects. Contrast that with the introduction offered by the disc’s big single, “Wolf Like Me,” which has lawnmower guitars and an infectious rhythm transplanted from Billy Idol’s ’80s blockbuster “Rebel Yell.”

Some tracks, like the midtempo, multi-vocal “Province,” effortlessly slither into your consciousness and you might catch yourself humming fragments during the day. Other songs require real effort to appreciate. “Let The Devil In” sounds like a street riot sing-along backed by a hippie drum circle, but its charming qualities eventually overtake its rough-hewn veneer.

This same tactic is necessary to fully appreciate “Return To Cookie Mountain.” This is an album that requires multiple listens to connect all the dots. But, unlike so many other assignments in life, this is studying that will prove enjoyable.

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Eagles Of Death Metal “Death By Sexy”

For the Eagles of Death Metal, 2006 will likely be remembered as both the best of times and the worst of times.

The hard-rockin’, boogie-rock band began the year with a bang, releasing their best album to date, “Death By Sexy.” This is no small accomplishment given their debut, “Peace Love Death Metal,” was the best low-fi production since the White Stripes’ “White Blood Cells,” excellently fusing together groove-oriented AC/DC riffs, rockabilly rhythms and faux rock-star swagger.

Sadly, the public response to the disc has been minimal and the group spent most of the year touring the small-club circuit and opening for the Strokes and Joan Jett, among others.

In fact, it was after one of the Eagles’ opening-act performances in late November that the group would receive the year’s final humiliation — or triumph depending on your perspective. The band was booted from their slot on Guns N’ Roses fall tour after only one show in Cleveland. Guns frontman and chief egomaniac Axl Rose even had the gall to re-christen the band “Pigeons of S*** Metal” before announcing the group’s dismissal onstage in front of an arena audience, according to MTV.com

The band shouldn’t take any of this as a rebuke. Rather than being accepted as some kind of indictment on the band’s pivotal figure, singer-guitarist Jesse Hughes, this bad luck likely stems from the lack of serious attention paid to the band. (The group’s other full member is Josh Homme, leader of the Queens of the Stone Age, but he rarely tours with them.) The band’s musical style defies easy categorization and is so brazenly derivative, making it a tough sell to those who want straight answers from their songs. Meanwhile, Hughes and Homme’s surly approach to lyrics and wittiness in the press make them highly amusing subjects, but it also distracts some from their skills as songwriters and musicians.

“Death By Sexy” is a testament to their abilities. There isn’t a bad track on it. Songs like “Cherry Cola,” “Shasta Beast” and “Don’t Speak (I Came To Make A Bang!)” take tight, “Nuggets”-style guitar grooves and lots of ’70s glam-rock attitude with the mission of making rock ‘n’ roll fun again. This musical approach and their ballsy stance are thoroughly ironic and thus, grounded in the contemporary scene. And yet, the Eagles’ music contains many elements that are familiar to anyone versed in rock’s past. It’s a delicate balance that Hughes and Homme pull off exquisitely.

The Eagles might have received some bad breaks in 2006, but if they can continue to build on “Death By Sexy,” more opportunities might present themselves in the years to come and allow for the band’s luck to change. And who knows? Maybe they’ll get Axl to open for them when Guns N’ Roses finally get around to releasing “Chinese Democracy.”

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Gnarls Barkley “St. Elsewhere”

Hip-hop duo Gnarls Barkley had one of the year’s biggest (and most covered) singles based on the power inherent in their musical philosophy. Unlike most of hip-hop’s current stars, the group has a refreshing emphasis on simplicity over instrumental extravagance.

The combo, a collaboration between ex-Goodie Mob singer Cee-Lo Green and DJ/producer Danger Mouse (famed for his mash-up masterpiece, “The Grey Album”), maintains an old-school hip-hop mentality. Danger Mouse uses only simple, classic beats and supporting melodic devices. Instead of stacking instrumental tracks and scampering to sound cutting-edge, he just keeps the beats and melodies to a support role behind Cee-Lo’s yearning, Sam and Dave-like singing.

The best example and the pair’s great achievement is “Crazy,” which surged to become an international hit single. No other song inspired so many others artists to cover it this year — comparable only to the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” (The Raconteurs and Ray LaMontagne were among those who took a shot at the song.) Sustained by a propulsive drum beat and basic, trebly guitar, the song shines with a gospel-soaked vocal performance by Cee-Lo and lyrics that are as beguiling as they are emotion-filled.

Besides star-making singles, Gnarls Barkley also boasts rare openness to other musical forms and fearlessness in exploiting this flexibility, which further sets “St. Elsewhere” apart from its rivals. What other hip-hop album features a reimagined cover of the Violent Femmes (“Gone Daddy Gone”) and follows with a shiny, Motown-quality R&B jam (“Smiley Faces”)?

The duo also shines when concocting music that regresses into childhood loves and phobias, as is the case with “The Boogie Monster.” While other songs allude to Inspector Gadget and the Transformers, “The Boogie Monster” spookily exorcises Cee-Lo’s worries about the bedtime monsters hiding in the shadows. With a leading, thudding bass line and horror-movie staccato electric piano mashing in the background, Cee-Lo bluesy croons “there’s a monster in my closet/Someone’s underneath my bed/The winds knocking at my window /I’d kill it but it’s already dead.” It’s the finest comedic/scary song since “The Monster Mash.”

The success of “St. Elsewhere” has certainly made Gnarls Barkley’s example less frightening for other artists. While the group is in midst of an attention-grabbing tour, the Roots’ Black Thought and Blur’s Damon Albarn are already lined up to collaborate with Danger Mouse on new projects, according to Wikipedia. One just hopes that no matter how monstrous Gnarls Barkley becomes, it can continue its emphasis on maximizing the potential in simple things.

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The Raconteurs “Broken Boy Soldiers”

Restless fans got what they wanted with Jack White and the Raconteurs, but why don’t more seem pleased with “Broken Boy Soldiers”?

After years of complaining that the White Stripes’ mastermind needed a bass player; had to have a decent drummer; could really use a more imposing vocal foil than old reliable Meg, the Raconteurs should be seen as the answer to all prayers. Hell, Jack has even, as another writer suggested, stopped taking fashion tips from a barber pole.

And still, dissatisfaction trails the Raconteurs and it’s a feeling as potentially poisonous as competing with the White Stripes’ mighty legacy. Instead of taking the band on face value, some seemed annoyed about how ephemeral “Broken Boy Soldiers” appears. The songs are a barrage of garage-rock pop sides and the complete disc comes in at just slightly longer than a half-hour. Others are still fuming that White’s vocals continue to quote from Robert Plant.

This is wrongheaded. What White’s new quartet has accomplished deserves appreciation, not more whining. “Broken Boy Soldiers” is a great power-pop record obviously in the mold of Big Star and Cheap Trick. A couple of tracks come just sort of matching the best of the “Nuggets” bands.

The record also benefits from frequent changes in pace. The mechanical howling of an organ and guitars on “Store Bought Bones” and “Blue Veins” make them too prickly to be traditional singles but no less likeable. “Blue Veins,” in particular, is a real accomplishment. The track is a love song about drugs and it strives to be just as brave, honest and unflinching as the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” but comes up a bit short on being as monumental. The song is also the one time that the band’s ’60s hero worship becomes most explicit, employing Beatles background vocals and a Zeppelin-inspired breakdown.

Truly, the best part about the group is the inclusion of another frontman, Brendan Benson. The singer-songwriters’ two mopey showpieces, “Together” and “Call It A Day,” are leisurely-moving charmers on their own besides functioning as diversions from everyone’s White fixation. This record places Benson in a favorable light and should re-energize his solo career. We can only hope more will come of it.

And it’s this same desire for more that threatens to overshadow the Raconteurs’ young career. There’s some abstract notion out there that White or the band need to conform to some model of a perfect group and then, and only then, will they fulfill their potential. Instead, restless people miss the point and fail to appreciate what they have in front of them.

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Yeah Yeah Yeahs “Show Your Bones”

“Show Your Bones” is a classic example of a second album.

On the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ first record, “Fever To Tell,” listeners were introduced to their berserker brand of garage rock. Their sound was all offense — lusty shouts, vicious guitar swipes and a little artsy pretense.

For their followup, the trio was conscious of the need to branch out and demonstrate that it is unlike the others in New York’s neo-New Wave scene that it was lumped in with. The songs on “Show Your Bones” are more deliberate, utilizing dramatically differing tempos and even other instruments, like acoustic guitars and keyboard samples.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs had a top-notch production team to assist them in achieving this deeper sonic vision. Producer Squeak E. Clean and the band manned the board, but TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek provided additional assistance and former Nine Inch Nails/U2 producer Alan Moulder mixed the disc. The group collaboration gave the tracks a very vibrant quality, but assured that the band could sound just as punchy as on their old work.

The band pulls all this together on the first track, “Gold Lion.” Opening with an acoustic guitar, which serves as the regulator of the song, other musical elements like some snappy drumming and guitar riff fragments accumulate. When the band finally goes for broke on the chorus, vocalist Karen O emits a cute, high-pitched yelp that causes goosebumps.

“Fancy” is much different. The cut is slow-grinding Black Sabbath metal, but perfectly fronted by a sassy, fashionista sex kitten. Guitarist Nick Zinner intermittently channels U2’s the Edge circa the Zoo TV tour for otherworldly effects and then synthetic-sounding power chords. “Warrior” is weirder still. The track first strikes like a shot of acoustic guitar defiance, then segues into O singing a peppy but dark folk ditty.

These stylistic changes are surprising given the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ first album, but wonderfully done. While “Show Your Bones” might be a classic second record, it is — unlike most second albums — a real classic.

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Clipse “Hell Hath No Fury”

“I’m so obnoxious,” rap duo Clipse intones on the second track of “Hell Hath No Fury,” and this confession is key to understanding this disc’s great weakness. This is necessary because these are all first-class party jams. It’s almost a waste that such potent beats and mind-warping rhymes are used to buff the bling of rap’s greatest clichés: hustling, clubbing and the jet-set lifestyle. This record is worth the effort.

Despite employing a worn-out cliché of my own, this record is a vindication of sorts for a pair of rappers who’ve been overlooked for far too long. The group, which consists of Pusha-T and Malice, has been together since the early ’90s, but has typically been stuck on the bench because label impresarios sought surer guarantees on their investments. According to various published reports, “Hell Hath No Fury” was hung up in record-label politics for years. Its release should stifle any further questions about Clipse or their ace producers, the Neptunes.

To be fair, a great deal of what “Hell Hath No Fury” is can be ceded to the Neptunes. The fact that they produced the entire album instead of just a couple of potential hits is an obvious bonus as it lends a consistence to the sound and the level of sonic experimentation. They also just make great beats and wacked-out supporting instrumentals.

The best cuts are pounding, bass-driven tracks like “Trill” or single, “Wamp Wamp (What It Do).” But even more unorthodox approaches connect. The organ-filled “Nightmares” is more an R&B track than pure hip-hop and features guest vocalist Bilal doing his best Curtis Mayfield impression.

What Pusha-T and Malice contribute is great rhymes and a forceful delivery. The duo drop plenty of “B words” and rehash incidents of thuggery, but there’s no writing off their presence. Each has a flexible flow that tackles a listener’s imagination and keeps the imagery pumping with flashy wordplay.

Why this cleverness doesn’t lead the MCs to pursue more original topics to rhyme about is Clipse’s great mystery. How much longer will we have to endure the same old tales of flushed debauchery? In this instance, all this obnoxiousness is redeemed by their rapping. Such is their skills with a pen and on the mic that the world they are describing almost sounds fun.

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Joanna Newsom “Ys”

It’s fair to categorize “Ys” as the most polarizing album of 2006. There is a clear dividing line separating those beguiled by Joanna Newsom’s classical-folk collection and those snorting at its pomposity.

In fact, a writer on Rolling Stone’s Web site recently took the appearance of “Ys” on several year-end lists as an opportunity to take a haughty poke at indie-rock kingmaker Web site Pitchfork for nurturing the cult of Newsom.

This record certainly didn’t start out as divisive. In fact, it got such odd bedfellows as cranky, punk rock auteur Steve Albini, composer and onetime Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks and ex-Sonic Youth member Jim O’Rourke to team together. This unlikely union created an hourlong, five-song record of delicate beauties overwrought with literary catchphrases and simple, orchestral accents.

Some take issue with Newsom’s distinct voice, but it’s no less unique than the wacky tremolo Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez liked to whip out in the ’60s. Others are just put off by the pretense of it all. While the record obviously has touchstones in indie pop and modern folk music, the record isn’t comparable to the Shins or Devendra Banhart. Instead, the disc should be reckoned as classical music pieces. If you’re looking for an awesome solo and something to sing in the shower, you need to delete “Ys” from your iPod.

The best and most excessive is “Only Skin,” which is an overstuffed masterpiece. Harps, pianos and strings sweetly roll in and out of focus as Newsom croons about love and nature for more than 10 minutes, evoking vivid imagery (a highlight: “Scrape your knee/It is only skin/Makes the sound of violins). This continues on for an astonishing nine pages in the CD liner notes, at prospect that would make the equally blabby Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes envious.

Envy is what has fueled the Newsom haters. Like Pitchfork’s own growing popularity, this record has garnered attention because it challenges the status quo. Newsom’s wordy, admittedly haughty epics defy the music industry’s Law, which states that songs can only last 2 minutes and must have a catchy hook. This is what makes these songs such a refreshing listen.

For not playing by the rules, Newsom causes her detractors to seethe. They want everyone to listen to yet another underappreciated garage-punk rock outfit.

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Cat Power “The Greatest”

With “The Greatest,” Cat Power (aka singer-songwriter Chan Marshall) has finally mastered her own sound. Her skills as singer, songwriter and arranger are at full flower.

It hasn’t been an easy process of discovery. A cover album from 2000 was intriguing but a few tracks weren’t suitably arranged for her slow-moving, jazz-style vocals. Her last album, 2003’s “You Are Free,” was an excellent album of very solitary songs on which Marshall crooned to downcast-sounding acoustic guitar and piano. The songs were great, but the disc — suffering from having too many songs with naked accompaniment — dragged on. She almost had it.

And then there was the time that she was the surprise guest when the Flaming Lips appeared on “Austin City Limits” a couple of years ago. She was looking and sounding out of place as the group ham-fistedly rocked through Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.”

Marshall finally found the proper balance on “The Greatest.” Many of the songs shine because of the robust yet sympathetic full-band treatment, but never siphon attention away from Marshall’s nasal-tinged, mournful-sounding singing. The extra instruments give the songs wind in their sails and more easily invite repeat listening.

While staying true to her strengths, Marshall occasionally celebrates her influences. “Islands” suggests Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” not only because of the lovely Hawaiian slide guitar, but also Marshall’s reverb-rich vocals and the lyric’s straightforward story and language. “Love & Communication” resembles what Neil Young’s collaboration with Booker T. & The MGs might have sounded like had both sides been in their prime.

Other tracks fit in with her personal style. “Willie” is a stroll constructed on stark piano chords, but strengthened by a head-butting bass and some jazz horn flourishes. Similarly, “Lived In Bars” is piano-based, but while “Willie” is a kind of love song that you can play at a party’s height, “Lived In Bars” calls the evening to end. The lyrics are cryptic but there’s a clear severing with the past that is convincingly voiced by Marshall.

Cat Power has broken her own previous pattern and established with “The Greatest” a monument to how she’s bridged the disconnect that had existed between her singing and songwriting. It’s an achievement that, record by record, seemed as if it might never come. But, it’s here now.

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Mastodon “Blood Mountain”

With the world’s finest metal band, the Queens of the Stone Age, ensconced in the studio for much of this year, the stage was set for a new act to step forward and claim headbangers’ empty throne.


Two factors separate Mastodon from the pretenders. First, there’s the band’s approach to music making. While most groups are on a search for the best, skull-crushing riffs, Mastodon approaches their songs like they are constructing the Pyramids or the Hoover Dam. Their songs are deftly arranged with a prog-rock master’s love of detail, but anchored by the tonnage of leaden guitars, bass-delivered body blows and hyper-active drumming.

Secondly, the group has mastered a musical approach that deftly sublimates various metal schools of thought into their compositions, paying tribute to bands as diverse as Slayer, Prong, Motorhead, Rush, Black Sabbath and Metallica all in the same song. There’s also the silly lyrical references to ogres and barbarian battles that harkens back to Led Zeppelin and Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow.

As belabored as they are, the epic songs on “Blood Mountain” don’t have the swift, blunt force of Wolfmother’s creations. However, these cuts are an entirely original fusion and few metal records are as consistently powerful but not mind-numbing as “Blood Mountain.”

The tracks are mini-operas of thunderous sound. “Siberian Divide” is an odyssey through alternating musical terrain. Tender, intertwining guitars are abruptly overwhelmed by gymnastic riffing and bassist Troy Sanders’ raspy groan, but then deposited back where the song started and the pattern repeats itself. Similarly, the instrumental “Bladecatcher” starts with classical-sounding acoustic guitars complementing each other before exploding into a Motorhead-themed maelstrom and then more flashy, melodic fretwork.

The album’s high point, “Colony Of Birchmen,” is a concussive rocker of guttural singing and Megadeth-like riffing whose chorus builds and builds into a blurred solo that suggests Randy Rhoads as well as Stevie Ray Vaughn. The song was nominated for a Grammy for Best Heavy Metal Performance and even features a guest vocal appearance by Queens of the Stone Age chief Josh Homme.

There is no greater recommendation than that. Even the old ruler is paying homage to metal’s new kings. Long may they reign.

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Ray LaMontagne “Till The Sun Turns Black”

Every one of these kinds of lists has its controversial choices. Call it a guilty pleasure or chalk it up to your inner sucker overtaking your snobby impulses, but there are some albums you love when everyone else tells you not to. Some people like Coldplay. I like “Till The Sun Turns Black.”

This record, the second by ’70s singer-songwriter throwback Ray LaMontagne, hasn’t received many bad reviews. Rather, the critical response has been mostly snide as many take shots at his penning ever more introspective songs in a genre that has thoroughly been explored by more formidable songwriters.

Who cares if he’s yet another acoustic guitar strummer with a harmonica rack shackled around his neck? With songs as airy, epic and compelling as “Empty,” “Be Here Now” or the title track, only the most hardened dogmatists would turn their back on LaMontagne. He cleverly employs musical motifs that first appeared on Nick Drake’s records or Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks,” but this doesn’t take away from his gift for unique, spare melodies and the convincingness implied in his husky tenor. You might think you’ve heard these stories of woe before, but LaMontagne is a talented salesman.

His skills culminate in the record’s emotional epicenter, “Lesson Learned.” The song is an excruciating retelling of a man’s confession of infidelity and has several lyrical highlights, such as “You always said I was an actor, baby/Guess in truth you thought me just amateur.” A soulful Spanish guitar graces between LaMontagne’s mumbled singing and conjures the appropriate sense of melancholy to fit the track.

Beyond good salesmanship, however, what makes “Till The Sun Turns Black” a better record than LaMontagne’s noteworthy debut are his efforts to branch out from his “folkie with an acoustic guitar” routine. “Three More Days” is Type-A road song, but is enlivened with Ray Charles electric piano and country Telecaster picking. The mandolin plucking and low-intensity horn flourishes on “Gone Away From Me” suggest a Cuban folk music influence. Horns and a flute punctuate “You Can Bring Me Flowers,” which is an explicit, hepcat homage to the ’40s and ’50s jazz era.

La Montagne might champion a return to rock’s most self-centered age and create songs that worm their way into any sad sack’s dribbling heart, but he wouldn’t be as embarrassing a favorite if his songs weren’t so extraordinary. OK, I confess; I’m an old softie too and cynics be damned.

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This year’s honorable mentions, in no particular order, include:

  • The Secret Machines “Ten Silver Drops”
  • The Decemberists “The Crane Wife”
  • Arctic Monkeys “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not”
  • Wolfmother “Wolfmother”
  • Neko Case “Fox Confessor Brings The Flood”
  • Snow Patrol “Eyes Open”
  • Comets On Fire “Avatar”
  • The Melvins “A Senile Animal”
  • Band Of Horses “Everything All The Time”
  • Keane “Under The Iron Sea”
  • Mickey Avalon “Mickey Avalon”
  • CSS “Cansei De Ser Sexy”

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2006 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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