UPDATE: The entire list is now posted here.
This one stubborn friend keeps telling me that 2006 was an under-achieving year for music. And I keep telling him that he's terribly mistaken. We go back and forth like this for a good while. It's really a fascinating conversation. No, not at all actually. But consider this my final argument: the list speaks for itself. I don't make this shit up, I just report it. Personally, I can't find a weak link in the bunch. In fact, I have expanded this year's best album list up to 25 from last year's top 10. So if anything, I've found more to love this year than last.
The albums: 25 - 1
25. Tom Waits - Orphans
Technicalities might normally keep this 3-disc compilation of both new and old material from qualifying on this sort of list, but Tom Waits gets a pass. The Brawlers disc alone is worthy of a ranking. The man and his music are from another time, place and world. All I ask is that he visit my world once. Please, Tom. You're high on my list of dream concerts to see before I die.
24. Beirut - Gulag Orkestar
I first heard of Beirut early this year from the always enthusiastic blogging community who have become the online equivalent of the British press. So the hype was there. Luckily, there was substance behind it. There's no denying the unique talent of Zach Condon's debut album of Eastern European orchestra pop. This 19-year-old has created a mini-masterpiece that isn't quite Neutral Milk Hotel, but since they aren't making music anymore, and since The Decemberists are overrated, Beirut will fit the bill for me.
23. Sparklehorse - Dreamt for Light Years In The Belly Of A Mountain
Linkous basically picks up right where he left us some 5 or so years ago with his last album. And there's nothing wrong with that. There's even a track or two on this disc dating back to It's A Wonderful Life's recording session. The most noticable change with Dreamt for Light Years is a more fast paced rhythm, that at times almost approaches rock 'n roll. Nah. This is an album meant for headphones, and not some ear-bud iPod action. I'm talking those huge high-fidelity headphones that are bigger than your head.
22. Mission of Burma - The Obliterati
There are some older gentlemen included on this list. But listen to Tom Waits, listen to Bob Dylan. They sound their age, they're acting their age. So what are we to make of MoB? In today's youth-centric music culture, there is no way we should be taking 50-year-olds seriously when they're acting like angst-ridden 20-year-olds. There's no way around it. Then again, listen to this album which is blistering with post-punk fury in ways that the younger crowd can only imitate. They kick the ass out of any Franz Ferdinand or Interpol in the circuit. Burma was already legendary before The Obliterati but I'll admit that this disc was my first encounter with their music. I'm late to the game, but better late than never.
21. Swan Lake - Beast Moans
This one took time to fully absorb. Didn't get to me on the first few listens. I put it away for a few weeks and came back to it to give it second chance, and it clicked. What at first sounded to me like a muddled mess became something much different. Something oddly beautiful. Carey Mercer's influence here is the star and although Spencer and Dan each have their characteristic songs, the Mercer/Frog Eyes trademark of beautiful, noisy chaos is prominent and reveals itself to be the creative force behind this excellent album.
20. Thom Yorke - The Eraser
Claustrophobic? Yes. A downer? Sure. Ripe full of Thom Yorke patented colloquialisms? Of course. But while Thom shouldn't consider quitting his day job, this unexpected solo effort is a powerful suite of electronic beats and melody led front and center by one of Thom's best ever vocal performances.
19. Belle & Sebastian - The Life Pursuit
Winning the award for catchiest album of the year, The Life Pursuit also represents a welcome return to form for Belle & Sebastian. Their sound has evolved well beyond the whimsical 60's pop found on the early classics. The new B&S are now more inclined to embrace influences from R&B, blues and glam rock. The result is an addictive combination of B&S pop and T. Rex boogie.
18. Bonnie "Prince" Billy - The Letting Go
I only discovered Will Oldham's amazing songwriting chops this year after stumbling upon his LP I See A Darkness. And while The Letting Go remains a far cry from that late-90s release, the new disc is nonetheless an accomplished piece of songwriting and harmony. The songwriting and instrumentation is perfection but for me, it's the beautiful dance of vocal harmony between Oldham and featured vocalist Dawn McCarthy that makes these songs so potent.
17. Cat Power - The Greatest
Chan Marshall has had one hell of a year. I won't go into the details except to say that The Greatest is the definitive statement that she's turned a corner. Backed by a band of Memphis all-stars, Chan has put together a haunting collection of sultry soul numbers. Better yet, all signs indicate that her live performances have embraced a surprising degree of soul as well.
16. Liars - Drum's Not Dead
The only album on the list without a single pop hook. A lack of melody is typically not something I would label as praise but in this case, it is somehow the best compliment I can give. In any case, for some reason I keep going back to this droning, tribal, drum-based concept album as if under hypnosis.
EDITORIAL NOTE: This list is taking me longer than I anticipated. Too many words, not enough list. I'll let the rest speak for itself, almost.
15. My Brightest Diamond - Bring Me The Workhorse
My Brightest Diamond came through town twice this year and I missed her each time. That means the only time I've seen Shara Worden live was as leader of an enthusiastic and musically-inclinded troupe of cheer leaders spouting factoids about the 50 states.
14. Islands - Return To The Sea
My own little revelation of 2006 is indebted to this band's former incarnation, The Unicorns. But Islands keeps up the pace nicely. If nothing else, it's cute to hear Canadians rap.
13. Grizzly Bear - Yellow House
Prog as folk.
12. Sunset Rubdown - Shut Up I Am Dreaming
Better than Wolf Parade? No, but damn close. And that fact, along with the inclusion of Swan Lake on this list, crowns Spencer Krug fuckin' king of the musical universe in 2006.
11. Junior Boys - So This Is Goodbye
Genre alert: Soft adult contemporary is oh so cool again.
10. Xiu Xiu - The Air Force
Let's face it. This is as accessible as this band is likely to get. Enjoy it.
9. Sonic Youth - Rather Ripped
They began as noise rock with a pop sensibility. Over twenty years later with Rather Ripped Sonic Youth is an unabashed pop band with just a hint of that noise hangin' around in the background to make 'em still cool. Hey, it works.
8. Magnolia Electric Co. - Fading Trails
Great album but to be honest, I first became obsessed with Jason Molina's music upon discovering the final Songs:Ohia disc, coincidentally titled Magnolia Electric Co.
7. Destroyer - Destroyer's Rubies
Dan Bejar has become one of the most accomplished songwriters of our time. Don't you just love sentences like that? It's so frustratingly generic and exaggerated that there's no way you can argue with me. I win.
6. The Knife - Silent Shout
I prefer to pronouce their name phonetically.
5. The Hold Steady - Boys And Girls In America
My wife is seriously annoyed by these guys. I am not.
4. Bob Dylan - Modern Times
Lately, he can do no wrong. Point of fact: this record.
3. Joanna Newsom - Ys
Here's a formula for you aspiring rock stars out there...
Jim O'Rourke + Steve Albini + Van Dyke Parks x A one-of-a-kind harpist/lyricist = Epic.
2. Neko Case - Fox Confessor Brings The Flood
That voice! But you should also be reminded that she's a truly talented songwriter. And of course, she's smokin' hot!
1. TV on the Radio - Return To Cookie Mountain
Told you so. Six months later it still socks me in the gut, blowing my mind today like it did the first time I heard it. Plain and simple: TVOTR delivered on the ridiculous expectations of Young Liars and Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes. No one else sounds like 'em and no one else can top 'em. This is their OK Computer. The scary part is that based on their live show (which I saw 3 times this year), they are getting better and better.