The Best of 2006: Music

Friday, December 29, 2006


1. Arctic Monkeys, "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not." Young frontman Alex Turner is to his generation of Brit lads what Ray Davies and Pete Townshend were to theirs in the '60s: an exuberant, astute articulator of youthful energy and anxiety, as the group's March 27 show at the 9:30 club confirmed.

2. Corinne Bailey Rae, "Corinne Bailey Rae." Another bright debut, with Rae's neo-soul 'n' folk vocals offering mesmerizing meditations on love's ache and awe, with good-company echoes of Billie Holiday, Erykah Badu and Norah Jones and a thoroughly charming presentation at the Birchmere on Aug. 20.

3. Wolfmother, "Wolfmother." A thundering fun house retro blend of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath (with dashes of Jimi Hendrix and Deep Purple). The young Australian power trio serves loud, heavy, delightfully unrepentant blues-based rock.

4. Gnarls Barkley, "Crazy." The song and the single of 2006 sounded timeless from the moment it appeared. A deep soul classic featuring Danger Mouse's visionary production and Cee-Lo Green's ecstatic/anguished vocals.

5. AC/DC's "Back in Black" meets Audrey Hepburn. When the fashion and style icon did her bohemian nightclub dance in Stanley Donen's 1957 film "Funny Face," who'd have guessed that, nearly 50 years later, it would mash up perfectly with an AC/DC song and a Gap campaign for skinny black pants for the coolest commercial on television?

6. The return of T Bone Burnett, at the 9:30 club, May 30. His first concert tour in 20 years to support "The True False Identity," his first album since 1992. Burnett's songs were smart, political, moral, intense, challenging, uplifting and sometimes downright scary. Bonus release: "Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett," a two-disc, three-decade, 40-song retrospective.

7. Sorry, the autumn of WHOSE years? After a mighty good 2005, Bob Dylan continued the streak with "Modern Times," chock-full of thoughtful, haunted, beautifully crafted roots-inspired originals and the most intriguing show on satellite radio (XM's "Theme Time Radio Hour").

8. The greatest repository of ready-to-share, fan-based pop music history, providing often rare visual and audio witness to the wacky, the weird, the wonderful and the gloriously imperfect -- as well as the thoroughly embarrassing and absurd. Get it while it lasts -- the lawyers are getting ready to take the wind out of this sail.

9. My Morning Jacket. The Louisville rock quintet managed a double dose of magic with "Okonokos": It was one of the best concert recordings in years, as well as a mesmerizing concert film and DVD that confirmed MMJ as one of the great live bands working today. Ironically, the band's late November shows at the 9:30 club had a hard time living up to the high standards of "Okonokos."

10. Tori Amos. The quirky Rockville-bred singer-songwriter got audio and video retrospectives from Rhino. "A Piano: The Collection," packaged in a plastic keyboard, gathers 86 tracks on five discs, including a wealth of rarities, while "Fade to Red," a two-disc DVD, is an almost complete collection of 19 amazing, sometimes disturbing Amos videos, with Amos proving both charming and loopy on the commentary track.


1. Mastodon, "Blood Mountain." Heavy and aggressive, this album finds the Atlanta metal quartet at its finest: dizzying, chaotic and pummeling through some of the year's most frenzied melodies.

2. Low and Death Vessel at the Black Cat, Feb. 4. Low's performance of Neil Young's "Down by the River" was breathtaking, but the Minnesota trio was almost upstaged by opener Death Vessel's captivating croon of "Break in the Empress Crown."

3. Josh Ritter, "Girl in the War." No one really needs another opinion about the war, but Ritter finds a way to make his chilling take relevant in this song, framed as a conversation between Peter and Paul.

4. Billy Bragg reissues. There's much to rediscover among these eight albums, reissued with bonus tracks and live footage. Bragg's feisty political rants and working-class struggles still seem fresh after two decades, and it's easy to get lost in his exuberant bellow, "There is power in a union!"

5. Colin Meloy at the Birchmere, Jan. 28. Meloy has such a knack for stripping down the Decemberists' lush orchestrations into heartbreaking solo numbers. The great relief of 2006: The Decemberists' move to a major label wasn't the sellout it could have been.

6. The Mountain Goats, "Woke Up New.""Get Lonely" is a whole collection of devastating breakup songs, but nowhere does John Darnielle sound more vulnerable than on this track. His voice quivers perpetually on the verge of tears, and his loneliness intensifies on his closing, chilling "What do I do / Without you?"

7. Old-school rockers. With Sonic Youth, Mission of Burma and Yo La Tengo each releasing solid albums this year, it's easy to see that some things really do get better with age.

8. Isis & Aereogramme, "In the Fishtank 14." Konkurrent's "Fishtank" series is full of surprises, and this edition is no different: Boston metal band Isis and Scottish indie rockers Aereogramme make strange bedfellows, but their collaboration is stunning, particularly the hypnotic 10-minute "Low Tide."

9. Tower Records, R.I.P. We all scored a lot of great deals during its going-out-of-business sales, but this overpriced, overbearing chain was long overdue for its play date with the dodo.

10. Pitchfork Music Festival, Chicago, July 29-30. This festival had it all: a killer lineup, affordable tickets and reasonably priced food and water. I'm surely a bit biased (my name's on the masthead), but it's great that music's indiest webzine still lives by the DIY spirit.


1. Gnarls Barkley had the song of the year with "Crazy." Between Danger Mouse's skillful sound creation and Cee-Lo Green's haunting vocals, no song better captured the zeitgeist or your ears than this one. And it instantly created a cottage industry of covers by such artists as Nelly Furtado and Ray LaMontagne.

2. Rhymefest's "Blue Collar." On the most soulful rap CD in a long time, Rhymefest, who co-wrote Kanye West's "Jesus Walks," delivers punch lines and punch-hard put-downs with a voice that's authentic and charismatic. Plus, you get to hear O.D.B. sing "Build Me Up, Buttercup."

3. Shelby Lynne at the Birchmere, Oct. 1. In an intimate show, Lynne's smoky voice was as mesmerizing as ever, singing songs ranging from candid vulnerability to cool control. She even hung around afterward to meet fans and was charming and amiable.

4. Johnny Cash's "God's Gonna Cut You Down" video features the legend's voice on one of his last recorded songs as a parade of famous folks -- from Chris Rock to Brian Wilson, Sheryl Crow to Patti Smith, Justin Timberlake to Iggy Pop, and many more -- rolls by in moody black-and-white as both tribute to Cash and reminder to all that even they'll be cut down.

5. Timbaland. His quirky percussive touch and stuttering beats were all over the radio, usually on songs that had you turning up the volume -- Nelly Furtado's "Promiscuous," Justin Timberlake's "Sexyback" and "My Love," and Pussycat Dolls' "Wait a Minute" being prime examples.

6. Dangerous Orange, "Hurts Like Teen Spirit." This mash-up combines Johnny Cash's "Hurt" with Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and leavens it with a dash of Blue Oyster Cult and a pinch of New Order. What on paper seems like a train wreck is nothing short of addictive in your ear.

7. Dixie Chicks. The trio had several quality moments, including its defiant "Not Ready to Make Nice" single and the intriguing "Shut Up & Sing" documentary. But best of all was the way the Dixie Chicks appeared onstage at some of their live shows to the strains of "Hail to the Chief."

8. Lupe Fiasco's "Food & Liquor." If you're the sort who still listens to De La Soul's classic 1989 release "3 Feet High and Rising," you'll be listening to Lupe Fiasco's smartly crafted rhymes 10 years from now.

9. The Coup, "Pick a Bigger Weapon." This Oakland, Calif.-based act mixes revolutionary politics, humor and sweet beats. Smart and catchy, a rare double. Plus, it has the song title of the year, "Babyletshaveababybeforebushdosomethingcrazy."

10. OK Go, "Here It Goes Again" video on YouTube. Silly but great for wasting time at the office. And the live performance on MTV's Video Music Awards had us watching with oddly nervous concern.


1. OOIOO, "Taiga." Fewer Japanese art-noise bands played in Washington this year than in '05, but this all-female quartet -- led by Boredoms veteran Yoshimi P-We -- compensated with its best collection yet of avant-primitive beats, pulses and chants.

2. Arctic Monkeys, "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not" and at the 9:30 club March 27. A rare U.K. buzz band that justified the hype, this quartet is as notable for its run-on lyrics as for its laconic guitars.

3. Art Brut, "Bang Bang Rock & Roll" and at the Black Cat on April 9. This band of Brit wits released an album that could have been condensed into a perfect EP, but the group triumphed at the Black Cat by disregarding its raison d'etre: the cheeky lyrics.

4. The Evens, "Get Evens" and around town. This folk-punk duo's (Ian MacKaye and Amy Farina) rougher-edged second album serves eviction notices to certain unnamed "liars," vowing that "Washington is our city!"

5. Salif Keita, "M'Bemba." The great Malian singer continues his retreat from Western timbres, matching his rich voice to traditional instruments, but this time the result is livelier and more rhythmically complex than in past efforts.

6. Konono No. 1 at the Black Cat, July 21. The air conditioning went out, but this Congolese band's chiming electro-trance groove went on.

7. Scritti Politti, "White Bread Black Beer" and at Sonar on Nov. 8. The album is a lovely fusion of Green Gartside's musical interests, from punk to hip-hop to "Pet Sounds," delivered with an unprecedented sweetness. The first U.S. tour of the band's off-and-on 26-year career was equally impressive, even if it was shunted to Baltimore (where much of the small turnout was from Washington).

8. New York Dolls, "One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This." The original sense of abandon hasn't been entirely recouped, but the melodies are strong and the lyrics as pointed as ever, yielding the year's best secular-humanist broadside, "Dance Like a Monkey."

9. Spoils of NW, "Seeing Things" and around town. This local quartet plays brash neo-garage rock, sweetened with pop harmonies and deepened with a sense of loss that would make no sense to a '60s garage band.

10. Tom Verlaine, "Songs and Other Things" and at the 9:30 club May 15. On the album, many of the songs spiral from earthy to celestial while keeping a noisy sense of play; onstage, they all did.


1. Dave Holland Quintet, "Critical Mass." Despite a shift in lineup, the bassist's cunning ensemble, with its unlikely instrumentation and signature interplay, is in finely tuned shape, exploring a typically intriguing collection of tunes.

2. Trio Beyond, "Saudades." This was Jack DeJohnette's idea to salute his late friend, fellow drummer Tony Williams. The result, a jazz-fusion-fueled, double-CD concert recording featuring guitarist John Scofield and organist Larry Goldings, burns soulful and bright.

3. Andrew Hill, "Time Lines." Though it was released early in the year, few jazz recordings had more staying power than this wonderfully inventive session by the veteran pianist and his inspired bandmates, including saxophonist Greg Tardy and trumpeter Charles Tolliver.

4. Jane Bunnett, "Radio Guantánamo: Guantánamo Blues Project, Vol. 1." A potent mix of jazz and Cuban changui "blues," buoyed by the presence of several guests, this spirited CD aims to move listeners in more ways than one -- and never misses.

5. Mavis Staples at the second annual Duke Ellington Jazz Festival. In early October, Staples shook the Lincoln Theatre and everyone in it when she joined guitarist John Scofield's band and robustly capped a Ray Charles tribute.

6. John Coltrane, "Fearless Leader." Containing chronologically arranged recordings spanning 1957 to 1965, this indispensable six-CD collection is the first of three proposed box sets surveying Coltrane's Prestige output, and, if you have to choose, it's the one to get.

7. Bob Dylan, "Theme Time Radio Hour." With its deadpan assortment of curious anecdotes, bad jokes and vinyl treasures, this XM Radio broadcast is entertaining enough to smooth out any commute.

8. Buddy Guy, "Can't Quit the Blues," and John Lee Hooker, "Hooker." Box sets that do justice to two blues greats, each with a long and tangled multi-label history.

9. Chuck Berry, "Hail! Hail! Rock 'N' Roll." As enjoyable as the concert footage is, what distinguishes this four-volume "Ultimate Collector's Edition" DVD is a previously unseen trove of rehearsal outtakes and interviews with Berry, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Jerry Lee Lewis, among many others.

10. The Fretboard Journal. Kudos for its first full year of publication. A more handsomely produced and photographically appealing magazine devoted to exquisite and mostly handcrafted instruments won't be surfacing anytime soon.


1. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, April 28-30 and May 5-7. The first Jazz Fest after Hurricane Katrina challenged musicians to articulate all the pain, anger and hope stemming from the failure of several levees and governments. Famous visitors (Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello) and lesser-known Gulf Coasters (John Boutté, Bobby Lounge, Allen Toussaint, Snooks Eaglin, Susan Cowsill and the Pine Leaf Boys) responded with some of the best performances of their lives. Working together, Costello and Toussaint transferred that spirit to a CD ("The River in Reverse") and a DVD ("Hot as a Pistol, Keen as a Blade").

2. Drive-By Truckers, "A Blessing & a Curse." What good is it to be the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band if the world at large doesn't care? The DBTs contemplate that and other dilemmas of adulthood on this bleak, brilliant album.

3. Kenny Garrett and Pharoah Sanders, "Beyond the Wall." Garrett, the young alto saxophonist, joined his hero and elder, tenor saxophonist Sanders, for the year's best jazz album and for a terrific show at Blues Alley on Sept. 17.

4. The True Believers Alumni Association. Two of the year's best rock 'n' roll albums came from former bandmates in the Austin roots-punk band, the True Believers. Alejandro Escovedo's "The Boxing Mirror" was good, but Jon Dee Graham's "Full" was even better.

5. Anthony Hamilton live. The best R&B singer-songwriter of the current decade, a cross between Curtis Mayfield and Bill Withers, supported his latest album, "Ain't Nobody Worryin'," with stunning shows at the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin on March 16 and at Baltimore's Lyric Opera House on May 10.

6. Gnarls Barkley, "St. Elsewhere." Producer Danger Mouse got most of the credit for the irresistible blend of pop and hip-hop on "St. Elsewhere," but the soulful vocals of Goodie Mob's Cee-Lo Green gave the hooky songs heart as well as smarts.

7. Bill Frisell at Lisner Auditorium, Nov. 16. The jazz guitarist released a terrific trio album, "Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian," but was even more impressive when he brought his eight-piece, horns-and-strings Unspeakable Orchestra to Lisner.

8. Don Rigsby, "Hillbilly Heartache." The year's best country singing could be heard on the new album from this Kentucky mandolinist, still underrated even in his own bluegrass circles.

9. Los Lobos, "The Town and the City." Immigration was in the news all year, but no commentators were more perceptive or more articulate than these five East Los Angeles musicians on this album.

10. The SFJazz Collective , "SFJazz Collective 2." This octet, led by Joshua Redman and sponsored by the San Francisco Jazz Festival, is a rarity among jazz bands today: a well-rehearsed, large combo that moves surely from notation to improvisation, from solos and duets to trios and ensembles. The group proved it with this album and an exciting show at the Music Center at Strathmore on March 22. ยท

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