10 Jewel Case Treasures of 2006
Woe be unto the pop music critic who doesn't stay on top of his mailbox. The music industry may be in a slump, but more artists than ever are trying to be heard. So it seemed this year, when several thousand albums came my way.
Here are the top 10:
1. Dixie Chicks, "Taking the Long Way"
» AUDIO CLIP: "Not Ready to Make Nice"
Forget, for a moment, about the controversy that enveloped the Dixie Chicks after lead singer Natalie Maines popped off about President Bush in 2003. Forget the backlash, the evaporating airplay, the protests, Toby Keith, the death threats, the naked magazine cover, the politics -- all of it. Put down the baggage and pick up the Texas trio's latest album and revel in the rich melodies, the soaring harmonies, the sharp writing and gorgeous instrumentation and sense of soul. It's a tuneful tour de force, a triumph of pop songcraft that's a little bit country, a little bit more soft-rock-and-roll. Of course, it's impossible to forget about the back story, because the Chicks won't let you. While this isn't an album-length diatribe, the Chicks aren't biting their tongues, either: They're downright defiant in "Not Ready to Make Nice," one of the great singles of 2006. So they're not exactly contrite and conciliatory. Isn't being great good enough?
2. Johnny Cash , "American V: A Hundred Highways"
» AUDIO CLIP: "God's Gonna Cut You Down"
The country icon knew he wasn't long for this world while he was recording this album, and it shows: The elegiac song cycle is the extraordinary sound of a man preparing to die. But it's hardly a morbid, funereal affair. Instead, it's a stunning farewell from a man who is at peace with the inevitability that's hovering over him. (Cash died in 2003, at the age of 71; the album was completed posthumously, with producer Rick Rubin overseeing the instrumental overdubs.) The singer even brings a touch of humor to his own wake, in the last song he wrote, "Like the 309." Short of breath, his booming baritone reduced to a fragile whisper, he playfully notes that "asthma's coming down like the 309" before exhaling loudly. The vocal degradation brings extra intimacy and naked emotion to the source material, and the result is arresting. O death!
3. Solomon Burke , "Nashville"
» AUDIO CLIP: "Up to the Mountain"
In R&B, there are singers, and then there are sang ers. The great ones. The legends. Burke is a sanger, blessed with an explosive, elastic baritone and the innate ability to completely inhabit a song. The old soul man's voice has grown rough around the edges, but the extra grit serves him well on this exquisite set of country covers. That's especially true on the more plaintive material, from devastating readings of Don Williams's lachrymose "Atta Way to Go" and Tom T. Hall's heart-sore "That's How I Got to Memphis" to a transcendent duet with Patty Griffin on her heavenly song "Up to the Mountain." The album co-stars a luminous cast of country and Americana artists (Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Sam Bush, Al Perkins), but producer Buddy Miller smartly shows enough restraint to let Burke's weather-beaten voice shine.
4. Josh Ritter , "The Animal Years"
» AUDIO CLIP: "Thin Blue Flame"
Ritter is a preternaturally gifted singer-songwriter whose work echoes the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Mike Scott and Townes Van Zandt. It's dangerous, and potentially even damaging, to liken a young artist to so many greats, but Ritter wears the comparisons well: "The Animal Years" is a confident, serious and sophisticated set of majestic, deeply meaningful songs that match literate lyrics with ambitious arrangements. Ritter sings about love, spirituality, emotional confusion and a sense of rootlessness, and he also riffs on conflict: The album's centerpieces are its antiwar songs, "Thin Blue Flame" and "Girl in the War." This is a creative masterstroke from one of the new breed's brightest lights.
5. Clipse, "Hell Hath No Fury"
» AUDIO CLIP: "Mr. Me Too"
The Virginia Beach brothers Pusha T and Malice make morally bankrupt music -- stark, punishing rap songs about selling cocaine. But they do so with an incredible creative flourish, their lyrics clever and colorful even as they exude an unsettling sense of calculated cool: "The Black Martha Stewart / Let me show you how to do it / Break pies to pieces / Make cocaine quiches." Their clipped flows are framed by the bleak, blistering music of the Neptunes, whose coldblooded beats and bleats are a perfect match for the decidedly unrepentant rappers. While the final package is completely amoral, it's also compelling art from two of hip-hop's most inventive wordsmiths.
6 . Bob Dylan, "Modern Times"
» AUDIO CLIP: "When the Deal Goes Down"
The old rock poet ruminates on regret, faith, romance, chaos, morality and mortality -- not necessarily in that order, and not always in the most direct way possible. But, then, it wouldn't be a Bob Dylan disc if it offered more epiphanies than enigmatic moments, would it? The album is introspective and brooding, and it's also wickedly funny in spots: "I wanna be with you in paradise / And it seems so unfair / I can't go to paradise no more / I killed a man back there." The music, modest and low-key, serves Dylan's ragged voice well. Yet the profound lyrics are the real draw. Turns out that Dylan can still turn a phrase with the best of them -- which is to say, himself.
7. Arctic Monkeys , "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not"
» AUDIO CLIP: "I Bet You Look Good On the Dance Floor"
Remember all that breathless buzz that accompanied the Monkeys' arrival? Well, believe the hype: The British post-punk band's debut is outstanding, a frenetic rush to the head. Principally about being a young man in northern England, the disc is full of sharp hooks, angular riffs, manic rhythms and witty lyrics bleated by a cocksure, charismatic young singer in Alex Turner. It's a thrilling record, even if you can't always understand what exactly Turner is singing about in that distinctively British voice. Whatever. It's brash and it's boisterous, and it crackles with unbridled adolescent energy and attitude.
8. The Coup , "Pick a Bigger Weapon"
» AUDIO CLIP: "My Favorite Mutiny"
The Coup makes insurgency sound like a party by matching synth-funk jams and swirling psychedelic soul with Boots Riley's clever, anarchistic wordplay. A satirical, seditious rapper, Riley is a fighter and a lover, having proved that a call to arms can coexist with booty calls. He hurls poetic Molotov cocktails at the usual suspects (capitalist pigs, President Bush, the CIA); but he also spikes this Marxist manifesto with lusty lyrics. "I'm a walking contradiction, like bullets and love mixing," he raps. The end result: Songs such as "Baby Let's Have a Baby Before Bush Do Something Crazy." Pillow-talkin' about a revolution, indeed.
9. Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins, "Rabbit Fur Coat"
» AUDIO CLIP: "The Big Guns"
Lewis is considered indie-rock royalty for her roles in Rilo Kiley and Postal Service, but she transformed herself into something else entirely here: a beguiling country-soul chanteuse. Gospelly, deliciously twangy and even a little bit torchy, the album is loaded with conversational, bittersweet songs that echo Loretta Lynn, Laura Nyro and Patsy Cline. The evocative tracks have a certain intimacy that Rilo Kiley's songs often lack, as Lewis sings of heartbreak, spirituality and family dysfunction in a crystalline alto. Though the co-billed Watson sisters provide harmony vocals, this is very much a solo album: Lewis plays guitar, sings lead and wrote all of the songs, save for a Traveling Wilburys cover. All hail the new queen of rapture.
10. Joseph Arthur, "Nuclear Daydream"
» AUDIO CLIP: "Black Lexus"
It doesn't take Arthur long to set the album's dark, aching tone, as the first couplet to come spilling out of the singer's mouth is both blunt and bleak: "The needle says she'll tell you when she's through / No sense now in trying to believe in you." Arthur specializes in woozy, richly textured tales of heartbreak and loss that suggest David Bowie or maybe Michael Stipe singing Elliott Smith songs with dreamier, more atmospheric production. It's an intoxicating, even addictive combination.
Honorable mentions: John Legend, "Once Again"; Be Your Own Pet, "Be Your Own Pet"; Sarah Harmer, "I'm a Mountain"; Alan Jackson, "Like Red on a Rose"; The Hold Steady, "Boys and Girls in America"; My Chemical Romance, "The Black Parade"; Candi Staton, "His Hands"; Ghostface Killah, "Fishscale"; Scritti Politti, "White Bread Black Beer"; Band of Horses, "Everything All the Time."