On the musical front, 2006 had a tough act to follow. The previous year produced some of the most creative and unique records to come our way in a long time. It’s almost unfair to compare the two, since bands that made their mark in 2005 were spending most of 2006 taking victory laps and soaking up accolades. This past year wasn’t terrible by any stretch of the imagination, but it wasn’t quite as good as the one preceding it. What can you do? It was what it was, just fine on its own.

That said, here are my 10 favorite albums of the past year:

10. TV on the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain

Aliens from Brooklyn get their hands on all kinds of toys and create music unlike anything else out there. David Bowie’s new favorite band builds on the foundation established with its previous album, and though the record could use another hook or two, there seems to be no limit to TV on the Radio’s astounding creative capacity.

9. The Raconteurs – Broken Boy Soldiers

Is this album legendary? Absolutely not. Not in the least. But it accomplishes two things: First, it reassures everyone wary of Jack White going Orson Welles on us that he is first and foremost a rocker, be it with Meg in the White Stripes or his buddies in a traditional and, most important, democratic four-piece. Second, this album gives the band plenty of ammunition for its live shows, where these tunes really shine.

8. Gnarls Barkley – St. Elsewhere

Danger Mouse is an artist who has never been short on ideas. Cee-Lo is a rapper who has never aimed for soul or flow. Put the two together, and you have one of the more strangely entertaining albums to come our way in a while. We all know how big “Crazy” ended up being, but an eclectic deejay and a crunk rapper combining with a full band to cover the Violent Femmes? That’s something truly remarkable.

7. Islands – Return to the Sea

All hail the rise of the pop collective! Building on the success of predecessors Broken Social Scene and Architecture in Helsinki, Islands debuts with its own take on 21st-century symphonic indie pop. The compositions are extraordinary, but the lyrical wordplay (a highlight: the contemplation of modern man’s possible origins in bestiality over sugary keyboard tinkling) puts the band in a class by itself.

6. Dirty Pretty Things – Waterloo to Anywhere

Carl Barat and Pete Doherty made beautiful, seminal music together as the Libertines. Personal issues forced a divorce, and each released his new band’s material in 2006. It’s now clear what each brought to their former band: Doherty had the ramshackle (some would say drug-addled) creative energy and attitude, while Barat had the songcraft and hooks. These shine here on Waterloo, as enjoyable a rock album as you’re going to hear.

5. Wolfmother – Wolfmother

The howling dogs of rock and roll are alive and well. Those clamoring for a return to basic, hard-charging, ass-kicking rock with just the subtlest hint of pretension found their men. From the album’s opening shriek to its final jam, the Aussie power trio brought the ruckus in a big way, providing a welcome return to rock’s ham-fisted roots.

4. Arctic Monkeys – Whatever You Say I Am, That is What I’m Not

These 20-year-old Britons, influenced by everything from the Beatles to the Libertines, came out of nowhere to create their own unique brew, heavy on energy, light on pomp. The songs cleverly detail otherwise unremarkable coming-of-age situations over music that channels the youthful exuberance of a disheveled, underage, fake I.D.-fueled night on the town, complete with requisite adrenalin and anxiety. Sure, they were overexposed by year’s end, but for very good reason.

3. Bob Dylan – Modern Times

The Man returned in 2006, furthering his movement to rootsy Americana started with 2001’s Love and Theft. His words are as insightful and revelatory as any in his oeuvre, but that wouldn’t mean much if the songs didn’t hold up. Rest assured, his backing band keeps things lively, and this elder statesman of American music has found yet another niche in the popular consciousness. What’s more, he seems quite comfortable where he’s at.

2. Cat Power – The Greatest

Cat Power (nee Chan Marshall), in a bold move, abandoned her previous indie minimalism, hooking up with a legendary Memphis R&B band to produce perhaps the most delightful, relaxed, and heartbreaking album of the year. A timeless sound complements Marshall’s lyrics of hard-won love and redemption. Think Dusty in Memphis and you’re halfway there, though Cat Power’s style is solely her own. Not quite the greatest album of 2006, but damn close. We might be on the verge of something big here.

1. M. Ward – Post-War

On the top of the list is an album that doesn’t do anything you’ve never heard before but takes something you feel inside and gives it room to live and breathe. M. Ward’s album speaks of a world where earnestness and depth of feeling triumph over cynicism and irony, where confusion is a necessary path to wisdom and the road is long but worth the trouble. The songs, particularly “Chinese Translation,” are beautiful in and of themselves, but listening to the album as a whole gets you where you need it to. Sail a wild, wild sea, climb a tall, tall mountain, and you won’t find a purer voice in music today.

Shout-Out To A Legend Who Can’t Sit Back And Not Say Anything:
Neil Young, Living with War
An artist of Neil Young’s stature and esteem didn’t need to make this album, a vitriolic testament to his belief that something is dreadfully wrong with American policy in the world today and needs immediate satisfaction before we all burn in hell. He did anyway, choosing to stand up and shout rather than sit back and collect royalty checks. Among the last of a dying breed, it’s comforting to know he’s out there, fighting the good fight, staving off irrelevance with the strength of his own moral conviction.

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