Top 25 Albums of 2006

This year has been a great year for me in terms of music. While I have gradually come to enter the indie scene with the help of college friends Tom Lundin and Luke Paradise, this year I think I have come into my own. For the first time, I kept up with the music scene throughout the year, tracking each new release as it came out and checking my thoughts against my most trusted site, Pitchfork Media. (See, especially, their own list of the Top 50 albums of 2006.) It has been a lot of fun, and listening to so much good music has helped a great deal in the midst of a tough academic semester.

The process 0f compiling a list of the top 25 albums of 2006 has been a painstaking but exciting process. The list itself has gone through so many revisions, even up to the final moments before posting, and I suspect I may change my mind about a few choices in the weeks to come. Before I get to the actual list, it is important that I explain a few things first:

(1) There is always a tension in every list between choosing what is the most accomplished versus what is the most enjoyable—between what deserves to win and what I want to win. I have tried to honor both sides of this tension, though only those albums which fall into both categories to some expect will appear on this list. Consequently ...

(2) You will notice that no rap albums appear on this list. For some, that is simply inexcusable. And to an extent, I would agree. Ghostface Killah, Clipse, and Lupe Fiasco put out three of the greatest rap/hip-hop albums of the decade, or rather of any decade. But my interest in that genre is still rather low, despite such excellent releases. That said, it may well be the case that with more listens to each of these and other artists, my tastes will broaden.

You will also notice that Bob Dylan’s 2006 release, Modern Times, is not on this list. Again, for some, this is inexcusable. I will be the first to admit that Bob Dylan is the greatest living songwriter and a 20th century American prophet. His music is rich and profound in ways that few artists can even begin to approach. Even so, I do not enjoy listening to his music as much as these other artists. He does not have a major appeal to me, despite his obvious greatness. Moreover, I do not find anything strikingly original in his releases, excellent as they may be. I will be the first to defend him against any detractors (as I have in the past on numerous occasions), but on my “Top Albums” lists, he does not appear. If it helps, think of him as being so far above the rest that he does not warrant being placed on the same level as other artists.

(3) There are a number of albums that I hope to listen to in the next several weeks which may demand changes to this list. Should that happen, I will post a revised list in the comments. These albums include but are not limited to the following: Tim Hecker, Harmony in Ultraviolet; Subtle, For hero: for fool; Beach House, Beach House; Annuals, Be He Me; Man Man, Six Demon Bag; and LCD Soundsystem, 45:33. Should you wish to grace me with any of these releases, I would greatly appreciate it.

(4) If you want any information on these artists and albums, I recommend checking out allmusic.com for all your music info needs. This saves me the trouble of putting in a bunch of links.

With that, here are my top 25 albums of 2006!


1. TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain

Almost exactly three years after releasing their exciting and auspicious debut, Young Liars, TV on the Radio have come out with their best and most polished album to date—not to mention the best album of the year. Return to Cookie Mountain bristles with infectious energy, starting right away with the hip-hop-influenced beat of “I Was a Lover” that grabs your attention and refuses to let go. The musical climax comes near the middle of the album with “Wolf Like Me,” and by the time we reach “Wash the Day,” one is left with the unshakable feeling that this is one of the great musical accomplishments of the still-young 21st century.

Best tracks: “Wolf Like Me,” “Hours”

2. Peter Bjorn and John, Writer’s Block

Writer’s Block is by one of Sweden’s indie rock stars and remains one of the most overlooked albums of the year. Peter Bjorn and John have crafted a beautiful and richly layered power pop album that has some of the catchiest melodies of the year. What makes this album great is not its surprising creativity but simply its consistently great pop music that pays great dividends with each new listen.

Best tracks: “Objects of My Affection,” “Young Folks,” “Up Against the Wall”

3. Girl Talk, Night Ripper

DJ Girl Talk (aka Gregg Gillis) of Pittsburgh is the King of DJs, and his 2006 album defies all categories and explodes every DJ stereotype. Night Ripper is a prodigious and dizzying potpourri of R&B, hip-hop, and pop-rock tracks from well over a hundred artists. Girl Talk virtually defines the genre of “mashup”—and then he does it so well that he almost seems to deserve his own category. Night Ripper is perhaps also the greatest dance club album of the year, second only to Spank Rock’s YoYoYoYoYo. Choosing a single track to highlight, though, is an impossible task, since the album is one seamless experience without breaking between tracks. So press play and get ready to dance.

Best tracks: “That’s My DJ,” “Hold Up”

4. Love Is All, Nine Times That Same Song

Few albums burst with more energy than Nine Times That Same Song, the debut LP release by Love Is All. The Swedish post-punk group are relentless in their irresistible exuberance. Every song is like a caffeine injection into the world of everyday indie rock, which seems utterly humdrum in comparison. But it’s not just their energy that captures people’s attention. Nine Times That Same Song is also beautiful and catchy, and with “Turn the Radio Off,” Love Is All have crafted one of the greatest ballads of the year. The bonus second disc has four extra singles which are of the same very high quality, making the two-disc release a 2006 must-have.

Best tracks: “Make Out Fall Out Make Up,” “Turn the Radio Off,” “Felt Tip,” “Ageing Had Never Been His Friend”

5. The Decemberists, The Crane Wife

The Decemberists are on the path toward becoming musical legends. Of their last three albums—Her Majesty, Picaresque, and now The Crane Wife—each has been better than the last, demonstrating a growing maturity in their songwriting and musical creativity. Their latest is the first on a major recording label, and it is also their most accomplished to date. Moreover, it is the most pop-inspired without losing of any its indie edge. The Decemberists have crafted a unique and recognizable sound, one that always feels fresh even while giving the listener the warm sensation of coming home.

Best Tracks: “O Valencia!,” “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then),” “The Crane Wife 3”

6. Liars, Drum’s Not Dead

Liars have made what is probably the most inaccessible album this year—which is quite a feat considering Ys. In Drum’s Not Dead, Liars sound like an artful combination of Animal Collective and Radiohead, except that they have rigorously rejected all the “normal” elements of melody and rhythm to create a truly unique sonic experiment and the most fully “conceptual” concept album. Liars have a pension for exploring abstract themes with seriousness and creativity, and here they present a struggle between two characters, Drum (representative of creativity, dynamism, and productivity) and Mt. Heart Attack (who embodies stress, stasis, and insecurity). While Liars may seem pompous and esoteric to many music listeners, there are very few artists working at the same level of musical genius. In the age of the single, Liars craft complete albums in which the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Best tracks: “Be Quiet Mt. Heart Attack,” “The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack”

7. Mew, And the Glass-Handed Kites

The Danish quartet Mew create sprawling space rock which defies classification. Their sound could be described as atmospheric dream pop, but however one defines them, what is quite clear is that Mew makes fantastic, gorgeous music. The glistening, sublime vocals transport listeners to a celestial location where guitar licks and harmonic symphonies are free to roam in a world of vertiginous heights and unexplored depths. Few bands create such vivid musical landscapes.

Best tracks: “The Zookeeper’s Boy,” “Chinaberry Tree”

8. Joanna Newsom, Ys

Yes, Joanna Newsom plays the harp. Yes, she is weird. Yes, her music is off-putting to the Billboard Top 100 listener. But Newsom is also one of the smartest, most talented songwriter/composers working today. Her 2004 debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, demonstrated great promise, and here in Ys that promise is realized in ways that are both ambitious and at the same time immensely listenable. The album has only five tracks that range from seven to over sixteen minutes and tells an epic story through well-crafted lyrics and beautiful orchestration (thanks to the legendary Van Dyke Parks). Newsom may be categorized as “freak folk,” but she remains its most endearing and winsome representative.

Best tracks: “Sawdust & Diamonds,” “Monkey & Bear”

9. Hot Chip, The Warning

All in all, 2006 was a great year for indie electronic music (though 2005 may be slightly better still). Hot Chip, Junior Boys, The Knife, and Herbert were all in top form, releasing the albums of their careers. The Knife were rightly praised and Junior Boys released one of the most consistently great albums all year, but Hot Chip’s The Warning shines through as an album that is both innovative and eminently enjoyable. The album overflows with creative energy and employs a rich and diverse palette of sounds that seems almost to exhaust every sonic possibility. Hot Chip sound like a mature Postal Service, and their electro-pop similarities are most evident in the track “Colours,” which would not have been out of place on Give Up (even with the vocals). For all that, Hot Chip remains a talented indie pop band producing their best music to date.

Best tracks: “And I Was a Boy from School,” “(Just Like We) Breakdown”

10. Mates of State, Bring It Back

Every person has a guilty pleasure, and this year mine was Bring It Back by Mates of State, a husband-wife duo whose music consists simply of a keyboard/synth and a drum kit. I cannot think of a more catchy pop album in my life. Granted, the musical talent on display here probably does not belong in the Top 10, but the sheer gratification I received from hearing this album (and I heard it a lot) forces me to place it among the best of the year. This album brims over with a romantic giddiness that pulls you in with its indie pop perfection. Each song could be a single, and if I could lodge a complaint, it would be that each song vies for my attention so strongly that I lose a sense of the album as a whole. But complaining about the warm, heartfelt, exuberant life exploding out of each song is really just a compliment to their incredible songwriting ability.

Best tracks: “Like U Crazy,” “Running Out,” “So Many Ways”

11. Band of Horses, Everything All the Time
12. Junior Boys, So This Is Goodbye
13. Herbert, Scale
14. Yo La Tengo, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Kick Your Ass
15. Sunset Rubdown, Shut Up I Am Dreaming
16. Destroyer, Destroyer’s Rubies
17. The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America
18. Grizzly Bear, Yellow House
19. Sufjan Stevens, The Avalanche
20. Tilly and the Wall, Bottoms of Barrels
21. Islands, Return to the Sea
22. Jens Lekman, Oh You’re So Silent Jens
23. M. Ward, Post-War
24. The Knife, Silent Shout
25. Regina Spektor, Begin to Hope

Comments

dan said…
Hmmm, good to see Yo La Tengo and M. Ward on the list. I would have included Tom Waits' latest three CD release (entitled Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards) but I realize that Waits isn't for everybody.

Grace and peace.
D.W. Congdon said…
Tom Waits is a fantastic artist. His latest though, at 3 CDs, is a bit unwieldy.
Anonymous said…
Confession time. I've strayed from my indie foundation lately and have gone more mainstream in my tastes. Personally, Pitchfork's too demanding of me as a reader these days. Wonderful though they may be, I don't have the energy to commit to keeping up with who's on their naughty or nice lists. So, I went for the more accessible music and I've been loving every syrupy, major label second of it. Here's what I would add to your list.

Justin Timberlake - FutureSex / LoveSounds - Anyone who knows my music tastes knows I have ALWAYS had a soft spot for boy bands (Hanson, Backstreet Boys) and their female counterparts (Spears and Xtina). All I ask of you is this: before you rail against JT, just listen to this album. If you still hate him, no love lost. We can go on our merry ways. But if you end up liking him...

Neko Case - Fox Confessor Brings the Flood - Just a good old fashioned country crooner who happens to be composing in 2006.

Belle and Sebastian - The Life Pursuit - Not their best, but certainly a worthy effort.

Gnarls Barkley - St. Elsewhere - I don't care if "Crazy" has been played more times on the radio than there are atoms in the known universe. It's darn catchy and so is the rest of the album.

The Format - Dog Problems - These guys have gone and created what is easily my favorite album of the year. It's not the "best" album (probably), but it's delightfully fun and clever. I haven't gotten sick of it yet, and that's saying a lot given how many times I've listened to it.


Thanks for the nod in your post, however undeserving I may be.

Cheers,
Tom
D.W. Congdon said…
Thanks for the comment, Tom! I agree with your additions. I thoroughly enjoy Timberlake, and he's first on my list of the top 5 surprises in 2006. Pitchfork loves him, too, by the way.

I haven't heard The Format, though, so I'll try to get a hold of that.
Anonymous said…
"Pitchfork loves him, too, by the way."

Dang. No matter how far I may try to distance myself from Pitchfork, they still get the last laugh.

Tom
Halden said…
You'd really like the Format, David.

And if we're being honest, I think we'd have to admit that this list is really the top 25 indie rock albums of 2006. :)
timcoe said…
Pitchfork: Independent is the new dependent.™
D.W. Congdon said…
Halden,

If you're referring to my lack of hip-hop/rap albums, then I would agree. But apart from that, I would say that these are indeed the 25 best albums of the year. Though of course I would have to place Bob Dylan among that list to really be fair.