Call it a year without an angle, and blame Aaron Sorkin’s use of “cold open” in one of the last episodes of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip that anyone watched for a reminder that it’s better to open any kind of show with a statement that articulates a clear point of view and sets the tone for what’s to follow. But what “tone” did the music of 2006 set? The commercialization of independent music such that “indie” joined the laundry list of niche genres to enjoy fleeting popularity (ska, swing, Latin, bluegrass, nü-metal, and emo have all come and gone), the number of both indie and mainstream artists who tackled forms of country music to prove their authenticity, the shocking sudden dearth of commercial hip-hop and R&B worth a damn, the growth industries that both MySpace and YouTube represent as marketing tools, the Internet’s ongoing impact on the way people listen to and buy music making it a stronger year for singles than for albums; these were all important stories in 2006, but no one story dominated the year or fully accounts for the utter lack of critical consensus. Not that consensus represents some sort of ideal, but it’s worth mentioning that, for a year that many would label underwhelming, there’s an impressive volume of music being championed. Consider the lack of overlap below, or just the first batch of Top 10 lists posted at Metacritic, which cite 65 different albums. So no two people could agree on the relative merits of Joanna Newsom’s Ys or what was the best single from Nelly Furtado’s Loose…at least everyone can agree that Britney Spears’s rediscovery of underwear is an encouraging trend that will, we hope, continue into 2007. Jonathan Keefe
1. Ane Brun, A Temporary Dive
I receive hundreds upon hundreds of CDs a year, but only once or twice does something reach out and grab me by the neck, effectively securing a spot on my year-end list months before I’m even aware of it. Such was the case with Scandinavian singer-songwriter Ane Brun’s sophomore disc A Temporary Dive. From the very first note out of Brun’s mouth—no, even before that, from the very first strum of her acoustic guitar on the opening song—I knew I was listening to something special. Brun doesn’t break down any barriers or forge any ground uncharted by the late-’60s British folk artists whose footprints she so delicately presses her presumably petite feet into, but her songs are refreshing and pure, a throwback to traditional folk while at the same keeping one foot firmly planted in the no-longer-neo neo-folk movement.
2. Jóhann Jóhannsson, IBM 1403 – A User’s Manual
In the grand scheme of the universe, and even on the lifeline of music composing history, 1964 isn’t that long ago. In terms of computer technology, though, it’s virtually the beginning of time. And so, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s IBM 1403 - A User’s Manual—in which the Icelandic composer combines vintage musical fragments that were culled from one of the first digital data processing systems by his father in 1971, along with other, new Eno-esque electronic sounds and a 60-piece orchestra—gives you the sense of hearing something truly ancient being married to something very modern and present, and, then, something very futuristic. Some theorists claim humans can simulate anything with a computer, even a soul, and with IBM 1403, Jóhannsson comes chillingly close.
3. Regina Spektor, Begin to Hope
Not to discount the theatrical—dare I say artful—value of fashion shows, but as a music critic, it can be embarrassing when producers of such exhibitions have their ears closer to the ground than you. Regina Spektor is one of many artists I’ve been introduced to via trips to Fashion Week over the years; her brand of dramatic, string-laden baroque-pop (though she’s no relation to Phil Spector) is the perfect soundtrack for over-the-top couture. Spektor’s arrangements on Begin to Hope are inspired and ambitious and her melodies are classic yet startling original. There’s a fearless, uninhibited confidence to Spektor’s voice, not to mention a delightful whimsy to her music, that sets her apart from similar artists like Fiona Apple.
4. Final Fantasy, He Poos Clouds
The best album I heard this year was Canadian singer-composer Owen Pallett a.k.a. Final Fantasy’s Has a Good Home. Unfortunately, it was released in 2005, so his Dungeon & Dragons-themed follow-up, He Poos Clouds, will have to suffice. Ranging from lush and intricate chamber-pop to more pizzicato, Phillip Glass-style arrangements, the album succeeds on multiple levels, not least of which is musically. Harpsichord is a beast Tori Amos already attempted to tackle in the pop realm, but Pallett doesn’t approach the instrument as something to be tamed or assimilated but something that belongs in its own world and time. Pallett’s voice is recorded and mixed like a wind instrument, always tucked away quietly in the background but often to the detriment of the thickly narrative, D&D reference-filled tales he tries to tell. I spoke with Pallett earlier this year and he brushed off my insinuation that the album is less accessible than his debut. Either way, it’s earned a spot on my list—albeit a few rungs down from where his debut would have placed.
5. Emily Haines, Knives Don’t Have Your Back
I’ve always thought “Figure 8” from Schoolhouse Rock was one of the saddest, most depressing songs ever written, and it would fit perfectly alongside the melancholic music on Emily Haines’s Knives Don’t Have Your Back, a collection of quiet, introspective piano ballads that are every bit as beautiful as the album’s packaging. Haines’s is a distinctly feminine—though not necessarily feminist—point of view, and she delivers bons mots like “Bros before hos is a rule/Read the guidelines” and “Don’t elaborate like that/You’ll frighten off the frat boys” throughout “The Maid Needs a Maid,” a double entendre-filled tune about desperate housewives, and “Mostly Waving,” respectively. There’s an inward, domestic tone to Knives—a record that could provide all-too-fitting accompaniment to a reading of The Bell Jar.
6. We Are Scientists, With Love and Squalor
Don’t tell We Are Scientists that they’re fashionably late to the neo-post-punk dance revival. Judging by songs like “This Scene Is Dead,” in which “singing guitarist” Keith Murray implores, “I’m not going home until I’m done,” they already know. And we all know the drill: stuttering, propulsive beats; clipped guitar licks; cheeky, upper-crust accent; hooky lyrics about alcohol, sex, dancing, and sex-dancing. The band has been around since the Strokes started—err, revived—it all, but they didn’t score a major record deal until now, and like pretty much every indie-rock hipster in Williamsburg, they’re generally just waiting for something to happen while lamenting the things that did. None of this matters, of course, when Murray exudes eons more genuine emo on With Love and Squalor than Brandon Flowers.
7. Adem, Love and Other Planets
Love and Other Planets is a thing of beauty, a woozy concept album that begins with an imagined wake-up plea from extraterrestrials. It’s not a completely novel idea for a song, but it’s the way in which Adem takes those lessons learned and seamlessly connects them like the stars in a constellation (and the dots drawn on his arm by a lover in the song “Spirals”) throughout the 45 minutes that follow. There’s a palpable sadness, a sense of longing, even in Adem’s joy, which is perhaps what draws us into his drifting, celestial soundscapes (and toward love) in the first place.
8. Beyoncé, B’Day
Deserting Destiny’s Child was an inevitable move for Beyoncé, but her reason is fuzzy at best: going solo seemed to suggest an opportunity to explore new styles and delve deeper into more personal subject matter, but the aggressiveness of the largely uptempo B’Day is more reminiscent of her former group. In many ways, DC’s last studio record, Destiny Fulfilled, played more like a solo album—it was a textured, ballad-heavy collection of songs that veered away from the trademark garishness of the group’s sexual-materialism masquerading as female self-empowerment. Here, though, the bombast is present and accounted for. There’s something obscenely gluttonous and perversely over-the-top about the way Beyoncé bats out one club banger after another, her voice pushing the limits of the board levels on almost every track. Whereas Beyoncé’s debut was accomplished in its diversity, B’Day sounds like the album “Crazy In Love” initially forecasted.