The best of everything

Our ever-opinionated music scribes sound off on the 10 albums that rocked their worlds in 2006.

John Lucas

A few of the things I liked this year, in alphabetical order:

Band of Horses Everything All the Time
From the epic, churning-rock grandeur of “The Funeral” to the back-porch acoustics of “St. Augustine”, Band of Horses has somehow managed to capture in sound exactly how it feels to pick yourself up after a bad spill and keep on going, skinned knees and all.

Neko Case Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Neko Case never makes it clear exactly what she’s singing about—this time around, there are all sorts of dark, fairy-tale allusions to the natural world—but she delivers her songs with such conviction that it doesn’t really matter. The crystalline beauty of her voice doesn’t hurt, either.

Lady Sovereign Public Warning
Could this diminutive white girl from England change the rules of the rap game? Only if hip-hop heads choose to take her seriously. And they should, because the S.O.V. is as scarily talented as she is young and snotty.

Mew And the Glass Handed Kites
Denmark’s Mew makes some of the most astonishingly gorgeous rock music on the planet, melding the lush layers of dream pop with searing melodies and enough brain-twisting rhythms to get math geeks counting along.

Mogwai Mr. Beast
With Mr. Beast, Mogwai leaves its slow-building epics behind. This has disappointed some long-time followers, but if the sublime shoegazer-pop number “Travel Is Dangerous” and the spine-meltingly heavy “Glasgow Mega-Snake” are the result of the Scottish band editing itself, I say they should impose a three-minutes-per-song limit next time around.

Muse Black Holes and Revelations
Cosmic rock anthems for the comic-book nerd who lurks deep inside every one of us.

My Brightest Diamond Bring Me the Workhorse
Brilliant left-field weirdness from Shara Worden, whose impressively orchestrated songs should earn her at least as much attention as she gets for being one of Sufjan Stevens’s ace supporting players.

Silversun Pickups Carnavas
The obscenely thick guitar on this album sounds like Billy Corgan’s wet dream, and Brian Aubert has the whisper-whine vocals to go along with it. Thankfully, inventive songwriting keeps Carnavas from being merely the second coming of Siamese Dream.

Sonic Youth Rather Ripped
Every time Sonic Youth puts out a record, some wishful thinker inevitably calls it a return to form. This one actually deserves the label, because in between inventing guitar tunings and figuring out new ways to generate fucked-up noise, the New York veterans have apparently remembered how to write a pop song.

Uncut Modern Currencies
These Toronto indie kids turn up their amps and bring forth a flood of early-’90s alt-nation memories—not to mention plenty of fuzz and feedback.

Mike Usinger

Finally embracing the digital age, I spent far more time this year blowing money on iTunes and eMusic than I did in record stores. As a result, coming up with my favourite albums of the year was easy—all I had to do was check the most-played list on my iPod.

Neko Case Fox Confessor Brings the Flood Although it might come as a shock to her fans, Neko Case has little use for the label alt-country, and that’s made crystal clear by Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Her dark-plains twist on Americana is impressive, but it’s the way that Case has blossomed into a Nick Cave–calibre raconteur that makes her best album to date truly sublime.

Sonic Youth Rather Ripped Sonic Youth has spent over a decade trying to top its 1990 landmark Goo. While the New York City noise-pop legends fall short with the return-to-form that is Rather Ripped, it’s not by much.

Lady Sovereign Public Warning More than just the biggest midget in the game, motor-mouthed British MC Lady Sovereign is also the first imported rapper to conquer America. Comparisons to Eminem were, of course, inevitable, but not overly accurate, mostly because Slim Shady was never this much fun.

Th’ Legendary Shack*Shakers Pandelirium Imagine Tom Waits channelling an inbred version of the Butthole Surfers, and that’s an excellent starting point for Th’ Legendary Shack*Shakers. Moonshine country, blitzkrieg klezmer, and land-speed hardcore collide in songs in which white-trash Americans grow fingers from their elbows and embalmed hobos serve as funeral-home sideshows. Yes, it’s that weird.

TV on the Radio Return to Cookie Mountain Deservedly revered for its mesmerizing live shows, TV on the Radio made a daring decision with Cookie Mountain. Positioned to crash the mainstream, the much-hyped Brooklyn iconoclasts chose art over commerce, using dreamscape distortion, disembodied vocals, and short-circuited synths to present pop music at its most challenging.

”¦And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead So Divided Alienating a good portion of its cult following, Austin’s favourite live demolitionists abandon daydream nation–brand guitar bombast for epic, paisley-tinted prog-pop. Sometimes sombre, sometimes smashingly symphonic, the results are never less than stunning.

Various Artists Congotronics 2: Buzz ’N’ Rumble From the Urb ’N’ Jungle More than a record, Congotronics 2 is like a drug where straight-from-the-streets acts like the Kasai Allstars serve up hyperhypnotic Congolese world beat. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be perma-fried on Iboga, this compilation’s synapse-frying wonders—built out of impossibly distorted likembe (thumb piano), jungle-fever percussion, and shout-and-response chants—give you a good idea.

Jolie Holland Springtime Can Kill You Breaking up is never easy, but it’s never been as harrowing as on the emotional wringer that is Springtime Can Kill You. Sounding like Billie Holiday reborn for the No Depression set, Holland documents a doomed relationship, starting with the first delirious kiss and ending with the final tear-streaked goodbye.

Pink Mountaintops Axis of Evol Panty-removal music for indie kids who are on a first-name basis with their bong, Axis of Evol was the most devastatingly trippy release of the year. This is what the Velvet Underground would have sounded like if ecstasy had been the drug of choice in the ’60s.

The Hold Steady Boys and Girls in America Capturing the spirit of the Replacements before Paul Westerberg lost his taste for Schlitz, the Hold Steady makes getting loaded seem like the world’s most romantic pastime. Jack Kerouac himself would have been impressed by the wayward characters who populate Boys and Girls in America’s Minnesota-circa-’84 drunk rock.

Steve Newton

Throughout 2006, as in the previous few years, an American idiot named George inspired recording artists everywhere to lambaste his putrid foreign policies. Others just wanted to rock out.

Neil Young Living With War Although it includes a couple of duds, Young’s antiwar offering is the year’s most important rock album. “Shock and Awe” is the most exhilarating tune he’s released since the mighty “Rockin’ in the Free World”. What’s also shocking is that the Yanks haven’t taken his plea, “Let’s Impeach the President”, to heart (yet).

Lee Rocker Racin’ the Devil Who knew that the former Stray Cats standup bassist was such a great vocalist and roots-rock songwriter? And with snazzy guitarists like Brophy Dale and Buzz Campbell, who needs Brian Setzer anyway?

Gov’t Mule High & Mighty The world’s finest blues-rock quartet lays the boots to warmonger George W. Bush on “Unring the Bell” (“Shadows of evil cast like giants on the wall/Do you even know how many people you appall”). The Gordie Johnson–coproduced disc is dedicated to the memory of Mississippi blues legend Little Milton.

Kill Cheerleader All Hail The Hellacopters didn’t bother releasing an infinitely catchy rock album with soaring Thin Lizzy guitars, but these young rowdies were up to the task. Even the questionable production job can’t undermine the delight of this rough ’n’ tumble riff fest.

Peter Frampton Fingerprints All that Frampton Comes Alive! nonsense in the ’70s made people forget that Frampton is first and foremost an awesome guitar player. He makes that perfectly clear on these 14 mostly original instrumentals, and gets some six-string help from the likes of Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes, Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, and the Shadows’ Hank Marvin.

Drive-By Truckers A Blessing and a Curse The DBT’s twangiest offering yet, it resembles a raggedy collaboration between Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil Young & Crazy Horse. It isn’t common knowledge, but Ronnie and Neil had a mutual appreciation, ya know.

Marah If You Didn’t Laugh”¦You’d Cry Philadelphia-raised, New York City–based brothers David and Serge Bielanko front one of the wickedest bar bands you’ve never heard of. The best party music since the heyday of the Faces.

Hank Williams III Straight to Hell The original Hank’s grandson is one shit-kickin’ country hell-raiser. Essential listening at your next hillbilly hoedown, as long as moonshine and Jack Daniel’s are the only drinks on the menu.

Joe Satriani Super Colossal Apart from the ho-hum closer, “Crowd Chant”, Satch’s latest is the same type of adventurous yet hook-filled instrumental rock you’ve come to expect from the Bay Area guitar god. Mixed right here in Van City by Langley’s own Mike Fraser, who also coproduced.

Red Hot Chili Peppers Stadium Arcadium I can’t recall the last time a double album made my top 10 of the year. Of course, the Red Hots are no ordinary band. Anyone who saw them at GM Place in September would agree. Just don’t get me started on the opening act, Mars Revolta.

Alexander Varty

Three words to think about in 2007: quiet, handmade, and diverse. Quiet, because many of us are fed up with being yelled at by microphone-toting thugs and lunatics. Handmade, because after a decade of Auto-Tuned perfection, we’re craving rougher edges. Diverse, because new technologies are making it easier for basement visionaries to get their music heard. And if those three words represent where music’s headed, these 2006 releases helped point the way.

Califone Roots & Crowns If I’m inordinately fond of Califone, it’s probably because the Chicago band’s touchstones—Brian Eno, Captain Beefheart, and the Mississippi Delta blues—are also mine. Singer Tim Rutili and company craft grippingly kinetic music from those old bones and their own near-death experiences.

Huun-Huur-Tu Altai Sayan Tandy-Uula Producer Andrey Samsonov’s subtle synthesizers enhance the Tuvan quartet’s aural landscapes, making for a record that hovers halfway between the studio and the steppes. Yet even in its modernized form, this remains shamanic music, capable of inducing an altered state of consciousness.

Rolf Lislevand Nuove Musiche Norwegian guitarist and lutenist Rolf Lislevand uses 17th-century scores as source material for an utterly new take on baroque music, laced with jazzy rhythms and flamenco passion.

Stephin Merritt Showtunes The mind behind the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs returns with 26 poisonous miniatures, penned in blood or else in rich black ink. Merritt’s music-box tunes combine with his Brechtian lyrics to create an eerie and brittle world of dark, fantastic woe.

Alasdair Roberts The Amber Gatherers This Glaswegian singer-guitarist is making the strongest and in some ways the strangest music to emerge from the new Scottish folk scene. “Waxwing”, which is either a family drama starring birds or a parable about beauty and the Presbyterian mind, is nothing less than a four-minute miracle.

Giacinto Scelsi Natura Renovatur You’ll find this filed under composer Giacinto Scelsi’s name, but it’s really Frances-Marie Uitti’s record. The innovative cellist does a miraculous job of embodying both the other ­worldly calm and the extreme dissonance that coexist within the late visionary’s music.

Oliver Schroer Camino Recorded in churches and fields along the historic pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago, this audio documentary is also the sound of violinist Oliver Schroer growing into his own spirituality, finding grace in deceptively simple sonic forms.

Ali Farka Toure Savane The final recording by the Malian farmer, faith healer, and musician is not his best. But it’s close, and even the occasional muddled arrangement doesn’t detract from the power and grace of his singing, the calm flow of his guitar, or the ghostly moan of his violinlike njarka.

Tom Verlaine Songs and Other Things The lyrics are sketchy and the arrangements seemingly ad hoc, but Television’s founder has lost none of his ability to pull listeners into his odd scenarios of jittery paranoia and rapt adoration.

Various Artists The Quiet Revolution Seven of the 15 acts featured on this Mojo-magazine freebie were new to me, and I fell in love with four of them. Beyond that, The Quiet Revolution illuminates the links between the current freak-folk underground and the original ’60s version by putting Kevin Ayers next to Akron/Family and following Espers with Davy Graham; the conceit works beautifully.

Shawn Conner

The art of making an end-of-year top-10 list: consider including at least one hip-hop record, maybe something crunk. Don’t forget about cutting-edge electronica, or your list will appear stuck in the 20th century. Trends, like metal, should be taken into account. Also, think about rounding up a few popular favourites along with snobby obscurities. Then, once all this has been factored in, say “fuck it” and select the discs that turned you on more than any others.

Portastatic Be Still Please In true indie-rock fashion, Superchunk never seemed too concerned with sex. But on his ninth outing under his Portastatic guise, ’chunk singer-guitarist Mac McCaughan has some pithy things to say about Eros in tracks as delicate and wistful as his other band is rocking and dense.

The Long Winters Putting the Days to Bed Long Winters frontman John Roderick always sounds like he’s on the verge of breaking down. Good thing, then, that meaty rock arrangements, literate and precise lyrics, and demonically hooky melodies keep him upright.

Priya Thomas You and Me Against the World Baby Ten years ago, Thomas would have kept company with fire breathers like Courtney Love, Chrissie Hynde, and P.J. Harvey. The Torontonian’s You and Me Against the World Baby follows in their proud tradition, with tough-as-leather lyrics, cutting vocals, and spiky guitars, all sugarcoated with pop hooks and tricky production.

Keene Brothers Blues and Boogie Shoes Teamed with guitarist Tommy Keene, Guided by Voices’ main man Robert Pollard released his most consistent record in years. It’s unbelievable after so many albums, EPs, singles, et cetera, but Pollard’s melodic brilliance shines as brightly as ever on the jangly pop of “Island of Lost Lucys” and the chiming, epic “Beauty of the Draft”.

Candi Staton His Hands Just about every song on this country-soul vet’s comeback is about heartache and loss. But Staton’s worldly-wise, ravaged voice is a panacea able to lift the spirits of even the most shell-shocked listener.

Figurines Skeleton Danish and dapper, this quartet delivered one of the liveliest records of the year. Skeleton recombines the DNA of Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, and Pavement into a set of oddly askew songs that are fractured and bent in all the right places.

Beth Orton Comfort of Strangers A decade after Trailer Park, English folkie Orton actually betters her stunning debut. Not all the songs click, but the ones that do sound like classics you’ve been listening to all your life.

Silver Jews Tanglewood Numbers A rejuvenated David Berman returns with some of funniest, most poignant lyrics of the year. And the songs’ excursions into country, folk, guitar rock, and pop actually equal the wit and wisdom of the words.

Heartless Bastards All This Time Heartless Bastards’ singer Erika Wennerstrom’s voice is a stop-you-in-your-tracks revelation. Still, this wouldn’t mean much if the songs didn’t give her the raw material to showcase her talents. Which these blues-inflected, well-thought-out rock tunes do, in spades.

Lily Allen Alright, Still Spunky as hell, Lily Allen’s debut is sunny, sparkly pop fronting a wicked sense of humour. You wouldn’t want to get into a verbal sparring match with this 21-year-old, who’s made a record that can make even a traffic snarl seem bearable.

Sarah Rowland

Since being demoted from Straight metal queen to Straight screamo bitch, I’ve had to work overtime seeking out music that doesn’t hurt my ears. But thanks to the brilliant Stephen McBean, I haven’t had to look very far.

Pink Mountaintops Axis of Evol I don’t want to belabour the point, but honestly, Stephen McBean has the sexiest voice, if not in all of Canada, then definitely in that culturally crucial territory between Main and Skeena streets—yes, he’s that good. Even the tracksuited ironists at American Apparel get it. Not sure about his speaking voice, though, as I’ve never seen him sober enough to string a sentence together.

Beck The Information Whether I need some serious beats to get me pumped for an antipsychiatry protest or I just want to chill out and audit my thetan, this is what I listen to. So thank you, Beck Hansen, thanks for putting so much heart and soul into this funky space opera—even if it’s mostly machine-made through the power of ProTools.

Cat Power The Greatest Ahhh, “Where Is My Love”? No, really, where the fuck is he? I’ve looked everywhere and I can’t find him. Damn you, Chan Marshall—if you don’t have the answers, then don’t plant the questions.

Bob Dylan Modern Times You can strip to it. You can waltz to it. And, if need be, you can just listen to it as you frantically race down to Seattle to catch the nasal-voiced troubadour live at the Key Arena after stupidly missing his October 11 Vancouver show.

Joseph Arthur Nuclear Daydream Judging by the turnout at his last Vancouver gig, and despite releasing a near-perfect album, this singer-songwriter/painter/accomplished kick-scooterist is destined to be an unsung talent for years to come. Still, it’s nice to know that at least 147 other people in this city know a good multidisciplinary artist when they see one.

Wolfmother Wolfmother If you wanna get the Led out without conjuring up images of Robert Plant in his nut-hugging flares and without headbanging alongside the inbreds that follow Zeppelin cover bands around the Lower Mainland, these Aussie rockers are just what you’re looking for.

Brazilian Girls Talk to La Bomb Set against some highly danceable electro grooves, lead chanteuse Sabina Sciubba nonchalantly sings sweet seductive nothings in five different languages; suffice it to say, it’s pretty much the next best thing to getting high on designer drugs in a Euro-disco with some Gino who doesn’t speak a word of English (if that’s your thing).

The Black Angels Passover These Velvet Underground derivatives from Austin, Texas, could teach Lou Reed a thing or two about how to drone on and on—and I mean that in a most excellent, rockin’ way.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs Show Your Bones Karen O’s decision to pack up her songbooks and leave New York City for the West Coast has paid off. This is the most fully realized album the art-rock brat has ever laid down. So it’s true what they say: there’s nothing like a little L.A. smog to get the old creative juices flowing.

TV on the Radio Return to Cookie Mountain The sad thing about listening to this slab of intensely emotional experimental rock is that it reminds you (and by you I mean me) of all the great bands that passed through the temporarily out-of-commission Piccadilly Pub. R.I.P., little bar; you served us well.

Adrian Mack

It was a pleasure leaving so many fine albums off my list this year. Being spoiled for choice can only be a good thing when it comes to music. Of the 10 records that made it, a couple are from old heroes who managed to put out material that surpassed past work. Like many of the other artists here, they produced something that spoke imaginatively to our current situation, proving once again that even when the world turns bad, the beat goes on.

Cat Power The Greatest Princess Goodvibes didn’t quite get the critical fluffing she’s used to with this album, but The Greatest has clung to me like no other record this year, probably because the gentle rise and fall of its best songs has the woozy rhythm of hangover sex.

Gil Mantera’s Party Dream Bloodsongs Homoerotic squeeze-cheese disco from Mantera and his weird brother Ultimate Donny that somehow rises above a dildo-shaped tower of shtick, probably because Donny’s got the pipes of a true blue-eyed soul man. Party Dream satisfies those of us who fantasize about Daft Punk collaborating with Daryl Hall and his lovely wife, Ms. John Oates.

Pere Ubu Why I Hate Women I don’t know how I ended up choosing so many records this year that absolutely defy description, but I did, so here goes: Why I Hate Women invades the head like a not-unpleasant variation on ultra-low-frequency-microwave harassment or some other type of beyond-top-secret, nonlethal directed-energy weapon.

Comets on Fire Avatar Avatar is so witchy it should have been packed with a live snake and maybe some chicken feet. This is the black-acid comedown of ’69 reconsidered for our demented times, and it also makes a wonderful stocking stuffer for the tots.

Scott Walker The Drift A response to emerging fascism on both sides of the Atlantic, The Drift is a monolith of epic dread, pitting Walker’s God-like voice against a gut-tightening soundscape of killing machines, screaming children, and some dude punching a side of beef—all presided over by the spectre of Benito Mussolini. It’s like a transmission from a torture chamber hidden in a monastery; in other words, party time in the Mack household.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse Live at the Fillmore East, 1970 “Real musicians” and Young’s Hollywood friends like Joni Mitchell and David Crosby detested the Horse and couldn’t figure out why Shakey would stoop so low as to play with them. With all due respect, Crosby and Mitchell are fucking idiots, and this archival recording shows why.

Mind Controls Take a Message Mark Sultan (BBQ, the Spaceshits) and a couple other Frenchies coughed out this 20-minute-long, instant garage-punk classic in the time it takes most “punks” to wax their hair into a point.

Hung Jury Hung Jury If you’re anything like me and you’ve spent years wondering what it would sound like if Canned Heat was fronted by Roky Erickson, then this Kitsilano four-piece has an album to sell you.

Nikki Sudden The Truth Doesn’t Matter Poor old Nikki never met a note that he could hit, had a lisp, and generally sounded like a man wearing a clown nose being sucked backward through a turbine, but his last album before he died is the twilight rock ’n’ roll record he spent a quarter of a century trying to make.

La Rocca The Truth These kids moved from Ireland to L.A., all for the love of classic American rock. Turns out some long-distance relationships do work!

Martin Turenne

This is the year I turned old.

Vince Gill These Days Not just an album but a glorious leap into the canon of great American music, this four-disc package found Vince Gill expressing his deep love of “country” in all senses of the word. If he’d released just the bluegrass songs, he’d have made my list; instead, he wrote the best multidisc album of the CD era.

Paul Simon Surprise The record I listened to most this year, Paul Simon’s full-length collaboration with producer Brian Eno is a minor masterpiece: insidiously tuneful, breathtakingly well produced, and informed throughout by the whimsy and wisdom of two pop-music giants.

Justin Timberlake FutureSex/LoveSounds For every thousand-odd crap-tastic radio-pop records, along comes a factory effort like this one, which twinned a reformed teen idol (Timberlake) with the game’s presiding mad genius (Timbaland). FutureSex/LoveSounds didn’t really break musical ground, but it’s surely the most baldly provocative and downright strangest album to top the charts in years.

J Dilla (Jay Dee) Donuts In this terrible time for rap albums and singles, it seems fitting that the best hip-hop record was made by a man on his deathbed. Regardless of the tragic circumstances, Donuts merits the term transcendent for its contents alone, which convey Dilla’s alternately exultant and torturous conception of spiritual music.

Cat Power The Greatest Norah Jones for hipsters? Maybe so, but there’s something about the Memphis Rhythm Band’s smoky vibes and Chan Marshall’s soulful understatement that makes me think The Greatest will be the soundtrack of dinner parties for decades to come.

AFX Chosen Lords The artist best known as Aphex Twin shows the young’uns how it’s done, collecting highlights from last year’s Analord 12-inch series. Taken together, these restless new-acid tracks rank among the best of Aphex’s storied career, confirming him as this generation’s foremost textural innovator.

Hot Chip The Warning The best of a huge crop of excellent electronic-pop records released this year, The Warning wins on the strength of its cleverly written and sharply made songs. There’s an open, almost unfinished quality to this album, especially with “And I Was a Boy From School”, which fellow Englishman Erol Alkan turned into the giddiest remix of the year.

The Knife Silent Shout Pop doesn’t get any scarier than Silent Shout, the third album by the Knife, a Swedish brother-sister team. All icy surfaces and black-as-night vocal shrieks, this one’s best enjoyed after hours with the doors locked and your wits about you.

Scritti Politti White Bread Black Beer Setting aside the arch humour and Marxist posturing of his past efforts, Green Gartside has made his humblest record to date, offering 14 sweetly sung meditations on the meaning of (white) soul.

DJ Drama & Lil Wayne Dedication 2 Rap mix tapes almost always suck, suffused as they are with aborted nonsongs and throwaway lyrics. Cruising above the competition, Lil Wayne went hard over the year’s best instrumentals, luxuriating in the sound of his own voice and his playful mastery of the language. Weezy may not be the best rapper alive, but he’s the best one rapping right now.

Deena Cox

Favouring my iPod over CDs these days means that I am spending less time lying in bed reading liner notes and more time bobbing my head on public transit. As a result, nailing down my 10 favourite discs was a challenge in 2006, the year of the single-track download.

Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins Rabbit Fur Coat There’s something about tears-in-the-whiskey-glass sentiments that resonate with the 30-something part of me. With whispered songs about losing lovers, growing older, and bargaining with fate, and tumbleweed lyrics blowing over beautiful folksy, bluesy guitars and quivering mandolins, Lewis has most certainly one-upped her other band, indie pop-rock outfit Rilo Kiley.

The Rapture Pieces of the People We Love The Rapture returns victorious with a roller coaster of danceable punk-funk tracks. In addition to featuring big-name producers like Danger Mouse and Ewan Pearson, Pieces has enough cowbell on it to rival Jamiroquai.

Thom Yorke The Eraser Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke is a creepy little guy, and his solo release The Eraser is equally disturbing. Embracing art noise with hints of Vespertine-era Bjí¶rk resonating in the background, Yorke is barely audible throughout most of the disc, but his mumblings are what make the tracks so compelling.

Sia Colour the Small One Released in North America only this year, Colour the Small One debuted overseas two years earlier. After standout track “Breathe Me” was featured on the cult television series Six Feet Under, demand for the Aussie girl with the little voice understandably took off. Most recently, Sia’s stabby piano and string-quartet sound were featured on prime-time soft-core special The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.

The Streets The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living Mike Skinner—he of the mockney rhymes—returns with an introspective disc. A top-10 album in the U.K., The Hardest Way tells the story of Skinner’s life at present, much to the chagrin of a few pop tarts and industry types who are all but named on the more insightful tracks.

Amy Millan Honey From the Tombs Emerging from the haze of her other band, Stars, Millan only slightly revs up her sugary-sweet, wispy vocals on her solo debut. Taking a chance on country-inspired lyrics and music, Millan makes her voice a perfect vehicle for telling tales of woe.

Various Artists Q Covered: Q Magazine’s Best of 86/06 This limited-edition freebie from Q Magazine features Franz Ferdinand covering Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For?”, the Flaming Lips doing a stripped-down version of Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”, and Paul Anka warbling Oasis’s “Wonderwall”. Enough said.

Phoenix It’s Never Been Like That A little bit pretentious and conceptual, this disc from French indie rockers Phoenix does tend to get lost in guitar space every now and then, but it is precisely that rambling that makes it a great road-trip record.

Lady Sovereign Public Warning While Lady S.O.V. clearly doesn’t need to work on her rapping or nailing the grime sound, this little Londoner could use some help with her too-raunchy public persona and her naff hair.

Arctic Monkeys Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not Chock full of jangling guitars and super-tight two-minute marvels, WPSIATWIN is enough to make us hope the young, hip, talented, and barely-old-enough-to-drink boys of Britain’s Arctic Monkeys avoid imploding long enough to make another record.

Tara Henley

Hip-hop is dead. Or so says Nas, and he might just be right. This will be remembered as the year that the hustler officially trumped the MC as the dominant icon in hip-hop culture. Rappers were so busy chasing paper that they didn’t bother to record hot music. The market was flooded with tedious trap-star talk, gimmick chant raps, bitter Big Apple mix-tape barbs, and far, far too much rocking, leaning, and snapping. Still, every time this writer sat down to pen a breakup letter to hip-hop, an album came along with a glimmer of hope. Here are this year’s top 10 reasons to keep the faith.

>T.I. King Everyone’s favourite fly dope boy this year, T.I. took southern rap trends and transformed the monotony into magic. For the record, “Why You Wanna” contains enough silver-tongued game to turn a good girl bad.

Busta Rhymes The Big Bang The album that was supposed to Bring New York Back!—but didn’t. An impressive outing nonetheless, Bussa Bus comes with almost enough fire to pull it off.

Ne-Yo In My Own Words In a year when every thug rapper under the sun put out a perfunctory for-the-ladies joint—all the while sounding as if they could barely tolerate the chick they were supposed to be sexing (word to Young Jeezy)—Ne-Yo’s earnest, lovesick crooning was more than a little refreshing.

The Roots Game Theory Game Theory is not the easiest album to digest. But as dark, angry, and disturbing as it is, it’s the first hip-hop album to capture what it feels like to be alive in the midst of postmillennial mayhem.

Obie Trice Second Round’s on Me Mr. Real Name, No Gimmicks can’t seem to catch a break. First he was shot on a Detroit freeway early this year. Next he lost his cousin Proof to murder. Then he recorded a seriously dope album and nobody even noticed. Obie wins the “tragically underrated artist of the year” award, hands down.

Lupe Fiasco Food & Liquor Something so appealing, you can’t fight the feeling.

Jay-Z Kingdom Come Superman returns to save rap and gets his grown man on in the process. Sure, it’s not Hov’s best work, but it’s still light-years ahead of all the Dipset ankle biters who are busy taking shots at him.

The Game Doctor’s Advocate Game is a bit of a head case, but no one can deny that he’s defied the odds with this one. Without the benefit of Dre’s beats and 50’s hooks, Jayceon Taylor has crafted a sophomore album that has everyone—even the New York Times—singing his praises.

Clipse Hell Hath No Fury Clipse had the Internet going nuts for most of this year and, amazingly, HHNF lived up to all the hype. So go cop it. Don’t just stand there with your nose up.

Snoop Dogg Tha Blue Carpet Treatment Proving that two wrongs occasionally make a right, urban music’s top creepy playboys—R. Kelly and Snoop “Girls Gone Wild” Dogg—came together to spit a seriously sexy club banger, “That’s That Shit”. The rest of the album is fairly decent too, particularly in relation to the boring cRap released this year.

Jennifer Van Evra

Maybe it’s the dwindling power of massive record labels, the breadth of music for sale (or for illegal file-sharing) on-line, or the near-nuclear explosion of MySpace, but it seems like there was a lot more smart, genuine, and unique music floating around in 2006. This list could easily have been 10 times longer, but here are the albums that never left the top of the stack.

Destroyer Destroyer’s Rubies Destroyer has always been a favourite, but with this album—packed with playful images and sounds that range from art pop to drum-heavy rock—lead man Dan Bejar completely outdid himself. The album came out in February, and I still haven’t stopped listening.

TV On The Radio Return to Cookie Mountain This dense mix of driving rhythms, soulful melodies, whip-smart lyrics, and just plain passion hits you like a ton of bricks—without the ensuing pain. If you ever get the chance to see them live, run don’t walk.

Neko Case Fox Confessor Brings the Flood Neko Case grew up a poor, lonely kid in Tacoma, Washington, and stories were her only escape. Her love of them is certainly evident on this album, where her transcendent voice is richer and more powerful than ever; songs such as “Margaret vs. Pauline” and “Dirty Knife” are so rich with images, they’re like sonic movies.

Islands Return to the Sea Think you can’t dance to songs about anorexia, death, and dismemberment? Return to the Sea, made by ex-Unicorns musicians Nick Diamonds and J’aime Tambeur (who left Islands not long after this album’s release) is sonically smiling and tropical, lyrically pitch-black, and wonderfully quirky.

Flaming Lips At War With the Mystics I know, I know—it’s not as great as Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots or The Soft Bulletin. But when you’re in your darkest, pissiest winter mood, I challenge you to put on “The W.A.N.D.” or “Free Radicals” and not crack a smile.

Pink Mountaintops Axis of Evol Starting off with the languidly delivered line, “No, I’m not headed down a highway to hell”, this album certainly wasn’t the expected follow-up to playfully sexy songs like “Can You Do That Dance?” from the Pink Mountaintops’ eponymous 2004 debut. Instead we get trippy gospel-like prayers sung to fuzzed-out beats, ’60s-tinged protest folk, and full-throttle electronic rockers.

Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins Rabbit Fur Coat Backed by spirited country sounds and the lush harmonies of the Watson Twins, Lewis’s cool delivery of songs about family, religion, and love will—as one of the songs says—melt your heart.

Grizzly Bear Yellow House New York City’s beloved Grizzly Bear had a rough year: they had to cancel most of their European tour when a band member’s father got cancer and all of their gear was stolen from a van when they were in Brussels. But this quietly shimmering release provided an atmospheric soundtrack to the end of 2006.

Cat Power The Greatest Chan Marshall’s The Greatest caught a lot of fans off-guard; after 2003’s more pop-minded You Are Free, The Greatest’s Memphis rootsiness seemed too plain. But after the “Aw, damn it!” phase passed, what emerged was a beautifully soulful and highly lyrical record.

Juana Molina Son In her native Argentina, Juana Molina is best known as a former TV comedy star—and it shows in the playfulness of her music. Sung in Spanish, these beautifully breezy songs—which mix loop-heavy electronics and acoustic folk—will keep you warm right through the winter.

Tony Montague

Armchair travel has a bright new appeal: let your ears do the flying. This year, the desert blues and its cousins from the Sahara and Sahel regions of Africa maintained their huge popularity on the world-music circuit.

Ali Farka Touré Savane The king of West African blues died last year. Touré’s final album—recorded at the Hotel Mandé, on the banks of the Niger, by Nick Gold and Jerry Boys—is testimony to the depth of his soul. If you’ve ever wondered where blues came from”¦

Etran Finatawa Introducing A sextet from Niger, in north-central Africa, Etran Finatawa offers a great new twist on the electric desert blues, carving mesmeric grooves on guitars and clicking calabash, singing call-and-response chants, and adding rich layers of percussion.

Ben Harper Both Sides of the Gun On this great double album, Harper and his band, the Innocent Criminals, range from hushed melancholic folk to angry but articulate rock. Harper displays the full extent of his talent and taste: his slide and lap-steel guitar–playing are brilliant, and his lyrics are finely chiselled. A modern master at work.

Bellowhead Burlesque This brassy young 11-piece English roots band knows traditional folk inside out, and mixes it cleverly with elements of other genres, from rock to rumba. The most exciting development on the Brit-folk scene since Kate Rusby and Eliza Carthy.

Lila Downs La Cantina Downs celebrates the cantinas of old Mexico and the popular ballads they spawned, in which love, betrayal, death, and drunkenness circle each other like scorpions. While never taking the songs—or herself—too seriously, the New York City–based Oaxacan chanteuse breathes real passion into her contemporary arrangements.

L’Ham de Foc Cor de Porc L’Ham de Foc isn’t a French swineherd’s curse but a duo from Catalonia that blends surreal lyrics and medieval music with hints of classy pop. Efrén López, backed by several of Spain’s finest musicians, plays outstandingly, and huge-haired Mara Aranda has a voice to match. Opulent and strange.

Bob Dylan Modern Times At least two songs here are destined for the Great American Songbook: the Merle Haggard homage “Workingman’s Blues #2”, and the magnificent eight-minute “Nettie Moore”, the love song of a dying old man. Dylan’s voice—gone missing in concert—is still interesting on recordings.

Boulerice-Demers Un Peu d’Ci, Un Peu d’Ca Assisted by stellar guests, fiddler Olivier Demers and multi-instrumentalist Nicolas Boulerice, the young bucks of Québécois roots music, adopt a less-is-more approach to arrangements, bringing out the essence of traditional songs and tunes.

Ana Moura Aconteceu Ana Moura sings Portuguese fado with a contralto voice rich in nuance and emotion. The 25-year-old’s sophomore album is produced by Jorge Fernando, guitarist for the late and legendary Amália Rodrigues, and Moura looks destined to inherit her mantle.

Tartit Abacabok If you really want to travel somewhere hot this winter, try North African soul and roots band Tartit—which recorded this album in a mobile studio near Timbuktu—and be surrounded by Tuareg voices and instruments from the heart of the Sahara. Ride on, magic carpeters.

Gregory Adams

The year 2006 was a bit of a stinker in terms of the follow-up album. The Killers shed their glamour and hooks for Sam’s Town, Beyoncé bombed with B’Day, and does anyone even remember that the Strokes put out a record this year? You’ve let me down, major-label millionaires. Here’s how I coped.

Beirut Gulag Orkestar Most kids come back from European vacations with stories of drunken hookups and bong sessions in Amsterdam. Singer-songwriter Zach Condon came back with a jaw-dropping collection of brass- and ukulele-powered songs inspired by Balkan wedding music.

Final Fantasy He Poos Clouds Owen Pallett has somehow passed off his nerdy Dungeons & Dragons magic–themed disc as highbrow entertainment for indie kids. The looped string-quartet melodies of “Song Song Song” are plucked with a punk spirit that makes his classical arrangements palatable for those not so well versed in Béla Bartók.

Mika Miko C.Y.S.L.A.B.F. Teen quintet Mika Miko might well be the love children of the Circle Jerks and the Go-Go’s, as this debut bounces off the walls with the best punk to come out of L.A. since the early ’80s. Vocals screamed through telephone receivers careen over bright power chords and primal beats, reminding us that western civilization is still in decline.

Ghostface Killah FishScale Iron man Tony Starks bounces back after a few dud discs, using a dream team of underground producers, from MF Doom to Jay Dee, to back his sur ­realist take on crack slinging. Killah’s rhymes about the game and deals gone wrong are frighteningly hilarious, yet his cautionary tone hardly glorifies the drug trade the way shameful new hustlers Rick Ross and Young Jeezy do.

Sean Lennon Friendly Fire Lennon’s first album in eight years cranks the volume down tenfold in favour of waltzing pianos and delicate strings. Though songs like “Dead Meat” and “Falling out of Love” paint his love life as bleak, his attention to sweet vocal harmonies brightens up the potential bum-out record of the year.

Swan Lake Beast Moans West Coast supergroup Swan Lake join Destroyer, Frog Eyes, and Wolf Parade in the heavy-hitter ranks of Canuck indie rock. Beast Moans doesn’t stray too far from its creators’ full-time gigs, but the differences keep it from being a batch of leftovers.

Vague Angels Let’s Duke It Out at Kilkenny Katz Six years have passed since author and former Lapse frontman Chris Leo released an album. This mostly acoustic release rocks harder than any folkie affair since Led Zeppelin III.

Tim Hecker Harmony in Ultraviolet The Canadian ambient soundsmith’s latest CD drones beautifully from start to finish. “Chimeras” glistens with textured noise. Unidentified squeaks, organ chords, and ringing bells unite each piece like a fluid, modern-day Brian Eno wet dream.

Mastodon Blood Mountain The lure of Blood Mountain was inescapable for headbangers this year. From its prog-metal leanings to its wondrous storytelling, Mastodon nailed it hard and heavy this time around. Though the Atlanta quartet claims you shouldn’t fear the mystical Cysquatch, the creature tops my list of things to watch out for on my next nature hike.

Morrissey Ringleader of the Tormentors Though bafflingly panned by fans, Moz’s latest thankfully steers clear of the schmaltzy putrescence of 2004’s You Are the Quarry. “Life Is a Pigsty” could be Morrissey’s finest epic since “Late Night, Maudlin Street”, with its erratic cymbals and timpani bursting like fireworks over the song’s finale.

Lucas Aykroyd

In 2006, Sweden and Finland faced off in the Olympic hockey final, and similarly, Scandinavian bands dominated the world of hard rock and heavy metal. Music isn’t a competition, you protest? Apparently you’ve forgotten this genre’s motto: Heavier, Faster, Louder. Now go listen to your Barry Manilow.

Leverage Tides Passionate tenor vocals, flashy but tasteful guitar riffs, superbly orchestrated keyboards, and a rhythm section that adds muscle to every groove—with 10 powerful songs about chasing dreams, Finland’s Leverage joins Van Halen and Boston in the elite circle of bands whose debut albums are hard-rock masterpieces.

Amon Amarth With Oden on Our Side Are these grizzled Swedes name-checking basketball phenom Greg Oden? Nope, but they’ve earned the right to spell the chief Norse god’s name however they want. Brutal yet tuneful, Amon Amarth’s sixth death-metal opus is a slam-dunk, from the Viking fervour of “Runes to My Memory” to the elegiac strains of “Cry of the Black Birds”.

Iron Maiden A Matter of Life and Death You can still proudly wear your 1984–85 World Slavery Tour T-shirt in public. More than 30 years on, the Irons are still very much alive, and the epic quality of this CD validates their decision to perform the entire thing each night on their current tour.

HammerFall Threshold In the 1960s and ’70s, many groups released a new classic every six months. HammerFall is slightly off that pace, but for the second straight year, the Gí¶teborg-based fivesome deserves its power-metal crown. Party on fearlessly to rockers like “The Fire Burns Forever” and “Howlin’ With the ’Pac”.

Mercenary The Hours That Remain This 62-minute disc deservedly captured top honours at the 2006 Danish Metal Awards for its seamless mingling of progressive, thrash, and death influences. Nothing rotten here, Hamlet!

Bloodbound Nosferatu Maybe Bloodbound shouldn’t have raided Dimmu Borgir’s makeup drawer while assembling its incongruous stage outfits. Maybe the new Swedish melodic-metal band should have worked harder to keep ex-vocalist Urban Breed, too. Still, it’s well worth disregarding those missteps. The Maiden-style title track is as triumphant as a horror extravaganza can get, and sonically, the album is immaculate.

The Sword Age of Winters This robust sludge-metal quartet hails from Austin, Texas, just like Origin Systems, maker of the Ultima computer role-playing games. That seems fitting. If you can handle myth-based lyrics on topics like “the slayer of the spider priests”, you’ll revel in the magnificent Sabbath-soaked riffage.

Edguy Rocket Ride Ja, the miracle of German engineering. Much like the 2006 Audi A3, this is one fun ride. Irreverent pop-metal tunes like “Out of Vogue” evoke the heyday of Ratt and Accept, but frontman Tobias Sammet also succeeds in selling the Queen-sized melodrama of “Sacrifice”.

Neurosonic Drama Queen If governments attacked global warming and water conservation with the intensity that Neurosonic mastermind Jason Darr applies to Ashlee Simpson’s lip-synching debacle in “So Many People”, we’d have a much better world. Featuring a frenetic mix of industrial-tinged guitars and synths, plus Beatles-esque vocal harmonies, this debut disc is insanely catchy.

Communic Waves of Visual Decay Fans of Queensrí¿che and Nevermore will relish these monumental, melancholy soundscapes. The power trio’s sophomore outing proves you don’t have to be a troll to appreciate the Norwegian underground.