2006: A Top Ten

by Shane M. Liebler

No drawn-out introduction here. Below you'll find a top 10 list of the records I personally enjoyed most in 2006:


10. Gnarls Barkley -- St. Elsewhere

After all the British-sponsored hype about this dynamic duo, the likely one-off release was a major disappointment. However, tracks like "Go-Go Gadget Gospel," "Crazy," "Smiley Faces" and "The Last Time" provide more than enough forward-thinking sheen to gain this relatively dull offering numerous top 10 entries this year -- including mine. If you want to call it R&B or soul (which I do), this is certainly the most notable release in a very, very long time.


9. Cold War Kids -- Robbers and Cowards

These smart, arty L.A. kids have a penchant for storytelling over sparse arrangements punctuated most notably by abrupt piano strikes, vintage instrumentation and hand-clap-inducing choruses. The band's full-length debut Robbers and Cowards is an attention-getting collection of 12 contemporary tales delivered with a sublimely intense yelp only lead singer Nathan Willett can create. Think the Walkmen fronted by Jeff Buckley taking a page from entry No. 8 (below).


8. The Decemberists -- The Crane Wife

The oft-used label "folk-prog monsterpiece" is a description I cannot append. Like last year's Picaresque, this major-label debut is saggy in only a few spots. But given the scope and indisputable skill exercised here, they're hard to notice. A remarkably cohesive and quirky volume, this release has great potential to climb up my best of the decade list. However, I think these Oregon-based bards have even greater things in store.

7. Jose Gonzalez -- Veneer

I think I've heard enough to make the un-researched bold blanket statement that this is the best classically-infused acoustic guitar record by a Swedish-born Argentinean ever. Boy, that's a lot of adjectives. In contrast, there's very little disruption to the heartfelt and simplistic flow on Veneer. Bold assertion No.2: This record will change your life.

6. The Thermals -- The Body, The Blood, The Machine

The greatest band in the history of the world, The Thermals, return in less familiar form. The instantly memorable alliterate lyrics are back and so is the two-and-a-half-minute ferocity that ruled this legendary ensemble. Including some of the best features of their under-produced debut and over-produced follow-up, this LP adds a concept story line about survival in a Christian right-controlled universe. A frightening, rocking look at George Bush's beatific vision of a United States controlled by fucked-up religious fundamentalists. There are some sweet guitar solos, too.

5. Ghostface Killah -- Fishscale

The master of street storytellers offers up another disturbing glimpse of his former life and, as usual, offers no apologies. One-of-a-kind wordplay and shocking displays of ultra-violence bleed through old soul samples on this drug-moving adventure featuring Staten Island superhero Tony Starks. The imagery is so vivid and descriptive that the listener has no doubt Ghostface was really there. The unsettling question is whether this is a retelling from the last millennium or last week. You'll never know for sure. Sleep tight.

4. J Dilla -- Donuts

Though no LP can quantify what J Dilla (aka Jay Dee) gave to hip-hop, Donuts is an appropriate final word. There are no lyrics on this record, though, only sounds -- tweaked to perfection -- by a master of the medium. James Yancey died at age 32 on a hospital bed in his mother's arms, just three days after his birthday and the release of Donuts. This somber send-off easily represents my headphone masterpiece of the year with enough lovingly-selected grooves to last a lifetime.

3. Tapes 'n Tapes -- The Loon

What a deal! The Loon is like 10 albums for the price of one. These obscure Minnesota hipsters restored my love for indie rock bands with damn near-unidentifiable influences. With the shape shifting often occurring mid-song, I've counted at least 67 genres and sub-genres that drive this frantic listen. What a great disc.

2. Ratatat -- Classics

Instrumental rock albums. That's how I roll. Two laptop nerds punch out an oddly moving collection of killer riffs (electronic and otherwise) and melodic soundscapes. The group's pretentiously titled second disc could easily be adapted as the Big Lebowski original motion picture soundtrack, which is probably why I listened to it in its entirety more than any other release this year.

1. Neko Case -- Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

It’s so hard to peg down the feeling of the sun striking your chilly arm hanging out the car window on a spring day. Neko Case comes pretty damn close. The lofty, reverb-laden vocals of this redheaded stranger harness all the intangible energy, whim and wonder of post-equinox days past, present and future with shocking clarity. The sound of her adept backing ensemble lays out the wholesome, rootsy Midwestern flavor your grandfather might have blared out the '47 Chevy on a juncture from Chicago to St. Louis. Case, too, sports a Patsy Cline hum as she pours tales of jealousy, animals, love and pain over 12 pristinely-produced vignettes. A progressive idea built on traditional arrangements that induce random fits of singing along -- it's brilliant.

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