The festive season might be to good music what John Prescott is to diplomacy, but it serves as the perfect time to look back on all the grand achievements of the past twelve months. 2006 had its low points; we lost Arthur Lee, Syd Barrett, J Dilla and James Brown. It was also the year the world's biggest boy band reformed. Cliff and Tony Bennett grew older disgracefully with Christmas cash-in albums. 2006 may well be remembered as the year of the comeback; it's not every year we see Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Prince, Van Morrison and countless others all supplying new material. After a fairly slow start, it also became a great year for the quality of albums released. Below are this writer's choice of twenty of the very best, in descending order:
20. Ghostface Killah - Fishscale
Streets ahead of his once-mighty Wu-Tang cohorts, Ghostface displayed cinematic vision and gripping narratives on his latest solo album. Excursions into straightforward battle rap and wittily candid childhood reminiscences only served to highlight the breadth and intelligence lacking in a relatively poor year for hip-hop.
19. Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly - Chronicles Of A Bohemian Teenager
Southend-reared Sam Duckworth’s debut was an endearing blend of earnest lyrics, acoustic guitar and playful, laptop-spawned electronica. Stand-out 'Call Me Ishmael' came complete with cornet solo and an inspired change of pace, revealing pop nous which will stand Duckworth in good stead for the tricky second album.
18. Gnarls Barkley - St. Elsewhere
Buoyed by 'Crazy's summer ubiquity, 'St. Elsewhere' was a meeting of (off-kilter) minds between producer de-rigeur Dangermouse and former Goodie Mob rapper and general voice-for-hire Cee-Lo Green. Exploring a loose theme of mental instability, the album mixed dusty psychedelia, stuttering beats and Cee-Lo’s incomparable gospel-reared voice to great effect.
17. Ed Harcourt - The Beautiful Lie
With 'The Beautiful Lie', the prolific and prodigiously gifted Ed Harcourt finally shook off the albatross of his Mercury-nominated debut 'Here Be Monsters'. Resolutely romantic and free of fads, Harcourt’s torch songs were a flashlight through the crowded, darkened tunnels of the modern singer-songwriter.
16. Graham Coxon - Love Travels At Illegal Speeds
While Damon Albarn spent the year resurrecting the supergroup with Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad & The Queen, former Blur band-mate Graham Coxon simply continued crafting his own inimitable brand of lovelorn punk-pop. Packed full of punchy gems such as 'I Can’t Look At Your Skin', 'Love Travels…' was an assured and excellent performance from an indie institution.
15. Acoustic Ladyland - Skinny Grin
Not so much a melting pot, rather a face-melting combination of sludgey metal riffs and cacophonous virtuoso jazz. Traces of Coltrane resonate through Peter Wareham's sax, but the most potent weapon AL possess is Polar Bear's Seb Rochford on drums. Opener 'Road Of Bones' and Scott Walker's nightmarish mix of 'Salt Water' are the best examples of the band's drastic new vision for British jazz.
14. Kasabian - Empire
Building on the template of 2004’s self-titled debut, Leicester lads Kasabian beefed up their swaggering dance-rock hybrid with a notable nod to ’70s glam, particularly in stomping single 'Shoot The Runner'. Despite the continuing presence of forefathers Primal Scream and Oasis, Empire stood out as the year’s most irresistible hook-led guitar album (by a band formed outside of Sheffield).
13. Cat Power - The Greatest
Chan ‘Cat Power’ Marshall recruited a host of Memphis musicians to flesh out her damaged, lo-fi songwriting for 'The Greatest'. The result was a heady soul brew, the wistful confessionals of 'Where Is My Love' and 'Lived In Bars' made all the more poignant by Marshall’s recent battles with depression and alcoholism.
12. The Beatles - Love
Created for Cirque Du Soleil, this trawl through The Beatles’ back catalogue allowed George and Giles Martin to re-imagine some of the Fab Four’s finest moments. The mash-up style popularised by Soulwax’s '2 Many DJ’s album is used to stunning effect as 'Tomorrow Never Knows' is juxtaposed with 'Within You Without You', a highlight of a project handled lovingly and with no little flair by its curators.
11. The Roots - Game Theory
Taking a step back from previous album 'The Tipping Point's overt commerciality, 'Game Theory' was a dark and claustrophobic affair, the Philadelphia hip-hop veterans preoccupied with war zones at home and abroad. Dynamic, unhinged contributions from former members Dice Raw and Malik B offered a counterpoint to lead emcee Black Thought’s technical flow, while ringleader ?uestlove’s musical vision remained undimmed fifteen years since the band’s formation.
10. Rodrigo Y Gabriela - Rodrigo Y Gabriela
Renowned for their astounding live performances, Mexican duo Rodrigo Y Gabriela translated their on-stage energy onto record with a little help from production maestro John Leckie. Indebted to flamenco masters such as Paco De Lucia, but equally the fervent, devotional energy of hard rock, it was telling that they chose to cover Led Zeppelin and Metallica on this outstanding set.
9. Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
While debates still rage about whether they are the greatest band since The Smiths, (or perhaps more realistically, the best band from Sheffield since Pulp) the Arctic Monkeys debut album stands as a timely and timeless continuation of the British art of storytelling. Whether berating ‘Fake Tales Of San Francisco’ or extolling the joys of late night cabs, Alex Turner’s wit and the Monkeys’ winning tunes struck a chord with the nation.
8. Neil Young - Living With War
Initially available as an internet-only download, Neil Young’s rush-recorded 'Living With War' was a timely example of the emotive power music can have in the political arena. Backed by rugged guitars and a 100-strong choir, Young tears into the Bush administration furiously and unreservedly on 'Lookin’ For A Leader' and 'Let’s Impeach The President'. 'Living With War' struck a victory for both its venerable creator and the unabated spirit of protest writing.
7. Old Crow Medicine Show - Big Iron World
Championed by Americana icon Gillian Welch - who appeared here on drum duties - this five piece channelled youthful vigour and age-old songs into a vibrant and remarkably cohesive album. Rollicking fiddle-led standards such as 'Cocaine Habit' rubbed shoulders with the boys’ own accomplished compositions such as 'James River Blues' and 'My Good Girl'. Country album of the year by a country mile.
6. Flaming Lips - At War With The Mystics
Proving the commercial breakthrough of 2002’s 'Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots' was no fluke, Wayne Coyne’s enigmatic Oklahomans resurfaced stronger than ever in 2006. Dalliances with funk ('Free Radicals') and prog-rock ('Pompeii Am Gotterdammerung') broadened the group’s creative palette, while naysayers and warmongers bore the brunt of Coyne’s lyrical broadsides.
5. Bob Dylan - Modern Times
Completing a trio of late-career triumphs, the ironically-titled 'Modern Times' shunned contemporary techniques in favour of old-time blues, ballads and boogie-woogie. Dylan’s unmatchable lyrics provided ammunition for accusers of literary plagiarism, hours of fun for train-spotters and his first US number one since 1976’s 'Desire'.
4. Guillemots - Through The Windowpane
This oddly-named troupe of eccentric popsters provided two of 2006’s most inventive pop singles in 'Trains To Brazil' and 'Made Up Love Song #43'. The accompanying full-length lived up to the promise of these earlier offerings, equally showcasing leader Fyfe Dangerfield’s penchant for tender love songs and kitchen-sink approach to arrangements.
3. Amy Winehouse - Back To Black
Moving even further from the jazzy lounge of Melua and Jones, in 2006 London chanteuse Amy Winehouse created that rarest of artefacts, a top-notch UK soul album. Helped by producers Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson, 'Back To Black's searing songs were honest and heartfelt odes to love, loss, addiction and “fuckery”.
2. Spank Rock - YoYoYoYoYo
Thrillingly futuristic dance floor action abounded on this debut by filthy, electro-informed hip-hoppers Spank Rock. Traces of Timbaland’s sonic invention and swathes of 2 Live Crew’s misogyny perpetuated 'YoYoYoYoYo', but it was naïve electronics and mind-boggling lyrical verve which carried the likes of 'Top Billin’ From Far Left' and 'Tell Me What It Look Like' from the Baltimore underground to the critical consciousness.
1. TV On The Radio - Return To Cookie Mountain
For all the experimental gusto of Brooklyn art-rockers TV On The Radio’s follow-up to 2004’s 'Desperate Youth Blood-Thirsty Babes', there was a definite pop heart behind the enveloping soundscapes. Opener 'I Was A Lover' mixed looped strings and a stuttering hip-hop beat with inflective lyricism, while the majestic 'A Method' cranked up the barbershop harmonies behind front-man Tunde Adebimpe’s lead. Celebrity support came in the guise of David Bowie’s guest vocals on 'Province', although true to form they were hidden within the foggy midst of the track. While they stopped short of repeating the snowballing success of fellow Bowie faves Arcade Fire’s 'Funeral', this was an equally moving, memorable and masterful set of songs.
R.I.P. James Brown
Happy birthday Shane MacGowan (for yesterday)