A good friend of mine -- a fellow critic, someone whose work I admire -- recently confided that he's tired of seeking out new music. Just the thought exasperates him. Everything these days sounds hackneyed and derivative to his finely tuned ears. Worse, listening to music has become a job. He's reached a point where he'd rather just play his twenty or so favorite albums than exert any additional effort to find something new that moves him. And that's understandable. He has a connection to that music; he's emotionally invested in it. It makes him happy. Or sad. Sometimes both. It pushes the plasma through his veins. It makes him want to break shit. Bottom line, it makes him feel something.

And my buddy's not alone. There are plenty of folks who don't have the time or the energy to wade through the deluge of new releases in order to find something inspiring. Instead, they stick with the tried and true.

For guys like me, though, the possibility of feeling something more keeps us chasing that initial high. I'm always looking for the next album that will strike a chord, spike a nerve, make me want to break shit. Albums like the ones listed below, which Backbeat scribes all found memorable in 2006. Fair warning: Not all of these releases changed lives; some just made those lives more interesting for an hour or two. -- Dave Herrera


Year-end national reviews

Ahleuchatistas, What You Will (Cuneiform). Ahleuchatistas' Sean Dail, Shane Perlowin and Derek Poteat confirm that legions of white-jacketed sonic scientists and laboratories filled with advanced gear aren't required to make arty rock. Armed with nothing more than technical skill, a bold vision and the most basic musical tools (guitar, drums, bass), they assemble searing instrumentals equally capable of opening minds and inspiring headbanging. -- Michael Roberts

Arctic Monkeys, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (Domino Records). Say what you will about the hype that lifted these British shorties up like elevator shoes -- the fact is, they deserve it. Simple, rump-shaking grooves and pub-crawler verse meet at the drafty door between the club and the garage. Your grandkids will discover this in decades and still think it's cool. -- Eryc Eyl

Nicole Atkins, Bleeding Diamonds (Columbia). Nicole Atkins's multi-faceted compositions, replete with quasi-orchestral elements and reach-for-the-balconies passages, serve as the ideal showcase for her wonderfully unusual vocals, which often begin quietly before ripening into tones that hang in midair like ready-to-pluck fruit. The Diamonds EP clocks in at just over twenty minutes, but it's more satisfying than many recordings three times as long. -- Roberts

Benevento/Russo Duo, Play Pause Stop (Reincarnate Music). Marco Benevento and Joe Russo are category-busters. Using only organ and drums (with an assist from some subtly applied electronics), the two create an unexpectedly opulent sound epitomized by the witty "Echo Park" and a widescreen epic dubbed "Hate Frame." Their work is not quite rock, not quite jazz, not quite chill-out music, but entirely seductive. -- Roberts

Bitman & Roban, Musica Para Despues de Almuerzo (Nacional). This CD's moniker, which translates to "Music for After Lunch," isn't especially accurate. Led by Jos Antonio Toto Bravo (aka DJ Bitman), the effervescent Chilean crew blends electronic, dance, lounge, hip-hop and other assorted aural ingredients into a tasty confection guaranteed to hit the spot no matter what the time of day. -- Roberts

The Black Angels, Passover (Light in the Attic). Considering that the Black Angels hail from Austin, home town of crazy-genius Roky Erickson of the 13th Floor Elevators, and hang out with Anton Newcombe -- another unhinged mastermind -- it's fitting that the six-piece likewise composes neo-psychedelic, acid-fueled jams that jaunt through experimental instrumentation and warped effects pedals. Totally crazy, man. -- Tuyet Nguyen

The Blow, Paper Television (K Records). Ever since their debut release, 2002's Bonus Album, Khaela Maricich and Jona Bechtolt have been crafting lo-fi indie electro-pop that borrows elements of experimental hip-hop and weaves them with long-obsolete musical ideas in innovative ways. In the process, the pair has provided foundational music for a new generation of weird, artsy kids. -- Tom Murphy

Boris, Pink (Southern Lord). A rock opus that puts the heavy back in metal, Pink lashes out with aggravated guitar solos. Although they've lightened up a bit, the Japanese doom bosses in Boris still have plenty of dirge left in them. Pink proves that numbingly slow noise goes well with blast beats. Bow down to the masters. -- Nguyen

Brandtson, Hello, Control (Militia Group). Program around the couple of soft-rock duds on this underappreciated release to uncover a sassy gem of swaggering dance rock -- complete with thumping bass lines, punchy synths and even the occasional vocoder vocal. Alienating its emo following of nearly a decade, the Cleveland-based Brandtson successfully transforms itself from punk pouters to party princes. -- Eyl

Brightblack Morning Light, Brightblack Morning Light (Matador). Brightblack is the love child of Rachael Hughes and Nathan Shineywater (yeah, Shineywater), who both dive headfirst into the deep end of minimalist psych-folk. Revolving Brightblack members are too numerous to mention, but collectively these spirited bodies make up the fretted backbone of this hypnotically enchanting and shining Matador debut. -- Nguyen

J.J. Cale & Eric Clapton, The Road to Escondido (Reprise). Slowhand reunites with J.J. Cale for a slinky session that harks back to the duo's cross-Atlantic partnership. Summoning second-generation ax work from John Mayer and Derek Trucks, the pair also enlists Albert Lee, Taj Mahal and the key work of the late, great Billy Preston, to whom the disc is dedicated. -- Nick Hutchinson

Ray Charles & the Count Basie Orchestra, Ray Sings Basie Swings (Concord). While this dream pairing never actually occurred, a digitally enhanced mash-up brings to life stone classics. Genius Loves Company producer John Burk has put together a swinging collection by lifting Charles's vocals from a trove of never-released recordings and adding tight arrangements by the current Basie band. -- Hutchinson

Jarvis Cocker, Jarvis (Rough Trade). Longtime Pulp fans might not appreciate the second solo record from its witty and charismatic frontman; many of the songs lack the group's seething passion, immediacy and grandeur. Cocker, however, can always be counted on for expert turns of phrase and supremely tuneful, ambitious songwriting across the board, and he doesn't disappoint here. -- Murphy

Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint, The River in Reverse (Verve Forecast). After Katrina, famed New Orleans balladeer Allen Toussaint relocated to New York, where he reconnected with longtime musical chum Elvis Costello. They put together this soulful compilation, which sees the Imposters and Toussaint's horn section polishing several Toussaint gems and introducing new collaborations by both tunesmiths. Costello's take on "Tears, Tears and More Tears" alone is worth the price of admission. -- Hutchinson

J.D. Crowe & the New South, Lefty's Old Guitar (Rounder Records). With more than fifty years under his belt, banjoist J.D. Crowe has inspired countless players -- including Tony Furtado -- who carry on in his tradition using discs like this one as a guide. Lefty's finds Crowe and company rambling from honky-tonk gamblin' numbers to old-time bluegrass and church-worthy gospel. -- Hutchinson

The Dears, Gang of Losers (Arts and Crafts). Stripped down, but still swooning theatrically, Toronto's best Brit-poppers unleash an intense record about growing old and settling down. Murray Lightburn and his gang of winners take Serge Gainsbourg, the Smiths and early Talking Heads for a moonlit cruise through the heavens, hells and purgatories of earthly existence -- and still manage to rock. -- Eyl

Johnny Dowd, Cruel Words (Bongo Beat). On disc, if not in life, Dowd is one twisted bastard. On songs such as "House of Pain," he delivers skewed tales of violence and/or malice over left-field rock that's as rudimentary as it is visceral. He even manages to turn "Johnny B. Goode" into a cry from the id. Nastiness never felt so nice. -- Roberts

Bob Dylan, Modern Times (Columbia). Thirty years after his only other number-one release, Dylan's latest briefly topped the charts, proving there's still some juice in the old tank. A well-conceived outing, Times melds upbeat shuffles with contemplative ballads and features trademark gravelly vocals, poetic songwriting and a colorful sense of history. -- Hutchinson

Envy, Insomniac Doze (Sonzai/Rock Action). Tokyo-based Envy returns to the forefront of emotional hardcore with this densely textured and rapturous release. The decade-old act blossoms on Doze, which is sown with vehement Japanese vocals that elegantly falter with each jubilant breakdown. The CD may only count seven tracks, but it's positively in full bloom. -- Nguyen

Erase Errata, Nightlife (Kill Rock Stars). After the departure of guitarist Sara Jaffe, the fate of this experimental noise-rock outfit from San Francisco was uncertain. But Nightlife furthers the band's rhythm-driven forays into dark moods and razor-sharp social critique. Inevitably compared to Gang of Four, this Errata incarnation has more in common with No Wave's sonic fearlessness. -- Murphy

Lupe Fiasco, Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor (Atlantic). Hip-hop lovers frustrated by the formulaic and unimaginative nature of so many current mainstream releases will be heartened by this thrilling debut. Chicago-bred Fiasco is a protegé of both Jay-Z and Kanye West, but he's very much his own man -- lyrically incisive, musically ambitious and creatively distinctive, yet immediately accessible, too. Liquor is 100-proof. -- Roberts

The Flaming Lips, At War With the Mystics (Warner Brothers). With Mystics, the Lips bring their eccentric humor and warmth to bear on the excesses of the Bush administration. Mixing protest music with freaky art rock could have resulted in an awkward and unsatisfying affair. Instead, Oklahoma City's best sons produced another gorgeously lush and deeply affecting full-length. -- Murphy

Ghostface Killah, Fishscale (Def Jam). Besides the RZA, Ghostface is the only Wu-Tang member who consistently upholds Wu standards with every release. Some may find it difficult to decipher his lyrics, but Ghost is one of the few MCs who put thought into their rhymes. And on Fishscale, backed by RZA, Just Blaze and his Wu-Tang brethren, Ghost does it again. -- Quibian Salazar-Moreno

Girl Talk, Night Ripper (Illegal Art). Gregg Gillis takes the oh-so-2004 mash-up approach to a riot-inducing, dance-floor-pleasing extreme. Smashing Pumpkins, Ludacris and Boston get equal ADD treatment from the Pittsburgh plunderer. Ripper is as arch and winking as you'd expect, but also full of moments of clarity in which the glorious mountain of samples overshadows its petty parts. -- Eyl

Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere (Downtown). After toiling for years in Goodie Mob and as a solo artist, Cee-Lo connected with Danger Mouse (who made his name with an illegal Jay-Z/Beatles mash-up) to form Gnarls Barkley. St. Elsewhere's creativity, boundary-defying sound and catchy but meaningful lyrics make it one of the best albums in the past five years. -- Salazar-Moreno

Gojira, From Mars to Sirius (Listenable/Prosthetic Records). Heavier than Led, more massive than Mastodon and, um, French, Gojira might just have made the best metal album of the year -- a progblackdeathmelodic thesis on growling and gravity. This Gallic Godzilla bends notes, genres and time signatures to create complex yet visceral rock that's absolutely crushing -- even when it's quiet. -- Eyl

The Gossip, Standing in the Way of Control (Kill Rock Stars). Beth Ditto's unforgettably powerful and soulful vocals have been the centerpiece for this band since its inception. On its latest, however, the act incorporates an unexpectedly effective disco beat into its sound, resulting in incendiary punk rock that's more danceable than almost anything else going on right now. -- Murphy

Hanalei, Parts and Accessories (Thick). Wide-eyed troubadour and band deliver artless alt-country punk pop about how their lives were saved by rock and roll, all while driving a beat-up pickup down the dusty road of emo-ricana. Lactose-intolerant listeners who occasionally cringe at Brian Moss's bravely sincere lyrics will quickly be disarmed by the honesty and irresistible melodies. -- Eyl

James Hunter, People Gonna Talk (Go Records/Rounder). England native James Hunter has a lifelong appreciation for American soul and R&B that manifests itself in his jaw-droppingly authentic retro sound, which recalls the jangly funk of James Brown, the vocal essence of Sam Cooke and the simmering cool of Ray Charles. Van Morrison and Elvis Costello both admire this old soul, and it's easy to see why. -- Hutchinson

Isis, In the Absence of Truth (Ipecac). Truth doesn't provide the instantaneous jolt of metal at its simplest. Instead, its complex structures allow the drama to escalate step by deliberate step, alternating moments of tension and release with wicked proficiency. The CD requires patience, but those willing to wait will be rewarded with the sort of emotional payoff that the immediate-gratification crowd will never experience. -- Roberts

J Dilla, The Shining (BBE). Shortly before he passed away in January 2005, producer extraordinaire J Dilla completed several projects, including The Shining, which features hip-hop luminaries Busta Rhymes, Pharoahe Monch and J-Rocc. The album is a tribute to Dilla's beat-making wizardry, with the Common/D'Angelo duet "So Far So Good" and the Black Thought-helmed "Love Movin'" exemplifying his prominence. -- Salazar-Moreno

Jesu, Silver (Hydra Head). Jesu's MySpace headline says "Perfect for drifting off and smoking too much dope," which is a fairly accurate summation of Silver. The latest offering from Jason Broadrick (of Godflesh and Napalm Death fame) shows that even tough metal guys have their sensitive sides -- except that his is still pretty black and gloomy. -- Nguyen

Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris, All the Roadrunning (Warner Bros.). Rather than rest comfortably on their laurels, Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris deliver the goods on standout cuts such as the wistful title track and the well-radioed "This Is Us." Knopfler's acclaimed six-string work and pleasingly gruff vocals enhance Harris's warm country crooning for a memorable trip to Rootsville. -- Hutchinson

Ray LaMontagne, Till the Sun Turns Black (RCA). To much of America, Ray LaMontagne is that guy American Idol Taylor Hicks really likes. Fortunately, there's a lot more to his artistry than this association implies. Black is an understated tour of relationship hell, with LaMontagne serving as an all-too-experienced guide on one psychologically devastating cut after another. It's the kind of disc that even Idols worship. -- Roberts

Liars, Drum's Not Dead (Mute). Liars can do no wrong. The transcontinental outfit (one lives in Berlin, two reside stateside) makes musical experimentation sound effortless, and moody post-rock feel light. Drum's Not Dead is a reverberating clamor of unblemished orchestration that layers rhythmic drone under wily chorused vocals. Who says all Liars are bad? -- Nguyen

Metal Hearts, Socialize (Suicide Squeeze Records). A little record of big ideas, Socialize brims with unassuming yet formidable masterpieces of achingly beautiful, dreamy rock. Anar Badalov and Flora Wolpert-Checknoff spike their intensely personal indie pop with ethereal harmonies, saxophone squawks and plenty of warm electronic textures as they plead quietly and paradoxically for human connection and solitude. -- Eyl

Juana Molina, Son (Domino). The latest from Juana Molina, an Argentine emigré with a background in, of all things, sketch comedy, initially seems like a fairly standard world-music effort. But it soon becomes clear that the album's gently strummed acoustic guitars and serene singing are building blocks for an impressionistic opus distinguished by organic arrangements and naturalistic sounds. Together, they make Son rise. -- Roberts

Van Morrison, Pay the Devil (Lost Highway). Constructing an unlikely bridge between Celtic soul crooning and country-Western, Morrison puts his own spin on cow classics while throwing out a few of his own. His offspring, including the Mephistophelian title cut and the fetching track "Playhouse," more than stand up to their country cousins, making the trip from Belfast to Nashville downright enjoyable. -- Hutchinson

Murs & 9th Wonder, Murray's Revenge (Record Collection). Cali underground rapper Murs has been putting in work for years, but it wasn't until he connected with Little Brother producer 9th Wonder that he made his best album ever. Wonder's laid-back, soulful production is the perfect match for Murs's witty, insightful lyricism. -- Salazar-Moreno

My Chemical Romance, The Black Parade (Reprise). Some dunderheaded reviewers have fixated on the bleakness of Gerard Way's themes without noticing the glee with which he shares them. Despite the presence of a tune cheerfully named "Cancer," The Black Parade is a kick from start to finish thanks to the theatrical joy that Way and the Romancers exude as they promenade into Hades, skeletal grins firmly in place. -- Roberts

My Morning Jacket, Okonokos (ATO). The antidote to jam bands while still kind of being a jam band, My Morning Jacket brings it home in the live setting. The act's ethereal, reverb-heavy sound is anchored by chiming guitar lines, steady grooves and wistful vocals. Stretching out on 21 live cuts, Okonokos is the next best thing to being up front at Bonnaroo. -- Hutchinson

Nicolay, Here (BBE). Amsterdam producer Nicolay made waves in the underground with Foreign Exchange, his project with Little Brother's Phonte. This year he dropped his debut album, Here, which introduced new talents Wiz Khalifia and Black Spade and continued to display Nicolay's brilliant musicianship, production artistry and song craftsmanship. -- Salazar-Moreno

The North Atlantic, Wires in the Walls (We Put Out). Wires is magnetic. It's an exaltation of stupid punk ardor and art-house intellectualism that in some weird vortex of hand-clapping and fervid guitar-playing makes total sense. The San Diego-based North Atlantic sweats out youthful apprehension that transcends genres, making this release easily one of the most accessible rock records of the year. -- Nguyen

Om, Conference of the Birds (Holy Mountain). Everyone talks as if High on Fire's Matt Pike was the acid-fried brains behind stoner-rock progenitors Sleep. But the other guys -- bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros and drummer Chris Hakius -- prove that Pike ain't got nothing when it comes to super-slow, ultra-heavy, loud-as-fuck drone metal. Two songs in 33.3 minutes, and not a second wasted. -- Nguyen

The Prids, ...Until the World Is Beautiful (Five03). The critical backlash against all things post-punk should halt when it comes to bands like the Prids. Driving, propulsive rhythms and ethereally incendiary guitar draped in shiningly icy synths -- those were the hallmark of the best of early-'80s post-punk. On this release, the Prids update that sound with exhilarating energy and conviction. -- Murphy

The Roots, Game Theory (Def Jam). The past year and a half has been an emotional roller coaster for the Roots. The effects of Hurricane Katrina and the death of friend and collaborator J Dilla proved difficult to ignore and permeated Game Theory. The Roots' darkest release yet, the album finds the act baring more of its soul than ever before. -- Salazar-Moreno

Siouxsie and the Banshees, Voices on Air: The Peel Sessions (Universal Polydor). Legendary radio host John Peel died in 2004 and left behind an equally legendary body of recordings created to air on his BBC show. The first four tracks on this disc are the band's earliest studio recordings, before it ever released an album. Voices is stark, haunting, jagged music often overlooked by post-punk miners of yesteryear inspiration. -- Murphy

Sivion, Spring of the Songbird (Hip-Hop is Music). Sivion's uplifting lyrics over brass-knuckle beats provide a perfect balance for those who love a raw sound with resolute lyrics. Ranging from his love of hip-hop ("I Still Love H.E.R.") to his love of being a father ("Songbird Saturday") to his love of God ("Today Is the Day"), Songbird exhibits the MC's notable versatility. -- Salazar-Moreno

Sonic Youth, Rather Ripped (Geffen). There are very few things you can depend on anymore. Fortunately, a good new Sonic Youth record is one of them. This band has been expertly fusing its avant-garde aesthetic with solid pop songwriting ever since 2002's Murray Street. Even without Jim O'Rourke, Ripped is among the act's most compelling material in over a decade. -- Murphy

Bruce Springsteen, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (Columbia). In his ongoing attempt to become Bob Dylan, the Boss dips into a seemingly bottomless well of old-timey American folk favorites. Backed by a spirited crew on banjo, mandolin and all manner of acoustic instruments, Springsteen narrowly hops the wolf of pretension to hit his mark, like a quick fox on a slow hen. -- Hutchinson

Kenn Starr, Starr Status (Halftooth). Still relatively unknown and unbelievably slept on, Kenn Starr is a shining light in the darkness of underground hip-hop. He's a lyrical heavyweight who can battle with the best of them while dropping knowledge that inspires the listener -- all over the freshest beats from a new crop of talented producers. -- Salazar-Moreno

Stereolab, Fab Four Suture (Too Pure Records). The Groop is still playing space-age bachelor-pad music. Although it comprises four different EPs -- hence the title of the album -- this collection of songs make up Stereolab's most cohesive and warmly organic release in years. Jazz-lounge sounds intertwine with an electro-kraut-rock drone to produce an effect both nostalgic and futuristic. -- Murphy

Strange Fruit Project, The Healing (Om). Hailing from Houston, Texas, the Strange Fruit Project is in another stratosphere compared to fellow H-Town artists Mike Jones, Chamillonaire and Slim Thug. The trio's sound is more in the vein of A Tribe Called Quest, with The Healing boasting production from 9th Wonder, Nicolay and Ill Mind, as well as appearances from Little Brother and Erykah Badu. -- Salazar-Moreno

Surreal & DJ Balance, Future Classic (Hip-Hop Is Music). Those who claim that hip-hop is dead probably haven't heard the debut album from Surreal & DJ Balance. Future Classic is full of head-nodding breakbeats, intelligent lyrics and wicked turntablism -- something that's been missing from most modern hip-hop. If you're wondering what hip-hop should sound like, give this a listen. -- Salazar-Moreno

Tiga, Sexor (Pias). Tiga lifts noises from early trance and techno records to create dark disco that alternates delightfully between groovy and goofy. Analog synths, thudding bass and Tiga's warm baritone vocals will seduce even the most rhythm-challenged dancing feet. Extra points for clever covers of Public Enemy, Nine Inch Nails and Talking Heads. -- Eyl

What Made Milwaukee Famous, Trying to Never Catch Up (Barsuk). While the ingredients of this frothy-headed brew include power pop, indie rock and new wave, a blend of artistic spices gives the Austin ale its refreshing kick. With the help of smart lyrics and sassy keys, sincere little pop songs evolve into grand compositions without ever losing their unpretentious hearts. -- Eyl

Witch, Witch (Tee Pee). You wouldn't necessarily finger J Mascis for a metal-type dude, nor would you think that the guys from avant-folk act Feathers were into the heavy riffing of bands like Sabbath and Uriah Heep. But somehow the anomalous combination adds up to a thundering rock assault that culls from the darkest of influences. Hail Witch! -- Nguyen

Wolf, The Black Flame (Prosthetic). Sweden's Wolf secures its place as the undisputed torchbearer for melodic metal, gleefully recalling the heydays of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. Brit metal fans will swoon at the galloping drums, insistent leads and operatic vocals on songs that rock as hard as titles like "I Will Kill Again" and "Steelwinged Savage Reaper." -- Eyl

Yo La Tengo, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (Matador). Opening with the epic feedback drone of "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind," the latest release from this Hoboken, New Jersey, trio is a return to the vital eclecticism that made the band famous. Incandescent guitar and suggestive atmospheres illuminate unconventional yet tender melodies. This is avant-pop music for dreamers everywhere. -- Murphy


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