A Different Kind of Music List: Best of 2006

Tuesday, December 19, 2006 | 04:15 PM

It's that time of year again!

Following our successful outings the past two years, I'm at it again. Here's my Different Kind of Top 10 Music List for 2006.

If you missed prior versions (2005  and 2004), here's the deal: There are a gazillion Best of Lists out there (and one list to rule them all) and most of them simply aren’t relevant to folks like you and me. We have families, careers, perversions, obligations – things that over the course of each annual journey around the sun, somehow keep us from watching 150 films or listening to 200 new CDs.   

So instead of one of those, I try to assemble my list of what a relatively informed music fan has been playing the hell out of all year. While most are circa 2006, we simply ain’t that strict around here. If it was frequently spinning in the car/ipod/laptop/iMac a lot this past year, it was fair game. Call it my soundtrack for 2006.

There may have been plenty of major artist releases (see **bottom) but you don't need me to tell you about them. Where I try to be value added is my take on some of the more obscure music you may have missed -- the stuff that you would like if you heard it on the radio -- if radio didn’t suck. Most of these have been mentioned here during the course of the year.

With no further adieu, here is our 3rd annual Different Kind of Music List: The (Anti) "Best of 2006."


The Mating Game, Bitter:Sweet 

: The Mating Game

This retro album is great fun: Mix a chanteuse's vocals (Shana Halligan) over an ambient lounge soundscape with an early 60s retro sensibility -- and you get Bittersweet. Their terrific debut disc is electronic-lounge, overlaid with current beats, running from sensuously smooth jazz to funky pop grooves to an electronic ethereal vibe.

If you like Morcheeba (Charango was on the 2005 list, and  Big Calm one of our all time faves), you will definitely find Bittersweet to your tastes.

The recording is smooth as silk. Its sensual, ethereal, but not your typical electronica. I found it lushly melodic and reminiscent of Morcheeba and Zero 7. And, you can stream most of the album for free here, or download a free MP3 at C/Net Download.


The Magic Numbers: The Magic Numbers

: The Magic Numbers

I have yet to find a better new rock and roll release this year than The Magic NumbersThe band is an amalgam of all sorts of oddities, but the entire assemblage works surprisingly well: Magic Numbers are two pairs of brother/sister teams (from Trinidad/New York/London), running somewhat counter-trend. Its a strong mix of rock and roll, summery guitars, laid over skiffle and country pop structures. It is spare and at the same time complex, flavored with an intricate Sixties inflection. Somehow, it all sounds very modern, via classic rock instruments (guitar bass drums -- no synth).

Romeo Stodart, the lead singer/guitarist said “I feel that we’ve made a real, classic debut album”– and that's an apt description. (I haven't heard their sophomore  effort yet, Those the Brokes -- but I hear good things).

The songs are jangly, melodic and  hook laden; the writing is outstanding. Lyrics and vocals reveal a tender vulnerability. I found the album very addictive -- with each listen, you want to hear more.


Yell Fire!, Michael Franti and Spearhead

: Yell Fire!

Yell Fire! is an energetic mix of reggae infused with hip hop by Michael Franti and Spearhead. The disc is the result of Franti's 2004 trip to the Middle East to film a documentary (The result was I Know I'm Not Alone). He visited war-ravaged Baghdad, Gaza Strip, and the West Bank, and was obviously  very moved by what he witnessed. Each song deals with the human cost of war poignantly and pointedly.

The music is full of angry indigination -- but it also rocks. Considering how muted the artistic community's response has been to the Iraq War (excepting Neil Young and the Dixie Chicks), this release was one of the first to show some real cojones -- like Neil Young's Living with War, its loud and pissed off, only its a whole lot more fun -- all at the same time.

I first heard the disc unaware of the political overtones, and liked it a whole lot. The screed against the war adds a layer of depth. A definite late night party album, but one that may also make you pay a bit more attention to what's going on in the world.


People Gonna Talk, James Hunter

: People Gonna Talk

Who ever would have guessed that a white guy from Colchester, England could make R&B this great? My man Van Morrison said "James Hunter is one of the best voices, and best kept secrets, in British R & B and soul. Check him out."

You'll be well served to listen to Van. Hunter's writing is tight, unadorned, R&B. This could be playing in the jukeboxes in the background of any 1950s movie, and most people would never think twice that it was anythign but period. Someone described the smooth, laid back delivery as "conjuring up visions of Perry Como...with soul."

Simply a terrific disc by a very talented new artist -- very retro, very cool. If Bitter:Sweet is our early 60's retro selection, then this release fills our slot for 50's retro. If you like old Motown or relaxed 50's R&B -- Sam Cooke updated -- then run-don't-walk to get this.


Eye to the Telescope, KT Tunstall

: Eye to the Telescope

Believe the hype: Edinburgh chanteuse K.T. Tunstall put out one of the most consistently excellent CDs this year. In a sea of female singer/songwriters -- and we include 3 in our list -- her stripped down approach sounds great.

Rumor has it she learnt to sing by listening to tapes of Ella Fitzgerald. A prolific songwriter, Tunstall has described herself as the musical love child of Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits. Her songs have an earthy beauty that rely heavily on blues and country roots -- but she can also write a great pop hook. Her voice stretches across a variety of styles: The hit single on the disc was Black Horse And Cherry Tree is pure pop, but the rest of the album is just as good,(if a little less radio friendly).

A solid choice for Female Vocalist album of the year.


Songlines, Derek Trucks Band

: Songlines

A lot of the discs here are what I listen to in the car with the wife, so they may have less of an edge than I like. Not so with this Derek Trucks.

One of the most interesting new discs I've been listening to this year is Songlines, by The Derek Trucks Band. Guitarist Trucks sound has been described as "snake-like and swampy," and the album runs through blues, jazz, Jamaican, gospel, and world music.

A brilliant guitarist with an excellent supporting cast, this recording snarls and slithers and rocks all the way through. If you start to overdose on the many Chanteuses we've featured this year (4 by my count), then this is your antidote.


Corinne Bailey Rae, Corinne Bailey Rae

: Corinne Bailey Rae

One of my favorite pop discs this year was the debut from Corinne Bailey Rae. You may think she's from somewhere between Mississippi and New Orleans, she actually hails from Leeds in the U.K.

There's no doubt this is a major new talent. Her soulful voice is warm and charming, falling somewhere between a bluesier Ricki Lee Jones and a more sublime Alicia Keys, equal parts pop, blues, soul, classic 1970s R&B.

Rae is a great vocalist, who mixes it up with horns, harmonies, and a bluesy Hammond organ. A fabulous debut outing.


Trouble, Ray LaMontagne

: Trouble

This is a quietly devastating meditation on life and love. It is reminiscent of Otis Redding, Van Morrison and Ted Hawkins.

LaMontagne's voice is engrossingly distinctive, and he shows it off to great effect with well mated material. His writing is sensual (someone else called this "possibly the best make-out album released since the mid to late 70s."), and the production is top notch.

If you want to check out his sound, his my space page has 4 songs to stream from his newer album, Till the Sun Turns Black, and his website (RayLaMontagne.com) offers a live streaming recording via NPR.


Rabbit Fur Coat by Jenny Lewis (with The Watson Twins)

: Rabbit Fur Coat

I'm not a big country music fan, but this is one terrific album -- lots of great original songs, and I love the cover of the Traveling Wilbury's "Handle With Care."

You may recognize Jenny Lewis' voice -- not only is she a member of indie pop band Rilo Kiley, she also sang back up for (2004 selection) Postal Service. All of the songs are melodic and spare -- its Country pop, with a loose, atmospheric feel. The songwriting is Intimate, the recording is deliberately paced. I found myself drawn into this CD, and especially Lewis' haunting vocals time and again.

Since I did not include music legend Dylan (Modern Times) in our list, this CD will suffice as our favorite Country album of this year.


Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall

: Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall

In January 2005, a Library of Congress engineer named Larry "Appelbaum was thumbing through some old Voice of America audiotapes about to be digitized at the Library of Congress when he made a discovery that would stun him and many other jazz fans." (For more on this, hear this NPR recording)

Prior to this, there were only a few studio songs with these two giants on it. This concert recording shows two masters in great form -- riffing off of each other, making some interesting comments back and forth which are not too audible). This is my choice for Jazz Album of the Year.

It sure as hell sounds like they were having a great time. You will too.


Good Night, And Good Luck

: Good Night, And Good Luck

This disc is here as our movie soundtrack pick of 2006. The tight jazz combo is superb, the song selection inspired, and the freshening up of old classics work perfectly with Ms. Reeves sublime voice.

A few songs that others have "owned" find new life in this recording. Nat King Cole's "Straighten Up And Fly Right" and  "Pick Yourself Up" (newly transformed into a mambo) are winners. "Solitude," "One For My Baby" are standouts. "Downright sassy" is the description of Reeves cover of Dinah Washington's 1951 hit "TV Is The Thing This Year."  Indeed, you will be hard pressed to find a bad pick amongst these 15 gems. This is the Dianne Reeves record you've waited for her entire career.

The album is my selection for Soundtrack of the Year.



This Is Reggae Music: The Golden Era 1960-1975

: This Is Reggae Music: The Golden Era 1960-1975

My favorite boxed set this year was hands down the 4-disc set, This Is Reggae Music.

It is a tour de force, a history of reggae (and by extension, hip-hop) going back half a century. If your only exposure to Reggae is Ska and/or Bob Marley and the Wailers, then you need to check out this set. You will be amazed how many of these songs you know from other sources. Miami Ink's theme song is "Funky Kingston" by Toots and the Maytals.  Some of the covers (Ken Boothe's cover of Bread's Everything I Own, and Tony Tribe's cover of Neil Diamond's Red Red Wine), and originals covered by pop artists are astonishingly fresh, despite their age. I have been playing this to death all year, and with 4 discs, its still fresh.

My pick for Boxed set of the year.


Vaughn Trapp


There are very few artists who can pay homage to a musical influence, sprinkling melodic and stylistic references, yet remain fresh and original in their own right. Vaughn Trapp manages to do just that.

There is a clear lineage to The Beatles -- both middle year Lennon McCartney tunes, and latter day George Harrison arrangements are a major influence on many of the cuts here. The melodies are gorgeous, belying the bittersweet political anguish beneath. The retro influences provide a musical framework and historical reference point. But it is fresh enough not to be weighed down by the burden of that reference.

This is my selection for unsigned artist of the year. You can sample his tunes via his My Space page or through iTunes Music Store.


** As mentioned above, there were plenty of major artist releases -- Paul Simon RHCP Bob Dylan The Who David Gilmour this year. But do you really need someone like me to tell you about them?

Well, if you answered yes, here's my short list: Stadium Arcadium was great, Paul Simon’s Surprise was "pretty interesting but no Graceland," John Mayer's Continuum was okay, Dylan’s Modern Times was a very pleasant surprise, I couldn’t get into the Gilmour disc On An Island, and I’m still learning The Who’s Endless Wire -- but you are probably better of at meta-critic on all of these then here.


That's all from this corner of the musical universe -- these are all home run recordings that I expect most readers will derive a great deal of enjoyment from.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006 | 04:15 PM | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack (1)
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Tracked on Dec 20, 2006 3:23:04 AM


cool stuff. the magic numbers' sophomore effort is apparently getting released in the u.s. in a different version than the u.k. release, so you'll have plenty of time to hear it. love the single, though:

i'm one of those hundreds-of-albums a year types, so you can find my top 25 albums (and those of some of my peers) here:

Marc Hogan top 25

Posted by: marc h. | Dec 19, 2006 5:16:34 PM

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