Despite the unstoppable YouTubing of pop culture, trends still arise from the intersection of art and commerce, and D.I.Y. chaos doesn’t reign supreme quite yet; in short, proclaiming the death of the album as musical form is so 2005. This year, in fact, albums rocked — from fun techno schlock to high-minded harpistry, 2006’s best music was characterized by both cohesion and diversity, atmosphere and melody, work and play. Here, now, are the top 10 albums of 2006:
10. Nelly Furtado, “Loose”
Furtado’s chart-topping comeback rides the reinvention train pioneered by Madonna and goatherded into pop paradise by Gwen Stefani. Like her forerunners, Furtado has never been great at anything, so she decided to be pretty good at everything; what impressed everyone, though, was just how deep in lust she fell with even her most banal lyrics and overused dance floor concepts. If only selling out always sounded this hot.
9. Johnny Cash, “American V: A Hundred Highways”
Cash is the new Tupac as his former spiritual mentor, Rick Rubin, releases the first of what promises to be an endless slew of posthumous albums. Recorded on the edge of death and in the final stage of Cash’s unparalleled nine-lives career, “A Hundred Highways” is a scrapbook of middle-American melancholia: a desperate cry for peace and tranquility from the ever-restless journeyman.
8. Annuals, “Be He Me”
They whisper, they shout, they pound guitars and pluck violins, they’re precious and angry and deliver kick-ass live shows: ladies and gentlemen, the Arcade Fire! Or … the Decemberists. Or … anyway, don’t worry about trying to organize the shuffling deck of orchestral emo-punk collectives out there — Annuals delivers the year’s best hit of dazzling, decadent, shape-shifting rock for the too-cool-for-Pitchfork set.
7. Joanna Newsom, “Ys”
Newsom’s 2004 debut, “The Milk-Eyed Mender,” was met with considerable acclaim, but mostly just flung the whimsical songstress into the folk-pop ghetto, turning her into a harp-playing Norah Jones without the famous daddy. What a sharp turn she took on “Ys,” the most intense, impenetrable album of the year — five songs, ranging from seven to 17 minutes, of interwoven mythical imagery and sweeping, bone-chilling orchestration. Listen carefully to the lyrics of “Monkey & Bear” — and try to get a good night’s sleep afterward.
6. Peter Bjorn and John, “Writer’s Block”
Every hot young band dreams of writing a song as irresistible as “Young Folks,” the as-featured-on-Grey’s-Anatomy whistle-along that vaunted this perky Swedish threesome to stardom. Yet PB&J, as they’re fondly known to their fans, wrote an entire album of them, songs so angsty and apple-cheeked it’s hard to believe they weren’t aped for a Len reunion — which, in this world of glum, hearse-ready screamo-rock, is a very good thing.
5. Belle and Sebastian, “The Life Pursuit”
It only took 10 years for weepie cult legends Belle and Sebastian to fully embrace the glam circus that’s shadowed them since Tigermilk’s “Electronic Renassiance,” but it’s been worth the wait: “The Life Pursuit” finally showcases front man Stuart Murdoch’s razor-sharp pop instincts, his ease behind the synthesizer, his lyrical concreteness. Pushing 40 and perennially ageless, Murdoch still kvetches better than an army of Fall Out Boys ever could.
4. Clipse, “Hell Hath No Fury”
Clipse always sold themselves as the scrappy, blingless alternative to the fattened cows of region-pride rappers, rusty pipe-wielding guttersnipes who just happened to have a contract with Star Trak. On “Hell Hath No Fury,” the crack-dealing Virginia duo’s long-delayed sophomore album, they stuff a “Wire” season’s worth of harrowing urban nightmares into 12 of the roughest, toughest Neptunes’ beats since Mystikal plead guilty.
3. Dixie Chicks, “Taking the Long Way”
“We’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas”: it shouldn’t have mattered, but the once-winsome girl group placed foot in mouth and bit down hard, losing their hot-headed fans and transforming themselves into the bravest musical act in the nation. What a joy, then, that “Taking the Long Way” finds them at the height of their country-pop powers, enflamed and humbled alike, musically dexterous and lyrically daring, wrenching the genre out of its narrow purview and into bold new territory.
2. Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Stadium Arcadium”
Ignoring hipster whispers of the double-album jinx, of TRL indulgences and elder-statesmen staleness, the Red Hot Chili Peppers did what they do best and delivered the finest rock-and-roll record of the year, equal parts crowd-pleaser and mind-bender, a cerebral triumph from the tube sock-sporting kings of carnal. The flavors of their fantasyland songwriting have never been richer or more full-bodied: “I never thought I’d be in bloom,” Anthony Kiedis sings on the aching title track, and for a second, you believe him.
1. Gnarls Barkley, “St. Elsewhere”
Even the most revolutionary music begins as a noise in someone’s head, and for Gnarls Barkley masterminds Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo Green, the flow from head to hand to hard disc is a rocket blast into the outer reaches of the pop galaxy. There may be better artists out there, but is there anyone more willing to projectile-vomit all over our zipped-up sensibilities, to wring us through 40-odd years of obscure R&B samples, to electroshock us into shaking our collective asses to a song about going insane? Sometimes it takes more than one visionary to get it done right.