After lots of listening, these are my choices.
1. NEKO CASE: FOX CONFESSOR BRINGS THE FLOOD. Each song is an epic in miniature, with little musical touches that stand out the more you listen. Instead of the standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus pattern, some of the songs follow their own strange logic. The stellar cast of musicians (Sadies, Calexico, Rauhouse, Hudson, et al) creates a variety of sounds, and yet it all feels unified. The lyrics seem like memories, evocative hints at personal history that never spell out the exact story. “Hold On, Hold On” is notable as one of those songs that seems to be about another song, referring to that other song’s echo chorus of “hold on, hold on.” And, of course, there’s that magnificent voice at the center of it all, lovingly bathed in reverb. Neko has made many fine records. The twangier sound of “Furnace Room Lullaby” was what hooked me on her music in the first place, followed by the revelation of witnessing her amazing voice in live performance. “Blacklisted” was a good record with some excellent songs, but it felt like a tentative step toward finding her own songwriting voice. “The Tigers Have Spoken” was a great live record, capturing the more upbeat side of her performance. But this is the one that brings her artistry to full fruition. www.nekocase.com / download “Hold On, Hold On” / download “Star Witness” / watch “Maybe Sparrow”
2. MY BRIGHTEST DIAMOND: BRING ME THE WORKHORSE. Shara Worden, aka My Brightest Diamond, is the most impressive all-around musical artist I discovered in 2006. Her biggest claim to fame until now was playing keyboards and guitar in Sufjan Stevens’ band and serving as the “lead cheerleader” during his “Illinois” tour. She shares Stevens’ interest in orchestral arrangements, but she takes the art in a much different direction. I was hooked from the first time I heard the opening track of this album, “Something of an End.” It starts out moody and dramatic, erupts into a strong chorus and then in the middle, Worden trills her voice like a bird (or maybe Björk?). And then she closes the song with a quiet, soaring passage that is breathtakingly beautiful. Not surprisingly, Worden is a classically trained singer who has also studied string arrangement. I had the privilege of interviewing her, and she said she’s striving to find a balance between the worlds of rock and classical music, and I believe she has succeeded. At times, her music reminds me of P.J. Harvey’s, with tense guitar riffs accented by violins. The lyrics are intimate and mysterious, including several scenes from childhood, often involving animals and insects in peril. I’ve been disappointed that this album isn’t showing up on more best-of-2006 lists. If the album doesn’t hook you right away, make sure to see My Brightest Diamond in concert. Her set opening for Sufjan at the Riveria was good, but too short. Her later show at Schubas lacked a string section, but more than made up for it with a full rock-band sound. It was dynamite. www.mybrightestdiamond.com / download “Something of an End” / stream album
3. MIDLAKE: THE TRIALS OF VAN OCCUPANTHER. I was a fan of Midlake’s 2004 album, “Bamnan & Silvercork,” a somewhat lo-fi indie-prog-rock song cycle with odd lyrics that seemed like menacing fairy tales. My first reaction to “Van Occupanther” was actually one of disappointment, because I was hoping the band would have made a record that sounded bigger and more epic. That disappointment quickly disappeared as I listened more closely and realized what a stunning accomplishment “Van Occupanther” is. The balance of instruments creates a beautiful tapestry throughout the album. It’s rare that you hear piano and acoustic guitar working so well together, for example. And then add some flourishes of synth and electric guitar to the mix, and some fabulous drum fills. And somehow, all of these elements never get in the way of one another. It blends together perfectly, creating a sound that seems understated at first but actually rocks if you turn it up and pay attention. The album has been compared to Fleetwood Mac, but I also hear “Trick of the Tail”-era Genesis. I still haven’t figured out exactly what the lyrics are about — I’m not sure if anyone ever will — but they seem like a fascinating literary tale. The cover art showing band members wearing costumes out in the words reinforces the sense of myth. Certain lines stand out. In the opening song, “Roscoe,” Midlake’s singer and songwriter, Tim Smith, sings: “I wonder what if my name had changed into something more productive like Roscoe been born in 1891 waiting with my Aunt Roslein.” Productive? What an odd choice of words, but it resonates in a peculiar way. This is a record filled with special moments like that. www.midlake.net / download “It Covers the Hillsides” / stream songs
4. TOM WAITS: ORPHANS: BRAWLERS, BAWLERS & BASTARDS. This one gets an asterisk. Half of it is songs that have already been released, so it doesn’t seem entirely fair to proclaim it as one of the year’s best albums. But half of it is new songs, and they all hold together in a way that’s surprisingly coherent. In terms of sheer quantity of excellent songs, “Orphans” would likely be my No. 1 album of the year. I like Waits best when he’s eclectic, and he is certainly that on “Orphans,” which shows the full range of what he’s capable of. So many great ballads, so many great rockers, so many weird monologues. I love it. www.anti.com / download “You Can Never Hold Back Spring” / download “Bottom of the World” / download “Road to Peace” / watch “Lie to Me”
5. GNARLS BARKLEY: ST. ELSEWHERE. I don’t know what Danger Mouse’s secret is, but he has a Midas touch. His arrangements and production always have something special about them. His cool sounds are matched with some great songs in the Gnarls Barkley project, including the year’s best radio hit, “Crazy,” and a fine mix of other soulful numbers. This isn’t hip-hop. It isn’t exactly old-school soul, either, but it’s a lot closer to the sort of soul I’d like to hear than most contemporary R&B. www.gnarlsbarkley.com / watch “Crazy” / watch “Smiley Faces” / watch “Gone Daddy Gone”
6. M. WARD: POST-WAR. Ward is simply one of the best guitarists, songwriters and singers working today. I still think “Transfiguration of Vincent” is his best album, but “Post-War” is damn fine, too. Its only flaw may be that it peters out at the end, but I actually like the ramshackle feeling of those closing tracks. The cover of Daniel Johnston’s “To Go Home” is glorious. “Right in the Head” is downright haunting. The album sounds simultaneously ancient and up-to-the-minute. Now, if Dylan’s new record sounded more like this, I might have ranked it higher. www.mwardmusic.com / watch “Chinese Translation”
7. BAT FOR LASHES: FUR AND GOLD. This debut record by Natasha Khan, a Pakistani-Brit, is not officially out in the U.S., but it’s fairly easily obtainable as an import, so I am including it on my 2006 list anyway. Performing under the name Bat For Lashes, Khan is a singer-songwriter who reminds me at various times of Kate Bush, P.J. Harvey, Cat Power and ’60s girl groups. She has some beautiful songs on this record, often featuring keyboards that sound like harpsichords. It’s quasi-orchestral and arty, but it’s also melodic enough to connect with a big audience. www.batforlashes.co.uk / sample “Trophy” / sample “Sarah” / sample “Tahiti” / sample “What’s a Girl to Do?”
8. BAND OF HORSES: EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME. I love the way these songs build and then fade into quiet, minor-key bridges and then re-emerging with new intensity. Band of Horses is not doing anything all that groundbreaking (the sonic similarity to My Morning Jacket is undeniable), but these are memorable songs, well played, and the record stands up well on repeat listens. www.bandofhorses.com / download “The Funeral” / download “The Great Salt Lake” / watch “The Funeral” / watch “The Great Salt Lake”
9. SONIC YOUTH: RATHER RIPPED. Sonic Youth channels it power into some of the most concise (and tuneful) songs the band has ever recorded. I liked “Murray Street” quite a bit, “Sonic Nurse” not as much, but this one might be my favorite Sonic Youth album in many years. www.sonicyouth.com / watch “Reena”
10. BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY: THE LETTING GO. Will Oldham fans may charge me with blasphemy for saying this, but, of the half-dozen Oldham albums I have, this one’s my favorite. His melodies and lyrics are as good as ever, and the sound of this record — the subtle violins, the muted drums and, especially, the angelic vocals of Dawn McCarthy ghostly echoing Oldham’s singing — elevate it to a higher level. www.dragcity.com / watch “Cursed Sleep” / watch “Cold and Wet”
To see my 100 runners-up, click here.