Albums: What a concept

December 24, 2006


  • Throughout 2006, technophiles continued to predict the imminent death of the album as we've known it, but several of my choices for the best recordings of the year qualify as old-fashioned concept albums, and the majority of music fans still seem to love collections of songs that take them on a journey, regardless of whether they're buying a CD or downloading the music online.

    One thing that is becoming meaningless, however, is the release date. My No. 2 album of the year isn't slated for a U.S. release until early 2007, but tens of thousands of American listeners downloaded Lily Allen's songs for free from her MySpace page, and she's already toured this country to considerable acclaim. In contrast, my album of the year was released in the U.K. in 2005, but it didn't appear here until May, shortly before Art Brut took Chicago by storm as a headliner at the Pitchfork Music Festival, hence their inclusion on my list.

    In any event, albums are alive and well, and I had no problem compiling a list of 70 that I couldn't live without in the preceding 12 months. For my complete rundown of the best of 2006, visit my Web site at And, happy listening!


    1. Art Brut, "Bang Bang Rock & Roll" (Downtown)
    "Formed a band / We formed a band / Look at us / We formed a band!" Few figures in rock history have captured the sheer glory of making a loud and joyful noise better than Eddie Argos and his mates. And while they may brag about their primitive talents, few pop-punk bands have crafted a debut this tuneful and funny.


    2. Lily Allen, "Alright, Still" (EMI International)
    This petite 21-year-old Englishwoman takes no crap from anyone, least of all the men in her life. She sucks you in with a seductive sound that mixes '60s jet-set horns, bossa nova rhythms and New wave hooks, then lowers the boom: "I'm gonna tell them that you're rubbish in bed now / And that you're small in the game." And you have to love her for it.


    3. Gnarls Barkley, "St. Elsewhere" (Downtown/Atlantic)
    There's no doubt that the rollicking and infectious "Crazy" was the single of the year, but DJ Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo Green delivered a whole funk/pop/hip-hop/rock album nearly as strong, a collected musing on the many factors of modern-day life that conspire to drive us over the edge.


    4. The Decemberists, "The Crane Wife" (Capitol)
    The major-label debut and fourth album overall from this Portland-based orchestral-pop quintet is the best progressive-rock disc since the late '70s, but unlike, say, Jethro Tull or Yes, Colin Meloy and his bandmates never skimp on the hooks or the propulsive rhythms, even when they're singing about arabesque bayonets and sabers wielded in anger.<


    5. Lupe Fiasco, "Food & Liquor" (Atlantic)
    The two Chicago rappers who made my list aren't a case of "homerism," they're simply two of the most musically enticing and uniquely personal efforts that hip-hop has produced. In Lupe's case, we meet a skateboard nerd, "Star Wars" superfan and video game geek unafraid to buck every stereotype in rap with a sly sense of humor that is utterly captivating.


    6. Grandaddy, "Just Like the Fambly Cat" (V2)
    The California psychedelic pop group's fourth and last album is a haunting, unsettling but consistently tuneful set that includes some of the best songs it's given us, with singer and songwriter Jason Lytle veering between the sadness of mourning his band and the optimism of a pending rebirth.


    7. Neil Young, "Living with War" (Reprise)
    Drawing on the same anger about the headlines that produced "Ohio" in 1970, the godfather of grunge turned out this quck and dirty rock album that represents rock's most furious response yet to the war in Iraq. "Metal folk protest music," Neil calls it, and as usual, he pulls no punches: "Let's impeach the President for lying and misleading our country into war / Abusing all the power that we gave him and shipping our money out the door."


    8. Peaches, "Impeach My Bush" (XL Recordings)
    On her third album, Canadian electroclash singer and performance artist Merrill Nisker augmented the stripped-down soundscapes of her Roland MC505 beat box with a full band, and her gender-bending anthems of sexual liberation stood as pop music's answer to X-rated but artful films such as "Last Tango in Paris" and "Midnight Cowboy."


    9. The Dresden Dolls, "Yes, Virginia ..." (Roadrunner)
    Few bands in recent memory have been as successful at creating new, dark and alien worlds as the Boston duo of singer, songwriter and pianist Amanda Palmer and drummer Brian Viglione, and this disc conjures a creepy but alluring world that's a cross between a Weimar cabaret, a punk-rock club and an opium den.


    10. Rhymefest, "Blue Collar" (Allido/J Records)
    The other Chicagoan to make this list prides himself on being a blue-collar Everyman, and the array of minimum-wage jobs he worked while waiting for his shot inform his sharp portraits of working-class life. But it takes a keen eye and an agile tongue to make jams this artful and insightful, and he's a close second to Young in producing one of the sharpest commentaries on the fate of our soldiers in Iraq with "Bullet."


    '06 TOP 10s

    1. "High School Musical" soundtrack," 3,480,000 units sold
    2. Rascal Flatts, "Me and My Gang," 3,060,000
    3. Carrie Underwood, "Some Hearts," 2,460,000
    4. Nickelback, "All the Right Reasons," 2,310,000
    5. James Blunt, "Back to Bedlam," 2,060,000
    6. Justin Timberlake, "Futuresex/Love Sounds,"1,950,000
    7. Dixie Chicks, "Taking the Long Way," 1,770,000
    8. Mary J. Blige, "Breakthrough," 1,750,000
    9. Various Artists, "NOW 21," 1,640,000
    10. Beyonce, "B'day," 1,600,000
    Source: Nielsen SoundScan
    (Data from Jan. 2 to Dec. 10, 2006.)

    1. "Bad Day (Album Version)," Daniel Powter, 1,880,000 units sold
    2. "Crazy (Album Version)," Gnarls Barkley, 1,525,000
    3. "Temperature (Album Version)," Sean Paul, 1,460,000
    4. "Over My Head (Cable Car), the Fray, 1,410,000
    5. "Unwritten," Natasha Bedingfield, 1,320,000
    6. "Hips Don't Lie," Shakira (featuring Wyclef Jean), 1,290,000
    7. "Dani California (Album Version)," Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1,200,000
    8. "Sexyback (Main Version)," Justin Timberlake (featuring T.I.), 1,190,000
    9. "Move Along," All-American Rejects, 1,180,000
    10. "Lips of an Angel," Hinder, 1,120,000
    Source: Nielsen SoundScan
    (Data from Jan. 2 to Dec. 10 2006. A digital track may come from an album, a single or a stand-alone recording. Digital tracks are purchased and downloaded from providers in the U.S., including every major digital music retailer.)

    1. "Be Without You," Mary J. Blige, 395,995 plays
    2. "Unwritten," Natasha Bedingfield, 336,276
    3. "Temperature," Sean Paul, 324,555
    4. "Me & U," Cassie, 312,073
    5. "Hips Don't Lie," Shakira (featuring Wyclef Jean), 308,903
    6. "Promiscuous," Nelly Furtado (featuring Timbaland), 292,264
    7. "Bad Day," Daniel Powter, 291,256
    8. "Check On It," Beyonce (featuring Slim Thug), 290,231
    9. "So Sick," Ne-Yo, 277,958
    10. "Over My Head (Cable Car)," Fray, 276,601
    Source: Nielsen BDS
    (Data from Jan. 1 to Dec. 18, 2006.)

    1. Akon, "Smack That," 1,220,000 units sold
    2. Justin Timberlake, "Sexy Back," 1,130,000
    3. Hinder, "Lips of an Angel," 1,090,000
    4. Ludacris, "Money Maker (Pharrell Chorus)," 900,000
    5. Jibbs, "Chain Hang Low," 870,000
    6. Justin Timberlake, "My Love," 780,000
    7. Beyonce, "Irreplaceable," 690,000
    8. Lil' Scrappy, "Money in the Bank," 580,000
    9. DJ Unk, "Walk It Out," 580,000
    10. Bow Wow, "Shortie Like Mine," 570,000
    Source: Nielsen RingScan
    (Data only available from Sept. 3 to Dec. 10, 2006.)

    CAN'T STOP AT 10

    Here are 10 more for 2006:
    11. Cursive, "Happy Hollow" (Saddle Creek); 12. Beck, "The Information" (Interscope); 13. Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins, "Rabbit Fur Coat" (Team Love); 14. Van Hunt, "On the Jungle Floor" (Capitol); 15. the Raconteurs, "Broken Boy Soldiers" (V2); 16. Mission of Burma, "The Obliterati" (Matador); 17. Tom Petty, "Highway Companion" (American); 18. Neko Case, "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood" (Anti); 19. Secret Machines, "Ten Silver Drops" (Reprise); 20. the Album Leaf "Into the Blue Again" (Sub Pop).
    Jim DeRogatis