With literally thousands of albums being released each year on major labels, indie labels and do-it-yourself Web sites, chances are that much of the best music never actually reaches our ears. It has, consequently, become nearly impossible to compile an accurate and comprehensive "best of" list at the end of each year. But as 2007 kicks off, it's worth taking a look back at the highlights of 2006, hoping for more of the same in the coming 12 months.
What were the criteria for my selections? Not necessarily quality, and definitely not sales or popularity. The central issue was simply this: Did I continue to listen to an album after my duty to review it was finished? If it possessed that spark, it's listed here as small part of what will hopefully be 2006's most enduring music. Here's hoping you found your own favorites.
THE FLAMING LIPS
At War with the Mystics
One of America's most revered alternative bands, the members of the Flaming Lips continued on their merry way with At War With the Mystics. In the spirit of their Sixties predecessors, the band used the studio as a big playground, liberally sprinkling sound effects over its fuzz guitar, mellotrons and choirboy harmonies with electrifying results.
I'm Not Dead
Having shed her pink-haired teen persona long ago, Pink is today one of the boldest, most startling artists on the pop music landscape. I'm Not Dead is a genre-crashing, boundary-blurring barrel of fun that utilizes dance and electronic beats but also incorporates everything from crunching power pop to bluesy folk-rock.
THE HOLD STEADY
Boys and Girls in America
Vibrant American rock and roll full of seedy yet poignant street characters, the music on the Hold Steady's latest album came to life amid a landscape of cheap thrills, muted ambitions and youthful boredom. The songs, however, were anything but boring.
Reclaiming their rightful position as the rabble-rousing, riff-crazy inheritors of the Sixties music-as-a-political-force ethos, these Seattle heavyweights were inspired by the Iraq war and the bleak situation at home to recharge their rock and roll spirit.
Living with War
There's nothing like prolonged military action to spark some fiery, anti-war rock and roll. In a year when Young's 36-year-old Live at the Fillmore East was touted as a rock classic, he was busy making a new classic with this bristling, indignant album.
We Shall Overcome
Rarely have Springsteen's raucous, joyful side and his populist spirit blended together so seamlessly as on We Shall Overcome. Reinventing himself as a carnival barker and seaside story teller, the Boss has created some of the purest rocking music he's made since he first earned his famous nickname.
Just when it seemed that his future would be limited to performances as an oldies act, Tom Petty hit the proverbial road and rediscovered his muse on the lean, rustic Highway Companion. Who needs the Heartbreakers?
Andre "3000" Benjamin and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton continued to expand the borders of hip hop with their sixth disc, Idlewild, a sprawling effort that found the Atlanta duo effortlessly breezing from swing jazz to dance pop.
Another Fine Day
Golden Smog returned for another satisfying, ragged romp through three-chord garage rock, dusty acoustic ballads and spunky power pop. Not a bad track in the bunch.
These Four Walls
The singer/songwriter standout of the year, Colvin is maturing like fine wine. Sounding as soft and delicate or as self-assured and rambunctious as each song demands, she possesses the uncanny ability to create a novel-like atmosphere in a three-minute pop song.
Broken Boy Soldiers
White Stripes' axeman Jack Black has found the perfect foil in indie popster Brendan Benson, a combination that resulted in an appealing mix of crunchy Seventies guitar riffs and melodic power pop that makes you want to dig your air guitar out of the closet.
My initial review only gave the album a qualified thumbs up, but that was because I didn't listen to it enough. Evan Dando's resurrection of the Lemonheads is an unqualified success, with his hook-filled vignettes catchier than ever.
MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE
The Black Parade
Eschewing its goth tendencies, My Chemical Romance went over the top with an epic concept album about a dying cancer patient that liberally borrows from classic rock greats like Queen, Alice Cooper and Pink Floyd. Old timers will smile and nod, while teenagers will claim it's changed their lives.
Taking his cue from the pre-rock blues and rockabilly of the Forties and Fifties, as well as the crooners of the Twenties and Thirties, the ageless Dylan continued to tell his shaggy dog parables against a timeless backdrop of Americana.
SINGLES OF THE YEAR
Singles are supposed to be disposable, and none were as infectious but inconsequential as the Elton John/Scissors Sisters collaboration "I Don't Feel Like Dancing" and Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy."