The Best Records of 2006 

Funky Mushrooms, 40-water, Fishscales, Fambly Cats, and Cookie Mountains kept our critics alive this year. Dig in.

Mark Keresman

Bob Dylan
Modern Times
Who'd-a thunk it? One of the grand old men of folk 'n' roll teaches all these youthful Americana whippersnappers how to do up this "roots music" thang. Dylan's voice is ragged but right, his band is savvy and whip-smart, and many of the Zim's haunting originals sound as if they might've been composed in the first half of the 20th century, but without trace of nostalgia or retro-posing. He's still got it. (Sony)

Bobby Previte
The Coalition of the Willing
Who's among the finest cutting-edge jazz composers in the past couple of decades? Sure, John Zorn, Carla Bley, and Jason Moran are aces, but this Previte fellow may have them beat. His music — a spicy omelette of jazz improvisation, biting blues riffs, fierce guitars, free squall, taut orchestral-sounding textures, mutant reggae rhythms, and pounding rock thwap — is so gregarious, you might not notice how coolly creative it is. (Rope-a-Dope)

Badi Assad
Wonderland
Like the hepcats preceding her — Bob Dylan, George Gershwin, Joni Mitchell — Brazilian lass Badi Assad absorbed lots of assorted sounds to arrive at her own style. She's a superb acoustic guitarist (think Leo Kottke or Charlie Byrd), a sultry singer of great nuance and range (imagine if a Brazilian Laura Nyro or Tim Buckley she-incarnated), and not only writes her own but knows how to interpret others' songs (Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams," Tori Amos' "Black Dove") with vision and class. (Edge/Deutsche Grammophon)

Mushroom
Really Don't Mind if You Sit This One Out
This Bay Area combo with an ever-evolving and rotating roster would be a major-label marketing department's nightmare. Mushroom is an instrumental ensemble (though the talented tonsils of locals Gary Floyd and Allison Faith Levy guest from time to time) for those hardy souls who enjoy sounds to submerge in but not at the expense of groove and beat. Really Don't Mind ... is a collection of 1997-98 live recordings from various San Francisco venues, and if you dig Funkadelic and Jethro Tull in their respective primes, (electric) Miles Davis and Flying Saucer Attack, Charles Earland and Can, then Mushroom is your meat ... er, fungus. (4 Zero)

James Hunter
People Gonna Talk
While not exactly "edgy," this British former rail employee has one of the year's most listenable (as in "comforting, relaxing, let the platter play thrice in one sitting") albums. Primarily backed by his guitar, two saxophones, bass, drums, and occasional organ, Hunter sings quality originals in the style of the old-school R&B and soul of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Van Morrison circa 1965-71, and pre-disco Boz Scaggs, plus a taste of rocksteady and reggae. He doesn't fall all over himself (or you) proving how "soulful" he is — he's got some o' that dignified, self-assured Jerry Butler iceman cool. (Rounder/Umgd)

Terje Rypdal
Vossabrygg
Whereas some electronica can be passionless or impersonal, Norwegian jazz guitarist Rypdal breathes some cold fire into it. His six-string style combines aspects of Jimi Hendrix, Robert Fripp, blues, and iconic jazz composer George Russell. Vossabrygg features a seamless, inspired blend of Miles Davis' feverish electric soundscapes, spooky trip-hop, and jittery drum 'n' bass. Bonus: Palle Mikkelborg's crystalline trumpet, evoking (yet not imitating) Miles' regal tone. (ECM)

Manu Katché
Neighbourhood
While his moniker may be unfamiliar, this Ivory Coast/French drummer has been heard by lots of people, as he's played with Sting, Joe Satriani, Joni Mitchell, and Gipsy Kings. For his solo debut, Katché assembled a boss quintet featuring two of the most distinctive European jazz masters — saxophonist Jan Garbarek and trumpeter Tomasz Stanko — for a program of strikingly lyrical, surging, and cliché-free postbop jazz. Echoing classic Blue Note sessions from the early '60s (McCoy Tyner, Wayne Shorter), Neighbourhood presents Garbarek in a much hotter, blues-accented mode than usual, too. (ECM)

David Grisman Quintet
Dawg's Groove
Mandolinist Grisman has been a Bay Area music scene constant for decades, leading his quintets and co-leading a foursome with his good pal, the late Jerry Garcia. While Grisman didn't "invent" Dawg Music — a very informal handle for a fusion of bluegrass, jazz, folk, and world music, along with his nom de musique — he's its most famous proponent. The jazz-oriented Dawg's Groove is an eclectic's dream find, loaded with elegant Gypsy swing, Irish folk, Elizabethan music, samba, and West Coast cool school, the latter suitable for reading Kerouac aloud to. This fivesome plays it most warmly, succinctly, and ... real, real gone. (Acoustic Disc)

Lila Downs
La Cantina
A fine, distinctive singer with roots in Mexico and the American Midwest, Downs explores and reinterprets the traditional Mexican rancheras, familiar to many listeners via Los Lobos, Ry Cooder, the Texas Tornadoes, and Flaco Jimenez. (To many Americans, especially Slavs, rancheras sound more than a bit like polka music.) Downs uses fuzzed-out electric guitar, percussion loops, and samples along with the traditional brass, acoustic guitar, harp, and violin to bring the essence of a dusty bordertown cantina from more than a hundred years ago into the 21st century. (Narada World)

Sunny Sweeney
Heartbreaker's Hall of Fame
The more the Nashville Mafia tries to suppress real country music by flooding the airwaves and marketplace with photogenic pop tarts, the more country music bounces back even stronger. The proof is in Sweeney's tangy Texas pudding, made from equal parts hick cool and industrial-strength Lone Star honky-tonk sawdust and stardust. Hall of Fame, her debut, is an invigorating batch of hard country tunes sung with a gutsy rural twang. Sure as shootin' and certain as hurtin', the talented Sweeney puts the "tree" back in country. (Sunny Sweeney)

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