The Best Records of 2006 

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

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Rachel Swan

Ghostface Killah
Fishscale
Even the folks who hated on Ghostface for 2004's concept-driven Pretty Toney will have to admit he hit a high C with this year's Fishscale, which will undoubtedly be remembered as a classic. With flowery backpacker beats, B-movie skits starring his alter ego Tony Starks, and several viable radio hits, this album is one of his most accessible to date, though he still goes off the beaten track in "Whip You with a Strap" — a song about getting slapped around as a child — and "Beauty Jackson," which describes Starks' encounter with a '40s noir heroine who uses Revlon face blush and sprays perfume from a nickel-plated bottle. Though you might doubt the veracity of some of these stories, Ghostface illustrates everything in such intricate, minute detail that it's easy to get lost in his flows. (Def Jam)

Lady Sovereign
Public Warning
Welcome to London, a city that probably boasts more surveillance devices than any other in the world, according to recent NPR reports, but also produces the world's most cutting-edge hip-hop. At the crest of this new wave stands bratty twenty-year-old grime emcee Lady Sovereign, who just unleashed one of the most imaginative albums of 2006 — the one that brought London's grating arthouse beats and strident Cockney accents to Def Jam. On Public Warning she combines biting rhymes with weird studio effects —- including ska riffs, clap-claps, and slurping sounds — culminating with the brilliant "Love Me or Hate Me" remix that has the salty tomboy trading fours with her American spiritual twin Missy Elliott. On "My England" she grouses about being under 24-hour surveillance. Go figure. (Def Jam)

Lupe Fiasco
Food and Liquor
Chicago's Fiasco has an anomalous presence on Top 40 radio, considering the intricacy of his rhymes, the elegance of his beats, and his disdain for ghetto fabulousness — which the emcee compares to prostitution on his song "Hurt Me Soul." But he's not necessarily trying to be an iconoclast. In fact, he has a knack for sounding charming and unassuming, whether he's rapping about an absentee father, a cute skater girl, or his ambivalence over the word "bitch." Even the record title indicates this is the work of a real person rather than a rap persona: In the album's opening verse, Fiasco explains that like everyone else in the world, he's got a good side (food) and a bad side (liquor), and sometimes they're impossible to separate. (Atlantic)

Method Man
4:21 ... The Day After
Method Man took few risks in this classical gangsta rap album, which comprises all the elements that have long been Wu Tang's stock in trade, among them Shaolin boxing clips, Five Percenter references, and dense, hooky production. But the emcee is so good at inhabiting his New York mafioso persona — which combines a prosperous second-generation Italian immigrant and a low-class criminal who starts every conversation with either "What the fuck you want?" or "Konnichiwa, bitches!" — that the usual formula will probably never fail him. Not to mention he's a gangster with sweethearts; 4:21 includes several looped elevator beat numbers for the ladies. (Def Jam)

Scarface Presents the Product
One Hunid
Former Geto Boys frontman Scarface and his longtime collaborator Tone Capone — who's famous for producing classic Bay Area weed songs like "Five on It" and choosing the gorgeous looped Donald Byrd sample that made San Quinn's "High Life" a hit — played matchmaker for this album, predicting that Scarface, Missouri emcee Young Malice, and Fillmore's Will Hen would have enough chemistry to come up with something really fantastic if you put them in a studio together. Apparently, it worked. While the raps on One Hunid mostly consist of personal testimonials about life in the 'hood, what makes the album special is the pitch and rhythm of Hen's voice and the music in Scarface's writing, which still pale in comparison to the album's production. The beat on "In the 'Hood" sounds like something being scraped clean, while the R&B loop on "Life's Been Good" shores up the pathos in a song about counting your blessings. (Koch)

Calvin Keys
Vertical Clearance
Old school jazz guitarist Keys — who changed his name to Ajafika (i.e., "One who has not yet arrived") during the Black Power era, and says he used to shoot craps with pianist Ray Charles when the two of them toured together — evidently increased his commercial viability by finding favor with the hip-hop generation. Like the 2001 free-jazz album Detours into Unconscious Rhythm, on which Keys got down with fellow Wide Hive artists DJ Zeph, Kevin Carnes of the Broun Fellinis, and Kat Ouano, this year's jam-band-oriented Vertical Clearance has a manageable learning curve, and will probably find favor with any fan of Sun Ra or the latest Roots album. (Wide Hive)

E-40
My Ghetto Report Card
Who would have thought that a Bay Area staple like E-40 — who's been on the verge of national stardom for decades, but never quite made it — could combine a tinny club beat with a looped Digable Planets sample and render it into an anthem for the hyphy movement? Such was the case with "Yay Area," the opening track of 40's latest, My Ghetto Report Card, arguably the most elegant in a spate of hyphy albums released this year. Featuring guest appearances by Keak da Sneak, T-Pain, Juelz Santana, and the Federation, the album mostly comprises club bangers and junk-your-trunk beats, with the occasional gem: In the clever, wickedly humorous song "White Gurl," 40 and his podnas Bun B, Santana, and Pimp C of UGK mix metaphors for white girls and crack cocaine. It's un-PC and delicious. (Reprise)

Stefon Harris
African Tarantella: Dances with Duke
The New York-raised vibraphonist Harris, who taught himself to improvise by interpolating theme songs from The Pink Panther and plunking out melodies on his family's beat-up piano using the black and white keys as a road map, is now one of the most stunning contemporary jazz musicians in the country. His latest revisits Duke Ellington's "New Orleans Suite" (1970) and "Queen's Suite" (1959), giving them more of a baroque, chamber-music feel. Harris' reprisal of Ellington's "Sunset for a Mockingbird" from the 1959 suite- sounds so sweet and bewitching that you can only compare it to falling in love. (Blue Note)

Saafir
Good Game: The Transition
If any rap album warrants comparison to St. Augustine's narrative of conversion, it's Saafir's latest, which is structured as a confession of sorts. The album is actually a triptych: Part one includes gritty, club-oriented tracks written from the perspective of Shaft Sizzle, the emcee's playa persona; part two comprises personal testimonials about the thug life; and part three consists of religious and spiritual tunes about Saafir's newfound faith. The zenith is "Devotion," a gospel rap song with a gorgeous hook by Mike Marshall. (ABB)

T.I.
King
Even the staunchest underground purists can't really front on Atlanta's Grammy-nominated rap titan T.I. — aka "Tip" Harris — this year. Aside from dropping such infectious radio hits as "Why You Wanna" and the slurry "What You Know," this self-proclaimed "king of the South" produced what might be the year's most wrenching fallen comrades song, a bluesy number called "Live in the Sky." While the self-congratulatory tone of the album's title might scare off newcomers, T.I.'s songs show enough emotional and musical depth to pass muster. King will surely remain relevant for years to come. (Atlantic)

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