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
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)

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
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
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)

Rachel Swan

Ghostface Killah
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)

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)

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)

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)

Kathleen Richards

Blood Mountain
Just when you thought Atlanta's purveyors of rhythmically complex and sonically dizzying metal couldn't stretch their skills any further, Blood Mountain not only lives up to the standard they created, but surpasses it, too. On its third album and major-label debut, Mastodon unleashes a more focused, dense, and rich tapestry of progressive metal, thrusting its songs into a heady realm that totally rocks. An intensely focused and thoroughly realized effort. (Reprise /Relapse)

The Information
Say what you want about the Scientologist, but Beck may be the only contemporary songwriter consistently releasing albums of the creative magnitude that others dream of achieving just once. On his eleventh album, Beck reunites with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich for a reinvigorated concoction of jungle funk, guitar-slapping blues, futuristic soul, and entrancing, cosmic folk employing every sonic detail except the kitchen sink. That may sound like every Beck album, but that's hardly a bad thing. (Interscope)

Kelley Stoltz
Below the Branches
Kelley Stoltz hearts the Beatles in a big way. But luckily, the San Francisco troubadour has the musicianship and depth to expand that crush into an authentic pop masterpiece all his own. Driven by ooh-ooh harmonies, dance-worthy staccato piano chords, and thoughtfully crafted flourishes, Below the Branches is a dynamic, coherent, and invigorating vision of modern sound. Stoltz not only has the vocabulary to imitate his idols, but also the arsenal to put himself among them. (Sub Pop)

Black Wings of Destiny
Initially, it's hard to take sinister-looking forty-year-old dudes outfitted in leather harnesses, spike collars, and creepy face paint seriously. But you don't have to. Though it's not their intention, Dragonlord — the ode to Norwegian black metal from Testament guitarist Eric Peterson — comes off as ridiculous but also simultaneously thrilling. From the horse-snorting, chest-pounding, battle-cry intro, Black Wings ... embarks on a nonstop crusade of lightning-quick drumming, thrash-guitar shredding, gothic effects, acidic yowls, and the occasional Ray Manzarek-inspired keyboard solo. Sweet. (Escapi Music)

Gram Rabbit
Like falling down the rabbit hole, Cultivation is a trippy, psychedelic, countrified, disco adventure through the high desert. Led by the sexy, bunny-eared Jesika von Rabbit, who alternates monotone speak-singing with shouting and purring, Joshua Tree's Gram Rabbit executes its strange, somewhat cartoonish aesthetic quite convincingly. "Bloody Bunnies (Superficiality)" juxtaposes a techie dance beat and flashy rock, while "Angel Song" takes a desert country ballad with ''60s folkie harmonies and inserts distortion-soaked guitar riffs. A fun, bizarre trip. (Stinky)

Sean Lennon
Friendly Fire
Eight years after the release of his debut album, Lennon returns to the limelight with a collection of rainy-day, lovelorn, piano-driven pop songs. Abandoning the eclectic bossa-nova jaunts of Into the Sun, he inches closer to the sound his father was famous for despite prior attempts to avoid just that. Lennon's unearthing and melodramatic expounding of the T. Rex demo "Would I Be the One" makes this album entirely worthwhile. (Capitol)

Eagles of Death Metal
Death by Sexy
While some bands toil away for years trying to create their magnum opus and inevitably failing, Eagles of Death Metal crank out a thick album of cocksure Southern-rock pastiche in just eight days. Picking up where Peace Love Death Metal left off, Jesse "Boots Electric" Hughes and Josh "Baby Duck" Homme continue to embrace rock's clichés with a silliness that's completely endearing, such as rhyming "cherry cola" with "rock ''n' rolla." Good times. (Downtown/Rekords Rekords)

The Black Keys
Magic Potion
There's something about the stripped-down, unadorned styling of distorted guitar and drums that makes the orthodox blues-rock of Akron's Black Keys so damn fresh. On its fourth album, the duo sticks to what it knows best, and the results are thick, dirty, and raw. The two touch off a blazing, butt-shaking groove on "Your Touch," and guitarist Dan Auerbach makes his riffs smolder on "Black Door." Crank this shit. (Nonesuch)

Mojave 3
Puzzles Like You
Grab your towel: You'll be crying tears of joy or running to the beach (or both) like a giddy teenager when you pop in this disc from Mojave 3, its fifth album in ten years. From the sunny, ''60s guitar pop of "Truck Driving Man" to the shimmering harmonies and country twang of "Big Star Baby," it's clear that the trio has departed from the melancholic ballads they were known for. There's little to dislike. (4AD)

Just Like the Fambly Cat
For its last hurrah, Modesto's Grandaddy convinces us it'll be sorely missed. There's nary a stagnant moment on this album, from the laser firing keyboards and chugging guitar rock of "Jeez Louise" to the spacey jam of "Rear View Mirror" that coalesces into a crunchy groove. But by the time singer Jason Lytle wistfully longs to transcend fame with the homey drum machine beats and pluckiness of "Elevate Myself," we're rooting for him. (V2)

Cole Haddon

Dixie Chicks
Taking the Long Way
With Taking the Long Way, the Chicks' fourth and best album, the best-selling female band in history turned its back on country music (but mostly just the red states) and, in the process, made one of the purest country albums of the past two decades. That reads like a bold statement, but consider the almost absolute absence of social and political commentary from country since our old outlaws went out of fashion and started dying. It's not as if Toby Keith or Big & Dumb are picking up that slack. (Sony)

Two Gallants
What the Toll Tells
What the Toll Tells opens with a bluesy foot-stomper called "Las Cruces Jail" that sounds like Jack White's most infectious work. Two Gallants share some of the Stripes' garage-spare, lo-fi sound, but they consistently get right what the Stripes get wrong. Their often-epic-length numbers work so well because of singer Adam Stephens' narrative passages that, in their folk-tinged Delta blues, bear the holy stamp of Saint Dylan and actually originate ideas rather than regurgitate those of other musicians, like a certain Detroiter we all know. (Saddle Creek)

Decoder Ring
Somersault: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
The Somersault soundtrack was this Australian band's first full-length release and its first outing with singer Lenka. The combination of the two - - a mish-mash of synthetic orchestrations, indie-rock guitars, and Lenka's ethereal, often haunting voice - - is sublime in the way that word is supposed to be used. A lot of bands try to evoke emotion, whereas this outfit creates them out of thin air. In fact, without its musical narration, Somersault would've had no real soul at all. (Bella Union)

Justin Timberlake
Perhaps the greatest mystery surrounding the release of Timberlake's sophomore solo release is where the hell "sexy" went before JT brought it back. Wherever it was, almost every track here so exemplifies "sexy" that the album should come wrapped in prophylactics. A few songs should even be doubled up. Sure, most of the lyrics are so absolutely mindless, you wonder if JT should get to know "literacy" a little better than "sexy," but, after listening to this dense collage of futuristic New Wave, hip-hop, soul, and dance-pop, you begin to realize that maybe Timberlake is his generation's Prince. (Jive)

We Are Scientists
With Love and Squalor
We Are Scientists aren't actually scientists, even though they play the geeky, lab-coat types; their complete lack of self-importance, in fact, is what makes their dance-punk experiments succeed. Call them the next Franz Ferdinand, for people who don't like Franz Ferdinand. That is to say, they make you want to dance, they make you want to pump your fists, and they want you to feel good and maybe even laugh while doing it. (Virgin)

Chris Knight
Enough Rope
Knight can't get a break. Despite his albums being some of the best-reviewed in country music today, he can't get a label to back him up and so he's resorted to releasing his latest - - and possibly best - - independently. Enough Rope's songs, often grim, often dark, are guitar-fueled odes to hell-raising, blue-collar America, and the death of the rural American dream. They tackle reality in a way Merle Haggard would approve of, even if his candor makes Haggard look uplifting in comparison. (Emergent)

The Concretes
In Colour
The Concretes' career has been almost as unlucky as Knight's and now, with the departure of lead singer Victoria Bergsman, it seems unlikely this chamber-pop collective will ever release an album as lush, beautiful, or uplifting as this. Harmonies, guitar, brass, and mandolin collide with simple but quirky lyrics to help broaden the dimensions of the current indie-pop movement. With song titles like "Sunbeams," can you really imagine not wanting to dance through fields of dandelions after listening to this? (Astralwerks)

Ben Harper
Both Sides of the Gun
With Both Sides of the Gun, Harper had the audacity to release a two-disc CD with only enough songs to really fit one CD. Except, of course, the first disc is about the love of his family, the promise of new days to come, juxtaposed with the second disc that tackles the singer-songwriter's anger over the world he won't be able to keep that family safe from. In other words, optimism versus pessimism. Believe it or not, it works, too. (Virgin)

Rainer Maria
Catastrophe Keeps Us Together
With this album, Rainer Maria shed the last vestiges of its emo roots and let bassist Caithlin De Marrais take the vocal reins from guitarist Kyle Fischer. She ain't quite an indie-rock queen like Karen O, but her this-side-of-elegant voice is just imperfect enough to make the band's far more affecting and substantive lyrics ring perfectly true. Oh, and this album's "Terrified" just happens to be the best love song of the year, hands down. (Grunion)

The Hold Steady
Boys and Girls in America
It wasn't enough that the Hold Steady's debut and follow-up were among the ten best albums of 2004 and 2005 respectively. No, the band had to pull a hat trick and release one of the best rock albums of 2006, too. This is due to frontman Craig Finn's snarky lyrics, which are some of the best by an American songwriter working today. Like the Boss' best work, his songs speak to the American experience, albeit the subcultures that exist only beyond the patina of traditional Americana. (Vagrant)

David Downs

The Strokes
First Impressions of Earth
When did it become uncool to rock out? As in run into the pit, dig your shoulders into people's backs, muscle forward, get to the railings, and just rrrrrrawwwwk so hard that security double-teams you? Nowadays, everyone thinks they're renting a little piece of concert floor, and God forbid you enter their personal space to get a closer view. If you see people like this, ask yourself what the Strokes would do, and start throwing some elbows. Their third release expertly shreds and throbs while lead singer Julian Casablancas e-nun-ci-ates four syl-la-bles per mi-nute like a lounge singer. There are at least six great songs on this album. Cherry-pick them and combine with past releases for an über-Strokes mixtape. (RCA)

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Show Your Bones
Vice magazine's latest issue says that "weird girls are so much better than normal girls. You're gay if you don't marry one." After falling in love with the second album from New York art rock trio the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, fronted by weird woman Karen O, I'm inclined to agree. Sure, she cuts her hair with scissors and a cereal bowl, and sometimes wears Saran Wrap onstage. But her voice has this combination of slutty experience, exposed confidence, and sheer listenability that says, "You could go home with me if you'd stop being such a pussy about everything." I didn't think CDs could wear out from too much use. I now have evidence to the contrary. (Interscope)

Thom Yorke
The Eraser
More than 750,000 people bought this inaccessible gem of electronic bleeps, bloops, and haunting vocals this year, so all you bastards who say that electronica is dead, well, you're still right for the most part. However, restored is my faith in the sensibility of the buying public, which seems to be as paranoid and nervous about these modern times as Thom. There's no time to analyze/to think things through/to make sense, he sings on "Analyse." Other songs reference atomic destruction, floods, or the sounds of an electrocardiogram. Seriously, half this album sounds like a Commodore 64 in a bitchy mood, and yet Yorke pulls it off with style.(XL)

The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast
We all have that friend who's into underground Japanese psych-rock, Brazilian favela reggae, Antarctic drum 'n' bass ... everything. We hate that guy. But if you're going to get weird, at least buy Bay Area with SF avant-garde sound production duo Matmos, two dudes from San Francisco who have much bigger brains than most and an even larger appetite for a weird Friday night. Some go out for drinks; Matmos plays a wet cow uterus like a bagpipe until their eyes water from the formaldehyde. On ... Beast, the two sculpt ragtime, surf rock, film noir jazz, drum 'n' bass, disco, and several other genres out of layered, found sounds. Go get your freak on. (Matador)

Days to Come
A bonobo is a rather affable, horny ape that has more sex and less fights than any other type of chimp, is one of our closest relatives, and is totally going extinct. This Bonobo, however, is a rather affable, largely unknown English downtempo DJ on the Ninja Tune label alongside Amon Tobin and Kid Koala. He put out the sleeper sensation of the year this fall, and though I had no suspicion he might swing into the top ten, he refused to leave my CD player, despite repeated efforts to put something else in. Why? Because this is music for life. We all love to head-bang or shout Bitch! alongside Too $hort, but for the other 98 percent of life that's cleaning the house, cooking dinner, doing the dishes, and Doing It - - Bonobo's your guy. We're talking downtempo, heavily instrumental grooves spiced with samples and vocalists Bajka and Fink. Be a smart, affable, sexual monkey. Get Bonobo. (Ninja Tune)

DJ Shadow
The Outsider
Turf Talk and Keak da Sneak! [snap!] /Turf Talk and Keak da Sneak! [snap!] This little bit of audio Ebola from "3 Freaks" requires minimal exposure yet completely infects the brain with no hope of recovery. Such is the nature of hyphy, Oakland's 2006 rap phenomenon. Marin County producer DJ Shadow forsook his reputation for huge hip-hop beats and lush, evocative instrumentals à la Endtroducing with The Outsider's handful of hyphy bangers, featuring a bunch of local guests. But Shadow also does punk rock, Coldplay ballads, world-music instrumentals, and "Broken Levee Blues," which has some of the year's dopest guitar work. Plus "Backstage Girl" is the 2006 winner for "Best Rap About Hooking Up With Sluts from MySpace." (UMVD)

Gnarls Barkley
St. Elsewhere
Like heroin, you're either on it, or off it. There are no weekend warriors with the Gnarls. Mainline it and enjoy the requiem for crappy pop-music pretenders. (Downtown)

Jolie Holland
Springtime Can Kill You
Recipe for a good memory: Road trip up the Northern California coast; rent a cabin with the lady or gent of your choice; light the woodburning stove; slide this into your disc player, hit "repeat all," and don't touch the boom box for the rest of the weekend. San Francisco star Jolie Holland's youth explains the fresh angle she brings to quaint country folk. This slow-moving guitar-y album grows on you like moss - - preferably undisturbed in the dark. (Anti)

Kid Koala
Your Mom's Favorite DJ
Early November at San Francisco's Mezzanine, and a little Asian guy in a white T-shirt is spinning three turntables simultaneously with no samplers and no headphones. Attendees are so blown away they forget to dance. Witnessing a Kid Koala set will completely reformat your understanding of turntablism, and Your Mom's Favorite DJ is an acceptable approximation of that experience. (Outside)

Ramblin' Jack Elliott
I Stand Alone
And this year's award for Best Song to Feature a Dying Dog Named "Blue" goes to Woody Guthrie protégé Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Old enough to teach Bob Dylan, Elliott cut this disc for the Anti- label (The Coup) so he could buy a nicer Winnebago. Help him get into a forty-footer and help yourself to the funniest, saddest, most compelling folk album of the year. Period. (Anti)

Nate Seltenrich

Comets on Fire
Are the members of Comets on Fire totally out of their gourd? Perhaps. Or maybe they're in complete command of Avatar's blown-out rock fury - - tangled and knotted and blasted by design. "Dogwood Rust" and "Holy Teeth" suggest the former, but mellower blues-tinged numbers "Sour Smoke" and "Lucifer's Memory" seem to say everything's okay. The real test is for the listener to cede control to a band that proves in its opening song to be hell-bent on beautiful, psychedelic chaos. (Sub Pop)

TV on the Radio
Return to Cookie Mountain
When it comes to Brooklyn's TV on the Radio, most folks fall into one of two camps: They know nothing of the band, or they're sick of hearing about them. This year's art-rock indie darlings have released a triumph so loaded with tension that it takes real work to unpack. The band makes the task fun through stunning vocals, beats, and instrumental breaks that send listeners' souls straight to Cookie Mountain. Soon a third faction shall emerge: those who never want to leave. (4AD)

Crime in Choir
Trumpery Metier
Instrumental prog-rock is a tough sell, but this San Francisco sextet should get the kids begging for synthesizers and saxophones this year. Improving on 2004's acclaimed The Hoop, Trumpery Metier sets a new standard for the genre while continuing to mix math-rock and free jazz into an already experimental palette. Across 42 busily indulgent minutes, Crime in Choir changes modes and time signatures like so many itchy socks. The result is as puzzling as it is arresting. (Gold Standard Laboratories)

A Million Microphones
Songs about eagles mating with men, lakes running through valleys, and kids getting high on mushrooms help plant A Million Microphones firmly in this year's top ten. Supersystem pinned itself on the tail of the dance-punk movement with its 2005 debut Always Never Again, but unlike !!!, the Rapture, and Radio 4, it never sacrifices melody for rhythm. Microphones is a case study in cool; disaffected vocals and tasteful pilfering from world and electronic music guarantee a long shelf life. (Touch and Go)

The Thermals
The Body, the Blood, the Machine
Praise the Sex Pistols for inventing three-chord rabble-rousing. Thank the Thermals for learning to play their instruments. Across The Body, the Blood, the Machine, the Portland trio delivers antireligion and antigovernment messages like grenades wrapped in bacon. Hutch Harris' urgent vocals tumble atop poppy melodies and punk-fueled rhythms. And now we've gotta run/A giant fist is out to crush us, he sings in the hook-heavy "A Pillar of Salt." It's so simple yet so very right. (Sub Pop)

Two Gallants
What the Toll Tells
If not the best local release of the year, certainly the most anticipated. A headlining performance at Noise Pop, coverage in the Chronicle, and a contract with Conor Oberst's Saddle Creek label elevated the duo's profile as well as expectations for its sophomore album. What the Toll Tells delivers country-tinged indie rock at its own pace; four of the nine songs exceed eight minutes and none offers cheap thrills. Musically it can soothe and thrash. Lyrically, it's deep as a well. (Saddle Creek)

Trainwreck Riders
Lonely Road Revival
Trainwreck Riders rule for anyone who loves country rock but can't bear Two Gallants' literary lyrics and extended tomes. The two bands are close friends and frequent tourmates (hell, they got Tasered and arrested together by Houston police), but the likenesses end there. The Riders are all spit and whiskey, playing music cleverly - - and tellingly - - dubbed cowpunk. Lonely Road Revival could soundtrack a moshpit or a hoedown; both Southern soul and showy solos have their place, but neither emerges victorious. (Alive)

Optimus Rhyme
School the Indie Rockers
Lay underground rap on indie rock and what do you get? Seattle act Optimus Rhyme (nerd reference number one), and some of the most creative hip-hop this side of Us3. MC Wheelie Cyberman raps with aplomb about moderating an Internet message board (number two) and possessing massive Ping-Pong skills (three) over live guitar riffs that sound culled from original Nintendo tunes (four). But the best thing about School the Indie Rockers is you don't need to be a geek to grasp its genius. (Narcofunk)

Yeah, we know - - ska ain't cool. Get over it, and then check out the Slackers, the best ska band playing today. Peculiar doesn't stop there, fusing rocksteady, reggae, and rock into a deeply satisfying and stompin' good time. The record single-handedly trounces the skanking-and-checkerboard-Vans scene of the mid-'90s revival. Political songs like "Propaganda" and "International War Criminal" lend Peculiar real weight in serious times. Phenomenal sound quality and a hybrid live and studio recording method only bolster its landmark status. (Hellcat)

Silversun Pickups
Fuzzier than your favorite stuffed animal, Silversun Pickups play spacey alt-rock stained with shoegaze and a modern indie-rock aesthetic. The band borrowed not only the Smashing Pumpkins' sound, but also its initials and employment of a female bassist. You'd better believe Nikki Monniger can hold down a mean groove. Keyboardist Joe Lester lays down the requisite hypnotic texture; Christopher Guanlao presides over a kit with an impossibly tall crash cymbal; and Brian Aubert ties everything together with earnest vocals about who knows what. (Dangerbird)


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