Singles Going Steady
The best end-to-end albums from a single-driven year

In 2006, the pop-singles market continued to dominate — surely due in no small part to the pick-to-click-driven mentality of online music stores and ringtone sites that give consumers unparalleled freedom to Choose Their Own Musical Adventure. What suffered in the meantime, though, was the quality of pop/rock albums. These platters frequently spawned great singles but didn't hold together as cohesive statements. Still, a few artists managed to churn out catchy and innovative long-players that held up over repeated listens. In alphabetical order:

AFI, Decemberunderground (Interscope): Unlike many of their dark-punk peers, AFI managed to slick up their sound without losing their batcave-and-fishnets cachet on Decemberunderground. Chalk this up to undeniable pop sensibilities and the band's knack for hooks — whether they're crafting screamo speedballs ("Kill Caustic"), space-age synthpop ("The Missing Frame") or tundra-chilled gothic landscapes indebted to the Cure and Damned ("Summer Shudder").

Blood Brothers, Young Machetes (V2): The Blood Brothers' shrill, twin-vocal assault and nuclear-bomb riffs frequently feel plucked out of a Stephen King movie. But on Machetes, the Seattle band's abstract imagery and unhinged mania coalesce into shockingly linear pop songs. "Linear pop" is a relative term, though, as their post-punk/no-wave/ hardcore hysteria remains very much intact: "We Ride Skeletal Lightning" lurches like a zombie jonesing for brains, while "Spit Shine Your Black Clouds" is a danceable conclusion to PiL's shuddering death-disco.

CSS, Cansei De Ser Sexy (Sub Pop): With Le Tigre on hiatus, the Brazilian sextet CSS stepped up for booty-dancers, staunch feminists and electro-pop fanatics everywhere with their high-energy debut. "Let's Make Love and Listen to Death From Above" begs to be blared during a Jazzercise class for hipsters, "Art Bitch" sounds like a deconstructed Yeah Yeah Yeahs song stitched back together with diagonal big-beats, and the bubble-bath-synth groover "Fuckoff Is Not the Only Thing You Have to Show" resembles Ladytron trash-talking with Cyndi Lauper.

Def Leppard, Yeah! (Island): Critically maligned arena-rockers Def Leppard sure sound like they have something to prove on their fantastic covers record, Yeah! And who can blame them? They've always drawn inspiration from seminal UK glam and metal bands, but they can't seem to escape being seen as poof-rock hacks. Which is too bad, since their faithful (but not derivative) renditions of classic cuts from Bowie, T. Rex, Roxy Music, Sweet, ELO and even the Kinks — the gorgeous, copper-burnished "Waterloo Sunset" — more than cement their musical talent.

Nelly Furtado, Loose (Geffen): Furtado, who's notorious for being a hit-or-miss performer live, is perhaps the year's biggest example of how studio gloss and the right production team can revive (and reinvent) an artist's career — and create Top 40 gold in the process. Loose is the most consistent and innovative pop-diva disc of the year, from the Latin-flair of "No Hay Igual" to the digi-funk bodyrocker "Maneater" and, of course, the playful '80s-glitter all over the Timbaland-featuring synth-swerve, "Promiscuous."

Hellogoodbye, Zombies! Aliens! Vampires! Dinosaurs! (Drive-Thru): Few modern emo/punk/whatever whippersnappers capture the essence of the decade when keyboards ruled the world — largely because their view of the 1980s comes secondhand via VH1 or retro-radio hours. However, an exception to this rule can be made for the young Cali quartet Hellogoodbye, who display serious synth-smarts (and a mean vocoder!) on Zombies!, an exuberant collection of punk-pop that nods to New Order and '80s Top 40 radio hits.

Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3, Olé Tarantula! (Yep Roc): The absent-minded professor of Nuggets-style psychedelic garage rock continues his creative resurgence with Tarantula, a kaleidoscopic album of melodic gems drenched in harmony and surrealistic imagery. Recorded in conjunction with the Venus 3 and featuring a track co-written by XTC majordomo Andy Partridge, the album trades in fizzy fuzz-jangle that more often than not belies lyrical melancholy.

Muse, Black Holes and Revelations (Reprise): Muse traded in pretentious prog bombast long before it became trendy — and they create the Platonic ideal of the form on Revelations with "Knights of Cydonia," a galloping, apocalyptic single gnarled with doom-metal riffs and robots-in-space vocals. But the supercharged UK trio wisely expands its worldview to include sci-fi funk, stompy goth and even Rufus Wainwright-esque balladry on Revelations, its poppiest and most emotionally affecting outing yet.

The Shins, Wincing the Night Away (Sub Pop): Physical copies of the Shins' third album won't be in stores until 2007, although Wincing's presence on file-sharing services means that it may as well have already been released. More sedate and less accessible than the band's first two discs, this is an album for those outgrowing uncertainty and settling into careers, relationships and (gasp!) maturity. Nevertheless, the Flaming Lips-esque dreamscape "Sea Legs" displays sonic adventurousness, and the wistful relationship analysis "Turn on Me" has a hollow nostalgia reminiscent of early R.E.M.

Gwen Stefani, The Sweet Escape (Interscope): Save for the yodel-tastic "Wind It Up" and a Pharrell-featuring game of "disco-Tetris" called "Yummy," the No Doubt vocalist wisely chooses to focus on songcraft instead of flamboyance on her second solo effort. This makes her staunch girl power all the more effective, whether she's channeling Madonna's Like a Prayer-era balladry ("Early Winter"), embracing her inner goth ("Wonderful Life") or doing her best Sheena Easton impression (the sunshine-soul title track).

Thom Yorke, The Eraser (XL): Thom Yorke's seduction technique with Radiohead has always revolved around mystery — so it's no surprise that The Eraser, his solo debut, also explores misty vistas. Although built on a foundation of repetition and detailed sonic atmosphere, Eraser derives its power from Yorke's feathery falsetto. He croons half-formed phrases and whispered slogans like an otherworldly siren, creating an eerily romantic song-cycle full of enigmas that stir the heart and brain.

Snap to It
Redefining hip-hop nation in 2006

It was, according to no less an authority than the New York Times, the year rap went regional.

There was plenty of recent evidence to support the Times, beginning with the suddenly paltry record sales racked up by some of hip-hop's heaviest weights. There was lots of historical evidence, as well: Ever since the Dirty South shook off the bicoastal stranglehold of the mid-'90s, hip-hop had developed burgeoning scenes in no less than a dozen major markets.

By 2006, most of those cities had mutated the music and culture beyond the recognition of all but the most dedicated hip-hop fan. These towns had their own sounds, their own slang and even their own subgenres. St. Louis was no exception, as the Midwest swing set into motion nearly a decade earlier by Nelly continued strong.

Jovan Campbell and his older brother Derryl Howard, however, didn't buy the idea that their music had to stay at home. Better known as Jibbs and producer DJ Beats, the pair unleashed "Chain Hang Low," which jingles like the last ice-cream truck of the long, hot summer — and a lot of those feudal, walled-city lines the Times reported seemed to fade. With a melody familiar to Grandma (it was drawn from the children's song "Do Your Ears Hang Low," which in turn took its melody from the traditional "Turkey in the Straw"), and G-rated lyrics (the pimp reference notwithstanding), it was a reminder of hip-hop's power to unify.

In person Jibbs isn't shy about expressing his ambition. He might have just turned sixteen, but his taste of success beyond St. Louis has made him hungry for more in a hurry. "I'm trying to hit every market, man. I mean, every market," he says earnestly. "I wanna get everyone involved, and not just try to sell my album to one particular group of people."

Of course, now that the effects of leaks and digital piracy are hitting the ill-prepared industry full-force, gold albums are starting to look great, and even going "wood in the hood" isn't quite the admission of failure it used to be. But as much of the fractured hip-hop nation gathered itself in November for another event that cut across party and geographic lines — the return of Jay-Z — it was worth remembering that trends can be as fleeting as the music that often drives them, even hip-hop's current trend toward smaller-is-better.

Here are a few of 2006's other notable hip-hop trends.

It was the year of the comeback. Hov's inevitable return received most of the ink, but it wasn't the most notable. A couple of veterans who'd been on cruise control for a while finally awoke, and these sleeping giants turned in two of the better albums of '06 (as well as of their careers). Snoop Dogg's Tha Blue Carpet Treatment worked because Tha Doggfather finally applied himself. On Fishscale, Ghostface finally found some topics and tracks that matched the intensity of his high-pitched, borderline-crazy voice, and emerged with a coked-up, weirded-out winner. And Virginia's long-MIA Clipse emerged from Purgatory by year's end with the drug-running, sometimes-stunning Hell Hath No Fury.

It was the year of the mixtape. From its humble origins as a street-corner hustle, the mixtape has become an even more vital part of the hip-hop artist's arsenal. Filled with rare tracks, remixes and exclusives, mixtapes don't just build anticipation for an upcoming album anymore — they deserve consideration on their own merits. And no one puts them together like Cleveland's Commissioner, Mick Boogie, who oversaw some of 2006's best and brightest mixtapes. Although he did yeoman's work all year and teamed up with titans such as Jay-Z and Eminem, the best of Boogie came on some of his lower-profile projects. Case in point: His Mobb Deep mixtape, More Money More Murda, which shredded the album it was supposed to help promote.

In St. Louis, DJ Trackstar continued to produce mixtapes like they're going out of style (at last count in 2006, he released six) — and more important, he didn't skimp on highlighting local artists both old-school and new: Rockwell Knuckles, Bits N Pieces, Midwest Avengers, Altered St8s of Consciousness, Family Affair, Nite Owl, Black Spade and Spaide R.I.P.P.E.R. (who reached the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop singles sales charts with "Always").

It was the year of deep thoughts and the year of partying (and, sometimes, deep thoughts about partying). There's room for both viewpoints now in hip-hop's increasingly diverse underground, which is good news indeed. Critical darlings Spank Rock might have merely made Too $hort safe for all the eggheads who thought they were too $mart for him the first time around, but even so, was there an album more fun in 2006 than the high-concept/low-art Yoyoyoyoyo? Didn't think so. Both fun in their own thoughtful ways were albums from the Bay Area's Ise Lyfe, whose SpreadtheWORD suggests he might someday take over Mos Def's mantle as hip-hop's activist poet laureate, and Georgia Ann Muldrow, an adventurous LA artist who reassembles urban music in novel ways on Olesi: Fragments of an Earth.

It was the year of self-promotion. Well, every year in hip-hop is the year of self-promotion, but it isn't enough anymore to just have a hard-repping street team and your name in ice. Case in point is local rhymer-made-good Chingy, whose third album, Hoodstar, was a winning collection that went Top 10 but got short shrift from the critics — as much as anything, it seemed, because he was no longer the new kid under the Arch.

No matter. Chingy smartly tapped into one of the hip-hop industry's biggest growth areas: the ringtone. He reportedly recorded 123 different ringtone versions of Hoodstar's third single, "Dem Jeans," subbing in a different girl's name in each version. (Among the names Chingy chose: Beyonce, Oprah, Mariah, Jalisa, LeToya and Lakeshia. Just so you know.)

"Dem Jeans" might have stalled outside the Top 40, but Chingy's personal touch has opened up a significant new market to his music. Sprint and Nextel customers can download the special ringtones, and Chingy videos are available to Sprint TV customers. You can also download Hoodstar via Sprint's music store. Now that's synchronicity — the kind you can bet other hip-hop artists will be imitating in 2007.

Yes, St. Louis' hip-hop elite certainly has self-promotion down pat. Just ask Jibbs his favorite hip-hop trend of '06, and he barely blinks before answering.

"I would definitely say that the hottest trend," he offers, starting to chuckle, "was people that got their chains hangin' low."

Land of SongFusion
Don't call these here platters alt-country

Alternative country is dead, and its DNA can't be replicated, no matter how hard the outlaw clones and hokey clowns may try. But its genetic code is nothing if not recombinant. Fusions of country, blues, soul and rock & roll can still sound good, still speak to this very moment — especially if the artists find songs to render their stories and characters worth the singing. These ten do.

Bob Dylan, Modern Times (Columbia): The bad news is that the completion of the old man's supposed trilogy never rocks — and the meanest blues numbers, "Rollin and Tumblin'" and "The Levee's Gonna Break," nearly drag. But oh, how Times rolls. If Dylan has his way, the soundtrack to the apocalypse will be '40s-era pop courtesy of Bessie Smith and Bing Crosby. He's shuffling and swinging into the end times — his or ours, what's the difference? — with wordplay as funny, slick and discomforting as the diatribes of a reactionary, misogynist, genius pimp-daddy. Fitting, because that's pretty much what he is.

Cat Power, The Greatest (Matador): Chan Marshall's guileless persona and naked sound have made her the madonna of indie malaise. Her music, though, has rarely equaled the radiance of her lamp-lit voice and lyrics. Now it has, with more than a little help from Hi Records session masters, some expansive string arrangements and an astonishing rendering of "Moon River." None of her confessional contemporaries have made an album like this.

Tom Waits, Orphans (Anti-): What no one is saying about this three-CD set is how much protest it contains. From the not-really-ironic stomp of "Lie to Me," to Brecht's black joke about bestial acts, to the vicious mating practices of beetles, to the funereal waltzes, to the CNN-cowrite "Road to Peace," to being "lost at the bottom of the world," Orphans is a rockabilly, jazz and country-blues soundtrack to morning in America — where unseen torture, unshown show trials and bloody permanent wars are still regnant.

The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant): Take away Craig Finn's vocals and the Hold Steady sound about as country as Big & Rich — which is to say they take what they need from Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen and AC/DC, add a few rootsy gestures like pedal steel and finger-picked acoustic and harmonica, and throw in some showbiz duets and strut. Of course, take away Craig Finn's vocals and the Brooklyn band ceases to exist. He's not a singer; he's an anchorman wired on the same stream of pills, poetry and hormonal eruption — which, in case you'd forgotten, are still the headlines American teenagers make every day.

Memory Band, Apron Strings (DiCristina): Not weird enough for the freak-folkies, not jazzy enough for the math-grassers, not Americana enough for No Depression, the Memory Band is talented enough to merit comparisons to its primary influence: Fairport Convention. This obscure London quintet disputes the Christian right's myths of re-virgin rebirths and courtly love without sin. Violin player Jennymay Logan picks up where Richard Thompson's folk modernism leaves off; singer Nancy Wallace feels Sandy Denny's mystical loneliness; and a beautiful darkness is just on the other side of the hedgerow, in suburbia as in the verdant glen.

Destroyer, Destroyer's Rubies (Merge): The premature and short-lived hype for Dan Bejar's best record (not counting his work with the New Pornographers) illustrates the abject fickleness of indiedom. Released in early 2006, it has largely faded from critical memory, in part because its sound — like an improvisational homage to Van Morrison's country-rock period — insinuates rather than pounds. Bejar's self-referential romanticism, beatnik surrealism, and yelping and cooing voice flourish within the bright stream of guitar, trumpet, vibes, and steady-as-starlight rhythms. The entire album sounds like consolation for someone who thinks and feels too much.

Candi Staton, His Hands (Astralwerks): For the last two decades, Southern soul giant Candi Staton has mostly devoted herself to sacred music, even as fetishists devote themselves to scouring eBay for her 45s. His Hands is Staton's unlikely return to semi-secular soul, although it's far from godless: Her gospel has an impure beauty, the sonic space — courtesy of Lambchop's Mark Nevers — so open and forgiving that there's even room for a tune by the ever-accursed Will Oldham.

Johnny Cash, American V: A Hundred Highways (American): One can only hope that J.R. Cash's producer and confidant, Rick Rubin, will let this album be the man's final testament. There's nothing here as chilling as "Hurt" or as funky as "Rowboat" from the earlier American projects. Instead the record is modest and ruminative, mostly tender songs of love and a Christian faith so deep it deserves another name. The sounds, too stoic to be tasteful, too quietly rich to be spare, are just humble gestures before that cracking, leveling, essential voice.

Rosanne Cash, Black Cadillac (Capitol): She's been waiting her whole adult life to make this record, and by the end of the final elegy, she sounds deeply relieved. When Cash's father and mother died, part of the soul of country music — in June Carter, its vaudevillian gaiety; in Johnny, its gravitas — was diminished. Their daughter evokes them, especially her father, through interior recollections of flaws and virtues, and in music that's as inevitable and meaningful as the tragic sense of life.

Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (Anti-): A friend likened this album to consuming an entire bag of organic malted-milk balls, and then licking the bag clean. (Like that's a bad thing.) Sweet and airy and not as good for you as the impeccable indie credits (musicians include Calexico, Giant Sand, the Sadies and Garth Hudson) might suggest, Case's melodies and voice sail just above a reinvented girl-group sound and her strange-noir obsessions.

Metal Health
Devil horns up, 2006

In the pale light of the false dawn, our lord lies dead and enemies surround us — so lamented the old woman in the final stanzas of Beowulf, the original heavy-metal song. Eight hundred years later, the song remains the same. But to all those who fear the worst, we advocate repeated listenings of the following albums. Best to put your motherfucking horns up and go out swinging.

Celtic Frost, Monotheist (Century Media): All the classical aspirations, esoteric mysticism and electronic twitchery the Frost flirted with in their long-ago youth finally come together, girded around brutal, beautiful thrashing metal. Magnificent from start to finish, Monotheist demands to be taken as a whole, like any other great work of art; one surrenders to the world and philosophy of the Frost once "play" is pushed. As the last strains of "Triptych: Winter" fade, the world you return to feels changed. Less interesting, less majestic, lessened on all counts simply because this wondrous sound has been stilled.

Khlyst, Chaos Is My Name (Hydra Head): Guitar sorcerer James Plotkin allies with Nordic warrior-seer Runhild Gammelsaeter to create a most-sophisticated vision of internalized, relentless torment. Gammelsaeter's phenomenal pipes serve as your eyes in the endless dark: She wails and screeches, growls and keens, chanting a saga of death and loneliness that festers in the pit of your stomach. Plotkin's guitar spurts and staggers into blind corners, scrapes against beslimed things, splinters fingernails on the unyielding stone of the sarcophagus the duo has built in the cold heart of a lost barrow. Essential listening for the inner-cosmic voyager.

Motörhead, Kiss of Death (Sanctuary): Lemmy is 60 years old, an admitted Viagra user and still — still! — the most metal person on the planet. Consider Kiss of Death: rude lyrics, killer riffs, Phil Campbell's finest guitar work in his long tenure with the band, and the boozy rasp that is Lemmy's head-toward-Valhalla vocal style. Fuck Dick Clark and his antiseptic "eternal teenager" shtick; Lemmy is the eternal teenager. Almost every song he writes is about booze, pussy, fighting or rock & roll itself — and they're all gloriously raucous and loud. In 2007, let's discard the term "rock & roll" entirely and simply use "Motörhead." Same thing, my friends. Same thing.

Harkonin, Ghanima (self-released): Meaner and more ambitious than anything Harkonin has done to date, Ghanima bristles and slays with inventive songwriting, drop-dead-killer riffing and the jawdropping drumwork of Clayton Gore. From the blistering vitriol of "L.ost C.ause" to the sardonic cruelty of "Caligula" to the epic "Sons of War," Harkonin have never sounded better — or more determined to bang your head. They've honed their blackened thrash sword down to a wickedly sharp edge. Glorious and profane, Ghanima is the finest metal album to come out of St. Louis. Ever.

Gorgoroth, Ad Majorem Sathanas Gloriam (Candelight): Sathanas Gloriam is another maelstrom of whirling steel and steaming blood half-seen in the long twilight of the far North. Infernus' hack-'n'-slash guitar slows briefly during "Sign of an Open Eye," as he churns out a martial riff that kindles a fire in the liver. Of course, this is followed by the merciless "White Seed," a scything attack propelled by the hammers of demon drummer Frost. Gorgoroth's blend of sinister majesty and rawboned hate mark them as Satan's most zealous shocktroops, even after fifteen years in the trenches.

Lair of the Minotaur, The Ultimate Destroyer (Southern Lord): If you open your album with "Juggernaut of Metal" and close with "The Hydra Coils Upon This Wicked Mountain," you'd better bring it like a goddamn apocalypse in between. Indeed, Lair of the Minotaur stomps its collective iron hooves up and down the craggy slopes of Mount Olympus, pulping skulls and grinding various mythological figures to powder with its thrashy, ancient war metal meets filthy black metal overload. Oh, and "Hydra Coils" is vicious and exhausting, a running battle fought in black-and-white at slow-motion, nightmare speed — the perfect end for a grisly Minotaur outing.

Katharsis, World Without End (Southern Lord): A chaotic, bleary, cacophonous riot of an album, purely evil and brilliant. A swirling fog of distortion and catacomb-grade reverb, the vocals and guitars hiss wickedly, the drums thud and snap like a distant murder — and this makes Hellhammer sound polished. And yet there's a sophisticated intelligence to the composition, as songs shudder towards the ten-minute mark with malicious intent. Genuinely disturbing and thrilling, a black mass by and for the deranged. Lovely.

Melvins, Houdini Live: A Live History of Gluttony and Lust (Ipecac): So they're more post-punk than metal. What do you want? Dale Crover remains one of the world's brilliant percussionists, Buzz hews the strangest riffs out of congealed tar, and limited-edition bassist Trevor Dunn unkinks the Gordian Knot in God's balls with his seismic intro to "Night Goat," the Melvins' most claustrophobic and sensual love song. If this was the only song on the album, the Melvins could have called it a century. Instead, they gang-cuddle us with a smooth 'n' sweaty "Set Me Straight/DCH," a reverse-cowgirl "Joan of Arc" and, in fact, the whole dang Houdini album, done-over and done louder. They should change their name to Menschvins.

Ahab, The Call of the Wretched Sea (Napalm): As Mastodon re-imagined Moby Dick as the prog-metal Leviathan, German trio Ahab takes Melville's big hit and transforms it into a sprawling doom album. Daniel Droste's guttural vocals roar with a grinding Teutonic dourness, bass lines groan like hawsers stretched taut in a Cape Horn gale, and the rhythms yaw as songs surface and dive like the mighty cetacean who inspired it. Wretched Sea is not a perfect album, but it's a powerful album, compelling in its alien nature and gargantuan proportions — and it blows the hatches off Mastodon's flashy, pacy and ultimately sterile album. This is the one for people who've actually read Moby Dick.

Bodyrockers Unite

Hot Chip, The Warning (DFA/Astralwerks): Hot Chip released many remixes this year, each a variation on a theme from The Warning. With each twist of the kaleidoscope, a new twinkly melody shone inside the British band's pleasant bedroom-disco songs. The Warning brims with quiet innovation, a brilliantly understated celebration of '80s and '90s dance and rock that could only have been made in 2006.

Ghostface Killah, Fishscale (Interscope): With Fishscale, the Wu-Tang Clan's most verbose member squished the wannabe crack dealers and bitch-slap rappers like a bug. "You wanna talk about crack rock?" he seemed to say. "Let's do it." The result was like Proust tackling the game. You're inside a brain, and every nook of the crackhead's life is examined, from how to cook it to how to deliver it to how when you're riding in the backseat eating a filet-of-fish on the way to murder a competitor you might accidentally drip tartar sauce on your brand new shoes. Damn.

Joanna Newsom, Ys (Drag City): The yin to Ghostface's yang, harpist Joanna Newsom writes about mountains, meteors and "rowing along, among the reeds." And if the two musicians seem to be from other planets, they at least share a love of the yarn. In Newsom's case, her second album, arranged by West Coast string-genius Van Dyke Parks, consists of five acoustic songs, each a continent of its own. Ys moves from one to the next like tectonic plates shifting beneath the ocean, and is utterly beautiful.

Apparat and Ellen Allien, Orchestra of Bubbles (BPitch Control): The weirdest techno record of the year has the requisite thump and driving bass lines, but where much electronic music follows a template laid down by Kraftwerk 30-odd years ago — hop on the Autobahn and start driving — Orchestra of Bubbles is like running errands in Ellen Allien's Berlin. Lots of twists and turns of melody, noisy car crashes and the occasional detour through a quiet, rhythmic park.

Glenn Kotche, Mobile (Nonesuch): To identify Kotche as "Wilco's drummer" is to minimize his work as a composer. Released by Nonesuch, Mobile is more akin to the label's Nonesuch Explorer Series of the 1960s than its recent foray into pop and rock. A singular work by one of America's foremost percussionists, Mobile consists of eight instrumental rhythmic excursions that draw from Steve Reich and the Ramayana Monkey Chant alike. — Randall Roberts

Hip-Hop Trinity

The Future of Hip-Hop — Lupe Fiasco: In his video for "Touch the Sky," Kanye West dresses up like Evel Knievel, puts the mack down on Pamela Anderson and gets rebuffed by the gorgeous Nia Long. Oh, and he flies a rocket ship. Over the Grand Canyon. Of course. But none of the gaudy baubles in Kanye's mad-genius treasure chest can outshine the performance of guest emcee Lupe Fiasco, whose sixteen bars are the track's truly special effects. That's absolutely not a knock to Kanye, who brought conscious rap way into the mainstream, challenged an inept president and made it cool to rock pink polo shirts. But Lupe Fiasco can easily match (or even best) Kanye's lyrical skills, and the 25-year-old Chicagoan leaves bluster and braggadocio behind when he steps to the mic. "Kick, Push," a love letter to skateboarding, achieves the neat trick of sounding totally fresh simply because it's so old-school; the cinematic strings and laid-back flow give the song a timeless, endless-summer vibe. And "Kick, Push" is just the first single — the rest of the tracks on Lupe's Food & Liquor are equally inventive. Not one to shy away from any topic, he rhymes about everything from domestic abuse and genocide (the excellent, Kingston-influenced "Hurts Me Soul") to zombie gangstas ("The Cool"). Food & Liquor debuted at No. 8 on the Billboard Top 200, thanks to early critical buzz (the album leaked on the Internet months before its release) and to the star power of Lupe's producers (Jay-Z, Kanye West, fellow skateboard aficionado Pharrell Williams). This is easily the best hip-hop album of the year, made by a smart rapper with far more talent than bravado. "They call me Lupe, I be a new day," he rhymes on "I Gotcha." Not quite: Try a new era.

The Rule-Breaker — Astronautalis: Astronautalis (né Andy Bothwell) made his name as a battle-rapper, a fierce presence on the underground circuit. At Scribble Jam, Cincinnati's famed annual hip-hop festival, Astronautalis vanquished opponents on the same stage that helped birth the careers of Eminem, Sage Francis and Buck 65. That was more than eight years ago. Today, the model-handsome emcee combines his love of hip-hop, classic country, shoegazey pop and freak-folk into an act that cheerfully, willfully defies categorization. This year's Mighty Ocean and Nine Dark Theaters embraces everything from sweeping strings to barroom piano, from old-school beatboxing to voice modulation, from gossamer-delicate harmonies to harsh spoken-word rebukes. Astronautalis makes a happy home in paradox. "Fuck your bleeding heart," he growls, before sweetly enthusing, "Meet me here later and we'll make out!" This album is like nothing else you've heard this year, yet its roots in rap battles — specifically the sharp phrasing and cut-to-the-quick lyrics — are evident on every track. And while Mighty Ocean's mood is as dark as the inside of a garbage bag at midnight, the emcee's attitude is admirably sunny. Some underground hip-hoppers try like hell to sound menacing on their MySpace pages. But Astronautalis? His viewpoint is, to paraphrase, "I'm playing music I love! And you love it too! Perfect! Yippee!" Hey, Andy — meet us in St. Louis later and we'll make out.

The Mad Genius — Girl Talk: While many mash-up tracks play like blatant cash-grabs (hola, Jay-Z y Linkin Park), Girl Talk's exuberant albums are a celebration of hip-hop itself. Girl Talk is just one dude (Pittsburgh's Greg Gillis), but that one dude creates music that could rock a thousand parties and make even the staunchest hip-hop purists take notice. This year's Night Ripper is a triumph. By the numbers, the record contains sixteen tracks that together sample around 200 songs. But this isn't just a name-that-tune exercise for music geeks. Instead, Night Ripper is one of the smartest, most jubilant hip-hop albums of the year. Gillis loves music — all music — and his selections exhibit a depth and breadth of knowledge that most other mash-up artists lack. From the first track (on which the Ying-Yang Twins growl, um, "Wait'll you see my dick" over the Verve's iconic "Bittersweet Symphony"), we were absolutely hooked. And then there's Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" and the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy." Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" and Juelz Santana's "There It Go (The Whistle Song)." Mike Jones and Seals & Crofts! The Smashing Pumpkins and, holy crap, the Three 6 Mafia! Greg Gillis knows his theory, his editing tricks and his software. But more important than any of that, he knows his music's fundamental power: to delight, to inspire and to create one hell of a party. — Brooke Foster

Musical Warfare

Music has long been a tactic of war, stretching back to the days when kilt-wearing Scotsmen used bagpipes to scare the bejeezus out of would-be attackers. But since the start of the Iraq War, American Psychological Operations (PsyOps) interrogators have started using music in torture sessions. In addition to the waterboarding or electric shocks prisoners had previously been subjected to, the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay have endured the likes of Metallica and Christina Aguilera at full volume for hours on end. But if the American military is serious about winning the "War on Terror," they'd better beef up their torture technology. To lend a hand, here are our top album recommendations of 2006 for the interrogation expert in your life.

Norma Jean, Redeemer (Solid State): They're hardcore metal, they're Christian — and they sing about it. In what way could they not exasperate a) anyone over 30 or b) Muslim prisoners at prayer time?

Kevin Federline, Playing with Fire (Federation): Perhaps "America's Most Hated" will spawn interrogator rap-alongs, thereby doing what critics thought was impossible: making the year's most untalented rapper sound even worse.

Paris Hilton, Paris (Heiress Records/ Warner Music): Based on her morality alone, subjecting strict Muslims to the come-hither coos of this hussy heiress ought to be enough for a plea bargain after the first three songs — five if they're really tough.

Walls of Jericho, With Devils Amongst Us All (Trustkill): Imagine the enraged screams of your most intimidating bitch of an ex-girlfriend. Then put a roaring hardcore band behind her. It's enough to shatter anyone's sense of self.

The Matches, Decomposer (Epitaph): On repeat for hours, the poppy hooks and slightly off-key vocals of this emo-punk band would have the same effect as a stomachful of ipecac syrup. — Andrea Noble

Underachievers, Please Try Harder

The bands in this list can (and usually do) perform at higher levels. In fact, with the exception of Yo La Tengo, these acts' previous albums were their best to date, which perhaps made the weight of expectation too great. Still, even though the following discs are the most disappointing ones of 2006, there's still gold to be found on them (we've included a "redemption song" for each). But think of this list as a parent talking sternly to a errant child: We're not angry, we're just disappointed.

The Walkmen, A Hundred Miles Off, (Record Collection): The album on which Hamilton Leithauser finally ruins his voice. A fine singer, Leithauser has always preferred a vein-popping scream in concert, and those howls have taken their toll and left the singer raspy. The band sounds more ragged than usual as they amble around shapeless songs that lack any surprise or (sucker)punch. Redemption Song: "Another One Goes By"

The Decemberists, The Crane Wife (Capitol): Maybe Colin Meloy's over-enunciations have worn thin; maybe two twelve-minute songs was overkill. Either way, the Decemberists' move to the majors wasn't the triumph many of us anticipated, with proggy affectations weighing down the band's once-ebullient sound. Redemption Song: "Sons and Daughters"

Cat Power, The Greatest (Matador): This one shoulda been a contender. The crossover potential for this record was so great, it's still a surprise that Chan Marshall isn't doing duets with Missy Elliot. Greatest was Marshall's attempt at class and mainstream credibility, but pristine reverb and Stax session men can't make up for the lack of decent songs. Redemption Song: "Lived in Bars"

Yo La Tengo, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (Matador): What at first listen sounded like a YLT sampler platter (a mix of dirges, guitar molestations and sunshine pop — a kind of greatest-hits disc for a band with no actual hits) turned out to be disjointed and scattered in a way the band didn't intend. And what's up, Matador? Your most brazenly named album collapsed under the weight of expectation. Redemption Song: "Mr. Tough"

The Mountain Goats, Get Lonely (4AD): To be fair, anything following last year's career-defining The Sunset Tree was bound to be a letdown. John Darnielle continues his exploration of claustrophobia and paranoia, releasing a field guide to solitude that is too diffuse and lacking in narrative to stick. After writing brilliant song cycles about abusive stepfathers, meth dealers and co-dependent drunkards, a break-up album is far too mundane. Redemption Song: "Wild Sage" — Christian Schaeffer

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