The Best Records of 2006 – Part Four of Six

By Cole Haddon Express Critic

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) Dixie Chicks site Dixie Chicks stream

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)

Two Gallants site Two Gallants stream

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) Decoder Ring site Decoder Ring stream

Justin Timberlake FutureSex/LoveSounds 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) J.T. site and stream

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) Scientists stream/site

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) Link to stream/site

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) The Concretes site The Concretes stream

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) Ben Harper site Ben Harper stream

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) Rainer Maria site Rainer Maria stream

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) The Hold Steady site/stream


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