Luke McNaney's Best of 2006

And so another year ends. 2006 is soon to be over but, before that fateful day comes, let's reminisce for a moment. January saw a new human breed of Monkeys breaking records and making every other rock band in the UK work that bit harder. Pop was kicked square in the face this summer by trainer-clad Lily Allen, and quality greatest hits collections from both Sugababes and Girls Aloud rivalled releases from chart-ruling indie bands. Snow Patrol and Razorlight were just two of the big names whose ‘difficult second albums’ had no difficulty in securing the album chart’s top spot despite leaving this reviewer, well, a tad bored. The Killers much-maligned follow-up was much more to my tastes, although Scissor Sisters’ return sadly retained only part of the spark and freshness their 2004 debut displayed. 'Nu rave' swept the nation, leaving a glut of used glowsticks in its wake, and the year has closed with yet another X Idol (whatever) releasing her first - and probably last - number one single.

All in all, the year's been a mixed bag, one of ups and downs. However, the ups have made it a very exciting year and 2006 has provided some great albums that will be listened to for years to come. My twelve months were defined by the following ten.

10. Giant Drag - Hearts & Unicorns

She's a foul-mouthed guitar-toting rock chick, he's happy to stay in the background and provide synths 'n' beats. Together, they are Giant Drag. Or were. Reports are in that Annie Hardy's musical partner Michah Calabrese has recently left the band. It would certainly be a shame if this effortlessly cool debut is the legacy they leave behind, as album number two could/may still be even better. Their sound is constantly referred to as being akin to The Breeders, much like Emily Haines synth-rock troupe. However, I don't believe Metric have songs entitled Kevin Is Gay or You Fuck Like My Dad. The deciding factor really...

Best track - High Friends In Places

9. Datarock - Datarock Datarock

Bands that made people dance were embraced by certain sectors of the music press this year (hello NME!) yet, despite making fun danceable music, many of your Klaxons and your Sunshine Undergrounds were also taken really seriously. Yay for Datarock! Consisting of two Norwegian dudes in red tracksuits who are old enough to know better, Datarock delivered a debut album that veered dangerously close to novelty humour (the track Night Flight to Uranus being a prime example) but managed to knock out enough disco thrills and electro gems to secure a place in my top ten. This is an album that is silly without sacrificing an overall poptastic vision, album closer The Most Beautiful Girl establishing them as sound songsmiths in their own right. If you were let down by Scissor Sisters' compromised return, then this is the one for you.

Best track - Computer Camp Love

8. Regina Spektor - Begin to Hope

Purveyor of her very own brand of Soviet Kitsch, Regina Spektor has been one of my favourite artists for quite a while now. 2006's Begin to Hope marked a crossover into the mainstream, breakaway tune Fidelity garnering her more notice than ever before. However, despite some poppier frills being added to the mix, she's still as left field as ever and this collection of songs was a breath of fresh, sometimes stinging, air during a stifling summer. Oh, and her love songs are the most unique in the world. Fact.

Best track - Fidelity

7. The Veils - Nux Vomica

2006 was, quite sadly, not graced by the presence of Arcade Fire but skip forward to track nine on this effort, and you have the year's Rebellion (Lies) laying in wait. Anthemic but maudlin, One Night On Earth is so good you can almost hear Morrissey's towel being thrown. The other nine tracks on offer cover the emotional and sonic gamut, ranging from the rage-fuelled Jesus for the Jugular and the heartbroken piano-led grief of Under the Folding Branches. Imagine a darker and more twisted Guillemots, fronted by one of the most charismatic performers of the year in the shape of one Mr Finn Andrews, and you're halfway there.

Best track - One Night On Earth

6. Amy Winehouse - Back to Black

Who woulda thunk it? This is one of the year's glorious surprises, and sure to be setting up shop in my CD player well into 2007. Borrowing freely from retro gal groups The Supremes and The Shangri-Las, Londoner Amy has fashioned her own soulful modern Motown sound. And it's effing fantastic! Not only are the songs great - highlights being Me & Mr Jones and Tears Dry On Their Own, both owing a huge debt to Phil Spector - but the witty lyrics, commenting frankly on adult relationships, blow the competition (that's you, Lily Allen) out of the pond. And I haven't even mentioned her voice. This is the sound of a more soulful future, ladies and gentlemen, so buckle up! Marvin Gaye is beaming in his grave.

Best track - Tears Dry On Their Own

5. Hot Chip - The Warning

Spazzy, colourful, eclectic geek-pop was what Hot Chip's second album was all about, and our lives were certainly the better for it. The Warning is, above all things, strange. Veering from the Prince-humping sleaze funk of Arrest Yourself to the high drama of No Fit State, by way of a couple of slowies and the euphoric Stardust-sampler And I Was a Boy From School, this was an album that made you feel dizzy, being both daft and affecting. Meanwhile, song of the year must be awarded to Over & Over, a horrendously catchy lil' ditty that caused drunken devastation on every single indie dancefloor across the UK every single weekend.

Best track - Over & Over

4. The Dresden Dolls - Yes, Virginia...

I was still savouring every delectable second of their sumptuous debut when, a couple of months into the year, Dresden Dolls returned with their second set of cabaret pop-punk. Yup, you heard me. Dresden Dolls are straight-up punk! And, by God, the Mother country would be one screwed-up theme park of excitement if Amanda Palmer and her boy Brian brought full-on anarchy to the UK. Perhaps it's a good thing that their oddball (and, frankly, weird) world of botched sex changes and back-alley abortions is safely restricted to CD. However, the wit Palmer's lyrics bring to My Alcoholic Friends and First Orgasm (yup, if there was an award for 'best song titles ever', the Dolls would be a shoe-in) make you want to revisit the freaky dimension they dwell in so you can catch every pun and sarcastic little aside. The fact that they are a duo does not limit their music, the piano and drums working so well together that you almost forget they're the only two primary instruments being employed. Can't wait to see them live!

Best track - Dirty Business

3. The Raconteurs - Broken Boy Soldiers

I've always been a fan of Brendan Benson, and The White Stripes have ranked as one of my fave bands for the past couple of years. Therefore, I was obviously biased when Broken Boy Soldiers FINALLY arrived in May '06. Of course I was gonna like it. However, eight months on and I keep returning to it. I listen to it more than I do Elephant, and that's surely a good sign. The hype has died down somewhat since the press went bananas and made declarations of 'supergroup!' back in May, and all that is left now is the music. Thank the baby Jesus that this debut album is all killer, no Meg White filler. The synth-rock dirge of Steady, As She Goes was their massive hit but the influence of prog-rock and bar-room blues was felt on the remaining nine numbers. Swift but stellar, this could be the start of an awesome journey.

Best track - Store Bought Bones

2. Howling Bells - Howling Bells

Juanita Stein = goddess. Quite simply, Howling Bells were the classiest rock 'n' roll band to tour the UK this year - and by God, did they tour a whole lot! Thankfully, they're back on the road in early 2007 and, if you haven't already, I urge you to purchase this album with your leftover Crimbo dosh and then grab yourself a ticket. Why is this one of the two best albums of 2006? Well, the aforementioned Ms Stein is a primary factor, owner of the best voice in blues rock since Polly Jean. Even this is secondary to the songs, though. The album is the musical equivalent of a nightmare you wake up from but long to return to. It is a black but romantic landscape, where hearts break but so do bones. Despite the overall bluesy tone, it all works and it still manages to rock, Low Happening being one of the catchiest tracks of the year. Album number two could do more damage than a nuclear bomb. Until then, we have this to bridge the gap. Oh, and the album that just manages to beat this one, too...

Best track - Wishing Stone

1. Joanna Newsom - Ys

Yup, it's the kooky gal with the harp! And deservedly so. Her 2004 debut courted much critical praise but was one of those 'love it or hate it' records. This was due in part to her left-of-centre psych folk sound but also due to her unusual little-girl voice which can be heard on that Orange phone ad set during the NY blackout. It took me a while to get into it but I am now a firm fan of her debut record. However, Ys upped the odds considerably. It is remarkable. Comprised of a mere five songs, it still manages to be the most ambitious and enthralling record of the year. Backed by a full orchestra, Joanna takes us by the hand into a fairytale world where strings soar and harps harp. The songs are sprawling but never flabby, even the album's magnificent centrepiece Only Skin which clocks in at just under twenty minutes. Like its predecessor, Ys may polarize listeners, the sonic equivalent of a flight-of-fancy storybook which demands attention and an open mind. Newsom's background in creative writing is evident, many of the songs featuring intricate wordplay and Monkey & Bear particularly standing out as a full narrative with a beginning, middle and end. For me, there could not be any other choice for album of 2006. It is an astounding listen that sees Newsom join a select few female artists (Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Bjork) who challenge the listener without sacrificing an engaging sound. Treasure this album, it's gonna be good to you...

Best track - Only Skin

So, there's my ten! All in all though, I think it's been a fabulous year for albums and I couldn't not mention another ten that didn't quite make my list:

Bat for Lashes - Fur and Gold
Brand New - The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me
Duke Special - Songs From the Deep Forest
The Grates - Gravity Won't Get You High
Gwen Stefani - The Sweet Escape
Imogen Heap - Speak for Yourself (reissue)
Jeremy Warmsley - The Art of Fiction
The Knife - Silent Shout
Metric - Live It Out
Pharrell - In My Mind

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