Since the explosion of the on-line music world in the late ’90s, I, like many, have moved away from being a consumer of entire albums towards collecting individual tracks by artists I enjoy. I’d rather buy through iTunes, or obtain via other means, the four or five best songs off of an album instead of dropping $16 to get those tracks plus seven or eight I don’t want. This year, though, I seemed to stockpile a few more albums than in recent years. My top 20 songs of 2006 list is coming either late this week or early next, but here, in no particular order, are some notable albums that were released this year.

Broken Boy Soldiers – The Raconteurs. This is a notable but also in some ways a disappointing album. From the moment I heard, back in mid-2005, that Jack White and Brendan Benson were working on an album together, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. When opening single “Steady As She Goes” leaked in February, I was pleased by what I heard. When the disk dropped in May, I was a little disappointed. And I think that’s because I expected too much. I expected the best rock and art sensibilities of White and the best pop craftsmanship of Benson to be present on each track. That hope ignored the most likely final product: those sensibilities would be evident, but the Detroit natives worked harder to forge a common and new sound. The result was unexpected, and perhaps because of that, a let down. But it’s a pretty solid album, full of 70s porn soundtrack overtones. Big, crunchy, and dirty. It could be the modern soundtrack for Detroit.

Putting the Days to Bed – The Long Winters. A fabulous album full of perfectly crafted power-pop masterpieces. It’s only failing may be that the band is in such a groove that the songs end up sounding the same after awhile. But in the age of shuffling, when a track from this album pops into your playlist, it shines.

You See Colours – Delays. This album will be lost behind many of the other British pop bands that ruled the American airwaves this year. That’s a shame because this is a far better album than many of those that got sucked into the ‘Grey’s Anatomy alterna-pop sampler’ genre.

The Information – Beck. It should say a lot that a Beck album makes my list. He’s always been a little too eclectic for my tastes. But this is a great album, full of equal parts edginess and power hooks. I now see why so many people are so into his music.
The Dust of Retreat – Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s. The first Indy band to make a national splash since I moved here, the Margos released this stunning debut album in 2005 and had it picked up and rereleased by a larger label in March. They are often compared to the Arcade Fire because there are about 1000 people in the band. But their sound, at least on disk, is much more refined than the Arcade Fire’s, and their pop roots are much more evident as well. Each song tells a story beautifully, both lyrically and musically.

The Crane Wife – The Decembrists. When a cult band signs a major label contract, there is always concern among the fans who stick with them (as opposed to those who cry “Sell out!” and part ways). They worry that the money and pressure will ruin what made the band great in their indie days. Death Cab for Cutie faced that pressure in 2005, and delivered a decent album but one that also was noticeably weaker than their final indie release. The Decembrists were this year’s test case, and unlike Death Cab, they exceeded every expectation. Not only did they live up to the hype, they did so while releasing a quasi-concept album. Much of The Crane Wife is based on a Japanese fable of the same name. The original story is heartbreaking, as is opening track “The Crane Wife 3.” The rest of the album is pure Decembrists, at times rollicking, always literate and challenging, and never boring.

Pearl Jam – Pearl Jam. I’ve written before about the grace music critics give established groups. No mainstream critic will ever say a Rolling Stones release sucks. U2 has moved into that sphere. So it is predictable when each album is hailed as a return to the glory years. There was no hyperbole or dishonesty when critics labeled Pearl Jam’s self-titled released as a return to form. Easily their best album in a decade, the band escaped much of the aimlessness that dominated their last two releases. They rocked as they hadn’t rocked since Vs. The album featured their strongest opening track since Vitology in “Life Wasted.” Their best single since “Given to Fly” in “World Wide Suicide.” And perhaps their greatest hook ever (wait for my singles list for that one). When I reviewed this album in May, I said I liked it a lot, but time would tell if it was truly a great album. The fact I’m still listening to the strongest tracks from it each week should say volumes. This was a great album, proving that they can still do it when motivated and focused. They’ve been missed; hopefully they can keep their muse in sight.

Fox Confessor Brings the Flood – Neko Case. A year ago, I barely knew who Neko Case was. I knew she was part of indie supergroup The New Pornographers, a band that brought me great joy in 2005. And I knew she was a solo artist, but had not heard any of her work sans Porno friends. When this album was released in March, it blew me away. She has a voice that could launch 1000 armies. That could sing Greek heroes into jagged rocks. That can soothe away all that ails you. It’s not a modern rock and roll voice, but something plucked from the era of classic country and early rock, when generes were blurred and singers just sang. This is one of those albums you want to buy ten copies of and send to all your friends because they MUST hear it.

Boys and Girls in America – The Hold Steady. The voice of a generation. Craig Finn sings of what kids today face. Not the kids who grow up happy and comfortable and secure with where their futures are taking them. But rather the kids who slip through the cracks, who clutch to things like music and drugs and their circle of friends to try to find meaning in life and the power to get through each day. There’s a significant part of that message that I can’t relate to. It isn’t how I felt when I was 18, nor the kind of life I live today. Despite whether the songs speak to your life or not, you can’t deny the power and passion and honesty that the carry with them. An album that demands to be heard and placed aside Born to Run as one of the great summations of the lives of those on the fringe.

Rabbit Fur Coat – Jenny Lewis With the Watson Twins. Jenny Lewis and Neko Case are often compared to each other. They both have wonderful voices, are prolific as both solo artists, members of groups, and drop-ins to numerous other side projects, and both have strong Americana/Country elements in their music. I grew up being forced to listen to country music by relatives who lived out in the rural parts of the Midwest, so I always say that I don’t like country music. And that’s largely true. It just doesn’t connect with me, something that was reinforced in the 90s when I worked at a place that kept the radio on the intercom all day, and at least twice a week was a country day. And yet, music like the songs on this album, some of Neko’s songs, and classic stuff like Johnny Cash resonates with me. I’ve never dug deep to see what the difference is, although in the modern stuff I would imagine that it is the fact that the songs aren’t pure country, but rather country-influenced, with at least one foot firmly planted in the pop/rock world.
Anyway, this is another fantastic album full of wonderful singing and lovely instrumentation. Jenny’s lyrics aren’t as deep as Neko’s, but that also makes them a little more accessible where Neko’s tend to be a little more artsy and vague. Her voice is also a notch below Neko’s in quality, but she deploys it expertly, avoiding and strains that would show her tiny weaknesses. Oh, and the Watson Twins are not unattractive, which helps when watching their videos or live performances.

Late addition:
The Alarmist – Dear Leader. I just purchased this album last week, so I can’t break it down yet, but it won’t qualify for next year’s list, so I had to say something about it. The band is fronted by Aaron Perrino, former lead singer of one of my favorite bands of the early 00s, The Sheila Divine. These songs a bit more complex than the Sheila’s straight-ahead alt-rock. More art, more depth, but the rock is still there. It remains to be seen if I’ll dig this effort as much as I dug the Sheilas, but it is definitely promising.