There is no one unified theme connecting the best of 2006 in popular music. Taken together, the music doesn't present itself as a cogent novel -- it's more like a collection of short stories with little connecting them, aside from a certain spirit of exploration.
The usual tropes didn't apply this year.
Popular music has long been held to be the terrain of youth, but some of this year's strongest music was made by artists in their 50s and even 60s. Hip-hop is said to be the most radical pop music of today, but many of the strongest records released paid that form little mind, and the lion's share of genuine hip-hop records were far from daring.
Heavy metal is sniffed at and written off as a dinosaur, but a few unabashedly metal-loving artists did some fantastic work in 2006, stuff that doesn't sound so much dated as it does timeless and logical.
Protest music, long held to be an annoying vestige of the '60s, made a surprising comeback, and not just among the folk who started making records way back when -- the modern punk-rock crowd was sounding off on social and political issues as well.
And while digital downloading continues to be a controversial aspect of the way we gather and listen to music, its tangible effects are tough to discern. The strongest artists made albums, not singles. And while 2005 saw online purchasing of music explode, this year that blaze cooled considerably.
In all, 2006 was a very good year for pop music. Here's the best of what went down:
The Top 10 albums
1)Tom Waits - "Orphans" (Anti-)
Three discs of prime Waits. The man doesn't write songs -- he writes movies, and scores them with the help of wife Kathleen Brennan. Every song offers a character, inhabited by Waits in the author's voice, and populated by sounds both ghostly and glaring. A one-of-a-kind album, both of and ahead of its time.
2) The Flaming Lips - "At War With the Mystics" (Warner Bros.)
Production, songwriting and performance head and shoulders above the competition. A record that fully transcends the year of its making, yet somehow seems the perfect record for this year. A little down, but not out. Wizened, but hopeful.
3) TV On the Radio - "Return to Cookie Mountain" (Interscope)
The birth of the new, weird, progressive music. A long time coming. Finally, with "Return to Cookie Mountain," TV On the Radio makes sure the '90s are dead.
4) Bob Dylan - "Modern Times" (Columbia)
Forget the legend. This is the sound of a songwriter and storyteller for whom the past, present and future are all rolled into one. An incredible record redolent of its own milieu.
5) Bruce Springsteen - "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" (Columbia)
Springsteen takes Seeger out of the town hall sing-along, and straight into the arena. New Orleans music is celebrated throughout, and as is his wont, Springsteen makes these songs his own, while at the same time passing them on for the next generation.
6) The Strokes - "First Impressions of Earth" (RCA)
The Strokes outrun their "buzz band" status with their third, most adventurous album. It may not have sold as well as the first two, but it heralds a new beginning for a band that should be around for a good long while.
7) The Mars Volta - "Amputechture" (Universal)
Whacked-out progressive rock for a new generation. Brave, flawed, heroic.
8) Pearl Jam - "Pearl Jam" (J Records)
The Seattle band continued its winning streak with this collection of songs at once sentimental and scathing, melodic and punk-fueled, idealistic and unbelievably angry. "Pearl Jam" placed the band firmly in the present once again.
9) Paul Simon - "Surprise" (Columbia)
One of the greatest songwriters in the history of popular music teamed with one of the few true maverick producers still working, Brian Eno. The result reimagined Simon's poetic lyrics and stately, melodic songs as post-modern rock. It worked, beautifully.
10) Cat Power - "The Greatest" (Matador)
Chan Marshall emerged from the indie-rock murk to make transcendent modern soul.
Honorable mentions: Donald Fagen, Morph the Cat (Reprise); Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins, Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love); The Who, Endless Wire (Universal Republic)
The Top Independent Album
Willie Nile - "Streets of New York" (00:2:59) A flawless collection of folk-based rockers from the Buffalo native.
The Top Metal Albums
1) Iron Maiden - "A Matter of Life and Death" (Sanctuary) Progressive, bold, over-the-top, and incredibly fun.
2) Tool - "10,000 Days" (Volcano) Harsh, often brutally so, and redolent of a remarkably consistent dark vision.
The Top Hip-hop Albums
1) Gnarls Barkley - "St. Elsewhere" (Downtown) A hilarious pastiche of pop references run through a hip-hop filter.
2) Outkast - "Idlewild" (Arista) The duo continues to forge its own path through modern hip-hop, bending the rules and stretching the envelope as it goes.
3) Tech N9ne - "Everready: The Religion" (Strange Music)
The West Coast's most virtuosic, rapid-fire rapper returns with an album of hyper beats, clever rhymes and forward-looking production values.
4) Ghostface Killah - "Fishscale" (Def Jam)
Ghostface Killah emerges from the Wu Tang Clan as a towering MC. This record is soulful and smart, raw and occasionally disturbing, but always a fitting representative of the Wu Tang legacy.
5) Public Enemy - "Beats and Places" (Slam Jamz)
Still the reigning kings of the form, for my money. This collection features obscure B-sides and unreleased gems. There is no stronger voice in hip-hop than Chuck D's.
The Top New Artists
The time was perfect for a band to come along wailing like banshees in the spirit of Robert Plant and Chris Cornell, and taking as much joy from its megaton riffage as did Black Sabbath. A fun, loud, always interesting record.
2) The Raconteurs
White Stripes leader Jack White teams with indie-rock legend Brendan Benson to create a charming blend of power-pop and whacked-out electric blues.
The Top Music DVDs
1) Bob Dylan - No Direction Home (Paramount)
2) The Flaming Lips - The Fearless Freaks (Shout! Factory)
3) Robert Plant & the Strange Sensation - Sound Stage Performance (Rounder)
4) My Morning Jacket - Okonokos: The Concert (ATO)
5) Jeff Tweedy - Sunken Treasure: Live in the Pacific Northwest (Weasel Disc)
The Top Reissues
1) The Beatles - "Love" (EMI)
Sir George Martin and son Giles Martin remix and reimagine the Beatles catalog in this stunning suite. The pair went way above and beyond the call of duty for this soundtrack to the Cirque de Soleil performance "Love.
2) The Doors - "Perception - Box Set" (Rhino/Elektra)
All the band's studio albums in a double-disc set. Disc one of each set boasts remastered versions of the original programs with bonus tracks. Disc two repeats the program in a 5.1 surround mix and tosses in live performance videos and rare clips. Outstanding, top to bottom.
3) Talking Heads - "Box Set - Remasters" (Sire)
Incredibly, the Talking Heads' work still sounds ahead of its time, and these surround-sound mixes are absolutely state-of-the-art.
4) Bruce Springsteen - "Born To Run 30th Anniversary Edition" (Columbia)
Finally, we hear through the Phil Spector-inspired wall of sound to the heart of Springsteen's vision, a stirring blend of orchestral pop, '50s and '60s rock, and a street-wise poet's words falling somewhere between Jack Kerouac and James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause."
5) Tie: Bjork - "Surrounded" (Rhino/Elektra)
The most daring woman in modern music finds her entire catalog remastered and remixed in 5.1 surround sound. Brilliant.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse - "Live at the Fillmore" (Warner Bros.) The definitive Crazy Horse lineup plays a visceral set in the early '70s, on a bill that also included Miles Davis.
The Top Comeback Releases
Ray Davies - "Other People's Lives" (V2)
As close as we'll ever get to a new Kinks album from one of the finest songwriters of the rock era.
David Gilmour - "On An Island" (Columbia)
The Pink Floyd guitarist makes his first solo album in more than 20 years, and it's a striking one.
The Top Downloads
1) Ratdog - Live, Oct. 28, Town Ballroom, Buffalo
2) Tragically Hip - "The Lonely End of the Rink"
3) Lindsey Buckingham - "Cast Away Dreams"
4) U2 and Green Day - "The Saints Are Coming"
5) Beck - "Nausea"
Top Local Band Concert
Sleeping Kings Of Iona, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, June 20
This still-young Buffalo band logged some serious road miles this year, along the way bringing an increasing amount of electronic influence to bear on its dreamy art-pop. At this show, the band opened for new wave legends Blondie and turned in an inspired set.
The Top Arena Concert
Tie: The Tragically Hip, Artpark, June 18; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers with the Allman Brothers Band, Darien Lake Performing Arts Center, Aug. 16
The Tragically Hip burned down the house during this fiery Artpark show, previewing a few songs from the then-unreleased "World Container" album. A great set list and a performance smacking of conviction made this one a winner.
Petty and the Allmans played like the truly seasoned pros they are. This show pulled an audience spanning several generations out to Darien Lake for the feel-good gig of the year.
The Top Development in Music
It's just too perfect. As MTV has all but abandoned actual music videos and performance clips, the people pushed You Tube through the roof, as the site's music video catalog increased dramatically. Whether you're looking for vintage rock clips from the '60s and '70s or the latest in emo, You Tube became the ether world meeting place of choice this year.