It's easy to look at the over-hyped duds that came out in 2006 and think the year was one big bore. But several albums rippling with superlative, adventurous music flew under the radar. Some managed to sell well despite little promotion or a monster single; others were overlooked altogether. Here are the CDs that impressed me the most in 2006.
On the Jungle Floor
Although he was a bit too reserved and self-conscious on his 2004 self-titled debut, I knew this Ohio native had something special. The artist -- a gifted songwriter and multi-instrumentalist but a slightly tentative singer -- showed much promise. With On the Jungle Floor, he expertly sidestepped the sophomore slump. Where the music on the debut was languid and moody, the songs on the second CD crackled with energy. Elements of punk, blues, '70s soul and modern R&B; were deftly blended throughout. The overall sound -- studded with obvious influences from vintage Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone and Prince -- was invigorating, the lyrics clever and often poetic. "Priest or Police" is perhaps the trippiest, most affecting love song I've heard in a while. And "Ride, Ride, Ride" is a fun, blistering funk-rock jam Lenny Kravitz probably wishes he had done.
TV on the Radio
Return to Cookie Mountain
When I first heard this album, I didn't get it. Yet I couldn't stop playing it. With each spin, I heard something different and more intoxicating in the densely inventive soundscapes. This New York-based quintet of art nerds is unapologetically ambitious on its major-label debut. Industrial beats underpin steely glitches. Doo-wop melts into hip-hop. Punk sears into funk. The album is a wild sonic roller coaster ride with thrilling, unexpected loops and spins here and there.
It just ain't fair! Will somebody please tell me why this woman's brilliant solo career is so underappreciated? Morning, the former Groove Theory vocalist's third album, is her best. But the other two -- Infinite Possibilities (2000) and Bravebird (2004) -- were pretty darn amazing. Airy but firmly anchored, the arrangements on the latest CD better showcase Larrieux's expansive range. She evokes Minnie Riperton on the sensual, transcendental "Gills and Tails" and adds a dash of Betty Carter to the sassy "Earn My Affections." But the native New Yorker still manages to establish a flavorful sound that's all her own. Morning is a subtly exciting album from start to finish. And it's a shame not nearly enough people heard it.
Ain't Nobody Worryin'
While Larrieux held it down on the indie soul front, Hamilton put out the most impressive mainstream soul album of the year. Though it was released at the tail end of 2005, Ain't Nobody Worryin' became a hit at the beginning of '06, reaching gold status. But it's strange that the album didn't repeat the platinum sales of its predecessor, 2003's solid Comin' From Where I'm From. It is undoubtedly a superior record, glowing with the kind of warm, down-home blend of folk, gospel and blues that hasn't been heard since the '70s heyday of Bill Withers and Terry Callier. This time out, Hamilton showcased more of his sly sense of humor ("Sista Big Bones") and sweet, open-hearted romanticism ("The Truth"). With the recent death of Gerald Levert, Hamilton is one of the few modern soul men still standing, which makes albums like Ain't Nobody Worryin' all the more precious.
This Wu-Tang Clan member has long been a vivid storyteller and talented rapper. But he fumbled and stumbled through his last two CDs -- 2001's Bulletproof Wallets and 2004's The Pretty Toney Album. On Fishscale, he returns to the gripping, sometimes bitingly humorous tales that made early albums such as 1996's Ironman and 2000's Supreme Clientele sterling efforts. The production is refreshingly organic, fluid with effective use of dusty '70s soul samples. (Check the Luther Ingram loop on "Whip You With a Strap.") Hands down, Fishscale is the best hip-hop album of 2006.
The most ubiquitous trend of 2006 was the covers project. But this British soul-jazz outfit brought a unique approach to it: Jean-Paul "Bluey" Maunick, the band's mastermind, radically re-arranged four Incognito classics -- stripping away the throbbing disco pulse of such hits as "Always There" and adding a sparse, strings-cushioned arrangement. Other covers -- America's "Tin Man," Roy Ayers' "Everybody Loves the Sunshine" (the album title comes from a line in the song) and Earth, Wind & Fire's "That the Way of the World"--are given floating, dreamy treatments. With the exception of the sweeping drum 'n bass arrangement of "Raise," each languid song deliciously melts into the next. Seductive and as soothing as a hot toddy, Bees&Things;& Flowers hasn't left my CD changer or my iPod.