A Very Good Year - The first four CDs below are all album of the year material. The musical styles may vary, but all four have beautifully written songs, superb performances and the best production imaginable. Each of these albums is as good as a record could possibly be. While it might be difficult to rate one better than the others, the ranking reflects the relative proportion of the year that each one made me mental (in a good way).
1. Melody Gardot - Worrisome Heart (MelodyGardot.com)
Melody Gardot's first full length CD has such exquisite songwriting, such soulful, heart-rending vocals and such simple and perfect production that it's hard to imagine that this incredibly talented Philly Local artist will remain such for long. This record began killing me several months before it came out when Melody pressed up a preview EP that she offered at her August performance at Ortlieb's Jazzhaus in Philadelphia which turned out to be one of the best live concerts I caught all year. Read my complete review here.
2. Lelia Broussard - Lil-Yah (Leliasmusic.com)
This is as fine a pop record as you'd hope to hear, with finely honed melodies bursting forth from every tune, strong and soulful vocals, and impeccable production that makes this record just plain irresistible. That this and the Melody Gardot CD were both recorded and co-produced by Glenn Barratt at Morningstar Studios in Springhouse, PA is huge. That Lelia wrote, recorded, and co-produced such a great album her first time out suggests that her future career potential is limitless. Get this original release quickly before it is re-released in early 2007 in a reconfiguration that adds and deletes a few songs; this one's a keeper. Read my complete review here.
3. Ebba Forsberg - Ebba Forsberg (Eboth, Import)
During the five years between her second and third albums, Swedish singer-songwriter Ebba Forsberg took a little break from the music business to run a restaurant in Stockholm. Ebba returned to the studio in 2006 to write and record this, her self-titled third album. The songs are deep, intense, and beautiful, and like the other albums on this list, they feature fantastic vocal work and production that is spot on brilliant. This is a gem of a record that no U.S. label has yet recognized, but the Swedish release is currently available at CD Baby and CD-Wow. This will sink it's hooks into you by about the third or fourth listen and it won't let go.
4. Corinne Bailey Rae - Corinne Bailey Rae (Capitol)
If all she did was sing and play, this eminently listenable record would still make this list, but Corinne Bailey Rae's ability to write such beautifully melodic tunes is where the real magic happens. Her three Grammy nominations are well deserved: Record of the Year (as performer) and Song of the Year (as songwriter) both for "Put Your Records On" and Best New Artist; the nominations led directly to a January appearance on Oprah which boosted sales and bumped the CD up to #4 in the Billboard charts. When sales and popularity intersect with musical quality it's a potent combination. Some of the cover tunes Corinne does in concert suggest a wide ranging musical sensibility whose surface has only just been scratched on this lovely debut.
5. KT Tunstall - Eye to the Telescope (Virgin America)
It was very tempting to include this excellent CD in the top ten for 2005 when it first came out in Britain and went on to sell more than a million copies in that country. The U.S. release came early in 2006 and she's been a frequent and welcome visitor to these shores ever since. Great songwriting is the key, combined with a very appealing voice, an ear-friendly production style, and a strong Scottish personality. The first single "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" got the most attention but the rest of the record is even better, and by the end of 2006, "Suddenly I See" seemed to be everywhere.
6. David Gilmour - On an Island (Sony)
David Gilmour's guitar is such a delight for the ears that this being his first solo record in eighteen years seems almost a tease. Virtually nowhere outside of Gilmour and Pink Floyd records can you hear such intense guitar work used in the service of music so lush, melodic and mellow. The scarcity of solo work might be forgiven in early 2007 when a planned DVD of his recent Albert Hall concert is released. With backing vocals by Crosby & Nash, the title track is a great calling card for the album but it's just one of many great tracks. With very few missteps and lots of superb guitar work, On an Island is the work of a master at the top of his form.
7. James Hunter - People Gonna Talk (Go/Rounder)
Sounding at times like a cross between Sam Cooke and James Brown, the level of James Hunter's talent is abundantly clear on this great CD. Considering his multiple talents as a singer, songwriter and guitarist, the categorization of Hunter as a Cooke sound-alike drastically sells him short; he even did the graphic drawings that grace the CD booklet. His band's instrumentation with two saxes, guitar, bass and drums gives this music a unique quality of sounding both new and old at the same time. Hunter's sound suggests a hot British dancehall from the fifties but the songwriting and production on the record is state of the current day art. As good as the record is, Hunter is even better live; he's a gifted guitarist and a natural showman who connects easily with the audience.
8. Greg Brown - The Evening Call (Red House)
Greg Brown is an national treasure who has an enormous reservoir of respect for, understanding and repertoire of the many styles of American music including blues, country, jazz, folk and rock. He treats his audiences to his particular take on life, love, music, and politics during every live performance and every so often he takes time out to record his newest compositions. Many of the songs on The Evening Call have already been part of Greg's live repertoire for the last couple of years, and offer his unique synthesis of all his musical influences. The comforting sound of this record is a result of the co-production by Greg and his long time guitarist/producer Bo Ramsey.
9. Dougie MacLean - Inside the Thunder (Dunkeld)
Dougie MacLean is one of Scotland's best singer-songwriters, and what with all his special projects and a live album, Inside the Thunder is only his second full length release of new original songs since 1997's Riof. Although he usually performs solo acoustic in the U.S., he's got his full electric band recording with him on this excellent new set of songs. After developing an distaste for the record business early on, he's established a music career on his own terms, recording for his own label, Dunkeld, in the Scottish town of the same name. Dougie's work is always enjoyable and Inside the Thunder is no exception.
10. Mindy Smith - Long Island Shores (Vanguard)
The nine CDs above literally picked themselves for this list, however it was somewhat more challenging to select a tenth CD from a sizeable group of seemingly equally worthy candidates. This second album from Mindy Smith may be the most religious record ever that doesn't try to sell itself in the Christian music category. The religious issues are just part of the subject matter that Mindy writes about, and it is the beauty of her songwriting combined with excellent guitar work and great sounding production that ultimately elevated this record above the rest of the contenders. Her first album is one that sounded better and better with each successive listen over the years since its release, and Long Island Shores is surely a worthy successor.
The Next Ten - The albums listed below are also worthy of year-end recognition and since I can't quite leave it at ten, I'm pleased to go ten more.
11. Kristin Hoffman - Real (KristinHoffman.com)
Although this this album was technically released in 2005 (well sort of), when Tina Dico took Kristin out on tour as her opening act, it was more than great to discover this very talented singer-songwriter in early 2006 and to enjoy several excellent concert performances by her during the course of the year. Interscope Records released Real to iTunes and other digital download sellers but a change of record company personnel left the album and Kristin in limbo and Real has yet to be released on CD. Sounding like something of a cross between Loreena McKennitt and Joni Mitchell, Kristin has an amazing voice and her song "Falling" is one that's impossible to resist.
12. Richard Julian - Slow New York (Manhattan)
This was a great year for Richard Julian who was finally heard beyond the friendly confines of the Lower East Side New York clubs like The Living Room. He sang with Norah Jones on their very enjoyable side project CD, The Little Williesand he also released his own best CD yet, Slow New York featuring songs both humorous and serious, all well written and performed with his band resulting in one mighty agreeable sounding record.
13. Sasha Dobson - Modern Romance (Secret Sun)
Another frequent performer at The Living Room, Sasha Dobson's genre-defying mix of jazz, Brazilian, and singer-songwriter styles made for an excellent listen on this, her second album. Co-produced by fellow Living Room stalwarts Richard Julian and Jesse Harris, this was released on Harris' own Secret Sun label. Julian and Harris also played on the album and added their songwriting talents to the project.
14. Nellie McKay - Pretty Little Head (Black Dove)
Delayed by almost a full year due to a strong difference of opinion with her label on song selection for her second album, Nellie finally released the full 23 track version herself after being dropped by Sony. While her songwriting powers and performing skill remain intact, the difference between this merely great CD and the stratospheric quality of her debut record might be the guidance provided by a skilled producer like Geoff Emerick. While the artistic achievement of that first album should rightly give Nellie final say as to what goes on her own record, one can only hope that she might one day come to realize that most artists are not their own best producers. If you liked Get Away From Me, you'll most assuredly enjoy Pretty Little Head, but if you're new to this artist, go back and start at the beginning.
15. Kirsten Proffitt - Lucky Girl (Broken Arrow)
First heard in 2003 on Peter Malick's Chance and Circumstance CD (read my full review here), this first full length release from Kirsten Proffit is well worth the wait. The crunchy guitar/sweet voice combination that has worked so well for artists like Juliana Hatfield, Alison Moorer and Garrison Starr turns out to be just perfect for Kirsten's very appealing voice. As on Nina Gordon's two excellent albums, producer Bruce Witkin doesn't hesitate to pull out the stops production wise when needed to give these well written tunes their due. Had there been more time to spend with this great sounding record in 2006, it might well have had a run at the top ten.
16. Victoria Vox - Victoria Vox and Her Jumping Flea (Obus)
After first noticing Victoria Vox on the World Cafe Live booking schedule and liking the samples at her website, then seeing her play live both at Grape Street (Manayunk) and WCL and checking out her CDs, I can heartily recommend her latest, Victoria Vox and her Jumping Flea. The jumping flea refers to the mandolin that she's seen playing on the cover, and she proves quite adept on that instrument as well as the acoustic guitar. Victoria's strengths are in her songwriting, her performance ability, and the friendly easy rapport she gets with audiences of any size. We watched her easily win over a goodly number of folks who just happened to be having dinner at the World Cafe Live upstairs venue when she played there. Victoria does everything herself including her own booking, merchandising, and driving to gigs all over the country in her car, the latter gave rise to a really beautiful song called, appropriately, "America". This record covers many bases including a couple of gorgeous songs in French (one from the Amelie soundtrack), covers of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World" and "Psycho Killer", a yodelling song and even a Christmas song.
17. Zero 7 - The Garden (Atlantic)
Zero 7 reshuffled their vocalist deck this time out, took a few new musical turns, and came up with an eminently listenable record. While it may be different in certain respects than their past efforts, it is easily as good as their last album, When It Falls (2004). Vocalists Tina Dico, Sophie Barker, and Mozez may be absent this time around but Sia is totally holding down the female side of the vocal duties, and her songs would make this record worth buying all by themselves. Jose Gonzalez takes the mike on four tunes, and even Henry Binn, half of the core duo that comprises Zero 7 handles some vocals on In the Garden.
18. Corrs - Home (Atlantic)
The first and only time I've ever had a chance to see the Corrs, it was an in-store performance at the time of the release of their first album. The three sisters and brother performed their songs acoustically using traditional instruments, mixing their set nicely with both original pop and traditional Irish music. Now with a lengthy career with numerous top hits under their belt (more hits worldwide than here in the U.S.), the Corrs have returned to their roots with a covers album that reprises the excellence of the musical mix that first won me over back in 1996. Modern fare like "Heart Like a Wheel" and "Dimming of the Day" work well with the more traditional Irish tunes. I especially love their take on Phil Lynott's "Old Town", you may remember the late Phil Lynott for his band Thin Lizzy. Home is a great CD start to finish.
19. Peter Frampton - Fingerprints (A&M)
Peter Frampton's never really gone away, but after becoming a victim of his own success and the quintessential subject for VH-1's Behind the Music, Frampton has ingeniously reinvented himself as a guitarist's guitarist. Always a talent on the guitar, his image was indelibly ingrained by the mid-seventies success of Frampton Comes Alive as that of a heart-throb singer songwriter. Nowadays his hair may be short and it may be gray but he's never looked or sounded better. This album ably demonstrates that his guitar prowess is huge and multi-faceted. This album was one of the happiest surprises of 2006.
20. Goldfrapp - Supernature (Mute)
The pulsing electronics give Goldfrapp a seductive appeal on this, their third album since Allison Goldfrapp joined forces with Will Gregory to form the band in 2000. Embracing this music is a slippery slope and before you know it you're checking out import singles with tons of remixes and unreleased tracks, then it's on to live dvds, and from there it's only a hop and a skip to Ladytron, Royksopp, and the synthpop offerings of the Different Drum label, pleasures all. Go for it.
Best Single of 2006: Gnarls Barkley - St. Elsewhere (Downtown)
Hands down it's got to be "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley. This song seemed to be in constant rotation everywhere from the moment it was released, not to mention that it totally owned the summer like no other single in recent memory. A side benefit of it's success was that Holly Palmer got a gig singing backup in their live band for most of the year and got to travel the world doing the occasional solo show on the off nights, plus it was great see her on national TV what with Gnarls frequent appearances on all the late night talk shows with a different crazy costumes every time (spa robes to school uniforms).
Best Live Album of 2006: Average White Band - Soul & the City (AverageWhiteBand.com)
Although they still haven't found a proper home at a major label here in the U.S. (their catalog is getting a nice overhaul by Sony in Britain) they have self-released their last several records including this absolutely wonderful live set recorded in March of 2006 at B.B. King's in New York City. The recording quality is as superb as the performance by the current lineup of AWB which has never been better in it's thirty plus year recording career. I never include live or compilation albums for year end top ten consideration but if I did, this fine CD would surely place at or near the top.
Some More Great 2006 Releases:
Jackie Allen - Tangled (Blue Note)
The Animators - How We Fight (Angelhouse)
Brian Auger's Oblivion Express - Looking in the Eye of the World (Ghosttown)
Tony Bennett - Duets (RPM/Columbia)
Hiram Bullock - Too Funky 2 Ignore (Import)
Brandi Carlile - Brandi Carlile (Red Ink/Columbia)
Rosanne Cash - Black Cadillac (Capitol)
Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint - The River in Reverse (Verve/Forecast)
Jamie Cullum - Catching Tales (Verve/Forecast)
Dixie Chicks - Taking the Long Way (Open Wide/Columbia)
Alejandro Escovedo - The Boxing Mirror (EMI)
Euphoria - Precious Time (with guest vocalist, Tina Dico) (Zoe)
Nina Gordon - Bleeding Heart Graffiti (Warner Brothers)
Boo Hewerdine - Harmonograph (MVine, Import)
Ray LaMontagne - Till the Sun Turns Black (RCA)
Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins - Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love)
The Little Willies - The Little Willies (Milking Bull)
John Mayer - Continuum (Aware/Columbia)
John Mayer Trio - Try! (Aware/Columbia)
Van Morrison - Pay the Devil (Lost Highway)
Nerina Pallot - Fires (14th Floor, Import)
Madeleine Peyroux - Half the Perfect World (Rounder)
Tristan Prettyman - Twentythree (Virgin)
Chris Rea - Blue Guitars Box Set (Ear Books, Import)
Skye - Mind How You Go (Atlantic, Import)
Sara Tavares - Balancê (Times Square)
Livingston Taylor - There You Are Again (Coconut Bay)
Derek Trucks Band - Songlines (Columbia)
Natalie Walker - Urban Angel (Dorado)
Bird York - Wicked Little High (Blissed Out/Narada)