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In 2006 the pop singles market continued to dominate, in no small part because the click-to-pick-driven mentality of online music stores and ringtone sites gave consumers unparalleled freedom to choose their own musical adventure. What suffered in the meantime, though, was the quality of pop/rock albums. These platters frequently spawned great singles — Justin Timberlake, KT Tunstall, the Rapture, Pearl Jam, My Chemical Romance, et cetera — but didn't hold together as cohesive statements. So here we give you some catchy and innovative long-players that held up over repeated listens.

AFI, Decemberunderground (Interscope): Unlike many of its dark-punk peers, AFI slicked up its sound without losing its batcave-and-fishnets cachet on Decemberunderground. Chalk this up to the band's undeniable pop sensibilities and knack for hooks — whether they're crafting screamo speedballs ("Kill Caustic"), space-age synth-pop ("The Missing Frame"), or tundra-chilled gothic landscapes indebted to the Cure and Damned ("Summer Shudder").

Blood Brothers, Young Machetes (V2): The Blood Brothers' slobbering, shrill, twin-vocal assault and nuclear-bomb riffs frequently feel plucked straight out of a Stephen King horror flick. But on Machetes, the Seattle band's Daliesque surrealistic imagery and unhinged mania coalesce into shockingly linear pop songs. "Linear pop" is a relative term, though, for their postpunk/no-wave/hardcore hysteria remains very much intact: "We Ride Skeletal Lightning" lurches like an undead zombie jonesing for brains, while "Spit Shine Your Black Clouds" is a danceable conclusion to PiL's shuddering death-disco.


Catchy and innovative albums

CSS, Cansei De Ser Sexy (Sub Pop): With Le Tigre on hiatus, the Brazilian sextet CSS stepped up for booty-dancers, staunch feminists, and electro-pop fanatics everywhere with its high-energy debut. "Let's Make Love and Listen to Death from Above" begs to be blared during a Jazzercise class for hipsters, "Art Bitch" sounds like a deconstructed Yeah Yeah Yeahs song stitched back together with diagonal big-beats, and the bubble-bath-synth groover "Fuckoff Is Not the Only Thing You Have to Show" resembles Ladytron trash-talking with Cyndi Lauper.

Def Leppard, Yeah! (Island): These critically maligned arena-rockers sure sound like they have something to prove on their fantastic covers record, Yeah! And who can blame them? They've always drawn inspiration from seminal UK glam and metal bands but can't seem to escape being seen as poof-rock hacks. Which is too bad, because their faithful (but not derivative) renditions of classic cuts from Bowie, T. Rex, Roxy Music, Sweet, ELO, and even the Kinks — in the form of a gorgeous, copper-burnished "Waterloo Sunset" — more than cement their musical talent.

Nelly Furtado, Loose (Geffen): Furtado, who's notorious for being a hit-or-miss performer live, is perhaps the year's biggest example of how studio gloss and the right production team can revive (and reinvent) an artist's career — and create Top 40 gold in the process. Loose is the most consistent and innovative pop-diva disc of the year, from the Latin-flair of "No Hay Igual," digi-funk body-rocker "Maneater," and, of course, the playful Eighties glitter all over the Timbaland-featuring synth-swerve "Promiscuous."

Hellogoodbye, Zombies! Aliens! Vampires! Dinosaurs! (Drive-Thru): Few modern emo/punk/whatever whippersnappers capture the essence of the decade when keyboards ruled the world — largely because their view of the 1980s comes secondhand via VH1 or retro-radio hours. However, an exception to this rule can be made for the young Cali quartet Hellogoodbye, which displays serious synth-smarts (and a mean Vocoder!) on Zombies!, an exuberant collection of punk-pop that nods to New Order, blink-182, and Eighties Top 40 radio hits.

Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3, Olé Tarantula! (Yep Roc): The absent-minded professor of Nuggets-style psychedelic garage rock continues his creative resurgence with Tarantula, a kaleidoscopic palette of taut melodic gems drenched in harmony and surrealistic imagery. Recorded in conjunction with the Venus 3 — a.k.a. Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey, and Bill Rieflin of R.E.M./The Minus 5 — and featuring a track co-written by XTC majordomo Andy Partridge ("'Cause It's Love [Saint Parallelogram]"), the album trades in fizzy fuzz-jangle that often belies lyrical melancholy. "N.Y. Doll" is a somber remembrance of the late New York Dolls bassist Arthur Kane, and Hitchcock wrote the effervescent pop burst "Underground Sun" for a late friend.

Muse, Black Holes and Revelations (Reprise): On its first three albums, Muse traded in pretentious prog bombast long before it became trendy — and creates the Platonic ideal of the form on Revelations with "Knights of Cydonia," a galloping, apocalyptic single gnarled with doom-metal riffs and robots-in-space vocals. But the supercharged UK trio wisely expands its worldview to include sci-fi funk, stompy goth, and even Rufus Wainwright-esque balladry on Revelations, the band's poppiest and most emotionally affecting outing yet. Just try to avoid shedding a tear during the longing "Starlight," where glassy piano intertwines with diffracted synths and vocalist Matt Bellamy croons "I just wanted to hold you in my arms" like an anguished astronaut about to be lost forever in space.

The Shins, Wincing the Night Away (Sub Pop): The Shins' third album doesn't hit stores until 2007, although its presence on any number of file-sharing services means that, more or less, it may as well have already been released. More sedate and less accessible than the band's first two discs, Wincing is an album for listeners outgrowing twentysomething-borne uncertainty and settling into careers, relationships, and (gasp) maturity. Nevertheless, the Flaming Lips-esque psych-dreamscape "Sea Legs" displays sonic adventurousness, and the wistful relationship-analysis "Turn on Me" has a hollow nostalgia reminiscent of R.E.M.'s early mysticism.

Thom Yorke, The Eraser (XL): Yorke's seduction technique with Radiohead is now and has always revolved around mystery, so it's no surprise that The Eraser, his solo debut, explores misty vistas. Although built on a foundation of repetition and detailed sonic atmosphere (fragmented electronica loops, stuttering beat-blips, and skeletal piano), Eraser derives its power from Yorke's feathery falsetto. He croons half-formed phrases and whispered slogans like an otherworldly siren, creating an eerily romantic song cycle full of cryptic enigmas that stir the heart and brain.


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