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High Notes

Some of Style's music critics pick their favorite sounds of 2006.


Brent Baldwin

CD Editor, Village Voice Critics Poll Contributor

Top Five Albums

1. Tom Waits "Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards" (Anti): If you need proof that gravel-caked throat artist Tom Waits and wife Kathleen Brennan are the best songwriting team in America, look no further. This instant classic illuminates much of his career and ranks with his best work.

2. Sonic Youth "Rather Ripped" (Geffen): The godparents of indie rock drop one of their catchiest and most accessible albums in years, featuring lots of weird guitar tunings and more icy cool Kim Gordon than usual — which can only be a good thing.

3. Gnarls Barkley "St. Elsewhere" (Downtown): I've been waiting for psychedelic soul to put its foot in hip-hop, and here it is in flashes of electrifying brilliance. This spotty album nonetheless celebrates a terrific collaboration between two of the most creative minds in hip-hop: Danger Mouse and veteran Georgia rapper and soul singer Cee-Lo Green.

4. CSS "Casier de Ser Sexy" (Sub Pop): For the sheer fun of it, I had to include this disco-punk-pop debut from Sao Paolo, Brazil. Sounds good loud.

5. Clipse "Hell Hath No Fury" (Star Trak): Intelligent cocaine rap from Virginia Beach? The real reason this is one of the best hip-hop releases of the year is the steady amount of insane, space-age "Miami Vice" beats provided by another Virginia sensation, Pharrell and The Neptunes.

Best Single:

"Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley

When I think of best singles of the year, I think of catchy songs that leave an indelible imprint on the year. Few did so like the moody and soulful "Crazy," featuring terrific vocals by Cee-Lo. A hit with legs on both sides of the Atlantic, "Crazy" made history as the first single to go straight to No. 1 in the U.K. based on digital download sales alone.

Best Virginia Live Performance:

Art Brut at Satellite Ballroom, Charlottesville

This show flat-out rocked. The lovable English crew led by charismatic front man Eddie Argos played every song from its acclaimed debut, "Bang Bang Rock & Roll," with electrifying verve for a small crowd that was enraptured throughout. Like a fun pep rally for U.K. alternative rock freaks.

Peter McElhinney

Jazz Critic, Downbeat Critics Poll Contributor

Top Five Albums

1. Charles Lloyd "Sangam" (ECM): This features the saxophonist leading a drum and tabla trio in a dynamic and joyful tribute to late drummer Billy Higgins. "Sangam" marks another high point in Lloyd's unique, questing combination of deep spirituality and high humor.

2. Tom Waits "Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards" (Anti): May not be jazz, but it's everything creative music should be: brilliantly idiosyncratic and absolutely one-of-a-kind. This three-CD feast of odds and ends demonstrates the eternal holiday truth: Sometimes the leftovers are better than the original meal.

3. Neko Case "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood" (Anti): A song cycle of elusively tragic songs illuminated by bright vocals and appealing, asymmetric melodies. In all, an attractive and literate thicket in which to get lost.

4. Dave Douglas "Live at the Jazz Standard" (Greenleaf Music): Six nights of music on 12 downloadable CDs released within 24 hours of being recorded, this may be the richest documentation of a first-rank working band since Miles Davis' Plugged Nickel sessions.

5. "Mosaic Select: Andrew Hill — Solo" (Mosaic): A trove of unreleased, unaccompanied pieces by the thornily brilliant, long-underrated pianist.

Best Virginia Live Performance:

Doug Richards/Rex Richardson at VCU's Singleton Center

A hard choice in a year blessed with quirky wonders from the Patchwork Collective, the sprawling Music Circus John Cage Tribute at Chop Suey Books, Samson Trinh's family affair CD release party, The Big Payback's kick-ass debut and the outsized talent of Cyro Baptista squeezed into the tiny Cary Street Café. But the Doug Richards/Rex Richardson brass concert wasn't just memorable, it was transcendent.

Mark Richardson

Rock Critic, Associate Editor of Pitchfork-

Top Five Albums

1. Grizzly Bear "Yellow House" (Warp): The surprise of the year — an organic, earthy record of heavily orchestrated and honey-harmonied folk-pop on a label known for cutting-edge electronics. The songs exist out of time, reaching back to Depression-era ballads ("Marla" was actually penned by the lead singer's aunt in the 1930s) while incorporating of-the-moment sonic tweaks.

2. Tim Hecker "Harmony in Ultraviolet" (Kranky): This Montreal artist's fifth record moves his heavily textured drone into a Wagnerian context, shifting gradually from placid atmosphere to bracing noise along a taut dramatic structure. Cinematic and darkly ambient, it needs to be listened to completely and in one sitting, providing a welcome reprieve from our iPod Shuffling, skip-forward culture.

3. The Hold Steady "Boys and Girls in America" (Vagrant): Good riffs and great storytelling abound in this loose concept album about youthful uncertainty and frayed connection. Classic rock like early Springsteen and Thin Lizzy circa "Jailbreak" provide the musical inspiration, but lead singer Craig Finn's debauched tales could have come from that guy you saw on a bar stool yesterday.

4. TV on the Radio "Return to Cookie Mountain" (Interscope): A peculiar amalgamation of influences is what makes this Brooklyn band's sound so fresh: They have the vocal chops to pull off doo-wop; the progressive leanings to evoke Peter Gabriel; and a noisy energy channeled from Sonic Youth. It all came together on this, their best album yet, a challenging and inventive rock record that takes many listens to absorb.

5. Yo la Tengo "I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass" (Matador): It's too long, like all Yo la Tengo albums in the last decade, but the Hoboken heroes made up for it this time with their most varied collection of songs. Goofy pop ditties plucked from the 1950s, tender ballads, peppy garage rock and long-form guitar freak-outs add up to one of the highlights of the band's 20-plus-year career.

Favorite Single:

"Springfield (DFA mix)" by Arthur Russell

Hip New York production duo DFA took an unreleased sketch of a pop song from the late, underappreciated Renaissance man Russell (he died of complications from AIDS in 1992) and transformed it into a warm, upbeat and funky paean to the healing power of creative expression.

Best Virginia Live Performance:

Dungen at Satellite Ballroom, Charlottesville

These kids from Sweden are a time-machine-as-band, evoking perfectly the hazy psychedelia in full flower as the '60s came to a close. Their terrifically catchy songs and leader (and Robert Plant clone) Gustav Ejstes' crazy instrumental chops — soloing on guitar, flute, Fender Rhodes and percussion — elevate them beyond a nostalgia act.

Hilary Langford

Rock Critic

Top Five Albums

1. Neko Case "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood" (Anti): From its vivid, Southern gothic story lines to Neko's velvety vocals, this collection of songs is a perfect 10 and then some. You can't just listen to one track; it warrants a start to finish listen every time. Simply hypnotic.

2. Scissor Sisters "Ta Dah!" (Umvd Labels): Well-crafted, flamboyant pop that begs to be danced to in front of the nearest mirror. Having a miserable day? Pop this in instead of Prozac and you'll be set.

3. Homemade Knives "No One Doubts the Darkness" (Triple Stamp Records): Homegrown brilliance from a few of Richmond's finest. Wil Loyal's songwriting is captivating, and the players and production are near perfect. One of the most impressive debuts of the year.

4. Shiny Toy Guns "We Are Pilots" (Stormwest International): Synth-rock and throbbing electronica collide with male and female vocals that trade off throughout the album. It's a juggernaut that is progressive and retro all at once. "Le Disko" is one of the sexiest dance songs I've heard in years.

5. Jolie Holland "Springtime Can Kill You" (Anti): Jolie Holland has an inexplicable style that is part Billie Holiday, part eccentric folkie. Melancholy takes center stage on her third disc, and at the expense of the heartbroken songstress, we get 12 incredibly beautiful tracks; the perfect soundtrack to back-porch drinking under a full moon.

Favorite Single of 2006:

"Not Ready to Make Nice" by The Dixie Chicks

Critics of the Bush admin-istration's deceptive and misguided war, Natalie Maines and the girls dished out a testament to standing up for your beliefs in spite of the fallout. In this case, it was a success. To me, this is inspired American music.

Best Virginia live performance:

Neko Case at Starr Hill Music Hall, Charlottesville

Flanked by a handful of brilliant musicians on a tiny stage, Neko Case and Kelly Hogan mesmerized the sold-out crowd with hearty vocals and well-timed comic relief. If you've never heard Neko recount stories of cutting bubble gum out of her dog's hair on the tour bus or other roadside adventures, you are missing out.

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