You hear it at the end of every year—the critical moaning and gnashing of teeth, as music writers and fans alike proclaim what has become a holiday mantra. "This was a bad year for music," everyone cries, their hands clutching iPods lifted imploringly to the heavens. "Why have the music gods forsaken us?"
They haven't. In 2006, those iPods were packed to capacity with more good tuneage than the world has ever seen before. It's no secret that the rise of downloading culture has opened up a universe of music that expands infinitely, and even if "popular" and chart-topping music continues its downward spiral of prepackaged, reality-show-reject-centered focus, we are no longer beholden to mass opinion when it comes to discovering rich caches of new, original music. As Slate critic Carl Wilson recently wrote, "There's no such thing as a bad year for music. Not even a bad week. There is always some young asshole-genius somewhere wrenching newness out of the same old notes." And it's true. In '06, strange bands such as Hot Chip and Erase Errata produced awesomely twisted albums, full of inventive melodies, schizoid drums and eye-crossingly intense energy. Underground/lesser-known hip-hop releases from Ghostface Killah, Lady Sovereign and Lupe Fiasco resurrected a genre that has grown lazy. Joanna Newsom made us ache with her intricate, intense harp-based folk songs, while Wolfmother blew our hair back with a Sabbath for a new generation.
One of the best albums of the year, Beirut's Gulag Orkestar, is perhaps the finest example of the same old notes wrenched into asshole-y genius. Many of Orkestar's notes are really old, as Beirut's Zach Condon reaches back into the past, beyond rock 'n' roll, grabbing a fistful of traditional Eastern European and klezmer motifs and rolling them, somehow, into orchestral rock songs. No guitars are found on Gulag, just clarinets, deep horns, accordions and other traditional instruments. "Wow, this rocks," one thinks upon hearing the disc, as the glockenspiels ring. Condon was only a teenager when he crafted Gulag Orkestar, but it's a work of mature confidence. And with its genre-blending and resonance, the album comprises a hint of the future of independent music, in which the boundaries of what's considered rock 'n' roll grow increasingly irrelevant.
Music year in review
Which is not to say pop music didn't have its own gems here and there as well over the past year. My Chemical Romance's The Black Parade may be the only concept album about a cancer patient to sell more than 240,000 copies its first week in release (and may be the first album in years that might actually scare your parents). Timbaland may be a little off his game, but he's still the Giorgio Moroder of a new century, turning pallid pop songs into transcendent experiments. Jay-Z realized it's time to make hip-hop for grown-ups, taking up the vanguard point in the genre's evolution. Most important, what was perhaps the best album of the year was also a pop album. St. Elsewhere, by Gnarls Barkley, was released on a major label (Atlantic), and the marketing push behind it more resembled that of teenybopper pabulum than anything else, but it was a stunningly smart, grown-up, sophisticated piece of pop. Whereas much of pop music today wraps a mediocre verse around a single hook, readymade for ringtone sales, and calls it a song (think Usher's "Yeah!"), Danger Mouse's creation layers slabs of funk with delicate electronica, sidling up to hip-hop and falsetto-laced R&B, rounded out with a touch of new wave, all of it harking back to the wack-ass days of psychedelic funk, a la Sly and P-Funk. It's apt the hit single from the album is called "Crazy," as the entire disc sounds, in fact, like the concoction of a mad scientist, stirring up a nonlinear brew of absurdist lyrics and complex, yep, pop. Genius.
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Gnarls Barkley and all the rest of these bands are, of course, only a few of the artists who made music what it was in 2006. Each contributed something new—or at least, something good—to the legacy of music, be it pop or obscure, but what's perhaps most interesting about them is that we've heard of them. For every Timbaland and Danger Mouse, there are thousands of MySpace pages devoted to the next über-producer; for every Black Parade there are thousands of bedroom-recorded demos being handed out in high school hallways. One of those CDs is full of asshole-y genius. One of them will be the next Gulag Orkestar, and that's why it really never is a bad year for music.