JAM's top 10 discs of 2006

Arctic Monkeys were the band of choice in '06 for JAM! critics.

Arctic Monkeys were the band of choice in '06 for JAM! critics.

-- For JAM! Music

, Last Updated: 1:57 PM ET

Here's a newsflash CD buyers: With most of the big names raking in the dough out there on the road, this year, record shelves were chockablock full of good music.

With their whirly mix of guitar and drums, twentysomething upstarts like Wolfmother, We Are Scientists and the Arctic Monkeys drop kicked the easy-listening diet rock that has been crawling around Much Music the last couple of years.

Actors showed they can sing and singers proved vice versa, thanks to the surprising surge of Jared Leto's 30 Seconds To Mars and John Mayer's surprising interest in Jessica Simpson.

Tender balladeers like Corrine Bailey Rae, KT Tunstall, Regina Spektor, Emily Haines, Cat Power, Ray LaMontagne and Ron Sexsmith flipped the bird to FM's I'm OK-you're OK gooeyness.

The old timers proved they aren't quite ready for the old age home yet. Bob Dylan coaxed the kids out of their rooms, dropping what is arguably his best record since 1976's "Desire." The Who showed they aren't all the way dead with their surprisingly good "Endless Wire." Bruce Springsteen strayed further away from the E-Street Band when he took on 13 of Pete Seeger's folk-standards with a roomful of virtual unknowns. And what about former members of blink 182, Jane's Addiction and Stone Temple Pilots? They, too, got in on the act with the former splintering into two wildly different groups - Angels and Airwaves (Tom DeLonge) and +44 (Travis Barker and Mark Hoppus) - and the latter stealing an ex-MTV VJ, Steve Isaacs, and Filter vocalist Richard Patrick, respectively, for their Panic Channel and Army Of Anyone projects.

The rap game got a lift from the reappearance of Ice Cube and Jay-Z; while Eminem allayed fans' fears he's quitting the business when he released his "Re-Up" compilation several weeks back. And proving that it isn't just the same old, same old, newcomers like Lupe Fiasco borrowed pages from rap's most interesting prodigies - Kanye West - with music that samples a variety of sounds, and themes that pull few punches.

And as the year ends, a couple of autumn dark horses entered into the fray threatening to rewrite just how 2006 will go down in the music books. Beck regrouped with producer Nigel Godrich to give listeners a meld of his funkiest and most philosophical selves. Literary nerds the Decemberists got antennas bending towards the library with their folk tale-inspired "The Crane Wife." And John Legend proved his Grammy wins weren't a fluke, delivering a sophomore record that demands to be played with the lights turned low.

In the coming months, keep your ears peeled for Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen - two UK songstresses whose plucky rhymes and sultry vocals take the baton from North American counterparts Fergie and Nelly Furtado and dress them up with smatterings of soul (check out Winehouse's "Rehab" to see what I mean) and perky suburban rap (Allen's "Knock 'Em Out" slinks Black Eyed Peas-y hooks around cheesy pick-up lines).

And now, my top ten for 2006:

10. PEARL JAM
Pearl Jam
(Sony/ BMG)

You know after a few middling records, I probably wasn't the only one wondering if these guys were going to be stuck belting "Alive" well into their 60's. But after a Canadian tour in late 2005, grunge rock's unlikeliest survivors returned with their best album since "Vs."

Crafting rock songs that actually blister some eardrums ("Worldwide Suicide," "Comatose"), and ballads ("Gone," "Come Back") that let frontman Eddie Veddar prove he can do more than spit throaty snarls, Seattle's favourite sons show they still have a few good tunes left in their closet.

9. RON SEXSMITH
Time Being
(Warner)

A meditation on death and the passing of time isn't exactly the soundtrack for your all-night Saturday party. But after giving Ron Sexsmith's latest a spin, you realize how his carefully penned McCartney-esque melodies are just the existential jump off point those early Sunday mornings need playing in the background to have the crazy night before make some sense.

8. BEN HARPER
Both Sides of the Gun
(Virgin/ EMI)

Building cities out of his rock and acoustic selves, Ben Harper ferries fans back and forth between his two distinct sounds. In contrast to the Chili Peppers' bloated "Stadium Arcadium," not a note is wasted here. And in case anyone thinks the Californian has gone soft thanks to his stints with Jack Johnson, dust off the CD jacket and listen to how he baits Bush, first in "Black Rain," and then on "Gather 'Round The Stone."

7. WOLFMOTHER
Wolfmother
(Interscope-Universal)

Ask anyone. No one would have pegged a lanky, Frodo-haired frontman to lead a trio of Aussies as rock suddenly takes a turn for the harder. But that's what happened when these Sydney head knockers docked on North American shores earlier this spring. Backed by their Zep-inspired "Woman" they also have the distinction of nabbing my Best Video of the Year Award thanks to the Jackasses in "Joker & The Thief."

6. LUPE FIASCO
Food & Liquor
(Atlantic)

Well, we now know what happens when a talented Chicago-based rapper is fed the ball by some of the industry's biggest players. Joined by Jay-Z (who co-executive produces the disc), Kanye West and the Neptunes, among others, this 25-year-old delivers the year's best rap album, penning tracks like the Chick Corea-sampling "American Terrorist," which eschew the money-loving, gun-toting rhymes of his contemporaries to foray into America's volatile political landscape.

Sure, he helped Kanye on last year's "Touch The Sky," but he's far more intriguing when he's questioning religious strife ("Close Your Mind") and calling out Jay-Z for worshipping John Gotti instead of the man upstairs.

5. BECK
The Information
(Universal)

Beck kind of stacked the cards way in his favour when he went and made a series of music videos to accompany each of "The Information's" 15 tracks. It wasn't enough that he got some help from Nigel Godrich (who helmed Beck's masterful "Sea Change" and "Mutations"), but he had to indulge his wonky visual side with footage that's laugh-out-loud funny. Seriously, though, Beck's latest proves he's alt-rock's answer to Madonna. Just when you think you've got him pegged, he throws down something different.

4. AMY WINEHOUSE
Back To Black
(Universal)

A late-season entry, this UK soul singer funks up her Macy Gray-meets-Sarah Vaughan vocals with big-band samplings that capture the adventures of a girl pooh-poohing rehab and bitching about missing a Slick Rick gig.

3. JOHN MAYER
Continuum
(Sony/ BMG)

Having faired so well penning the sugary tunes that built pop radio, props to John Mayer for crafting 12 heartfelt tracks that take us inside ourselves, reveling in the sadness ("Dreaming With A Broken Heart," "Slow Dancing In A Burning Room"), before showing us the best parts of who we can be ("In Repair," "The Heart Of Life").

2. CAT POWER
The Greatest
(Matador)

Pretty ballsy move, calling one's album "The Greatest." But on a disc that's pure torchlight, this Southern-belle's smoky peans pay tribute to love in all its forms. Backed by Mabon and Leroy Hodges, who played with Al Green and helped create many popular '70s soul hits, Power's aching vocals envelop the senses with her dreamy longing. It's the kind of record you can slap on repeat and watch as people's arm hair starts to stand on end.

1. ARCTIC MONKEYS
Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not
(Domino/Outside)

Blazing a trail all the way from the UK to North America almost a full year ago, the foursome from Sheffield had the distinction of nabbing all sorts of kudos back home.

On its first day of release in their home country, "Whatever People Say I Am..." became the fastest selling debut in British history. And when it reached North America, the disc did likewise, becoming the fastest selling debut indie album in U.S. history. By the time they actually got over here in person, their gig at South By Southwest was so overhyped that the pimply-faced boys were bound to disappoint.

But almost 12 months later the boys' carouse-filled rockers prove they aren't pissing in the wind. If anything, they've put the piss an' vinegar back into rock 'n' roll. Right where it belongs.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS: Gnarls Barkley, "St. Elsewhere" (Downtown Records); Jenny Lewis With the Watson Twins, "Rabbit Fur Coat" (Team Love); Ice Cube "Laugh Now, Cry Later" (EMI); Keane, "Under The Iron Sea" (Universal); Jay-Z, "Kingdom Come" (Roc-A-Fella/ Island Def Jam); Emily Haines & the Soft Skeleton, "Knives Don't Have Your Back" (Last Gang Records); Corrine Bailey Rae, "Corrine Bailey Rae" (EMI); Thievery Corporation, "Versions" (ESL Music); Thom Yorke, "The Eraser" (Relentless/ EMI); Lily Allen, "Alright, Still" (EMI).


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