In case you haven't been paying attention, we're here to remind you that it's that time again. As December gets tossed away like so many holiday cocktail napkins, we critics are busy making our ultra-scientific, down-to-the-last-decibel-point-ratings, you-know-you-just-loved-the-new-Hold Steady-record lists for 2006. Big Sense is to be made of the year in music before we can move on to 2007, so there's much work to be done collating all the suckers, superstars, small sales, and big spins and fitting them into neat data packages, through which you can decisively review the culture you've been living for the past 12 months. Or not.

Instead of trying to give an overview-of-the-universe-style image of what was pumping through The People's earbuds, we've carved out smaller groupings, organized loosely by genre. Of course, the categories are as fluid and fickle as music fans' tastes can get, so we know you won't take these recaps as the be-all and end-all of hip hop, free downloading, heavy music, DJ hits, etc. Rather, the following articles are samplers of what's burning through our radars. As Jon Pareles wrote in a recent piece for the New York Times ("Brought to You by You"), the abundance of outlets for creating and critiquing the arts puts an "end to the old, supposedly wrongheaded gatekeeping mechanisms" and makes people "crave a new set of filters." Below are essays on the hot rocks that collected in our sieves. We hope we've highlighted a disc or 10 that you agree deserve to be caught in the net.

Indie Vs. Major: Who's Got the Flavor? Urban music in 2006

Mainstream urban music was largely defined this year by the over-the-top commercialism of product-placement tie-ins — Jay-Z and Pharrell for Hewlett-Packard, Jay-Z and Q-Tip for Bud Select, Lady Sov for Verizon, et cetera — which overshadowed several disappointing major-label albums. The overhyped Timberlake/Timbaland collaboration FutureSex/LoveSounds broke no new ground whatsoever in its slavish emulation of Michael Jackson and Prince. The other big news in R&B this year was no news at all — unless you consider Cherish noteworthy, which you shouldn't.

In its old age, hip hop has become young, literally. Yung Joc and Young Jeezy became the latest Southern rappers to become breakout stars. Meanwhile, D4L's "Laffy Taffy" and Lil Jon's "Snap Yo Fingers" heralded the unforeseen rise of "snap" music — a subtler variant of crunk. There wasn't much substance in this year's strip-club anthems, even when bombastically overproduced (Ludacris' "Money Maker"). While Southern pimps were buying diamond-studded grills and celebrating the joys of booty, New York rappers whined about their labels' lack of promotion or emulated the South's success (Fat Joe). Meanwhile, the Bay Area's celebrated hyphy movement overwhelmed the region's prolific underground scene.

Regarding the contrast between mainstream and underground, there was no question: The most consistent and innovative hip-hop and reggae albums of the year were indie-label projects, hands down. The few major-label albums that cut the mustard (E-40, Cut Chemist, DJ Shadow, Lupe Fiasco) all had what could be called an indie sensibility. Furthermore, the album that honored the legacy of "boom-bip" hip hop the most — picking up the torch of A Tribe Called Quest — came not from N.Y.C., but Waco, Texas: Strange Fruit Project's The Healing.

As for reggae, Sean Paul got all the mainstream love. But apart from three or four hit singles that continued to widen Paul's fan base, if not his monotone phrasing, his crossover-minded The Trinity alienated the core dancehall audience who made him a star. In any case, he was out-classed by newcomer Gyptian and veteran Buju Banton this year.

On to the year's best urban records:

E-40

My Ghetto Report Card

(Jive)

More than just the album that validated the Bay Area's hyphy phenomenon on a national level, My Ghetto Report Card was a solid, gold-selling effort that nicely balanced commercially accessible singles and gritty street-level favorites. The mix of hard-as-nails beats courtesy of Rick Rock, Lil Jon, and 40's son Droop-E, and 40's inimitable flow proved a winning combination, while the introduction of new slanguage ("Gouda") made the album an educational as well as entertaining experience. One of the most impactful rap releases of 2006, fa shaginaw.

Cut Chemist

The Audience's Listening

(Warner Bros.)

A former Next Big Thing, the scratch-happy turntablist movement has been overshadowed by the simplicity of ProTools and the ironic contrasts of mash-ups. Yet while mash-up compilations like Hail the DJ offered a stable full of one-trick ponies, former Jurassic 5/Ozomatli DJ Cut Chemist brought composition back, meticulously piecing together obscure found sounds and ridiculously big beats. The result is an album full of juxtaposed melodies, rhythms, and vocals that not only reveled in creativity, but held together thematically, whether referencing Kraftwerkian electro-funk or bossa nova.

Traxamillion

The Slapp Addict

(Slapp Addict Productions)

Billed as "a soundtrack to the hyphy movement," San Jose's Traxamillion delivered one of the tightest, most effective hip-hop albums of the year, an unrelenting aural assault that proved so infectious, it could make your grandmother "go dumb." In addition to assembling an all-star team of Yay Area rappers (including Too Short, Mistah F.A.B., and the Team) to spit over his ass-moving keyboard-and-bassed-out beats, Trax proved he's no slouch on the mike his damn self, rhyming on "Skrape" and "Bring It Back" without embarrassing anyone. Let's see Jermaine Dupri or Timbaland try that.

J-Dilla

The Shining

(Rapster/BBE)

The passing of James "J-Dilla" Yancey was one of the saddest moments in recent hip-hop history, yet his legacy lives on. The Detroit producer — known for his work with Common, the Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest, D'Angelo, and Slum Village — was posthumously fêted by a huge cast of friends and associates on The Shining, a worthy companion to Dilla's all-instrumental release Donuts. Any questions about Dilla's place in the pantheon were answered by his solo tracks "Love Jones" and "Won't Do," which resounded with soulful emotion.

The Coup

Pick a Bigger Weapon

(Epitaph)

The Coup's fifth effort might not have sold aluminum, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a better rap album released in 2006, even if it came out on a label more known for punk than hip hop. Besides being the Oakland-based group's most musical effort to date, Pick a Bigger Weapon addressed the complexities of ghetto socioeconomics and turf politics in a down-to-earth way, and for all the crack-rap songs in '06, "We Are the Ones" was one of the few to examine the why and the how of it all. Plus, it's hard to argue with any album that rhymes "laugh, love, fuck, and drink liquor" with "help the damn revolution come quicker."

T-K.A.S.H.

Turf War Syndrome

(Guerilla Funk)

A protege of agitprop MCs Paris and Boots Riley, T-K.A.S.H. came into his own with his solo debut. Turf War Syndrome flipped the West Coast G-Funk template into a manifesto laden with tight lyrical expositions and hardcore beats. There's also a consciousness here that goes beyond the predictability of dope-dealer rhymes to actually propose solutions to the "American Nightmare." Highlights included the reggae-flavored "Louder Than Words" and the "Shook Ones" remake "Made in America," but the entire album resonates with contemporary relevance, intelligent commentary, and an engaging delivery.

Strange Fruit Project

The Healing

(Om Hiphop)

Quite possibly the year's best hip-hop album (indie or major), The Healingwas released on a label previously known for mindless house and downtempo chill-out compilations. Ironic, perhaps, but no more than the notion of a Texas rap group that eschewed the chopped and screwed movement, updated the neo-soul template, and stocked an album with backpacker-style sentiments that actually worked in the clubs. While Chamillionaire and his Houston brethren were ridin' dirty, SFP came clean. In the process, they collaborated with Erykah Badu and 9th Wonder, infused honest lyrics into smooth, original-sounding tracks, made a strong case for Waco to be known for something other than David Koresh, and delivered the type of classic hip-hop album you feared you'd never hear again.

Gyptian

My Name Is

(VP)

Sean Paul may have raised the temperature of suburban teens, but for roots-loving reggae aficionados, Gyptian's debut offered cool meditation. Dancehall has long teetered between slackness and consciousness, yet fervently spiritual odes like "MaMa" and "Serious Times" tilted the scales away from sex-saturated ditties and gunman-celebrating "shotta" tunes, and affirmed the peace-loving Rasta ethos without the sometimes-contradictory statements of Sizzla and Capleton. Unlike Damian Marley, Gyptian made no attempt at crossover appeal. Remember the name — the 24-year-old Gyptian could be around for a long, long time.

DJ Shadow

The Outsider

(Universal)

Despite its obvious flaws — among them, hyper-eclecticism and hackneyed and generic stabs at Britpop — Shadow's third official full-length was one of the year's most visionary and adventurous albums. No rap tune released in 2006 captured the anger, sorrow, and pain of the post-Katrina South better than "Seein' Thangs" (featuring David Banner), and who else but Shadow could have conceived a long, bluesy riff on MySpace relationships, channeled hyphy's hyperkinetic vibe into a titanium-alloyed industrial club knock ("3 Freaks"), and made a get-your-sexy-on anthem ("Enuff") that not only united the East and West coasts, but did so without lapsing into stupidity?

Buju Banton

Too Bad

(Gargamel Music)

A return to the highly influential dancehall style of the '90s, Buju Banton's latest release was both a satisfying retro-flavored throwback to a time when reggae wasn't trying to be something it wasn't, and a strong musical and lyrical statement underlining the need to keep dancehall culture undiluted. Too Bad's minimal, sparse backing tracks evoked the classic "bogle" era, and though most of the album finds Banton focused heavily on moving waistlines, the veteran artist still made room for poignant commentary about social inequity ("Who Have It") and the pitfalls of the gangster lifestyle ("Fast Lane"). Most impressively, Banton only featured one cameo (from '90s star Pinchers, no less), breezing through the 17-song album with impressive energy, riding the riddims with all the cornering capability and grip of a NASCAR driver. Eric K. Arnold

It Was Free Cuz I Stole It: The year in unfair shares

Now is a bad time to be a giant music corporation, but ethically challenged music fans couldn't ask for better days. Bootlegging has always been about catering directly to the fans, and the Internet breeds the best bootleggers yet: bigger and stronger and faster than ever before, the better to handle the demands of ten million filesharers trading a billion-and-a-half songs daily.

It's clear now that the CD-R bent the CD over and the MP3 player finished it off, and although the industry is still in shock, smaller and more agile labels are already accepting the inevitable and locking in a vinyl/digital-only production schedule, then using merch like T-shirts — low production cost, high sale price, lots of options to ratchet up collectability — to plug their revenue gaps.

Since filesharing is permanent enough now that you can buy $19-per-year lawsuit insurance, it's time to acknowledge the bright side. Out-of-print doesn't mean anything anymore. If you can learn about it, you can listen to it, and if the record company doesn't want to reissue it, you can probably find it without even having to stand up. The romance is gone, but the music is cheap, accessible, and instant — that's the music industry of the future, brought to you now by Russian MP3 pirates, obsessive genre bloggers, and criminals selling albums off a blanket on the street. Highlights of a year of unfair shares:

AllOfMP3.com: In June the U.S. government threatened to obstruct Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization if this site selling copyrighted MP3s at pennies on the dollar wasn't shut down, and in late fall Visa and Mastercard blacklisted the site. But AllOfMp3 — which charges by volume, not by song, like a record store with a butcher's scale at the register — clings to life despite almost-certain near-future shutdown. By now, it probably takes less effort to get these songs for free, but AllofMP3 is a nice nostalgic nod to the foreign pressing plants of the '60s and '70s — music beyond the reach of international law.

PodTube and iTube: Once YouTube really got going, the video collectors blew open their vaults. This is footage no one ever saw from sources no one ever heard of — psychedelic small-town variety shows, supersaturated Scopitone camp-operas, unfinished punk rock docs, and student films. Watching them was good enough, but now you can illegally own them through programs that copy those videos to your hard drive. PodTube and iTube get you screening items unseen since the day the station filmed them.

Street Meat: Don't even need a computer to play this one: if you live in one of the RIAA's 12 priority piracy cities (which includes San Francisco) you can get bootlegs hot off the sidewalk, out the trunk, or on the bus. "A disturbing trend," said RIAA executive VP Brad Buckles. "As the pirate music trade continues to evolve, criminals are enhancing their products." Thanks for the tip, Brad! On the menu now are knockoffs of chart hits bulked up with bonus tracks, chopped 'n' screwed remixes ready right after the legit release hits stores, and the RIAA's dreaded "dream compilations," — albums that mix tracks between competing labels into albums that are too good to be legit.

Zune: Microsoft's Zune — a.k.a. "the BetaPod" — seems destined to be a sure staple at the thrift stores of the future. And that's too bad, because wireless file transfer without Microsoft's copyright hobbles is a seductive idea. Imagine the record conventions of 2016: a bunch of silent geeks pointing blinking black boxes at each other and going home with a billion-and-a-half new songs, and...actually, that's a little pathetic. But the fact remains that instant player-to-player wireless transfer would (and probably eventually will) be the most efficient reiteration of the old going- over-to-your-friend's-house-with-a-bag-of-blank-tapes ritual. Maybe it will become reality by the time Zune 2.0 rolls out, when Microsoft gets desperate to dig out from under the iPhone.

Sharity Blogs: Much better than the sanctioned sites that give you one brand-new track smothered in a bunch of recycled reviews. Instead, sharity blogs resurrect full albums long lost or forgotten and post them in their entirety on overseas hosting sites. It'd be almost obscenely exploitative except for the obvious love and research put into the selections. This is a scholarly crowd on an admirable mission: rescuing suppressed Japanese terror-folk, Brazilian psych nuggets, and buried golden-age hip-hop from graves where reissue labels fear to dig.

MySpaceGopher: Everyone with electricity and an instrument has a MySpace Music site, but the songs are still downloadable at the artist's discretion. Inevitably, hackers removed that discretion, and while it's disrespectful, it was an effective way to ransack exclusive pre-release streaming content. MySpace repeatedly repairs the code holes that allow these shenanigans, and the public responds by finding a new hole. At press time, the newly disabled MySpaceGopher was working on a fix, which will probably be ready by the time you read this.

Snob Torrents: Concentrated swapper sites are gonna strangle themselves with stinginess, the same way networks like Hotline and KDX sank into obscuro-lescence. Music freeboters don't like to follow rules about ratios — there's no homework among thieves — so sites like these will probably vanish as users move to free sharity blogs, friendlier message boards, and unstumpable fileshare networks.

Premix Leaks: Lupe Fiasco may hate these — an unmixed version of his Food & Liquor came out months early — but premix leaks are becoming routine. TV on the Radio's Cookie Mountain also came out months prematurely, the Shins' Wincing the Night Away (due in January) has leaked at least twice in different versions, and Bloc Party's A Weekend in the City (due in February) hit the networks in November. The solution now belongs to the P.R. people — lucky Lupe got an early review calling him the future of hip hop, and a correctly leveraged premix can garner a spike of welcome, unexpected publicity.

Virtual Release: If legendary 78-collector Joe Bussard could plug an iBook directly into his Victrola, he'd be making these. This is real ghostly stuff sourced from unreleased sessions, radio broadcasts, or repo'd master tapes. That's all time-honored bootleg chow, sure, but virtual releases go straight from the source to the fileshares, skipping physical media entirely. For instance: WFMU recently popularized a Faust album that never made it past a few Virgin Records promo tapes until someone copied it up to MP3. Companions to this are homemade virtual compilations — a stack of uncomped funk 45s, say — issued direct from the collector's originals to the fileshares with some kind of searchbait name like "MY HOT FUNK 45s." These albums are aimed at audiences so microscopic there's almost no profit in pressing up hard copies — and as such, they're usually pretty great.

Give It Away Now: Nobody can steal what you give away. San Francisco band Wooden Shjips put out their EP for free this year; all you had to do was ask and there was a real record in your actual hands. And it was really good, too — blown-out Les Rallizes homage with vocals echoplexed to infinity. In fact, it was so good that I bought a copy with my own actual money, just for old times' sake. Chris Ziegler

Everlasting Sounds: Ten of the year's most timeless records

This story, as originally conceived, was supposed to be a compilation of the year's best box sets and other re-issues. But then it hit us — in today's shuffle-driven iPod world, with the pace of pop culture moving at breakneck speed, it's pointless to make such temporal distinctions. The past is ever present, and the present quickly becomes the past. So, instead of a list of old music released anew, we've come up with a list of timeless music, albums that came out this year that heed no prevailing trends and sound as if they could have been recorded any time between 1926 and 2006. Or 2106, for that matter.

David Kimbrough Jr.

Shell Shocked

(Lucky 13 / BC Records)

Burnside Exploration

The Record

(Lucky 13 / BC Records)

While Fat Possum Records has all but abandoned the "Not Your Same Old Blues Crap" of people like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, both the Kimbrough and Burnside families have produced new generations of first-rate players. David Kimbrough Jr. (son of Junior) and The Burnside Exploration (featuring a son and a grandson of R.L.) both released albums very much worthy of the droning, whiskey-delic Mississippi Hill Country boogie/blues tradition of their forefathers. The Burnside Exploration album is a raucous and primal rotgut Saturday-night onslaught of guitar distortion and bashed drums with occasional tinges of Dirty South hip-hop. Kimbrough's Shell Shocked rocks just as hard in spots, but is also downright harrowing in others, like "Wild Turkey" and "I Don't Do The Things I Used To." What's more, Kimbrough's keening tenor is the finest singing voice this subgenre has ever had.

The Kashmere Stage Band

Texas Thunder Soul 1968-74

(Now-Again Records)

In the mid-1970s, faced with a flurry of band defections, James Brown made the discovery that immortal funk music did not require elite musicianship, so long as they were directed well and disciplined. The results of Brown's eureka moment eventually provided him with one of his most fertile periods. Houston high school band teacher Conrad Johnson, director of The Kashmere Stage Band, came to the same conclusion, with results that are no less funky. The luxuriant big band jazz-funk on this double-CD makes it well-nigh impossible to believe that this is the work of students from one inner city high school, or even from all the high schools in America put together.

King Curtis

Live at Fillmore West

(Koch Records)

On the other hand, elite musicians did create immortal funk, as evidenced on this King Curtis live set. Curtis, a sax player who was murdered at 41 a few months after this recording, had that squalling, harsh tone common to the black Texans of his era that dates back to guys like Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb, and "Cleanhead" Vinson. Here, he unleashes it on an array of hits from all over the pop music spectrum of 1971, so alongside expected songs like "Memphis Soul Stew," you also get funkified renditions of country and folk fare like "Ode to Billy Joe" and "Mr Bojangles," and classic rock staples "A Whiter Shade of Pale," "My Sweet Lord," and even Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." And, oh yeah — we mentioned that Curtis had some musicians...How about the Memphis Horns, Billy Preston on the organ, and guitarist Cornell Dupree?

James Hunter

People Gonna Talk

(Rounder Records)

It was the roots music story of this year: James Hunter stepped out of the shadows of Van Morrison, for whom he had served as lead guitarist for the past few years, and emerges front and center as the leader of his own band. On People Gonna Talk, the suave Englishman wraps his honeyed, Sam Cooke-ian tenor equally around early ska and rocksteady, the proto-funk of James Brown's early career, and suave, 1963-style big city blues, all framed by tight, spry horns and occasional pizzicato strings. The complete package is as smooth and thrilling as a fast, moonlit ride in a vintage T-Bird convertible on an open stretch of coastal highway.

Various Artists

Roots of Rumba

(Crammed Discs)

This is an endlessly compelling exploration of 1950s-vintage sides from the former Belgian Congo, where the Cuban rumba was originally invented and later transformed. When Cuban recordings reached Kinshasa (then known as Leopoldville), the Congolese instantly recognized them as the work of their kinsfolk, those who were taken in chains to the sugar fields. In the Congo, local musicians replaced Cuban piano parts with guitars and Spanish lyrics with others in Lingala, and their Afro-Rumba would go on to sweep the continent in the late '50s and early '60s. Many of those tunes are here, and they come with a beautifully photographed package with copious, informed liner notes.

DJ Spooky

DJ Spooky Presents In Fine Style: 50,000 Volts of Trojan Records

(Trojan)

Even if you consider yourself up-to-speed on the Trojan catalogue, you should still pick up this two-CD set. While DJ Spooky is characteristically pedantic in the liner notes, there is no doubt he did a fine job here harvesting obscurities like Derrick Morgan's weirdly incredible "The Great Musical Battle" and Peter Tosh's judicial proceedings in "Here Comes the Judge," placing them alongside ganja-baked covers of hits like the Beatles' "Come Together" and Peggy Lee's "Fever," along with classic Jamaican hits like "007 Shanty Town" and "Rudy a Message to You." It also touches on every era of Jamaican music, from ska to rocksteady right up to the first shimmerings of dub, making this a perfect gift for neophytes.

Dirty Dozen

What's Going On?

(Shout! Factory)

Marvin Gaye's soul classic gets a New Orleans brass band overhaul at the hands of the Dirty Dozen, and the band makes the most of both Gaye's masterpiece and today's prevailing post-Katrina /blunders-of-Dubya atmosphere of paranoia and resolve. Bettye LaVette growls a star vocal turn on "What's Happening Brother"; "Right On" funks along with righteous fervor; and "Flyin' High (in the Friendly Sky)" is best of all, a second-line funeral parade that encapsulates the whole album — and the essence of New Orleans — in five glorious minutes.

Cedric Watson, Edward Poullard, James Adams

Les Amis Creole

(Arhoolie)

With the partial exception of New Orleans jazz culture, young black American musicians rarely spend much time looking to the distant past for inspiration. One exception is Cedric Watson, a 22-year-old Creole fiddler from the prairies just west of the zydeco hotbed of Houston. Watson's interests extend beyond zydeco, back to the music called "la-la," the pre-electric folk material of his Louisiana Creole ancestors. Here, he performs these French-language waltzes, reels, and two-steps with a couple of the few remaining older practitioners, and the result is as joyous and unexpected as that ivory-billed woodpecker sighting a few years back. This music was supposed to have gone extinct a decade or so ago, and now it appears safe for another couple of generations.

M. Ward

Post War

(Merge)

A melancholy imagining of what American life will be like once our wars against terrorism are finally over, young neo-traditionalist rocker M. Ward has created the most beautiful record of his short, already distinguished career. While his acoustic guitar playing retains its folky, John Fahey-esque bluesiness, Post War finds Ward's arrangements lushed up with strings, piano, and kettle drums and other such sonic grandeur, creating a vast panorama for his understated and, at times, eerie tenor. It's schizoid, by turns achingly gentle and violently boisterous, utterly joyous and profoundly depressed. In other words, it's the perfect album for our imperfect times. John Nova Lomax

What's indie rock? Who cares. Here's ten great CDs that will blow you away, no matter your definition

Clearly nobody needs a primer on indie rock. We all have our own idea of what it is, right? Nonetheless, why is it that so few of us can agree on who deserves such a designation? Fact is, attempting to define indie rock universally is as futile a task as trying to explain why Nyquil is green and Dayquil is orange.

Is the term literal? Should major label artists excluded from consideration? If so, where would that leave quintessential indie bands like Sonic Youth, Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, and R.E.M.? Or is indie purely an aesthetic, a euphemism for music that's lo-fi, lowbrow, homemade, hi-fi, highfalutin, derivative, experimental, subversive, literate, or jangly? Or is it an ethos, an ideal based solely on a DIY approach?

Ultimately, as any Pitchdork blogger or college radio DJ worth his salt could tell you, indie rock is a shape shifting term that encompasses any and/or all of those things. And many of my favorite releases this year offer a pretty good reflection of that sentiment.

1. TV on the Radio

Return to Cookie Mountain

(Interscope)

Critical consensus suggests that the members of TV on the Radio are some sort of interstellar academicians. Really, though, they're just some arty fellas from Brooklyn that strive to consistently put out compelling music. Ascending Cookie Mountain is a challenging feat thanks to the dense, unsettling backdrops created by guitarist/producer David Andrew Sitek. Fortunately, the penetrating melodies of Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone blaze a trail to the top, revealing some stunning vistas along the way.

2. Band of Horses

Everything All the Time

(Sub Pop)

Everything All the Time is achingly beautiful from end-to-end. From the first wash of guitars that introduces the album, to the plaintive arpegiated intro of "The Funeral," which swells seamlessly into sweeping grandeur, to austere ballads like "Part One" and disc closer "St. Augustine," which spotlight Ben Bridwell's (ex-Carissa's Wierd) helium-pitched vocals, Band of Horses' debut is the most exhilarating listening experience you'll have this year. Giddy up.

3. The Hold Steady

Boys and Girls in America

(Vagrant)

Led by front man Craig Finn, who delivers dependably engaging narratives with his patent threadbare beat poet-like delivery, the Hold Steady has outdone itself on its third full-length. This time out, the arena-sized riffs are even Thinner, Lizzy, augmented by swaggering piano and organ lines. As Finn spins the ballads of this year's also-rans and otherwise romanticizes various outcasts, his mates continue to brazenly indulge their affinity for bygone rock. End result: Boys and Girls is an instant classic.

4. Margot & the Nuclear So and So's

The Dust of Retreat

(Artemis)

Although The Dust of Retreat was unleashed on the masses this past spring by Artemis Records, the outstanding debut from this Indy outfit was originally issued on the Standard Recording imprint in 2005. Regardless, the act's folksy chamber pop still sounds fresh. Understated orchestral flourishes perfectly complement Richard Edwards's beguiling compositions, which are as charming as his tuneful croon, whether he's ruminating about love being an inkless pen or meowing (no shit!) like a house cat.

5. The Decemberists

The Crane Wife

(Capitol)

The Decemberists have always come across as a bit precious. But on their major label debut, the band seems... ah, what am I saying here? You still need to be decidedly erudite to appreciate Meloy's subject matter (in this case, a Japanese folk tale), and he still sings with an accent that makes Jeremy Enigk sound like Merle Haggard. Even so, his songwriting remains solid and there are enough interesting organ-heavy prog moments to make the pretense palatable.

6. Gomez

How We Operate

(ATO)

Never really cared for these cats. Always seemed interchangeable from the endless parade of thumb sucking messy hairs from across the pond. But dang if they didn't put together a nice one here that stands out. The perfect Sunday-morning-coming-down record, Operate is gentle and engaging. The act's trio of vocalists shine, whether it's on tranquil acoustic numbers such as "Notice" and the Nick Drake owing "See the World," semi-brooding, bass-driven tracks like "How We Operate," or Brit pop janglers like "Girlshapedlovedrug."

7. Kevin Devine

Put Your Ghost to Rest

(Capitol)

It's not hard to see what Capitol saw in Former Miracle of 86 front man Kevin Devine. Dude's burnished tenor and his phrasing so evokes Ben Gibbard, that if the Cab driver were ever to go on strike, Devine could easily slide behind the wheel. Devine himself cites Elliott Smith as a touchstone, going so far as to tap Rob Schnapf as a producer. Whatever the case, fortunately, Devine has his own way with words and a penchant for crafting memorable, heartrending tunes.

8. Brightblack Morning Light

Brightblack Morning Light

(Matador)

Brightblack Morning Light is the product of Nathan Shineywater and Rachael Hughes, a couple of nomadic tree-huggers from Alabama, who left their homes to live in tents somewhere in Northern California. Psychedelic doesn't begin to describe the contents of the disc. Judging from the rambling, reverb-drenched vocals that drift aimlessly above the smoldering haze of organs and drowsy guitars before evaporating, these freaky folkers obviously smoked some of those trees or something, man.

9. Arctic Monkeys

Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not

(Domino)

This past spring, the Arctic Monkeys were on the tongues of tastemakers and (ack!) hipsters everywhere. The hype machine was stuck in overdrive, and I swore that I wouldn't fuel it. In the end, though, I finally succumbed and bought in to the quartet's spunky, tangled, three-chord rock and roll swindle. I was drawn in by the messy, frenetic bedlam of "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" and "Dancing Shoes," and now I can't get the monkey off my back. Sucker? Guilty as charged.

10. She Wants Revenge

She Wants Revenge

(Geffen)

There's plenty of reasons I shouldn't dig She Wants Revenge. For starters, the act's sound is completely derivative. (Obviously so. I mean, really, a song titled "Tear You Apart"?) And the skuzzy, minimalistic electro come-ons seem just a little too calculated in a Hot Topic Goth sort of way. In spite of all that, though, there's something oddly riveting to me about a band that can deliver lines like, "She's in the Bathroom/She pleasures herself," with a straight face. Dave Herrera

Roll Over Paul Oakenfold, And Tell DJ Tiesto The News: Top 10 DJ Mixes of 2006

Recordings of DJ mixes have been multiplying like email spam over the last decade. The sheer volume of said releases is overwhelming, and it makes one wonder: Who the hell is buying them? There must be a demand if labels keep issuing the things as if the music industry has a future (such quixotic earnestness warms the heart as 2006 limps to its dismal conclusion). Whoever you are, bless you for keeping this art form financially solvent. For your efforts, you deserve a top-10 guide — in alphabetical order, even — to the year's most excellent DJ mixes. Happy holidays, lovers of intelligent track selection and ingenious segues!

1. Audion

Fabric 27

(Fabric Records)

2. Marco Carola

Fabric 31

(Fabric Records)

Fabric is a London-based club and record label that issues two mixes per month with phenomenal quality control — a novel concept. It's tough to choose the imprint's finest releases, but after much internal debate, we're going with Audion's and Marco Carola's, which edge out Carl Craig's and Tiefschwarz's contributions. Audion (Detroit's Matthew Dear) and the Italian Carola are masters of experimental yet pumping techno. They spin the brainy anthems to which you can swing your shirt around your head and shout yourself hoarse while still respecting yourself in the morning. Both jocks favor the intricately designed minimalism that's gained momentum in forward-thinking clubs, but their aural menu will still seem damned exotic to 99.8 percent of the population. Roll over Paul Oakenfold, and tell DJ Tiesto the news.

3. Cassy

Panorama Bar 01

(Ostgut)

In Germany and other enlightened European nations, hundreds of people will pack a venue and dance from midnight till 10 a.m. to weird, slant-grooved techno. These dynamos are lucky to have DJs like Cassy to provide their bizarrely hedonistic soundtracks. A resident at Berlin's Panorama Bar, Cassy recreates on this 24-track disc a portion of a typically sublime night at said emporium of elite electronic music, as cuts by Melchior Productions, Ricardo Villalobos, DBX, Ø, Mathias Kaden, V/A, NSI, and many more worthies prove. Her mix elegantly combines scrupulous tonal science with near-peak-time euphoria — a difficult balance to attain.

4. Four Tet

DJ-Kicks

(!K7)

Four Tet (Englishman Kieran Hebden) makes eclecticism sound like the best idea ever on this 20-track mix. He's one of those DJs with voracious curiosity, fantastic taste, and a knack for connecting unlikely tracks into revelatory segues, as demonstrated on DJ-Kicks. Avant-dronesmithery (David Behrman), electro (Syclops), funky soul (Curtis Mayfield), menacing proto-synth rock (Heldon), UK garage (So Solid Crew), microhouse (Akufen), tribal indie rock (Animal Collective), jazz fusion (Julian Priester), African mbira jams (Shona people of Zimbabwe), underground hip-hop (Madvillain, Group Home), fruity prog rock (Gong), techno (Model 500), IDM (Autechre), and more jostle among themselves and revel in their diversity like long-lost sonic kin. Surprise is Hebden's S.O.P. His transitions aren't the smoothest, but with aesthetics this advanced, it hardly matters. DJ-Kicks is like the weirdest party soundtrack you've never had the pleasure to hear in real life.

5. Girl Talk

Night Ripper

(Illegal Art)

The sensational reaction to Night Ripper has rocketed Girl Talk (Pittsburgh's Gregg Gillis) to Rustbelt Diplo status. Dude's received tons of hype and consequently has performed before loads of celebs and shallow trend-sniffers in 2006, but don't hate on Girl Talk. He's earned his It DJ prestige by splicing together the most enjoyable mashup document to date. Night Ripper is an ADDled, bacchanalian mixtape of supreme cleverness and boasts more fun per minute than any release this year. The disc is like a remix of almost 40 years' worth of top 40 charts, expertly edited — Gillis surgically implants over 150 sample sources — for maximum party-rockin' and ironic, iconoclastic belly laughs. This is your obsessive music geek mind on random shuffle. Unlikely juxtapositions somehow cohere into zesty new sonic flavors. Who knew yacht rock and mainstream rap worked so well together? Who ever thought George Benson, Boston, and Boredoms could harmoniously share disc space? Girl Talk, that's who.

6. Jay Haze

Mindin Business Part 1: The Minimal Grind

(Tuning Spork)

Some pundits whine that minimal techno is passé. Hogwash, counters Philadelphia's Jay Haze with this 47-track argument for its robust health. Mixed for maximum quirky punch and unobvious dance-floor oomph, Mindin Business Part 1 features scads of obscure producers (including Haze in various guises) whose complete works you'll want to own after hearing this two-disc album. CD 1 teems with the sort of inventive, scientific techno with appeal for the genre's most discerning aficionados. CD 2 is a more song-based/vocal-laden joy ride down tech-house's strangest thoroughfares. You're not going to believe this, but there's not a weak cut here.

7. Kode9 (feat. The SpaceApe)

Dubstep Allstars: Vol.03

(Tempa)

8. Youngsta & Hatcha

Dubstep Allstars: Vol.04

(Tempa)

Dubstep — UK garage and grime's more forlorn, less MC-oriented cousin — has been incubating since 2000, but despite greater awareness via blogs and Internet forums, it's unlikely to blow up; most people just don't want to experience cranium-clamping bass pressure, entropic beats, and austerely melancholy melodies. Nevertheless, seekers of innovative low-end music should keep tabs on Tempa's Dubstep Allstars series. The latest two entries offer 72 tracks of the stuff, giving newbies a crash course in the London-centric genre's stark, haunted mutations of dub and 2step while sating devotees' hunger for fresh jams. Vol.03 benefits from the SpaceApe's ominous basso deadpan (imagine dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson riffing on William Gibson's Neuromancer). "I am lost in paranoia's most beautiful dream," Spaceape intones, summarizing his intensely laid-back approach. Vol.04 doubles the darkness with Youngsta and Hatcha delivering crucial overviews of dubstep's spellbinding, dread-filled (r)evolution.

9. Magda

She's a Dancing Machine

(M-nus)

Micromanaging normally annoys, but in DJ mixes we can tolerate it when the results are as rewarding as Magda's hundreds-of-edits-per-hour M.O. on She's a Dancing Machine. Similar to mentor Richie Hawtin's method in DE9:Transitions of weaving countless minibytes from several artists into an über track of awesomeness, Magda constructs a minimal-techno magnum opus from 71 discreet pieces (mostly from M-nus Records' superb roster: Marc Houle, Ryan Crosson, Plastikman, Run Stop Restore, I.A. Bericochea, Magda herself). The effect is like delving into dance music's internal organs and discovering what makes them thrum, burble, and click. Magda's mix inspires a deeper appreciation for minimalism's subliminal kineticism. As a bonus, Dancing Machine also lifts your spirits and revs your sex drive.

10. Henrik Schwarz

DJ-Kicks

(!K7)

The DJ-Kicks series has been trending eclectic this year (see Four Tet above), and with selectors like Herr Schwarz at the controls, this is wise. One-dimensional, perfectly beat-matched mixes in which all flaws — and surprises — are digitally airbrushed away are bo-ring. Heads are jonesing for risk-taking and deep, diverse crates. Schwarz's DJ-Kicks delivers and then some. Taking listeners/dancers on a "journey" is a hoary DJ mantra, but Schwarz rejuvenates that cliche with a transcendent blend of excellent cuts from Moondog, Cymande, Drexciya, Robert Hood (his minimal techno cut segues into an African chant and Pharoah Sanders' astral-jazz piece to stunning effect), Arthur Russell, Rhythm & Sound, and many other essential, soulful musicians rarely heard in clubs — plus certified gold from James Brown, Marvin Gaye, and D'Angelo, just to keep you off balance. — Dave Segal

Lullabies For The Deranged: Wallow in the mire of the year's best scuzz rock

So here's my mixtape that's been 12 months in the making. Sorry it's taken a while, but reality often moves at the same molten pace as a couple of the bands culled here. While the new folksters get accolades for their freaky psychedelic tendencies, there're plenty of heavy rockers that will also make you see stars of the hallucinogenic variety (and, more importantly, who'd also blow out the speakers on open mic night). Whether they're using metronomes that move in molasses or adding mandolins to elevate metal into the realm of something mystical, these Hessian punks and acid-fried psych-heads keep the outside world on delay. It's a cozy headspace these shamanistic acts get into, one that I'd suggest entering often.

Crime in Choir

Trumpery Metier

(Gold Standard Labs)

Prog rock is like that really geeky kid in class who's steadily and stealthily been kicking it with the badasses. You can have your chip off the ol' AC/DC block — this San Francisco instrumental outfit would rather play around with a Rhodes piano and saxophones, landscaping albums in rich science fiction freakouts. A couple of Crime's members did time in At the Drive In, and as with their post-ATDI pals Mars Volta, there's no limit to the musical imagination on display here. Check your head to CiC's third full-length, this year's triumphant Trumpery Metier. Can you really do better than a title like "Land of the Sherry Wine and Spanish Horses"?

Comets on Fire

Avatar

(Sub Pop)

You know when a band just nails it? Then you know Comets' Avatar. The Bay Area's revered acid rockers feed back against what they've done before on this year's disc, taking a rag to the dirge dusting Ethan Miller's vocals so his grainy refrains scoot closer to your eardrums. Few acts can pull off such dynamite dynamics this thoughtfully — thorny guitar hallelujahs and Echoplex excesses perch against melodies that float like feathers after the chicken coop's been destroyed.

Sic Alps

Pleasures and Treasures

(Animal Disguise)

This S.F. duo takes me back to listening to my parents' muffled discussions through the vents between our bedrooms. On disc, Sic Alps' vocals come at a slight remove, hovering half a dimension away from the rest of the recording. In their disembodied stage, the lyrics are haunting, ghostly moans on some tracks, drawling Royal Trux teasers on others. But on Pleasures and Treasures, everything from the human voice to a six-stringed instrument is a house of mirrors, distorting reality. Guitars buzz like assembly-line machinery or bloat into heavy sacks of feedback. And wait, was that a kazoo or just white noise run amok? Who miked the belabored breathing to make it sound like the view from the other side of a nitrous balloon? How can songs this creepy also sound sweet as lullabies (albeit for the mentally unstable)?

Psychic Paramount

Origins and Primitives Vol. 1 + 2

(No Quarter)

Broken carburetor basslines. Bricks-in-a-spin-cycle beats. Psychic Paramount was a giant hit of acid-noise post-rock claustrophobia on its debut Gamelan Into the Mink Supernatural. But what followed is a subtle calming of the New York power-trio tempest. Origins and Primitives Vol. 1 + 2 compliments its predecessor's fierce gales with a focus on minimal repetition, tribal rhythms, and electro-acoustic experimentation. This is a more delicate smother, slowly draining resistance to float towards the Psychic abyss.

SunnO)))

Any live show

I'll admit I don't throw on the old SunnO))) disc when I'm heading out for a jog, or to pick up the pace at a house party (although I have found it pleasurably soundtracks a subway ride at rush hour). But still the group makes it into my '06 mix for the sheer physicality of its live performances. From the stage, these black-robed metal druids penetrate places earplugs cannot protect. The foggy bog drones deliver this power-ambient act to areas of your body you'd never otherwise know responded to music. Nerve endings in your mouth feel pinched, the back left corner of your skull gets violated, and that dormant kink in your joint is tickled as a phlegmy gurgle approximating vocals oozes out of this enjoyably punishing brew.

Danava

Danava

(Kemado Records)

Kemado Records' metal acts sure get the purists' boxer briefs in a bunch, don't they? Whaddya want anyway, more clean-cut slop that fits easily into ye olde Metallica/Judas Priest paradigm? I'm telling you, purity is as overrated as a $200 vintage Iron Maiden T-shirt. Let's embrace artists who get creative with the rock concoctions. This act from Portland takes its apprenticeship Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath, and unleashes the eyeliner-occult on its self-titled opening salvo to the world. The first track on Danava, "By the Mark," spirals you through time, space, and the outer reaches of the glam/prog/metal spectrum.

Mammatus

Mammatus

(Holy Mountain)

A 22-minute rock song ain't gonna rocket you to the top of alternative radio. Then again, Mammatus exists in a stratosphere so far from the FM dial that you'd need satellite photos to read the numbers. Not every song on the Corralitos, California, group's four-song debut clocks in at the length of your average nightly news broadcast, but these guys named themselves after some heavy clouds for good reason. Your usual stoner metal influences show up in bong-bellied obesity on Mammatus— early Ozzy and Lemmy setting the course for extended headbanging hypnotism — but this trip takes a couple detours with Middle Eastern-ish freakouts and subliminal drones.

Various Artists

Invaders

(Kemado Records)

This comp is a sweet collection of sonic concrete from all across the country. The final cut includes picks from other bands on this list (Comets, Danava), some squirrelly psychedelia from Dungen, Big Business' Harley-rumbling bass 'n' drums assault, and slightly more straightforward fare from talented Bay Area metal mavens High on Fire and Saviours. Bonus: not one but two references to black magic — J. Mascis' Witch and Sweden's Witchcraft.

Citay

Citay

(Important Records)

This S.F. act is perhaps the gentlest of the bunch, its percussion a mix of bongos and bigger beats; its intertwined, grandiose guitars bringing out trickles of Thin Lizzy; and its enchanted Zeppelin vibe setting the group's eponymous debut on fire. The mostly instrumental songs are heavily contemplative and full of mandolins — Citay forges trails through a brave new world of music that can only be called "chamber metal." A quiet storm brews elegantly here, although the overall feeling is still very paganistic.

Boris

Pink

(Southern Lord)

For an album with a title on the lighter end of the color chart, Pink is cement gray from start to finish. This Japanese power trio makes an atomic amount of noise, and the closest it comes to a chorus is still subterranean sludge by most standards. Press "play" and you're instantly inside a voluminous dustbowl, howling Stooges-fueled vocals resonating from within all that distortion. Then, just like that, the clutter clears for one bright moment, and two minutes of serene space-rock float by before the next anvil-to-the-ol'-skull drops from the Boris heavens. Jennifer Maerz

Gold Needles in the Pop-Rock Haystack

In 2006, the pop singles market continued to dominate, in no small part because the pick-to-click-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, etc. — but didn't hold together as cohesive statements. Still, a few artists managed to churn out catchy and innovative long-players that held up over repeated listens. In alphabetical order:

AFI

Decemberunderground

(Interscope)

Unlike many of its dark-punk peers, AFI managed to slick up its sound without losing its batcave-and-fishnets cachet on Decemberunderground. Chalk this up to undeniable pop sensibilities and the band's knack for hooks — whether the guys are crafting screamo speedballs ("Kill Caustic"), space-age synthpop ("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 out of a Stephen King horror movie. But on Machetes, the Seattle band's Dali-esque abstract imagery and unhinged mania coalesce into shockingly linear pop songs. "Linear pop" is a relative term, though, as their post-punk/no-wave/hardcore hysteria remains very much intact: "We Ride Skeletal Lightning" lurches like a zombie jonesing for brains, while "Spit Shine Your Black Clouds" is a danceable conclusion to PiL's shuddering death-disco.

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 their 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)

Critically maligned arena-rockers Def Leppard 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, since Def Leppard's 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 the band's 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, between the Latin-flair of "No Hay Igual," digi-funk bodyrocker "Maneater," and of course, the playful '80s-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 '80s Top 40 radio hits.

Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3

Ole Tarantula!

(Yep Roc)

The absent-minded professor of Nuggets-style psychedelic garage rock continues his creative resurgence with Tarantula, a kaleidoscopic album of 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 more often than not belies lyrical melancholy. "N.Y. Doll" is a somber remembrance of the late New York Dolls bassist Arthur Kane, while Hitchcock wrote the effervescent pop burst "Underground Sun" for another late friend.

Muse

Black Holes and Revelations

(Reprise)

Muse traded in pretentious prog bombast long before it became trendy on their its three albums — 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, its 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)

Physical copies of the Shins' third album aren't in 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 those 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.

Gwen Stefani

The Sweet Escape

(Interscope)

Save for the yodel-tastic "Wind It Up" and a Pharrell-featuring game of "disco-Tetris" called "Yummy," the No Doubt vocalist wisely chooses to focus on songcraft instead of flamboyance on her second solo effort. This makes her staunch girl power all the more effective, whether she's channeling Madonna's Like a Prayer-era balladry ("Early Winter"), embracing her inner goth ("Wonderful Life"), or doing her best Sheena Easton impression (the sunshine-soul title track featuring Akon).

Thom Yorke

The Eraser

(XL)

Thom Yorke's seduction technique with Radiohead has always revolved around mystery — so it's no surprise that The Eraser, his solo debut, also 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 otherwordly siren, creating an eerily romantic song-cycle full of enigmas that stir the heart and brain. Annie Zaleski

Español Sung Here: Crossing over — who's doing it, who's not

Latin/Anglo Crossover is what Latin American artists have always dreamt of and what American artists are starting to realize they need to pull big sales numbers out of a shrinking market. Crossover success means jackpots in both concert tickets and CD sales, so expanding a fan base across genres, countries, and languages just makes sense for today's artists. But it takes more than just throwing in a few words of español here and there, lots more.

Take Ricky Martin, for example. While it seemed like his star was born in just one three-minute Grammy performance in 1999 when he went from hot Latin crooner to, well, hot Latin crooner, Martin had been prepping that performance for years. He had toured since he was 13, acted on General Hospital, worked with world-class producers and songwriters, spent countless hours on his abs, and oh yeah, he had enormous talent. Shakira is another singer who has found crossover heaven, recording in both Spanish and English, winning both MTV Music Awards and Latin Grammys, and again, her "overnight success" came after years of effort and enormous talent. Conversely, it has taken Cuban-born Gloria Estefan, a major star in the English-language market, decades before she has been able to record in her native Spanish.

So, who's on the verge of following Martin, Estefan, and Shakira into crossover heaven, and who's doomed to ethnocentric hell? Here's our list.

Who: Pitbull

Destination: Crossover heaven

Why: For starters, well-done and catchy music. Rapper Pitbull plays the Cuban card just enough to let people know that he's proud, but not so much that it's a turn-off. Pitbull is based in Miami, still the Latin music Mecca for the U.S. Producers, songwriters, session musicians, A&R guys...almost everyone in the business goes through Miami at some point. Pitbull's, um, rabid Miami fan base, keeps him on stage 24/7 when he's at home, and that let's everyone know he is the hot, hot guy these days.

Who: Sean "P.Diddy" Combs

Destination: Ethnocentric hell

Why: P. Diddy is trying all the right things, poor guy. He's showing up on MTV Tres (formerly MTV en Español) with a lifestyle special that shows him, his ghetto fabulous mom, and his assortment of kids all living the ultra high life. He's throwing out the odd hola or two and placing his picture in People en Español, but somehow his "Look how rich I am, don't you want to buy my CD?" shtick just doesn't translate.

Who: Frankie J

Destination: Crossover heaven

Why: Of everyone on this list, Frankie, the ex-lead singer of the Kumbia Kings, has the most range. Smooth ballads, pumping party tunes, Spanish, English, cumbias, reggaetón, hip-hop, R&B — Frankie J can swing it all. The question now is, Will he do any one of them well enough to build a solid fan base, or will he do each of them just enough to keep him going as a minor-major? The smart money says this Houston-based artist will be a crossover king, even if for no other reason than he was clever enough to get out from under producer A.B. Quintanilla's thumb. Which brings us to our next entry....

Who: A.B. Quintanilla

Destination: Ethnocentric hell

Why: Quintanilla was supposedly the writing and producing force behind his sister Selena's burgeoning crossover success. At the time of her death, he was also starting to produce other artists, but he somehow failed to become the Tejano version of Emilio Estefan. Instead he rejoined Kumbia Kings, earning a Grammy nomination for his effort, and then it all went sour. There were rumors he was leaving the Kumbia Kings to form a new group, and rumors that he would stay. Whatever. Fans got bored once he started making headlines on the gossip pages instead of with his music. And now the unquestionably talented Quintanilla is stuck in the Tejano-cumbia netherworld, apparently happy to be a big fish in a small, small pond.

Who: Calle 13

Destination: Crossover heaven

Why: They make infectious, smart, fun music with just a tinge of sass — hip-hop gone Latin. You don't have to be a reggaetón fan to understand Calle 13's extremely danceable and slightly familiar music. There's a sprinkling of English in 13's lyrics, just enough to trick the ears, like "Ponte hyper" and "Que importa si te gusta Coldplay?" Plus they're doing all the right cross-promotion, like teaming up with Nelly Furtado for a live concert in the streets of New York City for MTV Tres' launch party. Which brings us to ...

Who: Nelly Furtado

Destination: Crossover heaven

Why: Furtado is from Canada, but her parents are Portuguese transplants. And as part of her recent image overhaul, Furtado apparently decided to cross the language barrier: She's started singing in Spanish, at performances including the already mentioned MTV Tres launch. Furtado seemed right at home on stage with Calle 13, never stumbling on the Spanish lyrics, her hips finding a perfect dancehall swing. This crossover should be very, very easy.

Who: Paulina Rubio

Destination: Crossover heaven

Why: Known as "la niña dorada" or "the golden girl" in her native Mexico, Rubio is drop-dead sexy and comfortable enough with her body to show off most of it at every opportunity. Even with all that, her Border Girl CD of this year didn't quite catapult her into Shakira's rarified orbit. Rubio has to figure out that merely translating the lyrics from Spanish to English doesn't guarantee a hit song. (Case in point: "The Last Goodbye" was a translation of her banda hit "El ultimo adiós." "Adiós" was a funky, fun groove; "Goodbye" was a clumsy, non-musical dud. And Americans just don't get banda music, anyway — it sounds too much like a circus.) Also, while nobody cares if she can speak English, she does need to be able to sing it. Rubio's still too lispy from time to time. So why is she on the "Crossover Heaven" list? Because she is both enormously talented and not easily dissuaded.

Who: Marc Anthony

Destination: Ethnocentric hell

Why: Also known as Mr. Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony claims he is the bestselling salsa artist in the world. (Yawn.) Anthony does have a decent voice, and he did have the English-language hit "I Need to Know" a few years ago, but there's a chink in his mental armor. Forget that he dumped his kids and wife (the former Miss Universe Dayanara Torres) for the fickle Ms. Lopez: Now he's having to baby-sit Lopez so that he doesn't become her next ex-husband. And on each of his last two tours, he's paired up with other Latin stars, playing almost exclusively to Spanish-speaking crowds (supposedly because that's the only place where he can outshine his ultra-famous wife).These tactics might save his marriage, but they won't get him a new audience. Olivia Flores Alvarez

The Atlantic Divide: Ten bands that weren't singing Yankee Doodle Dandy in '06

Another year, another wave of quirky British bands pouring into the States. It's got all the makings of a new British Invasion. Well, except for one thing — the invasion. For every Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand that succeeds in North America, there are dozens more that barely make it across the pond — and dozens of critics ready to lump 'em all under the same "art rock" or "new-wave revival" categories. The thing is, many of these bands come from a different lineage, one that started at the end of the '70s, when groups like the Jam, the Specials, and Squeeze were deciding what to do after punk — but without forgetting it. There are plenty of new bands with this same attitude, that post-punk doesn't have to be mopey and melodramatic. And they've got the same problem too — an American audience far smaller than they deserve.

1. Ordinary Boys: Three albums into their career, the boys from Worthing have become a household name in England — literally; frontman Sam Preston's a bona fide TV personality, starring on the 2006 season of Celebrity Big Brother. On this side of the Atlantic, though, the Boys have barely got a foot in the door, and damnit, it's just not fair. The band's 2006 offering, How to Get Everything You Ever Wanted in Ten Easy Steps, shows that its sound has evolved from a straight-up Specials/Smiths/Jam mix to one that's more forward-thinking and experimental. Yes, that does involve electronics. But the Boys' use of blips and bleeps is more of an added flavor than a primary ingredient. And Prestons' lyrics are as whip-smart and chastising as ever, calling out the usual cultural suspects (fame, the music industry, etc.) while not getting too serious ("Ballad of an Unrequited Self-Love Affair").

2. Maxïmo Park: On their 2005 debut, A Certain Trigger, these four blokes from Newcastle established themselves as the band to watch... in England, of course. That's why they can get away with releasing an "extras" album so early in their career. 2006's Missing Songs is just that — a collection of B-sides and demo versions of songs from Trigger. Whereas the Ordinary Boys built their foundation on ska-driven beats, Maxïmo Park have more eggs in the new-wave basket. And by new-wave, we mean XTC, not A Flock of Seagulls. Though Maxïmo Park has the danceable tunes to please the Franz/Bloc Party crowd, its style is vibrant, pop-minded, and, at times, punk. There's no reason Maxïmo Park shouldn't be next year's big import. Besides, we Americans love bands with umlauts in their name.

3. The Holloways: Having formed in 2004 and with one album under their belt, these North Londoners are still new kids on the post-punk block. But you'd never know it, judging by the stellar songwriting and sharp lyricism on said debut album, So This is Great Britain? With two-part harmonies and a heavy dose of ska and '60s pop, the Holloways are one of the few English bands that serve their songs sunny side up. That's not to say they're at all sugar-coated — far from it. The album opens with the title track, which shows the "land of hope and glory" in a none-too-rosy light, concluding that, "We're all just a bunch of slaves." But they're slaves with good taste.

4. The Pipettes: If it weren't for the occasionally randy lyrical matter, you'd swear the Pipettes' debut album, We Are the Pipettes, was written 40 years ago. Sounding (and looking) like a Phil Spector wet dream, the three birds who front this polka-dotted pop group do their damnedest to make London swinging again. Backed by a band of dudes (known as the Cassettes), the Pipettes aren't post anything, just pure retro... and a nice break from the norm. You'll find no synthesizers here, just loads of strings, horns, and beats bigger than that hairdo Spector sported at his murder trial.

5. The Rifles: For all the bands that want to relive 1984, the Rifles are right there with 'em, though they're just as interested in 1964. And on their debut album, No Love Lost, they occasionally have it both ways. While the band's contemporary indie-pop influences weigh the heaviest, songs like "Robin Hood" sound like a Merseybeat band after spending a year in modern-day England — upbeat, tightly wound pop played with uncanny neatness. Still, it's songs like "Local Boy" — which falls somewhere between the Cure and the Newtown Neurotics — that populate most of the album and make the Rifles worth seeking out.

6. Little Man Tate: Not to be confused with the long-haired Californian solo act of the same name (or the 1991 Jodie Foster flick, for that matter), Sheffield's Little Man Tate knows where the party is. And, according to the anthemic, Blur-like "House Party at Boothy's," it's one that's likely to catch on. This is one band that's heavy on the pop but, thankfully, equally full of smart (and occasionally smart-ass) lyrics. And there to deliver the verbal goods is Jon Windle, whose swaggering, cocksure style makes him equal parts rock singer, crooner, and acutely observant storyteller. Oh, wait —there's the smart-ass part too, best exemplified by the self-explanatory "Man I Hate Your Band" — a song Windle probably prefers to do without an audience sing-along.

7. The View: This group from Dundee, Scotland, gained a pretty important fan early on, when Babyshambles' Pete Doherty caught a live View performance in early 2006. Of course, it was both a blessing and a curse; drummer Steve Morrison was involved in one of Doherty's many arrests — but only after Doherty got 'em the industry hook up, handing the View's demo to an A&R guy from Rough Trade. And it's a good thing too: The View are one of the few bands here that don't always have to prefix punk with post, as evidenced in "Posh Boys," a short, fast blast of minimal, two-chord fury. But it's still catchy as hell.

8. The Subways: Though not as overlooked as most on this list, the Subways are still likely to get a "who are they?" from the average Yank — and that just ain't right. This past summer's U.S. tour with Taking Back Sunday, Angels and Airwaves, and Head Automatica bolstered the Subways' trans-Atlantic popularity. But more important, it was good for their American audience, who got to hear something different from the usual alt-rock crap they're used to. And given the Subways' blend of jagged Brit pop and thick-riffed Detroit rock, they're the right Anglos for the job.

9. Buzzcocks: Sure, they've gotten plenty of credit for pioneering the first wave of Brit punk, and we've been reading about it for the past 30 years. But that's ancient history. The thing is, the Buzzcocks from 2006 didn't need to remind you of the Buzzcocks from 1976. They've been too busy doing new stuff to get fat on their laurels. Not only did Manchester's finest release Flat-Pack Philosophy this year (their fifth studio album since reuniting and eighth overall); but their decision to join the Warped Tour proved they can still keep up with the kids — and show 'em what real pop-punk is.

10. Paul Weller: Any Brit rock band worth a shit today will cite Weller and his long-defunct band, the Jam, as an influence. Those who don't are either lying or just not worth listening to, period. And in 2006, Weller's importance to British music was codified at the Brit Awards, where he received the "Outstanding Contribution to Music" award (or, what we in the States call a "Lifetime Achievement Award"). Still, America has yet to pay any real attention to the man known as the "Modfather." Maybe that'll change next January when Weller performs a three-night, career-spanning concert in New York City. Either way, it's bound to be out-standing. Jason Budjinski

Blast Beats, Dark Harmonies and Monstrous Melodies: The Top 10 Heavy Metal Albums of 2006

The criterion for this list was simple: Only the hardest, heaviest metal albums were considered. Bands who play a hybrid style of metal that is not thrash, speed, death, black metal, hardcore, grindcore, or some amalgamation thereof were not included. What follows is pure f'n metal. Bang your head off.

10. Cretin

Freakery

(Relapse)

This entire album consists of songs which tell sensationalized tales of deformed/mentally handicapped people from isolated rural communities who do things like kidnap babies and raise them as feral animals, drag young girls into vans and climax while shocking them with Tazers, etc. As the CD booklet declares, "the stories in this album are mostly true...we are everywhere." Now, in the time it takes to say "gimmick," it also becomes clear that Cretin brings rickety punk energy to its grindcore. That's no small feat, considering that Cretin forgoes precision altogether for a slurring, repetitive approach that sounds like you're listening from inside a nearby garbage can but still manages to hold your interest. With two alums from gore-grinders Exhumed and such gleefully graphic lyrics, you'd think that Cretin would overplay the shock hand. With some wit up its sleeve, however, the band comes up with a rousing work of comedy-horror.

9. Goatwhore

A Haunting Curse

(Metal Blade)

This New Orleans quartet manages to stay faithful to a traditional black metal style while adding ambient elements to its songs. Prime examples here are the songs "Alchemy of the Black Sun Cult," which combines mid-tempo grooves with sadistic riffs, and "In the Narrow Confines of Defilement," which employs trippy bridges over a relentless drum beat. Singers Sammy Duet and Louis Benjamin Falgoust II have toned down their usual high-pitched screams and opted for more howling and rasping here (the title track contains some particularly vicious vocals), and ex-Morbid Angel guitarist Erik Rutan's production is immaculate.

8. Napalm Death

Smear Campaign

(Century Media)

After a mid-'90s experimental period, Napalm Death returned to its straight-ahead grindcore roots, but it's only now that its return has been captured with optimal production. Any band that invents a genre must eventually come to terms with its past, and Napalm Death has found the balance to work within its legacy with dignity, renewed drive, and freshness. On Smear Campaign, Napalm is at the peak of both its writing ability and anger, thanks to the Bush administration. No other band has channeled left-wing politics into hard-hitting outrage on par with Napalm Death's, and in our political climate, the band's caustic soundtrack to power abuse sounds reassuring.

7. Children of Bodom

Chaos Ridden Years: Stockholm Knockout Live

(Universal Music)

This live album from these Finns is packed with the band's melodic mashup of black metal, thrash metal, and death metal. Culled from a February 5, 2006 concert in Stockholm, Chaos Ridden Years provides a variety of songs from CoB's five-album catalogue for newer listeners, including a wicked rendition of "Follow the Reaper." Some longtime fans complained that this album wasn't as intense as CoB's first live album (1999's Tokyo Warhearts), but the band was able to pull material from three more albums for this release, and the Bodom basics we love so much — the blast beats and breakneck tempos, the elaborate keyboard and guitar solos, the croaky vocals — are all alive and kicking hard here.

6. Celtic Frost

Monotheist

(Century Media)

Ambitious to a fault, Celtic Frost returned this year with its most challenging work to date. And, as fans know, that's saying a lot about a band that could never keep still. After an initial rush of energy in the first two songs that resurrects classic, signature thrash with breathtaking modern production clarity, the reunited Frost proceeds to make short work of your expectations. It's slow and at times even plodding, but this music rewards the faithful. More than ever before, Celtic Frost captures the despair, rage, and tragedy of a human race marooned in the middle of a universe with an absent god. As if to grasp the infinite sprawl of this solitude, the band seems to reach into space itself and returns with a picture as beautiful as it is bleak.

5. Cannibal Corpse

Kill

(Metal Blade)

Kill contains the same blitzkrieg of searing guitars and Cookie Monster vocals for which Cannibal Corpse is known, only more gory and brutal than before. With song titles like "Five Nails Through the Neck," and "Submerged in Boiling Flesh," there's nothing quaint or kitschy about this kind of metal. Songs like the fast and furious "Purification By Fire" and "Brain Removal Device" (with its chaotic, crashing guitars) only further illustrate the sonic terror of which this band is capable. Every moment on Kill — with the exception of "Infinite Misery," a lurching instrumental that closes the album — is an ear-shattering, nightmare-inducing experience.

4. Mastodon

Call of the Mastodon

(Relapse)

Though press and fan anticipation was no doubt concentrated on Mastodon's Warner Bros debut this year, the acclaimed band managed to top itself via this reissue of some of its earliest recordings (essentially the Lifesblood EP expanded to include four songs from the same sessions). If Mastodon's praise ever seemed premature, this release should give you ample pause to reconsider. Mastodon's stock-in-trade has always been to blend thrash, extreme, stoner, and prog varieties of metal, and here the band distills them into a seamless, compelling whole.

3. Gojira

From Mars to Sirius

(Prosthetic)

Gojira's leading the latest wave of red-hot French metal bands, and one listen to this potent and progressive album shows why. This is a band that can create both extremely heavy, grinding, guttural songs ("Backbone") and gentler, technically-twisted tunes ("Unicorn," "From Mars") without sacrificing either power or precision. On From Mars to Sirius, the band expresses its concerns about our environment in almost every song, but takes a positive rather than apocalyptic stance. Gojira's often compared to Swedish tech metal band Meshuggah, which delves even deeper into experimental song structures, but Gojira's scorching compositions-wrapped-in-optimism make the band an anomaly in a genre characterized by darkness and violence.

2. Sulaco

Tearing Through the Roots

(Willowtip)

Sulaco re-creates grindcore as a fluid, forward-reaching form that will still sound vital and ultra-heavy a hundred years from now. Bandleader Erik Burke possesses jaw-dropping guitar chops, but it's Sulaco's imagination that yields song structures so staggeringly complex that your memory will go slack trying to grasp them. Throw in an unprecedented infusion of buzzing, darkly-colored melody, and the future of grindcore looks promising, indeed.

1. Lamb of God

Sacrament

(Epic Records)

Sacrament — which surprised a lot of people by debuting at #8 on the Billboard charts this year — is Lamb of God's most technical album to date, favoring atmosphere over aggression. The band still slays us with thundering thrash and death metal, but except for a few tracks — most notably "Foot to the Throat" and "Beating on Death's Door," which assail the listener with LoG's usual jackhammer-to-the-head vibe — Sacrament is a sonic step forward for the band, employing more guitar solos, more demonic vocal dubs, and more furious fills that show off skin hitter Chris Adler's dexterous drumming. Producer Machine (Clutch, King Crimson) helped clean up the band's usually raw sound, simultaneously capturing the group's mind-blowing musical prowess in layers of dark harmonies and monstrous melodies. Niki D'Andrea and Saby Reyes-Kulkarni

Snap to It: Comeback kids, rhymin' Limeys and songs about partying defined Hip-Hop Nation in 2006

It was, according to no less an authority than the New York Times, the year rap went regional.

There was plenty of recent evidence to support this claim, beginning with the suddenly paltry record sales racked up by some of hip-hop's heaviest weights. There was lots of historical evidence, as well: Ever since the Dirty South shook off the bicoastal stranglehold of the mid-'90s, hip-hop had developed burgeoning scenes in no less than a dozen major markets.

By 2006, most of those cities had mutated the music and culture beyond the recognition of all but the most dedicated hip-hop fan. These towns had their own sounds, their own slang, and even their own subgenres. A staple of late-night TV humor used to be exploiting a senior citizen's unfamiliarity with hip-hop; now you had to explain to Grandma the difference between the laid-back groove of "snap music" and old-fashioned, high-energy crunk. And the punchline was this: Her grandkids might not have been able to explain it, either.

But then along came Jibbs's "Chain Hang Low," jingling like the last ice-cream truck of the long, hot summer, and a lot of those feudal, walled-city lines seemed to fade. With a melody familiar to Grandma (it was drawn from the children's song "Do Your Ears Hang Low," which in turn took its melody from the traditional "Turkey in the Straw"), a G-rated lyric (the pimp reference notwithstanding), and a beat that repped the stuttering sound of St. Louis without shutting out fans from other locales, it was a reminder of hip-hop's power to unify.

In person, Jibbs isn't shy about expressing his ambition. He might have just turned 16, but he doesn't sound like he'll be satisfied hanging around the STL and disseminating new dance moves via YouTube. "I'm trying to hit every market, man. I mean, every market," he says earnestly. "I wanna get everyone involved, and not just try to sell my album to one particular group of people."

He might not have a choice, of course: Now that the effects of leaks and digital piracy are hitting the ill-prepared industry full force, gold albums are starting to look great, and even going "wood in the hood" isn't quite the admission of failure it used to be. But as much of the fractured hip-hop nation gathered itself in November for another event that cut across party and geographic lines — the return of Jay-Z — it was worth remembering that trends can be as fleeting as the music that often drives them.

And now, having doled out that sage advice, we will proceed to ignore it completely, as we spotlight a few of 2006's other notable hip-hop trends.

It was the year of the comeback. Hov's inevitable return got most of the ink, but it wasn't the most notable. A couple of veterans who'd been on cruise control finally awoke, and these sleeping giants turned in two of the better albums of '06 (as well as of their careers). Snoop Dogg's Tha Blue Carpet Treatment worked because Tha Doggfather finally applied himself. On Fishscale, Ghostface finally found some topics and tracks that matched the intensity of his high-pitched, borderline-crazy voice, and emerged with a coked-up, weirded-out winner. And Virginia's long-M.I.A. Clipse seemed ready to emerge from purgatory by year's end with the sometimes-stunning Hell Hath No Fury.

The comeback moment of the year, however, involved not only Ghost but his Wu-Tang brethren. On February 7, the Clan's post-ODB era began in New Haven, Connecticut. The reunited group, plus supersub Cappadonna, were maddeningly erratic, and the club was so oversold that a dropped Zippo would have spelled another Great White disaster. Yet somehow, group leader The RZA managed to assemble all his bandmates in the same room and even got the lackadaisical Method Man to act like he cared. Call it the Miracle at Toad's Place.

It was the year of the mixtape. From its humble origins as a streetcorner hustle, the mixtape has become an even more vital part of the hip-hop artist's arsenal. Filled with rare tracks, remixes, and exclusives, mixtapes don't just build anticipation for an upcoming album anymore — they deserve consideration on their own merits. And no one puts them together like Cleveland's Commissioner, Mick Boogie, who oversaw some of 2006's best and brightest mixtapes.

Although he did yeoman's work all year, and teamed up with titans like Jay-Z and Eminem, the best of Boogie came on some of his lower-profile projects. Case in point: his Mobb Deep mixtape, More Money More Murda, which shredded the album it was supposed to help promote — through some live Roots collabs, and remixes filled with the New York grit that Prodigy and Havoc's G-Unit debut lacked.

For the record, the Commish would like to point out his own notable Ô06 trend: "The return of good albums. Hip-hop has been lacking in album quality for the last two years," he says, "but this fall has been tremendous. Great full-lengths from Jay-Z, Nas, Clipse, Outkast, Game, Snoop and UGK are closing out the year with a bang. Who says albums are dead?"

It was the year of the British. Sort of. In fairness, 2006 can't be counted as the sort of watershed 12 months we witnessed two years ago, when Dizzee Rascal and the Streets and their grimey countrymen planted the Union Jack in hip-hop's bloated American carcass, with no intention of ever ceding territory again. And they haven't; while Mike Skinner was only at three-quarter strength on The Streets' The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, his Cockney wisecracks were still more fun than three-quarters of his Yank counterparts. Anyone Skinner failed to offend, the wee, witty Lady Sovereign — Def Jam's nod to the British Invasion — took care of. Meanwhile, one of the most slept-on releases of the year came from UK vets New Flesh; Universally Dirty mashed up dancehall, grime and even soca to give British hip-hop yet another brand-new beat.

It was the year of deep thoughts and the year of partying (and sometimes, deep thoughts about partying). There's room for both viewpoints now in hip-hop's increasingly diverse underground, which is good news indeed. Critical darlings Spank Rock might have merely made Too $hort safe for all the eggheads who thought they were too $mart for him the first time around, but even so, was there an album more fun in 2006 than the high-concept/low-art Yoyoyoyoyo? Didn't think so.

Both fun in their own thoughtful ways were albums from the Bay Area's Ise Lyfe, whose SpreadtheWORD suggests he might someday take over Mos Def's mantle as hip-hop's activist poet laureate, and Georgia Ann Muldrow, an adventurous L.A. artist who reassembles urban music in novel ways on Olesi: Fragments of an Earth. Both discs make great soundtracks for the parties in your mind.

It was the year of self-promotion. Well, every year in hip-hop is the year of self-promotion, but today's kids certainly have it down pat. Just ask Jibbs his favorite hip-hop trend of '06, and he barely blinks before answering.

"I would definitely say that the hottest trend," he offers, starting to chuckle, "was people that got their chains hangin' low." Dan Leroy

The Year The Superstar DJ Died: Dinosaurs rule the dancefloors no more

For nearly a decade, the giants of electronic dance music, a cold-blooded cadre mostly from northern Europe, lumbered across the earth. Tiesto, Paul van Dyk, Paul Oakenfold, Seb Fontaine, Judge Jules and Fatboy Slim dominated small suburban dancefloors and Ibizan caverns alike with crafty disco assembled from chest-rattling basslines and sampled treasures from earlier civilizations.

Suddenly, in 2006, like dinosaurs shuddering in the freezing contrail of a passing comet, the time of the superstar DJs ended. Today, the big boys are gasping for space as overpaid nightclub hosts, while small, furry mammals named Busdriver, Ellen Alien, and Otto Von Schirach have sprung forth to occupy their musical niche in the ecosystem.

The sad thing — one of the sad things — about the superstar DJs' looming extinction is that they didn't begin with Brontosaurus brains. IDM, or "intelligent dance music," is the obviously and deliberately limiting terminology for electronica that isn't stupid. The expression dates back to a description of Coil's 1991 album The Snow, which set the IQ bar pretty high, and the artists who followed in the last decade of the century — The Orb, Autechre, Future Sound of London, kept apace.

By 2000, European electronic dance music evolved into dozens of microgenres from the various species of house music, techno, and EBM. Pioneering DJs such as Oakenfold and Fatboy Slim found they could press their popular discs and also attract respectable concert attendance numbers through careful marketing of their riveting live sets, which blended their own compositions with remixes of other artists' tracks. Meanwhile, in the States, dance music factions were essentially limited to house and trance, a situation that continues today.

And why shouldn't it? Americans almost always muck up the nuance in the cultures we import, and dance music has proven no exception. While European DJs cultivated a humbly anonymous aesthetic, Americans reinvented the DJ as turntable-toting rock star. Thus today we enjoy the Crystal Method's relentless efforts to brand their faces on maximum party records such as the cleverly named Tweekend and Legion of Boom, and this year, both the Crystal Method and taggers-along LCD Soundsystem produced 45-minute "workout mixes" in association with Nike.

But it is now clear that the DJ craze is on the wane in the U.S. The huge throngs that once welcomed Van Dyk, Carl Cox, and the ubiquitous Oakenfold have dried up, at least in the smaller major cities. Once people in places like Dallas and Atlanta figured out the headliner would show up at 3 a.m., play a 20-minute set and split, it was all over, and from then on, guys like that were forced to retreat to tried-and-true markets such as Miami, New York, and San Francisco for hosting duties at superclubs.

And the superstar DJ system never encouraged a farm team system, where beginners could earn their nightclub stripes in small markets and move up to larger ones. That role fell to the DJ music on MySpace and YouTube. But that system is far from perfect, or even viable. How many remixes of Optimo or Bugz in the Attic by kids from the Tulsa suburbs can anyone make it through?

Still, there were some outstanding offerings on the Better SportsWear floor of the dance music department store, and several of those are even from America.

Steve Lawler's Lights Out 3 (as well as the import Viva) reached our shores early in 2006, and the two-disc set featured some of the stalwart British producer's most symphonic work to date.

Trance music pioneer Brian Transeau, better known as BT, has been an amazingly prolific composer for years, and most of the songs he plays are originals, not remixes or compilations. His late-year release This Binary Universe continued the Marylander's exploration into mathematical and philosophical themes with the harmonically named (and sounding) "The Internal Locus" and "The Antikythera Mechanism." Plus BT dedicates the disc to his beloved pet dog, who died this year. All this might seem precious save for BT's long record of sincerity sans New Age ickiness. (BT toured this month with another IDM forefather, Thomas Dolby, who dropped his first record in years in December, The Sole Inhabitant, a collection of live performances and new material.)

"Burma," a trickily looped onslaught of deep progressive breaks from Australia's Lostep, leant itself to creative remixing by everyone from Sasha to Galaxy Girl, but the track was great on its own (as was the rest of the duo's cohesive album Because We Can). Perhaps a little Outback isolation is just what dance music needs.

Hybrid's I Choose Noise offered a good array of Mike Truman's and Chris Healing's vast collection of regular collaborators, including Peter Hook, Judie Tzuke, and Quivver (John Graham). Strangely, the atmospheric, dark tracks on I Choose Noise did not include "Space Manoeuvres Part 3," a Hybrid live set staple and one of the year's best Internet-disseminated singles. This remarkable, haunting number contains an overlay of Kiefer Sutherland (in character from Dark City) speaking the "First there was darkness..." lines.

The Knife — Norwegian siblings Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer — made much of their unwillingness to show their faces or become conventional pop stars, but they shook up CMJ with a live performance that is already legend. For all its lyrical anguish, their Silent Shout, on which every track's a lover, came close to the outright synth-pop of Depeche Mode's Speak and Spell.

The Knife robbed the slightly superior Sissy — singer Johanne Williams and audio landscaper David Trusz — of some of the bouquets Sissy's female-fueled reinvention of trip-hop album All Under deserved. Why single "In the Dark" was not a huge crossover hit as well as a dancefloor smash was hard to explain, but All Under's remaining tracks of furious distortion ("Anyone But You" and "Can't Save You") were just as captivating.

And then there's London nightclub-derived label Fabric, which salvaged a pretty bad year for dance music almost by itself. Fabric's voluminous (several discs per month) numbered output, even given duds like the unlistenable Fabric 26 and Fabric 27 records, put forth a strong case that the Londoners are the collectivist label of record for every DJ and remix theorist on the planet. Fabric 29 featuring Tiefschwarz was a hardy techno discovery, and Fabric 24, though a part of today's often overzealous re-release movement, argued eloquently that the overlooked Rob da Bank deserves a place on jammy/groovy house playlists.

Finally, Christian IDM: Who'd have thought of it? Dark Globe had always evoked a Kayak-ish cult of mysticism around their majestic orchestrations, but with this year's Nostalgia for the Future they picked up the lushness and pace with a Lawlerish turn in tunes. And, quite surprisingly, gave some shouts out to the Lord.

So don't despair. The state of electronica always depends on perception. Any song by Kraak & Smaak, whose Boogie Angst was an inconsistent mix of funk hooks plus bass, is still better than anything Sheryl Crow or Evanescence could come up with. Hearing a track by DJ Shadow on your car satellite radio isn't going to make you pull over and puke the way one by the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus will.

And in one last hopeful hurrah for 2006, Tom Ellard, founder of the Severed Heads and perhaps as influential in the genre's genesis as Cabaret Voltaire and John Balance, recently reemerged with a body of new work. His soundtrack and animations grace the Australian Film Commission's The Illustrated Family Doctor and, slowly but surely, he is posting remixed and remastered Severed Heads classics to YouTube, along with some new compositions. So hang in there, smarty pantses. — Jean Carey

Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music: Ten Reasons to Tune In Country Radio in 2006

The Nashville way of making music is unlike any other, comparable only to the studio system of Hollywood's golden age — a closed system of songwriters, producers, record labels, and artists that creates most of the sounds you don't want to admit you listen to on the radio when no one else is in the car.

This system is designed to create consistently good, but not great, music. For the latter to occur, an unpredictable element must be introduced, a ghost in the machine that animates the gears and brings the whole contraption roaring to life with a cybernetic melding of skill and soul. These are the happy accidents responsible for most — but not all — of the albums to find a home on country radio in 2006.

(Disclaimer: The best mainstream country album of the year, the Dixie Chicks' Taking the Long Way, received little to no airplay on country radio, and is therefore ineligible for this list. How could something that idiotic happen, you ask? Um ... it's a long story.)

1. lan Jackson

Like Red on a Rose

(Arista Nashville)

Like R&B, commercial country is at its heart a producer's medium. For instance, if you're an Alan Jackson fan, you're also a fan of producer Keith Stegall, who's helmed nearly all of Jackson's umpteen hits. So when Jackson tapped Alison Krauss to produce his new album, listeners expected a sidetrack into bluegrass. Instead, we got this: a shimmering suite of mature, thoughtful country songs about the difficulty and rewards of reconciling the youthful ideal of romance with the reality of adulthood and family.

2. Keith Urban

Love, Pain & the whole crazy thing

(Capitol Nashville)

Sometimes, superlative music gets made in Nashville because the artist becomes so popular that he or she earns the right to assume full artistic control over his or her work. That's why Jackson was able to call on Krauss, and why Urban now gets to fully explore his previously hinted-at vision of a merging of mainstream country with the panoramic rock of Joshua Tree-era U2, stitching it all together with passion, melodic invention and furious (and fully rock 'n' roll) guitar work.

3. Vince Gill

These Days

(MCA Nashville)

OK, this one's almost a ringer — Gill hasn't seen the inside of Billboard's country Top 10 singles chart (except in his role as a prolific harmony singer) since 2000. But the recent "The Reason Why" lodged in the Top 40, and the four-disc set from which it springs is nothing less than country's own Sign o' the Times: an example of a scarily talented singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist with a playful wit, randy sense of humor, and flair for genre-hopping, finally allowed to demonstrate all the different things he can do in one glorious, extended tour de force.

4. George Strait

It Just Comes Natural

(MCA Nashville)

When a formula is as well-entrenched as Strait's, even a tiny digression can make a difference. It Just Comes Natural stands out from his dozens of other fine albums by dint of its length (15 songs, and not a clinker in the bunch) and by the fact that for the recording, Strait, band, and producer Tony Brown decamped to a tiny Florida studio owned by pal Jimmy Buffett. The result is a freshness that's occasionally been missing from Strait's work, wedded to the vocal mastery and canny song selection that hasn't.

5. The Wreckers

Stand Still, Look Pretty

(Maverick)

Hits settle all questions in Music City. Can a potty-mouthed young pop singer who's bared half her ass in Maxim be welcomed in ultraconservative (at least in public) Nashville? With a hit like The Wreckers' sterling "Leave the Pieces," it's not a problem. That song rose to number one and turned Michelle Branch — who formed the duo with more country-centric collaborator Jessica Harp — into a country star. And if you've got a hit in your pocket, Nashville wants to buy you a drink, too.

6. Danielle Peck

Danielle Peck

(Big Machine)

Perhaps the most difficult way to make a really superlative commercial country album is to play by all the rules, and just do it better than everyone else. The lift here comes from smart songwriting and from Peck's voice, a forceful instrument that gets more powerful the more gently she applies it. If Peck fails to become a big star, it will be for extramusical reasons: She's far too sexy — not "pretty" like Faith Hill, but sweet-merciful-Jesus-I'd-tap-that-without-a-warrant hot — for country's predominantly older female demographic.

7. Darryl Worley

Here and Now

(903 Music)

Worley was tagged as a Toby Keith wannabe after "Have You Forgotten?" (a bold riposte to the ... uh, approximately zero Americans who didn't want Osama bin Laden obliterated) rode the conflation of Sept. 11 and the Iraq war to the top of the chart in spring 2003, just as the Dixie Chicks were getting Dixie Chicked. "Forgotten" aside, Worley is actually a thoughtful singer-songwriter with a flair for naked emotion and an eye for detail. Newly free of both his major-label deal and his marriage, his latest is a holler of liberated glee, the sound of a man who can't wait to get into trouble. Sealing the deal is "I Just Got Back from a War," about an American soldier's anger and confusion at not being greeted as a liberator. It's bleak, daring and Keith wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot flag.

8. Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift

(Big Machine)

Nashville tried, and failed, to get in on the teen-pop extravaganza of a few years ago. Now that Britney is a divorcee with two kids, it finally succeeds with this 16-year-old wunderkind. Swift neither plays for cuteness, nor poses as jailbait; she simply uses her native intelligence to express clearly to anyone who will listen her hopes for the future, her growing worldliness, and her dawning awareness that boys may be more trouble than they' re worth.

9. Kellie Pickler

Small Town Girl

(BNA Nashville)

The big-voiced, calamari-hating Pickler finished sixth on the latest season of American Idol, which in Nashville narrowcasting terms is a dream marketing setup. Add the right collaborators (like songwriter Aimee Mayo and producer Blake Chancey), and you wind up with an unvarnished pop-country jewel featuring a surprisingly confident headliner who's not as dumb as you think.

10. Jace Everett

Jace Everett

(Sony Music Nashville)

Justin Timberlake brought sexy back to pop in 2006 (or at least announced that intention), but country apparently wasn't ready for the same. Everett's slyly insinuating singles "That's the Kind of Love I'm In" and "Bad Things" (as in, things he wants to do to you, sweet thing) barely dented the charts, and his album was quietly dumped into stores. Everett lost his deal in a merger and by July was ranting about "the dumbing down and homogenization of our culture" on his MySpace page. You know what that means: a great screw-the-music-business album is brewing somewhere. Good luck finding a rhyme for "homogenization," but I'm sure someone in Music City can swing it. Chris Neal

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