Winter looms, the days grow short, the sky opens, and year-end lists begin to flutter down and cover the land. 'Tis the season in which pundits of all stripes roll out their Top 10s—an agonizing process for pop-music critics, who, in an age of digital downloading, must sift through vast amounts of music, and who tend by nature to be haplessly, nerdishly tormented about narrowing down their favorites. I'll spare you the tragicomic details of my own deliberations and simply say: Watch this space next week for my bests of 2006. In the meantime, here are some fine records that didn't quite make the cut, most of them doubtful to place near the top of any big polls: from rappers and balladeers and sound collagists, straight out of Nashville and France and the distant musical past, overlooked music worth catching up with before the year's out.
Matmos, The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast (Matador)
It sounds like an exercise in conceptual art tedium: 10 "audio portraits" of historically significant gays and lesbians—including Patricia Highsmith, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, and (gulp) Ludwig Wittgenstein—featuring the sampled sounds of everything from semen striking against a hard surface to a vacuum cleaner inserted into the remains of a cow's vagina. But the San Francisco sound collagists Matmos (best known for their work with Björk, who guests here) are wonderful, whimsical Postmodern composers—their songs never fail to absorb, or amuse. Music nerds will savor the in-jokes in "Steam and Sequins for Larry Levan" a tribute to the pioneering DJ, but the music is its own reward: It's the most festively warped dance track I've heard all year, Hanna-Barbera at the Paradise Garage. As for the Wittgenstein homage: You don't need to know a thing about the Philosophische Untersuchungen to get utterly lost in its percussive clicks, spoken-word murmurings, and stormy blasts of noise. The CD album art is amazing, too.
Field Mob, Light Poles and Pine Trees (Geffen)
As their name suggests, Field Mob are country bumpkins—they're from Albany, Ga., the birthplace of Ray Charles—and sure enough, their witty, shamelessly salacious lyrics, delivered in thick drawls, carry a distinctly earthy, regional tang. On Light Poles and Pine Trees, Shawn Jay and Smoke are concerned almost entirely with sex. It's a totally unambitious album, but also unpretentious, skillful, and more fun than 99 percent of the year's hip-hop releases. "So What," in which they hurl PG-13 come-ons at R&B hottie Ciara, should have been a bigger hit; "Eat 'Em Up, Beat 'Em Up," the most explicit ode to cunnilingus ever recorded, could never be a hit in a million years.
Various Artists, That Devilin' Tune: A Jazz History, Volume 1 (1895-1927) (Music & Arts)
These nine CDs represent just one-quarter of a monumental four-volume compilation curated by music historian Allen Lowe, which seeks to recontextualize early jazz history, and with it the history of American pop music. (And, come to think of it, the history of America, period.) Lowe's bumptious, delightful, danceable mix of early pop, ragtime, jug band, and blues recordings presents a vastly expanded and more complicated picture of American musical roots, discovering hot rhythm and jazz-style improvisation in some unlikely places, like 19th-century marching bands and the "coon song" performances of vaudevillians like Stella Mayhew and Len Spencer. An essential historical document; also, a party-starter.
KT Tunstall, Eye to the Telescope (Virgin)
Most people know KT Tunstall by way of Katherine McPhee: The Scottish singer-songwriter's "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" became a minor radio hit after the American Idol runner-up sang it—passably—on the big show. But Tunstall's debut was a smash in the U.K., and deservedly so. It's a near-perfect example of what so-called Adult Album Alternative—often the most deadly dull of genres—should be: sophisticated, crisply played, very pretty pop-rock songs about grown-up relationships, with surprising rhythmic oomph, and arcing melodies that practically beg to be called Beatlesesque. Aimee Mann dreams of making a record like Eye to the Telescope—for that matter, Elvis Costello hasn't made music this good in at least a decade.
Hector Lavoe, La Voz (Fania)
Hector Lavoe was the blazing, tragic hero of New York's 1970s salsa explosion. By this time next year, Lavoe may well be a household name, thanks to a forthcoming biopic, El Cantante, starring Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez. You can start catching up in the meantime, and there's no better place to begin than with the thrilling 1975 album La Voz, one of dozens of finely remastered titles from the legendary Fania Records catalog that were reissued in 2006. Cock an ear to "Mi Gente," Lavoe's defacto theme song and a kind of anthem of pan-Latin pride, to discover the pure, sparkling tone of his tenor and the fluid vocal improvisations that made him one of the greatest song stylists of the late 20th century.
Teddybears, Soft Machine (Big Beat)
What a party. Teddybears, from Stockholm, are often called an "electro-pop" band, but it's hard to put a label on this frenetic, joy-giving album, which jostles together hammering dance beats, loud rock guitar, blips and beeps, and musical guests ranging from Iggy Pop to Neneh Cherry to dancehall veteran Mad Cobra, who stars in the punk-rock-meets-raggamuffin "Cobrastyle," one of the year's best singles. Can someone please earmark some grant money to research the scientific basis of the Swedish genius for catchy music?
Chris Young, Chris Young (RCA Nashville)
In a battle of TV-talent-show-winning country singers, 2005 Nashville Star champion Chris Young wallops American Idol Carrie Underwood. The 20-something Tennessean has a robust, agile baritone, displayed to great effect on his debut album's mournful single, "Drinking Me Lonely" (which Young co-wrote). But it's on the rowdy stuff that Young really flourishes: songs like "Beer & Gasoline" (about a guy with just a few bucks trying to choose between fueling his truck or himself), and "Small Town, Big Time," an irresistibly cornpone rave-up about partying ("Bonfire at the creek tonight/ Bubba bringin' some homemade wine/ Just enough to catch a buzz/ And get us countrified") and, um, inbreeding ("Population 903/ Half of them are kin to me") in the sticks. Young's songs would benefit from less generic production, but this is a promising start.
Z-Ro, I'm Still Living (Rap-A-Lot)
"I believe in struggling, cause that's all I've ever seen/ Besides the county jail, and the light of an infrared beam," raps Z-Ro on the album-opening "City Streets." Z-Ro is Houston hip-hop's brooding existentialist in chief, a death-obsessed deglamorizer of the gangsta life, and of the rapper's vocation. Other MCs boast about their jewelry and fancy cars, but Z-Ro wears his poverty as a badge of authenticity: "I dropped a lot of records, but I'm still broke," he confides. It's gloomy stuff, but there is infectious musicality in Z-Ro's booming voice. And the rapper's sentimentality is something to behold—he never stops trying to jerk tears. "See, I remember, when I couldn't afford to get a wing dinner," he raps in "No More Pain." "Put my two dollars with yours, and we split a wing dinner."
Charlotte Gainsbourg, 5:55 (WEA International)
It's hard to get past singer-actress Charlotte Gainsbourg's ridiculously cool pedigree (father: debauched genius of Gallic pop, Serge Gainsbourg; mother: ageless 1960s it-girl, Jane Birkin) and ridiculously cool collaborators (Britpop star Jarvis Cocker; French synth-pop hipsters Air; super-producer Nigel Godrich) and simply listen to the music on her new album. But it's worth making the effort. 5:55 is a smart, bewitching piece of nouvelle chanteuserie, with Gainsbourg delivering moody songs (mostly co-written by Cocker and Air) beneath a drifting nimbus of guitars and chimes. Although her voice is much better than it was at age 13, when she bleated the shock-mongering duet "Lemon Incest" with her dad, it's still not much of an instrument. But she's perfected the whisper-singing style that her parents pioneered, making all of her songs sound like slightly scandalous confessions.
Be Your Own Pet, Be Your Own Pet (Ecstatic Peace!)