The Year in Music
Hi Jon, Carl, and Ann,
All right, show of hands: Who's listened to the High School Musical soundtrack? When I last checked with Soundscan a few days back, High School Musical was still the No. 1 album of 2006, half a million up on the next-best seller, Rascal Flatts' Me and My Gang. And let's not forget Disney's The Cheetah Girls, or the Hannah Montana soundtrack, which crushed next-generation rock gods My Chemical Romance's opus The Black Parade when both records were released back in October.
It feels tacky to start our discussion of the year in pop with sales stats, but Topic A in '06 was the continuing slow-motion collapse of the record business, a process that was accelerated this year by YouTube and MySpace and online leaks and peer-to-peer mischief, and dramatized by the triumph of Disney pop. What does it mean for popular music when 7-year-olds are the most reliable record buyers? I'm certainly no expert on this stuff, but you can tease out some interesting demographic trends from the Billboard charts. Pop and hip-hop album sales are way down (just ask Janet Jackson); country album sales are up; the only rock band that is really selling big is Nickelback (whose audience and aesthetics might warrant some discussion here).
So, who's buying albums? Little kids (or, rather, their parents), not-so-wired red staters, boomers who just have to hear Rod Stewart tackle the Bob Seeger songbook? Meanwhile, downloads of individual tracks continue to boom—at the mega-pop level at least, the long-forecast death of the album may well be nigh. I had a fascinating discussion a few weeks back with a major label A&R guy, who glumly told me that big pop stars have realized that records themselves are no longer a significant revenue stream—that the CDs are just promotional tools to help move the real moneymaking product: the ringtone, the key chain, the concert T-shirt, the clothing line, the reality TV show. I'm not sure how all this industry tumult is going to affect the music I love, from Usher to scruffy little local bands here in Brooklyn. I have a sneaking suspicion that anything bad for a music exec is by definition good for a music fan. But I do know that I'll miss shopping at actual record stores.
Biz talk aside, my verdict on 2006 is: not half bad. I probably listened to more music this year than any previous, but the sheer volume of the stuff available—if not at Tower Records, then certainly at the click of a mouse—has punctured even the vaguest feeling of confidence in surveying the year. It's not just that I've slept on some important records this year—I've missed whole genres. Resolutions for '07: must listen to more metal, more dancehall, more, um, "freak folk," and more of der elektronische Tanzmusik.
Anyway, for those keeping score, here are my top 10 albums and, because I couldn't narrow it down, top 25 singles of 2006.
1. Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds (Jive)
2. Joanna Newsom, Ys (Drag City)
3. Bob Dylan, Modern Times (Sony)
4. Lil Wayne, Dedication 2 (Gangsta Grillz)
5. Mary J. Blige, The Breakthrough (Geffen)
6. Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury (Re-Up Gang/Zomba)
7. Arctic Monkeys, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (Domino)
8. My Chemical Romance, Welcome to the Black Parade (Reprise)
9. Matmos, The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast (Matador)
10. Willie Nelson and the Cardinals, Songbird(Lost Highway)
1. Gnarls Barkley, "Crazy"
2. Justin Timberlake featuring T.I., "My Love"
3. Ne-Yo, "So Sick"
4. Keyshia Cole, "Love"
5. T.I., "What You Know"
6. Christina Aguilera, "Ain't No Other Man"
7. Aventura, "Los Infieles"
8. Mary J. Blige, "Be Without You"
9. Lupe Fiasco, "Kick, Push"
10. Chamillionaire featuring Krayzie Bone, "Ridin' "
11. Beyoncé, "Irreplaceable"
12. Amerie, "Take Control"
13. Julie Roberts, "Men & Mascara"
14. Nelly Furtado featuring Timbaland, "Promiscuous"
15. Panic! At the Disco, "I Write Sins Not Tragedies"
16. Tego Calderon, "Los Mate"
17. I'm From Barcelona, "We're From Barcelona"
18. Eric Church, "Two Pink Lines"
19. Corinne Bailey Rae, "Like a Star"
20. The Pack, "Vans"
21. The Klaxons, "Gravity's Rainbow"
22. Tony Matterhorn, "Dutty Wine"
23. Peter, Bjorn, and John, "Young Folks"
24. The Rapture, "Whoo! Alright Yeah ... Uh-Huh"
25. Todd Snider, "You Got Away With It (A Tale of Two Fraternity Brothers)"
My best albums list is, I'm afraid, a bit predictable, although some of the obvious biggies aren't there. (I admired but couldn't bring myself to love the ballyhooed albums by TV on the Radio and the Hold Steady.) Actually, my list isn't exactly representative of my taste. I spent lots of time listening to country in '06 (the Nashville kind, not alt-), and the unkindest cut on my albums list was Dierks Bentley's Long Trip Alone, nipped at the finish line by Willie Nelson and his gravitas. Long Trip Alone is a great big slab o' hokum—Dierks spins a lot of grizzled talk about the open road and compares himself to a "worn-out pair of boots"—but it has everything that I love about current Nashville country, which, in case you haven't noticed, is really old-fashioned melodic pop-rock with better words. If you like loud guitars that crash between minor chords, sing-along choruses, smart narrative lyric-writing, and have a higher-than-average tolerance for the purple stuff, CMT is heaven.
For me, '06 was above all the Year of Timberlake and Timbaland—especially the latter, since I also loved Nelly Furtado's album. (I know some hip-hop headz have complained that Timbaland's new stuff is wack, but I don't hear it.) As far as Justin is concerned, I'm impressed by how he's really gone for the brass ring: aping Michael Jackson and Prince, putting himself out there emotionally (with the "soft," lovey-dovey lyrics) and artistically (with the visionary future-funk sounds). FutureSex/LoveSounds is a lesson for those of us who would dismiss High School Musical out of hand—yesteryear's kiddie-poppers do sometimes grow up to be artistes. Honorary Mention in this category goes to another former Mouseketeer, Christina Aguilera, whose double CD Back to Basics was an admirably ambitious—completely nuts, actually—attempt to smash together old soul and "jazz" with club beats and Linda Perry-produced Sturm und Drang balladry. It was a total mess, but there was one fantastic single, and you had to respect the marketplace-be-damned perversity of the effort. (Clive Davis must have had a fit.) Songs like "Hurt" suggest that Aguilera may yet turn out to be the Streisand of her generation—I don't think I need to tell you guys that I mean that as compliment.
Some other trends: If you listen to hit radio, you can't help but conclude that R&B—particularly female-fronted R&B—is the closest thing we have to a national music at this point. Which I suppose makes Beyoncé the Queen of America. (I liked B'Day a lot when I first heard it. I love it now.) This was also a good year for mainstream American rock, particularly for the emo/pop-punk kids who are growing up and getting weirder. I still can't quite get my head around the sprawling cancer soap opera that is My Chemical Romance's The Black Parade—perhaps because of the aesthetic generation gap that Ann discusses in her very smart review—but I love the vigorous sound. I'm also a big fan of those absurdly verbose neo-emo dudes in Panic! at the Disco and Cute Is What We Aim For. Consider some of the Morrissey-goes-mall-rat song titles: "I Put the 'Metro' in Metronome," "The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide Is Press Coverage," "There's a Good Reason These Tables Are Numbered Honey, You Just Haven't Thought of It Yet." The language is overwrought, not nearly as smart as these guys think it is. But it feels real, like it was cut-and-pasted straight into the songs from an IM session—a white, suburban answer to that other very wordy genre, rap. And the swift, catchy music suits the lyrics, hopping all over the place and racing through funky meter changes.
There's lots more that I'd like to discuss, including all the fierce post-Katrina political pop music I heard this year. It's not the macro-trends, though, but the little moments that make a fan's year in pop. In '06, some great vocal performances did it for me: Keyshia Cole's electrifying ululations in the chorus of "Love" (and Regina Spektor's cute little hiccups in the chorus of "Fidelity"); the beautiful falsetto singing of Anthony "Romeo" Santos, the Dominican Aaron Neville, in Aventura's hit "Los Infieles"; and the tender quietude of Corinne Bailey Rae's "Like a Star," whose inclusion on my top singles list, I know, brands me as a hopeless wuss. (Barista, make that chai latte a double.) Then there's the heart-melting bit in Mary J. Blige's "Be Without You," when Mary moves from her own romance to care-taking everyone else's: "Well, let me see you put your hands up/ Fellas, tell your lady she's the one/ Put your hands up/ Ladies, let him know he's got your love/ Look him right in his eyes and tell him/ We've been too strong for too long, and I can't be without you baby." Ahhhhhh: Feel the love.
Jody Rosen is Slate's music critic. He can be reached at email@example.com.