Boy, did Ann deepen my grief at having missed Shakira's Madison Square Garden show this past September. In 2006, the Colombian-Lebanese firecracker seemed more unstoppable than ever. Miraculously, she made Wyclef Jean almost tolerable, and her music, more than any other superstar's, is pointing the way to pop's globalized future: blithely genre-mashing, Spanish accented but proudly polylingual, intensely rhythmic. The only comparable figure is Manu Chao, the Spanish-born, Paris-bred global nomad whose performance this summer in Brooklyn's Prospect Park was the best I saw all year. At the pre-show press conference, Chao fielded questions in four languages, sloganeering and shouting out Joe Strummer and Subcomandante Marcos like a lefty of the old school. But the concert proved that what's really radical about Chao is his Creolized music, which toggles between tongues, jumps from Europe to Brazil to North Africa, and, with its steady reggae pulse, tugs fiercely at your hips—the place, as Shakira points out, where truth resides. Virtually any song by these two great rootless cosmopolitans makes a far better world-is-flat argument than a thousand windy pages of Tom Friedman.
Speaking of worldly world music: Ann's right that no international album registered on the rock-critical radar like Amadou and Miriam's Chao-produced breakthrough did in 2005. But I still heard lots of great stuff. To name just three: I loved Brazilian art-rock demigod Tom Zé's Estudando o Pagode (a time-traveling samba-and-electronica-tinged feminist rock opera, no less!); the rock-raï star Rachid Taha's collection of old French and Arabic pop ballads, Diwan 2; and a totally revelatory reissue of Gypsy torch songs by Dona Dumitru Siminicã, a Romanian with an eerie, angelic castrato-style voice a bit like Jimmy Scott's. One of the greatest things about the Internet, though, is how it cuts out the middleman for an American interested in foreign sounds. Why wait for Nonesuch to package up a CD for tidy yuppie consumption, when, with a Google search or a simple a click on the "Radio" button on your iTunes menu, you can tune in streaming broadcasts from the four corners of the earth? To begin the exploration of Middle Eastern music that Ann wonders about, try the "Persian Pop" and "Dance Party" channels on Iranianradio.com. Live from the Axis of Evil: love songs and dope beats!
Moving back to the home front, a word or two in defense of Timberlake and Timbaland. I think I know what Carl means when he says he's waiting for Justin's Justin, as opposed to Justin's Michael or Prince. (Incidentally, the best Prince song I heard this year was neither Timberlake's nor Prince's, but Ciara's.) Personally, though, I think Justin's Justin est arrivé. Everyone makes fun of "SexyBack," but what makes it compelling are the lines, "You see these shackles, baby, I'm your slave/ I'll let you whip me if I misbehave/ It's just that no one makes me feel this way." You might hear a lame Prince sex-freak impersonation there; I hear it, too, but also some seriously lovelorn masochism. From the creepy psycho-sexual breakup ballad "Cry Me A River" to "Love Stoned/I Think That She Knows" and "What Goes Around..."—aka, The Britney Chronicles, Part II—– Justin's has made a specialty of flaunting raw hurt, pinning his flayed heart to his Yves Saint Laurent sport jacket for the whole world to gawk at. That kind of male sexual vulnerability is, in fact, sexy, and rather unusual, at least in R&B and hip-hop. So Mr. SexyBack isn't just blowing smoke.
Re: Timbaland. I'll grant that Justin and Nelly Furtado haven't inspired him to the heights he reached with erstwhile muses Missy Elliott and Aaliyah. But seriously, what records of the past decade are as good as "Get Ur Freak On"? (I'm holding my breath for Timbaland's collaboration with Björk, his first meeting with a musician of equal genius.) By my lights, "Love Stoned/I Think That She Knows" (with that gorgeous, very indie rock guitar coda) and Furtado's noirish "Afraid" merit a place in Tim's Best Of, along with "My Love" and "What Goes Around... ." Jon, I agree that Furtado sounds a bit out her depth playing the sexpot, but, for me, her awkwardness is charming and funny. (I place "Promiscuous" in the tradition of comic R&B duets like Otis Redding & Carla Thomas' "Tramp." I love Timbaland's skeptical wink at Nelly's image makeover: "I'm curious about you, you seem so innocent.") On the other hand, while Furtado's rapping scores cuteness points, the phenomenon of wack rapping by pop "divas" is one of the most irksome of 2006. I'm sure that Kelis, Gwen Stefani, et al. embraced this mode after realizing they couldn't possibly hang, pipes-wise, with the big girls. But it's not a pleasant sound—nearly as annoying as 50 Cent's singing. As for the execrable Fergie: I have a dream in which Beyoncé sends her toppling off of London Bridge into the green, gulping Thames with one strategically aimed high C.
Running out of space, but I did want to ask if I'm wrong in sensing a trend in the return to ginormous symphonic pomp of My Chemical Romance, the Killers, and even the synth-symphony stylings of T.I.'s "What You Know"? Also noteworthy along these pop-classical lines: "Lacrymosa," the huge mash-up of Mozart's Requiem by Evanescence, whose frontwoman, Amy Lee, is a fascinating new star, speaking to and for a long-neglected audience of mainstream girl rockers. And then there's Ys, the symphonic song-cycle masterpiece by brave and wise Joanna Newsom, whose poetry blew away even Bob Dylan's and Lil Wayne's, and whose once creaky voice has matured into one of music's most beguiling sounds.
And talking of timbre: Thanks, Carl, for bringing up Josh Turner's smooooooth basso profondo, a tone you hear a lot among the country's big-hat set, providing cover for some of the more astonishingly sentimental songs this side of turn-of-the-century parlor ballads about dead babies and mother talking on the wireless from heaven. Interesting, isn't it, that another group of guitar-wielding balladeers—James Blunt, Damien Rice, Keane, and all those other Brits and indie troubadours who turn up on The O.C. and Zach Braff soundtracks—have embraced just the opposite sound, singing their treacle in the falsetto quaver that they learned from Thom Yorke by way of Chris Martin?
Still so much to get to, including protest music; my spunky indie faves of '06; Tego Calderon and Don Omar, reggaeton stars who made excellent albums that broke out of the genre's production sameness; and the Axis of Idol, which much to Faith Hill's horror, tightened its grip on the biz this year. But I think I'll leave you with a surprising revelation: The worst song the year was not, I repeat not, "You're Beautiful," by the rabidly loathed James Blunt. (I'll bet you can guess his cockney rhyming nickname.) No, that distinction belongs to another No. 1 U.K. hit, which I mention here because of its special interest to rock critics. It's Sandi Thom's debut single, "I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker," an earnestly intoned lament for " '77 and '69 … [when] revolution was in the air," which zips past "Old Time Rock 'n' Roll" and "Musicology" straight to the top of the All-Time Rockist Anthem hit parade. More sample lyrics: "Oh I wish I was a punk rocker with flowers in my hair … / I was born too late into a world that doesn't care … / When music really mattered and when radio was king/ When accountants didn't have control/ And the media couldn't buy your soul." Egads—somebody get this gal a Be Your Own Pet CD, stat!