Critics and trend spotters are hailing 2006 as the year in which the masses, armed with digital video cameras and high-speed Internet connections, stormed the barricades and produced their own culture. An alternative take is that 2006 was a year of narcissistic amateur dreck. It’s comforting, in a way, to know that some things still are best left to the pros.
1. The Raconteurs, “Broken Boy Soldiers” — If Jack White is this good on hiatus, then I can’t wait for the next White Stripes outing. Better, though, not to diminish the contributions of Mr. White’s temporary band mates, especially co-songwriter and singer Brendan Benson, who collectively crafted a pop-psychedelic soundscape that was thrillingly original on its own merits. I’m still reeling, pleasantly, from the left-right combination punch of “Level” and “Store Bought Bones,” each a taut two minutes of blistering rock.
2. Solomon Burke, “Nashville” — The 66-year-old King of Rock and Soul has always been a little bit country. So this project, produced by Americana maestro Buddy Miller and recorded in the eponymous country capital, was a natural choice. It came off even more sublimely than one could’ve hoped. The inspired set of covers — of classic George Jones, obscure Bruce Springsteen, outlawish Jim Lauderdale, among others — had help from a grand cast of alt-country performers such as Patty Griffin and Gillian Welch, as well as everybody’s favorite standby, Emmylou Harris, but Mr. Burke’s voice itself has never sounded so urgent or uplifting.
3. The Hold Steady, “Boys and Girls in America” — This is the band that should’ve been called the Raconteurs, with frontman Craig Finn less a singer than a spinner of talky tales. Straight-up bar rock and grungy poetry: “Boys and Girls,” the Brooklyn outfit’s third release, was that rare kind of artifact that could be enjoyed by both sides of the brain.
4. Neko Case, “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood” — The indie-rock chanteuse had a supporting credit in last year’s list, in her role as harmonic counterpoint to the New Pornographers’ Carl Newman. Here she’s a leading lady. Penning most of the album entirely on her own, Miss Case tapped musicians such as the Band’s Garth Hudson and singer-songwriter Howe Gelb to create a beautifully eerie, subtly textured backdrop of rootsy country and modal jazz. And, as ever, there’s the Voice.
5. The Futureheads, “News and Tributes” — That band … what were they called? North Pole Simians? Arctic Monkeys? … sucked up all the trans-Atlantic hype this year. But the real action was with these U.K. imports, whose sophomore effort had them channeling great godfathers such as the Jam and the Clash. For my money, “Skip to the End” takes song-of-the-year honors.
6. Ray LaMontagne, “Till the Sun Turns Black” — This self-taught singer-songwriter came seemingly from nowhere (New England, as it turned out) with his sensational 2004 debut “Trouble.” This chancy follow-up, with coveted roots-rock producer Ethan Johns again at the helm, fleshed out Mr. LaMontagne’s downbeat folk-soul framework with elegant orchestral flourishes. The result is moody, ethereal and consistently captivating.
7. Corinne Bailey Rae — Turning in the year’s most promising major-label debut, British-Caribbean Miss Rae broke through to American audiences with the breezy hit single “Put Your Records On.” Funky, classy, soulful and urbane, the young songstress has drawn comparisons to both Norah Jones and Alicia Keys. With time and the right producer, she’d make a fine new Joni Mitchell.
8. Aaron Neville, “Bring It on Home: The Soul Classics” — Arriving on the heels of the anniversary of the Katrina disaster, the New Orleans R&B legend offered musical salve. Tackling classics by soul contemporaries such as Al Green and Curtis Mayfield, Mr. Neville sounded effortless, at home and in the groove.
9. Josh Ritter, “The Animal Years” — The Idaho-born alt-folkie is mad as heck at the Bush administration, but you’d scarcely know it from the subdued, whimsical beauty of the protest tracks “Girl in the War” and “Thin Blue Flame.” Overall, “Animal Years,” Mr. Ritter’s third full-length, is a quiet revelation of confident, maturing talent. The piano-and-voice closer, “Here at the Right Time,” is as good as anything Jackson Browne ever wrote.
10. The Decemberists, “The Crane Wife” — Colin Meloy and company continue a trend of willing indie darlings going corporate. The band’s first major-label album (and fourth overall) is their most satisfying yet — a cycle of archaically sourced, sonically adventurous songs, some of them epic in length, that court accusations of pretentiousness and preciousness. But they’re always listenable. The whole thing is so crazy as to tiptoe right up to the edge of brilliance.