Critics' Picks 2006 | Feature | Chicago Reader

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Liz Armstrong

This is the music that spent the most time in my regular rotation this year, in alphabetical order.

CRY BLOOD APACHE

MySpace singles | myspace.com/crybloodapache

Glamorous, prismatic Gong Show industrial blasting through a boom box.

MODERN REVERIES

Modern Reveries | self-released CD-R

The only band ever to make me like full-moon menstrual-blood yelping and hyperactive mom's-garage guitar.

VIKI

Viki | Animal Disguise

With one foot up on a synthesizer, a keytar somehow squeezed between her legs, her hands busy in her suitcase of contraptions, and a mike literally down her throat, Viki howls from the depths of her gut and summons farty, headbanging, booty-bumping noise that could pass for the work of a highbrow minimalist composer.

WHITE WIDOW

White Widow | self-released CD

An LA record-store clerk who plays dusty west-coast Edgar Allan Poe psychedelia, neither folk nor joke, out of a pyramid onstage.

YELLOW SWANS

Psychic Secession | Load

Gravel-caked head wounds treated with oxidizing acid.

Jessica Hopper

1. TV ON THE RADIO

Return to Cookie Mountain | Interscope

Guitar drama, sweltering come-ons, and a ravaged kinda boogie, all done up purt' near perfect--it's your cure for when the center will not hold.

2. JOANNA NEWSOM

Ys | Drag City

Newsom's been perma-tagged as a "classically trained" harpist, but you can have all the training in the world and still not be able to do what she does--execute a grandiose vision with confidence and grace.

3. SOILED MATTRESS & THE SPRINGS

Soiled Mattress & the Springs | Teardrops

These hardcore kids bypassed the neohippie trend and went straight to lite jazz, and their album sounds like something Vince Guaraldi might've recorded during a drunken blackout.

4. FRIDA HYVONEN

Until Death Comes | Secretly Canadian

Ten songs of real-life girl heroism by a Swedish miss with a piano and a liberated libido.

5. T.I.

King | Atlantic

A great sense of relief overcomes me every time I hear the opening steamroller synth of "What You Know" and I have reason to go on dancing.

Monica Kendrick

This is a list of my favorites as of early December, in no particular order.

ISIS

In the Absence of Truth | Ipecac

An album constructed like an epic film, with a heroic geography so absorbing you don't notice your ass going numb. You really feel you've been somewhere after listening to this lush, labyrinthine metal--it's as monumental, detailed, and thrilling in its way as The Travels of Marco Polo.

CURRENT 93

Black Ships Ate the Sky | Durtro/Jnana

In this jump-cut age, I prize artists with the ability to commit to a theme, and on David Tibet's latest, nine of the 21 tracks are versions of the 18th-century hymn "Idumaea," all in different voices--guest singers include Antony, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Marc Almond from Soft Cell, and Cosey Fanni Tutti from Throbbing Gristle. The rest are Tibet's own creepy, apocalyptic folk songs, saturated with religious and occult references--I don't even care that some of the material is recycled.

EAST-WEST ENSEMBLE

Kabbalah Music: The Hidden Spirituals | Magda

Not the celebrity kind of kabbalah but the real deal, from deep within Judaism--the kind where you've got to meet all sorts of stringent requirements just to begin to study. This Arab-Israeli group lends its own arrangements to psalms, poems, and melodies collected from many different strands of the esoteric Jewish tradition, including its close kin, Turkish Sufism, and the resulting performances are riveting, regal, and reverent.

ONEIDA

Happy New Year | Jagjaguwar

One-stop shopping for everything I love about gently freaky art-rock--the music's so full of ideas it bubbles up like some kind of psychedelic chocolate lava overflowing from the Fire Goddess's stew pot.

GJALLARHORN

Rimfaxe | Vindauga/Westpark

Strings, percussion, subcontrabass recorder (a Baroque instrument), and the wild and windy voice of Jenny Wilhelms, the leader of this Finnish-Swedish band, conjure a strange fairy-tale landscape. Though I first listened to these antique ballads and dance tunes during a sweltering Chicago summer, they took me right to the middle of a frozen forest straight out of the Kalevala, full of whispering mossy faces and green with the northern lights.

Steve Langendorf

1. ALBAN GERHARDT, STEVEN OSBORNE

Shostakovich & Schnittke Cello Sonatas | Hyperion

At times Gerhardt and Osborne almost overinterpret, but one gladly follows their riveting exploration. Their tonal range is extraordinary, and they phrase as if both were playing the same instrument. The last-movement largo of the Schnittke left me stunned.

2. MARISS JANSONS

Dmitri Shostakovich: The Complete Symphonies | EMI Classics

Recorded over 18 years by eight different orchestras. The writing can be uneven, but sometimes, as in the opening movements of the Sixth and the Tenth, it ranks with the best since Mahler. Jansons, whose interpretations are lower voltage than Mravinsky's, has lived this music, and the orchestral playing is superb, the Vienna being first among equals.

3. MITSUKO UCHIDA

Beethoven Piano Sonatas Op. 109, 110, and 111 | Philips

Beethoven's last three sonatas form one of the pinnacles of his writing and still sound revolutionary. No performance can be as good as the music, but Uchida combines great sensitivity with just enough power, delivering fresh and convincing interpretations. The opus 110 is the real treasure in this set. Fortepiano lovers, stay away (and from me as well).

4. EIGHTH BLACKBIRD

Strange Imaginary Animals | Cedille

The Eighth Blackbird sextet--piano, percussion (often marimba), violin, cello, flute, and clarinet--is best heard live, with its tremendous energy as well as its precision on display. Their repertoire, often written for them, is unusual, and while they may have performed and recorded some preferable compositions, they've never sounded better--it's as if we're overhearing a conversation in a language only they can speak.

5. ROBERT SIMPSON

The Complete Symphonies | Hyperion

A unique symphonic world from the second half of the 20th century that's been unjustly neglected outside of Britain. This music isn't hard to listen to, just to grasp. One can hear Simpson's passion for astronomy in writing that springs from a vast stillness.

Peter Margasak

1. ORNETTE COLEMAN

Sound Grammar | Sound Grammar

Coleman turned 76 this year, and this record is an astonishing testament to his enduring vision and fierce, unabated creative hunger. Bassists Tony Falanga and Greg Cohen tangle with stunning clarity in a quartet that could rank among Coleman's best lineups.

2. CLIPSE

Hell Hath No Fury | Re-Up Gang/Star Trak/Jive

The second album from this Virginia duo was more than worth the wait. The killer production proves that the Neptunes have still got it--and who knew that songs about selling rock could be so captivating?

3. DAVE DOUGLAS

Meaning and Mystery | Greenleaf

Trumpeter Dave Douglas is one of jazz's most restless spirits, and even when he treads the well-worn path of postbop with this quintet he manages to sound like he's blazing a trail. The addition of saxophonist Donny McCaslin helps make this the group's finest release.

4. GIANLUCA PETRELLA

Indigo4 | Blue Note

This wonderful Italian trombonist has created the best fusion of postbop and electronica I've ever heard. The opener, a take on Monk's "Trinkle, Tinkle" that uses so many terse, jagged samples of the pianist he's practically a member of the band, is worth the sticker price all by itself.

5. MARISA MONTE

Infinito Particular | Metro Blue

After taking some time off for her first child, this Brazilian star followed up on the surprise international success of 2002's Tribalistas project (with Carlinhos Brown and Arnaldo Antunes) with two new albums. On this one, gorgeous arrangements by the likes of Eumir Deodato, Philip Glass, and Joao Donato, most of which judiciously employ electronic textures, frame her beautiful melodies and elegant singing. (The other is a modern, highly personalized spin on samba called Universo ao Meu Redor.)

Bill Meyer

I've given up ranking recordings as fundamentally incomparable as these five. Instead I've chosen one from each of my general areas of interest: solo acoustic guitar, electroacoustic improv, semipopular song, jazz, and pure sound.

STEFFEN BASHO-JUNGHANS

Last Days of the Dragons | Locust

This German guitarist, both the most radical and the most traditional of the current crop of steel-stringed acoustic players, released three marvelously melodic and evocative albums this year, and I could've picked any one of them. This one makes the cut because I find it the most epic and openhearted--today, anyway.

JOHN BUTCHER & CHRISTOF KURZMANN

The Big Misunderstanding Between Hertz and Megahertz | Potlatch

This duo's debut album blurs the distinction between acoustic and electronic sounds without obscuring their exquisitely attuned interaction--Kurzmann, a Berlin-based laptopper, calls up flickers and groans that pulse like living organs, while English saxophonist Butcher plays high twitters and carefully applied abrasions that often sound digital.

HOWE GELB

'Sno Angel Like You | Thrill Jockey

This meeting between the Giant Sand leader and the Canadian choir Voices of Praise works for two reasons. The songs--some old, some new, some covers--are uniformly secular, but their shared theme of perseverance in the face of hardship and loss makes them perfect for the gospel treatment. Gelb, the choir, and Arcade Fire drummer Jeremy Gara deliver them with a synergy that burns gloriously bright.

REMPIS PERCUSSION QUARTET

Rip Tear Crunch | 482 Music

The best live band in town has come up with one of the best records of the year. Their roots are in free jazz and African percussion, but it's the heated and nuanced communication between four equal partners that makes this disc so great.

PHILL NIBLOCK

Touch Three | Touch

Niblock's vast expanses of sound are like seascapes, both unchanging and endlessly variable. On this three-CD set, the latest document of the septuagenarian's extraordinary late-career creative burst, massed guitars sound like bowed telephone lines and gorgeous layers of saxophones move as slowly as the day's last rays of sunlight fading from the underside of a bank of clouds.

J. Niimi

1. JANDEK

Glasgow Monday ("The Cell") | Corwood

The walking enigma also known as Sterling Smith finally allowed himself to be publicly unmasked two years ago, but rather than disappear back into the ether, he followed that up with ten live appearances in '05. This past year he played another nine (including a stop at the Empty Bottle) and released five albums, including this strikingly beautiful, piano-laden double live disc. Lollapalooza '07, baby!

2. CLINTON SPARKS & BUSTA RHYMES

New Crack City | Mix Unit

Busta does for rocket-propelled grenades what Public Enemy did for teakettles with this gargantuan, over-the-top sonic coldcock--a street-mix teaser for his formal Aftermath release The Big Bang, but about a thousand times better, with top-shelf cameos (Rah Digga, Dr. Dre, Pharrell) and sick production from Clinton Sparks. Busta probably went through three dozen microphone pop screens just with his plosive "bitch," which should properly be credited as percussion.

3. BERT JANSCH

The Black Swan | Drag City

The leather-voiced, nimble-fingered godfather of British folk returns, surrounded by some of the American freaks he's inspired--including Devendra Banhart, members of Espers and Vetiver, and former Chicagoan and session guitar whiz Kevin Barker (aka Currituck Co.). Janschified traditional ditties and heartfelt originals combine for an outpouring of anger and hope beneath the war clouds of the Bush era.

4. SPANK ROCK

YoYoYoYoYoYo | Big Dada

Baltimore house makes a midnight booty call to booty bass, hits that ass raw, and out pops Spank Rock.

5. REPLACEMENTS

Don't You Know Who I Think I Was? The Best of the Replacements | Rhino

God only knows why a decent best-of didn't come out till 15 years after the Mats broke up. The 1997 comp All for Nothing/Nothing for All was heavy on the post-Bob stuff and shamefully light on the band's classic material, but this one gets it perfect.

Miles Raymer

There may have been records that stunned and amazed me more this year, but I doubt TV on the Radio will suffer for not making my list. These are the ones that I played the most.

YEAH YEAH YEAHS

Show Your Bones | Interscope

The follow-up to Fever to Tell peels back some of the spectacle to reveal the sweet pop band beneath all the beer spitting and haircuts. Epic emotional jams for the punk-rock grown 'n' sexy.

PORTUGAL. THE MAN

Waiter: "You Vultures!" | Fearless

Portugal. The Man gets slapped with the "emo" tag all the time, but it's a bad fit for a band with this much creative ambition. I dare you to find me another emo dude--or any male singer at all--trying so hard to sound like the chick from Blonde Redhead. I blame the shitty band name for the confusion.

LUPE FIASCO

Food & Liquor | Atlantic

Probably the only rapper alive who can get me to sit through a nine-minute track of shout-outs to casual-wear reps. Twice.

THE KNIFE

Silent Shout | Rabid/Mute

Does the Knife's sudden stateside popularity mean we've all secretly been waiting for a couple of creepy, art-damaged Swedes to come along and make probably the scariest electro-pop record in history? Does that mean we need therapy?

THERMALS

The Body, the Blood, the Machine | Sub Pop

The band I would've voted least likely to attempt a concept album manages to redeem the form with a scarily dead-on vision of American theocracy, set to grunged-out pop-punk racket. Like unchecked presidential power, it's crazy addictive.

Neil Tesser

1. KENNY GARRETT

Beyond the Wall | Nonesuch

Cab Calloway once famously referred to bebop as "Chinese music," and on this dynamic, inventive concept album, alto saxist Kenny Garrett draws on both idioms, along with maintream postbop a la Coltrane. He makes measured use of strings (including a traditional Chinese violin) and wordless vocals to explore the mysterious Other, here represented by the Far East--but what finally puts this disc over the top is the presence of veteran free-jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, sounding the best he has in 15 years.

2. JIM GAILLORETO

Jazz String Quintet | Naim

The string quartet is classical music's analogue to the basic jazz trio, and on this disc (for which I wrote the liner notes) Chicago saxist Jim Gailloreto takes that premise to one logical conclusion. No one has better integrated an improvising horn and a string quartet, and few modern composers in any genre can match Gailloreto's self-assured clarity with strings--he writes subtle, shimmering arrangements, both for his own compositions and for classic jazz tunes.

3. SWISS JAZZ ORCHESTRA AND JIM McNEELY

Paul Klee | Mons

Pianist and composer Jim McNeely continues to find new colors and voicings in the jazz orchestra. Of the year's three albums featuring his big-band compositions, this one stands out for its successful execution of an audacious concept: musical impressions of eight paintings (reproduced in the CD booklet) by the iconoclastic Paul Klee.

4. ART ENSEMBLE OF CHICAGO

Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City: Live at Iridium | Pi

In the past few years the AACM's flagship band has lost two founders, bassist Malachi Favors and trumpeter Lester Bowie. But the survivors have carried on, luring saxist Joseph Jarman back into the fold and recruiting veteran bassist Jaribu Shahid and young-lion trumpeter Corey Wilkes. The renewed group, now a quintet, debuted in spring 2004, and this double disc--recorded only a few months after Favors's death--captures that triumphant return.

5. DONNY McCASLIN

Soar | Sunnyside

On his first fully realized disc, this inviting and rewarding tenor saxist (who's starred in bands led by Gary Burton, Maria Schneider, and Dave Douglas) draws heavily on Cuban and Panamanian rhythms without really moving south. Instead he expertly blends those flavors into music that approximates the influence of Latino culture on the country as a whole--and that's further distinguished by his throaty tone and emotional solos.

David Whiteis

These days the blues contains so many genres, subgenres, and offshoots that ranking blues albums seems not just unfair but impossible. Consider each of these the best of its kind I heard in 2006.

LEE GATES

Black Lucy's Deuce | Music Maker

A set of originals from a heretofore obscure Milwaukee-based journeyman singer and guitarist, this album seethes with the kind of menace--if not madness--too seldom heard in the blues anymore.

LA'KEISHA

Girl Talk | Waldoxy/Malaco

La'Keisha Burks lends not only her beguiling voice--half sex kitten, half headstrong woman of power--but also her own hip-hop-flavored production to this provocative, danceable blend of neosoul, urban R & B, and southern-fried soul-blues.

CHRIS THOMAS KING

Rise | 21st Century Blues

The erstwhile exponent of "dirty south hip-hop blues" softens into a country-folk mode on this disc, but the music is all that's gentle--King bares his anguish over Katrina and the death of his mother, who passed away a few months after the storm. This could've turned maudlin, but instead it's almost optimistic, girded by righteous outrage and unquenchable faith.

WILLIE EGAN

Wow Wow: Rockin' the Blues | Empire/Universal

Egan, a Louisiana-born singer and pianist, recorded for small west-coast labels between the late 40s and the early 60s. This disc collects his 1955-'56 output for the Pasadena imprints Vita and Mambo, and from first to last it's a blast of classic R & B rock at its most rambunctious and raw.

CANDI STATON

His Hands | Astralwerks

This veteran chanteuse wraps her gritty, honeyed contralto around a set of gospel tunes colored with elements of country and old-school soul. Her roots are in church music, but she's also had secular hits, and her music resonates with power both spiritual and worldly--on the title tune she sings of finding sanctuary from an abusive man in the nurturing hands of God.

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