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Sharp Darts: Off the Record

A year-end best-of that isn't all about the albums

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Summing up a year's worth of music with a short list of albums and singles is like trying to summarize foreign-policy white papers in haiku. A lot of the things that made 2006 worth getting through are hard to communicate in the usual "I like this record" format: hip-hop taking over the Internet, for instance, or music fandom and music making becoming massively parallel, mutually reinforcing phenomena. Here's some of what I consider to be the best and coolest shit to have happened in the past 12 months.

Lil Wayne's hustle. It only seemed like there was a new Weezy song out every week. Between his two album-length mix tapes, his two album-length collaborations, the guest drops he did on maybe a dozen officially released singles, and all the tracks he just let loose on the Internet for free, it was actually more like two and a half, on average. Given that in one year Wayne put out more songs than many musicians release in a career, some of them were bound to straight-up suck. But there are plenty of highlights in his relentlessly expanding catalog too--hearing him drop a breezy smackdown on Jay-Z over the backing track from his own comeback single was just one.

Gerard vs. Bear. Just when it looked like indie-rock MP3 bloggers had finally seized the upper hand, usurping the power and influence of the glossy music mags, an anonymous critic launched gerardvsbear.blogspot.com and took a big shit all over their party. Some of the posts are credited to Gerard--a manic spouter of fractured Tarzan syntax whose catchphrase is "What up the fuck?"--and some are credited to Bear, a more sedate and precise writer, but they're all hilariously brutal attacks on bloggers' taste and professionalism. If Gerard is feeling charitable, he might just accuse you of taking industry payola; if he's not, he'll accuse you of wanting to touch Colin Meloy's balls.

From the blog to the club. MP3 blogs, music message boards, intuitive production software like Apple's GarageBand, and DJ emulation tools like Serato's Scratch Live all existed before 2006, but this year they combined to produce something that looks like a genuine revolution. Lurk on the Hollertronix boards or add Discobelle to your RSS feed and you'll discover a bustling black market where every hot track of the moment--hip-hop, pop, dance, even danceable rock--is available in a dozen different homemade remixes. And setups like Scratch Live--which uses vinyl records imprinted with time codes to let DJs "spin" sound files stored on their laptops--means that an MP3 uploaded in the afternoon can make its way into a mix at the club within hours. The next Diplo will break out literally overnight.

Chicago's fest-filled summer. Between Intonation, Pitchfork, Lollapalooza, and the Touch and Go anniversary bash at the Hideout Block Party, this year's festival season was a really fun endurance test. How long can you stand in the blazing sun drinking Sparks? How long can you survive on cheese curds alone? How long can you stand there getting elbowed in the ribs while trying to watch a band before you start hating the whole idea of watching bands? When it means getting to see Dead Prez, Os Mutantes, and Negative Approach in the span of a few weeks, the answer is "as long as it takes."

Classic hardcore strikes back. The first time I listened to Tragedy's Nerve Damage, the wailing air-raid sirens that kick off the album gave me the kind of tingle I get when I just know a record's going to kick my ass. The band makes good on that promise in short order, blending the styles of just about every brutal hardcore outfit whose patch ever graced a crusty punk's denim vest. The first track on Fucked Up's Hidden World leads with a stately guitar riff, a couple lines of biblical-sounding spoken word, and an angelic vocal chorus, then jumps into five-plus minutes of chugging, classic hardcore punk shot through with touches of freaky psychedelia. Both records pack so much melody and experimentation into the cliched structures of hardcore that the music feels new and dangerous all over again--and becoming a dreadlocked anarcho-vegan suddenly sounds like a cool idea.

TV on the Radio interviews. TV on the Radio's dense, massive new album, Return to Cookie Mountain, deserves every breathless declaration of "genius masterpiece" it's gotten, but if anything the World's Best Band is even better in Q and A form. From Dave Sitek telling Pitchfork "I make music to bring the dead to life for a couple minutes and then let it go" to Kyp Malone decrying the "Death Machine" of the American military in Arthur magazine, they're as cocky, political, and constantly entertaining in their interviews as John Lennon ever was.

Hip-hop elders get hungry. Some of them blamed a new generation of rappers without skills, some of them used the old "the game needs me" line, and some of them probably just needed to pay some bills, but this year the hungriest rappers were often the oldest. Ghostface's Fishscale might be the best record of his career--and when it didn't sell enough copies, he put out a second disc less than nine months later. Nas, lately a walking hip-hop historical marker, released possibly the year's strongest rap album, Hip Hop Is Dead. Even Raekwon's back, crazier than ever and every bit as dangerous on the mike. Suddenly all the Youngs, Yungs, Lils, and Rick Rosses seem not so fresh.

Eyeliner classics. My Chemical Romance makes outsize emo anthems--like the 13 monsters on The Black Parade--that always manage to stay one step ahead of their own pretentiousness. The Horrors, who put out a self-titled EP this year, make the nastiest garage rock since the Mummies. It's hard to think of two rock bands more different, but they share a morbid sense of camp and a serious addiction to eyeliner. Even more than 30 years after Ziggy Stardust, otherworldly allure can still be had at the nearest makeup counter--along with the single easiest way to piss off potential straight-guy fans.

The Walkmen go nuts. The prickly pop of the Walkmen's 2004 disc Bows and Arrows seemed to foretell a popular breakthrough, but instead the band changed course with this year's breezily loopy A Hundred Miles Off, which includes honky-tonk piano, ghostly organ, and mariachi horns, among other embellishments. They followed Hundred Miles with the news that the band members are collaborating on a group novel, then dropped a loving song-by-song cover version of Harry Nilsson and John Lennon's already confounding album Pussy Cats. It's like they collectively decided to fold up the It Band map and head for the wilderness of Dylan-style Crazy Ideas.

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Lil Wayne photo/Jonatan Mannion.

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