Songs of the Year: Top 10 CDs of 2006

New music has never been easier to find, but as the listening public grows more fragmented, it's tougher than ever to locate anything resembling a consensus on a given year's best music. Consequently, the list that follows represents one obsessive listener's opinion and little more. This particular obsessive listener, Song of the Day editor and contributor Stephen Thompson, picked over thousands of albums in 2006 before settling on these 10 frequently overlooked favorites.

1. Shearwater

Shearwater

Shearwater: Palo Santo hide caption

itoggle caption

Dense and dramatic, arty but easily accessible, the fourth album by the one-time Okkervil River spin-off Shearwater sounds almost impossibly majestic and beautiful. Singer Jonathan Meiburg doesn't exactly obscure his Jeff Buckley fandom — though if anything, the band Pinetop Seven sounds like an even greater influence — but Palo Santo is its own animal: sonically rich, moodily textured and admirably consistent. An album best enjoyed in bad weather, it's rewarding enough to make listeners root for oncoming storms.

2. Glen Hansard

Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova

Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova: The Swell Season hide caption

itoggle caption

Glen Hansard, lead singer of The Frames, ought to be hailed as the bard of emotionally retarded thirtysomething men. A charismatic Irishman whose songs encompass a lifetime's worth of conflict and stubborn hope, he's still a mega-star in the making nearly two decades into his career. Recorded in a few days during a brief hiatus from The Frames, The Swell Season — recorded with Czech singer Marketa Irglova — finds Hansard dressing his songs in sweetly stately, string- and piano-driven arrangements that sound downright swoon-inducing.

3. The Thermals

The Thermals

The Thermals: The Body The Blood The Machine hide caption

itoggle caption

Those who don't own a car should purchase one, just to enjoy the benefit of listening to The Thermals while speeding. A smart and relentlessly hooky collection of speedball punk songs about religious faith — losing it, wanting it back, regaining it, losing it again — The Body The Blood The Machine is often as heavy as it is, well, heavy. But it's also unmistakably, undeniably fun from start to finish, a feat in any genre.

4. Sera Cahoone

Sera Cahoone

Sera Cahoone: Sera Cahoone hide caption

itoggle caption

Sera Cahoone has played drums in a pair of terrific Seattle bands (Band of Horses and Carissa's Wierd), but her true calling lies in gorgeous solo Americana, propelled by strings, slide guitars and a voice that radiates kindness and comfort. A warm and wise ode to moments of silence, "Couch Song" is a knockout ringer, but there's not a weak moment here, as Cahoone shows an equally substantial gift for sweet ballads and brisk shufflers like "Last Time," "I'm on Your Side" and "What a Shame."

5. Eric Bachmann

Eric Bachmann

Eric Bachmann: To The Races hide caption

itoggle caption

After productive stints in the college-radio staples Archers of Loaf and Crooked Fingers — the latter a glorified solo project — Eric Bachmann finally put his own name on To the Races, an intimate collection of songs about love, alienation and a combination of the two. Recorded while Bachmann was living in his van (apparently voluntarily), the disc exudes squalid isolation. If it took homelessness to inspire the best work of his career, so be it, right?

6. M. Ward

M. Ward

M. Ward: Post-War hide caption

itoggle caption

In the past, M. Ward's music has been easier to admire than it is to love, but Post-War conveys the warmth and depth he needed to match his thematic ambition and scholarly approach to music. Though he doesn't skimp on grandiosity, Ward keeps these alternately heartsick and rollicking songs scaled to human-size — for an example, stop to soak in the generous sentiment of the riveting "Requiem."

7. Regina Spektor

Regina Spektor

Regina Spektor: Begin To Hope hide caption

itoggle caption

A stubbornly iconoclastic singer-songwriter, Regina Spektor isn't afraid to make some missteps — "Hotel Song," for example, resides on the wrong side of the cute/cloying divide — along the way to an enormously charming, inventive pop record. From the deceptively sunny "Fidelity" to the moving ballad "Samson," Begin to Hope doles out rewards in an impressive variety of styles, and with great frequency.

8. Emily Haines

Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton

Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton: Knives Don't Have Your Back hide caption

itoggle caption

As lead singer of the Canadian dance-pop band Metric, Emily Haines gets to disguise her dark, often political subject matter in upbeat arrangements. For her first widely released solo album, Knives Don't Have Your Back, she's laid bare by comparison, surrounded by ornate but stately arrangements that only enhance the misery of which she sings. The first half of Knives is significantly superior to the second, but what a first half it is: In particular, "Our Hell" and "Doctor Blind" manage to sound bleak, plodding, moving and impossibly infectious at the same time.

9. Adem

Adem

Adem: Love and Other Planets hide caption

itoggle caption

Adem's debut CD, 2004's Homesongs, can best be described as soul-sustaining, so it's no surprise that the follow-up pales in comparison. But Love and Other Planets remains a conceptually adventurous, ultimately rewarding look at love, outer space and the circuitry that connects the two. On this disc's many highlights — "Love and Other Planets," "Crashlander," the perfect ballad "Spirals" — Adem works from an endless reservoir of emotional generosity, dishing up the audio equivalent of comfort food.

10. Horse Feathers

Horse Feathers

Horse Feathers: Words Are Dead hide caption

itoggle caption

Those drawn to the rustically Nick Drake-ish qualities of Iron and Wine or Dolorean ought to try basking in the rustically Nick Drake-ish qualities of Horse Feathers, whose debut album Words Are Dead casts a warm and spooky spell. No one track stands out as vastly superior to the others, but the disc functions as an intoxicating whole, with acoustic instrumentation (strings, pianos, acoustic guitars) enhancing the overall mood of... winsome dread around the campfire? Something like that.

Featured Artist

Purchase Featured Music

Palo Santo

Purchase Music

Purchase Featured Music

Album
Palo Santo
Artist
Shearwater

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

 

The Swell Season

Purchase Music

Purchase Featured Music

Album
The Swell Season
Artist
Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

 

The Body The Blood The Machine

Purchase Music

Purchase Featured Music

Album
The Body The Blood The Machine
Artist
The Thermals

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

 

To the Races

Purchase Music

Purchase Featured Music

Album
To the Races
Artist
Eric Bachmann

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

 

Post-War

Purchase Music

Purchase Featured Music

Album
Post-War
Artist
M. Ward

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

 

Begin to Hope

Purchase Music

Purchase Featured Music

Album
Begin to Hope
Artist
Regina Spektor

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

 

Knives Don't Have Your Back

Purchase Music

Purchase Featured Music

Album
Knives Don't Have Your Back
Artist
Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

 

Love and Other Planets

Purchase Music

Purchase Featured Music

Album
Love and Other Planets
Artist
Adem

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

 

Words Are Dead

Purchase Music

Purchase Featured Music

Album
Words Are Dead
Artist
Horse Feathers

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

 

Palo Santo

Purchase Music

Purchase Featured Music

Album
Palo Santo
Artist
Shearwater
Label
Fargo
Released
2006

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

 

Swell Season

Purchase Music

Purchase Featured Music

Album
Swell Season
Artist
Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova
Label
Epitaph
Released
2006

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

 

Sera Cahoone

Purchase Music

Purchase Featured Music

Album
Sera Cahoone
Artist
Sera Cahoone
Label
Sera Cahoone
Released
2006

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

 

Post-War

Purchase Music

Purchase Featured Music

Album
Post-War
Artist
M. Ward
Label
4AD
Released
2006

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

 

Knives Don't Have Your Back

Purchase Music

Purchase Featured Music

Album
Knives Don't Have Your Back
Artist
Emily Haines
Label
Drowned In Sound
Released
2006

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

 

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.