Not Quite Top of the Pops

2006 wasn’t the best year for mainstream albums, but a handful did turn some ears.

The Year in Music
In 2006, the pop singles market continued to dominate because the pick-n-click mentality of online music stores and ringtone sites gave consumers unparalleled freedom to choose their own musical adventure. What suffered in the meantime was the quality of pop-rock albums. Sure, many spawned great singles (including hits by the Rapture, Pearl Jam, and My Chemical Romance), but they didn't hold together as cohesive statements. Still, a few artists churned out catchy and innovative long-players:

Decemberunderground (Interscope)

Unlike many of its dark-punk peers, AFI managed to slick up its sound without losing its batcave-and-fishnets cachet. Chalk it up to the band's undeniable pop sensibilities and knack for hooks -- whether it's crafting screamo speedballs ("Kill Caustic"), space-age synth-pop ("The Missing Frame"), or tundra-chilled gothic landscapes indebted to the Cure and Damned ("Summer Shudder").

Blood Brothers
Young Machetes (V2)

The Blood Brothers' slobbering, shrill, twin-vocal assault and nuclear-bomb riffs feel plucked straight out of a Stephen King movie. But on Young Machetes, the Seattle band's Dalíesque imagery and unhinged mania coalesce into shockingly linear pop songs. Of course, "linear pop" is a relative term. The hardcore hysteria remains very much intact: "We Ride Skeletal Lightning" lurches like a zombie jonesing for brains, while "Spit Shine Your Black Clouds" is a danceable update of PiL's shuddering death-disco.

Cansei de Ser Sexy (Sub Pop)

With Le Tigre on hiatus, the Brazilian sextet CSS stepped up for booty-dancers, staunch feminists, and electro-pop fanatics everywhere. "Let's Make Love and Listen to Death From Above" begs to be blared during a Jazzercise class for hipsters. "Art Bitch" sounds like a deconstructed Yeah Yeah Yeahs song stitched back together with diagonal big-beats, and the bubble-bath synth groover "Fuckoff Is Not the Only Thing You Have to Show" resembles Ladytron trash-talking with Cyndi Lauper.

Def Leppard
Yeah! (Island)

The critically maligned arena rockers sure sound like they have something to prove on this fantastic covers record. And who can blame them? They've always drawn inspiration from seminal U.K. glam and metal bands, but can't seem to escape being regarded as poof-rock hacks, which is just too bad. Their faithful renditions of classic cuts from Bowie, T. Rex, Roxy Music, Sweet, and ELO more than cement Leppard's musical talent.

Nelly Furtado
Loose (Geffen)

Furtado is perhaps the year's biggest example of how studio gloss and the right production team can revive (and reinvent) an artist's career -- as well as create Top 40 gold in the process. Loose is the most consistent and innovative pop-diva disc of the year, from the Latin-flair of "No Hay Igual" to the digi-funk body rocker "Maneater." And let's not forget "Promiscuous," a glittery synth-swerve featuring Timbaland.

Zombies! Aliens! Vampires! Dinosaurs! (Drive-Thru

Few emo-punk whippersnappers capture the essence of the '80s. That's because their view of the decade when keyboards ruled the world comes secondhand via VH1. But an exception to this rule can be made for the young California quartet Hellogoodbye, which displays serious new-wave smarts and one mean vocoder on this exuberant collection of punky pop that nods to New Order, Blink-182, and '80s Top 40.

Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3
Olé Tarantula! (Yep Roc)

The absent-minded professor of psychedelic garage rock continues his creative resurgence with this kaleidoscopic palette of taut melodic gems drenched in harmony and surreal imagery. Recorded with the Venus 3 (Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey, and Bill Rieflin), the album fizzes with fuzzy jangle that often belies a lyrical melancholy. "N.Y. Doll" somberly remembers late New York Dolls bassist Arthur Kane, while Hitchcock wrote the effervescent pop burst "Underground Sun" for a fallen friend.

Black Holes and Revelations (Reprise)

Shedding the pretentious bombast of its first three albums, Black Holes and Revelations sees this British unit create the Platonic ideal of the prog form. And while the single "Knights of Cydonia" gallops with doom-metal riffs and robots-in-space vocals, the supercharged trio wisely expands its worldview to include sci-fi funk, stompy goth, and even Rufus Wainwrightesque balladry. This disc is Muse's poppiest and most emotional yet. Just try to avoid shedding a tear during the longing "Starlight," where glassy piano intertwines with diffracted synths and vocalist Matt Bellamy croons like an anguished astronaut lost in space.

Gwen Stefani
The Sweet Escape (Interscope)

Save for the yodel-tastic "Wind It Up" and a Pharrell-featuring game of "disco-Tetris" called "Yummy," the No Doubt vocalist wisely chooses to focus on songcraft instead of flamboyance on her second solo effort. This makes her staunch girl power all the more effective, whether she's channeling Madonna's Like a Prayer-era balladry ("Early Winter"), embracing her inner goth ("Wonderful Life"), or doing her best Sheena Easton impression (the title track featuring Akon).

Thom Yorke
The Eraser (XL)

Thom Yorke's seduction technique with Radiohead has always revolved around mystery. So it's no surprise that The Eraser, his solo debut, also explores misty vistas. Although built on a foundation of fragmented electronica loops, stuttering blips, and skeletal piano, The Eraser derives its power from Yorke's feathery falsetto. He croons half-formed phrases and whispered slogans like an otherworldly siren, creating an eerily romantic song cycle full of cryptic enigmas that stir the heart and brain.

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