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A year in national pop
By MATT ASHARE  |  December 28, 2006

GNARLS BARKLEY: thrived on Cee-Lo’s Dirty South vocals.
The real album of the year is a disc that probably didn’t cross many people’s paths in 2006, a Rhino comp titled Future Retro that pairs various DJs/electronicists (Richard X, Tiga, the Crystal Method) with classic new-wave tracks by the Cure, Echo & the Bunnymen, Depeche Mode, and New Order. And as long as this new wave of new wave keeps up, those French dudes in Nouvelle Vague, who offered suave bossa-novacained reworkings of the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon,” New Order’s “Confusion,” and the Buzzcocks' “Ever Fallen in Love?” on Bande à Part (Luaka Bop/V2), will always have a good gig.

Of course, music, whether you call it rock or pop, has been stealing from its own past for decades, and that’s never kept oddball geniuses from finding their own way into the cultural subconscious. But 2006 is the first year in recent memory in which, once you got past the whole neo-new-wave thing and realized that emo is just self-reflective pop, there was no dominant genre. Prog-metal is going strong; so are synth dance pop, folkish indie pop, British invasions, and electro-organic fusions. If you couldn’t find something to get passionate about in 2006, you weren’t listening hard enough.

1. Arctic Monkeys | Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not | Domino | These Sheffield boys may not have been the best all-around band of the year, but by embracing the Internet as a marketing tool and delivering an irresistibly rakish single in “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,” Arctic Monkeys got the year off to a smashing start. The album itself sports the wry, hooky, laddish charm that’s always characterized the best of Britpop. And didn’t they set some sort of record for first-week sales in the UK?

2. Gnarls Barkley | St. Elsewhere | Downtown | If Danger Mouse had hung his headphones up after the “Grey Album,” he’d have secured himself a place in history. Instead, he keeps finding ways to stay relevant. No one could have predicted that a collaboration with Goodie Mob rapper Cee-Lo would even top his Dangerdoom project with MF Doom, much less deliver a big fat hit single. But there are two kinds of soul: the buttoned-up and beautiful (John Legend) and the naughty, groove thing that Cee-Lo, a Dirty South native, has bred in the bone. Me, I prefer the latter.

3. The Flaming Lips | At War With The Mystics | Warner Bros. | In the usual scheme of things, you’ve got your escapist music and your hard-bitten dose of reality. Somehow, Flaming Lips visionary frontman Wayne Coyne delivers both on this disc, leading his band through a funhouse mirror full of grand and gritty psychedelic guitar pop while alluding to everything from suicide bombers to a war without purpose as he surveys a wasteland of Britney Spearheaded reality-TV celebrity culture.

4. TV On The Radio | Return To Cookie Mountain | Interscope | TV on the Radio aren’t funkier or groovier than any other Brooklyn indie band who are at home with a guitar hook and a programmed electronic beat. But neither are TVOTR’s pop instincts overridden by their determination to experiment with sound. Signing to Interscope may eventually bring them a bigger audience; it also may have had something to do with the failure of the downloadable “Dry Drunk Emperor” — a nice little tribute to George W. — to make the cut for the album. Or maybe they just didn’t want to muddy the art-damaged waters of Cookie Mountain with politics.

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