Superstars are superstars - sometimes the mainstream is just a bit too obvious. So here's a list of impressive CDs from lesser known artists that kind of got lost in the 2006 shuffle. Some are idiosyncratic, others are utterly oddball. All contain moments that are likely to move you in one way or another.
Cassandra Wilson, Thunderbird
On paper she's a jazz singer, but genres are used to being trounced these days, and Wilson's collaboration with T Bone Burnett finds her bouncing through downtempo grooves and singing cowboy tunes - the only reason it's jazz because she's jazzy. The whole thing is deliciously moody, and in parts, utterly captivating.
Tobias Froberg, Somewhere in the City
For anyone who felt James Blunt was like mainlining a Starbuck's super mocha latte, this Swede's brittle folk gems was a potent reminder that great songs are as much about subtlety as sugar.
Hammell on Trial, Songs for Parents Who Enjoy Drugs
Boomer oddball Ed Hamell is a storyteller first, musician second, though he does create some marvelous moments applying his punky guitar riffs to his forever amusing spiels. His toddler tells him to stick his alphabet up his ass and fret about WMDs instead; another son wants to know if he ever smoked pot, dropped acid, or shoplifted, and dad himself, whose politics are never hidden - a trait that helped him land on Ani DiFranco's label, I reckon - has lots of reasons why Ann Colter's private parts smell funky. A whirlwind and a delight.
Kaki King, Until We Felt Red
Joanna Newsome, Cat Power ... indie pop chicks returned from exile in guyville with a vengeance in '06. This Gotham string-bender's third disc reveled in invention, whether it was moody madrigals or jazz odysseys.
Damone, Out Here All Night
There's confusion: are they punk, metal or glam? The Boston guitar band has neighborhood roots, pop choruses, and on this loud rock gem, a major label sheen. Singer Noelle's voice boasts a sizable sneer, and as she surfs the barrage of guitar riffs and speedy tempos that define the music, the band takes on aspects of the Fastbacks and Girlschool. Even the heaviest music needs some esprit to vitalize the sludge, and this outfit - confluence of Pat Benatar and Cheap Trick - finds it time after time.
Pet Shop Boys, Fundamental
Twenty years on from "West End Girls," the Brit synth duo's stylish pop is still packed with sharp lines and melodic ideas. Perhaps the year's most political record to feature a ballad written by Diane Warren.
Todd Snider, The Devil You Know
With all the talk about rappers being the dudes to turn a phrase these days, the best singer-songwriters are sometimes overlooked. Snider's made a handful of alt-country discs. None have been as witty, insightful, or rock 'n' roll as this beaut. He has his blue collar dudes tell their bosses to step off, describes the stress of having helicopters swooping over your house all the time, and slaps around our mentally challenged president every chance he gets. Because each incident uses those entertaining "turns of phrase" mentioned above, he's also grabbing the torch from John Prine.
Midlake, The Trials of Van Occupanther
This Jason Lee-endorsed band crafted a disc that combines bittersweet psychedelic melodies with inspired electronica and warm acoustic sounds. If it's good enough for Earl, then who are we to argue? Our vote for the most perfect late-summer, Sunday afternoon record.
Jarvis Cocker, Jarvis
"The cream cannot help but always rise up to the top, well I say, "Shit floats." The Pulp eccentric's solo disc was too belligerent for the radio (or William Shatner), but no one uses words with more devastating effect.
Medeski, Martin and Wood with John Scofield, Out Louder
The jazzstrumental trio likes to be fonky, but it seldom skimps on the true improvisation. The complexity of their groove stuff is what keeps the gray matter engaged when the rump is rockin'. And when they get with a guitarist like Scofield, the sparks fly even higher. 1998's A-Go-Go was a terrific hook-up that proved all four took their new allegiance seriously. Out Louder illustrates just how much unk can fit into funk. There are pirate tangos with Magic Sam sensuality, hard-hitting dissonance dreams with Mahavishnu madness, and a heart-on-sleeve glide through Lennon's "Julia."
Rx Bandits, ...And the Battle Begun
Let us just say it's like nothing you've ever heard, and always amazing. The band has created their own genre, blending Mars Volta rhythms with the ska-soul of Sublime. If you aren't air-drumming to this album, you're either armless or earless.
Scritti Politti, White Bread Black Beer
Green Gartside has one of the ickiest voices in pop music and writes songs so sickly sweet that you want to brush your teeth afterwards. But like a piece of Turkish delight, there's a bizarre center to the music. This comeback is half cotton candy, half absurdist diatribe, and just about irresistible.
Various Artists, Rogues Gallery
If you've come to over romanticize the pirate's life after watching Johnny Depp's glossy Caribbean romps, this 43-song compilation about swashing and buckling will remind you just how scummy and treacherous the high seas were. From Loudon Wainwright's gleefully filthy account of the sexual antics aboard ship to Jolie Holland's desperate pining for the mainland to Sting's drunken party chantey it's a nifty glimpse into those who fly the Jolly Roger.
TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain
A sonic sledgehammer of an album whose MC5-by-way-of-Underworld grooves got soul via Tunde Adepimbe's tortured sob. Much praised, little played, they sounded like the only living band on the fringe.
The Slip, Eisenhower
It's the inventive jam band's most cohesive and evocative work to date. Combining equal parts Beatles, Bach, and Zeppelin, the trio produced a disc that stresses adventure, daring, and song-craft. You've already arena-rocked to their "Even Rats" on Sony Playstation's top-selling Guitar Hero, now see what else they've cooked up.
The Concretes, In Colour
Pop comes in all shades, and while there's no T.I. cameo anywhere on the Swedish group's final album, the sunshine peeking through Victoria Bergsman's world-weary croak made us grin like it was Christmas.
The Gotan Project, Lunatico
Their electronica redressing of tango takes the music three steps further, with digitized drums bringing a mild disco mood to the squeezebox's evocative wheeze. But because they're contemporary cosmopolitans with an insightful sense of pop history and a knack for making art music get its groove on, the Gotans bring a flashy feel to their insightful mélange of dub, downtempo, and dance.
Art Brut, Bang Bang Rock & Roll
There's no need to shout. Unless you're the Brut's Eddie Argos, who is to singing what vomit is to dinner. His torrent of regurgitated verbiage is smart to death, though, and the band's rock rattle is the perfect Pepto.
Where did it all go wrong? With no "Hey Ya," OutKast were their playful intergalactic selves again, folding jump jive into the mix. But what happens when you raise your game and nobody notices?
Lisa Germano, In the Maybe World
She has always been effective when it comes to revealing the self-doubt we all suffer sometimes. Her commitment to intimacy assures that her audience will be privy to all the psychological barbs that accompany such thoughts. But his brings the eloquence of her extremely subtle sounds to a level that equals the content of her confessions. Finally, Germano had found a way to blend eerie piano tinklings and ominous whispers into fetching songs - delivering bad dreams with just enough soothing whispers to make them palatable. Unable to shake the notion that she's a misfit wherever she goes, the singer settles into a nuanced examination of remorse.
Muse, Black Holes & Revelations
Tied up in UFO mythos and the ambition of Genesis (the band), Muse are pretentious fun for everyone. Ignore the "Knights of Cydonia" twaddle and surrender to the power trio's bonkers bombast.
Ani DiFranco, Reprieve
A singer dedicated to cinematic lyrics, there's always been more than a little theatre in DiFranco's stuff. Her passion for communication is well calibrated at this late date. "I ain't in the best shape I've ever been in," she sings here, "but I know where I'm going and it ain't where I've been." She's an idea machine, and her sense of dynamics has few equals.
Luka Bloom, Innocence
The insightful singer-songwriter has always been both humanist and optimist, and this disc reminds how poignant he can be. On "No Matter Where You Go, There You Are," the Irish folk hero describes the existential transitions taking place in the life of a Muslim carpenter who finds himself working in Galway. One of Bloom's fortes is delivering drama in a genuinely understated manner - he's sounding like Sting a bit these days. Forgive the preciousness that occasionally crops up in his tunes; in general Bloom's sentiment is eloquent.
Maria Muldaur, Heart of Mine
Decades ago she sweet-talked her way through "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight." But here the veteran R&B songbird jumps into the deep end -- a full disc's worth of Dylan. She still flaunts the sex angle - "To Be Alone With You" and "Make You Feel My Love" will remind you that Zimmy has a libido, too. Muldaur's gentle coo still has plenty of passion.
Jim Lauderdale, Country Super Hits
The alt-country superhero may have an exquisite way with crafting ditties for C&W stars and a deep appreciation for the music's old days, but his need to follow his own muse has dominated his career. This disc shakes and shimmies its way through twang-centric nuggets you swear you've heard before (you haven't; they're just that catchy). The honky-tonk philosophy that wafts through many of his songs -- check "I Met Jesus in a Bar" - is rather irresistible.
Joanna Newsom, Ys
Yup, she makes you come to her, and nope, it ain't always easy. But the celebrated harpist with the Olive Oyl voice and the anachronistic lyrics has enough artistic authority to reward every bit of work she asks of you. With echoes of Astral Weeks and other unorthodox song cycles floating through the air, she has you rethinking the power of nature and the thrill of desire.
Fiery Furnaces, Bitter Tea
The brother-sister act from Brooklyn bank on the power of non sequiters. Their ever-swirling blend of discrete musical notions - their book is built on multi-sectioned tunes that wax postmodern - can be daunting. But their tunes definitely have poetic moments. If you're up for some frolicking jump-cuts, this disc should captivate.
Greg Brown, The Evening Call
The respected Iowa songwriter has always been a bit of a philosopher, but here his punditry is pushed into several tunes. And as befits a scraggly dude in his mid-50s, there's an existential tinge to things. "Eugene" is an extended ramble that finds him jumping in an RV and heading out to remote streams to do some fishing and thinking. On the agenda? "Eat rice and beans, read Ferlinghetti out loud, talk to the moon, sit in a lawn chair and fiddle with my memories. Close my eyes and see. Sometimes you gotta go not look for nothing." The froggy growl that is Brown's voice glows on this disc. It makes his blues-tinged tunes radiate with warmth.
Ranier Maria, Catastrophe Keeps Us Together
The indie pop outfit crafted its most riveting tunes right before breaking up. Brazen punk attack, strong sense of craft - it's a best of both worlds thing, like Sonic Youth covering R.E.M. A perfect ending.
Marisa Monte, Universo Ao Meu Redor
Full-on samba from a modern-minded Brazilian belle who likes to mess with tradition even when she's giving it a smooch or two. The approach is light - can samba be spun any other way? But there are enough quirks to personalize the pieces. And, long story short, Monte's voice is one of the world's wonders.