Bob, Barkley, and Beyond: The Top 20

The poll's upper echelons drive us crazy, or at least drive us to drink

 Five better titles for Modern Times:

1 Boys and Girls in the Old, Weird America
2 Whatever People Say I Am, We Can Have a Whompin' Good Time
3 Rather Relaxed
4 I Write Sins Not Tragedies
5 Hip Hop Is Dead

Tim Grierson
Los Angeles, California

Ghostface Killah, #3 album
photo: Scott Shafer
Ghostface Killah, #3 album

As much as I tried listening to the new Dylan—no fewer than five times—I just can't believe how gawdawful it was: tired rhythm and blues, shuffling jazz, sweet and lowdown old-tyme ballads, and instrumental solos that were horribly trite and clichéd. His voice no longer sounds wonderfully idiosyncratic, but more like a wounded whale spewing distress calls out a clogged blowhole. Cribbing from a 19th-century Confederate poet might be the most interesting aspect of this mess. Actually, more awe-inspiring is the marketing juggernaut: iPod commercials, satellite radio, Scorsese documentaries, Lincoln Center tributes, digital catalogs, Broadway musicals, and crits chomping to give five stars. . . . If it were anyone but Dylan making this music, would anyone care?
Andy Gensler
Brooklyn, New York

What you've got in your hand, that mirror disc, that's not Dylan. He'll tell you so himself: It doesn't sound like him, it's trash, it's compressed and shrunk down like some unfortunate missionary's head. All those superstitious aboriginals were wrong—you can't trap a man's soul in a photograph or on a length of tape, and certainly not in the either/or matrix of digital code. Maybe it's better closer to the bone, if it's carved out of wax and pulled out by a needle that shaves away more of the record every time it's played. Robert Johnson was spookier before they mastered out the pops and hisses, when his voice was a thin and aching thing that could have come from nothing but a ghost.
Philip Martin
Little Rock, Arkansas

Dylan, Springsteen, Davies, Simon, Cash: How could old-school rockers hold their own this year against the likes of upstarts like Arctic Monkeys and TV on the Radio? In Dylan's case by continuing his walk in the dark, Springsteen by loosening up, Davies by spinning tales against the critical establishment, Simon by collaborating smartly again (this time with Brian Eno), and Cash by dying.
Ken Rayes
New Orleans, Louisiana

Like most sequels, Love & Theft II: Modern Times recycled the old thrills but wasn't as good or fresh as the original. Sometimes, though, old thrills are better than new nothings. The Joanna Newsom album reminds me why I never dug the pretentious artsy kids in my high school: The stuff they liked sucked, and the cutesy alternative universes they created for themselves seemed even more torturous than the mainstream jock-hells the rest of us were stuck in.
Tim Grierson
Los Angeles, California

The best song of the year by far was "Crazy," which showed its strength not only in the variety of radio formats that played it, but also in the variety of artists who covered it—its adaptability to a variety of different interpretations. Musically it's very simple, but there's a subtle ominousness in the measured keys, those opening bass notes. Cee-Lo, of course (as Chef, Pilot, Darth Vader, Graduate, etc.), is the star of the show, but his is really a role of portent, warning us of our futures, the fortune-teller in a swirling skirt and glowing eyes singing, "Who do you think you are . . . do you really think you're in control?" Clearly we are not—we are sucked into the irresistibility not only of the song's hook but also at the chance of glimpsing our own costumed psyches, a combination that has proved to be unbeatable.
Marisa Brown
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Simply put, American music in 2006 lacked heart. Gnarls Barkley's magnificent album was at its core an essay in ecclesiastic paranoia and distrust, large chunks of rap music were as hostile to the middle class as any Republican policies, and as wonderful a single as Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable" was, it's hard not to marvel at her career-long ability to distill relationships down to whose things are rightfully whose.
Joseph McCombs

We're crazy? If Gnarls doesn't top the singles chart, you bet. But if they show up anywhere on the album roster, we're absolutely bonkers. St. Elsewhere had a hit-to-shit ratio on par with Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (still spinning those deep cuts, '03 voters?)—and that was a double.
Glenn Dixon
Silver Spring, Maryland

TV on the Radio's Return to Cookie Mountain is a formalist's dream: granitic, obscure, everyone agreeing on the influences (Peter Gabriel prog rock dripping from a dead man's eye). It would be churlish to blame the band too much for not figuring out what they're ultimately trying to say. Their live performances mitigated this, as their obscurity assumed menacingly messianic proportions. Still, I read not a single satisfactory review of this album, in part because no one was able to articulate why they liked the good parts and why the boring parts sucked.
Alfred Soto
Miami, Florida

Neko Case and Jenny Lewis both released alt-country albums this year that traipsed through knotty thickets of sex, love, God, and death. Case's noir-ish distance made a stronger bid for authenticity and was arguably the more heralded, but Lewis offered a far more personalized vision that proved the greater artistic statement, staring faith and disappointment directly in the face, carrying out a dialogue with the Almighty in her own language and demanding answers she could reach out and touch.
Joshua Love
Raleigh, North Carolina

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