Bob, Barkley, and Beyond: The Top 20

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

Two artists signified the year's yin and yang: Ghostface Killah and Joanna Newsom. Dude vs. chick, Staten Island crack kitchen vs. Northern Cali enchanted forest, "Whip You With a Strap" vs. "Sawdust and Diamonds." Both share a love of word and yarn, and properly represent their neighborhoods.
Randall Roberts
St. Louis, Missouri

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

While Justin Timberlake was no longer greeted with contemptuous snorts, there were snorts all the same, this time concerning his qualification as a futuresex lothario angling for Prince's throne. "He's still a dork," one friend insisted. Well, yeah, and Justin knows it. I'll take a dork angling to get laid over a Mickey Mouse Clubber with an orange fright perm any day. Were skeptics afraid that Justin now represents the golden mean of rock criticism? If so, the evolution from the rock-critic-as-Elvis-Costello of David Lee Roth's nightmares was less painful than anyone could have predicted. And on the evidence of "Love Stoned/I Think That She Knows," Justin plays guitar about as well as Elvis C. ever did.
Alfred Soto
Miami, Florida

Justin Timberlake was pop's critical paragon in '06, but so far he's just a remarkably limber amalgam of greater artists, greater voices, and greater postures, lucky or savvy enough to get hooked up to Timbaland's darkly liquid post-millennial funk. The real genius of our latest pop cycle is Beyoncé Knowles. Ask yourself: Between the two, who's shown more sides, more depth? Who's got more range and a better sense of humor ("Dick in a Box" excepted)? Who's got next in a long, classic line and who's just practicing pastiche?
Joshua Love
Raleigh, North Carolina

The most important artist of 2006 was Timbaland. It's been 10 years since he altered the direction of popular music, but his scorching productions still feel more energetic and spirited than the rest. Age has also made Tim more hip to the game: His jones for microhooks crowned him 2006's king of ringtones; he's nurtured next-gen producers like Nate Hills; and with Duran Duran and Björk projects reportedly on the way, he's learned to butter all sides of his bread.
Jason King

Clipse's "Mr. Me Too": I don't know if Michael Richards's meltdown will be good or bad for charmers like Clipse. The ugliest word in the English language has regained its taboo value after years as ho-hum-part-of-the-scenery, and sure enough, I got a listener complaint when I played this on the radio recently. I'm 95 percent sure the caller was black, and seeing as he asked if I'd play some Captain Beefheart or Frank Zappa instead, I'm assuming he was bothered by the barrage of Ns rather than all the Fs. Which is fine—it's a word that should upset people, and if black comedians and black hip-hop artists are being put on alert by Al Sharpton, that's a good thing. But, for better or worse, when all the hate comes packaged in something as musically arresting as "Mr. Me Too," it'll always have a strong pull on me—and now that the taboo's back in place, the pull is that much more visceral. Additionally, there are some great bits between all the Ns and the Fs. I love "Bof' us laughin' " when the rapper and Diddy deplane in Aspen, and nobody comes up with better verbs than these guys—"juice-and-ginnin' " and "neck-and-chinnin' " on "When the Last Time" a few years ago; "dunce-cappin' and kazooin' " on "Mr. Me Too."
Phil Dellio
Toronto, Ontario

On July 17, 2005, I officially gave up drinking. And since then, I have made it through approximately 450 nights out at bars, 235 Boston Red Sox games, 35 business trips, five weddings, two MTV Video Music Awards ceremonies, and one high school reunion, all without even wanting as much as a sip of the sauce. But nothing—and I mean nothing—has made me want to hit the bottle like repeated exposure to the Hold Steady's Boys and Girls in America.
James Montgomery
Brooklyn, New York

Boys and Girls in America: By most accounts, I spent much of my Indiana adolescence stumbling around in a state of reserve/shyness/vague panic, so here's what I'm doing now: replacing all the memories of my own lame teen years with the things Craig Finn writes about.
Jeff Vrabel
Bluffton, South Carolina

Why is the Hold Steady a constant critical favorite? Because Craig Finn is wordy and nerdy—he can't stop blabbing about the music world. In other words, he's one of us.
Jason Gross

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