It felt much trickier to come up with a clear-cut 2006 Top 10 than in previous years. While there were tons of good releases, obvious standouts - the no-brainer bests - seemed less set in stone. When I decided to go with my gut, these are the discs that rose above to make up 2006's soundtrack.
1 TOM WAITS Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers And Bastards (Anti-/Epitaph)
The perverse prophet of junkyard throwdowns sifts through his moth-holed carpetbag of castoffs and curiosities and produces three staggering discs of career-spanning gold. From feral barfly blues rollers that reek of days-old bourbon to quaint waltzes that grasp at your heart as they trip over their own tails, to a peculiar popcult collage of Disney covers and beat poetry, Waits has made his motherless masterpieces into a phenomenal achievement.
2 THE DECEMBERISTS The Crane Wife (EMI)
Bucking expectations, Colin Meloy and his band of indie nerds make the leap to a major label and expand their scope. The Portland posse spin an Asian folk tale about metamorphosis, blood-spattered seafaring yarns and Civil War romances into an implausibly cohesive combo of epic rock opera ambition and perfectly homespun hook-driven art-folk fantasy. The soundtrack to a librarian's wildest dreams.
3 JOHNNY CASH American V: A Hundred Highways (Lost Highway)
The Man in Black's posthumous offering stands as both one of the year's best albums and the only fitting tribute to the fallen hero. In a rickety voice that sounds like the last bits of paint are flaking off its edges, Cash growls about meeting his maker and final regrets with heartbreaking grace and elegance. Just try to keep from weeping through his brittle take on Gordon Lightfoot's If You Could Read My Mind.
4 THE GRATES Gravity Won't Get You High (Cherrytree/Interscope)
You can't see the charming kangaroo acrobatics of the Grates' live show on their expertly produced debut LP, but the bubbly exuberance of Patience Hodgson 's shape-shifting voice and the dizzying whirl of the Brisbane trio's ADHD-friendly melodic merry-go-round put the gleeful message across. An endlessly engaging pure indie pop delight.
5 FINAL FANTASY He Poos Clouds (Blocks Recording Club)
Polaris prince Owen Pallett loops it up a notch from the indie fiddling of his acclaimed debut with a fully realized collection of crafted, challenging mini-symphonies that cast the complexities of day-to-day life in the unexpectedly captivating nuances of Dungeons & Dragons symbolism.
6 THE GOSSIP Standing In The Way Of Control (Kill Rock Stars)
Who knew the sleek retrofit of hot pink-and-black 80s dance rock slickness would be precisely the adrenaline jolt queer soul-punk squad the Gossip were craving? Beth Ditto 's inimitable hellraiser howl ricochets off elastic low-end guitars and relentless ass-shaking drumbeats in a way that makes you wanna beg to be the one to satisfy her.
7 CAT POWER The Greatest (Matador)
It was only a matter of time before indie rock's poster girl for bruised-and-broken balladry reconnected with her Southern soul. Lucky for her (and us), she found it in the form of the best of the best, Memphis session aces who backed greats from Al Green to Aretha Franklin. Chan Marshall hasn't left the girl-on-the-verge volatility behind completely, but the Hi Rhythm aces ground her in new and beautiful ways.
8 VIVA VOCE Get Yr Blood Sucked Out (Barsuk)
Portland couple rockers give birth to a mewling, mauling brute of a kid who emerges fully formed, busting Kyuss-smoked stoner riffs one minute and winsome rainy-day Velvets ballads the next. Blending equally powerful parts brute force and heart-swelling shoegaze reverie, the disc's an ideal match between attracted opposites.
9 BELLE & SEBASTIAN The Life Pursuit (Matador)
Here is where Stuart Murdoch does his best Sybil-style strut through multiple personalities, shucking the fey cardigan for T-Rex glamitude, oddly potent blue-eyed soul and raucous Teddy boy struts through the back alleys of council housing projects. A big, ballsy, brilliant counterpart to the pastel-coloured twee Belle & Sebastian have already mastered.
10 AMY MILLAN Honey From The Tombs (Arts & Crafts)
Like prehistoric insects crystallized in amber, the Stars siren's collection of careworn, cultivated alt-country tunes found new life in the frame of Ian Blurton 's painstaking production. Millan's bruised vocal rolls down lonely highways and falls off barstools, buoyed by stark strumming and wistful mandolin to create the year's premier whiskey-and-heartache album.