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Open’s best albums of 2006

Open presents its Top 10 albums of 2006. Kevin Federline’s Playing With Fire didn’t make the cut. Neither did - brace yourself - Arctic Monkeys.

Music statiticians will need all their fingers and toes to count up this year’s UK chart-topping albums by indie boy bands. Pleasingly, most were by homegrown acts, with first releases from Orson, Hard Fi and, of course, Arctic Monkeys fighting off the competition, and winners from comparative old hands like Kasabian, Muse and Lostprophets. The even more experienced Neil Diamond, David Gilmour, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan found themselves with career-reviving Top 3 successes.

New British talent Corinne Bailey Rae and Sandi Thom, Girls Aloud, American tremerer Christina Aguilera and Scissor Sister Ana Matronic were the only women to find themselves looking down at the rest of the chart - although nods should go to the year’s best-selling female, and by no means dead, Pink and the new-look Nelly Furtardo, who traded hippy bird-talk for sexy, Timbaland-produced R&B to surprising effect.

And to show that pop wasn’t dead, Take That surprised everyone, perhaps not least their underperforming fifth original member, with the year’s highest first-week sales of 443,000 in the seven days before Christmas. The ten-years-younger Westlife settled for the festive runner-up slot, with Oasis’s strangely selected, not-quite-greatest-hits contraption completing the Top 3.

More than anything, though, it was an excellent year for new music. Five our our ten favourite albums were debut releases. And ignoring sales, which mean nothing, of course, we were reminded that you don’t have to have guitars and testicles to make a great album.

10  WHITE BREAD BLACK BEER  Scritti Politti
Never one to rush his work (17 years, two albums), Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside never disappoints when he does pull his finger out. The Mercury Music Prize-nominated White Bread Black Beer is an unfussy affair that could as much have been made 20 years ago as in 2006. Never a bad thing. Essentially, it’s one man and his keyboard, plus the odd guitar chord; a slower, stripped-down version of Cupid & Psyche 85, you might say. Unpretentious, wonderfully tuneful and lyrically intriguing. At the heart of it all is Green’s unique honey-like voice. He shouldn’t leave it so long next time.

9  ALRIGHT, STILL  Lily Allen
Comic’s daughter Lily Allen can’t milk the cynical, chav-about-town act for long: ex-boyfriend-bashing and tales of spats with slags in nightclubs probably have a one-album limit. But for the gobby 21-year-old’s debut, this will do just fine. Sometimes the lyrics seem to rhyme for rhyming’s sake, but it’s generally witty stuff, with delicious hooks from start to finish. And in Smile and LDN, it contains two of the year’s best singles. Dubbing her the female Mike Skinner doesn’t quite do her credit.

guillemots.bmp8  THROUGH THE WINDOWPANE  The Guillemots
It opens with the kind of quietly intense and moving strings that might score the climax of a Spielberg tear-jerker, but The Guillemots can change pace in a beat. At times, it’s like the summer of ‘88, with all the quaintness of a Prefab Sprout or Hothouse Flowers hit; elsewhere there are orchestral moments worthy of any chill-out compilation. At some points, it sounds like drummer Greig Stewart is drawing on drum ‘n’ bass for inspiration. But singer and songwriter Fyfe Dangerfield is the man to watch. Perhaps eccentric, possibly borderline genius, he has, at the very least, written an album that grows in majesty with every listen.

Beth Ditto may not quite be Debbie Harry in the looks department - 15 stone tucked into a leotard, underarms proudly unshorn - but she’s the most striking frontwoman for 30 years. And like early Blondie, The Gossip craft energetic slices of spiky pop-punk, albeit with a little more menace. Throw in Ditto’s superb roar, pitched somewhere between Janis Joplin and a 1960s Motown diva, and you have the future sound of rock in a bag.
OPEN CHOICE: Yr Mangled Heart

6  THE GREATEST  Cat Power
From the opening bars of the title track, it’s clear The Greatest is not unwisely named. A clutch of lonely piano chords, Cat Power’s special voice, like a wallowing Dusty Springfield, and wavering strings that might have you reaching for the tissues. It’s that good. Power’s personal battles with alcoholism and depression have been well publicised this year and she’s no cheerier here, but the melancholic country twang is glorious. Not an album to gee up a party or to play if you’re wondering whether to end it all; for all other occasions, it’s a remarkable set.
OPEN CHOICE: The Greatest

Alongside strange shapes in Loch Ness and why Diana really died for great mysteries of our time, we should scratch our heads and ponder why Phoenix aren’t selling by the bucketload. The laidback indie-pop lilt isn’t breaking any musical barriers, the jangle and buzz of the guitars harking back to the 1960s in parts, but they make sunny upbeat sound effortless and the modest melodies are refreshing. The French quartet knock spots off their American college rock counterparts. All they need is a slot on The O.C. soundtrack or a Jo Whiley Record Of The Week and stardom is theirs.
OPEN CHOICE: Napoleon Says

4  CRAZY ITCH RADIO  Basement Jaxx
Currently suffering Fatboy Syndrome - once huge, suddenly underselling for no reason - Britain’s brightest dance outfit are being curiously overlooked in favour of tripe like Fedde Le Grand. Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe should instead be cherished. Their varied fourth album is their best yet: smartly put-together, dancefloor-rousing moments of sheer exuberance and smoky interludes of jazzy haze, with every guest vocalist well suited to their roles. It’s a carnival in your living room. Really.
OPEN CHOICE: Take Me Back To Your House

clap-your-hands.jpg3  CLAP YOUR HANDS SAY YEAH  Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
Red herring opener Clap Your Hands! may sound like the result of a day release group clanging about in a music shop, but the New York fivepiece’s debut (which got its UK release in January) finds its feet with the throb of Let The Cool Goddess Rust Away. It’s arty, new wave cool straight out of the Talking Heads book of weirdness, with Alec Ounsworth’s whine recalling David Byrne’s hysteria. The similarity to the Psycho Killer hitmakers is hard to miss, though instantly forgiveable for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s own oddities shining through. And there are other likenesses, though less obvious, to The Strokes (Is This Home On Ice), Queens Of The Stone Age (Gimmie Some Salt) and Think Tank-era Blur (Blue Turning Gray). Madly brilliant.
OPEN CHOICE: The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth

2  COSTELLO MUSIC  The Fratellis
Deservedly but perhaps unexpectedly finding themselves at Number 2 on the album chart, The Fratellis might well rub their hands in glee, with their debut appearing little more than a year after the band’s first gig. Like Sheffield’s Arctic Monkeys, their heart is in gritty rock and observational lyrics about urban life, and vocalist Jon Fratelli growls not unlike the Monkeys’ Alex Turner. But the Glaswegian trio have produced a more creative and carefully crafted set, partly thanks to an obvious interest in the blues. The influence is subtle, but adds a tuneful magic that Whatever People Say I Am… lacks. A joy from start to finish.
OPEN CHOICE: Vince The Loveable Stoner

It’s been one of the best year’s for British indie bands since the mid-1990s, when Suede, Pulp and Oasis exploded. Keane, Snow Patrol, The Feeling and Razorlight all delivered the goods in 2006, but The Kooks are a head above. The Brighton fourpiece’s million-selling debut recalls early Supergrass: cheeky, brimming with youthful vigour and high on short, simple and tuneful hooks, with You Don’t Love Me’s pounding pulse measuring up to Mansize Rooster and gorgeous acoustic melodies to rival Late In The Day. Six tracks made it as singles, but really anything here would have been worthy as promotion. Expect them to mature with style.