1 Gnarls Barkley
St. Elsewhere Downtown/Atlantic
From suicide and necrophilia to feng shui and meteorology, no topic is too out-there for Gnarls Barkley’s brilliant debut. In fact, the far-flung inspirations of producer Brian ”Danger Mouse” Burton and potbellied ex-Goodie Mob rapper/singer Thomas ”Cee-Lo” Callaway helped make their genre-defying St. Elsewhere an unlikely platinum crossover hit. Their other secret weapons: superbly produced electro-techno-hip-hop beats, imaginative lyrics, and a seductive delivery that rests somewhere between quirk and pop. Encased in a trippy psychedelic soul setting, ”Crazy,” the pair’s ubiquitous first single, finds Cee-Lo contemplating his mental health with romantic eloquence: ”I remember when I lost my mind/There was something so pleasant about that place/Even your emotions have an echo in so much space.” Their excellent cover of Violent Femmes’ ”Gone Daddy Gone” is another highlight — to kids, it sounds like a fun Sesame Street sing-along tune; to 25-year-old Gap shoppers, it’s cool alt-rock; and for fortysomething soccer dads, it’s a nostalgic throwback to the ’80s. For all its eccentric flair, however, the album never loses its soulful spirit. Not unlike Moby’s similarly unconventional 1999 CD Play, St. Elsewhere is endowed with a timeless panache that suggests it will sound as fresh and innovative 10 years from now as it does today.
2 TV on the Radio
Return to Cookie Mountain Interscope
No other band this year has harnessed opposing elements with such gorgeous innovation. Whether it’s the tussle between a mournful orchestral sample and fuzzed-out guitar wash on hypnotic opener ”I Was a Lover” or the dueling voices of lead singer Tunde Adebimpe and falsetto guitarist Kyp Malone on the doo-wop/drum-circle chant ”A Method,” TV on the Radio show us that harmony and noise can blissfully exist in the same space.
3 My Chemical Romance
The Black Parade Reprise
On their third studio album, a musical H-bomb of an effort, the Jersey quintet combine the rock-opera pomp of Queen with the darker, dirtier tones of their screamo past: Call it a Bro-hemian Rhapsody. Even without its broad concept — a dying cancer patient seeks revenge and redemption — Parade stands as one of the most cohesive, engaging rock records of 2006.
4 Justin Timberlake
The former ‘N Sync pinup has his handsome mug and name on the cover, but he’s not the sole star of his second solo album. Urban auteur Timbaland, who produced 10 out of 12 songs, nearly steals the spotlight with his uniformly stunning beats — dense, aggressively synthetic grooves that draw more from Kraftwerk and hallucinogenic U.K. rave than typical American pop. This is one of the strangest-sounding albums to ever debut at No. 1. Together, the two Tims create a boldly forward-thinking soundtrack for nocturnal amusements like club cruising and rump shaking.
Hell Hath No Fury RE-UP Gang/Jive
”Pullin’ the covers back, I expose what you disguise,” raps Pusha T on Hell Hath No Fury‘s unrelenting opening salvo. The line could double as a mission statement for the two Virginia brothers. Like HBO’s peerless crime saga The Wire, Fury masterfully delves deep into the stealings and dealings of the illicit drug trade with a fearless eye for detail. The album’s engrossing underworld milieu is insular, but Pusha and Malice’s overflowing wit, humor, and humanity make it surprisingly universal.