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In case you haven't been paying attention, we're here to remind you that it's that time again. As December gets tossed away like so many holiday cocktail napkins, we critics are busy making our ultra-scientific, down-to-the-last-decibel-point-ratings, you-know-you-just-loved-the-new-Hold Steady-record lists for 2006. Big Sense is to be made of the year in music before we can move on to 2007, so there's much work to be done collating all the suckers, superstars, small sales, and big spins and fitting them into neat data packages, through which you can decisively review the culture you've been living for the past 12 months. Or not.

Instead of trying to give an overview-of-the-universe-style image of what was pumping through The People's earbuds, we've carved out smaller groupings, organized loosely by genre. Of course, the categories are as fluid and fickle as music fans' tastes can get, so we know you won't take these recaps as the be-all and end-all of hip hop, free downloading, heavy music, DJ hits, etc. Rather, the following articles are samplers of what's burning through our radars. As Jon Pareles wrote in a recent piece for the New York Times ("Brought to You by You"), the abundance of outlets for creating and critiquing the arts puts an "end to the old, supposedly wrongheaded gatekeeping mechanisms" and makes people "crave a new set of filters." Below are essays on the hot rocks that collected in our sieves. We hope we've highlighted a disc or 10 that you agree deserve to be caught in the net.

Indie Vs. Major: Who's Got the Flavor? Urban music in 2006

Mainstream urban music was largely defined this year by the over-the-top commercialism of product-placement tie-ins — Jay-Z and Pharrell for Hewlett-Packard, Jay-Z and Q-Tip for Bud Select, Lady Sov for Verizon, et cetera — which overshadowed several disappointing major-label albums. The overhyped Timberlake/Timbaland collaboration FutureSex/LoveSounds broke no new ground whatsoever in its slavish emulation of Michael Jackson and Prince. The other big news in R&B this year was no news at all — unless you consider Cherish noteworthy, which you shouldn't.

In its old age, hip hop has become young, literally. Yung Joc and Young Jeezy became the latest Southern rappers to become breakout stars. Meanwhile, D4L's "Laffy Taffy" and Lil Jon's "Snap Yo Fingers" heralded the unforeseen rise of "snap" music — a subtler variant of crunk. There wasn't much substance in this year's strip-club anthems, even when bombastically overproduced (Ludacris' "Money Maker"). While Southern pimps were buying diamond-studded grills and celebrating the joys of booty, New York rappers whined about their labels' lack of promotion or emulated the South's success (Fat Joe). Meanwhile, the Bay Area's celebrated hyphy movement overwhelmed the region's prolific underground scene.

Regarding the contrast between mainstream and underground, there was no question: The most consistent and innovative hip-hop and reggae albums of the year were indie-label projects, hands down. The few major-label albums that cut the mustard (E-40, Cut Chemist, DJ Shadow, Lupe Fiasco) all had what could be called an indie sensibility. Furthermore, the album that honored the legacy of "boom-bip" hip hop the most — picking up the torch of A Tribe Called Quest — came not from N.Y.C., but Waco, Texas: Strange Fruit Project's The Healing.

As for reggae, Sean Paul got all the mainstream love. But apart from three or four hit singles that continued to widen Paul's fan base, if not his monotone phrasing, his crossover-minded The Trinity alienated the core dancehall audience who made him a star. In any case, he was out-classed by newcomer Gyptian and veteran Buju Banton this year.

On to the year's best urban records:


My Ghetto Report Card


More than just the album that validated the Bay Area's hyphy phenomenon on a national level, My Ghetto Report Card was a solid, gold-selling effort that nicely balanced commercially accessible singles and gritty street-level favorites. The mix of hard-as-nails beats courtesy of Rick Rock, Lil Jon, and 40's son Droop-E, and 40's inimitable flow proved a winning combination, while the introduction of new slanguage ("Gouda") made the album an educational as well as entertaining experience. One of the most impactful rap releases of 2006, fa shaginaw.

Cut Chemist

The Audience's Listening

(Warner Bros.)

A former Next Big Thing, the scratch-happy turntablist movement has been overshadowed by the simplicity of ProTools and the ironic contrasts of mash-ups. Yet while mash-up compilations like Hail the DJ offered a stable full of one-trick ponies, former Jurassic 5/Ozomatli DJ Cut Chemist brought composition back, meticulously piecing together obscure found sounds and ridiculously big beats. The result is an album full of juxtaposed melodies, rhythms, and vocals that not only reveled in creativity, but held together thematically, whether referencing Kraftwerkian electro-funk or bossa nova.


The Slapp Addict

(Slapp Addict Productions)

Billed as "a soundtrack to the hyphy movement," San Jose's Traxamillion delivered one of the tightest, most effective hip-hop albums of the year, an unrelenting aural assault that proved so infectious, it could make your grandmother "go dumb." In addition to assembling an all-star team of Yay Area rappers (including Too Short, Mistah F.A.B., and the Team) to spit over his ass-moving keyboard-and-bassed-out beats, Trax proved he's no slouch on the mike his damn self, rhyming on "Skrape" and "Bring It Back" without embarrassing anyone. Let's see Jermaine Dupri or Timbaland try that.


The Shining


The passing of James "J-Dilla" Yancey was one of the saddest moments in recent hip-hop history, yet his legacy lives on. The Detroit producer — known for his work with Common, the Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest, D'Angelo, and Slum Village — was posthumously fêted by a huge cast of friends and associates on The Shining, a worthy companion to Dilla's all-instrumental release Donuts. Any questions about Dilla's place in the pantheon were answered by his solo tracks "Love Jones" and "Won't Do," which resounded with soulful emotion.


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