Ranking the year's best releases totally works if they're arranged by genre. But attempting the same thing according to locale makes not a lick of sense.
Think about Northeast Ohio: Who's to say This Moment in Black History's screaming post-hardcore is better than Play Havoc's hip-hop? Or that the blues of Cleveland Fats hits harder than the noise-rock of the Flat Can Co.? No one can, and that's why -- instead of numerically ranking the area's best jams of 2006 -- we've simply listed the 10 discs we found ourselves returning to most often.
This Moment in Black History
It Takes a Nation of Assholes to Hold Us Back (www.tmibh.com)
If the adage about great art happening by accident is true, This Moment in Black History feels like a derailed freight train slamming into the art museum. With It Takes a Nation, the quartet nailed the punk intensity of its live show without sacrificing the ambitious, new-wave elements unique to its sound. Now, only the brains of singer Chris Kulcsar, who yelps like a drunken PoliSci major, match the brawn of his band's ferocious rhythm section.
The New Lou Reeds
Top Billin' (www.newloureeds.com)
Every saloon from Lorain to Euclid should be cranking Top Billin'. With tunes full of empty pockets, disenchantment, and s-e-x, the New Lou Reeds' brand of steel-plant blues rock makes 'em the drinking man's Black Keys. On "Lookin' for a Boogaloo," singer and guitarist Stephe DK leads a walk through his seedy world, while "Poverty Stinks" serves as the perfect anthem for every guy who's stumbled into the bar at 6 a.m.
All Things Due (www.playhavoc.net)
Featuring three newcomers rooted in old-school values, Play Havoc's All Things Due has everything it takes to set off another wave of progressive hip-hop. Ace DJ Sleepyhead scratches and cuts, sampling soul albums for a string of sax squeals and high-pitched, warbling vocals. And Ill Advice and Hi Jinks, two socially conscious MCs, write and rhyme like they've been reading all day. It's hard-hitting, serious, and -- this is important -- fun.
The Way Things Go (www.honeybeeblues.com)
Mark Hahn (aka Cleveland Fats) dropped the best local blues disc of '06. The Ravenna-bred axeman and singer learned his trade from the late Robert Lockwood Jr. (who makes a cameo on The Way Things Go). So yeah, this ain't blues rock; this ain't post-Stevie Ray. This is for-real blues, delivered by a dude who writes 'em as authentically as he sings and plays 'em.
The Flat Can Co.
The Flat Can Co. (www.theflatcanco.com)
Fronted by a six-foot naughty nurse who's a total axe-shredder (no shit), the Flat Can Co.'s debut sees this quartet of veteran C-Town rockers burying its groove research underneath layers of in-the-red squall. This is the kind of garage-noise Midwest freaks like the MC5 and Rocket From the Tombs once produced: caked in grease and totally workmanlike, yet reaching for the outer limits through radical improvising, hot-wired electronics, and a violent industrial crunch.
Rainy Day Saints
Diamond Star Highway (www.rainydaysaints.com)
Rainy Day Saints singer and guitarist Dave Swanson has been a fixture on the Cleveland rock scene for three decades, playing bass in Death of Samantha and drums in Cobra Verde. But those gigs merely prevented Swanson from accepting his true calling: crafting bloody brilliant rock songs exploding with hooks more addictive than smack. Diamond Star Highway, the band's sophomore release, overflows with masterful, British Invasion-inspired guitar rock. What's more, it boasts the most original cover of "Sonic Reducer" ever recorded.
Pink Unicorns EP (www.myspace.com/mchomeless)
A Mick Boogie mixtape may have gotten the party started in '06, but half the rappers on 'em aren't even from Cleveland. In a city dubbed "poorest in America," it was MC Homeless' Pink Unicorns EP that truly captured what the hell is going on around here. Over innovative beats, the Kent rapper's brilliant wordplay conveys emotions everyone can relate to: love, anger, confusion, and despair -- to name just a few. The only thing missing is mainstream hip-hop's mindless praise of drugs, bitches, and money. Which is just fine.
For a Better Tomorrow EP (www.corleymusic.com/fistula)
Even if Fistula's comeback EP had ended after the first 30 seconds, this stoner-grind trio from Akron would still rock harder than 99 percent of all Cleveland rock combined. On the title track, singer and guitarist Corey Bing transforms himself into Corey Bong, a man looking for hope in a smoky haze. Seething with caged-animal frustration, he lets rip an unforgettable hypno-riff in an ode to sweet leaf. At the other end, the disc closes with "Friend of Mine," a creepy acoustic tune that makes betrayal and distrust sound oddly comforting.
Echoes on the Ground EP (www.mrgnome.com)
Nicole Barille's dad coined the term "trip-rock" to describe Mr. Gnome's mash-up of "trip-hop" and "hard rock." Pops hits the nail on the head, considering the guitar-and-drums duo has also been described as "Portishead meets Black Sabbath." It's an odd fusion, for sure, but one that comes through in Barille's vocals: echoing moans alternately reveling in bliss and fighting off death. And beneath Barille's pulsar riffs, Sam Meister's beats build slowly from metronomic ticking to jackhammer destruction. If this coed outfit were any bigger, its discs would be a controlled substance.
Street Toughs & Songs of Worship (www.complexmold.com)
Melding indie-rock, fusion, and a touch of funk, Complex Mold's debut rocks with a sense of purpose missing from most music heavy on the chops. The quartet builds great tunes from crisp drumming, slamming bass lines, and tasty saxophone licks (proving horns can rock). Ultimately, though, it's the captivating lyrics and wicked, self-deprecating wit of frontman Davey Patterson -- a true singer-songwriter -- that make Street Toughs & Songs of Worship so damn listenable.