For those of you wondering where all the great music went, why the tunes just aren't as good as they were way back when, consider this: Great music is always being made. What's different is that there are more ways to discover it, and that can make the choices difficult, if not bewildering, for consumers already suffering from multimedia overload.

Thirty years ago, it was relatively easy to get a sense of the year's best music by flipping on a few commercial radio stations for the mainstream hits, and a good progressive or college station for the underground stuff. But now more music is being recorded and released by more artists than at other any time.

It is spread out over countless formats: CDs, MP3 files (both legal and illicit), DVDs, cell phone ring tones and videos that range from multimillion-dollar productions for MTV to homemade projects suited for countless do-it-yourself outlets, such as YouTube.

Music routinely emerges first on artist Web sites and MySpace pages, fan-driven blogs, e-zines, Internet music stores and satellite radio stations long before more traditional media outlets have heard it, let alone decided what to expose to consumers.

Yes, commercial radio is still around and still powerful, dominated by a handful of corporations. And the music industry remains the playground of conglomerates. But increasingly these behemoths appear to be following trends rather than jump-starting them.

Albums pop up on the Internet weeks and even months before the record companies release them. Feisty U.K. rapper Lady Sovereign caused a sensation when her music began surfacing on MP3 files in 2004-05. Finally signed to a domestic deal, she didn't see her first album hit the North American market until a few weeks ago.

Another British artist, tart-tongued singer-songwriter Lily Allen, has accrued millions of listeners on her MySpace page and she has already toured America, but her domestic debut album won't be released till next year. And by the time Lupe Fiasco's much-hyped debut, Lupe Fiasco's Food and Liquor , arrived in stores a few months ago, its first single, “Kick, Push,” was a year old.

Better late than never? Not in the high-speed world of pop music. As the taste-making roles once dominated by slower-moving traditional media such as magazines and radio stations shift to the digital domain, information is exchanged, music distributed, opinions formed and reputations elevated or trashed in a fraction of the time. The broadband wave has created a music world of limitless subcultures, each with its dedicated following.

There's great music out there for every taste. The trick is knowing where to find it.

Like kids writing letters to Santa enumerating their fondest desires, critics put together their best-of's with a mixture of passion and hubris: “Here are the most fantastic albums of the year that was!”

So the sole claim I make for the list that follows is that these are the albums that gave me the greatest pleasure in 2006.

TV ON THE RADIO

Return to Cookie Mountain

This Brooklyn band has always loved to combine dread and drone, but now its got the songs to match. The quintet's second album is a classic dystopian soundtrack in the tradition of David Bowie's Scary Monsters or Radiohead's OK Computer .

Track to download: “Wolf Like Me.”

CLIPSE

Hell Hath No Fury

“Keys open doors,” goes the refrain of one song, but the Virginia rap duo's second album is really about doors closing, with masterfully claustrophobic production by the Neptunes and coldly detailed lyrics about a brutal netherworld defined by drugs, live-for-the-moment urgency and paranoia.

Track to download: “Keys Open Doors.”

MISSION OF BURMA

The Obliterati

The best second act in rock history continues. During their first lifetime (1979-83), Clint Conley, Roger Miller and Peter Prescott helped define post-punk. Now they're back, and their third album is a near-perfect marriage of big noise and even bigger melodies waging a thrilling turf battle.

Track to download: “2wice.”

JENNY LEWIS WITH THE WATSON TWINS

Rabbit Fur Coat

Rilo Kiley singer Lewis captures the feel of an intimate, living-room jam session on her first solo album. Backed by mountain-soul harmonies, she delivers skeptical hymns that wrestle with big questions about faith, war and the afterlife.

Track to download: “The Big Guns.”

MIDLAKE

The Trials of Van Occupanther

On its second album, this Denton, Texas, quintet makes a brilliant, brooding, folk-rock album that aspires to the artistic heights of mid-period Fleetwood Mac, without the soap opera distractions.

Track to download: “Roscoe.”

GHOSTFACE KILLAH

Fishscale

Ghostface reaffirms his standing as the most accomplished rapper to emerge from the legendary nine-member Wu Tang Clan by returning to gritty street narratives. Huge, hard-swinging hooks underpin his brilliant storytelling.

Track to download: “Kilo.”

ART BRUT

Bang Bang Rock & Roll

With a directness that is by turns hilarious and triumphant, lovably dorky singer Eddie Argos emerges as rock's greatest frontman. Twin guitars, drums and bass slam out terse, no-nonsense melodies that get inside your head with a couple of catchy choruses, and then get out.

Track to download: “Good Weekend.”

GIRL TALK

Night Ripper

Pittsburgh laptop composer Gregg Gillis takes the art of sampling to new heights of copyright-flouting audacity with this fun, expansive and at times revelatory mash-up.

Track to download: “Friday Night.”

PARTS AND LABOR

Stay Afraid

The politics gets personal in this Brooklyn trio's David-and-Goliath tales, and the raging songs turn into exultant fist-raising anthems.

Track to download: “A Great Divide.”

LUPE FIASCO

Lupe Fiasco's Food and Liquor

Kanye West collaborator Wasalu Muhammed Jaco emerges as one of the year's most distinctive hip-hop personalities, a self-described “nerd” with a tart tongue and a feel for breezy melody.

Track to download: “Hurt Me Soul.”

M. WARD

Post-War

The post-war era of the late '40s to mid-'50s was a time when rock 'n' roll was still undefined, when the lines separating blues, country, gospel and doo-wop were blurred, and that's precisely the richly atmospheric tone struck by Ward's fifth and best album.

Track to download: “Poison Cup.”

NEKO CASE

Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

The most ambitious album yet from one of the best singers of our time. It melds two powerful traditions: Southern Gothic murder ballads and centuries old folk and fairy tales where the endings are rarely reassuring, much less happy.

Track to download: “John Saw That Number.”

LOVE IS ALL

Nine Times that Same Song

Lurking at the nexus of punk and jazz, this Swedish band's spiky rhythms are a perfect match for Josephine Olausson's no-nonsense vocals.

Track to download: “Make Out Fall Out Make Up.”

RHYMEFEST

Blue Collar

The South Side native and battle-rap champion chronicles his journey from ghetto child to working-class philosopher with a mixture of humor and spiritual fervor.

Track to download: “Bullet.”

THE DECEMBERISTS

The Crane Wife

The fourth and most audacious album yet from the Portland, Ore., quintet blends ancient folk melodies with progressive-rock ambition.

Track to download: “The Island.”

BEST OF THE REST:

Mastodon, Blood Mountain

Track to download: “Capillarian Crest.”

Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere

Track to download: “Gone Daddy Gone.”

Tom Waits , Orphans

Track to download: “Little Drop of Poison.”

Lily Allen, Alright, Still

Track to download: “Smile.”

Cursive, Happy Hollow

Track to download: “Dorothy Dreams of Tornadoes.”

© 2006, Chicago Tribune.

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