James Taylor's early-’70s status as the king of sensitive male vocalists is mere VH1 countdown fodder now. Yet in 2006, more than a few male artists seemed to have recollected being reared in Taylor's soft rock FM heyday or at least had some of his sunny-voiced sincerity channeled down to them by sonic osmosis. I am no JT disciple — and the Isley Brothers did the best version of "Fire and Rain" (Free Ron!) — but these ears have been grateful for his example this twelvemonth because the "sensitive man" paradigm has yielded the first masterpiece of the digital age: Gnarls Barkley's St. Elsewhere (Downtown).
To be sure, Justin Timberlake worked overtime this season to bring the sexy back, but other pop artists, as varied as the Coup's Boots Riley, Chris Stills, and Ray LaMontagne, labored to achieve a semblance of organic authenticity in their work — King Solomon Burke went to Nashville, and even Hank III went straight to hell. While their female counterparts — go Natalie Maines, Bitch, Lily Allen, and posthumous Nina Our Lady of Myriad Reissues! — raised hell and exploited bad-girl tropes, many of the men (if not purely saccharine crooners) got raw via their interior landscapes rather than external provocation. From the Southland, see Centro-Matic's Fort Recovery (Misra), Bobby Bare Jr.'s The Longest Meow (Bloodshot), and Sparklehorse's Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain (Astralwerks) for the wide-screen, psych-twang versions of this impulse. In this, the boys of ’06 heralded the arrival of another sensitive phase in pop music.
No pop star embodied the nu sincerity more than this year's key Grammy winner, John Legend. Exploiting the goodwill fostered by the 2005 smash hit "Ordinary People," Legend took to the woodshed with cream collaborators — including Californian producers Craig Street, Raphael Saadiq, and will.i.am — and the result was Once Again (Sony), the autumn's most significant release. Onstage and in personal appearances, Legend worked his charm as a nice, discreet, well-groomed church boy made good. Meanwhile, the marrow of Once Again’s song cycle dealt with cuckoldry, lust, longing, and the sorrow of life in wartime — all riding on a complex sonic bed recombining classic soul, "easy rock," AM pop, bossa via Burt Bacharach, and the myth of the era's leading crooner icon, Jeff Buckley. From the Buckley homage "Show Me" to the yearning cries of "Where Did My Baby Go," Legend waxed lyrically vulnerable and rendered himself the prime man for all our seasons of discontent.
All in all, it seems no accident that Legend's hero Marvin Gaye got key DVD reissue treatment this year: Live in Belgium 1981 and The Real Thing: In Performance 1964-1981 (featuring a heartrending live version of "What's Goin' On"); is he not the ever-fruitful father of all late-modern, ambitious, sensitive popcraft? And another angsty politicized black man, the Dears' Murray Lightburn from north of the border, dropped the fine, woeful Gang of Losers (Arts and Crafts). Lightburn appeared to walk a tightrope between Morrissey and metasoul prophet Seal on "Fear Made the World Go ’Round," "I Fell Deep," and "Bandwagoneers" — plus the wryly scathing "Whites Only Party."
The great New Orleans Christian rock crossover quartet Mute Math seem to be after arena glory rather than the somewhat hermetically sealed cloister Lightburn's music suggests, but these groups share a tacit commitment to revitalizing rock's lyrical and sonic palette.
Jonny Lang did an effective reverse of Mute Math's sonic journey, from blues and pop rock categories to inspirational, on the uneven but great Turn Around (A&M). Lang espouses the open, clean, lighthearted benefits of living the Christian life. Mercifully, the sermonizing and sentimental treacle are kept to a minimum.