From space-rockin’ doo-wop to sample-heavy mash-ups, from storytelling bar bands to soul-singing troublemakers, this is the most glorious music 2006 had to give us. Today, we’re counting down that year’s 40 best alternative albums.

Other than quality, it’s tough to determine a through line with 2006’s best records, which include debuts, sophomore discs and albums made deep into long-running careers in music. Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis announced herself as an indie “It” girl while Amy Winehouse began her era as a superstar. Sonic Youth stripped back and fired away on its 14th LP while Lupe Fiasco explored the world’s troubles on his first. Cat Power found soul, Belle and Sebastian went bold and the New York Dolls returned for the band’s first record since 1974. (And it was great!)

This gallery is rife with artists that found a way to blend wild and wooly experimentation with accessible tunes that charmed, haunted and intrigued listeners. Mark Linkous combined sad psychedelia with folk, Beck used technology while seeming suspicious of it and the Melvins doubled-down on rhythmic sludge. The Hold Steady captured the glory and torture of young love. Mates of State conducted an autopsy on a still-breathing marriage. The Handsome Family theorized about what it means to be a ghost in a strip-mall society.

The greatest music of 2006 was interminably creative, catchy, insightful and clever. Let’s count down these 40 gems.

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