[I'm taking a few days off, so I thought I'd dust off my review of the best of 2005 in music and give you 4,500 words to keep you occupied until I return. Enjoy...]
Viewed on the fly, 2005 didn’t seem like a particularly memorable year in music. The industry nabobs pointed to the usual dire number of declining record sales, concert ticket prices continued to skyrocket, and – surprise! – one major label was busted trying to install spyware onto consumers’ computers through music cds. It stunk for other reasons too – my cats have taken to occasionally peeing on my discs – perhaps offering their own editorial on the state of popular music.
Maybe I bought into these bad vibes – I initially doubted that there were 40 albums worthy of talking about and recommending. But the more I heard, the more I began to reassess that point of view. In the end, there were so many quality albums that I resorted to naming 10 more that were pretty good, but just missed the cut.
In fact, it’s not inconceivable that 2005 might someday be remembered as a “golden” year in music. It was a year that a lot of great new artists broke through, and a lot of established acts provided albums that their talent had promised and their fans had craved. My Morning Jacket and The Rolling Stones made albums that thrilled and surprised their fans in completely different ways. Kanye West, Gorillaz, and Franz Ferdinand (and several others) elaborated on successful debut blueprints to make even stronger second albums. There were stirring returns from established artists like Ry Cooder, John Prine, Robert Plant, and Van Morrison. And a few bands – most notably Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and The Magic Numbers – made ridiculously great first albums that sound very little like other popular music current or past.
It’s also worth noting that, without releasing an album of new material, Bob Dylan was prominent in popular music in ’05. From the PBS/Martin Scorcese documentary No Direction Home to the Bob Dylan Scrapbook (which recreates significant pieces of Dylan arcana, like the hand-written lyrics to ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’) to the ongoing praise and jubilation over 2004’s self-penned Chronicles Vol. 1, Dylan’s imprint was everywhere.
What follows is more evidence to be cited once 2005 is recognized for the great – or, factoring in the cat pee and corporate groaning, golden – year in music that it was.
The Top 40 Albums Of 2005
#1 – My Morning Jacket — Z
What’s most surprising about Z isn’t that MMJ recovered from the loss of two founding members to produce their magnum opus – it’s that they shed their Neil Young influences, and mountains of feedback, to find themselves hailed as the “American Radiohead”. Not since 2000 – when Radiohead dropped Kid A on a totally unsuspecting world – has a band pulled such an abrupt left hand turn and received heaps of critical kudos for the effort. The Radiohead comparisons are also apt in that Z has no easy antecedents. Like Kid A, Z has forced a passel of flummoxed critics to search their thesauri for new ways to say “Wow!” This is an album that is tough to pigeonhole, but easy to enjoy.
How exciting is it to hear a great band raise their game and make not only an amazing collection of songs, but create their own sound in the process? Enough to make Z the very best album of 2005.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY*: “A modern day classic.” – Dot Music
* Roughly 75% of all other reviews quoted here came from MetaCritic.com. In every case, I completed my write-up before looking at any other reviews.
#2 – Clap Your Hands Say Yeah — Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
There are plenty of reasons to love Brooklyn’s Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: Their status as the best un-signed band in America is both improbable and inspiring, lead singer Alec Ounsworth’s careworn howl makes almost every other indie band seem bland or derivative, and – best of all – CYHSY have instantly mastered the art of musical tension in a way that most groups never approach. Opening their debut album with the carnival barker-esque track ‘Clap Your Hands!’ – ballsy or suicidal, depending on your POV – is a deranged stroke of brilliance on the order of Tom Waits. Like Waits, CYHSY understand that the most interesting music isn’t always the prettiest, and wrap their musical lunacy around laureate caliber lyrics like “Time has gotten by/on alibis and wine”. Debut albums are so rarely this inventive, fun, and magical.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “CYHSY is at the best point in the lifecycle of a band: un-styled, simply produced and deserving of the hype for what is – quite possibly – a nearly perfect album.” – Billboard
#3 – The Magic Numbers – The Magic Numbers
Combining lilting harmonies and unusual song structures (think Mamas and Papas singing Bohemian Rhapsody), The Magic Numbers sound both warmly retro and completely original. Composed of brother/sister duos Romeo and Michele Stodart, & Sean and Angela Gannon, this group has loaded their self-titled debut with instantly hum-able tunes that you won’t mind getting stuck in your head – as they most certainly will.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “Nothing quite prepares you for the sheer beauty of The Magic Numbers’ music.” – MusicOMH.com
#4 – M. Ward – Transistor Radio
Matt Ward is 31 going on 71. That’s the only way to explain his ages-old, gravel and whiskey singing voice that rightfully shouldn’t be at the disposal of anyone born after WWII. Equal parts Skip James, John Fahey, and Paul Simon, Ward has the all the tools to live up to the highest – and most harrowing – of compliments: Dylanesque.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “Musically imaginative, robustly performed, and drawn from a golden well of warmth and intelligence.” – Delusions Of Adequacy
#5 – Lyrics Born – Same !@#$ Different Day
A remix (and vast improvement) of 2003’s Later That Day, Same !@#$… finds this Bay Area MC using a deep rolodex of collaborators and spinning gold from nouns and verbs. LB’s infectious enthusiasm is at its highest pitch throughout, and tracks like the rapid-fire, 200 words-per-minute bounce of ‘Do That There (Young Einstein Hoo-hoo Mix)’ prove that this Quannum/Blackalicious protégé has a bright future fulla gettin’ parties started. Throw your hands in the !@#$ing air…
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “…it was humble of LB to step back a bit and let a gang of talented artists help rework his music, and they fulfilled their duty remarkably. Lyrics Born proves that just because something isn’t broke doesn’t mean you can’t fix it.” – AllHipHop.com
#6 – Kings Of Leon – Aha Shake Heartbreak
The Kings Of Leon followed 2003’s critically praised but commercially disappointing Youth & Young Manhood with nary a flinch and all afterburners once again firing. Through two albums, these smokin’ sons (and nephew) of a preacher man seem congenitally unable to make a song without a killer riff. And even when they slow things down (see ‘Milk’ and ‘Rememo’) the grooves still simmer with an undeniable intensity. Call it Southern Punk Rock or what you will, it’s never less than a foot-stamping good time.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “There’s an early-Stones feel here it would be perverse to deny: 12 songs in 36 minutes, each with an indelible identiriff and its own seductive rhythmic shape.” – Village Voice (Consumer Guide)
#7 – The White Stripes – Get Behind Me Satan
Give Jack and Meg credit: They could have played it safe and ridden the blues-garage-rock train for years, stopping at all the usual stations and cashing big checks. Instead, they traded guitars for piano & marimba, wrote songs about the likes of Rita Hayworth, and as usual confounded expectations without compromising one iota.
This was the musical equivalent of a well-known actor taking an unusual role to avoid being typecast. At their best, these sundry, oddball, and often inferior parts can give the actor an opportunity to fill a different space, shake public perception, and open new avenues of expression. In 50 years, when music fans look back on the White Stripes, they’ll recognize this as the album when the Stripes broke free and began to create their own unique sound.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “It’s an album so strong and so unexpected that it may change the way people hear all its predecessors. And that’s just a start. Listen long enough, and this album might change the way you hear lots of other bands, too.” – The New York Times
#8 – Louis XIV – The Best Little Secrets Are Kept
Brash, arrogant, snotty, rude – sometimes these words that we hold to be self-evident insults can actually be used to express awe and admiration. Think Muhammad Ali, think John Belushi, think Dizzy Dean saying “It ain’t bragging if you can do it.” Louis XIV can indeed do it. And they like to sing about it, too.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “Pathetic.” – Alternative Press
#9 – Amadou & Mariam – Dimanche a Bamako
Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia met in 1977 at the Institute for the Blind in Bamako, Mali – where they were both studying Braille – and started making music together. On Dimanche a Bamako, their fourth major label album, they’ve enlisted well-known world music maestro Manu Chao as producer. His fingerprints show up all over this album, but in the best way possible. It percolates with multinational rhythms, children’s voices, sirens, and whatever else sounds good. With a little luck, this will be the next world music album to climb the charts and seep into the larger consciousness, a la Buena Vista Social Club.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “The fizziest afro-pop blues ever bottled. *****” – The Observer
#10 – The National – Alligator
Equal parts creepy and lovely, Alligator sounds like a gothic mansion falling to dust, one beautiful, priceless piece at a time. Consequently, this Cincinnati, OH band’s third album is the perfect soundtrack for a New Orleans ravaged by hurricane and a country plundered by conservatives. Longingly sung and perfectly executed, these songs convey the exhilaration, hope and dread of running away.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “It’s their first masterpiece.” – Uncut
#11 – Kanye West – Late Registration
On Late Registration, Kanye West obliterated the sophomore slump. Instead of simply pushing out a clone of The College Dropout, he used that album as a foundation and added a lot of new and intriguing pieces (vocal guests Jamie Foxx, Adam Levine of Maroon 5, John Legend, and Lupe Fiasco, to name but a few). Kanye is the Bill Belicheck of rap – building a championship dynasty through genius, grit, and spare parts while making a lot of very difficult stuff look easy.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “Late Registration is an undeniable triumph, packed front to back, so expansive it makes the debut sound like a rough draft.” – Rolling Stone
#12 – Kasabian – Kasabian
Since the early 90’s, dance rock has gone the way of Jimmy Hoffa. Kurt Cobain may have taken down hair metal, but he also made angst a (not very danceable) prerequisite of rock for the decade. It didn’t help that the Stone Roses flamed out, the Happy Mondays over-medicated, and Michael Hutchence hung himself. For most of the 90s, dance music went either electronica or industrial – both nice genres, but neither featuring many guitars.
Enter Kasabian. Swampy yet danceable, and laden with guitars, synthesizers, and paranoia, this album often sounds like a literal exorcism of Studio 54. It is that rarest of breed – a rock album that will make you dance. Perhaps someday this will be viewed as the beginning of the dance rock revival.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “If imitation is the biggest form of flattery, everyone involved in the Manchester scene circa 1988 will be smiling ear to ear when they hear Kasabian. “ – E! Online
#13 – The Rolling Stones – A Bigger Bang
Did anybody see this one coming? Out of nowhere, the Stones give us what is easily their best album in 20 (some are saying 25) years. Much has been made of Charlie Watts’ battle with throat cancer as a focusing force. Whatever the reason, the Stones haven’t sounded this bluesy, badass, and downright fun in a long time.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “A strong, engaging, cohesive Rolling Stones album that finds everybody in prime form.” – All Music Guide
#14 – Black Mountain – Black Mountain
From the opening riff and vocals “Ah one, two, three/another pop explosion” it’s clear that this is a damn cool album. Black Mountain sounds like nothing so much as a pop Black Sabbath – with bits of Prog Rock, the No New York scene, and Psychedelia thrown in for good measure. It’s a veritable patchwork quilt of heavy rock that nods to the past while pointing straight ahead. If you hold any affection for Ozzy-era Sabbath, buy this one immediately.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “A heady mix of Sabbath, the Velvets, Neil Young, and anything else that leader Stephen McBean unearthed in the thrift stores of the Pacific Northwest, stitched together with memorably churning tunes.” – Uncut
#15 – Gorillaz – Demon Days
When Gorillaz dropped their self-titled debut in 2001, everyone logically assumed that it was a one-off side-project that would soon see all the performers heading back to their regular groups. But then a funny thing happened – that album went multi-platinum, spawned several funky hit singles, and set the stage for more hijinks. Demon Days – produced by Grey Album impresario DangerMouse – is darker, harder and just as pleasingly offbeat as the original, proving that these colorful characters have more than one hit up their collective sleeve.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “Demon Days is fantastic.” – PopMatters
#16 – LCD Soundsystem – LCD Soundsystem
Oh, the irony of electronica: it’s often used to start parties, but so rarely fun of its own accord. With the concentration on beats and loops, it’s unusual to hear anything resembling a joke in a piece of electronic dance music. New York DJ James Murphy’s alter ego LCD Soundsystem is tackling the problem head-on with this self-titled double disc of smart booty shaking anthems that never take themselves too seriously. From the house party protagonist of ‘Daft Punk Is Playing At My House’ to the over-the-top braggadocio of ‘Losing My Edge’ – and all points between – this is fun music that will make you move, and occasionally laugh out loud.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “Murphy pushes the near-immaculate music into the realm of genius with witty lyrics and wonderfully tetchy vocals.” – Blender
#17 – Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production Of Eggs
Who is Andrew Bird? Why is the production of eggs mysterious to him? Is this a concept album about a lonely hitchhiker? Do I hear the swirling echo of spaghetti westerns here? Can this guy sing or what? Is this album a beautiful cup full of mysteries? Why haven’t more critics ranked this ahead of Sufjan Stevens’ Illinoise? Don’t ask me.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “The production is lush and detailed but the songs are strong enough to withstand all the fuss, making this a most ambitious and accomplished record.” – Trouser Press
#18 – Beck – Guero
The 2005 Beck sounds a lot like a grown-up 1996 Beck. Odelay won over the masses with its goofy white boy raps and all around party vibe. Guero comes across as the mature version of the same persona, but the restraint of character is what will prevent Guero from enjoying the same word-of-mouth sensation as Odelay. Guero often sounds hungover from 2002’s overly brooding Sea Change – like the forced joviality of a guy throwing himself a bender. Still, there are many bright moments here, and Beck is uniquely good at being Beck – that is, wearing lots of different hats well without wearing out any of them.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “Guero represents a very clever man being clever enough to recognise what he’s good at.” – New Music Express
#19 – Tosca – J.A.C.
Tosca is comprised of Richard Dorfmeister and Rupert Huber, and each has recently welcomed a son into the world (the title is a combination of those sons’ initials). The music here reflects their newfound fatherhoods: these songs sound like a sonically magical father (or two) sharing the wonder and beauty of the globe with his offspring. J.A.C. is a glorious ham radio, tuned into all the most amazing sounds floating around the atmosphere and programmed to snatch out the best bits and pieces for our amusement.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “Not just music, but a state of mind.” – Urb
#20 – Calexico/Iron & Wine – In The Reins (ep)
The sun had just cleared the last corner out of town when Dooley Fletcher dismounted his horse and bound into the saloon.
I’m parched, a drink, he said. Squinting at the frightened barkeep.
And one for all my friends here too. Waving majestically towards the grim patrons.
As his greasy paw slid down his vest to the six-shooter he said, Put that nice music back on that was playing as I rode up – quick now, before I shoot this place fulla holes.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “Heartbreaking and haunting.” – Entertainment Weekly
Blackalicious – The Craft
While more sparsely produced than past releases, The Craft finds Blackalicious in fine form, spitting tight rhymes and demonstrating the usual crazy flow.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “Smart, eclectically but authentically funky, and humane to boot.” – Alternative Press
Edan – Beauty & The Beat
Edan jumps into his hip-hop time machine and travels back to the source with phat beats and lyrics that sport equal parts attitude and reverence.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “He’s made a cosmic artistic leap and fused together decades, styles, genres, and races with his remarkable sophomore effort, Beauty And The Beat.” – The Onion (AV Club)
Seu Jorge – Cru
Jorge follows up his Bowie-tinted star turn on Mark Mothersbaugh’s Aquatic Life soundtrack with this album of Brazilian ballads and hip-shakers that create the perfect groove for paddling off into the sunset.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “Not understanding a word of Portuguese hardly matters when those words are delivered with such gritty nuance. Whether Jorge is singing about romance or poverty or a bristleless broom, it hits straight in your gut.” – PopMatters
Franz Ferdinand – You Could Have It So Much Better
The archdukes of postpunk build upon their smash debut and create an even more interesting, layered, and danceable follow-up.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “Their first album was one of the strongest debuts in recent memory and this is an equally impressive follow-up.” – musicOMH.com
John Legend – Get Lifted
Melding R&B, gospel, funk, and hip-hop into an original and organic sound, John Legend is the creative offspring of Innervisions-era Stevie Wonder. This music has not only soul, but heart as well.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “John Legend and his protector Kanye West came up with a mainstream breakthrough for a crafty singer-songwriter whose R&B comes across simultaneously classic and hip-hop conscious.” – Rolling Stone
Thievery Corporation – The Cosmic Game
Chilled down a notch or two from past outings, The Cosmic Game finds The Corporation exploring different sounds and textures to great success.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “Their most focused and captivating work to date.” – Pitchfork
Queens Of The Stone Age – Lullabies To Paralyze
While not nearly the masterpiece of 2003’s Songs For The Deaf, Lullabies… finds the Queens retaining their blunt power despite having expelled founding bassist Nick Oliveri.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “Precise, tough, tuneful, ambitious and sexy as hell.” – Q Magazine
Devendra Banhart – Cripple Crow
Wielding a voice that constantly sounds on the verge of breaking in half, rural folk revivalist Devendra Banhart spreads his wings – and takes flight – with Cripple Crow.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “Aww, our little freak is all grown up.” – Austin Chronicle
Antony & The Johnsons – I Am A Bird Now
This Mercury Prize-winning album is lush and other-worldly. Nothing else like it was released this year – or will be for the next five.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “This is tough, honest, uncompromising beauty and the next great voice in music.” – Mojo
Kleptones – From Detroit To J.A.
With too many inferior and annoying mashups on the market, the Kleptones show how it can – and should – be done on this live radio mix of Motown, Bowie, spoken word, and anything else that suits their party agenda.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “From Detroit to J.A. is an intricate, well thought out album that deserves (and rewards) a close listen. The mixing is seamless, to an extent that if you didn’t know the original tunes, you would probably think these mashups were recorded in a studio instead of patched together on someone’s laptop.” – The Tufts Observer Online
Common – Be
With production help from Kanye West, Common turns in the album his fans have been waiting for – soulful, playful, and above all, consistently excellent.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “Overflowing with passion, honesty, and optimism, Be gets to the root of human experience – all the while staying beautifully soulful and funky.” – Vibe
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Howl
Drenched in acoustic guitars, audible shouts, hand claps, and foot stomping, Howl sounds like nothing so much as a rock-and-roll revival meeting. There is a vaguely religious undercurrent to this album that would be annoying in less capable hands, but the songs shine so much that the overall effect is sublime.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “Sparse, literate… and full of killer tunes.” – Uncut
Alabama 3 – Outlaw
While more sedate than past efforts, Outlaw clearly shows that Alabama 3 are now focused on writing great songs, rather than fake southern accents and over the top evangelicizing. It’s just as good as – and completely different from – anything they’ve done before.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “It’s difficult to see what else they can do to become widely-loved except perform in every living room across the nation, which given their record of infamy shouldn’t be ruled out.” – The Guardian (UK)
John Prine – Fair & Square
After a 9-year hiatus, this master craftsman songwriter turns in another excellent set of songs about lives, and the fools that live them.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “This is a fine album, full of Prine’s clever and sometimes quirky observations on life and love. The songs are well-crafted, with touches of sympathy, righteous anger, and humor and Prine delivers them as no one else could.” – Roots66.com
Ry Cooder – Chavez Ravine
Ry Cooder enlisted many of his world music pals to orchestrate this song cycle about the people whose lives were plowed under to make way for a baseball stadium.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “What makes the album so amazing is its ability to balance poignancy and fun.” – Paste Magazine
Chemical Brothers – Push The Button
Sometimes less is more: By dropping the bass and simplifying the beats, the Chemical Brothers come up with their most enjoyable effort to date.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “The new material sounds more unified and danceable.” – Under The Radar
Robert Plant & The Strange Sensation – Mighty Rearranger
Plant sounds re-invigorated on this surprisingly good album. Not just a return to form, it might be his best post-Zep effort.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “Arguably Plant’s most Zeppelinesque solo work to date.” – Mojo
Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning
Omaha, Nebraska’s Conner Oberst is both talented and ambitious. I’m Wide Awake… is the best and most fully realized of his 3 full-length releases in 2005.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “An often-great set of songs about loneliness.” – Spin
Kaiser Chiefs – Employment
This Leeds, England band’s debut bodes well for the future: plenty of hooks and smart lyrics with enough wit to keep things interesting throughout.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “There are no bad songs on Employment. There are maybe a couple not-good ones toward the end, but even those are so tightly wound and polished they could end up lodged in your head for days.” – Prefix Magazine
The Golden Gods – …The Thorny Crown Of Rock & Roll
Bay Area rockers bang their heads with no irony and little mercy. Prepare to be rawked ye scurvy dawgs.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “…One question springs to mind: Are these guys serious? The long answer is this: yes. And why shouldn’t they be? In a world of too-cool-for-school “indie” bands, there is a genuine calling for more bands who worship their guitars and the ground they rock on.” – The Eugene Weekly (Eugene, OR)
The next 10…
Dungen – Ta Det Lugnt
Stereophonics – Language. Sex. Violence. Other?
The Go! Team – Thunder, Lightning, Strike
Mike Doughty – Haughty Melodic
Okkervil River – Black Sheep Boy
Lemonjelly – ’64–‘95
Marah – If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry
Van Morrison – Magic Time
Bruce Springsteen – Devils & Dust
Konono No. 1 – Congotronics
The 10 Best Reissues of 2005
The Band – A Musical History
The Stooges – Heavy Liquid (Box Set)
Bob Dylan – No Direction Home (Soundtrack)†
The Stooges – Fun House (Deluxe Edition)
Various Artists – Children Of Nuggets (Box Set)
Ray Charles – Pure Genius: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (1952-1959)
The 101’ers – Elgin Avenue Breakdown (Revisited)
Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane At Carnegie Hall†
Bob Dylan – Live At The Gaslight 1962
Ramones – Weird Tales Of The Ramones (Box Set)
†These recordings were never previously released, and therefore aren’t technically “reissues”. However, this seemed the most logical place to note their worthiness.
The 12 Best Concerts Of 2005
1. Kings Of Leon – Fillmore SF, CA – 7/19/05
2. My Morning Jacket – Fillmore SF, CA – 11/12/05
3. Arcade Fire – Great American Music Hall SF, CA – 1/13/05
4. Blackalicious – Fillmore SF, CA – 12/28/05
5. M. Ward – Bimbo’s 365 Club SF, CA – 9/10/05
6. Metallica/Rolling Stones – SBC Park SF, CA – 11/15/05
7. Kings Of Convenience – Great American Music Hall SF, CA – 3/8/05
8. RJD2/Lyrics Born – Pauley Ballroom, U.C. Berkeley Campus, Berkeley, CA – 12/4/05
9. Los Lobos – Fillmore SF, CA – 12/16/05
10. Pixies – Roseland – Portland, OR – 5/27/05
11. David Bromberg – Freight & Salvage, Berkeley, CA – 9/29/05
12. Merle Haggard – Paramount Theater, Oakland, CA – 3/14/05
The 5 Best Books On Music Released In 2005
1. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang
2. The Rock Snob Dictionary by David Kamp & Steven Daly
3. 33 1/3 Series by Continuum Publishing
4. Rip It Up & Start Again: Postpunk 1978 – 1984 by Simon Reynolds
5. The Bob Dylan Scrapbook – text by Robert Santelli