the twenty or so records i liked the most this year I fuckin' love music. Love it. I can't get enough of it. I'm constantly trolling for new artists to listen to and I devote a good portion of my free time researching things I might enjoy. My habit is so bad that I have resorted, in recent years, to stealing the stuff off the Internet to avoid financial ruin, or divorce.
Part of my penance for my transgressions is to give props to the records that I felt were most deserving of somebody's money. Not mine, mind you. I'm a promoter. Conisder me a stealth marketer, if you will.
Back to the music, though. 2005, I decided upon reflection, was not a good year for great music. There were no Yankee Hotel Foxtrots this year. No records that I feel will be towering monoliths in 25 years. I may be completely wrong. But I will stand by my belief that this was a great year for GOOD music. Tons o' agreeable, perfectly fine records. Some better than others, but nothing that moved me to the point of grabbing someone and saying, 'holy shit, dude, you've got to hear this.' Which I find odd, considering that this was a year that we saw some crazy shit: Katrina, Iraq, Terry Schiavo, the War on Christmas, Saddam on trial, gay cowboys, and endless insanity from the GOP. But with any creative enterprise, the muse preceeds the work. That being the case, we should be seeing some of the greatest music in 2006 since the Reagan era.
Oh, the list:
1. The New Pornographers Twin Cinema The New Pornographers are our generation's Fleetwood Mac, and I mean that in a good way. I don't think we realize how lucky we are to have this band around. I mean, all these folks do fantastic work outside of this band, and do well critically and commercially (by indie standards, anyway), yet the sum of the parts is something pretty special, and nobody sounds anything like them in rock music today.
2. Rogue Wave Descended Like Vultures You know how most good bands improve on their last records, incrementally? And usually there's an acceptable, normal rate of improvement and growth that occurs? Well, when I listen to this record against their last, it's like they grew about three albums worth. And "Publish My Love" may just be the best pop song of the year.
3. Sufjan Stevens Illinois The only thing that kept this record from being on the top of my list is the fact that some of the songs are just so damn good that some others, in comparison, seem unnecessary or uninspired. In any other context, those lesser songs would be laudable. Sufjan also gets bonus points for continuing to write music for a wide array of musical instruments, which is refreshing and welcome.
4. Spoon Gimme Fiction Simply one of the most solid rock bands going today. There's no gimmicks, nothing flashy about them. They just write great, cerebral rock songs, and execute them such that they sound awesome when you turn them up real loud.
5. Beck Guero When I first heard this record, I was disappointed. I actually ragged on it. I thought it was nothing more than a retread of his own material. But, it really grew on me with repeated listens. Whether or not this is Beck's more inspired recordings (it's not), it is still more inspired, refreshing, and fun than most music.
6. Engineers s/t I love this album, although I have a lot of gripes with it. I have never heard Engineers before this record, and I have not seen them live, yet when I hear this album, I can't help but think that it should sound bigger and less polished. I love bands like Engineers that overwhelm the listener with layers of sound and waves of harmonies and Pink Floydian power-pop. These songs, however, sound bigger in my brain than they do on the recording, which I find to be a bit flat and restrained. But the elements are there.
7. Antony & the Johnsons I am a Bird Now This is one of those love it or hate it' records. Anyone unfamiliar with Antony's vocal stylings are probably going to have a small hurdle to clear before fully appreciating what's going on here. With a voice reminiscent of Nina Simone, Antony performs a stark song cycle that is equally beautiful and haunting, and yes, at times, unnerving. You'll be hard-pressed to find an album released this year that is as artistically striking as this.
8. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah s/t This year's It band, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, also require getting over some hurdles to fully enjoy them. First and foremost, you have to forgive the vocalist for sounding exactly like David Byrne after having listened to a few too many Violent Femmes records. That being said, for a debut album, this shows a band that has a pretty firm grasp on what it is setting out to do. It is one of the more original and refreshing indie releases this year, and as strange as some of the melodies may be, you will find them engraved in your skull after a few listens.
9. Aimee Mann The Forgotten Arm Some have argued that this, a thematic album of sorts, is Aimee Mann's strongest yet. I tend to be a big fan of Bachelor No. 2, which was pretty near flawless. The Forgotten Arm, although more ambitious in scope, is less enjoyable than that record. Like Beck, however, Aimee Mann's less enjoyable albums are still above and beyond most artists' good albums.
10. Elbow Leaders of the Free World Why don't more people talk about this band? It's like they've been in semi-obscurity for the last five years. Elbow belongs somewhere musically between The Delgados and Super Furry Animals, with a significant Pink Floyd slant. And their latest shows them as a band with a continuing artistic vision and a surefire command of executing it.
11. The Hold Steady Separation Sunday Having never heard The Hold Steady before, and having not been familiar with Lifter Puller (whose ashes The Hold Steady rose from), I had no idea what to expect when hearing this for the first time. What you get with these guys is basically a kick-ass barroom band with riffs as sharp as AC/DC or Urge Overkill, and a aging hipster smart-ass guy who talk-sings (think a sober, literate David Yow) over it all, narrating one of the more enjoyable rides through Chicago slackerdom you could imagine.
12. My Morning Jacket Z Another band that grew more between albums than you'd think was possible. On their latest release, MMJ sound as if they are ready to play arenas. Their musical landscapes are huge, and their command is light years ahead of most bands with twice the mileage behind them. This is a solid album.
13. Sigur Ros Takk They had me from hello with their debut, then the lost me with their sophomore effort, "( )". Not that it sucked or anything. It was Mogwai syndrome (or Godspeed You Black Emperor syndrome, if you prefer), where a mostly instrumental band with a quasi-gimmicky sound starts to paint themselves into a corner. Whatever doubts were raised by that release were erased with this release of beautiful, cinematic compositions that showcase a band that is confident enough not to hide behind the predictable formulas that most bands of their ilk fall prey to.
14. Son Volt Okemah and the Melody of Riot There are not many neo-folk-rock-Americana bands that can get away with singing the following line as a chorus, "The Words of Woody Guthrie ringing in my head." And there are moments when Jay Farrar's lyrics verge on over-the-top. But he pulls it off, somehow. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that musically, this record is assured, raw, and inspired. Son Volt here has crafted a record that feels as comfortable as an old shoe, but still manages to feel adventurous and fresh.
15. The Editors The Back Room Yeah, they sound like Interpol. A lot. But Interpol hardly wins the Most Original Sound award. So what you have here, is a band informed by the same set of bands as Interpol, but a band that comes off somehow as quite a bit more genuine and less cartoonish. And unlike Interpol, the Editors record doesn't lose steam, and doesn't start to all sound the same.
16. Deerhoof The Runners Four Another band that I gave up on a while back, Deerhoof occupies the same musical compartment, in my mind, as Blonde Redhead. And not simply because both feature Asian-American female vocalists. They both were reared on Sonic Youth, and both have been guilty of taking themselves a bit too seriously. The Runners Four is not an exception to this pattern, but is probably the most fully-realized album to come from Deerhoof. They have a real appreciation for the album as an artform, and this is a complete, solid, package, and an artistic feat that is as enjoyable as it is provocative.
17. Bruce Springsteen Devils & Dust Somehow, it feels weird to place any Bruce Springsteen release beneath albums by bands that very well may not be remembered in five years. Without a doubt, Devils & Dust will secure itself in the Springsteen canon. But it's a release that, to me, promised much more than it delivered. Certainly there are tracks here (the title track and "Reno" for example), that deliver what you expect from modern-day Bruce. But the album was a bit too monochromatic to get terribly excited about, and I didn't find myself returning to it over and over, as I have with even Bruce's most recent releases such as The Rising.
18. The Clientele Strange Geometry Every time I hear the Clientele, I feel like I am listening to a reissue of some overlooked band that struggled in the era when The Byrds and The Zombies succeeded. And for that reason alone, this isn't one of the most original releases of the year. But it is certainly one of the year's most enjoyable releases, with a great feel, nice hooks, and intricate but delicate guitar work.
19. Kanye West Late Registration I have a love/hate relationship with Kanye West. Like he's a kid that has enough promise to become President one day, but would rather just get a good gig in Sales. I often bemoan the state of Hip Hop, and long for the days when great acts melded philosophy, education, musical experimentation, and turned it into a party, or at least a riot. I miss the Public Enemys and the De La Souls and the BDPs. And, at times, Kanye succeeds at this, even if only for a track here or there. The very least Kanye West could do for Hip Hop is to prove that you don't need to put a skit between every song. But, Kanye's good. He's one of the very few Hip Hop artists that can transcend genres, address cultural issues (if briefly), and still get tons of airplay.
20. Fiona Apple Extraordinary Machine The greatest thing about this album, is we have two versions to listen to. And as much as I love Jon Brion's production, I found his version to be a bit too ornate and intricate to take in one sitting. The official, retooled version, while sometimes nothing more than a dumbed-down version of the Brion sessions, has its own merits, and serves as a nice yin to Brion's yang. The key is to become familiar enough with both that you begin to superimpose elements of each upon the other in your brain. And that, intentional or not, is revolutionary.
Also notable: Sleater-Kinney The Woods Low The Great Destroyer Kate Bush Aerial Broken Social Scene s/t Stephen Malkmus Face The Truth MIA Arular Menomena Under an Hour Boards of Canada The Campfire Heacase Danger Doom The Mouse and the Mask Paul McCartney Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard Death Cab For Cutie Plans Doves Some Cities The Oranges Band The World and Everything In It Silver Jews Tanglewood Numbers Super Furry Animals Love Kraft Thelonius Monk & John Coltrane Live At Carnegie Hall Wolf Parade Apologies To The Queen Mary Wilco Kicking Television: Live In Chicago Coldplay X&Y Bloc Party Silent Alarm Laura Cantrell -- Hummingbird by the Flowered Vine