I’ve been compiling my “favorite new music of 2005” list, and in doing so discovered just how many great music blogs there are out there. For some reason, this inspired me to want to add one of my own. I don’t usually find myself with the time or resources to aquire all that much new music so I’m not really sure what I think I can contribute, but I wrote a fairly extensive list, so I might as well post it.
It was only supposed to be the top 10, but things got a little out of hand, as they have a way of doing. I decided to make the cut at 20, though I’ve included 10 more “honorable mentions” because…well…I’m crazy.
All in all, this was a good year for music, though (apart from Sufjan Stevens) it lacks some of the overwhelming moments of past years (nothing like You Are the Generation That Bought More Shoes and You Get What You Deserve or Elevator Love Letter for example). And it’s telling, I think, that two of the top six albums (Okkervil River and the Decemberists) are not even the best disc by that artist, and another (The New Pornographers) only barely beats its predecessors. Four more in the top 20 (Death Cab, the Eels, Bruce Springsteen, Aimee Mann) are also the weaker siblings of older material.
Even so, there is a lot of really good stuff.
Onto the list…
1. Sufjan Stevens – Illinois
This is easily #1. I liked the earlier Sufjan Stevens albums a lot, but this one blows them out of the water. The other ones showed the potential, this one followed through and then some.
First of all, if you aren’t familiar with Sufjan (pronounced Soof-yan), he’s supposedly writing an album about each of the 50 states. Michigan was first, this is second. So the album is about Illinois, but really it’s about the people who live there. It’s full of geographic references to places I’ve never heard of, lots of little vignettes, stories told by and about the people who live in Illinois, all kinds of interesting things going on, from experimental segues to sparse acoustic songs about loss and life, the highs (Abraham Lincoln) and lows (John Wayne Gacy, Jr.) of Illinois history, and a great little song that’s about loving your stepmother, alligators, and includes the rhyme “Steven A. Douglass was a great debater / But Abraham Lincoln was the Great Emancipator.” Plus, there’s a song about zombies. And the song titles are all kinds of fun, in their own right. An example: “The Black Hawk War, or, How To Demolish An Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning, or, We Apologize for the Inconvenience But You’re Going To Have To Leave Now, or, “I Have Fought the Big Knives and Will Continue To Fight Them Till They Are Off Our Lands!”” You see what I’m talking about.
And I haven’t even talked about the music! There are quite a few moments on this album that just knock you over. The moment in “Come on! Feel the Illinoise!” when part 2 begins and Sufjan sings “I cried myself to sleep last night” is devastating beautiful. The whispered end to “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” is terrifying in its admission that “in my best behavior / I am really just like him / Look beneath the floorboards / For the secrets I have hid.” The chorus of Casimir Pulaski day (“oh the glory”) is heartbreaking. And I defy anyone to listen to “The Predatory Wasp…” and not be blown away when the slowly currents of the song hit their peak at the 2:30 mark.
Anyways, you really ought to own this album.
*Come on! Feel the Illinoise! -Part I: The World’s Columbian Exposition -Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream
*The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!
*Decatur, or, Round of Applause for your Step Mother!
*Casimir Pulaski Day
*basically the whole album
2. Okkervil River – Black Sheep Boy
This is a concept album of sorts, following a “black sheep” character through various trials and tribulations. There’s no coherent plot–it’s more a series of connected ideas than a single narrative. A little bit of alt, a little bit of country, a little bit of folk, a little bit of poetry, and a lot of passion. At their best Okkervil River sounds like 20 gallons of emotion crammed into a 10-gallon container. See “Black” for an example of this. It’s full of barely contained anger, dragged along by the beat, the tension building until he screams “you should wreck his life the way that he wrecked yours.” It’s probably my favorite song of the year.
This is a ragged album, and I mean that in the best possible sense. You get the feeling that they’re constantly on the edge of sanity—a gust of wind at the wrong time and it all would collapse. But somehow, it all stays together. There’s a lot of sadness, and not all that much hope, but somehow, you finish believing that there’s beauty worth salvaging, even in the worst of situations.
Highlights: Black, So Come Back I Am Waiting, A King and a Queen, The Latest Toughs
3. New Pornographers – Twin Cinema
If you liked their first two albums, you’ll like this one. More of the same, but a little bit better. More adventurous than either of the past albums, though it’s not really all that adventurous. Huge pop songs that just want to overwhelm you with hook after hook. They put the power in power-pop. I think the word infectious was coined to describe the New Pornographers. Either them or the flu. “The Bleeding Heart Show” might be my new favorite song by them. It’s not quite as overwhelmingly great as Letter from an Occupant but that makes the payoff at the end that much better. It slowly builds until just after the 2-minute mark when the guitars kick into gear, the pulse quickens, they go up one more notch, and then Neko Case belts out “we have arrived too late to play the bleeding heart show.” The last half of the song is definitely two of the best minutes of music this decade. My one complaint, which applies to every New Pornographers album, is that they don’t utilize Neko Case as much as I’d like. There’s nothing wrong with the other singers, but her voice is transcendent. If you have that available to you, why not use it?
Highlights: The Bleeding Heart Show, Stacked Crooked (particularly the last minute-thirty), Jackie Dressed in Cobras (is this the same Jackie from Mass Romantic? I have no idea), Sing Me Spanish Techno
4. Stars – Set Yourself On Fire
The Stars frustrate me a little bit because they so clearly have the potential to be a truly unbelievable band. It’s difficult to imagine a better song than “Elevator Love Letter,” which was on their previous album. On this album, the standout is “Ageless Beauty” which is just about as pretty a song as can be, churning guitars, and her great voice. Listening to that song is like hearing a kaleidoscope. Compared to moments like these, a lot of the rest of their songs seem…I don’t know, a little faded, not quite as alive. Which is not to say they’re bad; they just don’t have the same vitality. I think the Stars next album could easily do what “Illinois” did for Sufjan Stevens, vault a good band into the stratosphere. Even given that, this is easily one of the best albums of 2005. And did I mention her voice?
Highlights: Ageless Beauty, Calendar Girl, Your Ex-Lover is Dead
5. British Sea Power – Open Season
What’s not to like about this band? Their name is awesome, they sometimes perform live dressed in full World War I naval gear, they play nice poppy/new wave/vaguely experimental stuff. This album emphasizes the pop/new wave component a lot more than their previous stuff which was a little more post-punk, artsy stuff. The best songs (“Please Stand Up” being the main standout) are full of hooks, pure pop bliss, but with a lot of texture, layered guitars, and strong drumwork. The one problem with the album: the songs do tend to bleed into each other a lot. I’ve listened to it many times and enjoyed it greatly, but I have to admit that I still have some trouble remembering which song is which. That’s not a terrible thing since all of the songs are good, but a little more variation in the sound could have turned this from just being one of the best albums of 2005 into one of the best albums of the decade.
Highlights: Please Stand Up, To Get to Sleep, Victorian Ice
6. Decemberists – Picaresque
To be honest, as highly as I’ve ranked it, this album is a bit of a disappointment. Castaways and Cutouts is easily one of my favorite albums of all-time, and it makes me a little sad that they haven’t produced anything that matches up with the best of that album since. Still, it’s a disappointment only because it’s good-but-not-great. Which is hardly the end of the world. They branch out a little bit, with some slightly more poppy songs (Sixteen Military Wives, The Sporting Life), and some longer story-oriented songs, but there’s still a lot of 19th century-esque songs with great lyrics and great tunes. The more involved songs are among my least favorite – I’ve always thought the Decemberists were at their best when they were playing dreamy, literate indie-pop, not the epic stories – but despite my minor complaints, there isn’t a bad song on the disc.
Highlights: Sixteen Military Wives, The Engine Driver, The Sporting Life
7. Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning
I never got that into Bright Eyes. Couldn’t deal with the warbling voice and the overwrought songs. He had a lot of good stuff but every album seemed to be 3 or 4 good songs surrounded by stuff I just couldn’t stand. This album, though, is solid the whole way through. It’s got a lot less of the teenage angst and a lot more of the Americana, good ol’ folk songs that he’s best at. The potential has always been there, but this time around, the signal-to-noise ratio has increased substantially. If he can keep up this kind of production, he’s going to make some seriously good music in the next few years.
Highlights: At the Bottom of Everything (though the little story at the beginning is exactly the overly precious stuff I wish he would do less of), Road to Joy, Another Travelin’ Song
8. Wolf Parade – Apologies to the Queen Mary
I only got around to listening to this album in the last couple days, so I’m a lot less familiar with it than with some of the others on the list, but even after only a couple times through, I can tell that this deserves a spot in the top 10. Think about your reaction to Arcade Fire last year and you’ll get a good sense of how you’ll respond to this disc. Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse) recorded a bunch of the album, and you can definitely sense that vibe as well. The songs careen, emotions rise and fall. Listening to the album feels like being caught up in a storm; you can’t be sure where you’ll end up and what will still be standing afterwards, but there’s something incredibly exciting about the chaos. For all that, it’s in many ways, a very uncomplicated album about the little moments in life that are often universal but seem impossible to define or describe. In that sense, I feel like if Bruce Springsteen was born 30 years later and lived in Montreal, he would be fronting for this band. Not because the music sounds the same, but there’s just something at the core of both that ties them together in my mind. One line I particularly like: “we say using god’s hands / But god doesn’t always have the best god damn plans, does he?”
Because I haven’t listened much, I ranked this album conservatively. I could definitely see it rising up a lot in the long term.
Highlights: I’ll Believe in Anything, Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts, Grounds for Divorce
9. The National – Alligator
This is another album I got to pretty late in the game. The first thing I noticed about them is Matt Berringer’s voice. It’s incredibly evocative, despite being, basically, just a normal baritone. I can’t really put my finger on what makes his voice so powerful. Maybe it’s that it can sound strong, yet simultaneously feel like he’s constantly on the brink of shattering into pieces. The music, well, it’s sort of a cliché to say it, but they sound like Coldplay, if Coldplay didn’t suck. There are moments of beautiful, quiet sadness and there are moments of tired resignation. But he is not without hope. When he sounds closest to succumbing he is dragged along by the persistent drums, forced to face the future. At times, it sounds to me like Berringer is adrift in the middle of the ocean. But the drums are his lifeboat and the guitars are the currents of the ocean. All he can do is hang on and hope against hope that he will be deposited someplace safe, where he can finally let his guard down completely. When the album reaches its conclusion with “Mr. November,” it feels quite climactic. He sings “I wish that I believed in fate” and I know exactly what he means. I wish I believed in fate, too.
Highlights: Mr. November, Abel, The Geese of Beverley Road
10. Mountain Goats – The Sunset Tree
People either seem to love or hate the Mountain Goats. I’ve heard people describe John Darnielle (the guy who is the Mountain Goats) as the closest thing this generation has to Dylan, and I’ve heard other people describe his music as lo-fi, warbly garbage. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. This album is probably his most polished. It’s still not exactly Phil Spector, but it doesn’t sound like it was recorded on a 4-track in a basement, either. This is both good and bad – the higher production values do tend to mean that a lot of the songs sound the same. But it also means that there aren’t any musical duds. As for the “concept” of the album, it’s about growing up, escaping from the confines of a broken home, an abusive stepfather, and tough childhood, and finding out what life will be like out there. However, it’s a pretty loosely hanging concept—you don’t need to follow the story for any of the songs to be meaningful. It’s more a series of vignettes than it is a coherent narrative. It drags on a bit in the second half, and there are a few songs that just don’t have any snap, but the good moments are quite good. In particular, the song “This Year” where he declares “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.” The uneasy defiance, the resignation that refuses to give up hope, the way he sounds exhausted but willing to suffer anything in order to survive, it makes for a touching and powerful song.
Highlights: This Year, Broom People, Up the Wolves
11. Mendoza Line – Full of Light and Full of Fire
I bought this album recently because I read a review that compared it to early Springsteen, early Replacements, and early Wilco, and went on to say that is is “easily one of the best albums of the decade.” I would not go nearly as far as that, but it has its moments. It really is fair to say that if you threw Bob Dylan circa “Blood on the Tracks” into a blender with Paul Westerberg, and invited Neko Case to sing on some of the tracks, you’d have a fair sample of this album. It’s an record about people who find dignity in living lives of quiet desperation. Even the name of the band (a baseball term for hitting .200 – about as bad as anyone can do and still have any hope for staying in the league) evokes this idea. They are writing songs about the people just barely staying afloat, holding onto the dreams they once had and are in danger of losing. The characters in these songs are forced to face the fact that their lives will never be as happy as they once had hoped, yet are struggling to find ways to create new dreams for themselves, without glamour, fame, or a silly idea of perfection, but which will be all the more beautiful because they have been tempered by pain.
A line from “Catch a Collapsing Star” pretty much sums up the album: “accept no imitations, baby, catch a collapsing star / it’s our limitations that make us what we are.” The two singers trade off the lead vocals, but the best moments are when they’re singing together, the nasally twang of Timothy Bracy merging with and then moving aside for he silvery voice of Shannon McArdle. Her two standout tracks are “Water Surrounds” a song that exudes weariness without succumbing to it about as well as any I have ever heard, and “The Lethal Temptress” which kicks some serious ass.
Highlights: Catch a Collapsing Star, The Lethal Temptress, Water Surrounds
12. My Morning Jacket – Z
I’m torn on this album. There’s a part of me that thinks it’s really great; there’s another that says it really isn’t anything all that special. I have no desire to gush about it the way I do about a lot of other albums this year, even ones ranked lower. Still, it’s quite good. This is southern rock without all the annoying baggage that sometimes goes along with that. But there’s more to it than that. Lots of reverb, occasional psychedelic meanderings, and a couple driving rock songs. Basically, it doesn’t fit together in any way that I can figure out. The songs don’t seem to lead into each other, the syncopated howling, swooping coda of “Wordless Chorus” ends suddenly and the indie-alt-country guitar and drum of “It Beats For You” jumps out. Also, they seem to talk about God a lot. Not really sure what’s up with that. And “Off the Record” is an unbelievably catchy tune for 3 minutes and then suddenly goes all ambient. And I don’t even know what’s going on with “Into the Woods.”
As a sign of my conflicted feelings about this disc, I notice I have failed to even mention my three favorite tracks so far. Hmmm. Anyways, this is a good album, but I can’t quite put my finger on why.
Highlights: Gideon, Anytime, Laylow
13. Death Cab for Cutie – Plans
There’s nothing wrong with this album. If it was the debut of some band I’d never heard of, I think I probably would have ranked it higher. It’s just…I don’t know…a lot less than I had hoped for from Death Cab. They’ve always been very much about pop music, but it had an edge. This album is, frankly, kind of boring. 11 warm guitar-driven songs that would fit in great on the OC. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I love the OC and I love Death Cab. But, a little variation would be nice. There’s nothing that’s even close to the heights of the past (no Title Track, no Photobooth, not even a “Movie Script Ending”).
The best song is probably “Soul Meets Body” which has a great beat, but contains an utterly inexplicable 20 seconds where the beat stops, everything slows down, the guitar starts going in eccentric circles, and he sings the title of the song a couple of times. It’s jarring, completely baffling, and it really ruins the flow of the song for me. “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” is a very pretty song, just Ben and his guitar. But it’s not a fantastic song, just pretty. “What Sarah Said” is good, but drags on quite a bit. “Transatlanticism” on their last disc clocked in at 8 minutes, but it was worth every second as it slowly built to a huge crescendo. This song just kind of keeps going. Like Bilbo says, it feels stretched, like butter that’s been spread over too much bread.
So it’s a good disc and I’d definitely recommend it, but I guess it comes down to this: I’ve had it since early September and have only listened to it 6 or 7 times. I’ve had the Wolf Parade album for less than a week and have listened to it that many times.
Highlights: Soul Meets Body, I Will Follow You Into the Dark, What Sarah Said
14. Eels – Blinking Lights and Other Revelations
The Eels went from two of my top 20 all-time albums (Beautiful Freak and Electro Shock Blues) to a very nice record (Daisies of the Galaxy) to a very spotty record (Souljacker) to a totally inessential mediocrity (the unfortunately titled Shootenanny!). The progression was not a good one. But they have somewhat redeemed themselves with this double-disc. It’s nowhere near the heights of their first couple, but there’s a lot to like here. Lots of plinking pianos, organs, softly plucked guitars, wry observations about life, bitterness followed by resignation followed by glints of hope. However, it’s the musical equivalent of the Great Plains, no peaks, no valleys, lots and lots of the same landscape. There are something like 8 or 9 two-minute instrumental songs, many of which are variations on the same theme. And there are probably another dozen songs that are very similar. Giving an album a coherent feel is one thing, but making it all sound the same is another. There aren’t many songs I don’t like, but there are none that I couldn’t live without either. It’s a good record, but it’s definitely not a great one. And considering that the subject matter is life, the universe, and everything, “good enough” doesn’t quite cut it. It strives to be something truly meaningful but ends up feeling a little trite and overdone. Which is a shame, because there really is a lot to like here.
Highlights: like I said, there aren’t really any. If you wanted to pick a couple songs to try out: Railroad Man, Losing Streak, Suicide Life, and From Which I Came/A Magic World wouldn’t be terrible places to start.
15. Cardigans – Super Extra Gravity
Yes, those Cardigans of “Lovefool” fame. Who knew they were still around? Not this guy. But I read on a blog that they had a new album and downloaded the single “I Need Some Fine Wine and You, You Need to Be Nicer” and was reminded how good they are. This is not a groundbreaking album in any sense, but it’s a pretty good take on the “pop songs with a hint of melancholy” genre. And they’re from Sweden, so that’s always fun.
Highlights: Good Morning Joan, I Need Some Fine Wine and You You Need to Be Nicer, Overload
16. The Hold Steady – Separation Sunday
This is a rock album. Yeah, they still make those. Driving guitars, a singer who doesn’t sing so much as he spits out the words, varying between shouting and speaking the lyrics. And the vocals are right up front. They want you to hear about the misguided people in the songs, caught up in their experiences with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. All the classic rock and roll elements are here, the guitar solos, the extended codas to songs, verses, choruses, the piano interludes, and so on.
Highlights: Your Little Hoodrat Friend, Stevie Nix, How a Resurrection Really Feels
17. Bruce Springsteen – Devils and Dust
The Boss ain’t what he used to be, but he can still write some pretty darn good songs. This album is sort of a mixture of his previous stuff. Take two parts “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” add one part “The Rising,” add a pinch of “The River,” and garnish with “Nebraska.” He doesn’t really break any new ground here, but the tunes are good. I’m sure I’ve gone on my “Bruce Springsteen is one of the most important American cultural commentators” rant at one time or another for most of you, so I won’t really go into that. Suffice to say that all the things you’d expect from him are present to some degree: beaten down characters who still find a reason to live, people with troubling pasts coming back to haunt them, invocations of liberation in whatever form it may take (religious or otherwise), lives of quiet desperation, the uncertainty of salvation, etc. None of the songs on this album rise to the level of his best work, either musically or thematically. There’s no Thunder Road, Darkness on the Edge of Town, or “My City of Ruins,” or really anything close. But it’s definitely worth giving a listen.
Highlights: Long Time Comin’, Black Cowboys, Jesus Was an Only Son
18. Bloc Party – Silent Alarm
I’ve read a lot of rave reviews of this album. I’m not nearly as high on it as some of those folks, but it is undeniably catchy. Good old fashioned rock and roll. Tight songs, no nonsense, a little New Wave, lots of big hooks. If you like Franz Ferdinand or the Strokes or the Killers or, frankly, Duran Duran, you’ll probably like Bloc Party, too.
Highlights: Like Eating Glass, Banquet, This Modern Love
19. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
One of the most hyped albums of the year. I’ll be honest; I don’t really get what all the fuss is about. His voice is a little annoying, and the inexplicable choice to make the first track a piece of completely unlistenable garbage didn’t help. That said, most of the album is pretty good, and a few of the songs are quite good. I’ve read reviews that have compared them to pretty much everyone that’s anyone in indie rock these days. Arcade Fire, Interpol, Modest Mouse, Pavement, etc. and so on. If I had to pick one reference, I guess it would be early Built to Spill, except his voice is a lot weirder than Dough Martsch’s.
Highlights: In This Home on Ice, The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth, Details of the War
20. Aimee Mann – The Forgotten Arm
Deciding what would be #20 was tough. It’s a pretty big drop from Clap Your Hands to here, and any one of a number of albums could easily have been the last pick. I went with Aimee Mann for a couple of reasons. First, she has a really amazing voice. Second, this is a fairly well executed concept album. It’s about John, a boxer, and Caroline, who meet, fall in lover, travel the country, have problems with drugs, meet a strange cast of characters, eventually resolve their problems, and live (maybe happily, maybe not) ever after. The songs really do tell the story and while the plot is not really anything special, the character development is pretty strong, as far as concept albums go. So what’s the problem with it? Well, it really could have been a lot better. The songs feel strangely clinical; for an album about pain, suffering, love, hatred, and redemption, it never really feels like much. The songs all bleed together as well. I’m not sure I could hum the tune of more than one or two of them, even after a dozen listens. I’ve always liked Aimee Mann because of how her songs made me feel. Many of her songs were great because they only hinted at complicated and unhappy lives without ever trying to be explicit. The mystery, the feeling that the song was only a brief glimpse into a much bigger picture was part of the magic.. “The Forgotten Arm” seems far too focused on telling the story over punchy tunes, to the exclusion of letting us understand how the characters feel.
Highlights: Goodbye Caroline, Little Bombs, That’s How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart
Sleater-Kinney – The Woods. This is probably their best album so far. I just have never really been able to get into them. If I was into them, this would definitely be way up on the list. It’s very well done, and at it’s best is almost overpowering. It just isn’t really my thing, so they just miss the cut. Modern Girl is one of the prettiest songs that’ll ever kick your ass. And “Let’s Call it Love” is a fairly close musical approximation of being blown up by 100 sticks of dynamite.
Crooked Fingers – Dignity and Shame. The new band by the guy from Archers of Loaf. Some nice songs. In particular, Call to Love has a very nice boy/girl back and forth thing going on.
Andrew Bird – The Mysterious Production Of Eggs. Fake Palindromes is a fantastic song. The rest of the album is okay, but just doesn’t do all that much for me.
Lucksmiths – Warmer Corners. They’re Australian. They play bright, warm, melodic, pleasant songs. The Music Next Door and “Putting it Off and Putting it On” are decent examples.
Broken Social Scene – Broken Social Scene. I could really do without their experimental stuff, but when the just play (more or less) straight-up indie rock, they’re about as good at is as anyone. Check out Fire Eye’d Boy and 7/4 (Shoreline)
Tori Amos – The Beekeeper. Tori being Tori. No stand-out tracks, through “Sleeps with Butterflies” and “Cars and Guitars” are both nice.
Kanye West – Late Registration. There are a fair number of songs on here I don’t like at all, but at its best, this is a sophisticated and enjoyable listen. I liked “The College Dropout” and his collaboration for this album with Jon Brion is even better. “Gone” is six minutes of pleasure and “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” is powerful.
Paul McCartney – Chaos and Creation in the Backyard. People say this is his best album since “Band on the Run.” I guess that might be true (though I’d definitely take “Tug of War” and “Venus and Mars” before this, and probably “London Town”), but I’m not really sure I get what all the fuss is about. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Beatles more than…well, pretty much anything. And I love the post-Beatles stuff a whole lot, too. But I’m not going to go gah-gah over an album just because Paul made it. Which is not to say this is bad; it’s certainly not. But it’s not like this is the second coming of “Hey Jude” or anything. I guess it might be the second coming of “Red Rose Speedway,” though, which isn’t worth going crazy over, but it isn’t anything to scoff at, either.
Ryan Adams – Cold Roses
I have listened to this double-album all the way through probably half a dozen times. I enjoyed it each time, so I know I like it. But I couldn’t tell you what it actually sounds like, beyond “well, uh, it sounds like a Ryan Adams album.” So it doesn’t do all that much for me. Let it Ride is the one song that sticks out.
Bear Vs Shark – Terrorhawk. I’ve only heard a couple songs off this album, so I can’t rank it, but the stuff that I’ve heard is awesome. Very punk, very angry, crunching guitars, but strong melodies underneath it all.