What defined 2005? Was it the continuing post-punk revival? The unexpectedly awesome return of Neil Diamond? "My Humps"? Who's to say, especially since the songs that ultimately take listeners back to a particular year usually don't reveal themselves until years later? But in spite of the futility of it all, The A.V. Club decided to give shape to the year the only way we know how: Top 10 lists. Below are our music writers' picks for 2005, and some random thoughts on the year that was.
1) The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema (Matador)
2) Iron & Wine and Calexico, In The Reins (Overcoat Recordings)
What do you get when you mix the moody, intelligent songcraft of Iron & Wine's Sam Beam and the gorgeous alt-country instrumentation of Calexico? One hell of a fine record, even if it's only seven songs long.
3) Low, The Great Destroyer (Sub Pop)
For Low's first record on Sub Pop, a label known for bands much noisier than the famously subdued Duluth trio, Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann cranked up the amps and showed that Low could increase the volume without sacrificing the intimacy that made its music special.
4) The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday (Frenchkiss Records)
5) Atmosphere, You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having (Rhymesayers)
6) Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion, Exploration (New West Records)
A lovely, laid-back set of alt-country tunes by husband-and-wife duo Irion and Guthrie, Exploration lives up to the legacy laid down by the famous folkies in Sara Lee's family tree–dad Arlo and grandpa Woody–with warm, humanist songs celebrating love and social justice. (No need for eye-rolling; the sentiments are presented too gently to be preachy, and too beautifully to be irritating.) The warm, harmony-drenched country vibe recalls The Jayhawks, which isn't surprising, since Gary Louris co-produced the disc.
7) Bob Dylan, No Direction Home: The Soundtrack (Columbia)
Hundreds (if not thousands) of others have covered him, but the primary interpreter of Bob Dylan's music is Dylan himself. His live shows are famous for startling new arrangements of familiar songs, even when the originals were already classics. And the entire second disc of this terrific time-capsule double CD (which is both a companion to Martin Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home and Vol. 7 of the ongoing Bootleg Series) is devoted to rare alternate takes from Dylan's most spellbindingly creative period, the electric albums of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde. No Dylanophile should be without this.
8) Konono No. 1, Congotronics (Crammed Discs)
Like Bob Dylan, who found something vibrantly new in the marriage between his Beat-inspired poetry and the cranked-up volume of an electric guitar, Congolese musician Mawangu Mingiedi discovered something wonderfully strange and hypnotic when he tried to make his band's traditional songs heard on the busy streets of Kinshasa, and was forced to accept the distortions created by the jury-rigged amplifiers he plugged his instruments into. Though Konono's music is still steeped in the pulsating rhythms and likembe thumb-piano melodies of its ancestral form, the radical sonic shift–aided by police whistles and percussion instruments made from metal pots and car parts–makes it sound as futuristic as the most cutting-edge Western electronic music.
9) Andrew Bird, The Mysterious Production Of Eggs (Righteous Babe)
With a surname like his, you'd think Andrew Bird would already know how eggs are made. But he does know a thing or two about rebirth, having moved from a darling of the retro-swing movement in the 1990s to the thoughtful folk-rock of his later work, which has always blazed its own eccentric path. As a case in point, Eggs marks Bird's first extensive use of the guitar, a contraption in somewhat wider acceptance elsewhere in the music industry.
10) Four Tet, Everything Ecstatic (Domino Recording Company)
13 & God, 13 & God (Anticon)
The Bad Plus, Suspicious Activity? (Columbia)
Black Mountain, Druganaut (Jagjaguwar)
Brian Eno, Another Day On Earth (Hannibal)
Gogol Bordello, Gypsy Punks, (Side One Dummy)
Halloween, Alaska, Too Tall To Hide (East Side Digital)
Jeff Hanson, Jeff Hanson (Kill Rock Stars)
Happy Apple, The Peace Between Our Companies (Sunny Side)
Ivy, In The Clear (Nettwerk)
Seu Jorge, Cru (Wrasse) and The Life Aquatic Studio Sessions (Hollywood Records)
Ladytron, Witching Hour (Rykodisc)
Metric, Live It Out (Last Gang)
M.I.A., Arular (XL)
Mugison, Mugimama Is This Monkey Music? (Ipecac)
Of Montreal, The Sunlandic Twins (Polyvinyl)
Sage Francis, A Healthy Distrust (Epitaph)
Sinéad O'Connor, Throw Down Your Arms (That's Why There's Chocolate And Vanilla)
Sleater-Kinney, The Woods (Sub Pop)
The Soviettes, LP III (Fat Wreck Chords)
The White Stripes, Get Behind Me Satan (V2)
Great Cover Songs Of 2005
Jonathan Coulton, "Baby Got Back": The humorist (and guitarist on John Hodgman's hilarious "700 Hobo Names" song) does a hilariously straight-faced soft-rock version of Sir Mix-A-Lot's ode to the booty.
The Donnas, "Drive My Car," and Low, "Nowhere Man": Both from the Beatles tribute This Bird Has Flown, one's a reverent take on Paul McCartney's pure pop gem, and the other's a stripped-down slowcore rendering of John Lennon's melancholy classic.
Benjamin Wagner, "Girlfriend": Backed up by The Nadas, Wagner offers up an appropriately sweet bluegrass-tinged version of Matthew Sweet's romantic slice of power-pop.
Jenny Lewis, "Handle With Care": Technically, it's a 2006 song, since the record doesn't come out until January, but on her solo disc, Rilo Kiley singer Lewis features a nice update of the 1980s hit by The Traveling Wilburys.
The Subways, "Staring At The Sun": The English indie-rock trio offers a fragile, charming acoustic update to the TV On The Radio song.
Sinéad O'Connor, "Throw Down Your Arms": Willie Nelson also stepped out with an unexpectedly reverent reggae album this year, but O'Connor's disc simply rang with conviction. Great work.
1) Animal Collective, Feels (Fat Cat)
Ecstatic and unhinged in deceivingly rigorous ways, Feels translates Animal Collective's private-language ritual music to the grammar of rock. Guitars glimmer and drums splash through psychedelic swirls, but the voices are the key: There's no extracting such gorgeous melodies and harmonies once they find a brain to tumble around in.
2) Out Hud, Let Us Never Speak Of It Again (Kranky)
3) Dominik Eulberg, Kreucht & Fleucht (Mischwald)
A double-disc mix rich with timely techno touchstones, Kreucht & Fleucht hiccups and heaves through a lesson in heavy breathing. Some tracks are mellow and melodic; others are slathered thick with effects. All of them map the new netherworld where "ketamine house" reigns supreme.
4) Matias Aguayo, Are You Really Lost (Kompakt)
5) Sufjan Stevens, Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty)
6) Jamie Lidell, Multiply (Warp)
A supremely soulful album by a twitchy electronic musician who likes to take it easy, Multiply finds Jamie Lidell sounding more like Otis Redding and Sly Stone than any white Englishman should. It's a genre exercise of a sort, but Lidell's wowing vocal presence spins perceived skepticism on its axis.
7) LCD Soundsystem, LCD Soundsystem (DFA/EMI)
8) Supersystem, Always Never Again (Tough And Go)
A singular electro-rock band with a worldly disposition, Supersystem laces antic dance music with simmering guitar leads grabbed from Africa. Why haven't more bands done this? Why don't all bands do this?
9) Antony And The Johnsons, I Am A Bird Now (Secretly Canadian)
10) Gwen Stefani, Love. Angel. Music. Baby. (Interscope)
A late-2004 release that gathered weight as this year lumbered on, Love. Angel. Music. Baby. is so pop it doesn't stop to wonder what might work and what might not. Gwen Stefani sounds like 12 different stars surveyed in sequence, and even her bum tracks (there are a few) snap with more sass than anything else on the charts.
Three 6 Mafia, Most Known Unknowns (Sony)
Various Artists, 2Rabimmel 2Rabammel 2Rabum 2Bum Bum (Areal)
Deerhoof, The Runners Four (Kill Rock Stars)
Amadou & Mariam, Diamanche A Bamako (Nonesuch)
Gang Gang Dance, God's Money (The Social Registry)
Listen To The Hiss Of Pages Turning
In a strong year for music books, two in particular made a good case for canon status. Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History Of The Hip-Hop Generation (St. Martin's) charts the roots of rap as a social movement, matching musical genealogy to an impeccably reported survey of the world in which hip-hop first took hold. From the Bronx's arson-scorched ruins to the Reagan White House's ideology-scorched ruins, Chang's backdrops jump to the foreground in a heady history fit for readers of all persuasions. Paul Morley's Words And Music: A History Of Pop In The Shape Of A City (University Of Georgia) is a much different book: Revolving around one man's habitual return to songs by Kylie Minogue and avant-garde composer Alvin Lucier, it addresses nothing short of the history of the universe through the scattered stories that pop music tells without even meaning to. It's a decidedly unfocused tome, to be sure, but why shouldn't Charlie Chaplin and T.S. Eliot share page-space with Brian Eno and The White Stripes?
It goes without saying that must-hear reissues abounded as music history continued to fold in on itself, but a particular must-hear is the collection of frayed-nerve screeds by legendary New York "no wave" band DNA. Compiling early-'80s studio and live tracks from a group often discussed but seldom heard, DNA On DNA (No More Records) bristles with art-rock played by what sounds like a band of mannequins defleshed and forced to read critical theory while sucking on oxidized coins. It's the sound of a band that couldn't have been less interested in what came before, which sounds like an interesting notion indeed.
1) The Go! Team, Thunder, Lightning, Strike (Columbia)
Filled with jubilant music for people who consider Violent Femmes' debut a "party album," this Brighton sextet's debut full-length never lets up in its quest to cheerlead listeners into believing that even amid depressing world events, great beats and triumphant melodies will make everything all right. The album was originally issued last year overseas, but the new stateside version–with some reworked samples to avoid legal problems–is even better, thanks to the inclusion of the glorious "We Just Won't Be Defeated," which acts as a perfect subtitle for Thunder, Lightning, Strike.
2) Rogue Wave, Descended Like Vultures (Sub Pop)
Rogue Wave's debut received plenty of glowing reviews, but Descended Like Vultures makes Out Of The Shadow sound like leader Zach Rogue was just warming up. And in a way, he was–Vultures is Rogue Wave's debut as a solidified band, and the Oakland quartet has delivered a full-bodied album that feels bigger, stronger, and more focused than its predecessor. Rogue's tales of strained and broken relationships are buoyed by such dreamy pop instrumentation that it's easy to forget you're joyously singing along with songs about divorce.
3) Coldplay, X&Y (Capitol)
There were all sorts of reasons to dismiss Coldplay's third studio full-length before even hearing it, the main one being that major-label bands tinkering with an album for too long usually translates into a product that's about as flavorful as a rice cake smeared with poi. But Chris Martin and those other three guys have made what could very well be their crowning achievement, and they've done it (once again) with melancholy pop songs that are easily digestible for the crossover crowd and sharp enough to keep discerning ears coming back for more. Oh, and "Fix You" is arguably the best emo song released this year.
4) Maria Taylor, 11:11 (Saddle Creek)
5) Broken Social Scene, Broken Social Scene (Arts & Crafts)
6) The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema (Matador)
7) Sigur Rós, Takk… (Geffen)
8) Eels, Blinking Lights And Other Revelations (Vagrant)
Mark Oliver Everett's latest is a monster, but a thorough investigation of the 33-song, 94-minute album reveals so many emotions and different shades of pop that it's worth clearing some time to ingest it as a whole. Opening with the author's birth and closing with the wonderful confessional "Things The Grandchildren Should Know," Blinking Lights And Other Revelations is a moving song cycle that makes listeners think about where they've been and where they're going. And "I'm Going To Stop Pretending That I Didn't Break Your Heart" is like a reminder of everyone who deserves an apology.
9) Sun Kil Moon, Tiny Cities (Caldo Verde)
Mark Kozelek's past is littered with covers of everyone from Simon & Garfunkel to John Denver to The Cars, but his decision to rework songs written by a hip, active band still came as a bit of shock. The 11 songs on Tiny Cities originated on a wide range of Modest Mouse releases, but Kozelek has delicately, beautifully, cohesively brought them together on the most unique covers record since What's Next To The Moon, his take on Bon Scott-era AC/DC.
10) Bloc Party, Silent Alarm (Vice)
What Have You Done For Us Lately?
Bands get back together all the time, but the number of significant groups that have retied the knot over the past couple of years has made the trend difficult to overlook. Of all these acts, however, the most notable has to be the college-rock heroes in Pixies. After strutting around the world last year on their version of the Eagles' Hell Freezes Over tour, the almighty quartet went for another spin in 2005, with decidedly underwhelming results. The problem? They still don't have a new album.
Armed with lesser discographies, reunited groups like Echo And The Bunnymen, Camper Van Beethoven, and American Music Club had more energy in 2005 than Black Francis, Kim Deal & co. simply because they were being driven by creative urges, not just nostalgic or financial ones. Jane's Addiction proved a few years ago that just because a band makes a new record doesn't mean its reunion is a success, but the members of groups like The Olivia Tremor Control, the original Dinosaur Jr., and Slint (if they choose to re-form yet again) would be wise to learn from the Pixies' mistake and start writing before hitting the road again.
It's Called A Breakup Because It's Broken
Bands that shouldn't get back together, even if they have albums up their sleeves:
The Smiths. The recent public flare-up between Moz and Mike Joyce is yet another nail in the coffin for a band that has nothing left to prove.
The Stone Roses. If you don't think this band ran out of gas early in its career, grab a copy of Second Coming from the cutout bin.
Pavement. Acting like they didn't give a shit stopped being cool when they actually stopped giving a shit.
Guns N' Roses. Even if Slash, Duff, and Cowbell Adler were back in the fold, a reunited version of this previously intimidating group of gutter-dwellers is destined to become the house band for Clowntown, USA.
U2. Preemptive wishful thinking.
Gas Left In The Tank
Bands that should give it another shot:
The Afghan Whigs. Greg Dulli is doing just fine as The Twilight Singers, but every time he pulls out an old jam, there's a sparkle that suggests a Whigs reunion would be righteous.
The Smashing Pumpkins. This could quickly turn into a mess, but The Bald One's heart is definitely in the right place.
Lync. Led by Love As Laughter's Sam Jayne, this spastically beautiful (and extremely short-lived) punk band set its drums on fire during its final show, and would probably be just as incendiary if it returned to action.
Unrest. A performance during the 20th-anniversary celebration for Mark Robinson's Teenbeat label proved this is certainly a possibility, and a lack of any downturn in the discography of the influential indie-rock band suggests new music could be just as solid.
Polvo. Though it lost the plot on its final album, this Chapel Hill outfit known for its detuned guitars and odd melodies fought conventions with the kind of energy that makes it seem like there are more chapters to be written.
1) The National, Alligator (Beggar's Banquet)
If slowcore got angry and drunk and started listening to Nick Cave instead of Bread, it might approximate The National, a brooding, brilliant Brooklyn outfit that seemed to reach a zenith with 2003's Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, but trumped that album handily with Alligator. Literate, moody, strange, and beautiful, the disc doesn't waste a second: It roughs up Tindersticks moods one minute and scrambles indie assumptions the next.
2) Crooked Fingers, Dignity And Shame (Merge)
3) Chad VanGaalen, Infiniheart (Sub Pop)
Chad VanGaalen's American debut Infiniheart feels less like an album than a jumble of amazing ideas, which makes sense considering it was cobbled together from dozens of songs recorded in his Canadian bedroom. When he hits, he channels some sort of otherworld Neil Young, twisting weird little melodies into timeless, ghostly folk-rock.
4) Death Cab For Cutie, Plans (Atlantic)
5) Sigur Rós, Takk… (Geffen)
Sure, it's the most easily digested album by Icelandic soundsheet technicians Sigur Rós, but that just means the swells and crescendos of Takk… only feel like they're from a different planet, not a different universe. The lyrics are still incomprehensible, but the crashes and moods inspire with symphonic hugeness, not microscopic character studies.
6) Maxïmo Park, A Certain Trigger (Warp)
Though lumped in–sort of fairly–with British bands like Bloc Party and The Kaiser Chiefs, Maxïmo Park thinks of British post-punk with a wider scope, plucking influence from The Jam, XTC, and even later Brit-rock. More important than their sound is what they do with it, and what they do with it is house economical, spunky, and almost painfully catchy songs like "Apply Some Pressure" and "The Coast Is Always Changing."
7) Low, The Great Destroyer (Sub Pop)
8) Bloc Party, Silent Alarm (Vice)
9) Clem Snide, End Of Love (SpinArt)
10) Troubled Hubble, Making Beds In A Burning House (Lookout)
Great Songs From Releases That Didn't Make The List
Bloc Party, "Tulips (Club Version)"
The Decemberists, "Of Angels And Angles"
Fiona Apple, "Not About Love"
And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, "Worlds Apart"
Coldplay, "Speed Of Sound"
New Order, "Krafty"
Spoon, "The Two Sides Of Monsieur Valentine"
Beck, "Hell Yes"
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, "The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth"
Art Brut, "Formed A Band"
Rogue Wave, "Publish My Love"
M83, "Don't Save Us From The Flames"
New Buffalo, "I've Got You And You've Got Me"
Boards Of Canada, "Chromakey Dreamcoat"
Broken Social Scene, "Windsurfing Nation"
Kaiser Chiefs, "I Predict A Riot"
Kanye West, "Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix)"
Bright Eyes, "Easy/Lucky/Free"
Punk Is Almost Surely Dead, But Its Chosen Delivery Method Lives On
This year trended hard toward non-physical music ownership–every kid on the block has an iPod, and their little brothers and sisters might think of CDs the way we think of rotary phones–but small bands of vinyl loyalists in the indie and dance worlds still cooked up desirable discs with attractive extras. Death Cab For Cutie's terrific Plans featured a gatefold sleeve, heavy-duty vinyl, and an extra track; The Decemberists' Picaresque did one better, fitting in an oversized booklet and a whopping five extra songs (called Picaresqueties). Interpol made its inessential remix EP more attractive with a quadruple(!) vinyl version. On the smaller side, plenty of weird nuggets surfaced on seven-inch discs, including Pedro The Lion's annual Christmas single, several beautifully packaged Arcade Fire discs, and a bizarre take-off on the '70s novelty hit "Mr. Jaws" based on a legendary collaboration between Will Oldham and The Silver Jews. It's called "Mr. Jews," of course.
1) My Morning Jacket, Z (ATO/RCA)
My Morning Jacket has always made pretty good records, even though they tend to be rambling and padded out with aimless jams. But Z represents something like a conversion, with 10 unassailable songs packed into 47 minutes, cycling through styles from R&B to reggae to surf to prog to sadcore to southern rock. The eclecticism is unified by the high-lonesome moan of singer-songwriter Jim James, who gives My Morning Jacket its grandeur and pounding heart.
2) Clem Snide, End Of Love (spinART)
3) Crooked Fingers, Dignity And Shame (Merge)
4) Kings Of Leon, Aha Shake Heartbreak (RCA)
5) The Decemberists, Picaresque (Kill Rock Stars)
6) Constantines, Tournament Of Hearts (Sub Pop)
7) The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema (Matador)
Since Twin Cinema followed a trio of fine 2004 solo albums by the three primary New Pornographers–Carl Newman, Dan Bejar, and Neko Case–the sheer quality of the new album's songs came as a mild surprise, to the extent that it was a little tough to trust. It took three or four spins through new classics like "Use It," "Jackie Dressed In Cobras," and "Sing Me Spanish Techno" for the reaction "Ho-hum, another good New Pornographers album" to become "Holy balls, how do they do it?"
8) The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday (Frenchkiss)
The backlash is in full effect against The Hold Steady, who just a year ago were making lists of "the best bands you haven't heard." Maybe hype just doesn't suit a group whose musical innovations are limited to some stolen power chords and dynamic rhythms, but can't the naysayers hear how funny the band is? Sure, singer-songwriter Craig Finn shouts all his lines and repeats himself, but he also sketches a little community of losers and poseurs, looking for spiritual rebirth in the back alleys of rock clubs, where the bass bleeds through the granite.
9) Bright Eyes, I'm Wide Awake It's Morning (Saddle Creek)
When Bright Eyes' I'm Wide Awake It's Morning and Digital Ash In A Digital Urn were released simultaneously early in the year, the latter album initially sounded like the real breakthrough, with its electronic soundscapes and journeys into abrasion. But the simple folk-rock structures and gentle melodicism of I'm Wide Awake has worn better, and its well-observed songs of rage like "Old Soul Song" and "Road To Joy" now sound more radical in their way. In a sense, the shifting opinions of the two Bright Eyes albums set the tone for a year where forward-looking sounds faded next to the virtues of traditional songcraft and lyrical passion.
10) The Deadly Snakes, Porcella (In The Red)
The Next 15
Paul Weller, As Is Now (Yep Roc)
Ghosty, Grow Up Or Sleep In (Future Farmer)
The Clientele, Strange Geometry (Merge)
The Ponys, Celebration Castle (In The Red)
The Rosebuds, Birds Make Good Neighbors (Merge)
Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, Cold Roses (Lost Highway)
Regina Spektor, Soviet Kitsch (Sire/Shoplifter)
Pernice Brothers, Discover A Lovelier You (Ashmont)
Teenage Fanclub, Man-Made (Merge)
Tenement Halls, Knitting Needles & Bicycle Bells (Merge)
The Zincs, Dimmer (Thrill Jockey)
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, Naturally (Daptone)
Animal Collective, Feels (Fat Cat)
Marah, If You Didn't Laugh You'd Cry (Yep Roc)
Low, The Great Destroyer (Sub Pop)
Reissue Label Of The Year
Rhino Records rallied from the disastrous Whatever: The '90s Pop & Culture Box to produce two of the year's best box sets in Children Of Nuggets and One Kiss Can Lead To Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost & Found, and Collector's Choice and Columbia Legacy also put out some must-have collections in 2005 (and none more essential than the latter's three-disc reissue of Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run). But for consistency, packaging, and real sense of discovery, nobody could top relative newcomer The Numero Group, which put out the thrilling double-disc power-pop treasure trove Yellow Pills: Prefill, Fern Jones' lost rockabilly gospel classic The Glory Road, and maybe the best reissue of the year, Cult Cargo: Belize City Boil Up, which uncovered a cache of sea-swept Latin R&B as good as any David Byrne anthropology project.
The Shit List
Since one of the best ways to describe the best music of the year is to take a few shots at the worst, let's take a moment to plug away at some records that are leading rock 'n' roll down dead-end paths. Please, no more of: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Howl (a shift from dunderheaded drone-rock to ultra-simplistic folk-country didn't make these L.A. opportunists any more credible); Eyeball Skeleton, #1 (yes it's neat that elementary-school kids can start a punk band, but keep their art on the refrigerator, where it belongs); Scott H. Biram, The Dirty Old One Man Band (murder ballads and redneck romanticism… must be a Bloodshot Records release); Yellow Second, Altitude (standing in for every innocuous emo act with more studio polish than songwriting ideas); New Order, Waiting For The Sirens' Call (after a decade of crafting near-perfect dance-floor-ready albums and a decade of inactivity, New Order has apparently decided to spend its third decade pumping out uninspired, hookless rock); Currituck County, Ghost Man On Second (tuneless plucking and moaning with a loose organizing concept… must be a Troubleman Unlimited release); Antigone Rising, From The Ground Up (generic bar-band rock doesn't automatically get more profound just because it's femme-centric); Nouvelle Vague, Nouvelle Vague (remaking post-punk classics in a bossa nova style sounds like a fun gimmick, but these uninspired results are enough to make people pine for the relative depth of Dread Zeppelin); American Head Charge, The Feeding (standing in for every assaultive thrash act that strokes the great dark violence in adolescent hearts); and finally, The Click Five, Greetings From Imrie House (because while the commercial co-opting of quality rock sounds may be nothing new, it's still a painful procedure, requiring much anesthetic).
1) The Go! Team, Thunder, Lightning, Strike (Columbia)
2) Antony And The Johnsons, I Am A Bird Now (Secretly Canadian)
3) Sufjan Stevens, Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty)
Sure, Stevens' ongoing project of basing albums around each of the 50 states is a gimmick. But it's a gimmick that works, as this follow-up to Michigan proves. Drawing on aspects of Illinois history–well-known, obscure, honored, and infamous–Stevens creates a vivid portrait of a place that's unmistakably the Land Of Lincoln, but also a stand-in for anywhere there's human drama.
4) Sleater-Kinney, The Woods (Sub Pop)
5) My Morning Jacket, Z (ATO/RCA)
6) Sun Kil Moon, Tiny Cities (Caldo Verde)
7) The White Stripes, Get Behind Me Satan (V2)
Nobody stays the same forever, and all the experiments on The White Stripes' fifth album don't quite work out on first listen, but it's still a thrilling exercise. And on subsequent listens, it all starts to come together. Sometimes the deepest thrills aren't the visceral ones.
8) Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine (Epic)
Apple's long-in-limbo third album was on the verge of becoming a joke. Rumors of a disaster swirled until a Jon Brion-produced version linked to the Internet helped quiet them. The final version–a set of raw, forceful, unflinching tales of heartbreak that surpasses Apple's previous albums–suggested that she should be a voice of note for years to come, assuming she wants to be.
9) Common, Be (Geffen)
10) Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, Cold Roses (Lost Highway)
Self-restraint has never been Ryan Adams' strongest quality, and that makes it all the more strange that his strongest solo album would be inspired by The Grateful Dead. But with Cold Roses–the first of Adams' three albums released this year–Adams drew on American Beauty and Workingman's Dead, those Dead albums that even jam-band-haters can love, and which serve as the secret source of more alt-country than most alt-country fans would willingly admit. The result: A yearning, delicate set that's his best album since he left Whiskeytown.
Dismissed On A Technicality
Released independently in 2004, then re-released last spring, Regina Spektor's Soviet Kitsch (Sire/Shoplifter) combines heartbreak and genuine oddness. Whether singing songs narrated from the perspective of inside an ex-lover's mouth, or creating moving fantasies of a cancer-stricken woman's escape into luxury, Spektor announces herself as a strikingly original talent, usually using nothing but her voice and a piano. Like Antony And The Johnsons, she makes cabaret art into a high-wire act.
Three Things To Do With A Time Machine:
1) Warn Lincoln about going to Ford's Theater.
2) Kill Hitler.
3) Prevent the Black Eyed Peas from recording "My Humps."
1) Edan, Beauty And The Beat (Lewis)
Given the stagnant nature of hip-hop this past year, it seems fitting that the year's best album comes from an artist hopelessly stuck in the past. After resurrecting rap's Golden Age on his cultishly adored debut Primitive Plus, Edan brilliantly synthesizes psychedelic rock and back-in-the-day hip-hop to create a mind-bending half-hour musical time warp, a magical mystery tour through Edan's fevered imagination.
2) Common, Be (Geffen)
Kanye West's The College Dropout was the consensus rap album of the year in 2004, but its wildly uneven follow-up, Late Registration, wasn't even 2005's best West-produced album. That honor instead belongs to Common's Be, a tight, cohesive, and often transcendent return to hip-hop fundamentals after the spacey, self-indulgent weirdness of Electric Circus.
3) Little Brother, The Minstrel Show (Atlantic)
Even without its somewhat shaky, half-realized concept about the minstrelization of hip-hop and black pop culture, Little Brother's The Minstrel Show proved it was possible to jump from an indie to a major without losing his soul in the process. Thanks to brilliant albums, fantastic mix-CDs, terrific solo projects, and a revelatory, life-affirming live show, Little Brother's name has become synonymous with high quality hip-hop.
4) Big Pooh, Sleepers (6 Hole)
Little Brother mainstay Big Pooh couldn't have given his solo debut a more accurate title. It's the kind of album that initially seems solid but unexceptional, but reveals fresh new layers of depth and richness with each listen, in the process disproving any lingering notions that Big Pooh is Little Brother's weak link.
5) Quasimoto, The Further Adventures Of Lord Quas (Stones Throw)
This was the year of disappointing hip-hop follow-ups. Kanye West, Blackalicious, MF Doom, and Quasimoto all released sometimes-amazing albums that proved ultimately disappointing in respect to the expectations they created. Still, some were the apex of an unusually weak year. Though it doesn't measure up to The Unseen, Quasimoto's debut, The Further Adventures Of Lord Quas, takes Madlib's gonzo basement experimentation even further into the stratosphere, greatly expanding on its predecessor's sonic palette, but losing much of its warmth and cohesion in the process.
6) Danger Doom, The Mouse And The Mask (Adult Swim)
7) Kanye West, Late Registration (Roc-A-Fella)
8) Zion I, True & Livin' (Amp Truth)
9) The Perceptionists, The Perceptionists (Definitive Jux)
10) Boom Bap Project, Reprogram (Rhymesayers)
Beef Of The Year: 50 Cent Vs. The Game
Vitriolic attacks from 50 Cent killed off the careers of Ja Rule and Benzino, and brought the once-mighty Source to its knees. But in 2005, he fired off lyrical shots at rappers people genuinely liked and respected, veterans like Fat Joe, Nas, and Jadakiss. His biggest beef was with former ally and short-time G-Unit compatriot The Game, who not only survived 50's much-publicized disses, but emerged from their beef stronger than ever. After 50's attacks, The Game quickly morphed from loyal solider to cocky renegade, returning 50's lyrical shots on tracks like the epic 15-minute freestyle dis "300 Bars And Runnin'." Not only did 50 fail to destroy The Game's career, but the press and controversy their feud inspired helped insure that the Compton rapper's next album–which may be produced by Dr. Dre, depending on whether you ask 50 or The Game–is likely to be nearly as anticipated as 50's own.
Best 12-Volume Compilation That Finally Recognizes The Historical Importance of AMG's "Bitch Better Have My Money": Tommy Boy Presents: Hip Hop Essentials 1979-1991
Tommy Boy's Hip Hop Essentials series spans subgenres, labels, and eras as it explores hip-hop's weird, halting progression from old-school to golden age, eschewing simple chronology for a more wide-ranging and eclectic overview of the songs and acts that helped define a great American art form. Finally, there's a box set that realizes hip-hop's evolution was furthered by half-forgotten also-rans like Mellow Man Ace and Egyptian Lover and icons like Run DMC and Public Enemy.
Best Worst Rap, Celebrity Spouse Division: Kevin Federline's "Y'All Ain't Ready"
Who could have guessed that Britney Spears would represent the talented, brainy half of any marriage? Yet the Internet leak of material from the rap debut of Spears' spouse/walking punchline Kevin Federline only confirmed that he lacks even his wife's negligible talent. With a flow that can only be described as sub-Vanilla Ice, Federline waxes moronic on the leaked track, "Y'All Ain't Ready," arguing passionately, if idiotically, that "y'all wishin' you was in my position / 'cause I keep gettin' into situations / that you wish you was in, cousin." No wonder K-Fed feels so strongly that heads just aren't ready for the style he "creates straight 2008." Word, cousin.
Questionable Commercial Strategy Of The Year: Public Enemy's Upcoming Onslaught of Releases
In a desperate attempt to rekindle interest in Public Enemy, Chuck D has vowed to release 18 different projects over the next few years, from comic books to DVDs to re-releases to three CDs of new material. The idea seems to be to release such a huge avalanche of material that hip-hop will be forced to pay attention, but his plan seems likely to backfire by foolishly oversaturating the market with more product than even the most zealous Public Enemy fan could possibly keep up with.
1) Sleater-Kinney, The Woods (Sub Pop)
Few would have guessed that Sleater-Kinney's dramatic overhaul of their sound would work so well. Stepping beyond the friendly confines of their punky, poppy past, the trio employed the fuzzy, overdriven style of rock from the beginning of the '70s, when punk and classic rock co-mingled. The result was a bold, thoroughly enjoyable album that made its predecessors seem half-baked.
2) Bob Mould, Body Of Song (Yep Roc)
While Sleater-Kinney expanded their sound, Bob Mould returned to a more familiar guitar-rock style after experimenting with electronic rock on 2002's Modulate. Body Of Song marries Mould's distant past with his more recent past; "Best Thing" sounds like a long-lost Sugar song, but "(Shine Your) Light Love Hope" would have worked on Modulate. The middle ground Mould created with Body Of Songs helps satisfy longtime fans, but allows him room to grow.
3) Criteria, When We Break (Saddle Creek)
Criteria's 2003 debut, En Garde, showed Stephen Pedersen's dexterity at blending noisy post-punk with melodic riff-rock, but When We Break has a more realized and powerful feel. The rest of the album can't top the opening salvo of "Prevent The World," with its huge, catchy riffs, but When We Break is solid from start to finish.
4) The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema (Matador)
5) Sufjan Stevens, Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty)
6) Death Cab For Cutie, Plans (Atlantic)
7) Foo Fighters, In Your Honor (RCA)
8) Neil Diamond, 12 Songs (Columbia)
9) Kanye West, Late Registration (Roc-A-Fella)
West's acclaimed debut, The College Dropout, set expectations exceptionally high for its successor. That helps explain Late Registration's cram-in-as-many- ideas-as-possible approach, which renders the album a sprawling mess. But misfires–like the sub-two-minute "My Way Home," which wastes a strong Gil Scott-Heron sample–don't outweigh the album's stronger moments: the ominous "Addiction," the elegant simplicity of "Heard 'Em Say," and the dizzyingly catchy "Gold Digger." West's future albums will probably be similarly messy, but also similarly redeemable.
10) Latterman, No Matter Where We Go…! (Deep Elm)
Punk empathy found fruit in 2005, as a seemingly endless stream of histrionic emo, soulless pop-punk, and earnest, Jesus-loving hardcore groups sold truckloads of records using rigid musical templates. Nonetheless, Latterman's refreshingly raw No Matter Where We Go…! proves how vital indie punk still is, with explosive, catchy songs that couldn't seem less calculated. It isn't groundbreaking, but the classic melodic-punk style never sounds stale when it's in the right hands.
Close, But Not Quite There
The White Stripes, Get Behind Me Satan (V2)
Say Hi To Your Mom, Ferocious Mopes
Kevin Devine, Split The Country, Split The Street
Low, The Great Destroyer (Sub Pop)
Hey Mercedes, Unorchestrated.
What Would Jesus Rock?
Never before have so many religious musicians succeeded beyond the cloistered walls of the Christian music scene. When groups like Creed and Jars Of Clay crossed over a few years back, hipsters (rightly) dismissed them. But it's okay when one of their own, Sufjan Stevens, praises the Lord, because he doesn't sound like a square. He isn't alone; Christian punk bands such as Underoath, Relient K, and others have enjoyed similar acceptance.
Worst Band Names Encountered This Year
Public Display Of Funk
Snatches Of Pink
Libido Funk Circus
Assbaboons Of Venus
Best Worst Band Names Encountered This Year
I Will Kill You Fucker
Let's Get Out Of This Terrible Sandwich Shop
The Asshole Two
When Rocky Beat The Russian