Monday, December 12th, 2005
So here we are, another year-end list in the cacaphony of December retrospectives. Still, if there’s one thing lists do, it allows writers to be lazy and rehash what they’ve already no doubt covered in the past although this has turned out to be one of the most time-consuming posts of the year for me, maybe ever. You’d think that writing short blurbs on the records that one enjoyed the most in the past year would be easy, but really, not so much. I can’t say that 2005 was a watershed year for music, but there was certainly enough great stuff to keep me happy as a pig in a blanket for the past twelve months.
I made a decision at the start of the year to actively seek out more new music outside of my usual comfort zone, and while I must confess I wasn’t as dilligent about that as I’d intended, the fact that four of my top ten albums came from acts I’d never heard (or in many cases even heard of) before this year ain’t too bad. I’ll be endeavouring to carry this trend forward into ’06, mainly by actually listening to more of the CDs, compilations and mp3s that I’m sent. While this will no doubt increase my exposure to bad music, no pain no gain, n’est pas? Though I have to say that looking at the release schedule for 2006, stacked as it is with many new albums from long-time favourites, I wonder if any dark horses will manage to eke their way onto next year’s edition? To do so, some very reliable veteran acts would have to drop the ball… Oh well, time will tell.
Curiously, the Top 5 of The First Half Of 2005 list I posted back in July just preceded my exposure to most of the albums that made the final cut, but a few managed to carry over and the others just barely got bumped down to honourable mention status. The final ten are listed alphabetically – I had considered actually ranking them this year, but after the clear-cut top three positions, things kind of just fell into a constantly-shifting mass that changed from moment to moment. I found it interesting that eight of the ten albums came from American acts, and two from Canadians. No British or European artists at all, though if I expanded the list out to twenty or so, the Old World would be quite well represented. What can I say? The colonies rocked the mic in ’05, yo.
And many thanks to Toronto illustrator Renée Nault for the beautiful frontispiece in this year-end retrospective. For a full-size version of the art (500K), click here – it looks even better biggie-sized. Do check her portfolio out.
So without further ado, my top 10 albums of 2005 (and ancillary lists and commentary)… after the jump.
Three years after releasing You Forgot It In People, the album that arguably kicked of the rise of Canada as a force in indpendent music, the band comprised of pretty much everyone in the 416 followed it up with an album so sprawling, shambolic and self-indulgent, you couldn’t help but cheer them on. Unless you were one of the many people who regard those traits as negative, then this record is probably on your “biggest disappointments” list. Me? I’m still picking my way through the many many many layers of sounds, but I think I like it. A lot.
“7/4 (Shorelines)” is one of the oldest tracks on the record, having been circulating in a markedly different live form for some time before the official release. It’s certainly one of the most conventional tracks on the album, but is also one of the best.
MP3: Broken Social Scene – “7/4 (Shoreline)”
Dignity & Shame
There’s nothing groundbreaking about the latest record from Eric Bachmann and company, but when you manage to assemble a record of such top-to-bottom gorgeousness, you don’t need to break no new ground. Bachmann’s heartworn rasp and unabashedly romantic lyrics alone would have guaranteed a good record, but the inclusion of Lara Meyerratken’s vocals puts this one into the stratosphere. The numbers featuring her and Bachmann in call-and-response feel like more than just songs, they’re small, perfect, private dramas that we’re lucky to be privvy to.
I had a hell of a time deciding which song to post, I love almost every song on the record, but Lara’s vocals on “Call To Love” sealed it. However, be sure to listen to “You Must Build A Fire”, streaming off their website – it’s heartbreakingly beautiful.
MP3: Crooked Fingers – “Call To Love”
Kill Rock Stars
One of two albums that managed to make it from my mid-year list to the final call. Instead of trying to come up with new ways to talk about an album I’ve already reviewed a few times, I’m just going to crib from a review I did for Torontoist:
Portland’s Decemberists continue on with their singular brand of highly literate, nautically-obsessed hybrid folk-rock. With their highbrow lyrics, unconventional arrangements and Colin Meloy’s distinctive nasal vocals, the sound of a Decemberists record is unmistakable, but Picaresque differs from the first two full-lengths in that it carries itself with a greater confidence than its predecessors. This is a record that struts home in costume after drama club, jocks in the hallway be damned.
I always liked that last line. The track I’ve chosen to offer up, “The Sporting Life”, is certainly one of the jauntier on the album, and also the funniest. There’s also a video for “16 Military Wives”, which could very have been the drama club production to which I was referring to.
MP3: The Decemberists – “The Sporting Life”
Video: The Decemberists – “16 Military Wives” (MOV)
The Mountain Goats
The Sunset Tree
To write an entire album about one’s childhood with an abusive stepfather could be a recipe for disaster, but John Darnielle’s pen is just too sharp to allow it to slip into melodrama. Instead, he draws on those experiences for emotional fuel in crafting another masterpiece. Somehow he makes even his most direct and personal lyrics sound like cryptic metaphors that can resonate universally. Come, come to the Sunset Tree.
“Love Love Love” is the penultimate track on the album and after the oft times frantic nature of the album to that point, it’s so gentle and calming… even the line about Kurt Cobain feels peaceful. And the video for “This Year” is just fun.
MP3: The Mountain Goats – “Love Love Love”
Video: The Mountain Goats – “This Year” (WMV)
My Morning Jacket
Probably the most polarizing record on this list – some love it, some hate it. I went from the latter to the former over the course of a few months, helped along by their still-incredible live show. Z is a step back from the all-out rock styles of It Still Moves and way further out into left field than anyone would have expected. This record reminds of the classic pop albums of the 60s where every song would be almost completely different from the next, yet somehow they all fit together. Haters, move on – Z is great.
Though they definitely reduced the amount of trademark reverbed vocals on this record, “Gideon” still catches some of that old grain silo magic. And here’s the video for the first single, “Off The Record”, which probably set a record for most double takes by My Morning Jacket fans when they got a taste of the band’s new direction.
MP3: My Morning Jacket – “Gideon”
Video: My Morning Jacket – “Off The Record” (MOV)
If I WERE one for ranking albums, this would be number one with a bullet. I took an almost blind flier on it back in July and have been wearing it out ever since. Romantic and sinister, rocking and serene, Alligator is a dark corner in a smoke-filled bar int the late New York night, long after the hipsters have gone home. Words are insufficient to describe how much I love this record. Maybe emoticons… <3? No, not emoticons either.
“Mr November” is the final track on the album, and when Matt Berninger screams, “I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr. November”, you absolutely believe he used to be carried on the arms of cheerleaders. The video for “Daughters Of The Soho Riots” somehow manages to perfectly capture the gorgeousness of the song – no mean feat.
And yes, I know you can’t smoke in New York bars anymore.
MP3: The National – “Mr November”
Video: The National – “Daughters Of The Soho Riots” (MOV)
The New Pornographers
2005 was the year that The New Pornographers put out an album that I could really love – and they did it by putting out the least pure pop record yet. I really enjoyed their first two records but the non-stop sugar buzz could get wearying over the course of a whole album. By reining in a little bit on Twin Cinema, Carl Newman and his posse showed they had depth, too, and that’s what it took to close the deal.
This newfound sophistication is best evidenced in “The Bleeding Hearts Show”. which manages to make “Hey Na Hey Na” sound like a deeply profound lyric. But if you want old school power pop, check out the video for “Use It”,
directed by and featuring Arrested Development‘s David Cross.
MP3: The New Pornographers – “The Bleeding Heart Show”
Video: The New Pornographers – “Use It” (ASX)
Black Sheep Boy
While The National was my top album of the year, it had serious competition from Okkervil River. Also bought almost completely unheard, once I was drawn into Will Sheff’s world it was hard to extract myself, not that I really tried. A concept album centred on the titular song by Tim Hardin, Black Sheep Boy is a majestic slab of folk rock, intense, literate and utterly compelling. One for the ages. The companion Black Sheep Boy Appendix is also worthy of note – while it doesn’t have the same start-to-finish thematic weight that the main album does, it still sits very respectively alongside it.
One of the poppier numbers on the album, “Black” has far and away the best sounding electric piano sounds on any album I heard in 2005. And the animated video for the explosive “For Real” is just creepy.
MP3: Okkervil River – “Black”
Video: Okkervil River – “For Real” (MOV)
Sufjan was far and away the most (over-)blogged artist of 2005 and as prime a candidate for backlash if ever there was one… and yet, here he is. Why? How? Easy – Illinois was almost as good as the hype. Yes, it was grandiose and over the top, but I hope never to see the day where artistic ambition becomes something to be vilified for rather than celebrated – at least not when it succeeds. If there’s any downside, it’s that there’s forty-eight more states looking for their own grand concept albums… and I’m sure at least some of them are going to be let down. Really, how inspiring is North Dakota? Please, no hate mail from North Dakotans.
It was really hard to pick one individual song from Illinois since it is such an album. But here you go – predatory wasps are scary, but this song is great.
MP3: Sufjan Stevens – “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out To Get Us!”
Matt Ward’s paean to the bygone days of radio is so stubbornly anachronistic and lovely that while it only just snuck onto my list, I suspect that it’ll hold up better than most of its contemporaries. Though still a young man, Ward sounds weathered and wise beyond his years, hardwired into something timeless. And DAMN can that boy play some guitar.
“Radio Campaign” is one of the more upbeeat tracks on Transistor Radio and is one of two to feature guest vocals from Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis. Ward returns the favour by appearing on her upcoming solo record.
MP3: M Ward – “Radio Campaign”
Honourable mentions to to The American Analog Set’s Set Free, British Sea Power’s Open Season, The Wedding Present’s Take Fountain, Doves’ Some Cities, Spoon’s Gimme Fiction and Low’s The Great Destroyer.
In the “welcome back” category, it was good to get new music from Rob Dickinson and
Suede The Tears, both of whose records were actually a good deal better than I had expected. The House Of Love’s Days Run Away was merely okay and the reconstituted Son Volt proved they wouldn’t be overshadowed by the original lineup’s output with the release of the wholly respectable if not overly remarkable Okemah & The Melody Of Riot.
Iron & Wine contributed a few songs to the Topher Grace vehicle (never thought I’d type THOSE words), In Good Company, but the best track on that soundtrack, and maybe the best song Sam Beam has ever written, is “The Trapeze Swinger”. Not much can get me to just there and listen, eyes closed, for almost ten minutes, but this absurdly beautiful song does it almost every time. This live version was recorded at the 9:30 Club in Washington DC on November 30, 2005. The audio comes courtesy of NPR and the rip courtesy of So Much Silence.
MP3: Iron & Wine – “The Trapeze Swinger” (live)
The Cardigans are a sublime singles band who also manage to put together pretty strong albums – like a home run hitter who also keeps his average up (obligatory year end sports metaphor? Check!). While Long Gone Before Daylight pulled more to the cohesive album side of things, their latest Super Extra Gravity is more eclectic and boasts some absolutely killer tracks, foremost of which also gets the honour of best song title of the year. “I Need Some Fine Wine And You, You Need To Be Nicer” is sexy and supremely catchy. I can (and have) listen to it on repeat ad nauseum. And if you’ve got bandwidth to kill, also check out the 100MB high-res video wherein Nina Persson makes a compelling argument for being the hottest woman in indie rock.
MP3: The Cardigans – “I Need Some Fine Wine And You, You Need To Be Nicer”
Video: The Cardigans – “I Need Some Fine Wine And You, You Need To Be Nicer” (MOV)
New York’s On!Air!Library! quietly called it a day earlier this year when Alejandra Deheza struck out on her own, but twin sister Claudia and O!A!L! drummer Phillip Wann have continued on as Daylight’s For The Birds and if “Worlds Away” is any indication, they’ll be even greater than O!A!L! (whom had yet to fulfil the promise of their debut album). Whenever I play this track, which is often, I feel a little bit happier. Very much looking forward to hearing more from them.
I thought that I had maxed out my concert intake last year with 52 shows in 2004. Apparently not, as the final tally for 2005 looks like it’s going to be 59 shows, and that’s not counting the thirty-plus acts I saw at SxSW in March. Yes, I caught a lot of live music this year. Hey, it gets me out of the house. It’s a little hard to pick standout shows – most that I saw were good, but I’d be hard-pressed to call any of them all-timers or life-changing. Still, if I were to single some out… Hmm, funny how they seem to match up with my top albums of the year…
M Ward @ The El Mocambo – February 27, 2005
The Mountain Goats, Shearwater, Jeff Hanson @ Lee’s Palace – May 11, 2005
The Decemberists, Rebecca Gates @ The Phoenix – May 21, 2005
Sufjan Stevens, Laura Veirs @ Trinity-St Paul’s Centre – September 10, 2005
Okkervil River, Minus Story @ Lee’s Palace – November 7, 2005
The Hidden Cameras with the Toronto Dance Theatre @ The Premiere Dance Theatre – November 23, 2005
Iron & Wine, Calexico, Salvador Duran @ The Docks – December 9, 2005
….And that’s the year that was. Whew.