:: Monday, December 26, 2005 ::

The best music of 2005 -- with (a few) mp3s
I listened to quite a few albums in 2005, but not a lot of mainstream stuff. In this list, you'll find no Nickelback, no "Hollaback," no Black Eyed Peas or Kanye West. So, this is really not a list of the best of 2005, but a list of the best of what I listened to and purchased in 2005. Don't say I didn't warn you.

I decided to expand from a top 10 list to an even dozen. A lot of these albums are available in digital form from eMusic, a music service I highly recommend for anyone interested in alternative, punk, alt-country or other off-the-beaten-path forms of music. At the risk of looking like a billboard for this excellent and affordable online music service, I've highlighted those albums with a link to eMusic's free trial so you can hear for yourself.

12. Tony Hawk's American Wasteland Soundtrack, Various Artists
Available from eMusic (eMusic free trial) or buy it from Amazon.

Confession time -- and a bit of disclaimer, so you'll know just what kind of judgment I exercise when creating lists like these. The reason this soundtrack to an X-Box game makes the list is because of its homage to some fine early punk tunes by the Dead Boys, the Buzzcocks and Iggy Pop. That ought to be enough, but then there's also the cover art tribute to the Clash's London Calling to boot.

Favorite tracks: "Sonic Reducer," by Saves the Day, "Ever Fallen In Love With Someone You Shouldn't've?" by Thursday

11. Picaresque, the Decemberists
available from eMusic.com (eMusic free trial) or buy it from Amazon

A few misses on this CD, too, but there's an eclectic mix of instruments and sounds on this alt-country CD that makes it worth a listen. Front man Colin Meloy has the kind of voice that grates on you at first, in a smarmy sort of way, but his style tends to grow on you.

Favorite tracks: "The Infanta," "The Engine Driver"

10. Prairie Wind, Neil Young
(buy it) from Amazon

The old folkie-turned-original grunge rocker proves he's still rockin' in the free world, but most of Prairie Wind is a return to Young's mellower side. Which is too bad, because this album shines when Neil mixes it up at a faster tempo. "No Wonder" is a gem, possessing the rough textures that made so many of Young's previous songs so memorable, and the final cut, "He Was the King," is a touching and humorous tribute to Elvis. The title song and "It's a Dream," tend to drag on a few minutes too long, and "When God Made Me" comes off as too earnest -- even preachy with all its country-church choir backup vocals. But Prairie Wind contains some of Young's best writing in a long time, despite the nasally vocals and rough time he has hitting those high notes.

Favorite tracks, "He Was the King," "Falling Off the Face of the Earth," "No Wonder"

9. Forever Hasn't Happened Yet, by John Doe
available from eMusic.com (eMusic free trial) or buy it from Amazon

How fitting that an album by John Doe flew under the radar in 2005. Forever Hasn't Happened Yet seems to have escaped the notice of many reviewers and listeners, but it is a fine collaboration between Doe, the former co-lead singer (with Exene Cervenka) of the seminal L.A. punk band X, and several alt-country and rockabilly notables. John Doe pairs up with the likes of Neko Case and Dave Alvin (formerly of the early 80s rockabilly band the Blasters) to create some great roots rock. It still has that sleazy underbelly sound that undergirded much of X's best work, so that punk-era influence lives on.

Favorite tracks: "Hwy 5" (with Neko Case), "Mama Don't" (with Veronica Jane and Dave Alvin)

8. Illinoise, by Sufjan Stevens
available from eMusic.com (eMusic free trial) or buy it from Amazon

After reading all the buzz about this album on several end-of-year lists, I decided I had to check it out for myself. Earlier, I was skeptical, just because of the silly title. But I understand the reasoning (and the joke) behind it, as my friend K Jo (herself an Illinoisian) pointed out in a previous post how people constantly pronounce that silent "s" at the end of the state's name. But now I see what all the fuss is about, and I am a convert. Illinoise is one fine album, rich with tracks that mix folk and pop with an orchestral fanfare. It's an interesting mix of styles, beautiful lyrics and some clever song titles, many of them long. Illinoise keeps the theme of its title, the Land of Lincoln, with references to all things Illinois: the 16th president, Mary Todd, Chicago, the Black Hawks, Decatur, Superman's hometown, and more. I spent much of the Christmas weekend tuning in to these beautiful arrangements. I'm glad I took the time to finally come on, feel the Illinoise.

Favorite tracks: "Chicago," "The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts," "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From the Dead!! Ahhhh!!"

7. The Woods, by Sleater-Kinney (buy it)

One of the hardest working bands in all of rockdom, Sleater-Kinney has cranked out seven full-length albums over the past 10 years, all the while maintaining a grueling touring schedule. All of which makes The Woods even more spectacular. It's the same hard-driving alt-punk riot grrl rock S-K has become known for, only moreso. Lead singer Corin Tucker's voice still conveys that same urgency as a decade ago, and S-K's dueling guitars with no bass adds fuel to that fire, and noise and feedback.

Favorite tracks: "Entertain", "The Fox"

6. Separation Sunday, by the Hold Steady
available from eMusic.com (eMusic free trial) or buy it from Amazon

Lead singer Craig Finn combines a smarmy, smartass style with bravado and swagger, and his style reminds me of a ballsy college boy invading a barful of regulars to tell them just how a real bar band plays music. And he gets away with it. Centered around Finn's clever lyrics and vocal style and Tab Kubler's guitar, Separation Sunday separates the Hold Steady from the rest of the pack of bar band wannabes.

Favorite tracks: "Your Little Hoodrat Friend," "Banging Camp," "Stevie Nix"

5. Twin Cinema, the New Pornographers
available from eMusic.com (eMusic free trial) or buy it from Amazon

This, the third offering by the Vancouver-based band, is less polished than 2003's Electric Version. But it is also a more ambitious CD, with a mix of alt-country and folk to post-new wave tunes, and it has a more lively feel to it. The first two tracks -- "Twin Cinemas" and "The Bones of an Idol" -- are probably the weakest, but the CD gains steam as it goes along and finishes strong. The broad array of vocalists makes Twin Cinema sound like creation of a few different groups in one, but somehow it all holds together. The main drawback is that the vocal style, while varied, can become monotonous, and even a bit of a distraction to the other sounds.

Favorite tracks: "Jackie, Dressed in Cobras," "Sing Me Spanish Techno"

4. You Could Have It So Much Better, Franz Ferdinand (buy it)

The critics were watching to see how Franz Ferdinand would handle the fame of their self-titled debut CD of 2004. Their second offering, You Could Have It So Much Better, was no sophomore jinx. Franz Ferdinand offered more of the same -- catchy riffs, a new wave/disco beat, cleverly worded songs about nothing serious, and soaring lead vocals from Alexander Kapranos. FF offers nothing more than fun and steady tunes you can move to. And once again, it works.

Favorite tracks: "Walk Away," "You're the Reason I'm Leaving," "Eleanor Put Your Boots Back On"

3. Gimme Fiction, by Spoon
available from eMusic.com (eMusic free trial) or buy it from Amazon

With the release of Gimme Fiction, this Austin-based band is finally getting some much-deserved recognition. Spoon's alt/indie brand is refreshing in its simplicity. My only complaint is with lead singer Britt Daniel's vocals. His sound and style remind me a lot of ELO's Jeff Lynn (especially on "I Summon You"), so I can't help but think of ELO whenever I play a Spoon tune. But there are worse sounds in the world, and the beauty of this record lies in its clean, smooth pop sound and steady rhythms.

Favorite tracks: "Sister Jack," "I Turn My Camera On," "I Summon You," "They Never Got You"

2. Get Behind Me Satan, by the White Stripes (buy it)

I've been a fan of the White Stripes stripped-down garage sound since I first heard the band's debut a few years ago. Each release just keeps getting better, as Jack White exquisitely walks the tightrope of experimentation and tradition. He toys with new sounds (the xylophone seems to be of particular interest), infusing them into the trademark Stripes style, and succeeds. And he remains true to that dirty, blues-inspired sound that inspired the band's earliest records. Get Behind Me Satan is a beautiful hybrid of blues tradition and experimentation. The blues influence, and Led Zeppelin, is still there, but it doesn't overpower or mask the Stripes' inimitable style.

Favorite tracks: "My Doorbell," "The Denial Twist," "As Ugly As I Seem"

1. Silent Alarm, by Bloc Party
available from eMusic.com (eMusic free trial) or buy it from Amazon

How often does a CD get released, then remixed and re-released in the same year? That's one indication of just how good Bloc Party's first full-length CD is. (Or maybe it's just an indicator of how good Bloc Party's marketing machine is.) Silent Alarm had me at the wiry opening guitar riff of its first track,
"Like Eating Glass." The post-punk techno of Bloc Party mixes a range of influences, from Joy Division and the Cure to Sonic Youth and even a touch of Talking Heads, put together a tight, seductive album. If there's a weak track on this CD, I haven't found it yet.

Favorite tracks: "Like Eating Glass," "Banquet," "Little Thoughts"

, , ,

:: Andrew 13:24 + ::

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