Monday, January 02, 2006

Best of 2005

Hello and Happy New Year!

For some time now I have been burdening friends, associates and passersby with an annual list of my top ten albums of the year.

Longtime readers will note that this year's version is a bit shorter than usual. I found after considerable review that this was the number of albums this year that I could strongly recommend.

A random search of the new multitudes of music bogs suggest I'm not the only one who had to stretch to get to a Top Ten. The music industry is changing radically - cod sales are down, sales of downloads are up, and the Ipod has made the album itself less relevant. Increasingly I am discovering new music in smaller bites, single by single, and listening that way as well.

So this year there were fewer new albums that grabbed my attention - but music still framed my days. I ran to music, commuted to music, worked to music, and told my daughter I loved her to music. I trust the soundtrack to your year was also a good one!

As always, please feel free to offer recommendations of your own or disagree with mine.

And so, in no particular order....

Slater Kinney -- The Woods

Over the last decade the trio that makes up Slater Kinney have recorded 6 albums. Most are excellent, and most sounded similar. And so this year the band confronted a choice that other longstanding bands have also faced: Do we continue to make essentially the same record again or do we take the more difficult step by challenging ourselves and our fans with a different sound? Sleater Kinney decided to blaze a new path into The Woods, and the music they made there was a real departure from their previous work. The production is denser and fuzzier, and nearly psychedelic feedback laden solos claw from the middle of songs.

Musical aggression has primarily been a male preserve; the Riot Grrl movement in the early 90s was, in part, an attempt to carve out a space where women could make the personal political with a snarl. Sleater-Kinney came out of that moment and defined it for many - a sound rooted in punk's quick slashing strikes, angry atonal guitars and shouted vocals. Ten years later, Sleater-Kinney reacted to the war in Iraq and with lyrics like "Hey! Look around they are lying to you. Can't you see it is just a silly ruse?" decided to make the political personal. Their sound has always been furious, but musically the Woods is angry in a different way; more Hendrix, and less Clash. Before long guitar solos became a cliché of self indulgent rock dinosaur doodling, they were an expression of freedom and wordless rage. On the Woods, and in their recent live shows, Sleater Kinney has mined this earlier vein. And so, The Woods is an archetype of what a searching, risk taking band can accomplish on its journey forward.

The Hold Steady - Separation Sunday

Sounding like an indeed version of the E Street Band, the Hold Steady is a bar band with big ambitions. Separation Sunday is a sprawling work - musically and lyrically: The songs tell the story to Kevin Smith's next movie; debauched suburban stories mixed with expressions of Catholic guilt: the line about "your little hoodrat friend" gives you a flavor. The almost impossibly geeky lead singer's voice is an acquired taste, considerably more of a growl then a croon, and yet it works because the songs are full of hooks, clever stops and starts, and grandiloquent piano runs up Asbury Park way.

Coldplay - X & Y

It has become officially uncool to like Coldplay ( in much the same way that it is uncool to cry at the tear jerking movies that fill our multiplexes. So for purposes of full disclosure: I like schmaltz. I'm the guy quietly snuffling in the corner of the theatre. And in truth X & Y could be the soundtrack to any one of those overwrought films - its songs already form the backdrop to multiple movie previews and ads. So guilty as charged: X & Y wears its heart on its sleeve and tugs at our emotions; soaring, dramatic, expressive, and sensitive. The crescendos alone are worth the price of admission. The critics aren't all wrong - the cd is 15 minutes too long and the lyrics are insipid. But if you're like me you're not paying much attention to the dialogue anyway.

Antony and the Johnsons - I Am a Bird Now

In a year when our most highly acclaimed movie is about two gay cowboys and Elton John's wedding is celebrated on the front pages, why can't a 6' 4'' self described transgendered chanteuse who trills "one day I'll grow up to be a beautiful girl" make this year's most heartbreaking and beautiful album? No reason at all, as Antony Hegarty and the Johnsons prove on I Am a Bird Now. Part Boy George (who duets on "You are My Sister"), part Nina Simone, I Am a Bird Now is soulful, operatic folk rent with a palpable sense of longing and loss. Hegarty's voice is beyond category - angelic and fluttering, yet capable of tremendous force, both mournful and hopeful. The album cover - a shot of transvestite Candy Darling on her deathbed sums up the project pretty well.

Jose Gonzalez -- Veneer

"World Music" was a marketing term invented in the early 1980s to sell "authentic" foreign music to Western ears. Today the term is quickly becoming obsolete as the world shrinks and cultural barriers fall. Case in point: Jose Gonzalez. Born in Sweden to Argentine expats, Gonzalez sings his powerful folk in perfect English. Influenced by American, British, Latin American, and Scandinavian music, Gonzalez sounds like Nick Drake or Elliott Smith if they had gown up listening to Joao Gilberto in the still of a snowy winter. This will convince you: (

Franz Ferdinand - You Could Have it So Much Better

Now that Gang of Four has reunited do we really need present day soundalikes Franz Ferdinand? You betcha, because while the committed lefties in Gang of Four merely wanted to bring about a Marxist paradise on earth, Franz Ferdinand has altogether greater aspirations: to become rock stars. And as Mick Jagger and Bono can attest, the world needs rock stars - unapologetic showmen who can strut on a stage and own an arena. Franz Ferdinand lead singer Alex Kapranos is not in that league and he may never be, but, unlike, say, Thom Yorke and Chris Martin, he has both the ambition and at least some of the charisma to pull it off. It's stamped all over this album, the band's second in as many years. The sound and the production here are glossier and fuller than on their debut and the lyrics are positively Jaggeresque in their obsessive self referencing and occasional mention of oral sex. So there is a leering, stomping swagger to this music, but since this is 2005 there is a wink and a smile as well. Kapranos gift is that when he pleads to a walk away lover "kill me now" you know he so doesn't mean it.

Richard Hawley - Cole's Corner

Satiny and rich, filled with strings set at a deliciously languid pace, Cole's Corner is an album to get lost to. On Cole's Corner it's forever 1958; crooners croon, lovers swoon, and the dancing is slow and close. Hawley, a Sheffield native, sings in a rich baritone as if the Beatles never existed; Roy Orbison and Bobby Darin are the touchstones here. Like Chris Isaak's self titled disc, or Bob Dylan's "Love and Theft," Cole's Corner is an evocation that transcends mere nostalgia.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Wolf Parade - Apologies to the Queen

In the age of the Interwebs - Myspace, mp3 blogs, chat rooms, file sharing and the like - championing a previously unknown band into some modest degree of wider acclaim and indie success is the best form of self-congratulations there is: Democracy in Action -- We Were There First! Last year the online community carried Arcade Fire on its shoulders and helped propel them to high profile gigs with David Bowie and U2. This year's Arcade Fire is Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, a Brooklyn band that sold over 50,000 of its self-released cds on the strength of a strong Pitchfork review and a ton of blogger shout-outs. And like Arcade Fire, Clap Your Hands makes the kind of literate layered pop that the online community loves. The lead singer sounds an awful lot like David Byrne, and the band is capable of sounding like the Talking Heads, Arcade Fire, and the Feelies; sometime in the same song. If this is the mob rule, bring it on (

Touted by fellow Canadians Arcade Fire and produced by Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock , Wolf Parade arrived to an adoring blogosphere with their indie pedigree intact. Wolf Parade is Arcade Fire with an edge; Clap Your Hand's tougher older brother, more new wave than art pop. Driving dual keyboards trade off with dual vocalists over gunshot drumming; this is a band that sounds much bigger than a foursome.