Monday, April 20, 2009

Best Albums of 2005

Some more blowhardery for you. The picks are much more consistent with my current tastes (though 2005 was only four years ago). Beware of self-indulgent ramblings ahead...

The following are some discs that have kept me going this year.

1. Separation Sunday by The Hold Steady: This is, without a doubt, my favourite album of 2005. On story songs that are lyrical descendents of Springsteen's Greetings From Asbury Park and Born To Run, lead singer Craig Finn growls like a latter-day Paul Westerberg, and arranges the tunes like he's creating the ultimate low-rent rock opera. The lead single "Stevie Nix" is the first song in long time to make me laugh my ass off and press repeat on my stereo-the line that hit me right in the gut was "Oooohhh... to be thirty-three forever". The lyrics are dense, clever, playful and inventive, peppered with pop culture references and rambling social commentary. His real talent lies is singing/speaking/spewing the lyrics as if he were making it all up as he's going along; there's no rhyming or poetic structure per se, but Finn delivers in such a way that it seems rhythmic. The band itself is tight, creating an expansive rock sound that veers from bass-heavy atmospheric balladry to bombastic stadium anthems. Seeing them at the Opera House in November was akin to a religious experience; even the hipster kids who were there for The Constantines' homecoming show were true believers by the end of the short set. The Hold Steady have created a masterpiece that laments fading youth, celebrates/lampoons aging hipsters and mourns dashed dreams, but still leaves room for hope and never lets you forget that even though the decadence and recklessness of your twenties might be catching up with you, you have had the time of your life.

2. Z by My Morning Jacket: Talk about an about face (me I mean)-I had totally written these guys off as self-indulgent jam band wankers after I had seen them open up for Doves two years ago. Their previous album, It Still Moves, was awarded five star reviews and "masterpiece" accolades. I still resisted, their Southern Rock redux still ringing in my ears. Then someone plays me the opening track of Z, "Wordless Chorus", and I'm flattened in a way not felt since my first experience with Kid A. The rest of the album is as enjoyably trippy and catharsis-inducing as the first track. If it's still as self-indulgent (most of their fans would disagree with that diagnosis of their oeuvre) as their back catalogue, I'm okay with that because I willingly give myself over to them.

3. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: I think someone ordered a Talking Heads revival: first Modest Mouse scores a massive pop hit, now 80s-redux art rock bands are crawling out of the wreckage of the New York City underground. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are the best of the lot. Lyrically, the band recalls Tom Waits, while the wailing vocals are reminiscent of David Byrne circa Fear of Music. This album was released by the band themselves and has found its way beyond the borders of New York State: a true testament to the indie spirit. David Bowie, the new Pope of Hipsterism, who knows how to pick them-he's one of Arcade Fire's biggest fans and is one of the reasons why they broke in the US-has started showing up at CYHSY gigs.

4. Some Cities by Doves: The Northern Soul influence really evinces itself on their third full-length. One can always depend on these boys for pounding danceable beats and mid-tempo atmospherics in a Britpop style.

5. Twin Cinema by New Pornographers: I think that this is the poppiest album on my list. It's certainly the most upbeat and somewhat mainstream. These Canadian power poppers are carving out a nice legacy for themselves, following two previous albums and solo efforts from band members A.C. Newman (featured on The OC!) and Neko Case), though they currently stand in the shadows of fellow Canucks Arcade Fire, Stars and Hot Hot Heat. Raucous and rhythmic piano-driven rock that won't put you to sleep.

6. Nouvelle Vague by Nouvelle Vague: Somewhat trip-hoppy album of new wave covers done in a bossanova style. It's now possible to giggle melancholically when listening to "Love Will Tear Us Apart".

7. Gimme Fiction by Spoon: The best way to describe the guitar-driven indie-rock of Spoon is to say that the songs are "crunchy". The kind of rock album that will play well at a barbecue without upsetting the neighbours.

8. The Understanding by Röyksopp: An album that delivers on the promises of their first album: blippy-burpy beats, sustained muted rhythms, and lush production. It will keep you company while you're a late-night road trip or cool your head on a hangover Sunday (I think I said that about their first album, but I don't have my little review from that year anymore; hmm, I seem to like albums that will soothe hangovers... note to self: cut down on over-indulgence in the new year).

9. Howl by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Abandoning their fuzz-rock/Jesus & Mary Chain fixation for Americana, BRMC really nail the longing and romanticism that made their influential forebears so compelling. Even without the guitar feedback, the band manages to create sonic walls of sound using old slide guitar and harmonica. Speaking of: "Still Suspicion Holds You Tight" features harmonica playing that will rips through your chest like a bullet and lays a smile across your mouth as a tear runs down your cheek.

10. Employment by Kaiser Chiefs: The true heirs to the Britpop throne.

11. Sampledelica: God bless DJ Shadow and his disciples of the Turntable. It's a bit of a cheat here, but this slot is occupied by five excellent records that represent different sides of the burgeoning electronic/hip-hop subgenre of "sampledelica" (tunes based almost entirely on breakbeats and samples; seminal album is DJ Shadow's Endtroducing....).

The Go! Team by The Go! Team, sampledelic shenanigans from the UK that highlight the bubble-pop side;

Treva Whateva, whose Music's Made of Memories is more on the "hip-hopstrumental" side of things (meaning old-skool beats and bleating horns);

Blockhead, who explores the cinematic score side of sampledelica on Downtown Science;

Shifting Gears by Z-Trip, who has been feted for his skratchedelic underground albums that dared to mix up old skool hip-hop with the classic rock of Pink Floyd and Steve Miller. Now that he's on a major label, 'Trip has to clear all his samples, or create brand new sounds himself. Shifting Gears succeeds in delivering punchy urban tunes that still thrill with street cred and old-skool motifs;

Demon Dayz by Gorillaz---what should be a novelty project has produced a second album of resonant soundscapes.

12. Be by Common: Produced by Kanye West, Common mainstreams his sound slightly (his last one, Electric Circus, was pretty cutting edge for a rapper; it verged on indiepop at times, especially on a duet with Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab), but it should still appeal to fans of the old-skool Philly soul stylings of The Roots, Jurassic 5 and other "backpacker" hip-hop artists.

13. Before The Dawn Heals Us by M83: A prime example of experimental electronica that moves beyond the obvious blips and bleeps school. M83 creates cinematic walls of sound that recall the prettiest My Bloody Valentine guitar washes, yet doesn't stray too far from conventional song structure. The tune "Car Chase Terror!" is by far the most frightening thing ever put on disc; imagine Blair Witch as a song.

14. Cold Roses; Jacksonville City Nights; 29 by Ryan Adams: Instead of the double album, a good number of artists (those who are fancied as or consider themselves to be genius visionaries anyway) are releasing several albums at once (viz. Bright Eyes) or spacing out their releases by scant months instead of year. It's not that unusual considering 50s and 60s artists released several albums at the same pace. Enter Ryan Adams, a musician so prolific that he recorded a boxed set worth of songs in 2002 following his (semi-)commercial breakthrough with Gold. His record company would only release one disc's worth of oddities (Demolition) at the time, with the promise that they would release the proposed box if the album sold in platinum quantities (not likely). Why do we insist on box sets only for the dead or the nearly moribund? A box set doesn't have to be a coffin, I say. Sure it's a lot of material to wade through, and it certainly wouldn't be a starting point for the neophyte, but if it was packaged nicely enough, and affordable, then four or five discs of really good music would be worth my time. Adams seems to have gotten his way a bit with his execs: all three of the albums above were released in the space of eight months. Cold Roses is a bit of a slow burn spread out over two discs; 29 is composed of nine long epic songs that are about being a twentysomething moving into his thirties (an album-length exploration of the themes in Adams' landmark solo song "To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Get High)"). Jacksonville City Nights is the real triumph of the lot. All the hallmarks of alt country music (slide guitar, bit of twang, the Nashville echo) are here, creating a timeless paean to broken hearts and restless souls.

15. Arular by M.I.A.: Dub crazy rap from a Sri Lankan Brit. Makes the cut because it's probably the most rebellious sounding album I've heard all year that can shake your rump.

16. In Case We Die by Architecture In Helsinki: Indie-pop Belle & Sebastian/Stars style, but more on the electronica tip.

17. With Teeth by Nine Inch Nails: The alt-rock comeback album of the year. Maintains the metallic sheen and dark melancholy that made NIN so appealing in the early 90s, yet tilts their trademark sound on its side with jaunty beats.

18. Pushin' On by Quantic Soul Orchestra: Neo-soul singing from Aretha incarnate Alice Russell (who has released an apparently excellent album on her own) blended with the breakbeats and old skool funk from Quantic's real live orchestra (as opposed to sampled instrumentation on his solo records). The perfect album for those who long for the acid-jazz days of yesteryear (though QSO is definitely not a retro act).

19. Feels by Animal Collective: Collage-like indie rock, almost outsider-ish except for the fact that they can sing. I suppose the closest comparison would be Flaming Lips, but they eschew obvious melodies. Almost embarrassed to say so but comparisons to prog-era Genesis would not be unfair.

21. X&Y by Coldplay: These next five are cheats-they're worthy of inclusion on any "Best of 2005" list, but their value is probably self-explanatory and you don't need me prattling on about them.

22. Get Behind Me Satan by The White Stripes
23. Late Registration by Kanye West

24. You Could Have It So Much Better With... by Franz Ferdinand

25. Extraordinary Machine by Fiona Apple

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