Wednesday, January 04, 2006

2005 Top 50

Here are my personal picks for the 50 best releases of 2005. The list folds in my 10 favourite Experimental/Electronic albums of the year... so there may be some head scratching titles... don't worry, but do look them up on the magical internet... they're worth your time. You may think there are titles missing from the list... and indeed there are... for a variety of reasons. Some albums I still don't own that would likely be in the top 50 (i.e. The National, Silver Jews). Some albums I heard but didn't quite latch onto, due to age, inclination, rhythmic disinclination (i.e. LCD Soundsystem, White Stripes). Others I just plain missed. It happens.

There are reviews with some of these at the moment, more when I have time to add them, so keep checking back and feel free to leave your comments as to what you think is missing and why my opinions are insightful/worthless/poopy-headed.


01 Sufjan Stevens-Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty)

02 The Mountain Goats-The Sunset Tree (4AD)

03 Matt Sweeney/Bonnie Prince Billy-Superwolf (Drag City/Palace)

04 Smog-A River Ain't Too Much to Love (Drag City)

The test for whether you love vs. like this umpteenth Smog album is song 3. If you can give yourself over to the zen koan of a man struggling not to let a bead of water roll off his neck you’ve entered through door #1. The rest is, as they say, gravy… though in its powdered form. Bill Callahan’s gift for the emotional sucker punch hidden within matter of fact recitation is Hulk-strong here. Jim White, on loan from Dirty Three, gives the heart a percussive push. The bitter Bill of past is but a shadow (or “bramble”), giving way to a battered but buoyant spirit, equal parts defiance and acceptance.

05 The Decemberists-Picaresque (KillRockStars)

There’s undoubtedly an interminable loop of BBC produced shorts running in Colin Meloy’s brain through all his waking hours. I’m a sucker for this short-story-as-song stuff… so I’m conquered from the get-go… and on this third installment they come front loaded with pomp and/or circumstance in just the right quantities. From the skid row love-beyond-the-grave tale of Eli the Barrow Boy to Charles Bronson in Moby Dick shanty The Mariner’s Revenge Song loving the loser has never been so much fun.

06 13 & God-S/T (Anticon)

07 Black Mountain-S/T (Scratch Records)

Most music fans harbor not-so-secret fantasies of being the one up there, on stage, with the songs that make the young girls sing. Some even have their style figured out: an easy blend of all the bands they first loved in their teens and early twenties. Black Mountain have recorded that album for me. A basement smoke-cured mixture of Black Sabbath, the first Psychedelic Furs album, Velvet Underground and every 70s hard rock band who dared slow down or freak out a little. It’s a brew lead singer Steven McBean has been working on for some time with his earlier projects Jerk With a Bomb and electro/cock rock doppelganger Pink Mountaintops. This comes closest to the implied heights… at least so far.

08 Sigur Ros-Takk... (Geffen)

What is the sound of one heart thawing out? Sigur Ros have gotten their crescendos back in order to follow up 2002’s excellent, though slightly narcotic ( ). They come through the same door as before, but carrying different gifts each time… more pianos, more clocksprings, more triangles, more car-crashed strings. Still the perfect musical accompaniment to joy and/or anxiety. What is the sound of Sigur Ros rocking out?

09 ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead-Worlds Apart (Interscope)

10 Kings of Leon-Aha Shake Heartbreak (RCA)

11 Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!-S/T (Self-Released)

12 Maximo Park-A Certain Trigger (Warp)

A certain part of everyone’s diet has to consist of empty calories. Maximo Park’s take on sprightly post-punk is a tightly wound ball of elastics crashing into all the right pressure points. Youthfully superficial worries on relationships with girls, work, home are buoyed by clanging guitars and clean keyboards that build to life affirming/negating choruses you immediately internalize. Not a substitute for classics like early XTC, Elvis Costello or The Jam, but neither are they trying to be. Shut up about the old days and pogo, fucker.

13 The Books-Lost and Safe (Tomlab)

Still with the laptop chop-ups. Still with the banjos. Still with the instructional spoken word samples from god knows where. But now! With added songs! The Books push at the boundaries of what is ambient/experimental and what is pop without worrying too much about the border cross. One imagines this must be what Brian Eno would hear in his head while gliding on the right balance of acid and anti-depressants.

14 Alva Noto/Ryuichi Sakamoto-insen (Raster-Noton)

So you have the piano in the room with a sampler, see? A microphone is hooked up to the sampler and eventually the piano is trapped in the sampler, see? Then the sampler is plugged into a laptop, OK? Something inside the laptop is sharp and fast-spinning, like a carousel of razor blades, OK? The carousel gets at the piano and chops it into ebony and ivory ribbons, see? Then the laptop brain feels remorse, or guilt, and patches all of the ribbons back into a piano-like quilt… except it doesn’t really sound like a piano anymore, right? Now it’s more like a few stray piano notes and the sounds of half a million crickets repeatedly falling to their knees.

15 Sun Kil Moon-Tiny Cities (Caldo Verde)

16 Eluvium-Talk Amongst the Trees (Temporary Residence)

17 Tape-Rideau (Hapna)

18 Fembots-The City (Paper Bag)

This could be the Canadian cousin to My Morning Jacket’s Z. Like MMJ this is a little bit country, but it’s a whole lot else too, Toy xylophone, violin and faux ragtime piano give it a riverboat-on-the-St. Lawrence flava. Elsewhere, Up from the Ditches is a stomper worthy of early Blue Rodeo. It’s both a giant hop forward and an amalgamation of their prior two albums. What they do from here on could be even better.

19 Damien Jurado-On My Way to Absence (Secretly Canadian)

Call this a bit of a Lifetime Achievement Award. Damien Jurado’s albums have been perennially solid and consistently unremarked-upon. This fifth effort may not have the highpoints featured on I Break Chairs or Where Will You Take Me but it is the very portrait of steadfast workmanship. Jurado writes like a Springsteen that set down roots in Nebraska and finds equal parts beauty and darkness at the edges of the small town.

20 Giuseppi Ielasi-Gesine (Hapna)

21 Bright Eyes-I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning (Saddle Creek)

If Bright Eyes were Guns N Roses their two album/same day releases could be subtitled Digital Ash: Use Your Illusion I and I’m Wide Awake: Use What You Do Best II. The stretch into post-Postal Service electro-folk in many ways informs and elevates the status of the more traditional effort… though they remain wisely apart from each other. On Wide Awake… Conor gets to live out his Gram Parsons fantasies, in duet with Emmylou Harris on a few tracks, and explore a Bob Dylan-in-New York phase to excellent effect elsewhere. Who knows where the ghost in the machine might condense later on.

22 Joel Plaskett-LaDeDa (Maple Music)

23 My Morning Jacket-Z (RCA/ATO)

MMJ seem to prove that it’s OK these days to release stranger albums (a la Neil Young American Stars n Bars or Re-ac-tor) and still expect fans to follow. Jim James leads a the mark 2.0 version of the band into reggae bottlenecks and strange oompah organ forests that even Hansel und Gretel would have the sense to avoid. Enough of the bourbon soaked echo chamber sound is kept in reserve in lieu of a breadcrumb trail.

24 Low-The Great Destroyer (Sub Pop)

25 Crooked Fingers-Dignity and Shame (Merge)

26 Brian McBride-When the Detail Lost its Freedom (Kranky)

With Stars of the Lid on temporary hold its two members have turned to individual projects to fill the time. Adam Wiltzie was first with last year’s excellent Dead Texan album and now Brian McBride paints the air with familiar hushed and gauzy hues. Where Wiltzie pushed outward on the SOTL fabric McBride pulls the strands together: phased guitar lines, simple keyboard figures, occasional analog crackle and hiss. If anything these are miniaturized versions of the duo’s lengthy drone excursions, most closely resembling their last (and best), Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid.

27 Jesu-S/T (HydraHead)

28 The Double-Loose in the Air (Matador)

29 Electrelane-Axes (Too Pure)

30 Holopaw-Quit +/or Fight (Sub Pop)

Neighbours and friends to Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam, on their second album Holopaw have pulled open their already skewed take on Americana. Like a more urbane Will Oldham, John Orth sings cowboy poetry for those obsessed with the smallest moving parts of things. As on their first album they lightly gild their Byrds/Burrito Bros chiming country folk with glitchy technology. More emphasis on the strings and sweetness dilutes things a little, but the beating heart of the thing survives intact, and more.

31 Desormais-Dead Letters to Lost Friends (Intr_Version)

32 Wolf Parade-Apologies to the Queen Mary (Sub Pop)

Wolf Parade face tasks such as proving they aren’t just tag-a-long cousins to a scene administered by big brother Arcade Fire; that they aren’t an outward extension of their producer, Modest Mouse leader Isaac Brock’s ego; that they are distinguishable from all the other rough romantics with go-for-baroque guitars and keyboards. Ultimately they don’t succeed on all fronts, but their gruff post-millennial update of Ziggy Stardust/Diamond Dogs Bowie works well enough to generate much in the way of hat-tipping (towards them).

33 Animal Collective-Feels (FatCat)

34 Boduf Songs-S/T (Kranky)

If folk tales of monochromatic interplanetary vomit are your bag look no further than Boduf Songs’ Matthew Sweet for satisfaction. Though his acoustic guitar and whispered vocals are the most outwardly traditional of the new weird folk scene that’s popped up, an underlying vibe of strangeness feeds the root system. With only a few well-timed adornments, brief backwards electric guitar lines and bowed cymbals, the strength of the album is in its stillness. The songs insinuate themselves slowly and leave you, whaddayacallit, haunted.

35 Ariel Pink's Haunted Grafitti-Worn Copy (Paw Tracks)

36 Sleater-Kinney-The Woods (Sub Pop)

When I heard S-K had hopped over to Sub Pop and were being produced by Dave Fridmann who’d previously worked with Mercury Rev and Flaming Lips I feared the “mature” album of strings and piano ballads was in the offing. Instead he unloaded a box of half-broken distortion pedals and the ladies found a crate of WWII-era cans of whoopass and opened all of them at once. The sound you hear is a punk rock wood chipper that occasionally spits out guitar solos.

37 Mice Parade-Bem-Vinda Vontade (Bubblecore)

38 Scout Niblett-Kidnapped By Neptune (Too Pure)

39 Magnolia Electric Co.-What Comes After the Blues (Secretly Canadian)

With each new release, first as Songs:Ohia and now under a new name, Jason Molina comes closer and closer to making a traditional roots classic. With more players, guest lead vocalists and four strong winds blowing through his broken heart he ties together the lonely working man threads from Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Murray McLaughlin and others. The eight songs are cut to the bone then re-ornamented with tarnished metals and chipped glass. Songs featuring his female foil, such as the lead on The Night Shift Lullaby and in duet on I Can Not Have Seen the Light, tune up the heartstrings with their added cracked-voice melancholy. It’s an album full of Heart(s) of Gold. My nitpicker side still misses the even-more pared down mantras of Didn’t it Rain and Ghost Tropic, but that was a different time, a different band.

40. Constantines-Tournament of Hearts (Sub Pop/Three Gut)

Would that there were more Canadian bands like The Constantines. Built for barroom soul and prairie winters… playing encores for Jager shots. This third album downshifts a little from Shine a Light, but what it loses in speed it gains in torque. Songs like Hotline Operator and Working Fulltime refine the Fugazi-via-Afghan Whigs-via-Springsteen vibe to a grungy chrome finish. But it’s the centerpiece Soon Enough where the bluster is put aside between sets, you get to sit down in a corner and find out, “(y)ears from now they will make water from the reservoirs of our idiot temper. Soon enough, working love will make a man out of you, through and through.” More of that please.

41 Most Serene Republic-Underwater Cinematographer (Arts&Crafts)

An impressive but imperfect debut. With Broken Social Scene’s follow-up to You Forgot it in People failing to overwhelm… another guest-fest-mess to be sure, but in fairly monochromatic hues comparatively… TMSR stepped up with more convincing, though sloppier effort. It feels more like a band working out their identity as a unit than someone imparting tasks to players based on skill levels and net return. All the parts are there: multiple instruments, low-mixed vocals, pretentious song titles… but these are undercut by semi-rhythmic handclaps, semi-melodic shout-along and snowy white hip hop scats. If Weezer were a nerdy post-rock band instead of a nerdy hard pop band they’d be the Republic.

42 Spoon-Gimme Fiction (Merge)

It seems the more everyone else has been writing about and liking Spoon the less appealing they’ve become to me. Gimme Fiction is an undeniably well-written album, but in a exquisite, sanded-down way instead of the hiccupping and dirty fingernailed style they started with. The first time I heard the album was on a car trip and I mistakenly thought the opener was a John Lennon song… which is pretty cool. However the second one sounded a little closer to… gulp, Billy Joel?! It was the classic, early BJ, but still. The 70s rock and soul pastiche covers the album, and in the right frame of mind it’s a fun listen… but more of the hard stuff next, please.

43 Tujiko Noriko-Blurred in My Mirror (Room40)

44 Comet Gain-City Fallen Leaves (KillRockStars)

45 Songs of Green Pheasant-S/T (FatCat)

46 Midaircondo-Shopping for Images (Type Recordings)

47 CocoRosie-Noah's Ark (Touch & Go)

48 David Pajo-Pajo (Drag City)

David Pajo’s CV would get him work anywhere: Slint, Tortoise, er… Zwan… not to mention “solo” work under various a.k.a.s like Aerial M, Papa M, and plain old M. Each incarnation featured its own rules of engagement. On Pajo he holes up in a NY apartment for a couple of weeks with a Mac laptop sporting GarageBand and sketches out demos… and when the demos turn out to be more compelling that the following studio work her releases them “as is.” The resulting album veers from microbe infested Americana to English folk ditties to closer Francie, an soundscaped narrative as close to Slint’s creepiness as anything he’s done. Two tracks, Icicles and Let Me Bleed verge upon Elliott Smith’s hushed confessional territory, though they feel as though the singer and his song are trapped inside the computer.

49 Fruit Bats-Spelled in Bones (Sub Pop)

In 2003, Mouthfuls by the Fruit Bats was an excellent bookend to Holopaw’s self-titled first album: equally comfortable on the front porch with acoustic guitars or on a road trip through mid-70s UK pop. There are hints and echoes here… the excellent Legs of Bees and The Earthquake of ’73… but the album takes three tracks of midlevel Wings-like meandering before pulling off anything memorable. Still worth it, though.

50. The New Pornographers-Twin Cinema (Mint)

Another year another pop masterpiece. So why do I have it at #50? As with the first two TNP albums the arc of listening goes from being blown away at first listen, fairly regular play for a month or two then only when someone asks to hear it, then onto the shelf to sit silently. Like The BeatlesRevolver and Abbey Road, I do not dispute their top chops and detailed craftsmanship… only…. I imagine there’s a nice sea green room with soft paisley carpeting and pawn shop lamps with low wattage bulbs where this is looped on a pretty good stereo… but it isn’t any room in my house. Maybe when they record their White Album.