Once again, I succumb to the peculiar year-end urge to make lists. I have not, however, checked them twice, nor have I spied on you for dubious purposes of national security.
None of these lists are in any particular order: my ranking abilities freeze up in the face of too much discrimination. Links are generally to external sites containing mp3s or streams; native mp3s will be linked from a parenthetical song title.
In no particular order, acclaimed CDs I am too lame to have heard yet (even if some are on order): The National Alligator, The White Stripes Get Behind Me Satan, The Raveonettes Pretty in Black, 50 Foot Wave Golden Ocean, Mark Eitzel Candy Ass, Chris Stamey A Question of Temperature, Nothing Painted Blue Taste the Flavor, The Chap Ham, Jens Lekman Oh You’re So Silent Jens, Broadcast Tender Buttons, Wolf Parade Apologies to the Queen Mary, Chad VanGaalen Infiniheart, Rogue Wave Out of the Shadow, Fripp & Eno Equatorial Stars, Beck Guero, Liz Phair Somebody’s Miracle, The 88 Over and Over, Brendan Benson The Alternative to Love, and others I am too lame even to think of. Why yes, since you ask, I do accept gifts! Acclaimed CDs not listed are probably too lame for me to have heard yet.
2005 CDs that were a bit of a disappointment: Julian Cope Citizen Cain’d (hmm…maybe the “acid-fried maniac” thing is true after all), Aimee Mann The Forgotten Arm, Michael Penn Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947 (terminal World Cafeitis), The Oranges Band The World & Everything In It (edgeless), Monade A Few Steps More (hmm…maybe there is such a thing as too much Stereolab), Great Lake Swimmers s/t (the guy wrote the same great song ten times).
CDs that aren’t really part of my main best-of list because my obnoxious, rigid criteria excludes them (EPs, compilations, live albums): Stereolab Kyberneticka Bablicka (add diacritics to taste), Caribou Yeti (the only two actual EPs I bought this year, other than those included as bonus discs with regular releases), The Fiery Furnaces EP (10 songs, 41 minutes: that’s no EP! It is, however, a compilation); Wilco Kicking Television: Live in Chicago (nice to hear the slightly more straightforward presentations, often augmented with some scorching lead guitar).
Three Levels of Not-Quite-There, from least- to most-there:
Brian Eno Another Day on Earth
Bullette The Secrets: Impressive debut from unsigned musician benefiting from the Blarin’ o’ the Blogs.
Four Tet Everything Ecstatic
The Fall Fall Heads Roll: Perversely as usual, begins with its weakest track, followed by two songs that use the exact same riff as one another.
The Kingsbury Manx The Fast Rise and Fall of the South: Nicely done, but a bit too nicely, at least until the last track lets loose the guitar hounds.
Mazarin We’re Already There
The Decemberists Picaresque: I like a lot of this, but Colin Meloy needs to stop reading his press. No more barrow boys in bellies of whales next time…
Mercury Rev The Secret Migration: Huge glassy heaps of beautiful sound melt into inconsequential puddles…what happened to the insanity of their first few records?
Of Montreal The Sunlandic Twins: This one’s growing on me, actually: in a few months it likely would be in my top 20.
Mary Timony Ex Hex: A criminally underrated guitarist, but the songs aren’t quite as good this time around.
The Lower Reaches of the Top 20:
Caribou The Milk of Human Kindness: Dan Snaith continues to successfully meld songs, electronics, and noise. Last album got compared to Mercury Rev: perhaps they should work together.
Damon & Naomi The Earth Is Blue: Beautiful songs, beautiful playing and arranging, beautiful lead guitar from Michio Kurihara, beautiful trumpet accents…only problem is, it’s almost too…beautiful.
Death Cab for Cutie Plans: I got this rather late in the year; typically, the subtlety of their material means it grows on me over time. I see no reason this album will be any different.
Doleful Lions Shaded Lodge and Mausoleum: Still spooky and weird, but lead Lion Jonathan Scott’s voice seems a bit scuffed here, and the record misses the female voice of Aynslie Pirtle (what a name!) featured on 2002’s Out Like a Lamb, my favorite release of theirs.
Hood Outside Closer: Textural, atmospheric. I like texture and atmosphere.
The Ponys Celebration Castle: Parts of this sound like Robert Smith fronting a garage band – which is, in fact, an excellent idea. Their second vocalist, a woman with a tough, powerful voice, provides good contrast and variety. (“Today”)
Stuck in the Middle (of the top 20):
Momus Otto Spooky: This one’s been growing in my estimation steadily. Initially a bit offputting – every track seems to be from a completely different musical universe, most of them rather odd – its cleverness and sneaky catchiness, as well as its sheer audacity, keep me coming back.
John Cale Black Acetate: Old dog relearns some old tricks he hadn’t performed for years (such as loud electric guitar and catchy tunes), as well as, unaccountably, growing a falsetto at age 63.
The Caribbean Plastic Explosives: My favorite pocket band is still excellent, but the length of this release means that my typically slow growing-into period is extended even further. It would probably place higher later in the year – except there isn’t any later left in the year.
The Go-Betweens Oceans Apart: This is the first post-reunion Go-Betweens album that really feels like a band album, and not coincidentally is the first to stack up to their first, great set of recordings. And surprisingly, the opening track “Here Comes a City” actually rocks – not usually what one looks to this band to do. (Granted, it rocks by borrowing quite liberally from “Life During Wartime” – but taste in theft is underrated.) (“This Night’s for You”)
Stephen Malkmus Face the Truth: Another grower. The arrangements are sometimes gimmicky (Fluxblog posted a live version of “Malediction” a year or so back that crushes the album’s oversynthified version like a limp grape), but the songs are solid, so long as you don’t mind that Malkmus is still sometimes in the grip of a Grateful Dead fascination (or if you love that fact).
Sufjan Stevens Illinois (or Come On Feel the Illinoise, depending whether you trust the cover or the spine): This year’s favorite by acclamation…and I’m not bucking the tide. I was resistant at first: it’s true that some tracks do exude a rather high-school theater-production vibe, and one really shouldn’t take the damned 50 states in 50 albums thing seriously (I sure hope Stevens doesn’t). But Stevens’ earnestness, power, and inventiveness cannot be denied – and more than one song here makes my heart do that thing it does when I think there’s one more step at the top of the stairs than there really is.
Tenement Halls Knitting Needles & Bicycle Bells: Chris Lopez, late of the Rock*A*Teens (one of my most-missed acts), returns slightly older, maybe a little wiser, a little less likely to hoarsely scream to the rafters, but still the same impassioned doomed romantic he’s always been. And the songs are still great; Lopez still draws from an endless well of outdated rhythms and pawnshop keyboards to color those songs.
John Vanderslice Pixel Revolt: At first, I was disappointed by this one. A little too polite, refined, quiet, subdued…I wanted at least one track with some edge. Of course, I was looking in the wrong places, for the wrong kinds of edge: it’s tempting, given the apparent lack of overarching concept here (atypical for Vanderslice), to assume these personal-sounding songs are, in fact, personal. I don’t know, and anyone who’s written as effectively in character as Vanderslice shouldn’t be assumed to suddenly have become a confessional singer-songwriter. Regardless, the emotional subtleties these songs limn (gotta include this word for rock-critic cred) are reflected in the endlessly inventive arrangements – the real reason this album’s grown steadily in my estimation.
At the moment, my favorite releases of 2005:
Audible Sky Signal: I’m imagining Brian Eno producing a collaboration between …Amazing Letdowns-era Lilys and Game Theory circa Two Steps from the Middle Ages. If you’re imagining that, and it sounds like a fine idea, you’ll like this.
Maxïmo Park A Certain Trigger: I picked this up primarily on the recommendation of Flasshe, last month or so: in that time it’s rocketed nearly to the top of my year-end list. Yeah, there’s sort of an ’80s feel to some of the guitar and rhythm ideas here, but every damned song has hooks enough to populate whole albums (more than some of the somewhat disappointing records mentioned above), and the damned thing just makes you want to jump around the room. Dangerous if you’re driving a car: thank god steering columns make excellent surrogate drum kits. (“Graffiti”)
The New Pornographers Twin Cinema: My favorite review of this one comes from The Onion A.V. Club‘s Noel Murray: he says it took a little while for his reaction to go from “Ho-hum, another good New Pornographers album” to “Holy balls, how do they do it?”
The Spinto Band Nice and Nicely Done: I think I heard of these folks via Aaron Mandel’s Paste Mob; this is tuneful pop along the lines of a homemade kite – clever, lightweight, idiosyncratic construction.
Spoon Gimme Fiction: Another band on an impressive winning streak: while retaining the stripped-down feel that’s marked their last two albums, they’ve added a bit more color this time, such as cello and mellotron, yet the songs never feel overburdened by their arrangements (this ain’t no ELO).
The Sugarplastic Will: It took a couple of years (and a 7-single set of good-to-indifferent tracks released every few months in between), but Ben Eshbach, Kiara Geller, and company have released their most coherent, fully realized album. It’s also, curiously, their strangest: even though several tracks (such as “Autumn All the Time”) are among their most effervescently poppish, others are highly abstract and knotty. But unlike the often annoying diversions on their last full-length, Resin, these seem earned, weighted, not toss-offs. Perhaps this is a result of the album being (in part) an homage to their late friend Will Glenn; regardless, Will also has an emotional richness that sometimes was lacking in The Sugarplastic’s earlier, sometimes facile work.
Whew! Next time: some stray tracks from records I don’t own…some of them not even from this year.