2005: The Year in Music Reviewed

Well, 2005 has breathed its last. The musical year that began with Ashlee Simpson getting booed off the stage at the Orange Bowl and climaxed with Mariah Carey’s less-than-earth-shattering performance on New Year’s Eve as a depressingly feeble Dick Clark gazed on. In 2005, 50 Cent continued his inexplicable presence on the top-40 charts, nu-rock refuses to die, “My Humps” has somehow captured the American imagination, and “artists” like Big & Rich and Rob Thomas have Grammy nominations. Fortunately, 2005 also happens to be the year that Sufjan Stevens took over the world.

On a warm August afternoon, I was walking along the “Royal Mile” in Edinburgh, Scotland, and happened upon a small record shop. I stopped in, wondering what kind of stuff it would have. And there it was, next to the Bloc Party and Kaiser Chiefs records: Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois. The next day, in Glasgow, I found another small music store. Again, Illinois was featured prominently, and this time, Greetings from Michigan was playing loudly over the stores’ speakers. It was strange (and, oddly, comforting) to know that a Midwestern troubadour who speaks so profoundly about the American sense of place has such international appeal.

With the release of Illinois, Sufjan was everywhere—making an incredible song for NPR’s “All Things Considered,” being featured for a month as indie-taste-maker Pitchforkmedia.com’s recommended album, or touring the country with his ragtag band of Illinoisemakers. Yes, Sufjan had conquered our hearts, and the listeners of America (and, apparently, the world) were thankful. Sure, the hipsters didn’t always know what to do with his lyrics drenched in Biblical allegory and soft ruminations on grace, but it was still okay; after all, simply wearing an ironic t-shirt doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll understand meditations about the Crucifixion.

Illinoisset the tone and, at least for me, let me obsess about music again without having to resort to dubious choices (yes, I think I tried to like a song by the Bravery … I don’t wish to speak of it again).

So, without further ado, here are my picks for the top ten albums of 2005. I freely admit that I have not heard every new release of the year, but I have endeavored to be as thorough as possible and listen to as many albums as I could. It may be that I discover a glaring omission come March (I still shudder to remember last year’s Arcade Fire incident). Such is the nature of top ten lists. So, feel free to make your own list and share it with others in the comment bar; otherwise, disagree with me, whine at me, whatever you would like. As long as you don’t fret about the omission of Nickelback or 3 Doors Down (bands who are, by all accounts, objectively bad), we’ll all be happy.

1. Sufjan Stevens – Illinois (or, Come On, Feel the Illinoise)

Is this really a surprise? Yes, the best album of the year tops even last year’s Seven Swans, no small accomplishment. Combining Stevens’ remarkable sense of locale and Whitman-esque idealization of the common American with a deep sense of faith and pietistic focus, Illinois dares to make beauty from as many disparate sources as possible. Truly, if one considers the definition of Christian art to be Madeleine L’Engle’s recognition of “cosmos in chaos,” Illinois might be one of the premiere pieces of Christian art of the last few decades. Highlights include the deeply mournful “Casimir Pulaski Day” (Tuesday night, at the Bible Study / we lift our hands and pray over your body / but nothing ever happens), the epic “Come On Feel the Illinoise!” and the prayerfully quiet “The Seer’s Tower.” Running at 70+ minutes, this album only gets better with repeated listens. Buy it now.

2. Bloc Party – Silent Alarm

Apparently, New Wave is back in a big way. The most radical music of the 80’s has returned, with The Killers, Franz Ferdinand, Interpol and the Strokes all paying homage to The Cure, New Order, Joy Division and others. Naturally, this has led to overkill of the nu-new wave rock movement; one of this year’s entries into the mix, however, manages to transcend the mundane boundaries in which the genre has been trapped. Maybe it’s because Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm has eschewed that oh-so-cool detached irony that so many of their brethren have embraced, but, in any case, their songs contain real intensity and some legitimate passion. Check out the belittling “Positive Tension,” the lovely and shimmering “So Here We Are,” and the emotive “Blue Light.”

3. Doves – Some Cities

In 2005, everyone was looking forward to the new Coldplay album to be the “next big thing” out of Britain. It was either them, it seemed, or one of the nu-new wavers that would rescue Britrock from the Keane-induced doldrums. It’s all the more impressive, then, that the Doves decided to completely forgo the Coldplay-copying (Elbow, anyone?) and make their own muddled brand of epic Britrock. And what a result: easily the best album of their career, Some Cities combines soaring anthems and devastating ballads on a single disc, all to wonderful effect over fuzzy guitars. The Doves have clearly taken up the “Britain’s rock savior” standard, and Britain would do well to let them carry it for a while. Listen to “Black and White Town”’s lofty heights and then marvel at the somber shoe-gazing of “Ambition.”

4. Common – Be

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: “Don’t you mean to put Kanye West’s album all the way up here?” Well, Mr. West made himself a fine album (see below), but it wasn’t the best hip-hop album this year; in fact, it wasn’t even the best Chicago hip-hop album of 2005. That honor belongs solely to Chicago rap godfather Common, who has made an album at once accessible and incredibly layered with Be. Filled with samples of old soul and R & B numbers (many of them courtesy of Mr. West’s production skills), Be represents the best of modern hip-hop. Common belongs in the same tier as De La Soul, the Roots, Blackalicious, and even A Tribe Called Quest. Listen especially for “The Corner,” a smooth ode to the local hangout, and for the intense “Testify,” which documents the courtroom drama surrounding a murder trial.

Note: Be contains explicit content. While much more socially conscious than most popular hip-hop, the album nonetheless contains material that some listeners might find offensive.

5. Fiona Apple – Extraordinary Machine

Forget the Jon Brion vs. Mike Elizondo debate. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, good for you; It’s a moot point now: we have what we have. And what we have is a really good album. Fiona Apple’s acerbic wit has never been more potent, as she effectively fillets her past lover(s) with the spite of a jilted girlfriend, the pen of a poetry professor and the ardor of someone who’s been hurt one too many times. Listeners can speculate about the subject of Ms. Apple’s venom all they want, but does it really matter? She makes terrifically dark, meaty pop songs, filled with husky vocals, pounding piano and swirling instrumentation. With lines like I think he let me down when he didn’t disappoint me (“Get Him Back”) and What wasted unconditional love / on somebody who doesn’t believe in this love (“Oh Well”), it’s plain to see that Fiona Apple has plenty of material to still work through.

6. Boards of Canada – The Campfire Headphase

Gloomy, moody and pretty great all around, this ambient release from Boards of Canada is the background album to have for parties that involve lots of introspection and hookah. Beautifully arranged, soothing and always engaging, it’s one of those albums that makes a listener feel kind of good about feeling bad. Listen especially for the slow, Air-esque groove of “Satellite Anthem Icarus” and the distorted hush of “Dayvan Cowboy.”

7. Andrew Bird – Andrew Bird and The Mysterious Production of Eggs

Yes, he whistles on his albums. And yes, it’s awesome. Andrew Bird, violinist, songwriter, and whistler extraordinaire returns with … and the Mysterious Production of Eggs and it’s a terrific effort. Looping massive amounts of orchestration with his off-kilter lyrics and punchy musical sensibilities, Bird creates big sonic set pieces that match the grandeur of his abilities. Check out “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left” and “Banking on a Myth” in particular.

See Also

8. Franz Ferdinand – You Could Have it So Much Better

Scotland’s favorite boys of dance-rock have returned with an album even better than its predecessor. You Could Have it … contains all of the sass of their debut album, but with better (and more consistent) songcraft this time around. Combining their trademark wit with frighteningly catchy riffs (“Do You Want To” and “You’re the Reason I’m Leaving”) they’ve also managed to write one of the best pop-rock songs of the year in “Eleanor Put Your Boots On.”

9. Kathleen Edwards – Back to Me

The heir apparent to Lucinda Williams for “angry country singer who might alternately kiss or kill you,” Edwards’ sophomore effort finds her bar-soaked blues in full force, dismantling the men in her life who have done her wrong. While her voice is a cross between Williams’ full on yowl and Mindy Smith’s sweet come-ons, this album is unmistakably Kathleen Edwards: her man goes to prison (“In State”), she taunts him (“Back to Me”) and then realizes she doesn’t need him (“Good Things”).

10 (tie). Kanye West – Late Registration // The Go! Team – Thunder Lightning Strike

Okay, this might be cheating, but these albums are both really good and deserving of a spot on the top ten. Mr. West’s success has been documented many times, and his sophomore solo effort deserves (some of) the accolades it’s getting. It’s smarter than the average top-40 hip-hop (though he still has a disturbing habit of mixing his faith, vices and fantasy), has some catchy beats, and is an easy candidate for hip-hop album of the year. The Go! Team, on the other hand, have finally had their album released on our shores this year, after a delay due to copyright negotiations for some sampling heard on the disc. Filled with get-up-and-dance tunes that have some definite soul, Thunder Lightning Strike succeeds at being a raucous album of cheerleading for the moshpit. Check out “Ladyflash” and “Junior Kickstart” to see what I mean.

Note: Late Registration contains explicit material. It may have content that some listeners find offensive.

Honorable mention (in no particular order):

LCD Soundsystem – LCD Soundsystem, Antony and the Johnsons – I Am a Bird, Coldplay – X&Y, Deathcab for Cutie – Plans, Sigur Ros – Takk …, Rogue Wave – Descended Like Vultures, Wolf Parade – Apologies to Queen Mary, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Howl, Ryan Adams and the Cardinals – Jacksonville City Nights, Over the Rhine – Drunkard’s Prayer, The Decembrists – Picaresque, The National – Alligator, Broken Social Scene – Broken Social Scene, Sun Kil Moon – Tiny Cities, Thievery Corporation – The Cosmic Game , Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

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