Year End Review 2005

2005: The List

Browse through just about any magazine or website’s “best music of the year” list and you will likely be left scratching your head. Names like Sufjan Stevens, M.I.A., Wolf Parade, My Morning Jacket, Antony and the Johnsons, Andrew Bird…who the heck are these people? Even in the most mainstream publications – the closest thing to an everyday name is a Kanye or a Fiona here and there. These lists are dominated by random, obscure, and artsy shoegazers, horn-players, Brit-rappers, and garage bands that you would never hear on commercial radio. On the other side, we have the awards shows, which typically reward accomplished artists (read: old fogies) or occasionally try to appear relevant by crowning the latest flavor of the month.

None of these truly reflect the radio playlists around the country, which crank out all the Kelly Clarkson, Mariah Carey, Usher, Lifehouse, and Black Eyed Peas you can swallow. Why is there such a disconnect between the “best” music and what gets broadcast? Isn’t this an oddity? Is it a conspiracy? This is America, and we are entitled to hear the best music being recorded. The reality is a bit less conspiratory. Just like movies and television, we eat up the fluffy pop, phunky beats, and heartstring sob stories, over the documentaries, indie films, and artsy hipster records.

Well, that’s fine. Music should speak to you in many ways: make you dance, sing, cry, and freak. My list is a collection of complete albums that allow you to dig deep, if you will. They represent 12 real artists that are engaged enough in the consciousness of the mainstream to be accessible to anyone. Two artists that dominated the radio this year were carryovers from last year’s list: Green Day and Gwen Stefani. If karma works out again, 2006 will bring lots of play to some of the albums listed below.

So here is the list, starting at the top, and going on from there.

ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Death Cab for Cutie – Plans

DCFC have been coveted by indie hipsters for years. Just look at their name, a reference from the Magical Mystery Tour. How avant-garde. So there was a collective (gasp) when their songs started getting airplay on the Fox (ugh!) show The O.C. (the horror!). The twenty-something exposure and a slot on 2004’s Vote for Change tour set their major label release Plans for a wider audience, and the band seized the opportunity to create their pop masterpiece. There has perhaps never been an album that chronicles the seasons of life so aptly. Ben Gibbard writes about all phases from adolescence (“On the night you left I came over / And we peeled the freckles from our shoulders / Our brand new coats so flushed and pink / And I knew your heart I couldn’t win / Cause the seasons change was a conduit / And we left our love in our summer skin”) to the final twilight (“If heaven and hell decide / That they both are satisfied / Illuminate the no’s on their vacancy signs / If there’s no one beside you / When your soul embarks / Then I’ll follow you into the dark”) and riding the wave of life in between (“I want to live where soul meets body / And let the sun wrap its arms around me / And bathe my skin in water cool and cleansing / And feel, feel what its like to be new.”) Pure poetry.

Fiona Apple – Extraordinary Machine

unstable – erratic, precarious, temperamental, volatile. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, from instability comes genius. (See: Sinead O’Connor, Tori Amos, Jeff Buckley.) Like many before and since, Princess Fiona is another Girl Gone Wild whose tortured past (including a brutal rape) has made for therapeutic recording sessions. Her audio confessions began with the provocative and intimate Tidal in 1996, and When the Pawn in 1999 was a brasher, more confident outing. Her long awaited Extraordinary Machine had much hoopla surrounding it before it even hit the shelves, due to a scuffle with her label and internet leaks of early versions of the songs. The finished product finally made its way to her rabid fans, and this fully-realized result is an intense set of relationship sagas over her pulsating piano. If there was a better way to go then it would find me / I can’t help it, the road just rolls out behind me / Be kind to me, or treat me mean / I’ll make the most of it, I’m an extraordinary machine. Indeed.

John Legend – Let’s Get Lifted

Collaborating with Lauryn Hill, Kanye West, and Jay-Z is pretty decent practice for recording your first album. Drawing on his start as a choir director, Legend channels his RnB, soul, and gospel roots to produce a slick, swaggering tribute to the female form. Aside from his tendency to infidelity and empty (?) promises to change his ways, classics like “Ordinary People”, “So High”, and the title song position Legend as the male equivalent to Alicia Keys or Erykah Badu. There’s much more where this earthy neo-soul came from.

Amos Lee – Amos Lee

Former teacher from Philadelphia channels Otis Redding and Bill Withers in organic soul debut. Borrowing Norah Jones and her band proves a good match for Lee’s dusky voice and wispy lyrics. The songs that really stick are those that keep it loose and allow Lee to really croon, like “Arms of a Woman” and “Seen It All Before.” Auspicious.

Aqualung – Strange and Beautiful

In the footsteps of (early) Radiohead, Travis, Coldplay, and Keane, the latest falsetto Britboy is classically trained Matt Hales, performing as Aqualung. The pinnacle here is the single “Brighter than Sunshine,” but one soothing and restrained piano ballad after another make for a perfect backdrop to an early morning drive. I never understood before / I never knew what love was for / My heart was broke, my head was sore / What a feeling / Tied up in ancient history / I didn’t believe in destiny / I look up you’re standing next to me / What a feeling / What a feeling in my soul / Love burns brighter than sunshine.

Ringside – Ringside

Usually, any mention of actors-turned-singers immediately descends into eye rolling and disbelief about who could have encouraged the preposterous idea in the first place. However, for Balthazar Getty and Scott Thomas, you get the sense that acting was just an audition for their real calling as musicians. Ringside is one of the most original, slick, complete sounds to surface in a while. Equal parts pop, light rock, and electronica combine for undeniably catchy songs like “Struggle” and “Tired of Being Sorry.” Quite an upgrade from White Squall, for sure.

Coldplay – X&Y

X&Y was supposed to be the album of the year, hands down. Coldplay began with one beautifully stark debut Parachutes, followed with a layered yet accessible second album A Rush of Blood to the Head, and were about to take over the title of biggest band in the world from U2. Instead, Coldplay made a safe, harmless, very good third album (while Green Day came close to stealing that title). It’s not the classic that it should have been, but it is solid and improves with repeated listens. See “White Shadows,” “Speed of Sound,” and “The Hardest Part.”

Josh Rouse – Nashville

Poppier than country, too lo-fi for mainstream, and too smart for his own good. Josh Rouse expands on his sound with each release, and his fifth album Nashville is an homage to the city where he lived for several years, and his marriage that ended with his move from it. Despite the circumstances, this collection features hooky, melodic, smart songs (“Streetlights”) surrounding a few melancholy slow-burners (“Sad Eyes”). Anything from this guy is a sure bet.

Gabin – Mr. Freedom

Where oh where has electronica gone? Sigh. What thrived in the late 90’s has been reduced to commercial fodder for iPods, luxury cars, and cell phones. Nevermind though; if you long for it, you can find chill-out or jazzy house sets from Hotel Costes, Cafe Del Mar, or your nearest martini lounge. Or you can get with Gabin. If Thievery Corporation are a cosmopolitan, then Gabin are a watermelon martini. A bit fruitier and more fun, but just as smooth and tasty. With the requisite big-vocaled guests over layered beats, this will get your groove started. Yes Paris, this is hot.

Beck – Guero

When “Loser” moseyed into the mainstream in 1993, a lot of skeptics (including myself) pegged Beck as a one-hit wonder. He’s been proving us wrong ever since, as rock’s most creative and whacky funk-soul brother. Guero (slang Mexican term for “pale blonde person”) is a fun trip through LA, especially “E-Pro”, “Earthquake Weather”, and the funnest single of this past summer, “Girl.” This guy is crackalacka. Arriba!

Brandi Carlile – Brandi Carlile

Newcomer from the Seattle area is all over recent “artist to watch” lists. Breaking the mold by drawing together elements of folk, country, and adult alternative, Carlile lives in the same universe as Bonnie Raitt and the numerous female singer songwriters in her wake. She started out by singing Roseanne Cash at the Grand Ole Opry when she was 8, and reminds me more of a female Roy Orbison than anything else. Her yearning debut is an accomplished start.

Moby – Hotel

Now 40, Moby has had quite an impact on the music scene of the past 2 decades. Known for revolutionizing and/or diluting dance music in the 90’s, he continues to keep us interested. Nowhere near as brilliant as some of his masterpieces (Play, Everything is Wrong), Hotel does deliver a heap of flashy, delicious modern rock songs like “Beautiful” and “Where You End,” stacked between somber ambient bookends. Critics hated it, but if taken at face value, Hotel is good for upping your celebrity persona or swanking up your living quarters.

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