BEST ALBUMS OF 2005
1. Richard Swift – The Richard Swift Collection, Volume One (literate pop) – in this day and age -- when every band is overhyped and "discovering" someone means watching them perform in a recurring role on a primetime series -- stumbling on a new artist unawares is almost impossible. But a tiny, one paragraph review in a British music magazine compelled me to buy this album by the West Coast-based artist. Think Randy Newman (without the cynicism), Harry Nilsson (without the vocal flourishes), Van Dyke Parks (without the artifice) and Tom Waits (without the gravel). A story teller and a romantic, Swift’s songs sound like they were written in a dusty hotel room circa 1920 by a young man wearing a natty suit and composing his lyrics on a manual typewriter. Swift's website is nifty too.
2. Sufjan Stevens – Illinois (eclectic pop) – when Sufjan Stevens released Michigan and said he was going to release one concept album for every state, it sounded like a threat. Now it seems like a giddy promise. Here he uses many styles – Philip Glass, folk, rock, pop, country – to tell many stories about Illinois, whether it’s a UFO sighting, Superman or a serial killer. Bursting with ambition, it succeeds.
3. The Eels – Blinking Lights and Other Revelations (suicidal pop) – never really focused too strongly on the Eels before, but this Magnetic Fields-like opus makes an obsession with death and dying seem wonderfully life-affirming.
4. Amadou & Mariam – Dimanche a Bamako (world pop) – a famed Mali duo for decades, Amadou & Mariam were new to me. However, I’m a big fan of their producer here, Manu Chao, who brought his giddy world pop sensibility to their music. The fusion is infectious.
5. Betty LaVette – I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise/ Various – I Believe To My Soul (soul) – No producer had a better year than Joe Henry. He gave soul survivor LaVette the album she always deserved (“Just Say So” will break your heart) and then turned around and showcased Ann Peebles, Mavis Staples, Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint and the great Billy Preston for good measure. Can’t wait to hear what he does with Elvis Costello.
6. The White Stripes – Get Behind Me Satan (bluesy pop)/ Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (folkie pop) – two acts that are in it for the long haul. The White Stripes got even starker, without sacrificing their innate pop craft. And danged if Bright Eyes doesn’t sound angry and wordy and passionate enough to actually be the new Dylan everyone has been predicting since the first Dylan. Anyone who doesn’t laugh with and love the rambling, hilarious, spoken word opener “At The Bottom Of Everything” is no friend of mine.
7. Neil Diamond – 12 Songs (pop via Brill Building) – I’ve always been a big fan of Neil Diamond. (I scored points with my first high school girlfriend by always having a Neil Diamond cassette cued up before we'd drive away in my car.) He writes great songs and has a great voice and anyone listening to "I Haven't Played That Song In Years" off his last studio album would know he didn't need much rehabilitating. But producer Rick Rubin certainly brought out the best in him, from the magnetic opener “Oh Mary” to the pure pleasure of “Delirious Love.” My pop punk band has already recorded a killer, speeded-up version of “Save Me A Saturday Night.”
8. Hanna McEuen -- Hanna McEuen (country by way of Everly Brothers) – I probably played it more than any other album this year. A country duo with pop/rock chops, cool vocals and 12 great songs. On “Something Like A Broken Heart,” they sing, “It’s a little like an old sad song/ It kills you but you sing along.” You’ll do the same on almost every track here.
9. The Magic Numbers – The Magic Numbers (60s pop via UK) – sinks in slowly but then it stays there. Trumpeted as the reemergence of the Mamas and the Papas, they’ve got a lot more in common with the shape-shifting pop of the Lovin’ Spoonful. They like nothing more than to stop a song dead in its tracks (just when it’s getting unbearably catchy), dive right into a new melody and get you all excited about that one before returning to their original idea. And it works.
10. Various – Does Anybody Know I’m Here? Vietnam Through The Eyes of Black America (protest pop) – the second album chronicling soul music during the Vietnam Era, it’s a really remarkable document. This time it shows the disillusionment seeping into popular music, as in the Dells’ “Does Anybody Know I’m Here?’ The catchiest history lesson imaginable.
11. Wolf Parade – Apologies to the Queen Mary/ Clap Your Hands, Say Yeah/ Broken Social Scene/ Marah – If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry (return of Talking Heads) – an explosion of talented young bands appeared in the wake of Arcade Fire. My money is on Wolf Parade (heavy on the Talking Heads). But it’s going to be a very interesting next few years.
12. Bill Charlap and Sandy Stewart – Love Is Here To Stay (telepathic jazz duets) – Charlap is a pianist and his mother Sandy Stewart is a relatively unheralded singer. Their quiet duets album is simply breathtaking. The interplay on songs like “Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe” and "After You" is subtle and true. Joins Ella Fitzgerald’s The Intimate Ella and Tony Bennett’s work with Bill Evans as a low-key gem.
13. Lewis Taylor – Stoned (what Prince and Stevie Wonder used to be) – terrific soul music that’s been sitting on the shelf for a few years. Elton John's been championing him like crazy and no wonder. He can write, sing, and produce a la Stevie and Prince. This should be huge, if people will only pay attention.
14. Ali Farka Toure & Toumani Diabate – In The Heart Of The Moon (world music) – mostly duets between guitar and dora (with Ry Cooder sitting in, not to mention the occasional bass and percussion). An improvised collaboration that flows with ease. Captivating.
15. Fiona Apple – Extraordinary Machine (pop, the hard way) – well, you do not want to dump pop singer Fiona after a few dates. (“You will see my face as I figure out how to kill what I cannot catch?” Yikes!) But who would leave someone this talented and exciting? Catchy, personal, confessional, universal – a triumph.
16. Heartless Bastards – Stairs and Elevators (rock n roll) – how lazy of people to always mention the Pretenders and Joan Jett whenever a female rocker appears. But then, I’m lazy. And early Pretenders is a great reference point for this formidable New York band. Can’t wait to hear songwriter and singer Erika Wennerstrom live (and eventually on another album with a bigger budget).
17. Various – Son Cubano NYC: Cuban Roots, New York Spices 1972-82 (salsa) – what do I know about salsa? Nothing. But I know you can’t put on this album without smiling and being caught up in its irresistible rhythms.
18. Hard-Fi – Stars Of CCTV (British rock) – British rockers with a sense of humor. (Actually, most British bands have a healthy sense of humor.) So rooted in the details of their lives living in council flats near the airport that it all becomes universal.
19. Neil Young – Prairie Wind (folk rock staring death in the face and smiling) – the only thing I didn’t like about this album was how people retroactively downgraded the lovely Silver & Gold in comparison. But Young’s gentle, observant hymns ban all bitterness. This is how I like him best. Elegiac.
20. Supergrass – Road To Rouen (underappreciated rock) – Why oh why is this British group so unappreciated? They’ve done pop (I Should Coco), Beatle-esque rock (In It For The Money), Led Zeppelin stomp (Life On Other Planets) and now anthemic rock. Get in your car, drive fast, roll down the windows, put this on the stereo and you’ll love it. (And you’ll drive even faster.)
21. Various – Cheatin’ Soul (classic soul via fanatic German collectors) – a terrific compilation of songs about cheaters and the ones they cheated on. Mostly obscure, great stuff (I’m in love with Ann Sexton now, who sings “I’m His Wife (You’re Just A Friend)”) and it all comes from some crazy soul fanatics with their own label in Deutschland.
22. Franz Ferdinand – You Could Have It So Much Better (New Wave pop) – catchy as all get out and with more naughty lyrics people don’t quite catch. Slick, in a good way. Do it a third time and I’ll be won over completely.
23. Marty Stuart – Soul’s Chapel (white gospel) – what a great album, filled with white gospel music played by country stalwarts. “Somebody Saved Me,” “Move Along Train” (with Mavis Staples) and the title track – it’s enough to make even a heathen promise to go to service if they can hear music like this.
24. M83 – Before The Dawn Heals Us (headphone music) – the trippiest Pink Floyd album this side of Radiohead. Perfect for late at night in your bedroom when the lights are off or better yet in an open field under the stars.
25. Madonna – Confessions On A Dance Floor (pop) – this deserves more respect. It’s as solid as any of her albums, with four or five killer singles to its credit. Her next greatest hits album (Immaculate Collection Vol. II) will be just as indispensable as the last one.
26. Paul McCartney – Chaos and Creation In The Backyard (Beatle-ish pop) – no, I didn’t fall for Driving Rain or (I think) Flowers in the Dirt (at least, not too hard) or the many other albums that are invariably described as Macca’s best in years just because we’re so happy to hear that voice and sink into those melodies. But this is indeed his best solo album since Tug Of War some 22 years ago. If you’re a fan, jump.
27. My Morning Jacket – Z (rock, hold the country) – massive personnel changes make this a different beast than their earth-shakingly good It Still Moves. Gone is the country-ish flavor of the Band and I miss it. But repeated listens prove this is damn durable too.
28. The Grascals – The Grascals (bluegrass with a dash of Dolly) – pure bluegrass delivered by an ace band that has opened for Dolly Parton. When she drops in for “Viva Las Vegas,” it’s heaven. But their own covers and originals are terrific as well. Formidable.
29. Hot Hot Heat – Elevator (blender pop) – this has to be the worst name for the best band in a while. Unlike say Franz Ferdinand, they don’t pillage one particular retro style—they steal from ‘em all. Really good. But their name was so dorky I avoided the album for ages so I haven’t really lived with it yet.
30. Kaiser Chiefs – Employment (pop) – this UK act was my favorite live show of last year. But their singles are so crack cocaine-addictive (namely “Everyday I Love You Less and Less” and “I Predict A Riot”) and the album gets off to such a righteous start I wanted it to be one of the best albums EVER and was disappointed when they came back down to earth. Very promising, though.
31. Lee Ann Womack – There’s More Where That Came From (70s country) – nothing is more dangerous than success. Womack scored an across-the-board smash with “I Hope You Dance,” a prom/wedding song if ever there was one. Then she chased similar pop hits with dire results. She gets back down to business with this retro collection of solid songs that remind us why she’s one of country’s best singers. Smooth. And a relief.
32. Various – Our New Orleans (jazz soul benefit CD) – of all the Katrina benefit albums, this is the one you will actually listen to again and again. Everyone from Dr. John to Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas chips in, along with Buckwheat Zydeco, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and more. Instead of the obligatory Randy Newman cover, they bring in Newman himself for the finale, a charged rendition of “Lousiana 1927” with the New York Philharmonic.
33. Gorillaz – Demon Days (animated pop) – the best animated pop band since the Archies. That means nothing of course, but it definitely means something when I’m looking forward to the next Gorillaz project more than I am the next Blur album. Fancy that. Terrifically groovy dance pop.
34. Common – Be (overdue hip-hop breakthrough) – smart, thoughtful hip-hop, for the most part. Common’s delivered solid work for years but it took Kanye West to finally put him over the top. (And no Kanye on this list. Some great singles but I still can't get behind him without reservations.)
35. Toto Bona Lokua (world pop, sans instruments) – three acclaimed vocalists come together to improvise songs with only a hint of backing musicians. Think of it as a male Zap Mama.
36. Adam Guettel – The Light In The Piazza (Broadway) – gets better and better with every listen. Why did I ever imagine this wasn’t supremely well-crafted and emotionally engaging?
37. Brad Mehldau Trio – Day Is Done (jazz) – especially for the swinging takes on the Beatles tunes “Martha My Dear” and “She’s Leaving Home” (one of my least favorite Beatles tracks and here they’ve brought it to life for me). Adventurous.
38. Shelby Lynne – Suit Yourself (finally, she did) – like Womack, Lynne chased some pop glory but she’s rediscovered herself with this dry, straightforward collection of songs. A real talent.
39. The Raveonettes – Pretty In Black (retro pop) – their first album seemed like a pastiche, like a goof. Now they range wider through pop history and their songs are even catchier. Well done.
40. Dianne Reeves – Good Night, and Good Luck (jazz vocals) – never been a big fan of Reeves, but here she has relaxed into an assured singer devoid of tricks and focused on the song at hand. She doesn’t own any of these standards. But her versions of “Straighten Up And Fly Right,” “Solitude” and “There’ll Be Another Spring” make clear she isn’t trying to -- Reeves is serving them, rather than trying to make them serve her. Maybe that’s the difference now.
41. Richard Thompson – Grizzly Man (film score) – his latest solo album (Front Parlour Ballads) was merely so-so. (Frankly, that’s a relief since sometimes I fear I’ve lost the ability to do anything but rave about Thompson.) But this score for the Werner Herzog documentary is a terrific showcase for his brilliant guitar work. It gives the film a sweep and emotional undercurrent the oddball subject could never provide.
42. Josh Rouse – Nashville (singer-songwriter) – I loved Rouse’s album 1972, which really drew on that era. Nashville, in contrast, is not really a country or Americana affair. But it is more terrific songs by an underrated singer-songwriter.
43. Brad Paisley – Time Well Wasted (country tunesmith) – Paisley may be country’s most versatile tunesmith right now. “Out In The Parkin’ Lot” is vintage Billy Joel (if Joel were country and lived in a small town). Dolly Parton fits right in on “When I Get Where I’m Going.” And “Alcohol” is an ode to that troublemaker anyone can identify with. Country for people who think they don’t like country – but it ain’t country rock or watered-down either.
44. The New Pornographers – Twin Cinema (indie rock) – others love this more, but you can’t dislike an album with a song called “Sing Me Spanish Techno.” Smart music on the margins.
45. Various – Brokeback Mountain (country-ish soundtrack) – a lovely, mournful score with a brace of terrific songs. Everyone mentions Emmylou Harris’s “A Love That Will Never Grow Old.” But I also really like the out-of-leftfield duet on “King of the Road” by Teddy Thompson and Rufus Wainwright, not to mention Wainwright’s wrenching end credit song “The Maker Makes.”
46. Sexsmith & Kerr – Destination Unknown (pop via Everly Brothers) – Sexsmith is another underappreciated talent who turns out one art pop gem after another. Here he gets a little rootsier and does his best Everly Brothers bit, thanks to songs that benefit from an overt melding of his voice and longtime collaborator Don Kerr. From the delightful opener “Listen” to the hometown verities of the warm finale “Tree-Lined Street,” this is a winner.
47. George Strait – Somewhere Down In Texas (rock-solid country) – there’s simply nothing to fault on Strait’s latest album. There never is. Very good songs. Very good singing. Very good music. He’s so dependable we can barely appreciate how good he is.
48. Ry Cooder – Chavez Ravine (archeological rock) – Cooder captures a vanished neighborhood in Los Angeles along with a vanishing group of talented musicians for his latest, most elaborate project. More history lessons, though you’d hardly know it when your hips are shaking.
49. Sonny Rollins – Without A Song: The 9-11 Concert (titanic jazz) – try to forget this was recorded just four days after 9-11 and you can hear a legendary talent at the top of his form. Surely people in the future will just revel in his extended, probing journey through “Where Or When?” and other tracks. But for now, that added poignancy is unavoidable and why should we try to pretend it is?
50. Various – American Primitive Vol. II – most compilations strive for the best sound quality possible. So does this, I’m sure. But they also seem to take glee in digging up the most obscure, rickety tracks possible. If you press your ear up to a Victrola and listen to a warped old 78, you probably hear some songs better than you would with this CD. Dust is nothing to be ashamed of, they're saying, and the sense that you are hearing songs barely rescued from the ash heap of history is heavy and compelling, from the scratchy opener “I Want Jesus To Talk With Me” by Homer Quincy Smith to Mattie May Thomas’s closer “No Mo’ Freedom.” Precious stuff.
BONUS CD #51 Various -- Golden Afrique Vol. 1 and 2 -- I paid what seemed like big bucks for these two-CD sets ($40 each on import), but what a bargain. If you loved Graceland and maybe got turned onto Ladysmith Black Mambazo or the classic compilation The Indestructible Beats of Soweto, it's time for you to get excited again. A great primer.
BEST REISSUES/BOXED SETS
Various -- One Kiss Can Lead To Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost & Found – most boxed sets just repackage music you’re already familiar with. I can’t remember the last time I discovered more great tunes than on this fun collection of girl group singles.
Billie Holiday – The Complete Verve Studio Master Takes – the sound quality is so terrific it stopped me in my tracks…and let me really listen to Holiday with fresh ears for the first time in ages.
Ray Charles – Pure Genius: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (1952-1959) – duh.
Charlie Poole – You Ain’t Talkin’ To Me: Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music – for anyone who thinks Hank Williams is too modern.
John Coltrane – With Thelonius Monk Quartet at Carnegie Hall/One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note – these two live albums are absolutely essential, towering works. If you want to consider them “new,” (technically they’ve never been released before), then put them right into my Top Five.
Evie Sands – Any Way That You Want Me – groovy early 70s pop with a big debt to Dusty Springfield.
Various -- Cameo Parkway: 1957-1967 – funky fun.
Talking Heads – Brick – Just in time to make me appreciate how so many young bands (like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Wolf Parade) are influenced by them. The sound quality is stunning – “I Zimbra” from Fear Of Music sounds like the strangest, freakiest, most compelling track in the world.
Bruce Springsteen – Born To Run – terrible packaging makes this a drag to store. But the album sounds great, the documentary is okay (albeit a wasted opportunity) and the live concert is vintage.
The Swan Silvertones – 1946-1951 – I thought I knew and liked this legendary gospel group after hearing some late-period albums. But this compilation from their salad days was a revelation. Heavenly.
Bill Withers – Just As I Am (DualDisc) – this acoustic soul album has always been one of my favorites. But the modest extras are what blew me away. Some archival performances are gripping and a 20 minute documentary shows Withers fierce, focused and as passionate as ever. Please, someone get Rick Rubin to work with this man. He is ready.
ODDS AND ENDS
Best Cover Art– John Mayer Trio’s retro Try! (straight out of the Blue Note playbook) and Lee Ann Womack’s soft-rock early ‘70s look for There’s More Where That came From.
Favorite TV moment #1 – Bright Eyes on “The Tonight Show,” of all places, singing his fiery denunciation of Bush “When The President Talks To God,” and Jay Leno looking so awkward afterwards.
Best Comeback – Lesley Gore with the lovely title track from her first album in decades, “Ever Since.”
Best Kiss Off – Gary Allan’s song “Tough All Over,” from the mostly mournful album of the same name.
Favorite TV Moment #2 – that SNL rap video, “Lazy Sunday.”
Coolest near-James Dean rock star move – Drake Bell of TV’s “Drake & Josh” getting into a terrible car accident just as his promising debut album “Telegraph” was on the charts. Happily, Bell will have to earn his first Number One the hard way; he’s recovering fine.
Who Needs “American Idol?” – “Nashville Star” finalist Miranda Lambert engineers a Number One debut on the country album charts thanks to the terrific single “Kerosene .”
If At First You Don’t Succeed Award – Ryan Adams, with not one, not two but three albums that were all intriguing and sort of satisfying but not quite great.
Most Rousing Opener – the thunderously silly (and wonderful) “The Infanta” from the Decembrists’ clever “Picaresque” album.
Favorite TV Moment #3 – Antony and the Johnsons on “David Letterman” with Antony singing “You Are My Sister” with such Nina Simone-like intensity it was riveting and thrilling and weird, in a good way.
Funniest Chorus -- "Golddigger" by Kanye West made me laugh every time.
EARLY FAVORITES FOR 2006
Rosanne Cash – Black Cadillac
Teddy Thompson – Separate Ways
The Strokes – First Impressions of Earth
The Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I Am Not