Sufjan Stevens -- Illinois
I'm still enthralled, enamored, and utterly smitten with Sufjan Stevens' new album Illinois. I liked it a lot on the first couple listens, and, if anything, it's unfolding in deeper and better ways with successive listens. "John Wayne Gacy Jr." and "Casimir Pulaski Day" were immediately memorable and startling, and still are. But I'm drawn more and more to the intricate arrangements, especially the one on "The Predatory Wasps," which has to be the most beautiful song I've encountered in ages. It will take an amazing effort to supplant this one from the top of my Best of 2005 list.
What is more remarkable to me about this phenomenon is that Sufjan has all the basic ingredients that normally make me want to retch. He's the epitome of the wimpy, sensitive artiste who goes all aquiver over sunsets and pretty flowers. As Tonio K. once wrote of the sensitive, navel-gazing Jackson Browne, "Fountain of Sorrow, my ass, m***** f******/I hope you wind up in the ground." But his songs are brutal, in amazing ways, and his arrangements and instrumentation are nothing short of brilliant. And the girl backup singers end up functioning as a Greek chorus, by turns funny like Aristophanes and tragic like Sophocles, all the while still sounding like escapees from a Phil Spector girl group. In the end Sufjan sounds like no one but himself; a true and original talent.
The Pernice Brothers -- Discover a Lovelier You
I like this one quite a bit. It's Joe Pernice's strongest batch of songs yet; sprightly pop tunes and shimmering, chiming guitars that belie a depressive personality. My kind of guy.
Milton Mapes -- The Blacklight Trap
That's a band name, by the way, not a person. The Blacklight Trap is currently meeting my everpresent need for Neil Young and Crazy Horse/Uncle Tupelo soundalikes. Now that Jay Farrar has released a new Son Volt album (which I have yet to hear), Milton may be moved to the back burner. We'll see.
Dar Williams -- My Better Self
This one isn't out yet for a couple months yet, but it's quite good -- folk music with an edge, featuring some pointed political commentary without the usual accompanying foul-mouthed polemics (see Steve Earle, the left's response to Toby Keith, which makes him just as obnoxious and stupid). It's nice to hear Bush bashing done intelligently. Plus you get great covers of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" and Neil Young's "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," two songs that fit the overall tone of the album perfectly.
Danny Cohen -- We're All Gunna Die Someday
Tom Waits protege Danny Cohen's album "We're All Gunna Die Someday" is weird and wonderful. He sings about the Summer of Love, Baba Ram Das, organically grown zucchini, power to the people, and then bleats like a sheep. All in the same song. And let me give a shout out to Anti- Records, Cohen's label. Waits, Cohen, Joe Henry, Merle Haggard, Nick Cave, Neko Case, etc. Are you kidding me? It's like somebody woke up and formed Andy- Records.
Martin Sexton -- Wonderbar
This one isn't new (it was released in 2001), but it's new to me, and it's spent a lot of time in my CD player. Martin Sexton is a terrific songwriter with a supple, soulful voice. And he has more worthwhile things to say about what it means to live as a Christian in the modern world than any 10 CCM albums of your choice.