Is it too early? I say No. We're in the down time when no decent artist or band releases an album. So I'm going to go out on a limb and proclaim that 2005 is unofficially over, and that these are my favorite albums that have been released this year.
The Top 10 (in no particular order)
Sufjan Stevens -- Illinois
There's not much I can say about Sufjan's music that hasn't been said a thousand times. But I will say this: he sounds like no one but himself. I've been avidly following popular music for more than forty years. And during that time, it's amazing how frequently "the next new thing" sounds remarkably like something you've already heard five or ten or fifty times already. But Sufjan's basic building blocks -- banjo, the '70s sensitive folkie vibe, '60s Girl Group/Greek Chorus background singers, trumpet and trombone, and the orchestral minimalism of Philip Glass and Steve Reich -- are utterly wild and unpredictable, and he's managed to do something I didn't think anyone could do anymore: he's truly made new music. I didn't rank these albums. But you can go ahead and call this one my favorite album of 2005.
Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell -- Begonias
Country duet singing at its best. Much of the genre is schlock; pure, unadulterated cornpone. This is the real deal, with intelligent songwriting, heartbreaking harmonies, and echoes of Sts. Gram and Emmylou everywhere.
The New Pornographers -- Twin Cinema
Intelligent, quirky power pop. Carl (A.C.) Newman can write superb pop melodies, and although he borrows liberally from every great band from the British Invasion through the New Wave, he still manages to stamp his own identity on these songs. Just when you're ready to play Spot the Influences, he throws a curve ball. Neko Case is the secret weapon, a great singer in her own right who fits in perfectly with this band.
Sigur Ros -- Takk
Pretentious and precious? Sure. But breathtakingly beautiful. There are probably a hundred critical reasons not to like this album, and for anyone who remembers the carnage wrought by Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, 10-minute nonsensical songs are a good starting place. But then I play the album, and all is forgiven. I have to take my Icelandic knit hat off to any band that so unabashedly pursues beauty. And finds it.
Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane -- Live at Carnegie Hall
Jazz fans, let's fantasize for a moment. Let's imagine that the impossible actually existed, that sitting at the bottom of, say, an unmarked box at the Library of Congress, unnoticed for almost 50 years, was a 1957 concert tape featuring Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. Let's suppose that the recording was pristine, an impossibility given the ancient recording technology of the time. Let's imagine that Coltrane ripped off a few jaw-dropping solos, and that Monk was at his playful and eccentric best. And let's imagine that this went for about an hour, instead of the three measly studio tracks with which we've been left. And then let's say it all came true.
Congotronics -- Konono #1
I know nothing about Congolese music, wouldn't know a virtuoso likembe (thumb piano) performance from a pedestrian one. But I know a wall of sound when I hear one, and I know that when three likembes are playing through a stack of Marshall amps, it sounds something like Jimi Hendrix in an alternative universe, and that those percussive grooves are enough to get this middle-aged soul off his sorry butt and engaging in what he likes to fondly think of as "dance." But don't tell the wife and kids.
The Clientele -- Strange Geometry
Literate Brit folk rock for a rainy day. There's a bit of the dreamy shoegazer sound of Ride and Slowdive here, some Nick Drake folkie melancholia, the baroque pop psychedelia of The Left Banke and "Eleanor Rigby." Marry that to a lead singer/songwriter who is clearly enamored with Wordsworth and Byron and Keats and you've got one hopelessly romantic musical venture, all dappled sunlight and memories of idyllic youth and present-day heartbreak, alas. But it sure is pretty.
The Decemberists -- Picaresque
Literate Brit folk rock (by way of Portland, Oregon) for librarians and medieval scholars. Colin Meloy writes about obscure Portuguese royalty (“The Infanta”), injured soccer stars (“The Sporting Life”), and somehow incredibly and plausibly compares the U.S. military presence in Iraq to an Academy Awards Oscar ceremony, all while using 4-syllable Ivy League words (okay, mostly three syllables, but where else are you going to hum along with “palanquin,” “rhapsodical,” and “chapparal”?). It’s all delivered in a baroque musical confection that features progressive rock, accordions, and jangly REM guitars, resulting in full-fledged and inestimably beneficent Nerd Rock. I give it a 90. It’s also got a good beat and you can dance to it.
Al Green -- Everything's OK
Al’s 2003 comeback album I Can’t Stop turned out to be just the warm-up. Better in every way than its predecessor, Everything’s OK finds Al in early ‘70s form, pleading, cajoling, and soaring off into that impossibly great falsetto, all the while mixing his earthly and heavenly love metaphors to tremendous effect. This is soul music in all the best senses of the term, and it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it better.
The Deadstring Brothers -- Starving Winter Report
Loud, sloppy rock ‘n roll influenced by The Rolling Stones of Exile on Main Street and Sticky Fingers, a lead singer who has the Mick mannerisms down pat, and propelled by equal doses of slide guitar and pedal steel.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah -- Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
The Pernice Brothers -- Discover a Lovelier You
John Francis -- Strong Wine and Spirits
Danny Cohen -- We're All Gunna Die
Van Morrison -- Magic Time
Bob Dylan -- The Bootleg Series Vol. 7 -- No Direction Home Soundtrack
Kate Bush -- Aerial
Brad Mehldau -- Day is Done
Jose Gonzalez -- Veneer
Bettye LaVette -- I've Got My Own Hell to Raise
Biggest Disappointments (or perhaps simply Most Hyped/Overrated)
Coldplay -- X&Y
Bruce Springsteen -- Devils and Dust
Jamie Cullum -- Catching Tales
Death Cab for Cutie -- Plans
Franz Ferdinand -- You Could Have It So Much Better