Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Favorite Albums of 2005

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.

Honorable Mention

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


Anonymous said...

I'm right with you on the Sufjan and Sigur Ros, as well as the major disappointment with Coldplay (almost every song sounds derivative) and Franz Ferdinand (terribly overrated).
I would add to your "best" list CocoRosie (Noah's Ark), Jason Harrod (Bright As You) and My Morning Jacket (Z).

Oh, and by the way, thanks for the exquisite description of your depression. As someone who can't remember not battling depression, I could identify only too well with the feelings of loss and isolation and transience that you so eloquently expressed.

mg said...

i have my top 10 list ready too. but i'll probably wait until this weekend or Monday to post it.

Guess what is #1?
Yep, X&Y. I still love it and it has received the most play in my house and car of any album this year. To each their own I guess. But I just love the mood of it. I also love the feel and themes and how it feels more like an ALBUM than a collection of SINGLES which is what 'rush of blood' was. Sometimes there is something great about an album in which there may be some weak tracks but the whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts. And that's how I feel about X&Y. I can't wait for the live dvd (which hopefully they'll do) since these songs live were incredible.

just my 2 cents...

Andy Whitman said...

Mike, you think more highly of Coldplay than I do, but that's okay.

That "Biggest Disappointment" list certainly doesn't mean "Worst Album" though. There are probably a thousand worse albums that were released this year than those that were included on my list (notice you don't see Ashley Simpson or 50 Cent anywhere). And to be fair, I think Coldplay is okay -- not great, not bad. But the albums on my list are ones that I had hoped would be great, that had been hyped to the point where I thought they had a reasonable shot of being great, and then weren't (for me, of course). Unfortunately, I have to put one of my musical heroes, Bruce Springsteen, on that list as well.

Anonymous said...

Hi Andy,

I found your blog via Jeff or Erik's site and I noticed that you also attend Central Vineyard. We're only attending this month because we're going back to San Diego soon, but I'd love to meet you on Sunday if you're going to be around.

Anonymous said...

Great review, by the way. I'll second the motion on The New Pornographers, The Decemberists, and Sigur Ros.

Andy Whitman said...

Hi Ray,

I definitely look forward to meeting you. Actually, I saw you last Sunday (and I think you ended up talking with my wife Kate), but I didn't make the connection. After Kate told me about the conversation I kicked myself for not heading over and introducing myself.

Welcome back to Columbus. I've enjoyed the tales for your world travels (and many other thoughts as well) for quite a while now. I look forward to meeting you.l

Brian Estabrook said...


I enjoyed your top 10 list with one notable exception.

I take issue with your comment 'no decent artist or band releases an album'...

Ryan Adams will release his third studio album of this year with '29' on December 20th.

Having already recieved an advance copy of it, I have to say that it blows his work with 'The Cardinals' right out of the water. While I certainly loved 'Cold Roses' and 'Jacksonville City Nights', '29' is vintage 'Heartbreaker' era Ryan Adams and just what the doctor ordered.

Please, give this album a chance.. It's on MY top 10 list!

Love ya, man!

Andy Whitman said...

Brian, by some strange coincidence that Ryan Adams album showed up in my mailbox yesterday. I'll check it out.

I have mixed feelings about Adams. He can be a great songwriter, but he's wildly inconsistent. And he puts out too much music. I've heard his other two albums he's released this year. And "29" makes three albums in the past 12 months. I still haven't heard "29," but my take at this point is that he probably has a great single album from 2005 in there somewhere. I'm still waiting for him to do something as worthwhile as "Faithless Street" or "Strangers Almanac," two albums he released as part of Whiskeytown back in the late '90s.

Anonymous said...

That Trane and Monk rules.

daniel fox said...

have you been getting my emails to your hotmail address?

Andy Whitman said...

Dan, I haven't seen any emails. I check hotmail every day. But if you sent email today, then I didn't see it, since I can't check outside email at work.

e said...

and i keep meaning to say god bless you for your posting of that sufjan christmas stuff. not only is it on heavy rotation here, but my 1 1/2 year old daughter is singing "rejoice, rejoice! naaaaaanaaaaaa" Whenever "O Come Emmanuel" comes on.

it's my favorite christmas yet.

Anonymous said...


Ah, now I know who you are... We sat right next to each other! I'll look forward to meeting you on Sunday.


Brian Estabrook said...


I certainly understand what you're saying about Adams.. He IS a prolific song writer, but I think he is as good as anyone I've ever heard at making a unique sound (outside of Sufjan)..

Perhaps he's not good at editing/streamlining his albums, but I just don't care - I'm glad for more of his brilliant hooks and always interesting lyrics rather than less.

Not to mention that all the songs on his two previous 'Cardinals' albums this year were recorded completely live - no studio tricks with individual tracks here.

I just love the warm, cohesive, alt-country sound that he's kicking out. I find it to be brilliant and I hope he gets more credit for it in the future, because he's doing it HIS way and not selling out just to make a record for the critics. I appreciate an artist who is true to himself in that way (Just like Sufjan)..

Just my two cents..

Thanks, Andy.