Hi everyone and happy new year. It's
a long post so I've included a table of contents to
help you navigate (i.e. skip the bullshit).
A bunch of people asked me to do this again, so I did
them a great favor (yeah, like I wouldn't have done it
anyway), only I upped the ante to 75 lists. Here's the
distribution of the lists by country:
Since I am no statistician, my method for aggregating
the data was simple and not very scientific: 1
“point” for each 10th place listing, 2 points for each
9th place mention and so on up to 10 points for each
1st place mention. Unranked lists were excluded, as
were lists by individual critics and bloggers. The
result, for whatever it's worth, is some kind of
estimate of international critical consensus. Use it
as a list of music to seek out, or as a list of stuff
to avoid, or just as what it is – a reflection of what
kind of music music critics, who are not your average
music listeners, like (there are several professional
music critics among you – whatup Pitchfork, whatup
NME). The individual lists are included at the end for
a closer comparison of American vs. European critical
taste, or for finding a publication that suits your
taste, or to check my math. Enjoy!
Thanks guys. Keep up the good work. Maybe next year
I'll have a website like you guys.
Another year in music gone by. What does it all mean?
Or as Madonna asks on her new album, “Will any of
this matter?” If you love music it does. An analysis
of the year in music might as well start here with
Billboard's Top 200 sellers of 2005.
As this project demonstrates, the music press has an
unprecedented reach and influence on music. This is
new in the history of popular music and is mainly
attributable, like most things these days, to the
juggernaut-like growth of the internet. But despite
the proliferation of music websites, webzines and
blogs, as the data reveals, there is a surprising
unanimity of taste among these sources. This is
primarily because nearly all focus on the same style
of music (generally speaking, alt-rock, for lack of a
better label) and are written by and for the same
demographic. Not that some of these aren't excellent
resources, but many do suffer from a severe narrowness
of focus. Thus it seems to me like the more
established and traditional magazines (Mojo, Uncut,
Record Collector, Rolling Stone) talk the most sense
and are least susceptible to passing trends (though
I'm not arguing that all passing trends are
necessarily bad). More than ever, bands read
music publications and are aware of what constitutes
good music (to these publications), so you have bands
tailoring their sound to the whims of the critics.
Naturally, this merging of art and media creates an
increasingly insular, cannibalistic music community.
And we wonder why independent music in North America
continues to choke on the sputum of its own
self-importance while some psychotic hype abroad sent
another wave of neo-post bands surging across the
Atlantic to wash up a tangle of flotsam and jetsam on
our continent. Is there an egress from the cycle of
madness? Apart from a few exceptional artists, the
mainstream doesn't seem to hold much hope, although
perhaps the most welcome explosion of the year was
that of southern rap, which had always had an
influence on the mainstream, but this year became it.
Although it might be a futile and delusional
enterprise, for my part, I constantly seek out music
that strikes me as the least studied and the most
genuine, to put it rather imprecisely. And with that
I conclude my rant. On with the lists.
IV. My List (let the hyperbole begin):
20. The Hold Steady – Separation Sunday (French Kiss)
Best Track: “Your Little Hoodrat Friend”
“Yeah, damn right you'll rise again”
Separation Sunday is to Midwestern-bent indie rock
what The Drive-By Truckers' Southern Rock Opera was to
Southern-bent indie rock – a character-driven story
evoking the people, places and music of the region,
set to some driving, nuts-out music. The Hold Steady
recalls not only a time when indie rock actually
rocked (remember Superchunk?) but also the late '70s,
when classic rock was giving way to punk. There are
nods to Thin Lizzy, Springsteen, AC/DC and, possibly
the strangest and greatest of Midwestern bands, Cheap
Trick. Craig Finn's mostly spoken (in a snarly Mark
E. Smith kind of way) vocals will either take some
warming up to or they'll start to gall your ears after
a few listens, but this was still some of the most
muscular and honest rock and roll to be found in 2005.
19. Brian Eno - Another Day on Earth (Hannibal)
BT: "And Then So Clear"
"As the snow across the tundra / And the rain across
Eno's unexpectedly structured ambient-pop record is a
model of understatement -- everything's carefully
placed, expertly modulated. The sonic array is broad
enough that none of the tracks sound the same, though
the mood is consistent enough that the album never
sounds choppy. Some of the songs are so delicate and
weightless they're hardly there, while on others, like
"Passing Over," the sense of dread is so present that
it makes my bowels go lax. Eno often references his
best album, Another Green World, not only with the
title but with certain words and synth patches, though
generally the songs here are more fully formed, which
means that while there's not a dull moment on Another
Green World, there are a few dull stretches here. But
aside from that and a few tracks that sound like some
Laurie Anderson shit, this is a powerful recording.
18. The National - Alligator (Beggars Banquet)
BT: "Daughters of the SoHo Riots"
"Out among the missing sons and daughters of the SoHo
"Sometimes I feel like I'm carrying the whole of
hip-hop by myself," Kanye either boasted or lamented a
while back, but he actually had some help this year.
The National, on the other hand, seem to be carrying
the indie rock torch all by themselves. Jimmy's
right, they sound like Archers of Loaf, and they blend
their British and American influences as deftly as the
Archers and their other indie rock forebears, Pavement
and Guided by Voices. Matt Berninger's lyrics are
funny and desperate, confident and self-deprecating in
the best spirit of the genre. “I'm the great white
hope,” he jokes on “Mr. November,” but it sounds oddly
17. Paul Wall - The People's Champ (Swishahouse)
BT: "Sippin' the Barre"
"I'm iced out like frozen food / Sippin' on the ski
Houston might be the worst city in the country but its
nascent Swishahouse scene, where everything gets
screwed and chopped for the torpid sizzurp slurpers,
is really something unique. And Mike Jones might've
sold more records this year but it's Paul Wall that
we're least likely to forget. He's certainly not the
most dexterous or versatile MC (he raps about the same
stock topics over and over – his grill, his city, the
purple stuff, switching lanes, etc.), but his jumpy,
canted flow is instantly recognizable and immediately
endearing. “Internet Going Nutz” is about picking up
bitches on the computer, which is groundbreakingly
(un)cool, and “Just Paul Wall” is an unusually humble
autobiographical rap and introduction to the oafishly
lovable “Paw Waw, baby.” What it do.
16. The Go-Betweens – Oceans Apart (Yep Roc)
BT: “Born to a Family”
“Born to a family / Of honest workers”
Australians Robert Forster and Grant McLennan are
master songwriters – acute, direct, controlled – and
The Go-Betweens were one of the most consistent bands
of the '80s. They're also one of the most unsung.
Probably what prevented them from finding the
substantial fanbases and critical plaudits that their
American and British contemporaries (R.E.M. and The
Smiths) enojoyed was that they didn't have a
vocalist/frontman with as much charisma (gayness) and
as unique a voice as either Morrissey or Stipe. But
the quality of their songwriting really isn't that far
behind that of R.E.M. or The Smiths (which, in my
book, is saying a lot). And I guess their low-profile
status is part of their charm. Oceans Apart is an
excellent record, but if you're new to The Go-Betweens
you might be better off starting with the back
catalog. Any of their albums from the '80s.
Seriously, they're all good. Wait, not Send Me a
Lullaby. But any of the other ones.
15. John Hiatt - Master of Disaster (New West)
"There's a burial ground / beneath a cattle herd"
Hiatt's nasal delivery is about as unaffected a voice
as you're likely to find in this day and age of
exaggerated vocal stylization. His stories are told
in a homey language with a wisdom, a melancholy and a
wit all akin to John Prine's. Backed by The North
Mississippi Allstars, who sound like a loose but solid
L.A. bar band here, Hiatt managed to cut the only
truly convincing piece of Americana I heard this year.
14. Beanie Sigel - The B. Coming (Roc-A-Fella)
BT: "I Can't Go On This Way"
"I still pray along, forgive me for my actions / Cuz I
still spit gangsta think Muslim and act Catholic"
We sort of know what it sounds like when an artist
records an album having just been released from
prison. It sounds pretty much what you think it'd
sound like - free, self-starting, a roar of release
(see Steve Earle's Train-a-Comin' or Cormega's The
Realness). But what does it sound like when an artist
records an album in a hurry right before he leaves the
world to serve a year-long prison sentence?
Apparently it sounds like this. Sigel's album is many
things: a defense of his actions, a plea for
forgiveness and understanding, a document of his life
and the elements of his social situation, presented as
possible catalysts for his crime in a Native Son kind
of way. The track titles are pretty indicative of the
album's tenor: “I Can't Go On This Way,” “Lord Have
Mercy,” “Flatline,” “Look at Me Now.” It's not
without its digressions, though – guess what “Purple
Rain” is about? The production is thick and
ornamented and there lots of guest verses, most
notably his pal Jay-Z and Twista. Overall an
excellent rap album, made all the more poignant by the
circumstances surrounding it, something like when
Warren Zevon sang “Knockin' on Heaven's Door” and
“Keep Me in Your Heart” while terminally ill.
13. The New Pornographers - Twin Cinema (Matador)
BT: "Streets of Fire"
"Lick my lips, twist my hips / But Contessa...I
The New Pornographers can overdo it – a song needs one
good hook, maybe two or three, but certainly not five
or six. And the bastards make it sound so easy - I
don't know if any band since The Attractions has
played such tight, catchy pop/rock so effortlessly.
Let's cut this one short with a little music critic
rhapsody that goes like this - The New Pornographers
are the best indie rock band of the 21st century and
this is their best album.
12. Gorillaz – Demon Days (Virgin)
BT: “Feel Good Inc.”
“City breakin' down on a camel's back”
A fiendish concoction from Damon Albarn and Danger
Mouse. Apocalyptic parables, ghoulish laughter,
lethargic beats, anachronistic synth melodies, all
swathed in Mr. Albarn's broken-hearted refrains.
Butler and Cocker were the obvious heirs to Bowie's
legacy in the '90s, but it's Albarn who's proved to be
the most Bowie-like in the long run – experimental,
restless, hiding behind his creations and always
finally elusive. It's an eclectic album and things
don't always jell, but Albarn's still all by himself
in this territory.
11. Kanye West - Late Registration (Roc-A-Fella)
BT: "Heard 'Em Say"
"The devil is alive, I feel him breathin"
I don't think an artist has enjoyed such an
overwhelming union of popular success and critical
favor since Nirvana. And like Cobain, Kanye's
personality threatens to overshadow his music. Unlike
Cobain, however, Kanye has been more than willing to
accept his role as spokesperson for a populace. The
thing is, he's a damn good one (see “Crack Music”).
Courting controversy and fueling his own iconic
status, Kanye has earned his share of detractors, but
keep in mind that ego has a different valence in
America's black community. But the music.... Late
Registration is every bit the equal of its
predecessor, though it's a somewhat different album.
Enlisting the help of studio whiz and soundtrack
mangler Jon Brion seemed like a misguided move, but
somehow they pulled it off with great panache.
Brion's touch is felt but not intrusively so, and
Kanye's beats are great, of course. It's his clumsy
delivery that's always borne the brunt of the
criticism, and it's definitely not his greatest
weapon, but it really does make him seem less like a
rapper and more like a...friend! Isn't that nice?!
10. M83 - Before the Dawn Heals Us (Mute U.S.)
BT: "Teen Angst"
"How fast we burn / How fast we die"
If Albarn's vision of the end was a burning monkey's
head preceded by a grand danse macabre, a burlesque of
human folly and cruelty, Anthony Gonzalez's vision is
less political, more of a great melting into pure
sound, everything drowning in cosmic washes of synth.
It's a synesthetic experience, intensely visual and
emotional – think Sigur Ros set to driving beats and
seraphic choirs. If the album title doesn't give you
enough of an idea, consider song titles like “Don't
Save Us from the Flames,” “Let Men Burn Stars,” and
the album's stunning coda “Lower Your Eyelids to Die
with the Sun.” Clearly not for the jaded or stoic.
9. The Game - The Documentary (Aftermath/G
BT: "Westside Story"
"The West Coast never fell off, I was asleep in
Has it really been almost ten years since Tupac turned
his toes up? It seemed like such a surprise that
someone from L.A. finally offered a contribution to
the rap dialogue between New York and the South that
Jayceon Taylor's debut practically comes across as a
gimmick. It doesn't help his case that he drops names
with what must be a groundbreaking frequency. But
it's not ostentatious - more of a personal history of
hip-hop listening, a grateful acknowledgement of
influences and inspirations. The album's pretty much
a showcase of hip-hop's best producers – Dre,
Timbaland, Kanye, Hi-Tek – and the list of guest MC's
isn't bad either – Eminem, 50, Nate Dogg, Busta
Rhymes. Taylor's delivery is tough and gruff, his
rhymes terse and clipped. What else can I say? It's
the best piece of gangsta since 50's debut.
8. The Darkness - One Way Ticket to Hell...and Back
BT: "Dinner Lady Arms"
"I know I'll never be your Mr. Right / But I'm happy
to be your Mr. That'll Do for Tonight”
The hardest thing to understand or accept about The
Darkness is that they're not a novelty act or even a
very derivative band but a profoundly original one.
The irony issue is beside the question; The Darkness,
more so than almost any of their contemporaries,
encapsulate some of the qualities essential to the
spirit of rock and roll (whether we're defining that
as Elvis, Hendrix or Kiss) – theatricality, passion
and FUN. One Way Ticket isn't as consistently awesome
as Permission to Land, which was the freshest sounding
thing since Andrew W.K. Here it seems like they
responded to the criticism that they were a facile
Queen rehash by recording several tracks that actually
do sound like Queen, which are the album's only
missteps. Otherwise the riffs are just as perfect and
the power ballads just as soaring.
7. Billy Corgan - The Future Embrace (Warner Bros.)
BT: "Mina Loy (M.O.H.)"
"The siren calls outside / They want to kill us all”
In the popular music of the early/mid-'90s (when I was
in high school) there was a pretty solid consortium of
Gen-Xers – Billy Corgan, Kurt Cobain, Trent Reznor,
Beck, Billie Joe Armstrong, Courtney Love and Eddie
Vedder – and each had carved out his/her own little
niche in the Gen-X market: Billy was lovesick, Kurt
was angry, Trent battled his personal demons, Beck was
a funny freak, Billie Joe was apathetic, Courtney was
crazy and Eddie was...actually, I don't know what the
hell Eddie was. Kurt's critical barometer has
fluctuated the least, and then probably Beck's;
arguably Billy's has aged the worst, probably because
he was the only one who wrote pretty love songs. But
this is what always set him apart from his
contemporaries. His lyrics could be as elliptical as
Cobain's or Vedder's, but his music was always the
most unapologetically beautiful and mellon collie.
His ear for melody was undeniably brilliant, and it
still is. The Future Embrace is a step back from the
bright, lofty rock of Zwan (a remarkable album that
was critically ignored); rather, it plays like a more
stripped down version of MACHINA, Corgan's last album
with the Pumpkins (also a remarkable album). Heavily
processed guitars, programmed beats, a thudding synth
bass and Billy's caterwaul – that's about it. The
cover suggests that Billy still has something of a
messiah complex, but as long as he keeps making great
records, I don't care who he thinks he is.
6. Bob Mould - Body of Song (Yep Roc)
BT: "Underneath Days"
"Fucked under these days"
Along with The Edge, Peter Buck and Johnny Marr, Bob
Mould was the most influential rock guitarist of the
'80s. His signature distorted open chords were as
ubiuitous in '90s alt-rock as Buck's open high string
picking. His solo albums have always lacked the
immediacy of Husker Du's dynamic pop-punk attack, and
Body of Song is no exception. It's a fairly
straightforward album, though not without a few
curiosities (apparently some people were pretty miffed
by the vocoder). But it's also an incredibly
sure-footed set of songs, resonant with depth and
maturity. Nothing innovative here, but if it ain't
broke, don't fix it. It's a satisfying return to form
dressed up effectively with modern flourishes.
5. Ryan Adams & The Cardinals - Cold Roses (Lost
BT: "When Will You Come Back Home"
"Shivers in the sheets and the blankets of snow"
Cold Roses sounds like a summary of Adams' career thus
far, showcasing everything from the alt-country
rockers of his Whiskeytown days up through the sappy
singer/songwriter ballads of Love is Hell. But he
also channels something new here, and it's the spirit
of a band whose influence on alt-country has been
largely underappreciated. As you might have guessed
from the title and album cover, it's The Grateful
Dead. The Cardinals are the ideal backing band for
Adams, and it's their guitarist, J.P. Bowersock, who
summons the ghost of Garcia (circa 1968 - “Wharf Rat,”
“China Cat,” etc.) with his winding but tasteful
solos. Alt-country has proved to be a pretty durable
genre, and ever since Tweedy jumped ship a few years
back, Adams has, willingly or not, and lousy attitude
notwithstanding, proved to be one of its true
stalwarts and most genuinely gifted songwriters.
4. Ry Cooder - Chavez Ravine (Nonesuch)
BT: "Soy Luz Y Sombra"
"Soy luz y sombra, el sol brilliante"
An absolute virtuoso effort from Cooder, who pulls out
every last stop in telling the true story of Chavez
Ravine, an Hispanic L.A. neighborhood bulldozed in the
'50s to make way for Dodger Stadium when the team was
making the move from Brooklyn. Soundtracks, not
albums, were always Cooder's forte, and that's
probably what makes this so successful, although
Cooder isn't so much scoring this film-on-record as he
is directing it. Sufjan's Illinois is a similar
project, another attempt to chronicle a place in song,
but his album never really rises above its
outsider-looking-in configuration. It's a more
subjective experiment and comes across as such – an
artist using the names and events of a locality as
fodder for his art – and the listener walks away
knowing a lot more about Sufjan, but not a hell of a
lot more about what Illinois is really like.
Cooder's album is more of a sociological study of its
subject, though without any of the aridity that such
an academic treatment might suggest. On the contrary,
Cooder's treatment of the tragic material is
compassionate and funny. Cooder really gets inside
his story, acts out the parts of some of his
characters (a la Tom Waits) and captures the authentic
rhythms and sounds of the neighborhood by bringing in
several popular Latin singers of the era and including
archived clips of radio interviews. It all took place
at the height of the Red Scare so Cooder naturally
foregrounds the politics of the situation, but
fortunately not in a preachy way. All perspectives
are considered – characters speak from beyond the
grave, there's a song from the bulldozer driver, who
explains that he was just doing his job, and a song
about a neighborhood baseball fan whose home was
displaced. Cooder's arrangements are inspired and
forward – listen to his guitars emerge from every
corner of the mix on “Muy Fifi.” The scope of the
album is nearly unprecedented and its success nearly
unqualified – as a moving musical creation and as an
American historical document.
3. Antony and the Johnsons - I Am a Bird Now (Secretly
BT: "Bird Gehrl"
"Bird girls can fly"
Apparently I don't need to convince too many people
that this is the shit. Though it didn't find the
ecstatic reception in the States that it received in
Europe, it wasn't exactly panned here. Antony Hegarty
arrived as one of the most original artists to come
along in years. His voice certainly owes something to
Bryan Ferry's patented tremolo, but Antony's is more
soulful and aching, quavering over simple arrangements
of piano, bass and strings. The imagery is unusual –
mythological stories of gender transmutation and
metamorphosis. But the themes are about as universal
as you can get – the struggle against entrapment and
the yearning for release – from the body, from the
earth, from the confines of one's gender. The result
is something spiritual in its simplicity, enchanting,
uplifting and utterly unique.
2. Kate Bush - Aerial (Columbia)
BT: "How to Be Invisible"
"Is that a storm in the swimming pool?"
At the beginning of the '80s when Bowie's music
started losing its edge, Kate Bush's music swooped in
to fill the vacuum left in Bowie's wake (I mean the
sudden absence of clean, arty rock). There was Peter
Gabriel and there was Roxy Music in its later
incarnations but Kate's music was more radical and
compelling than either of theirs. There were other
mysterious, dark-haired beauties like Chrissie Hynde
and Lydia Lunch, other women who sang sexually charged
music that was more than a little aberrant, like
Marianne Faithfull, Blondie and Stevie Nicks, but Kate
was up to something different. Let's review some of
her album covers: the cover of her first album, The
Kick Inside, deceptively makes Kate look like a
country singer; the cover of her next album, Never for
Ever, is one of my favorites – it shows an illustrated
Kate giving birth to a swirl of Where the Wild Thing
Are-looking creatures; on the cover of The Dreaming
she looks like an Elvira gone Jenny Craig; and on the
cover of Hounds of Love, well, she's in bed with a
couple dogs. Aerial does not have Kate on the cover.
Instead, a serene, new-agey looking picture of some
water, rocks and sky. And the album's as different as
its cover. Her voice isn't as shrill as it once was,
there's nothing here as catchy as “Wuthering Heights,”
and nothing as unrestrained and feral as “Get Out of
My House.” But Aerial is something of a mood piece,
as suggested by its title - it's airy, eerie,
aerie-like, and Kate's lyrics are still masterful at
detecting the magical in the ordinary, her voice and
piano compositions still transporting. This is a
beautifully crafted record from one of the most
pioneering female artists of the past 30 years.
1. Richard Hawley - Cole's Corner (Mute U.S.)
BT: “The Ocean”
“Here comes the wave, down by the ocean”
Hawley's voice is a transmission from the '50s, a rich
baritone with echoes of Elvis, Orbison and even
Sinatra. And like Sinatra's classic In The Wee Small
Hours of the Morning, Cole's Corner is a triumph of
atmosphere, sculpting the city's lonely after-hours
with images of empty streets, wet and neon-lit,
deserted cafes, quiet hotel rooms. The layered,
velvety production casts Hawley's dramatic longing in
just the right shade of noir and the songs sound so
instantly classic it's hard to believe these are
original compositions and not covers of crooner pop
standards. Absolutely gorgeous.