Friday, December 31, 2004

Top Ten CD's of 2005

Too lazy to HTML yet, so here 'tis, link-less.

While I didn't think there were any "important" records this year, like last years "De-Loused In The Comatorium" from The Mars Volta (certainly the most unique new mainstream rock band in years); or "Want One" the astonishing tour-de-force from Rufus Wainwright, placing him clearly in the highest rungs of the American songwriting pantheon, alongside Stephen Sondheim, Paul Simon or David Ackles at least], there was no shortage of excellent music produced this year, and much of it readily available thanks to the internet, if not radio (which now resembles little more than some sort of quaint relic for people who consume music like hamburgers. I make exception, of course, for the odd public or community radio station -- but they mostly stream as well now, so . . .)

Here's the ten that gave me the most pleasure, followed by thirty more that didn’t suck either.

10. The Secret Machines - "Now Here Is Nowhere" [Warner Bros CD 48544]

From its opener, "First Wave Intact", reeking of Led Zeppelin in the best possible way, this band has pomp and swagger and mercifully little self-indulgence; this is the band I had hoped Queens Of The Stone Age might have been. Bonus prog-rock points: 2 songs clock in at over 8 minutes. This band seems to appeal to a really wide cross-spectrum of my music-fan friends, so I think they have some potential to become something. They are more melodic than Jane's Addiction, but JA fans will like them I think. Not as heavy as The Mars Volta, but quirky enough to be of interest to TMV fans as well.

9. William Shatner - "Has Been" [Sony CD 80349]

Yes, I AM serious. Starting off with a kick-ass cover of Pulp's "Common People" [a duet with Joe Jackson], Ben Folds is the musical director for the album and it sounds like HE's finally enjoying himself again for a change [now if he'd just put the BFF back together . . .]. Leaving the boho post-modernism of the whole Shatner cult to the side, in reading these [apparently] quite serious lyrics, you just cannot help but like the guy. Bonus points for remix/trip-hope king Lemon Jelly AND a kick-ass spoken-word duet with "Henry Rollins" called "I Can't Get Behind That" that is a HOOT! Much more than the novelty album it might have been!

8. Zero7 - "When It Falls" [Elektra CD 61558]

Yes, it's easy to put these guys down as little more than wallpaper for car commercials, but it's REALLY REALLY pretty wallpaper that one doesn't tire of hearing. Less challenging perhaps than the superior Massive Attack [whose only release this year was a film soundtrack], but much cooler than, say, Enya. There's a track that reminds me of the old Johnny Mark/John Almond band and several that aren't too far removed from what the Cocteau Twins might be doing if they came out in 1998 instead of 1978. Fans of Everything But The Girl will love it.

7. The Delays - "Faded Seaside Glory" [Sanctuary CD 83238 - Rough Trade in the UK]

Just as last year The Shins were my surprisingly wonderful discovery ["How can there be a band THIS good that I've NEVER heard of?"], to a lesser extent The Delays are this year's model - to borrow a phrase. I put this disc on blind for the first time, whilst working through a pile of stuff that looked interesting. And thought I was listening -- again -- to the Cocteau Twins. Imagine my surprise at learning this was four young guys from the UK - Southampton, in fact. This is their first record and if divine harmonies are your thing, then this is the second best thing to "Smile" that came out this year. The track "Hey Girl" is in a league with the best of The La's or even the recently-discussed Michael [The Left Banke & Stories] Brown.

6. Patty Griffin - "Impossible Dream" [ATO CD 21520]

Griffin is arguably the finest American songwriter currently working; certainly she is in the top tier. "Impossible Dream" is either her fourth or sixth album [depending upon how you’re counting] and it is just as satisfying as 2002's "1000 Kisses". Griffin's voice is as evocative as one could wish: the stories in songs come fully alive in one's mind's eye. There is no one song as achingly beautiful as "Making Pies" on this record, but "Top Of The World" and "When It Don't Come Easy" come pretty darn close, and that's saying something. Fans of Alison Krause and The Dixie Chicks should definitely check Griffin out - the latter have performed a brace of Patty's songs.

5. Elliott Smith - From A Basement On The Hill [Anti- / Epitaph CD 86741-2]

Elliott Smith was his generation's Harry Nilsson. I can't think of a better way to describe such a unique and consistently enjoyable voice in pop music. Yes - this is more "baroque pop" (this year's theme, perhaps? There is more to come yet!) Lovingly assembled, this release hopes reasonably to represent what would have been his final album, in various stages of completion at the time of his tragic death. "Coast To Coast" is consummate Smith and a terrific opener. The next fourteen songs continue the ramble through Smith's world: equal parts Beatles [especially George Harrison], Nick Drake, Aimee Mann/Jon Brion/Posies ameripop, strung-out Neil Young and Syd Barrett, yet uniquely Elliott Smith, sui generis. "Memory Lane" is one of Smith's finest 'little' songs, and by rights should wind up as his epitaph. Simply a terrific record, if very, very sad for memories of his loss - and song titles like "A Fond Farewell", "The Last Hour", "Don't Go Down" and "A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free" don't help matters!

4. Snow Patrol - Final Straw [A&M CD B0002271-02 - Fiction in the UK]

The fourth CD from Snow Patrol cements their place as the next Big Band in Brit-pop. Ignore the pedestrian opening track - despite easy appearances, this is no Coldplay, warmed over re-runs of Last Year's Model - this record is a thoroughly enjoyable listen all the way through, from the hard-rocking choruses of "Wow" & "Gleaming Auction" through songs like "Spitting Games" and "Tiny Little Fractures" whose engagingly quirky harmonies recall American heartland rockers Trip Shakespeare, the anthemic "Run" to the faux-Pink Floyd of the concluding "Same". "Somewhere A Clock Is Ticking" - my favorite track - is equal parts U2, Moody Blues and Chameleons in an odd sort of way -- all in all, a charming CD that reveals more and more of its secrets with each repeat listen.

3. The Cooper-Temple Clause - Kick Up The Fire And Let The Flames Break Loose [RCA CD 59573 - Morning Records in the EU]

Speaking of repeated listenings and the next natural step of British rock: here's another possible branch. Ignore the ill-advised name, this is another record which rewards one's attention. The closest to a prog-rock cross-over on this year's list, in perhaps the same way one might consider Radiohead a progressive rock band -- the songs structures are more adventurous than the average pop record - think Eno in the 70's. Ten songs - just over 50 minutes and none of it wasted - a comparative rarity in this day of the bloated CD, where every release is the equivalent of a double album. The plaintive opening "The Same Mistakes" quickly jump-shifts into the hammering "Promises Promises". "New Toys" crosses over into Radiohead territory without being too blatant a cop, "Talking To A Brick Wall" recalls Cousteau or perhaps Tindersticks, but suddenly turns sharp left at the chorus to mine Oasis, or perhaps the ur-Oasis of The Kinks, revisited later in "A.I.M.". Clearly this is another band finding its own way by jumping from one familiar path to another -- there's nods [intentional or not] to Pink Floyd, Tool, Nine Inch Nails and many others and that trek is an interesting musical excursion -- this, their second album, is miles beyond their first release and well worth seeking out.

2. Rufus Wainwright - Want Two [Dreamworks CD+DVD B0003716-00]

I refer you to last year's rant on Want One -- the #2 album on my list last year. I bow to no man in my love and regard for Rufus -- I think he is brilliant and [as I said above] belongs in the same breath as Sondheim. He is a 'serious' writer. And, although it has some hilarious moments as well, the severe yet serene opening of his "Agnus Dei" signals that this is to be a 'serious' record. And it requires more work than Want One did, with its immediately overwhelming moments of gorgeousity and amazingness (for lack of a better description!). This record is ART, baby, and you have to work at art a bit harder! But the payoff is everywhere as great as Want One's was, starting with the afore-mentioned Lamb of God. Rufus' best foil, his sister Martha, returns to great effect on "The One You Love", a Cole Porter-ish flip-off. She sticks around for "Peach Trees", the album's first production number. These are the genius of Wainwright in full bloom: the song belongs in the midst of a huge production number, starting with the faux-hula opening, expanding through each subsequent verse as another element is added: jazz piano, Charlie Sexton's guitar, massed vocals, back down to its conclusion. "Little Sister" is some odd amalgam of Mozart by way of Gilbert & Sullivan. "The Art Teacher" is a live performance: the first of the album's dramatic highpoints and one of Rufus' finest vocal performances -- a lovely Sondheim or perhaps Schubert nod. There's more: I could go on about EVERY track, but I HAVE to mention "Gay Messiah", whose lyrics read as a hoot, but whose delivery is absolutely chilling. This is a fine, fine record and is only second on my list for sentimental reasons, as . . .

1. Todd Rundgren - Liars [Sanctuary CD 86357]

What a pleasure when one of your absolute favorite artists produces an album, seemingly out of the blue and at the top of their form Todd has taken a good hard look at the world and it's clear he doesn't like what he sees. Todd is REAL pissed. And that's a VERY Good Thing, as Todd has made his best album since at least Nearly Human or Second Wind -- perhaps his best since Initiation. The title is the theme. "Future" deals with the regret at not realizing the sanitized 'World Of Tomorrow' we were promised as kids, "Past" is one of his loveliest ballads ever, but the theme of the album is Bushworld: "Stood Up", "Mammon", "Wondering", and the closing 'album side' of "Afterlife", "Living", "God Said" & "Liar" sum up our world. The playing is top notch: Todd is in great voice and throws some red meat to the guitar fans as well, although not so much as in the live show. [The current tour features the band in religious robes for the first half of the program and faux-'jive ass soul' suits for the second.] As one might expect, this is also a great SOUNDING record -- Todd is still one of the best producers in the business as well. Very highly recommended!

Now here's another 30 or so records that I enjoyed this year - enough to keep, anyway.

!!! - Louden Up Now
Badly Drawn Boy - One Plus One Is One
Bennett, Jay - Bigger Than Blue
Cale, John - Hobosapiens
Costello, Elvis - The Delivery Man
DiFranco, Ani - Educated Guess
Dogs Die In Hot Cars - Please Describe Yourself
Eminem - Encore
Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand
Lynn, Loretta - Van Lear Rose
Massive Attack - Danny The Dog O.S.T.
Matt Pond PA - Emblems
Minus The Bear - They Make Beer Commercials Like This
Morrissey - You Are The Quarry
Newman, A.C. - The Slow Wonder
Of Montreal - Satanic Panic In The Attic
Pedro The Lion - Pedro The Lion's Achilles Heel
Prince - Musicology
Queen Latifah - The Dana Owens Album
R.E.M. - Around The Sun
Razorlight - Up All Night
Smith, Patti - Trampin'
Stone, Joss - Mind Body & Soul
Sweet, Matthew - Kimi Ga Suki Raifu
The Black Keys - Rubber Factory
The Finn Brothers - Everyone Is Here
Tilbrook, Glenn - Transatlantic Ping Pong

And I should point out for special mention Brian Wilson's long-anticipated "Smile", which seriously didn't suck. I was lucky enough to catch one of the live shows of this masterpiece and it was an amazing night. Were it not mostly 37 years old, it would have been my album of the year!

Anyway - another year with lots to offer - hope you all have a terrific 2005!

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