By Dennis Cook
By almost any standards, 2005 was an especially good year for music. Oh, maybe not what you heard on music television or commercial radio. Those are still the blasted, creativity-free wastelands they were in 2004, but if you went outside the lines, there was an enormous amount of inspiring, passionate sounds being made.
The list belies my profound weakness for well-crafted, beautifully executed songs. There's a lot to be said for careful arrangements, production of depth, and a turn-of-phrase that sticks in the mind. While I love high-level musicianship, I'm finding that chops alone rarely woo me anymore. Even in the realm of improvisation I'm increasingly drawn to those who spontaneously compose instead of just randomly noodling. A few things I fell hard for early in the year didn't make the cut like Beck's Guero and Kings of Leon's Aha Shake Heartbreak. Like a lot of romances, once I got to know them better they lost a great deal of their initial charm. A few others are too fresh in my listening for me to include (Milton Mapes' The Blacklight Trap springs to mind). What this Top 20 represents is albums that I can easily imagine putting on in 20 years to find that time has done nothing to diminish their power to enlighten and delight.
Cook's Corner Top 20
Scott Amendola Band: Believe (Crytogramaphone)
Faith rendered into sounds, shaped by expert hands and released back into the wild. In the loosest terms, this is jazz but it's jazz spiced by rock's hard thrust and new-wave's boundary breaking. Master drummer Amendola leads one of the finest ensembles going today, drawing breathtaking work from Nels Cline, Jenny Scheinman, and Tortoise's Jeff Parker.
Devendra Banhart: Cripple Crow (XL)
Forget the hype around this freak folk poster child. An open-minded listen to his oddly wise pastoral ramblings should make your skin feel charged with a strange magic. Everyone plays with intuitive brilliance on this best-yet outing. Using a whisper, Banhart defuses the war-like atmosphere around us and grounds us in the things we really ought to be pouring ourselves into.
Julian Cope: Citizen Cain'd and Dark Orgasm (Head Heritage)
No one makes heavy things quite as engaging as Sir Cope. Cain'd puts a ratty boot to complacency, pettiness, and war mongering. Possibly the most impassioned, nakedly exposed work in a pretty fucking illustrious career. I'd put him up for sainthood, but I know how the man abhors monotheism. Dark Orgasm combines Stooge-like rawness with a true feminist agenda for his most accessible, yet ridiculously rocking song cycle in years.
Drunk Horse: In Tongues (Tee Pee)
Balls-out is how they play, and the best advice is to hold onto this Horse's mane and pray you make it. They take the best parts of AC/DC, Black Sabbath, and Husker Du to create a hard rock stew that'll leave you licking your chops as you reach for another brew to quench the fire they've poured down your throat. Live, they're always a force of nature, and now there's a studio release that accurately captures their concert mojo.
Dungen: Ta Det Lugnt (Subliminal Sounds)
Hail Sweden! A fresh direction for psychedelia that fascinated and engaged in a way few English language slobs managed in 2005. Utilizes all the inherent freedoms of rock to catapult us into another realm. You will never hear this album exactly the same way twice. And, oh my Lord, what divine guitars!!!
Hackensaw Boys: Love What You Do (Nettwerk)
A hugely likeable, skillfully concocted song cycle, by turns rollicking and reflective. The Boys latest does away with any perceived limitations a string band might have. Sure, it might scream and rattle less than their earlier work, but what they find in the softer folds compels us better than any hoedown could.
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey: The Sameness of Difference (Hyena)
Everything good about instrumental music delivered by good-as-they-get players that shine in this scintillating mix of originals and impeccably chosen covers. With veteran knob twiddler Joel Dorn producing, they've never sounded better than they do in this focused, taut modern classic.
Thomas Denver Jonsson: Barely Touching It (Kite Recordings)
Hail Sweden again! Jonsson resonates with the same deep currents as early Neil Young. This young Swede is only beginning, and already it's clear he's got a tremendous understanding of the human condition touched with a refreshing romantic sweetness that's disarming.
Jamie Lidell: Multiply (Warp)
A stoned soul picnic with The Temptations, The Staple Singers, and Zapp! After making his name as a glitchy instrumental electronica kid, Lidell - a white boy whose voice amazingly recalls Otis Redding - quietly accumulated these tracks over several years. The result is a soul record that betters anything on the urban charts in 2005. Like a man who's mainlined Motown, Stax, and Controversy-era Prince, he updates yesterday's grooves with a subtle, tweaked hand. Not since Deee-Lite's Dewdrops In The Garden has someone so successfully fused modern dance music and vintage soul.
Magnolia Electric Co: What Comes After The Blues (Secretly Canadian)
There's wounded wisdom amongst the vinyl-era leaning rockin' that evokes Fairport Convention and Crazy Horse. This is a big leap forward for Songs:Ohio's Jason Molina. Where before he might wallow in melancholy, this beats a slow, tough path towards the light.
Marah: If You Didn't Laugh, You'd Cry (Yep Roc)
Addictively listenable roots rock from Philadelphia. Where their earlier albums suffered from an overreaching ambition, this one settles into the attic for a round of solid songwriting and off-the-cuff performances. Your first listen is like the best blind date you ever had – everything feels sort of brand new even if it's wearing the same old clothes.
New Monsoon: The Sound (Harmonized)
New Monsoon crafted a gorgeously produced record that looks at today with open eyes and finds hope hiding in the long shadows. Jettisoning their jam band vibe for a harder-edged sound, the band emerges as a fully formed rock beast that expands on their influences like Santana and the Allman Brothers for classic rock in the most complimentary sense.
My Morning Jacket: Z (ATO)
Pop music as envisioned by working classic mystics. A clouded gem you can't help staring deeper and deeper into. It'll take years to fully unlock all the pleasures and secrets stuffed into MMJ's latest - their densest, strangest, most hugely beautiful set yet.
Nickel Creek: Why Should The Fire Die? (Sugar Hill)
The only act on VH1 and Country Music Television I don't want to throw things at. This corker finds them tapping a Beatles vein that's infectious and thoughtful in unexpected ways. Sean Watkins, Chris Thile, and Sara Watkins are collectively some of the most talented people making music today. This wonderful album finds them throwing off the shackles of commercial expectation and moving into a creative flowering to be reckoned with.
Richmond Fontaine: The Fitzgerald and Obliteration By Time (El Cortez)
Americana's finest deliver a double serving of character-rich, densely layered goodness. The Fitzgerald is a series of sharply drawn short stories that makes Springsteen's Nebraska seem upbeat. Obliteration reworks material from their early albums with a ferocious, feedback-addled chug. With reassuring steadiness, Richmond Fontaine has developed into a truly amazing band. Think everything nice that's ever been said about Wilco and double it for these Oregon boys. Jerry Joseph loves 'em, too!
Sensations: Listen To My Shapes (Camera)
Everything pop music should be but usually isn't. Dizzying guitars, hummable tunes, and arrangements filled with subtlety and light, it's all here. Greg Loiacono of the Mother Hips is joined by fellow Hips bassist Paul Hoaglin and ex-Cake drummer Todd Roper for a sound that gleefully conjures the spirit of Robyn Hitchcock and the Soft Boys, Roy Orbison, and a slew of '60s British Invasion acts.
Six Eye Columbia: Judy At Carnegie Hall (self-released)
If this were on Thrill Jockey or Matador, the indie rock press would dutifully sing its praises. Josh Pollock and his jangly merry makers have crafted one of the most thoroughly gorgeous rock releases in a decade. It's every bit the equal of the best work by Guided By Voices, Silver Jews, or Stephen Malkmus (Pavement) but with greater tenderness and boldness of vision. One minute will find you tapping your toe and the next you may need a handkerchief for the tears rolling down your cheek.
Otis Taylor: Below The Fold (Telarc)
The bluesman every hippie and festival junkie has been waiting for and didn't even know it. For everyone who thinks the Black Keys and North Mississippi AllStars are the cutting edge of contemporary blues, here's the real innovator. Taylor plays "trance blues," which is just a way of saying he slings the raw clay of John Lee Hooker and Skip James into new, tripped-out forms. Using interesting instrumentation, haunting subject matter, and a hypnotic, direct lyrical flow, Taylor continues to be the best damn blues artist out there.
Tea Leaf Green: Taught To Be Proud (Reincarnate Music)
A joyous, gracefully articulated, rib stickingly satisfying album that takes classic moves from Elton John and The Faces and makes them new again. Just try to resist playing air guitar when this grand good time is on the stereo!
The Mars Volta: Frances The Mute (Universal)
If there's a more ambitious band out there, I haven't found them. Kind of terrifying in scope and intensity, and I dig that. Where other bands settle for mimicking what's come before, Mars Volta tear a hole in the space-time continuum and leap into the mutant zone. What they come back with is scary and unwieldy, but few things felt more original or true this year.
Best Reissues of 2005:
1. Gary Higgins: Red Hash (Drag City)
2. Rob Wasserman: Trilogy (Rounder)
Best Tribute Albums of 2005:
1. Friends And Lovers: Songs of Bread (Badman)
2. The Joe South Tribute Record (Jackpine Social Club)
Best Compilations/Anthologies of 2005:
1. Belle & Sebastian: Push Barman To Open Old Wounds (Matador)
2. The Dirtbombs: If You Don't Already Have A Look (In The Red)
3. Ween: Shinola Vol. 1 (Chocodog)
Songwriter Discovery of 2005: Will Johnson
Think back to the first time you heard Neil Young or Nick Drake. Instantly, you're in the presence of someone who taps into the invisible world behind all the hurly burly. There's some deep wound, some deep understanding in the timbre of their tongue, in the words they offer up. Will Johnson produces the exact same effect. In his stirring, beautifully controlled solo work on Vultures Await or the thickly layered headiness of South San Gabriel, he's a model of sensitive insight. That he also rocks mightily in Centro-matic is what makes him a man to watch. He's the whole package, and as prolific as he's been, it still feels like the best is right around the corner. It's a gut feeling, but I encourage you to dip in early and avoid the rush.
25 Songs From 2005 You Need To Hear:
1. "Magnolia Mountain" by Ryan Adams & The Cardinals
2. "The Bucket" by Kings of Leon
3. "When In Rome" by Nickel Creek
4. "Long Haired Child" by Devendra Banhart
5. "I Turn My Camera On" by Spoon
6. "Tiara Dievers" by Tim Bluhm
7. "Affection's The Pay" by South San Gabriel
8. "Fill Me With Your Light" by Clem Snide
9. "Exploration" by Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion
10. "New Age Teen" by Six Eye Columbia
11. "Chick-a-Boom" by Joe Bataan
12. "It Kills" by Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks
13. "Tin Pan Valley" by Robert Plant and the Strange Sensation
14. "Chaos Streams" by Son Volt
15. "Won't You Sing To Me" by Nick Castro & The Poison Tree
16. "Phyliss" by Apollo Sunshine
17. "Finding Out True Love Is Blind" by Louis XIV
18. "The Sun Comes Through" by Kelley Stoltz
19. "Brothers Grimm And The Cowboy Band" by Monday Night Recorders with Jack Logan
20. "Takes One To Know" by Mike Coykendall
21. "Everything Must Go" by Surprise Me Mr. Davis
22. Espers' cover of Blue Oyster Cult's "Flaming Telepaths"
23. MX-80's cover of Grand Funk Railroad's "We're An American Band"
24. Wayne Shorter Quartet's cover of Arthur Penn's "Smilin' Through"
25. Drew Emmitt's cover of Bob Dylan's "Meet Me In The Morning"
Three From 2004 worth going back for:
1. Chris Thile: Deceiver (Sugar Hill)
2. Lone Pigeon: Schoozzzmmii (Cargo/Revolver)
3. Camper Van Beethoven: New Roman Times (Pitch-A-Tent)
Six Albums To Look Forward To In 2006:
1. Michael Nesmith's Rays
2. The Slip's new studio release
3. Neal Casal's No Wish To Reminisce
4. Radiohead's follow-up to Hail To The Thief
5. The New Up's sophomore effort
6. Centro-matic's Fort Recovery
Five Artists To Bend An Ear Towards In 2006:
Space rock without apology. Powered by the same rocket fuel that lit up Hawkwind, My Bloody Valentine, and Gong, England's Litmus speeds into the outer reaches with poised fury, occasionally bursting into recuperative seas of tranquility.
2. The Coyote Problem
There's hope for country music yet, and it's living in Southern California. There's little dumber, overly polished music than the stuff flowing out of mainstream Nashville today, which abandons its forebearers' dedication to lasting songwriting and barroom-ready performances. The Coyote Problem beds down with shit-kickin' rock and then smokes a doobie after they've left it sweaty and smiling. And their tunes remind one of Roseanne Cash, Jackson Browne, Butch Hancock, and other heavily rooted pickers. Aces.
3. Leroy Justice
NYC's Leroy Justice has the same spark as early Black Crowes and Mother Hips. There's enough twang to make you think it's southern rock, but the tender lyrical turns tie them closer to Springsteen and other Northeast roots rockers. Their debut is great, and they kick ass live. Belly up to the bar and let them pour you a shot of what you need.
A befuzzed, tweaked relative to Sound Tribe Sector 9 and Tortoise. Norway's Salvatore is organic and curvy with languidly rolling hips to their alien playing. Their wordless explorations have the out-of-time vibe of long, happy, sleepless nights that culminate in sunrise ruminations.
5. Nick Castro and The Poison Tree
There's strange comfort in these woods. Castro is a more polished, '60s pop savvy cousin to Devendra Banhart. 2005's Further From Grace evoked Burt Jansch, Fred Neil, and Burt Bacharach sharing a mint tea with a druid and some wood nymphs. His voice has a beautiful ache that his sensitive band accentuates with perfect mood shifts.
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