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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

15 Albums That Didn't Suck in 2005


1. Kate Bush, Aerial

I waited over a decade for this, and the years of wondering if there'd ever be another Kate Bush album paid off. This is a gorgeous piece of music that everyone should hear. It's a rare case of a lush, complex, big-sounding album which concerns itself with happiness, contentment and the small things in life. This certainly won't endear me to the obscurer-than-thou indie rawk jetset or the passionately contrarian iconoclasts out there (why would they read anything I have to say anyway?), but I consider this album to be one of the true enduring classics of this decade...so far. Nothing I've heard in many years has been both as endearing and as challenging to my ears as this album.


2. The Decemberists, Picaresque

Until Aerial came along and shattered my world, I was content to consider this album my favorite of the year. I wasn't always so taken with The Decemberists - on first listen, I thought of them as a bit twee and overly jangly, with a nasally vocalist who might be better suited for telephone operator work. But what can I tell you, Picaresque is a grower. The music reveals itself with each listen, until songs like "16 Military Wives" and "The Sporting Life" embed themselves in your memory and won't let go. The lyrics are also unlike just about anything else being written in pop music right now. Intelligent without appearing too self-impressed. I liked this album enough to see The Decemberists twice this year...each time strengthened my love of Picaresque that much more.

3. Sufjan Stevens, Illinois

Fine, whatever, I'm a bandwaggoner. I didn't know who Sufjan Stevens was until this album came out this year, but HEY: I knew who the Danielsen Famile was, and I've even seen them perform once, so TECHNICALLY, I've seen Sufjan Stevens perform pre-Illinois (maybe. I think. I really can't remember him, other than I remember one guy in the band who didn't look like a redheaded Von Trapp child). And, okay, I thought the CD cover was cute and I heard about the flap over the Superman image and since, you know, I live in Illinois, I figured what the hell, might as well get me a little indie-rock collector's item.

So I got the CD. And I listened to it. And I love it. The man definitely has originality and style that could carry him through to a larger audience. I think these are the days that his fans will be able to say "I was into his music way back when..." - if Beck can become a household name, Sufjan is proving his inevitable pop ubiquity with this album. Very entertaining live performer, too - his voice is as beautifully simple on stage as it is on CD.

4. Sinéad O'Connor, Collaborations

It feels nice to wax enthusiastic about Sinéad's crazy ass again. Sadly, I wasn't at all thrilled with her collection of new recordings this year, but this CD reminded me of what I love about Sinéad when (in my opinion, anyway) she gets it right. Ol' Sine-Aid wraps her banshee pipes around a bunch of other artists' songs. This collection of her appearances on other people's albums is refreshingly diverse and varied - kind of a hijacked iPod tracklist. Save your money on her reggae album - this CD is Sinéad's finest comeback attempt yet.

5. Princess Superstar, My Machine

If every gay guy's gotta have an obligatory diva figure to serve as some kind of pop culture familiar in his life, let's just get this out of the way right now: Concetta Kirschner is my Cher. Girlfriend's a rapper, a DJ, a comic genius, a fantastic stage performer, and let's not forget she plays a mean guitar when she's in the mood. She's the only bikini-wearing hip-hop D.I.Y. sexpot ever to cite Fugazi as an early influence, I can tell ya that much.

Her 2005 release was an overwhelming feast of new songs wrapped up in an over-the-top sci-fi concept piece centered around the pursuit of fame in a dystopian future. Sounds a little heady, but the Princess manages to keep it light and fun. I've never been a fan of skits and segues, and such is the case with this album - too much babble bums my buzz - but it's a necessary hassle to illustrate My Machine's nightmarish Warholian world. Meanwhile, there's some pop music on here that I'd say should be getting airplay, but on second thought, no - the good stuff on this album is too good for radio.

6. Out Hud, Let Us Never Speak Of It Again

This album is an odd duck - it's a bit art rock, a bit funk, a bit electronica, a bit indie rock - it's whatever the band wants it to be at any given time. When I listen to this album, I hear a little bit of Prince, a lot of Tom Tom Club and a WHOLE lot of !!! - which stands to reason, as there are members of that band who contribute here. Don't let the ugly (and I mean UGLY) album cover fool you - what's inside is challenging and refreshing dance music, with old skool meeting the new stuff in one big party.

7. Beck, Guero

This is the best of Beck and the worst of Beck. How can you top a classic album like Sea Change? Maybe you can't. But you can still have fun trying. This album was a return to the playful, irreverent, retro-kitsch-obsessed Beck of Odelay fame. It also has some introspective tracks reminescent of Mutations and Sea Change. This is fine, though Beck's desire to have it both ways - both pensive and absurd, both quiet and raucous - makes me wonder what it is the guy's really on about. The last person to give a clue is Beck himself. Contemplating his art too much leaves me cold, but when I try not to think about it so much, Guero is a great time.

8. Saint Etienne, Tales From Turnpike House

Sarah and the boys turn in a cozy, pretty little album about the day in the life of people who live in a particular building in a particular part of London. Nothing more, nothing less. But they sure make it sound like a good life. This was a tasty blend of StEt's love of Brian Wilson and '60s pop, married with their ongoing sonic experiments and atypical arrangements. The group keeps their sound interesting, but they don't get in the way of Sarah Cracknell's kittenish croon.

Also, the bonus e.p. of children's songs was a nice added touch - I liked it more than the proper album on first listen! I think the band and their label need to reconsider their decision not to include it on the U.S. release in 2006 (in other words, it's well worth the extra bucks to pick up the UK import version).

9. Nouvelle Vague, s/t

I bought this CD in the throes of a bossa nova kick I'd been going through earlier this year, and figured what the hey - this collection of new wave classics interpreted Brazilian pop-style was probably going to be nothing more than a schmaltzy novelty album. I'm happy to report that my expectations were largely wrong. If I hadn't heard the original versions, I'd enjoy this as a nice modern bossa nova record. Great rearrangements, wonderfully smooth vocals, and a treatment of the material that more than suggests a sincere love of both the original songs and the style they've chosen to explore. Great stuff for new wave casualties and lounge lizards alike.

10. Brian Eno, Another Day On Earth

He hasn't released a "proper" pop album with vocals in years, but this album came and went quietly all the same, in true Eno fashion. His solo work manages to blend into the shadows of what's popular in music at the time, slowly releasing itself into the bloodstream of modern music and emerging later in the textures of young bands trying to cross over into "serious artist" territory. Bless Eno for keeping things interesting. This album is quiet and unsettling, celebratory and disturbing. It draws as much from his '70s solo albums as it does from the wealth of music he's produced for the likes of U2 and David Bowie. It's big sound masquarading as something intimate.

11. Paul McCartney, Chaos & Creation in the Backyard

I dropped in on this one a bit late - early December late, in fact - but I instantly fell in love with these songs. This is the Paul McCartney who was my favorite Beatle when I was a little boy. This is the guy behind all those catchy songs like "Maybe I'm Amazed" and "Blackbird". When one thinks good thoughts about Paul's past work, that's the kind of music you'll hear on this album. Finally.

12. LCD Soundsystem, s/t

Hit or miss, but with two discs of dance chaos, there's a lot to hit and a lot to miss (or not). LCD Soundsystem is the latest uber-catchy electro outfit to have its album picked apart by television ad folks and repurposed into car and stereo jingles. Still, there's plenty on this album that's a bit too edgy for Honda and Sony...including a painfully funny song mourning the loss of one's edge. This is essential booty-shaking material, if only for the two mixes of the song "Yeah" on the bonus disc.

13. Gorillaz, Demon Days

Notable, but nothing truly exciting from the cartoon alterna-waifs. Damon Albarn's pet project still recalls the Banana Splits after too many tokes of the peace pipe, but that's not entirely a bad thing. Fun guest vocalists abound, and Gorillaz still know how to marry hip-hop and post-punk for a nice, finger-snapping journey into laid-back dance pop.

Wow, that was a lot of hyphens. I'm glad they don't cost anything.

14. New Order, Waiting for the Siren's Call

If you like New Order, there's no reason not to like this album. It's New Order being New Order in their typical New Orderly fashion. There's no reason to be truly overwhelmed by this album either, because there's nothing really new happening here - but if you got into this band expecting radical departures, you would have been sorely disappointed years ago. Still, this one manages to satisfy consistently from beginning to end in a way that easily trumps their previous album, building tempo and momentum from the first track to the end, and dropping off with a nice chill-out tune before treating listeners to a bonus remix at disc's end.

15. Sigur Ros, Takk

More pretty orchestration and wow-neato noisescapes from Iceland's finest stoner-rockers. I like this album, but I can't help but feeling that owning their three full-length studio albums entitles me to say I've heard everything this band could possibly ever do in the future. And considering I've heard Sigur Ros is disbanding after their current tour, I guess that's a good thought for me to have. Delightful music for sleeping/reading/watching the snow fall.

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