Return of the Reluctant — Top 10 Albums of 2005

There are drafts here that you won’t see. I wrote a very long-winded post in response to recent concerns about the Silly Weekly Rag Edited by Tanenhaus Currently Masquerading as Significant Thought. But why beat a dead horse when Brother MAO has responded so well? I also composed a number of top ten lists which are utterly ridiculous and riddled with mock enmity. But you won’t see that either.

What you will see, however, is the following top ten list of music. Mr. Ewins pushed me over the edge. If anything, what motivates this list is the chance to knock Elbow’s Leaders of the Free World from its overrated perch. So in the end, there’s some fury, albeit of minor import, in place that drives the culture-craving beast.

In alphabetical order:

Kate Bush, Aerial — She came back to us, all spiffily produced with deep drum machines and vaguely Enya-like with her passive-aggressive wailing. But I enjoyed this album, in a way that suggests that I am mellowing faster than the wrinkles form on my face. Let’s face it. “Somewhere in Heaven” is applicable to Sunday morning bedroom situations involving two people and drowsy randiness just before doing the New York Times crossword, existing as a compromise point between total capitulation to Lilith Fair nausea and something that at least grooves convincingly. Kate Bush has become this decade’s answer to Sade. But I would contend that this is not as bad as it sounds.

Clap Your Hand Say Yeah Yeah, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah Yeah — The Arcade Fire of 2005. I suspect that between Clap and Arcade, we will see the end of disco-thump indie rock before the end of 2006. At the present time, however, we can enjoy “The Skin of My Country Teeth”‘s unapologetically adenoidal bounce, the Cure-inspired “Over and Over Again,” “Details of the War,” which really shouldn’t be as moving as it ends up (but strikes one of the strangest moments of poignancy seen in pop music this year at about the 2:12 mark).

Doves, Some Cities — The tunes are unapologetically percussive (“Black and White Town,” the reverberating clang of “Almost Forgot Myself”) and this time around, the lads are feeling a mite experimental (the broken sample in “The Storm,” the lonely piano rag “Shadows of Salford”), perhaps trying to maintain a little leverage over Grandaddy. In fact, if anything, Doves goes more over-the-top with the reverb (“Ambition”) than any of their previous work. But it’s a risk that works.

The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday — It was Tito who clued me into these guys. If you haven’t figured out already, I have a soft spot for eccentric vocalists. Craig Finn, no mere ruffian, is a revelation. It takes a strange sort of commitment to come across as a philosophical drunk and even greater abilities to pull off this archetype so convincingly. My favorite track is probably “Cattle and the Creeping Things,” which spells out the Hold Steady’s secret. Let Finn do his thing, however discordant it might sound, and keep the rhythm section pitch-perfect. The rest will follow.

I Am Kloot, Gods and Monsters — Vocalist/guitarist John Bramwell has a thick Manchester dialect and a vocal range that is about as flexible as a martinet-eyed bureaucrat examining an application form. The tunes are sparse and sound as if they were produced with about five mikes to spread around three people. Yet there is an undeniable earnestness to I Am Kloot, who with this album seem to want to move beyond singing about bars and sitting around, into more ambitious territory. The problem (and the great fun of listening to this album) is that they don’t seem to know where to go. But they are sure doing their damnedest to do more with what they have. Witness the jazzy “Strange Without You” and the effort at a straightforward ballad, “I Believe,” a genre that Bramwell is sadly ill-equipped to tackle.

LCD Soundsystem, LCD Soundsystem — When I first listened to Gorillaz’ Demon Days, thoroughly grooving to the droll “Kids with Guns” and the standout track “Dare,” I thought to myself that Damon Albarn had at long last atoned for the lackluster final Blur album and produced the dance album of the year. Then I dumped the two-disc LCD Soundsystem album onto the machine and realize that, unfortunately, Albarn & Company weren’t t even close. Like last year’s fantastic offering from The Go! Team (and The Avalanches from a few years ago), this is an album that tries its hand in multiple electronica genres and pulls them all off. “Tribulations” takes you back, both lyrically and stylistically, to awkward high school dances with Depeche Mode playing in the back. The fuzz of “Thrills” is strangely irresistable. As it turns out, vocalist James Murphy is both a self-deprecatory music freak (“Disco Infiltrator”‘s Fifth Dimension-style falsettos) and a cultural satirist (“Losing My Edge”). He offers not one, but two versions of a tune called “Yeah,” in which the lyrics are (loosely paraphrased) “Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah hey hey hey yeah.” This is the kind of album both aware of its influences and willing to expand on its sound — the very antithesis of Madonna’s unexpectedly silly Confessions on a Dance Floor.

The Magic Numbers, The Magic Numbers: Don’t be deceived by the sunny indie pop that opens the album “Mornings Eleven.” The Magic Numbers don’t take themselves entirely seriously (“Long Legs”) and their optimism soon shifts into jangly snark (“Love Me Like You”). “I See You, You See Me” suggests a Paul Heaton-led band that hasn’t yet stooped to put out a desperate album of cover tunes to resuscitate a flagging career. “Don’t Give Up the Fight” would be a tune I’d probably hate if it were anyone else, but it demonstrates that singer Romeo is a strange centrifugal force for this band. Granted, there’s nothing more than cheery pop tunes here. But I suspect that the band will pull the rug out from under us with the next one.

Maximo Park, A Certain Trigger — An interesting mix of psuedo-emo and British pop, with undeniable energy and nice mid-song shifts (“Postcards of a Painting” is a standout track), all anchored by Paul Smith’s distinctive vocals. “I Want You to Stay” starts off sounding like a Bloc Party knockoff, but the minute that the synths come in at the second verse, you know you’re in an almost unplaceable territory. (In fact, who knew that “Limassol”‘s obnoxious opening synths yielded a rocking tune, let alone the punky refrain?)

My Morning Jacket, Z — Everyone and his mother has ranked this album at the top. And, hell, I’ll do likewise. Because every tune got stuck in my head at some point. Comparisons to Radiohead have been made. And, yes, Jim James isn’t Neil Young. Really. Before hearing this album, I had genuinely thought My Morning Jacket were a bunch of wusses. But what works here so well is the tone. The crazed obsession with the snare on “It Beats 4 U” to suggest not only the palpitations of James’ heart, but the uncertainty of his convictions. In fact (and you can call bullshit on me if you want), it might almost serve as a metaphor for expressing pure emotion in contemporary art. Think about it. We’ve been riddled with irony and rage and My Bloody Valentine-style noise which must serve as some kind of distinction. But beauty in and of itself is often declared war on. “What a Wonderful Man” is certainly an ironic tale about blindly following a leader, but here’s the kicker: it is utterly sincere in its convictions. “Into the Woods,” with its dreamy timbre and its baby in the blender, represents a kind of savage purity that represents the firm commitment of the subconscious. Oh fuck the deconstructionism here. It’s a good album, this. Give it a whirl.

Sufjan Stevens, Illinois — That Stevens. He writes some longass songs with longass titles and hits various moments of lunacy and poignance. But then you knew that. What you didn’t know is that every music geek worth his salt will put this album on their best of the year list, because Apollo told him to. There is no other explanation, except “You came to take us /All things go all things go / To recreate us / All things go all things go / We had our mindset / All things go all things go / You had to find it / All things go all things go.”

Honorable Mention: M.I.A., Arular; Antony and the Johnsons, I Am a Bird; Okkervil River, Black Sheep Boy; Gorillaz, Demon Days; The Decemberists, Picaresque; Wolf Parade, Apologies to the Queen Mary; Architecture in Helsinki, In Case We Die; The National, Alligator; Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine; Buck 65, This Right Here is Buck 65; Beck, Guero; Of Montreal, Sunlandic Twins.

Sorry, But I Just Don’t See What the Fuss is About: The Editors, The Back Room; Elbow, Leaders of the Free World; Isolee, Wearemonster; Andrew Bird, The Magnificent Production of Eggs; Eels, Blinking Lights and Other Revelations; The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema; Neil Diamond, 12 Songs; Franz Ferdinand, You Could Have It So Much Better.

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  1. If you like “Clap Your Hands Say Yeah” you must like “Wolf Parade”, they are branches from the same tree.

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