December 29, 2005

On Music: The Best of 2005

In the grand, year-end tradition of talking about stuff that happened during the previous 365 days, here I am to talk about music and the many wonderful musical things I discovered during 2005.

And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead mixed up their previously hard-driving sound and produced Worlds Apart, a collection of hard but thoughtful, hook-laden songs which proved just how mature as a band they've become. Particularly wonderful, if you're an iTunes user, was their cover version of Genesis' 1974 classic Back in NYC available for download. Athlete, a less-polished, rougher around the edges result of the Coldplay Revolution, delivered a fantastic sophomore album in Tourist while the one and only Coldplay dropped X&Y. When X&Y was released, after my first listen, I stated that X&Y was bound to be the best release of the year. Now, I'm no hardcore Colplay fan, blindly (or deafly?) loving whatever it is they release, but I stick by the claim. X&Y remains a powerful release and one of the best of the year.

Bright Eyes dropped I'm Wide Awake It's Morning to much fanfare. All the press was pretty well-deserved too. I haven't gotten around to getting the sister album, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn but I will eventually. Engineers was a band that got virtually no coverage in the music press. Sad really, since their self-titled release was, in my opinion, an instant classic. Think of them as a modern day Tears for Fears, ignoring the fact, of course, that Tears for Fears are still around and their most recent release Everybody Loves A Happy Ending wasn't half bad.

Barrett Martin, former drummer for Seattle grunge band Screaming Trees, released what might be the finest jazz album in a my mind at least but then again, I'm not much of a jazz enthusiast. The Painted Desert is spare, ultimately percussion driven, and majestic. I find myself listening to it once a week. And I've got 3700 albums to choose from so that should tell you something. Perhaps an even more odd choice for me would be Nickel Creek's Why Should The Fire Die? I've always loathed country, despite the fact that I'm originally from Texas (you think I moved to Virginia willingly? No, they kicked me out for my hatred of country music.). Nickel Creek is, in a word, awesome. They're a fine bunch of musicians who know how to play. The only downside of this album is its seriousness. It's a dark album that grows darker as it progresses. Still, that doesn't take a way from the fine musicianship and songwriting.


Porcupine Tree continued their dominance on my playlists with Deadwing. Possibly not their strongest release, it was still better than 99.937% of the other crap out there. Steven Wilson's love of Pink Floyd continued to shine while the effort took on a slightly harder edge harkening back to their mid 90's sound. This year also saw the rerelease of early Porcupine Tree albums such as Signify, Up The Downstair and On The Sunday of Life. All are very much worth the price of admission.

There have been a few albums I've reviewed in detail here on the site. I've recently mentioned Our Lady Peace's Healthy in Paranoid Times - buy it. It's catchy, crunchy, meaty and good. I've also talked about Rob Dickinson's Fresh Wine for the Horses. I've listened to it again since my review earlier this month and I haven't changed my mind at all. Its an excellent album. I also discussed Imogen Heap's Speak For Yourself and my enthusiasm has waned slightly since my initial review. Don't get me wrong - it's still good. But I think some of the novelty has worn off for me. As has the novelty in Neil Diamond's 12 Songs. Again, its a fantastic album but I don't see myself listening to it constantly for years to come. Also discusser earlier this year, the most criminally overlooked album of the year title belongs to The Hold Steady for Separation Sunday. Sure, it's also a conceptual album but damn is it good. It's a thinking person's AC/DC, poetry with crunchy guitars. Hell, I'm not doing it justice. No matter what you call it, it's definitely an album worth buying.

There are a few artists I've ignored for a long time and now I find myself wondering exactly why. First up, Bob Dylan. Sure, he has a terrible voice but he's one of the greatest writers alive. Blood on the Tracks was one of my greatest discoveries this year. As was Wildflowers by Tom Petty, another dude with a serious vocal issue. For a long time (ten years?) I've owned only one XTC album - Skylarking. I changed that a few weeks ago and Wasp Star has become one of the best things I've listened too all year.

The most fun album of the year? Well, that's easy. Mike Doughty's Haughty Melodic. Think Dave Matthews without all the ambition to prove serious musicianship. Less fun but equally satisfying was Michael Penn's Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947. Yes, it's a concept album of sorts. And yes, it sounds like an Aimee Mann album (he's married to her, actually). But since when are those bad things? Penn shines on this one, from beginning to end. Why this one was so overlooked by the music-buying public, I'll never know.

In my book, Embrace takes the prize for the overall pop album (but not overall, overall album) of the year with Out of Nothing. It is a lush album, full of hooks, crunchy guitars and gospel choirs. These guys combined all the right elements and came up with an hour worth of music that is at once thoughtful, fun and powerful. And it makes you want to learn the words so you can sing along.

So, there you have it - my top picks for 2005. What are yours?

Posted by Chris at December 29, 2005 09:47 AM

a fine endcap for 2005! when do you get your own radio show?

Posted by: misi at December 29, 2005 11:25 AM

Dude, Amy Mann is married to Michael Penn... not Matthew. Good choice, though! ;)

Posted by: sledge at December 29, 2005 11:29 AM

What the heck is Sledge talking about?

Great choices. I think. I haven't listened to many of them myself, being short of pocket money to buy new music. My pick for best album of the year is Blinking Lights and Other Revelations by Eels. It's a bit uneven (being so freaking long with 33 songs) but it's brilliant (and you recommended it to me).

Posted by: Ms. Q at December 29, 2005 12:04 PM

You must hear Digital Ash, Bright Eyes. I initially liked X&Y but it quickly faded to mediocre at best. Embrace is on my list too, probably in my top ten. I'm a little surprised it's your overall top. You should have included Arcade Fire's Funeral, my overall top pick. Mike D's Haughty Melodic is cool, I agree. I have to vote also for both Transatlanticism AND Plans from Death Cab for Cutie. And of course, since I'm a diehard, HTDAAB by U2 and Besterberg by Paul Westerberg.

Posted by: JuJu's Mom at December 29, 2005 12:11 PM

I love, love, LOVE Nickel Creek. The more I listen to "Why Should The Fire Die?" the more I like it, and it's been in my CD player for the past three months (Favorite song = Helena). It is a very dark album but it's also much more personal than their previous two. They're amazing in concert - those kids can play!

Personally I have a hard time defining NC as a country band though - I guess it depends on what your definition of country is. The band had its beginnings in bluegrass but I think they strayed far from that musical course despite the instruments they play (only a mandolin, fiddle, guitar and upright bass). I don't know of any country radio stations that play their music, and though they do have videos on CMT they're also playing on VH1. There's a college radio station here in St. Louis that plays NC along with rock music. Maybe that's why I like them so much - they transend many different genres of music. Excellent choice!

Posted by: Beth in StL at December 29, 2005 12:38 PM

hee. you should do a music-review podcast :)

Posted by: Manda at December 29, 2005 12:48 PM

Well dude, I'm going to have to check some of those out. I really haven't indulged in much new music. Like you, it's been a year of going back and listening to all the stuff I should have been listening to in the first place. The Clash, and I'm all about Pearl Jam since I've seen the show. (Have I mentionned I'm in love with Eddie Vedder's voice...) Anyway... I need to ponder 2005 musically.

Posted by: Nat at December 29, 2005 12:57 PM

Apologies, my earlier comment was incomplete. I'm readier now. I forgot to include: In my top ten- The Killers' Hot Fuss, Interpol's Antics and James Blunt's Back to Bedlam. I have high expectations for that boy. If you're counting Soundtrax, Six Feet Under Vol. II. Disappointments and so-sos- Keane Hopes and Fears, Modest Mouse Good News, Anna Nalick's Wreck. Complete and Total Crap- Franz Ferdinand and Kathleen Edwards. If any of these happen to come under last year's releases, forgive me, I'm always behind. And dammit, I'm old. Nobody cares what old people think anyhow ;-)

Posted by: JuJu's Mom at December 29, 2005 01:33 PM

Thanks for the info! I think that Embrace and The Hold Steady will be on my cd shelves soon. I agree about Nickel Creek. Bought it recently for a family member who is a fantastic bluegrass musician after I heard "When in Rome" on Sirius. Turns out that the family member was very aware of Nickel Creek and loved it!

Posted by: Jamie at December 29, 2005 02:01 PM

Even though you didn't mention them, I am FOREVER - I mean, FOREVER AND EVER AMEN - in debt to you for introducing me to Coldplay. After that glowing review of "X&Y" that you wrote, I bought the CD and it became my album of the summer :) So thank you! I usually don't pay a bit of attention to peoples' music recommendations, but maybe I'll pay yours a bit of attention now!

Posted by: Stephanie at December 29, 2005 02:01 PM

Except you DID mention Coldplay and I just can't read.

Posted by: Stephanie at December 29, 2005 02:02 PM

coldplay's x&y is high on my list for the year as well.

and being the toriphile that i am, the beekeeper is also one of my favourite albums of the year.

but then again, it was one of the only albums i bought this year. (coldplay being the second, and the joss stone being third. excellent album that one too...)

Posted by: suze at December 29, 2005 03:16 PM

Stand Up - Dave Matthews Band. Anything they release is the best cd of the year, no doubt.

It's gotten flack but I liked Rob Thomas's.

I bought Our Lady Peace because they're a great Canadian group and the cd was well worth it. Reminds me of the days of "hello is anybody out there..." ahh, good stuff.

Lifehouse. I have a mad crush on Jason Wade.

The Afters. I didn't know until later they were a quasi-christian group but catchy tunes nevertheless.

But DMB. Love them. Old Dirt Road is one of the best. Same with Hello Again. Out of My Hands.

Better stop or I'll have an armyload of favourites.

Posted by: Grace at December 29, 2005 03:24 PM

I liked Feist's debut solo album and Arcade Fire. I also just received my Bishop Allen Charm School cd (finally)and it's making me bee bop my head in fun goodliness.

Also, I thought you might like to know that I just sneezed real big and a huge trail of snot has now dried on my blue shirt unbeknowst to me. This is a good lesson to you. Don't wear navy blue when you sneeze.

That is all.

Posted by: melati at December 29, 2005 05:12 PM

OK, so my question is, with all these diverse and different multitudes of artists and their offerings in your musical collection, how in the blue hell do you EVER decide what to listen to? Do you give albums a good listen for a few months and then shelf them until you get a hankering to listen to them again?

I can't keep up with it all in general, and here you are, finding new artists ALL the time... GAH!!! You make my head spin with your musical knowledge and collection, but it's fun to see you having fun with it all! :o)

Me? My 'new' discovery this year was Joss Stone. I know, not new and not a discovery, but for this chick, it was.

Posted by: ironic1 at December 29, 2005 05:50 PM

My faves from this year are: Paul McCartney - Chaos & Creation in the Backyard and Coldplay's X&Y - other than that I didn't hear too many new albums this year. But those two didn't disappoint.

Posted by: carrster at December 29, 2005 06:32 PM

Well personally i do love some country music being from kentucky and all but i always hated bluegrass until my sister(a country music hater) got me a nickel creek album for my birthday i acted as though i loved it and vowed to return it well 3 months later i found it in the bag under my bed i popped it in and the rest was history
yeah i think that pretty much sums it up!

Posted by: Sunshine at December 29, 2005 06:40 PM

Loving Trail of the Dead...thanks for the tip. I am endlessly fascinated by all the new music I would never discover had I not had access to the net.

Have you checked out Pretty great automated way to find music that you might like, based on your established favs.

Posted by: Pauly D at December 29, 2005 07:09 PM

Wow, you listen to a lot of music! I'm sorry to say that (just like with your previous music post a few weeks ago) I haven't heard of any these, lol. Nope. I've just been sitting here reading dusty books and typing between the sneezes. No time to discover new tunes.

Posted by: Kestrel at December 30, 2005 01:35 AM

My top picks for 2005 are... you! Happy New Year to you, Beth & Mia!

Posted by: That Girl at December 30, 2005 08:30 AM

Good morning, Mr. Cactus! It looks as if you and yours had a lovely Christmas and the pictures are beautiful. Mia is such a happy and healthy looking baby yesterday i had a few co-workers gathered around my desk ewwwing and aahhhhing over her picture. They dont understand why I am looking at a strangers family pictures, but are you really strangers???

Posted by: Kelly M. at December 30, 2005 08:34 AM

Great list! I 100% agree on Mike Doughty...I've been trying to get everyone to buy it. And I must now rush out and get the Hold Steady.

Can't believe you just discovered Blood on the Tracks, though...that's damn-near a perfect album.

Couple other recommendations for you: If you like a little techno/electronic/disco, you should check out LCD Soundsystem. Also loved The Boy Least Likely To, which is more poppy. Really fun disks. Also, new releases from New Pornographers and My Morning Jacket were excellent.

Posted by: CroutonBoy at December 30, 2005 11:57 AM

Paul McCartney's Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard.

Of course!

Posted by: Mary at January 1, 2006 01:51 AM

Nickle Creek - they are good, and adorable to boot. I haven't heard the new CD, but when I saw them live they were very charming!

And of course it was good to hear from our prolific Tori this year - the Beekeeper kept her busy touring and recording lots of bootlegs for her hungry fans! Also, I finally discovered Kate Bush and can't stop listening to her new double-disc Aerial.

Posted by: samantha at January 1, 2006 08:20 AM