The Best 50 Albums of 2005

by PopMatters Staff

19 December 2005


#10-1: The Decemberists and more.

The Decemberists, Picaresque (Kill Rock Stars)

Gleeful aesthetic that sounds like Art majors and English grad students raided the liquor cabinet? Lyrics obsessed with drowning, mythology, and love condemned to the widow’s walk? Yep, it’s the Decemberists, dancing to their own inner sea chanty and continuing their quirky, odds-defying run. It’s not just that Picaresque dazzles with its range, sweeping from imperial majesty (“The Infanta”) to foot-tapping protest (“16 Military Wives”) to wistful death folk (“Eli, the Barrow Boy”) with a few stops in between — it’s that the album brings all that’s great about the band, all the promise it’s shown before, under one cover. And in the case of “Eli, the Barrow Boy”, the Decemberists show that they’re also learning to transmute the base metal of arch intelligence into the gold of universal human emotion.
Andrew Gilstrap PopMatters review Amazon iTunes

Okkervil River, Black Sheep Boy (Jagjaguwar)

Since 1998 Okkervil River has been putting out a consistently strange and beautiful brand of twisted folk-rock. Its records were always interesting, often heart-stopping, but somehow a song or two away from perfection. On Black Sheep Boy the band came into its own by producing a focused collection of songs pondering everything from the mythology we force on our children (“In a Radio Song”) to the nature of what’s real in a culture that’s become hyper-obsessed with “reality” (“For Real”). Musically anchored by Jonathan Meiburg’s swirling keyboard patterns and a variety of acoustic and electric guitar sounds Black Sheep Boy is songwriter and vocalist Will Scheff’s most satisfying statement to date. Sheff’s wounded wail, which at times seemed forced on previous releases, is an instrument of faith on Black Sheep Boy, cracking and swimming through the dense instrumentation, punctuating the lyrical tales with convincing emotion, filling the songs with an abandon that teeters between unhinged and unforgettable.
Peter Funk PopMatters review Amazon iTunes

Sleater-Kinney, The Woods (Sub Pop)

I have become fully convinced that The Woods has not only obviated the entirety of Sleater-Kinney’s previous recorded output, but the sum total of all other current music as well. Quite frankly, nothing else matters next to such a monolithic achievement. Sleater-Kinney had previously made its career as a perennial critical darling, producing exquisitely wrought punk with a poppy, girl-group edge that set it slightly apart from its ostensible peers in the “riot grrrl” movement. The Woods is so heavy, and takes such unabashed glee in demolishing their reputation as finely-tuned pop-punk craftswomen, that many critics didn’t really seem to “get” it — but that’s OK, they’ve got the rest of their lives to realize that this is quite possibly the defining rock album of the decade. Just when it seemed that there was nothing new to be said with guitars and drums (OK, it seemed that way to me, at least), three ladies from Olympia produced an epic meditation on the inescapable feeling of nauseous disorientation that immediately follows the moment you realize that the world has taken a nasty turn, and that you’re too old to think you can change it. It’s not just a political album, however — I’d even go so far as to say that the political implications run a distant second to the savagely intimate emotional content. Rarely has rock so effectively captured the full spectrum of disappointment, from jaded disillusionment (“Entertain”) to bleak, suicidal nihilism (“Jumpers”) to the riotous, lustful freedom that comes from realizing there’s nothing left to lose (“Let’s Call It Love”). An expression of primal, inexhaustible passion welded to a fully articulate and ruthlessly mature worldview, The Woods is quite simply in a class by itself.
Tim O’Neil PopMatters review Amazon iTunes

The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday (French Kiss)

At last someone had the balls to cut the Boss with his own mythology. The ghost of Tom Joad is so flaked with Henry Fonda dander that Craig Finn — coming across like the boozy motormouth ghost of James Agee — sounds like the new day rising. That old vomit-flaked Twin Cities diary becomes the source for this astonishing frothstream of words, which channels right through the band’s tender-hearted guitar-piano-horn cacophony (just like the E Street Band used to kick up). When Finn sets down and writes a missive to the snot-nosed hoodrat winking at him from the shotgun seat, he ends up with a love letter to America: danger in Dallas and fields of speed in the amber waves of grain. Sure, Separation Sunday is mostly about the nostalgia of decadence (yea verily, all them bedspins did bestow some wisdom upon Finn), but it’s also about Catholic schoolgirls, blackouts, wrong-way drives, and putting your mouth around a difficult question. You can trip over hyperbole just thinking about this record: they really are the country’s most intuitive bar band fronted by our most original songwriter. Scratch them into your soul or stomach lining as the case may be.
Mark Desrosiers PopMatters review Amazon iTunes

Andrew Bird, Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs (Righteous Babe)

Selecting the words to adorn an album this endlessly subtle is a nightmare made worse by the fact that Andrew Bird is truly a singular musical figure; describing him as a whistling folky fiddler bluesman with a songbag of worldly fables soaked in romance, empathy, and wit… accurate, but it totally fails to prepare you for the bittersweet sweep of the orchestration, or the delightful nimbleness of touch and musicianship as he strolls through three allegories at once within one catchy, beautiful song. Bird is emphatic without surrendering to seriousness, and knows that the blues are an irresistible emotional upwelling of any and all colours; an easy smile on his lips, he croons and quips his way through a wonderland as close to a more lyrical Enid Blyton as to a relaxed David Foster Wallace. There are songs about how fantastic it is to play rock music loudly, about dating ads, about a man who buys the weather. “Tables And Chairs” plays like a little elegy to all the dreams and pleasures we need to get us through the day (and maybe the apocalypse), “Masterfade” is a magical ode to relinquishing delusions of control over life and relationships, and “Mx Missiles” is probably the least patronising yet most quietly heartbreaking anti-war song since “Two Little Boys”. All of these songs are more than description would imply, and I’ve yet to find an identical favourites list on all the web. Maybe the titular theme of the album is songwriting, maybe it’s having (and being) children in this modern world, but either way these songs are both personal and open to all. The French music press has dubbed this album a UFO (“ovni”) because it’s so different from everything else out there. Andrew Bird comes in peace and in wisdom. Welcome him.
Stefan Braidwood PopMatters review Amazon iTunes

Spoon, Gimme Fiction (Merge)

Gimme Fiction is a fully operational dissection of a rock record, flipped on its back and sliced down the middle with a scalpel. Hence the guts, the protruding innards of what makes an album tick: studio chatter, unspooling tape machines, bum instrumental takes left uncorrected, and close-range intimacies of skin on equipment spill out in criss-crossed patterns over the record’s taut runtime. Call it a betrayal and a bolstering of the intricacies behind the Austin band’s curtain. Spoon’s continued experimentation in the realm of controlled, meticulous haphazardness yields songs like the blooming, dissonant “The Beast and Dragon, Adored” and the dizzy “Was It You?” — proof that craft plus an embrace of happy accidents equals unexpected triumphs.
Zeth Lundy PopMatters review Amazon iTunes

M.I.A., Arular (XL)

M.I.A. is Maya Arulpragasam, a refugee from the Sri Lankan civil war between Tamils and the majority Sinhalese. Her album, named for her militant Tamil father, seems steeped in that kind of cultural conflict while trying to transcend it; it encompasses a variety of influences — hip-hop, dancehall, British slang, electronic music, sound collage, video-game noise — without exactly assimilating them. Nevertheless Arular proves cacophony can be catchy. Her much-heralded cut-and-paste style sets elements against each other in a delirious din of stuttering rhythms, static-laden samples, and singsong chants. The record bristles with the allure of urban violence viewed vicariously, lending radical chic to the realities of immigrant life just as gangsta rap does for the ghetto. But there’s no complacency or resolution to be found in Arular‘s abrasive, unsettling mix. And don’t assume M.I.A.‘s fame has denatured her music. These songs still explode like improvised bombs; this is dance music conceived as guerilla warfare.
Rob Horning PopMatters review Amazon iTunes

Antony and the Johnsons, I Am a Bird Now (Secretly Canadian)

Strip away the hegemony of testosterone in rock music, brush off the twee trappings of indie pop, ignore distortion (on guitars or vocals) and electronic instruments and equipment, and what’s left is Antony and the Johnsons’ beautiful I Am a Bird Now. With songs that sound sparse even though many have complete musical ornamentation (a tribute to Antony as his own producer), there is just no escaping the feel of this record. Exemplified by the album’s standout track “Fistful of Love”, Antony’s trembling warble shakes amidst an augmentation worthy of Stax, a song that doesn’t pull at heart strings but instead breaks its own. But I Am a Bird Now is not a confessional or blistered-soul song affair. There’s a quiet, permeating hope on this album, and it takes the form of a haunting energy. There is no aggression on this record — but it’s not fey, or twee, or wimpy, or even really androgynous. No, this is music that transcends gender; this is pure human emotion.
Ryan Gillespie Amazon iTunes

Sufjan Stevens, Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty)

One doesn’t have to know that Sufjan Stevens is religious to understand that these songs are a kind of prayer. The spiritual intensity is clear, whether it’s in the heartbreaking story of a serial killer (“John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”) or the suffering of a friend watching another die of bone cancer (“Casmir Pulaski Day”). But all is not dark and serious. The latter song even has an upbeat banjo and trumpet played, which shows how sweet life can be, even when shortened. The second disc in Stevens’s self-proclaimed project to make an album about all 50 states, Illinois goes from the Black Hawk Wars to Mary Todd to Frank Lloyd Wright to that strange roadside attraction like a tourist on the best of road trips. Stevens writes charming melodies and catchy lyrics. Who else could rhyme “the great debater” with “the great emancipator” and still make one want to dance?
Steven Horowitz PopMatters review Amazon iTunes

The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema (Matador)

Amidst the near-constant search for new hooks, undeniable melodies, and messages that pierce to the heart of the soul, there are also the intangibles of music, abstract and ambiguous aesthetic forms that defy easy categorization, but are there, plain as day and yet too slippery to grasp and even harder to reproduce. One is a sense of what can best be described as “exuberance” — an internal, dizzying pull that feels rich, energized, shimmering, earthy, and vibrant — even when the songs themselves aren’t your typical brand of sunshine and smiles. For the course of three albums, the New Pornographers have simply had it, and this ineffable chemistry has bled through all the crooked tunes and barbed hooks to be the most winning aspect of their formula. Twin Cinema is, in many ways, simply a continuation of what the New Pornographers have been delivering since Mass Romantic, though it has surprisingly many (relatively) subdued songs, but the most marked difference is the clarity and crispness that the vocals are treated to, making this the first of their discs to foreground the lyrics over the rich power pop soup of the music. Because of this, songs like “Twin Cinema”, “Use It”, “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras”, “These Are the Fables”, “Broken Breads”, and “Stacked Crooked” wind up being some of the most distinctive songs in the group’s catalogue. And while there are far more restrained tracks on Twin Cinema than on their previous releases, that sense of vibrant life still runs through all of Newman’s and Bejar’s songs as the single unifying theme of the band.
Patrick Schabe PopMatters review Amazon iTunes

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