A cartoon-helmed exploration of the absurd, the sound of English grad students three sheets to the wind, psychedelic Kentucky bliss rock, and some life-affirming, new day-rising hip-hop: these are just a few of the best albums of 2005.
In the mid-'90s a fledgling Devendra Banhart wrote to wayward folk queen Vashti Bunyan, asking if he should continue writing music. Bunyan responded that he must. Ironic, since at the time she didn't even own a copy of Just Another Diamond Day, the lost 60s classic that brought him to her counsel. But then, Bunyan is a kindred soul, the embodiment of the wandering spirit that Banhart's music so brazenly embraces. "I wanted to be the one with road dust on my boots...and a band of wayward children, with their fathers left behind," she declares on Lookaftering, her long-awaited sophomore record. This floating folk opus is a masterful examination of that desire, and its application, a collection of dreamy folk ballads rife with sage-like ruminations on life's passage. There's a reason artists like Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, and Max Richter flocked to Bunyan's side as she recorded it. This is the record they each dream of making when their own long journeys come to an end.
Andrew Phillips PopMatters review Amazon iTunes
I'm a Wes Anderson nut. However, there was and remains one reason why I love The Life Aquatic: Seu Jorge. Sure, the idea of troubadour transitions threatened a repeat of the maligned Farrelly-Richman There's Something About Mary collabo. And Brazilian takes on Bowie sounds positively café cliché on paper. But the lanky grace, weathered baritone, and calloused caress ensured the idea was in good hands. Jorge uncovered newfound majesty in a master's greatest works, and, thankfully for the film, breathed pathos into an otherwise tortured exercise. The studio sessions can some of the starboard charm of the star's on-camera performances, but the disc is a welcome feature for a genius moment in both cinema and music.
Dan Nishimoto Amazon iTunes
This has been a year for uncovering lost jazz gems, but the crown jewel is this Grade-A recording of a 1957 Carnegie Hall concert by Thelonious Monk's working trio with the surging talent of Coltrane's tenor saxophone. Following Trane's extended residency with Monk at New York's Five Spot, this is the only high fidelity recording of the two giants playing together in complete comfort and relaxation. The quirky opening duet, "Monk's Mood", is perfection you hold your breath and dread the band breaking the mood. Yet when they do, Trane and Monk launch into rippling glory. Much of Trane's '50s output was in his scalar "sheets of sound" style, but Monk inspires him to play with a steely melodicism. Monk dances and quips on piano while drummer Shadow Wilson is the Arthur Rubenstein of brushes. The result is more than a historical find it's the best music of the year.
Will Layman Amazon iTunes
From its opening drum kicks and squealing, spiraling guitar riffs, Doves' Some Cities announces itself as a swaggering rock 'n' roll masterpiece. Over three records now, Doves have crafted a signature sound awash in moody atmospherics, ringing guitar anthems, and driving dance-friendly beats. Why they haven't stormed the tepid waters of American radio I have no clue. "Black and White Town" is easily one of the most memorable singles of the year not since the Jam's "Town Called Malice" has an English band conjured Detroit Soul so well. With Some Cities, Doves have expanded their palette creating a record grand and epic in its sweep, balancing the rousing rockers of "Walk in the Fire" and "Sky Starts Falling" with brooding ghostly songs like "The Storm" and "Someday Soon". Lead singer Jimi Goodwin's voice rough and rugged howls the question, "When is it our, our turn?" The answer should be right now.
Timothy Merello PopMatters review Amazon iTunes
The Go-Betweens' 2000 reunion was a good thing, no question. Their comeback album was pleasant; the follow-up had moments. But not until Oceans Apart did Grant McClennan and Robert Forster recapture the gifts of wit and melody that had made them such a perfect band in the first place. It's probably because both men are having fun. McClennan outfits his wordbending ballads with keyboards and sonorous backup vocals. Forster makes his more foreboding songs catchy again, winking at Talking Heads in "Here Comes a City" and tapping a xylophone in "Born to a Family". People who'd seen the hype about this great '80s band but never got what made them great: Here it is.
David Weigel Amazon iTunes
If the Mendoza Line tried to emulate its idols on previous albums, it's become one of those idols to a future generation of songwriters with Full of Light and Full of Fire. Quite simply, the band's seventh full-length LP is destined to be an obscure classic, an album that brilliantly captures and depicts the loneliness and resentment of present-day America. While it's specialized in literate drinking songs on previous efforts, the Mendoza Line sounds downright literary this time out, offering poignant stories with dynamic narrators the listener actually cares about. Musically, the band blends new wave, country, punk, folk, and classic rock with ease. More importantly, the entire album while a genre hopper is focused: the riffs are tight and the vocals impassioned. This isn't indie music; this is American music. It's also an album people will refer to years from now as an example of how it's done.
Michael Franco PopMatters review Amazon iTunes
Unassuming enough to serve as background music, but catchy enough to require several consecutive listens, Alligator was the diamond in the rough of 2005. It was the soundtrack to my unemployed New York months and futile house arrest job hunt. But whenever "Friend of Mine" came blasting through my speaker, I jacked up the volume to introduce myself to my new neighbors, yelling the "I'm getting nervous" chorus trailed by its signature '50s doo wop "na na na na's" and the last thing I felt was worried. The National is the split personality of a venomous 2 A.M drunk message and the bouquet of flowers that predictably awaits on your doorstep the following morning. Chalk full of non sequiter lyrics like "I am a birthday candle in a circle of black girls" that may distract the unappreciated ear, this was the album that made all the sense in the world to me when I didn't have any of the answers.
Eddie Ciminelli PopMatters review Amazon iTunes
All the rage in Britain, this debut album from the duo of brother-sister pairs deftly mixes sunny '60s California harmonies and folky guitar jangle with the epic melancholy of today's British rock. The mood? A bright Sunday afternoon in early October, right before the leaves begin to fall off the trees. Though Romeo Stodart leads the band, the real stars here are Angela Gannon's aching, supple vocals; the forceful, snaky bass lines of Romeo's sister Michele; and, most of all, the record's gorgeous arrangements. Some have dismissed the Magic Numbers as lightweight or lyrically inane, but their work is hard to resist because it displays such a well-constructed balance between musical extremes, moving gracefully from rough to smooth, loud to soft, and fast to slow. The Stodarts, who co-produced the record with Craig Silvey, clearly possess an impressive knack for musical dynamics.
Jordan Kessler PopMatters review Amazon iTunes
It might be a desire to return to the simpler things that has fueled the folk revival amongst the indie rockers, but nobody told Akron/Family. The Akron/Family approach to songwriting is one of building from the formless mass and adding elements to elements until a song happens. If a sound or element can be added to make the song better, it will be. As a result, we get the Family's eponymous debut, an album that features long stretches of a cappella, tinkly synth noises, rocking chairs, and thunderclaps. Sure, there are drums, guitars, and the lovely broken vocals of Ryan Vanderhoof, but it is the "other" that Akron/Family brings to the table that makes it special. "I'll Be on the Water" is bar-none the most beautiful folk song that was released this year, and very little can approach "Shoes" for fun and freedom in musical form. Michael Gira was wise in signing them to his label now he gets to be a part of the evolution of one of the few bands for whom the possibilities truly seem endless.
Mike Schiller PopMatters review Amazon iTunes
From harrowing electronic noise ballistics to Wonder-esque groove-daddy soul-funk, Jamie Lidell has made the most transgressive and immodest moves in the latest era of the acclaimed Warp label. While so many IDM artists have gone in for intense demonic attacks, Lidell's latest record is intense funkadelic pranks: he sings (a little like Jamiroquai!) with a pleasantly infectious stupidity about the labors of love, the need for sex, the joys of being a pop star, and he does it all with the edgeless joy of a true radical. After his early work, Lidell doesn't need to prove to anyone that he's got the chops to break your ears. For now, he's planning to seduce. The production of his recycled post-Google R&B is synthetic and green. This is music to help grow plastic plants. Fatboy Slim steals his funk, Lidell makes his fresh, and it still sounds more classic. And there's less irony. Less appropriation and more dedication. Although I have no guesses as to what Lidell plans to do next, I think his growing legions of fans would like him to make the dog-ass do the dance a little longer. What he needs is a Bootsy Collins and an Indian headdress made out of rubber, 12 strippers with touchpads, and he's the biggest rock star since Peter Gabriel. Lidell was always a collagist and his new work has the kaleidoscopic pink flush of a Dearraindrop installation. Multiply is nuts at a squirrel party. You want this winter to last forever, he's so clever, he makes the snow melt. This is fuck music for those kids who haven't done it since they started listening to Autechre. Put your head back in your pants and listen to something sickly sweet.
Lee Henderson PopMatters review Amazon iTunes