Ten Favorite Albums 2005 [in alphabetical order]

1. Ariel Pink's Haunted GraffitiWorn Copy: Who is this? I have only the dimmest idea. Apparently, this is just one person who lives in LA who makes all this racket. Extreme warning about this CD: it is a hard sell. This is not music that you will slip into your stereo, that will come hammering at you, grabbing your attention, making you hum and sing along. This is basically extremely (extremely) weird pop music. The first couple of tracks are basically a mess, totally incoherent. But upon repeated listenings, the album starts to coalesce into some sort of understandable idea, the idea that you can combine easy listening with the avant garde. How to describe it? Think of clever pop music from the 1970s (e.g., "How Long Has This Been Going On?" by Ace, Stealer's Wheel, the Rasberries) recorded on a fucked up 2-track cassette player with the shittiest sound quality, sprinkled with Captain Beefheart-type weirdness and lyrics that span the gamut from deeply disturbing to simply observant. (There is one amazing song, vaguely reminiscent of Madness' "Our House," entitled "Credit" which is about the act of charging your credit card.) I would say that the CD (70 minutes long!) has a lot of great pop songs, interspersed with weird spaceout avant-garde jams. You can tell that I am having a hard time describing this. Basically, whatever you do, don't buy it. You won't like it. I barely like it myself. And I have no idea why I included it in my top 10 of last year. Yet, I keep listening to it over and over. It repulses and attracts at the same time. That time being the nostalgic myth of the '70s.

2. Bloc PartySilent Alarm:  Like many of their contemporaries (and indeed, much of what passes for the popular end of non-mainstream music these days), Bloc Party are firmly derivative. And that's really another bigger story about why this is so. Why are the "hip" guitar-based bands of today, to the very last one, all copies of replicas of imitations of tributes? So, really, in order to properly evaluate Bloc Party, you have to already begin from the assumption that what they (and Franz Ferdinand, Art Brut, Radio 4, the Strokes, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, !!!, Arctic Monkeys and all these millions of shitty bands) are doing has been done, done, done before. Working within that context, Bloc Party are pretty good. Appealing to an '80s vision of high energy guitar-based pop, they write good melodies and kick some ass, combining the two in a euphoric rush in songs such as "Like Eating Glass," the opening and best track on this album. The rest of the album really doesn't catch up after that, but it doesn't get boring either; in song after song, they steer their muse from soft ballads to four-on-the-floor power pop wrapped in catchy melodies and the aspiration of saying something "deep" (which they don't). But I really like them. They recreate a fond memory of some sort of imagined nostalgia without being too regressive and they do it quite well. I saw them in concert on September 9, 2005 here in New York and they were loud, the drums of  "Like Eating Glass" reverberating loudly through the auditorium. The whole show was a manic pop thrill, guitars moving through speed and melody for an hour-and-a-half. If you like somewhat intelligent melodic power pop, pick this up. As a sidenote, they had this album remixed by a number of artists such as M83, Four Tet, and people like that. According to some, the remix album (Silent Alarm Revisited) is as good if not better than the original album.

3. Boards of CanadaThe Campfire Headphase: Conventional wisdom has it that Music Has The Right to Children (1998) was the pinnacle of their body of work. Influenced by Aphex Twin, Brian Eno ('80s era), and early 1990s stuff like the Orb and Orbital, the band Boards of Canada makes beautiful electronic music. I find it extremely hard to describe music like this without resorting to the obvious nature-related cliches (dusk, willow, gossamer, pasture, tides, etc. etc.). All of those things make their music sound kind of hippie-ish which is not really so off the mark. But in a way, Boards of Canada are also about robots. They are robot music for nature lovers. Or maybe nature music for robot lovers. Music Has the Right to Children and its successor Geogaddi were really brilliant and succint summaries of the best of inventive but palatable electronic music of the early 2000s. This new album, The Campfire Headphase is a departure from their previous two full-length CDs, partly by dint of a more aurally evident use of guitar, albeit guitar treated heavily with electronics. Where the earlier records were kind of doomy or just weird, the new CD is all about weariness, shuffling along at mid-tempo pace. It's still beautiful but just a little less weird, less minimalist, and maybe a little more conventional. But just as hard to describe. Boards of Canada, by the way, are two brothers, Mike and Marcus Sandison, who are from Britain (Scotland, actually). There's a nice long interview at Pitchfork here.

4. Dead MeadowFeathers: In the scheme of things, Dead Meadow is also a throwback to an earlier era, one of stoner dudes with long hair, smoking lots of pot and deeply into knights and dragons. OK, they're not as bad as all that. In fact, this album, Feathers, is an example of kickass contemporary spaced out rock, but much more sophisticated than just four guys in a garage playing 20 minute anthemic tributes to Hendrix and Sabbath. Dead Meadow's guitars have huge reverbs and echoes, their songs are relatively slow and lumbering, and their vocals evoke distant, very distant, faraway things -- psychedelic, heavy, but strangely modern. I listened to this album hundreds of  times last year, on my headphones in train stations, walking on the streets, and it pretty much disconnects me from my surroundings. The second song on the CD, "Such Hawks, Such Hounds," is wonderful, a short slow burner, sounding vaguely like an olde English folk song. And yes, the lyrics are a litttle wanky (think of Tolkien and Lovecraft?), but without the slightest embarassment:

"As Dawn's first rays cross the green field, they shine in open eyes lying still
From the boughs of the oak tree, three ravens wait over his cold bones lying as they are
The wind will moan forevermore
They'll perch on his backbone beneath the morning sun, peck out his eyes one by one...."

If you like slow, somewhat dirgey but not too heavy stoner rock with a strong dose of dreamy psychedelic guitar, this is really as good as it gets.
I saw them opening for Sleater-Kinney on September 13, 2005, and for a three piece, they were pretty amazing; Jason Simon, their lone and brilliant guitarist (and vocalist), sending waves of reverb across the whole auditorium that was a jarring contrast to the heavy dry rock of Sleater-Kinney that was to follow. Dead Meadow are from Washington, DC.

5. EluviumTalk Amongst the Trees: So if you like music where nothing happens, you might like this. I sometimes get into this mega-ambient mode where percussion, craft, improvisation, virtuosity, etc. drive me crazy. Sometimes I want something that is mechanical yet with blood. Muzak with the smiley face turned upside down. Sometimes, I actually like paying attention to background music. Eluvium is some guy named Matthew Cooper who makes music that incorporates the typical motifs of electronic ambient music -- the deep melancholia, the winteriness, but also a little bit of the sinister, the "hey - something's - not - right" vibe. Cooper is mostly a pianist, so I imagine some guy sitting with his giant piano in the middle of an empty house, banging away the same notes in repetition. It's all done beautifully and tastefully, culminating in a final 17-minute track, "Taken," that basically combines a guitar strumming pattern, repeated ad nauseum into infinity. Remarkably, although you notice little that is different in the track from beginning to end, the very act of listening to these melancholy chords over and over and over creates a strange sense of anticipation and expectation, like being a bug on a mobius strip, circling over under sideways down into oblivion. Beautiful stuff.

6. Jackson and His Computer BandSmash: This is some crazy disco shit. Take little bits of disco, little bits of electronic music, little bits of cut up technique, little bits of mashup, and you get this. Songs assembled meticulously from many different sources into something that is totally unique. This is the most innovative weird music that I can think of that I actually like. It reminded me of that Avalanches CD from a couple of years ago but what do I know? In the first song, the singers ask "Have you really thought about utopia?" If this is utopia, then utopia is basically one hundred little robots all conspiring to create the most mutant disco music you've ever heard. Go ahead, just try and listen to the second song on this CD, "Rock On." It's brilliant, disco that is so whacked, I can't think of any reference point. This is a little bit of a challenge, but the challenge is worth it. Not music to relax to. Jackson and His Computer Band are apparently one French guy named Jackson Fourgeaud (right). You can listen to some of his stuff here at the BBC. Also, an interesting review here where the reviewer calls him "the great hope of dance music" which may be a little bit of hyperbole.

7. LCD SoundsystemLCD Soundsystem: Today I was coming home from work, took Metro North down from the Bronx, got out at Harlem and walked out into the insanity of 125th St. when "Yeah (Crass Version)" came up on my iPod. My mood instantly changed into ebullient. I felt like I needed to dance across across the several avenue blocks to get to my number 2 train at Lennox and 125th. Unfuckingbelievable. This is the best dance record I've heard in years. LCD Soundystem is basically some dude named James Murphy who has a talent that could, in lesser hands, sink any music project, that talent being an encyclopedic knowledge of cool music. This whole (double) CD set is a collective tribute to any and all sorts of the best dance music of the 1970s and 1980s, principally disco and funk, melded with bits of punk and post-punk. Or to put it a diferent way, if you remember the best disco music from the 1970s (I'm thinking Ceronne, Giorgio Moroder, Kraftwerk, even stuff like Earth Wind & Fire, the Commodores, Donna Summer), you stick that in a blender with some post-punk (mostly the Fall, late period Brian Eno, etc.) and then throw in some left field curves to update it to the 2000s, then you get this music. Barring a few songs, all the drums sound "real," and Murphy throws in a guitar break here and there to embellish the crazy synth rhythms. In a way, it's explicitly anti-techno but shows a deep appreciation for the aspects of techno that make dancing so much fun. But the album also displays a broad eclectic nature. For example, there's one song, a ballad ("Never As Tired As When I'm Waking Up"), that wouldn't be out of place on an early George Harrison solo album and borrows a guitar figure straight out of "Ten Years Gone" by Led Zeppelin. But somehow it sounds totally contemporary. There are so many standout tracks: "Daft Punk Is Playing At My House," "Tribulations," "Movement," "Losing My Edge," etc., many of which were stand alone singles released prior to the full album. "Losing My Edge," by the way, is basically a hipster's lament that he's falling behind the "it" music of the times, that he can't keep up what's hip anymore. Kind of like a preemptive strike against inevitable obsolescence. Murphy utters every single indie rock hipster reference in a tirade that is constructed so well that it ends up ridiculing indie rock hipsterdom. And despite the obvious labored nature of the tribute to his heroes, the record is genuine fun. You don't have to have any interest in his influences. And thank God, you don't have to be a music critic. This is just killer dance music. One of the best of the year. Here is an interview with James Murphy at Magnet.

8. Lemon Jelly'64-'95: I've always liked Lemon Jelly (basically a DJ and a producer), although I discovered them only around 2002; Anoo had their CD LemonJelly.ky (2001), a wonderful collection of three e.p.'s  that was finely constructed downtempo electronic music but quite organic too, and very upbeat if not happy-sounding. Totally unlike music I like, I know. Their songs (really, instrumentals) are typically constructed around one major (and usually beautiful riff), slowly building from the beginning to the end, repeated ad nauseum for four or five minutes. In anyone else's hands, the songs would get boring, but partly because the melodies and arrangements are so wonderful, you never tire. Perfect for your Sunday morning driving. They're not quite as sterile and yuppie as the Thievery Corporation--many of their best pieces are too quirky to be palatable to the upwardly mobile downtempo set. The experience of Lemon Jelly is completed by the fantastic art material accompanying the CDs, drawn by one of the two men (Fred Deakin) who make up Lemon Jelly. Holding their CD covers in your hands is the closest substitute to the visceral (and lost) thrill of buying an l.p. album. The new set '64-'95 is a big (well, sort of big) departure from all their previous material. It has a much more heavy beat, more danceable, and is less explicitly downtempo. That said, the album is basically like a trip through those approximately 30 years of music ('64-'95), comprised of songs painstakingly collected from a hundreds of different samples from incredibly diverse music, all put together in a seamless whole. Each song is linked to particular year and evidently a style of music. If you've never heard Lemon Jelly before, this album might be a little eclectic but if you're feeling energetic enough 'cause you're having a good day but not energetic enough to go the gym, this would also be ideal ambience. My favorite track here is almost '70s-era soulful although linked to the '90s: " '95 (Make Things Right)."

9. NobodyAnd Everything Else...: Shiny Happy People. I have no idea who these people are or where they came from. I guess I could find out but I'm too lazy to. Anoo bought me this CD from Other Music and I really like it. The music is basically semi-instrumental music, grounded in hip hop grooves mixed with psychedelic type moods. I know that sounds weird. It's a bit like Boards of Canada but with more beats. It's more upbeat, more cheery, more like hanging out at the beach with a boombox on a quiet but not fully sunny day when you're in a relatively good mood. There's even an appropriate cover of a Flaming Lips song from The Soft Bulletin. Into the Groovy music for people who don't want to think too much. Reviews here and here.

10. Sleater-KinneyThe Woods: I was never a fan of Sleater-Kinney. I'd heard a couple of songs. They were fine, white girl rock. But I believed the hype and picked this CD up and holy fuck it is a good album. Not musically innovative (loud guitar, loud guitar, drum) but incredibly masterful, and man, these chicks have significantly upped their volume, way past 11. Let's put it this way—remember the really heavy songs on Physical Graffiti? Well, this here whole album is like that. And one of the two vocalists—whose name I don't know, I can't ever remember these things—has a voice like a intercontinental wail, to wake you up out of whatever reverie you were lost in. Of course, if it was just loud that would make it mediocre, but these songs are well composed, played, and produced. I think the greatest achievement of this album is not that it's so good but that it genuinely sounds like a rock album, not a punk or indie or pop or art rock or whatever album. But a heavy rock album that goes beyond any narrow hipster definitions. I saw them in New York on September 13, 2005 and they were incredibly aggressive live, deploying the kind of stage presence that showed an awesome understanding of dynamics, of playing with the possibilities of incredibly loud sound without sounding like a cliche (i.e., heavy metal or crap like that). They took an approach to sound like the louder aspects of Sonic Youth but doing it not as a self-conscious art project but as a way to stretch their own playing into new (for them) territory. Led Zeppelin is clearly one way to think of Sleater-Kinney but another is Throwing Muses. The lead singer of Sleater-Kinney—especially when she throws her voice out into the void like a fucking banshee—is like a young Kristen Hersh. And I imagine that Kristen H., with her recent band 50 Foot Wave, sounds probably a lot like Sleater-Kinney. (Kristen, of course, edges out Sleater-Kinney in the madness-as-muse department). The three women of Sleater-Kinney seemed so powerful on stage that I wanted to know what they were channeling into when they played a nearly 15 minute stretch of "Let's Call It Love/Night Light," that started as a fairly conventional song, detoured into an amazing passage of aural insanity using two guitars and drum (no bass!) in waves of sound, and then back to a riff worthy of early Deep Purple. They bathed the audience in one giant fuzzball of distortion and light, and after the show, as I walked out of the venue and into the city and strobe of Times Square, I felt like I was going to float away on the strange sonic emptiness of my ringing ears. Note: the most "pop" track (and a single and video) is "Jumpers." For those of you who enjoy the narcosis of Fresh Air on NPR, there's an interview with Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney here.


Other Notables


1. Ritchie HawtinDE9: Transitions:  Minimalist techno, gajillions of samples.

2. Jan JelinekKosmischer Pitch: This is sort of like Ulrich Schnauss but perhaps a little less radio-friendly. I don't know who this dude is but he seems German or something. Good CD though, especially if you are an architect and detail interiors all day. I don't. But if you do, this could be for you. Instrumental music that is completely inorganic but somehow not.

3. M.I.A.Arular: This was the hype of the year last year. I liked it. It had a couple of killer tunes ("Sunshowers," "Bucky Done Gun," "Galang"). Plus she (Maya Arulpragasam) is pretty hot. But the album as a whole doesn't display much stylistic (especially rhythmic) diversity. However, if you can stand to listen to clever rhymes over a mix up of hip hop + bhangra + reggaeton and whatever for 38 minutes, then you might enjoy this. Her vocal delivery is much better than her lyrics, which basically saves the day. Put it on, have a party.

4. Sigur RosTakk...: See the concert review section where I discuss this album.

Reissues / Compilations / Older Stuff / Live


1. Bob DylanNo Direction Home: The Soundtrack: This is Vol. 7 in the Bootleg Series of archival releases from Dylan (the series began in 1991) which have contained previously unreleased material from every stage of his career. Dylan of course has been notorious for recording dozens of songs but never releasing them. The new release is slightly different from its predecessors in that it's been released as part of a TV documentary (which I review here). Although praised highly, for me this double CD release is slightly uneven. The early stuff is fantastic, but listening to the many alternate takes from the 1965-66 period shows why Dylan decided to release better versions on his albums. It's not that the stuff isn't great, it's just that it doesn't compare to the halcyon heights of the released material. One of the exceptions is the version of "Desolation Row" which easily outshines the originally released version on Highway 61 Revisited. Where the original was ruined by this awful calypso guitar, this 'new' version is a little more menacing and urgent. The live version of "Maggie's Farm" from 1965 is also totally rockin', showing that when Dylan picked up the electric guitar, he really burned up. Finally, the live versions of "Ballad of a Thin Man" and "Like A Rolling Stone" are incendiary, but we've heard them before in a previous live release. There's also a pretty good booklet with the two CDs. For my money's worth, though, I would get the first bootleg release, the Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3 released in 1991 and containing a gajillion fantastic songs.

2. Local HLive '05 (See live review of Local H)

3. MogwaiGovernment Commissions: BBC Sessions 1996-2003: This actually serves as a pretty good introduction to Mogwai. It begins with the haunting "Hunted By A Freak" and includes the 18-minute freakout monster song "Like Herod." Ten songs from the late 1990s and early 2000s, all recorded for the BBC. John Peel introduces the CD.

4. The StoogesThe Stooges and Fun House: Needless to say, Fun House is one of my favorite albums of all time. Maybe my favorite album of all time. Yeah, probably my favorite single piece of pop music of all time. It is fucking insane. It is rock'n'roll distilled down to 35 minutes or whatever. I don't even want to write anymore about it because it's a waste of time trying to describe it. A horrible pathetic waste of time. Genius like this borders on utter incoherence. Anyway, so they re-released Fun House last year along with a second CD of outtakes, containing basically (slightly) different versions of the basic Fun House tracks plus two unreleased tracks, "Lost In The Future" and "Slide (Slidin' The Blues)" from the same sessions. And it's all been remastered. The whole thing sounds like you're standing in the middle of a jet engine. Once you hear this, everything else banal. A few years ago, Rhino Records released a 7 CD box set, 1970: The Complete Funhouse Sessions, comprising every single note recorded during the recording of this album. Yes, seven CDs, every song, every take, every flubbed note. That's how great this album is. Note: the first almost-as-awesome album (The Stooges) is also given the two-CD treatment. No Fun indeed.

5. Talking HeadsThe Name Of The Band Is Talking Heads: This is an expanded version of the original double album released in 1982, one of their two great live albums. The CD version is fantastic, showing Talking Heads as a great guitar band in the late 1970s (disc 1) and as a guitar band setting off into the funk stratosphere in the early 1980s (disc 2). The original album had 17 songs, the new reissue has 33 songs. Awesome stuff.

6. Yo La TengoPrisoners Of Love: A Smattering of Scintillating Senescent Songs 1985-2003: This is a great compilation of material spanning the first 18 years of Yo La Tengo. What can I say? Tasteful. Nostalgic. Sad. Rockin'. Brilliant. The first two CDs are the greatest hits. A third CD (entitled A Smattering of Outtakes and Rarities 1986-2002) is also remarkably consistent and rewarding. They remind me of Pittsburgh, my last memorial of nostalgia.

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