Or, the Top Ten Albums of 2005
2005 didn’t impress me as much as I thought it would: the Ephel Duath album was a flop, the Opeth and Nine Inch Nails albums were both disappointments; Tool has yet to give us any new regarding a new release. Still, there were a lot of good things about 2005, and so without further ado, I present the best releases of 2005 in no particular order (and some runners-up). Afterwards, check out ffanatic’s list, which is not only more thorough, but probably better researched, as well.
Andrew Bird – The Mysterious Production of Eggs
I’m not even sure how I would classify this album. I’ve heard Bird compared to Rufus Wainwright, and while I agree insofar as the timbres of their voices are very similar, Bird’s style strikes me as a blend of Sondre Lerche and Simon & Garfunkle (with plenty of violin). It is—generally speaking—a quiet album, prone to plenty of soft-rock introspection, flecked with understated strings. Sometimes, it manages to rock out (“Fake Palindromes”), but it’s overwhelmingly a foot-tapper, a beacon of hope for all those despairing masses who think that pop is dead. Some of my favorite tracks are “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left,” a slight musical salute to Radiohead, and “Masterfade,” which truly does sound like something that Simon & Garfunkle could have done (or at least Simon).
Perhaps what I love best about the album is its sense of humor: from the odd cover art and album name, to the tongue-firmly-in-cheek lyrics, such as “Tables & Chairs,” where Bird likens a post-Apocalyptic society to a children’s birthday party (“and that’s not all! there will be snacks…”). I have to give props to my brother for pointing this one out to me, or I may have missed one of the very best pop albums (hell, best albums, period) of 2005.
Ulver – Blood Inside
Ulver’s been struggling to find their sound. They started as a folk metal outfit, mixing acoustic folk songs with the sort of blistering, screechy black metal that was popular in Norway at the time. They did an all-folk album next, followed by an all blistering, screechy black metal album, and then decided to go an entirely different route, losing the screeches and adding synthesizers and other avant-garde influences for 1998’s Themes from William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”. By the time they recorded Perdition, Ulver was soundly an electronica outfit, though a notably creative one: Trikster G., the group’s leader, layered organic saxophone over synthesized drums, or his own lyrical cooing over vaguely melodic drones.
In the early years of the 21st century, Ulver released a string of EPs that explored some new territory, and so it was with great anticipation that I awaited Blood Inside, and I wasn’t disappointed. The album is worth buying just for the track “Christmas,” but of course they’re all good. It’s perhaps the most heavily synthesized album to date, but it’s so dynamic and well-orchestrated that you’d be hard-pressed to notice. It’s an eclectic album once again, combining all sorts of different forms (what appears to be a gospel song is prominantly featured in track 3). You’d think it would be random or disparate, but Garm has gotten to be so good at constructing albums that he really pulls it off. Now I’m just pissed that I didn’t get the special edition in the velvet box.
The Mars Volta – Francis the Mute
They may be terrible live (as well as even more long-winded, if such a thing is even possible), but boy, do their albums rock out. 2003’s new darlings of semi-progressive rock, The Mars Volta, combine jazz, funk, and plain old metal influences into spastic albums. I would be hardpressed to point out any significant difference between Frances the Mute and 2003’s De-Loused in the Comatorium. Like its predecessor, Frances the Mute likes long songs with extended jams, and long ambient/noise intros and outros. The highlight, of course, is the almost 40-minute “Cassandra Geminni” [sic], a track split up into many tracks and taking up most of the CD. Which isn’t to say that the overtly Hispanic “L’Via L’Viaquez” isn’t also groovy or the opener, “Vismund Cygnus,” doesn’t make me drum my fingers on the steering wheel (at the very least).
If there’s one thing that kills the album, though, it’s those intros and outros. Though I call The Mars Volta “progressive,” they haven’t truly mastered the long song. Rather, their rough analogue is the pasting of several clearly different music ideas (I hesitate to call them separate songs) together with a common theme and buffer it with minutes of drone or noise. When the songs rock, they really rock, so it’s disappointing to be subjected to minutes of downtime that go nowhere.
Despite these criticisms, I love this album, and it’s one of my favorite to play in the car.
System of a Down – Mezmerize/Hypnotize
Once a dime-a-dozen aggrorock band playing at Ozzfest, System of a Down really started going places with Toxicity and its smash hit, “Chop Suey.” An album of B-sides (Steal This Album!) was even better. Despite their insistence that they aren’t a political band, SOAD’s lyrics get more political, and their music gets better. This year, they divvied up a large cache of songs into two albums, first Mezmerize and its hit “B.Y.O.B.” (which stands for “Bring Your Own Bombs” and has lines like “Why don’t presidents fight the wars? Why do they always send the poor?”), and now Hypnotize, which I think is an even stronger album. They both love to thrash, retaining the manic energy from some of the previous albums, and well as some of the nonsense, but like to get serious as well. Mezmerize as the aforementioned single; “Question!” is another high point of the album, which showcases the vocal harmonies of Serj and the guitarist/songwriter, Daron. Hypnotize has a slew of winners, from the alternatingly quiet and manic “Attack,” the sombre “Holy Mountains,” the extended version of “Soldier Side” that they baited us with on the first album. Sometimes their lyrics fall decisively in the “banal” category, but despite this fault, one can’t help but love these two albums, and I’m pleased to see that System of a Down are continuing their growth as a band. Yay for Armenian Aggro!
Fiona Apple – Extraordinary Machine
This album was a long time in coming, so naturally the pressure on it to be a critical success mounted and mounted. When the title track leaked last year, I had it on repeat for weeks, and I salivated over the prospect of a full length. Later, a kind of crappy rip of the unmastered version of the album came out, and I admit I was a bit disappointed, but since it was unmastered, I didn’t let it get to me: it had potential.
When the controversy surrounding Fiona’s album finally came into the light, it went something like this: Apple had second thoughts about the tracks she laid down with Jon Brion (poprock singer/guitarist of Jellyfish and The Grays fame, and later the composer of soundtracks to films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and I (Heart) Huckabees) and asked Epic for more money to rerecord the tracks with a hiphop producer.
Now, I consider myself a man of somewhat snooty sensibilities. When faced with the prospect of losing Jon Brion’s Cabaret-heavy style in favor of a hiphop flavor, I balked, but the end result is actually quite good. A few songs retain Brion’s style (the title track, for instance, which is still one of the strongest on the album), but in general they’ve been revamped with a bit more of a percussive feel. Others, like “Red Red Red” have turned flabby and uninspiring. Like her previous albums, it’s an entity unto itself: less jazzy than When the Pawn… but not as introspective and sullen as Tidal. I hestitate to call it an upbeat album, but it’s definitely more rollicking than its predecessors, and the lyrics have more wry wit to them than I would have expected from the historically sombre Apple. Still, the album has continued to grow on me with further listens, and it’s definitely one of my favorites for the year.
Sufjan Stevens – Illinois
It seems you can’t throw a rock without hitting somebody talking about Sufjan Stevens. Though he’s been around with a while (including some great albums like Michigan: The Great Lakes State, which remains my favorite of his), he really hit it big this year with Illinois, the second album in his proposed 50-state/50-album concept journey. Stevens came out pretty strongly as a Christian on last year’s Seven Swans, but his understated nature means that it doesn’t diminish his appeal to secular audiences. In fact, critics appear to be labelling this album the best of the year, which isn’t an honor generally bestowed upon “Godrock.”
Stevens in by-and-large a folk singer, and his albums tend to be mellow affairs, heavy on reed instruments, acoustic guitar and banjo, and Steven’s own whispery coo (Michigan had a bit more piano, which is what made it so endearing). Don’t let that fool you, though: there are also some up-tempo tracks, like “Come on Feel the Illinoise!” Nevermind the absurdly long song titles or the many interludes: Illinois is a truly solid folk album, and it’s no surprise that it’s taking the scene (well, bloggers, anyway) by storm.
Buried Inside – Chronoclast
This is the only true hard album that made my top ten this year. For some reason, and it’s difficult to put into words, this album really grabbed me by the balls from the first time I heard it. It’s more hardcore than metal, I suppose, in the vein of Comity’s The Deus Ex Machina as a Forgotten Genius. It’s unbearably pretentious in its concept (the full title is Chronoclast: Selected Essays on Time-Reckoning and Auto-Cannibalism) and the lyrics, though unintelligible to the ear, are little mini-essays (if you could call them that) on things like “Time As Imperialism,” “Time As Abjection,” or “Time As Commodity.” Beneath this, thick guitar sound roars like the loud points in an Isis album. In the end, I suppose that’s what attracts me to Buried Inside so much: they borrow considerably from bands like Isis, but without being a direct ripoff. Actually, I enjoyed Chronoclast more than I enjoyed either Neurosis’ Eye of Every Storm, Isis’ Pantopticon or Cult of Luna’s Salvation (all from 2004), and that’s saying something.
Red Sparowes – At the Soundless Dawn
While we’re on the subject of bands like Isis and Neurosis, I should mention The Red Sparowes, a supergroup of sorts (some of its constituent members hailing from the aforementioned bands) whose debut album, At the Soundless Dawn managed to make my top ten list. I realize that it is far easier for first albums to impress, and that some may classify TRS as derivitive, but I was truly impressed by this album. It’s an instrumental, made up of a combination of hardrocking sections and ambient. I saw The Red Sparowes in September, and was duly impressed (they had a kickass movie playing during their performance).
It’s not for the easily disinterested or the light of heart: the last track alone clocks in at almost 20 minutes. Some of the pretensions inherent to TRS’s predecessor are at work in this album, too.
Leaves – The Angela Test
I heard this album purely by accident, and while the similarities to Coldplay struck me immediately, I like this album more than I’ve ever liked a Coldplay album (who are, admittedly, good). Hell, the first track alone (“Shakma (Drunken Starlit Sky)”) is worth the price of the album, but the whole thing is solid. It’s solidly poprock, and yet this little Icelandic outfit manages to write songs that are both complex and catchy, and the velvelty production is to die for.
Generally speaking, the first half of the album is stronger than the second (a trait shared by Ours’ Distorted Lullabies), so tracks 1-5 have gotten lot more play than the others, but like I said, it’s a solid album throughout. This is only a sophomore album, so I’m anxious to see what will happen in the future for Leaves: maybe they’ll continue this not-quite-Coldplay richness, nor maybe they’ll start making duds. Either way, this album remains great.
Aqualung – Strange and Beautiful
The first time I ever saw Aqualung—besides the Jethro Tull album, of course—was in a Best Buy ad. This generally wouldn’t bode well for the band’s artistic merit, but by the same token, Best Buy has been stocking much better stuff in the past few years. I didn’t think anything of it until ffanatic’s girlfriend posted about the band (well, just a guy, really), and I decided to finally check it out. Boy, am I glad I did. It’s more soft stuff, kind of along the lines of Ben Christophers, or an even more softspoken Sondre Lerche. Guitar and piano are the prominent instruments, so it’s your classic singer-songwriter style.
Some of my favorite tracks are “Brighter than Sunshine,” “Tongue-Tied,” and “Extraordinary Thing,” the latter of which is haunting in a way I haven’t heard since Tori Amos recorded “Bells for Her” (speaking of which, I’m not entirely fond of Tori’s new one, Beekeeper, which didn’t merit a spot in the top ten).
So those are the best 10 album (well, 11, really) of this year. I had to sift through a lot of good records to pick them, and I feel pretty lousy about leaving out some other tremendous pieces of work by excellent bands. As a gesture of goodwill to the non-winners, I’m extending this entry to include the five runners-up, explaining why they deserve a medal—but silver, instead of gold.
Coldplay – X&Y
I got to see Coldplay live this summer, and while the experience was not as grand or fulfilling as seeing, say, Opeth, or the Red Sparowes, it did get me listening to their albums a little more. My favorite, after extensive listens, remains their debut album, Parachutes. X&Y is actually my least favorite (thus far), despite its hit tracks like “What If,” or the great stadium rock tune “Fix You.”
X&Y didn’t make the Top Ten because it feels a little bit like more of the same from these wholesome Brits. Also, Chris Martin named his kid “Apple,” for god’s sake. “Speed of Sound” doesn’t have the impact that “Clocks” had; the songs are no better or worse than previous ones, really, but they failed to meet the ever-growing expectations I have for them.
Also, the geeky cover art (yay for binary!) is a plus.
Opeth – Ghost Reveries
Among metal fans, there has been a growing suspicion of Opeth as they gain popularity, put out “radio edits” of their top track (“Drapery Falls”), or have Steve Wilson due their production (which was excellent). But when Opeth signed with Roadrunner Records, the home of such crap as Slipknot or DevilDriver, their fans were up in arms.
While I’m not going to say that being on a big budget label made Opeth sound bad, I have a hard time getting excited about this release. Sure, “Ghosts of Perdition” is rockin’, and “Hours of Wealth” is sort of a spooky ballad, but the album sounds bland in general, as if Mikael Åkerfeldt’s creavity got put in the same monotony meatgrinder that the rest of RR’s act come from. It’s a solid album—I guess I just expected something more, especially after the Damnation & Deliverance debacle in 2003/2004. *sigh*
Thee Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra – Horses in the Sky
It especially pained me to exile a Silver Mount Zion release to the Runners-Up category, but I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend by Efram to include more and more vocals in the music, which isn’t at all bad if done in the style of “Sow Some Lonesome Corner So Many Flowers Bloom” from the “This is Our Punk Rock”… release, but when it’s just Efram, warbling (purposely?) off-key, it gets grating after a while. Some of the great organic sounds that were used initially (the piano on “Broken Chords Can Sing a Little” was heartbreaking) seem excised in favor of more avant-garde instrumentation.
Some of Efrim’s choices for this album put me off enough to omit it from the exalted Top Ten, though I still enjoy it enough to keep it close.
Coheed & Cambria – Good Apollo I’m a Burning Star IV
When In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 came out and ffanatic recommended it, I must admit that I wasn’t particularly impressed. C&C reminded me more of a pop-punk band than any serious musical endeavor, the sort of which I would enjoy. And to be honest, that album still hasn’t done much for me: the production is thin, the songwriting is…. let’s say lackluster.
And yet, when I downloaded this album, I was blown away. All of the problems I had with the previous album were put to rest: better songwriting, better production, a slicker style. I found myself listening to the album on repeat, mesmerized by the songwriting. The only reason it didn’t make my top ten was that the vocalist’s style can still be grating: the pop-punk roots are still there despite the metal/prog/rock trappings, and that’s enough to kick it off the competitive list.
Nine Inch Nails – With Teeth
I’ve been telling everyone who will sit still long enough to listen that The Fragile is one of the best albums ever made, and I really do think that. It wasn’t the commercial success that it’s predecessor was, but it’s a veritable orgy of euphony, concept, and texture. You can imagine my frustration at waiting six years for a proper follow-up, and I was noticeably disturbed by Trent’s pronouncement that the album was all about “monophonic sounds.” When the first samples came out, I took heart: they sounded like it might pick up where The Fragile left off.
And yet I was disappointed. With Teeth does some really great things, which is why it still manages to be a runner-up, but I feel like it’s little more than the short, poppy style and torpid songwriting of Pretty Hate Machine with maybe a little better sense for phonic nuance. Still enough to leave me feeling cold after hearing the album. That, and I bought the DualDisc, which won’t play in my car or my computer. What a gyp.