Wednesday, March 01, 2006

I am talking Papal levels

As you all know, I love music. It probably does not surprise you then that one of my favourite times of the year is around the new year. At this time all the year-end music lists come out, from Pitchfork's to John Allison's. And every year a month or two later, I make mine. It's not that I don't love the music or want to introduce people to something new, it's simply due to disdain. And not for you, dear reader; for topicality. Late December positively reeks of it, as does most of January. In order for a review to be truly timeless, it has to be separated from timeliness. That is why, two months to the day past punctuality, I present to you my top 20 albums of last year.

20. Buck 65 - Secret House Against the World: After 2003's Juno-winning breakout album Talkin' Honky Blues, Buck returned this last year with a new direction altogether. With Secret House, he moves away from the folky hip-hop into a more freewheeling, jazz-based territory. The result is one of his most challenging but rewarding albums to date. Key track: Devil's Eyes
19. Deerhoof - The Runners Four: San Fransisco's Deerhoof are exuberant, challenging and tremendously weird. Even this, their most straight-forward guitar rock album to date, is still at times a difficult listen. Given some time, however, the quirks and deconstruction really start to work for the band and the listener. Key track: Siriustar
18. Bruce Springsteen - Devils & Dust: This is Springsteen's first album sans-E-Street Band since 1995, and he takes it in very much the same character-based direction as his other solo albums. But whereas The Ghost of Tom Joad was alternately bitter and compassionate, Devils & Dust follows in Nebraska's footsteps more: weary, broken and hoping for just a little bit of grace. One of his best. Key track: Devils + Dust
17. Okkervil River - Black Sheep Boy - Will Sheff's country-tinged indie rock is brooding, literate and occasonally full of explosive energy. Emotional and superb. Key track: Black
16. Explosions in the Sky - The Rescue (Travel in Constants Vol. 21): Sweeping, grand, intricate. Texas' Explosions in the Sky make instrumental rock in the way of bands like Mogwai, but with a softer and more sprawling sound compared to Mogwai's harder edge. The Rescue is out of print, but more than worth the effort it will take to find a copy of it online. This is the soundtrack to life-altering events. Key track: Day 4
15. Beck - Guero: Beck has always hopped between genres, from the spazzed-out fusion of Mellow Gold and Odelay to the lo-fi folk and country of Outations and Sea Change to the late night funk of Midnite Vultures. If Guero is Beck's least surprising album, it's because it's his most expansive. Whereas he has previously fused genres on his album, here he fuses those albums together. "Black Tambourine" blares fuzzy energy, while "Qué Onda Guero" is a throwback to his childhood and its Latin music influences and "Missing" is a tropicalia-influenced track that would be comfortable on Midnite Vultures or Mutations. Expansive and intriguing. Key track: Girl
14. Paul McCartney - Chaos and Creation in the Backyard: On his latest album, Paul McCartney plays it like it's 1970; much like that year's eponymous album, he plays virtually all the instruments on it, and it is perhaps his best album since. Producer Nigel Godrich pushes McCartney to try new things and the resulting album shines with it. Key track: the brooding Riding to Vanity Fair, one of his darkest songs to date.
13. Ryan Adams & The Cardinals - Jacksonville City Nights: Adams' second release of the year with new band The Cardinals exchanges the jammy folk rock of Cold Roses for more traditional country. He channels the music of his youth in North Carolina, and he comes off more comfortable and at home than he's been in years. Key track: The End
12. Sarah Harmer - I'm A Mountain: After an acoustic tour in support of preserving the Niagara Escarpment for PERL, Harmer released an album of like-minded acoustic music in the vein of bluegrass and folk. It's her most energetic and emotionally resonant album yet, buzzing with the sun, showers, soil and seed of her home. Key track: The Escarpment Blues
11. Spoon - Gimme Fiction: Britt Daniels makes exciting, idiosyncratic indie pop music. By using a piano instead of rhythm guitar, his music is more fresh and entertaining than most out there. I fell asleep listening to this album the afternoon I bought it, and I haven't slept as well since. This is how good Spoon is. Key track: The Beast and Dragon, Adored

10. The National - Alligator: 2005 was The National's breakout year as they rode on the back of this album. Matt Berninger's bleary, depressed tales are perfectly suited for sleepless New York nights, and his baritone vocals mesh perfectly with the country-tinged alt rock of the rest of the band. Since Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, Berninger's lyrics have gotten more cryptic and subtle, just one way the band has gotten better. Key track: Daughters of the Soho Riots

9. Wilco - Kicking Television: Live in Chicago: Live albums are often trivialized by essentially being greatest hits packages in lieu of a real release, but Kicking Television is as vital as almost anything else the band has done. Tracks from 2004's release A Ghost is Born are warmer and less sterile than the studio originals, and older pre-Yankee Hotel Foxtrot songs are updated with the band's more current sound and unified with newer material. This is a great introduction to the band for newcomers, but a valuable contribution to a fan's collection. Key track: Misunderstood

8. Iron & Wine - Woman King: Sam Beam's music has always been lo-fi, woozy and most of all, hushed. But if last year's Our Endless Numbered Days was a small step forward, Woman King is a leap. It utilizes Days' full band arrangements, but this time plugged in. Beam's new usage of electric instrumentation provides new horizons for the band's music, crackling with newfound energy. This EP belongs to a messed-up relationship from last year, and for a long time after it ended I couldn't listen to the album; it was too personal, too painful. This is Iron & Wine's strength, to become your own soundtrack. Key track: Evening on the Ground (Lilith's Song)

7. My Morning Jacket - Z: My Morning Jacket's sound has always been grand, with Jim James' voice echoing through the landscape of guitars and reverb. With Z the band has departed from this sound partially, in favour of a more diverse, crystallized sound. They also moved studios, from the abandoned grain silo their previous efforts were recorded in to a professional modern studio. The result is an album more ambitious than the spacey country-soaked rock of their older albums, and much more varied. "Gideon" soars with Who-esque guitars, while "Off the Record" finds a reggae groove and album closer "Dondante" is the closest to the older My Morning Jacket, with James' high falsetto, driving rhythm and elusive guitars. For all the variety, Z still feels like a cohesive album, and only helps My Morning Jacket's growing reputation as the American Radiohead. Key track: Gideon

6. Ryan Adams & The Cardinals - Cold Roses: Around New Year's 2004, word started to get out that Ryan Adams had not only recovered from breaking his arm onstage in Liverpool earlier that year, but was readying new releases for 2005. Soon, it became known that he was preparing three. The first of these, Cold Roses, was perhaps his best of the year. It's a double album, but largely avoids the pretension that phrase evokes. More than that, Cold Roses finds Adams at his songwriting finest, full of longing and women you didn't do right by but didn't deserve anyway. The Cardinals add an easy, worn-in feel Adams hasn't had since his 2000 debut Heartbreaker. The music has an airy, Grateful Dead feel that's suited for live performance and hazy summer afternoons. Key track: Meadowlake Street

5. Broken Social Scene - Broken Social Scene: I have something to admit: I really didn't like You Forgot It In People that much. Something about Broken Social Scene's breakout second album just didn't connect with me. Yeah, the musicianship was there, but the music just didn't strike me as being that special. It was so polished, so... bland. But with their latest album, Broken Social Scene have really hooked me. The same guitar-based pop song cores are there, but the mixing is muddier, the hooks more elusive and the music that much hazier. It's a more difficult album, but in the end that makes it far greater. Album closer "It's All Gonna Break" is an incredible glimpse at the anxiety, excitement and pressure of the band's expanding popularity, a fitting end to an album that can only increase the band's fame. Key track: It's All Gonna Break

4. Sigur Rós - Takk...: After their album ( ) failed to garner as much critical acclaim as Ágætis Byrjun, the pressure was on for Sigur Rós to regain their form, and Takk... does just that. Whereas Ágætis Byrjun was ambient and lulling, the melodies on Takk... are more forceful, the crescendos are deeper and the album truly rocks out, something the band has never really done before. Sigur Rós uses more piano and horns here to provide something new to the listener, with tracks "Glósóli" and "Hoppípolla" showing something more. Lyrically, singer Jónsi Birgisson abandoning his made-up language of Hopelandish for the first time in favour of his native Icelandic, which lends the songs, folklorish tales of magic and children, even more whimsy. Takk... succeeds moreso than the band's other albums because it retains their strengths while still expanding their musical horizons. Key track: Glósóli

3. Wolf Parade - Apologies to Queen Mary: Victoria's Wolf Parade arrived last year amidst tonnes of buzz, having ties to the Arcade Fire and been discovered by Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock, who produced the album. But eyes on the prize, kids, the buzz isn't important: the music is. Apologies to Queen Mary is a reference to a passenger liner long part of musical history, having played host to Led Zeppelin, Guns N' Roses and The Sex Pistols. Only Wolf Parade, however, have the dishonour of being kicked off the boat, having tried to channel the spirit of Winston Churchill in the ballroom named after him, causing significant damage to the ship in the process. This fiery, destructive energy permeates every moment of Apologies to Queen Mary. Twin songwriters and vocalists Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug lend every song a manic, shizophrenic energy, with shuffling, off-kilter beats and jagged guitars. The highlight of the album is "I'll Believe in Anything," a frenzied plea for romance that culminates in a full minute-long apex, sustaining the energy throughout the song. By the time it has ended, Wolf Parade have earned our attention and our praise. This is spazz-pop at its finest. Key track: I'll Believe in Anything

2. Low - The Great Destroyer: "You better just stand back, I could turn on you so fast." It doesn't come until almost halfway through The Great Destroyer, but this is all the warning Low gives us. Duluth, Minnesota's chosen children have long been known as one of the driving forces behind the slowcore musical movement, with their minimalist compositions and slower-than-slow tempos. It's been their style for over a decade, which is why The Great Destroyer took fans by such surprise upon its release. It actually has the audacity to rock. The tempos are still slow, but whereas gaps in older songs were filled with silent tension, songs like opener "Monkey" grind along with feedback. Drummer Mimi Parker's traditional setup is comprised of just a snare and a high-hat, but now she utilizes a full kit, toms and all. "When I Go Deaf" encompasses the band's stylistic change, veering halfway through from a subdued, acoustic track into a squealing, hissing pool of guitar feedback. The image of Time the Great Destroyer comes up throughout the album, and when album closer "Walk Into the Sea" finally closes, Low come back to the listener. "But when it finally takes us over," they sing, "I hope we float away together." Key track: When I Go Deaf

1. Sufjan Stevens - Illinois: But without a doubt, one album stood above them all last year. It was everywhere, garnering praise from all corners of the business. Sufjan Stevens' second installment in the 50 States Project, Illinois, is ambitious and grandiose, but always welcoming. Maybe it's the sing-along choruses, or the sheer scope of the research of this peal to Michigan's neighbor. Or maybe it's the universal nature of the song subjects. Oh, I know. It's the xylophone. Whatever it is, Illinois is grand without being pompous, ambitious without overreaching and exuberant but still intimate. There's something here for everybody, from the airiness of "Concerning the UFO Sighting near Highland, Illinois," the heartfelt pain of "Chicago" and "Casimir Pulaski Day," the familial rehabilitation in "Decatur," or the chilling ode to our secrets in "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." Give it a chance, it'll suck you in. I barely go a week without listening to it, and as early as last night I was recommending it to somebody. That's its power. Key track: Chicago


And that's it, my summary of the best albums of last year, 100% infallible. Infallible.

5 comments:

Maggie said...

"The first of these, Cold Roses, was perhaps his best of the year."--That's what I SAID! You told me Cold Roses "was actually [your] least favourite of his releases this year". Silly boy.

James said...

Well, all of a sudden I started listening to the Grateful Dead and that album just started making a whole lot of sense

Maggie said...

I understand. Have you heard the Iron & Wine cover of "Wild Horses" from the Triple Door performance? It owns my soul.

Donell said...

come on feel the illinoise... yeah xylophone!

S. Allux said...

I really like Explosions in the Sky.