2005: A Year In Review

by Sean McCarthy

Well, we have crossed the halfway point of this decade. Usually, the middle of a decade comes around the same time popular music experiences an identity crisis. In the '70s, it was nearing the end of Led Zeppelin's reign and punk and disco were emerging from the underground. 1985 wasn't a particularly good year for music, as I can remember. And in 1995, we saw grunge die and alternative/college rock beginning to give way to stuff like Hootie and the Blowfish and, eventually, boy bands.

But for 2005, we really didn't see any genre 'die.' The popular indie bands of today (Death Cab for Cutie, Bright Eyes) may grace the cover of magazines, but when it comes to the charts, most barely register. With the popularization of the iPod and satellite radio, listeners are constantly retreating inward. That's great for people who no longer have to complain about Britney Spears constantly being on the radio (just zone out to your iPod or tune into Pandora radio). Unfortunately, that's making it harder for a single band to galvanize audiences like a Nirvana or even an Alanis Morissette - for better and worse.

Music-wise, it doesn't help that there's so much good music out right now. This was one of those years that I felt guilty for making a Top 10 because there was so much that was left out that merited more than just an 'honorable mention' (see The Eels Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, My Morning Jacket's Z and System of a Down's Mesmerize, to name a few). That said, there still wasn't an album that was capable of creating a major shift into whatever the next few years will bring. Each of my ten picks was a great album for its particular genre, but as a whole, only further solidified the notion that popular music seems to be in a holding pattern.

That said … on with the list

10. Sigur Ros -- Takk

The Icelandic group "sells out" by releasing an album that's sung in Icelandic and not their made-up "Hopelandic" language. When the first major snowstorm hits, this should be the first thing to hit your headphones.

9. Gorillaz -- Demon Days

So much for a one-hit wonder. Blur frontman meets up with Danger Mouse (The Grey Album architect) and creates a superior album to their debut. Demon Days is a concept album, but only because most songs touch on a singular theme of environmental destruction. Gospel choirs, Ike Turner and DJ Danger Mouse were able to find a comfortable home in the skewered reality of the Gorillaz. However, the biggest accomplishment of Demon Days was it proved that a smart, totally unconventional and altogether out-there song like "Feel Good, Inc." could land on the pop charts.

8. Andrew Bird -- Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production Of Eggs

If only there was an album that could satisfy my love for whistling, jazzy melodies and quirky song structures without the pretentiousness. Oh, such an album exists? Cool!

7. Eagle*Seagull -- Eagle*Seagull

Eli Mardock sounds like he's confessing on his deathbed. The instrument preferences may draw comparisons to The Arcade Fire, but Eagle/Seagull offers a rewarding listen that you will most likely not mistake for any other band after a full listen to their self-titled album.

6. Sufjan Stevens -- Illinoise

This was probably the most original album of the year. It was bold, ambitious (only 48 more albums to go before your goal of recording an album for every state is complete, Sufjan!) and in some cases, even catchy. His live shows, complete with high school production-style skits, made you wonder how much his uber-sincere image is utter bullshit and how much is heartfelt. Act or not, Illinoise signaled the arrival of a major songwriting presence and stole Conor Oberst's thunder in 2005.

5. Aimee Mann -- The Forgotten Arm

Another concept album? Overused metaphors (John, the leading man of the story, is a boxer) and dramatic settings (the Vietnam War, drug abuse) could have resulted in a huge failure for Mann. Instead, she is able to pull listeners into the tale of two world-weary lovers and hope for a happy ending for John and his love interest, Caroline. Yes, it helps to listen to the album from front-to-back, but "Goodbye Caroline" and "Video" should have been all over adult contemporary radio this summer.

4. Bloc Party -- Silent Alarm

It's hard in this world of The Killers, Snow Patrol and Keane to determine what "it" band really has the talent to turn that "it" into a sustained career. When Bloc Party's Silent Alarm was touted as one of the most exciting debuts in ages, I was apprehensive. Kele Okerere's smug delivery brings to mind the Smiths after several angry months of reading socialist newsletters. "Like Eating Glass" and "Banquet" were danceable enough to merit a dance remix of the entire album. But it's during the chorus of "This Modern Love" when Bloc Party escape their hipster trappings. . Political outrage has rarely been this appealing.

3. Fiona Apple -- Extraordinary Machine

Well, after all the folding, rolling, hauling over whether or not Sony was withholding Fiona Apple's album because it didn't have a hit, it turned out that Fiona Apple just needed a new producer and a few rabid fans to get her back into the studio. I still want the Jon Brion-produced version of "Better Version Of Me" back, if only because it supplied the most satisfying conclusion for a song this year. Producer Mike Elizondo kept the quirkiness of Apple's earlier musical outings but supplied some much-needed limberness to Extraordinary Machine. To lift a much-quoted line from the album, call the 'legal' release a better version of Fiona.

2. Sleater Kinney -- The Woods

Make sure your volume is set to the halfway point when you put this in because the feedback squall and the ensuing drum crash of "The Fox" nearly pushes you to the back of your car seat (or office cubicle seat). Consider it Sleater-Kinney's way of welcoming themselves to new label Sub-Pop. Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev producer Dave Fridmann helps Corin Tucker, Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein get in touch with their inner Captain Beefheart and Led Zeppelin, but retain the emotion of their best works on their former label (Kill Rock Stars). "Rollercoaster" feels like a personal response to Hurricane Katrina even though the album came out months before the disaster. And only Sleater-Kinney could take an excessive 11-minute jam ("Let's Call it Love") and make each note sound necessary.

1. The New Pornographers -- Twin Cinema

Few albums are this perfect in terms of craft. Fewer albums have the lyrics and the vocal magic to make the album special, even classic. Taking the giddiness of Mass Romantic and Electric Version, A.C. Newman creates a darker, moodier easel with phrasings that will lodge into your head and just will not let go ("listening too long to one song," "two sips from the cup of human kindness and I'm shitfaced," "on a train devouring the land, there's a kid going insane over her, man" -- trust me, you'll get it when you buy this CD). Dan Bejar's quirkiness is perfectly matched with Newman's controlled melodies. Neko Case's vocals on songs "The Bleeding Heart Show" and "The Bones Of An Idol" set the bar high for future power pop bands. With all of this talent, it's actually Kurt Dahle's drumming that cements Twin Cinema's greatness. It may not be revolutionary, but it gave listeners in 2005 just what they needed -- greatness, pure and simple.



Concerts of the Year: Taking my nephew to see his first concert -- Green Day -- was an experience I will never forget. It's time for Green Day to stop running victory laps for American Idiot. That said, they put on a great show, clichés be damned. Also, a blown amp couldn't stop Sleater-Kinney from causing a near-record 36-hour ringing sensation in my ears. Their show at Omaha's Sokol Underground was the concert experience of the year. I finally got to see Neko Case play an intimate show at that same venue. Finally, the New Pornographers played a great show at the Granada in Lawrence. It's too bad no one told the audience how great of a show it was. I'm not a fan of going totally nuts at a concert, but when the New Pornographers are playing, it's virtually impossible to stand still. I know it was a school night, dammit, but the next time the band comes to a venue like that in a town like Lawrence, I expect to see some geeks pogo-ing and crowd surfing.

Disappointments of the Year: Nine Inch Nails' With Teeth and Coldplay's X&Y. In 1999, The Fragile made several critics' 'best of' list. In 2005, many of those critics rejoiced, saying Nine Inch Nails has returned to form, making his best album since The Downward Spiral and essentially writing off The Fragile as a pretentious pile of crap. Pretentious, yes, but at least it was trying to create something new. Relying way too much on his past glory, With Teeth was the sound of someone trying desperately to shock a new audience but coming off as the bitter uncle of industrial rock. Pitchforkmedia.com, one of the best sites for pretentious rock journalism nailed the effect that "Only" had on its listeners: you get the visualization that Reznor was standing in a mirror and reenacting the Buffalo Bill lip-syncing scene from Silence Of The Lambs.

However, THE biggest disappointment of the year had to come from Coldplay's X&Y. Coldplay's delay of X&Y in the first part of 2005 actually resulted in decline in EMI's stock. When X&Y came out, a few magazines (specifically Blender and Paste) lavished it with five-star reviews, calling the album a revolution and an album that would begin to put Coldplay in the same league as The Beatles. Not with songs as limp as "Fix You" or as forgettable as the rest of the album. Gone was the moodiness of A Rush Of Blood To The Head. Instead, the only accomplishment of X&Y was a valuable lesson taught by Public Enemy way back in 1988: don't believe the hype.

Expectations for 2006: Well, the iPod was one of the hot holiday gifts, so expect a few more hundred thousand listeners to continue to discover music groups on their own and not from big label marketing or Fox's The O.C. Expect hopefully a classic album to emerge from one or all of the following artists: The Arcade Fire, The Flaming Lips, Neko Case, Bloc Party and Radiohead. Outkast's Idlewind promises a blend of Outkast's far-out musical vision in a '30s or '40s setting. If you're a fan of the band, curiosity has to be eating you right now. Other than that, you almost need 2006 to catch up on all of the good releases that came out in '05.

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