Monday, January 16, 2006

Best of 2005 | Other Albums I Loved

I had meant to write this post right after my post about my favorite album of the year. However, these year-end posts take me a long time to type and I've been busy and lazy. So, I'm finally getting around to it now. Please don't interpret my delay in writing about them though as a lack of enthusiasm for the albums. I spent a lot of time enjoying each of these albums this year.

In no particular order, here are the other albums I loved this year:

Antony & the Johnsons | I Am a Bird Now
Why They Made the List: Sonically, this album is an outlier for me. It doesn't sound like anything else that I listen to. It's dark, somber, piano-driven music that generates the feeling of an artsy European cabaret. Antony's singing is the tipping point though. Either you love his quivering pleading vocals or you want to rip your ears off your head. I still have my ears in tact. By the way, the album beat out Bloc Party, Kaiser Chiefs, Coldplay and MIA earlier this year to win the Mercury Prize which is awarded to the best album by an Irish or British band.

Mitigating Factor: Who the hell thought it would be a good idea to ask Lou Reed to do a spoken word piece at the beginning of "Fistfull of Dollars"?

Antony & the Johnsons | For Today I Am a Boy

Bonnie "Prince" Billy & Matt Sweeney | Superwolf
Why They Made the List: Bonnie "Prince" Billy is one of those unique artists who gets more powerful the quieter he gets. He leaves you with your eyes closed, rocking back and forth, your good ear tilted to the speaker and thinking, "Damn, this is a great album." His genius is in the control of the tension he creates and releases; not just sonically but also with his lyrics. The songs "What Are You?" and "Only Someone Running" were two of my favorites of the year. Plus, the album also spawned my favorite video of the year for "I Gave You".

Mitigating Factor: The album has a pair of clunkers in the middle of it. "Goat and Ram" and "Rudy Foolish" just don't do it for me.

BPB & Matt Sweeney | What Are You? (follow the link)

The Decemberists | Picaresque
Why They Made the List: This album probably should have been in my list of contenders for my favorite album of the year. However, it leaked in late 2004 (more than three months before it was released) and I burned myself out on it by the end of the summer. It's no fault of the album; that's just the way it goes with year-end lists. The disc is a nice combination of being fun and smart. Although they have the songs to back it up, The Decemberists choose to not take themselves too seriously. They remain playful despite writing some artistically strong tunes.

Mitigating Factor: Regardless of how playful and relaxed your band is, a ten-minute accordian driven song about a "Moby Dick like" seafarer experience is a bit over-indulgent.

The Decemberists | The Infanta

The Mountain Goats | Sunset Tree
Why They Made the List: Thankfully, I grew up free of any abuse. However, if I hadn't, this would have been my album of the year; a dozen tales chronicling the abuse John Darnielle suffered at the hands of his step-father. But it's not just tales of abuse. It's an aural roadmap for escaping the resulting misery that enveloped him which leaves you feeling better about tomorrow. Musically, Darnielle employed a full band for the album which rounds out the songs into foot-tapping sing-alongs. The band also gives the album a more diverse feeling from song-to-song than his other albums.

Mitigating Factor: Since I don't follow reggae and didn't know who Dennis Brown was, I thought he was singing about Dennis Franz the first few times I listened to "Song for Dennis Brown". I kept thinking, "When the hell did Dennis Franz' lung collapse?" But I guess that's more my problem than Darnielle's.

The Mountain Goats | This Year

Andrew Bird | The Mysterious Production of Eggs
Why They Made the List: What's not to love about a whistling violinist? However, Bird is a lot more than some novelty act on a subway platform. He blends his violin and whistling with a wide range of instruments and beautifully written songs to create an album that is easy to get sucked into. With lots of pop hooks to go around, there are four or five songs on the album that have been my favorite since last May when I picked it up.

Mitigating Factor: At nearly an hour long, Bird could have trimmed this project down by three or four songs. Another example of an artist trying to fill up the expanded recording time of a compact disc.

Andrew Bird | Fake Palindromes

Black Mountain | Black Mountain
Why They Made the List: These guys can't get a break. First they record a great album which deserves a lot of attention. However, they chose the song "Druganaut" as the single which is OK but nowhere near as good as "Modern Music". If bloggers had been linking to "Modern Music" all year rather than "Druganaut", I think they would have sold more records. Second, they won the golden opportunity to open for Coldplay on their US tour. However, Black Mountain got detained at the Canadian border and they missed some of the shows. Then they finally set out to tour and promote the album on their own and their equipment got stolen in Brooklyn. Plus, now that they are back in Vancouver, there are rumors that some guy is selling their instruments on a street corner back in Brooklyn. So, give these guys a break and spend a few minutes listening to their wonderful "Black Sabbath meets 60's psychedelic rock meets Neil Young" music.

Mitigating Factor: It's songs like "Heart of Snow" that makes frat boys want to beat up indie rockers. Eight minutes of directionless bland noodling.

Black Mountain | Modern Music

Smog | A River Ain't Too Much to Love
Why They Made the List: Like every other Smog album, it took about four or five months before this album grew on me. Now I can't stop listening to it. Bill Callahan has stripped his sound down even more on this album than his normal lo-fi one-man band sound. However, the songs are as compelling as ever. The moment at 3:43 into "Say Valley Maker" when he takes the tempo up a notch and forces you to listen to his climatic conclusion of redemption is worth the album alone. Fantastic control.

Mitigating Factor: You really have to invest a lot of time into his albums. You can't expect to listen to it a few times and be able to get a strong sense of it. Hell, I had relationships that I didn't work this hard at. It pays off in the end but it doesn't comes easy.

Smog | I Feel Like the Mother of the World

Fruit Bats | Spelled in Bones
Why They Made the List: I have no idea why these guys occasionally get lumped into the freak-folk genre. This album is straight ahead folk-based pop tunes. The structure may change throughout the songs, however, the changes aren't jarring; closer to a traditional bridge than the 180 degree turns that Animal Collective take. If anything, they deserve more comparisons to the Elephant 6 sound of the 90's than the freak-folk of the 2000's. This is another album that has about four or five different songs that have been my favorite at various times. Solid the whole way through.

Mitigating Factor: What nitwit decided to close the album with a minute or so of bird sounds?

Fruit Bats | Lives of Crime

Wolf Parade | Apologies to the Queen Mary
Why They Made the List: I saw Wolf Parade open for Arcade Fire last April up in Montreal and gave them a solid "shrug of the shoulders". And then when I heard the early leaked tracks, I still didn't feel anything for them. However, around September, a friend sent over a few of their songs and they clicked. What had previously felt uneven and jarring suddenly felt rocking and melodic. Since then, it's been in regular rotation on my iPod. The most shocking moment was when my "Phish Phan" sister-in-law called last month to say that she had heard them on the radio, liked them and wanted to hear more of their album. Perhaps their appeal is more universal than I had thought.

Mitigating Factor: They stuck "Disco Sheets" on their EP which also came out in 2005. It's a great song that deserved to be on the full album.

Wolf Parade | Shine a Light

Devendra Banhart | Cripple Crow
Why They Made the List: Not being a fan of freak-folk, I had been leary of Banhart. However, I'm glad I overcame my "freak-folk bias" because this album plays a bit like Antony (of Antony & the Johnsons) fronting The Fruit Bats. Banhart's vocals quiver throughout the album and is caked in echo but it works. Occasionally, the music can become a bit too free-form but for the most part, the songs are well-built with catchy melodies and nice complimentary instumental pieces jumping in and out.

Mitigating Factor: Do you remember earlier when I was complaining about artists feeling the need to fill up a compact disc with music rather than editing it down to just the prime tracks? Well, this sucker clocks in at 79 minutes. What's the matter, Devendra? You couldn't find something to fill that last minute?

Devendra Banhart | I Feel Like a Child

Sun Kil Moon | Tiny Cities
Why They Made the List: This album of acoustic covers of Modest Mouse tunes is a perfect example of the type of cover tunes I like. I don't care for covers of well-known tunes that sound a lot like the original. I prefer artists to either (a) bring attention to an obscure song by covering it straight or to (b) show their musicianship by recreating a known song. Mark Kozelek took the latter approach to Modest Mouse's tunes by exploring the melodies hidden under MM's sonic blizzard.

Mitigating Factor: I don't like Modest Mouse.

Sun Kil Moon | Neverending Math Equation


K. said...

I liked Tiny Cities as well. I like Modest Mouse too but you gotta read the pitchfork article about this cd. I was thinking it was pretty good then read the pitchfork article that gives the disc a 3 something. I stick by it just makes me feel like I know nothing about music when that happens.

Flatlander said...


I saw that review and obviously disagree with it. I thought the reviewer was coming from a completely different point of view than mine. He ripped the album becasue the covers didn't sound like the originals. That's a cruddy reason to dump on an album. You can say that the new versions aren't good but to dismiss them becasue they are different is something the Times-Argus would do. I was surprised that Pitchfork actually printed that viewpoint.

c said...

i saw black mountain - or actually just one guy from black mountain, open for coldplay at tweeter center.
definitely a bummer for them about the whole getting detained at the border thing.
i have yet to really give black mountain a proper listen, but i've only heard great things, so i've got get on it....

jds said...

I'd say that's more of a Burlington Free Press p.o.v.

K. said...

Zing! and Zing! Vermont newspapers shall know the wrath of Flatlander and JDS.

I agree 100% flatlander. I was puzzled typically covers are something that change the song dramatically. Seu Jorge covering Bowie or Jose Gonzalez covering Massive Attack. You like them cause its the song like you haven't heard it before coming at you from another angle. I thought that was kinda the point of a cover.

casey said...

The Superwolf live show was fantastic — even better than the record.

The Devendra album was pretty good, although I wanted to dislike it.

Even though I'd been with him since the first YGR disc, he was becoming far too overexposed.

His Piaf-gone-Barrett vocals were getting kind of annoying, as well. And that immaculately shabby beard! Does he have a facial hair stylist? I bet he does.

Yet, he tamed the warble, brought in a fleet of pals, and made a remarkably fun album that may serve as an encapsulation of a certain moment in pop history...

Fuck Pitchfork.

Flatlander said...

I thought the Superwolf show was OK but the feedback problems for BPB annoyed me. It's such a delicate sound that it's easily killed by a sudden screech. BPB did his best to control it but he had himself twisted in every direction to avoid it from occuring.

But it wasn't bad enough to ruin the show for me. The songs are just too damn good for the show to be a complete bust.

Hey, as I was reading casey's comment and typing this post, Banhart's "I Feel Just Like a Child" came up on my iPod's shuffle. iPod's shuffle definitely has a bit of freaky all-knowing magic to it.