This is by no means a list of all the music I’ve fancied this year, but here is a highlight reel. I can’t give these albums justice by just listing them, so I feel it’s necessary to explain why I like each one.
Bloc Party, Silent Alarm
I’m still not sold on dancey guitar rock in the vein of Gang of Four. For all of 2005, Bloc Party has been painted by the press as a dancey rock band, right up there with Franz Ferdinand. Upon listening to Silent Alarm over and over again this year, I feel that there is way more to this band than just jagged guitars and jumpin’ drumbeats. Silent Alarm isn’t confined to all things considered post-punk between 1979 and 1981. I hear splashes of mathy, mid-90s post-hardcore in spots but then I also hear traces of early U2 (especially Boy). These songs go places but they don’t lose the listener in the process. Each one has its own recognizable melody, beat and flavor, so Silent Alarm rarely drags. From the crashing opener of “Like Eating Glass” to the bopping vibe of “Banquet” to the haunting “Price of Gas” to the driving “Little Thoughts” to the blissful “So Here We Are” and so on, Silent Alarm lays out all sorts of stuff on the table. Displaying a band with band members that know when to play all together and when not to, Bloc Party may very well have an actual career in front of them instead of “Whatever Happened to?” infamy.
My Morning Jacket, Z
I’m on an album-by-album basis with a lot of bands; I want to hear as much of their new records before I lay down my cash for them. Then there are bands that I just buy new records from because I like the band so much. My Morning Jacket, a band I was sure that I would find their follow-up to It Still Moves a worthy release, is one of the latter. Well, I was right with my assumption even though Z is a rather vast departure from It Still Moves. The album rocks and trips out in spots, but My Morning Jacket isn’t afraid to try different sideroads from their normal gonzo barnburners.
Sufjan Stevens, Come On Feel the Illinoise
In a word, beautiful. With more words, Stevens’s album about Illinois is 22 tracks with all sorts of colors (including horns, pianos, keyboards, acoustic guitars, banjos). My only reservation about this record is that it’s a little too much of a good thing.
Franz Ferdinand, You Could Have It So Much Better
I was very skeptical about this album and this band. I enjoy certain tracks from their debut album, but it seemed like their dancey kind of rock wouldn’t last more than one album. Well, thanks to Jason getting an advance copy of YCHISMB, I gave it a listen and was really blown away. I find this way better than their debut. Yes, there are plenty of disco-like drumbeats and skronky guitar lines, but there is so much more going on melodically on every song that those are not a problem. The leadoff single, “Do You Want To,” still brings a smile to my face when it kicks into Stereo. Other standouts include “This Boy,” “You’re the Reason I’m Leaving” and the Something Else-era-Kinks-like, “Eleanor Put Your Boots On” lead me to believe that FF has more in them than I previously thought.
Stars, Set Yourself on Fire
Released in their native Canada in 2004 but released in the US in 2005, this was further proof for certain buzz-lookers that were focusing on Montreal as a hip place for music. Well, you can’t deny the melodic vitality found in the lush rock found in bands like Stars, the Dears and the Arcade Fire. Set Yourself on Fire runs all over the place with moods and feels but the songs flow incredibly well together.
Youth Group, Skeleton Jar
Forget any sort of punk or hardcore implications with this band because Epitaph Records released this record in the USA. Even though they opened for Death Cab for Cutie and DCFC’s Chris Walla sang praises of them, they are not a Death Cab clone. This is tuneful, smart pop rock with snappy numbers like “Shadowland” and “Someone Else’s Dream” and epic builders like “See-Saw.”
The Go! Team, Thunder, Lightning, Strike
A big problem I have with sampling is that it takes the piss out of the beauty of the original song. Prior to hearing the Go! Team, DJ Shadow and the Avalanches were the exceptions to my feelings. After spinning Thunder, Lightning, Strike plenty of times, I think the focus should be on the songs and not the samples. While there are certain recognizable samples from ‘60s/’70s R&B pop in their music, the Go! Team makes their own fun pop that is still good even after the sugar rush has passed. Complete with horns, guitars, pianos and crackin’ drums, this record reminds me of the way that Top 40 music used to be made and why music from that era still holds up.
Koufax, Hard Times Are in Fashion
The piano/guitar rock pop combo keeps putting out fantastic stuff despite constant line-up shifts. Joined by Ryan and Rob Pope from the Get Up Kids, Robert Suchan and Jared Rosenberg unleash eleven memorable tracks with some very honest reflections on post-9/11 culture.
Troubled Hubble, Making Beds in a Burning House
An incredible live band that put this, their best effort to date, out on Lookout! Sadly, the band is no more, but their fun, intelligent indie rock/post-hardcore lives on with this record.
Manic Street Preachers, Lifeblood
This record was released late last year and I hoped it would come out in the US some time this year. Well, a US release date is still pending but at least Epic released a 2CD/DVD reissue of the Manics’ The Holy Bible. While other people gawked at the macabre found on Richie Edwards’s final album with the Manics, I found the band’s fourth album as a trio a really strong comeback of sorts. There are more keyboards and more sophisticated feels on Lifeblood and the Manics are all the better for it.
Nada Surf, The Weight is a Gift
For better or worse, this isn’t a departure from the sound that is showcased on Let Go, but there are enough charming songs on here to warrant repeated listening.
Aimee Mann, The Forgotten Arm
This is a concept album lyric-wise, but this isn’t some convoluted tale that requires the listener’s patience for a payoff. These songs have bite to them and get to the point more directly than anything on Mann’s last few records. Bachelor No. 2 and Lost in Space are their own gems, but The Forgotten Arm is my favorite from start to finish.
Ben Folds, Songs for Silverman
Folds’s second proper album since Ben Folds Five’s break-up, Songs for Silverman is considerably more mature-sounding than anything he’s done before. Now I’m not saying songs like “Evaporated” or “Brick” weren’t serious, but the album’s opening track of “Bastard” is about as jokey as it gets. Odes to Folds’s daughter and Elliott Smith come off as heartfelt and not sappy mush. Though the album takes a few tracks to get cooking, once “Landed” kicks in, the album doesn’t falter.
Portastatic, Bright Ideas
There are times when I have a hard time distinguishing between Portastatic and Superchunk. Both feature Mac McCaughan on lead vocals and guitar, but the only big difference is that Portastatic isn’t gonna pull out a punk-tinged pop song. Bright Ideas is as good as the last few Superchunk records, but it is very much a Portastatic record. Listening to it, I’m curious what McCaughan will do with Superchunk next.
. . . And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, Worlds Apart
This Austin-based band sheds its punkier leanings for something more concise and better than their other recordings. Not only are they louder and more epic on Worlds Apart, but they’ve learned how to flesh out well-structured rock songs with a melodic tug.
Bob Mould, Body of Song
Of all of the records I’ve heard Bob Mould on, Body of Song feels like Mould’s strongest release sans a band's moniker. The electronic shenanigans found on his previous releases are given a “supporting role” (as he put it on Sound Opinions) on Body of Song, thus giving more room to the melodic punches that Mould has been throwing for years.
Here are artists/records that have I enjoyed over the years but really got into in 2005:
Ever since their debut, Fallow, I’ve taken an interest in this band. They aren’t traditional punk rock and they aren’t traditional, gentle acoustic rock, but they are somewhere in the outskirts of both fields. Upon revisiting all of their three proper albums, I must say this band has been a consistently strong outfit over the years. How I even got back into listening to them was mostly because of a little mention I give them in Post's Promise Ring chapter. At a time when the Promise Ring tried to blend in softer, gentler material with their older, more-immediate material, their tourmates the Weakerthans had an easier time doing the same kind of aesthetic.
I’m still going through Waits’s back catalog to find what I like and what I don’t like. While I can’t really get into his cacophonic jazz renderings, I find his ballads (like “Take It With Me” and “Tom Traubert’s Blues”) just breath-taking.
My time working for radio stations that play older music introduced/re-introduced me to a number of time-tested artists. Petula Clark’s “Downtown” may be one of her best known singles on the radio, but she had a string of powerful, uplifting singles in the ‘60s too. With a charged singing voice, honest lyrics and lush orchestration, songs like “Call Me,” “A Sign of the Times” and “Who Am I” make me go ga-ga over Ms. Clark.
The Four Tops
Given the vast number of quality artists on the Motown label, the Four Tops are my favorite. The songs found on their double-disc anthology are the definition of the kind of pop-soul music you heard on the radio in the ‘60s and ‘70s. With complex themes of hope, love, loss and forgiveness told with passionate singing and (once again) lush orchestration, the Four Tops hold high in heart.
Converge, You Fail Me
Loud, fast, crazy and screamin’ metal/hardcore is not the kind of stuff that I usually listen to. However, when it’s done very well and it rings a lot of my bells regardless of my mood, I take note. You Fail Me is pummeling but I don’t see it as a bunch of heavy riffing and screaming. While I’m not all hot to trot to listen to their entire back catalog, I must give Converge a lot of respect.
The Raspberries were one of the prototypes for ‘70s arena-rock-pop. Despite their commercial knock-offs, the songs of the Raspberries still stand up very well, even with their bigger-than-life sound. Fronted by Eric Carmen, the band could rock your socks off but also had you singing along. Though they paid very obvious references to rock giants like the Who and the Beatles, the band gave a very American kind of flair to their British idols.
A band that is more known in the US for its single (and brief WB staple), “High,” Feeder is a great singles band from across the pond. Like the Foo Fighters, Feeder walks around hard-charging and soft-leaning boundaries and has put out five albums full in that route. Due to half of their catalog being released here in America and their singles being a little better than their album tracks, the news that the band is releasing a singles collection next year is some really good news.
At the Drive-In, Relationship of Command
While writing the At the Drive-In chapter in Post, I found myself listening to ATDI’s final album quite a bit. Forget all the hype surrounding this band back in 1999, Relationship of Command is the apex of the band’s long and arduous road. They couldn’t have topped this record so I’m glad its ex-members have found their own voices in their respective bands, Sparta and the Mars Volta.