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Its Here! The APW Top-20 Albums of 2005!
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
This is the post you've both been waiting for: my top-20 albums of 2005.

I've long ago given up the conceit that these are the best of the year, or that they somehow reflect what music sounded like this year. Mainly the list reflects the tastes of a young-at-heart middle-aged guy who didn't like 80s synth pop the first time around, and certainly has no interest in its revival (Franz Ferdinand, I'm looking at you); and, who has little patience for two-person bands with no bass player (Jack White, I'm looking at you.) Indeed very little on this list sounds like the year in which it was recorded, because over time I've come to accept that I generally dislike music that sounds like the year in which it was made (exceptions: 1957; 1972.) These are the ones I personally liked, listened to most, and expect to come back to most often over the years.

1. Ryan Adams, Cold Roses
Love the guy. The first (and I think best) of three albums Adams released in 2005; all 3 are on this list. This was one of two with his new (and it turns out changing) band, the Cardinals. Very much inspired by the two acoustic studio masterpieces of the Gratetul Dead, American Beauty and Workingman's Dead, right down to the bear and rose iconography on the cover art. Adams broke his hand in January 2004 and spent the year learning to play guitar again, growing a beard, and listening to the Dead. He came out the other side a changed man, more interested in working with a band and in reworking his songs anew in a live than before. I think this record has the-- I have to quote my wife here-- "the warm familiar ring of every record you loved as a kid." It feels more like a classic to me each listen. I wrote about the album in great detail when it was released, here. RIYL: American Beauty, old Van Morrison records, a little twang with your coffee.

2. Sufjan Stevens, Come on Feel the Illinoise!
Perhaps you've heard that this eccentric, spiritual, leftist folkie is planning to record a whole album about each of the 50 states. He's done Michigan already, and this one, the second in the series, is a sweeping elegaic masterpiece. The eerie and sympathetic "John Wayne Gacy" is a particular highlight. The music isn't Illnois music per se; no sign of Chicago blues. One minute vocals and acoustic guitar, the next synths and glockenspiel and he's channeling Phillip Glass. Yet it all works seamlessly. The kid is a real live "auteur." RIYL: Brian Wilson's Smile, Phillip Glass, "the new folk."

3. Josh Rouse, Nashville
The follow-up to 2003's 1972, a plush, meloncholy slice of pop, heavy on the acoustic guitars and harmonies. Title notwithstanding, there is nothing Nashville-esque about the music here; just very warm, easy-on-the-ears folkish power pop, less power than pop. I was sure in June that this was not as good as 1972; now I'm less sure. My wife, who has a golden ear, loves both of them. RIYL: Emmit Rhodes, Rouse's 1972, Ballad of Todd Rundgren (with a lot less piano).

4. Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, Jacksonville City Nights
His second of the year, also cut with the Cardinals. Supposedly culled from the same recording sessions as Cold Roses, but whereas Cold Roses was an homage to those two Dead records, this is a country record, lilting pedal steel figuring prominently throughout. Probably the record Adams fans from the Whiskeytown days were waiting for. As with Cold Roses, the reason I like Adams so much is evident here: like all his best work, the record plays to me like old records by the Band, Neil Young, Van Morrison; you could put him in the changer with those artists and not wince when his tunes come up. RIYL: Hank Williams, the high lonesome, Whiskeytown, Cold Roses.

5. Jim Boggia, Safe in Sound
I first discovered Jim Boggia doing a solo set at an afternoon IPO gig in December of 2001, shortly after George Harrison died. He sound checked with an introspective "Long, Long, Long," which I found quite touching, and on the phone discussing what numbers he was to do at an upcoming Harrison tribute, he asked for "Wah-Wah-- the song, not the store." I laughed, and he shrugged and said, "Hey, I'm from Philly." He's a super good guy, he plays a lot with perrenial favorite Jill Sobule, and his first record, Fidelity is the Enemy, was great in a sort of Josh Rouse vein. So good, in fact, that it took me almost all year to hear this one on its own, and not in terms of the first one. Safe in Sound, like everything Boggia does, is comfortable in its own skin and its Beatle references. Lusher, obviously a bigger budget record than Fidelity is the Enemy, full of breezy hummable pop songs featuring Boggia's achingly earnest voice and his exquisite musical sensibilities. Catchy as heck, and it'll grow on ya fer sure. We have met the enemy, and they is us. RIYL: Josh Rouse, Help!, post-surf Beach Boys. Add a point if you're from Philly.

6. Los Super Seven, Heard It on the X
The third album by this rotating cast of Tex-Mex banditos. This time out one of my favorites, Calexico, serves as house band as ten diffrerent vocalists sing lead on 12 different tracks, different styles but all evocative of Tex-Mex border radio (the high-wattage "X" call letter stations south of the border that give the record its title.) Highlights include Joe Ely singing the Bobby Fuller Four classic "Let Her Dance"; John Hiatt on "I'm Not That Kat (Anymore)"; and, Lyle Lovett on "My Window Faces the South." And Freddie Fender is always great (yes, is too.) It shouldn't sound so seamless, shouldn't flow this well (and I'm ALL about the flow.) But it does. RIYL: Tex and/or Mex, Los Lobos, Calexico, your Americana with a little piquante.

7. Son Volt, Okemah and the Melody of Riot
Son Volt is usually twangy, planted firmly in "alt.country," whatever that is. Truth to tell, I'm not really an expert on this band, I only have one other of theirs, and I bought that one for the Ronnie Wood cover tune. After doing a couple of well-received solo records (which I have not heard, not yet anyway), Jay Farrar reformed Son Volt with an all new cast. What grabbed me inside of fifteen seconds on the first song was the sound of the guitars-- evocative in the best possible way of Neil Young and Crazy Horse on songs like "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere" and "When You Dance (I Can Really Love)." All humming and simmering and crackling and electric; taut rhythm guitars brushing up against each other and sending sparks flying. Several of the reviews at Amazon-- including both spotlight reviews and my own-- invoke Neil Young; it is difficult not to here. The Okemah in the title is Woody Guthrie's birthplace, and the music is deeply-felt Americana, but Young is more of a touchstone throughout. I could wax on longer, but really, I liked it for the way the guitars sound. So I'll wax off now. RIYL: the way guitars sound, chords, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, the real folk blues.

8. The Rolling Stones, A Bigger Bang
Yeah, I know. What can I tell you? You've probably read that its their best since Tattoo You. I'm still reserving that honor for Voodoo Lounge (or at least, for the oft-bootlegged alternate version of it.) At its best, A Bigger Bang is the Stones doing whatever it is they do, and when they do it well, its ageless. Ageless, like Muddy Waters was ageless singing Hoochie Coochie Man in his 70s. This is a really solid 40-minute album, disguised as a spotty, over-long 64+ minute record; in the vinyl age you'd have gotten just the 10 best songs instead of all 16 , and it would be an everybody's year-end list (Some Girls was 10 songs and 41 minutes.) Try this one without tracks 3, 9, 10, 11, 13, and 14 and see what you have left. RIYL: The Stones.

9. Susan Tedeschi, Hope and Desire
I love a record with a concept (as opposed to a concept album.) Here the concept is, Tedeschi sings but does not play guitar; every song is a brilliantly-chosen cover; and the core band is a group of ace studio pros. Joe Henry produces with great empathy for the artist (he may be producer of the year; he was also responsible for Ani DiFranco's Knuckle Down, and Aimee Mann's The Forgotten Arm.) The result is something that sounds like an old soul classic, like an early-70s Al Green record. Husband Derek Trucks shows up on three songs, his entrance on the Stones cover "You Got the Silver" is unmistakable; he's one of those guitarists that you know immediately by his tone. Clapton's sidekick Doyle Bramhall II is the house guitarist here. My favorite track is Bob Dylan's "Lord Protect My Child," which Ms. T-T sings the hell out of. Some fans have been critical of this release because she doesn't do her own stuff or play guitar; its "only" a cover album. But the thing works, and the next one she'll be fronting her band again on original tunes, so what the hey. This one has the flow mojo going on. RIYL: Otis, Aretha, and Al Green; Bonnie Raitt; Clapton and the Allman Brothers.

10. Neil Young, Prairie Wind
Ryan Adams, Son Volt, even Josh Rouse and Jim Boggia all testify to the enduring impact Neil Young has on-- well , on the records I seem to like. His own this year was a good one; folk-rock in the general vein of Harvest, Comes a Time, Harvest Moon, like that. You imagine him on the tour with the harmonica thing around his neck. His work has been spotty this century-- Greendale was quite good, Are You Passionate, not so much. Here he confronts mortality, and if he's older and mellowed, I still bet on him burning out as opposed to fading away. Even if he is singing about Elvis here ("He was the king") instead of Johnny Rotten. RIYL: Harvest, Comes a Time, oh hell, you know if you'll like this or not.

11. Van Morrison, Magic Time
Nothing special as Van Morrison albums go. Which makes it one of the best of the year. More shaman Celtic soul that goes down as smooth as Tupelo Honey, still. A genre exercize, but the genre is Van Morrison Records, and he makes the best ones. RIYL: any Van Morrison record since 1990.

12. Ryan Adams, 29
And that's the hat trick. Obviously you probably won't like the guy as much as I do; I've got him placing three records in my dozen favorite of 2005, so I must be biased, and I plead guilty. This one is a "solo" record as opposed to the other two, which were band efforts with the Cardinals. The first track is so much a rewrite of the Dead's "Truckin'" that at first I thought it was a cover, but he does it like Paul Westerberg would. The rest of the album is minor key, piano-based, melancholy. My wife, again: "Its sad, but I like it." But hell, check out my spotlight review at Amazon. RIYL: Ryan's Love is Hell; rainy days.

13. Iron and Wine, Woman King
13. Iron and Wine & Calexico, In the Reins
Two EPs that I'm letting share a slot (an EP is like a mini-record; these are each about 25 minutes long and $7.) Iron and Wine is Sam Beam, a folk singer from Florida with a beard and a whispery voice who seems to be quite popular with 20-something women (judging from the crowd at the Calexico/Iron & Wine show I saw at Webster Hall.) Woman King is 6 songs thematically linked by their subject matter (females), highlighted by "Jezebel." Not really long enough to merit inclusion on its own, but certainly good enough; I missed last year's Our Endless Numbered Days, so I'm making amends now. In the Reins is a collaberation between the two acts, and on paper it shouldn't work, but boy does it ever. Hypnotic and beguiling; this and the Los Super Seven will have to last us until the next proper Calexico album. RIYL: American folk music; whispered vocals; organic sounds.

14. Big Star, In Space
Yet another Amazon spotlight review by moi. Much-anticipated by fans of the original band who put out three little-heard records in the 70s (I mean the band put them out, not the fans; although the fans have been puting out records ever since.) that helped define the genre of power pop. Is this a worthy successor to those three discs, part of the collective Rosetta Stone of power pop? Uh, no. No, it is not. What it is, is the record that you'd expect the current version of Big Star to make right now. It sounds more like a solo Alex Chilton record in some places, or like the Posies in others (Posies Auer and Stringfellow join original members Chilton and drummer Jody Stevens), than it does Radio CIty. Turns out that stripped of expectations and baggage, that's pretty good. I call it the dance party record of the year, if your idea of a dance party includes "Cool Jerk." RIYL: solo Chilton; the Posies; the Beach Boys; Memphis soul.

15. Bruce Springsteen, Diamonds and Dust
It is nigh on impossible to be objective about Springsteen's work; he is as close to mythic as anyone. Ponder that; he isn't a celeb, he's mythic; on an imaginary spectrum with Paris Hilton on the left and Paul Bunyon on the right, he's hard right. ("Saw him back in '78... played for four hours... stood eight feet tall...") I did not care for The Rising-- it didn't please my ears, the production sounded thin, the instruments were mushed together, and every time I played it I looked at my watch, which is almost always a bad sign. But this one is a fine solid outing, a durable gritty collection of modern folk songs best compared to Nebraska (but not really) or Ghost of Tom Joad. Others may like it more, but I go for records based on how they sound, as opposed to lyrical content, and this one is heavy on the lyrical content, so much of the charm goes right over my head. Of course the release of the Born to Run anniversary edition places all his post-River work in a dimmer light. (By the way, I should mention that my Sony dual disc won't play on my Sony CD player. What's up with that?) RIYL: Ghost of Tom Joad; Woody Guthrie; everything Springsteen does (in which case you have this already.)

16. Ani DiFranco, Knuckle Down
As much as I love Ani, her studio records since the double Reveling/Reckoning have melted into a sort of amiable sameness. This one sounds nice, with organic timbres and a breathing vibe I attribute partly to Joe Henry's deft production (Ani doesn't generally work with outside producers.) Better, I think, would be to grab one of her official bootlegs for sale at Righteous Babe; especially the duo sets with bassist Todd Sickafoose (try 11/15/04). Ani is still great live, but I want her to make another visceral, concise, bracing record, as opposed to the moody jazzy sweeping stuff she's been doing, which I like, but which just doesn't play to her strengths. Her website describes this as "some of the most inviting music in Ani's career," and I agree-- but I don't want Ani inviting me, I want her in my face. And Ani, I love ya. RIYL: Rikkie Lee Jones; poetry/folk/jazz; cool mint heartbreak.

17. Amos Lee, Amos Lee
Man, did I not want to like this record. Marketed (through Starbucks!) as the male Norah Jones (she even shows up on 2 tracks), dude's on the cover with jazzbo stubble and hepcat hat; had faux cool written all over it. But.. those... damn... songs. Sound byte him as James Taylor meets Philly soul; a very 70s charm but unique in that those two old schools don't generally graduate together. Maybe I'll get lucky and hate his next one. RIYL: Norah Jones; grande no fat lattes; Adam Duritz.

18. Oteil and the Peacemakers, Believe
I could easily have put this one a whole lot higher, and maybe I should have. The record positively drips soul and spirit and faith, but here faith is a groove, not a sermon. Recorded almost entirely live on the first take to capture the spontaneity of a live show, very funky, jazzy, soulful. Jazzy jamband fare, the songs are given time to develop, allowing for the moments that occur when musicians play together in the now to unfold in their own time. And remember, I'm all about the flow. RIYL: the Allman Brothers; Jack Johnson-era Miles; the influences of James Brown and Hendrix; faith.

19. Ike, In Real Life
The second outing from this well-pedigreed Philly Phoursome. Power Pop the way it oughta be, and "Into Philadelphia," the second track, was hands down one of the best songs of the year. Click on that link and check out the tune on MySpace. I go through a lot of Power Pop, and find too much of it to be generic; but these guys are the real deal. RIYL: power pop.

20. Tan Sleeve, American Blood
Honestly, I liked last year's Bad From Both Sides better-- I thought that one flowed better, whereas the songs on this one don't seem to lead into each other; all are fine in their own right but they sounded more like one band last time out. The two political songs that bookend the set-- "American Blood" and "Condoleeza Will Lead Them"-- are rockin' tunes, but they seem a little out of place, as if "American Woman" had appeared on Number One Record. Better, "Baby Took a Good Man Down," a great quirky Lane tune; "The Girls Like the Hits;" and, the epic Steve Barry song "When Lindsey Buckingham Shaved His Beard," an "American Pie" for the next generation which could be sub-titled "The day the music died again." RIYL: Beatles; Beach Boys; Big Star; Bachrach; Big Oil.

*******

People raved about the new McCartney record, but it left me cold. I spent a couple of days with it, then by chance my iPod served up 1976 Wings tune "Beware My Love." When it became abundantly clear that this was the best McCartney song I'd heard in days, I put the new album away. NIgel Goodrich (Radiohead etc.) produced it, and I think that was a mistake; morose ballad after morose ballad without any pay-off, and with Paul McCartney, if the whimsy is missing, what have you got, really?... Beck's Guero was interesting, and I don't want to call it forgettable, but I can't remember a damn song off it... One of these days everything will snap into place and I'll suddenly "get" New Pornographers. I'm really looking forward to that day, because a whole bunch of people who's tastes I really respect love the bejeezus out of them. Maybe I'm just not giving them a fair shake... I liked both Bright Eyes albums (the two studio records that came out in January), but for whatever reason, neither stuck to my ribs as the year wore on, and both fell from the list. I preferred the electronic one, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, but both were betrayed by Oberst's annoying vocal resemblance to Steve Forbert... Ry Cooder's Chavez Ravine was real nice, and in time I may regret its omission here... Andy Mac, who APW readers will remember from his SOD appearance herein, put out a solid self-produced CD of acoustic-guitar-and-harmony-laden power pop. Watch this kid... and I loved the Marianne Pillsburys 3-song EP, which you can download free at their MySpace page, and the Prince cover is especially recommended... Sheryl Crow's Wildflower hit me early but faded; to her credit her goal was to evoke Harvest and All Things Must Pass, and I think she succeeded. SHe might want to consider evoking Tuesday Night Music Club once in a while... She still rates high on my list of people I'd like to spend an afternoon listening to records naked with... The Vinyl Kings record Time Machine sounded like a Beach Boys session at Abbey Road in 1968, and was great fun in the summer...

King Crimson, Ani DiFranco, Gov't Mule, Hall & Oates, and of course my home boys the Allman Brothers all released great live stuff-- "official bootlegs"-- via Instant Live or via download or through their websites. I listened to some of these as much as anything else this year. I could easily have populated a top-20 list with such live releases; said list would have surely included the Allman Brothers from Red Rocks (9/18/05) and Hall & Oates from Jones Beach (8/26/05.)

Labels:


Posted by: --josh-- @ 7:46 AM  


7 Comments:
At 12/29/2005 3:47 AM, Anonymous relativelytom said...   

Jeezus josh!
(and no folks, josh is NOT Jeezus' last name. or at least... oh, never mind!)

anyway, it's good to know there's guys like you out there whose taste in music I respect, even tho the palette of that 'taste' does (at times) seem a bit limited to me. still, imo you do as good a job as anyone when it comes to representing all of the essential musical 'food groups' so I won't argue what's NOT there on your table and just stick to commenting on what IS.

Ryan Adams -- ain't got none, ain't heard none (that I know of) but plan to corret that after your 3 course serving suggestions.

Sufjan Stevens -- I been meaning to buy this after hearing a live boot of him performing what appeared to me to be some amazing stuff... thought I saw 'god' while hurling down the road on a desert highway in AZ. my friend has been promising me a copy of this boot for far too long now... the bastard.

Josh Rouse -- pass. 1972 didn't work too well for me (his album, not the year in general, which was a Great One as you well know) so I doubt Nashville would do it either.

regarding Calex/Mex and all the restX -- yes, yex! always loved the Lobos, the Blasters, and the likes of Freddy Fender, Doug Sahm and the Tejas Tornadoes, so guess I'll have to add some Los Super 7 to my fine wining and dining and... ironing??? -- doh!

Son Volt -- what? what? NY, Ronnie
Wood, and Woodie Guthrie all in one review??? say no more, say no more...

Rolling Stones -- no argument there. definitely more my thing then McCartney... still macca impressed me more then he has in YEARS! and to be honest, the old stuff just leaves me cold anymore.
yeah sure, it was all good once... probably will be again some day but for now I'll take the new sampler plate and let the old 'cold cuts' forment in the fridge awhile longer yet... unless I get the urge for a Hot Wing or two... could happen, I guess... altho for me the 'meat and pototoes' of his solo career will always be his first two releases... and for me, the new one is the third. the rest leave me needing a slug of pepto bismal or two.

Van Morrison -- Tupelo Honey, huh?
Hmmm...

Springsteen -- always liked the guy so I'm sure this probably wouldn't disappoint. say, does he play guitar like did on Zevon's "Disorder In The House?" --cuz THAT is the Bruuuce I love the best!

and to wrap this up:

Tedeshi, DiFranco -- maybe
Big Star -- no thanx

and the rest I've not heard much of but plan to give you credit if and when I should happen to chance upon a tastee tid bit.

oh, and maybe you should give Beck's "Guero" another try cuz the tunes you can't remember are called E-Pro and Black Tambourine, amongst others...

and I will TOTALLY forgive you for omitting Arcade Fire's "Funeral" from your list... even tho I don't usually have much mercy for Old Farts who are younger then ME!

christ jeezuz... what a world!

okay...
back to your regularly scheduled programming...


At 12/29/2005 10:48 AM, Blogger --josh-- said...   

Jeez Tommy, don't be buying all those records just because I said so. Every time someone does that I feel like I owe them $15 if they don't like it... You're probably right about the Beck, although my favorites of his are Mutations, Midnight Vultures, and Sea Change, a list from which Odelay is conspicuously absent. And Funeral, for all its buzz this year, was an ;04 release and thhus not eligible for APW's list.

Rawk on dood.


At 12/29/2005 11:08 AM, Blogger Thrasher said...   

Nice list and some good calls.

I can relate to the "tastes of a young-at-heart middle-aged guy who didn't like 80s synth pop the first time around".

And the influence of Neil Young on Ryan Adams, Jay Farrar, & Josh Rouse is spot on. Haven't heard of Jim Boggia, but I'll check out.

You can check some of our list overlap on my blog.


At 12/29/2005 11:51 AM, Anonymous relativelytom said...   

Josh -- just for the record, part of the reason I frequent the lists is to 'expose myself' to new and exciting musical possibilities, so don't feel at all resposible for whatever purchase choices I may make.

however, if it makes ya feel any better I can always send ya the bill?

now, over to thrasher's blog...


At 12/29/2005 1:09 PM, Blogger The Rock Robot said...   

I'll have to listen to more Iron + Wine. I checked out the track Woman King and loved it! Also, I have been seeing Ryan Adams a lot on these end of year lists (partly due to having three albums no doubt), and Sufjan Stevens has been number 1 or 2 on at least 20 lists I've checked out...so I went out and ordered it immediately.

Thanks for the list (and for adding some Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and Rolling Stones).


At 12/29/2005 10:31 PM, Anonymous pia said...   

Was going to buy the Sun Volt cd one day; forgot and bought seven others. Later realized I really only like one song on it

Into a very weird music stage: Zevon and the subdudes mostly with stops for a number of the above


At 12/30/2005 3:17 PM, Anonymous Annie said...   

We are into an even wierder music stage; our is called the A.B. Newman Delusional Stage and you can find it just after the third Serzone goes down. We like mid-sixties Sammy Davis Jr. (everything before and not including "Candy Man"). Mostly we are spending quality time with our new faux-pod which was made by Samsung on instruction from Al Quaeda to drive middle-aged music lovers crazy. It flashes...it blinks...it does everything but play music! And it looks like we got it out of a $1 bubblegum machine! Happy New Year to all and to all a good night!


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