Music Box Report Card: The Best Albums of 2005

I figure I’d give this whole blogging thing a whirl – so many people are doing it, so I figure, what the hell. And what a perfect time, too! I’m sitting here, at home, fading into perpetual boredom, out on 6 weeks medical leave for a meniscus problem.

So how better to bide my time in returning to work than diving head first into dozens and dozens of releases that I either missed, illegally downloaded (I’m ashamed, I’m ashamed), kindly recommended by friends (thanx, Jim Cantiello!!!) or those flying around the pop-culture landscape.

And, I figure, while I have nothing profound to say, at least I’m saying it! So, my initial blog post here on WordPress will be the Best and Worst CDs of 2005. I know it’s only November, but, what the hell.

Here are the beauties. I’ll post the beasts soon…


1 ANTHONY & THE JOHNSONS I Am A Bird Now Like the gospel drenched in raw spirit and soul, there is beauty incarnate seeping from the ravishing voice of each veil that creates who and what Antony is.  His attestation willful and willed, his sacred writ both born and borne, the timeless transcendence in each poem translates to the very core of the human condition, life’s frailties, it’s death and resurrections, it’s dreams and nightmares. Boy George duets with his most powerful vocal ever, and before you dare to snicker, know there isn’t an iota of camp in the intricate lyric or the vocalizations.  Rufus Wainwright, in a usually assured solo vocal, Devendra Banhart, lending his usual unusual harmonies, and Lou Reed all add to this soul fest.  Nothing will prepare you for the dramatic earthquake or heart rendering impact.

2 SHARON JONES & THE DAP KINGS Naturally – Where has Sharon Jones been all my life? Listlessly drudging up mack versions of quasi-soul [check out the R&B charts lately?] or pale, white bread faux artists [see Joss Stone] and sickly tired of female artists trying to imitate of all people [God help us all] Ashanti, this is the real deal. Every so often, terrific neo-soul artists emerge [Angie Stone, John Legend, Van Hunt, Anthony Hamilton] but they bow to their forefathers and foremothers, and they do it genuinely and often with great results.  But then there’s Sharon Jones.  Neo-soul and R&B dross be damned, this is the Mama from Atlanta with the deep fried cadence. With one majestic neo-classic after another, Sharon’s big dirty southern voice wraps it’s sinewy sinfulness around each melody – singing the funk blues so delectable that white folks devour them even though they’re aimed at the black aesthete.  They’re so archetypal, so gorgeous, you have to wonder why no one’s ever thunk them before.  But for all it’s grit, there is a also beauty in her voice that in undeniable…she plays vocally to all of her strengths all the while the back-up-band-from-heaven, the Dap Kings, keep their hypnotic pace – so rarely do you hear such unified universal funk soul brothers drenched with the sexual politico.  And in the aftermath of the most pathetic administration in recent history, rejoice in Jones’ effect in making  ‘This Land Is Your Land’, with its often overlooked 3rd verse, the political statement of the year.

3 KANYE WEST Late Registration Increasingly annoyingly bloated in ego [I know it’s part of the game, but after land-marking the classic dubut into historic significance, a little humility does a body good], West second-bests himself with his brilliant lyrics – give the man propers for being about the only mainstream/top 40 hip-hop neo-icon with a socio-political stream of consciousness.  His sinewy beats and groovy samples, great cameos by Patti LaBelle, who takes ‘Roses’ to literal heights; Brandy, Jay-Z – he only thuds when incorporating the soul-less Adam Levine. 

4 AMY RIGBY Little Fugitive Her best writ since marriage, despair and growing up made her debut a masterpiece a decade ago, and her coolest vocal as well, diary number 5 tackles ex-husbands, ex-wives of new husbands, needy men, dreams of Joey Ramone, all while feeling an infinity with Rasputin.  If only Oprah understood the complexities of real womanhood.  A songwriter nonpareil, with only Lucinda as a peer.  Sheryl Crow could learn a few [dozen] lessons.  Why isn’t this woman a star with 8 Grammy’s and 10 million in the bank?  Oh, yeah…the better for her lovers, like me.

5 M.I.A. Arular  If you don’t believe in her politics, listen to the music – we can’t all be John Lennon.  But we could aspire to be Public Enemy – different genre, same ethos.   With her minimalist approach, she jettisons a rapid-fire selection of rage, humour, politics [sometimes muddled and confusing], sex…but always arresting and thought provoking.  Online pugilists argue the terrorist/Tamil revolutionary ties via her father, and while it’s an important salient subject to spelunk, weaving the politico with the dance floor is an exhilarating art I can’t overlook based on that writ – Madonna could learn a thing or two about juxtaposing them creatively (see AMERICAN LIFE).  She’s a paradigm in the making.

6 GOGOL BORDELLO Gypsy Punks Underdog World Strike  Ukranian Eastern European New Yorkgypsy immigrant punk cabaret, sung in broken English by Eugene Hutz [who needs an exorcist] and played with ferocious intensity by his merry men and women.  The most thrilling CD I’ve heard all year – you’ll be singing along although you’ll have no idea exactly what you are saying.

7 SUFJAN STEVENS Illinois  Hype from hipsters steered me away, the indie-press descants shuddered my shoulders -as well as the God-Is-Love voodoo of his persona and not to mention the seeming state-by-state gimmick – it was difficult not to savor the eccentricity of it all…the sheer eclecticism of subject, the mellifluence he employs so briskly, the outrageous-by-design titles, the peculiar chord progression and song structure, the deft wordplay, the gorgeous melodies – you find new and wondrous things half a dozen times in.  Poet laureate or troubadour, I don’t know [and neither does he], but I want to run with him in the garden and find out.  But first I need to stop in Chicago and visit my sister.  Religiosity is scarce, and while that’s a good thing here, he is so beautiful in his inherent glory that he could take me to church and marry me.  If it were legal.

8 AMADOU ET MARIAM Dimanche a Bamako 30 years on, legendary West Africa couple Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia have their commercial comeuppance in the other-than-world-music sphere, and I am not egotistical or hip enough to admit that you can count me in that group. What I did discover upon the solid recommendation of a sage-in-the-woods is an extraordinary juxtaposition of rhythm and glorious melody and gargantuan beats and a conviction that only 30 years of love could muster.  The great Manu Chao produces with a pristine knowledge and his variegated patterns illuminate the vocal while the whole thing effervesces into an explosion of infectious tunes.  Believe the hype.

9 CLEM SNIDE The End of Love Nothing groundbreaking on album number 5, and that’s a beautiful thing, because if it’s one thing we rely upon with Eef, it’s his absolute sincerity, deadpan surrealism and steadfast belief.  The dichotomy of Brooklyn and Nashville, where he was rooted and sojourned to, trickles in and out of his lyrics, as does loss [he lost his mother this past year, as did his wife], confusion, awareness, and inevitably, love.   It’s a rock n’ stroll by the deftest songwriter since Randy Newman.  Words to live by:  “Now that I’m found I miss being lost…”

10 ALISON MOYET Voice If any aging icon has the inherent right to perform standards, old and newer, it is the impeccable exquisiteness of Moyet’s rich and dense texture.  Her manly, brooding alto brings deep, nascent understanding of the oft-recorded lyrics; it’s almost as if she were borne to sing these.  Her ‘Windmills Of My Mind’ is clearly one of the most brilliant takes of this song ever recorded.   The rest are deliberately paced, slow-burning and permeated with sense and sensuality. While Rod Stewart continues raping the standards canon with his queasy grasp at quasi-relevance, I’ll bask in the glow of Moyet.  This collection’s invisibility is a crime.

11 FIONA APPLE Extraordinary Machine  Eschews Jon Brion for the most part and it’s actually finer-tuned? Now that’s extraordinary! Blossomed from the uneven TIDAL, progressed into WHEN THE PAWN and matured here, ignore the Brion-ophiles – this couldn’t be a tastier Apple.

12 KATE BUSH Aerial The dichotomy of love and hate that has greeted AERIAL from the die-hard’s (blow-hard’s?) negates the obvious – it’s been 12 years since THE RED SHOES – take this for the entity it is and as a work of it’s own.  So, it’s no HOUNDS OF LOVE or THE KICK INSIDE (hell, it ain’t even LIONHEART). What it is is a majestic, sweeping, weird and peculiar tone poem with breathtaking vocals and deft arrangements.  Sure, she’s still a mooncalf, all right – but a brilliant one.  Invisible for more than a decade, which only added to her mystical allure, her child-rearing years has given her that right for an array of new perspectives, as her pen has never been mightier while her serenity remains in focus.  So, maybe it transcends HOUNDS OF LOVE or THE KICK INSIDE (hell, maybe even LIONHEART).

And tied for a Baker’s Dozen, here are equally exceptional releases that I’ve taken to heart – and could easily trade places with most of the Top 12:

BRIGHT EYES I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning Not as wordy as Alanis at his age, not as profound as Dylan at any age, maybe Paul Simon at PAUL SIMON?

SLEATER KINNEY The Woods Riot-grrrl be damned, this is their step toward classic rock.

JOHN  LEGEND Get Lifted Smoothest voice and most sumptuous grooves of the year, thanks in no small part to Kanye West’s master production and Legend’s gorgeous tones, and the poignant track of the year (“Ordinary People”)

ARCADE FIRE Funeral A 2004 release that somehow slipped through my fingers until 2005 and I’m sorry I wasn’t able to succor the beauty until then.

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