2005 closes with better music

Mike Morrone

The year is beginning to shudder to an inevitable close. As we all descend to the places of commerce to obtain the perfect presents for each other while Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” abuses our collective ears, I compiled a list of some very good records from this year. I know that this could never be a full list; time constraints alone have prevented me from getting to so many new albums and artists. Because of this knowledge, there is no record of the year. This is simply a list of records whose qualities and talents rightfully place them collectively above the pack, but not above each other (in alphabetical order).

-The A-Sides – “Hello, Hello”: The A-Sides’ sound meshes uplifting harmony with jam-packed instrumentation. It seems like a throwback to 1970s AM radio – channeling Phil Specter producing the Beach Boys. Ten tracks of vibrant color and warmth in late April. Then “Here of There” mixes the aforementioned with a pysch-meets-shoegazer propulsion. Go support the (sort of) locals, whose album is on Scranton, Pa. label Prison Jazz Records.

-Bear vs. Shark – “Terrorhawk”: Post-hardcore with one of the coolest band names ever. Indecipherable screaming entwines with speedy guitar riffs. “Terrorhawk” is a lot to take in at first listen – the insistent energy begs (sometimes) cheap comparisons to a host of other indie and emo acts. You can hear, if you listen closely (from the other end of the room) early Cursive, early …Trail of Dead, early Minus the Bear. They even compare themselves to Modest Mouse and the Mars Volta. Being compared to at least one of those five bands should pique your curiosity.

-Bloc Party – “Silent Alarm”: Their hype was nauseating at the beginning of the spring. It doesn’t matter. With cover photography reminiscent of a Joy Division single, and Gang of Four aesthetics (sorry guys, I am NOT buying you saying you hadn’t heard of them until the press pointed out the similarities), Bloc Party make music in “Technicolor.” Admirable in that it seems like a throwback while still sounding as if it could be created in the future and be deemed compelling and noteworthy. Also, look for “Silent Alarm Remixed” featuring remixes by Mogwai, Phones and the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Nick Zinner.

-Bright Eyes – “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning”: Some may consider Conor Oberst pretentious to the levels of a Ryan Adams, but he can make some damn fine music to back it up (so can Adams but none of his three albums from this year are on this list). Oberst brings in Emmylou Harris and Jim James (of My Morning Jacket, whose album “Z” probably should be on here) to make another painfully earnest record asking all the poignant questions. One thing: Conor, don’t rip off Beethoven (“Road to Joy”) without at least giving him some sort of credit.

-Broken Social Scene – “Broken Social Scene”: The uber-collective (seventeen people!) from Toronto makes a less intimate record than “You Forgot it in People,” filled with squalls of cacophony. Bursting with ideas and featuring Murray Lightburn (of the Dears), Broken Social Scene boasts indelible experimentation. Its intensity springs from its emotional openness as well as the unabashed determination to throw literally anything and everything into the mix. Let it wash over you like a My Bloody Valentine record. (Look for the version of this album that comes with the “To Be You and Me” EP.)

-The Decemberists – “Picaresque”: The visual presentation of this album is thorough (scenes from a play and the playbill which more than in passing resembles Bjork’s video for “Bachelorette,”) and also unnecessary. Any doubts from the album’s appearance wash away by the two-minute mark of the opener “The Infanta.” Colin Meloy’s distinct vocals build the drama while the insistent drums propel the song seemingly to new unexplored heights. Verbosity mixes with rich instrumentation (trombones, tenor saxophones.) Petra Haden adds to the whole. If you underestimate this album, it will surely blow you away.

-Franz Ferdinand – “You Could Have it so Much Better”: This list’s toughest call. A fine album, but honestly pales in comparison to the note-perfect debut. But if you think about it, few things are bigger than the original that came before it. The only two things that immediately come to mind are World War II and “The Empire Strikes Back.” And neither of these things necessarily ended well for everybody involved. I suggest that everyone just chill out and enjoy this album, and hope beyond all hope that they have a few more albums of this type of undeniably fun music in them, for the children.

-The Go! Team – “Thunder, Lightning, Strike!”: Some have described this album as having been made by a bunch of cheerleaders. I say it is a double shot of pixie stix and Jolt Cola mixed with reckless youthful exuberance and abandon. The album has so many samples. My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields (who is getting a lot of mentions in this article for someone who hasn’t compiled an album of material since 1991) is remixing two of their songs. Talk about an unlikely pairing.

-Joggers – “With a Cape and a Cane”: My problems with the bass still persist, but this record is the perfect extension of “Solid Guild.” The songs shudder and groove at odd intervals, and yet again, “Wicked Light Sleeper” is a ridiculous joy. Believe it.

-Cass McCombs – “PREfection”: From the criminally overlooked files. Cass is a singer/songwriter who truly has no peer. He is surrounded by top-flight players, and his artistic vision is as beautiful as it is haunting. Ethereal and without a doubt exceptional, “PREfection” is better after repeated listens.

-The New Pornographers – “Twin Cinema”: I love Neko Case. There, I said it. I am not ashamed. She is arguably the best female vocalist of the last fifteen years. She sings an absolute killer version of the Shangri-la’s “Train from Kansas City,” (found on her live album “The Tigers Have Spoken.”) “Twin Cinema” is surely a worthwhile listen, but why on Earth wouldn’t you feature her more prominently? I do not expect every song to be “Letter from an Occupant,” but not utilizing her more is like having a Lotus and driving 35 mph on the highway with it.

-Queens of the Stone Age – “Lullabies to Paralyze”: Basically every major record in the spring to early summer disappointed in some way. This one didn’t. Maybe I just didn’t have any expectations for the band since one of their two primary musicians, bassist Nick Oliveri, was ousted from the group. Josh Homme and his rotating cast of characters just chug along anyway, making very aggressive, very good modern rock. “Everybody Knows That You Are Insane” goes for the throat.

-Rogue Wave – “Descended Like Vultures”: Freed from the Napoleon Dynamite associations, this album at first listen plays like a “Chutes Too Narrow” version 2.0. It is so much more though, as the Sub Pop-backed band indicates that they have an unending amount of articulate guitar pop and indie rock to go along with their harmonies. The work of an entire band and this is a welcome development.

-Spoon – “Gimme Fiction”: Spoon was run over by the major labels earlier in their career, and they lived to tell about it. “Gimme Fiction” is diverse yet accessible. “The Beast and Dragon, Adored” features a shuffling rhythm. The album uses a piano to great effect, emphasizing rising crescendos and adding to the feedback and distortion. Another album that will surprise you given half a chance, so don’t just skip to “I Turn my Camera on.”

-Sufjan Stevens – “Illinois”: What else can be said about a seventy minute plus concept album about the land of Lincoln? Well, the bridge between parts one and two of “Come on! Feel the Illinoise!” is still so downright beautiful that it can be nearly tear-inducing after the hundredth listen. Sufjan is an immense talent.

Things were so much better musically when we when younger (or not alive.) The top five reissues of the year are:

-David Bowie – “David Live and Stage”: These are two concert albums from the 1970s reissued with bonus tracks, undeniably showing Bowie was the best, no matter what the persona.

-Gang of Four – “Entertainment!”: This album influences everything nowadays, and has been doing so for the last 26 years or so. (Fun fact: bassist Dave Allen liked “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” by Bright Eyes.)

-The Stooges – “Self Titled and Funhouse”: The Stooges were punk before punk, yada, yada, yada. “I Wanna be your Dog” features sleigh bells. The rest feature apoplectic fury at the world.

-Orange Juice – “The Glasgow School”: A band that should be as well known as the Smiths and was clearly just as influential, just ask Alex Kapranos (Franz Ferdinand) and Stuart Murdoch (Belle And Sebastian.) Does anyone know where I can get “You Can’t Hide Your Love Away Forever” or “Rip it Up” on vinyl? Seriously? E-mail the entertainment editor if you do.

-Belle And Sebastian – “Push Barman to Open Old Wounds”: A stunning collection of the non-LP singles from one of Glasgow’s finest. Get it.