Let's just get this out of the way: I'm not really an album person. I'm too critical and my attention span's too short. I know hundreds of what I would consider perfect songs. I could count the number of rock records I consider flawless on one hand, two tops. So . . . these are what came closest to meeting my unreasonable standards in 2005. Number one is a classic for sure. The others--we'll see how time treats them.
10. The Yellow Light, Saw (download)
The album on this list you almost certainly haven't heard of, unless you read SYF regularly. A serendipitous late-in-the-year, low key discovery for me, I'll let my recent post speak for itself.
9. We Have Sound, Tom Vek (US, UK)
I wasn't looking for Tom Vek, but he came along just the same and my year was a little brighter for it. With his groove-y bass lines and playful drumming Vek lets rhythm drive the car--on exhilarating joyrides like "Nothing But Green Lights," slow Sunday afternoon cruises like "C-C" or the almost-out-of-gas, out-of-luck drone poem "On The Road." Vek gets my vote for most promising new artist. Also, most adorable. Also, best series of wacky, low-budget videos.
On The Road - Tom Vek
8. The Evens, The Evens (US, UK)
Ian MacKaye was a known quantity and personal hero. I have a postcard of him and his 1978 Toyota Corolla station wagon--from a photo series of D.C. musicians and their cars by Cynthia Connelly--on the board above my computer. A month doesn't go by that I don't listen to Minor Threat's Complete Discography. But I'm not shy about subjecting my heroes to serious scrutiny. And I was prepared to greet this project with drummer/D.C. hardcore scenester Amy Farina that Dischord was billing as "folk music for punks" with a basket of rotten eggs and spoiled fruit. But Goddamn if this folk-punk-whatever power duo thing doesn't work. You expect MacKaye to be able to write songs and play them, but did you know he could actually sing? And Farina's drumming is a revelation--her hand light and elegant, her gorgeous, cascading percussive patterns thrown into relief by the record's intimate production.
Around The Corner - The Evens
7. Black Sheep Boy, Okkervil River (US, UK)
A review of this album is the first thing I ever posted here on Shake Your Fist back in May. I like to think I've grown since then, become a little less stilted and self-conscious. So reading that post is kinda painful for me. And writing about music remains a constant challenge, even though there are plenty of subjects about which I can write with my eyes closed (really!). What can I say? I always take the path of greatest resistance. Anyway, I still love this hyper-literate epic. I've since decided I prefer the Shearwater configuration of these players a little better (on repetition, Will Sheff's voice can grate, Jonathan Meiberg's, on the other hand, is pure honey to these ears), but the strength of these songs and scope of the project are undeniably powerful.
A Stone - Okkervil River
6. The Milk of Human Kindness, Caribou (US, UK)
Techno for rockists, rock for techno geeks or something. Something pretty great. Dan Snaith constructs slippery, elusive melodies on a base of loops and layers, similar to what The Beta Band used to do, but lonelier and more organic. In fact, what I love about this record are those weird chirps and croaks, things that sound like broken shutters flapping and snowdrifts shifting with the wind. When Snaith changed the name from Manitoba to Caribou last year, it was for legal reasons. But it also makes sonic sense. There's a warm-blooded, cold weather animal that wanders within the loose borders of this record.
Pelican Narrows - Caribou
5. Strange Geometry, The Clientele (US, UK)
Mopey, self-pitying boys haven't sounded this good since The Smiths broke up. Laser-cut, jewel-hued guitar lines don't hurt either. Nor does clinging to, and honing, the simplest verse-chorus-verse song structures. Even though it walks a very fine line between pop and twee--Alasdair MacLean's slight lisp and the song cycle's theme of lost love bait skepticism, if not ridicule--The Clientele acquit themselves very nicely indeed. A lovely record all around and one I imagine I'll play a long time, in good times and in bad.
My Own Face Inside The Trees - The Clientele
4. Wilderness, Wilderness (US)
A couple years ago, Spoon's Britt Daniel made the most unintentionally profound statement about rock n' roll I know: "You gotta feel it." You feel Wilderness, physically feel Wilderness. This is an album to scramble your guts, cause life-threatening heart palpitations, trigger grand mal seizures. Singer James Johnson's deranged speak-holler vocals are straight from hell via the locked ward of the asylum. Lead guitar lines wander about listening to voices, the bass booms and lurches threateningly, drums are unpredictable, sometimes precise and well-behaved, then they suddenly descend into dark tribal regions. Clearly, the patients are in charge here. So let's dance the dance of maniacs. Turn the music up, turn it way up.
It's All The Same - Wilderness
3. Twin Cinema, The New Pornographers (US, UK)
Normally, I'm a first album kind of girl. I like bands best when they're young and starving and desperate. But I can't think of the first two New Pornos records as anything other than stellar collections of songs. Twin Cinema, on the other hand . . . now here's an album! In which Carl writes his best tunes yet, in which Dan matches Carl chord for chord, in which Neko sings the slow songs and expresses emotion instead of simply emoting. In which, rumors to the contrary, they all come together and sound like one big happy family.
Star Bodies - The New Pornographers
2. We're Already There, Mazarin (US, UK)
Mazarin wrote We're Already There for me. No really, they did! Quentin Stoltzfus called me up and said, "Amy, we want to make a rock album with all the sounds you really love. Tell us, what do you want to hear?" This kind of offer doesn't come along very often, so I had to think about it for a bit. "Well," I said "I guess, you could start by being influenced by my favorite bands--you know, the Beatles, obviously, the Beach Boys, I like a lot of the Kinks, the Stone Roses, of course, Ride, the E6 Holy Trinity of Neutral Milk Hotel, Apples in Stereo and Olivia Tremor Control. . . and Pavement--I guess I'd have to say Pavement's my favorite band of all time. But try not to sound too derivative. Sound like you're making a 2005 record. And you could do worse than writing in major keys and using a lot of rhythm guitar and fucking things up a bit with a little My Bloody Valentine chainsaw buzz. Oh, and a good beat--but not, you know, too dancy." There was a pause on the line and Quentin finally said, "Yeah, I think we can do that, except for one thing. You won't hear any Pavement." "That's alright," I said, "No one does Pavement well these days. Not even Steve Malkmus."
I'm With You and Constellations - Mazarin
1. Alligator, The National (US, UK)
Forget about this year's most critically-hyped album ostensibly about the Midwest (Indiana? Iowa?), this is the real thing--even if these former Cincinnati residents picked up and moved to Brooklyn. Someone, somewhere called it "Northern Gothic," and I think that's an apt description of its lyrical ingredients--suburban paranoia, big-city addiction, boredom, regret and the best way to gracefully disappear in a room. In "Abel" Matt Berninger yells "My mind's not right" repeatedly, consciously or unconsciously echoing "Skunk Hour," Robert Lowell's great American poem about a dark night of the soul: My mind's not right/ I hear my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell/as if my hand were at its throat. This isn't (just) a gratuitous literary reference. The Lowell poem ends well, with a family of skunks, some trash cans and an averted suicide. And The National's lyrics prove something of a red herring. As Troy rightfully pointed out yesterday, their music is optimistic, with its chiming guitars and one of the most energizing, propulsive rhythm sections around. Sad, but surviving. Mournful, but moving on.
Secret Meeting - The National
Other good listening:
LCD Soundsystem - LCD Soundsystem
The World and Everything in It - The Oranges Band
Wilderness - Archer Prewitt
Lookaftering - Vashti Bunyan
Set Yourself on Fire - Stars
The Mysterious Production of Eggs - Andrew Bird
Oh You're So Silent Jens - Jens Lekman
Such Triumph - The Narrator
Veneer - Jose Gonzalez
Volcano and Heart - The Coral Sea
Apologies To The Queen Mary - Wolf Parade
Next up: Favorite songs, biggest disappointments.