My long-suffering editor at Tor, Liz Gorinsky, has excellent and eclectic taste in music. She's been kind enough to put together her selections for the best of the year. A really great list.
When Jeff first asked me if I could make a list of my favorite music of 2005, I was a bit worried that there hadn't been enough albums I loved to add up to a proper list. But in the process of relistening to the albums I'd bought and researching a few things I'd missed, I somehow emerged with 10+ items I'm proud to recommend (plus a few I'm proud to snark at). Thanks to Jeff for motivating me to discover that ought-5 was a pretty good year for music after all, and to his readers for putting up with me while I explain why.
BEST OF 2005
Best Reason to Get In Touch With Your Inner Hippie: Although it's been 38 years since the Summer of Love, it's impossible to walk around with hair as long as mine without occasionally being accused of being a hippie. But that's a stereotype I'll gladly take on if that's what it takes to be a Devendra Banhart fan. Cripple Crow, his latest, provides the best insight yet into Banhart's earthchild soul, as he slips in and out of Spanish and discusses his desire to raise long-haired children, stop war, and marry little boys, all the while spreading loving genderqueer ideals around the world with the help of an assemblage of bearded freaks called the Hairy Fairy Band and an endless barrage of songs that ricochet from spirited and silly to gorgeous and sincere.
Best Payoff For Superstition: Devolving into personal narrative for a moment, somewhere in my youth I developed an odd habit wherein, every time I noticed a digital clock that read 11:11, I'd stand stock still and stare at the readout until the minute elapsed and the numbers were no longer homogenous. When I discovered a few months into college that one of my first-year floormates did the exact same thing, I instantly suspected that we'd be friends forever. History has thus far done a fine job of bearing that out. So a few years later when, in my nascent Regina Spektor fandom, I found out that she'd recorded a whole album called 11:11, I was pretty certain that we were in it for the long term as well.
Fast-forward to a few weeks ago, when the Best Of 2005 lists started coming out. I found myself particularly intrigued by what I was reading about Andrew Bird, who I'd heard of, but just barely. So I download the free MP3 from his web site, adore it, discover that he's written a song called "11:11", download that too, pick up The Mysterious Production Of Eggs, and watch as it effortlessly becomes one of my favorite albums of the year. I suspect that the fact that Eggs bears more than a little resemblance to The Divine Comedyorchestral swells, pretty-boy vocals, a penchant for songs about topics that no sane person would write songs about, and alldidn't hurt, but I'm not too guilty about it. After all, there's always room in this world for more well-executed schmaltz.
Lamest Payoff For Superstition: On the other hand: Maria Taylor's bland, utterly missable 11:11. Bleah.
Best Use of a Gateway Drug: Even though I've been hearing good things about The Decemberists for years, none of the buzz took until a friend made me watch the video for "16 Military Wives". It's hardly ingenious to point out how easily said video summarizes to "Rushmore + politics - 88 minutes", but how better to describe something that's not only a spot-on Wes Anderson tribute, but a stirring and cleverly metafictional paean to the power of the protest song? "Wives" proved more-than-ample impetus to finally get me to check out Picaresque, its source album. On it, you'll find ten more songs that boast vocabulary and historicity to rival your dreamboat high school social studies teacher, thus proving that "Wives" is no fluke and cementing the Decemberists as one of the smartest bands in the business.
Best EP / Worst Miscalculation: I'm not the first to note that 2005 saw formerly white-hot brother-and-sister duo The Fiery Furnaces earn the rare distinction of releasing both one of the year's best albums (their self-titled EP, which, at over 41 minutes, handily tops out a lot of other bands' full-length CDs) and one of the most-reviled (Rehearsing My Choir). Granted, no matter which data set you look at, the Furnaces are an acquired taste. Even the fans that find them creative, quirky, adventurous, and addictive can hardly deny accusations that they're also atonal, vaguely awkward, and weirdly disengaged in concert. Or, as my roommate once remarked upon seeing me rock out to Blueberry Boat: "Wait, so you actually like the Fiery Furnaces? I thought everyone just pretended to like them."
Suffice it to say, thatsince I really do like this sort of thingI was thrilled silly by their EP, which collects a bunch of B-sides and is positively hummable compared to certain 80-minute concept albums in the Furnaces' past (which are also great, but, y'know, slower about it). It's hard to have such enthusiasm for Rejoicing, an album about which even many respectful reviews had nothing good to say. Most of them concur that recording an album about one's 83-year-old grandmother and casting her as the central vocalist was an interesting and gutsy move... just not "interesting" enough to counterbalance the fact that her deep, warbly old-lady vocals are a distraction from the music underneath and not necessarily pleasant to listen to.
While I appreciate much of Rejoicing, my interest in it is admittedly much more clinical than passionate. The big problem is that I keep flashing back to the Furnaces' last tour, which took place a few weeks before Rejoicing went on sale and saw them performing almost the entirety of the new album in sequence. However, as per usual with the Furnaces' live shows, the concert version switched up time signatures, melodies, vocalists, and instrumentation, resulting in a live version radically different and considerably rock-ier than what wound up on the album, and leaving the audience palpably excited by and wildly appreciative of the new material. Now, I'm no business managerand far be it from me to question a band so stubbornly inventive that even the indie kids don't know what to do with thembut if I were them I'd certainly be thinking about leaking a few bootlegs right now. There's clearly music in Rejoicing somewhere. I just wish they'd decide to let it out.
Best Reason to Embrace Chaos: You've heard plenty about Gogol Bordello's Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike on Jeff's blog already, so I won't belabor the point. Except to say: If the concept of raucous, jubilant, utterly unpredictable Ukranian gypsy punk music piques your interest even a little bit, you do yourself a disservice not to give it a try. If it doesn't pique your interest, I suspect it must be because you're terrified of becoming instantly bored with the rest of your CD collection. Start wearing purple, indeed.
Best Band With No Albums: One of the best cures for falling hard for a band, only to discover that they broke up a few months before you got there, is finding out that they're already partway back on their feet. Luckily, the folks at the Secret Unicorns Forum are on the case, carefully gathering live and rare material from the Unicorns and their spin-off projectsincluding Nick Diamonds and J'aime Tambour's rap group Th' Corn Gangg, Alden Penner's solo material, and Islands, featuring Nick, J'aime, and an uncertain array of other indie rock somebodies (think: eight-to-ten man band playing odd, cheerful rock)and offering them as free downloads for one-third of each month. Islands, who have been playing shows since October and have an album due in early 2006, are certainly the most prolific group to emerge from the ashes of The Unicorns. While they're not quite as good as The Unicorns, that still leaves a lot of room for them to be pretty darn great. What made it for me is how endearingly dorky they are live: I mean, you don't go to many packed rock shows where the band's two violinists jig on stage or pass time while the singer's changing a guitar string by launching into a sneaky impromptu duet of "Turkey in the Straw". Curious? Check back at the Forum after the 20th and download a few live tracks. Sure, it's barely legal, but what am I gonna do... wait until March to hear 'em? Tscha.
Best Album You Can't Get in the US: Although Jeffrey & Jack Lewis' City & Eastern Songs only has distribution in Europe and the UK, many of Jeff's American fans will be familiar with much of what's on it, sincelike most antifolk artistshe spends years perfecting songs at live shows before taking them into the studio. Nonetheless, there's still much about City that will surprise them, since all of the songs on it have considerably more polished and lush arrangements than any of his prior recordings. These ornate backings mark a fascinating change from the low-fi fare we're used to, but as usual, it's Jeff's masterful lyricsfrom the heartbreakingly truthful "Don't Be Upset" to "Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror," assuredly the funniest song that's yet been written about gender politics, relativities of genius, and being sodomized by indie rock starsthat make this album so brilliant. You can hear a few tracks at the BBC's Collective... and, yes, there are stores that'll import it if you're as desperate as I was.
Most Bizarre Musical Event: I must have been hiding under a rock this Halloween, because it wasn't until November that I first heard "Do They Know It's Hallowe'en?" by the mysterious North American Halloween Prevention Initiative. NAHPI was actually spearheaded by ex-Unicorn Nick Diamonds, who inspired folks as diverse as Beck, Elvira, David Cross, The Arcade Fire, and an Inuit throat-singer to get together and record a response to Band Aid's awful, insulting "Do They Know It's Christmas?" benefit single. Odder still, creepy creepy VICE magazine funded this effort and is donating all profits to UNICEF. Throw in a music video that employs five or six totally different animation styles, and you've got yourself... well, something pretty damn weird. And, incidentally, pretty damn awesome.
Most Needful of a Time Machine: The problem with albums by old-timey artists like Langhorne Slim is that no matter how good they are, they can only ever vaguely approximate the vitality and exuberance of the live act: the hand-claps, the sing-alongs, the absurd thrill of watching Langhorne hop off the stage with his guitar and join the audience as they dance wildly to an extended jam version of his closing song. It is therefore a testament to the strength of When The Sun's Gone Down that even the recorded version can't help but convey an aesthetic so appealing that you'll desperately want to trade your suit-jacket for a snappy vest, hop a train straight back to 1930, and simultaneously fall in love with and become desperately jealous of whichever woman he happens to be serenading.
Best 2005 Album That Came Out In 2003: 2005 was a weird year to be a fan of literary piano pixie Regina Spektor, the year where her transition from teenage immigrant to opener for the opening acts at basement antifolk shows finally culminated in the Sire Records release of Soviet Kitsch. Of course, crazy Reginka fans like me have been clutching Kitsch in our hot little hands since 2003, when they did a limited pressing of it for her opening stint for The Strokes. Luckily, the sting of having to share our Russian doll with hordes of major label fans has been dulled by the fact that it gave us a charming video for her single "Us" and newfound clout that she's levied into 2-hour+ concerts where she didn't even play said single. If you have yet to make Reginka's acquaintance, never fear: her web page streams not only the video for "Us," but significant portions of each of her albums to date. Listen to it all: 2002's Songs is even better.
Best Revisitation: Alright, so it's not technically a revisitation if you hear the new version first. But since I missed the boat when Julian Crouch first staged Shockheaded Peter in 1998, I was thrilled silly when they bought it back to New York this year. The show is a musical adaptation of Heinrich Hoffmann's Struwwelpeter, a German book of cautionary tales for children, with songs by the inimitable Tiger Lillies, a three-piece English band who somehow made their name via bizarre falsetto-and-accordion-fronted songs on macabre topics (including an adaptation of unpublished Edward Gorey stories that netted them a Grammy nom). After falling hard for the show, I tracked down the soundtrack CD and was surprised to find a recording just as good as but quite different than what I'd heard live, with radically different tempos, arrangements, melodic emphases, and the like (check out the videos for a comparison). No matter: get it any way you can, but if ever a ghoulish eight-year-old has existed inside of you, you must add Shockheaded Peter to their etiquette regimen at once.
Grudgingly, I must award a tie in this category to the new Broadway production of Sweeney Todd. Grudgingly, because I'm vaguely notorious for being one of, like, three musical theatre fans who holds the unpopular opinion that Stephen Sondheim oughta stick to what he's good at (lyrics) and leave composition to people with better (credible song):(tuneless mass) ratios. Thus it is a particularly impressive feat thatthanks to gorgeous vocal performances, fine acting jobs, the even-better-than-it sounds conceit of having every actor do double-duty as orchestra member, and a heck of a lot of bloodI was so engaged by this new Sweeney that I couldn't help but find it haunting, witty, and even pretty. You win this round, Mr. Sondheim.
None of these bands released albums in 2005. Still, that was when I made their acquaintance, and all three immediately went into such heavy rotation that they'll permanently echo in my memories for the year. Just in case they haven't hit your radar yet either, here are my top three new old favorites from last year:
If a band you've barely heard of is slated to open for two artists you love (Regina Spektor and the Dresden Dolls) in the space of six weeks, it would be reckless not to pay attention. If they then show up with a bouzouki, a theremin, a glockenspiel, an accordion, a tuba lined with red Christmas lights, and soulful gypsy vocals, and proceed to ply you with gorgeous songs about spurned love, it would almost be criminal. That band is Devotchka, and there's a reason why Filter called them "the best band in America you’ve never heard of". Fix that now.
The Unicorns hit big before I started paying attention to the machinations of Pitchfork and the music blogosphere, so it's somewhat understandable that I didn't hear about them until a friend forcibly pressed a copy of their CD into my hands. What's less understandable is that even after that point it took almost a year of hearing the album on trial-by-shuffle until I got hit by its full weight. But when I was... voilàinstant addiction. The Unicorns are such a bizarre, messy, playful, blend of pathos, banter, and brilliant innovation that I'll get too boring for them long before they get too boring for me.
Try as I might, I can't come up with a better description of the World/Inferno Friendship Society than their own copywriters could: "NYC's disturbingly cult-like, circus-related, Halloween-tent-revival orchestra perform red-eyed soul showtunes for the swarming punk rock masses. [It's] not a rock band with a horn section; it's a fully-integrated orchestra of young men and women writing for you songs of the wine, freedoms and foibles which make life more than waking up and going to work every day." The only thing I regret about falling under W/IFS' spell is that it's very much the sort of music that leads to disturbing propensities (like singing aloud to your iPod or dancing around on deserted subway platforms) from which there are no turning back. Proceed with caution.