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Staff Picks (Part 2 of 5)

 

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Justin Sheppard


1. Sufjan Stevens: Illinois [Asthmatic Kitty]

Isn't
this one kind of obvious? Stevens is the one artist who separated
himself from the pack this year. Building upon the foundation of 2003's
Greetings from Michigan, this album has it all: lush
arrangements, beautiful harmonies and skilled songwriting that explores
myriad themes and emotions. Stevens has given us this century's first
epic pop album.

 

2. Antony & The Johnsons: I Am A Bird Now [Secretly Canadian]

This
year's Mercury Prize winner gave us a beautiful collection of songs
that dared to explore issues of gender and identity candidly and
sincerely. Alongside Antony's haunting vocals, this frankness forms one
of the most affecting albums to come out in years.

 

3. Wolf Parade: Apologies to the Queen Mary [Sub Pop]

With
their Montreal address, connection to the Arcade Fire and Isaac Brock
producing much of the album, expectations were high for Wolf Parade.
It's safe to say the band lived up to the hype generated by their
self-released EP. This music may not be cerebral, but that's just fine.
If you were getting drunk or rocking out in 2005, you were listening to
this album. Or at least you should have been.

 

4. Okkervil River: Black Sheep Boy [Jagjaguwar]

If
there were an award for most-improved band, it would go to Okkervil
River hands down. Expanding beyond the country-inflected sound of their
first three albums, the band members show they know their way around a
hook, too. Vocalist Will Sheff's scrappy voice resonates pain better
than pretty much anyone. Conor Oberst should take notes: This is how
it's done.

 

5. Rogue Wave: Descended Like Vultures [Sub Pop]

How
do you shake some pesky Shins comparisons and forge an identity of your
own? By delivering a catchier, more fleshed-out album than your timid
predecessor, cementing yourself as that band's equal, not its fan club.

 

6. The Mountain Goats: The Sunset Tree [4AD]

John Darnielle delivering an album full of witty and insightful lyrics is nothing new. What makes The Sunset Tree stand
out from the rest of his output is the brutal but touching honesty he
displays in discussing his upbringing. This, and his growing tendency
for more complex arrangements, makes this the most realized album of
Darnielle's distinguished career.

 

7: Bonnie "Prince" Billy & Matt Sweeney: Superwolf [Drag City]

Supposedly
the product of a songwriting challenge made by Will Oldham, this
collaboration seemed strange enough on paper. But Oldham's
often-sardonic lyrics and musical quirks benefited from Sweeney's
steady presence and occasional injections of aggression. The album
reaches heights Oldham hasn't reached since 1999's I See a Darkness.

 

8. M.I.A.: Arular [XL]

When
Elvis Costello said "talking about music is like dancing about
architecture," he was probably having a prophetic vision about Arular.
Words don't do justice to the fusion of cultures and styles that M.I.A.
commands to create her globe-spanning sound. All that can - and need -
be said is that it is simultaneously political and danceable, and that
it is infectious.

 

9. Animal Collective: Feels [FatCat]

Solidifying its position as one of today's most musically creative groups, Feels blends
the eccentricities that made its previous work so provocative with a
more accessible pop aesthetic. It's an ambitious undertaking, but the
band pulls it off almost seamlessly.

 

10. Stars: Set Yourself on Fire [Arts & Crafts]

This Canadian orch-pop collective finally achieved the greatness its previous two albums hinted at with Set Yourself on Fire, an album full of rousing anthems on finding and losing love. One of today's most moving pop acts.

 

·    Honorable mentions:

Devendra Banhart: Cripple Crow [XL]

Laura Veirs: Year of Meteors [Nonesuch]

Bloc Party: Silent Alarm [Vice]

Common: Be [Geffen]

Annie: Anniemal [Big Beat]

Stephen Malkmus: Face the Truth [Matador]

We Are Wolves: Non-Stop Je Te Plie En Deux [Fat Possum]

Andrew Bird: Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs [Righteous Babe]

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah [Self-released]

Dangerdoom: The Mouse and the Mask [Epitaph]

 


Chris Pacifico


20. Sufjan Stevens: Illinois [Asthmatic Kitty]

19. Constantines: Tournament of Hearts [Sub Pop]

18. Devandra Banhardt: Cripple Crow [XL]

17. Mazarin: We're Already There [I and Ear]

16. Apollo Sunshine: Apollo Sunshine [SpinArt]

15. Brazilian Girls: Brazilian Girls [Verve]

14. Meshuggah: Catch Thirty-Three [Nuclear Blast America]

13. Against Me!: Searching for a Former Clarity [Fat Wreck]

12. LCD Soundsystem: LCD Soundsystem [DFA/Capitol]

11. Super Furry Animals: Love Kraft [XL/Beggars Group]

10. Broken Social Scene: Broken Social Scene [Arts & Crafts]

9. Blackalicious: The Craft [Anti]

8. Rogue Wave: Descended From Vultures [Sub Pop]

7. Franz Ferdinand: You Could have Had it So Much Better [Domino]

5. My Morning Jacket: Z [Badman]

4. Spoon: Gimmie Fiction [Merge]

3. The Spinto Band: Nice and Nicely Done [Bar/None]

2. Wolf Parade: Apologies to the Queen Mary [Sub Pop]

1. The New Pornographers: Twin Cinema [Matador]

 


Adam Brent Houghtaling


Bloc Party
: Silent Alarm [Vice]

Vox populi for topping 2005 best-of lists on both sides of the Atlantic, Silent Alarm buzzes
and whips with the energy of a downed power line without ever losing
focus of precise melody. Guitars swell and stab, recalling the
ricocheting shoegazer movement and the angular pulse of post-rock's
finest moments.

 

The National: Alligator [Beggars Banquet]

This Brooklyn band rolled out Alligator in
April, exposing singer/epicenter Matt Berninger's abstruse masculinity
through a groveling vocal that scrabbles over rushing and crystalline
guitars through thirteen songs tinted with a sadness and anxiety
derived equally from a Midwestern simplicity and a New York City
complexity.

 

Jens Lekman: Oh, You're So Silent Jens [Secretly Canadian]

Forget
Devandra Banhart, Will Oldham or Ryan Adams; Lekman's foggy baritone is
the troubadour's voice of 2005. Incorporating twee-pop samples, a
cloud-covered wit, handclaps and hapless teardrops, Lekman spins
bedroom masterpieces of minimal pop that are as instantly captivating
as they are overcast.

 

The Tears: Here Come the Tears [Independiente U.K.]

Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler rekindle embers left frostbitten after Suede's Dog Man Star sessions ended their partnership in a caustic spectacle. Here Come the Tears isn't
as breathtakingly tragic as the band's early '90s work, but it reaches
heights of majestic romanticism most bands only claim to command.

 

Coloma: Dovetail [Klein]

Cologne-based electro-pop Englishmen Rob Taylor and Alex Paulick return with an organically inclined follow-up to 2003's Finery.
Taylor's plaintive croon spills over swelling R&B horns,
scattershot percussion and sustained bell tones, the duo's clever and
sophisticated songs recalling a cut-and-paste Prefab Sprout or
Morrissey minus bombast.

 

Teenage Fanclub: Man-Made [Merge]

Plain-clothed
Scots wave the flag for middle age with a little help from polyrhythmic
producer John McEntire (Tortoise), who keeps everything clean and
modern with vintage synths whispering beneath the assured melodies and
Byrds-ian harmonies that have become second nature for Fannies Norman
Blake, Gerry Love and Raymond McGinley.

 

Nine Horses: Snow Borne Sorrow [Samadhisound]

David
Sylvian, Steve Jansen, Burnt Friedman and guests (including Ryuichi
Sakamoto and Stina Nordenstam) have created a wintry blessing of a
record that combines ambient jazz, minimal electronics and Sylvian's
exacting quiver into an album as intransient as it is noteworthy.

 

The Fall: Fall Heads Roll [Narnack]

An honest-to-Mark Fall record, Fall Heads Roll is crackling with all the mumbly wit, bruising guitars and bisecting synths evidenced on established classics such as This Nation's Saving Grace (1985) and Middle Class Revolt (1994).

 

The Double: Loose in the Air [Matador]

Roping in positive reviews upon its September release, Loose in the Air smolders with a nervy intensity beneath blood-rush organs, inventive drum patterns and digitally paranoid production.

 

The Standard: Albatross [Yep Roc]

The
sweep of the fruited plane radiates in a low hum from the music of
Portland, Oregon's the Standard, marrying the quiet desolation of
Edward Hopper, the sunspot modernism of Wallace Stevens and the kinetic
post-rock practitioners of '90s Chicago.

 


Andrew Bradick


1. The National
: Alligator [Beggars Banquet]

Consistently
overlooked and underrated, the National is finally getting its due
after delivering the year's most concise and thoughtful record. This
band has found its niche musically, playing moody guitar-rock waste
deep in the same American roots as latter-day Wilco, and it happened
just as frontman Matt Berninger figured out what he wanted to say
lyrically. The National's newfound recognition goes so far that "Wasp
Nest" even appears in the new George Clooney flick Syriana.

 

2. Okkervil River: Black Sheep Boy [Sub Pop]

One-upping Bright Eyes at his own game, Black Sheep Boy was
the depressing album of choice this year. Will Sheff can come on a
little strong at times, but it's the gaping hole into his internal
carnage that made this record so damn compelling.

 

3. Sufjan Stevens: Illinois [Asthmatic Kitty]

Sufjan Stevens will rightfully grace many Top 10 lists this year with the second stop on his lofty fifty-states concept. Illinois is
this prolific songwriter's best release yet - there isn't a wasted note
or breath. Major plus points for the prettiest song ever to be written
about a serial killer.

 

4. Jens Lekman: Oh, You're so Silent Jens [Secretly Canadian]

Perhaps
an unfair pick for 2005 - all the songs were not recorded this year and
were originally released in years past. But all of those wonderful EPs
rolled together make for one excellent disc, one that shows much
promise for this talented young crooner.

 

5. Tom Brosseau: What I Mean to Say is Goodbye [Loveless]

On
his first release for Loveless, Tom Brosseau shows that neo-folk can
exist minus the emo of Sam Beam or the freak-factor of Devandra
Banhart. Brosseau is proving to be the modern-day folkie most
faithfully carrying on the Guthrie tradition.

 

6. M83: Before the Dawn Heals Us [Mute U.S.]

Has
Air become boring to you? Me too. That's why it's so pleasing that
France has given us yet another groundbreaking ambient electronic
group. M83 gets extra props for channeling Mogwai's noisier moments to
make this '05 offering quite engaging.

 

7. Richard Swift: The Novelist/Walking Without Effort [Secretly Canadian]

Secretly
Canadian's double-disc compilation of Swift's previously released and
self-produced material is perhaps too inclusive, but even at its worst
gives a glimpse of an unsung bedroom troubadour poised to give us the
goods on his first proper album for Secretly Canadian, which is due in
early '06.

 

8. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah [Self-released]

Despite
the utter turn-off of blowing live, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's debut
still managed to strike a strong nerve in the indie-rock world and gave
us perhaps the fastest transformation of any band from being annoyingly
hip to being annoyingly un-hip.

 

9. Bloc Party: Silent Alarm [Vice]

Bloc Party comes in second for running the hip to un-hip gamut. Despite all the hype-wrangling, Silent Alarm kept its head above water thanks to sharply precise and passionate musicianship.

 

10. M. Ward: Transistor Radio [Merge]

Ward continues to build on an impressive song catalogue with Transistor Radio,
an album rife with rich new originals, including the badass "Big Boat,"
the uplifting "Here Comes the Sun Again" and the sweetly spine-tingling
"I'll Be Yr Bird."

 


Benjamin Hill


10. Boredoms
: Seadrum/House of Sun [Warner Music Japan]

A bit disappointing after the masterpiece that was Vision Creation Newsun (2001) but still an accomplished and occasionally transcendent slab of tribal psychedelia.

 

9. Asva: Futurists Against the Ocean [Web of Mimicry]

Creaking avant-garde doom; the soundtrack to the day after the end of the world.

 

8. Om: Variations on a Theme [Holy Mountain]

Transcendent journey to the heart of creation? Over-the-top stoner parody? It works either way.

 

7. Major Stars: IV [Twisted Village]

Ecstatic heavy-rock blowout from underrated Boston outfit.

 

6. Jesu: Jesu [Hydra Head]

Bittersweet pop tunes stomped flat and covered in viscous sludge; from Godflesh/Techno Animal mastermind Justin Broadrick.

 

5. Neil Young: Prairie Wind [Reprise]

Solid effort from one of rock's true legends, an enigmatic icon incapable who refuses to recede into lame nostalgia-act status.

 

4. Moistboyz: IV [Sanctuary]

Mean-spirited fist-pumping anthems from long-running Ween side project.

 

3. Angels of Light: The Angels of Light Sing Other People [Young God]

A
surprisingly delicate batch of songs from Michael Gira that's
impeccably orchestrated and imbued with a sense of hope and redemption.

 

2. Foetus: Love [Birdman]

Bombastic,
cinematic and entirely gripping. In the third decade of his career,
industrial legend JG Thirwell is recording some of his best work ever.

 

1. Dalek: Absence [Ipecac]

An unrelenting blast of subterranean hip-hop, Absence is
a bleak manifesto on the state of American culture in 2005. The
intricately constructed layers of violent feedback take on a perverse
beauty.

 


Austin L. Ray


1. Mahjongg
: Raydoncong 2005 [Cold Crush]

Why
this band hasn't taken over the world is beyond me. All right, that's
not actually true. Mahjongg doesn't dominate the globe because its
members don't feel the need to tour constantly, do massive press or
push people into loving their gloriously complicated art. Or perhaps
they know most people aren't ready for this music, which sounds one
minute like it came from another planet and the next like that little,
near-perfect something for anyone who enjoys Talking Heads, Brian Eno,
Magnetic Fields, Gang of Four or any other number of fantastic and
talented artists. Go ahead and let these songs drift away into
obscurity, but don't start hailing this as a lost classic twenty years
from now. After all, some of us actually were listening, and you were
warned.

 

2. Sufjan Stevens: Illinois [Asthmatic Kitty]

It's
would be nice if Mr. Stevens actually made it through this fifty-states
project of his, but it's just not plausible. At least, not if he
doesn't get any help. Which makes me all the happier that he chose to
feature my home state in the second album in this ambitious series. His
gorgeous arrangements are overwhelming, and hearing him sing about the
Sangamon River, Decatur, Metropolis and other under-celebrated spots in
Illinois (There's more to the state than Chicago, people. For that
matter, there's more to this disc than "Chicago"), it's hard not to get
choked up with a sense of pride that was often absent in my past. Even
after countless listens, that feeling - much like true love in a
relationship of many years - still exists.

 

3. LCD Soundsystem: LCD Soundsystem [DFA/Capitol]

As
a young, musically obsessed, goofy, not skinny white male who
oftentimes possesses an unshaven face, it's probably required that I
heart James Murphy. Luckily enough for me, his music is fairly amazing.
Yeah, you can argue that "Daft Punk is Playing at My House" is stupid,
or that the singles are better, or that he apes the Fall, Kraftwerk,
Eno and all the other hip influences, and you'd be right. But you know
what? That's why I like that song; the album is a nice, less-intense
supplement to "Beat Connection," "Losing My Edge," et al; and Murphy's
modernized, scrambled take on those artists is just plain fun. Stop
complaining and start dancing already.

 

4. The Selmanaires: Here Come the Selmanaires [International Hits]

This
record originally sat quite a bit lower in my list than this. But
listening to an album twice a day for a couple weeks will have its
effects. I adore the other albums in my Top 10, but I can't say I've
seen any of the other artists four times this year. Nor can I quibble
with this Atlanta trio's uncanny knack of taking familiar sounds that
force you to name drop (the Beatles, Devo, the Kinks) and turning them
into some sort of silly cliché that somehow rings true (i.e.: "they're
putting a fresh, new twist on something classic"). Keep your eyes out
for this band.

 

5. Wolf Parade: Apologies to the Queen Mary [Sub Pop]

These
Montreal natives stormed the music world this year, (bad pun alert)
bearing their claws and brandishing a seriously muscular debut of
straight-up rock 'n' roll. During that time, the band members managed
to seduce the hype machine and prove to the haters that there's more to
their music than the Arcade Fire and Modest Mouse comparisons. That
sentence shows they're still going to crop up for now, but the fun part
will be watching this band grow up and past those easy reference points.

 

6. Mugison: Mugimama! Is This Monkey Music? [Ipecac]

Mugi
is already a hit in his home country of Iceland, winning awards over
Björk and basking in the glory of a gold-selling album (this one), but
he's yet to get much love in the states. What this means is that there
are a lot of Americans missing out on his many musical personalities,
from the funky/schizophrenic ("Sad as a Truck"), to the
heart-breakingly romantic ("I Want You"), to the imminently listenable
("Murr Murr"). Their loss.

 

7. M. Ward: Transistor Radio [Merge]

For
those utterly pastoral moments when you sip lemonade on the porch as
the trees sway in the breeze, or, you know, when you read in the living
room even though it's nice a day outside and you should do something
with your life, Matt Ward's latest can lend the perfect soundtrack.
These songs crackle through the speakers as if they were playing on
well a transistor radio. They beg you to step into their world.
Sounds intimidating perhaps, but rest assured, their land is one of
endless afternoons highlighted by Ward's gravelly voice.

 

8. M.I.A.: Arular [XL/Beggars]

I
can't remember the last time a record hooked me with such immediacy as
Maya Arulpragasam's proper debut did. I put the disc in my player with
the speculation that only a jaded rock critic can summon and prepared
myself to be underwhelmed. "What is all this nonsense about bananas?" I
stammered as the first track sputtered away. Excellent beat,
smile-inducing rhyme, rinse, repeat. By the time "Bingo" hit, I was
grinding all up on myself and would've totally taken my dancing partner
home for some sexy time if it weren't for the fact that I was alone and
in my apartment. But I digress.

 

9. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah [Self-released]

Like
most releases on my list, there are plenty of reasons to hate Clap Your
Hands Say Yeah: the band name; the fact that Pitchfork broke them;
quasi-lame interviews; the live show doesn't stand up to the album. But
listening to the simple pop goodness of the band's wholly self-produced
and -released debut, the cynicism melts away. Plus, we like our bands
to have a little taste sometimes, don't we? So it doesn't hurt that
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah turned down The O.C. for The Office.

 

10. Sleater-Kinney: The Woods [Sub Pop]

How
to make a friend's head explode in three easy steps: (1) Invite friend
over, (2) place friend next to speakers with volume high and The Woods queued,
and (3) press play so that "The Fox" can unleash its rock 'n' roll
beast. A perfect album opener, this track sets the tone for
Sleater-Kinney's seventh full-length and first for Sub Pop. What
should've sounded like a band growing older and easier on the ears with
age is a record that rocks harder than anything in the veteran act's
catalogue.

 

11. Dangerdoom: The Mouse & The Mask [Epitaph]

12. Bloc Party: Silent Alarm [Vice]

13. Out Hud: Let Us Never Speak of it Again [Kranky]

14. The New Pornographers: Twin Cinema [Matador]

15. Deerhoof: The Runners Four [Kill Rock Stars]

16. The Whigs: Give 'Em All a Big Fat Lip [Self-released]

17. We are Wolves: Non-Stop Je Te Plie En Deux [Fat Possum]

18. The Juan Maclean: Less Than Human [DFA/Astralwerks]

19. Celebration: Celebration [4AD/Beggars Banquet]

20. Broken Social Scene: Broken Social Scene [Arts & Crafts]



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