Top 50 Albums 2005
By The Staff
A lean, nasty animal, the Kills sophomore effort fulfilled on promise not many knew existed after hearing the band’s up and down debut, Keep On Your Mean Side (2003). Channeling the sparse, damaged vibe of early PJ Harvey, the band refined their snarl, toned down the pop and absolutely obliterated any possible comparison to the White Stripes (a band whose work their early stuff was unfavorably compared to). No Wow is an album that rocks severely without making its listener’s ears bleed in the process. This is due to an understanding of the fact that rock isn’t always about noise, but the spaces in-between. No Wow sputters and bleeds tension, not only in Alison Mosshart’s smokey vocals and terse guitar riffs and James Hince’s bluesy guitar and drums, but in the pregnant pauses they expertly inject with a murderous tension.
CMG scribe Peter Hepburn hit the nail on the head in his review when he gave the Kills credit for taking the soul of blues and twisting it to suit their own purposes. This isn’t a half-hearted nod to a by-gone era, this is reinvention. The band takes cues from classic sparse blues tracks, but suffuses them with their own darkly playful sexuality. For bitter fans mourning the death of the now defunct Mclusky, this was one of the few albums of 2005 to growl with a dark edge and still rock.
Angels of Light
Sings 'Other People'
In the wake of Akron/Family’s stunning debut record earlier this year it was somewhat understandable that Michael Gira’s newest Angels of Light album, the fantastic yet thoroughly challenging Sing “Other People,” could get overlooked. It’s a decidedly dark, complex record—the sort that takes all sort of attention and repeated listens to really appreciate. What’s not understandable is that some nine months later people haven’t started to take notice.
Gira was born with one of the most commanding voices out there. He manages to instill his gloomy, image-laden lyrics with a spiritual weight or at the very least a dark romanticism. With Akron/Family serving as his backing band, Gira builds up a musical backdrop that only furthers the effect. What results is really spectacular; while it may not have the playful experimentation of Akron/Family, it certainly has the song-writing chops down cold. Listening through, there’s barely a bum song here, or at least not one without a seriously redeeming characteristic. “On the Mountain” rises high with its charging refrain, the heavy religious overtones of “Destroyer” send it over the top, and the quiet beauty of closer “Jackie’s Spine” show Gira at his strongest.
At the very least it has to be a little frustrating. Rollie Pemberton, aka Cadence Weapon, knows everybody. Now, that shouldn’t necessarily be something to be upset about, but when your first album drops to a plethora of positive reviews steeped heavily in refutable bias, one would have to wonder: “do people actually like this?” Sleep easy tonight Mr. Weapon; we’re critics, and for the most part we know what we’re doing. Being a writer, he should be well versed in that anyway. Sure, I know the guy, too, but who doesn’t? We’re in an age where people all over the world can connect at the stroke of a key. But I’ve already gone and done what I said I wouldn’t do, so it’s time we get to the music.
Quickly apparent is how different Kayfabe sounds. The word itself is the pro-wrestling motto of keeping up the illusion no matter what the circumstance, and it’s clear almost instantly that Pemberton and his homespun brand of digital rap want nothing to do with said fallacy. Described by his label as electro-rap, even more poignantly put by our own Aaron Newell as post-crunk; whatever you want to call it, there wasn’t another album that sounded like this one does over the past three hundred and sixty some days. The quick-to-flip agenda bodes well for the attention deficit; the seemingly arbitrary transposition of beats mid-song give way to a grander, more refined sense of identity. If you don’t like the first half of the song, give it a minute, you’ll probably have better luck with the second. The eight step programmer runs the sample gauntlet; whether it be the video game laden “Vicarious” or the horn heavy epic “Turning on Your Sign.”
The young mc carries himself well over the album’s twelve tracks, stepping up his more than healthy lingual aptitude and pushing verbosity through the synthetic sound clap. Running through E-town (Edmonton, get with it) antics, losing a father, and even playing on his internet celebrity status (“I don’t know much, but I know a little bit / on how to put some shit out, and not get deemed insignificant”); the savagely funny start to the album only propels the emotionally dynamic back end. The rapper/producer puts his musical knack and lyrical maturity to good use on this his first official release. The starkly unique Breaking Kayfabe should prove to be a momentous start for an artist still only conceptualizing his ascent to a more lucrative status. People really will like this.
Bang Bang Rock & Roll
Bang Bang Rock & Roll is a punk rock album about rock ‘n’ roll, which, once upon a time, used to be fun. Art Brut haven’t forgotten. This may be the sound of the Ramones-meets-pretentious art school, but it’s also the most gleefully self-aware album of the year. When Eddie Argos sings/announces “I can’t stand the sound of the Velvet Underground,” he knows it’s bullshit, the band (who’s singing “white light! White heat!” in the background) knows it’s bullshit, and most importantly, we know it’s bullshit. It’s fantastic.
Argos ruins the otherwise relatively subtle “Rusted Guns of Milan” – the best song about impotence ever – with a blatant masturbation reference, and he’s spoiled the joke on purpose. Art Brut takes being fun very seriously, and when it matches that with pop hooks that may as well be super-glued to your ears (“Emily Kane” and “Good Weekend” have been stuck in mine all year), they might be the best rock band in the world. Okay, that was a joke. But I can’t help it if “I’ve seen her naked, twice! / I’ve seen her naked, twice!” is the most ingenious lyric I’ve ever heard.
You know what’s really funny? Bang Bang Rock & Roll isn’t even out here yet. Maybe on the next record they can follow up “Formed A Band” with “Got U.S. Distribution.”
The Further Adventures of Lord Quas
No album released in 2005 is more deserving of the title “honorable mention” than this, Madlib’s sophomore LP under the Quasimoto moniker. The universal adoration The Further Adventures received from mainstream media was, to be sure, undeserved—these same fuckwits slept on Edan and were thirsty for an “underground hip hop” album to get behind, so, fuckit, why not the new one from that dude that made that Madvillian shit last year, right guys? The underground reaction against the album was equally inadequate, generally just a series of tired complaints that could’ve been leveled against any of Madlib’s work, but stored up in reserve for a backlash. The thing is, both parties are wrong because both parties are right. This is not a great album; this is not a bad album. This is not a mediocre album, or a disappointing album, or any other such categorization.
That’s because this is a fucking Madlib album, and that fact alone means that it will be 1) commendable, 2) listenable, 3) heavily flawed but 4) nevertheless pristinely structured, 5) “hazy,” “faded,” “dreamy,” “dusted,” and other euphemistic adjectives referring to Madlib’s prodigious marijuana habit, and, most importantly, 6) brilliant. Who cares if his drums aren’t as crisp as on Madvilliany, his flows less cohesive than The Unseen, his sample choice less inspired than Shades of Blue? This is a fucking Madlib album, kids, which means ill beats float through the speakers in 30-second batches, rhymes start and stop without impetus, “tracks” serve as placemarkers in the midst of a greater movement, a suite, a panorama of giddy paranoia. Even a shotgun-session snoozer like “Players of the Game” serves its purpose: check how lazily it leads in to the terse spy groove of “Bus Ride” and the hydroponic funk of Madvillian reunion “Closer.” Q: Is it to Madlib’s detriment that the MF Doom guest track is easily the best on the album? A: No, not really, because this is a fucking Madlib album, and the old rules for evaluation don’t apply to a cat pushing hip hop so far into the next stratosphere. Even when he falters, his brash iconoclasm is still worthy of our bucks, our ear time, our acclaim.
Or, you know, at the very least, an honorable mention. Somebody pass the lighter.
The B. Coming
Is this emo-rap? I’m gonna leave Atmosphere out of this altogether, of course, because Slug’s been misnomered like Beans has been misnomered. While this record is prima-facie on some jailhouse blues shit, all love lamentation, betrayal, dark-corners-of-one’s-soul diary-type writing, it’s also a celebration, if you let it be, as the last rapper to do the “I’m caught-up” thing with as much gusto and maturity and actual emotion as Sigel was the Notorious B.I.G. And note how Wallace’s nonchalant Big Poppa slickness is channeled, but not bitten, on the brilliant Snoop-guesting/Neptunes-synthed-out “Don’t Stop” (which is club-perfect, but contains the album-pervasive paranoia nonetheless: “keep a number on a high-priced lawyer / it’s 5-ways nowadays / everybody saw ya”). Maybe the first rap song to subversively dis Google maps, I dunno.
“Purple Rain” sees some fantastic back-and-forth between Bun B and Beanie, sort of Beans’ drank-song tag-team equivalent to Kool G’s Nas-flaunting “Fast Life”. The interplay between the two makes you want to go get hammered with your high school friends, after giving them a week to memorize the words, of course. Brand Nubian shows up on the Just Blaze-made “Bread and Butter” which rejigs their own “Slow Down” into one of the many ex-girl dis songs, this one the obvious stand-out for its sinister showtunes sample, and just for having Sadat X on it. While Late Registration handed out Golden Tickets to privileged guests, Beans keeps his friends up-front and in the limelight, and the album benefits from it.
The most refreshing thing here, however, and the cause for this album being “celebrated” rather than “rated” is that Beanie doesn’t dispense of his drug-tales in cold blood like most other rappers using “hustle” as their be-all subject matter. Beanie drug-raps only in order to ground his writings on relationships, friendly and romantic, sweet and sour. “Oh Daddy” is a song-long muse on an ex: “I can’t have you back / look at how you act when I had your back / picture me having that back to back.” It bumps slow and steady as Sigel methodically dissects the relationship, where it went wrong, where it’s not going any more: “I can’t help what’s running down your face / I moved your ass into that furnished place / like you earned that space.” If judges were into mixed-metaphors, we could subtitle this record Lifting the corporate veil. Not so much hard as difficult, complicated, and infinitely more rewarding for street-analyzing instead of “street reporting.”
The Magic Numbers
The Associated Press’s year-end top 10 put The Magic Numbers in a tie for tenth with the New Pornographers. This is ridiculous. I don’t care how much cred the New Pornographers/A.C. Newman/Neko Case juggernaut has at this point, The Magic Numbers destroys Twin Cinema. Without mistakenly reaching for the grandiosity of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound,” the band fills each one of its songs to the brim with inspired musicianship and lush production. For once, this is a group that sounds like an actual band, not a songwriter and a bunch of studio players: the guitar parts turn on a dime, the bass lines are conspicuously high in the mix, and singer Romeo Stodart has only slightly more microphone time than his excellent female “backing” vocalists. Even the token folk ballad, “This Love,” can’t help but build into a stirring chorus of harmonies. Neko and co. ought to give this album a listen – and, of course, so should you.
Let Us Never Speak of It Again
As one of the progenitors of the current (and already played out) version of dance-punk, Out Hud seemed destined for a quick fade into irrelevance like !!! and the Rapture as indie nation grew weary of songs constructed around little more than the same 4/4 dance beats. Heck, according to some, including CMG’s own Christopher Alexander, they’ve already taken that plunge. But Out Hud has displayed a healthy knack in crafting insanely intricate dance beats, giving them an important advantage over some of their former contemporaries. Their fancy beats combined with the addition of breathy pop vocals have Out Hud sounding tighter, catchier or more organic than ever on their sophomore effort, Let Us Never Speak Of It Again. They’ve made a startling, but pretty damn seemless evolution from the experimental instrumental dance group that created S.T.R.E.E.T.D.A.D. to a sort of art pop dance group.
From the spectacularly addictive melodic explosion in the chorus of “It’s For You” to the thudding bass and seductive vocals of “One Life to Leave” to the electric build-up of “Zillionth Watt” to the sinister second half of “2005: A Face Odyssey” to the undulating rhythms of “Dear Mr. Bush…” this album just hooks me in repeatedly. But simply overstating the album’s catchiness doesn’t give due credit to the complexity and depth of the arrangements. Rhythms change, electronics effects whir in and out and the beat is constantly morphing. The group’s added vocals may have people dismissing them as a pop band, but really, the vocals have only added a sizzling human layer to the band’s already fascinatingly labored-over sound.
In many ways 2005 saw a return to prominence for pop, partly because of the dearth of great rock and rap albums (depending on who you ask), but also thanks in large part to excellent pop albums by Broadcast, Animal Collective, Jamie Lidell and Out Hud. And I’m loathe to even call them pop, because they certainly barely fit under that umbrella. But that’s part of what makes these albums so exciting – these groups make pop seem the way it should: limitless.
(PW Elverum & Sun)
Seems as if I was right the first time I reviewed No Flashlight: Phil Elvrum desperately wants his audience to know what he means. Not that I should get credit for such an “insight”; extensive liner notes have been the dude’s thing for a while now, a staple now that “a while” means, what, like two years?—ever since Mount Eerie graduated past an album name and released a shitstorm of dusty trinkets. We’ve also had P.W. Elverum & Sun around for long enough to witness the anti-climax of its possibilities, to relish in the hand-painted tee-shirts and hand-laundered record covers and forgive the world of its plastic blemish cream because cratered and husky is cheap, natural, so much more ALIVE…and that was refreshing, the idea of a devotedly humble corporate ideal weighty enough to succeed despite a lack of actual product.
Later, post-July—compounded with performances known for their fireside communion, with 7 New Songs holing up free via the Web, SINGERS being as piecemeal as our expectations are vast, and 11 Old Songs now going CasioToned down the backside of a fan’s most turgid nightmare—the “new” persona of No Flashlight, as a full, debut Mount Eerie package, begins to seem a logy addendum to more exciting days.
That may sound harsh, but I was right then-there at the beginning of August, and Phil does want us to know exactly what “no flashlight” means or exactly what “mount eerie” is or figure out what a “cave” exactly signifies. I’m lucky I got as close as I did to Phil’s ideas without having read the Giant Poster. A testament (couldbe) to the lucidity of his art. Some, including myself, became devoured by Mount Eerie’s mythology, accepting Elvrum’s esoteric poems and quotes and half-contextualized environmentalist lectures as the only conduits to a haughtier genius. Then again, some, beleaguered by No Flashlight’s gilding, found the fat sleeve a crutch and the fifteen songs an atonal letdown.
Actually, No Flashlight is a great accomplishment for Elvrum, an album one can grow to love only on one’s own terms, even with P.W.E. breathing down one’s neck. At times technically incoherent, often thematically repetitive or melodically starved, No Flashlight is still one of the most resonant releases this year. How deeply does the hollow rhythm in “I Know No One’s” opening seconds go? Forget about “the Moan” or “the Universe is Shown” because these are lesions with molten blood; can you still feel “Stop Singing’s” first distorted chord like it’s the first you ever heard? When Phil sings, “Because the pupil of my eye is a hole, there’s no inside and there’s no out,” and two shuddering thwomps crown “pu-pil,” do you sense what he’s getting at? Do you taste an emptiness? Without a guitar to steer the way, with the vocals mostly reaching under a whisper, the drums and reverb become most of Elvrum’s soil. He leaves us with little, compensating in bloated fantasies ripe with modern urgency. Then he says the songs stand on their own. It’s a confusing and exhaustive way to relate to an already confused and exhausted fanbase, but between the shenanigans advertised as anything but shenanigans, a mature and devastating bit of minimalism can shuck the indieness off any pompous hipster phallus this side of Sam Beam. Maybe that means No Flashlight’s more Purely Phil than anything else he’s tried. It’s just a shame that he wants to act like subjectivity hasn’t brought him to where he is today.
The Joe Beats Experiment
Indie Rock Blues
So, I asked him, I said: “What do you say when people say: “so, what, you just put some drums under a sparse folk song”?”
And him. He said: “What do I tell them? I tell them “You try chopping a 4 minute song to a 64 piece per bar metronome. I’ll jam the sampler up anyone’s ass.”
We haven’t reviewed this yet, so a little background is in order. Joey Beats is 68% of Non-Prophets, the Producer/Rapper duo from Rhode Island featuring Sage Francis on vocals, which duo released the beautiful Hope in 2003, making 2003 sound like 1993, which acclaim for that “sound” is not nostalgia-mongering on my part, it’s just the god’s honest truth, because to my ears there’s nothing better than when a chopped break and five melodies – all sampled from different sources – come together over a filtered bassline to prove that their arranger can, without the freedom of being able to “play that in a different key” or “play that on piano instead of guitar and see how it sounds,” make a cohesive, beautiful piece of music that can make you want to punch governments in their noses for oppressing your generation (with things like HST, longer hospital waiting room times, poor U.S. relations, and the denial of equal marriage rights to same-sex couples; see, hip hop sounds like that once it lands in Canada).
I have no problem with Cam’Ron’s flow, Bun B’s rumble, Lil Wayne’s swagger. These things help me masquerade bad-ass at the gym, or assist meanmugging when I get cut-off by a pimped-out ’96 Hyundai hatchback because the driver is watching Dr. Phil on the cockpit tv-screen. But hey, I write for CMG, so I rarely need prosthetic coolness by way of attitude-heavy coke-rap, see. I do, however, often have a problem with tss-tss-tss-hum-snap plasticated drums under studio-session “soul” vocalists that invest their way onto someone’s record/their big break with new boobs and probably oral ficacions and an old Cyndi Lauper tape. When I go back to Purple Haze it’s for half the record, when I need to be a tourist in my own skin for 30 minutes, not to examine how the re-pacing and restructuring and recontextualizing and rearranging and readorning of an old, forgotten piece of music affects its resonance and listenability and meaning to my 20XX brain. Cam’Ron’s army of for-hire producers usually tell us what we already know: cute gets cute. But it’s hard to put stock in obv-digitized drums as afterthoughts, little me having been whole-grain-fed on breaks in junior high and high school. To be too simple about it: drum breaks = the best parts of the best old records. How do you go wrong with that?
And a hundred thousand would-be rap producers ask themselves the same thing, in the past-tense. The tss-tss-tss-hum-snaps can pass for ok under almost anything. BUT, once you’ve committed to a set bass kick, a set hat, a set snare, and the echoes in between each as they sit on the original record, that’s when you have to start carefully considering things like “mood,” “atmosphere,” “coherence” – the “does this enhance or detract from the beauty and meaning of the horn I’m using and the bigger picture of the song, as well” question – issues beyond whether your drums obscure the feeble R&B vocals on your hook. The relationships between samples in a given beat make fans ask the neurotic questions: “I wonder if he wrote the words before or after he heard this” or “I wonder if RAPPER wrote the words while PRODUCER was playing the records that would become the song” or “I wonder if the meaning of the song from which that guitar riff was lifted makes a comment on the song I’m listening to right now” rather than “I wonder how much he paid for that banger”. So yeah, maybe this is the diff between “rap” and “backpack,” but that means it’s also the diff between “no headphones” and “headphones,” and how deep you sink yourself and your object into a beat. The point: when working with straight-from-vinyl samples, unless you’ve got the right drum hits, your “mood” is going to sound like your idea, instead of actually conveying it. And when you rely on the extent of your record collection to ensure that your art is saying what you want it to say, it’s easy to throw your hands up, instead. Question is: do you want to be clobbered with, or invest in, the double-entendres?
And this is why Indie Rock Blues is somewhat of an achievement. I don’t have a shit clue where Joey got his drums for any of these things, but the other source material is easy: it’s set out for us that this is a remix album, and it’s remixing Neutral Milk Hotel, M Ward, Belle and Sebastian, Scout Niblett, Isaac Brock, Deerhoof, Andrew Bird. And it takes the best open-air sections of their songs – isolated melodies like the bass drop in Brock’s “Ice on the Sheets” (which is turned into a dub-jam with a well-placed Saafir clip) or finger picking in Bird’s “I” (the drums perfectly chosen, complete with their own echoes, complimenting the cavernous feel of the original song), and it loops and chops them in the right places, sometimes retaining the original song structure more or less (“Sad Sad Song,” the gorgeous retake of Jason Molina’s “Coxcomb Read”), sometimes rejiggering the works (“Panda Panda Panda”), always re-treating each like a 1993 break-based hip hop song, yet never removing the original melancholy of the foundation piece (see “Naomi,” where Mangum’s restrained, struggled line of “your prettiness is seeping through / out from the dress I took from you” is looped, given plaintive piano overtones, and a rickety break to create the impression that an unstable love-reject is pacing around his room in circles, fantastic). It’s all compliment, no compromise, so none of the pieces come off like outtakes from Moby’s Play or RJD2’s poorly-aged Deadringer. All thoughtful, well-planned, and somewhat expanded takes of both the emotional and melodic cores of already-poignant bluesy indie rock (ok so “Panda” isn’t exactly making anyone cry, but check the way the song’s melodic parts are layered over themselves, all with Satomi’s bomming riding each drum hit perfectly – you want pile-of-eerie go back to “Naomi” again).
So yeah. Edan, sometimes Madlib, and chiefly Joey Beats. Here’s to sampler-free asses in 2006.