Thursday, December 22, 2005

Favorite albums of 2005

1. Sleater-Kinney: The Woods - Totally self-indulgent and totally awesome. The gorgeous instrumental sprawl of "Let's Call it Love" encapsulates the unrepentant attitude fueling Sleater-Kinney's approach to The Woods: strip it down, shake it up, and lay it bare. The blustery low-fi acoustics of "The Fox" immediately shatter any memories of the all-female trio's relatively more polished and accessible discography (think "Milkshake and Honey," "Rock and Roll Fun"). While the sonorous vocal hooks that beat at the core of Sleater-Kinney's body of work are plentiful across The Woods' eclectic landscape, grinding "What's Mine is Yours" to a halt mid-song in favor of a menacing and raggedy guitar solo is the kind of welcome surprise that catapaults this album ahead of past works.

2. New Pornographers: Twin Cinema - This Canadian musical monolith turned a pair of the most solid and consistently engaging pop albums of the past five years, Mass Romantic and Electric Version, into a triad with Twin Cinema. Though not a radical departure from the sound of either album, the life-affirming vibe of "The Bleeding Heart Show's" extended coda and the bare balladry of "These Are the Fables" allude to New Pornographers exploring ancillary musical areas outside of the high-octane pop of "Letter From an Occupant" or "All For Swinging You Around." Still, their M.O. remains: if it's catchy, it works - and on Twin Cinema, they don't try fixing it.

3. Decemberists: Picaresque - Being somewhat of an outsider to the indie rock scene, I didn't quite know what to make of the Decemberists prior to downloading Picaresque on a whim. The cannons-a-blasting charge of "Infanta" quickly drew me into their charming Romantic sensibility and led me through a collection of some of the most wistful ("Of Angels and Angles"), dour ("Eli the Barrow Boy"), and culturally incisive ("Sixteen Military Wives") songs of the year.

4. Bloc Party: Silent Alarm - Hype surrounding these British boys led me into Silent Alarm expecting more homogenized new wave revival dance pop a la The Killers. Then I heard the instrumentation. The drumming on Silent Alarm alone is worth the price of admission. Rather than serving the hooks, the rhythms stand on their own and frequently plunge into violent overdrive at will. Throw in some spacey guitar arrangements and the wails of vocalist/guitarist Kele Okereke (who sounds not unlike Damon Albarn of Blur), and you have one of the most lively albums of 2005. The best part is, you can still dance to it.

5. Mars Volta: Frances the Mute - I love the way the critics respond to their work. It seems Rolling Stone didn't bother to make sense of the complexities of Frances the Mute and merely stated, "A brilliant album doth unintelligible complexity make." Pitchfork dove into their usual esoteric nonsense of a review, gleefully pursuing every tangential angle from which they could slam the album before plastering it with a pitiful rating. Not that I can do much differently. I just love listening to Mars Volta and this sophomore album is no exception.

6. Kanye West: Late Registration - Not as immediately charming as The College Dropout or as thematically consistent (The "Broke Phi Broke" skits proved little more than a desperate attempt to shoehorn another collegiate theme into the album), West nonetheless continued to outwit, outsell, and outstyle his peers in 2005. However, I'm still a bit turned off by the leftist media's ongoing blowjob to West resulting from his mawkish remarks directed at President Bush on the Katrina telethon. And by leftist media, I'm especially looking at you, Rolling Stone, you partisan whores. Please remind me once more that The Rolling Stones wrote an anti-Bush song, I don't think I absorbed the information the first eight dozen times you mentioned it. Rant over.

7. Queens of the Stone Age: Lullabies to Paralyze - (review written 4/05) Queens of the Stone Age has never so much been a solidified band as a freewheeling assortment of musical transients tethered together by Kyuss alumni and stoner rock demigods Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri. Though short-lived members such as Mike Johnson (Dinosaur Jr.) and Dave Grohl (that band with Kurt Cobain) have casually come and gone over the course of Queens’ stunning first three albums, Homme and Oliveri have always been the true monarchs in the band.

In the months leading up to Queens’ fourth album, Lullabies to Paralyze, Homme had the bands’ fans anxiously biting their nails when he bitterly ousted Oliveri from the group, citing the bassist’s hard-partying lifestyle. Thus, the $64,000 question swirling around the release of Lullabies was whether Homme could keep Queens’ hard-rocking brilliance intact without Oliveri’s assistance. The answer: pretty damn definitely.

From "Medication’s" machine-gun buzz straight through the colossal swagger of "Someone’s in the Wolf," Homme single-handedly waves the Queens flag with a wholly self-assured ferocity, but not without a few helping hands. ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and recurring guest vocalist Mark Lanegan provide "Burn the Witch’s" spiraling bridges and black-lunged raspy sing-along lyrics with a warped strut. Featured assistants Troy Van Leeuwen (A Perfect Circle) and Joey Castillo (Danzig) enrich "Little Sister," "Everybody Knows That You’re Insane," and "Tangled Up in Plaid" with the qualities that have always distinguished Queens’ music: amply carnivalesque, tolerably abrasive, and enough pop sensibility to super-glue the choruses inside your skull.

At "The Blood is Love," however, Homme’s focus begins to soften and the album suffers accordingly. The track’s enervating redundant grind and melodic rigidity, lightly reminiscent of portions of the band’s self-titled first effort, depletes Lullabies’ energy until the bobbing striptease soundtrack "Skin on Skin" offers a drastic, though only mildly refreshing change of pace. It’s not until "Broken Box" that Queens return to its stoner-rocking bread and butter, adorning a mud-stomping bar band rhythm with a piano accompaniment not unlike that of "Go with the Flow."

However, the return to form is as short-lived as the fleeting humorous thrill of the next track, "‘You’ve Got a Killer Scene There, Man…’" With barely noticeable support from The Distillers’ Brode Dalle (also Homme’s publicized squeeze) and Garbage’s Shirley Manson, "Killer Scene" quickly comes off as an esoteric inside joke to Homme et al., a flurry of falsetto vocals and lurching bass lines that fails to translate into fun for the listener. Lullabies’ sincere yet restrained coda, "The Long Slow Goodbye," once again deflects the album from its downward path but nonetheless pales in both poignancy and depth to the earlier ballad, "I Never Came."

The strength of Lullabies to Paralyze deflates with every degree to which Homme deviates from Queens’ loud and fast guitar-driven formula and shifts the music’s emphasis to either glib comedy ("Killer Scene" ) or dawdling ambience ("The Blood is Love"). Regardless, the overall strength of Homme’s songwriting bolsters this effort to a level roughly on par with that of Queens’ prior releases. The only noticeable aspect of Oliveri’s absence is the loss of his raging two-minute scream-a-thons ("Millionaire," "Tension Head"). With only Homme helming Queens, however, the band maintains its status atop the mountain of modern rock with this faulty masterpiece. 7.5 out of 10.

8. Gorillaz: Demon Days - Replacing Dan "The Automator" with Danger Mouse proved not nearly fatal to Damon Albarn's colorful dance-pop side project. In point of fact, the energy level on Demon Days feels much more elevated and consistent than on Gorillaz. No enervating slow-burners here. Instead, the bouncy knife-attack of "O Green World" and the swanky crawl of "Every Planet We Reach is Dead" keep Demon Days fresh and funky up through the dystopian triad of "Fire Coming Out of a Monkey's Head" (narrated by, of all aged psychos, Dennis Hopper), "Don't Get Lost in Heaven," and "Demon Days." It is a stellar batch of lyrically bleak but musically extravagant songs from the hardest working cartoon band around.

9. Beck: Guero - Continuing the schizophrenic/sulking alternation in style that has encompassed every Beck album since the landmark Odelay!, Guero finds Beck stagnating. He lacks the bravery that made Odelay! such a hit and Midnite Vultures such a, well, mis-fire. Although he plays it safe, Guero nonetheless stands as a solid collection of pretty decent songs. The unhinging party atmosphere of "Que Onda Guero" and "Hell Yes's" robotic funk vibe are among Beck's finer moments on the album, but the rest of Guero is merely one of the better cruise control listens I can recall.

10. NIN: With Teeth - Still begs the question of why it takes Trent Reznor five years to make an album, especially one as inconsistent as this. Some of the music is as sharp and blistering as ever, but some of his lyrics couldn't win Reznor an A in 9th grade English class. "The Hand That Feeds," "Only," and "Getting Smaller" allude to him pursuing more promising directions in the future...if anyone still cares about NIN in 2010.

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