Monday, January 30, 2006

Well, it's been forever since I've posted, but I couldn't let a year go by without doing my best-of lists. Then again, it was such a lousy year for movies that maybe I can let this year go by without doing my best-of list. But it was a good year for music, so, even though 2006 is almost 1/12 over, here are my favorite albums of 2005:

10. Aqualung. Strange and Beautiful. I've already described my creepy obsession with the Aqualung guy's creepy song about obsession. But in a year when the new Coldplay album was so bad that it even made me like the old Coldplay albums less, I was very grateful for the arrival of Aqualung. Besides the title track, Brighter Than Sunshine was such a good romantic comedy theme song it was a shame they wasted it on A Lot Like Love, and Another Little Hole is far better than most third-best-song-on-the-album songs I've heard lately. It's nice that there are still bands out there who knew how to write good Coldplay songs, even if not Coldplay themselves. Download: Brighter Than Sunshine.

9. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Original Broadway Cast Recording. Composers have been struggling for decades to make Broadway scores out of rock music. Sometimes they succeed, but usually, their efforts fail both as showtunes and as rock. David Yazbek knows that the more natural link is between Broadway and pop music, so he fills the score for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with bouncy ear candy. And the lyrics are even better. Sure, they straddle the line between clever and too-clever so closely that there are bound to be a few lines that make you wince ("Her family fortune is obscene/ Her dad invented Orangina/ Now Sit Back and watch/ While I turn up the juice"). But most of them are so witty they make me smile even after the hundredth time I've heard them. And yes, I've probably listened to this album that much. Download: Here I Am.

8. Ben Folds. Songs for Silverman. I think things have finally come full circle for Ben Folds. The guy who was so uncool you had to love him is now so well-loved by his loyal fans that it's cooler to hate him again. Well, whatever. I like this album. I like the snarky lyrics, I like the non-snarky lyrics. I like the Billy Joel inflections as well as the prog touches. I like how he casually mentions playing basketball with Elliott Smith and how he included a song about his daughter on this album because he had a song about his son on his last album, which is only fair, even if she got screwed because her song isn't as good as his. True, at first, I didn't like this album much at all, but by the end of the year, when I looked at my iTunes' most played list, these songs were all over it. Download: Bastard.

7. Hard-Fi. Stars of CCTV. Listening to this album made me think about what a perfect band name The Clash is. It’s simple, it's memorable, it evokes the style of music the band plays, and it sounds just edgy enough that it'll make you think you can piss your parents off by listening to them. Well, it's too bad The Clash was taken, because it would've been a perfect name for this band, too, as Hard-Fi fuses punk, ska and gritty white boy soul much the same way that band did. Instead, by attempting to find a band name that was all of the things that made The Clash such a good band name, they ended up with one of the absolute stupidest-sounding band names in history. It's a good thing the music is good enough to overcome it. Full of anthems about British thug life, Stars of CCTV picks you up and plants you down in the middle of some rowdy pub in the midlands where you’re bound to get your arse kicked within a matter of minutes by some toothless soccer hooligan. Remember that riot Kaiser Chiefs were predicting? Well, Stars of CCTV delivered it. Download: Tied Up Too Tight. (Don't spend $20+ on the import, by the way. You can get it on iTunes for under $10.)

6. Brendan Benson. The Alternative to Love. Brendan Benson has such a gift for crafting simple-but-catchy pop melodies, he could easily have a second career writing songs for the NSYNC or Ashlee Simpson if he wanted to. That's not an insult. As mindless as most pop music might be, you have to admit, the best pop songs -- I'm talking about I Want it That Way and Baby One More Time -- are just plain fun. Imagine an album full of songs as upbeat and perfect as those, but with lyrics written for grownups. That's exactly what Brendan Benson delivers with The Alternative to Love. If you consider the Backstreet Boys a guilty pleasure, welcome to Backstreet without the guilt. Download: Cold Hands (Warm Heart).

5. The Magic Numbers. The Magic Numbers. There are moments of magic all over this album, but, as with all the best magic, if you're not paying close enough attention, you may not notice them. That's because the Magic Numbers know how to make you wait for the best parts of a song, layering in harmonies on the fifth or sixth verse that weren't there before, or adding a subtle violin to the bridge. As a result, the songs never outstay their welcome, they reward repeat listens, and they have an epic feel even if they're no longer than most songs. So while some bands want to wow you with the aural equivalent of making the Statue of Liberty disappear, the Magic Numbers are content just to pull a shiny new quarter from your ear. The tricks may not be revolutionary, but they still impress. I mean, nobody wants the Statue of Liberty to go away, but honestly, who couldn't use a shiny new quarter? Download: Which Way to Happy.

4. Bright Eyes. I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. It's easy to hate Conor Oberst -- for being young, for being overhyped, for the money you wasted on that crappy other album he put out this year. But you can't hate him for this. Ten gorgeous, moving songs so full of emotion you feel exhausted when you’re done listening to them. At first, that extended spoken-word intro to At The Bottom of Everything sounds way too precious, but by the end of the song - one of the album's best - you couldn't imagine it without it. I have to admit, he's earned the hype. But I still hate him for being like, 12, or whatever. Download: First Day of My Life.

3. Franz Ferdinand. You Could Have It So Much Better. In the self-important world of indie rock, where everyone's out to be experimental and to Make a Statement, Franz Ferdinand have a much loftier goal: to entertain you. And they're good at it. This album is loud, rude, cheeky, coy, it flies by at a million miles an hour, and the lyrics are full of moments that make you go, "Wait a second, did he just say what I think he said?" There's nothing subtle about this album, and nothing edgy or challenging or groundbreaking. But it will kick your ass onto the dance floor faster than just about any rock album you've ever heard. Given the fact that I hear such a relatively small percentage of the music that's released every year, I don't usually like to make sweeping statements I can't back up. But I feel pretty confident saying that this is the most fun album made by anyone all year. The only thing wrong with You Could Have It So Much Better is the title, because it doesn't get much better than this. Download: Do You Want To.

2. British Sea Power. Open Season. Listening to this album reminded me of tuning into the alternative station back in high school. For me, that was WLIR, which later became WDRE and later still became a Spanish station. It broadcast from Long Island, so the reception where I lived in New Jersey was typically terrible. But back when alternative music presented an actual alternative to what most of the jerks at your high school were listening to, WLIR/DRE would crown one song every week as the "Shriek of the Week" (originally, "The Screamer") and the static that would pervade on my radio would only add to the forbidden feel as I tuned in to see what had made the cut. When I wanted to hear the coolest songs my friends would be listening to in six months -- or, more likely, never -- I would constantly check the radio station for updates on which songs were leading in the voting. It was like taking a trip to an alternate universe where it was cool to be different and where the most popular song in the world was completely unfamiliar to virtually everyone I knew. British Sea Power sound like a lot of the bands that ruled the airwaves of LIR and DRE back in the day but never made it to mainstream stations, from Echo and the Bunnymen to the Psychedelic Furs. And just about any song on Open Season would've made a fine "Shriek of the Week". So it's no wonder this didn't get any airplay and that hardly anyone I know has ever heard of them. But that's part of what makes it so good… even if there's no static this time. Download: It Ended on an Oily Stage.

1. Sufjan Stevens. Come On Feel The Illinoise. Sufjan Stevens' state albums (Greetings From Michigan and this album), with their epic songwriting, sultry crooning and geography-obsessed lyrics, sound like an odd mix of Rufus Wainwright and Schoolhouse Rock. It may not sound like a winning combination on paper, but Stevens’ gorgeous songs take you to all kinds of magical places. Sure, those places probably bear only a passing resemblance to the cities mentioned in the songs' titles, but that's beside the point. Although the lyrics might sound silly at times -- like, yeah, it's cute that alligator rhymes with Decatur, but what does that have to do with anything? – it turns out they're actually impeccably researched, and Sufjan is really just that much of a genius. To top it all off, the album has a title that's so absolutely adorable, it made me not hate puns for a few minutes. If Sufjan is serious about doing one of these albums for all 50 states, I can't wait for Utah Shook Me All Night Long and Sweet Child O' Maine. Download: Jacksonville.


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