Thursday, December 29, 2005

Best of 2005: 20 gems to recommend

It should come as no surprise that selecting and ranking the best albums of the year is among the most difficult tasks a pop critic undertakes. This list ranks albums, with my top choice being first (Neil Young being #1) and so on. I often get asked why a specific artist didn't make my list; often it's because I never received or had a chance to hear the album. For example, I never heard the Rolling Stones' "A Bigger Bang" or Kanye West's "Late Registration" so they were not considered. I only list albums I have heard.

Neil Young “Prairie Wind” (Reprise) – Rock’s most consistently-winning songwriter returns to the alt country territory of “Harvest” but with a lifetime of reflection to craft his first masterpiece of the ‘00s.

Sigur Ros “Takk” (Geffen) – As otherworldly as it is beautiful; this Icelandic outfit thankfully charts its own course and sounds glorious.

New Order “Waiting for the Sirens’ Call” (Warner Brothers) – Maybe because I heard this in the wake of the band’s Coachella appearance, but this set finds the band breaking new ground with its accessible and influential style.

Coldplay “X&Y” (Capitol) – The band’s strongest collection yet, highlighted by “Til Kingdom Come,” “Speed of Sound” and “What If.”

Embrace “Out of Nothing” (LAVA) – I’ve played this CD to death since its release earlier this year. Britpop with melodic and emotional depth.

Paul McCartney “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard” (Capitol) – Sir Paul crafted one of the most subtle and powerful albums of the year. Clearly his best work since the 1980s.

Aimee Mann “The Forgotten Arm” (Superego) – In an age of iPods and over-produced singles, 2005 found the onetime Til Tuesday singer releasing an intelligent and well-crafted concept album.

Doves “Some Cities” (Capitol) – Both symphonic and sparse, this album will continue to challenge and thrill listeners for many years to come.

The Magic Numbers “The Magic Numbers” (Capitol) – This genre-defying outfit comprised of two sets of siblings released the best debut of 2005. Magic indeed.

Gary Allan “Tough All Over” (MCA Nashville) – In the wake of the suicide death of his wife, songs such as “Best I Ever Had,” “I Just Got Back from Hell” and “Puttin’ Memories Away” convey a real world weight not heard in country music since Johnny Cash’s final recordings.

Honorable Mentions:

Franz Ferdinand “You Could Have It So Much Better” (Sony) – No sophomore slump here. The Scottish quartet unleashes an album worth of memorable material right for the times.

Ringo Starr “Choose Love” (Koch Records) – It’s easy to overlook Ringo’s contributions with the Beatles, or his dozen or so solo albums. Listen again; “Choose Love” boasts plenty of fun fireworks, specifically “Give Me Back the Beat” and Fab Four reminiscent “I Do.”

Glen Phillips “Winter Pays for Summer” (Lost Highway) – The third solo album from one-time Toad the Wet Sprocket frontman Glen Phillips, “Winter Pays for Summer” is also his best. Standouts include “Duck and Cover,” “Thankful” and “Don’t Need Anything.”

Moby “Hotel” (V2) – Until a few weeks ago, I was still thinking of placing this album in my Top 10, primarily because of the strength of two amazing tracks on the release, “Raining Again” and “Slipping Away.” A very strong album.

Hootie & the Blowfish “Looking for Lucky” (Vanguard) – Anyone who has actually listened to this album won’t be surprised it appears here. Anchored by political-charged material such as “State Your Peace” and “The Killing Stone,” clearly Darius Rucker and company’s best recording since 1994’s “Cracked Rear View.”

Bruce Cockburn “Speechless” (Rounder) – Although there are only three new works on this instrumentals-only collection, the strength of hearing Bruce Cockburn’s virtuoso guitar work shine is worth running out and grabbing this album. Cockburn, a hero in his native Canada, is a master at blues, jazz and country styles and works that defy categorization. Just listen to “The End of All Rivers.”

The John Butler Trio “Sunrise Over Sea” (Lava) – Jam rock, Americana, blues and more are minded by Australia’s John Butler Trio across this wonderful album. Great tunes to listen to on a long drive.

Various Artists/Soundtrack “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” (Disney) – Although I’m indifferent to Alanis Morissette’s “Wunderkind” song, the three other songs and instrumental music composed by Harry Gregson-Williams on the soundtrack are so strong it more than makes up for that one misstep. Particularly strong are Tim Finn’s “Winter Light” and Lisbeth Scott’s “Where.”

Various Artists “Lowe Profile: A Tribute to Nick Lowe” (Brewery Records) – Truly a labor of love, “Lowe Profile: A Tribute to Nick Lowe” finds singer-songwriter Walter Clevenger not only having produced the two-disc collection and releasing it on his Costa Mesa label, but also contributing an energetic version of “There’s a Cloud in my Heart.”
More than two dozen of Lowe’s songs are reworked by leading power pop, alt country and roots rock artists selected from around the world, including a number of Clevenger’s Orange County-based contemporaries. The Glimmer Stars (“Rollers Show”), Sparkle*Jets U.K. (“When I Write the Book”) and Chris Gaffney (“Crying in my Sleep”) rank among the many high achieving artists on the superb tribute. Other highlights on the collection include Eric Ambel’s version of “12 Step Program (To Quit You Babe)” and Michael Carpenter’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?”

Various Artists/Soundtrack “Walk the Line” (Wind-Up) – Nothing but praise for the vocal performances by Joaquin Phoenix (as Johnny Cash) and Reese Witherspoon (playing June Carter). Sure their acting was wonderful in the film, but the musical performances are just as wonderful. And any chance to hear Cash’s wonderful songs in the spirit of the originals gets thumbs up from me, even if these reworkings inevitably fall short of the original masterworks.

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