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.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

No false Alarm; another fight worth noting

I read today that Alarm frontman Mike Peters has begun undergoing chemo treatments for Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia. My heartfelt hopes for Mike to beat this thing.

I first saw the Alarm when the band opened for U2 in the early 1980s and was very impressed. I saw them again when I worked at a headlining show they had at Cal State Fullerton, and I reviewed the revamped Alarm a few years ago at the Galaxy Theatre in Santa Ana.

Peters never disappoints in concert and I wish him the best in his treatments and recovery!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Grammys silliness, remembering John Lennon

Okay, here we go again.

The Grammy Awards are all about popularity. Period. Today they announced the 48th Annual Grammy Awards Nominee list. The fact that anything credible in the pop and rock fields got on the list is really amazing.

How else to explain the following...

Aimee Mann's "The Forgotten Arm" was nominated in the Best Recording Package. But what about the amazing songs on the concept album? Ignored completely. I can think of a number of great songs off that disc that deserve to be in the Record Of The Year category. But what we get are the embarrassing likes of Mariah Carey's "We Belong Together" and Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl."

In the Album of the Year category, if Mariah Carey wins for "The Emancipation of Mimi," they better allow some time. It took something like 20 people to produce, engineer and mix the thing. Gwen Stefani also needed a bit of help on "Love. Angel. Music. Baby"; there are at least 10 other names credited with creating that forgettable effort. It only took a handful (specifically producer Nigel Godrich) to complete Paul McCartney's amazing "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard" in the same field.

In Category 4, Best New Artist, it's funny. Keane is there; didn't their debut come out in early 2004 here (and even sooner in England)? Grammy voters are often confused and can't read a calendar.

And why, oh why, didn't New Order's excellent "Waiting for the Sirens' Call" or Moby's strong "Hotel" (songs "Raining Again" and "Slipping Away" are epic) get nominated in the Best Electronic/Dance Album category? Those were two of the best albums of 2005, especially New Order's latest. That keeps finding its way back into my CD player.

Let me remind the Grammy voters of some other great albums they forgot to mention. Embrace's "Out of Nothing," Bruce Cockburn's "Speechless" (which had a trio of new instrumentals that could fit in somewhere I'm sure), singer-songwriter Glen Phillips' "Winter Pays for Summer" and Limbeck's "Let Me Come Home" (which could fit in any of a number of country, pop or rock fields).

Well, at least they didn't totally forget Neil Young's "Prairie Wind," U2's "How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb" and Coldplay's "X&Y."

And on a more serious note, much has been written this week about John Lennon. It was 25 years ago today that he was murdered. I always try to put aside all of the endless controversy about his life, and legacy as seemingly directed by Yoko Ono and go back and enjoy his music. His songs remain a mirror into his soul, and often into our own. Whether it was his early gems such as "In My Life," "Help" and "Nowhere Man," or his later solo work, it holds up and still speaks to me. And his voice, it just conveyed an honesty increasingly rare in rock - especially when you look at the slim list of notable young rockers on the Grammy list today. Rob Thomas...are you kidding?

True, it doesn't seem like it has been 25 years since John Lennon was taken from us. It's a loss that hurts as much now as it did then. In his wonderful "God," Lennon confessed "I just believe in me." Truth be told, music lovers still believe too.