Music No worries

A look back at the best releases of 2005

It goes without saying that any best-of list is purely subjective and could never be definitive. Ultimately, it reflects the preoccupations of that writer/listener at that given time, which in my case tended to be contemporary R&B and orchestral pop. With that in mind, here are 10 releases that helped to make my job enjoyable in 2005:

Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine,

The tortured, convoluted back story of this album inevitably overshadowed the music itself, but what amazing music it is. Six years after her previous release, Apple continues her artistic leap forward, with chamber pop thats elegantly layered but never fussy. She also demonstrates a light touch that would have been unthinkable back in her bellowing bad bad girl phase. While some Jon Brion fans question Apples decision to remake songs shed initially recorded with him, the finished product vindicates her.

Kanye West, Late Registration,

The story is much happier for Jon Brion on this one. West, a devotee of Apples 1999 Brion-produced album When The Pawn, brought the studio wizard in to flesh out his arrangements. It was a demonstration that, for all his ego, West is willing to give up control when it means his music will explore exciting new places. Complex and contradictory, West alternately comes off as an enlightened, new-model hip-hop hero (with his contempt for homophobia and disregard for bling culture) and a self-obsessed star soaking in the adulation. West is an adequate emcee, but this album hinges on its sonic textures, and theyre luxurious enough to make Maroon 5s Adam Levine sound soulful.

Beck, Guero

If Becks followers are split between the dancing machine of Midnite Vultures and the sensitive, confessional folkie of Sea Change, Mr. Hansen seems equally torn. With Guero, he shot for an updated Odelay, a post-modern electronic mash-up that would combine his absurdly eclectic strengths in one setting. The results arent quite as fresh as they seemed in 1996, but Guero still marked a graceful return to the realm of beats and samples.

Kings of Leon, Aha Shake Heartbreak

These Tennessee kids parade all the decadent self-loathing youd expect from rock-obsessed children of a disgraced, traveling evangelist. Caleb Followills bizarre, strangled yowl is an acquired taste that some will never acquire, and that accounts for the polarizing effect of this band. But between their powerhouse rhythmic drive and Calebs willingness to come clean about impotence and baldness (nearly a year before the Darkness devoted a song to follicle distress), theyre a heartbreak thats hard to shake.

New Pornographers, Twin Cinema

Not quite as giddy or rousing as the groups two previous pop masterpieces, this one grows over time in that mystifyingly melodic New Pornographers way. Secret weapon Neko Case shines on These Are The Fables and A.C. Newman continues to build his low-key case for pop-genius status.

Anthony Hamilton, Aint Nobody Worryin
(So So Def):

The big problem with much of whats marketed as nu-soul is that it substitutes aesthetic for inspiration, as if fans of vintage R&B are so starved for the old-school that theyll accept weak songs and derivative production if the singer apes Al Green (consider the case of the much-hyped Ricky Fante). Hamilton isnt important because he sounds like long-deceased soul men, hes important because hes applying that spirit to legit songs and beats that dont deny the existence of hip-hop. No kid at 34, and the hard-luck survivor of two record-label collapses, this North Carolina native effortlessly taps into Bill Withers natural-man gravitas with the pensive title song and the inspirational reggae of Everybody. With Preachers Daughter this churchgoer even takes a hard look at hypocrisy within the church.

Spoon, Gimme Fiction

As with the New Pornographers disc, this set initially seemed slightly underwhelming coming on the heels of its formidable predecessors. Britt Daniel wrote better songs for Girls Can Tell and broke more sonic ground with the deconstructions of Kill The Moonlight, but Gimme Fiction found the band comfortably in command of their trademark groove. Its a groove that not only accomodates soul music but also understands what to do with it, as demonstrated by the Papa Was A Rolling Stone bass line of Was It You? Even at his most relaxed, Daniel and his mathematical mind cant resist adding a disorienting beat to the jangle-pop coda of Sister Jack.

Faith Evans, The First Lady

Evans has been through too much (namely the killing of estranged husband Biggie Smalls) to play the ingenue, and thats one of her biggest strengths. On this assured comeback, she multi-tracks her Gladys Knight-ian pipes into pure R&B bliss. Like Mary J. Blige, shes through with drama, but that doesnt mean she wont kick your ass if you step out of line.

Buttercup, Sick Yellow Flower

It would be impossible for any album to fully document the soulful whimsy and the conceptual-art spontaneity of Buttercups Grackle Mundy extravaganzas, but this record comes close. This is literate pop that never settles for the obvious, yet is always accessible.

Plimsouls, One Night In America

Alright, Im cheating on this one. Recorded at a (still unknown) Midwestern club in 1981, this gloriously raucous live set just became available domestically on CD this year. It reveals what Plimsouls diehards have long known: That Peter Case and his mates were a million miles ahead of most power-pop thats power-chorded along over the last two decades.

By Gilbert Garcia


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