Scott: One of the great things about having your own blog is writing on whatever subject you want to. While baseball is our main focus at The Juice (no really it is), music has always been our second most covered subject and it always seems to get the most comments. So here is the 3rd annual year-end Top 10 list. The year as a whole featured a lot of depth, as even my number 14 choice would have made my Top 10 in 2004. What the year did lack was one classic album that will be played 15 years ago, like last year’s American Idiot.
Scott’s #1 – Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning
During the 2004 presidential campaign you might remember that some American musicians came together to put on concerts in 11 states. The tour was called “Vote for Change” and its goal was to raise money and awareness for the extremely non-rockin’ John Kerry. Some of America’s biggest musicians, such as Springsteen, Mellencamp, Fogerty, and Pearl Jam were involved. The one name that performed at the concerts which didn’t seem to fit was Conor Oberst, a.k.a. Bright Eyes. I can hear Bob from Sesame Street breaking into “One of these things is not like the other” just contemplating it.
Oberst has been one of the unfortunates who have been labeled the next Dylan. In music this label is kind of like being called the next Michael Jordan, which I’m sure Harold Miner or Roy Marble could tell you is a bitch to live with. The precocious Oberst was in a band when he was just 14. Now this isn’t such a big deal, except that within a couple of years he had started up his own record label and was receiving press for his exploits.
Personally, I never could see what the fuss was all about, as his music was decent, but not much different than a lot of singer/songwriters and definitely not in the class of the even more prolific, Ryan Adams. It seemed liked Oberst’s greatest talent was following the indie rock P.R. manual to perfection. Be junkie-thin, sport some bottle-black hair, live in NYC, so you can be close to the cool alternative rock journalists and most importantly, make sure to date Winona Ryder. Check, check, check, check.
This year Oberst made the ultimate rock star move releasing two albums at the same time. While very few on the planet could have cared less, the alternative music press covered their indie rock poster boy releases like he was Springsteen in 1992. I give you this background to establish my thoughts on Oberst, before I sat down to listen to his new efforts. Digital Ash in a Digital Urn has its moments, but it’s Bright Eyes other release, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning that is the special recording.
I’m Wide Awake… is the album that Ryan Adams has dreamed of making. On this brilliant release you can hear the reflections of Nick Drake, Paul Westerberg and yes even Bob Dylan in the mix. Never does the music seem like it’s an imitation of these artists, though, as it is instead a statement of someone fulfilling the promise that many had hung around his neck. With the country-rock melodies supported by harmonies provided by Emmylou Harris, one might be quick to label Oberst as another Gram Parsons wannabe. Well that would be inaccurate, as the album is better than any one Parsons ever put out.
While the ballads are beautiful, the best tune on the album is the closer, “Road to Joy.” Oberst’s lyrics are more direct than Dylan on this song, somewhere in the Lennon or Bono world.
So when you’re asked to fight a war that’s over nothing
It’s best to join the side that’s gonna win
And no one’s sure how all of this got started
But we’re gonna make them goddam certain how its gonna end
“Road to Joy” is a brilliant closer to an album that declares Oberst is no longer a 14-year-old from Omaha, Nebraska, but someone who deserves to stand on the same stage with the artists he played with on the Vote for Change tour.
Will: Here’s the odd thing. I didn’t hold a single one of these albums in my hand this year, at least not by itself. When I burned a physical CD, it was to give to a friend. I can carry all 15 albums here in my iPod (along with a couple hundred others) and I got all of them off the Net.
Will’s #1 – Fall Out Boy – From Under The Cork Tree
At The Pixies show this summer, Scott and I sat behind a guy who must have been close to 70. Watching him sing along to “UMass” was funny at the time, but it reminds me that my time is close as much as Plans does. Fall Out Boy is violently young, powerfully pop culture that would seem to be rooted so solidly in 2005 that the album would fade. The name checks and pre-sellout Dennis Miller sub-references somehow don’t bog down the songs. The too-precious titles might give you pause if you’re finding grey hairs in your goatee and a median fan base that can’t vote might give you even more. If so, you’re missing out and giving up. The album is finding an audience beyond the emo kids because it’s smart well beyond its years. “Dance, Dance” may be an emo-informed remake of David Bowie’s remake of himself, but it’s not cloying. “Sugar, We’re Going Down” is both a hook you can’t get out of your head after hearing it for the first or fiftieth time, it’s inscrutable, near-meaningless lyrics somehow morph into some kind of rallying cry. There’s no down track, no meandering, and despite no track with the brilliance of “Where Is Your Boy Tonight?” the band’s anthemic generation-definer. It may surprise some that Fall Out Boy was the breakout band among the Chicago emo scene, but it really shouldn’t. Maybe looking like the kid in Almost Famous made many underestimate the band.
Scott’s #2 – The White Stripes – Get Behind Me Satan
It’s time to recognize that the White Stripes are the best band of this decade, with three great releases over the past four years. Unlike Elephant or White Blood Cells, Get Behind Me Satan is not filled with blistering blues guitar solos or thudding drums. Their latest release has more of a Led Zeppelin III vibe, only with some added funk to the country blues sound. Satan is not a sit-down and love it type album, instead it takes repeated listens to truly hear the greatness of its groove. In a music world where being on top of the latest technology is the answer to many, the White Stripes seem to go further back in time to find their inspiration. Listen to the first three cuts, “Blue Orchid,” “The Nurse,” and “My Doorbell.” Let them seep into your head. Yeah, it feels goods.
Will’s #2 – Death Cab for Cutie – Plans
“Love is watching someone die.” There’s always some line on a great album that jumps out and speaks to you, that line that you know the writer got in his head and built a song around. This album rewards close listening and seems deeper each time you go through it. Whether it’s the tambourine that comes out of nowhere in the third verse of “Soul Meets Body” or the Dream Academy vocals on “Summer Skin,” this album seems as well constructed as any this decade. There’s simply layers and layers here, both musically and lyrically, a combination that’s rewarding beyond the young man’s mortality musings that make this album a tough sell to the masses. As much as My Morning Jacket might be treading the path of R.E.M, Death Cab might be held back as much by their intelligence and complexity as they are by a stupid band name. Their “O.C.” shoutouts actually remind me more of the laughable flirtations that The Flaming Lips had with “Beverly Hills 90210” than they do that Death Cab might break out. If they follow the Lips down their own path, sticking to making great albums rather than trying to make music that will sell to more people than the freshman Lit majors, they’ll really have something.
Scott’s #3 – System of a Down – Mesmerize
Following an approach more like Guns N’ Roses than Bright Eyes, SOAD had two releases in 2005, but they split them up, putting 6 months between the two. While the latest release “Hypnotize has its moments, it’s “Mesmerize” that winds up #3 on my year-end list. Click on my earlier review to learn more of why it does.
Will’s #3 – Spoon – Gimme Fiction
This album is all mood. The smooth opening groove all the way through the last long-held chord of “My Mathematical Mind” seem like a soundtrack to a movie that I’d like to see than an unknown Austin band.
Scott’s #4 – Hot Hot Heat – Elevator
In 2002, Hot Hot Heat’s single, “Bandages” was an explosion on the Modern Rock airwaves, sounding like the Cure at its most funky, only adding some punk to the mix.
“Elevator” shows the group growing as The Cure’s influence remains, but with some early Kinks elements showing up as well. Are they British Columbia’s best band since “Loverboy”? Download: “Middle of Nowhere” and “Goodnight Goodnight”
Will’s #4 James Blunt – Back To Bedlam
If there’s any album that challenges Green Day for top spot for album of the decade so far, it’s Damien Rice’s phenomenal O. Blunt’s album is not that good, but there’s no album aside from “American Idiot” that is.
Scott’s #5 – Ben Folds – Songs for Silverman
While not quite as good as his sensational solo debut, “Rockin’ in the Suburbs”, Ben Folds has made a quieter, more introspective record, which soars all the same. “Songs for Silverman” sounds like it was written by someone who had been listening to Brian Wilson, as harmony and strings accompany the great piano work by Folds. While his past work, with its bratty lyrics and even brattier attitude is great, “Songs for Silverman” has a more grizzled outlook on life. One of a man with a wife and daughter, who is starting to see maybe he doesn’t have all the answers. Download: “Gracie” and “Landed”
Will’s #5 The Rolling Stones – A Bigger Bang
It’s not a good Rolling Stones album, it’s just a good album. There were too many qualifiers when the album first came out, too many explanations of why this was good when it was easy to just play the album, hear Keith Richards’ guitar and Mick Jagger in full voice, and let that stand on its own. It’s well constructed but not overproduced. It sounds like a band trying to assert its own vitality, having seen what is far too close. Some may try and compare this back to albums like Some Girls, but no good band is static. The Stones instead look to their blues roots for inspiration and find it in great quantity. Let’s hope that there’s another one of these albums in them and that it doesn’t take a decade to hear it.
Scott’s #6 Beck Guero
While many critics were swayed by Beck’s acoustic-oriented Sea Change, color me as one who describes it as Mellow Bronze, at best. Guero is the follow-up to Odelay that many of us have been waiting for. Back with the production team of the Dust Brothers, Beck has put a twist on his two turntables and a microphone, adding a latin-tinged swing to the backbeat. My four semesters of Spanish in college have equipped me to describe Guero as muy bien. Muy bien, indeedo, Frito Bandito.
Will’s #6 My Morning Jacket – Z
It took me a long time to get past the reverb. For years, people have been pointing me to this band and it took the Brian Wilson like “Morgeetah” on their last album for me to get it. So once I get past the reverb, so did Jim James. Z reduces the heavy echo of their Kentucky silo and replaces it with Big Pink era The Band influence. By the time the last two songs on the album play, MMJ has remade itself while remaining true to itself somehow. It recalls Document, the first R.E.M. album where Michael Stipe was intelligible and could well be the transition album that leads to a broader acceptance, just as that album did for R.E.M.
Scott’s #7 Feist – Let It Die
Looking for this year’s Norah Jones? Look no further. Let It Die sounds like Montreal, but it’s by an artist from the South. Toronto, Canada. With the smoky tones of Jones and the cool atmospheres of Dido, Leslie Feist adds a bonus element and that is some 70’s style white funk. Check out the remakes of the Bee Gees’ Inside and Out and Ron Sexsmith’s Secret Heart for the proof. Download: “Mushaboom.”
Will’s #7 – Imogen Heap – Speak For Yourself
There’s almost a new category of albums this year. It seems every hip new show with an average viewer age in the 18-35 has a mix tape. Not a soundtrack that’s not cool but a mix tape. The music is pushed into some of these shows in ways more blatant than the laughable end credit hits we hear at the movies, but with iTunes, the soundtrack mix is becoming a great sampler into new bands. Take a 30 second listen to get a feel and I’m much more likely to drop my money than I am off a Spin review. Imogen Heap’s amazing “Hide And Seek” made it onto the O.C. and that exposure was worth more than anything to this singer-songwriter-producer dynamo. She’s firmly in the Alison Moyet-Dido lineage with songs that bounce and create a mood. She can threaten to rock, with fuzzbox guitars at the chorus of “Daylight Robbery” or go Roger on us like no one since Roger on “Hide And Seek.” It’s an album that’s never exactly sure what category it’s supposed to be in and just goes about being a little bit of everything.
Scott’s #8 – Kelly Clarkson – Breakaway
Each year I do one of these lists and I put one release that I know all the kids too-cool-for-school will make fun of me for. Well, I’ve never given anyone more ammunition than to put Kelly Clarkson on my top 10 list, but damn if she doesn’t belong here. Very few people can perform stunning ballads and still manage to rock out like Pat Benatar. As long-time readers of The Juice are aware, I’m not exactly a fan of American Idol, as any show that has thrust Clay Aiken on us, should be hung. (Or well-hung, as Claymaniacs would declare.) Kelly Clarkson is a major talent. Sure she makes music with a bubble-gum sheen, but there’s not a clunker on Breakaway and while the music is solid and the lyrics are not completely banal, it’s Clarkson voice which makes it one of the best of 2005.
Final Note: I would like to thank Will for writing this post to cover my ass a little on my Number 8 selection. I would also like to mention that after reading Will’s account of Lindsay Lohan’s recent single, I listened to it, and damn if I don’t feel similarly. Jesus, are the two writers at The Juice a couple Tiger Beat lovin’ Nancy boys or what?
Will’s #8 Kanye West Late Registration
It’s not as good as The College Dropout. West continues to distance himself from the pack of well-known rappers, yet still seems a walking contradiction. He tries to take up the crown left to him by Jay-Z and gets blown away by his mentor on “Diamonds From Sierra Leone.” Of course, Jay-Z’s verse of the song ranks as the best minute of rap you’ll hear on the radio this year unless you have XM. West insists on dragging the album down with skits, a trend on rap albums that just has to die quickly. Even the off tracks are interesting and the peaks are enough to push this album into my year-end best. A friend called me to say he’d been out dancing and watched girls rush the dance floor when “Gold Digger” started playing. Ah, delicious irony.
Scott’s #9 – Nine Inch Nails – With Teeth
So what would naturally follow-up my choice of a former American Idol winner? Well, the king of industrial doom rock, Trent Reznor. While it seems the rest of the industrial rock bands like Gravity Kills, God Lives Underwater, Filter have either disbanded or changed genres, Nine Inch Nails continues to be relevant. (Sure the Ministry is still around, but Al Jourgensen has been repeating himself for a decade?)
Reznor’s last, 1999’s The Fragile, was one good album, but unfortunately Reznor left a lot of lesser material in the mix on his double album set. All NIN releases are measured against the great The Downward Spiral. While With Teeth isn’t of that level that doesn’t mean it isn’t a high quality recording. “All the Love in the World” is a song that kicks ass for the last minute more than any other offering in 2005. With Teeth rocks hard, with Dave Grohl slamming the skins harder than he has since Nevermind. Who knows what the music landscape will look like in 2010, but I suspect Trent Rexnor will have another new release that pushes boundaries on his regular 5 year plan. Download: “Only” and “The Hand that Feeds.”
Will’s #9 Foo Fighters – In Your Honor
There’s about thirty seconds near the end of “Best Of You” that might be the strongest rock and roll since Dave Grohl was still a drummer. It’s a release, a benediction and accusation all at once, something that Grohl likely learned from Kurt Cobain. It’s easy to canonize Cobain as we have with so many dead musicians, but this album may open the door to a reconsideration of Nirvana. When Foo Fighters first debuted in ’95, I didn’t expect much from the drummer. Ten years later, he’s sounding like what Nirvana might have smart, powerful, tight. This ranks as the best Nirvana-connected album, challenging Hole’s “Live Through This.” The acoustic second album often sounds extraneous, but serves as an object lesson in their talent and versatility. The next ten years for Dave Grohl and company could likely be more interesting than the last ten.
Scott’s #10 – LCD Soundsystem/Jamiroquai – Dynamite
While both of these releases differ in many degrees, they have one thing in common. Both have a great beat, so you can dance to them. As the title of the lead-off track, “Daft Punk is Playing in My House” points out, LCD Soundsystem still believes techno isn’t completely done. While not as great as Daft Punk’s Discovery, LCD’s disco punk sound shows that the genre can still provide innovation. Downloads: “Daft Punk ” and “Yeah (Crass Version).”
No innovation found with Jamiroquai, as band-leader Jason Kay makes like Lenny Kravitz, ripping from 70’s funk and rock stars. Where Jamiroquai have been a great singles band, with 3 or 4 killer cuts on each album, “Dynamite” is fully packed with disco funk classics. Have you ever wanted to hear what Stevie Wonder would sound-like if he had the Philly-sound backing him? Wait no longer, as Jamiroquai has put it on wax. While I don’t think that “Dynamite” deserves the same acclaim that the other 10 on the list receive, in all honesty I’ve listened to it more than any release this year, outside of Bright Eyes, so I have to squeeze it in. Downloads: “Feels Just Like It Should” and “Seven Days in Sunny June.”
Will’s #10 – Amos Lee Amos Lee
From almost the first listen, I knew this album would be on my top ten. At a book signing in Cleveland, I actually paused mid-sentence when I heard this playing over the sound system in Borders. Lee is more than the male Norah Jones he’s often reduced to, but the comparison is apt. He makes dark music sound safe and his silky voice can slide into the background of a date nicely. Where I really enjoy him is when the blues edge that he holds back for most of the album sneaks out as it does on “Bottom of the Barrel” and the hook-laden “Seen It All Before,” a song that will stick in your head for weeks. Amos Lee’s voice sounds like Maker’s Mark and heartbreak. If a debut can make you excited about a career, then this is a solid debut.
Will’s Honorable Mentions
HM. Try John Mayer Trio Who knew that Mayer had a little Stevie Ray in him?
HM. Twin Cinema The New Pornographers They deserve the success.
HM. X&Y Coldplay Enough to keep their momentum, but not as good as Rush of Blood To The Head.
HM. Burning In The Sun Blue Merle Maybe better than X&Y, this band is more than just a Coldplay soundalike.
HM. A Healthy Distrust Sage Francis The heir to Eminem’s throne, Francis’ paranoias makes for some great hip-hop.
Scott’s Second 10 (In Award Style)
An Apology to The Futureheads and Who Was the Closest Thing to Them in 2005: The Kaiser Chiefs
When I put together these top 10 music lists, I spend way too much time trying to listen to everything I should, so I don’t miss out on a gem. Well last year I failed, not hearing The Futureheads until March of 2005. If I would have known they even existed, The Futureheads would have been No. 4 on my 2004 list. They are definitely worth checking out, as their music would have blended in nicely next to The Clash and The Buzzcocks on college radio during the 1980’s. Not only do they wear their English punk roots on their sleeve, but they also weirdly channel Yes of 90125. Are you intrigued? Let me add that in an online discussion somewhere, Billy Beane listed them as someone he was listening to.
The closest thing I’ve heard this year in capturing some of that British punk sneer was the debut effort by the Kaiser Chiefs. Employment is more reminiscent of The Jam, but still well worth checking out. Download: “Na Na Na .” and “I Predict a Riot.”
Best Collection of Short Stories Officially Listed as a CD: Sufijan Stevens – Illinoise
As part of his project of making a CD focused on each state in the union, Illinoise is Stevens’ second offering of his Fodor’s meets indie rock releases. I really question how many people will still be listening to this in 5 years, but it definitely makes an immediate impact. I know I’m looking forward to Stevens’ offering on Idaho, because I can’t think of anyone who could just focus on that state and make anything longer than an EP.
Best Power Pop Release of 2005. Spoon – Gimme Fiction
While not as good as 2002’s Kill the Moonlight, this is the third straight excellent release from Texas’ top alternative band. Gimme Fiction shows the influence of Prince as much as it does of the Beatles. One of the best bands in the world Spoon is cursed with not fitting a category that will get them airplay on the radio.
Best Are You Still A Band Release of 2005? Garbage – Bleed Like Me
Butch Vig’s band is back, rocking harder than ever before. Shirley Mansion snarls her way through 13 new Garbage songs. One of the most underrated bands of the past 10 years. Downloads: “Bleed Like Me” and “Illegal Tender”
The Killers Wish They Were As Good as Us Award: The Bravery
Just what alternative dance-rockers have needed for so long, a fight between 2 of its most popular bands. Can you imagine the battle between the Depeche Mode and OMD? Wow, the mascara would have been flying. Actually, the best part about The Bravery is they seem to be more influenced by New Order, unlike The Killers who claim to be under Duran Duran’s spell. Winner: New Order over Duran Duran = The Bravery over The Killers. Downloads: “Fearless” and “An Honest Mistake”
Best Emo Album of 2005
To me this is a like being declared best pork rind flavor, as it’s not a category brimming with quality, but Fall Out Boy brought some originality to the genre. With its book-length titles and Green Day-esque sonics, “From Under the Cork Tree” has depth and quality. This is the best emo album I’ve heard since Jimmy Eat World’s “Bleed American”.
Harvey Danger – Little By Little
I’m sure when this band’s debut came out and their opening single, “Flagpole Sitta” became a big radio hit, they must have thought, “Christ this is easy.” Well their superior second release, “King James Version” was generally overlooked and now they are just another former major label alternative band relegated to releasing on an independent. Don’t miss their newest, as it another great effort. Downloads: “Happiness Writes White” and “Wine Women and Song”
Best Album by Rock and Roll Hall of Famers: The Rolling Stones – A Bigger Bang
This was absolutely the best recording the Stones could have made at this point of their career. It’s the best release they’ve put out since Dirty Work. Mick’s vocals sound better than they have since Some Girls. Keith’s licks are his best since his solo work on “Talk is Cheap”. Has there ever been a drummer sound better at 70 than Charlie Watts does here? The production sounds phenomenal, much improved over Don Was’ work with the band. So with all these positive elements, why are the Stones not in the Top 10? A band with this great of past is working against its brilliant catalogue. I listen to these songs and think, yeah they’re good, but why don’t I just sit down and listen to Sticky Fingers or Let It Bleed, instead. It’s a top 20 album, but the Stones prior work keeps it from moving up the ladder.
Best Rock and Roll Bad Boys of 2005: Louis XIV – The Best Little Secrets Are Kept
Unlike “A Bigger Bang”, Louis XIV debut is not solid from beginning to finish. Its production is somewhat lazy and the lyrics are obscene in their misogyny. Ain’t it grand to be young, dumb, and full of cum. If there is anyone who should understand this it should be the Stones, as they had their decades of misbehavior. It just doesn’t work as well when you are the Rolling Geezers. Louis XIV are the best glam band in quite awhile, taking the best of the genre (Bowie, T Rex) and putting up lyrics that would have caused The Knack to blush. Downloads: “Finding Out True Love is Bad” and “Hey Teacher.”
Criminally Overlooked Singer/Songwriter Award for 2005: James McMurtry – Childish Things
In case you missed it, the results are in and it sure helps to have a famous parent in your profession. (See George W. Bush and Melissa Rivers) One person who seems to be able to dispute this assertion is James McMurtry, son of Larry, a different type of writer. James has been putting out great music for years and 2005 is no different, as “Childish Things” is another winner. Listen to the song “We Can’t Make It Here” and tell me this isn’t as powerful as “This Land Is Your Land” or “Born in the USA”. Read the lyrics here.
Criminally Overlooked Singer/Songwriter Who No Longer has to Worry about It Anymore: Chris Whitley
Whitley passed away on November 20th. He was one of the great guitarists of our generation, making music that often bridged the gap between Hendrix and T Monk. Lately his work had appeared on the Messenger Records label, which is owned and run by a reader of The Juice. Two of the songs on Whitley’s 2005 release, Fireroad (for 2) and As Day is Long happen to be some of the best music of this year. Chris will be missed by those of us who loved his music.
Biggest Disappointments of 2005
The New Pornographers – Twin Cinema
As a big fan of this group’s past two albums, plus group leader AC Newman’s solo release of 2004, I was thoroughly disappointed in Twin Cinema. I know it’s on a lot of critic’s year end top 10 list, but not anywhere close to mine.
Coldplay – X&Y
This group has been dubbed by some as the next great band, following in the shoes of Radiohead and U2. I just don’t get all the praise. Their debut had its moments and the follow-up was a quality work, but nowhere in the ballpark of the bands listed above. This year’s model is dull and pretentious. Congrats to you for selling a ton of albums and cheers for bagging a waif-like actress, but Chris Martin has a long ways to go before I see his group as the next great rock band.
Scott’s Final Note: I’ve not included Kanye West on either of my last two year’s list. I’ve tried to get into him, I really have, but it just doesn’t even merit a Top 40 position for me. Actually I haven’t thought any rap album has been great since The Marshall Mathers LP. Where are the next Public Enemy’s, De La Soul’s, or Beastie Boys? Oh and by the way, it ain’t MIA, so don’t offer that as a suggestion. Signed, middle-aged White Guy.
Finally, did you notice that Will and I didn’t share one artist in our top 10? This was not by design, as we didn’t see each other’s list before posting. Just wanted you to have some behind the scenes commentary on how our fascinating top 10 was put together. Just consider this Final Note section like the extra features on a DVD. We are the first blog to offer this technology. Hopefully you have enjoyed it. Now, if you’ve gotten this far it’s time for you to sign in and starting attacking our choices. Remember I seriously chose Kelly Clarkson on my top 10 list. It was no goof. Rant away.