Great Years In Music – 2005

The 2nd Great Year in Music is celebrating a year very much close to home. If the past is a foreign country, then 2005 would be a bordering land, one we affectionately mock and have rivalries with in a variety of sports. Unlike 1997 there was not a great broadening of genres, or progression of mainstream attitudes. What occurred in the middle of the recently-deceased decade was a specific genre from a specific country producing a number of excellent records, the volume and quality of which are astounding considering the mere 52 weeks that bands had to release them. Yes, yet again I turn to perhaps my favourite music movement, the great American Indie-Rock scene.

At the time I was just 15, slowly feeling my way into music geekery, content with the bare minimum Radiohead, Muse and The White Stripes, who released “Get Behind Me Satan” in June, a record which was down on their best work but still had the band’s classic pulsating power and addictive simplicity in spades. I’ve been catching up on 2005’s treats for the last few years, and given that I was a depressed teenage outcast at the time, maybe some of the downtrodden lyrics that typified the core of the scene would have hit home a little more.

That feeling of wishing I had poked and pried a little more behind the obvious choices when I was younger is no more acute than with The National, who I have spent the last 18 months listening to with growing awe and a mounting suspicion that I could have used their baritone magnificence earlier in life. Though their first album on a label that wasn’t their own, “Alligator”, didn’t cause much of a buzz when it was released in April of this year, it has swelled to become almost the definition of the term “a grower”, not giving away all its secrets too early and savouring the cerebral, the joyously inventive yet immature. It celebrates the adolescent mind trapped in an adult body, paranoid (“Secret Meeting”), drunkenly invincible (“All The Wine”) and abrasively neurotic (“Abel”) in equal measure, dripping in gorgeously obtuse lyrics and spidery Smiths-esque guitar lines. Easily my favourite album of 2005, probably the pinnacle of its genre and a serious contender for one of my all-time top five albums, it bears many similarities to its competitors in terms of style, but none match it for quality.

The majority of said competitors that were released in 2005 came from the same stable of American narrative-weaving indie. The one most commonly mentioned is Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois”, although personally I find it flat and extravagant. This may be a little to do with the expectations which surround it, as it certainly has moments of quality and surprising profundity, but these moments are hidden behind irritating smarm. Still, it is one of the best critically-received albums of all time, and transformed Sufjan Stevens, deservedly or otherwise, into the indie darling he is today.

Whilst Stevens was blowing folk out of proportion, there was a background resurgence in a more intimate and compelling style of folk, courtesy of Andrew Bird and Conor Oberst. Oberst’s band Bright Eyes simultaneously released two albums “Digital Ash In A Digital Urn” and “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning”, with the latter being particularly worthy of note. At times haunting, from the insecure spoken-word opening of “At The Bottom Of Everything” to the Beethoven-infused “Road To Joy”, “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” is consistent and shows Oberst’s capability at mixing simple, single-guitar folk with more monumental fare without making the record feel too scatter-gun. Andrew Bird’s “The Mysterious Production Of Eggs” is less consistent, but it hits similar highs, especially on “Fake Palindromes” with its rising strings and rhythms and its central call of “she’s got blood in her eyes, in her eyes for you”.

The wave of complex indie-rock that sailed through the decade was spearheaded, some might say, by collectives as opposed to static bands. Few bands have a line-up as fluid as Broken Social Scene, who released a self-titled album this year, which alongside “You Forgot It In People” formed one of the decade’s most lauded one-two combos. Another collective, Wolf Parade, (whose lead singer Spencer Krug has become a less visible version of Jack White amongst the indie landscape) upstaged this record, however, with their debut “Apologies To The Queen Mary”. Though it followed in the footsteps of much of the early decade of indie music, Modest Mouse in particular, the individual tracks hit a high enough quality to really make it stand out in the crowd, and the emotion worn by both the frantic guitars and Krug’s mournful vocals shot the album straight into the hearts of thousands. It would be a stretch to refer to My Morning Jacket as a collective, despite Jim James’ often erratic personal work, but it would not be a stretch to call “Z” an exceptional album that took on board enough prog to accommodate their talent but balanced it with classic rock skilfully enough to avoid alienating the audience.

The other ever-shifting band of note, although at the time they were not at all of note, as life-long fans are at pains to point out, are Animal Collective, who converged often enough in 2005 to release “Feels”, which went under the radar of many until “Merriweather Post Pavilion” last year, when suddenly all manner of hipsters were claiming it had always been their favourite album.

Other American indie bands were churning out excellent albums at the same time, the ever-reliable Spoon released “Gimme Fiction”, The Decemberists cemented their oddball persona with “Picaresque”, Beck put out the steady (if unspectacular by comparison) “Guero” and Okkervil River announced themselves fully with “Black Sheep Boy”, as unnerving as it is beautiful. Most other years these would be riding high in memory and in stature, but for 2005, this was merely the B-material.

And as this wealth of high-quality but narrowly-genred albums came about, there was going to be someone who came along to dig a little fun at it. And aren’t we all glad it was James Murphy who decided to do that? LCD Soundsystem’s self-titled debut infused electro-rock with a shock of danceable delights, daring the introverted indie kids to let loose to the pounding “Tribulations” or the emphatically swaggering “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House”.

It would be churlish to completely overlook the British influence on the year, miniscule as it was in comparison. There arrived in 2005 two debuts which borrowed (read: stole) many ideas from bands from the past, often quite blatantly, but nevertheless caused a great sensation not just because they harked back to past masters but because they really brought them tearing into the new decade with aplomb. Kasabian’s self-titled debut gave Stone Roses’ fans a more relevant Second Coming, showcasing a viral swagger and making themselves known with forceful persistence and the odd controversial NME interview, whilst Bloc Party introduced themselves with “Silent Alarm”, a selection of classic rock shout-outs that, at its best, were powerful, smart and moving.

Outside my personal genre of preference there was more to discover. Kanye West almost lived up to his own hype with “Late Registration”, Sigur Ros had critics frothing at the mouth yet again with “Takk”, Kate Bush made a welcome return, her “Aerial” was close (but not close enough for some) to her best. But I must admit that it isn’t because of these albums that I put 2005 in my series of Great Years. It is because this year represented the undoubted height of a tidal wave of American indie records that has engrossed me ever since my discovery (which, alas, came a couple of years too late). It is my great wish that half a decade on some of these bands, and their successors, can coalesce to reproduce this fantastic year. And looking at some of the anticipated 2010 albums, that wish might not be so far-fetched…

Great Years In Music – 1997

I sometimes feel bad that I lived through the release and evolution in the public and critical eye of certain albums, but never felt this impact myself due to young age. This feeling is most acute for the year 1997, it’s a feeling of emptiness, where nostalgia should be, there is lack of knowledge. My experiences of the time period must be felt second-hand.

Inspired by this, I will now commence with the first of what I hope will be a long and fruitful series of Great Years In Music.

Let’s get the obvious out the way. In June of 1997, Radiohead, who had already earned a decent reputation as one of the worlds most interesting alternative bands, unleashed “OK Computer”. Following the more genteel, palatable “The Bends”, it was the King of commercial curveballs, and was not de-throned from this position until Radiohead saw fit to release Kid A. That it topped so many end-of-year lists (as well as end-of-decade and end-of-eternity lists), it seemed the only place to start.

OK Computer formed a centrepiece of premillennial tension, giving a shout-out to adolescent confusion amidst Douglas Adams references and thinly veiled attacks on New Labour. The desire to suffocate under “a handshake of carbon monoxide” was the inspiration for much music to come. But putting aside the sheer influence OK Computer had on the music scene, the songs, taken simply as pieces of music, are still to this day immensely powerful and skilfully tender. 12 1/2 years is maybe not quite enough time to judge the timelessness of a record, but still, it’s a stretch to imagine the record not being as highly lauded in a decades time as it is now.

Critically and historically, OK Computer takes up a large chunk of 1997. But there is a wealth of genuinely classic releases to back up the Big Daddy. Britpop, though in its decline by now, went through a bit of a re-invention during 1997. Two of the biggest names from that movement, Blur and The Verve, brought out albums that defined their career. Firstly in February, Blur released a self-titled record which immediately dispensed with the usual swaggering recipe for Britpop and introduced a sense of fun, earnest at times, and with an unusual (at the time) penchant for lo-fi. Within seven glorious minutes (the opening two tracks are “Beetlebum” and “Song 2”) Blur had torn up what it was to be a Britpop band, and they were all the better for doing so. After the two stomping openers, the rest of the album can get forgotten about, but the strangely sweet ode to escaping loneliness “On Your Own” and the surprisingly bleak “Essex Dogs”, which showcases Damon Albarn’s capabilities at delivering razor-sharp spoken word wit should not be overlooked.

Later in the year, Britpop as an entity was yet again re-aligned by the release of “Urban Hymns”, The Verve getting the sort of commercial and cultural break that “A Storm In Heaven”, their debut, perhaps warranted more. The main noting point for the record is probably “Bittersweet Symphony”, which seemed to capture a shift in mood for the British public, or at least the music-listening public. The furore surrounding its use of Rolling Stones riffs did its image more good than one might have thought. More tender singles, such as “The Drugs Don’t Work”, written by Richard Ashcroft at his dying father’s bedside, and “Lucky Man” showed that British rock was turning over a new leaf from the stifling swagger of yesteryear.

And from the ashes of the dying Britpop phoenix came smarter genres, working against the established grain and getting recognition for it. Trip-hops flagship band Portishead followed up their debut “Dummy” with a more consistent and gloomy eponymous offering. Mogwai followed in the post-rock footsteps of Godspeed You! Black Emperor (whose influential second record “F#A#∞” was first released in August 1997) by putting out their debut, “Young Team” in October. My love of Portishead is well-documented, and Mogwai have put on consistently interesting albums for the past decade and a bit. It is fair to say that their efforts in ’97 brought them much reward.

The other side of the Atlantic had much to shout about also, most notably Foo Fighters bringing out what I consider to be their best album, “The Colour And The Shape”. It confirmed that the band would not be a post-Nirvana cool-down for Dave Grohl, and established the band as world-leaders in simple but effective rock. To this day the likes of “Everlong”, “Monkey Wrench” and “Hero” are to be found in guitar-rock collections, and there is more to be found on the album that just the well-known singles. Another side of American rock, more cerebral and willing to employ more diverse influences, was also having a surge in 1997. Modest Mouse caught the critics eye with “The Lonesome Crowded West”, whilst Yo La Tengo crafted their most lauded album of their impressive career, the stirring “I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One”. Built To Spill were also busy carving a similar message into musical history, with their self-knowingly prescient “Perfect From Now On”. These three albums together paved the way for much of 00’s American indie-rock, a genre which probably counts for near half of my favourite albums of the decade.

1997 saw the release of Bjork’s “Homogenic”, Elliot Smith’s “Either/Or” and Pavement’s “Brighten The Colours”, as well as the posthumous release of two Bill Hicks albums, “Rant in E-Minor” and “Arizona Bay”. But I thought the album I would leave you with would be one that accompanied the unrivalled cultural height of 1997. I am, of course, referring to the release of Final Fantasy 7, and more relevantly, the 4-disc soundtrack that was diligently engineered by Nobuo Uematsu. It was revolutionary not necessarily in its method (tonally unimpressive MIDI), but in its scope and ultimately its impact. Suddenly game music was real music, not just a single repeated and eventually annoying series of bleeps. The character motifs were beautifully constructed symbols of the characters plight, yet the music could be taken both in and out of context. It forced game developers to focus on music’s importance on the gaming experience. And gamers and music-lovers alike will forever be grateful (and will forever be humming “One Winged Angel” too).

What more could you possibly need from a year? Here’s to 1997, my greatest year in music history.