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…

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The Video Bin 4

Sunday is starting to become official Video Bin day. So maybe I should change its name to Video Bin Sunday. But then I will be obliged. And I don’t like being obliged. That damn Wednesday Countdown has already given me one weekly obligation, a second would just kill me. Because I spend so much damn time and effort on these posts, y’know.

Things I have managed to conclude this morning:

  • Everything decomposes quicker than you want it to.
  • Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe Series 2 was the best series of any TV show from the 00’s.
  • The second album by Foals is worth looking forward to.
  • The creator of the Chocolate Digestive is a God amongst mortals.
  • Fyfe Dangerfield is a lefty, which increases the amount of cool he has, which was already pretty high from having the world’s most amazing name.

Videos:

R.E.M. have been consistently amazing live for pretty much three decades. “The One I Love” has always been referred to as a high point of their career, and it comes off of my favourite R.E.M. album, “Document”, so it’s always good to see it played live when they could be playing exclusively more recent tracks from “Accelerate” etc. The new live album from Dublin may feel slightly unecessary considering it’d been less than 2 years since they last put out a live CD, but that doesn’t make it any less amazing.

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One of these years I really am gonna have to get myself down to Bonnaroo. Every year great artists bring their A Game, and I keep finding out about it on YouTube years later. Here’s one guy who’s always a laugh live, Andrew Bird, playing “Fake Palindromes” at the 2006 festival.

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Firstly, a shout-out to La Blogotheque, which have created probably my favourite YouTube channel for good music. I should’ve mentioned them earlier for giving us Grizzly Bear doing “Knife” a capella. But I didn’t. Anyway, here is Fyfe Dangerfield, showing us his solo skills. His first solo album is currently in the works, along with a third Guillemots album, which I hope will see Dangerfield morph from a guy with a couple of gems in his back catalogue to an artist of consitent brilliance.

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So yeah, Micheal Cera is in an Islands video. Yep.

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I highly recommend the new album “Heartland” by Owen Pallett (formerly known by the moniker “Final Fantasy”). You can see Pallett in action here, crafting a gorgeous cover of the Bloc Party song “This Modern Love”. Single-handedly making violins cool all over again.

Top 15 Albums of 2009 (15 – 11)

I have noticed that, of late, I have avoided writing anything of substance and descended into a roll-call of endless lists that are collectively of very little use or function. Now, considering we are coming to both the end of a year and the end of a decade, I think that this is reasonable, as I am attempting to create some sort of summation of all the music that has come before. Thus I present a list of a little more standing than an ordinary Wednesday Countdown, the top 15 albums of 2009, which will be presented in three parts, five albums apiece.

Just to be clear, yes, I know that Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion isn’t on this list. Want to know why it isn’t on this list? Because it is exasperatingly ordinary and mostly dull. If you want to complain about this state of affairs, don’t bother, people who think MPP is better than Veckatimest seem to be in the majority, so rather than argue, just quote the number of publications that have put Animal Collective as No. 1 album of 2009. I am also aware that albums that I’m sure will appeal to me but I haven’t got round to listening to yet (Dirty Projectors, Phoenix, Atlas Sound, Dinosaur Jr.) may well be better than the album I have at number 15. So the comprehensiveness of this list should also be called into question. But whatever, I don’t think I should pull apart my own work, good as I am at doing so.

Anyway, list.

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15.

Wilco – Wilco (The Album)

Key Tracks – Wilco (The Song), You And I

Fans of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot will be dispirited by the turn towards pop, and in this case the relationship between “pop” and “dull” holds fairly true. Light and uncomplicated fare, Wilco show that they can do the simple stuff well to distract from how simple it is. Jeff Tweedy shows that his vocals are good enough to lead where once they would simply have accompanied, which is worthy of note in itself.

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14.

The Antlers – Hospice

Key Tracks – Two, Kettering

Though I personally don’t feel the deep emotion the melancholic music is trying to convey, I can certainly tell the skill involved, and the haughty ambitions are achieved spectacularly on “Two” (if not on some of the longer songs such as “Atrophy” and “Wake”). Often threatens to collapse under layers of pretension, but the sincerity of the writers prevents this from ever actually happening.

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13.

Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs

Key Tracks – Avalon Or Someone Very Similar, Periodically Triple Or Double

The album as a whole is imbalanced by a closing three tracks each going well over nine minutes, and seems to comprise mostly of droning indifference. This takes away a little from the opening half of the album, which is a clever, varied mixture of tracks that retains attention by ensuring unpredictability. The organisation may have been haphazard, but there is still plenty to enjoy from YLT’s seemingly endless invention.

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12.

Andrew Bird – Noble Beast

Key Tracks – Fitz and the Dizzyspells, Effigy

This is not exactly a disappointing album, but you expect Andrew Bird to extend himself more than he does here. There are certainly good tracks, and all of the trademarks of an Andrew Bird record are in place, but somehow it doesn’t do anything spectacular enough to warrant attention. Not that it does anything particularly wrong either, it’s just the sort of decent album that I can’t fault specifically, and definitely enjoyable, but is somehow too lightweight.

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11.

Them Crooked Vultures – Them Crooked Vultures

Key Tracks – No One Loves Me And Neither Do I, New Fang

It was an interesting experiment, pulling Gods of Rock from three generations together and seeing what they could come up with. Less than the sum of its parts, but only because the parts (Grohl! Homme! John Paul Jones!) were pretty damn good to start with. Stripped down but punchy, it parallels the best of QOTSA, but misses a bit of variety and changes in pace or mood.