Top Music Releases of 2005

Unlike other year’s, the top 10 here are the same as when I came up with them in 2005.  The one release that has risen, though, is Kelly Clarkson.  It’s really a great pop record.  I’m guessing it might be the best of it’s kind the past decade.  2005 featured a lot of my standard favorites like White Stripes, System of a Down, Ben Folds, NIN, and Beck, but the best of the year was by an artist I feel has been overpraised in general during his career, Conor Oberst.

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.

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.

Scott’s #3 – 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. (Video Note: I don’t know what mix of starvation and laxatives she was on, but Kelly is smoking in this video.)

Scott’s #4 – 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.

Scott’s #5 – 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”

Scott’s #6 – 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.” (Great video below for Only.)

Scott’s #7 – 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”

Scott’s #8 – 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.

Scott’s #9 – 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.”

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.


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