Pop & Rock Year in Review 2005

Pop & Rock Year in Review 2005
Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty)
When informed earlier this year that pre-orders for his Midwest epic Illinois had reached 40,000, Sufjan Stevens responded innocently, "Is that good?" It is perhaps only fitting that someone so consumed with his 50 States Project should be so detached from measures of its success. Quite apart from its ornate structure and orchestration, Illinois encapsulates many qualities that have become evident over Sufjan Stevens' four-album career: a mix of naïveté with worldliness, joyous pom-pom shaking with bookish levity, and unfashionable patriotism with deep critical engagement of the idea of nation.

One of the most powerful ideas underpinning America, regardless of its flaws, is the notion of perpetual progress. Stevens' persistent prodding at this idea, from the hope of the Chicago World's Fair to the birth of progressive education in Jacksonville, is a powerful antidote to cynicism and hopelessness. Considering the spectacle of the Columbian Exposition of 1892, he poses a question still pertinent today: "Oh God of Progress, have you degraded or forgot us?" In the absence of political vision for the country, his ambitious project of re-imagining the United States of America holds profound appeal.

It shouldn't be surprising that Stevens' project captivated Canadians as well as our siblings to the South: national identity seems inextricably tied to landscape (or so the Canadian mythology goes) — and we do read maps like we're reading poetry. Stevens' success in teasing out the little stories behind each name on the map — Bushnell, Jacksonville, Chicago, Peoria — regardless of his lack of personal intimacy with the state maps out a place where history, personal accountability and politics meet. "I incorporate my person and my experience and my affection for things into every song," he insists.

An album of such bombast and ambition needs also to take a deep look into some difficult places. Before we can address the moral vacuum behind atrocities in Abu Ghraib or Faluja or Guantanamo Bay, or the sinister vacuousness of Bush or Rumsfeld, we need to address the potential to evade moral action in everyone. Stevens approaches this via the figure of a serial killer, "John Wayne Gacy Jr.," a song terrifying in its loveliness.

"I'm not so much empathising with his behaviour as I am empathising with his nature," Stevens says. "I guess I believe we all have the capacity for terrible criminal acts. Though I don't understand how he did what he did, I do feel that we often use these horrifying anomalies in human nature as moral leverage to make us feel better about ourselves." In re-making America one state at a time, Stevens struggles within the ugly spectacle his country has become through figures such as Gacy. "I'm saying that I think we all have the capacity to do this. I'm still a little terrified by that kind of confession in the song. But I wonder if that kind of alienation is our way of disengaging with it. We pretend not to understand."
Helen Spitzer

Twin Cinema (Mint)
Amid the giddy pop, soaring melodies and widescreen riffs we've come to expect, the snaking spectre of prog brings a few arch time signatures and jagged harmonies to the Vancouver collective's third LP. And it was good. Not just good, but possibly the New Pornographers' best. Twin Cinema finds Neko Case stepping back from the big pop singles, handled mainly by Carl "A.C." Newman, while Destroyer's Dan Bejar is given more room to preen and posture. Case tackles the album's centrepiece, however, "The Bleeding Heart Show," a Dears pastiche that mutates into a massive mountaintop anthem. Whoa! Lorraine Carpenter

Apologies to the Queen Mary (Sub Pop)
Listenable, interesting and smart, Apologies to the Queen Mary exhibits what it sounds like when a band get everything right. Dan Boeckner (a little Springsteen) and Spencer Krug (a little Isaac Brock, who produced the bulk of the album) are the most disparate and complementary dual leads about, yelping over traditional indie pop augmented by bizarre electro skirls. Amongst all of this beautifully errant noise lies "Shine a Light," easily one of the most purposeful — and best — singles of the year. Andrew Steenberg

Silent Alarm (Vice)
With a backlash against the post-punk revival already bubbling, it's a shame that London, England's Bloc Party might get held up as scapegoats for doing nothing more than releasing the best album of the genre. With a razor-sharp rhythm section, intensely catchy songs, and all the right influences under their belts, Silent Alarm was iconic the second it was released. Singer Kele Okereke's piercing voice and a crystal-clear production give this album the steam to float above the land of angular haircuts. When "Banquet" arrived, it turned heads. When a full album of material just as strong showed up, it broke necks. A blistering, incredible debut by one of this year's best new bands. Rob Bolton

Gimme Fiction (Merge)
One of the more overlooked aspects of Spoon songs is that they're immitigably perfect. Britt Daniel has a studied talent for transforming a looped dog fart, or any studio boner into three and a half minutes of digital joy. Oddly, Daniel believes that writing a good pop song is "just a matter of getting lucky." Gimme Fiction proves that, unless he was spawned by a breed of horseshoed leprechauns, his theory is a mountain of bullshit. Andrew Steenberg

The Woods (Sub Pop)
Sleater-Kinney recreated themselves as a classic rock-mining workhorse of a band and opinions on this new direction split like the audience at Altamont did to let Hell's Angels' choppers through. Embrace it or reject it, this change produced one rocking riff-fest of angelic hellfire that boldly rejects the prescribed realities and poignantly assesses the ensuing desires of that damned reigning empire, without all of the obvious arguments or antagonistic shouting, just good, literal articulation. In these times of gluttony and excess, what's wrong with indie rockers ripping into paint-peeling guitar solos? Sweet nothing. Kevin Hainey

Like R.E.M. in the '80s, with each album My Morning Jacket slowly emerge from the Southern Gothic haze they has shrouded themselves in from the start. Whether as a result of line-up changes, or finally giving in to capturing their roof-rattling live show, Z is MMJ's most accessible album yet. While Jim James sounds more like a front-man than ever, his songs continue to confound. Still, not many other vocalists can convincingly deliver a line like "A kitten on fire/A baby in a blender/Both sound as sweet as a night of surrender." Jason Schneider

I Am a Bird (Secretly Canadian)
When this album first surfaced in February, the all-star guests overshadowed the official coming-out party. Yet by year's end it was Antony's own voice — at once frail, confident, and ultimately empathetic — that turned this torch song triumph into a mainstream, Mercury Prize-winning success story. While his plague elegies, androgyne affirmations and S&M soul songs are more than emotionally effective, they ultimately take a back seat to the heavenly presence of such a powerful human instrument. Michael Barclay

Worlds Apart (Interscope)
Proving there's more to progressive post-punk than the meandering space jams of the Mars Volta, the four-piece Austin, Texas powerhouse that is …Trail of Dead deliver their most disparate and beautiful record yet. World Apart finds the band exploring their inner Genesis, the result being a stunning sense of tune, melody and dynamics. Soaring, gorgeous piano work, worldly percussion and choirs do battle with their trademark noise rock, showing that they can play their instruments as well as they can famously destroy them. And for a band that is best known for their riotous live shows, that's quite an accomplishment. Stuart Green

Plans (Warner)
Seattle's indie darlings were destined to face extra scrutiny after signing to a major label. There were textbook cries of "selling out," and sadly, the music itself got lost in the O.C. chatter. Luckily, Plans not only avoids the potential pitfalls of watered-down commercialisation, it succeeds in being an excellent album. Sure, the sound is more refined and mature, but Ben Gibbard's tender songs can still cut straight to the heart. Although this is a quieter record, it's good to see that five albums in, they can still drop a hook-laden single like "Crooked Teeth." Death Cab are a true indie success story, and Plans is a work of subtle brilliance. Rob Bolton

Thunder, Lightning, Strike (SonyBMG)
Though everyone and their best friend had already been listening to their infectious, sample-happy anthems for over a year, the domestic release of Brighton brigade the Go! Team's endlessly charming debut came as welcome news, especially since the re-jigged version (Team mastermind Ian Parton was forced to remix some of the tunes to deal with sampling issues on this side of the pond) hardly strayed from the original. If indie rock this year was all about large ensembles making joyful noise, then the Team led the parade with their shout-out-loud, clap-your-hands collage of sound. If listening to their music doesn't make you feel like a kid again, surely you have no soul. Tabassum Siddiqui

Man-Made (Merge)
During their 15-year career, Teenage Fanclub have never made a bad album, but this year they made one of their best. Man-Made starts off inconspicuously, yet by the end the total is much, much greater than the sum of the parts. Then again, making it all seem so very easy has always been their true knack. Distilling their entire career into a dozen songs, Man-Made has moments reminiscent of all their earlier records, yet it manages to sound like a band reinvigorated and reborn. A wonderful, warm hug of an album. Michael Edwards

13. BLACK MOUNTAIN (Scratch)
Why not rewrite rock history? Why not pretend there was a tenth anniversary Woodstock in 1979 and the headliners included Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Psychedelic Furs and Public Image Ltd.? That instead of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks it was Richard Hell and Patti Smith who joined Fleetwood Mac?
That Coldplay had opened for Black Mountain instead of vice-versa (and only managed to play "Yellow" before getting booed offstage)? Black Mountain are the West coast's "Paint It Black" Rolling Stones to the New Pornographers' "Yellow Submarine" Beatles. Dark and dangerous but with a lullaby in their heart and a couch you can crash on. Eric Hill

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning (Saddle Creek)
With a deep breath in your lungs, and the sun peaking over the brown hills, this is an album to quench your thirst, break your heart, and tie it back together with tattered black ribbons. Although Connor Oberst released two albums simultaneously (the other was Digital Ash in a Digital Urn), it doesn't equal a watered down offering in the slower paced of the two — this is art, truth, and heartache all rolled into one quietly murmured heap of autumn leaves, and is truly one of the best albums of the year. Ariana Rock

Lullabies to Paralyze (Interscope)
The dismissal of bassist Nick Oliveri was met with plaintive moans and pensive enquiries amongst Queens fans. Wither the testosterone? What of the mythic debauchery? It's still here, albeit in flashes that are cheerfully overshadowed by Josh Homme's tunefulness, fabulously wry sense of humour and penchant for the eerie; a fair exchange for the ex-bassist's howl and dipsomania. Homme has said that Oliveri "will die with a bottle of vodka stuck up his ass." I'd wager that Homme will go with a guitar in his hands — a prodigiously more rock'n'roll goodbye. Andrew Steenberg

Pretty in Black (SonyBMG)
Minus the self-imposed constraints of old — limiting songs to B-flat minor keys and three-minute running times — and plus three new band members and some mighty impressive guests (the Ronettes' Ronnie Spector, Suicide's Martin Rev and the Velvet Underground's Moe Tucker), Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo delivered a third LP loaded with fresh air without blowing their winning rock'n'roll formula away. In their lurid world, sleazy, seething numbers like "Love in a Trashcan" sit alongside saccharine greaser ballads, beat-laden girl group covers and nostalgic walls of sound, fusing sex, sop and melancholy in the best possible way. Lorraine Carpenter

Porcella (Paper Bag)
From its opening chords to its closing notes, Porcella is the Deadly Snakes' boldest work. Its scope stretches beyond any of the band's previous albums, conveying a fiery imagination. Recorded largely in an old cabin, numerous instruments add to Porcella's sophistication and its diverse songs. The group's longstanding rock'n'roll, soul and gospel influences are joined by pronounced pop, folk and blues melodies. Despite its breadth, the record remains consistent. Broken glass ballads stand confidently alongside exuberant, soulful songs and intricate, subtle pop tunes. On Porcella, the Deadly Snakes jump across various musical genres with steadfastly sure footing. Rob Nay

Feels (Fat Cat)
The sheer inventive nature and love of the music that pours from every strummed guitar or atonal yelp is incredibly infective here. Accordingly, the album's title is absolutely perfect, as AC don't compose these dense statements for any other motive than trying to draw out certain emotions. Sure, they love what they do, but they make these songs on behalf of the listener, hoping that in this increasingly bleak world there will always be something emitting from the headphones that allows people to reconnect with simple things, or, more aptly, to feel again.
Chris Whibbs

Tender Buttons (Warp)
Broadcast's cachet has always been lavish retro pop compositions sophisticated by electronic precision. Tender Buttons sees these pared down to mechanical order, with a ghost in the machine. Trish Keenan comes across like the rising phantom of a girl who's just bathed with her radio, nailing her melodies with eerie accuracy while sequential tones and rhythms crackle and warp around her voice. Neat electronic arrangements fuzz over and fluctuate, shape-shifting from cryptic chants to bittersweet evocations, emotions wrapped under the electrical pulse and expressed in moods rather than through explication. One of the prettiest, most puzzling albums of the year.
Alex Molotkow

Has a Good Home (Blocks)
The first line of every song on violinist Owen Pallett's shy masterpiece reads like the first line of a book most novelists would kill to write: magnificently clear images, breathtakingly original. In a year when the maple leaf was waved more enthusiastically everywhere but here, it was left to Pallett to articulate the truth of our helplessly ambivalent hearts, bowing and coaxing out odes to man and God and history and Canada-da-dee-do-dee-da. Blossoming into his own by going it alone, he also sang of love that dare not speak its name: that of Toronto. Helen Spitzer

Listening Audiences for Underheard Gems

The Magic Numbers (Heavenly)
It is hard to know just how the Magic Numbers slipped through the cracks. Even on paper, it sounds like a winning combination — two sets of siblings with a love of the Mamas & the Papas and other West coast Americana, and a real knack for writing glorious pop songs of the sort that nobody seems to write any more. And in practice, it is even better. The songs are just plain wonderful, with their heart-on-sleeve declarations of love, both successful and failed, all sung with the most marvelous harmonies. The debut of the year. Michael Edwards

Sigur Rós Takk.... (EMI)
Hailing from Iceland, Sigur Rós brings forth the beauty of the landscape of their homeland into their music. Their fourth full-length is like a collection of bedtime lullabies for adults. Tracks like "Gong" and "Svo Hljott" are like snippets from a much larger, ethereal and spacious portrait depicting the vastness captured by the lens of a photographer's perspective of the desolate landscape. "Andvari" is not only melodic, calming, and soothing, it's also the epitome of some kind of peaceful scenic view embodied just prior to drifting off into oblivion for the night. Heidi Chapson

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (Independent)
The band that were poster children for DIY indie rock were much more than their hip-rags-to-slight-riches story; people tended to forget the entire wave started with a simple, essential ingredient: great music. Every emotive howl and note was a tightly wound coil of energy and danceable madness. Give it a year, as the hype will slowly drift away leaving everyone to do exactly what the band name exhorts. Just as previous curmudgeons are now conceding that the Arcade Fire are indeed a great band, so will people come around to this one. Chris Whibbs

Architecture in Helsinki In Case We Die (Bar/None)
This is the album that progressive pop fans have been waiting for. The Australian octet combine cabaret-style bravado with chirpy pop sensibilities and quirky, off-kilter lyrics, producing some of the most loveable pop music this year. Sure, the outcome is a little erratic; everyone often sings in a Rocky Horror-esque manner alongside jumpy keyboards, sudden choral arrangements and cramped rhythms, but stick with them and you will discover a gem of a debut. Think the Fiery Furnaces and then add five more band members. I cannot imagine what blueprints for this architecture look like. Shain Shapiro

The Summerlad Themes: International (Saved By Radio)
Grace and volume need not be awkward neighbours in the realm of studio-savvy guitar rock. This disc also galvanised fledgling Calgary label Saved By Radio's reputation for putting out top-notch recordings by bands that ought to be way better known beyond Alberta's provincial boundaries (Vailhalen, Old Reliable, Falconhawk). Right from the jagged first blasts of opening track "Scalpel Morning," Themes: International makes an equal case for the gritty club stage and the avant-garde gallery. To a song, the disc rewards careful listening by revealing myriad subtle, gingerly plotted rhythmic and melodic elements half buried beneath multi-layered, buzz-saw guitars and bottom-end drone. Chuck Molgat

Ladytron Witching Hour (Rykodisc)
Presaging electroclash and the subsequent dance rock revival, the Liverpudlian boy-girl group have long been underrated due to the over-hype showered upon these parallel scenes. But Ladytron have always stood on their own two analogue synthesizers and for this third outing the multi-culti quartet moved their retro-futuristic songwriting even further into singular territory. Warming up that art-school roboticism with shoegazer guitars and emotional ambience, Witching Hour sublimely pulls off sad disco balladry, darkly scorching synth pop, and euphoric floor-stompers. Their strongest album yet makes clear that Ladytron's magic tricks are no illusion. Joshua Ostroff

Hanne Hukkelberg Little Things (Leaf)
If you've ever wanted to sail an ocean of tranquillity but get seasick on the SS Feist, know this: Hanne Hukkelberg's eclectically assembled vessel is the eccentric's alternative. Hailing from artsy electro label Leaf, she handcrafts the kind of pop reverie that contemporaries conjure from laptops. Her strange, whirring apparatus is made from water bottles, pots and pans, and other musical anomalies, with wind instruments, keyboard and glockenspiel steadying the tunes. Everything fits into a meticulous unison — it's when you start to identify the sounds that Hukkelberg's genius creation suddenly shoots into bloom. Alex Molotkow

Cocorosie Noah's Ark (Touch & Go)
This is the second full-length album from Bianca and Sierra Casady, sisters who together make CocoRosie. The vocals on Noah's Ark gently coo and caw with Sierra's beatific soprano voice and Bianca harmonising, using carefully crafted lyrics that speak of a sincere yet passing nostalgia for forgotten childhood memories narrated atop a choir of electronic kitties and melodic xylophones. The songs weave stories of a distant admiration for sexual transgression and play with an afterthought of penance. Perhaps the Ark will be a lasting edifice for the androgynous. The final sweet ballad leaves you aching for more. Good thing, as these saccharine sisters are already working on a new album. Stephanie Kale