Sunday, July 02, 2006

Winnipeg Sun's top discs of '05

I always enjoy reading "best of" music lists, since I'm able to learn about groups that I may have overlooked. Here's one from the Winnipeg Sun's Darryl Sterdan.

Music freak Darryl Sterdan picks the top 75 CDs of 2005

Every year, I am asked the same questions:

1) Do you really listen to all those CDs? 2) Do you ever listen to music for pleasure?

3) How do you pick your favourite albums?

Every year I give the same answers:

1) Of course.

2) Every time I play a CD, it's a pleasure -- if it weren't, I wouldn't do this job.

3) I find my favourite CDs just like you do -- they're the ones that grab me and keep me coming back for more. In 2005, I listened to more than 1,000 discs. Here are the ones I'll still be listening to in '06.

75 | Low The Great Destroyer

74 | Okkervil River Black Sheep Boy

73 | John Cale Black Acetate

72 | Holopaw Quit +/or Fight

71 | Kaiser Chiefs Employment

70 | Corb Lund Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer

69 | Bettye LaVette I've Got My Own Hell to Raise

68 | Moby Hotel

67 | Marianne Faithfull Before the Poison

66 | Sarah Harmer I'm a Mountain

65 | Stephen Malkmus Face the Truth

64 | The Frames Burn the Maps

63 | Neil Diamond 12 Songs

62 | The Go! Team Thunder, Lightning, Strike

61 | Davenda Banhart Cripple Crow

60 | Paul McCartney Chaos and Creation in the Backyard

59 | Danger Doom The Mouse & the Mask

58 | John Vanderslice Pixel Revolt

57 | Death Cab for Cutie Plans

56 | Juliana Hatfield Made in China

55 | Van Morrison Magic Time

54 | Louis XIV The Best Little Secrets are Kept

53 | (International) Noise Conspiracy Armed Love

52 | The Darkness One Way Ticket to Hell ... And Back

51 | Wolf Parade Apologies to the Queen Mary

50 | Kings of Leon Aha Shake Heartbreak

49 | Queens of the Stone Age Lullabies to Paralyze

48 | Franz Ferdinand You Could Have it So Much Better

47 | Bloc Party Silent Alarm

46 | Propagandhi Potemkin City Limits

45 | Broken Social Scene Broken Social Scene

44 | ... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead Worlds Apart

43 | Coldplay X&Y

42 | Dungen Ta Det Lugnt

41 | Andrew Bird The Mysterious Production of Eggs

40 | Robbie Fulks Georgia Hard

39 | The Kills No Wow

38 | Kate Bush Aerial

37 | Greg MacPherson Band Night Flares

36 | Amy Rigby Little Fugitive

35 | Oasis Don't Believe the Truth

34 | The Magic Numbers The Magic Numbers

33 | Son Volt Okemah and the Melody of Riot

32 | Kathleen Edwards Back to Me

31 | Big Star In Space

30 | The Fiery Furnaces Rehearsing My Choir

29 | Shooter Jennings Put the O Back in Country

28 | Robert Plant & the Strange Sensation Mighty Rearranger

27 | M83 Before the Dawn Heals Us

26 | Foo Fighters In Your Honor

25. Christine Fellows
Paper Anniversary
(Six Shooter/Warner)

The Winnipeg singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist's third full-length is easily her finest, with 14 tracks of sublimely natural elegance and inspired craftsmanship that are as intimate as love letters, as literate as short stories, as poised as poetry, and as homespun and unique as birds' nests. A wonderful gift.

24. Petra Haden
Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out
(Bar None/Koch)

For real. Dulcet-voiced Haden replicates the classic Who album a cappella, right down to the brass band on the Heinz Baked Beans advert. Weird, wacky and wonderful. For real.

23. Antony & the Johnsons
I Am a Bird Now
(Secretly Canadian/Sonic Unyon)

"One day I'll grow up to be a beautiful woman," croons Antony. Maybe so. But for now, his quavering, languid vocals (think Tiger Lillies meets Tindersticks) and elegantly melancholy piano balladry have earned him the Mercury Prize.

22. Rodney Crowell
The Outsider
(Columbia/Sony BMG)

Lashing out at Bush's America over a backdrop of muscular roots-rock and honky-tonk, the hickory-voiced Nashville icon delivers some of the angriest and most stirring work in his vast catalog -- and continues one of the most remarkable mid-career comebacks in country since Johnny Cash was introduced to Rick Rubin.

21. Bright Eyes
I'm Wide Awake It's Morning/Digital Ash In a Digital Urn
(Saddle Creek/Outside)

The first is a raucous collection of country-rock and folk. The second is a darker, experimental affair full of glitchy electronics. Both are chock full of eloquent musings on life, death, faith, time and love, courtesy of the Omaha indie-roots phenom with the shivery voice.

20. The New Pornographers
Twin Cinema

Singer-guitarist Carl Newman and his Vancouver indie-pop supergroup continue their quest to save pop music with another set of magnificently inspired, immaculately crafted and endearingly produced jewels.

19. Rolling Stones
A Bigger Bang

Every Stones album since the '70s has been hyped as Their Best Album Since the '70s. This time, it turned out to be true. Mick, Keef and The World's Greatest Rock 'N' Roll Band finally live up to their name again with a retro-rocking CD that packs the punch of its title.

18. Ryan Adams & The Cardinals
Cold Roses/Jacksonville City Nights/29
(Lost Highway/Universal)

Whether you love mercurial alt-country bad boy Adams or loathe him -- and near as we can tell, those are your only options -- you've gotta respect a guy who puts out three albums in a year. Especially when two of them -- the nostalgic, country-rocking Cold Roses and Jacksonville -- are as good as anything he's done.

17. My Morning Jacket
(ATO/Sony BMG)

"All of this can change," whines Jim James. It already has. On this fourth CD, Kentucky's MMJ move beyond southern guitar-rock majesty into psychedelia, reggae-rock, pumping glam and swooning country. We call it a change for the better.

16. Sufjan Stevens
(Asthmatic Kitty/Sonic Unyon)

Continuing his quixotic quest to pen an album for every U.S. state, soft-voiced singer-songwriter and one-man band Stevens serves up an eccentric but earnest album that takes us on a time-travelling, orch-pop road trip through Illinois, with a carful of characters including Carl Sandberg, Frank Lloyd Wright, Superman and John Wayne Gacy.

15. Thelonious Monk Quartet w/ John Coltrane
At Carnegie Hall
(Blue Note/EMI)

Saxophone god Coltrane's brief tenure with piano genius Monk in 1957 is the stuff of legend. So was this recording of the pair -- until a Library of Congress worker stumbled upon the long-lost tapes earlier this year. The result: The most historically significant jazz release of the year, if not the decade.

14. Neil Young
Prairie Wind

"The Red River still flows through my hometown, rollin' and tumblin' on its way," croons Neil Young in his fractured warble on this nostalgic, intimate salute to his Manitoba youth. Local fans can't ask for much more from Neil -- except a makeup show for his Juno cancellation.

13. Beck

Funkmaster Beck reteams with Odelay producers The Dust Brothers and gets the retro-disco roller-boogie party started once again with a 13-track set of relentlessly groovy, sonically creative, inescapably hooky tracks. Bonus points for the Winnipeg connection: Cover art by hometown boy Marcel Dzama.

12. Kanye West
Late Registration

A year after The College Dropout made him a Grammy magnet and bulletproof hip-hop savior, Mr. West justifies the hype -- and ups the ante -- with another artful and ambitious set of smart, sly, soulful and sharp hip-hop brilliance.

11. White Stripes
Get Behind Me Satan
(V2/Sony BMG)

There's only so much you can do with a guitar, some drums and a few blues licks. And since The White Stripes have done it all, they spread their creative wings on this fifth CD, unplugging the guitars or ditching them altogether for piano and marimba.

10. M.I.A.
(XL/Beggars Group)

"I've got the bombs to make you blow," says Maya Arulpragasam. "I've got the beats to make you bang." The London-born, Sri Lankan rapper also has one of the most intriguing debuts of the year. Underpinning her political lyrics with a stylish fusion of hip-hop, dancehall, world beat, electro, grime, crunk and more, M.I.A. uploads a well-built, hard-grooving affair that seeks to open your eyes and rock your world.

9. Bruce Springsteen
Devils & Dust
(Sony BMG)

The Rising Pt. II, this ain't. It could be The Return of the Ghost of Tom Joad, though. Leaving the E Street Band at home and getting comfortable with his acoustic guitar, Bruce heads into fullblown singer-songwriter mode, spinning rustic, plainspoken tales of cowboys, palookas, illegal immigrants, hookers and other folks living hardscrabble lives, battling demons and searching for a foothold in The Boss's eternally just-out-of-reach promised land.

8. Sleater-Kinney
The Woods
(Sub Pop/Warner)

This prickly Portland punk trio have never sweetened their sound or dumbed down their lyrics for mass consumption. But their epic and ferocious seventh disc -- 48 minutes of thundering drums, blistering guitars and ear-shredding vocals -- is their darkest and most uncompromising disc yet. Not to mention their flat-out loudest, noisiest and heaviest.

7. System of a Down
(American/Sony BMG)

The Armenian-American avant-metal outfit (aided and abetted by uber-producer Rick Rubin) channel the iconoclastic sophomorism and technical brilliance of vintage Zappa with a slew of ADD masterpieces that gene-splice everything from metal and punk to surf and Armenian folk -- and add up to a two-disc conniption fit of ferocity and freakiness. Bonus points for packaging that allows you to merge the individually released discs into a unified set.

6. Fiona Apple
Extraordinary Machine
(Epic/Sony BMG)

"I certainly haven't been shopping for any new shoes," explains Fiona. She ain't kidding. But at least she's landed on her feet. After finally freeing herself from a Wilco-like standoff with her label -- who either shelved this disc in its original form or refused to let her remake it, depending on which tale you believe -- the idiosyncratic singer-songwriter emerges with her most mature and fascinating disc: A set of lyrically deep, musically rich ballads stylishly shaded with blues, jazz and even hip-hop. Extraordinary doesn't begin to describe it.

5. The Mars Volta
Frances the Mute

Emo meets prog meets psychedelia meets free jazz meets rock en Espanol meets electronica meets post-rock in this magnificent, majestic, epic song cycle of a sophomore album from the former leaders of At the Drive-In. Defiantly, spellbindingly, intimidatingly original -- and one of the most daring, uncompromising and just plain weird albums you'll ever have the pleasure of trying (and likely failing) to decipher. Also pick up their recent live disc ScabDates for the full effect.

4. Gogol Bordello
Gypsy Punks
(Side One Dummy)

As a young man in the Ukraine, Eugene Hutz was a refugee from Chernobyl. Now the actor and musician is an immigrant punk in New York. And in the musical melting pot that is his band Gogol Bordello, Hutz intermarries his influences -- East and West, Old World and New, ethnic and pop -- into a jubilant, freewheeling culture-clash somewhere between a Ukrainian wedding, a Bulgarian wake and the back half of Sandinista. Hoist some vodka and crank it.

3. Living Things
Ahead of the Lions
(Zomba/Sony BMG)

A great album deserves a great back story. And this disc from these St. Louis rockers has a doozy. Most of these tunes were cut in 2003 for a CD titled Black Skies in Broad Daylight -- a disc hailed as one of the most explosive debuts since Nevermind. How come you never heard it? Because it was pulled after the band antagonized their label with loose-cannon antics (including onstage fires and urination) and politically charged lyrics. All seemed lost -- until Sony BMG stepped in and finally unleashed this monster. Ahead of the Lions fuses the raw power and nihilistic swagger of The Stooges with the dynamics of Nirvana, the menace of Marilyn Manson and the rabble-rousing polemics of The Clash. But it doesn't get any better than the fist-pumping fury of Bombs Below, a three-minute salvo of rock perfection on par with Welcome to the Jungle. Hear them roar.

2. Marah
If You Didn't Laugh, You'd Cry
(Yep Roc/Outside)

These rootsy rockers anchored by sibling singer-guitarists Dave and Serge Bielanko have renewed our faith in rock with their sweaty, spontaneous shows (imagine Springsteen invading the corner bar and playing Replacements covers). If you haven't been lucky enough to see them, score this fifth CD, which duplicates the loose, freewheeling joy of their gigs with 12 folk-rock gems cut on the fly and off the cuff. But don't let the laid-back immediacy fool you -- these tunes possess all the craftsmanship, heart and soul of previous street-poet masterpieces like Kids in Philly and 20,000 Streets Under the Sky. They're just delivered with the easygoing vibe of pals sharing a bottle and jamming in your basement, making this another essential gem from one of the most criminally overlooked bands in rock. It's the next best thing to being there.

1. The Hold Steady
Separation Sunday
(French Kiss)

Imagine that Bruce Springsteen grew up in Minneapolis instead of New Jersey. Imagine he listened to '70s rockers like Thin Lizzy and '80s punks like Huesker Due. Imagine he read the drug-fuelled ravings of William S. Burroughs. Instead of The Boss, he would have grown up to be Craig Finn. Instead of The E Street Band, he would have formed The Hold Steady. And instead of Darkness on the Edge of Town, he would have recorded Separation Sunday. This ambitious and articulate tale of sin and salvation has made the Brooklyn-based Finn and co. the buzz band of the year. Deservedly so. Yes, the band's grandly arranged rock owes a debt to the E Streeters -- but with buzzsaw guitars. Yes, Finn's literate verbosity and slurred, spoken delivery are uncannily like Springsteen at times -- but his barking rant also evokes a drunken Jim Carroll. And yes, Finn's lyrics have Bruce's romantic mythology -- but mixed with Burroughsian darkness. Separation Sunday's shadowy narrative traces the downward spiral and rebirth of a "hoodrat" named Holly (short for Hallelujah) who drifts across the U.S. running drugs with a dealer named Charlemagne, until she comes down one day in a confessional and is born again. Or something like that; the story is jumbled and fuzzy, making the whole sad, sordid saga as ethereal as a memory or a hallucination. But the Born to Run Drugs plot is only part of the point. What matters more is the way Finn spins it -- with grandeur and grace, power and passion, and pretty much every other quality that separates great bands from also-rans. And puts CDs like this on top of critics' lists.

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