Luscious Lists, Part Two

In the exciting conclusion of a two-part series, our critics recap 2005 faves--just because they can

Last week, Gene Armstrong and Annie Holub wrote about their 2005 music favorites. This week, Curtis McCrary, Linda Ray and Stephen Seigel step up to the plate.

Curtis McCrary

(10 Golden Rocking Greats, in no particular order)

LCD Soundsystem, LCD Soundsystem (DFA/EMI)
Self-titling an album usually strikes me as a painfully pretentious thing to do, but in the case of LCD Soundsystem, eponymy is duly apropos--this is the definitive LCD sound, especially since this record (along with bonus tracks) is essentially a discography for a group that prefers to release singles. And while James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy, as the DFA production team, are more responsible for the dance rock revival than any other single entity, this album demonstrates that dance rock is but one facet of their diamond of musical endeavor--LCD Soundsystem touches on everything from Lennon-esque psychedelia ("Never as Tired as When I'm Waking Up") to pop to guitar rock in addition to their dance rock pigeonhole ("Disco Infiltrator" et al).

Spoon, Gimme Fiction (Merge)
The best rock band on Earth have released their most fully realized album to date (with the exception of the throwaway "Was It You?"). Perhaps most significant among the qualities of Gimme Fiction is how versatile a band Spoon has become, equally at ease with minimalist rock ("My Mathematical Mind," which has no chorus), lush pop ("Beast and Dragon, Adored") and pseudo disco ("I Turn My Camera On").

Crooked Fingers, Dignity and Shame (Merge)
A couple albums into Eric Bachmann's transformation from noisy rocker to earnest troubadour, maturity of songcraft emerges as his raison d'etre, and indeed, it takes a certain gravitas to pen a narrative song cycle like Dignity and Shame.

Kanye West, Late Registration (Roc-A-Fella)
From making Maroon 5's Adam Levine's pussified falsetto palatable ("Heard 'Em Say") to somehow improving on Curtis Mayfield's "Move on Up" ("Touch the Sky"), West's immense self-regard seems ever more justified, obnoxious though it is. Late Registration would, on the heels of College Dropout, warrant pretty much any claim to greatness, but it doesn't make Kanye's braggadocio less grating. But so what? I mean, Mozart was pretty much a dick, too.

Danger Doom, The Mouse and the Mask (Epitaph)
This record should come with its own set of annotated lyrics, because MF Doom has emerged as hip hop's cleverest lyricist. (Sample: "The super flow with more jokes than Bazooka Joe / A mix between Superfly Snuka and a superho / Chew a MC like El Chupa Nibre / Digest a group and sell the poop on eBay"). Danger Mouse ably demonstrates, post-Grey Album, that he's not a one-trick rodent, here rivaling Madlib as MF Doom's partner in sonic villainy.

John Vanderslice, Pixel Revolt (Barsuk)
In comparison to its predecessor, the instant classic Cellar Door, Pixel Revolt takes more listens to reveal its resplendence. The effort required could not be more worthwhile. Tracks like "Exodus Damage" (which examines a relationship in the shadow of Sept. 11) and "Angela" (a pet rabbit's escape and certain imminent death serves as a metaphor for the unhealthiness of urban living) make me wonder why he hasn't been on The OC yet. Injustice!

The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday (French Kiss)
A fiery salvo across the bow of the new-wave resurgence in the name of Rock and Fucking Roll. Singer Craig Finn's inimitable speak-sing style is not for everyone, but with the slurred conviction of a drunken prophet, he regales us with scenes from an urban dystopia set to well-rendered bar-band rock, not unlike what another workman from a similar teenage wasteland did, three decades back. That it sounds so refreshing is as much a commentary on the state of modern music as it is a testament to the unique abilities of The Hold Steady.

Calla, Collisions (Beggars Banquet)
Frequently overlooked, Calla ably stimulate the "Fugazi" section of the amygdala, and on Collisions, demonstrate themselves to be worthy heirs of the scintillatingly heavy D.C. guitar rock sound. Lest that seem like it's damning with faint praise, I should also add a "They're Awesome!" right here. Done.

Damian Marley, Welcome to Jamrock (Universal)
Sure, the rest of the Marley family is, uh, talented, but if you're searching for where the spirit of Bob alighted, look no further than his youngest son's breakthrough record. Wistful reggae ballads, aggressive dancehall rumpshakers, political anthems--Jamrock is the sound of Jamaica's future.

Linda Ray

(in order of preference)

Thelonious Monk Quartet and John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (Blue Note)
OK, I'm a sucker for genius. In jazz, though, it often seems to be its own reward, and just as often, all the self-gratification is off-putting. This just-discovered treasure, recorded in 1957, reveals two of the idiom's most revered players at ease and at play. No one's showing off; no one's testing each other's limits; they both know they have none. Yet for all of that, this music is for you and me as much as it is for them. I haven't played a jazz record this much since Dave Brubeck's Time Out.

Andrew Bird, Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs (Righteous Babe)
Next to genius, ambition is my new favorite thing. Bird's Eggs is a twofer. He's taught himself to sing with the same dexterity and fluidity he evokes from his violin. His lyrics have the same virtuosity, and he whistles like nobody's business. None of these talents seem to bode especially well for rock stardom, but with a leg up from Ani DiFranco's label, Bird's built a substantial following for his forays into Eastern European, orchestral and even guitar rock-swing-folk mélange. Besides his formidable, long-time drummer Kevin O'Donnell, Eggs features visits from vocalist Nora O'Connor and Wilco guitarist Pat Sansone. Otherwise, it's all Bird, and it's huge.

Robbie Fulks, Georgia Hard (Yep Roc)
Fulks has a better voice than Lyle Lovett, and for my money, he writes better songs. Top musicians eagerly work for him, because he's a masterful leader and arranger, not to mention a wizard on the guitar. I once saw him change a string mid-song and not miss a beat or a lyric. His phrasing is the best in the business since Johnny Cash. So how come he can't get arrested in the country music arena? Never mind.

Sufjan Stevens, Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty)
I'd never heard of Sufjan Stevens until the buzz about this record hit "deafening" on my street meter. His ambition takes my breath away. These arrangements couldn't be more dense, intricate, lavish and inventive. Moreover, Illinois is the second of what he says will be a career of records for every state (the first was 2003's Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State). His geography lessons are quirky and subtle, integrating the flavors of the state's musical heritage. Stevens has the chops to take on the entire globe.

Joan Baez, Bowery Songs (Koch)
My hero is back at the hustings not a moment too soon. This concert, recorded the day after the presidential election, offers much-needed comfort and encouragement for believers in peace, justice and the dignity of laborers. It also features two previously unrecorded Bob Dylan covers; some traditional ballads; Greg Brown's "Rexroth's Daughter"; and, of course Baez's ageless voice, too long silent on things that matter.

Freakwater, Thinking of You (Thrill Jockey)
A 12-hankie weeper, this effort sets Freakwater's Appalachian influences aloft on the wings of indie-rootsy Califone's edgy arrangements. The new music limns familiar territory--murder, sin, heartbreak--topics few can portray with such understated but genuine emotion, let alone the occasional wit.

Son Volt, Okemah and the Melody of Riot (Transmit Sound)
Okemah, Okla., is the birthplace of Woody Guthrie, and Jay Farrar references him in a song about environmental damage. But Guthrie's protégé Bob Dylan--especially his Highway 61, Revisited--influences nearly every track. These are road songs for the thinking trucker.

Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell, Begonias (Yep Roc)
Best Country Duo. Period. The harmonies will give you goosebumps, and the simple, timeless songs will break your heart.

Decemberists, Picaresque (Kill Rock Stars)
Did you catch that show at the Rialto? Man. That's entertainment! Here it is on record: the fanciful characters, the Dickens-ian story lines, the authoritative musicianship, and above all, the great rock fun.

The Redwalls, De Nova (Capitol)
Every so often, a little rock record will sneak up on me, snatch my heart and take it for a ride (see also Grand Champeen). Forevermore I fight the urge to send embarrassing mash notes. Argh! Can't contain myself another minute: I love you guys. You rock! May everyone buy your record and make you as famous as Eels!

Stephen Seigel

(in alphabetical order)

Andrew Bird, Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs (Righteous Babe)
Bird's Weather Systems made my list in 2003, and this one's every bit as good. Bird is the complete package: a crooner worthy of Thom Yorke, a virtuosic violinist, a surrealistic but evocative lyricist, and an obsessively immaculate songwriter and arranger. Stunningly beautiful.

Bright Eyes, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning (Saddle Creek)
After years of being compared to Bob Dylan, Conor Oberst finally moves to New York and makes an album that sounds like it could have come from Dylan's mid-'60s golden era. On "Landlocked Blues," he not only duets with onetime Dylan sparring partner Emmylou Harris, but also makes the time-worn love/war metaphor sound fresh.

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Naturally (Daptone)
Authentic, soulful funk music with a message. Who even knew this stuff was still being made? Their performance at Solar Culture in September is tied with the Arcade Fire for best live show I saw all year.

M.I.A., Arular (XL)
She rapped about bananas before Gwen did, and she's "got the bombs to make you blow ... the beats to make you bang, slang, tang--that's the M.I.A. thang." On one track, she wants to "pull up the people, pull up the poor"; on the next, she's demanding sex so rough, it turns bloody. A musical amalgam that sounds like nothing else, period.

Nouvelle Vague, Nouvelle Vague (Luaka Bop)
It looks like a mere gimmick on paper, and I suppose it is: Two musicians and producers take mostly familiar punk, post-punk and new wave songs by the likes of Joy Division, Depeche Mode, Dead Kennedys, PiL and XTC, and recast them as sultry bossa nova ditties, with the aid of eight exotic chanteuses. But, damn if it doesn't rise above gimmick to become absolutely addictive. This came out the first week of May, and I still can't stop listening.

The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema (Matador)
An album for those of us who were dubious about the new Big Star offering, and weren't cheered up by what we heard. Carl Newman's power-pop songs always manage to be gloriously complex and simultaneously catchy. How the hell do they keep getting better? It sure doesn't hurt to have Neko Case as a secret weapon.

Spoon, Gimme Fiction (Merge)
The most economical band on the planet incorporate their multitude of skills into a diverse whole, yet again. No one better understands the tension created by minimalism than these guys, who put Miles Davis' maxim of "the space between the notes is more important than the notes actually being played" into fine use in a rock 'n' roll setting.

Sufjan Stevens, Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty)
For some reason, I thought that I felt a special love for this album because it's about my home state, and I'm well-acquainted with its subject matter. Then, I realized that it's truly is one of the best albums I've heard in a long time, and it just happens to be about my home state. Flutes, choirs, strummed acoustic guitars and some of the most literary lyrics this side of the poetry of Carl Sandburg (referenced here, by the way) all contribute to an anything-goes musical study of everything from Superman to John Wayne Gacy. An off-Broadway musical waiting to happen.

Kanye West, Late Registration (Roc-A-Fella)
When I included Kanye's College Dropout on my list from last year, I remarked about it, "When was the last time you heard a hip-hop album that you could listen to all the way through?" That's double true for Late Registration, on which even the skits--normally the bane of any otherwise decent rap album--never tire. His heart-on-sleeveness is just appealing enough to trump his ego, and musically, the guy can do no wrong.

Wolf Parade, Apologies to the Queen Mary (Sub Pop)
Just as Built to Spill was the muse for Modest Mouse early in their career, Modest Mouse serves the same purpose for Wolf Parade's debut album (on which head Mouse Isaac Brock serves as producer). It's not perfect, but there are many perfect moments; my favorite is the point in "I'll Believe in Anything" where they launch into that whole thing about the fire and the wire, and how it leads to sharing a life, then this majestic passage: "Nobody knows you, and nobody gives a damn." It's sweet vindication for anyone, anywhere, who's ever felt stifled in any way.

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