Best Music of 2005, 5 Years Later

Five years allows albums to mature like fine wine or be forgotten like a tasty Happy Meal. We learned this lesson last year with our Best of 2004 feature. When coming up with this feature, the question the Spectrum Culture staff pondered was this: “How well do these albums play NOW!” Not five years ago, but how have they aged in our memories or after repeated viewings. While some acclaimed albums of ’05 remain strong on our list, some critically-lauded ones didn’t have the staying power. Art Brut? Bye. Arular? Sorry. This list is designed to give new perspective on things five years old. Thank you so much for reading!


10. The National
[Beggars Banquet]

In the past five years, the term “grower” has become synonymous with Alligator, the implication being that the appeal of the National’s third record only appears, as if by magic, after repeated listens. Alligator is an acquired taste, some critics continue to claim, like single malt scotch or black coffee. This line of reasoning certainly (and conveniently) explains why many early initial reviews for the album were lukewarm at best, but I still suspect the “grower” tag is total bullshit, a way for snobbish critics to excuse themselves for letting one of the decade’s best records slip under their radars at first.

If Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers announced the arrival of one of the most gritty, emotional groups in years, Alligator took the National a step closer to best-in-business stature, showcasing a band with more to offer than anyone else in indie: enigmatic, literate lyrics, varied musical arrangements hinting alternately at the garage floor and the orchestra pit and a rare ability to tackle subjects like loneliness, regret and insanity without coming across like a bunch of nihilistic bores. “I think this place is full of spies/ I think they’re on to me,” Matt Berninger sing-speaks on opener “Secret Meeting,” setting the tone for a mostly paranoid roller coaster that’s alleviated by occasional doses of warmth (“Looking for Astronauts,” “Daughters of the Soho Riots”), defiance (“The Geese of Beverly Road”) and raw energy (“Lit Up,” “Abel”). No wonder several Alligator songs – most notably closer “Mr. November,” which continues to find Berninger climbing structures as he shouts the lyrics – keep popping up during the band’s live performances.

I’m in a state, I’m in a state/ Nothing can touch us, my love,” Berninger sings with an air of unrestrained hubris on “All the Wine,” and it’s a fitting sentiment, considering few albums from 2005 (or any year, for that matter) can touch Alligator’s greatness. Call it a grower if you want. But it was a masterpiece all along. – Marcus David


9. Antony and the Johnsons
I am a Bird Now
[Secretly Canadian]

In the summer of 2010, the suicides of several gay teens moved writer Dan Savage to start the It Gets Better Project, a video campaign to remind troubled gay and lesbian youth that they had bright, happy lives ahead of them. The project was universally praised and widely publicized, as it began just after California overturned its ban on gay marriage. Even the ever-web-savvy President Obama posted a video a few months before repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Five years before It Gets Better, Antony Hegarty recorded his own message of hope and love for the LGBTQ community. Whether it retained or simply regained relevance since its release, Antony and the Johnsons’ I Am a Bird Now feels more hopeful than ever in the face of the past year’s civil rights victories.

The album is not a grand political statement, however. From its first tremulous notes, I Am a Bird Now sweeps death, love, identity, loneliness, desire and hope together into one singer’s experiences. Hegarty journeys across these songs. “Hope there’s someone who’ll take care of me/ When I die, will I go?/ Hope there’s someone who’ll set my heart free” he sings on the opening track, the first of many juxtaposed references to love and death. The trans artist captures a childlike fascination with adulthood and his own gender identity on “For Today I Am a Boy” and sexual violence on “Fistful of Love.” Finally, he declares himself “Free At Last” on the album’s penultimate track.

Hegarty’s voice is the grandest instrument on the album, shaking timidly and then with fury, often laid bare over a sparse piano melody. Later releases sex up this simple cabaret sound with horns and drums, making Bird seem more and more like a gorgeous bedroom recording by an undiscovered songwriter. Ultimately, 2005’s most heartbreaking album embodies the hope of It Gets Better without the schmaltz, but still demonstrates the project’s truth. It begins in the dark places of Hegarty’s mind but finds its way to a brighter place. – Katie Bolton


8. Okkervil River
Black Sheep Boy

Black Sheep Boy established Okkervil River as one of indie’s most emotionally-wrenching and literate bands, marking both a massive musical and lyrical leap forward for the group and especially frontman Will Sheff. A pseudo-concept album inspired in part by the Tim Hardin song of the same name, Black Sheep Boy wove connected themes and topics together from song to song, an approach the band would later utilize on both The Stage Names and The Stand Ins. It mixed roughly-strewn American indie rock with ballads whose darkness dripped from every line and note; both types still sound remarkable five years later.

The violent and tragic world that unfolds in Black Sheep Boy is still vivid and palpable today, with references to childhood abduction and possible molestation, tragically unrequited love and victims being led “up the hill in chains.” Its arrangements are expansive and precise, played out via guitar, brass, strings, keyboards and other instruments, while Sheff’s vocals heighten each song’s impact. Sometimes he lulls us in gently, his slowly-drawn vocals on “A Stone” paced perfectly as perhaps the album’s saddest song unfolds and recedes in lovesick despair. In other places Sheff violently spits out his words, most menacingly on the revenge-and-murder fantasy of “Black” and the explosive last few moments of penultimate track “So Come Back, I Am Waiting.”

Whether it’s described as an allegory or simply a series of inter-related songs, Black Sheep Boy will likely stand as one of the past decade’s most enduring albums. Music can rarely comfortably be described as poetry, but the record is precisely that. The ghosts of poets and porn stars would eventually haunt Okkervil River’s later work, but their origins can be found here, in stunning detail. – Eric Dennis


7. The New Pornographers
Twin Cinema

Listenin’ too long/ To one song” goes the upbeat lament in “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” and that’s exactly the sort of complaint that can be applied to any number of albums that drone on in monotony, the artist so committed to maintaining a signature sound that it’s like staring into a trick mirror that reflects the same image a dozen times over. That’s not the case on Twin Cinema, which manages to feel like a new invention for the New Pornographers with every turn of the track number. It’s not that they spend the album hopscotching across wildly different genres like a less jokey They Might Be Giants. Nor do they take on a group of sonic disguises; every track sounds unmistakably like the band, fully recognizable as the same core outfit that crafted the equally sterling Electric Version in 2003. Instead, they simply let the songs go in whichever direction they’re carried by the pristine melodies, ringing hooks and bounding, buffeting rhythms, and everything winds up sounding both cohesively part of the whole and refreshingly different.

This is in large part because every song is a loosely-honed marvel. The tracks don’t sound produced, but they do sound precise. Chief songwriter A.C. Newman creates pop songs with a cunning understanding of how to make his material sound like long-lost rock ‘n’ roll staples dressed up in inventive new threads. The entire record is filled with little grace notes that are simply irresistible, like the intoxicating undulated vocals on the word “tonight” in “Use It,” the bounding Built To Spill guitar lines on “Three or Four” and the opening tones of languid psychedelic lushness on “Stacked Crooked.” Then there’s the presence of Neko Case, the weapon who was rapidly becoming less secret at the time, who delivers one of her finest performances on “These Are the Fables,” evoking complex emotions with the way she holds individual notes and phrases certain words. That built-in variety, centered on endless available discoveries, keeps the record as fresh as can be, even all these years later. – Dan Seeger


6. The Mountain Goats
The Sunset Tree

John Darnielle doesn’t have daddy issues: he has a lifetime subscription. Darnielle’s upbringing by his cruel stepfather has been well documented, but he has made more of a career writing stories about the sunken-hearted. The Sunset Tree, one of Darnielle’s most personal and autobiographical works, explored new territory for the musician: his life. While we felt for the meth addicts of We Shall All Be Healed because they could escape their lives with a little help, The Sunset Tree paints a picture of a boy trapped, rooted in fear, with nowhere to go but inside himself.

“Dance Music” is a deceptively jaunty tune, a worthy sing-along, but littered with clever, subtle imagery, such as when the seven year-old Darnielle hears his parents fighting, “Lean in close to my little record player on the floor/ So this is what the volume knob is for.” “Lion’s Teeth” is a revenge fantasy that chills the soul; amid a pounding, bloodthirsty beat the narrator spies a sleeping beast as a potential target. With a timbre that can only be described as “hateful as fuck,” he crushes the lion and holds on for dear life. “Pale Green Things” is actually the song that pains the most; despite the awful nature of his father, here Darnielle recalls a lovely day when they went to the track. The imagery is moving, the singing hushed, maybe even reverent, and as the little joy this song brings seeps in, it closes with the narrator getting a call from his sister: the lion has been finally laid to rest.

When Darnielle writes about the sad eyes of the world, there is no one sharper or more observant. When he reflects, however, he doesn’t see the beauty, only the heart scarred like the tracks of his arms. The Sunset Tree gets its name from a hymn and fittingly, it conjures up the beautiful imagery of the album’s cover to reflect its content: a man broken and beaten, by what amounts to only a memory. Although the sun may set, it always rises, and so will he. – Rafael Gaitan


5. The Decemberists
[Kill Rock Stars]

Here’s why hindsight is fun: marathon the Decemberists’ albums in chronological order and you’ll find that the music gets bigger and bigger with each new release as the band gets increasingly more confident and ambitious. The band had already made a leap from the scrappy, catchy little shanties of Castaways and Cutouts to the cinematic moodiness of Her Majesty the Decemberists, and their third release, Picaresque, feels like a synthesis of both, combining the pop immediacy of Castaways with all the musical progression of Her Majesty. The Decemberists, even in their early stuff, were more than Neutral Milk Hotel with an accordion, and Picaresque continues to prove it, especially in the lyric-centric “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” which features a revenge killing that happens in the bowels of a whale.

The Hazards of Love notwithstanding, a Decemberists album is like picking up a short stories collection by your favorite author, only better because it’s music and you can’t rock out to Flannery O’Connor in your car. Thanks to the band’s ability to jump from sad minimalism (“From My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)”) to brass-assisted jauntiness (“Sixteen Military Wives”), each of Colin Meloy’s stories has a specific feel as he focuses on such outcasts and outsiders as runaways turning tricks in public restrooms, kids who are bad at sports and writers who weave stories to get over lost loves. They’re all topics that sound very depressing on paper, but in the hands of the Decemberists they become irresistible indie pop songs. – Danny Djeljosevic


4. Kanye West
Late Registration

In the time leading up to Late Registration’s release, Kanye West had already accomplished his first Herculean task: proving that he was more than just a hotshot producer. The College Dropout was irrefutable evidence that West was a force to be reckoned with, whether on the mic or on the board. So with Late Registration, West moved on to a goal that was a little more ambitious: taking over the world.

West was in a good place to achieve that goal, thanks to the massive success of his debut, enabling him to indulge in flourishes he’d long sought but never been able to afford, like, say, his very own string orchestra and wunderkind producer Jon Brion. A key component of West’s success has always been his boundless ambition; Late Registration is the sound of that ambition finally let loose with all the tools it needed. From the dizzying heights of “Touch the Sky” to the darkly introspective “Bring Me Down,” Late Registration savages the idea of the sophomore slump and also shows that West didn’t let the pressure get to him; instead, he just used it as fuel for his ego. In lesser hands, it’d just sound like cocky posturing or awkward juxtapositions, but Kanye West is that rare type of artist who can make all of his crazy ideas work.

And work it did. A huge hit critically and commercially, thanks to singles like “Gold Digger” and “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” Late Registration made it clear that West was in fact the truly important artist he’d been telling everyone he was all along. Electronic detours aside, West has once again returned to the fertile ground of Late Registration with his most recent work, granting the album renewed relevance in the process. – Nick Hanover


3. Andrew Bird
Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production of Eggs
[Righteous Babe]

Anyone who’s followed Andrew Bird’s career since its somewhat humble, swing-oriented beginnings knows the man has come a long way. He (successfully) tried his hand at everything from revival-swing to a hodgepodge of jazz styles, finally stepping in a bold new direction with Weather Systems, a somber, atmospheric expression of Bird’s many instrumental talents and his first attempts at a sound that has since become uniquely his. Yet before it was released, Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production of Eggs – Bird’s fifth solo album and the one that would define him as an artist – was a source of apprehension for his career-long fans. Would Bird strike off in another stylistic direction or was Weather Systems an indication of things to come?

Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production of Eggs is everything Weather Systems did right and more, combining elements from Bird’s entire previous career into an album that is truly timeless. He’s since stuck with the formula that made {Eggs} great and it’s no surprise that Bird’s now-trademark sound is just as exciting today as it was in 2005. Besides his expert violin work and “professional” whistling, Bird plays guitar, dabbles in other instrumentation and uses multi-tracking to dramatic (and iconic) effect. “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left” is likely the best example of the intellectual writing Bird uses in full-force, its quasi-scientific lyrics contemplating life, death and all the forces in between. And lines like, “You’re what happens when two substances collide/ And by all accounts you really should have died” only get more interesting with each successive listen.

But what really makes Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production of Eggs continually charming are the downright infectious songs. “Measuring Cups” swoons; “Fake Palindromes” rocks a violin like the most amped up of axes; “Banking on a Myth” plucks around, a wonderfully bizarre take on folk that only Bird’s layered, instrumental noodling could produce. These are the tracks that finally gave Andrew Bird a voice, one that took a while to finally pin down. – Michael Merline


2. Wolf Parade
Apologies to the Queen Mary
[Sub Pop]

From shambling ballroom opener “You Are a Runner and I Am My Father’s Son” – all cymbals, Krug, keys and (after two minutes) raking guitar – straight into the prowling acoustic shuffler “Modern World,” out of the gate Wolf Parade’s debut LP Apologies to the Queen Mary knocked listeners on their asses. And it still does today as much as it did in 2005: the undeniable deftness and gravity Wolf Parade bring to those first two tracks echo throughout Apologies. Today, many acts share both the style and artistic successes of Wolf Parade’s dual songwriters/vocalists, Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner, their differing though complementary tastes exemplified no better than in the album’s final two songs, “Dinner Bells” and “This Heart’s On Fire.”

Together with back-half anthems “Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts” and “I’ll Believe in Anything,” the locus of the band’s focused and energetic reach in Apologies, the album remains a defining soundtrack of the mid-2000s, swarming with brilliant musical risks, indelible hooks and lyrical clarity unmatched in their latter two records and glimpsed only in fits and starts among lesser musicians.

Though as of November 2010 Wolf Parade is on a definite indefinite hiatus, the Band Whose Members are Members in Too Many Bands will live on in the various side and solo projects that spawned or were spawned by them: Sunset Rubdown, Handsome Furs, Swan Lake, Moonface, Frog Eyes and the innumerable other groups I’m sure Wolf Parade’s members will found/weasel their way into. May they never stop. – Joe Clinkenbeard


1. Sufjan Stevens
[Asthmatic Kitty]

Before dabbling in schizophrenic electronic arrangements later in the decade, Sufjan Stevens blew the collective minds of critics and music fans alike with the lush, sweeping tales of Illinois. The second album in his now defunct (and, apparently, facetious) 50 States Project, Illinois offered a cross-section of basic and complex ideas of art, culture, population and geography and what such concepts had to say about America and its people. Despite being wholly unique and particular to one state, its tales of loss, love, superheroes, holidays, serial killers and UFOs still feel achingly universal five years later. It’s a paradox of sorts, as themes of tragedy and triumph can create the illusion of a broad brushstroke, but the warmth and delicacy with which Stevens treats his material, decorated in string swells and plucked banjos, provides a comforting, personal feel.

The subject matter isn’t the only ambitious part of this album, as Stevens truly defines his own sound on Illinois, a sound that, as the years pass by and after the release of The Age of Adz, seems as isolated and historic as the stories it builds around; both musically and lyrically, Illinois feels hauntingly distant. Since then, Stevens has released Christmas songs, an album about an expressway, a 2010 EP out of nowhere and an ambitious but polarizing record, pausing to sometimes deride the album form as a significant mode of expression. Still, none of these come close to the career-defining work that is Illinois. In 2005, it sounded like nothing you had ever heard before and that feeling still resonates with every subsequent listen today. Now, just as it did in 2005, Illinois represents the allure of folk tales and storytelling, a dense and completely enthralling catalog of all the brightest and darkest parts of the American way of life. – Kyle Fowle

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