Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Best CDs of 2005

So every year magazines come out with their “Top CDs of 2005” lists and every year they make me angry.

It seems that they always either slide “too edgy”, proclaiming “hip bands” like Death Cab for Cutie or the Decembrists the second coming of Christ, or slide “too commercial”, naming CDs by Kanye West or Gwen Stefani simply because of one or two hit songs on the discs. Call it the iTunes syndrome, where people can just download one or two songs instead of buying the whole CD. If they like these select songs, they assume they come from a great CD. However, I’m a traditionalist and know that this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

I’m the kind of person who listens to a CD from start to finish, a person who thinks that skipping over tracks is insulting to the artists who put their hearts into making the CD.

I also think it kinda sucks that you’re only supposed to include CDs that came out in the calendar year 2005. Although I dedicate a good deal of time to hunting down new CDs and artists, there are inevitably some that slip through the cracks. But that doesn’t mean I won’t discover them in the future. Therefore, there are three CDs on my list that didn’t officially come out in 2005, but I discovered them in 2005. As far as my memories are concerned, these CDs came out in 2005. I tried to cut my list down to a “Top 10”, but in the end, couldn’t bear to cut any of these thirteen.

So here’s my list. The Top 13 CDs of 2005:

13. Foo Fighters – In Your Honor

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Ever since “The Colour and the Shape”, the Foo Fighters have hinted that they have the ability to create the greatest rock and roll CD of all time. Songs like “Everlong”, “My Hero”, and “Monkey Wrench” were songs that had heart, a great beat, and plain out ROCKED. However, they seem to struggle in putting together a full CD of these consistent rock anthems.

“In Your Honor” is no different. The first four tracks are absolute fantastic angry, loud rock and roll. Then the songs seem to lose their character. The guitar riffs are still there, but they’re not as catchy, not as powerful, and just pale in comparison to standout beginning tracks like “In Your Honor” and “Best of You”.

Nevertheless, in today’s world of “The” bands supposedly being “rock and roll” (I’m talking to you The White Stripes, The Shins, The Strokes, etc.), none of them come close to rocking the way Foo Fighters do.
Now if they could just make that “greatest rock and roll CD of all time”…

12. Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning

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Amanda Dickman recommended Bright Eyes to me. She raved about how fantastic they were, so I gave them a shot. At first listen-through, I was thoroughly under whelmed. Bright Eyes’ style is very strange – it’s almost spoken word verses over very minimalist music.

But slowly, the CD grew on me. I began to appreciate and adore the quiet simplicity of the songs. The messages of love, lost, and fear of the future come screaming through on each track, no matter how simply and quietly they are sung. The fact that they’re sung so simply make could-be-cheese phrases like “If you walk away, I’ll walk away” in “Landlocked Blues” painfully poignant. Sung by anyone else, “First Day of My Life” would be the cheesiest love song ever. I mean, come on – it has the line “this is the first day of my life, I’m glad I didn’t die before I met you.” Yet – I love it.

They won me over.

11. Xavier Rudd – To Let

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If you attempt to buy a Xavier Rudd CD, it costs you upwards of $40. Seriously. But it’s totally worth it. Why does it cost so much? Well, near as I can tell – none of his CDs have ever been officially released in North America. If you’re buying it, you’re buying it from Australia.

If you didn’t read my “Xavier Rudd Love Fest” earlier this year (, check that out first so you get an appreciation for his music.

“To Let” is a fantastic CD that critically looks at the modern world at large. While Rudd has always sung about the environment and the aborigine people of Australia, this CD takes a closer look at the new world that 9/11 brought us, on tracks such as “12th of September.” The disc also contains the first Xavier Rudd song I ever heard, and probably still my favorite – the title track, “To Let”. In it, Xavier does everything he does best. It starts out slow, builds to a flat out rocking jam with him wailing as loud as he can, and uses every instrument in his repertoire.

It’s easy to compare other artists to each other, but there is no one that sounds anywhere close to Xavier Rudd.

10. The Killers – Hot Fuss (2004)

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Wow – this came out of nowhere. Andy Wintering talked me into seeing them in concert on our way to see DMB up in Wisconsin, so I started listening to the CD in the summer of 2005. Of course “Mr. Brightside” was one of the catchiest songs of the year, but the rest of the CD didn’t really connect with me. Then I saw them in concert, and damn it if their mix of glam-techno-rock didn’t win me over. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate their CD in full and understand why there were hundreds of screaming girls packed in to see them this summer. Catchy, sing-along songs with enough power to feel real. Not too poppy, not too rocky, just right.

9. Of a Revolution – Stories of a Stranger

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O.A.R. has grown up a lot over the past three years. They started out as the consummate college band, writing infectious, catchy, island-sounding music, that was great for a kegger or sitting on the porch sipping a forty. But upon closer inspection, there wasn’t much lyrical or musical substance under the surface to their music. That all changed with their previous studio release “In Between Now and Then” – a fantastic, often overlooked CD that added more musical variety while still keeping the “summer vibe”.

On “Stories of a Stranger”, they raise their music to another level. Their music is still undeniably catchy, fun, and upbeat – but the songs are more mature and complex than ever. “Heard the World” is the type of song that gets stuck in your head for days at a time. “Love and Memories” is a fast, anthem-filled song that embodies everything about O.A.R., but has a much more polished sound than anything they’ve done before.

If you wrote off O.A.R. when you got your college degree, it’s time to give them another chance. There is a lot to like, and very little to criticize about them anymore.

8. Ben Folds – Songs for Silverman

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I desperately wanted to love this CD. Ben Folds previous official studio release, “Rockin’ the Suburbs” still stands as one of my favorite CDs of all time. Between that disc and the release of “Songs for Silverman”, Ben released three 5-song EPs, each containing at least one or two great songs. I figured if he’s releasing all these quality songs on limited edition EPs, the songs he’s saving for his next full-blown release would all be pure gold. The first single, “Landed”, further convinced me that “Songs for Silverman” was going to be the best Ben Folds CD ever.

I was disappointed. You can see that it still was one of the Top 10 CDs of the Year, but it just seemed to have a lot of purely average songs. Maybe I was spoiled by the EPs, or had absurd expectations after “Rockin’ the Suburbs”, but for every great song like “Landed”, there was a mediocre song like “Prison Food”.

Not that this CD was without highlights. “Gracie”, “Late”, and “You to Thank” showcase the broad spectrum of music that Ben can write. His lyrics can be hilarious, poignant, or serve as social commentary, always backed by infectious piano stylings.
But I’m still left to think… what if. What if instead of releasing those EPs, he saved the songs for this release? If “Songs for Silverman” looked like this:

- There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You
- In Between Days
- Landed
- Gracie
- Give Judy My Notice
- Late
- You To Thank
- All U Can Eat
- Dog
- Wandering
- Songs of Love

It would have probably been my third favorite CD of the Year.

7. Coldplay – X and Y

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I remember reading somewhere that Coldplay was poised to become the next U2. I’m not sure about that, but with each release, they keep getting better and better. On “X and Y”, it was more of the same sound we heard on “A Rush of Blood to the Head” with solid super-sonic songs like “Speed of Sound” and “White Shadows” and solid mellow songs like “What If”.

But the real highlight of the CD, the song that became “bigger than Coldplay” was “Fix You”. Starting out slow, the song builds to a crescendo before you even realize that this quiet song is also the rockingest on the entire disc. The lyrics can be taken as joyous (“Lights will guide you home, I will fix you”) or downtrodden (“When you try your best and you don’t succeed”) which is probably why it has shown up everywhere from romantic movies to action movies. It should be included in any “Song of the Year” talk.

6. Dave Matthews Band – Stand Up

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“Stand Up” is probably the most upbeat DMB CD since 1996’s “Crash”. Although the albums that came in between offered their share of great songs, there were far more dark songs than the happy songs that made the band famous. Although “Stand Up” has its share of these dark / angry songs, but there are far more upbeat / sunshiney ones – songs that rekindle the true spirit of the Dave Matthews Band that has been somewhat subdued on their other recent studio releases.

The two true highlights are “Hello Again” and “Louisiana Bayou”, so it’s fitting that the two segue into each other on the disc. While both are approximately one thousand times better in a live setting, the studio versions contain the same spirit, albeit in truncated form.

In fact, it’s hard to think of any of the songs without thinking of how they translate in the live setting and being influenced by it. This works both ways though. “Hello Again”, “Louisiana Bayou”, “American Baby Intro”, and “Hunger for the Great Light” are all much stronger live; whereas “American Baby” and “Dreamgirl” are much better kept on the CD.

It would be easy to turn cynical on the band, calling this CD “too pop” or “too different” from their original sound. While the sound itself may be a bit different, the spirit remains the same – in fact, it is probably closer to “Under the Table and Dreaming” than it is to “Everyday”. Stalker-like obsessions aside, looking at the CD objectively as a whole, comparing to the other original music released this year, it definitely deserves its spot on the list.

5. Our Lady Peace – Healthy in Paranoid Times

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The trademark vocals of Our Lady Peace lead singer Raine Maida have always made the band sound a bit melancholy, even when their guitar riffs were screaming the opposite. On “Healthy in Paranoid Times”, they are infused with a twinge of pop that works surprisingly well with their style.

In a way, I would put Our Lady Peace in a similar boat with Of a Revolution. Both bands released a few CDs that all had similar sounds in their early years, but really began to break out with their previous two releases. I was always somewhat of an Our Lady Peace fan, but their last CD, “Gravity”, really won me over. This one put me over the top.

Ironically, although the music would make you think this was “Our Lady Peace Light”, the CD is heavier than ever. As somewhat referenced by the title, this is Our Lady Peace’s most political and purpose-driven disc yet. There are overwhelming themes of saving others from the chaotic age we live in, making the world a better place, and finding salvation inside yourself.

The disc starts out with a fantastic guitar rift in “Angels Losing Sleep” that you would never imagine belonged to an Our Lady Peace song. There are so many songs that could easily be hit singles, with “Where Are You” is probably the catchiest song the band has ever written.

Start to finish, there are no throwaway tracks. Each is meaningful, haunting, and upbeat enough to not leave you drained by the heady subject matter.

4. Xavier Rudd – Solace

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Two Xavier Rudd CDs on the list? Absolutely.

Whereas “To Let” was much more of a social commentary on a dark and uncertain future, “Solace” is more simple, more spiritual release, and captures what I can only describe as an “Australian Hippie” view of life and the world.

Highlights include “Let Me Be”; a fun song that inspires the listener to almost hoe-down. “Green Spandex” is a song of mourning, missing a loved one that showcases Rudd’s voice rather than his ability to play different instruments, and is absolutely gorgeous. “Yirra Curl” is a lyric-free jam that does the exact opposite, highlighting his ability to have each limb of his body keeping a different beat and playing a different instrument.

“Solace” is the stronger, more complete of the two Xavier Rudd releases that found their way to America this year, and yet neither hold a candle to actually witnessing these songs live.

3. The Postal Service – Give Up (2003)

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If it wasn’t for Janel Brown, I probably still would not have discovered this fantastic CD. Earlier this year, she requested I download this CD for her. I had never heard of this “Postal Service” she spoke of, and assumed it was some music the kids were listening to that was far too hip for me. However, since it was saved on my computer, over time it found its way into the random play of my Winamp that I listen to each morning as I got ready for work. Whenever a Postal Service song would come on, it would catch my ear.

If I were going to describe their sound, it would be “video-game-music-beats meet introspective-indie-rock”. The Postal Service started as a side project for Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard, but in my eyes, it’s leaps and bounds better than anything Death Cab has put out – far more interesting, optimistic, and catchier.

From the left-right alternating beats at the start of “Such Great Heights” to the intentional record-sounding skips of “Nothing Better”, The Postal Service finds more interesting ways to create a rhythm than anyone else I’ve ever heard, and it works like a charm. Although they are relegated to the background of the songs, anyone who has hummed along to the theme of an Nintendo game, will instantly pick them out and love them.

Their lyrics are equally interesting – full of love, love lost, and an objectively skeptical look on our world today. Rather than simply sing about a breakup in “Nothing Better”, they include the other side of the story sung by Jen Wood, telling Ben Gibbard about his faults and why the breakup was necessary. How creative and fantastic is that?

All in all, Death Cab has its moments, but I would be much happier if this “side project” came into the forefront for our friend Ben. It’s unlike anything else I listened to this year.

2. Kelly Clarkson – Breakaway (2004)

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I’m as shocked as you are. Remember my whole speech in the beginning about hating people who put pop CDs on their “Best Of” lists just because they were a commercial success or had one or two hit songs? It would be very easy to assume “Breakaway” falls into this category… until you give the full disc a listen, take it seriously, and realize that it is one of the best constructed CDs of the year.

You’re probably familiar with the hit songs – “Breakaway”, “Since U Been Gone”, “Behind These Hazel Eyes”, and “Because of You”. But did you know that those are also the first four tracks on the CD, in order? Either the disc’s producer was a genius, and somehow arranged the CD in the chronological order of the singles that would come from it – or each track on the entire CD has the potential to become a huge pop hit (I believe the latter to be the case).

Here’s the thing – yes, the songs are hella catchy and well produced, but the lyrics are all of one common theme – love lost, becoming independent, and learning to let go. This underlying message permeates through each track on the CD, tying the slow ballads and rock anthems together in one cohesive musical experience. Although Clarkson only has writing credits on six of the eleven original tracks, you truly feel like she is speaking from the heart on each and every one.

I’m not so much of a music snob that I can’t appreciate a pure pop CD, especially when it’s this good. Sure, you could complain about the fact that she’s a former American Idol, or a product of the pop music machine – but this disc represents a step away from the Britney Spears / Jessica Simpsons of the world – it’s actually closer to a rock CD than anything else.

Leave your pre-conceived notions at the door. This is the best commercially successful disc in years.

1. Jack Johnson – In Between Dreams

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I don’t even know where to begin. The first time I heard this CD, I wasn’t that impressed. The first single, “Sitting, Waiting, Wishing”, didn’t fully connect with me and very few of the other songs on the CD jumped out and grabbed you like a “Bubbletoes” or “Rodeo Clowns” on previous Jack discs. But on repeated listens, “In Between Dreams” just gets better and better. I’m still too close to this CD to have an unbiased historical perspective on it, but it really has a chance to be my favorite CD of all time.

I have an almost religious love and appreciation for this disc. It’s the kind of CD where if it comes on at a party, you stop – everything around you seems to melt away – and you’re just focused on the music. One of my favorite memories of the past year was sitting on a back porch intently listening and singing along to the CD with Joy Riley from start to finish while everyone else was busy drinking and socializing. We both appreciated the music, and just sat and soaked it in.

Looking at Jack’s previous CDs, each had it’s “fast songs” and “slow songs”, but on this CD, each track is more “middle of the road” – which works to tremendous results. Yes, there are some slower songs (“No Other Way”, “If I Could”) and some faster songs (“Sitting, Waiting, Wishing”, “Staple It Together”), but neither variety ever stray too far from a solid mellow groove.

From the start, the theme of Jack Johnson music has been best summarized by the first line of his first song – “slow down everyone, you’re moving too fast”. Jack Johnson is an old soul, someone from an age before highways, the Internet, and the rat race. Listening to his music, you just picture him sitting on the beach in Hawaii, living in a hut, living a simple life playing his guitar. It made for perfect music for the summer or for relaxing.

But on “In Between Dreams”, he’s also singing about some heavier subject matters. “Crying Shame” is a song about war – but unlike many other artists, he’s not looking to place blame on a particular political party, he’s simply lamenting about how we’re all on the same in the end, and fighting isn’t going to lead to anything. “If I Could” is a simple, tear-jerking song about the circle of life, and the helplessness we all feel when a loved one dies.

That’s not to say that Jack has gone political – “Breakdown” is a classic slow-down-and-enjoy-life song, and has perhaps the best guitar rifts Jack has ever played. “Do You Remember” and “Banana Pancakes” are pure love songs, playful and honest. From the opening guitar rifts of the love-letter-song “Better Together” to the closing guitar rifts of the let’s-sit-and-stare-at-the-stars song “Constellations”, the entire CD is about enjoying life, examining the current state of the world, and love – and in the end, what else is there?

Rather than dramatically change his style, in typical Jack fashion, he’s slowly expanding his horizons and adding new sounds and themes without losing what makes Jack Jack. Listening to the disc instantly takes you away from the hurry and stress of modern day life and refreshes your soul. What more could you possibly want from a CD?