Top 5 albums

By Eryn Green and Marshal Hogan

1) Kanye West, Late Registration

Kanye West is oversized in every way. The dude’s got a big mouth (just ask George W.), a bigger ego (just ask Kanye) and the biggest record of 2005, period-Late Registration.

Haters disagree-criticizing Kanye’s soft-style spitting, upper-crusty fashion and pop-sensible hooks-but one of Kanye’s greatest talents is his unfailing ability to use the vitriol of his detractors to his benefit. The equation follows: Kanye + Criticism = The Absolute Need to Prove Himself Over and Over and Over Again.

And he does it, too. Evidenced by the slew of hits populating Late Registration-ranging from the biting “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” to the bio-hazardous “Goldigger” to the self-aware/gangsta-ass “Crack Music” and “Drive Slow”-Kanye proves he is one of only a handful of rappers equipped with the skill to back up his ego.

What separates Late Registration from the rest of the 2005 pack is Kanye’s ambition and scope. After his breakout debut, the classic College Dropout, Kanye could have sat on his ass and watched the money pile up based on reputation alone. But he didn’t.

Instead, Kanye opted to experiment with his sound, fingering orchestral-weirdo Jon Brion to produce his sophomore album and collaborating with an all-star roster of dissimilar hip-hop heavyweights (from Nas to Jay-Z to Common to Adam Levine), proving that not only does he have the respect of his peers, but also the ability to hold his own alongside the best of them.

The only question left to answer in the wake of Late Registration’s outstanding success is: What’s next for the Louis Vuitton Don?

Better question: What’s not?

-E.G.

1) (tie) Broken Social Scene, Broken Social Scene

It was almost a sure bet that Canadian-bred Broken Social Scene would disappoint in 2005. After all, 2002’s You Forgot It in People was one of the best indie-rock albums released this decade. So how did this Canadian collective answer to the expectations? Loudly.

Broken Social’s self-titled release of 2005 is one gorgeous monster-a delicate stack of stray melodies, whiny vocals and rhythms so driven they nearly knock the whole arrangement off its base. From its stumbling opener, “Our Faces Split the Coast,” Broken Social Scene is a fantastic joyride in one of indie-rock’s premier vehicles-full of surprises, sharp turns and gear-changes. Broken Social Scene achieves a complexity and diversity on BSS unmatched by any other album of 2005-all while maintaining impressive focus and clarity.

Poised for failure, Broken Social Scene released an album that surpassed even sky-high expectations-earning it a top spot as the best album of 2005.

-M.H.

2) My Morning Jacket, Z

My Morning Jacket front man, Jim James, has the coolest name in rock music. Just say it: Jim James. Say it slowly: Jiiim Jaaaaames. It rolls off the tongue. It kind of tingles. Sonically, it’s nearly perfect.

All of the same can be said of My Morning Jacket’s stellar 2005 release, Z. It is at once a simple, peaceful record and an electric, energetic rock offering. Tracks like “Anytime” and “Lay Low” could’ve (and would’ve) been hits in at least seven different points in time over the last 20 years. The album seamlessly blends the band’s former jam-rock disposition with a refined, catchy brand of pop restraint. The result? One of the most creative, genre-busting records in years.

Z has an almost Buddhist air of transcendent calm about it-a kind of patience and faith in the beauty and simplicity of singular notes. It never feels rushed. Fittingly, the album opens with the Radiohead-esque “Wordless Chorus,” on which James sings, “Tell me spirit/ What has not been done?/ We’ll rush out and do it/ Or are we doing it now?”

With Z’s breathy lyrics, subdued (when appropriate) and riotous (when needed) guitar licks-balanced by James’ beautiful swan voice-the answer very clearly is: Yes, My Morning Jacket. You are doing it now.

-E.G.

3) Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine

Fiona Apple had a rough transition into 2005, but, like the flower that graces the inside cover of her third record, Extraordinary Machine, the artist blossomed despite her adversity.

After a much-gossiped-about break-up from a certain celebrity director and the decision, on behalf of her record label, not to release her quirky, Jon Brion-produced third album after it was nearly finished, it seemed as though the lovely Ms. Apple had every reason to sit about her house and mope her pretty little head off.

Which, coincidentally, she did for quite some time-as she explains in the first line of her belated, but beautiful, Extraordinary Machine (Version 2.0): “I certainly haven’t been shopping for any new shoes.”

But, after a massive effort by her fans to “Free Fiona,” the talented and pensive pianista broke from her self-imposed seclusion to once again win the hearts and heads of music lovers everywhere. Inspired by the outpouring of support for both her and her incarcerated third album-which was never officially released in its first (weeeeird) Brion incarnation, though nevertheless “leaked” onto the Internet for all to hear-Apple went back to the studio with a new guru, Mike Elizondo, and reproduced what is arguably her most personal, and inarguably her best, album to date.

The perfectly titled Extraordinary Machine is just that: a kitschy, well-oiled, intimate gizmo, on which we see Apple at once joyfully and ruefully exorcizing some very real demons with wit and maturity. Unlike her previous releases-which were a bit childish at times, and often recklessly raw (though engrossing)-Machine is an exercise in mastery and restraint. Apple never gives more than is needed, but she never delivers less than listeners desire-tracks such as the bitter “O, Sailor” and the intelligent “Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)” show an artist at the top of her game, and consequently, the top of the 2005 music scene.

-E.G.

4) Bloc Party, Silent Alarm

If I had any choice in the matter, I would have been born black, raised in London and formed a lightning-fast garage band that would go on to tour the world. So, admittedly, it was with a small amount of jealousy that I watched Bloc Party’s Kele Okerere put the world in a fever with his band’s infectious indie album Silent Alarm in 2005. And if the rave reviews didn’t make me jealous, the fact that the album is every bit as good as the hype definitely made me green with envy.

-M.H.

5) Sufjan Stevens, Illinois

Much has been said about this Midwestern indie-orchestral genius in 2005-most of it centered on how, exactly, we pronounce his name.

Let’s set the record straight: It’s Soof-yan, not Sofejaaan, or Sufjin or Stupidindiefacedloser.

Sufjan.

Let’s get another thing straight: This man has got more creative talent in his snoozaphone than most musicians have in their bass, drum kit and 100-watt amplifiers-combined.

After undertaking an ambitious musico-geographical project-to capture, on tape, the quirks and nuances of each of the 50 united states-a few years back with the also-awesome Michigan, Stevens returned in 2005 to prove that his cartographical inclinations were no passing phase. Neither was his beautiful way with music.

With the release of Illinois, Stevens captured the attention of a cynical music world with heartfelt songs about UFOs, serial killers and Superman. He also managed to come up with the most out-of-hand, loquacious song titles since, oh, Rush.

But the adorable theoretical content of the album is not what makes Illinois one of the best records of the year-it’s the way Stevens, with composure and poise, manages to reveal the interiority of a nation and an artist within his preconceived constructs. To say that songs like “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” or “Casimir Pulaski Day” are actually about mass murderers and parades would be like saying Godzilla is really a movie about a giant fire-breathing lizard-they ar
e much, much more. As explorations of melancholy, joy, isolation, love found and love lost, all the cuts on Illinois probe deeper than anyone thought possible-and they do so with the help of some of the best melodies and orchestrations heard in years. The result of Stevens’ efforts is a map, yes, but less of a known place than of a territory previously uncharted: the statehood of the soul.

Ah, it all makes sense now.

Touch, Sufjan.

-E.G.

6) Wolf Parade, Apologies to the Queen Mary

People don’t give enough credit to albums that are, before all else, catchy as hell.

We balk when artists masterfully make us shake our asses like puppets on dance-pop strings. “Where’s the sophistication?” we say. “Where’s the density? Psssh!”

Such questions are not answered by Wolf Parade on its infectious Apologies to the Queen Mary-one of the most consistently listenable (and enjoyable) records of the year. Instead, the band deflects such pointless (and arrogant) queries by way of the introduction of a new term-one that confounds our critical bitching but moves us to shake our groove-thangs like none other: Dancity.

Wolf Parade hunts down wary cynics and wayward hipsters like the hungry animal procession of its name.

The only question after hearing Apologies is, “Be ye Wolf or be ye sheep?”

Growl.

-E.G.

7) M.I.A., Arular

There’s a definite refugee urgency to M.I.A.’s grimy, lo-fi 2005 hip-hop masterpiece, Arular.

The album is permeated by a type of native restlessness-a culture- and genre-wandering mobility that enables its beautiful and brash emcee to appeal to everyone with ears, hearts and hips.

This refugee urgency has everything to do with the woman who made the record, one Maya Arulpragasam-a former Sri Lankan evacuee who left her home, along with her mother, for London so as not to, you know, be killed by revolutionaries or corrupt governmental agents.

More-or-less raised in London, M.I.A. became beautifully entangled with the grimy rap scene that birthed The Streets and Dizzy Rascal. After a little persuasion, M.I.A. sat down with a second-hand Casio (how cool!?) and made the schoolyard beats and rebellious chants that characterize Arular.

A record of astounding bravery and hostility (toward any number of enemies, including the standard practices of rap), Arular introduces the world to a new kind of emcee: worldy, learned, sharp as razor wire…oh, and female.

M.I.A. ought to be credited with reviving the immediacy of hip-hop and with providing dance halls with some of the most uncontrollable (good) and unexpected (better) anthems of the year.

Listen to “Bucky Done Gun” and tell me you didn’t “Get crackin’/ Get-get crackin’.” Go ahead. Try.

-E.G.

8) Rogue Wave, Descended Like Vultures

In a genre that seems to be becoming more and more mediocre every year, Rogue Wave’s Descended Like Vultures lifted indie-pop from its perpetual descent.

A perfectly balanced album, Descended has it all: heartbreaking love songs, bursting pop and infectious melodies.

-M.H.

9) Bright Eyes, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning

Saddle Creek wonder boy, Connor Oberst, proved that he’s more than just another pretty-when-I’m-crying face in 2005, with not one, but two new and different releases.

The first, a fatalistic meditation on death in the computer age, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, was by no means a flop-it was a thoughtful and earnest probing of our post-millenium fears and desires. But it was its sister album, the painfully gorgeous alt-country I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, that solidified Bright Eyes’ place as either A) The second coming of the hipster Jesus or B) The second coming of Bob Dylan.

Same thing.

Duets with country music legends and some very real political vitriol-complemented, of course, by Oberst’s mythic emotive tendencies-make this a critical and popular contender for best indie-rock-country-folk record of the year, and the quaver in his voice solidifies Oberst as numero uno Heartthrob of the Heartbroken.

The product of these variables is a classic record for the ages, and potentially marks the dawning of a new age in indie music.

-E.G.

10) Beck, Guero

After the tidal shift that was Beck’s Sea Change, who’da thunk this iconic “Loser” would ever break out the joyous turntables and microphones again?

The question is rhetorical: If we’ve learned anything about the mercurial Beck in his time on this planet, it’s that nothing the man does is ever the same as that which he did before. Following up his tsunami of sorrow, Beck is back to Odelay form on 2005’s Guero, picking up his devil-may-care dance-groove right where he left off.

Guero is, however, not simply a regression in terms of sound. Yes, it’s got a beat, but it’s not the adolescent thump of yore. Beck is now a man who knows that tears sometimes follow in the wake of midnight vultures, and his sentiment on Guero is eager, but offset with a mature type of road-wariness.

Still, on its most essential levels, Guero is an upwardly mobile butt-thumper, and tracks such as “E-Pro,” “Que Onda Guero?” and “Black Tambourine” are a triumphant return to the form Beck knows best.

-E.G.

11) Kings of Leon, Aha Shake Heartbreak

Let’s hear it for inbreeding!

Following in the long and illustrious tradition of deep South musicians who, literally, keep it all in the family, the kin-folk of Kings of Leon proved in 2005 that you can, in fact, rock the house down with your cousins…so long as one of your cousins is Jack Daniels.

Their music sounding as if it were being pumped through amps powered by diesel generators, the Kings of Leon have a grit and yowl unlike any other band today. While Aha Shake Heartbreak is not quite a classic, it’s damn close, and the steps it takes beyond its quintessential forebearer-the best-titled-album-ever, Youth and Young Manhood-are significant and bode very well for the future of these honkey-spaz rock royals.

Just try to keep the sister-kissing to a minimum, OK guys?

-E.G.

12) Antony and the Johnsons, I Am a Bird Now

Say what you will about the Ziggy Stardust-trumping sexual androgyny of its singer/songwriter, but Antony and the Johnsons are something special. All it takes to reach this conclusion is one real listen to the band’s I Am a Bird Now.

Yes, the album has duets with Boy George and Lou Reed, but it’s not the industry respect that makes this such a notable release. Underneath all the hype, the glitz, the eyeshadow and the glamour is…that voice.

Oh, that voice!

A mix of every beautiful bird you’ve ever heard gargling with a spoonful of honey, Antony’s voice is something to behold. Not in decades has someone so classically tapped into the brutal, raw, elegant power of human speech as this man, and though I Am a Bird has a couple sleeper tracks, as the official unveiling of this astonishing debutant it is not to be overlooked.

I’ll say this much without reservation: “Fistful of Love” is one of the most perfect, unsettling, powerful love songs I’ve heard in maybe a decade. Bottom line.

-E.G.

13) The Decemberists, Picaresque

Before Seth Cohen made it seem cool for every peroxide brat in America to don a pair of spectacles and act like an unbearable tool, The Decemberists were elbow-deep in Irish mythology, Yeats and all other varieties of bookish delight.

With a handful of epic fictional albums (meant in the most flattering narrative sense of the term) under their belt, the members of The Decemberists-led by the oh-so-adorkable Colin Meloy-set about in 2005 releasing their most ambitious and polished record to date. Picaresque is an album populated by wayward prostitutes, lovelorn spies and dead barrow boys, all held together by Meloy’s particular brand of creative songwriting-a mix of Melville and Modest Mouse. A highly literate and layered album, Picaresque is a standout.

Bonus: What other album comes complete with a seven-minute tale of nautical re
venge (told partially from within the belly of a whale) and includes a cameo by the best (read: only) Jewish-origin instrument on the planet, the shofar? None.

The shofar rules all!

-E.G.

14) The Mountain Goats, The Sunset Tree

Lead Goat John Darnielle is a man that made a name for himself in the mid- to late-90s as a spinner of fairytales…only, his fairytales were devoid of princesses and pumpkins, instead spotted with tragic addicts, desperate lovers and restless, nervous, ecstatic energy.

In 2005, Darnielle took a turn toward the personal, as he abandoned the fiction in favor of the autobiographical with the stellar Sunset Tree. Recounting in painful impressionistic detail the trials and terrors of his rough-and-tumble youth, complete with the classic drunken/ abusive/ drunken/ demonic stepfather figure (“I am young and I am good/ It is a hot Southern California day/ If I wake you up, there’ll be Hell to pay”), Sunset Tree feels even more harrowing than its predecessors, likely because this is true and new territory for Darnielle.

Regardless, The Mountain Goats win the 2005 Award for Best Song Line About Contemplating Underage Suicide, hands down: “I write down good reasons to freeze to death/ In my spiral ring notebook.”

Haha…ouch.

-E.G.

15) Animal Collective, Feels

The question on everybody’s tongue regarding this Bay Area band was: Weird, like brilliant? Or weird, like…um, what?

Answer: The former. But please, don’t make me explain myself. It can’t be done.

-E.G.

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