Extraordinary Music from the Margins of 2005

Unless you’re holed up in your bedroom poring over blogs and obscure magazines for the best music that isn’t being hawked by the major labels, there’s an excellent chance you’re a bit lost in the current marketplace. The rise of digital music delivery has meant that there’s very little you can’t download from somewhere, and the simple fact is that there is more music in the world than a person could possibly listen to in a thousand lifetimes.

As my wife and my bank account will confirm, I’m trying to do my part. So here are 12 albums (and one stray song) from 2005 that I loved, most of them in the indie-rock vein and all of them a bit off the beaten path.

A Frames, Black Forest (Sub Pop)

Angular, lean, muscular, and robotic, the A Frames imagine the mechanical constructions of Kraftwerk through the filter of punk and industrial music. Or perhaps Spinal Tap as an art-rock outfit. With its concise riffs, snottily inexpressive vocals, and primal percussion, it’s hard to tell whether this post-human din is meant as a joke or as serious scorched-earth commentary on the modern urban wasteland. The silly, vaguely allusive lyrics offer some hints, even though the cold, poker-faced presentation still leaves doubt. From “Death Train”: “No passengers / No engineer / No destination / Far or near.” And this is an ensemble that actually uses “cuneiform” in song, rhyming it (of course!) with “uniform.” I’m not denigrating the band or Black Forest; in stripping its sound of emotion and modulation, the record has a surprising, bizarre authenticity, tapping into something elemental about rock music. And it’s damned catchy, too!

Against Me!, Searching for a Former Clarity (Fat Wreck Chords)

Rage and loathing are the defining characteristics of Against Me!’s scathing Searching for a Former Clarity, but it’s by no means artless. There’s a tension here between Tom Gabel’s mouthfuls of venom and country-tinged hard-rock songs performed and produced with a certain rough panache. Gabel spews as well as anybody, and he’s certainly the main attraction here, but what’s most important is that he seems to believe in his diatribes, even though they’re occasionally awkward in an accumulation of specific, unimportant detail. (One lyric references Yahoo not letting the family of someone who died access his e-mail.) Yet I don’t think the album would work as well as it does without the attention to music. “Unprotected Sex with Multiple Partners” has a ringing lead guitar that almost seems to rein Gabel in. And “How Low” is a perfect confluence, with a shit-kicking backdrop to the singer’s circular tale of broken resolutions and gutter-dwelling. Gabel gives the chorus a throaty, heartfelt howl, and you can almost feel the pain.

Fiona Apple, “Not About Love” (unreleased)

The songstress’ long-delayed Extraordinary Machine got the opportunity for public consumption in two forms this year: The scrapped Jon Brion sessions were leaked on the Internet, while the re-worked album (produced by Mike Elizondo) was released by Epic in October. I’m partial to the Brion version, although neither reaches the heights of 1999’s When the Pawn ... . The exception is “Not About Love,” with a cello doing most of the melodic heavy lifting and providing a dramatic counterpoint to Apple’s distinctive piano and vocal phrasings.

Andrew Bird, Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs (Righteous Babe)

Like Badly Drawn Boy, Andrew Bird specializes in a highly expansive folk music, in which a sensitive singer-songwriter employs a frighteningly precious arsenal of instruments and whimsical tones to create a detailed, idiosyncratic musical painting. Done poorly, these records are self-indulgent and insufferable, clearly the products of heavy hallucinogen ingestion. Done well and with a modicum of restraint, they’re immensely satisfying, so thoroughly personal that they could come from nobody else. Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs is done very, very well, with a shocking clarity of vision. “Skin Is, My” embodies all that is great about this CD — delicate, concise, and a touch baffling, with a fat guitar break imported from some generic Latin rock record. (This was a particularly good year for dense, bizarre, twee singer-songwriter records. Beyond Bird, Sufjan Stevens offered his inscrutably epic Illinois, while Devin Davis presented Lonely People of the World, Unite! Both are strong albums, but they lack the sparkling loveliness and consistency of Bird’s CD.)

Bloc Party, Silent Alarm (Vice)

Among the “new New Wave” bands that have been all the buzz for the past few years, it’s Bloc Party that really pushes my buttons. Matching the precise guitar interplay of Sleater-Kinney with pleading lead vocals and a hyperactive rhythm section, Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm is a stunning, intricate debut, a harder-rocking flip side to bands such as Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs, and the Killers. When singer-guitarist Kele Okereke lets loose on “Banquet” with “I’m on fire” — a pronouncement that should lead to giggles or groans — you can’t help but agree. As an added bonus, the group can also do fragile textures and harmonies to go along with all that edgy riffing.

Calla, Collisions (Beggars Banquet)

The gulf is large between this record’s title (and artwork) and its content. The word “collisions” suggests carnage and chaos, the crashing together of man-made objects with the potential for maiming and death. But Calla’s fourth album has an organic texture, with sounds and vocals that blend together naturally and timelessly. This gloomy rock — understated, but by no means wimpy — has had any unpleasant rough edges worn down, leaving elegant guitar leads and lulling, hushed vocals. The lead track, “It Dawned on Me,” features an unshowy guitar line that imparts a lot of emotional information through melody and tone, couching warm vocals. The overall mood is elegiac and lonesome, not unlike Portishead with less emphasis on beats and samples.

The Frames, Burn the Maps (Anti)

The long-running but obscure combo the Frames, like some other Irish band that’s a lot more famous, is a versatile and dynamic group whose component parts are not quite distinctive enough to survive lazy or pedestrian songwriting; both these guys and U2 need superior material. (The most unusual element of the Frames’ sound is a violin that’s too often cloying, symptomatic of a generally excessive and over-produced sound. On the plus side, the band is more personal and not nearly so didactic as Bono and company.) Luckily, Burn the Maps is loaded with strong songs. The album is a model of sequencing, with the first three tracks establishing the band’s range. “Happy” is anything but, subdued and taut with very limited release, while “Finally” explodes, unleashing singer-songwriter Glen Hansard. That’s followed by the measured sadness of “Dream Awake,” with an effectively emotional Hansard warble. The earnestness that pervades Burn the Maps — and sometimes threatens to sink it — is thankfully leavened by musical touches that recall the obnoxious, aggressive archness of Weezer and the Pixies. This record is a bit of a high-wire act — sometimes losing its footing, teetering — but that’s one of the things that makes it exciting.

Hot Hot Heat, Elevator (Sire)

If the current “dance rock” and 1980s-revival trends in pop music seem like something of a virus, Canada’s Hot Hot Heat might be the most infectious strain. Led by the nasally, rubbery vocals of Steve Bays, on Elevator this noisy, energetic, playful band tears through 12 pop-perfect songs anchored by great choruses. Bays’ conviction sells even the least of the band’s efforts, while the best simply can’t be eradicated; I haven’t been able to free my brain from the refrains of “Ladies and Gentlemen” and “Shame on You” for months. The band is even capable of poignancy; on the soaring, roaring semi-ballad title track, the elevator is used as a potent metaphor for a relationship.

The Kills, No Wow (Rough Trade/RCA)

The White Stripes might be more famous, and the Black Keys might have more roots credibility, but among the indie-rock blues duos, nobody performs with more raw, gutsy urgency (or less warmth) than the Kills, Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince. No single track stands out on No Wow, but what it lacks in shape it more than makes up for in grit. The whole enterprise — with its fuzzed-out guitars and elementary rhythms/percussion — recalls the lo-fi sound and unfiltered menace and sexuality of early PJ Harvey — one lyric asks, “If I’m so evil / Why are you satisfied?” — and Mosshart’s vocals have the gravitational pull of a black hole. With song titles such as “I Hate the Way You Love” and a bruising sound to match, it’s certainly plausible that the Kills eat rocks for breakfast and like it.

Kronos Quartet and Asha Bhosle, You’ve Stolen My Heart: Songs from R.D. Burman’s Bollywood (Nonesuch)

For more than three decades, the virtuosic Kronos Quartet has championed contemporary classical pieces, pop music (such as Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”), composers from around the world, and cinema. Those disparate interests have converged on You’ve Stolen My Heart, a colorful and loving tribute to Indian movie music and a gorgeous album that is easily the group’s most accessible effort. The members of the string quartet essentially serve as sidemen here, letting the spotlight caress Asha Bhosle’s exquisite voice and phrasings. That might seem like a minor accomplishment, but for years Kronos has towered over its material. Not here. Even if you’ve never seen a Bollywood picture, and even though you’re not likely to understand a word of it, this CD has a beauty and integrity unmatched by any other pop album I’ve heard this year.

The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema (Matador)

Tight, richly textured power pop full of shiny, perfect tunes and a trio of great vocalists: chief songwriter Carl Newman, the incomparable Neko Case, and Dan Bejar. Twin Cinema expands the band’s sound a bit in either direction — there are more quiet moments, and some added ooomph — but it’s mostly a great band living up to its own impossibly high standards. The lyrics don’t often connect with any emotional truth, but that doesn’t make the songs meaningless; their construction and performance express the joy of making pop music.

Amy Rigby, Little Fugitive (Signature Sound Recordings)

Amy Rigby’s latest album starts with some incongruous sleigh bells in the service of the defiant “Like Rasputin,” elevating the resilient narrator to the status of the infamous Mad Monk: “I’m like Rasputin / I get back up again / Like Rasputin / I keep comin’ back / Comin’ back / Comin’ back to life.” That song is followed by the wonderfully observant “The Trouble with Jeannie,” which portrays middle-aged reality with humor and heart. The conundrum is summed up beautifully in the track’s first line: “Jeannie is my new husband’s ex-wife.” And after that, we get the ghostly rocker “Dancing with Joey Ramone.” All this is to say that Rigby is a versatile, smart, unpredictable, and fun writer and performer. Like Aimee Mann, Rigby isn’t satisfied with basic singer-songwriter settings, and she invests Little Fugitive with a variety that her skills can’t quite sustain; the rock tracks are unconvincing, lacking musical bite. But her voice and words are so compelling and articulate that the shortcoming becomes a quibble.

Summer at Shatter Creek, All the Answers (Badman)

Artful lamentation from one-man band Craig Gurwich, who could probably make Darth Vader cry by turning the dictionary into song. Delicate, precise, and nearly too fastidious and perfect, All the Answers uses as its base some amazingly plaintive, sleepy vocals, and it’s built up with careful minor-key instrumental layers. The Summer at Shatter Creek philosophy can be best understood through a lyric couplet: “I like to move slowly / Because I think so fast.” That deliberateness and caution result in some amazing music. “You Don’t Have to be Perfect to Be Loved” is gorgeously creepy — so spare that any listener can identify and separate each instrumental part, but alchemic in the way those minimal components chill the blood, undermining the words; this is a siren song written and performed by a serial killer, whistling absently in a dark alley. Even though the lyrics are unremarkable, frequently rote, the album’s strength is how little that matters. This is music that feels haunted by everyday life; you can practically hear the ghosts.

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