Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The In League With Paton Albums Of The Year 2005

Finally it’s here – the end-of-year megapost, a couple of days late. Sorry for that. Before we start counting down the big 75, it’s worth mentioning that I’ve given time to well over 100 albums this year, and there are plenty of worthy efforts that I haven’t managed to find space for here. There are also some honorary mentions – records I think should probably be in this list but that I simply haven’t managed to listen to properly yet – John Prine, Ellen Allien, Keith Jarrett, Wayne Shorter, Vitalic, Gang Gang Dance, Wilderness,

75. BROKEN FAMILY BAND – Welcome Home Loser

Well there has to be a number 75, but I can’t help feeling a little cruel propping up the list with BFB. As a collection of songs, ‘Welcome Home Loser’ was their strongest set yet, including a number of live favourites that perhaps suffered only from over-familiarity. The production was crisp and (perhaps too) clean, and the trademark Steven Adams dry wit remained on top form.

74. EST – Viaticum

More stadium jazz from Esbjorn Svensson’s hugely popular trio. It’s arguably closer to chamber music than jazz, with Svensson’s limited talents at improvising meaning that it’s more about atmosphere and mood than thrilling extemporising. ‘Viaticum’ was elegantly restrained and very cerebral, but also touching.

73. LOU BARLOW - Emoh

This would be an easy one to overlook, if only because Lou Barlow is such a self-deprecating character. ‘Emoh’ may well be his least assuming album to date, but it’s also one of his best, with strong songs mostly left uncluttered and free of the wilful sabotage sometimes exerted by Sebadoh or Folk Implosion. The melodies are lush and carefully charted, and Barlow’s understated vocal delivery remains one of pop’s most forlorn voices, brilliant at expressing the frustration and confusion he writes about so well.

72. RACHEL STEVENS – Come And Get It

No I’m not joking. It’s really a great shame that both record company and artist seemed to have lost faith in this pure pop gem by the time it was finally released. It’s much more than the usual collection of great singles and slushy filler, and every bit the equal of Annie’s ‘Anniemal’. It’s just a little bit less cool to admit to liking it.

71. MU – Out Of Breach

If most people were grimly fascinated by the Michael Jackson trial, it’s safe to say that Mu was more likely enraged. Her shrieking on ‘Stop Bothering Michael Jackson’ may be the most impassioned sound of the year. With hysterical ravings almost entirely devoid of melody, and a very uncertain grasp of the English language, Mu remains a violently compelling voice. Together with Maurice Fulton’s awesome, relentless percussion-dominated production, she produced an album that was captivating and terrifying in equal measure.

70. JOHN CALE – Black Acetate

Although it was a bit of a strange mix of genres, ‘Black Acetate’ provided plenty of evidence that Cale is still full of ideas, as well as absorbing some very modish new influences and inspirations. He can cover spiky guitar pop as well as the more forward-thinking soulful electronic material. This is a cerebral set that also has an urgency and immediacy absent from, say, the more ponderous Brian Eno album also released this year.


The stuttering, glitchy French approach to modern day disco was back with a bang with the slapdash cut and paste brilliance of Jackson. He possibly had the shortest attention span in modern music but from this, he crafted something edgy and thrilling. He also demonstrated a strong sense of humour, and therefore avoided confrontation without results, although his pulverising live shows were something else entirely.

68. LAURA VEIRS – Year Of Meteors

Unfairly dismissed as a move towards more conventional territory, ‘Year Of Meteors’ continued Veirs’ songwriting preoccupations with elements and natural phenomena, maintaining her distinctive sense of awe and wonder whilst developing her melodic gifts. Less abrasive than previous works, but no less fascinating, it is the eerie, evocative work of a maturing songwriter..


Really an album of 2004, but not afforded a release date in Britain until well into 2005. The vagaries of record company schedules made Rufus work hard to promote two albums he had intended to release as one – but the distance between them made the differences between the two Want albums appear even starker. Where the former was ornate, lavish and occasionally excessive – Want Two is reflective, dramatic and elegant.

66. SOUTH SAN GABRIEL – The Carlton Chronicles

A concept album about a cat? It sounds like a disastrous trip to planet whimsy, but it actually works rather well. This is mostly because Will Johnson (who also records as Centr-O-Matic and under his own name) has a great control of sound and atmosphere. This is an album that can be taken in humorous spirit, but which also contains songs that are delicate, warm and touching.

65. M83 – Before The Dawn Heals Us

Well, it wasn’t exactly a match for the stunning ‘Dead Cities…’ album, but exactly what is? At least M83 didn’t settle for sticking to the same formula. ‘Before The Dawn Heals Us’ seemed to push their progressive elements to the fore, occasionally even resembling the regal pomp of Pink Floyd. When added to their more electronic leanings, this made for a distinctive and powerful combination.

64. FOUR TET – Everything Ecstatic

Whilst not Kieren Hebden’s absolute best work, it still seems inexplicable that this inventive and entertaining record has been left off almost all the major end of year lists. His preoccupation with dense layered percussion (which looks set to be continued in his work with the Steve Reid Ensemble) came to the fore, and ‘Everything Ecstatic’ is an insistent, intensely rhythmic concoction.

63. SPOON – Gimme Fiction

Britt Daniel’s Spoon have produced a remarkably consistent and enjoyable body of work, and ‘Gimme Fiction’ is a dependable collection of quirky guitar pop. Much of this album is raggedly infectious and it’s a shame that the band have been relatively neglected in this country. I’d take this over the banal and infuriating chav-pop of Hard-Fi any day of the week.

62. GIRLS ALOUD – Chemistry

Oh, you love it really. They remain the only decent thing to have come from the vacuous world of reality TV, and this album, surely likely to be their last, will also stand as their enduring legacy. This is disposable, playful pop music, brilliantly produced by Brian Higgins’ Xenomania team, with elements lovingly pinched from the likes of Giorgio Moroder and The Human League. Do the girls really have any talent? Frankly, who cares – they deliver the frequently hilarious lyrics with such shameless gusto that it doesn’t matter at all.

61. DEPECHE MODE – Playing The Angel

Martin Gore was at his most OTT on ‘Playing The Angel’, but even a slightly substandard Mode album is better than most on offer from British bands in 2005 (is anyone seriously suggesting that Arctic Monkeys can work on this level?). This one is especially notable for the introduction of Dave Gahan as songwriting force, and his contributions stand up remarkable well, capturing the same dark, introspective ground as Gore, but arguably in this case, with greater control and success. For me, this album suffered a little from looking backwards, as it mostly retread the sounds and themes of ‘Violator’. Ben Hillier added a few new production tricks, however, and at its best, ‘Playing The Angel’ retained the dynamism that only seems to emerge when this remarkable band set aside their differences and collaborate.

60. THE SINGING ADAMS – Problems

It takes a while to make its impact, but in spite of (or perhaps because of) its lo-rent, lo-fi production values and gritty, forthright lyrics, ‘Problems’ is actually a superb record. There is nothing superfluous here, and Steven Adams’ wry, vulnerable songs are given the necessary space to breathe. Guest appearances from Gill Sandell and Piney Gir add depth and flavour, and the incorporation of what sounds like the influence of folk song is particularly effective.


It wasn’t such a great year for R&B in the nu-beats sense, but 2005 saw a real resurgence in the gritty, original, live R&B set-up, with a spectacular return from Bettye Lavette and the continued second life of Solomon Burke. One of the most impressive releases was this superbly swampy, passionate set of danceable classic soul grooves that could set dancefloors alight. ‘Naturally’ is a sensual, primal feast of urgency and energy.

58. SAGE FRANCIS – A Healthy Distrust

I am simply baffled as to why this has not appeared on any of the major end of year lists. It’s one of the year’s most creative hip hop albums, not least for the inspired collaboration with Will Oldham on ‘Sea Lion’, but for its skilful demolition of some of rap’s established clichés and conventions. Its eerie sounds and confrontational performances both disorientate and thrill.

57. SOLOMON BURKE – Make Do With What You’ve Got

He’s so large that he’s barely able to walk but the great man can certainly still sing. There are few living soul artists with this level of power and control, as well as a remarkable subtlety of phrasing. Perhaps it comes from his preaching as much as his singing, but Solomon Burke is a true mass communicator. If I was a little apprehensive that Don Was might produce too glossy a production, my reservations proved largely unfounded. It’s certainly crisper than the earthier ‘Don’t Give Up On Me’ collection, but the song selection is just as inspired. A superbly gritty take on The Band’s ‘It Makes No Difference’, a slinky delivery of Bob Dylan’s ‘What Good Am I?’ are just a couple of the tremendous highlights.

56. BJORK – Drawing Restraint 9

Will Oldham has been getting around a bit in 2005 – and his bizarre contribution to Bjork’s soundtrack to her film director husband Matthew Barney’s latest work may be his strangest work yet. It’s fitting, then, that this is also one of Bjork’s most peculiar and challenging works to date. Mostly instrumental, but occasionally featuring some wordless, intoxicating vocals, it sounds like a modern-day approach to Eastern European folk music and indicates that Bjork is as adept a composer and musical director as she is songwriter and performer. She is forging new and exciting paths with every move she makes – and is in every sense a true artist.

55. THE JUAN MACLEAN – Less Than Human

One of many great records to emerge from the DFA staple, ‘Less Than Human’ manage to generously borrow references from a wide range of sources, including the powerhouse funk of Funkadelic/Parliament, the robotic punk-funk disco stylings of mentors LCD Soundsystem and the pulsating synths of Giorgio Moroder. The result was an intoxicating brew, and one of the year’s best party albums.

54. WILCO – Kicking Television

It would be so tempting to make this a top 10 album, such is its compelling quality. Having made ‘A Ghost Is Born’ my album of the year above The Arcade Fire last year, I will however resist the temptation. It’s been a good year for live albums – but this is comfortably pick of the bunch, capturing the current Wilco line-up at what may well be the peak of their powers. The later, more adventurous material predictably dominates the set, although a crunching ‘Misunderstood’ and a cathartic ‘A Shot In The Arm’ sound entirely comfortably alongside the rest. The spindly, intricate playing of Nels Cline adds an improvisatory spirit to the band’s sound – which is integrated surprisingly effectively with Jeff Tweedy’s more conservative leanings. The album captures the same contrast between propulsive energy and self-absorbed reflection that made ‘A Ghost Is Born’ so fascinating, but turns it into something more immediate and threatening. Not just kicking television, but kicking everyone else into touch.

53. ALASDAIR ROBERTS – No Earthly Man

Alasdair Roberts’ distinctive (and prolific) refashioning of the Scottish folk tradition continued apace with this mysterious and foreboding collection of murder ballads. Roberts has always seen Will Oldham as his mentor, but Oldham’s very presence here makes his influence more overt. Previously a more benign factor, he now imposes a slightly murky and sinister edge to the textures of the music. Roberts’ voice is becoming more assured, and he inhabits these songs with a peculiarly hypnotic charm.

52. LAURA CANTRELL – Humming By The Flowered Vine

There’s very little that’s in any way modern about Laura Cantrell – but in an age where people fall all too easily for the phoney innovations of an M.I.A., it’s refreshing to hear her timeless and traditional approach. It might mean disaster in the hands of a lesser artist, but Cantrell has such an instinctive feel for this old-time music and the results are natural and effortless. She is a very restrained and un-showy singer, and it is through this approach that she captures some of the tensions and heartaches inherent in the country tradition. She impresses both as a writer and as an interpreter, something few can manage these days.

51. BLOC PARTY – Silent Alarm
I spent most of the year thinking that this would remain firmly in the year’s most overrated category – but I think I may be in for a rethink. The band’s sound is relentless and captivating, and largely dominated by the interaction between Kele Okereke’s yelping vocals and Matt Tong’s brilliant, off-kilter drumming. It’s perhaps a little limiting, and they could do with deploying a more melodic approach if the impact is not to dwindle very quickly. But for now, ‘Silent Alarm’ was a treat – a dense, discomforting soundtrack to urban paranoia.


A long-awaited return for the select few who still follow them ardently, ‘Man-Made’ broke little new ground for The Fannies, but simply consolidated their mastery of sun drenched harmony pop. It was perhaps a little less immediate than previous albums and whilst the production of John McEntire didn’t change the band’s sound radically, it did embellish it with new subtleties and textures, particularly on Raymond McGinley’s ‘Only With You’. It reveals new depths with every listen, and is a comfortably warm and familiar work.

49. CARIBOU – The Milk Of Human Kindness

Formerly known as Manitoba, Dan Snaith was forced to revise his trading name after legal action from Handsome Dick Manitoba, a clumsy attempt at self-publicity that only served to raise the profile of the artist on the receiving end of the action. ‘The Milk Of Human Kindness’ moves further away from the minimal electronica of Snaith’s debut, and furthers the clattering percussion and Krautrock inspired minimal harmony of ‘Up In Flames’. It lacks the shock of the new that its predecessor provided, but it’s mercilessly concise and consistently thrilling nonetheless.

48. IMMACULATE MACHINE – Ones And Zeroes

This one hasn’t been officially released in the UK yet, but I’m really hoping someone will pick it up for distribution as it is a masterful and well paced collection of crisp power pop, with infectious melodies and carefully crafted harmonies. There’s no bassist, but the interaction of explosive drumming and jagged guitar lines certifies that this needn’t be a limiting factor. This is as good a set of pop songs as I’ve heard in 2005.

47. BETTYE LAVETTE – I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise

If it’s good enough for Elvis Costello, it certainly ought to be good enough for me. This remarkable comeback album sees soul legend LaVette benefit from the same Joe Henry production treatment that worked so well for Solomon Burke. This is a collection of songs from unexpected sources – all female. LaVette tackles songs from such disparate writers as Sinead O’ Connor, Leonard Cohen collaborator Sharon Robinson, Lucinda Williams, Fiona Apple and Joan Armatrading. She leaves her own personal stamp on each song, sounding gutsy and determined throughout, but also demonstrating precise control over her expressive phrasing.


Tord Gustavsen’s trio are ploughing the same soft, atmospheric ground as EST, but with arguably more emotion and musical quality. This music manages to be stirring without resorting to anything more than muted dynamics, and its subtlety has a cumulative charge.

45. BROADCAST – Tender Buttons

Now brutally chopped to a mere duo, Broadcast’s loss of band members necessitated a more taut, fearsomely minimal sound. ‘Tender Buttons’ delivered this and more – a direct and intense blast of motorik insistence. It doesn’t have the same level of sheer beauty as ‘Ha Ha Sound’, but then it’s coming from a completely different place, so that doesn’t really matter.

44. BOARDS OF CANADA – The Campfire Headphase

If it’s not quite a classic on the level of ‘Music Has The Right…’ then that’s probably only because familiarity breeds contempt. Repeated listens do reveal new levels of interest in that well-ingrained BoC sound, not least the introduction of live instrumentation, which works surprisingly well. This time, it’s more blissful than sinister though, and ‘The Campfire Headphase’ may lull you into a false sense of security.

43. CHRIS T-T – 9 Red Songs

Chris T-T remains one of the most endearing songwriters at work and even though this is a righteous politically charged album full of anger and bitterness, it still finds room for reflection and all round good humour. T-T’s observational writing has never been more incisive, and simply on a musical level, with its intricate and considered arrangements, this is his best album to date.

42. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN – Devils and Dust

‘Devils and Dust’ inevitably suffers a little from unfavourable comparisons with ‘Nebraska’ and ‘The Ghost Of Tom Joad’, the other two ‘acoustic’ Springsteen records and twin pillars of his output so far. ‘D & D’ does try something a bit different, however, mixing stripped back meditative storytelling with very basic rockers that don’t sound a million miles away from the much maligned ‘Human Touch’ and ‘Lucky Town’. At its best (‘Long Time Comin’, ‘Maria’s Bed’, ‘Reno’, ‘Black Cowboys’) it proves that Springsteen’s instinctive understanding and sympathy for his characters remains his hard-won quality, and his manipulation of narrative is still questing.

41. VASHTI BUNYAN – Lookaftering

It could hardly be called long-awaited, as hardly a word has been mentioned about Vashti Bunyan in the intervening 28 years between ‘Just Another Diamond Day’ and this new album. It’s really only the patronage of new folk acts such as Animal Collective and Devendra Banhart that has opened the door for her return. ‘Lookaftering’ is full of warm, humane reflection on love, domestic life and family – and Bunyan’s exquisitely vulnerable voice has been one of the most precious and beautiful sounds of 2005. Max Richter’s understated production sustains a captivating aural glow. Magnificent.

40. DOVES – Some Cities

Doves continued to push their epic sound to the limit on ‘Some Cities’, a dense and compelling record that again utilised all their talents in the recording studio. Their sound is intelligently engineered, but not at the expense of energy and feeling, and ‘Some Cities’ captures both with tremendous success.

39. KONONO NO. 1 – Congotronics

It must have been odd for Kinshasa’s premier band to suddenly be hailed as a new phenomenon, having been performing in their hometown for decades. Still, hipster upstarts and world music aficionados alike couldn’t get enough of this extraordinary collection – in which the traditional likembe finger piano is amplified and distorted to create a sound that is both inspiring and terrifying in equal measure. This relentless apocalyptic groove could be extended and extemporised at great length without ever becoming boring. It shows the origins of modern dance music.


Dave Holland is a musician that always seems to find new methods and approaches, and one whose considerable talent shows no signs of diminishing. ‘Overtime’ is a big band album that captures precisely the colossal thrill of big band music – it is aggressive, punchy and also serious fun. Like Matthew Herbert’s recent big band project, it also proves that such a move need not necessarily signify regression. For Holland, this is a captivating and successful side-step.

37. BLACK DICE – Broken Ear Record

I can’t really comment on the apparent consensus that this is Black Dice’s least significant record to date, as it’s my first real encounter with the band. To these ears, it represents a convincing and brave exploration of the possibilities of noise, and it’s structures and sounds are located miles away from anything in mainstream music. It can’t even really be aligned very easily with the rest of DFA’s output. It sounds genuinely industrial – not like the rather spurious musical genre, but in its emphasis on sound collage above melody, it is music for machines made by humans.

36. SMOG – A River Ain’t Too Much To Love

‘A River..’ continued Bill Callahan’s drift away from the unconventional drones of ‘Rain On Lens’ towards something more accessible, although it was a much more enigmatic and opaque collection of songs than the relatively chipper ‘Supper’ album. Like much of Callahan’s best work, its droll irony and misanthropic edge require some work – but once familiar with the dry Callahan stylings, these songs are striking, humorous and frequently incisive. The traditional musical backdrop eschewed virtuosity, but also went beyond a standard Americana template into something more challenging and, ultimately, more rewarding.


One of many excellent releases from the much feted F-IRE Collective in 2005, ‘Before I Forget’ was arguably a little more conventional than Polar Bear or Acoustic Ladyland, but it had a more slippery and elusive charm of its own. The playing is beautifully fluid and sometimes exhuberant, but mostly it is the lush, impressionistic mood that stands out most.

34. COCOROSIE – Noah’s Ark

This was a sublime, exotic and deeply compelling album, with the slightly nasal, pinched sound of the Cassidy sisters’ voices combining effortlessly with a bewildering array of bizarre instrumentation. It sounded like electronic folk music – in thrall to natural melodies and sounds, but processed through a more modern, anything-goes approach. Even an appearance from the execrable Devendra Banhart couldn’t spoil it.

33. LCD SOUNDSYSTEM – LCD Soundsystem

After two volumes of DFA compilations and several cult singles, the LCD Soundsystem album could easily have been an anti-climax. Mercifully, it delivered on almost every level – with plenty of the driving future new wave disco we’d come to expect, as well as some more melodic surprises to sustain the interest. The fact that it came with a bonus CD collating all the non-album singles was a real bonus. Together – the two discs make for a minor classic. The real test, however, will be James Murphy’s next move. This is music that could quickly become tired and it would be a shame for ideas of this quality to be relegated to a passing fad. How will Murphy develop the LCD sound?

32. DANGERDOOM – The Mouse and The Mask

In an otherwise barren year for American hip hop, there was however no doubting that a collaboration between Dangermouse, legendary producer of the Jay-Z meets The Beatles Grey Album bootleg and rapper extraordinaire MF Doom would be anything other than excellent. It’s not quite as audacious as Doom’s Madvillain collaboration with Madlib – and in many ways, the approach is surprisingly old-school. Nevertheless, the demented wordplay is thrilling and there are many intriguing sounds and heavy beats for sheer enjoyment value. Many of the cartoon references that form the concept behind the album may be lost on British audiences, but the album stood up on a musical level alone.

31. LOW – The Great Destroyer

Another of the year’s most cruelly underrated albums, ‘The Great Destroyer’ saw Low beefing up their sound without losing any of the emotive magic of the instinctive harmonies of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. The music was still deceptively basic – with pounding skeletal and rhythms and simple melodies, but it was carried on a new wave of vital urgency and clarity.


The new line-up of My Morning Jacket remained expansive in their sound and approach, but also broadened their musical palette to feature greater reliance on keyboards and rhythms. Some hyped this rather ridiculously as a trek into R & B production territory. Whilst it wasn’t such a major volte-face as that, it certainly suggested that this line-up of the band may have even more potential than the original model (that is, at least, if they can stop cancelling tour dates). With John Leckie on board as producer, some of the band’s strongest songs to date were transformed into mysterious and fascinating soundscapes, whilst still leaving plenty of space for straightforward rocking out. The streamlined brevity of the album also helped – this no longer felt like it could be stifling admonition masquerading as an epic – it was all the qualities of the epic in a more concise and manageable format.

29. PATRICK WOLF – Wind In The Wires

If Kate Bush’s ‘Aerial’ was the sound of domestic contentment, ‘Wind In The Wires’ was the sound of discontent – the need to escape the claustrophobia of the city and forge a new home. In discarding some of the more frustratingly adolescent themes of ‘Lycanthropy’, Patrick Wolf more than fulfilled that album’s promise, crafting an album of elegant musicality and powerful songwriting.

28. ISOLEE – Wearemonster

‘Wearemonster’ is a dance album that maintains rigorous adherence to the beat but goes way beyond brainless repetition. There are so many ideas pulsing through this superb album, many of them combined into the same track. Each track develops, shifts and mutate, whilst always anchored by an infectious bass line or hook. Numerous ideas are then filtered in and out of the mix, and the results are both subtle and intoxicating.

27. THE BAD PLUS – Suspicious Activity?

Not only do some critics in the jazz world continue to view The Bad Plus as a threat, but many still doubt their musicality. After this, their fourth highly inventive, questing release, surely the doubters must now be silenced. This is a piano trio – but it sounds absolutely unlike any kind of conventional piano trio. Nor do they take their cues from the modern variants – the ethereal atmospherics of EST or Tord Gustavsen don’t feature here at all. It’s a furious, intricate and virtuosic music, but with a sturdy and powerful groove at its core. Mostly focussing on original compositions, ‘Suspicious Activity?’ showcases the writing talents of all three members, and their ingenious polyrhythmic structures are at their most muscular here. It’s a strident, compelling work of dexterity and vigour.

26. KING CREOSOTE – Rocket DIY/KC Rules OK

The prolific Kenny Anderson compiled some of his best songs written between 1988 and 2004 on to two albums in 2005. ‘Rocket DIY’ was recorded in the frail lo-fi, homespun approach that will be familiar to fans of ‘Kenny and Beth’s Musakal Boat Rides’. ‘KC Rules OK’ was recorded in collaboration with The Earlies and also featured backing vocals from a former Fence Collective member, one KT Tunstall – who has now either sold-out or transcended her mentor’s limited appeal depending on your position. I’d opt for the former, as it’s a less conventional, and frequently more touching collection, although ‘KC Rules OK’ is often neatly arranged too.

25. OKKERVIL RIVER – Black Sheep Boy

This is a really great album, and in almost any other year would surely have graced my top 10. A conceptual song cycle inspired by the Tim Hardin song of the same name, it covers the tempestuous torment of unrequited love in a harsh prose-poetry that still manages to sound incisive and dignified, even in its more envious and furious moments.


Thanks to Animal Collective’s excellent Paw Tracks label, we are in the midst of a continuing programme to bring the extraordinary music of Ariel Pink to wider attention. If anything, ‘Worn Copy’ was even better than last year’s ‘Doledrums’. With some of the rough edges smoothed a little, this elusive, home-recorded gem sounds a little like a lo-fi ‘Pet Sounds’. Pink’s methods may be untutored, but the results are as euphoric and symphonic as composed music. This is pop as blissful rapture, and Pink remains isolated in his own unique space.

23. ERIN McKEOWN – We Will Become Like Birds

What on earth leads the UK press to be so apathetic towards this remarkable songwriter? Whilst many monthlies were happy to fall for the feverish publicity surrounding the return of the unbearably pretentious Fiona Apple, this infinitely more interesting and creative record was completely overlooked. It successfully integrated a greater mastery of the studio into her sound and this provided an even greater contrast with her more rootsy solo live shows. The songs were loosely linked around the theme of freedom – a fashionable buzz word for many in the War on Terror, addressed with sympathy and understanding by the delectable Ms McKeown.

22. M WARD – Transistor Radio

An album that invokes the spirit of classic American radio and bemoans its decline into formatted commercial tedium. It’s also perfectly romantic, with a keening and bittersweet spirit at its core. M Ward clearly has a real love and understanding of the American songwriting tradition – but with ‘Transistor Radio’, he has made a strong claim to be an integral part of that tradition’s continual development.

21. PAT METHENY – The Way Up

Reviews that seemed completely astounded by the fact that Pat Metheny had composed one lengthy ‘suite’ of music seemed to neglect the strong tradition of composition in jazz. This was a work that looked more to the long compositions of Duke Ellington and George Russell than the free improvisation of Ornette Coleman or John Coltrane. Yet, Metheny’s music was spacious and elegant and left plenty of room for his expressive and sometimes expressionist playing. His collaborator Lyle Mays was an equally potent force, his layered keyboard textures providing the music with its rich and evocative atmosphere. Another major achievement in an illustrious musical career.

20. SIX ORGANS OF ADMITTANCE – School Of The Flower

Taking hints from the folk rock of Fairport Convention and the psychedelia of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd but transporting all these ideas into a more unfamiliar and austere space, ‘School Of The Flower’ was one of 2005’s most bewitching albums. It’s an oddly graceful and enchanting record that rewards with repeated plays.

19. SLEATER KINNEY – The Woods

Here, Sleater Kinney largely abandoned the fervent political stance of ‘One Beat’ and moved back into more personal territory. Musically, however, this was full of righteous anger and unrestrained aggression. ‘The Woods’ is a noisy, thrashing and frequently chaotic beast, but it remains in tune with the corrupted primal blues that has inspired all of Sleater Kinney’s best music. When it returns to a more conventional melodic approach, it does so with aplomb, and the songs always shift gear in unexpected places. Its visceral impact was impossible to resist.

18. POLAR BEAR – Held On The Tips Of Fingers

Some preferred this to its sister album from Acoustic Ladyland and I can almost see why. The deployment of Leafcutter John on electronics makes for some disorientating and innovative atmospherics, whilst the music itself races through many genres and cultures, even incorporating a kind of klezmer march. As one might expect from Seb Rochford, a remarkably talented drummer-composer, it’s rhythmically inventive, but in the duelling saxophones of Mark Lockheart and Pete Wareham, there is also melodic dexterity as well. There is a real understanding of jazz music history on display here – as well as a vigorous desire to propel the music into the future.

17. MAGNOLIA ELECTRIC CO – What Comes After The Blues

For a while, it seemed that Jason Molina was unstoppable, with three successive masterpieces in ‘Didn’t it Rain’, ‘Magnolia Electric Co.’ and ‘Pyramid Electric Co.’. But then came the perplexing name change and ‘Trials and Errors’ an unfortunately bombastic album that obscured Molina’s song writing gifts beneath numerous Neil Young-esque guitar solos and sludgy playing from the rhythm section. It didn’t bode well. Yet, some of the songs from that release appear in studio form here, in markedly better versions, Molina’s inherent vulnerability wisely restored. Many of the songs are more accessible than their predecessors, without losing Molina’s distinctive edge. This is a beautiful album, full of longing and passion and it stands up well in Molina’s increasingly illustrious catalogue.


This Canadian indie-pop supergroup found real ambition in ‘Twin Cinema’, an album with a refreshingly dirty, live sound but featuring wonderfully quirky songs that veer in all sorts of unexpected directions. The band are never content to blandly strum, or maintain the same relentless feel – instead, we get savage punctuations, inventive harmony and highly infectious tunes. The titles and lyrics remain a little arty and their meaning largely impenetrable – but with songs this immediate and thrilling, that didn’t really matter. At last, they are starting to emerge from the shadow of Neko Case and come into their own as a band, so much so that they can tour without her and it doesn’t even matter too much!


After the rather one dimensional ‘Master and Everyone’ and the wilfully perverse re-recorded ‘Greatest Palace Music’ album, Will Oldham shedded his recently acquired layers of disguise to record his most direct, savage and impressive work since ‘I See A Darkness’. His lyrics are at their most uncomfortable and probing here, although much of the credit should go to collaborator Matt Sweeney for writing such elegiac and expressive music.

14. ELBOW – Leaders Of The Free World

Whilst many critics inexplicably fawned over the faux-U2isms of Coldplay’s ‘X&Y’, they risked missing the real deal here. Elbow have been honing that epic sound over the course of three brilliant albums now – and this one may top the lot. It’s their most cohesive and confident work to date, without sacrificing any of the evocative emotion of the best parts of ‘Asleep In The Back’. The sound is remarkably crisp, and Guy Garvey’s incisive dry wit and careful command of melody lead the charge.

13. KATE BUSH – Aerial

After twelve years, was ‘Aerial’ a reaffirmation of La Bush’s singular talent, or an introspective disappointment? Well, it’s frustrating certainly, but its eccentricities are also an intrinsic part of its appeal. Musically, it’s insanely ambitious even when at its most restrained, and a handful of the songs (‘Nocturne’, ‘The Coral Room’, ‘Pi’, ‘King Of The Mountain’, ‘How To Be Invisible’, ‘Aerial’) are the work of an artist on a completely different level from everyone else.

12. SUFJAN STEVENS – Illinois

Such an ambitious gesture could always expect to top the end of year polls, and the success of Sufjan Stevens’ magnum opus has only been marred by a numbing predictability. To my ears, ‘Michigan’ is still the better work – it’s less twee and has more space and depth. Everything on ‘Illinois’ sounds like an attempt to master a big American sound – and mostly it works remarkably well. Stevens remains a humane and compassionate writer, grappling with the both the big themes of American national history, and the experiences particular to his chosen locality. Stevens had immersed himself in folklore, literature and ideas to produce some of the most intelligent music of the year.


Is this the sound of Animal Collective becoming conventional? Well, it’s hardly verse-chorus-verse stuff, but there is perhaps a more melodic approach to be found amidst the endearing yelping and hypnotic psychedelia. Animal Collective’s sound harks back to the most primitive of folk music, but also sounds fresh and modern. It’s unhinged and occasionally difficult, but the very wildness of the sound makes it all the more enticing. They also sound pretty much like nothing else around right now.

10. THE BOOKS – Lost and Safe

After two albums of music that refuses to respect genre conventions, The Books continued their progressive journey. In some respects, ‘Lost and Safe’ is a kind of song cycle, with a greater emphasis on words and melody than previous releases. Yet, it’s still the impressive way they integrate samples and found sounds into their beguiling textures that is most fascinating. ‘Lost and Safe’ was their most coherent statement yet and, in its own quiet and unassuming way, a genuinely radical statement.

09. NINE HORSES – Snow Borne Sorrow

Daniel from Unit described this to me as ‘a bit like Nick Cave if he got a bit more funky’. I’m not sure funky is quite the right word – it’s more almost atmospheric jazz really, but I take the point. A lingering melancholy pervades this album and it is suffused with guilt and regret. It is sublimely evocative, and very well produced. David Sylvian is among those 80s survivors who have gone on to occupy their own space, well away from prevailing trends or critical opinion. This is one of his best works yet.

08. ROOTS MANUVA – Awfully Deep

In a largely disappointing year for hip-hop, this record stood out by a country mile. There are few others in the genre working at this level. Taking ideas and approaches from a number of genres to create a dizzying conflation, ‘Awfully Deep’ sounded like very little else around. Added to this was Roots Manuva’s refusal to bow to lyrical conventions, documenting his own, increasingly paranoid life experience with wry wit and ingenuity. Whilst there are plenty of American musical influences on display here, this showed a British hip-hop artist avoiding the mock-American clichés of some of his contemporaries. A brazenly honest record full of conviction and intelligence.

07. JAMIE LIDELL – Multiply

A digital Jamiroquai or a genuine nu soul genius? Well, probably neither at this stage, although ‘Multiply’ sounded better with every listen and gave every suggestion that Jamie Lidell has a very promising future. Many of the production ideas were more inventive than the ‘white boy soul’ tag suggests, and Lidell’s voice does indeed capture a more modern take on the music of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett.

06. BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE – Broken Social Scene

A slight hint of a backlash seemed to be building in some circles, but for most, Broken Social Scene’s follow-up to their classic ‘You Forgot It In People’ satisfied on most levels. This was a denser sound, but one that also frequently took the band back to their contemporary rock roots (hence the driving energy of ‘Fire Eye’d Boy’ and chiming Sonic Youth-esque guitars of ‘7/4 (Shoreline)’). With scores of musicians contributing, there were a real range of ideas on display, and the unconventional song structures took the music in increasingly unexpected directions.

05. BILL FRISELL – East/West

There have been numerous ‘Americana’ albums fawned over by the monthly music press this year, but the best in this rather spurious genre arguably came from a jazz guitarist. Bill Frisell has worked hard over a long period in demolishing tired genre conventions. Yet, throughout his experiments with country and the popular songbook, his distinctive sustained and looped guitar sound remains the one resolutely consistent factor. This live album provided a particularly potent context for that sound, with Frisell performing in two trios, luxuriating in a plethora of American musical culture. The music is gloriously expansive, performed with subtle appreciation and reverence or gritty enthusiasm, depending on the demands of the material.


In this real meeting of minds, two of the most interesting among the acts often banded together in the ‘alt country’ genre produced their best and most interesting work. The lyrics of Sam Beam echoed the big western spaces of writers such as Cormac McCarthy, but also captured the compacted family narratives of Bruce Springsteen. His delicate vocals and understated melodies helped distil the essence of his brilliant prose-poetry. Calexico’s musical backdrop captured the spirit of border music, with plenty of intricate detail and intelligent musicianship. A wonderful record – and the joint tour that reaches the UK in April 2006 should be a treat.

03. MATTHEW HERBERT – Plat Du Jour

Abandoning his big band, Matthew Herbert produced a bizarre form of musique concrete with his new project, constructed almost entirely from samples of food products and industrial food processes – from the sounds of Battery chickens to the ingeniously ludicrous reconstruction (and destruction with a tank) of the dinner prepared for George Bush and Tony Blair by Nigella Lawson. Mostly instrumental, it was a less accessible and more uncompromising project than his production work for Roisin Murphy and Dani Siciliano, which may explain its absence from most end of year polls. For those who kept an open mind, ‘Plat du Jour’ worked both as thrilling musical concoction and as impassioned political polemic. These two elements also combined effortlessly together, with Herbert’s sampling at its most imaginative. This was a geopolitically aware and utterly crucial musical document.


There’s probably little to say about this that hasn’t been said already – but this album of torch ballads dealing with gender confusion was one of the most moving and elegant albums in ages. Antony’s voice certainly takes on board some standard theatrical influences but the much-vaunted comparisons with Nina Simone do have some substance. He also had the power to convey extraordinary feeling as well as a mastery of vibrato technique. The piano led arrangements captured the vulnerability at the heart of Antony’s songs. It's success was completely unexpected and represented a real triumph for outsider music.

01. ACOUSTIC LADYLAND – Last Chance Disco

‘Last Chance Disco’ stood out in 2005 not just for its remarkable quality, but also for its willingness to embrace a diverse range of musical styles and approaches, rejecting the conventional belief that lifestyle choices and narrow interests must dictate music tastes. Some have been frustrated by the recent regeneration of interest in British jazz, particularly from some sources that have generally preferred to ignore that there has been any kind of worthwhile jazz scene in Britain. Yet, the wave of interest which now centres around the F-IRE Collective and Tomorrow’s Warriors surely cannot be a bad thing, especially when it produces music with this much fiery invention.
It’s been called ‘punk jazz’ because of bandleader and saxophonist Pete Wareham’s fascination with the raw, untamed ethos of Iggy Pop and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. This term has been used before, though, in reference to the work of legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius, and it’s easy to forget that Acoustic Ladyland are as much in thrall to a modern, improvisatory jazz tradition as they are to the methods of rock. The playing on this album therefore has the furious urgency of The Stooges, but also the theatrical musicality of Charlie Parker and the creativity of Miles Davis. Wareham also references Nico and Olivier Messiaen, determined to cast his net as wide as possible whilst creating a refreshing and energising musical hybrid of his own. Whilst their debut ‘Camouflage’, in its reworkings of Jimi Hendrix material, was fascinating, this is something else entirely and it’s very exciting indeed. If the term ‘acoustic’ in the band’s name implies an approach that is polite and respectful, the music contained here was anything but ‘acoustic’.


Anonymous said...

Refreshing - an excellent list.

Anonymous said...

very good list indeed but i'm still searching in vain for a year-end list that features SCOUT NIBLETT. did you get a chance to hear it and if so, what did you think?

Daniel said...

Thanks for the feedback. Yes I did pick up a copy of the Scout Niblett album and have only listened to it twice. I might return to it on your advice, but I do find her a bit of an acquired taste. You're right to notice that it's been completely ignored in the end of year polls, as have many really good records.

SMc said...

the Scout Niblett record crops up in at least 4 of the 'My Top 10' lists posted over at UK mag Comes With A Smile, two ranking at No1. Go here

Other Brit releases I've been catching up with and enjoying since posting my own li'l list [ahem -] are the Gravenhurst record 'Fires in distant buildings' and The Brakes' 'Give blood' ... both well worth spending your record tokens on, I'd say...