Or, my top five albums of 2005 countdown. Which literate white male folk-rocker will make it to number one? Click below to find out!
The usual caveats apply: these are the five best things I bought, and I haven’t heard everything this year. I reserve the right to insert the new Silver Jews record in at 2.5 or something when I pick it up next week.
5. Smog, A River Ain’t Too Much to Love. Yeah, I wrote about this one already—good, and it keeps getting better.
4. The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema. The energy I expend resisting the urge to dance—a bit of self-control that you are truly thankful for, even if you don’t know it—when the long delay of “Stacked Crooked” gets to the gratification of the “Do not do not deny me” part at the end could be used to power a small college town. Maybe you don’t like insanely catchy pop. Maybe we won’t be friends. Video and MP3 downloads here.
3. The Mountain Goats, The Sunset Tree. I wrote this one up already, here. My Mountain Goats enthusiasm has not abated a whit, nosiree, and I’ll fight any man who says different. That said, while I still dig Sunset Tree, on repeated listens I’ve found it to be a slightly less consistent album than I’d first believed. However, it may simply be that the record is caught in a tragic, not to say vicious, cycle, since it’s also by far the album I’ve given the most spins this year, and really, it has held together admirably in the face of the whipsaw fluctuations of my evaluation. “Up the Wolves” is still one of the strongest songs in the tMG catalog, and I’ve become fascinated with the shadow and menace of “Magpie,” a tune that didn’t quite register the first thousand times I heard it, but which has started to freak me out a little bit, no kidding. Through the power of avian-themed free association, it’s gotten fused in my noggin with the most unnerving comic book moment I’ve ever read—in Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, where Judith beheaded and then turned into a crow to hasten the apocalypse. (Serendipitously, Mike Sterling wrote this scene up for Halloween as one of his top ten terrifying Swamp Thing moments, saving me the trouble of scanning it in, though I think there are more disturbing panels than the one he included.) And I think it’s no accident that I’ve begun gravitating to some of the more cryptic songs, because it’s a few of the more directly autobiographical tunes that are leaving me a bit cold—“Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod,” “Lion’s Mane,” and “Broom People,” especially. These songs don’t quite go past narrative to mystery for me, at least right now. Still in love with “Pale Green Things,” though, and check back with me in a month for an explanation of why “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod” is the greatest song ever recorded and “Magpie” is not worth scraping off the bottom of your shoe.
I still think this albums sounds great, too, and to those Mountain Goats fans who decry anything not recorded on a boombox, I ask you: what is it about your life that’s made you so obsessed with the concept of “purity”? Do you, perhaps, feel somehow “corrupt,” and feel compelled to restore your own sense of coherence and nobility by fetishizing wheel grind and tape hiss? Look, I’m just trying to say that maybe you need some counseling. That’s all.
2. The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday. The band that gave this post its title! “Tramps like us, and we like tramps,” sings Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, in the most blatantly Springsteenly reference on an album that blows the beautiful losers a goodbye kiss in a manner reminiscent of The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle and Born to Run. Finn and company have produced the most instantly satisfying listening experience of the year, a record that grabs you and hold you in a vise-like grip until, once you’ve gotten over the idea that maybe all these classic rock moves are a little silly, you realize that the whole vise thing is just for show, and you don’t want to go anywhere anyway. I’ve been describing this album to friends as “sleazy Christ-haunted post-Catholic riff-rock” but that’s not quite right. It’s not “Christ-haunted” but “Christ-hunted.” Jesus here isn’t a spectral presence hovering near the ceiling with a warm smile and open arms; he’s more like a spittle-flecked, grizzled, bandolier-bedecked bounty hunter in dogged pursuit of a wayward spouse, willing to bust up into the druggiest bars of Minneapolis and break a few bones before he drags his woman out by the hair and locks her in a confessional for a few hours. Everyone’s a little scared of Him, and for good reason: they’ve developed a taste for blood, and if He casts out their demons, then what excuse will they have to keep guzzling it down? Finn is one of the few songwriters—John Darnielle is the other one—who can consistently walk the thin line between clever, funny lyrics on one side and sympathetic, moving character studies on the other: you get the sense that everyone’s having a lot of fun in the sordid Midwestern demimonde of Finn’s imagination (or autobiography?) but you want to be sure to catch a ride home before the needles come out. You can and should get an mp3 of “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” here.
A Note on Omissions. Now, speaking of Bruce, you’ve probably noticed his absence from this list, despite his releasing Devils and Dust this year. But people, please: you really think I’m going to sully Bruce by ranking him, assigning him a number and a position with all the mere mortals on this list? Come now. Bruce is above such petty matters.
1. Sufjan Stevens, Illinois. I seem to be writing a lot about Stevens this year—here and here, for instance. Well, for good reason. This album is a lot of things—among them, it’s the perfect soundtrack for reading Chris Ware’s Chicago-set ode to the comforts of quiet desperation, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. Illinois and Jimmy Corrigan are pretty similar, actually: both are sprawling—some might say self-indulgent—works concerned with individuals making sense of their personal alienation by piecing fragments of history that seem mystically charged somehow, talismanic: names, places, and events that resonate with meanings, never fully articulated, to the narrators/protagonists that at some times coincide with the official textbook versions of their meanings and at other times strike off at right angles or snake away into an impenetrable thicket of autobiographical significance. And I know I’ve quoted Walker Percy here before on how American novels tend to be about everything, but it’s worth bringing up again—these are both works that strive to stuff significance into every dark corner, to scrawl a message on every flat surface, even if it’s a message that always gets read too late, or by the wrong person, or backwards. Or never gets read at all. Illinois never misses a chance to cram in some meaning—the title of track 2, a two-minute transitional piece, is “The Black Hawk War, or, How to Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning, or, We Apologize for the Inconvenience but You’re Going to Have to Leave Now, or, ‘I have fought the Big Knives and will continue to fight them until they are off our lands!’” JC and Illinois—and you could throw PT Anderson’s Magnolia in here too—are baroque works that explore the limits of excess, that test the power of a single artist’s vision—or perhaps simply the power of sheer ambition—to fuse together a jillion disparate strands into something coherent and beautiful.
If I’ve got a complaint about this album, or Stevens’ work in general, it’s that it always seems to flirt with the precious. Stevens sings in what a certain banjo-playing friend of mine has described as the “I-should-have-gone-to-bed-45-minutes-ago” style: all bleary-eyed vulnerability, tentative questioning. That delivery only works if the world of the album is consistent and convincing enough that it becomes immersive, if you believe the singer coincides exactly with the persona of the song, rather than simply performing the role of sensitive emo-dude. I do think Illinois achieves that kind of consistency, but only if you listen to large chunks of it at a time, or all of it at once; some of the songs, taken out of the context, can seem a bit cloying, but taken as part of the whole package—with the epic-length song titles, panoramic fold out insert tour through the history of Illinois—they work just fine.
Your complaints are, as always, welcome.