Hudson's Best of 2005

Soundtrack available upon request.

2005 will go down in my personal history as the year a tiny white object changed my life.
Yes, I’m talking about the Ipod. Jenna the Ipod, to be exact. Initially, I didn’t think it was necessary. After all, besides the compilation discs I made at least once a month, my vehicle is equipped with a tape deck and satellite radio. Just how many toys do I need?
One more, I guess. Luckily (I guess), the arrival of my Ipod coincided with a bout of pneumonia so I spent a better part of a week copying a good percentage of my new toy with tracks from my library. Ten months later, Jenna now holds over 9,800 songs.
Jenna has now completely changed the way I listen to music. Generally speaking, she’s always in shuffle mode, generally predicting just what I need (not just want) to hear at any given moment. I became reacquainted with forgotten friends in my record collection, from the one-hit wonders on the Nuggets boxes to album tracks of the Kinks, Cure, Clash, R.E.M., and many, many others.
Yet there are some pitfalls with the reemergence of the past. Try as I might, the new albums that I was still purchasing were now just a super small percentage of the tracks available at any given moment. I’d pop a new disc in once or twice and then I’d pray that Jenna would select them for me in the future. Obviously, this rarely occurred.
I fixed this problem a few weeks ago with the discovery of the “smart” playlist. Smart playlists allow one to come up with parameters for a constantly-updating selection of tunes. First I set one up with just 2005 tracks (2489 at last count) and just a few weeks ago came a new one that consisted of just songs added to the Ipod in the last 15 days.
Needless to say, I had more trouble coming up with this list than in previous years. It didn’t help that while there was a ton of great albums that came out during the year (enough that I contemplated turning this compilation into a triple disc set) nothing really stood out as an obvious number one or number two. There was no Folker or American Idiot this year.
Here are my selections for the thirty best albums of the year, plus a handful of other categories to celebrate reissues, compilations and live performances.

1. Bright Eyes, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning/Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. Is Bright Eyes leader Conor Oberst over-hyped? Probably. Is he the next Bob Dylan? Definitely not. Is he one of the best songwriters of this era? Certainly, and the simultaneous release of these two albums prove that fact. ‘Wide Awake’ presents Oberst with minimal backing (and Emmylou Harris’ harmonies on four songs); it’s easily more accessible than the electronic-tinged ‘Digital Ash’. Yet ‘Digital’ features melodies and lyrics as strong as ‘Wide Awake’, particularly in the second half of the disc.
2. The Decemberists, Picaresque. Somehow Colin Meloy has made a career out of creating songs that invoke visions of pirates singing sea chanties while cruising the high seas. Don’t let that description scare you off, though, as Meloy is a master at the catchy, sing-a-long chorus, and the rest of the band is more than adept at alternating from genre to genre. Picaresque may be their loudest record to date, but it’s also their most varied.
3. Son Volt, Okemah and the Melody of Riot. Critics may complain that since Jay Farrar is the only returning member of this acclaimed alt-country act it’s not really Son Volt. They needn’t worry, though, as it fits perfectly next to any albums from the previous lineup. Named for the Oklahoma town that spawned Woody Guthrie, this album conjures up the spirit of the legendary troubadour through a dozen songs that attack the extremists on both sides of the political spectrum.
4. The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday. Imagine if Jim Carroll had recorded a concept album of tunes written by Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen with a band consisting of members of the Clash, Guided By Voices, and Soul Asylum. Hold Steady leader Craig Finn spits out tales of New York street life with a red-hot band fighting to keep up with his venom. In other hands this concept would never work, but Finn’s rough-edged vocals are just perfect for his graffiti-inspired rantings.
5. Bruce Springsteen – Devils and Dust. Billed as a sequel to Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad, Springsteen’s latest album features tunes primarily written almost a decade earlier. Discovering that this batch of tracks perfectly fits the current political atmosphere, he called in producer Brendan O’Brien to add additional instrumentation. Just as he did on Nebraska, Springsteen goes into character for these songs that deal with the disenfranchised – hookers, boxers, migrant workers, soldiers, etc. While no tracks stand out as certified classics, the overall feel and pace of this album does resonate when taken as a whole.

6. Franz Ferdinand – You Could Have It So Much Better. As great as their debut was, nobody (and I mean nobody) ever expected a sophomore effort as strong as this album. Sure, most of the album follows the same formula as the last one, punk-ish, danceable Britpop. What makes this album stand out, however, is their attempts to branch out into other sounds, particularly Beatles-esque pop and psychedelic balladry.
7. My Morning Jacket – Z. Since their last album, 2003’s It Still Moves, MMJ have lost not only two band members but the infamous barn where they recorded all of their previous releases. Luckily, these changes have seemed to reinvigorate the band, particularly leader Jim James. Recording in a studio for the first time, the band has tempered their southern rock sounds and streamlined the bands sound. Z proves that change can be good.
8. Beck – Guero. Beck is always at his best when he’s goofy, and he’s never been goofier than on this album. Who else could get away with songs featuring random bursts of Spanish, videogame sound effects, and lyrics about dumptrucks and space machines?

9. Kanye West – Late Registration. I’m sure everybody that knows me is asking why this album rates so high? How often does a hip-hop album make a showing in a Hudson best-of? Late Registration earns it’s place for straddling that fine line between smart and commercial – an extremely tough role in this era of catch-phrase bubblegum rap that plagues the airwaves.
10. Neil Young – Prairie Wind. Like Bob Dylan a few years ago, Young responds to a health crisis with his best album in quite a few years. Recorded at a rate of a song per day (and a running order that virtually recreates these sessions), Prairie Wind takes a whimsical look at his family, friends, death, dreams and memories. Compared by many to Harvest and Harvest Moon, this album is much darker than those releases, and the sound is much more varied. Unlike those albums, however, there’s no individual song that stands out. It’s an album where the whole is definitely stronger than the parts.
11. White Stripes – Get Behind Me Satan. After the platinum success of Elephant, Jack and Meg White have gone completely bonkers. Instead of replicating the commercial pop-garage sounds of that album, Get Behind Me Satan is much more experimental and lo-fi. Many songs sound like rough mixes, and piano replaces guitar on the majority of the album. Yet it’s likely that true fans of the band will someday point to this record as one of their best.
12. Sleater-Kinney – The Woods. A cult favorite for close to ten years, Sleater-Kinney went after the brass ring with this release. Newly signed to Sub Pop, the trio recruited Flaming Lips producer David Friedmann to guide them through an album that sees the band completely doing a 180 on their trademark sound. The result is their crunchiest, riff-heavy, most experimental album of their career.
13. Bob Mould – Body of Song. For his first album in three years, the former Husker Du and Sugar lead man once again grabs his guitar on this album that virtually recreates his entire career in a dozen songs. The guitar attack of his former bands mixes with the dance-beat sounds of his last couple of releases. The results stand up proudly next to anything he has ever released.

14. Ryan Adams – Cold Roses. Always a studio rat, Adams was even busier than usual this year. Three albums in nine months, with one being a double disc set? While all three releases are strong, the first one, Cold Roses, narrowly wins out as the best of the bunch. Reminiscent at times of Heartbreaker, it’s also the first album since his Whiskeytown days where the musical backing actually sounds like a real, live, breathing band.

15. Rolling Stones – A Bigger Bang. There’s absolutely no reason anymore why a Rolling Stones album should be any good. The hunger should have left their souls decades ago (and some would argue that it has), and the last handful of albums have featured few tracks worth remembering after the corresponding tour. Yet A Bigger Bang is not a bad album. It’s certainly no Exile On Main Street, yet for the first time since the late 70’s it actually sounds like Mick, Keith, Ron, and Charlie are in the same room…with no superfluous sidemen and/or producers.
16. Coldplay – X & Y. Ok, I’m the first to admit that this album could probably top any “biggest disappointment” list. It’s simply not as good as their previous albums. Yet Coldplay’s worst album is still better than the majority of albums released in any year.
17. Eels – Blinking Lights. Easily the most somber album to make this list, Blinking Lights is a two album song cycle that mainly deals with death. Eels leader “E” Everett has dealt with more than his share of tragedy in recent years – his sister committed suicide right around the same time as his father, and another relative was on one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center. Yet there are moments of humor, most notably on “Whatever Happened to Soy Bomb?”
18. Spoon – Gimme Fiction. Although virtually unknown to the general public, there may not be a smarter, catchier band than Austin’s Spoon. Gimme Fiction is their most eclectic album yet; a cycle of songs that molds John Lennon, David Bowie, Prince and the Who in an extremely pleasurable mini-masterpiece.
19. Death Cab For Cutie – Plans. After a successful four-year run as an indie act, DCFC surprised their fans by jumping to a major label. While the results are certainly slicker, quieter, and less carefree than their earlier releases, Plans features many of the best songs of their career.

20. The Raveonettes – Pretty in Black. In a perfect world, the Raveonettes would be just as big as the White Stripes. While Jack and Meg White put a garage rock twist on the blues, this duo is happy just to create pure 60’s garage pop. This album turns down the noise a tad on a set that’s much more varied than its predecessors.
21. Bettye LaVette – I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise. The Diving Miss L has spent the past four decades toiling in the minor leagues of soul labels. Producer Joe Henry somehow discovered this fine lady, and she delivers this exceptional album of covers of female songwriters. Few vocalists could cover artists as diverse as Dolly Parton and Fiona Apple, but LaVette turns each of these songs into her own. This is what Tina Turner should have sounded.
22. Graham Parker – Songs of No Consequence. For his second album on Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, Parker reunites with his power pop buddies the Figgs for this album of vitriolic, venomous tracks that are reminiscent of his legendary releases of the late 80’s.
23. Josh Rouse – Nashville. One would expect that an album-length goodbye note to his former hometown would be pure country. It’s not. Instead, it’s an album of 70’s AM-radio folk-rock that would be pure dreck in the hands of lesser songwriters.
24. John Doe – Forever Hasn’t Happened Yet. Few members of the original punk rock explosion of the late 70’s has aged as gracefully as the former X leader. His vocals have actually improved over the years, as this album of rootsy rock proves. He’s also got a great secondary cast on this album, including Dave Alvin, Grant Lee Phillips, Exene Cervenka, Neko Case, and his sixteen year-old daughter Veronica Jane.
25. New Order – Waiting For the Sirens’ Call. Twenty years after they revolutionized alternative rock (and 25 years since the demise of Joy Division), New Order still proves to be one of England’s most vital artists. While there’s nothing as ground-breaking as their early singles, this album is surprisingly strong from start to finish.
26. The National – Alligator. Huge in Britain, this Cincinnati band has churned out three albums that have been almost completely ignored in this country. That’s too bad, as they uniquely combine alt-country, chamber pop, and punk-ish angst.
27. Amy Rigby – Little Fugitive. Since her divorce from db’s drummer Will Rigby, Amy Rigby has released a number of albums dealing with the trials and tribulations as a middle-aged single mom. Little Fugitive may be her best effort yet as she sings of ex-husbands, girlfriends of ex-husbands, a fantasy pairing with Joey Ramone, and the needy men she just can’t seem to escape. Recorded in just two days, the punchy production is a perfect complement to Rigby’s pure pop melodies and sarcastic lyrics.
28. Matt Pond P.A. – Several Arrows Later. The jangly pop record of the year. There’s not much to say beyond that.
29. The Magic Numbers – Self-titled. Although obviously inspired by the music of late 60’s Southern California, England’s newest hitmakers understand the difference between influence and mimicy. Comprising two pairs of siblings, their debut succeeds due to great songwriting, harmonies, and melodic hooks that haunt your brain for days after your first listen.
30. Paul Weller – As Is Now. The former Jam leader has had an iffy solo career over the last decade or so. As Is Now continues to dabble in a strange sort of soul/folk combination, but what sets this album apart from previous releases is an amped-up energy that hasn’t been present since the glory days of the Jam.
Best Album That Doesn’t Fit My Profile: The Go! Team – Thunder, Lightning, Strike. One doesn’t find a lot of albums in my collection whose sound is made up of what Amazon calls “sunshine funk, big beats, peculiar samples, adrenaline-pumping rock, TV theme songs and the occasional cheerleader”. Yet it’s a clever album chock full of energetic pure pop bliss.
Best 2004 Album Discovered in 2005: Arcade Fire – Funeral. Released in September 2004, this album would have certainly made last year’s top 5 if I hadn’t waited until January to buy it. It’s easily one of the most unique albums of recent memory, full of haunting almost-orchestral tunes reminiscent of a weird mix of Talking Heads, Modest Mouse, and Brian Eno.
Best Compilations: Paul Westerberg, Besterberg and Son Volt, A Retrospective: 1995-2005. Released on the same day, these sets manage a rare feat. They’re great primers for prospective fans but also include enough rare tracks for the most hardcore fanatics. One could argue a bit with the track selection on Besterberg, but any album that includes hard-to-find tracks such as “Seein’ Her” and “Stain Yer Blood” more than makes up for the exclusion of vital album tracks. Son Volt’s compilation adds on covers of Springsteen, Townes Van Zant, and Big Star. Both sets also include a couple of previously unreleased studio outtakes.
Best Box Set: Various Artists, Children of Nuggets. In between last year’s explosion of garage rock and the 60’s originals they were based on was an entire era of energetic acts that were mainly heard on college radio in the early to mid-80’s. The Smithereens, Bangles, and the Church may have moved on to commercial success, but they are by no means any better than the selections on this box by the Fleshtones, Spongetones, Rain Parade, or the Chesterfield Kings.
Best Reissues: Bruce Springsteen,Born to Run and Patti Smith, Horses. To mark the 30th anniversary of both of these groundbreaking albums, Columbia has reissued these albums with plenty of bonus material. Besides a long overdue remastering of the album, Born To Run is noteworthy for two DVD’s of studio and live material. Horses includes a recently-recorded run-through of the entire album at London’s Meltdown Festival. Both albums remain as vital today as they did when they were first released.
Best Live Albums – Green Day, Bullet In a Bible and Wilco, Kicking Television. Two of 2004’s finest albums are the basis for the best releases in a surprisingly crowded field of live recordings. Green Day’s release is an edited version of a British show that is highlighted by the majority of their American Idiot album, while Wilco’s live recording is a two disc set recorded during a three day set in their hometown of Chicago. While both albums could have welcomed a few more old chestnuts, there’s not denying that these two bands are America’s finest live acts.

Best Concert (Local): Elvis Costello, Washington Pavillion 4/15/05. It’s not often that the Washington Pavilion features an act that appeals to people that don’t normally wear suits and ties. At least this time they got it right, as the newly elected Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-r knows how to make an audience eat out of his hand. Interjecting just enough of his classic tunes to keep the non-fanatics interested, Costello blasted through almost the entire Delivery Man album.

Best Concert (Out of Town): Paul Westerberg, Kansas City 3/4/05. All I have to say is I spent time hanging out with the man on his tour bus. And I have (awful) pictures to prove it. Regardless of this little personal tidbit, this was the perfect Westerberg show. Housed in an old blues club in downtown KC, we were able to nab chairs just a couple of feet away from the side of the stage. Westerberg ran through 90 minutes of vintage Replacements and solo tunes, along with a revved-up cover of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever”.


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