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Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Ben Gook's Beloved Albums Of 2005

Neumu's Michael Goldberg writes: Day two of our marathon Neumu "Best of" lists takes us, once again, to Australia, where our man Ben Gook provides his own unique take on the year from down under. As usual, Mr. Gook has unearthed some gems that I missed; likely that you missed 'em too.

Neumu Contributing Editor Ben Gook writes: Usually I have a long list of "almost got there" albums trailing off somewhere after this top list. But 2005 was such an amazing year for music I've omitted the secondary list. More than anything, it would be so ridiculously long as to seem entirely uncritical. Everywhere I turned this year I found appealing new sounds ("new" in the sense of being recently released, not necessarily 100% groundbreaking). So this here is the best of a good bunch.

1. Jeff Hanson, Jeff Hanson (Kill Rock Stars): In one record, Jeff Hanson manages to distill the essence of Elliot Smith and improve on it exponentially. Smith never wrote a song as good as Hanson's "Losing a Year" or "Something About." This is such a heartrending record because there are jaunty pop songs peppered throughout a collection of stark paeans to the ruins of life and love; Hanson knows that the most torn days are those that fluctuate between light and shade — between feeling on top of the world and wanting to fall off the edge and never be seen again — and his record profoundly reflects that.

2. Josh Rouse, Nashville (Rykodisc): Simple pop songs are never simple to create. For evidence, see the failed hundreds and thousands of bands attempting the very thing Rouse attempts — strong songs with astutely selected trimmings. There's a softness to the sounds here that could potentially alienate those with harder tastes, but the writing is so far above others attempting the same that even the most ardent '70s hard-rock pig should see the charm of Rouse's Nashville.

3. Bellini, Small Stones (Temporary Residence Ltd.): Picking over the scraps of math-rock, Bellini pieced together this beautiful agro mess of an album. The departure of drummer Damon Che and arrival of Alexis Fleisig free the band up a little — the arrangements have shifted ever-so-slightly closer to a more linear line of flight. Nevertheless, it's the hook turns and unintelligible rambling of Giovanna Cacciola that still make Bellini one of the most exciting bands in rock.

4. Okkervil River, Black Sheep Boy (Jagjaguwar): The passion on this record is enough to make it stand out from the 2005 pack. Some of the power derives from the track flow — the gentle introduction of the title cut, say, smacking into the rock-wall of "For Real" — but it's also powerful because the arrangements underscore the depth of feeling on display in the lyrics. While I still struggle to "get" Bright Eyes, Okkervil made sense from the first listen.

5. 13 & God, 13 & God (Anticon/Alien Transistor): Oblique U.S. hip-hoppers Themselves meet oblique German guitar-'n'-beats folks Notwist for an exercise in teamwork. This could've gone to shit, but it didn't because they met somewhere (in a plane over the Atlantic?) between European IDM and US abstract hip-hop, thus emphasizing their similarities and working at those. "Ghostwork" is one of the best songs this year.

6. The Clientele, Strange Geometry (Merge): Another soft-voiced pop act, but this one's from England. It was nice to hear well-made guitar pop again this year (see some others on this list, but also 2005 albums by the Magic Numbers, Portastatic and Teenage Fanclub). The Clientele's sidling album seemed a bit bland on the first couple of runs through. But when, hours later, I was walking down the street humming "la di da da da di da da da" from the end of the subtly brilliant "My Own Face Inside the Trees," well, I knew then our relationship had changed.

7. Pivot, Make Me Love You (Sensory Projects): Sydney band in post-rock resuscitation shock! Pivot's experimental jazz heritage (they share members with ~scape and Leaf recording artists Triosk) directs them to fields beyond the fallow paddocks represented by instrumental noodling in rock clubs. Their improvisational tendencies mean the album we have is a precious crystal — the end product of a hundred scattered performances and jams and shards of apparently failed ideas.

8. Andrew Bird, Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs (Righteous Babe): This one came out early in the year and colonized my listening to the point of exhaustion; eight months ago, it would've been number one. All of which is to say its position here is not so much an indication of it being "worse" than those above it, but an indication of it being a bit neglected recently. I still marvel at the amazing production of these songs. There are more instruments here than most bands know what to do with, but somehow Mr. Bird directs each one to our ears with such perfect placement that you almost begin to take it for granted. What's more, his lyrics are a constant source of both amusement and something deeper.

9. Crystal Skulls, Blocked Numbers (Suicide Squeeze): Debut albums aren't supposed to sound this consummate, let alone records by bands less than a year old. Some of these guitar lines are pure goddamn genius. Crystal Skulls sound like seasoned professionals, in the best way — the whole record moves with ease. But for all that proficiency, there's still freshness and crispness to the songs.

10. Superpitcher, Today (Kompakt): His album of last year (Here Comes Love) was maligned, but this DJ mix saw him return as a favorite of the heroin/goth/micro/whatever-house set. Seeing him live for the first time confirmed this guy is everything I've wanted in a DJ — German, an impeccable dancer, well dressed and an incurable melancholic. This is moody dance music played to clubs where hot boys and hot girls dribble tears as they dance. There are some great '05 radio mixes of his floating around the net too. (In a sense this selection here is something of a metonym for a year in which electronic music and, more specifically, dark house [see Superpitcher's Kompakt cohort like Matias Aguayo and Lawrence, but also Isolee, Murcof, Jan Jelinek and others] proved much more interesting to me than most hip-hop.)

11. M.I.A, Arular (XL): Exoticized terrorist chic or not, Arular brought a whole range of great, exciting sounds together in one place. Doubled up with Diplo's fine Piracy Funds Terrorism, it's fair to say this record is available in two starkly different versions. I'm not sure which I like best yet, but I do have a fun time listening to try and find out.

The InsiderOne Daily Report appears on occasion.



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