THE TOP TEN ALBUMS OF 2005
- Aimee Mann -- "The Forgotten Arm"
As the songwriter whose works famously inspired filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson to make his three-hour epic "Magnolia," it seems only fitting that Aimee Mann finally wrote an operatic narrative of her own. And like "Magnolia," "The Forgotten Arm" is a moving account of desperate characters (a washed-up boxer and the junkie who loves him) searching for redemption that is occasionally frustrating but ultimately quite poignant. Mann refused to fall prey to the rock opera pitfalls of bombast and over-explanation and remained true to her graceful, understated, make-every-note-count style and proved it could be a perfectly fine vehicle for an album-length storyline.
- Paul McCartney -- "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard"
When rumors spread of a partnership between the Cute Beatle and avant-garde producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Travis, Pavement), many wondered what the hell a collaboration between the man who helped make "Kid A" and the man who wrote "Rock Raccoon" would sound like. But instead of trying to turn Sir Paul into an older Thom Yorke, Godrich did for McCartney what Rick Rubin did for Johnny Cash: pull the laurels out from under a legend, break his bad habits and bring out the essence of what made him great all those years ago. The result is the best album McCartney has made in decades, proving we still need him when he's (almost) 64.
- Fiona Apple -- "Extraordinary Machine"
For as long as it was delayed, it looked like Fiona Apple's third LP might be the best album nobody would ever hear. But when "Extraordinary Machine" came out this year, it proved the gem of an album her fans had hoped it would be. Working with a new producer, Apple no longer sounds like the angry girl she was in the 1990s, and is unafraid to show a warm sensitivity and even a sense of humor while never losing the pent-up angst that made the world prick up its ears in the first place. To listen to "Machine," it seems she might go on MTV and yell "this world is bullsh*t" all over again, but this time she'd do it with a sly grin on her face.
- Kanye West -- "Late Registration"
Speaking of shocking utterances on live television, if Kanye West wins Album of the Year at the Grammys this year, it will sadly be because of the highly political voting process and seven words he said on a telethon. But to focus on West's social commentary is to miss the point of what makes "Late Registration" a great album. Quite simply, nobody else can dream up the kind of sonic pastiches West does, let alone commit them to a record. And just when people get the idea that he's impossible to work with and that he couldn't possibly top "The College Dropout," West recruited Jon Brion, the only other producer as imaginative as West is, to make one of the better sophomore albums of the last decade. Oh, and "we want pre-nup!" is officially the most fun shout-along lyric since Michael Stipe paid tribute to "Leonard Bernstein!"
- Queens of the Stone Age -- "Lullabies to Paralyze"
Not since Alice Cooper has a band sounded so evil and yet so fun at the same time. On this, their fourth album, Josh Homme and company follow up the breakthrough success of 2003's "Songs for the Deaf" with another set chock-full of the kind of minor-key riffs, blistering beats and macabre lyrics that are bound to make even the most virtuous among us throw the devil's horns. What separates Queens of the Stone Age from bands like Linkin Park or Disturbed is an intelligent self-consciousness that lets listeners know that they know their dark play of burning witches and little sisters is just that -- play. Add to that a lineup that now includes instrumental wizard Alain Johannes and guitar warrior Troy Van Leeuwen, "Lullabies" puts the Queens among America's best bands.
- Bright Eyes -- "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning"
If you believe Conor Oberst is the second coming of Bob Dylan, then this is his "Nashville Skyline." While "Morning's" sister album, "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn," was not much more than an interesting experiment, this LP finds Oberst pulling back on the throttle and paying tribute to the country music he loves so much and writing some of the best songs of his career like "First Day of My Life" and "Another Travelin' Song." Then, just when you've fallen asleep under the southern stars, he closes the album with "Road to Joy," one of the most volatile and venomous political tirades ever heard this side of Public Enemy. He may not be Dylan, but if he keeps making albums as good as this, it's going to be hard for him to shake that mantle.
- Franz Ferdinand -- "You Could Have It So Much Better"
This is everything a successful second album should be. Just like their self-titled debut, almost every track on Franz Ferdinand's latest outing is a thoroughly danceable, riff-and-hook heavy affair that could easily be a hit single by itself. But with the tender love song "Eleanor, Put Your Boots On" in the middle of all the rocking, one gets the idea that the lads from Glasgow have something up their sleeves for their next album. With so many of the world's biggest bands falling flat or repeating themselves on their third LP lately (cough, Coldplay, cough), Franz Ferdinand seems poised to break that trend. In the meantime, put this on your stereo and rock out to your heart's content.
- Morrissey -- "Live at Earls Court"
Live albums are often dismissed as either filler to hold fans over until an artist's next studio album is completed or crass retreads meant to capitalize on an artist's recent success. But when a great performer is at the top of his game, a live album improves old material for a vibrant and sometimes adrenaline-producing listening experience that's simply impossible to create in the studio. Such is the case on "Live at Earls Court," where Morrissey enthusiastically embraces his glamorous, depressed-and-loving-it persona. Whether he's performing the best material from 2004's "You Are the Quarry," lovingly belting out old favorites from his days in the Smiths, or even covering Patti Smith, Moz has never sounded this good. It's a must-own for any fan and the quintessential introduction for anyone who isn't.
- The White Stripes -- "Get Behind Me Satan"
"You got a reaction, didn't you?" asks Jack White at the opening of this album. Yes, Jack, we did. Considering the massive success of their previous album and the fact that there's only two of them, fans would have been perfectly content if Jack and Meg made "Elephant Part II." However, "Get Behind Me Satan" features the White Stripes taking bold chances at every turn while still remaining true to the rough-hewn aesthetic that made the rock world fall in love with them in the first place. Whether or not it's their best work is up for debate, but with such out-and-out catchy songs like "Blue Orchid," "My Doorbell," "The Denial Twist," "Little Ghost" and "Take, Take, Take," "Get Behind Me Satan" does not disappoint and grows on the listener like backwoods kudzu with each repeat play.
- Sufjan Stevens- "Illinois"
If Brian Wilson had decided to make "Pet Sounds" by using only acoustic instruments and replacing the Beach Boys with a full choir, it might have sounded something like "Illinois." This second installment in his "states" series, Sufjan Stevens' 2005 release is a whimsical and majestic landscape of the Prairie State painted in lush arrangements, memorable melodies and Stevens' trademark falsetto. There isn't a hint of smug irony when Stevens sings to us about a colorful cast of characters including Abraham Lincoln, John Wayne Gacy and even Superman, nor should there be. Just as Wilson did in 1965, Stevens saw in 2005 that in order for listeners to buy into music that's this adventurous, he had to be completely sincere and convince listeners to believe in it as wholeheartedly as he did. The result is the kind of joyfully escapist experience that only could make even Honest Abe smile.