Here is the final installment to the Music section’s pick for the “Best of 2005”. Read the selections made by just a few of our music reviewers for the best artist and add your own choices.
To call Sufjan Stevens ambitious would be tantamount to calling The Grateful Dead prolific; it’s a gross understatement. Stevens wants to write an album honoring each of the 50 states, a colossal and downright absurd goal that I can’t wait to watch him tackle. He already has 2 states taken care of, with this year’s Illinois following up 2003’s Michigan. As good as Michigan is, Illinois is that much better.
Stevens toured heavily in support of the album, including 5 nights at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom. He chose different themes for each show, including “Pirate Night” and “Homecoming”. While Sufjan’s ideas are met with curious facial expressions from time to time, there is no denying his ear for beautiful melodies wrapped in chamber folk nostalgia. The great thing about Sufjan Stevens is that he’s not trying to be “retro”. There is no put on. If you only hear one song from Sufjan’s album, make it “Chicago”.
2. Robert Burke
I have to give Sufjan Stevens best artist props not only for crafting the year’s best album in Illinois, but for his vision and mysterious public persona. Is he a Christian, a freak, a genius? Who knows, but his persona only adds to the experience.
Harry Manx is my pop musical performer of the year for his ability to seamlessly meld two seemingly diametrically opposed genres of music: Mississippi Delta Blues and Indian Sitar ragas. “The way I see it, Blues is like the earth and Indian music is like the heavens. What I do is find the balance between the two.”
Utilizing a unique marriage of guitar and sitar called a Mohan Veena that was built by his teacher in India (where he studied and lived for twelve years), Harry Manx doesn’t just balance the two genres but blends them together. Once you hear the strains of a sitar echo through a twelve bar blues song, you’ll wonder why no one’s done it before him.
But it takes a particular type of person to accomplish this, and the more you listen to Harry Manx the more you begin to realize how singular an accomplishment this really is. The ability to write interfaith spiritual music without the result being new age candyfloss, or pseudo Native American seems beyond most contemporary musicians.
Don’t let the S word scare you away from this man’s work. Yes that element is there, but it’s there in the best blues music too. Let’s not confuse spiritual with religious here, rather think of it as music coming from a place deep inside of the performer. You put a Harry Manx disc in your player you’ll hear some of the best soulful blues you’ve ever heard. You can read reviews of two of Harry’s albums at blogcritics.org: West Eats Meet and Mantras For Madmen
At the time of writing, I’ve still to hear 29, being the third album released by Ryan Adams this year. Those first two, though, Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights, both recorded with The Cardinals, are the kindsa records most folks toil for a lifetime tryin to write, and here they are, two of the fuckers within a sigh’s breadth of one another. Cold Roses in particular is nothing short of a masterpiece, and “Sweet Illusions” is one of the most beautiful songs ever written by anybody anywhere. The fella makes me puke my ribs in half wi’ jealousy, truth be known.
5. Al Barger
Right here is a woman who knows how to write a damned song. There are real melodies under all the Extraordinary Machine songs. They are some well crafted pieces of sophisticated swinging piano pop music with strong hooks that develop into honest to God legitimate tunes.
Praise be to Fiona, particularly as an author of lyrics. In contrast to Tori Amos among others, these Fiona words actually say something. Even on paper these words amount to something. “Get Him Back” paints a particularly sharp picture with lots of shades of meaning. Bottom line: Fiona Apple has emerged as a much better artistically disciplined Tori Amos.
Overall, in the full pop production she released and the slightly less produced scrapped version that’s circulating as a bootleg on p2p, Fiona Apple makes a really sharp and memorable artistic statement. It works as catchy pop music, plus it has some real soul, and a real strong and nuanced uniquely personal flavor. No one else but Fiona could have written these songs.
It’s not like it’s the first time an artist released three albums in one year…that kind of behavior was standard industry practice through the 1960s, and the mark of many an artist lacking in the quality control department ever since (see: Prince, Artist Formerly Known As). But to release three albums in one year (one of them a double), and for at least two of them to be career high points? That’s impressive. Throw in the fact that Ryan Adams is coming off the lowest ebb of his career to date – 2003’s Rock N Roll was underwhelming, to say the least – and Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights start to look downright amazing. There was a time, not so long ago, when I would have been embarrassed to call myself a Ryan Adams fan. After these two albums, though, consider me back on the bandwagon. Here’s hoping this month’s 29 keeps up the winning streak…dude deserves it.
7. Mark Saleski
Idealism spread around in the musical world isn’t as popular as it once was. Dar Williams manages to make it sound effortless. With her gorgeous voice and endless supply of melodies, this year’s My Better Self set a new standard for hopeful and forward-looking pop music. “Echoes” just might be one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.
8. Jon Sobel
(Jon made all of his choices from Indie releases as it is his “stomping ground” on Blogcritics)
Ray Wylie Hubbard
Townes Van Zandt is gone and now we’ve lost Johnny Cash, but we still have Ray Wylie, as deeply soulful as ever.
I really wanted to avoid picking the same artist for more then one category, but I just couldn’t refuse Eric Himan. I’ve spent most of the year listening to indi-artists and under the radar type stuff. I have enjoyed many artists who are doing things that are ground breaking and much more original than the mainstream, but Himan stands out way above the rest.
He released two albums this year: Dark Horse and One Night Stands, a live album. When he is not being passionate and poetic, he is bringing a light humor to music. The delivery is honest, and exceptional. I predict Eric Himan is on the verge of breaking out very soon.
I don’t really have much to say about Kanye aside from that he rocked Live 8 and caused all kinds of amusing political ruckus by making comments about George W. I love ruckus.
11. Temple Stark
Gwen Stefani, Missy Elliott, Mariah Carey
Damn. I was trying soooo hard to be a man and pick ONE for each category. But roll these three lovelies together in mind, body and soul and you have the perfect woman. Two released landmark albums in 2005 – The Cookbook and The Emancipation of Mimi and Love. Angel. Music. Baby. – another classic – was released in Nov. 2004.
Stefani is punked out and funny. Missy is “All UP in your Grill” funny, with a message and she lost a lot of weight this year (always a good thing, as long as it’s not too much). Mariah? I’m just glad for her, because she’s better than G-Litter and she seems to have outgrown – mostly – her bitchy/catty/diva side. They all three share one facet that is best mixed with the other qualities they own – grace.
So, when are they going to record together?
So, there they are, the choice for the best in music for 2005. Thank you to the reviewers who agreed to play with us and fill out these ballots and to everyone else who has contributed via the comments.