Tom’s Top 5’s: Albums of 2005

As I’ve been revisiting albums for this project, I’ve become happily reacquainted with a lot of music I thought I knew. For the 2005 list, though, Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois is the big comeback story. I’ve known it and liked it for years – it actually had been in rotation in the CD player at a fair trade store where I volunteered regularly a couple years ago, so there was a time there when I heard it on a weekly basis. That said, I hadn’t initially thought of it as Top 5 material. But as I re-listened to it the last couple of days, I found myself hearing it with new ears, and being blown away. That it ranks at #4 should not be taken as a sign of its inferiority, but a sign of how great the three albums above it are.

(Also, a quick shout-out to Daft Punk’s Human After All, which gets some serious flack but which I may be alone in all the world in liking every bit as much as Homework.)

5. ELKO (Railroad Earth)

Elko

I don’t typically include live albums in my Top 5’s, but Elko isn’t like most live albums. For one, Railroad Earth are a jam band – and having seen them twice, I can tell you that their studio records aren’t a patch on their live show. For another, almost half of these songs hadn’t appeared on one of the band’s studio platters. In truth, Elko is Railroad Earth’s definitive recorded statement thus far, two glorious hours of the idiosyncratic Celtic-folk-bluegrass-rock-jazz alchemy that makes Railroad Earth one of the best jam bands since the Dead.

4. ILLINOIS (Sufjan Stevens)

Illinoise

The only complaint I have to level against Sufjan Stevens is that sometimes his musical ideas, as brilliant as they are, don’t warrant being repeated for seven whole minutes. That (relatively minor) gripe dispensed with, I can proceed to affirm Illinois as 74 minutes of all-but-unalloyed indie art-pop bliss. Sometimes it surges forward on waves of lush strings and angelic choirs; sometimes it trips lightly from bossa nova piano to Salvation Army brass; sometimes it sits itself down with a banjo, an acoustic guitar, or a piano. But it’s never less than remarkable.

3. OH YOU’RE SO SILENT JENS (Jens Lekman)

Oh You're So SIlent Jens

Like live albums, I don’t typically include compilations either. But unlike Belle & Sebastian’s Push Barman to Open Old Wounds, where many B&S fans had already long since snapped up the EPs therein compiled (all of which was 4-8 years old already – otherwise it too would’ve made the list, near the top), Oh You’re So Silent Jens was the first time most listeners had heard most of this (more recent, i.e., 2003-2004) material. And as good as his debut LP may have been, Oh You’re So Silent Jens is even better. “Black Cab” even samples Belle & Sebastian, AND the Left Banke – which tells you all you need to know about Mr. Lekman’s music, I think.

2. SONGS FOR SILVERMAN (Ben Folds)

Songs for Silverman

As the song “Gracie” (written for Ben’s daughter) feels like a companion piece to “Still Fighting It” (written for Ben’s son), so Songs For Silverman feels like a companion piece to Rockin’ the Suburbs. Whereas that album consisted largely of a series of character-sketches, this one tends to be a little more personal. Which is a little ironic, seeing as how it has an overall larger-scale, wider-screen feel to it. Between the two of them, though, these records are the fullest flowering of Ben Folds’ mature talent.

1. CHAOS & CREATION IN THE BACKYARD (Paul McCartney)

Chaos & Creation in the Backyard

Chaos & Creation is the album you’d always hoped Paul would make: melodic (how could it not be?), mature, consistent, assured. As did George Martin before him, producer Nigel Godrich pushes Paul creatively, carefully cutting and polishing these small- and mid-scale gems, adorning them with Armenian woodwinds and string quartets and glockenspiels, until they positively glitter. C&C contains few all-time highlights to compare with the likes of “Calico Skies” or “Tug of War.” But it also contains exactly zero filler: no half-baked ideas, no ill-advised experiments. Every note, every instrument, every line is deliberate, considered, emotionally invested.

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