Matt Whelihan is a staff reviewer here at Punknews.org -ed
I've never been good at separating one year's musical output from another by using sweeping generalizations or catchy labels. I'm never too sure one genre has outdone another, a trend or concept is readily apparent, or a certain geographical location has created a surprising amount of talented exports. In fact, I don't think I will ever find myself saying, "The year of‚?¶" in a year-end list. Instead I can only view the part of each year's musical landscape that I myself have traversed, and in 2005 their are two things that rise up to greet me when I look back at my path.
The first is the number of great shows I saw, and the way they reinvigorated my faith in the power of live performance. Whether it was Bear Vs. Shark (RIP) completely dominating a tiny stage in a bar, The Constantines bringing a hushed and awed state over an audience, or Latterman getting a throng of sweaty kids to dance and sing in a humid basement, I was inspired. It was during those moments that all the jaded cynicism that often comes with the title of "music critic" merely faded, leaving only a "music fan" with a sense of fulfillment. The show that topped 2005 for me however, was Kid Dynamite's reunion at CBGBs. Whether it was Dr. Dan stage diving during Grey Area's set or Jay and Ernie singing "Birthday," it was a completely bullshit free affair that spoke volumes for what the sheer love of music, and punk rock, can accomplish.
The second thing I find notable when I look back over my lists is that for every punk/hardcore/post-punk/etc. album I loved in 2005, there is also a more folk based record right there playing as its softer counterpart. At first I thought this was a strange dichotomy, but then I realized that the same sincerity and passion that drew me to punk rock was always present in folk music. Thomas Barnett of Strike Anywhere echoed this sentiment in an interview I did with him in 2005. He said, "At its best, punk is modern-day folk music- by that I mean modernized folk music. Punk comes out of the idea that our culture has been taken away from us, so we have to create something new. When you look at it that way, it fits into a long tradition of political folk music."
So maybe I could try and label 2005 "The year of the live show," or "The year of underground folk," but those stamps may hold no credence for anyone but myself. Instead I'll say that 2005, like many other years, kept me excited about music. Whether it was discovering new bands or seeing some old favorites drop a solid new release, I found that music still holds the same power over me that has it for years, a power I hope does not soon recede. Top 20 Albums
#20. Bucket Full Of Teeth - IV
February 1 on Level Plane Records
Just think, without the interesting production and creative electronic manipulation, IV might have just been another "generic power violence" album. Instead it is like a 16-minute movement where blast beats, growls, and chugging riffs intersect with ambiance, feedback swells, and glitchy breaks, creating an intense and original sound.
#19. David Dondero ‚?? South of the South
October 25 on Team Love Records
Often referred to as "the guy that Connor Oberst ripped off," David Dondero returns with his first album for Connor Oberst's record label and his best since Spider West Myshkin and a City Bus. South of the South shifts between folk-punk, bouncy country, and playful acoustic numbers, but is all held together by Dondero's keen storytelling ability that shifts from waxing poetic about loss and death to light hearted word play.
#18. Rogue Wave ‚?? Descended Like Vultures
October 25 on Sub Pop Records
Rogue Wave's first album was recorded almost entirely by front man Zach Rogue, thus creating a lot of hype that the group's second album would be much more band oriented. Well it is, and it isn't. The full band songs are louder and more rocking indie-pop numbers, but Rogue still sets aside part of the album for acoustic songs that are just as intimate as the band's debut.
#17. Sufjan Stevens ‚?? Illinois
July 5 on Asthmatic Kitty Records
Holy ambitious undertakings, Batman! On Illinois Sufjan Stevens returns with the second installment of his elaborate fifty states project, and creates a sprawling masterpiece that moves back and forth between hushed folk balladry and elaborate chamber pop orchestrations. Hell, if nothing else Stevens deserves props for penning a tune about serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr. that is absolutely beautiful.
#16. Western Addiction ‚?? Cognicide
November 1 on Fat Wreck Chords
Western Addiction recall old school hardcore thanks to their rough guitar tones, deep throated shouts, and peppy drumming, yet they still maintain a modern tone through their lyrical stabs at contemporary issues and relatively clean production. The songs on Cognicide sound familiar, but are still urgent, as if punk rock has a canon of traditional tunes that can be re-used as new battle cries when times are tough.
#15. Grabass Charlestons ‚?? Ask Mark Twain
August 23 on No Idea Records
Sure, eating at an expensive restaurant where the food is garnished in lavish sauces and an array of spices is a nice treat, but sometimes you just want something basic you can sink your teeth into, and the same can be said for music. Ask Mark Twain is a stripped down punk album that is as fuzzy and gruff as it is catchy and jangly. The Grabass Charlestons stomp through thirteen songs with intelligence, energy, and humor without cluttering them up with gimmicks or hiding them behind production.
#14. The Narrator ‚?? Such Triumph
June 28 on Flameshovel Records
There were a lot of post-punk albums released this year that I found interesting, yet not really worthy of repeated listens. What made The Narrator an exception was that while they drew on post-punk predecessors like Fugazi and Jawbox, they also referenced other stalwarts of the 90s indie scene like Pavement and Modest Mouse. It was this extra nudge in the melody and quirk departments that makes Such Triumph much more developed and palatable, leaving space between the buzzsaw guitars and shouted vocals for killer choruses and Malkmus like melodies.
#13. The Hold Steady ‚?? Separation Sunday
May 3 on French Kiss Records
A little 70s rock, a little bar rock, and one big tale of a girl who is trying to find religious salvation while fighting drug addiction, doesn't exactly sound like a formula for success, yet it is exactly what makes Separation Sunday such an engrossing listen. Craig Finn's psuedo-spoken word vocal style coupled with his literary approach to lyrics make him one of the most compelling front men in indie, while the band's big riffs and twinkling pianos don't seem ironic, but surprisingly fresh.
#12. Okkervil River ‚?? Black Sheep Boy
April 5 on Jagjaguwar Records
It is interesting that an album about alienation can be so readily accessible. From the first listen Okkervil River's often-lush indie-folk sound is inviting even at its most disheartening moments. Front-man Will Sheff might be singing about "going fucking insane" or how he wants to spill some blood, but his voice is so convincing and his melodies so developed that there is no hint of melodrama to turn the listener away. Plus Sheff is not spending all his time playing the pessimist, songs like "Black" and "The Latest Toughs" almost recall sunny 60s folk-pop thanks to their bouncy organ riffs and driving rhythms.
#11. Against Me! ‚?? Searching For a Former Clarity
September 6 on Fat Wreck Chords
A few months ago, Searching for a Former Clarity may have been in my biggest disappointments list. On first listen much of the former passion and punk drive seemed missing, leaving me unmoved and thinking Against Me! had changed for the worse. Then I realized just how much Against Me! had developed between Reinventing Axl Rose and As the Eternal Cowboy, and so I decided to give Searching a chance at multiple spins. I soon realized that Against Me! had once again upped the ante on their song writing and that the passion I had been searching for was still present, it was now just packaged within a more diversified sound, one that knew that it was ok to slow down and drop the amps from ten to six every now and then.
#10. Oxford Collapse ‚?? A Good Ground
June 7 on Kanine Records
Another artsy Brooklyn band you ask? Yes, another artsy Brooklyn band, only Oxford Collapse aren't self conscious in their delivery or consumed by fashion and posturing. By mixing the lo-fi guitars of 90s indie-pop with some of the boyish charm of The Promise Ring's early material, and the art punk of contemporaries like Les Savy Fav, Oxford Collapse have cranked out an album that is fun, bouncy, and well written. Sometimes you can just tell that a band is having a good time, and if Oxford Collapse aren't, they are doing a damn good job of faking it.
#9. Latterman ‚?? No Matter Where We Go..!
August 9 on Deep Elm Records
Latterman may have named their first album Turn Up The Punk, We'll Be Singing, but after hearing their sophomore release, you will be the one cranking the volume knob on your stereo and shouting along. A blend of fast and bright pop-punk music with shouted vocals and a strong DIY attitude, No Matter Where We Go..! is exuberant, positive, and demanding of listener participation.
#8. Neon Blonde ‚?? Chandeliers in the Savannah
September 13 on Dim Mak Records
So maybe the Blood Brothers didn't put out an album this year, but the members sure did stay busy. For Johnny Whitney and Mark Gajadhar that meant creating an album that was noisy, hip and sometimes downright bizarre. Yes, there were danceable beats and hummable melodies, but for the most part the duo were more interested in making awkward the new pop. Screams and instruments that seemed to be crashing or out of key suddenly became tools for memorable and excellent songs. The album takes some time to decipher, but once the code is cracked you will become privy to an innovative record.
#7. Fingers Cut Megamachine ‚?? Fingers Cut Megamachine
March 22 on Thick Records
To go from an angst-fueled snotty pop-punker to an acoustic based songwriter who seems like he was raised on a healthy diet of all things Americana in a mere five years is quite an accomplishment. On Fingers Cut's debut full length Devon Williams shows that he is comfortable penning songs full of folksy chord progressions and country twang while delivering them in an honest manner. There are no pretensions here, and while Williams voice may not be perfect, its sincerity and character is the type of thing that will make other artists envious.
#6. The Mountain Goats ‚?? The Sunset Tree
April 26 on 4AD Records
Just how many stories does John Darnielle have? He has already released over 10 albums and collections, yet the quality has never wavered. This year Darnielle tapped into his own life and released an album that detailed his drunken stepfather. Whether he's speaking of battles with his stepfather, or turning up his stereo to drown out the arguments of his parents he does it with sincerity and grace, never allowing sentimentality to turn him into a whiny mess or sad sack. Also, surprisingly, most of his songs are upbeat gems that will bore their way into your memory despite their subject matter. Darnielle has always been a gifted story teller, one who places you squarely into his narratives, and The Sunset Tree is no different.
#5. Transistor Transistor ‚?? Erase All Names and Likeness
March 1 on Level Plane Records
Erase All Names and Likeness sounds like 90% of it was recorded in the red. The guitars are massive and bordering on feedback, the vocals begin to distort thanks to their high volumes, and the drums and bass seem like they are not just keeping time, but trying to break through the speakers. But what keeps Erase All Names from being just another raw and frenzied hardcore album (and on my list) is that there is also an element of filthy, drunken rock pulsing through the songs. For every screamy breakdown or vicious chorus there is a fuzzy garage riff or skuzzy rock vibe, to keep the songs interesting and original.
#4. Despistado ‚?? The People of and Their Verses
April 5 on Jade Tree Records
The first (and sadly last) album from Despistado was vigorous and urgent, a combination of relentless energy and a knack for rhythm. The band brought together the raw production, shouted vocals, and nearly clean guitars of early At the Drive In with often-danceable beats that recalled the post-punk of Q and Not U. Then they topped it all off with lyrics that were smart and nearly poetic in their coverage of socio-political topics, producing lines like, "They hold us down then tell us that it's gravity/ they use words like "natural" naturally." In the end, the album left you wanting to shake your fist just as hard as your hips while listening, and merely wanting to shake you head at the break up once the last song had stopped.
#3. The Constantines ‚?? Tournament of Hearts
October 11 on Sub Pop Records
"It's about curling," Constantines front man Bry Webb said in reference to the band's third album earlier this year. I think Webb was either simply speaking of the title (the name of the women's curling championships in Canada), or just very modest. Tournament of Hearts is an album that covers the full spectrum of working class life and struggles, and feels that way thanks to Webb's rough vocals and the Crazy Horse meets Fugazi sound of the band. Just think of what classic rock could have done with a taste of post-punk and you should get the idea. What makes Tournament stand out from previous efforts however, is that the band is now willing to keep things relaxed for extended periods of time, showing that restraint can not only build tension, but also detail another facet of blue collar life.
#2. Bear Vs. Shark ‚?? Terrorhawk
June 14 on Equal Vision Records
With the word "emo" able to be taken as a very serious insult these days, labeling music "emotional" seems like a dangerous prospect, yet when it comes to the post-hardcore of Bear Vs. Shark, it is a compliment that fits perfectly. On the quintet's sophomore release every track seems to be covered in blood, sweat, and tears, creating moments of catharsis through both sonic assaults and well orchestrated restraint. While many bands struggle to master a single auditory identity Bear Vs. Shark is able to handle propulsive guitar heavy shout fests as well as slower keyboard based material, and jittery grooves, often all within the same song. Terrorhawk is a refreshing display of passion that is honest, diverse, and free of the hyperbole that makes other "emotional" acts just plain embarrassing. It is truly a shame that Bear Vs. Shark broke up this year, as Terrorhawk shows an act that seems to have limitless possibilities.
#1. Paint It Black ‚?? Paradise
March 8 on Jade Tree Records
Nuanced hardcore punk might sound like an oxymoron, but Paint It Black have made it a reality. Working within a genre whose boundaries can seem stifling to those looking to dabble in innovation, Dan Yemin and company produced an album that will keep the pits moving and punks turning to their headphones to catch all the details. It's not often that a record can be so rooted in aggression, yet so well thought out. Each song is an explosion of fury that has a little surprise packed behind its punch. From ringing open chords, to sudden dynamic shifts and noise guitar breaks, Paradise is well worth repeat listens.
#5. Crime In Stereo ‚?? The Contract
July 12 on Blackout Records
The Contract is a simple slab of near perfect melodic hardcore. Musically the band may not be treading any new ground, but it doesn't seem to matter as these songs will have you pounding your foot and singing along.
#4. The Loved Ones ‚?? The Loved Ones
February 22 on Jade Tree Records
The Loved Ones debut is a nearly a template for pop-punk done right. Catchy hooks, singalong choruses, and intelligent lyrics make for a lively listen, while bits of rock and a gruff vocal delivery add a complimentary edge.
#3. Calexico / Iron & Wine ‚?? In the Reins
September 13 on Overcoat Records
In the Reins is an elaborate and eloquent collection of songs. Sam Beam's signature whispery vocals and soft strum are present, but Calexico backs it up with everything from whining trumpets, to Spanish tinged guitars, amazing slide work, complex rhythms, and even an operatic break. Somehow the songs are able to feel like they could be performed in either an orchestra hall or around a campfire on a summer night.
#2. Head Wound City ‚?? Head Wound City
November 8 on Three-One-G Records
Take the great guitar work of Cody Votolato and Nick Zinner, mix it with the impeccable rhythm of The Locust and then add Jordan Billie's most ferocious vocals to date and you get Head Wound City. Written and recorded in only a week, the band's debut EP is a blistering hardcore record full of grind beats, screeching feedback, noise riffs, and shrieking vocals.
#1. Fingers Cut Megamachine ‚?? Pipe Dreams
October 11 on Thick Records
A much more stripped down effort then the band's debut full length, Pipe Dreams is hushed, serene and downright beautiful. Devon Williams somehow improves on each record he releases, and the intimate and poetically charged Pipe Dreams is no exception.
Weezer ‚?? Make Believe
May 10 on Geffen
I don't know why I keep hoping ‚?? The Green Album and Maladroit should have been deterrent enough ‚?? but I still think Weezer have another great album in them. Unfortunately, Make Believe is not that album. Instead it is a boring formulaic pop-rock record.
Alkaline Trio - Crimson
May 24 Vagrant
Yes, it was better than Good Mourning, and yes, songs like "Mercy Me" and "Death Bed" are perfect pop songs from skilled songwriters, but Crimson still can't hold a flame to Alkaline Trio's earlier material. Skiba's passion seems all but gone, and the once alcoholic tales of heartbreak, lose, and depression have been replaced with lyrics that seem like they written by a fourteen year old goth kid who watched one too many B horror movies.
Death Cab for Cutie - Plans
August 30 on Atlantic Records
Death Cab for Cutie have always been soft, but on Plans they have shifted from indie-pop to easy listening. There are a couple songs that carry the bounce and drive of previous albums, but the majority of tracks just feel like halfhearted tunes made for an adult contemporary audience.
Propagandhi - Potemkin City Limits
October 18 on G7 Welcoming Committee (Can) / Fat Wreck Chords (US)
No matter how many times I listen to this album, it still just doesn't sit right. Each song seems to be at least a minute too long, and while the lyrics are nothing short of amazing, the music feels as if it was merely written around the words, forcing additional parts so the band have enough time to finish a thought.
In the next twelve months I am looking forward to releases from Dillinger Four, The Lawrence Arms, Pretty Girls Make Graves, Mogwai, The Blood Brothers, Cursive, Head Automatica, Strike Anywhere, The Bouncing Souls, Saves the Day (hope this isn't a Weezer), Death From Above 1979, The Loved Ones, and Rocky Votolato.