Picking through all of the albums of 2005 and coming up with a Top 10 list of the best discs of the year is a daunting task for any music fan. Tossing out the bad stuff is easy, but with so many great records coming out this year, how can anybody narrow it down to just 10?
The formula that I used to compile my Top 10 list was simple: I took the 10 discs that I ended up enjoying the most in 2005, the discs that kept ending up in the CD player over and over again. Easy.
Here are the Top 10 national, and Top 5 local, CDs that blew me away this year.
1. System of a Down, "Mesmerize": It’s hard to describe System of a Down to the uninitiated. The L.A. rockers blend thrash metal with methamphetamine tempos, mix it with Armenian folk, hummable pop melodies, scathingly political lyrics, operatic vocal harmonies and a dash of gleeful humor. Challenging, jawdropping, intelligent and head-banging all at the same time, System of a Down’s "Mesmerize," a mind-blowing rock ’n’ roll concoction, is far and away the best disc of 2005.
2. Bruce Springsteen, "Devils & Dust": After his post-9/11 disc "The Rising," recorded with longtime backing group The E Street Band, Springsteen chose to scale things back to basics with "Devils & Dust," a largely acoustic record that is as close to Dylanesque folk/country as the Jersey-born singer/ songwriter has ever come. Story songs such as "Black Cowboys" and "The Hitter" are like William Faulkner set to music, and the bouncy "Maria’s Bed" is probably the happiest-sounding sad song the singer’s ever recorded.
3. Ryan Adams and The Cardinals, "Jacksonville City Nights": The boundless creativity of singer/ songwriter Ryan Adams produced three separate albums this year, and one of them, "Cold Roses," was a sprawling double CD. "Jacksonville City Nights" is the record that fans of Adams’ former alt-country band Whiskeytown have been waiting years for — a record full of twin fiddles, pedal steel and Gram Parsons-esque country-rock songwriting. This disc is by far the best of Adams’ career, even outdistancing his brilliant 2000 record, "Heartbreaker."
4. Kanye West, "Late Registration": West avoids the dreaded sophomore slump in a big way with "Late Registration," a record that keeps the former hip-hop producer way ahead of his rap contemporaries with clever rhymes, humor, pop hooks and his creative production. When it comes to whip-smart creativity, West is at the top of the heap, no matter the genre.
5. Lizz Wright, "Dreaming Wide Awake": A few years ago Norah Jones hit the music biz lottery with her mellow jazz and folk tunes, ringing up millions in sales and plenty of Grammys. Lizz Wright hasn’t sold a lot of records — yet— but this Georgia-born 25-year-old singer’s second disc is just as impressive as anything Jones has recorded. It’s a blend of R&B, gospel and folk that is intoxicating in its simple, sultry beauty.
6. Oasis, "Don’t Believe the Truth": Long given up for dead after their brilliant first two albums in the mid-’90s, Oasis made the biggest comeback of 2005 with this gem. Principal songwriter Noel Gallagher opened up songwriting duties to the rest of the band for this record, and the diversity pays off because each cut is a marvel of lasting melody and focused craftsmanship, moving Oasis back to the head of the pop class.
7. Kathleen Edwards, "Back to Me": Kathleen Edwards is Lucinda Williams for the masses. Less challenging but more listenable than Williams, Canadian Edwards is the epitome of folk rock. Musically, she evokes a little Neil Young with some early R.E.M. thrown in for good measure, and her voice, especially on the kiss-off title cut, sounds like Melissa Etheridge on steroids.
8. Nada Surf, "The Weight Is a Gift": Matthew Caws is one of those songwriters who simply can’t write a tune without a gorgeous hook. This New York powerpop trio had a somewhat corny novelty hit with "Popular" several years ago, but the band’s work since — including this brilliant record — crafts hard guitars, sing-along choruses and Beach Boys harmonies into perfect pop songs.
9. Ray Scott, "My Kind of Music": Gretchen Wilson came out of nowhere in 2004 with a down-and-dirty honkytonk attitude, and 2006 might be the year of Ray Scott, a roughhewn, bearded country singer/songwriter in the mold of Waylon Jennings and other ’70s outlaws, whose deep baritone rattles the speakers. Mainstream country music doesn’t get much better than Scott’s debut record.
10. Shurman, "Jubilee": Hardworking Americana road warriors Shurman finally make an album that lives up to their frenetic, sweatdrenched live shows. "Jubilee" is pure spirit and grit, a celebration of all that is great about rock ’n’ roll — some twang, some thunder and a whole lot of dust kicked up. It’s a record that makes you want to drive 100 miles an hour on a lonesome desert highway with the windows down and the stereo cranked.
TOP local releases 5 of 2005
1. Dave Insley, "Call Me Lonesome": Longtime Valley country crooner Insley steps out solo and writes a modern alt-country classic. Southwestern honky-tonk doesn’t get any better than this.
2. Awake and Alert, "Weight": Blending hard pop/rock with dashes of electronica to create a swirling, dreamy atmosphere, Awake and Alert (boasting the incomparable vocals of Maya Peart) deliver the best local rock record of 2005.
3. Glass Heroes, "Glass Heroes": Glass Heroes have been churning out old-school punk rock in the Valley for nearly 15 years, and their debut record on Malt Soda puts all the punk-rock poseurs like Good Charlotte to shame.
4. Eurovox, "This Is . . .": Snappy dressers Eurovox sound like British mod gods The Jam circa 1977 — power chords aplenty, great hooks and short, punchy pop songs — and lead singer/ songwriter Mat Hammond is the real deal: He was born and raised south of London. "This Is . . ." is the shizz — the best Brit-mod pop record of the year, made right here in the Valley.
5. Shelby James and The Cryin’ Shames, "Downs on 9th": Tempe singer/songwriter Shelby James has schooled himself on some of the best songwriters of all time — Hank Williams and Bruce Springsteen — and his debut disc proves that he’s done plenty of homework. Vibrant melodies and heartfelt lyrics atop a solid country-rock foundation.