At the end/beginning of each year I like to make a top 10 list for the albums I’ve listened to with a purposeful focus.  With the New Year upon us that time is now.  Generally, like last year, I simply make a typed-out ordered list of titles.  This year my compulsiveness has gotten the best of me.  I decided a detailed breakdown of each album is more sufficient in explaining my reasoning.  So here goes, opening with number 10:

image 10: Plans
Death Cab for Cutie
Release: Aug 30, 2005

For those who think I’m an “indie-snob”, count ‘em. There’s two major label releases on the list, and if you reckon The Decemberists recent signing with Capitol, there’s practically three.

As many of you know Death Cab’ recently signed with Atlantic.  You can’t blame them; they’ve been poking around since ’97, releasing albums on Barsuk since ’99, and generally outselling every independent band since 2000.  Of course, by signing to a major, they put-off many of the same people that helped them get to this point but I digress.  There’s plenty to like about Plans.  It’s a step in the same direction as 2003’s Transatlanticism, though a bit more refined and focused.  Chris Walla still produced the thing for Christ’s sake.  So what if they’ve made numerous appearances on The OC, Postal Service (Ben Gibbards “side” project) has far outshined most major label junk, and this new album guarantees numerous TRL interviews.  Big deal, take the album for what it is, damn good.

image 9: Black Sheep Boy
Okkervil River
Release: Apr 5, 2005

Black Sheep Boy is like passion, in the deepest throws.  They’ve been poking around for a couple years now but Okkervil River finally gets to the heart of the matter with their latest.  Here’s some background.  The band formed in ’98 (current line-up).  They’re best categorized as an alt-country/indie-folk hodgepodge.  And they’re big in Texas (Austin to be exact).

Black Sheep Boy mixes slide-guitar, vibes, organ, and horns in an ideal spacious balance.  It goes to great lengths to play with intricate rhythms and personal melodies.  Will Sheff, vocals/guitars, croons in linear stories disallowing a likely foundation of verse-chorus-verse songwriting.  His voice isn’t faultless, but it doesn’t need to be to get the point across.  Hell, if it were great, it would probably be too distracting.  However, with songs this concise and confident, there’s hardly room to be so.  If Sufjan Stevens is too quiet, Colin Meloy (The Decemberists) is too arrogant, and Kevin Barnes (Of Montreal) is too silly, Sheff might be more to your liking.

image 8: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
Release: Sep 13, 2005
Self Released

This is getting easier and easier.  Check out my July 7th review of CYHSY’s self titled debut for an all access pass to DIY exclusivity.

Just to add a crumb.  On my daily return from work I heard an All Things Considered piece about CYHSY.  Seems they really didn’t have a clue that a bunch of internet buzz launched them into indie stardom.  They claimed to have never heard of Pitchfork.  They also asserted a general ignorance of all things Peer-to-Peer.  I think they’re full of shit.  Great record though.

image 7: The Alternative to Love
Brendan Benson
Release: Mar 22, 2005

Detroit’s own Brendan Benson is being featured in car commercials.  I guess it’s more natural than M.I.A., but still seems awfully weird… That’s beside the point.  The Alternative to Love runs a close second to Of Montreal’s The Sunlandic Twins for most over-the-top pop record on my list.  It’s uncomplicated and it includes some of the catchiest tunes I’ve heard in years.  Just to prove it, I’m humming one right now (no, it’s not the Phil Spector one).

image 6: I Am a Bird Now
Antony & the Johnsons
Release: Feb 1, 2005
Secretly Canadian

This album is covered on all the elitist lists.  It’s beautiful, gorgeous, and timeless.  I’d rather not go into why these things are true.  If you listen, you’ll agree.  Think Nina meets Boy George, with a cross of “tearful reunion with your long-lost father.”

image 5: Tournament of Hearts
The Constantines
Release: Oct 11, 2005
Sub Pop

Again it’s simple; refer to my November 2nd review.  If you’re too lazy to click the link here’s the synopsis.  The Constantines are the line-workers of the list.  The fact that they’ve put in some heavy overtime over the year has attributed to their rise to number 5.  But the fact that they’ve put in heavy rotation in my CD player has also attributed to their slippage to number 5.  On the flipside of some fantastic tracks (Hotline Operator, Love in Fear, Soon Enough, Working Full Time, You Are a Conductor) there are some less-than-noble write-ins (Draw Us Lines, Thieves, Windy Road).  Hell, by the sound of it, they worked their asses off enough so when all’s said and done Tournament of Hearts packs about 6 worthy tracks warranting much praise.

image 4: Gods and Monsters
I Am Kloot
Release: Apr 11, 2005

My June 6th write up of Gods and Monsters covers the essentials but for another epigrammatic excursion, here’s an additional pithy sketch.  Johnny Bramwell writes the songs and then sings ‘em.  He says, “At any given moment, there’s never more than four [instruments at work]. We like to keep the space, space is power.” Thereby meaning, I Am Kloot likes minimalism, rawness, and subtlety.  Gods and Monsters achieves all of the above.  Buy it.

image 3: The Sunlandic Twins
Of Montreal
Release: Apr 12, 2005

The most over-the-top pop record on the list is undoubtedly The Sunlandic Twins.  Dance night DJs can feel comfortable cueing a cut off Of Montreal’s latest effort alongside Prince’s Raspberry Beret.  Keep Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games in mind whilst feeling “sassy.”

Of Montreal has been churning out pop records since ’97 (9 in all) yet not one of them have grabbed my attention like Sunlandic.  Comparisons to Apples in Stereo and Olivia Tremor Control are obvious.  Yet, there’s something more.  Last years much raved Satanic Panic in the Attic (Pitchfork anyone?) had a warm fuzzy feeling, giving the listener the ability to grasp at the natural.  Sunlandic doesn’t offer these easy organics.  Instead the listener is left to fend for themselves.  There’s no co-pilot, the navigational equipment has gone haywire, and the yoke just busted.  Good luck landing this bird.  Not to say the music is exigent to the ear, just the opposite.  It’s the easiest record on the list.

image 2: Illinois
Sufjan Stevens
Release: Jul 5, 2005
Asthmatic Kitty

Sufjan Stevens hits number two with his second effort at the daunting task of writing one album themed after each of the 50 states.  For those of you not familiar, let me break down Stevens for you.  He’s from Petoskey (Michigan), he plays an immense array of instruments, and he was previously in the folk-rock band Marzuki.

Like The Decemberists Picaresque, Illinois is as lush as a good chili (vegetarian of course), thing is Stevens played the majority of the instruments.  Each song has an Illinois theme.  Some dark (John Wayne Gacy, Jr.), others light (Casimir Pulaski Day), most surprisingly insightful and well written.  The only detractor is Stevens prolific qualities tend to trip on the repetitious.  Anyone who owns his other works (Michigan, Seven Swans, and A Sun Came) will undoubtedly at times have trouble telling them apart. Maybe it’s all part of his grand scheme to release a box set title America containing all 50 states.

image 1: Picaresque
The Decemberists
Release: Mar 22, 2005
Kill Rock Stars

What can I say beside, Picaresque is a near perfect release.  Opening with tribal animalistic whoops (The Infanta) and concluding with a gorgeous acoustic ballad (Of Angels and Angles) this album is the sweetheart of 2005.  The combination of Colin Meloy’s songwriting with lush instrumentation delivers a progressive leap that slaps at the face of indie minimalism.  My only complaint would be the few happy jaunts into “I want to be Morrissey” land (The Sporting Life, Sixteen Military Wives) is a bit out of step with the overall theme but that’s really nitpicking, not to mention I love The Smiths too.