Early December means best-of-last-year list time! Here’s what my Best of 2005 list looks like right now. (For those of you interested in ancient history, my best-of lists for 2004, 2003, 2002, and 2001 are also available in this space, along with explanations of why I delay these lists by a full year.)
- Bar Kokhba Sextet - 50th Birthday Celebration Volume 11
Even now, as I begin to tire of John Zorn and his millions of side projects, this outfit gets me excited every time. The sextet — guitar, violin, cello, bass, drums, percussion — lends a rich orchestration to Zorn’s tuneful Masada compositions. This bargain 3-disc set captures the group at the height of their powers, and boasts a sound that skillfully combines beauty and skronk.
- Charming Hostess - Punch
I guess technically this is an archival release, recorded in the late 1990s. However one categorizes it, it’s a worthy follow-up to the Charming Hostess big band’s Eat, and might even be better than that rather astonishing debut. Impossible to easily describe and also impossible to dislike.
- Orthrelm - OV
“Impossible to dislike” sure as hell doesn’t describe this one, though: it’s about as grating as can possibly imagined. I actually heard this in an independent record store — they put it on without knowing anything about it, and only lasted about three minutes before they had to change it. Imagine a metal record skipping continuously (for 45 minutes) in the middle of a particularly speedy riff, and you get the idea. The thing is, though, it’s genius — a kind of metal minimalism that’s hypnotic and affecting once you get over the initial shock of it all.
- Iron & Wine - Woman King
Sam Beam is a fantastic songwriter, but on previous Iron & Wine albums I’ve felt that the minimal arragements made his songs less exciting than they could be. This six-track EP ups the ante a bit with bigger production and more instrumentation, and to amazing effect. Combined with the (also very good) EP he did with Calexico, also in 2005, this was easily the best year yet for this excellent indie songwriter.
- Maneige - Live à L’Évêché
This archival release was my first exposure to this French Canadian symph group, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it remains a lasting favorite. I’ve yet to hear anything from these guys that I like as much as this album (though I haven’t disliked anything I’ve heard). Really beautiful melodies and a keen sense of orchestration, all done in a pretty tasteful way — if only Maneige had been the poster children of 70s symphonic rock and not, say, ELP!
- Tim Berne - Feign
I get the sneaking suspicion that any year this prolific avant-jazz saxophonist releases something new, he’ll make my top 10 list. Feign features Berne’s “Hard Cell” trio (piano/sax/drums) and is as energetic and driving as one might expect, without sacrificing Berne’s trademark compositional complexity. Now if only he would do more live performances outside of New York City and Europe…
- Pelican - March Into the Sea
This post-metal band, second only to Isis in my estimation, has a weird habit of releasing absolutely brilliant EPs followed by somewhat disappointing full-length albums. Such was the case in 2005; March Into the Sea consists of a brilliant 20-minute title epic that is my favorite song the band has yet recorded. Unfortunately, the full-length album that followed a few months later seems mostly uninspired in comparison.
- Painkiller - 50th Birthday Celebration Volume 12
While the Bar Kokhba set listed above is charming and lyrical, this entry in the Tzadik 50th Birthday series is mean and ugly. Painkiller was always Zorn at his skronkiest, but here the noise factor is actually toned down quite a bit thanks to Hamid Drake’s drumming that actually, dare I say it, swings at times. And as it turns out, a kinder, gentler Painkiller is a better, more listenable Painkiller. Still seriously aggro, but no longer annoyingly so.
- Frank Zappa - Imaginary Diseases
I don’t count myself as a huge Zappa fan, but I’ve always loved Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo as much as any diehard FZ fanboy. This album, a live performance from that same period, is a treasure for folks like me who like Zappa’s big-band material and wish there were more than just a couple official releases of the stuff. Long-expected and well worth the wait!
- Present - A Great Inhumane Adventure
This one makes it onto my list almost entirely thanks to the rendition of “Promenade au Fond d’un Canal,” which attacks the listener with all the ferocity and subtlety of a tyrannosaurus rex. Present can get pretty dark and eeevil, but this is just might be the most deliciously violent they’ve ever been on record. I wonder if there are any survivors from the live show where this was recorded. Are they all brain-dead by now?
This one was tough, because while I love all these albums, none of them really stands out and the order seems almost interchangeable. I also had a hard time with OV — it’s an incredible work, but hard to figure out where it goes on a list of favorites because it’s simply not something I’d want to listen to every day (or week, or month for that matter).
And a bunch of honorable mentions in alphabetical order: Scott Amendola Band’s Believe, Banco’s Seguendo le Tracce, John Coltrane’s One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note, The Decemberists‘ Picaresque, Earth’s Hex; or Printing in the Infernal Method, Electric Masada’s At the Mountains of Madness, Ephel Duath’s Pain Necessary to Know, Satoko Fujii’s Angelona, Guapo’s Black Oni, Indukti’s S.U.S.A.R., Koenjihyakkei’s Angherr Shisspa, Konono No. 1’s Congotronics, Jérôme Langlois‘ Molignak, Miasma & the Carousel of Headless Horses‘ Perils, Nil’s Nil Novo Sub Sole, Opeth’s Ghost Reveries, Rova::Orkestrova’s Electric Ascension, The Vandermark 5’s The Color of Memory, and Wilco’s Kicking Television: Live in Chicago.
Obviously, it was a pretty good year for me. Nothing completely jaw-dropping like the top four or five albums from 2004, but a really, really large group of very good releases (and admittedly, comparing any year to 2004 is a little unfair, given how amazing that year was). Any one of those albums on my honorable mention list would probably crack my top 10 at some point in time, given my mood, emotions, time of day, whatever. It’s odd, and surprising, that three of my top ten albums are archival releases, but regardless, there was plenty of excellent music to go around in 2005.