CD Reviews: Best CDs of 2005
Neil Young, Prairie Wind
No top ten list can
be complete without a new Neil Young album. In this case, Young returns
to the reflective country-folk territory of his masterpieces, Harvest
and Harvest Moon. In fact, Prairie Wind sounds like the
completion of a trilogy. The difference is that Young recorded the album
just days before brain surgery for an aneurysm. As a result, the album
has a depth of maturity and desperation previously unheard in Young’s
work. Touching and deeply felt, Prairie Wind’s song cycle of
dreams, memories, family and the passage of time, shows Young as
relevant and powerful as he was four decades ago.
Andrew Bird, The Mysterious Production of Eggs
The new album by the
ex-Squirrel Nut Zippers’ violinist is a lush, eccentric album of chamber
pop in the tradition of Jeff Buckley or Rufus Wainwright. Bird’s style
is mostly low-tempo lullabies, spiked with lyrics that speak of
disaster, suicide, monsters and insane people. The album’s deep sonic
depth is due to Bird’s texturing use of everything from his violin to
guitar and glockenspiel. Imagine Paul Anka or Dean Martin singing about
mad scientists taking over the world, and you can start to understand
the eccentric power of The Mysterious Production of Eggs.
The Mars Volta, Francis the Mute
Sometimes, all you
need to get you through the day is a good old-fashioned prog-rock
freak-out. Welcome to The Mars Volta. Francis the Mute is
apparently based on a diary a band member found in the back seat of a
car, but really, who cares what Cedric Bixler-Zavala is singing about
anyway? His voice is just one more of a seemingly endless and creative
collage of sounds and beats on this aggressive and relentless album.
With clear jazz and Latin influences behind the sprawling epic-length
songs, Francis the Mute is one of the most perplexing, audacious
and interesting albums of the year.
Anoushka Shankar, Rise
After three albums
that track close to her classical upbringing, Anoushka Shankar has
released a “world music” album that perfectly weaves her Indian sitar
heritage with textured electronica. As the daughter of the legendary
Ravi Shankar and half sister of Norah Jones, Anoushka has a deep musical
lineage. On Rise she breaks out as a composer and arranger. She
wisely lets some of the most powerful voices in Indian music interpret
her music. The result is a stunning assemblage of devotional prayers,
classical traditional ragas and electronic harmonies. Rise is the
perfect first step toward opening Eastern sounds to a wider Western
Bright Eyes, I’m Wide awake, It’s Morning
In 2005, Conor Oberst
managed to do something that few young artists have ever managed to do.
He lived up to the hype. Tagged the boy genius by the music press for
years, Oberst released I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and earned
Bursting with themes
of alienation and abandonment, Bright Eyes’ new album is a perfect
emo-esque journal of lo-fi production and country-alt acoustic
The album contains
the best song of the year as well, “Land Locked Blues,” a pitch- perfect
anti-war ballad with Emmylou Harris of all people, which sums up the
angsty maturity of this very young talent.
Kanye West, Late Registration
Fine. I concede.
Kanye West is a genius. Ask him and I’m sure he would agree. Late
Registration proves that his gigantic, hip-hop-changing first album,
College Dropout, wasn’t a fluke. Lyrically, West has plenty of
room to grow, but he’s not interested in that. The production and beats
on Late Registration more than make up for some lazy lyrics, and
West has nearly single-handedly created a most unlikely image for
himself and for rap in general. He’s actually likable. All the rap
stereotypes are there on Late Registration, the ego and the
bragging. But West is funny, and on some songs, like “Gold Digger,” he’s
self-deprecating. It’s what makes this album, and Kayne West, the gold
standard in rap.
Spoon, Gimme Fiction
With Gimme Fiction,
the indie band’s fifth album, Spoon continues its string of masterful
yet underappreciated masterpiece albums. The genius of Spoon is in
what’s not said or played. The band’s music is stripped and raw,
creating an intensity and edge that overproduction would dissolve. The
band is expert at slow rev-ups that explode in noisy riffs, like in “The
Beast and Dragon, Adored.” Or they can be comfortable in low grooves and
minor hooks that you’ll be humming all day, like in “I Turn My Camera
On.” Confident, ironic and simple, Gimme Fiction is the breakout
album that wasn’t.
After exorcising his
personal demons with 2002’s intense and brilliant Sea Change,
Beck returns to the comfortable land of
distortion/hip-hop/loop/stream-of-conscious/digital power chords that
made him one of the most insanely inspired songwriters of our time.
all over the place, a musical stew of bossa nova beats, Latin rhythms,
country blues and nonsense lyrics that harkens back to earlier albums.
But unlike the
stripped power of Odelay or the maddening strut of Midnite
Vultures, Beck is surer on Guero, sliding through the beats
with maturity and mellow cool. On Guero Beck refuses to thread to
closely to any one style or sound, and in so doing has created his most
consistent and listenable album.
Even better, it
sounds like Beck is having fun again. On “Que Onda Guero,” Beck paints a
rich, funky barrio tune that hops from streetside pops and whistles to
genuinely funny lyrics about melting popsicles and Yanni tapes.
“Earthquake Weather” surprises with an organ bridge that would have made
early Stevie Wonder proud. And “Broken Drum” is a late-night-regrets
song about lost love that would have sounded perfect on “Sea Change.”
Smooth and comfortable beats give Guero a happily lazy sound
that’s both assured and mature, and make it one of the strongest albums
of the year.
Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine
In the six years
since Fiona Apple released When the Pawn... a whole host of young
female artists have attempted to step in and fill the gap – Joss Stone
and Erin McGowan come to mind. But compared to Apple’s passion and
lyrical complexity, her peers’ works are only echoes compared to
Extraordinary Machine, a rich and smoky album full of vaudeville
imagery and powerful melodies.
Yes, due to a record
company dispute, most of the new album has been floating around the
Internet for years. But that Internet album, and those songs, mostly
produced by Jon Brion, are shaky baroque-sounding duds, compared to the
actual album tracks. Hip-hop producers Brian Kehew and Mike Elizondo
dialed back Apple’s penchant for the maudlin and added horns and loops
that perfectly match Apple’s intense vocals.
After all the dust
settles on the dispute that kept this album off the shelves for so long,
it turns out Extraordinary Machine is neither radio-unfriendly
nor too avant-garde. Apple plays piano like a drummer and her chord
changes and arrangements can be challenging, but they are always
engaging. On songs like “O’ Sailor” and “Better Version of Me,” Apple’s
voice wraps around the complex melodies and anchors the songs. On other
songs, like the brooding “Parting Gift” or the shattering “Not About
Love,” it’s Apple’s sharp controlled voice alone that propels the music.
Apple released Extraordinary Machine to ridiculous expectations,
and the album met every one of them.
Thelonious Monk, Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall
This year’s best
album was recorded nearly 50 years ago.
Last February, while
thumbing through some dusty old Voice of America acetate tapes in the
Library of Congress, a lab supervisor came across the now-legendary
two-part set played by Thelonious Monk’s quartet at Carnegie Hall on
Nov. 29, 1957.
The concert featured
two 25-minute sets with the Thelonious Monk Quartet with
then-relative-newcomer John Coltrane.
What makes this
recording such a find, aside from the always-fantastic acoustics offered
by Carnegie Hall, is the level of awe and respect given to this
For about six months
starting in July 1957, Coltrane joined Monk’s band for an extended gig
at New York’s Five Spot. The band also featured Ahmed Abdul-Malik on
bass and Shadow Wilson on drums.
This is the quartet
that jazz fans speak of in hushed whispers - a band where being able to
say you were at one of their gigs is the equivalent of saying you were
at the original Woodstock or at Newport when Bob Dylan went electric.
What makes the quartet all the more mysterious, and this new CD all the
more incredible, is that they were never recorded.
In fact, aside from
three studio songs, Monk and Coltrane never recorded together. In
essence the Carnegie Hall recording is simply the only recording of
these two masters – a Monk at the peak of his maturity as a musician and
composer, Coltrane as a young genius ready to explode into a legend.
It was an unlikely
pairing. Monk was a notoriously difficult lead man. His piano-playing
style is jagged and nearly avant-garde for the time. Coltrane, on the
other hand, is known for smooth transitions and pitch-perfect solos.
But with the Carnegie
Hall concert, it finally becomes clear how the two musicians were
perfectly suited for each other. Every one of the nine songs is a
dynamic and adventurous exploration, and they are very much in sync.
Monk the teacher gives his talented student ample creative room. But
it’s clearly his band, and his music. Monk sets the tone for the whole
CD on the first track, “Monk’s Mood.” On it, the dialogue between Monk
and Coltrane is clear, with Monk playing deeply felt arpeggios and runs
underneath Coltrane’s casual interpretation of the theme. On “Crepuscule
With Nellie” Coltrane shadows Monk’s theme with eerie tonal solos that
creep around the piano lines giving the whole piece an almost dark,
rainy-day feel. Throughout both sets, Monk is constantly prodding and
poking at Coltrane, shifting rhythms on “Sweet and Lovely” to create
urgency and expectation, and forcing Coltrane to think on the fly as the
sax man works hard to follow the constantly shifting melody.
The Carnegie Hall
album is not either man’s individual best work, but it is an amazing
snapshot of how Monk and Coltrane’s names became synonymous with jazz
and how two of jazz music’s greatest innovators approached their art.
Nothing released this year, or recently, comes close to the power,
creativity and beauty of these simple 50 minutes with Thelonious Monk
and John Coltrane.