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December 29, 2005


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CD Reviews: Best CDs of 2005

By Dan Szczesny

10. 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.

9. 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.

8. 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. 

7. 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 audience.

6. 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 that reputation.

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 innocence.

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. 

5. 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.

4. 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.

3. Beck, Guero

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.

Guerois 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.  

2. 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.

1. 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 particular quartet.

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.