2005 in Music

This page compiles all my reviews of music released originally in 2005.

1. Ry Cooder: Chavez Ravine (9/10)

This isn’t really a rock opera, I guess it’s a ‘roots opera’. But the same idea applies: Cooder is attempting to use operetta and other musical forms to create something unique and certainly ambitious. (It’s far and away the most ambitious thing he’s done prior to 2005, that I am aware of.)

And I must say at first it put me off. I’m not a particularly big fan of Latin music in general, or many of he genres he mixes in here. I have always appreciated his attempts to bring lesser known songs and traditions to light, but the combination wasn’t working for me.

Then something clicked, I don’t know what. And now I regard this as something special. He is truly doing something unique: mixing covers and new material to create a bizarre narrative that might even work as a stage show (who knows?) that borders on something not very good (cheese? I don’t know) but never actually gets there. I end up being very impressed.

Part of me wants to call it a masterpiece but that part of me is at war with the part that doesn’t like most Latin music.

2. The Mars Volta: Frances the Mute (9/10)

The more I listen to the Mars Volta the more I become convinced that they are pretty much the only mainstream band keeping the spirit – if not the sound – of progressive rock alive. They manage to combine relatively adventurous ideas – whereas early prog rock usually borrowed from Romantic music or mainstream jazz, they borrow from free jazz and funk – with the volume that only a few select prog rock bands from back in the day actually managed.

Too many of the revivalist neo-prog bands don’t are about the “rock” part of progressive rock but these guys do. And as a fan of the original prog rock movement, I certainly don’t have trouble with multi part suites or extended compositions, and frankly don’t understand why the world has become so prejudiced against them. As long as they are done well – and these are done well – extended rock compositions are as legitimate as short, two verses, two choruses songs.

Note: Between Frances the Mute and Chavez Ravine, my favourite is clearly the former. But I think the latter is likely the greater piece of art.

3. Petra Haden: Sings the Who Sell Out (9/10)

A fantastic albeit gimmicky idea, and it works. Normally, near-note-for-note interpretations bore me to death, but this works because it’s one instrument, and because Haden is such a compelling performer.

4. Bill Frisell: East / West (9/10)

More like West / East. For some reason Frisell seems to have switched the dates around, so that we encounter the newer, harder set first. And that’s not a bad thing.

Though both sets show it off to some degree, it is the “west” set that, to my ears, is one of those great statements of the wondrous possibilities of post-free jazz. Frisell and his band make music that both questions and adds to tradition, and there is a healthy influence of minimalism as well, at least in the longer pieces.

The “east” set is more subdued and more in line with the kind of music Frisell appears to have been making more recently. It’s less obviously apiece with the “west” set but I feel like the two sets are two sides of the same coin: this kind of approach to music can be obvious and it can be subtle and neither way is necessarily better – though personally I prefer the “west” disk.

A fantastic album.

5. Bill Frisell: Richter 858 (8/10)

This is an excellent set of compositions – inspired by painting – that show off Frisell’s abilities as a composer who can handle all sorts of instrumental ensembles. His writing for string quartet here and elsewhere merits serious consideration, I think, not in the least because of the room the musicians are given to go off-script. This was so successful that he wrote another set of pieces for this same group, which I actually like even more than this. But in addition to this music being great, it is also nice to hear and experience the inspiration for one of jazz’s great guitarists to find his way into chamber music.

6. Konono No. 1: Congotronics (8/10)

It’s easy to see why electronic music fans flocked to this record, as it has all the danceable repetition of dance music but also enough exoticism to appeal to people who don’t just want to listen to middle of the road, safe dance music. It almost feels like music has come full circle: electronic composers and musicians took inspiration from tribal rhythms from all around the world and now these guys have taken inspiration from electronic dance music.

That’s bullshit, of course, as crudely electrifying likembes hardly qualifies taking inspiration from electronic music. Rather, it feels to us like that’s what happened because for most listeners in North America, our frame of reference does not include bozombo. (Mine certainly didn’.t.

Basically what we get is sort of “garage” tribal music that sounds so much like what someone with a laptop, some deliberately shitty analogue equipment and some African samples might sound like (albeit minus the chanting and whistling).

It’s a fascinating and, to the best of my knowledge, unique combination of very traditional sounds with sounds that convince you their modern.

7. The White Stripes: Get Behind Me Satan (8/10)

I bought this at the height my Stripes fandom, when they really could do no wrong. They weren’t one of my favourite bands exactly, but they were one of my favourite bands that were actively recording (I have a thing for dead musicians).

So I liked it immediately and yet I can’t say I’ve listened to it much in the interim.

But as everyone’s least favourite Stripes record, I think it’s surprisingly underrated. White strives, as much as he can, into heretofore unexplored variations of his signature blues / punk / pop hybrid. We get piano rock (a lot of it), some country (more traditional than they’d recorded to date), and “The Nurse” is perhaps the artiest they ever got (to date, anyway). Yet it still has the appealing sparseness that his solo career (and the Raconteurs) lacks. For a band that had such a signature sound and rarely varied from it, I think this is a successful expansion of that sound – it’s still unmistakably the White Stripes but it uses different means to achieve that end. Nothing wrong with that

8. Dave Douglas: Keystone (8/10)

This is only the second time I have personally heard turntables incorporated with jazz. The first time was by a Canadian drummer named Jerry Granelli back in 1999 or something. So that clearly beats this by a few years. And Granelli’s band went more deep into the hip hop influence, including spoken word posing as rap. But Douglas’ strength lies in recognizing the traditions he works within and without so this album is significantly more recognizable as jazz than Granelli’s venture into whatever this turntabilist jazz sub-genre is. And that’s both a good thing and a bad thing. It certainly makes it more easily accessible to someone like me. But it also makes it a little less unique in the end.

9. Queens of the Stone Age: Lullabies to Paralyze (8/10)

Contrarian that I am, I wanted to claim this was their best album, even without ever really hearing all of Songs for the Deaf.
I really feel the absurdity of that at this point though I do have to say I appreciated the lack of intentionally arty production.

I do think this is a great example of how Homme has been able to combine melodicism and muscle throughout his career. Less arty than Rated R and less poppy than Era Vulgeris, I kind of prefer it to both.

10. Wilco: Kicking Television (8/10)

This album captures the band slightly before their live peak. (I tell you this as someone who knows, having seen their live film, listened to a number of performances both earlier and later than this, and having seen them in person.) Their Austin City Limits set a couple of years later kind of puts this to shame, but how could we have known that at the time.

Despite this, they were still pretty awesome live back then, having drastically upgraded by drastically changing their lineup over the last few years and, for this tour and subsequent ones and albums, adding one of the best guitarists in the world, Nels Cline. (Cline is, of course, relatively restricted in this setting, but that’s okay.)

The band’s most jammable material hadn’t been done yet, but they still managed to make most of these tracks sound different enough from the records to actually make it worth listening to. (Though according to more than one hilariously bad review on RYM, this is actually bad thing. “Why doesn’t it sound like the record?!?!”)

This is a very solid introduction to them as a live band, but I would recommend the aforementioned ACL set (the one from 2007) or any sets you can get from 2007 on from the Road Case over this. It’s still good stuff though.

11. Fantomas: Suspended Animation (8/10)

A long time ago a man named Raymond Scott made some slightly odd but very under-appreciated music. Nobody knew what to do with it; it sounded vaguely similar to contemporary jazz – though scored for a quintet it was more akin to the emerging bop than to big band – it was completely written out ahead of time and had therefore little to nothing in common with the essence of jazz. And, of course, it was just too damn idiosyncratic. The music was essentially viewed as novelty music and it was briefly popular but Scott himself is forgotten.

However, as you may know, much of his music is not forgotten, as it was then used by Carl Stalling as the basis of some of his music for Warner Bros., through which Scott’s style became the basis and / or inspiration for the vast majority of goofy cartoon music we know and love today. So, why care about that?

Well, in my humble opinion this is probably the greatest album-length rock tribute to cartoon music I’ve ever heard. Sure, it’s disguised with various metal influences, but that kind of mania is kind of appropriate to metal, no?

Obviously this is something that takes some time to get used to. I don’t even remember what I thought the first time I heard Fantomas. I probably just told myself I had to be patient. But if you are patient, well you’re in for a treat. This is like all the cartoons from your childhood (or, perhaps, your parent’s childhood) on acid. It’s like Adult Swim in many ways. Seriously. This is like the aural equivalent of Space Ghost. (Well, almost. It’s not quite that good.)

And I should also note that, in addition to being a fine tribute to Scott and Stalling et al., this is also probably the most Fantomasian of Fantomas albums. So just because you hate this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at least try to listen to The Director’s Cut at least thrice in your life. It’s a lot more accessible. And even better.

12. Fiona Apple: Extraordinary Machine (8/10)

So I paid no attention to Apple for years. I just lumped her in with that slew of women singer-songwriters that seemed to explode in the mid ’90s. That seems to me to have been extraordinarily unfair. What I failed to notice at the time was a strong but idiosyncratic songwriter who was willing to take musical risks, the kind of musical risks that appeal to me.

So this is apparently (mostly) the second version of the album. But whether it’s the over-done arrangements of the remaining songs from the original concept or its the sparer and more idiosyncratic arrangements of the new versions, we are given a good set of songs arranged well, which is all we should really want from a singer-songwriter.

13. The Tord Gustavsen Trio: The Ground (8/10)

Gustaven evokes the tradition of Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett – though he is perhaps a little more obviously melodic than the former – though he manages the impressive feat of both sounding like them and not like them at the same time. But just when you think you have him figured out, he throws in some left turns, which keep things interesting, given how laid back everything is. Someone has noted that Gustaven is keeping the romantic tradition alive, and I think that is a fair assessment, but I would actually argue that if this has anything in common with European art music, its impressionism, even though it is clearly more directed, and more lively than most of that music.

Fine stuff, if you are willing to give it a chance. Much more interesting than it sounds at first

14. Augusta Read Thomas: Carillon Sky (7/10)

This is basically a brief violin concerto. It’s got some pretty good stuff in it. I have listened to pretty much zero other violin concertos this century, so I’m not sure really what the state of the form is. I like this though, as brief as it is.

15. System of a Down: Hypnotize (7/10)

I like the music more than that on Mezmerize but I have to say that there are some pretty fucking embarrassing lyrics on this one (hopefully the worst song is a parody, but I can’t tell).

What I don’t get is why split it up? There is less than ’80 minutes between the two of them: it can fit on one CD. The two don’t feel stylistically dissimilar enough to split them up. And it’s not like ’80 minutes is a chore for a music fan any more (though I do think a 55-60 minute album assembled from the two discs would have worked better). We know Rubin can produce so the question is why didn’t he say to these guys “Enough already!”? Maybe when you make hit albums, the temptation is to do whatever, even when your job is editor.

16. Friendly Rich and the Lollipop People: We Need a New F-Word (7/10)

This is the kind of thing I feel I should eat up: it’s revivalist cabaret with clear doses of jazz, “classical” music, an awareness of punk, and a surprisingly good set of songs underlying it.

But I feel like these guys never quite get to their potential; they could be so much more raucous, so much more extreme in their moments of dissonance, and a little more varied. To me, that would elevate what is a very polished act that is sort of dwelling in another century – at least in part – to something really notable in this century.

I want to like this more than I like this. And that’s too bad, because I feel like there is some kernel of awesomeness lying in here that could be turned into a whole album of awesomeness.

17. Sigur Ros: Takk (7/10)

I guess I feel like this is the beginning of the end; the point where the band were sort of realizing their potential on a commercial level and were adjusting their sound (slightly) to accommodate that. Or maybe I’m just crazy. But the vibe I get from this very much repetition mixed with a growing emphasis on prettiness over muscle. The edges feel a little less rough, you know? That’s not to say it’s anything like their later music, it just feels like a transitional work at this remove, and it’s a transition that I, in retrospect, am unhappy about.

18. Elliott Brood: Ambassador (7/10)

This is a really strong debut album, with an original sound somewhere between alt country and indie rock. I must say, though, that I don’t get the “death country” tag. To me that implied death metal meets country, which this absolutely has not.

My admiration for this band has weakened substantially since I saw them in concert and was disappointed but, that being said, they did manage to carve out their own relatively unique niche with this album, and pointed a lightly different direction for alt country bands in a way that so many other alt country bands have been unable to do.

19. Cuff the Duke (7/10)

Something is missing this time out: it seems to lack a bit of the ambition or reckless abandon of the debut. At the same time, they are a little more mature, a little more organized, and generally better at writing. So even though I initially liked it less than the debut, I am inclined to rate it the same, as I feel like the new things counteract the lack of certain old things.

20. System of a Down: Mezmerize (7/10)

I listened to System of a Down’s Mezmerize out of order. That may not be a problem for lots of people, but it is for me. But still, I will try anyway.

I feel like there is a very conscious effort here to make this album another financial success and, as a result, the music is significantly more commercial. (Which is, I admit, a relative thing.)

There is a long tradition in western philosophy that says people are idiots / sheep (true) and therefore we (the elites) should trick them into liking things that are good for them (not so true). Though originally a relatively conservative idea – conservatism didn’t really exist in Athens as it does today – it has become a favourite idea of both the extreme right and left. I feel like this idea lies behind a couple of the songs here, most noticeably on “B.Y.O.B.”, which has a radio ready refrain. (Is this a dig at Finger Eleven’s version of same? I have no idea.) And frankly, I can’t say I like that.

That being said, I generally still enjoy the music and most of it is still inventive enough (and loud enough) that you can sort of forget the very obvious attempt to stay on the radio. I am rating this higher than I feel like in the hope that I will eventually get over my aversion to the slightly more commercial bent.

21. Buried Inside: Chronoclast (7/10)

Like math rock mixed with and metalcore. I guess that’s what this whole “atmospheric sludge metal” thing is supposed to be. I don’t know. But that’s what I hear. It doesn’t sound that sludgy to me…

I’m glad I can’t understand the lyrics most of the time, because that means if I don’t read the booklet, I can enjoy the music and forget about the ridiculous pseudo-philosophical nonsense being spewed.

22. Nine Inch Nails: With Teeth (6/10)

I am still somewhat impressed, at this late stage, by Reznor’s abilities as a producer. And here he seems to be more willing to whittle his ideas down to the better ones (one hopes these were the better ones).

But Reznor hasn’t grown up at all, apparently. He’s still singing about the same things in 2005 that he was singing about in 1994 (and presumably in 1988). How old is this guy? He must have been 35 or 40 when this was released. And he still writes lyrics like an angry young man. It’s preposterous and I absolutely cannot get over it.

23. Metric: Live it Out (6/10)

This is better than the debut. I am aware of the guitarist! He’s still not anything to pay attention to but at least he had a fill or two. Amazing. I still don’t like her lyrics. I don’t like when they try to sound like Stereolab but new wavy. I don’t like when they try to sound like the Police. (One song’s chorus is pretty much “Every Breath You Take”.) But at least they sound more like a rock group. Thank science.

24. Apocalyptica (5/10)

January 2015: I guess it’s nice that they write their own compositions and these compositions are reasonably decent, and very well-suited to their approach. But this is the fifth time out, and without spending time to focus on this record, I find it so weird that I rated this high. I will have to revisit it when I have time. Generous, I think.

November 2017: At this point the novelty has worn off for me. I still enjoy their heavier music, but this just feels like deja vu all over again except when they sing. And when they sing, I don’t think it adds much to their sound – they really just sound like another European metal band I don’t like.

I still tried to care after this one, but it was the first album where I decided I wanted to move on. And I long since have. Rarely listen to them any more.

25. Paul Motian: I Have the Room Above Her (5/10)

It must be an absolute thrill for musicians – even musicians as well-traveled as Frisell and Lovano – to play with a musical legend. I can imagine that a set like this is probably a personal highlight.

But Motian seems stuck in another era. That makes sense, I mean Motian earned his fame from that era, but personally I don’t want to listen to 21st century jazz that makes me think it’s the ’60s. That may be slightly harsh – Frisell and occasionally Lovano sometimes remind me that I am not listening to an old jazz record with spectacular sound – but on the whole I think it is accurate. The cool on this record is not really that much different from cool at its height, and the bop stuff is pretty run of the mill as well. Moreover, Motian is the busiest drummer on some of these songs. I know that’s sort of his thing, but doesn’t it get annoying? I mean, it’s almost a caricature of a drummer-as-leader.

There’s nothing here you couldn’t get from the bands Motian was part of which helped make his name, from decades earlier.

26. Rammstein: Rosenrot (5/10)

Well this is certainly more varied than their earliest albums. The problem is that with the expanded sound come some missteps including some seriously wussy ballads. I thought German “metal” bands weren’t allowed to be wussy.

27. Weezer: Make Believe (4/10)

So suddenly they want to trend hop? Okay.

Most of Make Believe is equatable to the green one, far as I’m concerned. But “This is Such a Pity” is a new low. Yes, I know; Cuomo always liked New Wave. But trying it out for the first time when everyone else on the planet is doing it is not a good time to do it. If you’re going to do it, you should do it better than everyone else. No such luck.

Oh yeah: “We Are All On Drugs” is terrible.

Not Ranked:

Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane: At Carnegie Hall (10/10)

I would have given my left nut to attend this concert, especially for $2!

This is fine stuff though I must say I like their studio performances a wee bit more. It’s great to hear a gig where you can see where Coltrane was headed maybe a little more than when he was working with Davis (that’s no criticism of Davis). It’s a bit of a match made in heaven, whereas when he was with Davis there was a distinct contrast in styles (which worked well as well).

I guess that’s all I have to say really.

Anonymous 4: The Origin of Fire by Anonymous 4 (8/10)

This is a collection of some of the works of the first great Western composer, Hildegard von Bingen. I know nothing about her beyond what I read in a book once, many years ago, and know very little about plainchant. I have no idea how these hymns were curating beyond what they tell me in the liner notes, or whether or not that curation makes any sense.

Read the full review.

Duke Ellington: the Great Paris Concert (7/10)

Read the review.

Ileana Contrubas, Gurzech Orchestra et al.: Hansel and Gretel by Englebert Humperdinck (7/10)

Though it’s German, this opera reminds me a little too much of the “Big Tune” style of French opera prevalent at the time – music that was deliberately accessible, so that songs from the opera might get published separately and probably the source of more famous themes from operas than any other style.

This is my first impression of Humperdinck – a name I have always loved, courtesy of both the schmaltzy ballad singer named after this composer and because of The Princess Bride – and it’s not a great one. I mean, this is fine stuff, as these things go, but it’s just lacking in any kind of the stuff that I usually find engaging. I guess it’s a little too safe and too easy for me, at least for the 1890s.

I understand why it’s popular but I doubt I’ll ever come to love it.

Lightnin’ Hopkins: The Blues Biography (5/10)

The music on this compilation is good. Let’s get that out of the way. Lightnin Hopkins was a great performer and he did a lot to standardize lyric and performance conventions in post-war blues. He was a pretty great guitar player for the era, and he did some things that sound unconventional to my ears. So that is all great. Lightnin’ Hopkins is someone we should all check out, if we’re interested in the blues.

This compilation is not the recording to introduce any of us to him, however. Far as I can tell, this collects his recordings for one label in the late ’40s. But it adds some live tracks from the ’60s (that’s a guess) and there’s no way to know if some of these are demos and others are properly released sides. (The sound quality differs from recording to recording as does the personnel.)

Unless you’re content just listening to music, and knowing literally nothing about it, this is not the compilation for you.

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