This Year’s Best Music

Picks of 2005
The year’s best music
Our critics tell what got them going

By Jeffrey Lee Puckett and friends
Courier-Journal Music Critic

During a year in which nature taught us yet again that we’re only borrowing the planet and the Cards lost to the Cats, we needed good music more than ever. Luckily, we got it. Here are three looks at the year’s best records.

Bruuuuuuuuce (Jeffrey Lee Puckett’s picks)
1. Bruce Springsteen, “Born to Run: 30th Anniversary Edition” (Columbia) — I wasn’t making best-of lists in 1975, except in my bedroom, so here’s the chance I never had to put my all-time favorite album on top. I don’t think many would begrudge me. After all, “Born to Run” is an epic of friendship bearing down on love, a rock opera in no need of a plot. The addition of a two-hour concert from ’75 and a documentary sweeten the deal considerably.

2. Neil Diamond, “12 Songs” (Sony) — Despite my enduring love of all things Diamond, I was as skeptical as anyone about the latest reclamation project from producer Rick Rubin. But then I heard it. No one else is writing songs like these — mature, thoughtful, crafted with exquisite care and timeless.

3. My Morning Jacket, “Z” (ATO) — A bold new day has dawned for Louisville’s finest rock ‘n’ roll band. More expansive and experimental than earlier records but just as emotionally compelling, “Z” has taken the band to a new level, one that has music geeks and writers (OK, that’s redundant) gushing. You’ll see this one on a lot of 2005 best-of lists, and there are 10 good reasons. Make that nine; I’m still not too sure about “Into the Woods.”

4. Sufjan Stevens, “Illinois” (Asthmatic Kitty) — Stevens is threatening to make an album for each state. I’m game, if only because I’ve never had 50 favorite records by the same guy. “Illinois” is the most sonically impressive album of the year, built on layers of carefully arranged instruments and vocals, all dedicated to beguiling melodies and sharp lyrics.

5 and 6. The National, “Alligator” (Beggars) and September performance at Uncle Pleasant’s — Few bands get under your skin like The National, a band of smart Cincinnati boys who came of age in Brooklyn. The music is lush and tough, based more on shifting textures and rhythms than solos and riffs. Matt Berninger’s voice is all low menace, while his lyrics combine uncanny insight with obliqueness.

7. Johnny Berry and the Outliers, “Shoot! Darn! Yeah!” — There weren’t many country records more fun than this one, especially when you factor in the band’s hoot-n-holler live shows. Berry can write a serious honky-tonk tune, while Steve Cooley and Andy Brown keep the music jumping. A new album, even better than this one, is due any week now.

8. The Flaming Lips, “The Fearless Freaks” (Shout! Factory) — This documentary from filmmaker Bradley Beesely, who lived in the same Oklahoma City neighborhood as the Lips’ Wayne Coyne, is a gold mine of footage and music. But its true value is in how it details the immense heart and humanity of one of rock’s most compelling and creative bands.

9. The Rolling Stones, “A Bigger Bang” (Virgin) — There were clearly better records out there, but it’s still impressive that the Stones could put out such a vibrant, charged effort after more than 40 years. Until another band does the same, and that’s looking dicey, they’re setting the standard.

10. These also got a lot of spins: Bettye LaVette, “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise.” Oasis, “Don’t Believe the Truth.” The Go! Team, “Thunder, Lightning, Strike.” The Merediths, “A Closed Universe.” Kings of Leon, “Aha Shake Heartbreak.” Freakwater, “Thinking of You.” Kasabian, “Kasabian.” The Magic Numbers, “The Magic Numbers.”

— Jeffrey Lee Puckett, Courier-Journal Critic

A little quirkier (Paul Curry’s picks)
1. Movement of the Year — The arrival of neo-folk. A movement that began with the appearance of lo-fi independent solo artists like Smog and reissues of Nick Drake’s recordings approximately 10 years ago, neo-folk came into its own this year with prominent releases by Davendra Banhart, the Animal Collective and Vashti Bunyan, whose “Lookaftering” (Dicristina Stair) sounded like nothing so much as an immediate follow-up to her last album, “Just Another Diamond Day,” which was released 30 years ago. Best example: Coco Rosie’s “Noah’s Ark” (Touch & Go), which wasn’t much of a departure from last year’s stunning debut, but still quirky-weird and compelling enough to put almost everything else to shame.

2. Artist of the Year — Antony and the Johnsons. The Mercury Award-winning Antony has a voice that cannot be described short of medical terminology, a weird mix of masculine/feminine gutteral crooning. Working lyrics that express sad hopes for community and dreams of transformation, Antony raises an aspect of the human condition that is universally recognizable, if somewhat reluctantly so.

3. Album of the Year — M.I.A., “Arular” (XL/Beggars). Unlike most new artists reviving trends from previous decades, M.I.A. added a contemporary element, approaching dance music as a soldier in a war in which booty-shaking is a life or death issue. Lifting primarily from political agitpop acts like Gang of Four, “Arular” is a fascinating cut-n-paste manifesto. Honorable mention: The Go Team’s “Thunder, Lightning, Strike.”

4. Superstar of the Year — Kanye West. Beyond “Late Registration” (Roc-A-Fella), his sophomore release, West is the only rapper keeping it real, finding shock and awe in politics of domestic relationships, never once acknowledging the gangsta cliché that made and nearly ruined the genre.

5. Comeback of the Year — Neil Diamond, “12 Songs” (Sony) and Neil Young, “Prairie Wind” (Reprise). The two Neils dug deep into their trick bags and came up with some great new songs. Young’s album is uneven, but the high points are astonishing. Diamond’s “12 Songs” practically suggests a new genre, resurrecting an aspect of Brill Building songcraft informed by the confessional attitude and open-ended structuring of contemporary pop.

6. Bravest Band of the Year — Negativland. The group’s “No Business” (Seeland) added no original content to eight tracks constructed entirely from uncleared samples, throwing down the gauntlet to establish a new definition of public domain. An understanding of the copyright issues involved enhances the enjoyment; thankfully, the band included a 50-page essay on the subject.

7. Best Reissue/Reinvention — Bob Dylan, “No Direction Home” and “No Direction Home: The Soundtrack.” With his latest reinvention, Bob is starting to look more and more like a prophet and less like a guy who just did what it took to keep his early music career vital and interesting. Or vice versa.

8. Indie Collectible of the Year — “The 2005 Music Issue” of The Believer, which included a CD with 17 exclusive tracks by bands such as the Decemberists, Spoon, CocoRosie, the Mountain Goats, Espers, the Shins and Wolf Parade covering songs by Yo La Tengo, Elevator to Hell, Silver Jews, the Cherry Blossoms, Michael Hurley, Antony and the Johnsons and Frog Eyes.

9 and 10. Best/Worst Video — R. Kelly “Trapped in the Closet.” An astonishing, indescribable experience. This work of art is so perfectly wrong in almost every way that the unintended humor builds with repeated viewings.

— Paul Curry, Special to the Courier-Journal

Country classics (Laura Younkin’s picks)
It turns out 2005 was a good year for country music fans in Louisville. The Kentucky State Fair brought acts as varied as George Jones and Big & Rich. In recorded music, some newcomers flexed their muscles, while some old-timers polished their game. Ten of the year’s best are listed alphabetically below.

1. Gary Allan, “Tough All Over” (MCA Nashville) — Allan took the personal heartbreak of his wife’s suicide and melded it into some heartbreaking songs. Think Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender,” for the twangy set.

2. Johnny Berry and the Outliers, “Shoot! Darn! Yeah!” — One of the beautiful things about this Louisville band is that its members can sing any older country song an audience member shouts out. From Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms” to anything by Merle Haggard, they know it all. On their debut CD, they keep the spirit of honky tonk alive.

3. Cherryholmes, “Cherryholmes” (Skaggs Family) — Ricky Skaggs decided to devote his working life to bluegrass music, and he was wise to sign this band to his label. While not kosher with purists, the band has a lively, joyous sound. They were also this year’s IBMA Entertainer of the Year.

4. Merle Haggard, “Chicago Wind” (Capitol) — One of the holy trinities of country music is formed by Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and George Jones. It doesn’t get any better than their music. Cash’s death was a reminder to appreciate the greats while we’ve got them, and Haggard proves he’s still got the chops.

5. Jimmy Dale Gilmore, “Come on Back” (Rounder) — Gilmore’s voice is not for everyone. In fact, his wavery, nasal delivery is not for a lot of people. However, there’s so much heart on this release, his voice just adds to the poignancy. Gilmore picked his late father’s favorite country songs and pays tribute to him and to old-time country at the same time.

6. John Hiatt, “Master of Disaster” (New West Records) — Hiatt isn’t exactly country, but it’s hard to figure out his style. He’s not folk, he’s not rock, he’s more of a roots musician. His voice is far from smooth, which often enhances the stories his songs tell. And his song about his Thunderbird is glorious.

7. Brad Paisley, “Time Well Wasted” (Arista) — Paisley walks a fine line, proving that modern, commercial country and more traditional country can coexist. Paisley is similar to George Strait in that he puts out consistently good, but not flashy, releases.

8. Bobby Pinson, “Man Like Me” (RCA) — This may be the best country album of the year. Pinson had some commercial radio play with “Don’t Ask Me How I Know,” but he also has credibility. This release has some rough-and-tumble songs that aren’t as polished as what usually comes out of Nashville.

9. Gretchen Wilson, “All Jacked Up” (Sony) — Wilson is a fascinating woman in country music. She’s reminiscent of Patsy Cline in how she grabs life with both hands and then proceeds to throttle it or caress it, depending on her mood. This release has the out-of-control partying of the title track and also a delicate salute to jazz singer Billie Holiday. And Wilson does both well.

10. Lee Ann Womack, “There’s More Where That Came From” (MCA Nashville) — This is the other likely candidate for best country album of the year. Womack put a modern spin on the old, string-drenched Nashville of the 1960s. A lush, retro sound wraps Womack’s vocals in satin as she sings about love and loss, the true staples of country music.

— Laura Younkin, Special to the Courier-Journal

Jeffrey Lee Puckett is SCENE’s pop music editor and oversees this page.

Online: Find past album and concert reviews, or ask Jeffrey Lee a question, at

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