1. BIC RUNGA: Birds
It's not until you're a couple of songs into Birds that you realise that something's up with Bic. She's not the shy retiring gal next door from her previous two albums - here, she's inhabiting many different guises. She's playing hillbilly child bride on No Crying No More; she's a chanteuse from a classier era in pop on the title track and on Ruby Nights. She's the torch-soul trembler on It's Over. And so on.
Through it all you're not wondering if the real Bic Runga would please stand-up, just admiring the confidence, the musical maturity, and the grand sad tragedy of it all. Yes, it's a bit of a downer of an album but elegant with it. It's as if Runga has figured there's more to her musical life than being our perennial favourite singer-songwriter and it's about time she went out and grabbed it.
That sense of daring and drama is what makes Birds so very riveting. And why it tops this, our list of the best albums the TimeOut team heard in 2005.
2. KANYE WEST: Late Registration
We didn't think he could top The College Dropout, and after all that bragging we weren't sure we wanted him to. But West's second album was a triumph. Who else could make Maroon 5's Adam Levine sound so cool? Or sample Etta James, Curtis Mayfield and Shirley Bassey without turning it into a 21st party soundtrack? Or rap alongside Common, the Game and Jay-Z and still sound sharp? Hell, if he can turn pop fans, U2, Oprah and Time magazine on to hip-hop, that's got to be a good thing.
3. GORILLAZ: Demon Days
Led by stand-out tracks like Dare, Feel Good Inc. and Dirty Harry, the second album from this cartoon band was even more irresistible, yet more ominous, than their 2001 self-titled debut. This time round the band's creator, Damon Albarn from Blur, enlisted DJ Dangermouse (the guy behind the Grey Album, a mix of the Beatles' White Album and Jay Z's Black Album) as producer, and a number of guests including Happy Monday Shaun Ryder and De La Soul. Like a Mad Scientist, Albarn pulls things together to create one of the most fresh and inventive - not to mention popular - albums in years.
4. THE MARS VOLTA: Frances The Mute
An album of jazz, salsa, improvisation, ambience, metal, and polka bonded by some fierce funk, and passionate, unhinged rock'n'roll. At times the crazed and menacing noise produced by the Mars Volta's two core members, Cedric Bixler Zavala (vocals) and Omar A. Rodriguez-Lopez (producer/guitar), was hard going. In fact, some would call it unlistenable art rock wank. But Frances the Mute had scorching hot hooks, violent climaxes and a solid structure to carry it all off. As Zavala said on Cassandra Gemini, "Sink your teeth into the flesh of midnight" and love every minute of it.
5. FAT FREDDY'S DROP: Based On a True Story
Call it BBQ reggae if you like, but please refrain from the New Zealand-UB40 tag. The production was world-class, and to call it phat was an understatement. Fat Freddy's were never in a hurry to do anything, but when it came time to hit you with a beat, a voice, or a stab of brass, the impact was powerful and uplifting. The pace of this record was perfect, and yes, this was mellow and chilled-out stuff, but as the band's live shows prove, FFD are all about intensity.
6. SIGUR ROS: Takk
The Icelandic art rock quartet's fourth album proper was, as its ethereal predecessors suggested, an other-worldy affair. But with its sense of dynamics and the band bending conventional rock song form to their own ends, Takk offered some of the year's most compelling, disarming and transporting music.
7. BRIGHT EYES: I'm Wide Awake It's Morning
The best new Dylan we'd heard in ages was twenty-something Nebraskan Conor Oberst who released this folky set alongside an accompanying electro-pop effort. This was the smarter option, a set of acoustic-guitar framed numbers which had Oberst ruminating on a coke-dependent girlfriend (Lua), borrowing a bit of Beethoven (Road to Joy), railing frequently against the state of the George W-led free world and holding up his end on a couple of duets with Emmylou Harris.
8. DAVE DOBBYN: Available Light
It contained our anthem of the year, Welcome Home. The good and spirited company it kept here helped make this one of Dobbyn's finest sets with the songs drawing deep on faith, love, the land and Dobbyn's perennial urge to stir things up with a smile.
9. KT TUNSTALL: Eye to the Telescope
Don't be put off by the hippie-chick singer-songwriter image. This Scottish-Cantonese muso is no Dido. Since her breakthrough performance on Later ... with Jools Holland Tunstall has stormed the British charts, made a fan of the Cure's Robert Smith and scored a Mercury Music prize nomination. All well deserved for her strong, stroppy rock and sensitive, folksy pop.
10. BREAKS CO-OP: The Sound Inside
The NZ-UK studio trio created a sort of sand-dune soul with this album, and its sweet-harmony, heart-on-sleeve numbers of acoustic guitars, enchanting tunes and a little hip-hop detailing made it that unlikely offering - an easy-listening triumph.
11. ARCADE FIRE: Funeral
Don't laugh, but there were a number of great albums out of Canada this year, including Set Yourself On Fire by Stars. But this debut by Montreal's Arcade Fire verged on classic. It came across highly flown and often twee. But given time it became a rollicking yarn of an album with hints of Split Enz-style madness, a spot of gloom, and powerful tunes.
12. SYSTEM OF A DOWN: Mesmerize
It says a lot about a band if they can come up with two excellent albums in one year. This was the first, and slightly better, of the American metallers' two albums (the second was Hypnotize in November). Mesmerize was delivered with the vicious precision of metal, and its cohesive mix of epic, punchy and rampant political music was mind-blowing. Revolutionary.
13. THE MAGIC NUMBERS: The Magic Numbers
Heavy in weight but light in touch was the shorthand for this British four-piece of two sets of siblings. They brought that family harmony factor to bear on an often musically uplifting collection of originals which, on repeat plays, revealed darker depths behind the feelgood vibe. A cleverly referential pop album which sounded like a repeat-play keeper for years to come, especially over summer months.
14. FRONTLINE: Borrowed Time
It was hard to believe P-Money when he called these two the "most important rap group in New Zealand". Until we heard the album, that is. Not since P-Money and Scribe had local hip-hop sounded so explosive. The beats were scorching and original, and the rhymes witty and heartfelt. No American copycats, these guys were the real deal.
15. LCD SOUND-SYSTEM: LCD Soundsystem
James Murphy (aka LCD Soundsystem) loves his record collection. On this debut he abused his influences to great effect. From cheeky opener Daft Punk Is Playing At My House, to woozy Sgt Pepper's ... moments, and on to glitchy thrash and bash, this was where the Fall, Daft Punk and the Stooges met. It conjured up the acid house vibe of the late 80s, but with a more excitable and insolent feel. |
16. FRANZ FERDINAND: You Could Have It So Much Better
Coming just 18 months after their 2004-conquering self-titled debut, Franz Ferdinand's second showed a band still fit to burst on a record showing as much aloof'n'arty verve as the debut applied to a wider, groovier range of musical ideas. |
17. MARTHA WAINWRIGHT: Martha Wainwright
The mouthy daughter of folk singer Kate McGarrigle and cynic-songwriter Loudon Wainwright (and sister of pop-dramatist Rufus) arrived with brutal honesty on this extraordinary debut. Her songs looked unflinchingly at life, sexuality and sex offered up in ambitious stylistic diversity - theatrical arrangements, vocal dramatics like Jeff Buckley, early Dylan anger, and a Robert Louis Stevenson poem - which dared you to look away.
18. SUFJAN STEVENS: Illinoise
A strangely brilliant album that's part of Stevens' mission to chronicle every state of the US of A, while suggesting Brian Wilson-meets-Brian-Eno musical ambitions. Its 22 tracks were decidedly eccentric, musically ornate, and lyrically, utterly disarming- especially the ode to serial killer John Wayne Gacy jun.
19. RYAN ADAMS: 29
The best of the three albums the American alt-country troubadour delivered in 2005 was his last - a concise, ballad-heavy intimate set which recalled his great solo debut Heartbreaker and sounded like a man taking stock of his self-mythologising ways.
20. MY MORNING JACKET: Z
The Kentucky art-rock quintet with alt-country leanings somehow channelled U2, reggae and fuzzpop into an infectious nutbar of an album that suggested they might be the new Flaming Lips.
21. BLOC PARTY: Silent Alarm
They didn't have the dress sense or the cheek of Franz Ferdinand, but these British geezers knew how to get the rock crowds dancing just as hard. Thanks to an impeccable and adventurous rhythm section, there was an urgency propelling Kele Okerere's raspy vocals that made this more than just another 80s revivalist band.
22. MICAH P HINSON And The Gospel of Progress
When this droll American played in Auckland it was in a small wine bar for about 30 people. But his melancholy, lovelorn alt-country songs came from deep and considered places, and the sense of emotional despair was offset by gorgeous tunes and intelligent, ambitious arrangements. Debuts don't come much better.
23. PHOENIX FOUNDATION: Pegasus
Bristling with ideas, the second album by the Wellington outfit almost reconciled the band's split (enz) personality between being a chin-stroking ensemble delivering cinematic instrumentals and a song-powered band offering warm-hearted psychedelic pop of wry lyrics and airy tunes. A winning blend of imagination and originality.
24. ROBERT PLANT AND THE STRANGE SENSATION: Mighty Rearranger
One of the most unexpected career comebacks has been this one by former Led Zepp frontman Plant. Here he married his longtime passion for Middle Eastern sounds and blues with understated psychedelics and a sense of emotional optimism (these are the days of my life, bright, strong and golden) which was infectious.
25. WHITE STRIPES: Get Behind Me Satan
Five albums in and the Detroit duo were starting to explore other options by abandoning guitars for piano, and poking at romping bluegrass, naggingly memorable pop, and snatches of hard rock alongside their blues-based garage-band rock. Satan was courageous and confirmed theirs is a journey still worth following.
26. MADONNA: Confessions on a Dancefloor
Somewhere between her boring American Life album and her self-righteous spiritualism, we forgot what made Madonna an icon. Then she pulled on that hideous leotard and launched herself around the room to trashy, disco-fuelled rave anthems. And we loved it almost as much as her gay fans.
27. COLDPLAY: X&Y
The most anticipated album out of Britain in an age didn't quite live up to the expectations placed on it or its grander musical ambitions. But it still managed to engage with its affecting glassy-eyed ballads, slow-fused anthems and Chris Martin's way with a melancholy lyric over a majestic arrangement best heard on highlight Fix You.
28. DEVENDRA BANHEART: Cripple Crow
The weirdest and beardiest of 2005's fertile crop of singer-songwriters, San Franciscan Banheart's 22-track bilingual, multi-style sprawl hung together like a pleasingly addled daydream, and - in the track Little Boys - the year's most amusingly despicable lyric carried by a pretty tune.
29. M. I. A: Arular
As the daughter of a Tamil Tiger, the tour doco maker for Elastic and a sort of protege of Peaches, M. I. A was always going to present an interesting world view. So it made sense that her album was a tough, exotic mix of influences from New York, Rio and Kingston, full of bleak, bouncing, basement beats and street-savvy slang.
30. OASIS: Don't Believe The Truth
The Gallagher brothers were once again stealing from all over on their sixth album, but unlike its immediate predecessors, this one sounded surprisingly inspired. About three albums too late to prove anything but it offered enough variety, stylistic curiosities, and decent tunes to suggest the sun hasn't yet set on this Britrock institution.