Even in its most accessible moments, Illinois is an overwhelming album in every sense. 22 tracks, 75 minutes and some of the song titles are dangerously close to being paragraphs. On top of this, the arrangements of each song are complex enough to be albums in their own right. Choirs, bells, horns, and banjos populate Stevens' landscape on what is without question the best record of 2005.
With the intention of releasing an album about each of the 50 states, Stevens is going to be spending a lot of time in the library, but his research pays off on Illinois. An incredibly detailed historical record, this album could serve admirably as an Illinois travel guidebook. Stevens covers everything, from the invention of the Ferris Wheel and Superman to less celebratory things like a detailed retelling of the serial killings of John Wayne Gacy, Jr. The latter is the most emotionally wrenching song on the album, as Stevens' hushed singing and sympathetic lyrics ("In my best behaviour, I am really just like him") do the impossible by returning Gacy's legacy from monster to human. With this same delicacy Stevens approaches all his subjects, affording him the opportunity to view things with critical distance, and at the same time making the album extremely personal.
Simply put, Sufjan Stevens has created a masterpiece with Illinois, and has set the bar very high for the 48 albums he has left finish his 50-state project. Of course, we can assume that Stevens won't have time to do them all. We can only hope he does.
The prospects for conscious rap in 2005 seemed slim. With the Black Eyed Peas completely abandoning their thoughtful side for ridiculous tripe like "My Humps" and Public Enemy skating dangerously close to becoming a caricature of themselves, one emcee stepped to the plate and delivered a classic, thought-provoking album. That emcee is the Chicago-bred Common, who, along with some help from his friend Kanye West, put together one the year's best albums, as well as the best of his 13 year career. While West's album Late Registration will top many best-of lists this year, his true triumph in 2005 was producing Be.
Common's lyrics are both introspective and socially aware throughout the album, as he plays the role of foil to the assembly line of gangster and pop rap saturating the market of late. While West's beats are a great compliment, they're just the canvas for Common's soul-bearing, lyrical masterpieces. From the storytelling of the courtroom drama "Testify" to the lyrical word play and introspection of "The Corner," Common's deft touch with his songs is something to behold.
Picaresque represents an already great band becoming even better. Originally merely a decent alt-country/folk-pop band, on Picaresque, The Decemberists complete their transformation to pop savants. Equally comfortable playing a horn-driven political tirade as they are an aching acoustic number or an eight minute accordion freak out, the band runs through a gamut of styles without faltering.
Musical dexterity aside, the band's greatest strength is its front man, Colin Meloy. His quirky delivery perfectly meshes with his gorgeous lyrics. Meloy, who has a degree in creative writing, manages to give the album an almost literary feel, taking you on a journey through the lives of pompous aristocrats, industrial revolution labourers, awkward teenagers and pirates trapped in whales.
Though not particularly groundbreaking, Picaresque is a rare album where it's impossible to tell if the lyrics or the music are the best part.
Sleater-Kinney's seventh album, The Woods, starts with an explosion as guitarist Carrie Brownstein plugs in and proceeds to go insane. Soon her thrashings are joined by Janet Weiss's thundering drums and Corin Tucker's trademark banshee howl. Within these first few seconds of "The Fox," Sleater-Kinney slap you in the face, dump cold water on you and demand your undivided attention.
From its visceral start to its last note it's clear The Woods is something special. Instead of following the poppy vibe of their last album, One Beat, Sleater-Kinney turn up their amps, sludge up their production and just plain rock out. Though some may find a Riot Grrl band embracing the bombast of '70s rock surprising, the shift actually plays to Sleater-Kinney's considerable strengths.
Every member of the band shines on The Woods. Escaping the band's former punk confines allows Brownstein to truly display her chops. Weiss is finally free to go nuts behind her kit, making The Woods a percussive monster. Tucker's vocals also find a new light here, easily taking up the role of Robert Plant to Brownstein's Jimmy Page.
Refusing to settle down during its length, The Woods isn't the most accessible thing Sleater-Kinney has ever done but it is their best.
The Hold Steady--Separation Sunday
There is no more confusing moment in rock this year than when The Hold Steady lead singer Craig Finn's voice kicks in at the beginning of "Hornets! Hornets!" A strangled, tuneless lyric begins, immediately followed by a riff that could have come right out of a Black Crowes song. For the next 42 minutes, The Hold Steady own you.
On the strength of late-night adventures and booze-drenched storytelling--not to mention their brilliant 2004 album Almost Killed Me--The Hold Steady put out the best straight ahead rock albums of the year with Separation Sunday. Perfecting the grungy New York punk sound and blending it with echoes of classic rock, this Brooklyn based band turn stories of seedy city night life into sing along anthems. Finn's singing is so bad that it's hard not to fall in love with it, and Tad Kubler's guitar riffs buzz with enough intensity to make Franz Ferdinand blush. You won't have more fun listening to a record this year.