It's been estimated that some 30,000 records get released every year. There's so much music out there that no one -- no matter how much time, money, access, or enthusiasm -- can hope to keep up. But that doesn't mean our stable of music critics haven't tried. Collectively, we heard hundreds of the year's best records and have compiled personal lists of the crop's cream. Popular music is our most democratic, most pluralistic art form. Every year-end list is a state-of-the-culture address. Here's what our 2005 sounded like:
1. Separation Sunday -- The Hold Steady (Frenchkiss): The next three records on this list have tons to say about the world we're living in, but this intricate concept album from a Brooklyn guitar band mostly illuminates a world of its own creation. While his comrades are busy cribbing classic-rock guitar and piano riffs, songwriter supreme Craig Finn spins a chronologically complex, intellectually addictive, and emotionally engrossing tale about a Catholic high school girl sucked down a drug-culture rabbit hole and onto a 16-year, cross-country journey back to salvation, with Sopranos-worthy subplots ("Charlemagne in Sweatpants") along the way. Mixing up their mythologies and pushing them out through p.a. systems, the Hold Steady concoct a twisty good-girl-gone-bad narrative that plays like a rock-and-religion version of Mulholland Dr., albeit with a much happier ending.
2. Arular -- M.I.A. (XL): It was absolutely no surprise to see this Sri Lankan/British import fail to cross over into the American mainstream. No matter: Fusing Jamaican dancehall, Brazilian baille funk, American hip-hop, and British techno and grime into something as spellbindingly new as it is utterly familiar, this homemade polyglot pop is an instant dance party. Twentysomething Maya Arulpragasm may not have completely sorted out her conflicted feelings -- terrorist or freedom fighter? -- about her estranged Tamil Tiger father, but in the crossfire of global pop genres, political bullhorn lyrics, lovely double-dutch melodies, and utter confusion, she fashioned something more important: the year's most undeniably crucial album.
3. Late Registration -- Kanye West (Roc-a-Fella): While Kanye West's masterful 2004 debut The College Dropout was built around high-concept anthems ("We Don't Care," "All Falls Down," "Jesus Walks"), the lyrical profundity of this far sneakier follow-up is almost casual. It's in the litany of mundane social ills on the sadly beautiful "Heard 'Em Say"; the Randy Newman-esque satire of pimp-rap and R. Kelly-R&B sleaze on "Celebration"; the incredibly gentle counterpoint to Houston hip-hop's myopic content on "Drive Slow." Instead, Late Registration is more immediately bracing as music: Bringing in pop producer Jon Brion as a collaborator, this is West's attempt to make a hip-hop album with the opulent soulfulness of a classic Stevie Wonder or Curtis Mayfield disc. Mission accomplished.
4. Black Dialogue -- The Perceptionists (Def Jux): This two-MCs-and-one-DJ Boston group is not your typical indie-rap outfit. Lyrically, they're neither obscure nor overtly confessional; musically, they're a return to hip-hop's head-bobbing basics. They're more a cross between late-'80s political rap like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions and the smoother early-'90s boho hip-hop of Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest. Black Dialogue has a little less musical juice than the former but a worldview that's more grounded and more expansive. Funniest song of the year: "Career Finders," which offers job counseling for gangsta rappers.
5. Man Like Me -- Bobby Pinson (RCA): I've long been a defender of big, bad mainstream country music against its mostly knee-jerk detractors, and I think the genre's in better artistic shape right now than ever in my listening lifetime. But even I can't imagine this individualistic, gruff-voiced songwriter having much of a chance at lasting Nashville stardom. Which is too bad, because Bobby Pinson's debut album is a wonder. More than anyone else on either side of country's mainstream/alternative divide, Pinson respects the touchstones of country music -- small-town life, simple Christian faith, high school sweethearts, family heritage -- while investigating them fiercely. And no one else in music right now redeems red-state religiosity so convincingly.
6. Bang Bang Rock and Roll -- Art Brut (Fierce Panda import): Like Brit-rock heroes Pulp, but more crude, more punk, maybe even funnier, this band of London never-will-bes are too cranky to be trendy ("Yes, this is my singing voice/It's not irony"), and besides, they have more important things on their mind: "We're gonna be the band that writes the song/That makes Israel and Palestine get along!" Maybe not, but they sure have plenty to say about old girlfriends, new girlfriends ("I've seen her naked! Twice!"), younger siblings, poor bedroom performance, and museum etiquette, among other topics.
7. Little Fugitive -- Amy Rigby (Signature Sounds): It's sad that Rigby's bid at a Nashville songwriting career failed, because nobody writes sharper songs about love and sex on the wrong side of 40. Oh well, country radio's loss can be your gain. On her best album since her career-making 1996 debut Diary of a Mod Housewife, Rigby is all over the place: a new husband's ex-wife, her identification with Rasputin ("In 1981, I withstood similar attack/I got hit but I came back"), a dream about Joey Ramone, old flings, needy men, that exasperating thing called love. Her fizzy voice is as charmingly limited as ever and, as always, bolstered by bull's-eye phrasing.
8. The Woods -- Sleater-Kinney (Sub Pop): The best American guitar band of their generation, they make a bid for reinvention by cranking up the amps and delivering the most fuzzed-out, most distorted, heaviest, and most effed-up record of their career. It falls well short of past career peaks Call the Doctor, Dig Me Out, and One Beat, but along the way it suggests that as long as Corin Tucker's voice, Carrie Brownstein's guitar, and Janet Weiss' drums are the parts that form the whole, it's impossible to make a less than stellar record.
9. Kerosene -- Miranda Lambert (Epic): Who could have predicted that a third-place finisher on cable's Nashville Star -- a small-town Texas girl with pin-up looks -- would pen the class-rage anthem of the year? Or that, after ripping off Steve Earle's "I Feel Alright" and ripping it apart on that title single, the rest of her smart, tough, almost entirely self-written debut album would be almost as strong? Pop music: where the unexpected always happens.
10. Extraordinary Machine -- Fiona Apple (Epic): Here's an album of confessional singer-songwritery break-up songs for people who are skeptical of such things, because Fiona Apple sure seems skeptical of them. Apple's bright latticework lyrics are full of uncertainty and sardonic self-doubt and are put over by a singer with a sharp feel for the theatrical and jazzy. For someone so smart and so demanding, she's also kind. But that doesn't mean she isn't merciless when she wants to explicate a relationship gone awry. ("I opened my eyes while you were kissing me once/More than once/And you looked as sincere as a dog.")
Honorable Mention: Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike -- Gogol Bordello (Side One Dummy); There's More Where That Came From -- Lee Ann Womack (MCA); Stairs & Elevators -- Heartless Bastards (Fat Possum); Get Behind Me Satan -- The White Stripes (V2); Run the Road -- Various Artists (Vice); You Could Have It So Much Better -- Franz Ferdinand (Domino); The Sunset Tree -- Mountain Goats (4AD); Be -- Common (Geffen); This Right Here Is Buck 65 -- Buck 65 (V2); Celebration Castle -- The Ponys (In the Red).
Top 10 singles: "George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People" -- The Legendary K.O.; "Alcohol" -- Brad Paisley; "Heard 'Em Say" -- Kanye West; "Kerosene" -- Miranda Lambert; "1 Thing" -- Amerie; "I May Hate Myself in the Morning" -- Lee Ann Womack; "Random" -- Lady Sovereign; "Hate It or Love It (G-Unit Remix)" -- 50 Cent & The Game; "Since U Been Gone" -- Kelly Clarkson; "Stay Fly" -- Three 6 Mafia.
1. Black Sheep Boy -- Okkervil River (Jagjaguwar): Driven less by narrative than by themes of prodigality and responsibility, this concept album based loosely on the life of doomed singer Tim Hardin towered above higher-profile releases by similar-minded artists such as the Decemberists and the Mountain Goats. It expands Okkervil River's sound well beyond the sleepily eccentric Americana of past releases, granting them a much greater range and sophistication to highlight Will Sheff's intense vocals and intelligent songwriting. No album combined matters of the heart and of the head quite so naturally or overwhelmingly.
2. Separation Sunday -- The Hold Steady (Frenchkiss): Channeling the Beats via Jesus' Son-era Denis Johnson, the Hold Steady's Craig Finn writes skewed story-songs set among the junkies and hoodrats of Minneapolis, who contemplate Catholicism and Kate Bush between highs. Meanwhile, the band cops inspiration from classic-rock sources like Springsteen and Fleetwood Mac, creating an enormous sound for these big urban tales. Perhaps the only album this year that'll make you dig out your old Bob Seger LPs.
3. Twin Cinema -- The New Pornographers (Matador): Chief Pornographer A.C. Newman's consistency threatens to become boring: This makes three uniformly excellent albums he's made with this binational superdupergroup, and, like its two predecessors, it seems like it's untoppable. I keep expecting him to flounder, and he keeps refusing to write a bad song.
4. The Woods -- Sleater-Kinney (Sub Pop): Six albums without a hit or even much of a following beyond a coterie of enamored fans and critics, Sleater-Kinney go for broke by changing record label and producer, bolstering their sharp punk style with mountains of feedback and indulging Carrie Brownstein's guitar-goddess jones on the 11-minute sex epic "Long Time for Love." The result is an album that's among the year's best and most adventurous. Too bad nobody beyond enamored fans noticed.
5. Alligator -- The National (Rough Trade): The year's ultimate grower: Underestimated upon release, this Ohio band's third full-length made more sense after repeated listens, when Matt Berninger's oddball lyrics and fevered delivery revealed the dark humor behind the depressive veneer.
Honorable Mention: Bang Bang Rock and Roll -- Art Brut (Fierce Panda import), Illinois -- Sufjan Stevens (Asthmatic Kitty), Late Registration -- Kanye West (Roc-a-Fella ), Arular -- M.I.A. (XL), Apologies to the Queen Mary --Wolf Parade (Sub Pop).
1. Dinosaur, You're Living All Over Me, Bug -- Dinosaur Jr. (Merge reissues): Please allow a pedestrian but very true statement: This is my favorite band of all time. You're Living All Over Me (1987) was this eventual writer and music geek's life-changing album. Years later, I can still listen to it straight through without a tinge of boredom. You might even say that it continues to excite me. In the original J. Mascis/Lou Barlow/Murph line-up, Dinosaur Jr. had a heavy hand in creating several underground genres of the future: indie rock, alternative country (listen to the debut), plus the re-embracement of '70s metal. The debut (1985) and You're Living All Over Me are very different albums, though they are as seminal as anything produced by Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü, or the Replacements (or anyone) in the '80s. The wheels had begun to fall off byBug (1988), relegating it to a lowly "great" status.
2. Secret Migration -- Mercury Rev (V2): Everyone loves getting a lot when they're not expecting much. I was expecting next to nothing from this once-mind-blowing band that had seemingly settled into less adventurous territory 15 years into the game. Whoops. They went and pulled off a downright beautiful and grandiose pop album.
3. 4 -- Major Stars (Twisted Village): Rock musicians tend to peak early in their careers. Major Stars are the exception to this rule. Wayne Rogers and Kate Biggers had been making and peddling mostly obscure fringe rock and noise for almost 20 years when they formed this fully realized psychedelic, solo-happy, barnstorm of a band back in 1998. It got better -- exponentionally -- with each album. If Sonic Youth removed all arty pretensions (fat chance) and reemerged as a jam band (not in the dirty-word sense), it would approach what the Major Stars leave laying on the cutting-room floor.
4. Children of Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the Second Psychedelic Era 1976 -- 1996 -- Various Artists (Rhino): That this set claims to represent an era or movement is a misnomer. The package's honorable accomplishment lies outside of the several forgettable inclusions that fall into the late-'70s/'80s garage-psych revival (Chesterfield Kings, the Fleshtones). There are many styles covered: '80s college rock, '80s American indie rock, British jangle pop, New Zealand pop, L.A.'s Paisley Underground, etc. Do yourself a favor and get floored by powerful early versions of the Church, the Screaming Trees, and the Bangles, or get seduced by the flawless pop of the Chills and the Posies. And that's merely scratching the surface.
5. Closing In -- Early Man (Matador Records): Early Man's debut three-song teaser EP sounded like uninspired indie-metal fakers indecisive about which strain of real metal to plagiarize. But this full-length debut proved I was dead wrong in that unfair assumption. The metal record of 2005.
Honorable Mention: The Runners Four -- Deerhoof (Kill Rock Stars); Celebration Castle -- The Ponys (In the Red); Cardinal -- Cardinal (Wishing Tree reissue); Broc's Cabin/Mariposa -- Rein Sanction (Sub Pop reissue); Never Let Us Speak Of It Again -- Out Hud (Kranky).
1. Saw Mill Man -- Cast King (Locust Music)/You Ain't Talkin' to Me -- Charlie Poole (Columbia/Legacy box set): Overlooked 79-year-old country singer Cast King (who, legend has it, cut a few songs at Sun in the '50s) surveys the world from his perch atop Alabama's Old Sand Mountain and finds it sadly wanting on this astonishing curveball from Chicago's eclectic Locust label. Meanwhile, Charlie Poole's music marks the rough-and-tumble times of the late '20s. Poole's indelible, ramblin' banjo licks and sonorous growl provided respite from the cold reality of the American Depression; today his music sounds no less pertinent.
2. Late Registration -- Kanye West (Roc-a-Fella): In a year that yielded so many unexpected rap pleasures (Young Jeezy's "Go Crazy," Lil Wayne's "Hustler Musik," and the entire Hustle & Flow phenomenon), Kanye West nevertheless stole the show with his sophomore album. "Gold Digger" got me moving. "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" made me think. But West's unscripted outburst on NBC's Hurricane Katrina telethon sealed the deal: I love this man.
3. Weird Tales of the Ramones -- The Ramones (Rhino box set): Three CDs and a DVD bundled up in a weird, wacky comic book, this box set is just dumb enough to make you yuk out loud yet sophisticated enough to share coffee-table space with the photography books and stack of New Yorkers. If you're a fan, you probably already possess these recordings, but you'll buy this one for the beautifully wrought accoutrements.
4. The King Khan & BBQ Show -- The King Khan & BBQ Show (Goner Records): Brazilian and Canadian musicians (who recorded in Germany), the King Khan & BBQ Show are an utterly confounding group. Trying to decipher the details is like peering through Alice's looking glass: Sometimes they appear in blackface; other times, they wear ghostly white makeup. Their songs -- about inane activities like a "Fish Fight" and "Waddlin' Around" -- reverberate with old-school cool and modern primitivism alike. Musically, they might be the Monks' illegitimate children, weaned on Bo Diddley records and horror-flick soundtracks. Whatever the lineage, their trashcan beat proved irresistible during their Gonerfest and Rockening appearances in Memphis this year.
5. Run-D.M.C., King of Rock, Raising Hell, Tougher Than Leather -- Run-D.M.C. (Arista/Legacy reissues): Recorded in the mid-to-late '80s, shortly before rap became a million-dollar industry, these rudimentary, albeit innovative, albums epitomize the DIY aesthetic of the New York scene. Utilitarian boasts like "Sucker MCs" quickly gave way to rap-rock collaborations like "Walk This Way," the catalyst that pushed hip-hop into the pop mainstream. With Tougher Than Leather, Run-D.M.C. rendered itself obsolete, although two decades later, the group's rise (and fall) still sounds explosive -- particularly in comparison to the current crop of cookie-cutter thug superstars like G-Unit and Terror Squad.
Honorable Mention: One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Groups Lost & Found --Various Artists (Rhino box set); Brick -- The Talking Heads (Rhino box set); Transistor Radio -- M Ward (Merge); The Singing Drifter -- Blind Arvella Gray (Conjuroo); Lookaftering -- Vashti Bunyan (DiCristina/Fat Cat).
1. Kerosene -- Miranda Lambert (Epic): No, I never expected to have the third-place finisher of Nashville Star's first season anywhere near my Top 10 list, much less my favorite album of the year. But 2005 was a great year for country music and Lambert's album is best of them all: It rocks (the title track), weeps ("Greyhound to Nowhere"), and bounces ("Me and Charlie Talking"). Lambert, who just turned 22, defied Nashville tradition by writing or co-writing every song on it. Nashville fought back by making sure every single track sounds like one million bucks.
2. Man Like Me -- Bobby Pinson (RCA): The best-written songs this year can be found on this debut album by a Nashville songwriter turned singer. The images here -- short-fused cherry bombs and shotgun-blasted "Welcome" signs for claustrophobic small towns -- are as sharp as Springsteen in his prime. Pinson's gritty voice puts him outside Music Row's fast track, and that's fine, because it suits his darker approach.
3. Illinois -- Sufjan Stevens (Asthmatic Kitty): The indie-pop record of the year, no question, and its ambition to sum up a state is as outrageous as the resulting sound is deep and pleasurable. Sure, Stevens keeps inserting himself into the story, but it's not narcissistic or off-putting. And the small army of voices and instruments that support him find interesting ways to startle your ears.
4. Late Registration -- Kanye West (Roc-a-Fella): The best decision by a megalomaniacal pop star in 2005 goes to West for handing the production keys to his sophomore release to pop producer Jon Brion. The resulting orchestrated hip-hop might not get any cred from crunk devotees, but that's their problem; this album sounds great.
5. Tough All Over -- Gary Allan (MCA): Last year, Gary Allan's wife committed suicide, and Tough All Over is a response record that, incredibly, never begs for sympathy or wallows in self-pity. Allan's cool tenor is a wonder, and "Nickajack Cave," a song about Johnny Cash's attempted suicide, rips your head off.
Honorable Mention: A Bigger Bang -- The Rolling Stones (Virgin); Celebration Castle -- The Ponys (In the Red); Somebody's Miracle -- Liz Phair (Columbia); The Story of My Life -- Deana Carter (Vanguard); Fever Dreams -- Boondogs (Max Recordings).