10. M. Ward – Transistor Radio
This is a quirky album, and sounds sometimes like it should be coming from my grandfather’s radio. Ultimately it was played on very little radio at all, and so went the way of many good indie albums and didn’t get enough said about it, but M. Ward is a masterful songwriter. He does things his way for better or worse, and I respect that. This one started out slow for me, but got better and better as the year wore on.
9. The Decemberists – Picaresque
I’ve had a like/dislike affair with the Decemberists. They are problematic because I don’t often want to listen to songs about pirates and chimney sweeps, but I can’t deny the brilliance at work here. They are geeks to be sure, but extremely lovable geeks, and they deserve every inch of the stage they are playing on. This is my favorite in their discography, and now that they’ve signed to a major you can expect even more things Decembery.
8. John Vanderslice – Pixel Revolt
One of my most pleasant discoveries this year. The plinking piano, humming organ, and the acoustics of his pure voice make the production of Pixel Revolt all that much more titillating. Not all songs hit, but those that do, hit the center. The next time I’m driving through the mountains in the dark, thinking about the craziness, sadness, and loveliness of life, this is what will be playing on my iPod.
7. Ben Folds – Songs for Silverman
Oh, stop rolling your eyes! Because we know what we can expect from Ben Folds, we forget that we are getting excellence. His is a lightning bolt wonder on the piano, and an equally formidable songwriter. He is growing older, wiser, and I really enjoy hearing the songs of this thirty-something Ben. Maybe because I’m almost there myself. A highlight for me was his touching elegy to Elliott Smith.
6. Iron and Wine – Woman King
Yeah, yeah, its an EP, I know. But I don’t care. This was the year that Sam Beam opened up to further experimentation, and he took large strides on this project—making grittier, bolder music with that same lyricism I love. Besides, when has a guy with a beard as terrific and full as his ever released an unlistenable album? (Clay Aiken hasn’t grown a beard has he?)
5. My Morning Jacket – Z:
This band is why we can definitively say that the South still rocks (there has been some descent since the untimely death of Ronnie VanZant)! Bury your pimp cups and take out your diamond studded crunk teeth, there is a new king of cotton. Jim James’ reverb soaked voice delivers on all levels. Z improves upon It Still Moves in every way and shows that they’re no one-trick pony. This album is olfactory candy.
4. Jose Gonzales – Veneer:
I guess technically this came out in Sweden pre-2005, but I set my watch to Mountain Standard Time, and it didn’t drop in the US until this year. Jose is the first person to truly channel the departed spirit of Nick Drake and build onto it in meaningful ways. Veneer left me in awe after the first few songs and was perhaps my most pleasant discovery of the year.
3. Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning:
This was the first dramatic statement of 2005. Conor Oberst has been hailed by some as the next and only troubadour to fill the shoes of Bob Dylan. That is a tall order for anyone to live up to, especially in these times, but if this album is at all a foreboding of his life’s body of work, I’m invested.
2. Andrew Bird – The Mysterious Production of Eggs:
This was an easy #2 for me. This guy could win a whistle-off over most of the songbirds in the Western Hemisphere. I first heard him before Weather Systems came out and I remember comparing his voice to a mix between Rufus Wainwright and Stephen Malkmus. For that reason alone he is worth checking out. Bird is a rare combination between gifted producer, expert musician, and exceptional songwriter. This album is a wellspring of joy from start to finish.
1. Sufjan Stevens – Illinois:
Everything else good that came out this year are mere Scotty Pippens to this Michael Jordan. Illinois was so grandiose, so full of life and “pageantry” (as Sufjan puts it) that I scarcely know where to begin. The day it came out I listened to from start to finish three times. I dare you to find a weakness in it! This is an album that is so literary, so lyrically dense, so complex, that you might, at first glance, think it a pompous charlatan. But it isn’t. It is so melodic, so accessible, and so full of life and color that it deserves every last lick of hype that its received this year. Well-done Sufjan, on making the top notch on this list that no-one will read.