Common, Kanye on list of year's best listens


December 25, 2005


Music retailers ended 2005 by singing the blues: CD sales were down dramatically for the second time in five years, by 10 percent from the numbers in 2004. But don't feel too bad for the industry.

During the same period, digital music sales tripled, with more than 14 million albums sold via downloading in 2005 vs. 4.7 million a year ago.

From the perspective of this critic, how you get your music is irrelevant: The point is that there were as many great discs out there as ever, and while you might not have always known it from mainstream radio or MTV, it was becoming easier than ever to find them, sample them and buy them if you cared to.

With that in mind, whether your Christmas stocking included a record store gift certificate or a new MP3 player that you're just dying to load up with tunes, here are my Top 10 must-own albums of 2005.

1. Common, "Be" (Good Music/Geffen)

Superstar collaborations often disappoint, but the pairing of two Chicago hip-hop giants -- Common, the finest rapper this city has ever given us, and Kanye West, the most imaginative producer in pop music today -- prompted each to hit new heights. Common has never been more eloquent and insightful or stretched further as a rapper, surveying the state of the African-American community, and veering from the gritty realities of ("The Corner") to philosophical questions such as whether God is a woman ("Faithful").

2. LCD Soundsystem, "LCD Soundsystem" (DFA/Capitol)

Underground dance producer James Murphy's merger of post-punk art-rock and cutting-edge techno is simply irresistible, the rhythms are undeniable and the sense of humor is absolutely invigorating. Crank up "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House," "Movement" or "Disco Infiltrator" and just try to avoid pogoing around the living room.

3. Kanye West, "Late Registration" (Roc-A-Fella)

From the cover of Time magazine to his own outspoken pronouncements, West was in the news constantly through 2005, but his sophomore album actually justified the hype with a hooks- and strings-laden production crafted with Jon Brion and heartfelt raps about politics personal (as when West pays homage to his mother and grandmother) and global (as when he questions the exploitation of African diamond miners and whether the drug plague in America's inner cities is actually fostered by the government).

4. The Go! Team, "Thunder Lightning Strike" (Columbia)

Second only to LCD Soundsystem, this was the feel-good, blood-pumping dance record of the year, pairing Ian Parton's skillfully crafted grooves (a winning mix of indie noise-rock, New Wave and old-school bubblegum R&B, a la the Jackson Five) with firebrand frontwoman Ninja's double-dutch- and playground-inspired rhymes and chants.

5. Moby, "Hotel" (V2)

I know, I know: Moby just isn't cool anymore (and hasn't been since he sold all those tracks from 1999's multiplatinum "Play"), and he can't really sing. I don't care. The onetime "face of techno" remains a master of crafting melancholy moods, and I simply couldn't get the melodies of songs such as "Raining Again," "Beautiful," "Lift Me Up" and "Spiders" out of my head from the moment this album was released.

6. Ladytron, "Witching Hour" (Ryko)

The New Wave era of the late '70s and early '80s continued to inspire a lot of the best rock music in 2005, and this two-man, two-woman Liverpool quartet was among the best to build upon those early synthesized grooves, propulsive rhythms and electronic hooks. Ladytron has been a good band since its inception, but on its third and darkest release, it became a great one, and "International Dateline" was the second best single of 2005, after West's "Gold Digger."

7. Coldplay, "X&Y" (Capitol)

The New York Times declared Chris Martin and company the most "insufferable" band of the year, but it seems to me that honor belongs to U2. With its embrace of early '70s German art rock and ambient experiments a la David Bowie during his "Berlin phase," Coldplay brought an inventive new element to its sound (as U2 did circa "Achtung Baby") while delivering more of the heartbreakingly gorgeous hooks that have made it the best kind of arena-rock band (as U2 once was, circa Zoo TV).

8. The White Stripes, "Get Behind Me Satan" (V2)

Despite the presence of some piano and marimba, the heart of the Detroit duo's sound remains the rhythmic interplay between Jack White on guitar and vocals and Meg on drums. Here, the current rock scene's greatest minimalists delivered another killer set of blues-inflected garage rock, their strongest since "White Blood Cells" (2001).

9. System of a Down, "Mezmerize" & "Hypnotize" (Sony)

The multi-hyphenated, political-metal-rap-art-rock-Armenian-Christian band from L.A. issued its third album as two distinct discs released six months apart. Individually, each suffered from detours into the silly/scatological, much like the band's hero, Frank Zappa, often did. But if you combine the two and burn your own "best-of," cutting out the filler, you'll have one of the smartest, most creative and most infectious hard-rock albums ever made, and one that elevates this quartet to the pantheon of the greats. (The must-haves: tracks 2, 3, 8 and 9 from "Mezmerize" and 1, 3, 4 and 8 from "Hypnotize.")

10. The New Pornographers, "Twin Cinema" (Matador)

On their first two albums, this loosely knit indie-rock supergroup hardly lived up to the billing, but this time, key songwriters A.C. Newman and Dan Bejar seemed determine to outdo each other in a friendly and fruitful competition that produced one indelible power-pop gem after another ("Sing Me Spanish Techno," "The Bleeding Heart Show," "Streets of Fire"), all ably enhanced by the talents of a big band that included golden-throated Chicago vocalists Neko Case and Nora O'Connor.


If you still haven't found something on that list to send you hurtling toward the record store or downloading on your computer, here are the next 30 albums on my list:

11. The Warlocks, "Surgery" (Mute);

12. Leela James, "A Change Is Gonna Come" (Warner Bros.);

13. Gorillaz, "Demon Days" (Virgin);

14. Louis XIV, "The Best Little Secrets Are Kept" (Atlantic);

15. Damon & Naomi, "The Earth Is Blue" (20/20/20);

16. Low, "The Great Destroyer" (Sub Pop);

17. Spoon, "Gimme Fiction" (Merge);

18. The Black Eyed Peas, "Monkey Business" (A&M);

19. Chris Mills, "The Wall to Wall Sessions" (Ernest Jenning).

20. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, "Howl" (RCA);

21. The Decemberists, "Picaresque" (Kill Rock Stars);

22. The Redwalls, "De Nova" (Capitol);

23. Sigur Ros, "Takk" (Geffen);

24. Opeth, "Ghost Reveries" (Roadrunner);

25. Billy Corgan, "The Future Embrace" (Warner Bros.);

26. Four Tet, "Everything Ecstatic" (Domino);

27. Kaiser Chiefs, "Employment" (Universal);

28. High on Fire, "Blessed Black Wings" (Relapse);

29. L'Altra, "Different Days" (Hefty);

30. Marianne Faithfull, "Before the Poison" (Anti-).

31. Neil Young, "Prairie Wind" (Reprise);

32. The Detroit Cobras, "Baby" (Bloodshot);

33. Sinead O'Connor, "Throw Down Your Arms" (That's Why There's Chocolate and Vanilla);

34. Bob Mould, "Body of Song" (Yep Roc);

35. Fall Out Boy, "From Under the Cork Tree" (Island);

36. Danger Doom, "The Mouse and the Mask" (Epitaph);

37. ... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, "Worlds Apart" (Interscope); 38. Head of Femur, "Hysterical Stars" (Spin Art);

39. Pelican, "The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw" (Hydrahead);

40. (tie) Brian Eno, "Another Day on Earth" (Opal/Rykodisc) and John Cale, "Black Acetate" (Astralwerks).