Sweet 16



Tasty Tunes From 2005! Holiday time. Stocking stuffers, grab bags, gifts for friends, bosses, family members, and yourself. Year-end lists. Whatever. It's time for my assessment of new music from the past year. And though I haven't heard everything, from my vantage it was a bumper crop year for new music -- although if you listened to terrestrial radio, you might think otherwise. Some of it was from major labels. Go figure. But with the proliferation of MP3 players, why even bother with radio? I've had a grand time cobbling together set lists for my son's grade school parties, summer BBQs, NYC dinner soirees, and my yearly CD compilation for friends and relatives. In no particular order, my favorites released in 2005:

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (CYHSY) - An indie rock quintet from N.Y.C. that's as quirky as its name suggests. Not since Talking Heads' 77 have I heard something both odd -- in a good way -- and this refreshingly catchy. And lead singer Alec Ounsworth does share a bit of Mr. Byrne's yelping delivery and obtuse imagery, too. Bowie has proclaimed them and Arcade Fire cool -- not that either one needs his support, just his marketing budget.

Vashti Bunyan Lookaftering (Fat Cat) - 36 years after her much-sought-after debut Just Another Diamond Day, produced by Joe Boyd, comes her sophomore effort; a gorgeous folk-rock record so effortlessly engaging it slipped under the music radar of even many ardent musicologists. These songs float on gossamer threads of vocal perfection, with delicate acoustic guitar and the occasional piano or glockenspiel to add color.

Robert Plant & the Strange Sensation Mighty Rearranger (Sanctuary) - Wherein Mr. Plant revisits his folk-rock roots on Zep III and worldbeat explorations on Physical Graffiti. This release -- and his tour with his killer band -- was a master class in songwriting, execution, and production.

Kasabian Kasabian (RCA) - The debut by these U.K. lads has more in common with Shaun Ryder's Happy Mondays/Black Grape or Primal Scream than The Strokes, although they all share the same shabby dance grooves. Kick out the baggy jams!

Dwight Yoakam Blame The Vain (New West) - Though divorced from his long time producer/partner/lead guitarist Pete Anderson, the split and hook-up with a new band anchored by Keith Gattis' blazing git-tar reinvigorated his muse -- 12 self-penned gems. This is Bakersfield-styled hook-filled honky-tonk music with loud guitars and old school weepy ballads from my favorite LA-based cowboy.

Of Montreal The Sunlandic Twins (Polyvinyl) - Kevin Barnes hails from Athens, GA, and his ad hoc band borrows the sassiness of disco married to the '90s alt-pop rock sensibilities of Matthew Sweet. This is intelligent and challenging music that burrows deep into your noggin while you move yer feet.

Ali Farka Toure & Toumani Diabate In the Heart of the Moon (Nonesuch) - Indigenous to Mali, this hypnotic folk music sounds both familiar and far away, yet always invigorating. Two masters demonstrate to Westerners how one masters one's instrument.

Heartless Bastards Stairs and Elevators (Fat Possum/Ryko) - This power blues-tinged garage rock trio from Cincinnati, OH is fronted by the diminutive dynamo and twenty-seven year old singer/songwriter/guitarist Ms. Erika Wennerstrom. I say she's America's answer to P.J. Harvey, with more muscle, bigger pipes, and I bet she'd have your back in an alley fight.

The Coral The Invisible Invasion (Datasonic/Columbia)XCP-encoded software aside, this U.K. outfit's third CD was my favorite agro-alt-rock release of the year. It features more Beefheart exploration of song form and delivery than their first and second efforts.

The Redwalls de nove (Capitol) - Four scruffy lads from Illinois take the boozy swagger of early '70s U.K. rock. In fact, I thought this was a Ronnie Lane vocal from some obscure Faces tune I'd not heard.

Betty LaVette I've Got My Own Hell to Raise (Anti) - Michigan native and veteran R&B singer relegated to cult status gets a wonderful production assist from singer/songwriter Joe Henry and shows the young R&B set what great songs and gritty grooves will getcha.

Oasis Don't Believe the Truth (Epic) - It's hard not to snicker at all that the Gallagher brothers mine and mimic on their records, and this CD is no exception, but damn, they write and play catchy rock and roll tunes nonetheless. The additions of Gem Archer and Andy Bell have certainly reinvigorated things. And Ringo's son, Zak Starkey, on drums might have been one smooth, calculated move that worked. Turn it up!

Otis Taylor Below the Fold (Telarc) - Blues from a rusty gun with smoky vocals and inspired arrangements. This was the freshest blues sound to crisscross the crossroads in such a tired and overwrought genre.

Kaiser Chiefs Employment (Universal) - Great driven punky rock tunes like the single, "I Predict a Riot" and the hopelessly catchy "Na Na Na Na Naa" from this U.K.-based four-piece. In another era that might have been The Ramones, or The Jam, or at least The Damned. Well, let's give them a chance to get few more discs under their collective belts before those comparisons stick; but a fine release nonetheless.

Brad Mehldau Trio Day Is Done (Nonesuch)- Starting with Radiohead's "Knifes Out" nearly ruined it for me, yet another Radiohead song on one of his records, but that was just an attitude adjustment for the grooves and piano magic that lie ahead. The cover of UK cult folkie Nick Drake's "Day Is Done" is breathtaking.

Little Barrie We Are Little Barrie (Artemis) - Released way back in February -- yet another Brit act -- though this one is a London-based trio that mashes funk, rock, and butt-shaken blues grooves. And I hail young Barrie Cadogan's funky git-tar licks. Sure, they ape the Black Crowes, but who cares with tunes this tasty? I could even imagine them covering Humble Pie's "Hot & Nasty" on their next one and bet they'd turn it upside down.

Hands down, my favorite single of the year is the subtlety effusive, piano-driven ballad "Breathe Me" off of Colour the Small One (Systematic) by Australian-born singer/songwriter Sia. It was released abroad in 2004, but didn't hit our shores until it was included on the Six Feet Under, Vol. 2: Everything Ends compilation. Rarely is a song utilized more effectively in film or television than this song was on the closing sequence of the aforementioned HBO series-ending episode. It was one of those extraordinary moments when song and imagery meld into one seamless artistic statement. Then I saw her exceptional music video for the same song and I thought, my god, she's matched that magic with her own cinematic vision -- thousands of Polaroid photos flipped by the artist in this computer-assisted stop-motion piece. Track it down on the web and watch for yourself. Rarer is the video that matches the artistry of the song; a few come to mind. Sinead O'Connor's stunning take on Prince's "Nothing Compares to You" and Missy Elliot's"Work It," a hip-hop image-smashing mish-mash from a few short years ago. Come to think of it, few have left that indelible stamp on my memory like those three -- interesting that they were all songs by women.

"Here by the Window" -- my other favorite song of the year -- is by the San Fran-born, Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter Miranda Lee Richards. She was once upon a time Kirk Hammett's (of Metallica) guitar student and part of the The Brian Jonestown Massacre circus. Then in 2001 she found her own footing and got signed to Virgin, where she was being peddled as a waifish cover girl singer/songwriter. She's certainly much prettier, and much too talented, for that dead-end marketing niche. I suspect the label didn't know how to typecast her and probably dropped the ball. That CD, The Herethereafter, is a breathtaking ride of neo-folk-rock psychedelia with a little help from the finest popsters in L.A., including Jon Brion, Patrick Warren, David Campbell, et al. She's got a dreamy vocal thing like Mazzy Star meets Over the Rhine.

But back to her current material... I heard the piano-driven ballad "Window" while web surfing one day and decided she warranted further investigation. I played it over and over again, fixated by the beauty and simplicity of the song. I checked her touring schedule. Synchronicity. She was in town that very week for CMJ and playing the tiny but intimate Rockwood Musichall. And thankfully she played that soul-stirring song on the baby grand at the venue accompanied only by her electric guitarist. I bought her EP that she was selling at the gig just for that song. It got downloaded to my iPod immediately, where I still share it with anyone who puts on my headphones. I just pray that if she gets signed to a new label that they don't do a thing to this perfect track. Go to her site -- www.mirandaleerichards.com -- and check it out for yourself. I know I probably missed out on more amazing music. Let me know what you thought was 'pod worthy this year.