catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 23 :: 2005.12.16 — 2005.12.29


Good music of 2005

What a great year for music! I haven?t been this excited about the direction of popular music since the early 1990s. I?m not sure why. Every year, there?s always a wealth of good stuff. It just seems that this year, more of it is getting heard.

This summer, my local rock radio station that had been playing standard Prog Rock fare switched to an increasingly popular radio format they call ?on shuffle?. The term refers to the mixing up of one?s digital musical library in iTunes or on your digital mp3 player so that it plays a variety of songs at random. The idea is that people?s taste in rock music is not nearly as limited as radio often reflects and that perhaps people get bored of hearing the same sounds and styles. The response to the format shift has been very positive. Personally, I have stopped complaining that my car doesn?t have a CD player because 95% of the music that I hear on the radio now is good.

It appears that the digital music wave is having a big impact on the quality of music that is getting into the hands of listeners. It is a testament to the growing influence of the internet and digital technology that commercial radio is jumping on board. The success of websites such as Pitchfork and MySpace is changing the way the music industry thinks about the listener and what constitutes a potentially successful new band.

Thanks to the Internet, you will once again be able to read through several top ten albums lists on-line. If you are most interested in independent releases, you will check out Pitchfork or Metacritic. If you love singer-songwriters, Paste Magazine will certainly direct you to the best new releases of the year. In keeping with the personal reports-from-the-frontlines tone and reformation-of-culture focus of *cino, however, I?d like to just share the good albums that I?ve been listening to in 2005.

The albums that I was most excited about this year were Sufjan Steven?s Illinois and Kanye West?s Late Registration. Sufjan?s musical study of the Land of Lincoln offers a Brian Wilsonesque pallet of sounds and colors. Stevens rises to the challenge of depicting the city of big shoulders as well as the expansive flatlands feel of the state without neglecting the small personal reflections that make him such a gifted musical storyteller. Chicago landmarks, a notorious serial killer, major and minor historical events and figures weave in and out of Sufjan?s own personal experiences, infusing the stuff of state history exams and Illinois trivia with a deeper religious significance.

The state of Illinois had much to be proud of this year when it comes to music. Chicago southsider Kanye West continued to rise to new heights in 2005. Kanye?s ?Touch the Sky? tour is currently bringing hip hop to new levels of mass appeal and musical excellence. Not only is West changing the sound and face of hip hop, but his training in visual arts makes him especially equipped to affect the quality of music videos and live performance. Kanye?s live show combines new musical innovations with a visual element that rivals U2. I?ve already talked at length about Kanye West?s album in my *cino review, so I?ll just add that if you like Kanye West, you?ll love the live show.

Kanye West represents a blossoming Chicago hip hop scene that also includes one of today?s best rappers, Common. Common?s 2005 album, Be, may be even better than West?s Late Registration. Though not quite as popular, Be features the single, ?Go!?, which explores sexual fantasy without being exploitative. Common?s tasteful music video reflects Common?s sophisticated and very principled view of the African-American situation and life in general. Common raps about God and faith, limits the use of vulgarity and offers an alternative to the violent and sexually explicit language many rappers depend on for success. Be has the sound of an instant classic. With the help of Kanye West?s production, Common raps over soulful beats and warm-sounding samples that are reminiscent of the African American political climate before the onset of urban despair in the 80?s. Highlights include a great use of a stand-up bass in the opening track, an amazing beat and bass-line on ?The Corner? and an impassioned live performance on the Dave Chappelle show with Kanye West.

Outside of the hip hop world, many artists were troubled by world events of the last few years and dealt with such issues in their work. Though not as explicit as Green Day?s recent work, Neil Young and Depeche Mode released interesting music this year that explores God?s involvement in the religious struggles the world is facing. In the final song of Young?s Prairie Wind, the singer asks how all this strife and separation between people fits into God?s plan. Depeche Mode continues its questioning as well, wondering in the single, ?Precious?, if God will see our fragility through human eyes and act accordingly. Depeche Mode?s Playing the Angel and Neil Young?s Prairie Wind compliment Nick Cave and Tom Waits? 2004 releases, which dealt with similar subject matter.

2005 also brought some fun stuff. Two albums that I?ve had the most fun listening to this year are Deerhoof?s The Runners Four and Beck?s Guero. Deerhoof?s newest album may not sound as experimental as their earlier stuff, but they continue to produce a jumble of contrasting sounds—noisy guitars laying down a carpet of sound, above which clear vocals and unique melodies float. Deerhoof conjures up an old West Coast rock?n?roll sound that jumps in and out of emotional landscapes with apparent ease. Every song sounds like a new discovery. There are moments of supreme joy and freedom in The Runners Four. Beck?s Guero highlights the artist?s playful nature once again, but Beck is quite a bit more subdued than he once was. Sonically, the album seems to combine the colorful noises prevalent in Midnite Vultures with the lush warmth of Sea Change and the simplicity of Mutations. Beck is a living platform for the many sounds of American culture and Guero is a musical sampling of the sonic graffiti that peppers urban landscapes all over America.

I?m sure there are many more albums worth mentioning, but these are just a few that have had some staying power in my house this year. 2005 was such a great year that my expectations are raised for 2006. In 2006, Madonna will no doubt be in dance clubs all around the world. Radiohead will once again have something to say about contemporary culture and America?s relationship to the rest of the world. A little known band, Anathallo, will release another God-praising album and hopefully get some well-deserved attention from a wider audience. If the music of 2005 is any indication, we have every right to be optimistic.

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