No Problem

This year it was easy to pick the top 10 records. A top 11, even.

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Being a snooty rock critic, there have been years when I struggled to come up with 10 albums for my best-of survey. Not so for 2005. I played fast and loose with the concept and lumped some similar albums together under single entries. Plus, in the tradition of Spinal Tap, I have submitted my Top 11.

1. Bill Frisell: East West (Nonesuch). Regular readers of this annual Best-of column will note that guitarist/composer Bill Frisell is a regular. I make no apologies. He's the most original and engaging instrumentalist out there, a man who straddles jazz, country, rock and world music with endless aplomb. East West is a double-disc live set (one show was recorded in Oakland, the other in New York). Performing with just bass and drums permits Frisell to really stretch out and even show off a bit (something he's been loath to do in recent years). His warbly tone is a singular marvel, his harmonic imagination endless, and he can raise would-be schlock ("People," "Shenandoah") to sublime heights.

2. Bettye LaVette: I've Got My Own Hell to Raise (Anti-); Various Artists: I Believe To My Soul (Rhino). Producer Joe Henry, a terrific solo artist in his own right, has sparked a mini-soul revival by guiding veteran rhythm & blues artists through recordings that resonate with authenticity. His approach is anything but fancy; he just has top players lay down rhythm tracks that accentuate the singing. Motor City chanteuse LaVette wraps her gruff pipes around a set of tunes by female songwriters, from Lucinda Williams' "Joy" to Fiona Apple's "Sleep to Dream." I Believe to My Soul gathers a couple of songs each by Billy Preston, Allen Toussaint, Mavis Staples, Irma Thomas and Ann Peebles (who should be next in line for the complete Henry treatment).

3. Dizzy Gillespie/Charlie Parker: Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945 (Uptown Jazz); Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane: At Carnegie Hall (Blue Note); John Coltrane: One Up, One Down/Live at the Half Note (Impulse). You could argue that I'm cheating here, but fact is, these three live albums all represent music released for the first time in 2005. The Gillespie/Parker disc is probably the biggest find — it's been called the Rosetta Stone of Bebop — because it captures two pioneers of modern jazz in a live setting, playing extended versions (compared to the studio originals) of songs from their nascent bop repertoire. The Monk/Coltrane set was recorded in '57, when sax man Trane was apprenticing with pianist/composer Monk. The third, and best, catches Coltrane with his famed quartet doing his best to blow the Half Note club down to the ground in '65.

4. Eels: Blinking Lights and Other Revelations (Vagrant). Singer/songwriter Mark Oliver Everett, aka Eels, essentially tells the harrowing life story of a solitary man (presumably himself) on the two-CD, 33-song Blinking Lights. The album is melodically rich, and Everett's raspy, world-weary voice is a great narrative instrument. Most of the disc is on the subdued side, with roots flourishes here and there. Somewhat miraculously, Everett has made an album that's both epic and intimate.

5. Dave Douglas: Keystone; Mountain Passages; Live at The Bimhuis (Greenleaf Music/Koch). When you run your own label, you don't have to restrict yourself to one CD a year. And so we get three terrific CDs from trumpeter/composer/conceptualist/label head Douglas. Keystone, inspired by the work of silent film actor Roscoe "Fatty Arbuckle," brings the post-In a Silent Way funky stuff (featuring Uri Caine choppin' it up on the Fender Rhodes); Mountain Music, Douglas' take on the Landino music of the Italian mountains, has an exotic, vaguely Euro flair; and the double disc Live at the Bimhuis (available only at finds Douglas' quintet performing an expansive jazz set at a venue in Amsterdam.

6. Jason Moran: Same Mother (Blue Note). Jazz's most original contemporary pianist puts his own extremely idiosyncratic spin on the blues with his regular rhythm section (bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Watts) and guest guitarist Marvin Sewell. Moran takes plenty of liberty with the genre, but comes up with something far more interesting than the standard 12-bar fare.

7. Brendan Benson: The Alternative to Love (V2). I'll always be a sucker for no-nonsense post-Beatles power-pop, and Benson turned in the best such outing this year. The album flows from one punchy hook to another and, unlike many power-pop efforts that are too one-dimensional, brings together a variety of tempos and feels ("The Pledge" is unabashedly Spector-esque). Of course, the effervescent harmony vocals are on hand to add just the right amount of sonic fizz.

8. Jimbo Mathus: Knockdown South (Knockdown South). Singer-guitarist Mathus, a former Squirrel Nut Zipper and sideman for Buddy Guy, relocated to his hometown of Clarksdale, Miss., and opened a recording studio. Taking his sweet time, Mathus concocted this rugged blend of hardscrabble R&B, hill-country blues, swamp-rock, demented boogie and a pinch of honky-tonk country. Knockdown South (released on Mathus' own Knockdown South label) has that loose, off-the-cuff flavor that you hardly ever hear anymore.

9. Ry Cooder: Chávez Ravine (Nonesuch). Arch Latin-o-phile Cooder pulls off his most ambitious outing yet. This single disc tracks the demise in the '50s of the Los Angeles neighborhood Chávez Ravine, which was inhabited mostly by Mexican-Americans. Cooder and his revolving cast of players and singers stir together a dizzying cauldron of Latino styles, blended them with rock, dub, jazz, R&B, spoken word and more. This is no Cooder guitar showcase — he hasn't played that angle in years — but it's a heady concept record that hits a lot more than it misses.

10. Russ Johnson: Save Big (OmniTone). Trumpeter Johnson, a real comer on the New York "downtown" scene, put together a dynamic album that split the difference between post-bop and outside blowing. With a band that also includes ace alto saxophonist John O'Gallagher and the high-energy rhythm team of bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Mark Ferber, Save Big oozes passion and virtuosity.

11. The Detroit Cobras: Baby (Bloodshot). Led by sultry singer Rachel Nagy, who reminds me of a young Chrissie Hynde, the Motor City quintet takes an array of obscure old R&B and rock 'n' roll songs and turns them into garage-rock roof-raisers. The disc is ready and waiting for your next house party. Also includes all seven songs from a 2003 EP, giving the disc 20 tracks in all.

Too good not to mention: Common, Be (Geffen), hip-hop with imagination and integrity; Lizz Wright, Dreaming Wide Awake (Verve Forecast), dusky folk-jazz; Will Bernard: Directions to My House (Dreck to Disc), eclectic jazz guitar; Kanye West, Late Registration (Def Jam), undeniably good; Greg Osby: Channel Three (Blue Note), the brilliant alto saxophonist in a trio setting; Colossus: West Oaktown (Om), silky, jazzy hip-hop; Hal: Hal (Rough Trade), confectionary Brit-pop.

About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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