Closing Out 2005: The Top Tunes
Thus, I'm more than happy to slam the door on 2005, but not before I wrap up with my favorite songs of the year, an annual tradition that for me dates all the way back to 1986. (Back then, the selection was...well, scroll down one post.)
As I write this, I'm listening to The Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane Live at Carnegie Hall, released earlier this year. Jazz, like wine and France, is one of those aspects of culture where I appreciate the thing itself but loathe its aficionados. But this time, the jazz snobs have it right--this is one HELL of a fine CD, passionate and powerful and seductive. Its backstory is almost as interesting as the music itself--the tapes of this hour-long performance were found earlier this year in an unmarked box by a Library of Congress researcher, and the sound quality is stunning--this is nothing short of a musical miracle. And given a little more time, I might even have named it my CD of the year.
No such luck, however. That honor goes this year to Ryan Adams' Jacksonville City Nights. Adams, like Stephen King, could probably benefit greatly from somebody telling him where to stop--the cat released three full-length CDs this year--but JCN is the best of the bunch. It's alt-country that's heavy on the country and easy on the alt-, and it sounds like it ought to be played out of a jukebox somewhere. Stuffed full of enough Southern-gothicisms to make Faulkner nod in appreciation--snakes and Pentecostal waters and daddies who've never said my name--this is the kind of disc that could make you feel drunk and lonely even if you were playing this at a beach party. And I mean that as a high compliment.
Song of the year--here's one out of left field. Sia's Breathe Me. What the hey...? Aren't you the dork that just sung the praises of Van friggin' Hagar, and now you're going all New Age emo-atmospheric on us? Yeah, but listen. The reason this was my favorite song of the year is in its association. This was the song playing at the end of the series finale of Six Feet Under, when one of the characters is driving away from her home in California toward a new life in New York. (A scene replicated on that CD cover, sort of--though if you were driving toward the sunset from California you'd be damp in a hurry.) Anyway, Six Feet Under represented some of the most overwrought, pretentious, mush-headed Cali pseudophilosophy I've ever seen on television--but I have never seen a series a) finish off on such a graceful note and b) redeem its entire existence in a six-minute coda. Think about how every great TV series ended off, and more often than not, you've got a letdown--NYPD Blue basically just clocked out for the day, Cheers ended with a weird camera angle that made it look like Sam Malone was about to get mugged when he told a shadowy figure "We're closed," St. Elsewhere ended with the inspired but still weird notion that the whole series was a dream in an autistic kid's head. But Six Feet Under--which spent its entire run demonstrating how death is always with us--gave us a moving coda to each one of its characters, showing not how they lived, but how they died--years, in some cases decades, in the future. And when Claire--the girl in the picture above and the final living member of the cast--finally passes on in 2081 or so, she slips away in bed, with pictures of her beloved family and friends around her, the final grace notes on a life obviously well lived. And Sia's Breathe Me--remember, this is an entry about a freakin' song--captures the emotional crescendo perfectly, building from a spare piano figure to an orchestral thunder, and from there to a final, permanent fadeout. A perfect piece of music.
Lest I run the risk of actually being accused of having taste, let's start the best of the rest of 2005 with a couple chunks of lunkheaded genius:
-Disturbed, "Land of Confusion"--Genesis on steroids. Like Guns n' Roses take on "Live and Let Die" a decade-plus ago, Disturbed doesn't do much with this beyond turn up the distortion on the guitars, the growl on the voice, and the threat of violence on the percussion. But that's enough. On the Opie & Anthony show, comedian Bill Burr nailed this one perfectly: "You know they were just dicking around with this song in the studio, and realized, 'Hey, that sounds pretty cool.'" Damn straight.
-Ludacris, "Get Back" (Sum 41 remix)--Every so often, you gotta quit thinking so much and just go break stuff. This tune'll give you the marching orders.
-Ben Folds, "Bitches Ain't Shit" (iTunes exclusive)--Goddamn, is this one funny--Folds recasts Dre and Snoop's love letter to the ladies--"Bitches ain't shit but ho's and tricks"--as a tender Cole Porter-esque ballad. You'll weep at Ben's tale of melancholy as he finds his nephew bangin' his ho and he has to straight cap 'im. That's some real conversation for your ass, homes.
-Bruce Springsteen, "Devils and Dust"--Springsteen's one of those artists who've hit so many high points that it seems impossible for him to continue performing at that level. It'd be like Dr. J continuing to throw down jaw-dropping dunks at age 72 or whatever. But even though Brooooce's latest work got overshadowed by the 30th-anniversary rerelease of Born to Run, it was still his most powerful work since--well, since his last one, The Rising. And he summed up the entire Iraq war in the three-word title. That's some real poetry for your ass, homes.
-White Stripes, "Blue Orchid"--Jack White has the exact same problem as Ryan Adams--too many almost-good ideas--only where Adams spreads them out over multiple CDs, White tends to jam them into individual songs. If Jack could quit loving himself enough to focus on his craft, he could turn out the most ferocious devil-blues album since Zeppelin I. Till then, we'll have to content ourselves with tunes like this--and skip over Meg White's contributions to the Stripes CDs the way we did Andy Summers' back in the Police days.
-Kaiser Chiefs, "I Predict A Riot"--Awesomely catchy neo-New-Wave Brit-pop song about rioting sung by guys who wouldn't last three minutes in a real one.
-Garbage, "Bad Boyfriend"--When Garbage hottie Shirley Manson purr/growls that she wants you to be her bad boyfriend, you'll be tempted, but remember--she will eat you alive.
-Rolling Stones, "She Saw Me Coming"--Critics hailed "A Bigger Bang" as the best Stones album since 1981's "Some Girls" (funny, didn't they say the same thing about 98's Bridges to Babylon...and 94's Voodoo Lounge...and '89's Steel Wheels...?). I dunno about that--I guess it's true--but praising the Stones is sort of like praising this fabulous new food called pepperoni pizza. Yeah, they're great, we all know they're great. This song's the best of the bunch, a classic Mick bitch with Keef sounding like he's playing the guitar with a shard of bone.
-System of a Down, "BYOB"--The dopey-naive politics--"Why do we always send the poor/Why don't presidents fight the war?"--take a backseat to relentless guitar and the goofy Eurotrash "Everybody party, have a real good time" bridge. Too weird to listen to often, but still good to hear.
-Limp Bizkit, "The Truth"--Fred Durst channels his inner Zach de la Rocha here with embarrassing results--kind of like watching your mom try to rap--but the music is the very apotheosis of kick-ass frat rock. You can imagine people getting beaten up to this music. On second thought, that's probably not a good thing.
-Ryan Adams, "Magnolia Mountain"--Off the first of Adams' three 2005 CDs, "Cold Roses," this song is six minutes of pitch-perfect longing, pain, and redemption. How old is this kid again?
-Beck, "E-Pro"--Beck's back in "Odelay" mode, only without all the silly "Loser"-era smartassery. This chunk of electro-fuzz-funk is perfect driving music.
Special mention must go to the Rolling Stones' "Rarities" CD, which contains a couple of kickass old previously unreleased gems--"Fancy Man Blues" and a barrelhouse-piano version of "Tumblin' Dice." Also, Refused's "New Noise," even though it's almost ten years old, was all over my iTunes this year. You might remember it as the song that sends the atmosphere thermonuclear in the state championship of "Friday Night Lights." Or not. Me, I used it to get myself pumped before this fall's tennis matches. Of course, I got my butt handed to me this fall, so maybe that wasn't the best music.
So that's that for the music, and for 2005 as well. As I write this, I'm 150 minutes from 2006--and yes, I'm officially an Old Dork now, writing on my computer on New Year's Eve. But I'm already laying the groundwork--in 2006, I'll be busting my ass and, in turn, kicking some ass.
Perhaps I shall call 2006 The Year of Ass. Or perhaps not. Either way, it'll be here in just a bit. Hope it's a good one for you too!