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Good vibrations: The best records of 2005

Neil Young (Stewart Oksenhorn photo)

You’re never going to believe what has happened to me in this, my 42nd year on the planet. (And, as far as I can recall, my 37th of paying attention to music, beginning with learning the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” and singing it nonstop.) I can hardly believe it myself.I got hip. That’s hip in the music journalist sense. Like my fellow music journalists, I have found favor with such breaking, cutting-edge artists as Sufjan Stevens, My Morning Jacket, Fiona Apple and Animal Collective. My ears have felt uncommonly fresh as I’ve listened to Bright Eyes, the Earlies and Death Cab for Cutie. In fact, I might even pat myself on my ever-so-hip back and proclaim myself hipper than my CD-grubbing brethren by having embraced the likes of Little Barrie and Shannon McNally (haven’t seen them on anyone’s best of 2005 lists). I’ve also managed to find slots on my own best of the year list for such washed-up acts as Ryan Adams and Neil Young, never-wases like Mary Gauthier and Sound Tribe Sector 9. And, if I may continue to revel in that favorite marvel of mine – myself – I will go a step further and declare that I am more astute, possessed of more catholic tastes, and just plain hipper than the average music critic by not limiting myself to the most contemporary sounds, but discovering the delights of alt-country, traditional folk, geezer rock, reggae, bluegrass, funk and even that bane of the rock journalist’s existence, the jam band.And, praise me further, I have not fallen for the PR gimmick that Franz Ferdinand is among the best things to happen to modern rock. Stripping the emperor of his clothes (and wasn’t the real Franz Ferdinand an emperor, making this a most apt turn of phrase?), it is revealed here, for the first time, that “You Could Have Had It So Much Better” is merely a retread of ’80s New Wave retread, given a ’00s spin. Onward, through the fog, away from me and into the music. A baker’s dozen of the best:1. Fiona Apple, “Extraordinary Machine”Fiona Apple got my attention when she earned all kinds of raves for her latest. “Extraordinary Machine” merits my attention. The 28-year-old singer and pianist walks the line between a 1930s chanteuse and a disaffected, angry, tossed-aside lover of the modern age here. What surprised me most was how accessible she and producer Jon Brion make it all, with a solid structure of Apple’s piano-playing underneath a whirl of electronic sounds.

2. Little Barrie, “We Are Little Barrie”On their debut, Little Barrie, an English trio led by soul singer-guitarist Barrie Cadogan, reminds me very much of the American trio G. Love & Special Sauce. And I very much like G. Love & Special Sauce. But where G. starts with a base of folk-blues and adds hip-hop rhythms and attitude, Little Barrie comes more from a soul-rock background and brings it up to date. Gets your groove on.3. Neil Young, “Prairie Wind””If you follow every dream,” warns Neil Young on “Painter,” “you might get lost.” Except it isn’t really a warning, but an explanation. Young has probably followed every musical dream he’s ever had, from thrash to mellow country-rock to the musical novel, “Greendale.” And sometimes he has gotten lost. (“Trans,” anyone?”} But on “Prairie Wind,” Young follows several of his dreams; it is reminiscent at various times of the acoustic “Harvest Moon,” the ominous “Greendale,” the stately “After the Gold Rush.” And old Neil even comes up with a few new ideas, like the horns on the Elvis tribute, “He Was the King.” Lyrically, “Prairie Wind” wraps up family ties, rock ‘n’ roll memories, 9/11, God and country. Ambitious, effortless and wonderful.4. Animal Collective, “Feels”How could a band whose members takes on animal names, sing animal-themed songs, and even dress in animal costumes onstage possibly earn my respect? By creating an album like “Feels,” a dreamy landscape of singing and sounds that touches on Pink Floyd, Talking Heads and the Beach Boys. All gimmickry dissolves when Animal Collective start making their sprawling, oddly captivating music.5. Mary Gauthier, “Mercy Now”On the strength of “Mercy Now,” Louisiana’s Mary Gauthier should rank alongside another Southern female singer-songwriter who finds ecstasy and transcendence in the painful and mysterious. No coincidence that “Mercy Now” was produced by Williams’ longtime bandmate and producer, Gurf Morlix. Gauthier digs into the depths on “I Drink,” a remembrance of her dear, old drunken dad. But she finds release from such memories on the moving, prayerlike title track. 6. Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, “Jacksonville City Nights” and “Cold Roses”One of these years, Ryan Adams insistence on being the most prolific recording artist ever is going to catch up to him. But 2005 isn’t that year. In the spring, Adams released the double-CD “Cold Roses,” which many likened to the “Workingman’s Dead” / “American Beauty” era of the Grateful Dead. To me, the connection is marginal; the strongest link was in the images of dancing bears on the inside cover. But Adams’ take on acoustic-based mellow rock was about as strong as ever. In the fall, Adams returned with “Jacksonville City Nights,” a more sorrowful country-rock effort that is as heavy on the country as Adams has ever gotten.7. Sufjan Stevens, “Come On, Feel the Illinoise”If singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Sufjan Stevens lives up to his promise, we have approximately 48 really good years to look forward to. “Come On, Feel the Illinoise” is the second volume of Stevens’ project to create an album relating to each state in the union. (His first, “Greetings From Michigan,” paid tribute to his native state.) Even without the conceptual hook, Stevens’ music is superb, a sophisticated mix of Gershwin, Wilco, Ralph Stanley and much more. On “Illinoise,” Stevens avoids all clichés – there are no songs about the Cubs, but instead offbeat looks at John Wayne Gacy, Casimir Pulaski Day, and a 2000 UFO sighting. Can’t wait what he finds to say about North Dakota.

8. Nickel Creek, “Why Should the Fire Die?”As with 2002’s “This Side,” Nickel Creek’s “Why Should the Fire Die?” is an album that gets better with repeated listening – the mark of a great album. The still-young trio of pickers continues to stick to unplugged instruments, but otherwise refuses to paint inside the acoustic lines. This isn’t bluegrass, and most of the time, isn’t even a close cousin to bluegrass. Nickel Creek takes chances with production, song structure, harmonizing style and most every other aspect of the music.

9. John Scofield, “That’s What I Say”Jazz guitarist John Scofield honors the late, great Ray Charles with a tribute album worthy of both of them. Scofield goes all out here: He brings in the guests (Warren Haynes, John Mayer, Mavis Staples, Aaron Neville and Charles’ longtime sideman, saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman); gives every song a style all its own, from the grooving “Sticks and Stones” to the r&b workout of “What’d I Say” to the acoustic, solo guitar rendition of “Georgia on My Mind” that closes the album. The roster of guests doesn’t overshadow Scofield’s cooking core band here.10. My Morning Jacket, “Z”Kentucky rock band My Morning jacket broke through with 2003’s “It Still Moves.” Turns out, though, that that was only a precursor to even better things. On “Z,” My Morning Jacket, led by singer-songwriter Jim James, dives even further into its world of spiky rhythms, echoing sounds, and dreamy, ethereal lyrics. Something new, but not so distant from the old sounds of rockabilly and New Wave.11. James McMurtry, “Childish Things”Literate alt-country singer-songwriter is anything but juvenile on “Childish Things.” “We Can’t Make It Here” is a bitter jab at American politics and capitalism; McMurty slogs through the song with a weary voice that is apropos to the theme. Elsewhere, McMurtry is just as melancholy, but less direct, as he contemplates changing times, aging, fading romance and the alienated scraps of American life.

12. Susan Tedeschi, “Hope and Desire”Blueswoman Susan Tedeschi gets deep into the spirit on “Hope and Desire.” She takes songs from across the map – the Rolling Stones, obscure Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, old-timey singer Iris Dement – and takes them all out for a holy-rolling, heavenly outing. Most convincingly.13. Sound Tribe Sector 9, “artiFacts”The electro-jam band Sound Tribe Sector 9 does something totally different, making “artiFacts” a soothing, soulful ride that sounds little like their all-instrumental concerts. You’ll be surprised. Also making it into the permanent collection:Rock: Death Cab for Cutie, “Plans”; The Earlies, “These Were the Earlies”; North Mississippi Allstars, “Electric Blue Watermelon”; Vic Chesnutt, “Ghetto Bells”; Shannon McNally, “Geronimo”; Jack Johnson, “In Between Dreams”; Soulive, “Breakout”; Bright Eyes, “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning”; Son Volt, “Okemah and the Melody of Riot”; the Fareed Haque Group, “Cosmic Hug”; Beck, “Guero”; Benevento/Russo Duo, “Best Reason to Buy the Sun”; Trey Anastasio, “Shine”; Frank Black, “Honeycomb”; various artists, “Look at All the Love We Found: A Tribute to Sublime”; Los Super 7, “Heard It on the X”; Neko Case, “The Tigers Have Spoken”; Rufus Wainwright, “Want Two.”

Acoustic, folk, bluegrass, etc.: John Prine, “Fair & Square”; Jerry Douglas, “Best Kept Secret”; the Del McCoury Band, “The Company We Keep”; Crooked Still, “Hop High”; Psychograss, “Now Hear This”; Hit and Run Bluegrass, “Without Maps or Charts”; Rodney Crowell, “The Outsider”; Thea Gilmore, “Songs From the Gutter”; Alison Brown, “Stolen Moments”; the Bills, “Let ’em Run”; Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodriguez, “Red Dog Tracks”; Chatham County Line, “Route 23”; Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion, “Exploration.”Blues and gospel: Robert Cray, “Twenty”; Buddy Guy, “Bring ’em In”; Campbell Brothers, “Can You Feel It?”; Tab Benoit, “Fever for the Bayou.”Reggae, Latin, African, etc.: Burning Spear, “Our Music”; John Brown’s Body, “Pressure Points”; Damian Marley, “Welcome to Jamrock”; Ry Cooder, “Chávez Ravine”; Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabaté, “In the Heart of the Moon”; Cult Cargo, “Belize City Boil Up.”Live stuff: Wilco, “Live in Chicago”; Gomez, “Out West”; Lucinda Williams, “Live at the Fillmore”‘ Los Lobos, “Live at the Fillmore”; New Monsoon, “Live at the Telluride Bluegrass Festiva.”Ancient history: Bob Dylan, “No Direction Home soundtrack, the Bootleg Series, Vol. 7; The Band, “A Musical History”; Johnny Cash, “The Legend.”From the Grateful Dead archives: the Grateful Dead, “Fillmore West 1969, the Complete Recordings”; the Grateful Dead, “Dick’s Picks Vol. 34, Rochester, 11/5/77”; the Grateful Dead, “Truckin’ Up to Buffalo, July 4, 1989”; the Grateful Dead, “Rare Cuts & Oddities”; Jerry Garcia, “Warner Theatre, March 18, 1978”; the Jerry Garcia Band, “Merriweather Post Pavilion, Sept. 1 & 2, 1989”; Legion of Mary, “Legion of Mary.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com