To clear up any confusion, I’ve eliminated myself from contention. As always, if you disagree, or feel very strongly that I’ve ommitted your favorite opus, holla back comment style.
That said, let’s get to the year that was….2005:
8) “Fix You,” Coldplay:
Those who know me well will be shocked to see the likes of Coldplay on this list. I don’t like Coldplay. Never have, probably never will. Mostly because of this guy (seen right). But, for all their atmospheric wanking, cheap sentimentality, and formulaic songwriting, these guys still write the occasional strong song. So, we have “Fix You,” the standout track off X and Y, allegedly written for ole Gwenny after her father passed on. Whatever the inspiration, the lyric (if I’m hearing it right–i.e., borderline ironically) is uncharacteristically mature and the arrangement is spot-on. The real reason for its inclusion, however, is the 2-minute outtro (“tears stream down your face…”) which features gorgeous lead work, a strong build, and four-part harmony. Chris Martin: you had me at four-part harmony. Now go take Melon for a walk.
7) “The Late Greats,” Wilco:
Techically this album didn’t come out in 2005, but lay off, man, I’m starving. Either way, this song started getting mainstream attention in 2005, and by “mainstream attention,” I mean, “steady rotation on my iPod.” This song is classic Wilco, from the meta-rock lyric to the frustratingly disjointed song structure, to the flashes of rollicking brilliance. Oddly enough, Tweedy’s at his lyrical best when he’s writing rock songs about rock songs (“The Lonely 1,” “Monday,” “Heavy Metal Drummer,” etc.), and this song’s no exception. You just can’t hear it on the radio. [Editor’s note: Chris does not, in fact, own an iPod. He was simply being colorful.]
6) “Portland, Oregon,” Jack White and Loretta Lynn:
I’m going to go ahead and assume the two co-wrote this number. If you haven’t heard “Portland, Oregon,” it’s hard to communicate the power of the opening 1:30. White, the producer of Lynn’s album, begins the song with searing guitars and heavily percussive backgrounds, filling Oregon’s landscape with melody and uncertainty. The guitars settle into a pleasant melody-countermelody, only to erupt again into a Zeppelin-inspired riff. And just when you don’t know where you are anymore, here comes Loretta, “Portland, Oregon and slow gin fizz/if that ain’t love, then tell me what is.” I cannot, nor can anyone, relay how much this song is in the pocket. Though the lyric itself is short, it serves the song well, giving us a descriptive snapshot of a specific place at a specific time, rather than bombarding us with the excesses of sloppy storytelling. The composition is brilliant, and the performance is even better.
5) “Gold Digger,” Kanye West:
I’m a fan, but let’s not get carried away…Mr. West ain’t as good as he thinks he is. And, amidst the uproarious applause engulfing his sophomore album, I’m not hearing anything (yet) beyond maddening inconsistency; parts are great, parts are lazy and dull. Well, “Gold Digger” is great. Aside from the flawless production and infectious hook, Kanye takes a page out of Outkast’s book and approaches a universal problem with a universal narrative voice. Each verse engages the issue from a different, and often opposing, viewpoint, fairly and without judgement. My brother says that “Gold Digger,” to him, is the “Miss Jackson” 2005, and he may be right. But Late Registration is no Stankonia.
4) “Dondante,” My Morning Jacket:
While I knew I had to include some song off Z, I had a hard time determining which song was best. Although it’s hard to deny the pop craft of “Off the Record” and “Anytime,” or the fun and skillful composition of my personal favorite, “Lay Low,” “Dondante” is quintessential Jacket, at their typically experimental best. This song is about a ghost that’s still living and breathing, and all too close to our narrative voice. The lyric is the strongest on the album, and MMJ does a flawless job of translating James’s capable words into musical magic. The song is at once eerie and gorgeous; when James’s vocals lift and the band swells during “You had me worried,” they’re enacting the breaking point that our speaker has reached. By the end, it’s unclear whether the girl is haunting James or whether James is haunting her (“I saw it in your movements/and though you never knew it, well I knew…”). Gorgeous, multi-dimensional songwriting from one of America’s best bands.
3) “Sixteen,” Lucero:
Memphis’s finest band may have just made their finest album this year. That’s a lot of ifs, but this much I know: “Sixteen” is the best song on Nobody’s Darlings, and that’s saying something. “Sixteen” is one of the rare songs that’s immediately likable yet never loses its lustre after 3000 consecutive plays. The song’s brilliance lies in the dual-guitar melodies, the deceptively simple, pitch-perfect lyric, and Roy Berry’s exceptional drum-work. Ben starts easy with “You were sixteen/you fell in love,” and continues to tell a story from that perspective until the chorus. Once there, the speaker enters the scene for the first time in a stroke of lyrical brilliance (“as she plays and sings in time/I am so unsatisfied”). As the speaker watches the girl and introduces the “unsatisfied” lyric, he could be voicing, for the first time, his feelings surrounding her, or merely repeating the words to the song that she’s singing. Either way, he, too, is a singer, and I love the implications of a songwriter inadvertantly writing the soundtrack to his own heartbreak. This song’s lyric and structure are so versatile, in fact, that Berry’s drumming outtro seemingly takes the music, and the girl, in any direction. Every time the rhythm starts to smooth, Berry interrupts it with syncopated hiccups, suggesting the girl’s constant yet doubtful path down “forty east.” Lucero has always been a very good band; “Sixteen” made Ben Nichols a great songwriter.
2) “Forever for Her (Is Over for Me)” White Stripes:
“I blew it.” Jack White messed up again, and this time he’s so tangled up in blue that his words are betraying him. Only, not. This song examines the psyche of a man on the edge of desperation, past the point of redemption but maybe not reconciliation. He’s worked, he’s tried hard as hell, and his girl won’t give him another chance–he’s seemingly out of options. When the music shifts to more solid footing (“Everybody’s reaction is changing…”), so does White’s persona (at least temporarily), as he takes a broader perspective and makes an earnest plea for her understanding. Hanging on the vibrato-laced harmony of “you” before the chorus, the voice, instruments, and lyric simply can’t wait any longer; White explodes into, “So let’s do it! Let’s get on a plane and just do it!” Do what? Could be anything–and sex is certainly the most obvious, but least satisfying option. This chorus is so multi-dimensional that it ironically works against our star-crossed protagonist: does he want one last, final shot? Does he want escape? Salvation? Seemingly, he wants it all, and while his persona can’t seem to get any of it right, Jack White (at least for this song) gets everything right.
1) “Jesus of Surburbia,” Green Day:
It’s no secret, by now, that I harbor a ton (maybe too much) of admiration for American Idiot. While the album has produced 35 hit singles, I’m picking the 9-minute epic “Jesus of Surburbia” as the album’s strongest song. This is, ostensibly, Green Day’s very own “Bohemian Rhapsody,” complete with separate, disctinct parts with subsections and an almost classical attention to phrasing. Sure, a few lyrics fall flat. Sure, the final section is a revved-up “Ring of Fire” (also noted by my brother). But with this song, and album, Green Day proves that relevant, socially critical lyrics still have a home in the pop world. Simply, the most important song on the year’s strongest album.
Look next week for 2005’s biggest disappointments! Chris Milam included!