Twenty Damn Records That Can Make You... Break Down and Cryyyyy. Or Dance or whatever.

One man's journey through 2005's best recorded music

I've been writing these year-in-review lists for just over 40 years now. Few of my previous efforts, however, have seen publication, and in this respect, fortune smiled on us all. Looking though a box labeled "Letters, Juvenilia, and Unfinished Epic Poetry for Posthumous Anthological Consideration," I find that my earlier Top 10 lists reveal a reasonably sure-footed handling of ordinal numbers (though 1987 contains no #7), and little else.

To wit, from 1983: "With Big Country's success, the question isn't so much whether more combos will move toward bagpipe-inflected guitar tones, but whether the public will tolerate guitars that don't sound like bagpipes."

From '87: "Ice-T's Rhyme Pays and Schooly D's Saturday Night—The Album mustered some underground favor, but no widespread success, proof that when it comes to crime narratives and potty-mouthed sexism, today's record buyer wrinkles his nose and harrumphs: 'Keep it clean, fellas!'"

From '91: "This year my favorite platter was Chunky A's Large and in Charge."

And from 2003, a tough year for me: "Best records of the year? Who gives a fuck? It all sucked, like everything else in this godforsaken life. Still, a pretty good year for bluegrass."

Nothing is quite as embarrassing as one's past, except one's present. And so, in an effort to put some sort of cap on errant prognostications and blinkered Zeitgeist spotting, I've forgone the customary what does it all mean? introduction and will now proceed directly to the year's finest albums and singles, which judgments I stand by resolutely. For now.

1. M.I.A.
Arular
XL
Introducing an artist who'd stop at nothing short of global economic justice or a guest spot on the next Missy Elliott album, whichever came first, Arular was touted as a cultural masterstroke before Americans could even preorder it. The hype grew from possibly overzealous to oppressive, but reflexive skeptics missed out while reflexive followers, typically superior dancers, partied like it was 2005. The thrill of the new can lead to a pernicious addiction; it can also be thrilling. There's nothing inherently admirable about amalgamation, but Arular does arrive at some sort of cosmopolitan Shangri La with its crossfaded mix of grime, dancehall, Missy and Timbaland, baile funk, vintage video-game soundtracks, righteous populism, dirty sex rhymes, silly terrorism chic, and hiccupping whoops. Or maybe it was just a very nearly perfect British pop album.

2. Mannie Fresh
The Mind of Mannie Fresh
Cash Money/Universal
I used to think that, in the best of all possible worlds, all albums would last 44 minutes and 56 seconds. This was back when 90-minute blank cassettes and borrowed LPs played a larger role in my life than they do today. This year my favorite albums tended to be either just over half an hour or really, really long. This solo debut from New Orleans producer-MC and Cash Money Records honcho Mannie Fresh is really, really long. I won't swear by all of its 30 cuts, definitely not "Shake That Ass," the closing strip-club ballad (yes, ballad), or all of the skits, though most of them are pretty funny. (It took 16 years, but I'm pro-skit now.) Still, I love this album, for its torrent of jokes, its chubby-lover anthems, its crassness and wisdom, its wheezing and wheedling keyboards, elephantine bass, wham-wham-wham drums, sweet-soul choruses. Mannie is no virtuoso MC, but he has a supple, everyman delivery and a gift for hard-boiled poetry: "Heineken green," "Dr. Pepper-can-colored Turbo Coupes"—he's the Warhol of Southern hip hop, turning bottles and cans into art. Already rich and not terribly interested in crossing over, he uses his solo album to do whatever the fuck he wants, pursuing stupid ideas seriously (the chitlin'-circuit soul send-up "Not Tonight" and lots more) and serious stuff with wit. Though the album is mainly lighthearted (and dirty), among its highlights are the introspective and gorgeous "Nothing Compares to Love," and "Mayor Song," a good survey of New Orleans's pre-Katrina woes, with a good beat.

3. William Parker
Sound Unity
Aum Fidelity
Free jazz rarely gets better or more accessible than this live outing from (world's greatest) bassist William Parker, trumpeter Lewis (sounds as big as) Barnes, (keening) alto saxophonist Rob Brown, and (world's greatest) drummer Hamid Drake. Its accessibility is relative, I suppose—it does squeal and squawk and bang, and offers only a few immediately embraceable melodies. One of these, from "Wood Flute Song," is a bit doxological for my heathen tastes, though I've gotten used to it. After a handful of listens, though, Sound Unity unfolds a few hundred melodies, coming and going like subway cars or semi-stray cats. Open-ended, Ornette-derived, improv stuff such as this is sometimes said to be more fun to play than it is to listen to, but this music isn't indulgent. It's generous, in fact. And in the giving spirit, they reward you on the last track with a reggae groove you can dance to. Into abstraction but not obfuscation, they call it "Groove."

4. Kanye West
Late Registration
Roc-a-Fella
I don't prefer this melodically and harmonically purple album to, for instance, Boogie Down Production's skeletal Criminal Minded any more than I prefer Sgt. Pepper's to Beatles for Sale (which kicks Pepper's epaulets even with "Mr. Moonlight" tagging along). Nor do I prefer Registration's classical, pretty density to the modernist, not pretty density of, for instance, It Takes a Nation of Millions. But to my knowledge no one—not De La Soul, Tribe, Common, or Blackalicious—has made a hip-hop album this extravagantly beautiful in the (loosely) Beatle-y manner, and I'm glad someone did. Give partial credit to orchestrator, vintage keyboard noodler, and former Fiona Apple aide de camp Jon Brion, though he insists his role was decidedly subordinate. (I tend to believe him, since West seems control-freaky.) I'm still on the fence as to whether Registration is better than the The College Dropout. Either way the qualitative difference is slight. Both have a couple of mediocre tracks; both allow Jay-Z to sabotage a minute or two. This one's darker, still funny but not goofy—even the skits have an edge. Also it's less schizophrenic but similarly far-ranging. West is a realist and a materialist, so presumably he's more committed to his mother than he is to the revolution, but it's a luxury to have the tender and moving "Hey Mama" share space with the brassy and defiant "Crack Music." Also: "George Bush doesn't care about black people!" I take it to be another sign of West's genius that he pulled off the greatest act of agitprop in recent network television history and proved once and for all that Austin Powers isn't funny.

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