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

5. Sufjan Stevens
Asthmatic Kitty
I tend to listen to this marathon album late at night, and usually fall asleep somewhere around track 19. Its closing statements, especially the Steve Reich-like finale, remain something of a mystery to me. They might be informing my dreams. Strangely, I've been having violent dreams lately. Is my unconscious rebelling against this delicately crafted music? On the subject of violence, the delicate and melodramatic tune here about John Wayne Gacy is embarrassing in ways that it doesn't intend to be. And the allusion to the Cure's "Close to You" heard in the early going of this song cycle about the Midwest's second-greatest state is too close (to the original, that is). So what do I like about Illinois? Everything else: the unexpected melodies, the bona fide literary inspiration, the complex but not rococo arrangements. Like Van Dyke Parks, Stevens thinks like a "serious composer," likes banjos and folk songs, and finds a way to make fussed-over book-type language sing like regular song lyrics. Except I've never heard a Van Dyke Parks record quite this good, not even the one he made with the Beach Boy.

6. Luny Tunes and Baby Ranks
Mas Flow 2
Universal Music Latino
Reggaetón, the year's obligatory trend story and a genuine grassroots phenomenon, is a hybrid genre, drawing mostly on hip hop and dancehall and ragga but also incorporating salsa, R&B, Puerto Rican forms such as bomba and plena, plus all variety of schlock. To their mothers, Luny Tunes are Francisco Saldana and Victor Cabrera. They're often dubbed "the Neptunes of reggaetón" because there are two of them and they've produced a lot of hits. Here they're joined by vocoder-dependent third banana Baby Ranks and 15 or 90 (I can't remember) of the genre's big and mid-sized stars. For instance Daddy Yankee, who teams with Deevani for the Near Eastern-flavored "Mirame," which features one of Luny Tunes' trademark girl-boy call-and-response choruses. I'm also big on Mr. Vegas's showcase, "Oh Johnny," a clanging hip-hop track with an extended cheese-synth outro. Some people will tell you that this sort of music is best heard in a club setting. For example, nightclub owners will tell you that, and other people sold on the idea that one must "leave the house" in order to have a rich social life. Actually, this album sounds best at my house, just after supper.

7. Amadou and Mariam
Dimanche a Banko
These long-active Malian marrieds scored a world-beat breakthrough with this soulful collection of dance-and-heartbreak tunes, juiced up not watered down by Franco-Iberian experimentalist hookmonger Manu Chao. Chao's production is not exactly unobtrusive—his trademark atmospherics (distant chatter, traffic noises) is a constant presence, and the hopped-up collage-pop aesthetic is very much akin to his own records. The collaboration works wonderfully, though. Diamanche splits the difference between blue and bubbly and winds up with blubbly—I mean, beautiful.

8. John Doe
Forever Hasn't Happened Yet
Yep Rock
X co-leader and punk's most elegantly expressive vocalist sings folk-blues-rock tunes stolen from tour-bus daydreams. Later he washes his hair in the sink and conscripts Neko Case to portray Exene Cervenka on a tune co-written by Exene (Exene was busy playing Madden NFL 2005?!). Case sounds great, though, as does Dave Alvin when he drops by to play pomade-dabbed guitar through a tiny 1956 tube amp (I'm guessing) turned all the way up to best sound like a king bee, baby, buzzing around your hive. I can't say for sure, I wish I could, but I'm pretty sure the undercurrent here has something to do with wisdom.

9. Parry Gripp
For Those About to Shop, We Salute You
Parry Gripp is the former leader of Nerf Herder, and I didn't find that fact enticing either. A few years ago he was invited to compose some jingles for a kid-targeted frozen-breakfast-food product. Yet his resplendently catchy and juvenile efforts did not impress some tin-eared ad-agency gatekeeper as the kind of songcraft that could move a toaster waffle off the shelves. Undaunted and inspired, he went on to write dozens of jingle-like trifles about food, sports, pickup trucks, personal hygiene products, bargains, and alcohol, plus more songs about waffles. Fifty-one of his miniatures are compiled on this 35-minute, laugh-out-loud funny novelty album. Ridiculous music composed with obvious haste and offhanded craft, For Those About to Shop is the sort of record that unites 12-year-old nose pickers with 35-year-old record collectors, which is like uniting ottomans with divans.

10. The Hold Steady
Separation Sunday
French Kiss
Market-savvy ex-punks offer another variation on working-class hard rock suited to the hipster palate. And they succeed because they slum with more ardor than irony—occasional winks of cornball bombast notwithstanding. Also the lead guitarist smokes, the drummer smokes even more, and the keyboardist has a great moustache and better stage moves. Me, I don't find the album's picaresque narrative of druggy glamour and despair to be particularly dramatic or affecting, never mind unexpected, but lead slurrer Craig Finn's wordplay is indeed high-level, maybe even publishable. Today my favorite line is "Later on we did some sexy things/Took a couple photographs and carved 'em into wood reliefs." Soon, all the cool kids are going to be whittling!

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