Pop Rocks

In 2005, pop music was rock music. Between Kelly Clarkson's tarted-up "Since U Been Gone," Ashlee Simpson's raspy, Courtney Love-after-a-bender vocals, and Hilary Duff's collabs with her Good Charlotte boytoy, Joel Madden, even the biggest top 40 starlets liked their guitars cranked up to a sassy 11.

Elsewhere, rockers in eyeliner (word up, My Chemical Romance) resonated with the dark minions of suburbia, as did 1990s survivors (yo, Green Day and Weezer) and lovesick nerd pinups (Death Cab for Cutie). Oh, and bad news — or good, depending on your taste: MySpace-driven emo shows no signs of disappearing from local malls and high schools any time soon.

1. Death Cab for Cutie, Plans (Atlantic): The protagonist of Death Cab's 2003 mainstream breakthrough, Transatlanticism, wondered if life was worth living after a wrenching breakup. But the storyteller spinning tales on Plans, the band's major-label debut, appears to be in the twilight of life, flipping wistfully through yellowed remnants of youthful romance. The jangly, R.E.M. mash note "Soul Meets Body" is the aural equivalent of morning sun on bare skin, while "Summer Skin" describes an ephemeral fling filled with "squeaky swings and tall grass," and the measured piano chords of "Brothers on a Hotel Bed" capture the hollow dread you feel when you discover your lover is a stranger. Although the high-gloss production of Plans occasionally feels too slick and the album's faint electronic fingerprints largely sound awkward, Death Cab's latest is also its most heart-grabbing.


2005 music reviews

2. Fall Out Boy, From Under the Cork Tree (Island): At age 14, most people are hopelessly crushing on their cute seatmate in biology, overflowing with angsty poetry, and obsessively analyzing every infinitesimal detail of their lives. This confusing but also exhilarating time informs Fall Out Boy's major-label debut, a frenetic rush of racing hormones, Xanga-style confessions, and punk-pop for adolescent misfits stuck in cookie-cutter PTA hell. But Tree's tunes don't resort to the whining of other mainstreamo bands. Instead, they focus on a refreshingly straightforward immediacy, one cloaked in churning hardcore shuffles, Smiths-influenced guitar juggernauts, and jagged hooks.

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3. Eisley, Room Noises (Warner Bros.): Straight outta small-town Texas — but sounding more like the house band of a verdant magical forest or Rilo Kiley's ambitious babysitting charge — Eisley fulfills the whimsical indie-rock promise of its first few EPs with Room Noises. Swooping choruses and twinkling-stardust harmonies unfold from the drawling vocal sister act of Sherri and Stacy DuPree, sirens with just a whisper of twang in their voices, while Eisley's music incorporates bits of genial Coldplay-esque Britpop, coffeehouse jam sessions, and glimmering, crushed-velvet rock.

4. Nine Inch Nails, With Teeth (Interscope): In recent interviews, a joking Trent Reznor appears to have left his demons back in the last century, along with much of his hair. But the uncompromising With Teeth honors his angry legacy even as he programs new and diverse chapters of frustration. Howling industrial catharses and mechanized sludgefests rage with Reznor's usual pain — "Right Where It Belongs" in particular shines with its needlepoint piano and droning-beehive backdrop — although instances of sophisticated, Apple-product-sleek synthpop and boogie-down glitchtronica nod to a kinder, gentler NIN.

5. Nada Surf, The Weight Is a Gift (Barsuk): Matthew Caws is the Woody Allen of indie-geekdom, a perpetually anxious songwriter well-versed in therapy jargon and self-help books. But his low self-esteem is the listener's gain on Gift, Nada Surf's most cohesive record and a crystallization of the New York trio's velvety power ballads, chiming pop songs, and fuzz-rock screeds about loneliness and longing. In fact, the falsetto-spiraling Caws has never sounded so forlorn and wracked with pain as he (unsuccessfully) tries to convince himself he's over a breakup on "What Is Your Secret?"

6. The Go-Betweens, Oceans Apart (Yep Roc): Time has only made Go-Betweens tale-tellers Robert Forster and Grant McLennan richer musicians, judging from the lovely, haunting Oceans Apart. The core elements that made their 1980s albums so classic — unadorned strummed guitars, plum-purple-tinted vocals, vibrant emotional gravitas — are present in spades on Apart, highlighted by the taut, high-speed-train chords hurtling through the globetrotting "Here Comes a City" and the Church-reminiscent, rainy-day missive "Finding You."

7. The Epoxies, Stop the Future (Fat Wreck Chords): The Epoxies are loving preservers of a time when new-wave bands sported makeup and costumes that were as outlandish as their synthpop confections. Accordingly, the futuristic punk on Stop the Future references robots, the glory of video, and laser beams, as sci-fi synths and the type of rhythms Molly Ringwald whirled to in The Breakfast Club careen past. Consider 'em a less chirpy Missing Persons or the Go-Go's embracing their innermost Casio fantasies.

8. Mae, The Everglow (Tooth & Nail): Mae distinguishes itself from countless other youth-group-emo acts with The Everglow, an ambitious CD with the unmistakable layered, dense production work of Failure's Ken Andrews. Frantic piano exercises and vocalist Dave Elkins' eager-beaver singing style mesh well with the album's surging hooks and chugging, pedaling-a-bicycle-uphill riffs. In fact, Clarity-era Jimmy Eat World only wishes it had written a song as effortlessly whirling-on-a-carousel giddy as "Suspension."  

9. Franz Ferdinand, You Could Have It So Much Better (Epic): Time will probably be kind to Franz Ferdinand's sophomore effort, as its sophisticated tunes find the band adding emotional depth to its otherwise kicky dance-punk (the acoustic delicacy "Fade Together" — a falsetto-laden nod to Britpop icons Blur and Pulp — is hands-down the best song). But Better is actually stylistically closer to being a burnt-out garage-rock album than a post-punk primer, what with twisted kissoffs and leering come-ons cloaked in hot-poker hooks and devil-doll hot-rodding.

10. The Darkness, One Way Ticket to Hell... and Back (Atlantic): Even a less-than-perfect Darkness album is still infinitely more rock 'n' roll than 95 percent of rock albums released in any given year. Working with Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker, the flamboyant U.K. rockers naturally do a credible — and often scarily dead-on — impression of Queen's wheedly-wheedly guitars, indulgent solos, and multilayered harmonies. But the cascading, shriek-like-a-girl "la-la-la" chorus screams of "Hazel Eyes" sound like a prog-rock elf frolicking in the English countryside, while Hell's cock-rocking riffs smirk and conjure the arena bombast of Def Leppard, AC/DC, and Thin Lizzy. So barefoot-boogie hippies rub you the wrong way. Or maybe you're more open-minded than the typical cranky-pants, scene-sucking elitist. Either way, hopefully you're savvy enough to realize that shortcut labels like jam band and indie rock better describe a band's business approach and fan base than its sound. This year, major festivals like Austin City Limits, Bonnaroo, and the revived Lollapalooza mashed up alt-rock mainstays with a colorful new breed of improv road warriors. These groups are young, diverse, and wildly creative, but they all share a noncommercial, tour-intensive work ethic that assures grassroots devotion across the country. And while they might be best-known for their live shows, each released a kickass studio album in 2005, listed here in no particular order. Get hip, kid:

Sound Tribe Sector 9, Artifact (System): STS9's third studio album is a colorful collision of talent, technological innovation, and creative vision of an epic scope. Artifact condenses the bicoastal five-piece's beat-drunk, jazztronic improvisations into a potent, cohesive dose, progressive and slick but never affected or shallow. Song by song, there's rising and falling action here, a story told through compositions that unfold like shifting silicon sand dunes. There's perhaps no band that better balances heart, soul, and intellect on music's cutting edge. (Check if you like: Thievery Corporation, Prefuse 73, Ninja Tune)

Hackensaw Boys, Love What You Do (Nettwerk): Thankfully, the Hackensaws never forgot that bluegrass is supposed to be ornery. Even as Love settles into lazy-afternoon versions of fan favorites, these six Virginians let the rough edges of banjo, dobro, and accordion snag at the hem of their front-porch serenade. There's a studied hindsight here that's absent from previous albums, as if the Boys are intent on fully dissecting what makes that old-time mountain stomp so universally appealing. Whatever it is, they've tapped it, bottled it, and shaken it up for a new generation. (Check if you like: Del McCoury, the Pogues, O Brother Where Art Thou)

Hyim, Hyim and the Fat Foakland Orchestra (self-released): Like the most capable fusionistas, San Francisco singer/songwriter/piano man Hyim Ross juggles the sounds on the world's streets — Cuban tres guitar, New Orleans second-line brass, hip-hop bounce — to achieve a style as unique as it is invigorating. Hyim's Orchestra includes a shamelessly tight rhythm section and an expanded palette of strings, horns, and massive percussion, but what really shines on his second self-released album is the songwriting. Lyrically and compositionally, Hyim's deft blend of humor and pathos, experience and optimism reveals an emerging talent worthy of the designation world musician. (Check if you like: Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, Manu Chao)

Benevento-Russo Duo, Best Reason to Buy the Sun (Ropeadope): Thank you, Jack and Meg — now that two-man groups can navigate the mainstream, Marco Benevento and Joe Russo might have a chance of getting the superstar recognition they deserve. The keys (Benevento) and drums (Russo) duo is spastically delicious live, and BRTBTS captures that schizoid ecstasy in a punky, jazz-rock joyride that miraculously never crashes through the guardrail and into the ravine. Despite its twisted complexity and lack of lyrics, the Duo's tunes play out like lusty rock 'n' roll yawps, swerving from dirty fonk to thinking-dude's power balladry, all throttled into overdrive with ingenuity and raw joy. (Check if you like: Medeski Martin & Wood, Jaco Pastorius, Mogwai)  

Awesome New Republic, ANR So Far (Sutro): The second duo in this list also mans the drums and keys, but ANR has a voice that takes off into white-boy indie-soul glory. Hear Michael-John Hancock croon about falling off his bike and you'll know why Miami's best band is about to bring a new regime to the masses. While Hancock sings and drums, keys genius Brian Robertson weaves strands of lead, rhythm, and electronic ambiance into a Day-Glo funk-rock freak flag. So Far waves it wide with noisy, diffuse abstraction and semi-structured trickery that coalesces every few tracks into an impossibly infectious number — funny, poignant, and totally absorbing. If there's one new band to leave room for on the iPod this year, make it ANR. (Check if you like: Talking Heads, Prince, Beck)

Lake Trout, Not Them, You (Palm): Despite the fishy, bucolic moniker, there's something seriously sinister about Lake Trout. The Baltimore quintet has been crafting shadowy electro-rock for years but still inexplicably swims under the radar of even the most well-attuned cognoscenti. Brooding, narcoticized, and occasionally manic, Lake Trout falls victim to its impossible categorization, but that's no reason to pass up the band's fourth record. Not Them, You is a heavy, paranoid skulk through delicate melodies and dense arrangements, stirring echoes of '80s psych-synth-pop on a digitally enhanced post-rock bender. Throw in sax, flute, and Woody Ranere's haunting vocals and you've got a sound that's unclassifiable and totally intriguing. (Check if you like: Radiohead, the Pixies, TV on the Radio)

Brothers Past, This Feeling's Called Goodbye (SCI Fidelity): Blasting out of Philadelphia, Brothers Past sneaked up on unsuspecting audiences this year with heavy touring and a second full-length that borders on stunning. The Brothers' drum 'n' bassish prog-rock follows similar signposts as Lake Trout but veers into more uplifting sonic terrain. Full of dense, rhythmic layering and sweeping, major-chord crescendos, Goodbye manages a rare luminosity, like a watercolor sunset, hinting at darkness but still bathed in warm light. (Check if you like: The Flaming Lips, Pink Floyd, LTJ Bukem)

Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, The Sameness of Difference (Hyena): This Tulsa trio is the sonic equivalent of silly putty, able to stretch into weird, warped experimentations or snap back into delicately pointed hooks. Difference finds acrobatic keysman Brian Haas sticking to his piano's pristine, acoustic tone, while Reed Mathis orbits on bass, tweaking the instrument until it sounds like a sitar pining for an oasis. On upright, he nuzzles against Jason Smart's dynamic drumming, making Mingus' "Fables of Faubus" new again and turning the Flaming Lips' "The Spark That Bled" into a new jazz standard. (Check if you like: Ornette Coleman, Frank Zappa, Sketches of Spain)

Secret Machines, The Road Leads Where It's Led EP (Warner Bros.): While the fist-pumping bombast of Secret Machines is best served in a long-play format, the foursome of tunes that ends this EP is one of the headiest of the year. Covers of "Astral Weeks," "Money" (the Berry Gordy version), and "Girl From the North Country" descend slowly with stunning, iceberg-heavy drama and enchanted psychedelia. Back to back to back, they take on a revisionist interpretation: lost love and the cost of getting it back. Finishing with a krautrock cover, "De Lux (Immer Wieder)," this Dallas-by-way-of-NYC trio pulls back the curtain on its influences to give its fans a glimpse at the cogs that spin the machine. (Check if you like: Led Zeppelin, Neu!, Mercury Rev)

Dr. Dog, Easy Beat (National Parking): It's a loaded term, but let's spit it out and get it over with: Beatlesque is the easiest way to describe this Philly five-piece's rosy harmonies, baroque-pop arrangements, and clever, wink-and-nudge songplay. But even the B word doesn't get at the scruffy, affable grandeur of the band's smartly titled third album. After a pair of self-released, home-recorded CDs, Easy Beat was picked up by a minor indie label, the band got a nod from the New York Times, and it's been catching buzz like a college kid at Bonnaroo. Get on board now and you'll catch up in time for next year's breakout. (Check if you like: the Beatles, Steely Dan, Built to Spill)

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