Best Albums 2005 (1-5)

5. Fiona Apple — Extraordinary Machine

Jon Brion’s vestigial day-glo chamber-pop streaks the re-recordings of Apple’s bent showtunes more stubbornly than internet demo-collectors notice, and Mike Elizondo retooled a better version of her than the perpetrators of 2005’s dumbest pop controversy admit. Her acid whimsy indomitable even when questioning her own desires (“I think he let me down when he didn’t disappoint me”), Apple tumbles forward from heartbreak to vengeance with a pluck more singer-songwriters should mimic. As she summons low-end comic menace with her left hand and traipses quizzically with her right, her own peculiar sense of rhythm is what anchors these tunes firmly enough for Brion and/or Elizondo’s trickery to matter at all.

4. Gogol Bordello — Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike

Mustachioed, bug-eyed, slavering, Eugene Hutz revels in a Gypsy stereotype that hasn’t haunted American pop culture since the heyday of classic Universal horror flicks. But with the playful menace of “I am a foreigner/And I’m walking through your streets,” he enmeshes himself in the sketchy underside of the neo-liberal dream, where porous borders and unchartable immigrant undesirables are the price “we” pay for the easy transfer of capital. In the name of all mongrels and mutts for whom racial, cultural, and national purity haven’t been an option in generations, Hutz and his crew unravel those seams of Middle Eastern and Balkan culture already stitched into hip hop and jazz. Then he grabs your girlfriend’s ass.

3. The Hold Steady — Separation Sunday

Sure they love Bruce, but from the initial lurch of Tad Kubler’s first huge riff, this rocks way more in a James Gang groove than an E-Street shuffle. And Craig Finn retells stories that could only have washed up on the banks of our land of a 10,000 treatment centers with a punky grit that the Boss would airbrush out. Scoring in more way than one with hoodrats who prefer Kate Bush to Humbert Humbert, Finn exudes sympathy for his heroine’s need to fuck far shadier characters than himself, never condescending to mere pity. And he weights “Lord, to be 17 forever,” and “Lord, to be 33 forever” with equal sentiment because he knows the only way to understand the difference between the two ages is to recognize the feeling of longing that connects them.

2. Kanye West — Late Registration

Even before he stunned Mike Myers, Kanye West obviously took race more seriously than your average platinum MC. He also believed, unfashionably enough, that hip-hop could subsume all music within itself, which is why Jon Brion and Adam Levine are as welcome (and as suited) to his Technicolor productions as Nas and Jay. Jerky egotist he may be, but the kid’s got heart, beefing with nurses during a tender farewell to his grandma and promising his mother he’ll get that B.A. someday. That heart bleeds into his politics too, when he blames Reagan for the crack epidemic or wonders how many child soldiers died for his diamonds. And so he earns the right to identify with the biggest-hearted soul man of all, Otis Redding, on the flat-out magical closer “Gone.”

1. Art Brut — Bang Bang Rock & Roll

Whether comically exaggerating his hubris or his self-deprecation, Eddie Argos thrusts himself into his humor with a rare mix of self-consciousness and abandon. Unlike fans of stand-up recordings, sitcom reruns, and SNL, I rarely go out of my way to laugh repeatedly at the same jokes, but five years later Argos’ giddy delight with his “Brand New Girlfriend” (“I’ve seen her naked! Twice!”) and desperation over his persistent impotence (“Don’t tell your friends!”) still jolt me. I credit this album’s staying power not just to Argos’ pinpoint delivery–his determination to find a middle way between glib sarcasm and overweening earnestness–but to the precise post-punk attack of that band he’s so proud that he and his buddies formed.

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