2005: A Year In Song

As penance for recently bemoaning the preponderance of lists, and in the spirit of a new year, I now present the tracklist for this past year's edition of the year-in-review compilation I send out to my friends annually. It's a three-disc set, titled "2005: Welcome To The Big Freaky International Hotel," with the title coming from a bit of Elvis Presley stage patter. The songs on the first two discs are dotted with more Elvis chat, while the songs on disc three are broken up by questions from Beatles press conferences. In the interest of keeping this relatively straightforward, I'll just list the songs, not the snippets. (And for the iTunes-enabled, each disc's header doubles as an iMix link. Click away and enjoy some free music samples ... 30 sweet seconds at a time!)

DISC A
1. Antony & The Johnsons, "For Today I Am A Boy"
2. Clem Snide, "End Of Love"
3. The Mountain Goats, "You Or Your Memory"
4. The Rosebuds, "Wildcat"
5. Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, "When Will You Come Back Home"
6. Sun Kil Moon, "Neverending Math Equation"
7. Magnolia Electric Co. , "The Dark Don't Hide It"
8. Teenage Fanclub, "Fallen Leaves"
9. The Clientele, "Since K Got Over Me"
10. M. Ward, "Four Hours In Washington"
11. Mia Doi Todd, "The Last Night Of Winter"
12. Sufjan Stevens, "Jacksonville"
13. The Pernice Brothers, "Dumb It Down"
14. British Sea Power, "Be Gone"
15. José González, "Crosses"
16. Spoon, "I Summon You"
17. Constantines, "Hotline Operator"
18. Hot Hot Heat, "Pickin' It Up"
19. The Detroit Cobras, "The Real Thing"
20. Louis XIV, "Paper Doll"
21. The Long Winters, "Ultimatum"
22. The New Pornographers, "Sing Me Spanish Techno"

Commentary: I start off with a slow song, as I often do with mix CDs. It's a good tactic, so long as you follow up with something uptempo, but here I may have set a bad tone, since I later follow up the surging Clem Snide and jaunty Mountain Goats songs with three consecutive slow numbers. Coming on the heels of the gospel-y Antony & The Johnsons--and given the progression of mid-tempo numbers that anchor the middle of this disc--the result is a set that's probably too slow on the whole, despite the intermittent bursts of energy from Teenage Fanclub, M. Ward, The Pernice Brothers and British Sea Power. That's the danger of putting together year-end compilations the way I do. My standard method is to dump all the songs I like into an iTunes playlist (starting around March, with new additions throughout the year), and then hit shuffle, listening for songs that stand out. The best 80 or so get separated and sequenced into three playlists, and then road-tested for flow. I had a vision in November that this first disc would have kind of a "chilling out at 2 AM" feel to it, but after playing it a few times I backtracked and started slipping a few livelier songs in here and there (and dropping some really great tracks, like Low's "On The Edge Of"). I probably didn't go far enough. These individual songs are still great, and there are some nice segues like the shift from Mia Doi Todd's airy "The Last Night Of Winter" and Sufjan Stevens' triumphant "Jacksonville." But two of the best songs of the year, The Clientele's lovelorn, shimmering "Since K Got Over Me" and José González's stark "Crosses," kind of get buried in this context, and as much as I like Sun Kil Moon's version of my favorite Modest Mouse song, "Neverending Math Equation," I realize now that Magnolia Electric Co.'s searing "The Dark Don't Hide It" would sound better leading out of Ryan Adams' wistful "When Will You Come Back Home." Oh well. I don't know that anybody I send this thing to even listens to it straight through. And at least I've got my frenzied climax, with consecutive pounders by Constantines, Hot Hot Heat, Detroit Cobras and Louis XIV. And I close with two of my absolute favorite songs of '05: The Long Winters' underheard EP-bound ballad "Ultimatum" (which I hope will be on next year's new LW LP) and The New Pornographers' can't-get-it-out-of-your-head "Sing Me Spanish Techno."

DISC B
1. The Free Design (by Peter Butter Wolf) , "Umbrellas"
2. Architecture In Helsinki, "The Cemetery"
3. Kings Of Leon, "Slow Night, So Long"
4. Kings Of Leon, "King Of The Rodeo"
5. Rosco Gordon, "You Don't Care About Nothing"
6. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, "How Do I Let a Good Man Down?"
7. Regina Spektor, "Us"
8. Feist, "One Evening"
9. Inara George, "Good To Me"
10. The Decemberists, "The Sporting Life"
11. My Morning Jacket, "Lay Low"
12. Magnolia Electric Co. , "The Night Shift Lullaby"
13. I Am Kloot, "Over My Shoulder"
14. Matt Pond PA, "Devil In The Water"
15. The Deadly Snakes, "Debt Collector"
16. The Ponys, "I'm With You"
17. Tenement Halls, "Up & Over The Turnstiles"
18. Crooked Fingers, "Twilight Creeps"
19. The Hold Steady, "Stevie Nix"
20. Neil Diamond, "Hell Yeah"

Commentary: A much livelier mix on the second disc, with a couple of terrific mini-sets. I wouldn't usually put two songs back-to-back by the same artists, as I did with the two Kings Of Leon tracks, but I've loved that one-two punch that opens Aha Shake Heartbreak since I first heard it roughly a year ago. I don't kick off the disc with it though, because I have a thing against starting mix CDs with "opening songs." So I hold the Kings back a track or two, opening with some eclectic oddities by Architecture In Helsinki and late '60s sunshine pop group The Free Design (as reinterpreted by Peanut Butter Wolf, with liberal Steve Miller samples). Following Kings Of Leon, there are two consecutive songs that sound like they could've been recorded over 30 years ago: Rosco Gordon's disjointed piano blues "You Don't Care About Nothing" and Sharon Jones' Afro-beat vamp "How Do I Let A Good Man Down?" The songs that follow arguably have an "old" feel too, with Regina Spektor sounding a little like a Joni Mitchell/Carole King chanteuse and Feist sounding very much like a late '70s disco balladeer. Even Inara George is sort of retro-pop. (There's a femme-centricity to everything after Gordon, adding to the thematic linkage.) I originally had more Mia Doi Todd in there, and another Clientele song, but not wanting to repeat the mistakes of the first disc, I made a late addition of a peppy Decemberists song and an epic My Morning Jacket jam. Oddly enough, though both The Decemberists' and My Morning Jacket's albums were in the top tier of my Best Of '05 (with the latter topping my list), I had a hard time finding songs from them to put on this comp. They just mesh better with their own kind, not extracted and recontextualized. But these two songs work okay I think, especially because I have that pretty Magnolia Electric Co. lullaby as a lead out. And then it's just a progression of great indie-pop songs, mostly midtempo, mostly a little bent, and climaxing with the rock anthem of the year, The Hold Steady's "Stevie Nix." Whenever I hear those mammoth power chords and those discursive lyrics about coming to Minnesota, I wonder anew why so many people hate this band. Have they no joy in their lives?

DISC P&P;
1. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, "This Land Is Your Land"
2. Burt Bacharach (feat. Elvis Costello) , "Who Are These People?"
3. Bright Eyes, "Old Soul Song (For The New World Order)"
4. Alan Astor, "Astral America"
5. Constantines, "Working Fulltime"
6. Decibully, "Notes To Our Leaders"
7. The Decemberists, "16 Miltary Wives"
8. Brakes, "Cheney"
9. Gang Of Four, "Not Great Men"
10. Kanye West (feat. Adam Levine) , "Heard 'Em Say"
11. Common (feat. Kanye West & John Legend) , "They Say"
12. Bright Eyes, "Light Pollution"
13. The Free Design (by Chris Geddes & Hush Puppy) , "2002 - A Hit Song"
14. Esthero, "We R In Need Of A Musical Revolution"
15. The Free Design (by Nobody) , "Blowin' Bubbles"
16. Paul Anka, "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
17. The Free Design (by Nobody) , "Light My Fire"
18. Sufjan Stevens, "John Wayne Gacy, Jr."
19. Sick Bees, "God Will Stop Yer Party"
20. The Robot Ate Me, "Crispy Christian Tea Time"
21. Half-Handed Cloud, "Jael Peg Caper"
22. Langhorne Slim, "Mary"
23. Clem Snide, "Jews For Jesus Blues"
24. Neil Diamond, "Man Of God"
25. The Hold Steady, "How A Resurrection Really Feels"
26. Bright Eyes, "Road To Joy"

Commentary: The theme for this disc is "pop and politics," in that all the songs more or less have something to say about war/class/religion/music/America. Some of them only loosely qualify: Alan Astor's "Astral America" isn't all that pointed, and neither is Constantines' "Working Fulltime," despite the repeated phrase "We won't be undersold." The two hip-hop songs only mention current affairs tangentially, and while Bright Eyes' "Road To Joy" is definitely a political anthem of a kind, the other two Bright Eyes songs are merely set in the milieu of our conflicted modern age. To be frank, the more overtly political songs here tend toward the shallow and/or silly, but then that's the nature of agit-prop. Sometimes you've just got to channel the angry teen within. This disc also includes a mini-set dedicated to pop specifically (everything from the remix of The Free Design's classic deconstruction of hitmaking through the snippet of the band's Doors cover) and one dedicated to religion, with a sort of dialectic going on between believers like Sufjan Stevens, Half-Handed Cloud and Neil Diamond, and skeptics like The Robot Ate Me, Clem Snide and The Hold Steady. (My favorite jump-cut of the whole three-disc set: the hushed conclusion of Sufjan Stevens' creepy "John Wayne Gacy" shattered by Sick Bees' answer song "God Will Stop Your Party.") The comp ends with one of the first songs that got my blood pumping in 2005, and it still sets me to trembling … especially the line, "Let's fuck it up boys, make some noise." More of the same in the new year, please.