Comparison Shopping for 2005

By nature, I'm not a competitive person. I don't understand the appeal of sports or beauty pageants.

But as a music writer, I spend half of December relistening to the year's releases, giving one more listen to every song on every album, and then rating (on a five-point scale) the ones that make the first cut to come up with my top 20. Keeps my math skills from getting rusty, but that's really beside the point.

What good is it to compare Madonna's latest dance masterpiece with Scrabbel's fragile pop? Robbie Fulks' dry country wit with Scout Niblett's terrifying electroblues? Michelle Shocked's Western-swing style Disney classics with Michelle Shocked's Tex-Mex culture clash with Michelle Shocked's folk rock?

I do it because it's in my job description. But it's more meaningful to find what each album has to offer than to rank them like figure-skaters. Here's some of the music that rocked my year.

• Best hello (and goodbye): The Peels, "The Peels." Seven months after releasing their swaggery debut, belter Robyn Miller and bandmates called it quits. It was great while it lasted.

• Most heartbreaking state of the union: Bright Eyes, "Landlocked Blues," from "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning." Conor Oberst is a wordy and prolific songwriter, and he puts everything he can into the best song on the year's best Bright Eyes album. ("Digital Ash in a Digital Urn" and "Motion Sickness" are the band's other two releases.) It's both a breakup song and a makeup song, a call to arms and a cry for peace.

• Most inspiring character sketches: Carrie Newcomer, "Regulars and Refugees." Newcomer fills this song cycle with the hopes and dreams of a diner's waitresses and patrons. In lesser hands, such sentiments could sound maudlin, but Newcomer breathes dignity into each of her characters – even Bob the Dog.

• Diciest career move for a movie star: Juliette & The Licks, "You're Speaking My Language." Playing in a struggling rock band may not be as glamorous as attending the Oscars, but Juliette Lewis has never seemed more happy to be alive than on "Pray for the Band Latoya."

• Strongest weak link: The White Stripes, "Get Behind Me Satan." Jack White was a busy boy this year. Between getting married and preparing for fatherhood, the boyish-voiced guitarist found time for his duo's fifth album. It's not as great as its predecessors, but "My Doorbell" and "I'm Lonely (But I Ain't That Lonely Yet)" prove that White's off year is better than most musicians' best.

• Most realistic portrayal of domesticity: Amy Rigby, "The Trouble With Jeanie," from "Little Fugitive." Not every woman would write an ode to her husband's ex-wife, but Rigby tempers her comic confusion with genuine fondness.

• Most fantastic portrayal of domesticity: Kate Bush, "Mrs. Bartolozzi," from "Aerial." Bush disappeared for more than a decade to raise a son, and on her long-awaited return she makes doing the laundry sound positively dreamy. For real.

• Best domestic revenge fantasy: Tori Amos, "Hoochie Woman," from "The Beekeeper." Amos knows her man is stepping out on her, and she's just tickled to give him some advice: "He called me up and said, 'She has needs'/I said, 'You'll find 'em on Barney's fourth floor'/He said, 'I need a loan'/'That's not a problem. You better keep this from your hoochie woman.' " Telling your husband what his mistress needs and offering to pay? That takes a lot of confidence, and Amos pulls it off handily.

• Best results of a breakup: Maria Taylor, "11:11," and Orenda Fink, "Invisible Ones." As Azure Ray, Taylor and Fink created some beautiful harmonies. Their soft voices blended like that's what they were born to do. So it's a delightful surprise that they're even better on their own. Taylor's love songs have a slight edge, but Fink finds grace in foreign places.

• Best matchmaking: Hilken Mancini and Chris Colbourn, "Hilken Mancini and Chris Colbourn." Former Fuzzy guitarist Mancini and ex-Buffalo Tom bassist Colbourn must have crossed paths as Boston B-listers in the heady days of alt-rock, but they haven't hooked up until now. They were too cool for boy-girl love songs back in the 1990s – we all were – but this is what it would have sounded like.

• Best fusion of old funk, indie pop and hip-hop: The Go! Team, "Thunder, Lightning, Strike." It's a mash-up of moods – all good.

Not every album suits every taste, but if you've gotten everything you want for Chanukah, there's plenty of worthy music here to replenish your wish list.

And at the top of my wish list? A new CD player. I wore mine out; 2005 was just too much for it.



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