The Midway Point 

A Look Back at the (half-) Year in Music

If the spirit-killing humidity and ridiculous number of grown men sporting sandals aren’t enough to convince you that summer is the absolute pits, we’ve got one more thing to add to the sweaty, sticky mess that has become your life. At this time each year, the music industry as a whole takes a break and quits releasing records, which, when you like new records as much as we do, is a total drag. But if you think about it, it’s a smart move. The high school kids are out at the mall instead of sitting in front of the TV watching TRL, and the college kids are home working summer jobs instead of scoring free records from the radio station. So rather than wasting time trying to reach an audience that doesn’t want to be reached, record labels big and small take the time to gear up for their big fall releases.

And so what do we do? Well, here at The L we mostly throw things and pout like 6 year olds. But now, because we’re so, so fucking sick of ourselves, we’ve decided to put an end to all that by taking a look back at the first half of the year in music.
Like most years, we’ve got a healthy mix of bands getting far more hype than warranted, bands getting far less hype than warranted, and old standbys who have come to exist on a level where none of this stuff means a damn thing. When the dust settles, 2005 will be just another year in which a seemingly endless amount of average records are released. But it will also be another year that gives us a handful of great ones. And perhaps most importantly, it’ll give us a few more chances to argue with our friends or favorite publications over which ones they consider great.

Here’s our take on the first six months of the year. We’d love to hear what you think as well. Visit THE LOCAL to share your own personal highlights of 2005. Or, you know, just to make fun of ours. Whatever. It’s so hot.

Our Favorites So Far

The Mountain Goats: The Sunset Tree
On his ninth album, introspective head goat John Darnielle somehow manages to weave a series of deeply personal themes — abuse, death and fear — into an unwavering and catchy song cycle. With nasal vocals, a determined delivery, and a crack squad of guest musicians including John Vanderslice and cellist Erik Freidlander, Darnielle has completed an evolution from detached observational tales recorded into a boombox to full-scale productions that don’t lack any of the intimacy of his earliest works. From the creeping ‘Dilaudid’ to the triumphant ‘This Year’, The Sunset Tree is an inspirational record that doesn’t preach. ‘Dance Music’ may be the most upsetting paean to the power of rock we’ve ever heard, and it is truly a unique record that can deal with such involved subject matter without forgetting the intrinsic healing power of the music itself.
-Pete D’Angelo

The Hold Steady: Separation Sunday
Hyper-literary, in your face, and unapologetically spastic, Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn has taken the dumbed-down image of a bar band and distilled it to the point where the wisdom flows like hard liquor. On the Hold Steady’s sophomore effort, Finn and Co. tell the tale of tough breaks and ultimate salvation with enough snarky asides to make the average McSweeney’s contributor feel painfully inadequate. The Twin Cities’ favorite drunken post-Replacements sons have come to New York and conquered the damn place without letting up on their attention to regional details or their affection for damaging lifestyles. Tack on a live show that bristles with nervous energy and lives up to the glory of this incredible record and the Hold Steady may just find themselves the underdog success story of 2005.

Quasimoto: The Further Adventures of Lord Quas
Underground indie hip-hop has lately been accused of turning into a stale, lifeless beast. While seen as an alternative to the mainstream, everyone’s doing it, and thus everyone is ruining it. Behold! Quasimoto, known far better as Madlib, is here in his alter-ego form to save the day with this, his conceptual hip-hop avant-garde vision, laced with blunted flips. This record begs for repeated listens as it defies conventional hip-hop, and with each spin you’ll understand the lofty beauty of Lord Quas’ abnormal, high-pitched observations.
-Jocelyn Hoppa

Dr. Dog: Easy Beat
What are we listening to? Dr. Dog. Dr. Dog… hmm… I like this. The preceding conversation is one I’ve heard since the day this record came into my home. Come to think of it, it’s how I found out about the band in the first place. Like the best cult you’ve ever joined, Dr. Dog is instantly convincing and sweeter than deadly Kool-Aid. This ragtag group of Philadelphians brings with them a live show that turns into a giant sing-along, and a debut record that came out of nowhere to be the feel good hit of the summer. To the joyless naysayers: since when is listening to The White Album too much considered a bad thing?

Andrew Bird: Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs
As easy as it is to completely ignore Ani DiFran- co’s Righteous Babe record label, it pays to take heed once every five years or so to discover that she’s signed someone truly worthy of the fancy-pants packaging she always springs for. Former Squirrel Nut Zipper and Bowl of Fire frontman Andrew Bird’s second legitimate solo album is an almost annoyingly dense record, so full of circuitous songwriting and elaborate production that it practically explodes out of its shiny jewel case. Bird’s vocal delivery is some bizarre mutt bred from Stephen Malkmus’s lazy improvisation and Rufus Wainwright’s bravado croon, and his infinite orchestrations echo the best of Jon Brion. Not to mention that he’s fully proficient on the violin, guitar, glockenspiel and, of course, as a whistler. The packaging is quite nice, too.
-Mike Dougherty

Ryan Adams: Cold Roses
Oh, the cruel, cruel irony. The minute people stopped caring quite so much about Ryan Adams, he went and released a record that ranks up there among the finest work he’s ever done. Without the hype that surrounded his last few records, Adams gives us Cold Roses, a back-to-basics double album full of country-tinged confessionals — still the one thing he does exceptionally well. There are dreamy, swirling moments like the best parts of Love Is Hell, and better versions of the wide-open rock moments that bogged down Gold, but none of that takes away from the record’s driving forces: Adams’ simple strumming and his touching and surprisingly optimistic lyrics. There are hints of Adams indulging himself a bit too much, but all in all, it’s the perfect amalgamation of the styles he’s dabbled in over the past few years. Somehow, it’s the first time he seems to have a real voice of his own.
-Mike Conklin

Sleater-Kinney: The Woods
On their seventh album, Portland’s Sleater-Kinney redefine their place in rock music. Yes, they remain press darlings, but no longer through rehashing their signature sound. Guitarist Carrie Brownstein, the major force behind The Woods, explores new guitar territory with Hendrix-style solos and amps cranked to ten. From the fuzzy ballad ‘Modern Girl’ to the dark ‘Entertain’ she carries the record, while Corin Tucker infuses a bit of cheer and some raw vocal emotion. Janet Weiss ties up this tightly wrapped package with a bow of epic rock drumming. Though their psych-rock influenced jamming can be a little off-putting at times, The Woods represents a breakthrough for the trio in both quality and creativity. The single ‘Jumpers’ is one of the best songs of the year, despite what you may have seen on Letterman.
-Lacey Tauber

Beck: Guero
While Beck’s notable mood changes have offered his fans some great variety, it’s had its ups and downs. And by downs we mean Sea Change. But we seem to have caught our favorite white boy on a good day/year, prompting the mingled mix that is Guero. Everything Beck does best (except the never-to-be-topped falsetto glory of ‘Debra’) is present here—cheery summer pop in ‘Girl,’ glue stick beats in ‘Qué Onda Guero’ and ‘Hell Yes,’ and a precisely orchestrated Brazilian fixation in ‘Missing.’ The record is almost as erratic as the man’s career, but perhaps this album is what he was waiting to make all along.-MD

The Evens: The Evens
2004 went by without so much as a phone call from Ian MacKaye, or even a simple note on the fridge to let us know how he was doing after he did that little thing, you know, of defining rock music in the past decade. Finally though, he descended from Mount Olympus with Amy Farina, the Hera to his rocking Zeus, and they proclaimed together that the former Fugazi frontman was very much alive. Rarely does a single one of their songs expand beyond the pair’s subtle harmonies, Farina’s shuffling drums and MacKaye’s chunky baritone guitar, but the Evens’ eponymous debut couldn’t possibly sound fresher. MacKaye seems to have realized that he doesn’t need to define rock music anymore; he just needs to embrace being the best at it.

The National: Alligator
Matt Berninger’s haunting baritone is the embodiment of scuffed heartbreak, a world where women leave, men drink too much, and we are all wounded survivors of an unseeing fate. Piano creeps around the edges as he croons, “Didn’t anybody tell you/how to gracefully disappear from a room?” Brooklyn (via Cincinnati) quintet the National write songs with unusual minor chord progressions, densely layered guitars, and an exquisite sense of timing, but the soul of the band is Berninger’s brooding voice and the dirty beauty of the lyrics it sets loose. Like any great troubadour, he knows that all we can do is tell the story of our tragedies and, through the telling, hope for redemption.
-Stephanie Hanson

The Decemberists: Picaresque
If the recent success of the Decemberists isn’t enough to convince you that even the most obnoxious indie-rock kids are just total suckers for fun, upbeat melodies, we don’t know what will be. Because while frontman Colin Meloy’s otherworldly lyrics are certainly smart and mysteriously intriguing, most of us haven’t the slightest idea what the fuck he’s talking about. But that doesn’t matter so much because he’s also crafting some of the most infectious sing-alongs we’ve heard in years.-MC

Bright Eyes: I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning
Up until I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, there was something about Bright Eyes that was just too intense to grasp. The cracking voice, the ad hoc production, the overbearing teen poetry — it was almost too personal; it was reading someone’s diary you didn’t even care to see. With Wide Awake, Conor Oberst takes a delicate step back from the spotlight: his voice is softer, the production cleaner, and the songs poetic without dwelling on the personal and the painful (usually). Of course, the same could basically be said for the simultaneously released Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, but we’ll take homegrown alt-country over electronic wankery any day.

Black Mountain: Black Mountain
You know what those hippies need? Metal riffs. There are quite a few crusty bands today delving back into classic, psychedelic rock and metal, but one band that has managed to pull it off better than the rest is Black Mountain. Their debut album is an artistic collection of songs based around the permeating stuff of murky rock dreamscapes — a little madness, a little uncertainty, a lot of complication — the ribbon-like, smoky finger that beckons us to the mountaintop for a clearer view of modern-day morality. With a set of political beliefs that are righteous without being shrill, this album conveys steadfast spirit through grooves with no creative boundaries.

Out Hud: Let Us Never Speak of this Again
It’s criminal and/or ridiculous that Out Hud isn’t getting a fraction of the hype !!! got in 2003 from that Giuliani single, because their three overlapping band members have all of !!!’s fun, punky irreverence, minus the annoying navel-gazing extravagance. Vocals (by drummer Phyllis Forbes and cellist Molly Schnick) sound like they’ve been piped in from outer space, and Out Hud is the only group I know that can pull off lush exuberance and icy minimalism, all in the same track. Weird little sounds are the hallmark of every great pop song — think Prince, Madonna, hell, even Paula Abdul — and Out Hud has strange effects buried all over this album, not to mention my nominee for best song title of the year — ‘Dear Mr. Bush, There are Over 100 Words for Shit, and Only One For Music, Fuck You, Out Hud.’

John Prine: Fair and Square
New Yorkers don’t pay that much attention to the great John Prine, and we don’t really understand why that is. Sure, he’s not exactly stylish, and his sense of irony is essentially non-existent, but he’s also one of popular music’s keenest observers of day-to-day life. First viewed as one of the early-70s New Dylans, Prine has since built a reputation as a lighthearted storyteller with a somewhat goofy sense of humor and an only slightly untarnished heart of gold. On Fair and Square, his much awaited first collection of new material in nearly a decade, we find him in a slightly darker mood. He’s still cracking jokes and singing about true love, but it’s tough to shake the feeling that after 58 years, he’s finally having a tough time calling the glass half-full. And that means a lot more coming from John Prine than it does from a well-dressed 25 year old with killer hair.

And the award for the Most Disappointing Record of the Year goes once again to…

Weezer: Make Believe
This is officially the last time we can say we’re disappointed by a Weezer record. Because really, can you by disappointed by something you had absolutely no hope for to begin with? We don’t think so. Make Believe marks the third consecutive shitty album from this once great band of trailblazing nerds. And we’re not even talking regular shitty…we’re talking, like, monumentally shitty — the kind of shitty where you say, “You know, I sorta wouldn’t mind listening to that new Yellowcard record.” Sound harsh? It’s not. Remember what you loved about Weezer’s first two records — the raw guitar tones, the smart lyrics and fun melodies? Yeah, Make Believe has none of that. It’s just a bunch of middle-of-the-road pop songs that sound like a band’s last, desperate lunge for relevance. Let’s hope that’s exactly what it is.

Albums We’re Looking Forward To

John Vanderslice: Pixel Revolt
John Vanderslice is faithful to one of the strongest pillars of being an independent musician: he’s a major nerd. His unrelenting audiophilia has driven almost everything about his career as both an artist and a producer, which may or may not have peaked on a song paying homage to his four-track. If his recording diary has anything to say about it, Pixel Revolt will be as aurally engaging an album as JV has ever created. Track sheets promise gongs, vintage organs, guest appearances from Mountain Goat John Darnielle and his cello-rocking friend Erik Friedlander, and the usual tender songs about women and pharmaceuticals.

Kanye West: Late Registration
Everyone knows that Kanye’s got a pretty high opinion of himself, but as fun as it would be to knock him down a peg, you have to admit he hasn’t given us hater types much to hate on yet. Kanye West is a member of the “sex and pizza” club, which is to say that even at his worst, he’s still pretty great. If “Diamonds Are Forever” is any indication, Late Registration is going to fall somewhere between tantric sex (pretty great) and the Gnutella pizza at Pie (freaking awesome). Late Registration will be better than the second coming, critics will fawn, and Kanye’s head will swell till it pops. -Elias Ravin


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