I’ll admit it. I did not keep up with the world of music the way I have in the past. On average, I listened to a new album every week, but the time I’d planned to spend writing about them was swallowed by film-writing assignments and fiction deadlines. It’s been a demanding year in so many ways.

Thanks to the vigilance of friends and colleagues like Josh Hurst, Andy Whitman, Thom Jurek, the folks at All-Music Guide and Paste Magazine, I did discover recordings that gave me relief, strength, inspiration, and hope. Some were profound, some just plain fun. And, as always, I want to share them with you. So here is a list of ten albums that made a difference to me.

1.  Sufjan Stevens…..Illinoise

A suggested alternative album title:
Serial Killers, Windy City Excursions, and Divine Intervention

Essential tracks:
John Wayne Gacy Jr., Casimir Pulaski Day, Chicago

When the rest of the United States of America gets a taste of the folk-rock homebrew that Sufjan Stevens has handcrafted for the states of Michigan (Greetings from Michigan) and Illinois (Illinoise), you can bet that each state will line up and beg for a variety to call their own.

Even those who caught on to Stevens’ visionary talents early could not have prepared us for the soaring achievement of Illinoise, which leads us on a whirlwind tour of scattered landmarks in Illinois history, weaving a theme of spiritual loss, lament, and longing throughout. It’s as though Stevens wants to single-handedly dream up a whole new archive of American folk music, half-whispering lyrics that entertain, challenge, illuminate, unsettle, and haunt, while he zips from one instrument to the other – piano, guitar, glockenspiel, banjo, accordion, vibraphone, church organ, and even sleigh bells.

He’s backed by a host of those who’ve caught the fever, a motley crew of backup singers and band members, including a team conveniently labeled “The Illinoisemaker Choir” who provide “hoots, hollers,” and more. There’s a neighborhood-band quality to their performance, and I would never champion the album as a masterwork of musicianship. But the songs are strong, ambitious, inventive, and exploratory, seemingly unaware that pop songs are supposed to be three-minutes long or follow a particular formula.

It’s hard to know where to start in appreciating this work. Perhaps it’s best to mention that the album’s crowning glory is also its quietest, simplest song. “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” is likely to top many listeners’ lists of the Best Songs of 2005. It’s a heartbreakingly beautiful lament for the loss of innocents at the hands of a twisted serial killer. When Stevens notes details of the crimes, he seems to suddenly lose the courage to go any farther, turning skyward in an excruciating cry of “Oh my God…..” But then, just as the burden of these horrors proves too heavy to lift, Stevens brings us to the mirror and the ugly truth that there are no innocents. “And in my best behavior,” he sings, “I am really just like him.”

This broken serial killer who was once beloved before he turned to atrocity lurks like a troubled spirit throughout the record, a symbol of the state’s conflicted heart. In “Come On! Feel the Illinoise,” Stevens traces some of the Windy City’s glories, and then observes a trend toward imitation and haste, and asks if the God of Progress has given up. He exhorts the residents, “If you’ve got the patience, celebrate the ancients.” Summoning the spirit of the great Illinois poet Carl Sandburg, he asks, “Are you writing from the heart?” And he is, clearly, writing from the heart. In “Casimir Pulaski Day,” he tells a story from the perspective of a man whose lover was lost to a disease. It’s told with such tenderness that you’d swear it’s straight from Stevens’ journal. More than likely, it’s just a fiction. But the sentiments at the center have a sincerity that speaks of the singer’s sensitive heart and spiritual conviction.

Some albums knock you flat on the first listen. Others offer a few catchy tunes and a lot of filler. In my life of listening, most of the albums that have had the biggest influence on me were projects that grew on me slowly, over time, providing increasingly rewarding experiences. Illinois didn’t dazzle me at first, but I’ve been listening to it steadily for months now, and its quiet poetry has taken hold of my imagination. Every time I listen to it, I hear something new. Stevens’ lyrics are loaded with imagery, complex juxtapositions, riddles, and humor. But there is a humility and a sense of wonder in his writing that allows for moments of reverent wonder and revelation. Some have confessional lyrics, some take the form of cryptic storytelling, and others are collages of historical details with hints of divine intervention.

I feel a bit like a copycat, putting this album at the top of my list, the way NPR and so many other music critics have done. (Just check out the reviews at Metacritic.com.) But the truth is, nothing else even came close. If the album had been only three songs long–“John Wayne Gacy Jr,,” “Casimir Pulaski Day,” and “Chicago”–I think that it still would have been the most affecting record of the year for me.


Over the Rhine…..Drunkard’s Prayer

A suggested alternative album title:
The Stuff of Staying Together

Essential tracks:
Bluer, Spark, Hush Now (Stella’s Tarantella), Little Did I Know

The full Looking Closer review is here.


Andrew Bird and The Mysterious Production of Eggs
Suggested alternative album titles:
Tales of Brothers Grimm and Gorey
The One-Man Chemistry Set

Essential tracks:
Measuring Cups, Masterfade

This spectacularly imaginative album immediately made me a fan of Andrew Bird. His whimsical wordplay makes these songs as fun to sing as they are to puzzle over. Josh Hurst contributed a review to Looking Closer.



The Ragbirds…..Yes Nearby

A suggested alternative album title:
Watch Out – We’re Just Getting Started

Essential Tracks:
Door in the Wall, Enemy, Adoration

The big debut album of the year. The full Looking Closer review is here.


Charlie Sexton…..Cruel and Gentle Things

A suggested alternative album title:
The Comeback Kid

Essential tracks:
Gospel, Cruel and Gentle Things, Dillngham Lane


Elbow…..Leaders of the Free World

A suggested alternative album title:
We’ve Arrived

Essential Tracks:
Leaders of the Free World

The third album for this popular UK band immediately catapults them to the front ranks of Bands To Take Seriously. Great rhythms, infectious hooks, splendid melodies, a lead singer with a fantastic voice, and a refreshingly unpredictable sound make them far more interesting than the Coldplays and Keanes currently ruling the pop charts and passing themselves off as “rock and roll.” While the lyrics occasionally suffer from somewhat shallow readings of current events and politics, they also cultivate some genuinely emotional and thoughtful laments.


Wilco…..Kicking Television

A suggested alternative album title:
Kicking the Wilco Critics Around the Block and Back

Essential tracks:
Misunderstood, Airline to Heaven, Spiders

Last year, Over the Rhine released a live album that showed what the band can do in front of a live audience. It provided a piece that had been missing from their catalog–evidence of the spontaneity and power they bring to their concerts, the stuff that wins them more than just fans, but a faithful and devoted following who draw life and inspiration from their music.

Kicking Television does the same thing for Wilco. In a rather surprising set list that draws heavily from their last two albums, they deliver performances that demonstrate they can reproduce on stage what they recorded for those records… and, in some cases, even surpass those studio tracks. This is a rowdy, multifaceted show, full of energy, surprises, and high spirits. For all that you may have read about Jeff Tweedy’s troubles, it seems that here, on this night in Chicago, he was on Cloud 9.


Eels…..Blinking Lights and Other Revelations

A suggested alternative album title:
Name a Style and I’ll Kick Your Ass With It

Essential tracks:
Trouble with Dreams, Railroad Man, In the Yard Behind the Church

In his most ambitious effort yet, the man called “E” delivers an astonishing variety of music, from pop to punk to country, and he makes it all sound so easy. There’s a great deal of sadness to the stories here, but stick with it–there are songs of hope and renewed perspective as well. The songs concern human relationships, but there are lyrics that suggest the seeds of spiritual inquiry as well. There’s something for everyone here, so give this impressive double-disc project a spin.


Lizz Wright…..Dreaming Wide Awake

A suggested alternative album title:
I’ll Melt You Slowly Like a Candle

Essential tracks:
Taste of Honey, Old Man

Sometimes, you listen to a record not for the lyrics, not for the musicianship, but just for the beauty of the human voice. And Lizz Wright’s voice is enchanting. Fortunately, she’s accompanied exquisitely here, by musicians and a producer who know what they’ve got, so they give her plenty of room, providing strong but restrained contexts in which she flourishes.


The White Stripes…..Get Behind Me Satan

A suggested alternative album title:
Are you kidding? This is the best album title I’ve seen in a long time!

Essential tracks:
Blue Orchid, Doorbell, Ghost Song

There is conscience and character in these lyrics, but it’s easy to miss that when you can’t stop rocking out to the White Stripes’ irresistible hooks and jam sessions. There’s nothing better than a rock band giddy with love for their own songs, because that love is contagious. While they’re not the most sophisticated songwriters yet–some of these songs boast a good idea that could have been taken much farther–they sure know how to get, and keep, your attention. I was intrigued by them before. Now I’m a full-fledged fan.


Feist…..Let It Die

A suggested alternative album title:
Late Night Super-Cool Record of the Year

Essential tracks:
Gatekeeper, Inside and Out, Secret Heart

Creative and inspired song choices. Layers of moody instrumentation and effects that snap, crackle, and pop. Leslie Feist’s sensual vocals, which might remind you of Karin Bergquist, Leigh Nash, Suzanne Vega, or any number of sensual female pop voices. There are a lot of reasons to love this record.


Bettye LaVette…..I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise

A suggested alternative album title:

IEssential Tracks:
I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got, Joy, Sleep to Dream

Two words: SOUL. AUTHENTICITY. Bettye LaVette’s singing will knock you through the wall and into some kind of soul-music heaven. And Joe Henry knows just what kind of spotlight to put on her. If you’ve heard Lucinda Williams’s song “Joy,” you’ll be amazed at what happens when LaVette gets hold of it. Turn it up, and put on a helmet.

Other albums I enjoyed and recommend:

Iron and Wine….Woman King
(or, Our Funky Folky EP is Better than Your Full Album)

(or, Here’s a Bunch of Songs Inspired By My Previous Work)

Kanye West….Late Registration
(or, What Other Rap Artist is Cool Enough to Hire Jon Brion as a Producer?)

Fiona Apple…..Extraordinary Machine
(or, All of My Recent Heartbreaks: A Documentary)

Maria McKee….Peddlin’ Dreams
(or, I Won’t Overdo It This Time)

Gorillaz….Demon Dayz
(or, Another Dose of Saturday Morning Cartoon Pop)

Rolling Stones….A Bigger Bang
(or, Ha! We’ve Still Got It!)

Ryan Adams and the Cardinals….Cold Roses
(or, The Best of My Three 2005 Albums)

Bruce Cockburn….Speechless
(or, Putting the Politics On Hold)

Bruce Springsteen….Devils and Dust
(or, Me, My Guitar, and Some Prayers)

Paul McCartney….Chaos and Creation in the Backyard
(or, I’ve Still Got Some Tricks Up My Sleeve)

They Might Be Giants….Here Come the ABCs
(or, Our Records for Kids are Better Than Your Grownup Records)

Sexsmith and Kerr….Destination Unknown
(or, Harmonies To Die For)

Richard Thompson….Front Parlour Ballads
(or, Why Did I Ever Bother With Backup Bands?)

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club….Howl
(or, Punkamericana)

Sigur Ros….Taak…
(or, One Euphoric Pop Anthem After Another)