Slept-On in 2005

The overlooked albums of last year.

Pop-music critics spent December in the usual manner: secluded in fetid basement apartments, agonizing over their top-10 lists. The results of this ritual are the various year-end polls, which in 2005 brought some predictable winners—the deserving (M.I.A., Fiona Apple, The Hold Steady), the overrated (Sufjan Stevens, Antony and the Johnsons, Bloc Party), and The Kanye. Given the sheer volume of music available these days—and the profusion of genres, subgenres, and sub-subgenres—critical consensus of any kind is a small miracle, and every fan is destined to greet the top-10s with a counterlist of the egregiously overlooked. (What, no Gogol Bordello?And where in God’s name is the Danger Doom record?!) Here then are some favorites, most of which didn’t turn up on any year-end lists: 10 unjustly ignored, scandalously underrated, little-known, or otherwise slept-on records that got heavy rotation in one fetid basement in 2005.

Z-Ro, Let the Truth Be Told (Rap-A-Lot)

This was the year that Houston hip-hop took over, one chopped and screwed beat at a time. Somehow, this terrific album by one of the city’s veteran MCs slipped under the radar. Z-Ro has deft rhyme skills and a silken flow, and an old-fashioned pride in both; his mantra is “respect my mind.” He’s taken the sensitive-thug persona pioneered by Tupac to an extreme—he’s very nearly a gangsta James Taylor. In song after song he bares his pain and vulnerabilities, rapping about being “blinded by my tears” and apologizing for his album’s dearth of upbeat songs. (“See … I ain’t … experienced anything but hard times and heartache.”) In a year when hip-hop was almost all party music, Z-Ro’s blues-rap reminded us of the genre’s confessional power, and that even laments can be danceable.

Brazilian Girls, Brazilian Girls (Verve Forecast)

My favorite record of 2005 was the debut album by a New York band with a preposterously cosmopolitan sound and pedigree. The Brazilian Girls blend dance beats, Kurt Weill, ska, and a dozen other styles; their singer, Sabina Scuibba, grew up in France, Italy, and Germany; sings in six languages; and has the voice and freaked-out fashion sense of a natural-born diva. (Her signature accessory: blindfolds.) Most critics ignored the album, perhaps sensing the presence of a Eurotrash “chillout” group. They were wrong. Brazilian Girls are a ferocious live band, and their catchy songs never stop changing shape, building up dense grooves, veering into dissonance, and cracking musical and lyrical jokes.

The Click Five, Greetings From Imrie House (Lava)

In 2005, the teen pop market was glutted with the usual suspects: punk-poppers, painfully earnest post-Emo singer-songwriters, and savvy straddlers of both genres. But these five graduates of Boston’s Berklee College of Music took a novel approach to wooing the TRL crowd (and their parents): They dressed in matching suits and ties and revived the power-pop sounds of the 1970s with note-perfect accuracy. It’s pastiche, but virtuoso pastiche. Like all power-pop groups, the Click Five stake everything on The Big Catchy Refrain; luckily, every song has one of those, and the Clicks’ verses are catchier than other bands’ choruses. Best moment: “I’ll Take My Chances,”a prom anthem co-written with Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger that features some heart-rending “ooh-oohs,” and both Beatles and Backstreet Boys allusions.

Saïan Supa Crew, Hold Up (EMI International)

Is the world’s greatest rap group French? The idea may seem ridicule—until you hear the latest release by Paris’Saïan Supa Crew, who, since 1999, have been making some of the most exciting and unclassifiable hip-hop records anywhere. Like the Wu-Tang Clan, Saïan’s five MCs and beatboxers have cartoonish personalities and a wacky cosmology (they’re obsessed with the color yellow). Their disdain for genre boundaries and ability to find funk in unlikely places is positively OutKastian. Francophones will enjoy the witty mix of trash-talking and politics in “Jacko,”a nastier swipe at Jacques Chirac than any Bill O’ Reilly has ever taken. But you don’t need to know a word of French to get into songs like “Hold-Up,”in which the Crew sing, shout, and speed-rap over clattering rhythm and some very loud guitars.

Richard Hawley, Coles Corner (Mute U.S.)

Hotel Room“is a typical Richard Hawley song. In a baritone croon Hawley sings, “10:30 in this hotel room/ You and I locked in the gloom,” as tremolo guitar lines ring out in the vast spaces around him—a low, lonesome sound. Hawley, from Sheffield, England, plays guitar for the great Britpop band Pulp, but as a solo artist he is an inveterate Yankophile, and a hopeless romantic. His songs carry echoes of the 1950s: Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, and, on desolate, string-heavy ballads like “Coles Corner,”the Sinatra of In the Wee Small Hours. Hawley is the best kind of retro-rocker: He has picked through his favorite old records and reassembled them into a unique and wholly personal musical style. Compelling listening for those who like their love songs a dark and lustrous shade of noir.

Various Artists, Lost Sounds: B lacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922 (Archeophone)

Great reissue records, like 2005’s celebrated girl-group box set One Kiss Can Lead to Another, cast genres we thought we knew well in a new light. Then there are truly epochal reissues, which unearth completely forgotten chapters of musical history. The tiny Illinois-based Archeophone label has been doing that kind of archaeology for several years now, almost single-handedly championing the popular music of the acoustic recording era. This two-CD collection (released in conjunction with Tim Brooks’ scholarly tome) highlights the role of African-Americans in the nascent recording industry, reaching back into the 19th century to pioneers like George W. Johnson (whose “The Laughing Song“was one of the earliest hit records) and the Unique Quartet. The picture that emerges is not uncomplicated—the conventions of blackface minstrelsy can be heard in many of the songs—but the music, ranging from vaudeville tunes to gospel harmony vocals to early dance bands, is vibrant and moving.

Fannypack, See You Next Tuesday (Tommy Boy)

The three female MCs and two male producers known as Fannypack made a splash with their 2002 debut single “Cameltoe,” a buoyant old-school-style rap about a serious fashion-don’t. On their second album, the Brooklyn rappers tone down the Roxanne Shanté shtick, but they’re just as energetic and funny; they sound less like a novelty act and more like a great, confident hip-hop group determined to throw the world’s best post-feminist party. (Fellas: You’re the ones giving lapdances.) The real surprise here is the production. Songs like “Keep It Up,”a cheerleader-style anthem with a beat built around basketball sound-effects—sneakers squeaking on parquet, jump shots thudding off of the rim—are more funky and inventive than anything the Neptunes or Timbaland came up with this year. Not bad for a couple of dorky white guys, including a beanpole named Fancy who’s a dead-ringer for John Waters.

Manu Chao, Siberie M’etait Contéee (Radio Bemba)

The French-Spanish singer-songwriter Manu Chao is both the anti-globalization movement’s most celebrated musical spokesman and a symbol of globalized pop: His polylingual, genre-mashing songs are anthems of the borderless 21st century. It’s been nearly five years since Chao’s last big studio album, but in late 2004 he quietly published a children’s book, which included this 23-track CD, a full-fledged Manu Chao album masquerading as a kid’s record. It’s more provincial than his past releases—all the songs are sung in French, and accordions and minor-key waltzes deepen the homely Gallic feel. But the sonic texture is familiar. Chao’s rhythm guitar accents the off-beats, tugging the songs toward reggae, and there are all kinds of lo-fi keyboard chirrups and blips. Songs like “Le P’tit Jardin“may sound like fairy tales to children, but their parents will hear other things: the mix of utopianism, protest, and surreal black comedy that marks Chao as Bob Marley’s Dadaist heir.

Pelican, The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw (Hydra Head)

Pelican, an instrumental quartet from Chicago, plays an arty strain of metal that has as much in common with avant-jazz as, say, Iron Maiden. The style has been labeled “heady metal,” which makes it sound earnest and edifying—not quite apt for music whose roar is akin to a dozen jumbo jets throttling their engines in a locked airplane hangar. On this terrific record, the songs unfurl over lugubrious tempos as a series of crescendos, interlocking guitar lines that chime prettily and swell into something that makes a mockery of the term “wall of sound”: a mountain of pure noise. The music is expertly played, frequently beautiful, and when thunderclaps of feedback crash across the stereo spectrum, far more menacing than any Satan-worshiping death metal you’ve ever heard. For Pelican, the devil is in the sonic details.

DJ Koze, Kosi Comes Around (Kompakt)

The Cologne-based record company Kompakt has become one of the world’s most influential techno labels by proving that Germans have hearts. Germany has long been an electronica epicenter, but the sound has often been a parody of Teutonic rigidity and reserve: all glitches and stiff beats, dance music for post-structural theorists, not dancers. But Kompakt’s artists warmed things up, adding some disco fire and waves of melody to the usual clicks and pings. This album by the Hamburg-based DJ and producer Stefan Kozalla is one of the label’s most satisfying releases, a collection of long, idiosyncratic tracks that use the steady 4/4 pulse of house music as a starting point for all sorts of clever rhythmic and melodic invention. “Dangernugget“is typical: Over a groaning depth-sounder bassline, DJ Koze stacks whistles, beeps, processed vocals, and other electronic effects. The result is a very un-German combination of funky and funny.