Tuesday, January 3, 2006

The discopop directory totally unbiased top ten albums of 2005

Ooops - took a bit of an unscheduled 2-week break there!

Anyway, as promised a fortnight ago, here are our top 10 albums of 2005. Again, this is based on the number of times we've played each record (as revealed in our itunes playcount). We've applied a small amount of mathematical correction so that recent albums don't get left out - but it's still totally honest. Although we're keeping quiet that number 11 would have been Coldplay...

10) Fijacion Oral vol 1 - Shakira
Sounds like: Latin-tinged soft rock, only good

The critics said: "There's a light touch to ballads like "En Tus Pupilas" that's a world away from the Ricky Martinizing of Latin pop." (Rolling Stone)

We Say: The English-language sequel to this album has been delayed in the UK, but it hardly matters when you've got this stunning Latin-pop album to be getting on with. Twisting sensuous guitar ballads around spiky electro-pop, Shakira sounds completely in control of her (self-written) material. Because of our inability to speak Spanish, we haven't a clue what she's on about on these 10 tracks, but we're willing to guess that a lot of them are about the men in her life. Shakira's expressive delivery veers between two characters: one a sweet, melodic temptress, the other a deranged, shouty vixen. Either way, she sounds like a high-maintenance girlfriend.

9) Come and Get It - Rachel Stevens
Sounds like: Goldfrapp for children

The critics said: "It's very much a labor of love by some record executives, some faceless writers, and the pretty one out of S Club 7" (Stylus magazine)

We say: Poor old Rachel. No-one really seems to care about her unless she's in her pants on the front of FHM. Which is a shame, really, because she has persuaded some of the world's best writers to make a solid-gold pop album for her. Picking up cues from Goldfrapp and Britney, it combines camp glam-rock grooves with shiny sing-a-long melodies.

Particularly worthy of note is Richard X's "Crazy Boys", which sounds like a vintage Pet Shop Boys song and was scheduled to be the album's fourth single. Somehow, we don't think that will ever happen - even though Polydor bravely stuck with Rachel while this album and its singles missed the top ten places they deserved. We blame the lack of success on the current anti-pop snobbery at Radio One.

Expect to see Rachel devoting more time to her 'film career' in 2006. She'll be on "I'm a Celebrity" by Christmas.

8) Chemistry - Girls Aloud
Sounds like: Every pop single ever written has been thrown into a blender, loaded into a pink firework and launched above the Astoria by Judy Garland. On poppers. (plus a cover of See the day).

The critics said: "You could spend the rest of your life listening to albums by critically acclaimed Americana artists and hear fewer new ideas and less creative daring than you would in three minutes of Chemistry" (The Guardian)

We Say: Vexingly, considering the treatment meted out to Rachel Stevens, this album has appeared in almost every serious music paper's "Best of 2005" list. To be honest, we think it's a bit hit-and-miss compared to "What Will The Neighbours Say" but it does contain the year's best pop single (Biology, in case you're interested).

The laws of the girl-band dictate that GA are due one more album before they split and release a greatest hits, so enjoy them (and their fake-tan) while you can.

7) You Could Have It So Much Better - Franz Ferdinand
Sounds like: Franz Ferdinand's last album

The critics said: "They've gotten unmistakably louder and unmistakably gayer" (Village Voice)

We say: The second phase of Franz Ferdinand's global domination plan shows remarkably little progress from phase one. But maybe that's for the better, as the tracks where they mess around with the template misfire quite badly. However, it's great to see a band as popular as Franz Ferdinand follow up a successful album so quickly.

And they clearly had a good time doing it: if you head over to their website, there are some cute video diaries of Alex & co recording waterfalls and showing off their antique guitar amps (they're also available on the special CD+DVD edition of the album). That sense of enthusiasm, if not experimentation, is perfectly captured on the best of their new songs - Do You Want To, Walk Away and Eleanor Put Your Boots Back On.

6) Anniemal - Annie
Sounds like: Someone's been eating too much sugar

The critics said: "Like floating, high on oxygen, just above a dancefloor" (Pitchfork)

We say: She may be the least charismatic pop star ever (yes, even if you count Rachel Stevens), but Annie has the best tunes. Working with Royksopp and Richard X, Annie spins sugary melodies into a pink pop candy floss that'll get stuck in your hair for days. But it's not too sickly - the production is crunchy and dark, often carrying the less substantial songs along.

Rather depressingly, most people will only have heard the album's standout tracks, Chewing Gum and My Heartbeat, sung in gibberish on the soundtrack to The Sims 2.

5) Extraordinary Machine - Fiona Apple
Sounds like: An explosion in an ideas factory.

The critics said: "This album is not immediate; it takes time for the songs to sink in, to let the melodies unfold and decode her laborious words" (Billboard)

We say: Fiona Apple's long-delayed third album sat on the shelf for years. Recorded around 2001, Sony returned the album with a note reading "where are the singles"? After that, Fiona went into hiding, the original album leaked onto the internet, and fans started a massive campaign to get the songs released, Sony eventually capitulated, on the condition that Fiona re-record the whole lot with a new producer.

At least, that's the story that went around when Extraordinary Machine came out. In recent interviews, Apple seems to be suggesting she wasn't happy with the original recordings herself…

Never mind, because the end result is stunning. Bookended by two quirky, orchestral songs that sound like Doris Day in therapy, the album ventures into rock, jazz and hip-hop played on the marimba. It's a little uneven, but constantly rewards over subsequent listens. And the heartbreaking ballad "Red Red Red" is our favourite album track of the year.

4) Be - Common
Sounds like: What Kanye West's album should have sounded like

The critics said: "A sprawling, varied disc that's as laid-back as a cool summer afternoon" (E! Online)

We say: Starting off with a lone, rubber-band double bass, this album deliberately sets itself apart from the psychedelic overload of Common's last CD (2002's Electric Circus). Clean and simple production, courtesy of Kanye West, ensures the Chicago rapper's thoughtful and provocative rhymes are pushed to centre stage. In a year when Hip-Hop imploded, this was the only album to sound fresh and funky.

3) Demon Days - Gorillaz
Sounds like: The best album by cartoon characters since The Muppet Babies

The critics said: "Demon Days is unified and purposeful in a way Albarn's music hasn't been since The Great Escape" (Allmusic.com)

We say: Allmusic's review is a trifle unfair. This is much, much better than The Great Escape. Instead of cockney barrel-boy pianos and Ken Livingstone, we get post-apocalyptic drum loops and Dennis Hopper.

You'd have to be deaf to have missed Demon Days' trio of hip-hop tinged singles, which seem to have been the soundtrack on every "coming up later on BBC One" trail we've seen this Christmas. But those upbeat tunes are just half the story. Damon Albarn has things he wants to get off his chest, too, and the darker album tracks like "Kids With Guns" are what make this album magnificent. If only he could make bold, political statements like this without having to hide behind a bunch of monkeys.

2) Confessions On a Dancefloor - Madonna
Sounds like: An album made by someone twenty years her junior

The critics said: "One of the few pop singers whose albums are best appreciated in their entirety" (Slant Magazine)

We say: Madonna is always at her best when she talks about the redemptive power of dancing. Songs like Into The Groove, Vogue and Music are milestones in her career - so it should come as no surprise that her first full-on dance album is another one.

Admittedly, we didn't like it at first. The commercially released 'continuous mix' becomes a bit of a drone, with no space for the individual tracks to breathe. But once we tracked down the unmixed version of the album (try iTunes), we fell in love with it.

True, the lyrics were written by a sixth-former with attention deficit disorder, and Hung Up is a poor song built around a fantastic sample, but tracks like "Get Together", "Sorry" and "How High" will magically transport you to the inside of a glitterball. Even if you're listening to them, as you inevitably will, on the tinny PA system at B&Q.

1) Supernature - Goldfrapp
Sounds like: A spaceship built out of vintage synthesizers

The critics said: "If Rachel Stevens is bubblegum, Goldfrapp are crème brulee" (Pop matters)

We say: Purists will sniff that this is a re-tread of 2003's "Black Cherry" album, but so what? That album was fantastic, and this one refines the formula, before riding off on a massive horse made out of mirrors (see the video for Ooh la la for more on this).

Supernature obeys all the rules of perfect pop albums: no longer than 45 minutes, no more than eleven songs, no fewer than fourteen allusions to filthy sex. In common with Madonna's album, it was recorded in a living room in England - which just goes to show that you don't need a bags of money and a constant supply of cocaine to make a great album these days. In fact, all you need is tea (as the Beatles used to say).

Being traditional types, our favourite songs are the ones with proper choruses - Ride A White Horse, Koko, and Number One - but in all honesty, any of these songs could be a hit single.

Oh, and Alison Goldfrapp has excellent hair.

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