The Best Records of 2005 

Tribal drones, lush Britrock, and cartoon monkey bands beguiled our critics this year.

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A tricky blend of jump-up, garage, and drum 'n' bass that flaunted simplistic yet ultra-infectious emcee styles, Arular is 2005's most impressive debut, an instant classic whose cutting-edge hotness registered at radioactive levels. MIA's singsongy vocals proved a clever front for her subversive, revolutionary sentiments -- her personal history as a Tamil Tiger baby turned soundsystem siren lent double meanings to rebel-rousing dance tunes like "Bucky Done Gun" and "Fire Fire," and you couldn't help but love the cute but insistent way she said Quiet up, I need to make a sound. (XL/Beggars US)

Orishas
El Kilo

On their third album, the Latin Grammy-winning Cuban trio Orishas -- who broke new ground for international hip-hop on their previous two releases -- continue to make amazing musical leaps and bounds beyond any artistic statement even attempted by their American rap counterparts in 2005. Fully infused with Afro-Cuban musical sensibilities, El Kilo is a spirited, rhythmic triumph from start to finish, a confidently executed effort assuring us that the Orishas' juju is only getting stronger. (Universal Latin)

Roots Manuva
Awfully Deep

All the buzz from trendy ol' England was on grime MCs like Lady Sovereign, but Mr. Manuva kept it real with lines like I don't give a damn about UK rap/I'm a UK black, making UK tracks, and his third album confirmed he's the only chap who can hold his lyrical weight against America's elite MCs. The Rootsman stretches himself artistically on Awfully Deep, departing from the familiar bashment boogie of previous efforts to make more personal ("Colossal Insight"), ironic ("Too Cold"), and serious ("The Falling") statements -- while still delivering the hotness ("Move Ya Loin") as necessary. (Big Dada)

Platinum Pied Pipers
Triple P

This talented duo from Detroit has wrapped its hands around a gritty, urban, soulful style all its own, revving up the Motor City's engine once again. Breaking away from the overly smoothed-out approach of neo-soul, the Pipers leave the edges sharp and rough on their debut album, favoring raw grooves that perfectly capture the atmosphere of an underground club at 2 a.m. Whether you call it garage soul or warehouse funk, songs like "I Got You" present a welcome alternative to tired club music, brainless rap, and "safe" R&B. (Ubiquity)

Prefuse 73
Surrounded by Silence

A sublimely eclectic sensibility runs through Surrounded by Silence, which boasts some of the illest beats of the year, hands down. Prefuse 73 (aka Scott Herren) is no ordinary producer. Like Amon Tobin and DJ Shadow, he's a composer who happens to work with samplers, analogue synths, and other electric instruments, eschewing the obvious in favor of uncharted rhythmic territory. Prefuse makes the most of cameos by Ghostface and El-P (the verbally lacerating "Hideyaface"), shows his soul chops (the beautifully fractured "We Go Our Own Way"), and crams more interesting musical ideas into short interludes than most folks manage on entire albums. (Warp)

Warrior King
Hold the Faith

I-Wayne and Junior Gong got all the hype, but Warrior King delivered the most consistent roots/dancehall album of the year. Hold the Faith could've used an over-the-top crossover single, but what it lacks in flashiness, it makes up for in steadiness; songs like "Can't Get Me Down," "They Don't Know," and "Education" reiterated the Rasta creed in fine style. No gimmicks or celebrity collaborations to speak of -- just an upful yout' holding firm over updated versions of classic reggae riddims. (VP)

DJ Cheb i Sabbah
La Kahena

Break out the baba ganoush, falafels, and pointy slippers. After thoroughly exploring the trancelike qualities of Hindustani music, original world beatnik Cheb i Sabbah turns to the trance-like qualities of the Arabian diaspora, bringing "les voix du Magreb" to the forefront with an intoxicating excursion into Moroccan gnaoua styles. Gently stitching electro-dub layers onto traditional rhythmic garb, La Kahena fits like a disco-ready djellaba -- its flavorful beats and beautifully melodic vocals make it the musical equivalent of chicken tagine. (Six Degrees)

Mark Keresman

Billy Joe Shaver
The Real Deal

Although it's a cliché, Shaver is the real deal, maintaining the singing storyteller tradition (Hank Williams Sr., Lefty Frizzell, Lightnin' Hopkins) with a big voice as cracked and parched as a Texas dirt road on a hot afternoon, and an unaffectedly relaxed style that makes you feel as if he's singing from a back porch. The accompaniment is old-school lean 'n' wiry (guitars, pedal steel, fiddle, piano, soft drums) with just a touch of Western swing. (Compadre)

Bobo Stenson/Anders Jormin/Paul Motian
Goodbye

You know the adage "less is more"? Tired of jazz musicians engaging in endless soloing till an idea comes to them? Then Goodbye is for you -- American drum wizard Motian joins Swedish pianist Stenson and bassist Jormin for fourteen concise gems of spare, contemplative, impressionistic beauty resplendent with melody and harmony. (ECM)

Bill Frisell
East/West

This two-CD set starts with a live Yoshi's date (featuring bassist Viktor Krauss) and ends at NYC's Village Vanguard (subbing in bassist Tony Scherr), with ex-Bay Area drummer Kenny Wollesen providing continuity as Frisell respectfully yet stunningly reinvents Marvin Gaye's "Heard It Through the Grapevine" and Bob Dylan's "Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." With amazing variety -- ethereal, cool blues riffs, snappy rockabilly, modern minimalism -- and heartfelt aplomb, East/West is not just for guitar fanatics. (Nonesuch)

Angels of Light & Akron/Family
Akron/Family & Angels of Light

With his new angelic crew, Michael Gira aims for a considerably less harsh, far more melodic approach than his last band Swans, sometimes accompanied on this split LP by Brooklyn's multi-instrumental Akron/Family. Gira still weaves disturbing scenarios, but you get the feeling he's trying to exorcize his demons, rather than lounge with them in hell. A/F's half finds the Brooklyn crew in out-there eclectic mode, adapting and combining styles to suit their twisted whims/songs -- imagine King Crimson, Butthole Surfers, and the Band passing the bong around during an outdoor party. Pretty/scary stuff. (Young God)

Dave Douglas
Keystone

This is a tribute to silent film star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, yet there's nothing "retro" here. Douglas -- whose clear, crackling tones evoke trumpet titans Woody Shaw and Freddie Hubbard -- aims to complement Arbuckle's surreal, over-the-top zaniness with edgy yet engaging electric jazz. Keystone features glistening, moody hardbop conjoined with early fusion (circa 1969-1972), with poignant horn lines that glide and twist above deep grooves shaped by slightly distorted keyboards and an elastic rhythm section. (Greenleaf Music)

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