A Year for Consolidation: Pop Music on the Rebound

010906 article music go A Year for Consolidation:  Pop Music on the ReboundHipsters can’t claim to have made any amazing discoveries in 2005, but it did feel healthy to go through the whole year without a hyped-to-death debut. It was a time for precocious youngsters to consolidate early gains and for veterans to return to form, return with a different focus or just return, period. What follows is a very personal list of favorite disks released in the past 12 months, including some that deserved the acclaim they received, some that are owed a little more than they got and one pleasant surprise: a rediscovery, decades late.

Sufjan Stevens belongs in the first category: People have had no shortage of nice words for this ambitious multi-instrumentalist and songwriter. And even if Mr. Stevens’ projected 50-album cycle (one for each state of the union) strikes some as hubristic and others as gimmicky, even if his second installment, Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty), doesn’t stray that far from the first (which was devoted to neighboring Michigan, after all), and even if (like this sentence) the overlong titles seem precious, Mr. Stevens’ talent can’t be ignored. He alternates clever historical wordplay with touching personal narrative and skips from Vince Guaraldi–inspired piano bounce to campfire banjo to shimmering Steve Reichian pulses, merging it all into one grand statement. Mr. Stevens’ voice ably conveys emotion, trembling on “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” and resigned on “Casimir Pulaski Day.” On the latter he observes: “the Lord … takes and he takes and he takes.” Mr. Stevens, our aspiring indie-rocker laureate, gives and gives and gives.

Charting the geography of the heart, Jens Lekman, a young Swedish crooner, has written songs devoted to at least 50 girls that he’s loved and lost. On a compilation of EP’s called “Oh you’re so silent Jens” (Secretly Canadian), he sings of buying a wedding ring for Julie, of wanting to feed Emily beer and pancakes, and of admiring many others who remain nameless. Mr. Lekman sets his romantic foibles to homemade-sounding pastiches of chiming guitars and sampled bits of other people’s tunes (ranging from 60’s baroque rock to British new wave and beyond). He spends a lot of time pining pensively, but he also knows that laughter and a memorable melody are good ways into a woman’s heart—and onto a listener’s playlist.

Birmingham, England’s Broadcast, once a five-piece outfit now stripped down to two, continue to refine their mix of 60’s avant-pop and modern electronics. On Tender Buttons (Warp), they’ve replaced live drums mostly with metronomic machine beats, and they’ve pushed synthesizer atmospherics further into the foreground. The prettiness and warm tones of Trish Keenan’s vocal melodies offset the cool detachment of her sexy-librarian delivery. The album starts with an unsettling, descending Lydian scale (also used in the Jetsons theme song—just a coincidence?) and expands into a haze of fuzzy keyboards, skeletal guitars and throbbing bass: yesterday’s music of tomorrow today.

Outrageous Cherry came charging back with Our Love Will Change the World (Rainbow Quartz), which includes only one misguided jam among almost a dozen pop gems. Songwriter and producer Matthew Smith leads this long-underappreciated Detroit outfit—the best of the Motor City’s current crew of otherwise overpraised garage rockers. On this record, they’ve fused the sound effects of their more recent psychedelic meanderings with the concise, catchy hooks and jangly, overdriven guitars of earlier efforts. In his lyrics, Mr. Smith’s not pulling any punches, either with girlfriends (“You’ve Been Unkind,” “Why Don’t We Talk About Something Else?”) or critics: “What have you invented today? / A few half-truths to fill up the page / … It’s time to play the game of nothing to say.” Ouch.

Quieter, but no less intense, is A River Ain’t Too Much to Love (Drag City), by Smog, a.k.a. Bill Callahan. In some ways, Mr. Callahan has come a long way from the sometimes abrasive four-track experiments of his first records. His 12th LP, a collection of pastoral acoustic tracks cut in Willie Nelson’s Texas studio, emphasizes gentle fingerpicking, soft-brushed drums and slow waltzes. But he still relies on simple chord progressions and stark guitar figures that gain force by sheer repetition and subtle elaborations. And his intimate confessions can still creep you out and make you pause: “Skin mags in the brambles— / for the first part of my life, I thought women had orange skin,” he sings on “Drinking at the Dam.” The sound of Mr. Callahan’s self-administered therapy has gotten prettier, even if the content hasn’t.

There was more than one dramatic comeback in 2005—Mr. Callahan’s label mate, poet/songwriter David Berman of the Silver Jews, emerged from the darkness of attempted suicide and serious drugs with the forceful Tanglewood Numbers. But Vashti Bunyan’s reappearance was like a fairy tale: Her sophomore LP, Lookaftering (DiCristina/FatCat), has come out 35 years after her debut, which most of the world ignored. Ms. Bunyan’s musical career was rescued from oblivion by the zeal of hip acolytes like Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom (both of whom play a little on Lookaftering). If, as Ms. Bunyan sings, “indifference is the hardest ground,” newfound attention has covered it with a soft blanket. These lullabies feature dulcet folk guitars and piano, embellished with gorgeous string arrangements and touches of oboe, recorder, English horn and glockenspiel. Her voice may be too delicate and breathy for some (when she hums, she sounds like a flute), but it seems much more genuine than her young followers’ mannered warblings. Vashti Bunyan’s music is the perfect salve if your heart was broken at the Renaissance Fair.