My Top 20 Favorite Albums of 2005

Saturday, December 31, 2005
This year was my first as a paid critic, and I consumed a lot more new music than is average for me. But still, I feel the same way I do at the end of every year, like I drank from a pretty shallow well of music and probably missed the boat on a lot of stuff. And I also feel like I gave things a lot less repeat listens than I did in other years. There's stuff that isn't on this list that I listened to more times than some things on this list, but usually for review purposes or because it took me a while to figure out it wasn't very good. That's why I can't ever really say with any confidence with it was a good or bad year for music (unless we're talking a very specific scene or genre), and I wonder if even industry people and obsessive downloaders who consume hundreds of albums a year can say so either. But it was a cool year for me, even if I wish there were more revelations on this list and fewer average albums by people who I'll buy anything by. I'd hoped to vote in the Pazz & Jop poll for the first time this year, but I procrastinated too long on trying to get in on it and missed the deadline. Oh well, I'll try again next year.

1. Kanye West - Late Registration

I was following Kanye's production and copping his mixtapes and every single leaked track for so long that by the time The College Dropout finally dropped, I had developed Kanye fatigue and didn't really get to enjoy its phenomenal success, and when I put it at #1 at the end of last year, I did so kind of by default. And I kind of am again this year, as I would've loved for a much different kind of hip hop album to have blown it out of the water for me. But my endorsement of this is much more certain, he really did his thing and let everyone know the first wasn't a fluke. It's still kind of soggy and overlong, but I can say that I actually enjoy it all the way through, skits and all (which I can't say for the long stretch surrounding "School Spirit" on Dropout). There's stuff that still doesn't make sense to me, like "Addiction" or the random Common solo track in the middle of the album, but it all fits together. And the tracks I don't love have something to redeem them, like that bizarre verse in "Celebration" where he talks about how his son is going to be well endowed.

Kanye West - "Roses" (mp3)

2. Apollo Sunshine - Apollo Sunshine

There's something I completely fucking love about what Apollo Sunshine do, and I don't think I got entirely to the bottom of yet. But even with kind of bland, touchy feely lyrics and not a lot to distinguish them aesthetically from a lot of other bearded indie pop bands that I wouldn't give the time of day to, they made an album and played a couple live shows that just completely bowled me over this year. And really, if nothing else, I have to credit the guitar solos. If Elephant 6 bands had solos like that I might give a shit about more of that stuff.

My Stylus review of Apollo Sunshine
Apollo Sunshine - "Eyes" (mp3)

3. System Of A Down - Mezmerize

As tightly concise as the first album but better paced and with just enough goofy Malakian moments to make it more inviting and replayable.

My City Paper review of Mezmerize
System Of A Down - "Sad Statue" (mp3)

4. Rod Lee - Vol. 5: The Official

This is the only album on this list that was also on my best of Baltimore 2005 list, and that's largely because of the far reaching waves it made outside of Baltimore this year. Rod Lee has been one of my favorite Baltimore club music producers for years, and it was real gratifying to see him get his props all over the place. I copped at least a dozen club mixes this year, and while it's a little hard to justify putting one above many similiar ones simply because of better distribution ad visibility, it really is the best sounding (more expensive mastering, maybe?) and best paced.

My Government Names review of Vol. 5: The Official
K.W. Griff - "Good Man" (mp3)

5. Lil Wayne - Tha Carter II

One of the reasons I always procrastinate on these year end albums lists is that there's always 4th quarter hip hop event releases to sneak in there. And I'm about the last person you'll catch getting excited about a Chopped & Screwed CD, but the C&S bonus disc of Wayne's greatest hits is really worth the price tag in and of itself. I don't think there's another rapper and producer I'd rather hear slowed than Wayne and Mannie Fresh. Tom is nuts about thinking that "Shooter" is a potential single or even one of the best songs, though. It's like all the rap songs with the guy from Maroon 5 but not as good.

Lil Wayne - "Hustler Musik" (mp3)

6. Grand Buffet - Five Years Of Fireworks

Noone who watched the SNL "Lazy Sunday" video over and over should be sleeping on Grand Buffet.

My Stylus review of Five Years Of Fireworks
Grand Buffet - "Pink Deadly" (mp3)

7. Beanie Sigel - The B.Coming

I'm kind of hoping that now that he's a free man again he's going to make an album that leaves this one in the dust.

My City Paper review of The B.Coming
Beanie Sigel f/ Freeway and Young Chris - "I Can't Go On This Way" (mp3)

8. Brooke Valentine - Chain Letter

The kind of schitzo R&B album that Missy wishes she made this year.

My City Paper review of Chain Letter
Brooke Valentine f/ Jermaine Dupri - "Playa" (mp3)

9. The Posies - Every Kind Of Light

In my mind, The Posies can almost do no wrong, and while this wasn't the perfect comeback I'd hoped for, they definitely made some worthy additions to their catalog.

My Stylus review of Every Kind Of Light
The Posies - "Second Time Around" (mp3)

10. Black Rob - The Black Rob Report

Like Beanie, this proves I have a weakness for spirited gasps from fading NY rap dynasties.

Black Rob - "Long Live B.R." (mp3)

11. Lil Kim - The Naked Truth

Hell no, it's not a five mic album, but considering that she possesses one of my least favorite voices in rap and I've never been much of a fan, it's a triumph that I'm feeling this. The cover photo really scared me off of copping it for a couple months, even though I loved "Lighters Up." Actually, the real triumph is that I can tolerate an album with multiple Katt "Money Mike" Williams interludes. I'm gonna give Kim the benefit of the doubt that she decided to diss Foxy Brown on a song titled "Quiet" before Foxy announced that she was going deaf.

Lil Kim - "Durty" (mp3)

12. Amerie - Touch

I guess a whole album of "1 Thing" was too much to hope for, but the less bombastic stuff had some surprising staying power.

My Stylus review of Touch
Amerie - "Come With Me" (mp3)

13. Cassidy - I'm A Hustla

"Hotel" will probably always loom over him a little too much to be taken seriously by everyone, and now that he's behind bars his career might be over anyway, but he really did step up and make a hot album, whether anyone wants to admit it.

My Stylus review of I'm A Hustla
Cassidy f/ Swizz Beatz - "Get 'Em" (mp3)

14. Medications - Your Favorite People All In One Place

I have to admit that to me, they're still a surrogate for the superior and short-lived Faraquet, but Rush-meets-Fugazi is not a niche that many other bands are serving, so I'll take what I can get.

My City Paper review of Your Favorite People All In One Place
Medications - "This Is The Part We Laugh About" (mp3)

15. Missy Elliott - The Cookbook

Missy's last two albums were my least favorite to date, her collaborations with Timbaland slowly becoming a dried out husk of what they once were, so I was probably in the minority in being overjoyed that she finally branched out with producers other than Timbo. It still can't touch the earlier albums, but it was a step in the right direction. She really fucked up sales with the singles choices, though. "Teary Eyed" totally bombed and "We Run This" probably will too. It's a crime that "Can't Stop" isn't on the radio right now.

Missy Elliott - "Can't Stop" (mp3)

16. Brendan Benson - The Alternative To Love

He continues to slide into more of the 2nd album's mopery and less of the 1st's giddy rush, but he's getting better at balancing the two.

Brendan Benson - "Between Us" (mp3)

17. The Evens - The Evens

There's something charming about this dinky, scaled down version of Fugazi's already relatively subdued later albums. I kind of have to tune out the parts where he's talking about police and governors, though.

The Evens - "Sara Lee" (mp3)

18. Ebony Eyez - 7 Day Cycle

Maybe I'm still alone in this but seriously, I think the TrackBoyz are the dopest producers in the game right now. It's a shame this album came and went with such little notice.

My City Paper review of 7 Day Cycle
Ebony Eyez - "Good Vibrations" (mp3)

19. Sheek Louch - After Taxes

If people are starved enough for decent New York hip hop that they'll rep for everything the Diplomats do, then I don't really understand why records like this and the Black Rob can be so ignored.

My Stylus review of After Taxes
Sheek Louch - "Intro" (mp3)

20. Petra Haden - Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out

The original The Who Sell Out isn't my favorite Who album by a mile, but it's a perfect choice for a ridiculous project like this. Petra Haden throws herself completely into an a cappella note-for-note cover, even doing the silly interstitial skits and fake commercials and silly voices and fake accents and beatboxing the drum parts. Like Carla Bozulich's reading of Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger, another recent cover of an entire decades-old album by a So-Cal alt-rock chick friend of Mike Watt, it's a completely unnecessary idea that was pulled off with absolute conviction.

Petra Haden - "Heinz Baked Beans" (mp3)

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Thursday, December 29, 2005
I've previously expressed interest here in The Sands, the new band featuring music critics Sasha Frere-Jones and Chris Lee, who used to write for Spin, mainly because of the 3 excellent and slept on solo albums Lee has released in the past few years on Misra and Smell Like Records. And now SFJ has put the band's entire 9-song demo up on his site for free. For a demo that they want to re-record for a proper album, it's impressively mid-fi, but I'm still working out what I think of the songs. The first song that was leaked a few months ago, "The Hostage Song," might be my least favorite (tied with "Early," which sounds like Sonic Youth's "100%"). And unsurprisingly, the one I like most, "House of Golden Proportions," is the one that most sounds like Lee's solo albums and best utilizes his Buckley-by-way-of-Steve-Perry soulful pipes. Overall, it's promising, though. I think part of the reason I'm curious to see how this band progresses is because I'm interested in seeing how people primarily identified as critics are received with their own musical projects (SFJ already had some success with Ui but he's much more well known as a critic than he was then). I'm always paranoid that writing about records will someday paint me into some kind of corner that will make it harder for me to release records of my own without any people having preconceived notions about what I can or should do. If it ever turns out to be a conflict of interest I'll quit writing in a second.


TV Diary

Wednesday, December 28, 2005
1. The Jeff Johnson Chronicles
On Rap City they used to have this guy they called Cousin Jeff come down to Da Bassment every once in a while to discuss serious issues affecting the black community with Big Tigger in between videos, which was always a little awkward. But now BET has given him his own show where it's all issues all the time. I particularly liked the episodes about sex and how hip hop has effected people's sexual attitudes. I mean, bloggers and critics are constantly coming up with armchair rants about that issue, but for me it's a lot more enlightening to hear actual rappers talk frankly about it, and a lot of them kind of take themselves to task. Plus there was this one weird part with Lil Scrappy and his mom, who used to be a pimp/madame.

2. The Comedians of Comedy
I caught the movie doc version of this on Showtime a while back, which was filmed last year and is different from the Comedy Central series that was filmed on a later tour this year. I think the movie version was a little heavier on actual standup footage and was more consistently funny, the series seems to have a lot more of Patton Oswalt and Brian Posehn being whiny, hateful comic book guys. The first episode had a lot of footage from their show at the Recher Theatre in Towson, MD, which I used to live down the road from. I wish I hadn't flaked out on that show, I heard it was good. Zach Galifianakis is definitely the funniest guy in the group, though, that late night show he had on VH1 that was cancelled after like a month was good. Maria Bamford is really good too, it seems to me like she has a really great comedic mind beyond just being the girl who does the funny voices. That bit where she sang OCD affirmations to herself to the tune of "I Will Always Love You" was amazing.

3. How I Met Your Mother
Now that the semester's over and I don't have a Monday night class, I can finally watch this, and it's pretty good. By the end of the 90's, the whole attractive-young-white-urbanites sitcom format had run out of steam, but it's actually kind of refreshing to see something like that again that isn't a Friends/Seinfeld rerun, and they kind of do something different with formua. I think it's the Bob Saget narration. Also, Doogie. And it's nice to see Nick from Freaks & Geeks in something again.

4. Everybody Hates Chris
Still not totally into it, it's just a little too Malcom In The Middle, y'know? But it's alright, albeit too cutesy, and like MITM, the dad is the most consistently funny character, and is also underused. And for the first time recently I noticed Chris Rock committing that old sin of every sitcom created by a comedian, recycling a joke from his standup routine. But it was the "big piece of chicken" bit and it was used well.

5. Twins
At the beginning of the season this got a lot of bad reviews as one of the worst new shows starring a couple of sitcom has-beens, Cousin Larry from Perfect Strangers and Darlene from Roseanne. But I have to say, this is actually pretty funny and has sharp dialogue that actually isn't all snappy putdowns and one-liners, although there's still some tired comedic tropes (like two dumb blonde characters). In a season where people are starved for a decent sitcom, I'm surprised people are giving a free pass to flawed but ostensibly "different" shows like Everybody Hates Chris and My Name Is Earl but giving this one a hard time.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

For Christmas I spent 2 days at my mom's house in Delaware and played a hand held Connect Four game for roughly 80% of my waking hours. J.G. got it for me kind of on a lark after I looked at it in Target one day, and it ended up being my favorite Xmas present. That shit is even more addictive than Tetris on GameBoy, mainly because you can hold it in one hand and play with just your thumb, and no pausing is required. It turns off when you leave it alone for a minute, and when you press a button, it comes back on with the same game you were playing before. There are 3 skill level settings, and at first even level 1 was kicking my ass, but after I worked my way up, I was winning as much as I was losing on levels 1 and 2, and I won once on level 3 and tied a few times, and lost a lot. I used to play Connect Four with my brother all the time, I think next time I see him I'm gonna challenge him to a showdown. I'm totally obsessed with this shit.


Top 20 Baltimore Albums (and Mixtapes and EPs) of 2005

Saturday, December 24, 2005
For years there's always been a handful of local bands and rappers that I've checked for. But my interest in Baltimore music has definitely blossomed in the last year and a half since I started Gov't Names and had a place to talk about it and shed some light on this city's hip hop and Baltimore club music. And in particular this year, as I slowly turned GN's content into all Bmore all the time, I've spent a lot of time thinking about local music, going to shows and hunting down record stores, meeting and interviewing artists, and it's been real rewarding and exciting for me. For the most part, this list consists of local hip hop, but there's also club music and a few rock bands. I voted in the City Paper's The Year in Local Music poll, and half of the list was stuff I voted for, but this is a more complete version of my list. I'm definitely not on top of everything that goes on here and not everyone would agree with my opinions, but I've spent a lot of time on this and I think it came out good. I've posted an mp3 of one of my favorite tracks from each release and, when available, links to artist and label websites and places that you can buy the CD. Help yourself.

1. Rod Lee - Vol. 5: The Official (Morphius Urban/Harm Squad/Club Kingz Records)

Rod Lee has been one of my favorite Baltimore club music producers for years, and it's been real exciting to watch his profile rise along with the whole genre this year. And, not to give myself too much credit, but I do think I helped to get the ball rolling with my Gov't Names review that let people know there was a good club music CD that they could actually order off the internet, which is rare. People are primed for more of this music, it's just hard to find outside Baltimore. This has a lot of the same songs as a lot of other club mixes this year, but it gets placed above those for its potential significance, and because it's paced really well and sounds good, like it was mastered better than a lot of other club mixes.

K.W. Griff - "Good Man" (mp3)

2. Bossman - Law & Order (1Up/Double Down/NEK)

Technically this was released in the last 2 weeks of 2004, but it was such an event in Baltimore when it dropped, and it really was worth the wait. I just hope he steps it up for his major label debut in '06.

Bossman - "Law & Order" (mp3)

3. Darkroom Productions - Hamsterdam: The Best of Baltimore, Vol. 1 (Darkroom Enterprises)

The city's best mixtape of the year because a couple of talented producers took control and did all the beats, so it's not a hodgepodge of different sounds like most various artist mixtapes.

Juan Donovan - "Take It Like A Man" (mp3)

4. Tyree Colion - The Problem And The Solution (Hustle Hard Blvd/Rare Ent.)

I pretty much said in my review last week why Tyree is someone to watch right now.

Tyree Colion - "Rise To The Top" (mp3)

(photo by Christopher Myers)

5. Mullyman - Mullymania (Major League Unlimited/Unruly Records)

After anticipating this album for over a year, it was kind of surreal to get into a little conflict with Mully and his people right around the time the album dropped after I interviewed him. But I'm not gonna let that bias me, it's a real hot album.

Mullyman f/ The Clipse and Fam-Lay - "Got It" remix (mp3)

6. Lake Trout - Not Them, You (Palm Pictures/Rx Records)

Lake Trout have been one of my favorite live bands for years and years, and studio recordings have never really been their strong suit, but they're getting better. I think I was a little too harsh on this album in my Stylus review, which was given a C based on what I wrote, and I feel kinda bad that it's actually the lowest rating on the album's Metacritic page. It's a good album, just a little too similiar to the last one, which probably isn't a problem for most of the other reviewers that aren't as familiar with their back catalog.

Lake Trout - "Pill" (mp3)

7. Ogun - Real On Purpose (Real On Purpose Ent.)

Ogun is the kind of super driven dude that holds Baltimore's scene together like glue and he's got some real hot songs, although some of his best stuff dropped after the album.

Ogun f/ Jitter B.U.G. and EJ - "Bmore" remix (mp3)

8. Club Queen K-Swift - Vol. 6: The Return (Unruly Records)

Between being the city's most popular radio DJ and constantly doing big parties and mix CDs like this one, K-Swift is a one-woman industry and you can practically keep up with the whole Baltimore club scene just by listening to what she's spinning. But man, I gotta get that new CD that just dropped, I haven't found it yet.

Manny - "Down The Hill" remix (mp3)

9. Private Eleanor - No Straight Lines (The Beechfields)

I know or have met probably more than half the artists on this list, but Chris, the drummer from Private Eleanor, is the only one who I've been friends with outside of the music thing for a long time. This album has really grown on me over the past few months, good mellow music to cook dinner to.

Private Eleanor - "Everything You'd Heard About" (mp3)

10. Huli Shallone - It's My Turn (Hit 'Em Hard Records)

I personally don't think it's as solid as some of the albums by Huli's old group Nature's Problem, but it's still got a lot of jams.

Huli Shallone f/ Paula Campbell - "Work That Body"

(photo by Jefferson Jackson Steele)

11. Skarr Akbar and DJ Radio - Show Me Your Soul: The General, Pt. 2 (Streetsweepers)

I interviewed Skarr over the summer and he's a real good dude, seriously talented rapper. I really think his next album is gonna be something hot, but for now he's got a lot of mixtapes out there.

Skarr Akbar - "Switches" (mp3)

12. Little Clayway - The Takeover (Clayway Records)

I'd been hearing stuff by Clayway and trying to cop a CD for years, so I'm glad that he dropped this compilation of material from his first 3 albums so I can get caught up.

Little Clayway f/ Cooli High, Tim Trees, Cappadonna and DL - "Tha Murda Collaboration"

13. DJ Unique - Classic Odell's Club Mix Vol. 2

Baltimore club music was around for a decade before I really started paying attention to it a few years ago, so I only really get to hear what it was in the early days on old school mixes that Mike Crosby and KW Griff do on 92Q, shouting out old extinct clubs like Odell's, and that's what Unique is representing here. It's mostly old hip house stuff from Chicago and New York and wherever, stuff like "Perculator" and "Brighter Days", stuff that Bmore DJs spun before there were actual local producers making Baltimore club music, with occasional homegrown classics like "Big Girl".

Jimmy Jones - "Watch Out For The Big Girl" (mp3)

14. The Oranges Band - The World & Everything In It (Lookout!)

Like the Lake Trout album, I think I was a little too harsh on this in my review, it sounds great if you're in the right mood for it. Someone please ID the riff that they're ripping off/paying homage to at the beginning of "Mountain," it's constantly on the tip of my tongue but I can't quite place it.

The Oranges Band - "Mountain" (mp3)

15. various artists - The Movement, Vol. 3: Bmore Live 2005 (Real On Purpose Ent.)

Another solid mixtape put together by Ogun's crew, with great tracks from Backland, Tim Trees, Mullyman, damn near everybody.

Ammo freestyle (mp3)

16. Lungfish - Feral Hymns(Dischord)

I've always been more into the idea of Lungfish, Dischord's sole Baltimore band, more than I'm really into their music, and I'm still not sure if I "get" them, but I think I'm starting to. Of the 3 albums I've heard by them, this is probably in the middle, but "Sing" might be my favorite song I've of theirs.

Lungfish - "Sing" (mp3)

17. Comp - U Will Be A Believer: Bang-A-Rang Mixtape Vol. 2 (DNA)

Comp has kept a relatively low profile since I interviewed him last year, but this mixtape that I reviewed recently is an encouraging progress report.

Comp - "Official" (mp3)

18. Cex - Know Doubt (Record Label)

In 2003, Cex ended a 4 year streak of releasing an album a year by releasing two that happen to be my favorite (Being Ridden) and least favorite (Maryland Mansions) that he's made, and since then, things have been pretty quiet. This EP of his "IDM jam band" is just a small stopgap release, but "Contains It" might be one of the best tracks he's ever done.

Cex - "Contains It" (mp3)

19. Labtekwon - The Ghetto Dai Lai Llama: African Rhythm American Blues (Morphius Urban/Ankh Ba Records)

I kinda slept on him for a few years because he's the kind of conscious/abstract rapper I don't listen to much, but dude can really rhyme and this album sounds great really late at night.

Labtekwon - "Father's Day" (mp3)

20. D.O.G. - Champagne Dreams: The Prequel (Invisible Set Ent.)

Maybe the most crack-obsessed mixtape to come out of Baltimore this year.

D.O.G. - "Higher" (mp3)

The Next 10 Bubbling Under:

various artists - Architects Studio presents Street Radio 2 (Streetsweepers)
Mullyman - Believe In H.I.M. (Major League Unlimited)
Tha Plague - Hitvilliainz Tha Mixtape
DJ Chris J - Club Mix Vol. 16
DJ Lil Jay - Operation: Playtime (Morphius Urban/Club Kingz)
Labtekwon - Avant God (Morphius)
Skarr Akbar - Da Lobotomy: The General, Part 3 (Streetsweepers)
Billo - The Hood Rock Star: The Daily Grind
Bossman - This Is A Warning
South Paw Entertainment - South Paw Entertainment

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Friday, December 23, 2005
The Stylus albums list is up, and includes only 2 albums I voted for, the same 2 that were also in the City Paper top 10, Beanie and Kanye. And I wrote the Kanye blurb. My ballot's also somewhere down at the bottom of the page, although my "final" year end list that I post here will probably be different.

Note: In light of the end of Stylus in 2007, I decided to archive the text of all my reviews for the site on this blog for posterity, since I don't what the future holds for the Stylus domain:

6. Kanye West – Late Registration

By the beginning of 2005, Kanye West was well on his way to wearing out his welcome as just another sample-happy pop rap auteur who went from do-no-wrong to do-no-right practically overnight (cf. Wyclef). Instead, Kanye rolled up his sleeves and won over even some of the doubters who scoffed at The College Dropout’s instant classic status. And by letting Jon Brion sprinkle twee keyboard pixie dust and inspired string arrangements all over Late Registration, Kanye came up with a bold sound that both reinvigorated his sturdy soul-sampling production formula and made even more white people love him. It’s hardly the first time in history that the most universally popular rapper of the moment was a guy who’s better at producing than rapping (forgot about Dre? Puffy? And again, Clef?), but that just proves that what people want more than perfect rhymes is someone with personality and vision.
[Al Shipley]

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005
Oh man, so the ridiculous Chris Parnell rap about Chronicles of Narnia from SNL that I was raving about yesterday, you can see it here, and will probably think I'm stupid for being so hyped about it (via

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TV Diary

Monday, December 19, 2005
1. The Simpsons
It's been at least half a decade since I anticipated new Simpsons episodes or watched them regularly, and a few times I've scoffed at Hillary's assertions that it's still worth watching. But I have to admit, lately I've been catching a few new ones and watching reruns from more recent seasons, and I've actually been laughing. So it's still good, if not great, sometimes, I concede. Last week's Sideshow Bob episode was pretty good, I really never get tired of him. It also contained the most venemous Family Guy diss they've done to date. And an American Dad diss to boot! (The joke is explained here if you didn't see it.)

2. Celebrity Autobiography: In Their Own Words
A new show on Bravo in which comedians read excerpts from celeb autobios to a laughing and hooting and hollering audience. It's pretty nuts, and sometimes they do pretty crazy things with the premise, like having different people read the lines of two celebrities back and forth, like Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson. And there was a really weird one where they juxtaposed Tommy Lee's Tommyland with a book by Stallone about muscle development. Really hilarious stuff.

3. Bones
J.G. watches this all the time, but I think it's kind of boring compared to House, which it comes on right before. But last week's Christmas episode was kind of inspired just because of the sudden celebrity cameo, which consisted of one character saying "you guys might recognize my dad, but don't make a big deal about it," and then a few scenes later, fucking Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top showing up as her dad for a breif scene with no dialogue. They never explicitly refer to him as the guy from ZZ Top or anything, but according to IMDB it really was him. I'm not sure if that's the definition of a classy cameo, or just a really weird subtle one.

4. Saturday Night Live
This past weekend's episode was alright, Jack Black was better than the first time he hosted, especially the pointing sketch. Is it just me or are they pushing Weekend Update further and further back in the show, because they know how many people wait to see it and then turn the show off after that? "Lazy Sunday," the weird digital short where Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg rapped about cupcakes and the Chronicles of Narnia was amazing, though. Chris Parnell is my favorite white rapper of all time.

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Thursday, December 15, 2005
At some point a while back I signed some MoveOn.Org petition, and ever since them I've been getting obnoxious e-mail alerts from them on a daily basis, stuff like "Help us write a dirty limerick that expresses our opposition to the nomination of Harriet Miers." So it's kind of nice that for the past couple weeks they've been covering something that effects me and the newspaper I read every day, reporting on the staff cuts that The Baltimore Sun and several other papers under its parent company are currently undergoing. They've got a petition going to protest it, so I guess that's something. And last week the City Paper reported some more on staff buyouts at The Sun.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2005
On Stylus, I pan the totally disappointing new System Of A Down. I was really surprised by the good reviews it got, although I am glad to see that its Metacritic score is now at least a little lower than Mezmerize's, which it was higher than a couple weeks ago.

In the City Paper this week, I have another round up of Baltimore mixtapes, by Tyree Colion, Bossman, and D.O.G., with ccompanying posts with mp3s on Gov't Names soon to follow.

It's also CP's big year end top ten issue, and I voted in two of the lists. Only two things I voted for in The Year in Music made the top 10, and I wrote the blurb for one of them, Beanie Sigel. But in The Year in Local Music, 5 of my picks made the top 10. And next week here on Narrowcast I'm going to put up a huge list of my favorite Baltimore releases of 2005 (I haven't decided on top 20 or top 50 yet).

Note: In light of the end of Stylus in 2007, I decided to archive the text of all my reviews for the site on this blog for posterity, since I don't what the future holds for the Stylus domain, and have included both the letter grade ratting that accompanied the original review, and an adjusted rating that I would give the record now in retrospect.

System Of A Down
Stylus rating: C
Adjusted rating by reviewer: C-

arlier this year when the Foo Fighters released a double album, Dave Grohl joked in an interview that he was saving everyone 15 bucks by releasing the 2 CDs in one package. While he wasn't exactly right—after all, no one would have paid for just that crappy acoustic disc of In Your Honor—he did have a point. After all, the past year or so has yielded an unprecedented number of separately released double albums of new material from popular artists, both indie and major, from Nelly to Bright Eyes to Shakira to System of a Down.

While some of those artists separated their music into multiple discs to underline two different moods or approaches (as in the case of Nelly and Bright Eyes) or even two languages (Shakira), System Of A Down had a less concrete rationale for issuing two similarly themed albums from the same sessions six months apart. But it also made sense, since the time the hugely popular weirdo metal band takes between releasing albums of new material averages around three or four years; they might as well get two out of the way at once before the next long hiatus. And instead of one disc being an odds-and-sods collection like 2002's Steal This Album!, Mezmerize, released in May, and the newly released Hypnotize were conceived as two equal halves of the same album.

Advance reports and early reviews for Hypnotize have been encouraging, placing it just above Mezmerize, which was already one of my favorite albums of the year. But to my ears, there's no way Hypnotize betters or even equals its predecessor. The two albums contain a nearly equal ratio of System's various moods: spastic thrash metal, nonsensical chants, dour ballads, and touches of Eastern European and middle Eastern melodies. But where Mezmerize was perfectly paced and included some of the band's best attempts at all of the above, Hypnotize is muddled and inconsistent by comparison.

The divisive issue that has fueled the debates about how Mezmerize and Hypnotize measure up to the band's first cult-building two albums is the increased vocal presence of guitarist Daron Malakian. Malakian's always been the band's principal songwriter, coming up with most of the riffs and collaborating on the lyrics with lead vocalist Serj Tankian. But on the new material, Malakian has taken on a dominant role in both writing and singing the lyrics, his squeaky, awkward voice no match for Tankian's deep, versatile and perfectly pitched cartoon villain. For some fans, Malakian's trebly interjections hold back the band's new material from equaling their 1998 self-titled debut or 2001's Toxicity. But for others, such as myself, the point and counterpoint of their two voices on Mezmerize gave System's music a welcome new dimension.

On Hypnotize, however, I do find myself wishing Malakian would tone it down. When he and Tankian harmonize, it gives the songs a melodic charge, but more often, Malakian squeals out leads that might have been better handled by Tankian on songs like "Kill Rock'N'Roll." Even listeners who have accustomed themselves to Malakian's voice and the band's various eccentricities may find their patience tested by his seemingly purposefully tuneless performance on the incredibly grating "She's Like Heroin." And then there's "Stealing Society," which starts out strong as a Tankian-sung track, until a minute and a half in, when Malakian hijacks the song with lyrics about "crack pipes, needles, PCP and fast cars" and childlike "la la la la" background vocals.

System of a Down have built a reputation as willfully weird and creative outcasts, but four albums in, there's no getting around the fact that they do have certain formulas that they use often. Even a bizarre chant like "banana banana banana terracotta / Banana terracotta terracotta pie," from "Vicinity of Obscenity," echoes other silly food-themed refrains from past System albums like "Gonorrhea gorgonzola" and "pizza-pizza pie."

With few up-tempo highlights on the level of Mezmerize's "Cigaro" and "This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I'm On This Song," Hypnotize's few highlights are its somber slower songs. And the title track and lead single is far and away its best, a compact 3-minute masterpiece that comes and goes in half the time of the Toxicity hit "Aerials." The beautifully structured "Hypnotize" keeps building and building, from the quiet, unaccompanied guitar on the 30-second intro, to confusing verses about Tiananmen Square, to a huge stadium chorus of "I'm just sitting in my car and waiting for my girl," perhaps the least bizarre and therefore most surprising phrase to grace a System Of A Down lyric, to the tribal drums of the instrumental bridge, to another powerful refrain of the chorus.

After putting you through the annoyance of "She's Like Heroin" and "Lonely Day," possibly System's first banal ballad-by-numbers, Hypnotize ends on a high note with "Soldier Side," the conclusion of the short track that began Mezmerize, "Soldier Side Intro." And the ominous "Holy Mountains" is Hypnotize's most serious and politically charged track, written about the border disputes surrounding a mountain range in the Armenian-American quartet's homeland. It's passionate moments like those that save Hypnotize from sounding like Mezmerize's leftovers.

Still, releasing two separate discs, each less than 40 minutes long, is a wise move for the band, whose music veers from one extreme to another so much that a little from them goes a long way. Even if Hypnotize is full of missteps, its existence as a separate entity is what makes Mezmerize nearly perfect. So I'm not bitter that they didn't issue it all at once, because as a 70 minute album it would be much more difficult to digest or enjoy. But if you want to save 15 bucks and just pay for one album, stick with Mezmerize.

Reviewed by: Al Shipley
Reviewed on: 2005-12-14

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The Top 20 Best Shows I Saw In 2005

Tuesday, December 13, 2005
With links to things I wrote about them at the time on here or Gov't Names or in the City Paper. For the most part I'm only going to name the band I went to see and enjoyed seeing, and if it's more than one than I'll name them in the rough order of who I enjoyed the most, regardless of who opened or headlined.

1. Apollo Sunshine and Lake Trout @ The Ottobar, Baltimore, September 15th

2. Grand Buffet @ The Ottobar, Baltimore, August 16th

3. Karmella's Game @ the Talking Head, Baltimore, April 28th

4. The Posies @ The Black Cat, Washington, D.C., September 26th

5. System Of A Down @ the 1st Mariner Arena, Baltimore, August 22nd

(photo by Dawn Mercurio)
6. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists @ The Ottobar, November 22nd

7. Bossman, Skarr Akbar, D.O.G., Dirty Hearts and Q @ The Ottobar, Baltimore, October 16th

8. The Travis Morrison Hellfighters @ the Ottobar, Baltimore, February 22nd

9. Dinosaur Jr. @ the 9:30 Club, Washington, D.C., July 11th

10. Noise Against Fascism: To Live And Shave In L.A., Mirror/Dash, Magik Markers, Nautical Almanac @ the Black Cat, Washington, D.C., January 20th

11. Elvis Costello & the Imposters with Emmylou Harris and Larry Campbell @ Wolf Trap, Virginia, July 31st

12. Grand Buffet @ the Ottobar, Baltimore, March 27th

13. Sonic Youth @ The University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, April 15th

14. Apollo Sunshine and Lake Trout @ the Ottobar, Baltimore, April 23rd

15. Ogun, Ammo, Profound, Tyree Colion and Diablo @ Club 429, Baltimore, August 9th

16. Our Lady Peace @ The 9:30 Club, Washington, D.C., September 22nd

17. Private Eleanor @ Current Space, Baltimore, August 27th

18. Ted Leo/Pharmacists @ The 9:30 Club, Washington, D.C., June 23rd

19. Enon @ the Ottobar, Baltimore, March

20. The Evens @ The G-Spot, Baltimore, May 17th

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