Celebrate the Few, Celebrate the New
The 2005 Year-End Top 10 List

I am writing this six days before Christmas. It is bitterly cold, and the snow that accumulated last week stubbornly refuses to leave. I’ve just returned from the east coast, where I celebrated my grandmother’s 90th birthday with my dad’s side of the family, and I’m preparing to head there again, but a bit more north, to visit my mom and my best friends for the holiday. I only have a weekend, though – for the first time in years, I have a full-time job waiting for me when I get back, and while I am distressed that I can’t take three weeks off this year, I’m also elated that I’m doing what I love and getting paid for it.

Right now I’m listening to 29, Ryan Adams’ new album. It’s his third of 2005, and believe it or not, it doesn’t suck – it’s right up there with the other two. It’s a slower, deeper, much more December album than Cold Roses or Jacksonville City Nights, but it’s everything that the self-affected Love is Hell wasn’t. There’s a genuine beauty to these nine songs, even if they are the leftovers from his other, more sprawling sets this year. How Adams managed to release 41 songs this year and never haul out a real stinker is beyond me, but that’s just what he’s done.

29 is the last major release of the year, or at least the last one that I really care about, and I had worried that it would disrupt the list that follows, but happily, it doesn’t. It’s a lovely record, no doubt, but the 10 albums that comprise my list this year are by turns astonishing and sublime. Last year’s number one, Brian Wilson’s SMiLE, was kind of a foregone conclusion – it’s one of the best records I own, and it would have topped the list in any year. But this year’s top pick came out of nowhere, displaying an unparalleled artistry and emotional grandeur that refused to be ignored.

The other nine are, more or less, just my favorites. There were so many superb albums this year that I wrote roughly 14 drafts of the list, and I’m still not a hundred percent comfortable with it. The honorable mentions are all good enough to be on the list proper, and in prior drafts most of them were. I also struggled with the #10 spot this year – there was an unprecedented five-way tie, and all five deserve the spot. I ended up picking the one I listened to most often, the one I love the most, and I know that decision is going to upset a few of my faithful readers.

But hell, what good is a list like this if it doesn’t piss off a few people?

The rules have not changed since last year – I only select new studio albums, which means no live records, no compilations, no soundtracks, and no covers projects. Candidates must be released between January 1 and December 31 – none of that October to September crap the Grammys do. Only albums are eligible, which means no EPs, which generally translates to nothing under half an hour.

Placement on the list is as much about composition as performance. I’m looking for the best new songs of the year, but I’m also looking for the best sequence of songs, the most complete work. The number one spot is reserved for the album with the greatest cumulative effect, the one that knocks me out from start to finish. Style is not important – previous winners include OK Computer and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but they also include Duncan Sheik’s delicate Phantom Moon and Eminem’s incendiary The Marshall Mathers LP.

I accept anything that anyone with internet access can buy these days, and I assume that if I can get it, so can you. The rule used to be that an album had to appear in U.S. record stores to qualify, and while I still don’t like to include imports, and would rather wait for a stateside release, too often that sort of thing isn’t guaranteed anymore. Hence, if I can pull it up on a web page and buy it with a credit card during the year in question, it’s fair game. It’s not a rule I invoke often, though – every one of this year’s top 10 awaits you at your local Sam Goody, except one, and I’ll gladly provide the link for that one when we get there.

This list always affords me the opportunity to look back on the year, and assess it somewhat, although I usually find that I don’t know what a year means to me until several of them have passed. I found myself affected and devastated by larger things this year, like Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, but from a personal standpoint, it was a much better year than 2004. I said final goodbyes to a few people in ’05, and I feel like I’m in the process of saying final goodbyes to a few more right now, but I’ve met some amazing ones, too. My life imploded late last year, and I feel like only now am I really putting it back together and moving forward.

It’s no surprise, then, that my favorite music of 2005 was more optimistic and hopeful, even the albums about abandonment and fragility. 2005 was about rescue, about transcendence, about seeing how sometimes it all fits together, even when it seems like it doesn’t. The music I’ve selected works mostly on that theme, and it’s fitting that the top two are genuine surprises, records I could never have predicted would affect me the way they did. Much like the year they represent, actually.

Okay, enough blog-like babble. Besides the five-way tie for 10th place, I also have 11 honorable mentions, so let’s get to them.

We start at the bottom of the slide – I’m grading albums as a whole, and since I really only liked half of Coldplay’s X&Y, I can’t put it any higher than this. But man, did I like the first half. It’s as much of an evolutionary breakthrough for this most overhyped of bands as I could have hoped, with the U2 influences tempered by some forays into British prog-pop. The first six songs are such a leap over A Rush of Blood to the Head that the more traditional and boring second half is quite a letdown, a crash to earth that leaves the album broken and bleeding. And yet, even that stuff isn’t bad, just ordinary.

For extraordinary, you have to go to Fiona Apple, whose third album, Extraordinary Machine, lived up to the hype. Hell, the word extraordinary is in the title, and it still dazzled. This one gets demerits for being just that little bit less captivating than its widely bootlegged original version, produced by Jon Brion. (We’ll be hearing more from him later.) But even as a stripped-down take on these songs, the album is still terrific, and the songs confirm Apple’s status as an idiosyncratic treasure.

And that, my friends, is it for hyped-up mainstream artists in this part of the list. The rest of the honorables go to smaller works on smaller labels, like Tooth and Nail Records, the Seattle group that has stuck with Starflyer 59 since their inception more than a decade ago. Starflyer’s latest, Talking Voice Vs. Singing Voice, is probably their best. Jason Martin and Frank Lenz took on the new wave movement, outdoing every Bunnymen wannabe with some of their finest songs and productions. “Good Sons” is one of the best tunes of the year, and probably the best Starflyer song ever.

Fellow Cornerstone performers Over the Rhine followed up their sprawling double album Ohio, which made 2003’s list, with Drunkard’s Prayer, a whispering, intimate little thing that documents the rebuilding of a marriage. In its own hushed way, it outdoes its predecessor’s massive expanse by keeping things simple, and focusing on Karin Bergquist’s heavenly voice. “Born” is as beautiful a mantra as one could hope for, and this little gem concludes with a version of “My Funny Valentine” that will stun you. In many ways, Karin and Linford have never sounded better, and the album’s real-life connection to their marriage makes it even more special.

As I said above, Ryan Adams came out with three dynamic records in 2005, and I hope it’s not giving the game away to say that one of them made the list. But the other two deserve spotlights of their own, partially because no one was as prolific and restlessly creative as Adams this year, but also because these records returned to us the twangy, brilliant wonder-child he used to be.

He started with the best of the lot, and that’s the one that wound up on the list. But Jacksonville City Nights, the follow-up, wandered further down the country path, with songs that sound like decades-old classics. And while I’ve only heard 29 once, I’m comfortable including it here, since it strips his traditional sound down to almost nothing and still manages to captivate. With one listen, “Nightbirds” has leapt to near the top of my list of Adams’ best songs of 2005, and I’m willing to bet it will only get better with repeated plays.

Every year, I hear one or two albums that are unlike anything I’ve ever come across, and they usually end up here in the honorables for that very reason. The Fiery Furnaces keep on evolving and surprising me – it’s been a fascinating ride from their humble, blues-rock beginnings. Who ever thought they would make something like Rehearsing My Choir, their collaboration with their grandmother, Olga Sarantos? It’s a radio play, it’s an old-time mini-movie, it’s a rock opera, it’s beat poetry, it’s a worn and battered novel of an album that resembles nothing else around. And it’s beautiful, in its odd, intricate little way. The most stinging criticism I heard of this record is that you have to really concentrate to listen to it, and to me, that’s not a criticism at all.

But if you want to just drift off into the ether, you can’t do better this year than Hammock, Marc Byrd’s new project. Hammock’s Kenotic is a web of atmosphere and otherworldly beauty, music for watching the sun rise on Mars. No other album this year carried me away like this one did. Byrd gets another mention on the list, considerably closer to the top spot, but it’s his work with Hammock that sounds the most like his dream project, and like an actual dream. It’s gorgeous stuff, well worth heading to their site to hear and buy.

And now we get into the portion of the honorables list that becomes interchangeable with the actual top 10 list. Any of these next seven records could have been in the proper list, and may have been in another year, one in which my overall mood was even slightly different.

Glen Phillips, erstwhile singer for Toad the Wet Sprocket, kicked his solo career up another notch with the excellent Winter Pays for Summer. A deceptively simple folk-pop album, Winter is buoyed by yet another set of insightful, clever lyrics and terrific melodies, delivered in Phillips’ clear, even voice. There is nothing at all special about this record except that it contains 13 great songs, and yet, sometimes, that’s all you need. In fact, since the album weaves an overall theme of simplicity and contentment, the very fact that there’s nothing special about it is what makes it special.

Speaking of former singers of ‘90s bands, here’s Mike Doughty with his splendid full-length solo debut, Haughty Melodic. He could not have veered from Soul Coughing’s signature sound any more if he’d tried – where that band was percussive and nonsensical, Doughty’s solo work is lyrical and incisive, just swell acoustic pop. Doughty has a voice that can’t be denied, too, whether he’s thrashing his way through “Busting Up a Starbucks” or elevating the simple melody of “White Lexus.” Only a mid-album duet with Dave Matthews disappoints, and even that doesn’t disappoint too much.

And then there’s the Eels, whose Blinking Lights and Other Revelations seemed like a shoo-in a few months ago. I’m still not absolutely sure why I’ve excluded it from the list, but I just didn’t reach for it too many times after reviewing it. There’s no doubt, though, that its 33-song expanse makes it the most ambitious Eels album, and one of the most successful and heartbreaking. E’s world-weary voice has never sounded better, either, than when he’s providing the dark cloud to these songs’ silver linings. It’s a great piece of work, and if you like it better than some of the albums on the list, I wouldn’t blame you a bit.

The same goes for these next four, the albums tied for 10th place in my mind. They are all interchangeable, pretty much, so if you disagree with my choice (and I know at least one person who will violently disagree with it), feel free to substitute any of the following four. This has never happened to me before, and I made myself pick one – on a different day, the result may have looked nothing like this.

Anyway. The four other #10s:

Kanye West’s Late Registration is another one that deserves its hype. West’s ego gets in the way a bit too often, but even he can’t obscure his own obvious talents. He tapped an unlikely producer for this album – Jon Brion, who has worked with Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann and several other classic popsters. His total rap experience before Late Registration was zero, and it shows – this album is not bound by the ridiculous rules of the genre. It’s so far above what just about anyone else is doing with beats and rhymes right now that calling it just a rap album seems silly. It’s the hip-hop Sgt. Pepper, the one that shows all the other rap artists what their music can aspire to and achieve.

Elbow’s Leaders of the Free World received the lamest U.S. release I’ve ever seen. V2 manufactured them, but only shipped them to select stores, and let the whole thing die on the vine. Which is a travesty – this is Elbow’s most accomplished album, and the one which stands the best chance of scoring with a mass audience. Parts of this record are almost impossibly beautiful, with Guy Garvey harnessing that hangdog tenor and reaching deep, but other parts are the most aggressive and explosive music Elbow has yet made. The title track is a classic, and the album’s concluding trilogy a fragile wonder. Brit-pop got no better than this in 2005.

And North American pop-rock got no better than the New Pornographers, who unleashed a fusillade of kickass with their third, Twin Cinema. It’s one melodic powerhouse after another on this album, and the best of them come from the pen of A.C. Newman, who seems to be angling for a place among the greats. Some songs here give vintage Elvis Costello and Ray Davies a run for their money, and while Dan Bejar’s three tracks don’t quite measure up, they don’t kill the record, either. Twin Cinema is a more assured and complex album than the band’s first two, and if they keep this up, they’ll soon have a body of work that rivals that of the best pop bands you can think of.

Which brings me to the one I mentioned last week, Beck’s Guero. This is everything a Beck album should be, and more than I expected. It’s sonically dizzying, of course, but it’s infused with a sadness and a deep center that gives it a punch his other funk-filled records were lacking. This is the missing link between Odelay and Sea Change, the album that makes me think that he’s never been just kidding – all these different sides are really him. As a sonic architect, Beck is practically without peer, but all that would mean nothing without the emotion that suffuses every pore of this little masterpiece. It may just be Beck’s best album.

So why didn’t it make the list? Hell if I know. Part of the reason, though, is that I am fully in the thrall of the #10 album, easily the most fun record I heard in 2005. The rest of the list is pretty serious, especially the second half, and I think it really needs the balance the bottom couple provide.

Okay, moment of truth. The 2005 top 10 list:

#10: The Click Five, Greetings from Imrie House.

Bring on the hate mail. I don’t care. This album rocks. It is everything that silly pop music ought to be. From first note to last, it is just dynamite, flat-out fun. There’s a tendency to get wrapped up in the gimmick here, what with the matching suits, the trading cards, the funny teen-band poses, and the video with the helicopter and the screaming fangirls. But man, listen to the music – the Click Five are in on the joke, and they’re using it to spice up some of the sweetest, well-constructed pop you’ll hear anywhere. This is a band that quotes “Across the Universe” in the middle of the best prom theme ever, and then covers the Thompson Twins unironically. They are championed by Paul Stanley of Kiss and Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, and that juxtaposition just says it all. Greetings from Imrie House does what it does brilliantly, with a wink and a nod to the greats. This is the smartest brainless pop you’ll find anywhere, a perfectly crafted, perfectly disposable work of delight.

#9: The Dissociatives.

The first of our out-of-nowhere wonders, the Dissociatives are Daniel Johns of Silverchair and British DJ Paul Mac. Dr. Tony Shore recommended this thing to me early in the year, and I ignored him for weeks, certain that the guy from Silverchair would never make something I’d love. Mea culpa, because this album is awesome. It is futuristic electro-pop, with a classicist’s attention to melody and songcraft. There are songs here that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Neil Finn album, and from me, that’s a hell of a compliment. But it’s the sound, the blipping, whirring, retro-futuristic production that makes this a slam dunk for me. Johns and Mac have made a future-pop record that never once skimps on the songs, one that often sounds like what might have happened if George Martin had borrowed Radiohead’s studio to record Rubber Soul in. Hopefully this is just the first Dissociatives album. I certainly won’t wait weeks to buy the second.

#8: Kate Bush, Aerial.

I have never been much of a Kate Bush fan, despite the best efforts of a few of my more enamored friends. She’s been in hiding for the last 12 years, and I can’t say I’ve missed her a whole lot, especially since her pre-hiatus swan song, The Red Shoes, was an iffy proposition at best. But even if I had been waiting breathlessly for the last decade-plus, I’d like to think that Aerial would have satisfied me. It’s two records in one, and it’s just as lovely and loopy as her best stuff. The more random first disc is good, especially the erotically charged housewife reverie “Mrs. Bartolozzi,” but it’s the second disc, subtitled A Sky of Honey, that landed the album on this list. A seamless 42-minute suite about an uneventful day, A Sky of Honey is captivating in its contentment. It flirts with jazz and flamenco and thudding techno, but through it all, it retains its essential Kate Bush-ness. This is an album that no other artist on Earth could have, or would have, made. There’s only one Kate Bush, but thank God there is one.

#7: Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, Cold Roses.

The opening salvo of Adams’ three-pronged attack this year remains the best, thanks to his amazing new backing band and his most electrifying set of songs since Heartbreaker. Here, finally, at last, is the Ryan Adams we know and love – the brash, boozy, southern-fried supergenius who writes stone cold classics and makes it seem as easy as breathing. There are 18 songs on Cold Roses, an old-fashioned double record, and they all sound like they’ve been circulating the bars in Tennessee for decades. Just the first three songs here would be enough, but there is not one weak moment on this album, and Adams’ falsetto has never sounded better. Full credit to the Cardinals, who also tore up Jacksonville City Nights – they’re the best band Adams has ever had, and yes, I’m including Whiskeytown. Even if this had been the only album Adams released in 2005, he would still have had his best year in ages. And he gets bonus points for one of my favorite packages of the year – a miniature vinyl replica that looks straight out of the ‘70s, complete with CD labels that make them look like records. This is classic Ryan Adams. Go ahead, Ryan, take 2006 off. You earned it.

#6: Paul McCartney, Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard.

All is forgiven, Paul. “Silly Love Songs?” It never happened. “Ebony and Ivory?” Forgotten. “Wonderful Christmas Time?” Well, that one still stings a bit. But it’s in the past. Macca has been on a major upswing over the past few years, and he’s hit his latter-day apex with this shockingly good record. Part of the secret to its success is producer Nigel Godrich, best known for OK Computer and Beck’s Sea Change, who urged McCartney to take it all seriously, and to play nearly every instrument. But I can’t overstate just how great these songs are – for the first time in a couple decades, McCartney sounds like what he is: one of the world’s best living pop songwriters. With “Promise To You Girl” he’s delivered his best rocker since maybe “Band on the Run,” and with “Jenny Wren” he’s channeled his younger self, circa Rubber Soul. Chaos and Creation wraps up with two perfect McCartney ballads, and hopefully signals a creative resurgence for Sir Paul. This is the album for everyone who has tried and failed to be a McCartney fan since the ‘70s. All the reasons we love him are right here.

#5: Aimee Mann, The Forgotten Arm.

But when it comes to classic pop songwriters, Aimee Mann is nearly peerless. The Forgotten Arm is a rock opera about a former boxer struggling with booze and the woman he loves, a delicate narrative that packs several sucker-punches. But even if you don’t care about the story, it’s still an incredible sequence of songs. Mann shook things up for this record, breaking free of the icy chill that surrounded Lost in Space with a live, raw sound recorded in less than a week. The result is perhaps her most immediate album, and also one of her most heartbreaking. The stretch of songs from “Goodbye Caroline” to “Little Bombs” is unbeatable, and the resigned closer, “Beautiful,” gets me every time. Mann has been criticized for making the same album again and again, but here she found a way to break the mold while retaining the essence of her gloriously sad tales. It’s an Aimee Mann album unlike any other, and yet it’s still an Aimee Mann album, full of desperate people clinging to one another with all their might.

#4: The Choir, O How the Mighty Have Fallen.

The Choir is not the best band in the world, but merely my favorite one. It’s a distinction I’ve had to make for years now, as they turned out decent-to-very-good albums that, by any objective criteria, didn’t really belong on these lists. I liked them, especially Speckled Bird and Free Flying Soul, but honestly, I knew that they had peaked with Circle Slide in 1990, and would probably never match it. But man, does O How the Mighty Have Fallen ever come close. It’s the best thing they’ve done in 15 years, the culmination of their stylistic shifts since Circle Slide. Here is the driving guitar-pop they’ve been perfecting, buoyed by Derri Daugherty’s angelic voice, but here at last is that dreamy, otherworldly edge that marks their best work, courtesy of new member Marc Byrd. Mighty is the perfect balance between their shoegazer and pop sides, and it contains some of their best songs in more than 10 years. And it concludes with “To Rescue Me,” their finest hymn, and probably the prettiest and most heartfelt thing I heard this year. Mighty is a creative rebirth, a resurrection, a second life for my favorite band on the planet, and I couldn’t be happier with it. Get it here.

#3: Ben Folds, Songs for Silverman.

People hated this record. I don’t get that. To my mind, Silverman is the most accomplished, mature, well-wrought Ben Folds album yet, largely because it’s the first one that doesn’t sneer at you. Folds inhabits these songs, and instead of just telling stories, he makes you feel them. While there has never been any doubt about his sincerity, Silverman feels like his most personal work, and that elevates it above his previous efforts, astounding as they were. Folds is one of the best songwriters and musicians around right now, one of Aimee Mann’s challengers in the field of classically-influenced pop, and he plays a mean piano to boot. Not that you’d know it from this mostly slow, traditionally beautiful record – it’s the first Folds album on which he resists the temptation to show off. But listen to “Jesusland,” his paean to the southwest, or to “Gracie,” one of the most moving father-daughter songs I can think of, or to “Late,” a most unsentimental and yet shattering tribute to Elliott Smith. It’s all great – the smartass of “Song for the Dumped” has grown up, but this time, maturity doesn’t equal suck. I hope Silverman appreciates these songs, whoever he is. I know I do.

#2; Death Cab for Cutie, Plans.

The first huge surprise. I have always liked Death Cab, but I’ve never loved them – they were too precious sometimes, too self-consciously poetic. I wasn’t expecting much from their major-label debut, especially considering some of the lukewarm reviews, but from the first listen, Plans took up residence in my heart. I’m not going to be able to explain this one, I’m sure, but this album affected me like no other this year. It’s deceptively simple – 44 minutes, 11 little songs. But as a whole, it’s a song cycle about disconnection, death and longing, and its cumulative effect is magical. Ben Gibbard’s lyrics here are devastating, yet hopeful, and the music is wide-eyed and wondrous – grandiose when it needs to be (“What Sarah Said”) and understated when it ought to be (“Stable Song”). Plans also includes “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” the most haunting love song I have heard in a long time, performed with nothing but Gibbard’s voice and guitar. But individual songs are not the point – the front-to-back experience of Plans is like holding someone close, and praying they will never leave. This is my favorite album of the year, hands down.

But it’s not the best.

The best album of 2005 hit while I was at the Cornerstone Festival in July. Boxes of CDs were opened on the first day, and by the third, the whole place was buzzing. “What’s everyone talking about?” I asked a total stranger before a show on day four. The response was simple, and accurate.

“Sufjan Stevens just put out the album of the year.”

#1: Sufjan Stevens, Illinois.

If you’ve heard this album, you know there was no other choice. Even the critics seem unified this year, which says to me that Stevens’ achievement is pretty much undeniable. If you hear Illinois, you fall for it, plain and simple.

I had never heard of Sufjan Stevens before this year. Trust me, I feel stupid. Illinois is his fifth album, and after hearing it, I scoured the internet, looking for some clue as to how an artist this impressive, on all levels, could have slipped by me. I don’t mean that egotistically – I’m sure there are hundreds of great musicians I’ve never encountered, but I spend an inordinate amount of time each year trying to rectify that. I hoped that perhaps none of the usual suspects had been talking about Stevens before this record, but alas, the accolades were universal for Greetings From Michigan and Seven Swans, too. I just missed the train.

I’m on board now, though, big time. Illinois works so well on so many levels, it’s kind of scary. It’s the most ambitious record I heard this year – 74 minutes, 22 tracks, every one of them a studio marvel, and it’s part two of perhaps the most insanely ambitious project I can think of. Stevens plans to make 50 albums, one for each of the 50 states, each one exploring the history and character of its namesake. That, if I may say so, is absolutely nuts. But what he’s done so far makes me hope he can pull it off.

So on one level, Illinois is about my adopted home state. Stevens explores touchstones of state history, like Superman’s creation, or the invention of Cream of Wheat, or Abraham Lincoln’s birth. In a way, the whole album sounds like a product of the Illinois Department of Tourism, like the soundtrack to a long and lovely educational filmstrip. But that’s only one level, and if this were merely a Schoolhouse Rock special, or the kind of historical romp that They Might Be Giants are known for, it wouldn’t be as remarkable as it is.

No, Stevens uses Illinois history as metaphor and thematic device, and ends up digging deeper than you’d think possible. “Chicago,” for example, is all about Stevens traveling to the great city for the first time, and feeling free, but it manages to capture the grandeur of the tiny moment and the vast skyline at once. Illinois is huge, massive and dynamic, but it’s about little things, expanded to a macro scale. “Casimir Pulaski Day,” named after a little-known state holiday (first Monday in March, in fact), is a tale of death and recrimination and righteous anger. “Decatur” recalls a trip that Michigan-born Stevens took with his stepmother, and recounts the state landmarks he saw.

The music here is towering, full of orchestras and choirs and layers of sound, all impeccably arranged. It’s grand and sweeping stuff, especially the two epics, and when it plunges into the darkness, as on “The Seer’s Tower,” it can feel downright monolithic. The thing is, Stevens never falters. In 74 minutes of intricate and extraordinary music, there is not one false note, not one half-assed song. I was waiting for the moment when the album took a tumble and fell apart, honestly, and it never came. The record’s finale, “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders,” may even be its best song.

But amid all the magnificent Illinoise, the song that stuck with me is “John Wayne Gacy Jr.,” a hushed and prickly ode to this state’s most famous serial killer. It’s guitar, piano and voice, and nothing else, but it grabs hold and squeezes like few songs ever do. It’s achingly graphic, detailed and disturbing, but it saves its most potent verse for the end, in which Stevens turns it back on himself: “In my best behavior, I am really just like him, look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid…” It’s the best example here of this album’s genius – Stevens internalizes his subject, and turns what could have been a theme park ride through state history into a work of powerful, moving art.

I highly doubt that Stevens will ever finish his 50 States project – at the current rate of production, it’ll take him another 96 years – but Illinois is fantastic enough that it doesn’t matter. The thought of 48 more of these is almost too exciting to imagine, anyway. No, I’m happy with what I’ve been given – one of the true lessons of my 2005 – and even if Sufjan Stevens never makes another record as wonderful as this one, he’s at least delivered one flat-out masterpiece, which is more than most artists manage. Even if nothing else had been released in 2005, Sufjan Stevens would have made my year.

Wow, look how I’ve gone on. This beast is going to top 5500 words soon, so I think I should start bringing it in for a landing. This is my favorite column to write each year, mainly because it’s the most positive one – I’m much happier talking about music I love than music I can’t stand, or am indifferent to. Hopefully, I’ve managed to convey some of that joy in this long and winding ode.

Thanks to everyone who read and wrote me this year, my fifth as an online columnist. Thanks especially to my faithful correspondents and friends, particularly those whom I’ve been lucky enough to meet through this site. I’m already looking forward to 2006, but this year’s not quite over – join me in seven days for something I’m calling “Fifty Second Week.” And after that, year six.

A pleasant holiday to everyone, and thanks again.

All things grow, all things grow.

See you in line Tuesday morning… and to all a good night.