Pop-music critics spent December in the usual manner: secluded in fetid basement apartments, agonizing over their top-10 lists. The results of this ritual are the various year-end polls, which in 2005 brought some predictable winners—the deserving (M.I.A., Fiona Apple, The Hold Steady), the overrated (Sufjan Stevens, Antony and the Johnsons, Bloc Party), and The Kanye. Given the sheer volume of music available these days—and the profusion of genres, subgenres, and sub-subgenres—critical consensus of any kind is a small miracle, and every fan is destined to greet the top-10s with a counterlist of the egregiously overlooked. (What, no Gogol Bordello?And where in God's name is the Danger Doom record?!) Here then are some favorites, most of which didn't turn up on any year-end lists: 10 unjustly ignored, scandalously underrated, little-known, or otherwise slept-on records that got heavy rotation in one fetid basement in 2005.
Z-Ro, Let the Truth Be Told (Rap-A-Lot)
This was the year that Houston hip-hop took over, one chopped and screwed beat at a time. Somehow, this terrific album by one of the city's veteran MCs slipped under the radar. Z-Ro has deft rhyme skills and a silken flow, and an old-fashioned pride in both; his mantra is "respect my mind." He's taken the sensitive-thug persona pioneered by Tupac to an extreme—he's very nearly a gangsta James Taylor. In song after song he bares his pain and vulnerabilities, rapping about being "blinded by my tears" and apologizing for his album's dearth of upbeat songs. ("See … I ain't … experienced anything but hard times and heartache.") In a year when hip-hop was almost all party music, Z-Ro's blues-rap reminded us of the genre's confessional power, and that even laments can be danceable.
Brazilian Girls, Brazilian Girls (Verve Forecast)
My favorite record of 2005 was the debut album by a New York band with a preposterously cosmopolitan sound and pedigree. The Brazilian Girls blend dance beats, Kurt Weill, ska, and a dozen other styles; their singer, Sabina Scuibba, grew up in France, Italy, and Germany; sings in six languages; and has the voice and freaked-out fashion sense of a natural-born diva. (Her signature accessory: blindfolds.) Most critics ignored the album, perhaps sensing the presence of a Eurotrash "chillout" group. They were wrong. Brazilian Girls are a ferocious live band, and their catchy songs never stop changing shape, building up dense grooves, veering into dissonance, and cracking musical and lyrical jokes.
The Click Five, Greetings From Imrie House (Lava)
In 2005, the teen pop market was glutted with the usual suspects: punk-poppers, painfully earnest post-Emo singer-songwriters, and savvy straddlers of both genres. But these five graduates of Boston's Berklee College of Music took a novel approach to wooing the TRL crowd (and their parents): They dressed in matching suits and ties and revived the power-pop sounds of the 1970s with note-perfect accuracy. It's pastiche, but virtuoso pastiche. Like all power-pop groups, the Click Five stake everything on The Big Catchy Refrain; luckily, every song has one of those, and the Clicks' verses are catchier than other bands' choruses. Best moment: "I'll Take My Chances,"a prom anthem co-written with Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger that features some heart-rending "ooh-oohs," and both Beatles and Backstreet Boys allusions.
Saïan Supa Crew, Hold Up (EMI International)
Is the world's greatest rap group French? The idea may seem ridicule—until you hear the latest release by Paris'Saïan Supa Crew, who, since 1999, have been making some of the most exciting and unclassifiable hip-hop records anywhere. Like the Wu-Tang Clan, Saïan's five MCs and beatboxers have cartoonish personalities and a wacky cosmology (they're obsessed with the color yellow). Their disdain for genre boundaries and ability to find funk in unlikely places is positively OutKastian. Francophones will enjoy the witty mix of trash-talking and politics in "Jacko,"a nastier swipe at Jacques Chirac than any Bill O' Reilly has ever taken. But you don't need to know a word of French to get into songs like "Hold-Up,"in which the Crew sing, shout, and speed-rap over clattering rhythm and some very loud guitars.
Richard Hawley, Coles Corner (Mute U.S.)