January 31, 2006

The Moment You've All Been Waiting For....

The Best Album of 2005 is...
Sufjan Stevens - Illinois
Before I get to the review, I need to tell a little story. Some people are going to disagree with Sufjan as the number one pick of 2005, and I want to defend myself before I get to the musical reasoning for my opinion. I have a friend named Daniel. Most of you only know him as Merkey, but if you know the young man I am referring to this little story should be of no surprise. Although we both agree on the wonder that is Dave Matthews, we tend to disagree on just about every other band under the sun. Dan is a music major at Roberts Wesleyan College with hopes to someday be a magnificent conductor. While I am just a music elitist, who thinks that everyone should listen to what I think is good because I've been listening to good music for as long as I can remember and I know what I'm talking about. Every now and then, I throw him some indie band that has a good sound or something unique he hasn't heard. Which, I hope he might find interesting. Then, every time he tells me how much they make his ears bleed and how they have as much talent as Murdock (local band with hopes of musical world domination until they realized they, in fact, had no talent). I've thrown bands at him such as The White Stripes, RJD2, Elliott Smith, Sigur Ros, A Tribe Called Quest, G. Love and Special Sauce, Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, Radiohead, Stereophonics, Handsome Boy Modeling School, and the Dave Matthews Band (the only band to make it past Merkey's extremely discriminating screening process). All this time I've been getting angry with him for not liking the amazing music that I listen to when the answer to this problem has been right in front of my face the whole time. Recently I did an experiment. I made Daniel listen to the DaKah Hip Hop Orchestra (a 90 piece orchestra fused with hip hop). He ate it up, note for note. He even pretended to conduct it as it was being played. It dawned on me at that very moment while we were sitting in my room stoned, that it wasn't Daniel that had the problem, it was me. It was then that my idea of being an elitist was thrown to the curb and ran over by a Byrne Dairy truck. It was right under my nose the whole time, I just couldn't smell it. It's something I've been preaching all along but was too naive to realize it for myself. Everyone has their own tastes, and you can't just expect them to listen to what you think is good just because it's your personal opinion. In the same sense, you shouldn't criticize their preferences just because they don't coincide with yours. John Cusak said it best in High Fidelity "How can it be bullshit to state a preference?" Merkey is a fan of the horns, brass, woodwinds, and percussion. I am a fan of synths, keyboards, turntables, and drum kits. Merkey likes orchestras, symphonies, and jazz. I like hip hop, alternative, indie, and progressive.

It was with this wisdom that I realized why Sufjan Stevens' "Illinois" is the best album of the year. His dynamic range of instruments and his ability to create such poignant music puts him in a class of artists that can be appreciated by many different kinds of fans. "Illinois" is an album overflowing with little numbers about the history of the state of "Illinois". I know this sounds mind-numbingly lame, but that is what makes Sufjan such a genius. Nearly every song has a melody that is irresistible. Even the mood shattering "John Wayne Gacy Jr" is a masterpiece. Who else can write a song about a brutal serial killer and make it one of the most stunningly beautiful songs you've ever heard? Songs like "Casimir Pulaski Day" and "Jacksonville" exhibit Sufjan's folk roots and really add character to this impression album. Trombones, saxophones, trumpets, flutes, banjos, strings, and choirs make up what "Illinois" is. It's an album abundant with narrative historical harmonies. As most of my top 5 of the year are, this album is not a first time charmer. It took me a few listens to really capture the essence of this cd. Writing about everyone from Superman to Abraham Lincoln to Carl Sandburg, Sufjan has found a way to make history interesting. This twenty-something guy has come to impress with his latest concept album. His initial plan was to make an album for every state in the United States. After "Michigan", he sidetracked and made "Seven Swans". Something must have pushed the concept back into his mind when he made "Illinois".

I think I have finally found the puzzle piece to my Merkey problem. Sufjan Stevens is a conductor and a singer whose insight and intelligence has been able to create a musical work of art complete with staccatos, crescendos, decrescendos, and many other band terms that I can no longer remember. Sufjan Steven's "Illinois" is a wonderful journey that starts as soon as put it in your stereo and doesn't end until the last note comes out. I hope you've enjoyed reading this list as much as I've enjoyed writing it. Keep checking up to see what else is coming out.

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