The best downloads of 2005

Twenty fantastic free tunes that made our year, including songs from Dwight Yoakam, Animal Collective and M. Ward that you can't download anywhere else.

Published December 31, 2005 9:00PM (EST)

The past year has been a great one for legal downloads of music, as more and more artists and labels have realized that giving away some songs is free publicity and good business practice. As a general rule, major labels are still abstaining, as are the worlds of jazz and classical music, but there have been promising exceptions, and there will surely be more in 2006.

Salon has played a role in making this such a good year for legal downloads: We're particularly proud of all the exclusive downloads we've been able to offer -- great songs that are available only here. Thirteen of the 20 downloads below -- my 20 favorites that have appeared on Audiofile this year -- are Salon exclusives.

For regular Audiofile readers this is a chance to revisit some great songs from the past year -- and to argue with my selections in the letters section. For those of you who are new to Audiofile, here's a premium sampler of the best of 2005, which I hope you'll like enough to become a regular visitor in 2006. Happy holidays, and see you next year.

1. "Beautiful Boyz," CocoRosie
download | review

A duet between two of the most exciting voices in music: Bianca Casady's dry, crackling wail, impeccably and daringly phrased, and Antony's honeyed croon, dripping with pathos.

2. "Sun," Toms
exclusive download | review

This is an absurdly pleasurable, glorious power-pop song from the Numero Group's "Yellow Pills," certainly my favorite compilation of the year, and one of my favorite releases, period. Some gym-obsessed Salon colleagues have pointed out that this is a great workout song.

3. "Fuel for Fire," M. Ward
exclusive download | review

M. Ward is one of the most exciting young talents around, but his latest album, "Transistor Radio," felt lazy and unpolished -- with the shining exception of this song, redolent with nostalgia and old-fashioned elegance.

4. "Swan King in the Snow," Dave Deporis
download | review

Dave Deporis mesmerizes with just a guitar and his extraordinarily pliable voice, which he pushes to extremes of both sweetness and strangeness, singing incantatory songs of a place long ago and far away.

5. "All the Wine," the National
download | review

The National put on the best show I saw all year, and their album "Alligator" was a strong contender for my favorite release of the year. "All the Wine" is the band at its most explicitly stadium rock, with chiming Edge-style guitars announcing the song.

6. "Bad Feelings," the Robot Ate Me
download | review
This is the sweetest of songs from one of the strangest of musical minds. The Robot Ate Me's Ryland Bouchard has a Brian Wilson-like ability to combine unexpected sounds in unexpected ways into an unexpectedly perfect whole. In the past his music has often evinced an odd and somewhat disturbing sense of humor, and a sense of cynicism that tugs away at an equally powerful sense of naiveté and hope; on this year's "Carousel Waltz," the hope wins out.

7. "Fancy That," Ed Askew
exclusive download | review

A lonely and mysterious psych-folk gem from a reissue of 1968's "Ask the Unicorn," an obscure album feted by those in the know, this song has haunted me since I first heard it.

8. "I Turn My Camera On," Spoon
download | review

While Spoon's latest, "Gimme Fiction," has some brilliant moments, as a whole it feels self-conscious and a little passionless to me in comparison with the ferocity of "Kill the Moonlight." But the best track, "I Turn My Camera On," is the one where that coldness is pushed to its extreme, a heartless, ruthless machine of a song.

9. "Ghosts," Albert Ayler
exclusive download | review

This is one of the great Albert Ayler's most famous recordings, a towering achievement in free jazz from the volcanically powerful saxophonist.

10. "Blame the Vain," Dwight Yoakam
exclusive download | review

This rocking title track from consistently great country superstar Dwight Yoakam's "Blame the Vain" is the most popular download in the history of Audiofile.

11. "As I Go," Richard Swift
download | review

I've been so caught up by the melody and punchy, well-crafted arrangement of this song, one of many great tracks off Swift's debut record, that I only very recently realized the glaringly religious nature of the lyric.

12. "Grass," Animal Collective
exclusive download | review

Although the record they put out this year, "Feels," wasn't as impossible to ignore as "Sung Tongs," Animal Collective continued to develop in thrilling directions live, exploring new modalities in music making with virtuosity and glee. This is their shimmering, incandescent take on the three-minute pop song.

13. "Panda," Dungen
exclusive download | review

Dungen was one of the prime hipster pleasures of the year, but the music isn't just hip, it's really, really good, a radiant psychedelic fantasia of glowing sounds and glorious harmonies.

14. "Hide and Seek," Imogen Heap
exclusive download | review

Imogen Heap's vocoder-altered chorus of voices is probably a trick that will work only once, but it's a pretty astounding effect on this song, pulsing in oceanic swells and sudden heartbreak stops.

15. "Paw Paw Paw Paw Paw Paw Paw," Xiu Xiu Larsen
exclusive download | review

In an unexpectedly potent collaboration, enigmatic Italian art-rock band Larsen made lovely ice palaces of sound for Xiu Xiu's hotblooded, violent Jamie Stewart to sing in.

16. "The Music Lovers," Destroyer
exclusive download | review

Destroyer's live reinterpretations, backed by Toronto band Frog Eyes, of his bedroom glam studio recordings usually veered more toward artily dissonant punk, but they turned "The Music Lovers" into a drunken, cracked 6/8 R&B tune, a brilliant and entirely unexpected reworking.

17. "Dear John," Aimee Mann
download | review

Few writers are canny, disciplined or just plain smart enough to write a fully narrative collection of songs as cohesive but unlabored as Aimee Mann's concept album "The Forgotten Arm." The first track, "Dear John," is one of the best.

18. "Hideyaface," Prefuse 73
exclusive download | review

One of experimental hip-hop's strangest minds brings his skewed, glitchy beat sense to the (semi) mainstream in a collaboration with Ghostface.

19. "It Never Changes to Stop," the Books
exclusive download | review

The Books are the best of the various indie-affiliated bands that are riffing off post-minimalist classical composition, crafting intricate instrumental tracks and layering them with beautifully placed, evocative samples from their extensive sound library.

20. "Instant Lady," Nervous Cabaret
exclusive download | review

"Instant Lady" is a raucous racket of bawdiness and hedonism from Brooklyn, N.Y.'s fearsome Nervous Cabaret.

By Thomas Bartlett

Thomas Bartlett is a writer and musician in New York. He maintains a blog called doveman.

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