Music: A Year to Hear

George Bush doesn't care about black people or the best local music releases of 2005, but we do

The Year In Review

Heartless Bastards: Stairs and Elevators

One of the finest releases to come out the Cincinnati area in several years, Heartless Bastards' Stairs and Elevators was released by Fat Possum Records, a Mississippi-based label that made its name by digging up vintage, untainted bluesmen before harvesting a new crop of young artists like The Black Keys and Cincinnati's own Thee Shams. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Erika Wennerstrom leads the trio with her slashing, fuzz-buoyed guitar work and the kind of old-soul voice that transfixes immediately. Wennerstrom's songs are deceptively primitive and simple, but she delivers them as if wringing the last few drops from a nearly bone-dry washcloth. Songs like "Swamp Song" and "Gray" are hypnotic rockers with serpentine melodies that wrap around the wooly structures like a new scarf (it's warming, but it can be used as a strangulation device at a moment's notice). Wennerstrom often sounds like she's singing to herself, as if the words have been cribbed from a collection of "notes to self" stashed away in a notebook somewhere. This insular feel transfers to the tight musical telepathy with her bandmates, bassist Mike Lamping and drummer Kevin Vaughn, one of best rhythm sections in Cincinnati. Stairs and Elevators is a powerful and soulful Rock & Roll album that shows the "heartless" part of the band's moniker couldn't be further from the truth. But the Heartfelt Bastards doesn't quite have the same ring, does it? (Mike Breen)

pictureshow: Rags In Kerosene

One of the most impressive local band debuts in recent memory, Rags is deep, dramatic Indie Pop unafraid of epic structuring and drenched in the kind of catchiness that enfolds the listener with soulful insistence rather than simply beating them over the head with rote blatancy. Urgently melodic and lyrically compelling, one of the best things about pictureshow is that, while the sound rings with familiarity, they don't sound like any one predecessor.

Instead, they take the best elements of some of Indie's finest purveyors and instinctively churn out an album on par with most of them. (MB)

Foxy Shazam!: The Flamingo Trigger

With the chart success of System of a Down and The Mars Volta, much has been made about the rise of a more progressive, nonlinear spin on Hard Rock and Metal. Foxy Shazam! has little obvious sonic relation to either of those bands, but it does share a mindset, tossing the Rock handbook out of the van and backing over it repeatedly. Like John Zorn and Frank Zappa scoring Heavy Metal cartoon soundtracks, The Flamingo Trigger is a head-spinning whirl of songwriting experimentalism and aural adventurousness. (MB)

Meadoe: Cincinnati Whether

Bands from The White Stripes to The Kills to Fiery Furnaces have made the two-person format a popular motif in the past few years. But Meadoe forges its own path on Whether, surging through full, bombastic stompers and sparser, sparkling Indie Pop nuggets with equal poise. The Meadoe music makers — Rob Deslongchamps and Krista Gregory — switch off on everything (guitar, drums, vocals, songwriting), giving the album a contrasting yet cohesive fluidity. The duo's spontaneous way with songwriting is most alluring; the songs' winding, playful structures and evocative melodies will have you retreating to this Meadoe time and time again. (MB)

Thee Shams: Sign the Line

Thee Shams have noticeably grown with each new release, and Sign the Line was their biggest leap forward yet. Though lumped in under the "Garage Rock" banner, Sign the Line is quite simply an excellent Rock & Roll album, shaded with the expected tinges of vintage Blues and Psych Rock but showing a more distinct songwriting prowess this time around. Thee Shams have always been an impressive dirty-water Blues/Rock entity with a strong lysergic aftertaste but, while there's still plenty of classic Shammery, Sign the Line takes a head-trip to another stratosphere and transcends toss-off labels. (MB)

Da Muttss: Conversations Over Blacks, Blunts, Sodas & Brews

The key to the success of Conversations — the first long-player from this imaginative Hip Hop squad — is versatility. With a plethora of styles and skills, Da Muttss have created an album that never gets its wheels stuck in the mud of predictability. Practically every member multitasks, sharing DJ, MC and production duties. While lesser acts would give in to the "too many cooks" adage and conjure up something distractingly unfocussed, Da Muttss manage to use their varying abilities to concoct an album that grabs and holds the listener's attention from start to finish. It's like a funky, dizzy fun-house ride, where every turn offers something fresh and interesting. (MB)

Czar*Nok: That One Way

Forest Park's own aspiring hustlers, Czar*Nok (Hayczar and E-Nok), became Cincinnati's first Rap group ever signed to a major label. Sharing Capitol's Urban Music roster with names like Snoop Dogg and Chingy, the tunnel-visioned method of "that one way" worked well for the duo. Both are inspired by the self-narrative, "hustlin'-in-these-streets" flow and Funk-inflected music of duos like UGK and Eightball & MJG, and That One Way reflects a multi-faceted Midwest sound. Hayczar and E-Nok's fluid, push-and-pull flow balances heavy, head-busting tracks like "Throw Me That Pack" (featuring the original underground kings of Crunk music, Three 6 Mafia) with the sensitivity of old-school harmony and one of Kanye West's patented, punch-in/punch-out Soul loops appears on "Time To See." (Mildred Fallen)

Peter Adams: The Spiral Eyes

Recorded by his lonesome in his bedroom-cum-studio, Peter Adams' debut album is so rich and fully evolved, it's nothing short of shocking that it was done DIY style. Adams' songs are of the Orchestral/Indie Pop variety, built around delicious core melodies and augmented with a plethora of instruments and sounds (lots of string swells and violin) that give the album a neon sparkle. The Spiral Eyes is hyper-catchy, but this isn't frivolous Pop-lite stuff. Adams writes with the depth of an artist with twice his living experience, and his songs ring with a sense of timelessness that eludes most of the Indie Pop ilk. (MB)

Wussy: Funeral Dress

Wussy feels like a cross between the Jesus and Mary Chain, John Prine and the Mamas and the Papas. JAMC gets name-checked because of the gorgeous sheets of noise that take place throughout much of Wussy's presentation; Prine is a longtime yardstick against Ass Ponys frontman Chuck Cleaver's similarly twisted sense of the mundane; and there are physical markers that suggest San Francisco's favorite sons and daughters (two guys/two girls, cool harmonies, exceptional songwriting, a couple in the band, etc.). Funeral Dress, the group's debut CD for Shake It Records, is an astonishingly diverse document of Wussy's disparate but oddly interconnected influences. (Brian Baker)

Pain Link: The Burden of Sin

Pain Link's first full-length, The Burden of Sin, resurrects the chaos of classic Bay Area thrash and mixes it with new elements ranging from Metalcore to Gothenberg Metal. With Pain Link's local label, Peace or Die Records, inking a distribution deal with Neoblast and Enforcer Records, The Burden of Sin was released on an international scale in '05. (Jacob Richardson)

The Minni-Thins: In Black Cause I Asked

Six-member Indie Rock unit The Minni-Thins showcased their distinctive sound more precisely, reeling in what can sometimes be a cacophonous jumble in concert. On record, it's more of a bittersweet cacophony — and a rousingly joyous one at that. Primal-to-spastic rhythms, searing guitar, subtly quirky keyboard ornamentation and high-wire vocals merge to create a cyclone of sharp, peppy Art Punk without the slightest whiff of pretentiousness. (MB)

Tropicoso: Un Cuento

Popular local Latin music troupe Tropicoso's debut album, Un Cuento, burns with authenticity in both the feeling and musicianship. With some truly amazing horn work and entrancing, percolating rhythms, Tropicoso's vivacious spin on Salsa, Latin Jazz and other Latin forms is hard not to like. From the infectious spontaneity of the instrumental "Tumbao De Tecato" to the unhinged explosiveness of "Que Negro Mas Feo," the energetic nine-piece ensemble's first entry into the recording arena was an unabashed success. (MB)

Rob Fetters: Musician; Chris Arduser: The Celebrity Motorcade; psychodots: Terminal Boulevard

· On his first solo album since 1998, Rob Fetters' knack for perfect Pop hooks and clever, master songwriting was still intact. But Musician is more daring, as Fetters utilizes the recording studio to its fullest extent. Musician is Fetters' most engagingly challenging album, a refreshing, bold move from one of Cincinnati's finest songwriters ever.

· While not quite the sonic leap of Fetters' disc, Motorcade found Chris Arduser in top form from a songwriting standpoint. Performed, written and produced entirely by Arduser, Motorcade is a "concept record" revolving around characters from old Hollywood. The thematic thread that runs throughout is fascinating and works incredibly well, but it wouldn't hold up without Arduser's tremendous songwriting. Come for the stories, stay for the sounds.

· Arduser, Fetters and bassist Bob Nyswonger capped off 2005 back together as psychodots to release the excellent Terminal Boulevard, which found the trio coming home to their straightforward, hook-drenched, wit-and-wisdomed trademark. It's classic psychodots with all of the elements that fans have come to love firmly in place. (MB)

Ill Poetic: Illumination

Ill Poetic's debut solo CD makes a timeless and universal statement, as the producer/MC follows a formula that every great musician attempts at least once, producing a thematic LP. With light being Illumination's central theme, Ill Poetic's clever musings explore light's omnipotence and come face-to-face with man's age-old enigmas: God, existence, women and apocalypse. Illumination is an impressive first statement, and, like Ice Cube, Wu Tang Clan and Nas, whose definitive debut albums changed Hip Hop's aesthetic, Illumination raises the bar of a listener's expectation. (MF)

Sallow: Soliloquy

The brainchild of singer/songwriter Joseph Remnant, Sallow produced a remarkably accomplished debut, from the alluring packaging to the breezy, radiant songwriting. Remnant makes translucent, lo-fi Indie Pop that's steeped in timeless Pop influences and a distinct twee flair. If the Elephant 6 collaborative is still taking new members, sign Remnant up now; Soliloquy is as solid as anything that collective ever released. (MB)

Elliott Ruther Trio: Rock-N-Roll Conceived (in Cincinnati)

From Punk, Rock, Folk and Funk to politics and religion, the Elliott Ruther Trio's 2005 disc was a spirited, memorable debut. The album is a potent combination of message and emotion, delivered with rawness and guided by Ruther's literate, guttural musings about his personal salvation. Sounding akin to the Violent Femmes fronted by a soulful Bob Dylan, Ruther's uncommon wordsmithery is the powerful hook in each track. (Sean Rhiney)

Over the Rhine: Drunkard's Prayer

OTR's latest for the Virgin/ Backporch imprint came out of the inner-turmoil the band experienced while touring behind their last release, the double-disc Ohio. The duo cancelled the tour and repaired their union, wrote a batch of songs that corralled all of the emotions and then recorded the album in their living room. The results are often chill-inducing and remarkably tender. The songs are warm and sparse, but impossibly effective, concentrating the group's trademark airiness into a goose-bumpy whisper of soul-searching love songs that retain the elegance and splendor of the band's finest recordings. (MB)

Grand Oversoul: A Long Way from Middle Creek

There's remarkable warmth in the production on Grand Oversoul's latest album, which has an intimate, live feel that gives the record the "classic" sound the music demands. The band plays expansive, progressive Rock & Roll, open-ended enough to encourage improv but structured enough to ring memorably in the listener's head. You hear echoes of legendary rockers like The Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead and Black Crowes, but the performances have enough of their own personality to give GO its own distinctiveness. (MB)

Steve Schmidt: Red and Orange

As much of a fixture on the local Jazz scene as Schmidt has been, it's remarkable that Red and Orange is his first official release as a bandleader. For those into tasteful, well-played, timeless Jazz, it was worth the wait. Traveling to New York City for the recording sessions, Schmidt hooked up with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Jeff Ballard, who do a fantastic job of giving the compositions just-right nuances and dramatic embellishments. Schmidt's elegant, flawless and emotive performances on piano are the anchor to the album, while his arrangements are full of depth, dynamics and intuitiveness. (MB)

The Strongest Proof: One Percent

The Strongest Proof's debut is a must-have for Guitar Rock fans thanks to the imaginative interplay between guitarists Tony Roth and Matt Tomlinson, whose impulsive arrangements and telepathic energy recall the scorching duality of Fugazi. With chokehold melodies and a creatively flexible rhythm section, The Strongest Proof barrels through thick-n-heavy thumpers and more spread-out, expansive tracks with a raw, palpable fervor and a structural adventurousness that incorporates neck-snapping breaks and ear-grabbing rhythmic shifts. (MB)

Gregory Morris Group: Houses in the Sky

Just try to classify Gregory Morris' impressively unusual sound (don't hurt yourself). Morris and his band of musical gypsies concoct magnetic songs that dare to use whatever genre influence, instrument and song motif best serves the final product. The results are almost psychedelic in their originality. Folk, Jazz, Funk and various other forms collide, but the songs usually end up at a place that those elements don't come close to hinting at, thanks to Morris' imaginative writing style. (MB)

Sonny Moorman Group: Crossroads Motel

This trio has not only visited the cross section between Blues and Rock — they've grabbed a room and set up camp for the long haul. Moorman is a masterly guitarist and vocalist, well versed in Blues' various forms. As Crossroads expertly shows, it's a fool's move to try to pin Moorman down to just one thing. The Sonny Moorman Group is the full package — ace chops, soulful vocals, proficient songwriting and a daredevilish adventurousness that not only helps make the band dynamic and multifarious, but also gives them a distinct identity in a field where distinctiveness isn't always evident. (MB)

MOTH: Immune to Gravity

Released on the Hey Domingo! imprint, Immune to Gravity continues MOTH's impeccable journey into explosive, punchy Agro-Pop. Riding a perfect balance of energy and finesse, the guitar textures are huge and sharpened, the neck-snapping rhythms jerky and thumping, and Stenz's distinct vocal style sounds as anxious as ever. The nervous energy is impeccably matched with New Wave flourishes, from the syncopated guitar riffage to the quirky, danceable beats. But, at its essence, this is simply a tremendous, powerful Guitar Rock album. (MB)

Moonlight Graham: Gone.Circus

The adage "less is more" gets its proof with Gone.Circus. That a singer/songwriter duo made an all-acoustic album is no news flash; what's remarkable is that they've made an all-acoustic album that doesn't continuously remind you that it's all-acoustic. Because of the potency of the writing and arrangements, the musical base (a rootsy blend of acoustic guitar, harmonica, light percussion, harmonies, mandolin and piano) serves as an almost ghostly undercurrent, shifting elegantly like trees dancing with the wind on the ocean's coastline. (MB)

The Danny Frazier Band: The Danny Frazier Band

Frazier was once a major-label hopeful, but this acoustic-based album has a Country/Blues feel, steeped in tradition, not trends. The band crafts sturdy, emotive scaffolding around the songs, but it's Frazier's voice and writing that are the biggest draw, pulling at the listener's ear with a twangy gruffness, while the songs emit a timelessness that suggests a rich knowledge and understanding of Roots music's history. (MB)

Bastion: The Honey Sacrifice

There are many elements to Bastion's creative success, and one is that they have stayed true to their vision rather than resorting to trend-chasing. Bastion's sound hints at some stand-outs of the Metal-to-Grunge transition axis, namely Queensryche and Stone Temple Pilots. Their songs are imbued with depth and complexity, but not at the expense of listenability. (Ezra Waller)

Vinyltones: Memoirs of a Songbook.

Vinyltones' debut was a revelation, showing the band to be one of the most talented new bands in the city. Memoirs moves from bouncy Power Pop to balls-out melodic Rock, with some amazing mid-tempo and ballad-like numbers tossed in for a diversity that makes the band sound like they've been together for a decade. Fans of artists from Ben Folds to Pete Yorn to Snow Patrol will find Memoirs on par with those artists' best work. (MB)

Ellison: indecisive and halfhearted EP

On their debut release, this threesome runs through six tracks of passionate and accessible Pop music. The yearning drips from Josh Hill's voice on "Your Goodbyes" and "More at Ease," but his strong singing ability makes the songs flow poetically, avoiding the "whiny" pitfall other young bands routinely fall into when they wear their hearts on their sleeves. Fans of songcraft with an elegant, emotional core will happily buy what Hill and Co. are selling. (MB)

Beau Alquizola: Please Keep the Door Closed

Alquizola's voice is instantly grabbing with its warm and familiar timbre, which comes off like a voice-meld of Sam Cooke, Seal and Michael Stipe. The songs themselves are sturdily structured, but Alquizola's strength on this acoustic-based disc is the soulful weight he gives each track, creating an inviting aura that should keep interested listeners returning like cold hands to a fireplace in an arctic winter. (MB)

Black Tie Bombers: Art Is Easy

It might sometimes seem like Punk Rock has been sufficiently deflated and a shell of its former self with the glut of shiny, diary-writing Pop bands masquerading as "Punk" these days. But the Black Tie Bombers are a part of the noble army of diehards who keep the pace high, the snarl front and center and the energy unbridled, restless and reckless. With Art Is Easy, the Bombers prove to be a great Punk band with the potential to be a phenomenal one. (MB)

Wake the Bear: Woe Is Meat

For his debut, titled Woe Is Meat, former Promenade singer/bassist Scott Cunningham goes truly solo, recording and performing all the instrumentation himself. A humble, dreamy lushness is crafted with acoustic guitars, keys, synths, layered voices and heart-swelling string sounds, all tied together by Cunningham's emotive, vivacious lead vocals. Woe Is Meat is a luminous, textural bedroom magnum opus, as good as any one-man-band album you'll ever hear. (MB)

The Terrors: Foolish Treasure Hunter

The Terrors are "Pop" in the sense that they produce indestructible melodies, but their adventurous arrangements belie such compact terminology. On Treasure Hunter, the group loads the songs with dizzying keyboard, synth and xylophone licks, dynamic guitar work and a powerful, creative rhythmic bite, drizzling unanticipated sound effects and quirks throughout to create a heavy, hooky brand of neo-psychedelia. (MB)

Cat City: In & Out

Local Contemporary Jazz/Fusion crew Cat City split this two-disc set between an "In the Studio" side and an "Out in the Club" one. The tracks on each are sprawling and spacious, allowing each of the players to show off their laudable chops throughout. The album truly showcases the musical "personality" of each player, which, combined, makes for a never-boring listening experience. (MB)

500 Miles to Memphis: 500 Miles to Memphis

Meshing straightforward, old-school Country and energized, new-school Punk and Rock, 500 Miles to Memphis' self-titled album is a solid display of frontman Ryan Malott's sharp, instinctive songwriting skills. Malott comes off like Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt songwriter Jay Farrar genetically spliced with Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong, and musically the band isn't far from that intersection either. Good songwriting is good songwriting, regardless of genre. Here's your proof. (MB)

The Walker Project: You Can Be Yourself

The Walker Project has always been one of the best hard-to-categorize bands in town. Combining their broad influences for a varied sound that touches on Pop, Folk, Funk, Blues, Jazz, Soul and Rock, they always end up in a place all their own. The unadulterated intimacy of You Can Be Yourself is refreshing and rare, a seemingly effortless display of innate, natural musical instinct.

The Best of the Rest
Sundresses/4192: Split EP

Kim Taylor: Extended Play EP

The Times: Begin

Super 77: The Ghost of Howard

Ellery: Make Your Troubles Mine EP

The Spectacular Fantastic: The Spectacular Fantastic Goes Underground

Jake Speed and the Freddies: Losantaville

Milkweed: Body Floss

Venus Mission: Love Me Back Alive

Chaselounge: Black Plastic Ordinary

Kohai: What We Are Waiting For

Chalk: The Hyperventilating Culture

Maurice Mattei: Dead Rails

Kentucky Struts: Kentucky Struts

Roger Drawdy And The Firestarters: Open Seas, Empty Skies

American Hardcore: American Hardcore

Zachary J. Mechlem: Sameera

And Andy: High & Tight

The Minor Leagues: Mail Order Brides

Kayneevol: You Rock My World

Promenade: Part Two: goodness ends

Liz Bowater: Last Confession

Kevin Fox Band: All Over The Place

Silver Arm: Links

Culture Queer: A CQ EP

Eric Falstrom: Falsidol's Recital

Catalpa Catalpa: Hardoncity

The Greenhornes: East Grand Blues EP

Rumble Club: Rumble Club Rides Tonight

Screaming Mimes: Live My Life

Covington: Devised Without a Plan

Paul Otten: Bad Parade

Gardenhose: Epiphany

For Algernon: The Lost Days of Captain Johnny Sinclair

The Vladimirs: Scars of the Vladimirs

Bob Cushing: Middle Aged Crazy

Raison D'Etre: Hearts Content

Folk?: Folk?

Joseph A. Peragine: The Acoustic Diaries

George Cunningham: Stumblingham

Suchanuglything: The Fear EP

Soulragga: Soulragga

Mark Brasington: White Is Gray

Langus: Pass the Time

Cathedrals: Cathedrals EP

patientZero: Seemingly So

Bottom Line: Eloquence

In Rage: Take Charge

Pike: The Sound of Powertools EP

Liquid Fire: Open Road EP

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