Most Compulsively Watchable Self-Tortured (and Otherwise) Singer-Pianists of 2005

Although none of these divas sounds much like the others, they each made some of the most overtly beautiful and emotionally wringing music of the past year by parsing out their dramas and psychodramas along the keys of their restless pianos.1. Fiona Apple. It was really none of our business, and we shouldn’t have been eavesdropping, but Fiona Apple made her romantic troubles so involving that half the audience at her November concert at the Wiltern was ready to kill the thoughtless cad who dared to break her heart on the doomy ballad “O’ Sailor.” 2. Nellie McKay. Before Nellie McKay burst into tears and went off on an exhilarating tirade about the machinations of her meddling record label, Columbia, at that astonishing gig/mini-nervous breakdown at the Troubadour in November, the talented young singer was forced to scold the crowd for laughing rudely as she earnestly attempted to explain her protest against another Columbia, the NYC university and its cruel primate-experimentation program. It seems to be a trend now for certain KCRW-style audiences to do this nervous, condescending fake-laughter thing whenever a singer says something serious. Even through her sobs, McKay was always brilliant, quick-thinking, breezily melodic and soulful.3. Amanda Palmer. The Dresden Dolls leader followed up the promise of the Dolls’ 2004 debut album with the madcap concert DVD Paradise, as she and face-painted drummer Brian Viglione added Weimar-era theatricality and dynamic precision to her swaying punk-cabaret chansons and grand adaptations of songs by David Bowie, Carole King and even Black Sabbath. 4. Kate Bush. While she didn’t plunge to the moody depths or get as occasionally aggressive as these other singers, Kate the Great found a world of powerful magic hidden inside her cloistered, blissfully domestic life on the day-to-night travelogue Aerial, her first album in a decade. She divined shared patterns in sound waves and sheet music and the layout of rocky islets in the sea, cleverly intertwining her melodies with birdsong, much to the consternation of my roommate cat Wolfie, who clawed at the speaker in puzzlement, trying to get at those serenely happy birds.

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