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Not the best of the year

But some of the most entertaining and thought-provoking

By Todd Leopold
CNN

Stevens
Two top-notch works: Sufjan Stevens' "Illinois" ...

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(CNN) -- There were 230,591,913 books published in the United States in 2005, and 49,489,101 albums issued -- increases of 4 percent and 3 percent over 2004, respectively.

OK, I made up those figures. But there were a lot -- many more than any human being could read or listen to.

I say this because every year magazines, newspapers and Web sites put out their lists of the year's best. No doubt these lists have some validity -- they do tend to agree on several releases -- but given the huge number of items coming into the American marketplace, something's probably been overlooked.

So I'm not fooling myself. The lists below aren't "the best of the year." I've read a grand total of 56 books, old and new, this year (I hope to squeeze in a few more before December 31) and perhaps listened to 75 new CDs. The lists below reflect my favorites of that small sample. Three or 30 years from now, I fully expect to stumble on something shoved away in a stack and wonder where it had been all my life.

With those caveats out of the way, here is my best -- uh, my favorites -- of 2005:

Books

  • "The March," E.L. Doctorow (Random House). The waning days of the Civil War as told by a cast of many, sharply defined by a top-notch novelist. (Read a story about E.L. Doctorow.)
  • "The Big Picture," Edward Jay Epstein (Random House). If you want to understand today's Hollywood -- or yesterday's, for that matter -- forget about the weekly box office and the stories of creative differences and read Epstein's incisive book.
  • "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning," Jonathan Mahler (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). In 1977, the New York Yankees won a World Series by preening, backbiting, and going to war against all comers. At the same time, their declining city was in the midst of an angry mayoral campaign -- but ready for a renaissance.
  • "The Beatles," Bob Spitz (Little, Brown). I never thought I'd welcome another Beatles biography -- particularly one that pushes 1,000 pages. But Spitz won me over with his thorough research and engaging writing. (Also worth checking out: Steven D. Stark's "Meet the Beatles.") (Read a review.)
  • "Campus Sexpot," David Carkeet (University of Georgia Press). A thoughtful, funny and humane memoir from the author of "The Full Catastrophe." (Read a story about David Carkeet.)
  • Albums

  • "Illinois," Sufjan Stevens (Asthmatic Kitty). Bold, beguiling, full of intricate arrangements and long, strange song titles (sample: "To The Workers Of The Rock River Valley Region, I Have An Idea Concerning Your Predicament") and out-and-out brilliant. Brian Wilson, watch your back.
  • "Stoned," Lewis Taylor (HackTone). If you're wondering what happened to blue-eyed funk -- if such a thing ever existed -- wonder no more. Why "Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)" isn't a hit is beyond me.
  • "One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found," Various Artists (Rhino). Compilers Gary Stewart (one of my personal heroes) and Sheryl Farber could have taken the easy way out and just repackaged a bunch of hits. Instead they dug deep for this four-disc box set, uncovering gems like Toni Basil's "I'm 28," Sandie Shaw's "Girl Don't Come," Bessie Banks' original "Go Now" and two songs by the terrific Reparata and the Delrons. Profound, surprisingly consistent and just plain wonderful.
  • "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise," Bettye LaVette (Anti). Joe Henry, who's been behind the boards for some of the best albums of the past few years, captures every ounce of emotion from the 59-year-old soul singer, who turns in sensitive performances of songs by Sinead O'Connor, Aimee Mann and Joan Armatrading.
  • "If You Didn't Laugh You'd Cry," Marah (Yep Roc). There's no "Freedom Park" on the Philadelphia band's follow-up to "20,000 Streets Under the Sky," but the songs are more consistent and the performances ... well, these guys could give Bruce Springsteen and James Brown a run for their money when it comes to energy.
  • Worth mentioning

  • W. Somerset Maugham's classic "The Razor's Edge" and John M. Barry's "Rising Tide," the two best books I read in 2005; the welcome "Born to Run" box, with the fascinating making-of documentary; Ben Folds' song "Jesusland"; "Bat Boy Lives!" a collection of stories -- all true! -- from the Weekly World News; and the excellent work of the Numero Group record label.
  • And be sure to read Charles P. Pierce's essayexternal link "Greetings from Idiot America" from the November Esquire, which angrily asks the question, "What the hell has gotten into the United States?"

    And shout-outs to Carter, John, Sarah and especially Scott, who offer valuable guidance and BS detectors.

    (Read Stephen King's picks of the yearexternal link.)

    Eye on Entertainment turns to the weekend at hand.

    Eye-opener

    Two movies that some commentators have characterized as being on different sides of the red state-blue state divide -- but are being marketed, rightly, to everybody -- open Friday.

    "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is the big-screen, big-budget adaptation of the first volume of C.S. Lewis' Narnia series. The books are a thinly veiled re-telling of the Jesus story, and churches have been arranging screenings for members. But "Narnia" is also first-rate fantasy with a large fan base, and early reviews of the movie indicate that it succeeds beautifully in capturing Lewis' tale.

    Tilda Swinton and Jim Broadbent are among the stars; Andrew Adamson ("Shrek") directs.

    "Brokeback Mountain" has come to be nicknamed "the gay cowboy movie," but that glib moniker suggests a shallowness the film avoids. Indeed, the film is said to offer a deeper analysis of a relationship than most films with heterosexual protagonists do.

    Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal star as a pair of ranch hands who find they have feelings for each other, and then hide and bury those feelings under years of marriage, jobs and children. Ang Lee directed a script by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, based on Annie Proulx's short story.

    Both movies open Friday.

    On screen

  • "Memoirs of a Geisha" is the film version of Arthur Golden's best-seller about a Japanese woman learning the ways of the esteemed class of social companions. The movie stars Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li and Ken Watanabe; Rob Marshall ("Chicago") directed.
  • It's not out until next Wednesday, but how could I not mention "King Kong," Peter Jackson's remake of the 1933 classic? Early reviews have been adoring. The film stars Adrien Brody, Naomi Watts and Jack Black, with Andy Serkis acting like a big ape.
  • On the tube

  • This is it: Saturday features the annual major network airing of the classic "It's a Wonderful Life." 8 p.m., NBC.
  • And this is also it: "Survivor: Guatemala" finishes off its cast and picks its winner. 8 p.m. Sunday, CBS.
  • Sound waves

  • If you've been waiting for Bo Bice's debut album, wait no longer: "The Real Thing" (RCA) is out Tuesday.
  • Paging readers

  • "The Worst Hard Time" (Houghton Mifflin), a history of the Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan, is out Tuesday.
  • Video center

  • Unrated versions of "Sin City" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" are out Tuesday.
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