My Favorite Records of 2004 Okay, time for my yearly disclaimer. I am not a critic. I do not pay as much attention to all genres of music as I would like to (some I have little patience for). I also have not heard the new U2, and the word on the street is that it's one of their best (I'll believe it when I hear it). Anyone who claims to know the ten or twenty best records released in any year is lying and certainly doesn't realize how many CD's are released in a given year. So. These are the twenty records which I have heard this year that I feel stand above the rest. These are the twenty that I feel I will be coming back to in 2005. And those in the top five or so are probably records that I will come back to listen to somewhat regularly for as long as I live. Another disclaimer: Anyone who claims to think that you can actually rank one album over another after you get to, say, number ten or so, is lying. At that point it all becomes kind of guesswork. In fact, the titles that I posted below in the Honorable Mentions section could very easily had ended up in the top 20 on any other day. Lists are both riduculous and entirely necessary. This list is probably only necessary to myself, as I do like to reflect upon the music that helped get me through each year, and just what made them important to me. If this list gets any of you interested in any of these records that you may not have heard, then that's great, too.
1. Brian Wilson SMiLE (Nonesuch) It seems strange ranking this the best record of the year. Not that it isn't the most compelling, most fully realized album released in 2004, but whereas most bands have a year or so to compose and record a record, this one began, as we all know, over 37 years ago. "SMiLE" is without a doubt one of the greatest achievements in American composition. How strange that it finally sees a proper release nearly a generation after it began to influence thousands of bands and composers who have come and gone since it was first conceived.
2. Wilco - A Ghost Is Born (Nonesuch) The best album of the year that was not conceived 37 years ago, "A Ghost Is Born" confirms the fact that Wilco is one of the most important bands of the last twenty years. A more difficult and more subdued record than "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot", "Ghost" is a melancholic meditation on what it means to exist, and how we go about defining ourselves, all the while struggling to fit into marital, familial, and societal roles and the expectations that accompany them.
3. Loretta Lynn - Van Lear Rose (Interscope) Jack White, of all people, became Loretta Lynn's T. Bone Burnett, her Daniel Lanois, in this effort to reintroduce the legendary singer/songwriter to the world (or to introduce her to kids that had never even heard of her). It could have been a recipe for disaster, a condescending vanity project for White, and a bad leap of faith for a woman who has taken many a bad leap. However, "Van Lear Rose" surprises us with its earnestness from both parties. Both seem willing to go places that they have yet to explore. The songs are some of Lynn's best of her career, and Jack White's touches show that he truly adores Lynn. Both of them will be hard pressed to top the work laid down on "Van Lear Rose".
4. M83 Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts (Mute) French duo M83 have created the year's most stunning electronic album of the year, a record that is strangely more emotional, and more human, than most releases of any genre in 2004. "Dead Cities" is a hugely moving musical landscape. Its strengths lie in the duo's ability to build layers upon layers of melodies, sounds, and textures into crescendos of incredible beauty. The record, although at times cold, bleak, and sorrowful, ultimately leaves behind a feeling of hope and light.
5. Kanye West - College Dropout (Rocafella) One of the few commercially successful beacons of hope in an increasingly disappointing genre, "College Dropout" is everything a great hip hop record should be: smart, infectious, thought-provoking, witty, musically and lyrically adventurous, honest, and fun all the while never losing its moral and social undercurrent. "College Dropout" is an instant hip hop classic, deserving of being lumped in with the best recordings of De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Boogie Down Productions, A Tribe Called Quest, and Public Enemy.
6. Bjork Medulla (Elektra) You can say a lot of things about Bjork, but you can never accuse her of making the same record twice. Recorded almost entirely with sounds of the human voice, "Medulla", upon first listen, may seem like an elaborate whim of an experiment. It is indeed a challenging piece of work that is not entirely ear candy, and although not every piece succeeds as beautifully as "Oceana" or "Who Is It?" Bjork must be given credit for following through on her creative impulses, as zany as they may be. This is mindblowing stuff. She's truly one of the more original musical visionaries we have.
7. The Polyphonic Spree Together We're Heavy (Hollywood) I sort of thought that The Polyphonic Spree's second record might prove them to be a one-trick pony. Any band that wears choir robes and features a full vocal choir is practically inviting skepticism. And damn if they don't veer really close into over-the-top, silly, pseudo-Godspell phoniness. But they deliver with an elaborate song-cycle full of feel-good melodies, near-perfect instrumentation, intricate arrangements, and an unabashed enthusiasm for music's ability to surprise, uplift, and just plain entertain us.
8. The Futureheads The Futureheads (679) Of all the bands that fall into that whole garage rock revival' movement (The Hives, The Strokes, etc.), these guys are one of the few to actually seem to be more about moving forward as they are looking backwards. Sure, there are the obvious nods to Gang of Four and numerous Mod bands. But The Futureheads seem to be on to something else entirely. These guys are layering super-catchy melodies, harmonies galore, and even secondary vocal lines (rounds, even!) all on top of the already frenetic rhythms and angular guitars. These guys are the real deal. Good time rock and roll with a lot of style and wit.
9. American Music Club Music For Patriots (Merge) It sounds as if AMC didn't miss a beat since they disbanded ten years ago. But it's not as if this record sounds dated. AMC always kind of sounded like a pop band from the future, anyway. And "Patriots" actually couldn't be timelier. Mark Eitzel has a lot to say about the state of the nation, and his band backs up his rants with their exhuberant brand of jazz-infused pop. At some of its best moments, "Patriots" finds AMC veering almost in free jazz territory, setting the table for Eitzel's politically-charged narratives involving strip clubs and a fantasy presidential speech. It also shines in its softer compositions, which, in true AMC fashion, are heart wrenching and beautiful.
10. Sufjan Stevens - Seven Swans (Sounds Familyre) I'm a little puzzled as to why Sufjan's follow up to the "Michigan" record (the first in his alleged project of 50 album tributes to the US states) wasn't about a state. I figure he may wrap the project up when he's 80 at this point. Regardless, "Seven Swans" is pure beauty no surprise to anyone who spent any time with "Michigan." There's nothing here that wouldn't surprise an already converted fan, but that in itself is enough for considerable praise. If he continues to compose great albums this consistently, I'll be in line for "Hawaii" when I'm an octogenarian.
11. Joanna Newsom Milk Eyed Mender (Drag City) Probably one of the more original voices to emerge this year, Joanna Newsom almost comes across as the love child of Bjork and a medieval forest elf. A harpist with an amazing gift for intricate folk narratives, Newsom is an acquired taste, if not because of her odd but intriguing vocal qualities, then for her infusion of classical sensibilities into the folk tradition. Her command and confidence is arresting, and her emergence is one of the more welcome of the year.
12. Delgados Universal Audio (Chemikal Underground) Perhaps not as grand or as political as last year's "Hate", "Universal Audio" seems to be The Delgados exercise in minimalism. Initially, I missed the vast expanses and swelling orchestrations of their previous albums, but it is clear that their craft is intact, and the songs may just be more immediate as a result. With "Universal Audio" you can almost imagine The Delgados on Top 40 radio, which may be the reasoning (duh) behind the album's title.
13. Elbow A Cast of Thousands (V2) Elbow may the closest thing to a Pink Floyd that we have in the year 2004. To some that may not be a good thing, but I mean that as a compliment. A dark, progressive pop band that infuses their compositions with strings, gospel choruses, pianos, and mindblowing studio trickery, Elbow belongs alongside Mercury Rev, Radiohead, and The Flaming Lips, as one of the more intelligent experimental pop/rock bands going.
14. Patty Griffin Impossible Dream (Ato) Surely not her most accessible record to date, but undoubtedly her most personal, her most emotional, and likely her best. Steeped in loneliness and loss, "Impossible Dream" is both musically and lyrically arresting and firmly plants her as a contemporary of, rather than a student of, singer/songwriters such as Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch.
15. Stereolab - Margerine Eclipse (Elektra) Every Stereolab release is a cause for celebration. Granted, none of their releases really takes you much further, musically, than their last, but for whatever reason, it's always enough. And for a band with such longevity that is this consistent, that's all we can really ask for. Another solid release in a series of solid releases.
16. Call and Response Winds Take No Shape (Badman) What a strange little record. Call and Response immediately brings to mind many other fine indie rock acts of the past 20 years from The Sea & Cake and Stereolab to Tsunami and Velocity Girl. The record is not one to hit you over the head, upon first listen, as anything truly special. But their melodies, textures, and the compositions contain so many subtle delights that you find yourself being drawn back to them.
17. The Arcade Fire Funeral (Merge) Yeah, yeah, The Arcade Fire, the "It" band. They may not be worthy of the immense hype, but the record is very, very good. I like that this record sounded nothing like I imagined it would. Based on the early praise, I almost expected them to sound like a carbon copy of other critics' darlings this year. However, I couldn't really compare them to any other band that I'd heard this year (although I can think of several from the past twenty). What excites me about The Arcade Fire more than anything, though, is the confidence that comes through in the record. This is a band that seems to have a vision, and they seem to know exactly how to execute it. We should expect big things from these guys. Anything less, at this point, would be a disappointment.
18. The Earlies These Were The Earlies (WEA) -- Just what we need, huh? Another Brian Wilson-influenced band that fuses non-traditional pop instrumentation with electronic elements. Well, if it's this well executed, and this enjoyable, I'll take it.
19. Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter Oh, My Girl (Barsuk) Next to Neko Case, there isn't another singer/songwriter out there that evokes lonely, smoky barrooms full of red velvet and ash as much as Jesse Sykes. I'm reluctant to refer to her outfit as a singer/songwriter vehicle, however, due to the impressive work laid down by her bandmates, namely, guitarist Phil Wandscher. His reverb drenched, tremolo-drunk guitar work is the perfect tableau for Sykes' sad, smoky voice.
20. Elvis Costello & The Impostors The Delivery Man (Lost Highway) This is Elvis's venture into American roots music. It might seem as odd as Paul Simon taking on World Music, but here Costello seems to feel quite at home, with the help of Emmylou Harris and a smoking duet with Lucinda Williams, among other guest spots. Certainly not among Costello's best, but a solid piece of work, with some great performances, and further proof of Elvis's vitality and reluctance to rest on his laurels.
Honorable Mentions: Hem - Eveningland (Rounder) Sonic Youth - Sonic Nurse (Geffen) Honeydogs - 10,000 Years (United Musicians) Tom Waits - Real Gone (Anti) The Sadies - Favorite Colours (Yep Roc) Mindy Smith - One More Moment (Vanguard) Secret Machines - Now Here Is Nowhere (Warner Bros.) Sondre Lerche - Two Way Monologue (Astralwerks) AC Newman The Slow Wonder (Matador) Steve Earle - The Revolution Starts...Now (Artemis) David Kilgour Frozen Orange (Merge) The Go! Team Thunder Lightning Strike (Memphis Industries) Green Day American Idiot (Warner Bros.) Guided By Voices Half Smiles of the Decomposed (Matador) Keren Ann Not Going Anywhere (Blue Note) Manamid - Standard Candles (Ultravision/Multiplex) Rogue Wave Out of the Shadow (Sub Pop) Ted Leo & The Pharmacists Shake The Sheets (Lookout) The Walkmen Bows & Arrows (Record Collection) Elliott Smith -- From a Basement On A Hill (Anti) De La Soul - The Grind Date (Sanctuary/AOI)