Saturday, January 22, 2005

Top of the Pops

Here at long last are the top 30 albums of 2004 as picked by your gracious host. I must note that the two albums that my label worked with this year (Joe Zelek's Thousand Ways and the self-titled Burn the Worm) are not in contention, as that would be playing favorites. I also did not get a chance to hear all the albums i wanted to this year, so releases by such favorites as Jonathan Richman, Neko Case, Tom Waits and Jonny Polonsky were not able to be factored in to the running.

30. The Arcade Fire – Funeral

Truly uncategorizable and truly hard to grasp even after 10+ listens, Funeral is one of those records that just has a certain SOMETHING about it; but no matter how hard we try, we cannot name what it is. It is unmistakably well crafted and overflows with ideas. Overkill? Perhaps. Unique? Certainly.

29. The Black Keys – Rubber Factory

It has been said that the White Stripes are the modern equivalent to an old blues band. That my friends is a crock of shit. The JSBX (Jon Spencer Blues Explosion to the uninformed) and the Black Keys are the REAL source for modern day blues, and Rubber Factory might be the best blues record of since Hendrix died and Clapton sold out. Oh, and the drumming makes Meg White look more like a child than her face does.

28. A.C. Newman – The Slow Wonder

Not exactly a substitute for a New Pornographers record, NP frontman Carl (A.C.) Newman brings his second record in 2 years that wins the best hands down “pop” record of the year. Catchy melodies, lots of enthusiasm and a picture of a tiger on the cover – what more could you want in a solo record? Oh, and because he is a Canadian singer, the Canuck government dolled out money as part of their arts program which funded the entire recording of this album. Why haven’t I moved yet?

27. Various Artists – The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Australian documentary scores, classic rock cuts, Portuguese-language Bowie covers and a selection of tunes written by former Devo-man Mark Mothersbaugh, this soundtrack looks like it should be overkill, but it is anything but. Actor/singer Seu Jorge makes the 5 Bowie tunes come alive (although I did enjoy his “Ziggy Stardust” that was used in the movie but isn’t on the soundtrack) in a whole new way. And as usual, Wes Anderson and co. have the perfect catalogue choices that give the songs entirely new meaning.

26. Royal City – Little Heart’s Ease

One of the many great releases from Jim Guthree’s Three Gut Records (get it? Gut-three? Three-gut?), Little Heart’s Ease is a bit more of a straightforward record than its predecessor (Alone at the Microphone), but still has the complicated themes of faith, death, and sex wrapped up in some sad sounding acoustic guitars and some nice vocals. This record doesn’t sound all that different than any other record in the alt-country genre, except in the quality of its songs.

25. Iron and Wine – Our Endless Numbered Days

Anyone who has heard the first Iron and Wine album (The Creek Drank the Cradle) will think this album sounds as polished as a Kiss record. Despite the sonic clean up, the songs remain the same – southern gothic tales hushed over fingerpicked guitars. Aural Flannery O’Connor.

24. PJ Harvey – Uh Huh Her

This record makes you feel dirty. It sounds like a dank, humid hotel room in a seedy section of Los Angeles. And that is a good thing. Raw and guttural, Uh Huh Her is a return to form for Polly Jean Harvey which sees her playing all the instruments but the drums and returning to her sleazy roots while still sounding downright sexy. Plus, anyone who can thank Mr. and Mrs. Captain Beefheart in the credits is good enough for me.

23. Ben Kweller – On My Way

Ben Kweller is the musician I know who is most in need of a lyricist. His tunes are catchy, memorable and enjoyable, but his lyrics are usually pretty damn goofy. “I want to kill this man but he turned around and ran/I’ll kill him with karate that I learned in Japan.” Even though his lyrics are sometimes laughable, Kweller is still a musician to be taken seriously. Not only does he have great taste in other music (I’ve seen him at Unicorns, Pixies and one of Felipe’s folk-band shows), but he has an infectious voice and style that makes his music leap off the speakers and into your head. On My Way is no where near as fun or great as Sha Sha, but the added meat from the live-style recording and Ethan Johns’ production makes it worth a spot in your collection.

22. Devendra Banhart – Rejoicing in the Hands

The leader of the current “freak folk” movement, Banhart writes simple, haunting songs that echo a sadness, complexity and a maturity that sets them far above the rest. And this was only one of his two solo albums and one compilation that he released this year. Plus, the guy is friends with R. Kelly. Seriously. Certainly someone to watch out for in the future.

21. Mosquitos – Sunshine Barato

One of the greatest musical accidents of my life was walking into Tonic in NYC and seeing Mosquitos perform (holla back Ed Kelly). It led to me discovering all sorts of Brazilian music, including Os Mutantes, now one of my favorite bands. Their second album is much stronger than their self-titled debut from last year, and their sound growing both more American rock and roll and more Brazilian bossanova. And JuJu their singer is so cute it hurts.

20. Beastie Boys – To The 5 Boroughs

A little less than three years since 9/11/01, the Beastie Boys, New York’s ubiquitous white boy rappers, finally emerged with their reaction to the terrorist attacks. To The 5 Boroughs is the most straight ahead hip hop album they have done since License to Ill, and for that reason it is also probably my least favorite Beasties album. The way they could mix funk, rock, jazz and rap was what initially drew me into their music, and this time around it is distilled to its purest hip-hop incarnation. All that being said, it is still a great record – even if at times it is a bit too high on the 9/11 subject matter.

19. The Beta Band – Heroes to Zeros

The unexpected swan song to an interesting career, Heroes to Zeros features some of the most straight ahead “rock” songs the band ever recorded, as well as throwbacks to their earlier records and a real funky Stevie Wonder circa Innervisions era track.

18. Sonic Youth – Sonic Nurse

How much longer can a band call themselves Sonic Youth when no one in the band is under 40? Name aside, Shelley-Moore-Gordon-O’Rourke-Ranaldo are still in prime shape, and Sonic Nurse continues with the incorporation of classic rock sounds introduced on Murray Street. Even though there are parents in the band, Sonic Youth is still music that is on the edge and is pushing the boundaries without being weird for weird’s sake.

17. TV on the Radio – Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes

Doo-wop + post-rock + prog + noise + bass = TV on the Radio. Catchy at times, dissonant at others, TVOTR have the unique distinction of having almost no sonic reference points. Only seven or eight word descriptions seem to do them justice, and even those leave something lacking. The best way I can describe their full length debut is “varied and not for the lazy listener.” In other words, let it sink it and don’t expect to hear the same sound twice.

16. Various Artists - Team America World Police: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

You know a musical parody works when you can’t get it out of your skull. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have done it again and produced the most memorable musical film of the year (take THAT De-Lovely!). This album’s non-scored instrumental pieces are all winners, and will all make you piss yourself laughing. Nothing makes me laugh harder than Trey Parker’s determined, aging rocker voice that he uses on “America: Fuck Yeah!” If you think this is too high on my list for the soundtrack to a puppet movie, then you have not hear it.

15. Mike Watt and the Secondmen – The Secondman’s Middle Stand

Mike Watt has been in some of the greatest trios in the punk/college/alternative rock era: The Minutemen and fIREHOSE. Add the Secondmen to that list. The Secondman’s Middle Stand is a rock opera (Watt’s second) loosely based on both Dante’s The Inferno and the illness that nearly killed Watt a few years ago. This album is totally unique: organ/bass/drums playing rock music with heavy influence from both The Stooges and John Coltrane.

14. DJ Danger Mouse – The Grey Album

Without this record, To The 5 Boroughs would be the best hip hop album released in ’04. But The Grey Album just blows it away. I did not, and do not, own Jay-Z’s The Black Album before hearing this mash up, but I was quite familiar with The Beatles, or “The White Album” as its commonly known. Jay-Z’s words and the Beatles’ music should NOT match up this well; “Long Long Long” as a hip hop sample seems ludicrous; “Helter Skelter” + “99 Problems” seems like it would drain the best parts of both songs. However, the combination is nothing short of breathtaking. And it is even better the 100th time than it is the first.

13. They Might Be Giants – The Spine

Consistency is one thing given no credit in music today. Sure, the Ramones made the same album 15 times – but you could set your watch to them. Similarly, They Might Be Giants have been making great albums since the mid-80s, but have nary respect to show for it. Ignorantly dismissed as a novelty band, TMBG uses humor and melody to get across their sometimes downright depressing lyrics. The Spine is a fine addition to their catalogue, treading the same ground as their “comeback” album Mink Car and featuring songs about all the usual TMBG material: plants, misdirected hostility, film, depression and clothing.

12. 50 Foot Wave – 50 Foot Wave

A new trio from Throwing Muses front-woman Kristen Hersh, 50 Foot Wave is a bit heavier and faster than her work with the Muses, but it still retains their tuneful nature. This “mini-album” is a teaser because of its brevity, but its 6 tracks are all killer. Unfortunately, the recent tsunami in south-east Asia may force them to change their name, which is doubly unfortunate because it is actually a reference to the lowest pitch a human can hear (a low F creates a 50 foot sound wave). Watch for their full length debut in March.

11. Camper Van Beethoven – New Roman Times

Ah, the reunion record: the scorn of music lovers everywhere. Usually, when a band gets back together after “breaking up,” the record is less than what you would have hoped for. This was especially true pre-late 90s/early 00’s when bands like Sunny Day Real Estate, Mission of Burma, and Wire all came back as strong as ever (although it was true for the horrific reunion album by Jane’s Addiction). Thankfully, Camper Van Beethoven, after a few tours together, have recorded an album that fits right in with the rest of their catalog, albeit with a strong concept of a backdoor draft, pointless war, and the atrocities of the military thrown in for good measure.

10. Animal Collective – Sung Tongs

No weirder album was released in ’04 than Sung Tongs. Noise, found sound, bizarre harmonies, songs about cats and some really great songs are all part of the Animal Collective. Oh, and one of their two members is named Panda Bear. Almost too bizarre to be taken seriously, but not funny, this record is the perfect soundtrack to doing almost anything – in a surrealistic dream. Not for the unadventurous.

9. Knife and Fork – Miserycord

Truly nice guys and musical geniuses usually don’t coexist within one human being, but Eric Drew Feldman is both. A longtime sideman for the likes of Captain Beefheart, Snakefinger (ex-The Residents), the Pixies, PJ Harvey, Frank Black and producer for the Polyphonic Spree, Reid Paley and a dozen others, this is the first time that Feldman has been the main “task master” as he puts it. And boy does it impress. Dense, full soundscapes with haunting female vocals courtesy ex-Ovarian Trolley singer Laurie Hall fill this album with more than the typical sounds. And I’d expect nothing less from EDF.

8. Frank Black and Two Pale Boys – Frank Black Francis (Disc 2)

The Frank Black Francis album was simultaneously a look backwards at the beginnings of the Pixies (the first disc was a set of demos for the songs that eventually became the first Pixies release, The Purple Tape) and a look into an alternate future (the second disc was a collection of sonic reworkings of Pixies songs sung by Frank Black {with a little bit of acoustic guitar} and heavily mutated by British duo {and frequent Pere-Ubu front man David Thomas collaborators} The Two Pale Boys). The result of disc 2 was called blasphemy by many Pixies fans, but has a real charm as the space-age reworkings reveal that the tracks in their original incarnation are just as unique and innovative as they are in these alternate spaced out and twisted versions.

7. Joanna Newsom – The Milk Eyed Mender

Quickly name three things that would not make for good music: harp, songs about fairy tales, and a shrill female voice that is indistinguishable in terms of age. Somehow these three things combine for one of the most bizarre and beautiful albums of the year. Newsom’s songs are simple and heart-felt. If I did not know what she looked like I could not tell you if she was 7 or 70 by the sound of her voice. At first it sounds like the worst thing you’ve ever heard, but as you listen it grows on you and it becomes possible that hers is the most beautiful voice in modern memory. Give it a chance or seven and you will not be disappointed.

6. The Bad Plus – Give

Jazz music is a love I share with my father, and not many other people that I regularly converse with. However, the Bad Plus get much more of a reaction when I mention them in conversation because people know their covers of “pop” songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Heart of Glass” and “Velouria.” Those people who dig the covers and not much else are seriously missing out on some of the best music being created period, regardless of genre. Their second widely available album, Give, is not quite as strong as their debut album These are the Vistas, but still shines more than almost any other album released this year.

5. Wilco – A Ghost is Born

For a ghost to be born, something must die. For this Ghost to be born, Wilco had to continue to shed its skin and become something almost unrecognizable. Having dropped a band member either during or directly after their last 3 albums, Wilco would appear to be transforming into more of Jeff Tweedy’s backing band than anything else; this illusion is incorrect. On A Ghost Is Born, Wilco sounds more like a band than they have since Being There, and though their songwriting is more direct and focused than on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it still feels exciting, new and unpredictable. It will not sell as many copies, or be as universally praised as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but I think time will reveal that this is the better record. The closest thing America has to the Beatles right now in terms of consistently great and changing albums.

4. David Byrne – Grown Backwards

Former Talking Heads architect David Byrne is back with one of his many solo albums, but this one is quite different than previous releases. Byrne’s solo work, like much of the Heads’ later-era work, has always been very groove and beat oriented, but this album takes a sharp turn away. Grown Backwards features The Tosca Strings, a classical ensemble on many of the tracks, as well as a guest spot from They Might Be Giants principle John Linnell on accordion. And the choice of covers is great: genre-less Nashville ensemble Lambchop’s “The Man Who Loved Beer” and two arias by Verdi and Bizet (the later featuring a duet with Rufus Wainwright).

3. The Magnetic Fields – i

A collection of songs whose titles all begin with the same letter, i does not sound as forced or contrived as you would expect an album written in such a structured way to sound. Stephin Merritt’s outstanding songwriting is the key reason for its natural sound. Merritt’s deep baritone is what carries this record, unlike the lush 69 Love Songs, which had 4 singers taking turns on the tunes. i is much more focused than any of the other MFs releases so far, and that is a very good thing. Plus, who doesn’t love the return of the ukelele into the pop music spectrum?

2. Brian Wilson – SMiLE

This album could have been the biggest letdown of ’04. Brian Wilson has gone through a lot both mentally and physically since writing this record with Van Dyke Parks in 1967. His voice is weaker, he is on more medication than any normal man his age should be, he has been in and out of major psychotherapy (at one time having infamous quack Dr. Eugene Landy accompany him in public at all times) for the last 25 years, and has taken more acid than humanly conceivable. However, nearly 40 years later, Wilson and Parks have reunited and produced a record that nearly blows everything else released this year away. Sonically, structurally and melodically intricate, yet simple and beautiful. Wilson’s “teenage symphony to God” is finally out there for public consumption. Hallelujah.

1. Sufjan Stevens – Seven Swans

An album that is so consistent it feels almost blasphemous to listen to it out of sequence, Seven Swans is the album I probably listened to most in 2004. Stevens’ music is a mix of banjo, faith, almost whispered vocals and some of the best songwriting ever to come out of Michigan (next to Iggy Pop). So delicate are these songs that it almost sounds like you are eavesdropping on someone playing music for themselves in a room. Smaller in scope than his previous release (Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State, which is the first in a proposed series of 50 records, one for each state), Seven Swans sounds like a few people singing songs around a campfire. And I can’t imagine a better sound this year.


At 5:03 AM, Blogger k said...

I enjoyed the list, Brian. It's nice to see someone give Sufjan the credit he deserves for Seven Swans. Yeah, the reviews were good, but I can't recall seeing him crack any critics' top 10 lists. Anyway, the album is unbelievably good, as is Brian Wilson's SMiLE. I was able to see both of them on tour for these albums within a month's time, and they didn't dissapoint.


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