Digitizing an archive of over 100 gigs of music (20,000+ songs) has afforded me the much-needed impetus to think long and hard about the music I have been collecting for the past 25 years. Much of it, I have found, fall into a few genres that I have distractedly entitled “indie-rock,” “folktronica,” “slowcore,” “orchestral pop,” “brit pop,” “electronica.” Being forced to categorize music that is either uncategorizable or more broadly and easily described as “rock,” is both an invigorating and frustrating intellectual exercise. But in the end it has helped bring some definition to my own tastes – whether or not I want to acknowledge what they have become, over time, softer, gentler, and more focused. 2004 was no exception to this trend, and also the beginning of an iPod age where the soundtrack of my life is now miraculously in the palm of my hand. I assume this at least subtly affects the way I consume music, but in the end it will just make it easier for readers of this list to gather these wonderful gems in a few clicks for yourself. Ughh, bring back the double album – full size poster included! 2004 was indeed another very good year, as evidenced by the 20 records included in my Top Ten list. Enjoy.
1. Arcade Fire – Funeral (Merge)
Every once in the bluest moon, a band appears out of nowhere, making music that resembles nothing else around and grabs the hearts and minds of critics and music junkies alike, and lives up to its own hype. This year it was Montreal’s Arcade Fire. A swirling collection of oddly poppy emotional explorations that alternate equally between melodic mediations of loss, and thumping emotive rock songs, “Funeral,” serves as that desert album classic that has found itself building like a fire that refuses to smolder.
2. Bonny Prince Billy – Greatest Palace Music (Drag City)
Will Oldham, the mastermind behind the Palace Brothers, Palace Music and Palace Songs bands as well as Bonny Prince Billy recorded under his own name, has been quietly churning the most soulful, heart-wrenching and original-seeming country music anywhere since 1992. On “Greatest Palace Music” he has assembled a full band to cover his own finest songs, with wonderful new arrangements and dramatically higher quality recordings. For those who have missed both the Americana folk-country catalog and the almost Dylanesque landscapes that he has put together over the years, this record will serve as a kind of wonderful beginning or the perfect format for the best anti-greatest hits record ever made.
3. Kings of Convenience – Riot on an Empty Street (Source/Astralwerks)
In 2001 two young Norwegian kids recorded a mind-blowingly good folk record cut lovingly from what seemed like a cloth left behind by Nick Drake. This time out the duo takes on Simon and Garfunkel. At times the songs sound like that stark, harmonious bridge over troubled water, at others they spin their melodious yarn into impossibly perfect gentle disco songs that would make Burt Bacharach smile. Unlike many sad sophomore efforts, the Kings don’t so much try to reinvent the wheel or merely pick up where they left off, they wisely just kind of change like the seasons – softly, happily glad for something new.
4. Iron and Wine – Our Endless Numbered Days (SubPop)
Yet another indie-folk record that is both spare and yet more than enough. Sam Beam, the reclusive Floridian with a voice like a hipster angel, has once again spun gold with a hushed masterpiece of personal songs that recall the quiet, sunny summer days that we all imagine having lived. Mostly accompanied only by a single gently plucked guitar, this album deserves concentration or at least a spacey quasi wakened state.
5. Dios Malos – Dios (Startime International)
When you grow up in the town that birthed the Beach Boys, it must be hard to escape the pull and power of those timeless melodies. The members of Dios Malos have managed to channel the love into the finest psychedelic rock of the year. The debut album combines the bright and breezy beach music of their idols with sweeping Flaming Lips meets Mercury Rev epics that rise and fall like acid soaked waves across your consciousness. Almost every song on this impeccable and sticky masterpiece will have you humming or unknowingly lifting your lighter into the night and cheering for more. I can’t wait.
6. Madvillain – Madvillainy (Matador)
Hip-hop, that far-reaching genre that tends to alienate most indie-rock loving purists, occasionally spits forth a band that manages to tickle the pickle of good old-fashioned rock fanatics. Madvillian is this year’s model. This is a sample-crazy, groove-obsessed, mishmash of comic book heroes and villains, mixed by Madlib and MF Doom, featuring 20+ short tracks that alternate between traditional rap-like tracks and weird snippets from unidentifiable sources. More an odd mood piece than a record with a distinct beginning, middle and end, this is a scrap book filled with addictive nuggets assembled by mad geniuses of a modern urban era.
7. The Dears – No Cities Left (spinART)
Most great rock bands inevitably leave a trail of second-rate impostors in their wake. But because The Smiths were largely created in the image of their saintly singer Morrissey, whose voice and presence were so painfully unique, Smiths zealots were never really left with much to remind them of that handful of romantic, often perfectly melodramatic masterpieces. That is, until The Dears came along. The second best album by a Montreal band in 2004, “No Cities Left” features a slate of smoky lounge-filled delicacies that allow singer Murray Lightburn to showcase vocals that exist somewhere between Smiths era Morrissey and the Tinderstick’s Stuart Staples. Accompanied by lyrics and music that create enough distance the albums lets us look beyond obvious comparison. This light will likely not go out for a few more years.
8. Interpol – Antics (Matador)
It would be easy to forget that in the wake of all this 80’s new wave grave robbing a handful of incredibly talented bands will likely be left standing when the dust settles. Proving that they are no one-trick-pony, Interpol’s second set “Antics” is a drum and bass driven whirlwind of the toe-tapping bliss. Angular and crisp, the band is at home bathing in the darkly punk glory of their mostly British forefathers (Joy Division, The Fall) but in a way that will attract Urban Outfitter shoppers and aging hipsters looking for a break from Baby Mozart videos and tax returns. “Antics” is an album that spills its guts onto the floor and then reassembles the pieces like computer generated robot with really good taste. Long live the Interpol.
9. Magnet – On Your Side (Artist Direct/BMG)
Cut from the same silky-pop cloth of fellow Norwegian countrymen Kings of Convenience and Sondre Lerche, “On Your Side” is part Thom Yorke (Radiohead) part Elliot Smith and part Mark Kozelek (Red House Painters). The music is both majestic and somber, at times cabaret-inspired at other times trippy weed soaked rainy day music. If nothing else Magnet is one of the most talented and honest writers in a long while. He manages to avoid clichés and yet still speaks about the most commonplace emotions in a new way accompanying himself with a creamy guitar and orchestral backdrop that allows you to merely drift away. This record is timeless, and near perfect.
But by all means please do not forget …
10. Nellie McKay – Get Away From Me (Columbia)
Without a doubt this is easily one of the most ambitious debut records ever recorded. A double album filled with everything from cabaret, to rap, to piano balladry, to disco to straightforward pop, this 19 year-old has the uncanny ability to express herself musically across genres that were dead before she was even born. To more specifically describe the range and diversity of songs on “Get Away From Me” would be to deprive you of the element of genuine surprise that a first listening will provide. Sometimes musical genius cannot be denied.
11. Scissor Sisters – Scissor Sisters (Universal)
I have to say it is tough to know what make of this album at first. Is it a cheesy make-over of 70’s era Elton John, the much feared follow up to that horrendous Frankie Goes To Hollywood album that bugged you as a teenager, or some genuinely interesting fusion of disco and new wave? I guess the answer is all of the above, but it would be hard to deny that there are more than a few absolute slices of pop genius on this debut from this much-hyped NYC band. “Scissor Sisters” is this year’s guilty pleasure for me.
12. Brian Wilson – Smile (Nonesuch)
What can one say about one of the greatest pop musicians that has ever lived that hasn’t already been said? Thirty-seven years after the mythic “Pet Sounds” follow-up never happened, Brian Wilson has finally reconstructed the entire sequel from scratch. Many of these songs have obviously been released in various forms over the years, but “Smile” is/was always a concept album meant to be devoured from beginning to blissful end, not as singles or “best of” inclusions. As much as the resulting orchestral masterpiece sounds as if it couldn’t possibly have been recorded over the last few years, what is even more amazing is that seen from either direction the album is a timeless masterpiece that would seem brilliant if released during any year. It will make you smile. Enough said.
13. Joanna Newsom – The Milk Eyed Mender (Drag City)
Joanna Newsom is probably the only harpist who will ever grab a spot on this esteemed list. But more than the signature harp that takes the place usually reserved for acoustic guitar in folk music, what is most distinctive about “The Milk Eyed Stranger” is the warbling, off-key vocals that can only be likened to the singing of Victoria Williams. The lucky 13 tracks on this glorious debut are both creepy and elegant in much the same way that albums by people like Smog and Cat Power are, and like them, they take a while to take hold. This album is more an acquired taste than it is a collection of toe tapping pop classics, but like so many things of the best things in life, hard work and patience pay off; Joanna Newsom is no exception to this rule.
14. Martina Topley-Bird– Anything (Palm Pictures)
Best known as the singer from the Tricky albums, the first solo effort from Martina Toply-Bird establishes her as the reigning queen priestess of trip-hop. “Anything” is a starkly beautiful, but overwhelmingly cool fusion of rock, folk, gospel and ambient trip-hop. Topley-Bird sounds at times like a 21st century Dusty Springfield mixed with the laid back cool of Beth Orton. “Anything” is a mood record to be savored both in front of a raging fire and while swaying on the dance floor deep into the wee hours of your favorite club. This is a 24 carat gem.
15. The Black Keys – Rubber Factory (Fatcat)
I love bands from Akron, OH, partly because I call Akron my childhood home, partly because I can only name two and I like them both (Devo, The Pretenders). This year’s Northern Ohio nomination is The Black Key’s deftly titled “Rubber factory.” The band is really Ohio’s answer to Detroit’s White Stripes: a two-piece blues-rock powerhouse, with a raw buzz saw guitar sound that could easily be mistaken for outtakes from an unrecorded Hendrix album. Although singer Dan Auerbach is just a young kid in his twenties his voice sounds more like one hastily recorded somewhere in the Mississippi Delta. Long live rock and roll!
16. Elliot Smith – From The Basement On The Hill (Anti-)
Enough has been said about the tragic and premature death of the finest modern folkie in years. Drugs, despair and success have taken yet another, but not before he had one last chance to put his sad pen to paper. The songs of “Basement” are often every bit as good as anything he has ever done: part rock anthem, part old-fashioned acoustic folk, part musical diary. What has always made Elliot Smith so good is his ability to make even the most morbid songs seem uplifting and even hummable. With a sound as distinctive as any in modern music, you can only wonder how long he would have been able to keep his songwriting, fresh probing such a damaged soul. Unfortunately we won’t have an answer, but at least we have this one last effort.
17. Tom Waits – Real Gone (Anti-)
Waits is a real life living legend who couldn’t make an easy record if his life depended on it. But as we all know nothing good, let alone great, is ever easy. On “Real Gone” Waits recent junkyard symphony is in full swing, a cacophony of sounds accompanied by his trademark raspy howl. Gone are the days of lounge-lizard pristine piano ballads, but in its place is another sprawling epic about life’s loose ends – the little pieces that are usually left unnoticed. “Real Gone” is another jagged piece in a perfect puzzle.
18. Zero 7 – When It Falls (Elektra)
There are a few bands who have managed to continue to make good old fashioned electronica for a mass audience (Air, Morcheeba – although less so recently, Chemical Brothers), but Zero 7’s second full length “When It Falls” is among the most surprisingly soulful and interesting in quite a while. The brainchild of two British recording engineers, Zero 7 create lush pastures of shimmering instrumentation while selecting vocalists to accompany the music. For the second time around the duo enlist Mozez, Sia Furler , and Sophie Barker to lay down the pitch perfect lyrics to the flutes, horns, guitar and beats that make up the sound.
19. American Music Club– Love Songs For Patriots (Merge)
Ten years in the making. ten long years, a handful of gorgeously dreary Mark Eitzel solo records, and a big void mostly filled by bands like Spain, and Red House Painters when it comes to those desert island break-up records that just help you get through it. Eitzel and company are back though, and with “Love Songs” it is almost as if they hadn’t ever left. This is a rock record through and through, guitars, drums and sweeping vocals that lift the music up from the lyrics which, if read by themselves, would make you weep. If this is your first whack at AMC you have a wonderful world to explore!
20. Rilo Kiley – More Adventurous (Brute/Beaute Records)
Genuinely straightforward indie pop classics have become fewer and further between over the past decade. Bands tend to rise and fall on the backs of trendy genres that come and go with the seasonal fashions at the gap (grunge, retro-80’s new wave) rarely creating anything new, but just timely hits that will likely be forgotten when the fad has passed quickly by. But LA’s Rilo Kiley, led by the sweet and sometimes countrified vocals of Jenny Lewis and the bands quirky pop sensibility, picks up where band’s like Tsunami left off a few years back. “More Adventurous” is the year’s best guilty pleasure, with songs like “It’s A Hit” and “Does He Love You” ranking among the most unshakably catchy of year. Warning: starting or ending a day with one of these tunes might result in unshakable whistles.
Very Honorable Mention (in no particular order): The Delgados – Universal Audio (chemikal underground), The Delays – Faded Seaside Glamour (Rough Trade), The Brian Jonestown Massacre – A Retrospective: Tepid Peppermint Wonderland (Tee Pee Records), Adem – Homesongs (Domino).