Hope That Things Are Getting Better
The Top 19 of 2004
Trying to compile a ‘year-end best of list’ is like writing your first novel or cramming for finals. There are revisions, additions, subtractions to contend with, as well as loads of emotional attachments to sort out. In the end, your mind is jello, your nerves are shot and you just throw your arms in exasperation and turn in the last thing you made. Why is this?
It could be because we connoisseurs of music are a finicky lot. We like so much and weed through so much mediocrity during the course of a year that whittling it down to a mere 19 is almost Herculean.
But, we persevere, pick up our gauntlet and run into the fray bravely. In a sense we become doughboys of sound, jumping fearlessly over the top and venturing off into the No Man’s Land of crap music fed to us by The Man.
With that in mind, here is my list. Before you crucify, nitpick, scold or berate me, bear in mind that the sheer amount of music I had to absorb, sort, and filter in during 2004 was astonishingly vast. Technology has made more music accessible and with that comes even more stuff to sort out. Yikes!
In general, 2004 was a good year, except for the war, famine and pestilence bits. But I digress, for me it was a huge, busy, year. I sorted through the chaos of my first Comic-Con in San Diego, saw an insane amount of great movies (and an equal number of crap ones as well), saw an infinite number of great shows and read a lot more books than I expected. Despite all of this, the best bits of the year were musical.
During 2004 I discovered the volatile brilliance of The Arcade Fire, furthered my addiction to Franz Ferdinand and most of all rekindled that burning first love, the Pixies. You could argue that the Pixies had the best year in music imaginable of a band with no label deal or new album. I approached their ‘reunion’ tour with a sense of impending duplicity and caution. However I was blown away by their amazing presence and renewed vigor.
As for The Arcade Fire, Montreal will be the new ‘it’ spot for awhile now and this is the band that will lead the charge. Their debut “Funeral” is nothing short of a masterpiece. It is full of emotions, pain, happiness, angst, eagerness and — oddly — warmth. It rocks.
Then there is Franz Ferdinand. I discovered them at the end of 2003 and knew they were going be great. Their eponymous debut didn’t let me down and their live shows were just what I needed. But I had no idea the world would love them so.
Federico Aubele came out of nowhere. I heard about his debut CD in an airport when two people next to me were talking about it. Then I got to Atlanta and read three reviews of it in different music rags. I gambled and was very glad I did. Aubele is an Argentianian musician who mixes folky guitars with downtempo beats. “Gran Hotel Buenos Aires” is more than cocktail music for people who hate cocktail music, it’s a debut of astonishing breadth, clarity and charm that wins you over right off the bat.
Two of the bands I discovered last year, Electrelane and Camera Obscura, made astoundingly solid records in completely different ways. The former makes music that is textured, loud and raw, the latter make lush garden pop that settles you down and takes you to a better place. If there was just one song that instantly grabbed me in 2004, it was Camera Obscura’s perky “Suspended from Class.” It was the most hummed song in my noggin’ of the year.
So here it is, my list for 2004. It’s there for everyone to see, like the voting record of a senator or the police record of a criminal. Before you crush me, know that it was arrived at with great stress, tumult and anxiety. To make things worse there was no High Fidelity-esque payoff moment anywhere in sight. There is no Natasha Gregson-Wagner patiently waiting on the phone for my favorite records. There is only me and the sounds in my head to get me through the year.
1. Franz Ferdinand – Franz Ferdinand (Domino) • Sometimes the best music is the simplest. Franz Ferdinand are pretty basic, power chords and snappy percussion mixed with fast vocals and lots of Buzzcockian ethos thrown in for goods measure.
2. Arcade Fire – Funeral (Merge) • Montreal is the new Seattle. This record simply kicks ass in so many ways!
3. Electrelane – The Power Out (Too Pure/Beggars) • St. Etienne said it best on “Finisterre,” “I believe in Electrelane.” Crazy organs fused with powerful guitar chords. It’s like Sonic Youth brawling with Stereolab after French class. This album is so dense!
4. Camera Obscura – Underachievers Please Try Harder • Scotland was on the map in 2004. It’s too bad this wasn’t on a lot of people’s radars. “Suspended From Class” is brilliant. CO really know how to make the lushness work in their favor. Yes, they sound like Belle & Sebastian, but they have an air of more heart and up-front honesty to their music.
5. Asobi Seksu – Asobi Seksu (Friendly Fire) • It’s like My Bloody Valetine never went away. Call it shoegazer music or feedback rock or whatever, this is wonderful fuzzpop filled with emotional lyrics and dense walls of sound, buoyed by percussion and just-right keyboards. Asobi Seksu take the familiar sound of their influences (MBV, Mazzy Star, Lush) and give it new life.
6. Federico Aubele – Gran Hotel Buenos Aires (Eighteenth Street Lounge) • Argentina’s Federico Aubele has crafted an album that combines down tempo electronica with Argentinian folk guitar sounds to make something that at first seems like an unwieldy melange of styles. Upon closer inspection this is a seamless record with heart and warmth.
7. Loretta Lynn – Van Lear Rose (Interscope) • That annoying Jack White is everywhere. Fortunately he did just enough to make Loretta Lynn’s ‘comeback’ record interesting without being heavy-handed. Loretta has never had such grace. Here she hits a contemporary nerve with “Have Mercy” (which rocks), and the fine duet “Portland Oregon.” The country-artist-reinvented idea is getting kind of old and kind of lame now, but Lynn did it and did it without losing her identity. She didn’t change who she was. Van Lear Rose is emotive without being trite. Succinctly, it’s a great album of songs from one of America’s most important singers.
8. Scissor Sisters – Scissor Sisters (Universal) • Who would have thought that ’70s glam rock, Queen and raucous disco could be put in such a stew. Most everything about this band is wrong on the surface but they have such catchiness and write such good hooks that you don’t seem to mind. On spec, their Pink Floyd cover of “Comfortably Numb” shouldn’t have been so damn good, but it was. The Scissor Sisters are a cheeky, fun and mischievous lot who know how to groove, rock and party.
9. Futureheads – Futureheads (679) • Franz Ferdinand lite in many ways. Still, the Futureheads write terrific pop songs. Part XTC, part Jam, part Undertones gone bad, the Futureheads came out of nowhere to deliver one of the most complete albums of the year.
10. Les Savvy Sav – Inches (French Kiss) • A nice collection by one of the funnest bands around. I was so happy to see this come out because it saved me a lot of tracking down. LSS make great records that never tire or leave you unfulfilled.
11. The Dresden Dolls – The Dresden Dolls (8 Ft Records) • Amanda Palmer is the new goddess of rock. Her lyrics are intelligent, emotional and sly. She can turn a phrase and strike a nerve at the blink of an eye. The Dresden dolls sound like Siouxsie Sioux singing Weimar cabaret pop. This duo takes sparsely-constructed melodies and crafts it into something refreshing. The Dolls have become somewhat of a phenomenon now, with groupies dressed like mannequins and such turning up at their show. The word of mouth is growing and they are deservedly only going to get bigger as time goes on.
12. Say Hi To Your Mom – Numbers & Mumbles (Euphobia) • This is a sleeper. It sound like the best Postal Service album you never heard. Made entirely in a Brooklyn bedroom, SHTYM meld all that is enticingly weird about the Flaming Lips with matter-of-fact arrangements. Songs like “Super” make the irony just plain sinful.
13. PJ Harvey – Uh Huh Her (Island) • This record gets better with time. PJ opened up somewhat and revealed herself as an artist who is growing as a songwriter and musician. She has managed to expand herself without compromising the edge, roughness and tenacity that made us like her in the first place.
14. Magnetic Fields – I (Nonesuch) • Stephin Merritt is not the humblest guy in the world, but he makes catchy-as-hell records that never fail to deliver. Calling him the next Cole Porter is a bit premature, but he is one of the few writer/composers in American music today who can do what the hell he wants without any interruption. I is a pretentious feast of emotions and moods that appeals to the selfish bastard inside of all of us.
16. Interpol – Antics (Matador) • They have sidestepped the sophomore slump by sticking to their guns and doing the exact same thing they did the first time around. “Slow Hands” and “Not Even Jail” displayed the band’s rockier side while “Public Pervert” and “Evil” showed that they could add provocative lyrics to their patented guitar hooks.
17. Sonic Youth – Sonic Nurse (Geffen) • You can’t really go wrong with Sonic Youth. They sound like what you expect them to sound like, but in each instance they build records that expand the noise and distortion into a freefall of energy. Like fine wine, Sonic Youth never really go bad with age.
18. My Robot Friend – Hot Action (Poptronix) • This is what electroclash should sound like. MRF rock and boogie without taking itself too seriously. There’s a really weird cover of Johnny Cash’s “Understand Your Man,” a strange William Burroughs-y song about computers called “You’re Out Of The Computer” and a sterling tribute to the Pet Shop Boys, “We’re The Pet Shop Boys” (covered by the PSB themselves earlier this year). This is just a really fun record.
19. Les Georges Leningrad – Sur Les Traces De Black Eskimo (Alien 8) • One of the weirdest records to come along in some time. LGL take a lot of styles and mess them about in a blender and churn out some fine pop ditties. This is art rock for the working class that never tires or dredges along.