Thursday, December 16, 2004

2004 Top Ten Albums

And now, the moment we've all been waiting for: here are my picks for the top ten albums of 2004. (Don't forget to check out Paul Allen's top picks at Pop Life as well.) As always, I reserve the right to reconsider this list in a few months after all my holiday gifts have been listened to and considered. Here we go!

1. Scissor Sisters, Scissor Sisters
A band that deals with overtly gay themes using whip-smart lyrics and danceable music really had no competition for this spot, did it? From the rollicking opener, “Laura,” to the coming-out-to-mom-at-a-gay-bar anthem “Take Your Mama Out,” to the cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” the album kicks off with three solid radio singles and never lets go. There was no timelier song in the year of Janet than “Tits on the Radio,” no funnier song than “Music is the Victim,” no more danceable ode to a tryst mate who will never be anything more than “Better Luck,” no more glam-tastic paean to casualties of too many crystal hits at gay clubs than “Return to Oz.” I could go on rattling off superlatives about this album, but take my word: this is the wildest ride of the year.

2. Green Day, American Idiot
It was hard not to make this my number one. A rock opera about living in our times, laced with the bitterness of Bush hatred and including not one but two nine-minute, five-part epics, AI is stunning. Who among us thought, in the Dookie days, that Green Day was hiding within it all the components needed to create a modern masterpiece? That Billie Joe’s voice would one day be the perfect vehicle not for teenage loutish angst but for a searing look at what’s wrong with the world? That Tre Cool’s drumming could become a force of nature? Not me. But this album proves me wrong. It elevates its art form to a whole new level.

3. Black Keys, Rubber Factory
This year’s White Stripes, only without the self-indulgence and the goofy backstory. I don’t know how to describe this incredible album except to say that it sounds manly—deep voices, deep drums, a certain weight to the bluesy music. By the second song, lead single “10 A.M. Automatic,” I’m hooked every time, floating through the rest of the album in awe, as if I’m wrapped tight in its manly arms. (Huh. Maybe that’s why I love it so.) Rubber Factory sounds so much like a greatest hits album—every song is THAT good—that it’s hard to believe these 13 songs represent a single effort. These guys are for real.

4. Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose
If you’re looking for an album that will speak to you, look no further. Loretta makes it clear from the start of the first and title track that she’s telling you her story, then reiterates the fact again on the final track of this Jack White (yes, of the White Stripes) produced gem. “Here’s the story of my life,” she warbles at the start of that final song, “listen and I’ll tell it twice.” She’s lying—the song starts from the beginning and runs through to the end, then ends itself—but you’ll want to start over again from track one the moment the music stops. Don’t miss “Portland, Oregon,” a Lynn/White duet that really gets the album rocking at track two.

5. Modest Mouse, Good News For People Who Love Bad News
Unless you’re living in a cave, you’ve probably heard Modest Mouse’s single, “Float On,” which sounds so much like summer it’s a wonder it wasn’t declared the official song of baseball and picnics. Modest Mouse’s fourth album was positioned as their breakout disc by their record company; the week it was released it could be had for $7.99 at Target and other stores, and even now you can get it for less than $10 in any number of places. At that price, it would be OK if the two songs on the promotional sticker—“Float On” and “Ocean Breathes Salty”—were the only really good songs on the album. That’s not the case, though. On first listen, this album sounds like a hodge-podge, but it’s one of 2004’s most rewarding records; listen again and again and patterns form, sonic connections between songs on opposite ends of the tracklisting become apparent, and lyrics—some of the most imaginative of the year—begin to resonate. Oh, and by the way, you enjoy it every time; it’s like a graduate-level course in writing great songs taught by an eccentric professor so riveting that you can’t wait to roll out of bed and rush to class.

6. Joseph Arthur, Our Shadows Will Remain
This ought to be the year Joseph Arthur breaks out into the mainstream. Won't you help him? Still full of brooding themes, and capped off with a song featuring the lyric, “Go away, leave us alone,” this disc also features a more accessible rock sound. Those tempted to hear more of his work after hearing his contribution to Shrek 2 would be well-advised to start here.

7. Elliott Smith, From a Basement on a Hill
Smith, who committed suicide late in 2003, probably ascended a few more critics’ lists this year because this is his final album. Because this is my first encounter with his music, however, I can attest that his death, while the impetus for purchasing the album, has nothing to do with its placement here. For that, thank the music, said by some to represent Smith’s answer to The Beatles’ White Album. You’ll hear signs of that here, along with signs of a tortured musical genius whose work in his last days ranks alongside artists in their prime. Which is what he was, really. The sadness that led to suicide is evident here—one of the standout tracks is “A Fond Farewell”—but it’s here in a way that’s embracing and lovely.

8. Iron and Wine, Our Endless Numbered Days
Continuing the lovely theme, this album from Iron and Wine is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. If you’ve heard anything, you’ve probably heard “Naked As We Came,” a track that should have been nominated for a Best Song Grammy. The whole affair is lush but spare, folky but rocking, with acoustic guitar guiding the way and Sam Beam’s voice practically whispering in your ear the feelings of domestic tranquility and turbulence common to all of us. More than any album this year, this one just invites you to love it.

9. Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand
Everything is in its right place on this album, the debut from a Scottish rock foursome that is this year’s answer to The Strokes. Rock with precision, it’s also—somehow—maddeningly fun. Witness the lead single, “Take Me Out,” which was mainstream enough to be played during an early episode of Joey. It’s a good representative for the album as a whole: clever lyrics that can be interpreted in different ways, carried forward by carefully laid-out rhythms and vocals that wrap themselves up into a four-minute gem. This is an album of such gems, many of them with a sense of humor that is part of the magic of the disc. “Jacqueline” preaches the virtues of vacation: “It’s always better on holiday…that’s why we only work when we need the money.” “Michael” finds the singer hitting on Michael at a dance club, despite the fact that he’s a man, because he’s “the boy that everybody wants.” Homoerotic or campy? It hardly matters: FF may have a name from 1914 and a sound borrowed from rock and punk history, but the band’s unique blend of recycled sounds and new ideas is distinctly 2004.

10. Matt Pond PA, Emblems
At first listen, you’d swear that Matt Pond was just a pseudonym for Peter Gabriel; the similarity of their voices on several of the songs on this album is startling. This is music that builds; Pond’s voice is one of many instruments used to construct a series of richly textured songs. Another of the band’s five members is a cello player; her work adds a unique sound to the album, driving forward many songs with an intensity that only an instrument played with a bow can. The lyrics are deeply personal—surely some of the events related here actually happened to Pond—and the music suits this. Lush and layered, it cradles Pond’s words and emphasizes them. This is probably the least-known and lowest-selling record I bought in 2004—other than Radiant* and perhaps Olympic Hopefuls—but it deserves a much wider audience. It’s only $10 at Amazon!

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Modest Mouse has more than 4 albums.

Richard said...

I know what you mean by that, but I think most discographers would agree that MM has four core albums to its name (Lonesome Crowded West, This is a Long Drive For Someone With Nothing to Think About, Moon and Antarctica, and the new one) and a variety of other miscellaneous EPs, live records, compilations, "lost albums," and other such releases. For the purposes of addressing an audience that mostly knows nothing about the band, I think "fourth album" is appropriate.

McKenzie said...

As a member of the audience that knows almost nothing about MM, I couldn't give a shit.

Richardo

If someone like myself wanted to purchase an album that was important enough to warrant a spot on your top ten, what would you suggest. Simply because it made your #1 doesn't mean I'd even be able to appreciate or enjoy it. Its actually quite likely that if you liked it that much that I wouldn't understand it at all. But is there one out of the ten that you think I should absolutely have?