This Christmas, my sister did for me what I've been afraid to do for months: she bought me a copy of William Shatner's collaboration with Ben Folds, Has Been. And I must admit, after listening to it a few times, it probably wasn't a mistake for me to hold off on purchasing it. There are a few good tracks here and there, but in general, the album is overwrought, and while Shatner's speak-along style might make for a good interstitial in a mixtape, it gets a little old after 11 tracks in a row. Plus, they've ruined the song that made me curious about the album in the first place, the cover of Pulp's "Common People". The original version, which I downloaded from god knows where, clocked in at just over two minutes, and cut out all but the first two verses of Pulp's original lyrics (which was really smartthose are the verses that count, and adding anything after them feels like your just milking a good idea. The album version, however, is nearly twice as long as the version I've been listening to and loving for months, and restores all of Jarvis Cocker's lyrics (and may even add some new ones). It's not terrible, I guess (although the addition of a choir of children was certainly a mistake), but it just doesn't pack the punch of the earlier version. It just doesn't work; it's just not brilliant.
"King of Birds"
Now we get to the Big 3, the artists on this mixtape who were legitimate sales and radio forces in 1987. For U2 and R.E.M., the albums they released this year were their first bona fide commercial successes, and each spawned several hit singles, while Sting was contentedly chugging along with mulit-plantinum sales after years of huge sales with the Police and with his first solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles.
So you'd think that I'd at least include some of those hit singles here, but aside from U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" (which remains brilliant despite it's ubiquitousness), I decided against it. Let's face it: the hits from Sting's and R.E.M.'s albums just don't hold up the same way that the ones from the Joshua Tree do. "The One I Love" isn't a bad song, but it's a trick that R.E.M. has done so many times now that it's just not that interesting, and "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" has become a joke that isn't funny anymore.
So instead I selected "King of Birds", one of the last loveably quirky songs that R.E.M. would release before their creative rebirth in Automatic for the People. Combining a meandering sitar, a shuffling backbeat, and stream-of-consciousness lyrics, "King of Birds" appeals to me in a way that almost nothing else in their catalog from Document, Green, Out of Time, and Monster does; it's a weird, non-commercial moment in a string of otherwise very commercially-slanted (and successful) releases. The opening phrase, "a thumbnail sketch", sums up the tone of this track, lyrically and musically, and it's a nice respite from a band that was becoming overly bombastic and annoyingly blunt.
To quote the Moldy Peaches' "Lazy Confessions": I got nothing to say.
"The Lazarus Heart"
...Nothing Like the Sun
"The Lazarus Heart" was never one of my favorite tracks back when this CD first came out (and in fact, ...Nothing Like the Sun was my least favorite CD from Sting until Ten Summoner's Tales, which began his slow but still-ongoing descent into mediocrity), but on re-listening to it years later (and again for this mixtape), the oblique references to the death of his mother hit home in a way that they never had when I was younger. The image of the narrator's age-weakened mother shooing birds off her roof with a broom says something very profound about the perseverance of human beings despite the inevitability of death. I've also grown to love the lilting guitars sliding in and out of the skittering keyboards and percussion that are the bedrock of the song; the combination is very much like the flapping of wings of a flock of birds as they alight from the ground, wheel in the air for a few moments, then settle back in their original spot.
I need some new music now. I hate this time of year; from November forward the new releases are focused on big-ticket bands cashing in for Christmas, and January is a wasteland as the labels regroup and prepare for the quirky offseason releases from February to April. It's another three weeks until Bright Eyes releases two new albums, the first records I'll likely buy this year, and March is supposed to have some good stuff, but honestly, not having anything fresh to looking to is really starting to get to me.
In an attempt to sate my need for new things to listen to, I bought the Fiery Furnaces' first album, The Gallowsbird's Bark, over the weekend. I listened to it a few times, and it was a lot different than I had been led to believe. I love their most recent, Blueberry Boat, but almost every review I read of that album made a point of saying how much different Blueberry was from Gallowsbird's, and really, it's not. Sure, the song lengths are shorter, but that's just because most of the longer tracks on Blueberry are really two or three (or four or five) separate ideas jammed together; on Gallowsbird's, they're allowed to remain separate. It's not as good as Blueberry, one of the best records released in 2004, but it's still pretty good, and I expect it will grow on me the same way Blueberry did.
Still, I'm ready for something truly new. I figure I can eat up the next couple of weeks going through the best and worst of 2005, but after that, the labels better start putting out some new product for me.
Well, it's January, so that means it's time once again for the best-of list from the previous year. Normally I just post the top 10 albums with a minimal amount of accompanying text, but this year, because of the crippling lack of new music, I'm going to stretch it out a bit, writing first about the year's disappointments, then the near-misses, and finally a one-day-at-a-time countdown of the top 10 of 2004 with a paragraph or two on each disc. I'm hoping that by the time I'm finished, the labels will have awoken from their slumber and started providing me with the first candidates for my 2005 top 10.
First for the disappointments: here I'm not talking about the hundreds of crappy albums that came out last year that dominated the chartsthose who have been reading this blog for any length of time know that the stuff I like is rarely ever found among the top-sellers. Rather, these are the records that I anticipated being at least somewhat worthwhile, because I went and spent $14 on them. And although this was generally an outstanding year for music, there were still many albums that fell short of expectations.
This year was not a good one for our friends from the British Isles. While they made up a slim majority of the albums in this category, they had only five or six representatives among the albums that I consider at least decent, and only one of those is a candidate for the top 10. Don't know what's going on over there, but this was definitely a bad year for the Brits. Take, for example the new albums by Gomez, Badly Drawn Boy, and the Beta Band: I own and love at least two earlier discs from each of these artists, and all of them were anointed by the music press as Important Bands in the nascency of their careers. The records released by each artist this year were, however, bland at best, and career-enders at worst (the Beta Band actually broke up after the all-too-aptly named Heroes to Zeroes failed to chart in any significant way). And the old guard didn't fare much betternew releases from 80s stalwarts like U2, Robyn Hitchcock, and the Cure found each artist a shadow of their former selves, trying desperately to patch back into the zeitgeist and failing utterly (all except Mr. Hitchcock, that ishis niche was always quirky outsider, but he seems to have run out of things to say after a quarter century of making music).
The Americans were responsible for some clunkers this year, too. The most disappointing was probably Grown Backwards, the latest from David Byrne, which had maybe one or two memorable tracks and which was a poor follow-up to his previous disc, Look Into the Eyeball, which was one of the best records of his long career and easily his best solo outing. I liked Eyeball so much that I bought Grown Backwards without previewing any of the tracks, which is a mistake I won't make again.
The other two major letdowns from native sons came courtesy of the Good Life's tragically titled Album of the Year and the Drive-By Truckers' The Dirty South. Both of these should have been breakthough albums from artists who have been enjoying critical raves while building a solid fan base thanks to incessant touring, but on these discs, it sounds like they're just tired and need to take a break to get the juices flowing again. Each record has its moments, but overall they fall flat, and are easily the weakest offerings from these artists yet.
Tomorrow we'll get to the good but not great stuff (of which there was a lot last year), and after that we'll start to count down the top 10.
Despite the disappointments I listed yesterday, this was actually a pretty good year for music. Aside from my top 10, there were over 20 other albums that I consider to be good or great records, and each of them spent significant time in my rotation. I would recommend all of these records, but for one reason or another they didn't quite have what it takes to get into the top 10.
Clinic, the Magnetic Fields, P J Harvey, Ted Leo, Interpol, the Faint, and Tom Waits all put out solid records, a few of which were in serious consideration for the top 10. Real Gone may be Waits' best record since his early 90s heyday, and Interpol's Antics was better than their debut, which I liked decently well but which didn't bowl me over. P J Harvey made a nice course correction with Uh Huh Her after the plodding Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, and while Winchester Cathedral may be the best record of Clinic's career, it was more like a best-of compilation than a new record (that is, all the songs were new, but they were all such classic Clinic that it was sometimes hard to tell). Ted Leo's Shake the Sheets, the Faint's Wet from Birth, and the Magnetic Fields i couldn't quite match the magnificence of their predecessors (Hearts of Oak, Danse Macabre, and 69 Love Songs, respectively, some of the best records of the last few years), but they didn't exactly fall flat, either. Most bands are lucky to make records this good; these artists just happened to make better ones a couple of years ago.
Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose (which was produced by Jack White) was a real surprise, and for a while I was virtually certain that it would end up in my top 10. I still get some enjoyment out of it, the novelty has worn off and there aren't too many songs that I can listen to outside the context of the album as a whole. Morrissey also returned from extended hiatus and released You Are the Quarry,which might be his best solo outing since his debut, although it still doesn't hold a candle to his work with Johnny Marr and the Smiths. Rufus Wainwright came back with Want Two, a superb follow-up to the disappointing Want One, and Stereolab, reeling from the death of their longtime guitarist, gave us Margarine Eclipse, which may be their most listenable and engaging work since Dots and Loops.
I've been a big fan of Le Tigre for a while now, but as their sound has moved increasingly towards toy keyboards and dance beats and away from some of the more guitar-oriented stuff that Kathleen Hanna did with Bikini Kill and Julie Ruin, I've grown less enchanted with them. Their most recent release (and their major label debut) This Island almost didn't make it into this category; it was mighty close to be being tossed on the failure pile with U2 and Badly Drawn Boy. But after re-listening to it for a while, most of it is pretty decent and it probably deserves to be here. All except the cover of "I'm So Excited"I'm 100% sure that has been in heavy rotation on Satan's XM feed since the day it was recorded.
TV on the Radio's Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes could have easily gone the other way, meaning that if they had only had one or two more good songs to replace the couple of lifeless tracks at the end of this record, they would have easily garnered a spot in the top 10. Some of the best songs released this year are on this record"Dreams", "Poppy", and the a capella "Ambulance" are all stunnersbut this list ain't about singles, it's about albums, and as good as those tracks are, they can't make up for the weaknesses of "Don't Love You" and "Bomb Yourself". Maybe next year.
This was the year I fell in love with the Black Keys' blues stomp, first through their previous release, thickfreakness, and then through Rubber Factory, their latest. I'm a fan of the White Stripes, but for the life of me I can't see why Jack and Meg made it big while this duo didn't. Animal Collective, Tilly and the Wall, and Architecture in Helsinki were other new-to-me acts (who also each happen to be pretty quirky) that will now have my loyalty for at least one more album. The Decemberists continued their streak of incredible releases with The Tain, but since it was only a five-song EP, I couldn't justify taking up a top 10 spot when there were so many other good full-lengths released this year. Still, you should buy it. Now.
It's hard for me to justify leaving Iron and Wine's Our Endless Numbered Days out of the top 10, but I just couldn't squeeze it in. Consider it to be a strong contender for the number 11 spot, thoughSam Beam delivers all the emotion and lyrical storytelling from his debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle, but transitions from a lo-fi 4-track on his back porch to a full band in a sound studio with effortless grace. I have tried over and over to fit this in the top 10, but there's just no room. But if you buy any of the records on this page based on my recommendation, it should be Our Endless Numbered Days.
Other notable releases: Franz Ferdinand's eponymous debut; Bjork's Medulla; Ben Harper's collaboration with the Blind Boys of Alabama, There Will Be a Light; Madvillain's Madvillany; and Elliott Smith's posthumous swan song, From a Basement on the Hill.
Number 10 in my top 10 of 2004 might come as a surprise to some of my close friends: Modest Mouse's Good News for People Who Love Bad News. See, I've been nuts about Modest Mouse for about five years now; they are far and away my favorite active band, and rival only the Smiths for my all-time favorites. So I'm sure most people who are aware of this fact are would be surprised to find their latest record ranked at only number 10.
While Good News is a really good record, (although probably the second-worst full-length of Modest Mouse's career), it just didn't have the innovation and exploration of new terrain showed by the other records on this year's top 10. Don't think I'm docking it points for being such a ridiculous success, either (to date, the record has gone platinum, had two hit videos on MTV, and has garnered the band two grammy nominations, all of which I would have considered impossible if they hadn't already happened); I'm happy the band has some solid funding to work with now and will continue to make records for years (the rumor was that if this record didn't achieve a reasonable level of success, Sony/Epic was going to drop them). In terms of the complexity of the music and the lyrics, Good News is definitely a step backwards from The Moon and Antarctica, the band's masterwork, but Isaac Brock still sprinkles the tracks liberally with his trademark guitar wobbles while ruminating on death, decay, and god. I still have faith that success won't spoil this band and that we'll have great music from Modest Mouse for years to come; I just hope that we don't have to wait four years in between each new record.
Coming in at number 9 for the 2004 top 10 is Wilco's A Ghost Is Born, the follow-up to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which I thought was the best record of 2002. This record easily could have been positioned higher, but I must admit that there's probably a little backlash because of the near-perfection of its predecessor. Mainly, though, Jeff Tweedy loses points for the last 10 minutes of the 12 minute track "Less Than You Think", which is his attempt to recreate the effect of getting a migraine headache. The song starts off as a beautifully quiet ballad before disintegrating into the high-pitched hum referenced in the lyrics, and it's just pointless. If we didn't live in an age of CD players and MP3s where it's easy enough to hit the next track button when the buzzing starts, this song could have very well kept Ghost out of the top 10.
Of course, my backlash isn't nearly as severe as most critics, who savaged the record, or worse, ignored it. But that is clearly just backlash for the sake of backlashWilco didn't make the critics cool anymore because too many people knew about them, so now the critics had to make Wilco uncool for an album or two so they could be the first in line to praise the "comeback" record they'll make in a couple of years. Whatever. This record rocks, and anyone who denies it is just hoping you haven't heard it and that you'll take their word for it. Seeing the band perform in concert certainly helped me get a better sense of the power of these songs and the intricacies of their composition, but Ghost would have made my best-of even if I hadn't seen them live. True, it's not as good as Yankee, but even the best bands only pull off an album like that once. A Ghost Is Born is a worthy addition to the Wilco canon, and it deserves a place of honor in your record collection.
By a slim margin, the majority of the albums in my 2004 top 10 come from bands who I had never listened to before 2004. In most cases this was because the band itself was relatively new, having released only one or two albums total, but in the case of my number 8 choice, Inches by Les Savy Fav, I've just missed the boat on a great band. Les Savy Fav has been around for years, and in fact Inches is a compilation of both the a- and the b-sides of the 7-inch singles released by the band that were never included on their full-lengths, some of which date from the band's earliest efforts in the late 90s.
I'm not a huge punk fan, at least not in its current blink-182/Yellowcard/Sum 41 pop-oriented power-chord form, but over the last few years there has been a small cadre of NYC-based bands that have leading the charge back to punk's early days, including the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Liars, the Strokes (that's right, the Strokes), and Interpol. Little did I know that Les Savy Fav may have been at the root of this rebirth of punk (or postpunk), and it's clear from Inches that they're head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to sounding the most like the punks of old while still creating something entirely new. "Meet Me in the Dollar Bin", the opening track, is alone worth the price of admission, but you'll find that almost every song on Inches is a keeper (which the odd exceptions of "Reformat (Live)", a spoken word mini-drama about a submarine disaster, and "Reformat (Dramatic Reading)", an alternate live version of the same track). I used to think the Liars' first album was pure genius, coming out of nowhere to reinvent punk. Now I know those guys had just spent a lot of time listening to Les Savy Fav.
Number 7 on my 2004 top 10 is the Walkmen's sophomore disc, Bows and Arrows. This was one of the first new records that I bought in 2004, and I knew almost immediately that it would end up somewhere on this top 10 list. Full of the same ringing guitars, chiming bells, and tinkling pianos of their first album, Bows and Arrows also contains some flat-out rockers (like "The Rat" and "Litte House of Savages") that make the ghostly, slightly sloppy sound that they're known for seem even more ephemeral and delicate in contrast. The Walkmen are a band that you are likely to either love or hate; their sound is unmistakable and they have a unique style that emanates from every note they play. Bows and Arrows is one of those funny little discs that creeps up on you and surprises you with something new and brilliant every time you listen to it; I thought it was merely good at first, but now I think it's one of the most solid, cohesive records put out by a rock band last year.
Those of you who read year-end music critics' lists have undoubtedly read many glowing reviews of my number 6 pick, the Arcade Fire's Funeral. I don't know if anyone left this off their top 10, and there are plenty that have this one at number 1. It's a hard disc to describe, with an eccentric mix of styles and voices, which is probably why it's just easier to call it brilliant and leave it at that. So that's what I'll do: this disc is genius, and I can't wait to hear more from this band.
Halfway through the list now, and at number 5 we find Brian Wilson's Smile, the modern re-recording of the legendary lost album that he recorded with the Beach Boys as a follow-up to Pet Sounds. Even before this record was officially released, I knew it was going to be somewhere in the top 10 because, thanks to our good friends on the internet, I was fortunate enough to download MP3s of many of the tracks from the original Smile project in various stages of completion. For a while, I thought this even had a chance of being number 1I already knew how great the songs were, it was just going to be a matter of how Wilson handled the remaking of the material with his touring band, the Wondermints (who can also be heard on the live version of Pet Sounds that Wilson released a couple years back).
For the most part, the remade tracks are pretty faithful to the originals, and the improved clarity of the sound makes up for the fact that Wilson's voice is not nearly as strong as it used to be and that the Wondermints, as excellent as they are at aping the 60s version of the Beach Boys, are simply not the Beach Boys. And even though "Good Vibrations" was originally part of the Smile sessions (in fact, it was the centerpiece song even then), it still feels like a mistake to remake it and include it here. It's just too iconic, and it hurts the integrity of the rest of the record. Still, this is a damn fine album, one that reminds you acutely of the impact that Wilson's early work has had on the landscape of pop music over the past four decades.
Let me tell you, ranking these top 4 was pretty tough. All of them were among my most listened-to, most loved, and most important albums released this year. But somebody has to be number 4, and in this case I settled on Sonic Youth's Sonic Nurse.
I felt a little shy at first about calling this the best album of Sonic Youth's career, what with Daydream Nation, Goo, and Murray Street, but I don't feel that way any more: there is no question in my mind that this is the best work ever produced by the band. It is also easily their most listenable, but they don't sacrifice musical complexity or depth (the way they did, it could be argued, on Goo). Rather, the addition of Jim O'Rourke to the band seems to have grounded the original members and reminded them that good hooks are the basis of all great rock songs, the same way that his work with Wilco elevated that group's music from alt country/pop to a more rarefied form of exploratory rock that is still fundamentally grounded in pop conventions. Even the Kim Gordon tracks on Sonic Nurse are very listenable, which is really saying something (she's one of the coolest women on the planet, but I've always found it hard to stomach her pitchy, breathy growl). Not that the original band members wouldn't have been capable of coming up with a very similar record without O'Rourke, but adding him to the band certainly seems to have sparked something in the rest of the group. Let's hope he'll be with them for many more years making records as great as Sonic Nurse.
My number 3 choice for the 2004 top 10 is the Streets' brilliant A Grand Don't Come for Free. A stunningly successfuly concept record, Grand starts off with a less-than-responsible 20-something male named Mike (although he swears his lyrics aren't autobiographical, the Streets is really just one guy, Mike Skinner) having the adult version of Alexander And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day: he returns a DVD only to find that he's left the disc at home and now he'll have to pay late fees, he doesn't have any money in his bank account, his cell phone dies and he can't call him mom to tell her he's canceling tea with her, and on top of it all, he loses £1000 (the "grand" referenced in the title).
And it just gets worse from there: his television stops working (a major catastrophe for the narrator, who spends a lot of his time stoned and watching tv), he's constantly hung over from too much drinking and drugging, his girlfriend breaks up with him, and then he finds out that it was because she was sleeping with his best friend. The record culminates with sort of a choose-your-own adventure track: the same basic beat with two different melodies and stories laid on top of it.
Even as good as the Streets' debut, Original Pirate Material, was, an album this good was a completely unexpected follow-up. It takes a while to get used to the homemade beats, simplistic synth lines, and the cockney, spoken-word style of Skinner's raps, but once you get, you get it, and the brilliance of this record becomes more apparent each time you listen to it.
My choice for second-best album of 2004 is the Fiery Furnaces' Blueberry Boat. This is probably the record I listened to the most this year, and in terms of sheer listening pleasure it was probably my favorite, but there are other factors in determining the best record of the year (which I'll explain on Monday).
It took a while for this record to grow on meI was initially annoyed with abrupt shifts in the middle of songs (usually there were several), the nursery-rhyme sprinkles of piano, the meandering melodies, and generally the random feel of the record, as if someone had recorded 50 song snippets and then thrown them together into 15 songs (most of which were groups of unrelated snippets) and called it an album. But now I love it all; I love every single second of this record. Sure, I have my favorites"Chief Inspector Blancheflower" and "Birdie Brain"but there is nothing that doesn't belong on this album; it's all important and necessary. Blueberry Boat is one complicated mess of a record that somehow, after a few listens, resolves itself into a flawlessly executed mini-opera that anyone can sing along to. Can't wait to see what the Furnaces come up with next.
So let's review where we are with the top 10 list so far:
10. Modest MouseGood News for People Who Love Bad News
9. WilcoA Ghost Is Born
8. Les Savy FavInches
7. The WalkmenBows and Arrows
6. The Arcade FireFuneral
5. Brian WilsonSmile
4. Sonic YouthSonic Nurse
3. The StreetsA Grand Don't Come for Free
2. The Fiery FurnacesBlueberry Boat
And my pick for best album of 2004? The Grey Album, a mash-up by Danger Mouse of Jay-Z's The Black Album and The Beatles' The Beatles, more famously known as The White Album. This record was important of so many levels: it was the best of the many versions made of Jay-Z's The Black Album, making mash-ups of which became almost a rite of passage for DJs after Jay-Z released an a capella version to encourage people to remix his raps (I even think it was better than Jay-Z's officially released version); it showed us just how stupid the record industry is becoming when EMI, the holder of the Beatles album rights, refused to authorize an official commercial release of the record and also tried to shut down any site hosting MP3s of the record (I would have been more than happy to pay for a copy, but EMI made that impossible); it reminded us just how creative DJs can be when they aren't hamstrung by ridiculous copyright laws; and it will always be remembered as career-starter for Danger Mouse, who is on his way to becoming a big star in his own right, having replaced Dan the Automator in Damon Albarn's Gorillaz. Despite EMI's attempts to stifle it, it's still pretty easy to find copies of this record for download, so if you don't already have The Grey Album, go get yourself a copy now, and think about all the things that might be if the record companies could pull their heads out of their asses and learn to give their customers what they want.