The Year In Music
This was supposed to be the year that our past saved us from ourselves. But at least far as popular music is concerned, that wasn't true, as new releases from the Beastie Boys, Courtney Love, REM, Prince, Bjork, and U2 all turned out as noble attempts at pretending not to be boring.
But then, just as the failure of the legacy acts opened the door for newcomers such as Nellie McKay and Arcade Fire, a couple unexpected true legacies came from out of nowhere to surprise us: Loretta Lynn and Brian Wilson. Who saw that coming?
As I saw it, here are the best albums of 2004:
1) The Streets, A Grand Don't Come For Free -- When I was upset about another relationship breakup, when I was getting ready for a party, when I was choosing an album for my alarm clock to wake me up to in the morning -- it was always The Streets on the stereo. Beyond its versatility, it was also completely indescribable. By default, it's called hip-hop, but it seems more like some kind of ancient syncopated storytelling. That's right, Mike Skinner is our Homer. And the craziest part was when people would ask for a description of the album: toward the end of explaining the Pulp Fiction-ish structuring narrative, I had to pause and say, "I can't say any more without ruining how it ends." That's the sign of a good album.
2) Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand -- Idea for us to make millions in Hollywood: let's make a movie set in the summer of '04, and play "Take Me Out" during the party scene. Millions, I tell you! The way I see it, "Take Me Out" starts like a good Strokes (or Beatles?) ditty and segues perfectly into a great White Stripes (or Stones?) romp. Before you can even realize it, you're singing "I know I won't be leaving here... with you" to every girl at the party. And you won't be leaving with her, because she's having too much fun dancing. This was the album for people who wanted to forget in three-and-a-half-minute increments that GW has already taken us through two wars.
3) TV on the Radio, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes -- Just when you thought every possible option for fusion was gone (country electronica? check. indie hip-hop? check. a capella dance? check.), a few dudes in Brooklyn came up with what is essentially doo-wop punk. Yet it sounds nothing like that, as this fusion is probably the most unique sound of the decade so far.
4) DFA, Compilation #2 -- At first, this album -- which sounds approximately like "dancing to a plane crash" -- seemed impenetrably "too New York" for me to "get." In fact, every time I described it to someone, I threw around scare-quotes just like that last frightening sentence. And then somewhere around track five on the second disc, it hit me: this sounds like Minneapolis in 1985, when punk (Husker Du, The Replacements) and funk (Prince, Morris Day) were banging heads with each other. Suddenly, it felt like home.
5) Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose -- Out of the gate, this album was criticized as a forced mash-up. Which of course it is, and that's what it's so gorgeous.
6) Dizzee Rascal, Showtime -- There's something about Dizzee Rascal that reminds me of playing Tetris. Must. Fit. Blocks. In. Holes.
7) Wilco, A Ghost Is Born -- Though immensely frustrating at times, the brilliance of Jeff Tweedy shines through in spurts and whistles and grunts.
8) The Walkmen, Bows and Arrows -- The Walkmen are sort of the Built To Spill of 2004. We always need an indie rock band that turns the guitar fuzz louder than the vox.
9) PJ Harvey, Uh Huh Her -- It's probably her second-weakest album, but PJ still makes the most shamefully annihilating recordings of anyone alive.
10) "Rockism" -- Even though Michaelangelo insisted that the debate is at least three years old, 2004 was the year that rockism went, well, mainstream. Kelefa Sanneh's critique of the goofy word led me into more conversations than any album this year, and because of that, it was better than all those boring old-timer albums. I still think it's a straw man concept, but hey, it was nice arguing with all of you about it. For at least a half-second, it actually tricked me into thinking music criticism still matters.
22 runner-ups: Arcade Fire, Funeral; Bloc Party, Bloc Party; The Hold Stready, Almost Killed Me; Interpol, Antics; Air, Talkie Walkie; The Fiery Furnaces, Blueberry Boat; Morrissey, You Are The Quarry; Nellie McKay, Get Away From Me; Modest Mouse, Good News For People Who Love Bad News; Bjork, Medulla; Sonic Youth, Sonic Nurse; Madvillian, Madvillainy; Big & Rich, Horses of a Different Color; Pavement, Crooked Rain Reissue; Tom Waits, Real Gone; Le Tigre, This Island; The Killers, Hot Fuss; The Thrills, Let's Bottle Bohemia; Bjork, Medulla; Har Mar Superstar, Handler; Clinic, Winchester Cathedral; Eminem, Encore.