Top 20 Albums of 2004 - Originally written Dec 2004

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12 Sep 2008, 0:09

This is in a series of old entries rescued from my former online journal--I didn't want to lose them.

It's that time of year again. In preparation for my participation in several journalists' polls as well as Self Indulgence, our store's little year-end zine, I've compiled my favorite albums of the year.

This is the most mainstream list I've compiled in years, with only three of the first ten entries on indie labels. I also felt like 2004 was the strongest "year" in music for awhile now, so even without a massive knockout like in years past (the top four were all VERY close) I've felt that on the radio, on the new release racks, on TV, everywhere I've been seeing more and more good music. I know these things are all cyclical, and we'll again go through an era as dire as 1998-2002, but I'm enjoying it for the time being. There'll always be great music--1999 was perhaps the worst year for mainstream music that I can remember, yet it produced several of my favorite-ever albums, even if most of them were largely ignored.

First, let's take a trip down memory lane and see some old lists:

Number Ones
1999 - Fountains of Wayne/Utopia Parkway
2000 - XTC/Wasp Star (Apple Venus Vol. 2)
2001 - Ben Folds/Rockin' the Suburbs
2002 - The Candy Butchers/Play With Your Head
2003 - Fountains of Wayne/Welcome Interstate Managers

2002
1 - The Candy Butchers/Play With Your Head
2 - The Stereo/Rewind+Record
3 - Ben Kweller/Sha Sha
4 - Phantom Planet/The Guest
5 - Wilco/Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
6 - Supergrass/Life on Other Planets
7 - The Model Rockets/Tell the Kids the Cops Are Here
8 - OK GO/OK GO
9 - The Streets/Original Pirate Material
10 - Rhett Miller/The Instigator

2003
1 - Fountains of Wayne/Welcome Interstate Managers
2 - Bleu/Redhead
3 - The Sounds/Living In America
4 - The Coral/The Coral
5 - The Weakerthans/Reconstruction Site
6 - Junior Senior/D-D-Don't Stop the Beat
7 - Outkast/Speakerboxx/The Love Below
8 - Postal Service/Give Up
9 - Blur/Think Tank
10 - Sparks/Lil Beethoven*

*This list deserves at least one major belated swap: The Shins' brilliant Chutes Too Narrow, which has only continued to grow on me in the past 15 months. In reality it should've settled on that list around #5, bumping Sparks (whose own score was probably inflated because I discovered their entire, brilliant catalog) to #11.

And now, without further ado:

THE 20 BEST ALBUMS OF 2004

1 - Gwen Stefani/Love.Angel.Music.Baby.
What a massive surprise. I've always liked--even loved--No Doubt, and felt that their 2003 hits compilation was so well-assembled and killer that it sort of shone a new light on their entire catalog. It's amazing to think I actually considered not buying this album. It's a stunning platter, melding contemporary hip-hop, late '80s pop, new wave, and techno into one dizzying whole reminiscent of 1987 pop radio, while positioning individual tracks to sound like various artists including Salt N Pepa, Madonna, Fleetwood Mac, Kylie Minogue, and New Order. Each song sounds like a hit you've heard hundreds of times, and is pasted onto the kind of beat that gets dancefloors moving. There are slow spots, but they're largely forgivable in light of the whole package. It's true that Stefani's lyrics are often downright awful (everyone has repeated the "This shit is bananas/B-A-N-A-N-A-S" line ad nauseum), but to criticize them is to miss the point. The album's supposed to be big and fun--its intelligence (and Stefani and her army of producers are very smart) is in the detailed construction of each track. This is not disposable dance-pop and sounds, for all the world, like it's already a "greatest hits".

2 - Spymob/Sitting Around Keeping Score
N.E.R.D., the rock/hip-hop project of The Neptunes, has a backing band, hence the "rock" part of that equation. What you might not guess is that they sound like a funkier Fountains of Wayne, or a more driving Ben Folds, with all the hooks of both. They're apparently heavily influenced by Steely Dan and similar '70s pop rock (there are notable musical lifts from both America's "Ventura Highway" and Hall & Oates "One On One", but don't judge) but this sounds incredibly modern, fresh, and energized. The lyrics are idiosyncratic to match--"It Gets Me Going" is written from the point of view of a neglected dog, "Fly Fly Fishing Poles" is a bizarre and detailed tribute to Des Moines, Iowa's beltway, and "I Still Live at Home" attempts to inform a potential lover of the pluses of said situation ("And if things did get serious/It would be convenient/To walk right up the stairs and/Have you meet my folks")

3- Dogs Die in Hot Cars/Please Describe Yourself
Much was made of their sonic similarities to XTC, but Please Describe Yourself sounds like no one XTC album. DDIHC merge the tense, nervy early XTC to the later, folk-leaning, pastoral era in a way that... well, err... no one else has bothered to try. That may make it sound like a disc for XTC obsessives, but it's not: XTC are an obvious influence of an awful lot of what's been going on in the mainstream, and this album is no different. "I Love You 'Cause I Have To" was the "hit" because it sounds kind of like Franz Ferdinand, but I much prefer "Godhopping", "Celebrity Sanctum", "Modern Woman" and others that meld a variety of influences (including the Talking Heads and Big Country) into one great left-of-center pop album. "Godhopping" alone segues from a slick synth riff to a jaunty piano bit and then into a ridiculous, musically queasy chorus barked out by vocalist Craig MacIntosh over furiously plucked banjos. Anyone who knows me knows I love that kind of stuff.

4 - The Ordinary Boys/Over the Counterculture
At the moment this is only a UK import, so it is possible that with a belated US release you'll all get to experience this album as well (in fact, I'd bet on The Ordinary Boys as a "band to watch" for 2005). Over the Counterculture takes the best snatches of '90s Britpop--the Blur stomp, Menswear's energy, The Stereophonics' passion, etc--and puts it all together into a Stephen Street (Blur, The Smiths) produced, horn-spiked, left-leaning fireball of a disc. There's no shortage of highlights here, from the contemplative "Seaside" to the raging title track, "Robots And Monkeys" and "Week In, Week Out". I have a particular soft spot for their positively SCORCHING cover of The Specials' "Little Bitch", which actually bests the original. Well worth the import price tag for britpop diehards.

5 - Modest Mouse/Good News For People Who Love Bad News
This was a surprise for me. I was never really a Modest Mouse fan, though I enjoyed occasional songs by them. Then, like most of us, I was amazed at how straightforwardly catchy (yet somehow uncompromising) "Float On" was when it first took radio by storm earlier this year. I was even more surprised that the album, which largely didn't grab me right away, turned out to be even better, and something I consistently reach for off the shelf. Good News For People Who Love Bad News may be more rocking and direct than previous Modest Mouse efforts, but that doesn't make the cranky, Tom Waits-ish "Devil's Workday" or the bitter "Satin in a Coffin" any less weird. That this album became so popular is amazing enough; that it's now spinning its third single to radio is even more amazing. It's nice to see such an unfairly overlooked act, who toiled away in the alternative world when mainstream radio was at its worst, finally get their due. My personal favorite: "The View", which absolutely should've been the third single.

6 - The Killers/Hot Fuss
Like Modest Mouse, this might seem a bit obvious. I love '80s and '90s britpop, have a soft spot for synthesizers, etc. Obviously many others love The Killers, who've easily userped The Strokes and White Stripes as THE *THE* band--and a big part of why is that this band, like almost no mainstream alternative bands of the past 15 years--knows how to use big, dramatic guestures and mainstream bluster to their advantage. I mean, it worked for U2, right? There are definitely some slow spots here, but by and large this is a big, impressive mainstream record, the kind of which you (hope) will be the opening salvo of a major musical power.

7 - Franz Ferdinand/Franz Ferdinand
I'm really sorry that this run has gotten so boring. Really, you can tell that I like dancey, nouveau-New Wave (I like the real thing too, even long forgotten stuff like Scritti Politti), "Take Me Out" is awesome. Most of this is awesome. Get the new 2CD reissue, because "All For You, Sophia" is bloody awesome. The nervy "Michael" is one of the best gay lust songs I've ever heard, capturing the sense of "is he or isn't he" as well as that slight sense of danger in feeling you were doing something wrong. It was even released as a single in the U.K. Amazing.

8 - The Davenports/Hi-Tech Lowlife
The Davenports can be best summed up as a more bitter, scruffy, indie-leaning Fountains of Wayne, but such a definition wouldn't befit a band whose album ascended to #8 on my list (look to #14, for the Rosenbergs fine-but-safe Department Store Girl). Scott Klass specializes in Kinks-ian character sketches, painting musical cartoons of men whose ambition is to create the ultimate porn-viewing system ("Hi-Tech Lowlife"), those people who just don't "get" baseball ("Everyone's Talking About Baseball"), and everyone who gets a bit too drunk at Christmas parties (the bizarrely gorgeous "Whore For the Holidays"). He also used to be in a band with Fountains of Wayne's Chris Collingwood, so this is a total must for any FOW fans (it's also easily the most obscure item on my list).

9 - Scissor Sisters/Scissor Sisters
Frankie Goes To Hollywood for the 2000s, then. Four gay men and a fag hag cut their teeth in NYC drag bars by doing covers of Pink Floyd songs that sound more like the Bee Gees, and make it big in Britain. Why does that not even sound like a bizarre success story anymore? "Take Your Mama", the song everyone knows, sounds JUST like 1970s Elton John, but it's almost impossible to pin this album down. "Laura" gets Stevie Wonder right in all the ways that Maroon 5 gets him wrong; "Lovers in the Backseat" somehow sounds more like Oingo Boingo and ABC than, well, Oingo Boingo and ABC did; "Filthy/Gorgeous" almost resembles Garbage. There are a few stumbles into '70s MOR and prog-rock (the bit about the return to Oz, 'n that) that prevent this from getting higher, but it's sassy fun.

10 - The Streets/A Grand Don't Come For Free
Give Mike Skinner credit for reaching artistically, writing an hourlong drama instead of simply putting out a bakers' dozen of bangers, but dock him for making this musically a bit more vanilla than his stunning debut two years ago. Hip-hop purists hate him, but it's their loss--his style and delivery recall almost nothing else in contemporary pop music; something that copycats like Audiobullys and Just Jack can't even diminish. "Fit But You Know It" nicks Blur's "Parklife" (well, not really, but listen to them both side-by-side!) to become one of my favorite singles of the year, and "Could Well Be In" is one of the most stunning accounts of the nervousness and excitement that accompany meeting someone new. "Dry Your Eyes" is a tad maudlin for my tastes when I hear it on the radio, but in the context of the album (remember, listening to this album requires attention since there's a plot, with several arcing storylines) it shimmers brilliantly as one of hip-hop's best (only?) power ballads.

11 - Snow Patrol/The Final Straw
Like Bends-era Radiohead except poppier without getting exceptionally maudlin. Unfortunately the maudlin parts are "Run" and "Chocolate", the songs you probably know. Try the power-pop of "Spitting Games" instead.
12 - Phantom Planet/Phantom Planet
Band who pen the theme song to one of the biggest hits on TV becomes moving target, putting out a sloppy album that owes more to snarling late-70s UK punk like The Fall than to the well-manicured pop they were known for. Surprisingly it's quite good, and furthers the suggestion that they always were more than a bunch of pretty faces.
13 - Ted Leo and the Pharmacists/Shake the Sheets
Ted Leo is one of contemporary punk's best songwriters, and his 2003 Hearts of Oak was one of last year's best. Shake the Sheets is his most direct and stripped down album, not coincidentally it's also his most political. Vicious stabs at the president number many; the scathing title track is probably the best. But there's also bright moments--the power-pop on the opener "Me and Mia", as well as the uptempo "Walking To Do", a song that may well (or should, anyway) become an anthem of the left in the next few years.
14 - The Rosenbergs/Department Store Girl
Fans of Fountains of Wayne get impatient, and need bands like The Rosenbergs to issue second-rate FOW knock-off albums on their off years. That said it's quite enjoyable, with the buttery "Birds of a Feather", the booming "Department Store Girl", and "Crockett and Tubbs" all highlights.
15 - Dizzee Rascal/Boy In Da Corner & Showtime
East London's Dizzee Rascal gets bonus points for putting out two albums this year, and both of them are extremely good. Dizzee makes hip-hop unlike anything you've heard; built more around garage beats than traditional hip-hop, it's skittery and FAST, often becoming the aural equivalent of being punched in the face--repeatedly. That of course makes it hard to listen to much, hence his merely-okay placing. But when he hits, such as on "Fix Up, Look Sharp", the hyper-video-game "Stand Up Tall", or the sweetly melodic (!) "Dream", he hits big. It just takes a few listens.
16 - Kanye West/College Dropout
Since College Dropout came out way back in January, it's nice to see that it wasn't forgotten by most people when the time came to compile lists... but, of course, how could it NOT, since Kanye West was everywhere this year. In fact it lost some spots on my list simply because I'm sick of "Through the Wire", "Slow Jamz", and the other umpteen-bajillion singles pulled off of this album, and because it has way too many stupid skits, even if they do "move along the plot". "We Don't Care" was the obvious highlight and it didn't even get a single release. Hmfpt. Still, West is so funny and self-deprecating that this can't help but be the best mainstream hip-hop album this year.
17 - Ben Kweller/On My Way
One of my favorites from a few years ago returns with an organic record that owes a debt to, amongst other things, '50s/'60s country, The Violent Femmes, garage rock, and '70s singer/songwriters. It's warm and inviting, made mostly of live takes, but is missing some of the free-spiritedness that made his debut so wonderful.
18 - Matthew Sweet - Living Things
In a year when longtime favorites released mediocre or boring discs, it's nice to see Matthew Sweet--whose own fanbase has dwindled severely--releasing great, challenging albums. Last year's Kimi Ga Suki found him returning to the Richard Lloyd-driven guitar rock that marked the best part of his career, and the hastily written songs found a spark that had been missing in his overthought late '90s projects. With Living Things, Sweet figures out how to create one of those concept discs without weighing it down, focusing on a loose song cycle about things that are alive. The songs are packed with sonic detail--melodic left turns and little bits and pieces that give them life. There's some silliness, like the steel drums on "The Big Cats of Shambala" (in fact, a song about cats who live on Tippi Hedren's, um, cat ranch is silly enough), but there are great off-kilter pop songs like "Push the Feelings", "Cats Vs. Dogs", and the subversive "Dandelion", plus a bevy of gorgeous ballads like "You're Not Sorry" and "Season Is Over".
19 - Nellie McKay/Get Away From Me
The cover of Nellie McKay's debut album is a photo of a smiling McKay, dressed in semi-formal, retro-chic winter attire, holding her arms wide in a sort of "Watch out world, here I come!" pose. Then you realize that it's titled "Get Away From Me" and that McKay is standing in front of a wall that's riddled with graffiti. Such paradoxes abound on her brilliantly weird, double-CD debut--she attempts hip-hop, easy listening, piano-based pop and more, injecting all of it with a massive dose of weirdness and a left-of-center political and social slant. It's no wonder that no one bought the album because it's not easy to figure out, and the hip-hop tracks are major stumbles. But for the adventurous this can be immensely rewarding.
20 - Adam Marsland/You Don't Know Me
Former Cockeyed Ghost frontman Adam Marsland finally ditched his old bandname to suit his increasingly-personal songs and delivered this, his first real solo album. Some of the rocky bluster from the CG albums is missed, but songs like "Other Than Me" (wherein Marsland is happy he never dated Liz Phair or Aimee Mann, because they'd almost certainly crucify him in song), "You Don't Know Me", and "Love x 10 (How Dare You)" hold up with his best material. Most of Cockeyed Ghost is still on board behind him, though the added touch of the legendary Evie Sands (who plays guitar and sings backing vocals) gives this an entirely different feel.

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