Friday, November 28, 2014

That Wonderful Year in Music... 2004 (again)

Boy, it feels like it's been forever since I posted a "year in music" blog. It's been over a year yet it feels like longer. At the same time, I ran out of years to cover and my primary focus as been to make my 2014 list as comprehensive as possible. The project was finished business... or so I thought.

I'll admit-- I kind of screwed up my 2004 and 2005 lists. They were among the first music blog entries I ever posted, and I didn't approach them with the care and research of my later posts. At the same time I didn't want to constantly second-guess all of the lists I posted, tempting as it may be, which is why I'm limiting myself to these two years. This week's entry will cover 2004, and I'll post a 2005 sometime early next year. (You can find my original list here.)

In hindsight, 2004 was not the strongest year for music, but it was watershed in some ways. With the iPod introduced a year earlier, '04 was the last year retail music outlets like Sam Goody, Tower Records, and Coconuts turned a profit. As I pointed out the first time around, it was a good year for comebacks; some of the most noteworthy recordings were released by established, albeit long-dormant artists. One such legend, the incomparable Ray Charles, passed away just before his life's work could be appreciated for a new generation. And yet, arguably the best new release of 2004 was a debut full-length by one of the most important bands of the past decade. Rock as a genre was irreversibly splintering, but underneath all the scenester turmoil were quite a few solid releases.

NOTE: Parentheses note previous ranking.

1. Funeral, Arcade Fire. The most glaring misfire on my previous list was right on top. I originally picked American Idiot as #1, but Billie Joe Armstrong's rock opera aspirations don't totally hold up a decade on. In picking Funeral I'm correcting a gross oversight; this album is far more daring, direct, and (perhaps) dangerous than the vast majority of the indie scene ten-odd years ago. The "Neighborhood" suite that dominates the first half of the album is an exploration of the soul by way of Joseph Conrad, but tracks like "Crown of Love" and "Haiti" balance the self-relection with whimsy.
2. A Ghost is Born, Wilco. A warmer and more organic companion piece to their 2002 masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco's fifth album retains most of its predecessor's ghostly song structures even if the best tracks don't stand out immediately. In some ways, it's Foxtrot's sequel played at the wrong speed; the 15-minute dirge "Less Than You Think" gives way to the charming, witty "The Late Greats," one of the best songs in their discography.
3. The Grey Album, Danger Mouse. (2) Largely because of music licensing entanglement, the phenomenon of mash-up songs --or in this case, mash-up albums-- was relatively short-lived. This remix release, arguably what vaulted DM from moderately respected producer to hipster demi-god, set the bar high for its concept and purpose. In splicing Jay-Z's vocals with the instrument tracks from The Beatles' otherwise untouchable The White Album, DM does the impossible and makes this curious pet project into a must-listen. Case in point: the frustrated "What More Can I Say" simmering over the piano and acoustic guitar of "While My Guitar Gently Weaps."
4. Louden Up Now, !!! (3)
5. American Idiot, Green Day (1)
6. Good News for People Who Love Bad News, Modest Mouse (4)
7. Hot Fuss, The Killers
8. The College Dropout Kanye West (5)
9. Bows and Arrows, The Walkmen (6)
10. Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand (8). Four Scottish boys with a yen for Paul Weller make a lot of noise with their first full-length, the beginning of a string of good-but-not-great releases in the decade to come. The leadoff single "Take Me Out" is guarded optimism that veers into sheer drama; is it one song that morphs into another kind of song, or a false intro that exposes its true nature when the veneer self-destructs?

Honorable Mentions: ONoffON, Mission of Burma (9); Get Away From Me, Nellie McKay (7); Our Shadows Will Remain, Joseph Arthur (11); You're a Woman, I'm a Machine, Death From Above 1979; Madvillainy, Madvillain.

Best Jazz Album: Song for the New Man, David "Fathead" Newman. The career resurgences were not limited to pop or rock, as this late-period effort by the former Rayette proves. A venerable tenor sax player of the Gene Ammons variety, Fathead could also play a mean flute, as his Herbie Mann homage "Passing Through" proves. This well-rounded, straight-ahead set also features pianist John Hicks, trombonist Curtis Fuller, and another understated legend, drummer Jimmy Cobb.

"Vertigo," U2
"Walk Idiot Walk," The Hives
"C'mon C'mon," The Von Bondies
"Take Your Mama," Scissor Sisters
"Now Here is Nowhere," The Secret Machines
"She Wants to Move," N.E.R.D.
"Banquet," Bloc Party
"Portions for Foxes," Rilo Kiley
"Torture," King Khan & The Shrines
"Pressure Point," The Zutons

1. "Float On," Modest Mouse. Sometimes a band tries desperately to escape whatever turned them into a left-field commercial success. This is one such example; a catchy song with a pop-up book-inspired video, "Float On" went from charming indie rock lark to top ten hit to Applebee's background music in quick procession in Spring 2004. In a new light, this song (and video) is not as annoying as you thought.
2. "Jesus Walks" (version 1), Kanye West. Yeezy was another 2004 breakout, and though the self-deprecating survival story "Through the Wire" was a fine debut single, "Jesus" was what made Kanye... well, Kanye. The desert-set second version merited MTV airplay, but the church-happy first version of the video is the most striking. In the wake of the latest round of violence in Ferguson, Missouri the blunt truth of Kanye's rhymes couldn't be more timely.
3. "Walkie Talkie Man," Steriogram. (1) Felt and clay and yarn, oh my!
4. "Pony Ride," Bumblebeez 81. (3) Sometimes good hype just isn't enough to make a lasting impact. This weird little nugget is true ear candy, a hip-hop/garage rock lark performed by a brother-and-sister act that won an Australian reality show. Bumblebeez is long gone (I assume) but their cartoon bobbleheads remain.
5. "99 Problems," Jay-Z. (2) When was the last time a video was banned (or almost banned) from MTV? Probably this one, which aired in the wee hours of the night with a violence disclaimer. It's a powerful clip, even if Hova's retirement turned out to be just hot air.

Honorable Mentions: "Ocean Breathes Salty," Modest Mouse; "Mr. Brightside," The Killers; "Reptilia," The Strokes.

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