Call it the year of the sleeper. In 2004, the best music came from unlikely sources: The few albums most critics could agree on–Brian Wilson's long-awaited completion of Smile, Loretta Lynn's unlikely comeback Van Lear Rose—came from artists widely considered well past their prime, while old reliables like R.E.M. and PJ Harvey faltered, leaving plenty of time for admiration of left-field upstarts like Nellie McKay and Devendra Banhart. With no clear consensus, The Onion A.V. Club's six music writers compiled Top 10 lists celebrating 49 different titles (Only Modest Mouse and Kanye West made as many as three lists), the virtues of which are expounded upon here.
1. Ricardo Villalobos, Thé Au Harem d'Archimède (Perlon)
A hyper-percussive album that spies drum sounds from every conceivable angle, Thé Au Harem d'Archimède is a minimal masterpiece by a Chilean artist who now reigns as the darling of Berlin. It's house in cadence and techno in mood, but Villalobos' dance work should translate just as well to anyone who likes to hear music rustle and flinch.
2. Nellie McKay, Get Away From Me (Columbia) Buy It!0
A precocious talent who sounds eager to please and keen to startle, Nellie McKay writes smart, sly piano songs that come tied up in whips and bows. Get Away From Me opens with a sweet ode to the dark art of stalking, then paws around a playful stylistic mish-mash. Few songs this year stand up to "Ding Dong," a gee-whiz charmer about a dead cat, a scheming "man of letters," and an artist whose mood swings are fit for a day in the sun.
3. !!!, Louden Up Now (Touch And Go) Buy It!0
4. Dizzee Rascal, Showtime (XL/Matador) Buy It!0
5. Joanna Newsom, The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City) Buy It!0
A harpist with a tender ear for strange old folk music, Joanna Newsom gallivants through wondrous fables about sprouts, beans, fauns, and the like. Her voice evokes Björk trekking through fields of wheat instead of lunar landscapes, but Newsom's imagistic songwriting knows few peers.
6. Superpitcher, Here Comes Love (Kompakt) Buy It!0
7. Stereolab, Margerine Eclipse (Elektra) Buy It!0
8. Melchior Productions, The Meaning (Playhouse)
At its best, minimalism trades in suggestion as much as reduction, a strategy upheld by Berlin producer Thomas Melchior. Hinting at the soulful surplus of house music, Melchior works with tiny elements: a burble of a bassline, a snippet of singing, and hi-hat drums that point toward the heavens without lifting their arms.
9. Animal Collective, Sung Tongs (Fat Cat) Buy It!0
10. Air, Talkie Walkie (Astralwerks) Buy It!0
Air's Talkie Walkie is mostly devoid of charge or surprise, but it grew more engrossing the more it was underestimated. The warm electronic atmospheres and cold Colecovision voices came straight from Air's well-thumbed manual, but the studied glow proved all the more alluring for its simplicity, like a paper lantern hung over an aquarium full of Gummi dolphins.
Those who think music needs more incongruous melds of Miami bass, out-of-tune marching bands, and buzzing Transylvania-esque folk riffs found what they were looking for in the style known as "favela funk." Made and mucked-up in the ghettos of Brazil, favela funk is cheap, raw, and often brilliant–a street sound that could work as a soundtrack for cartoons, space, or cartoons from space. Amid singles and mix-tapes by the likes of Diplo came Rio Baile Funk: Favela Booty Beats (Essay), a terrific compilation that captures the genre's insane, incendiary swirl.
The reissue story of 2004 was Arthur Russell, a downtown New York artist who was all but forgotten until a series of CDs resurrected his underground disco, his sultry pop, and his avant-garde meditations for cello and voice. The World Of Arthur Russell (Soul Jazz) gathered the dance music–a series of strange, wonderful '80s disco tracks made under names like Dinosaur L and Loose Joints. From the Audika label came Calling Out Of Context, a collection of unreleased synth-pop wails and whispers, and World Of Echo, a reissued album on which Russell's doleful-angel voice finds solace in scraped cello strings. The latter comes with a DVD of him performing live, giving human form to a memory that threatened to fade away after Russell's AIDS-related death in 1992.
1. The Walkmen, Bows + Arrows (Record Collection) Buy It!0
The Walkmen's 2002 debut, Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone, was a messy delight that tended to tumble over itself in a mad rush. Bows + Arrows, by contrast, roars with more finesse, finding nuance in its bluster and allowing incredible songs the room to pulsate. It's still a frenzy—even the slow songs—but it's a more measured, pointed one.
2. Interpol, Antics (Matador) Buy It!0
The dashingly dressed men of Interpol have released a below-average number of songs in their time together, but none that make the cut can be easily dismissed. The brief, breathless Antics doesn't waste a moment: It's just great songs ("Not Even Jail") bumping up against even better songs ("Evil," "Slow Hands"), all brooding, hypnotic, and undeniable.
3. Modest Mouse, Good News For People Who Love Bad News (Epic) Buy It!0
Proof that "deliberately catchy" doesn't equal "bad"—or, worse yet, "sellout"—Modest Mouse's Good News For People Who Love Bad News is the year's strangest and finest album to find mainstream radio play. Grand and grating in all the right places, it's the shiny culmination of a cracked songwriting genius.
4. Kanye West, The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella) Buy It!0
5. The Arcade Fire, Funeral (Merge) Buy It!0
A weird and wonderful debut that reveals itself slowly and quizzically, The Arcade Fire's Funeral sounds equally intriguing whispered into headphones or blasted out on stage. By turns celebratory and elegiac, the album lives up to every comparison it's received, but bows to none of them.
6. Trashcan Sinatras, Weightlifting (spinART) Buy It!0
7. Elliott Smith, From A Basement On The Hill (Anti-) Buy It!0
Though flawed and understandably lacking cohesiveness, Elliott Smith's final chapter, From A Basement On The Hill—assembled posthumously by friends—still features a precious thing: 15 new Elliott Smith songs.
8. Julie Doiron, Goodnight Nobody (Jagjaguwar) Buy It!0
9. Snow Patrol, Final Straw (A&M/Polydor) Buy It!0
10. Sufjan Stevens, Seven Swans (Sounds Familyre) Buy It!0
1. Bloc Party, "Banquet";
2. Crooked Fingers, "La Maleta Fea";
3. The Dears, "We Can Have It";
4. Death Cab For Cutie, "This Temporary Life";
5. The Elected, "A Time For Emily";
6. The Futureheads, "Stupid And Shallow";
7. The Hives, "No Pun Intended";
8. Jadakiss, "Why";
9. Kool Keith & Kutmasta Kurt, "Mane";
10. Maritime, "Human Beings";
11. Mclusky, "You Should Be Ashamed, Seamus";
12. A.C. Newman, "Miracle Drug";
13. Q And Not U, "Wet Work";
14. Snow Patrol, "How To Be Dead";
15. Troubled Hubble, "14,000 Things To Be Happy About";
16. The Von Bondies, "C'Mon C'Mon";
17. The Walkmen, "The Rat";
18. Kanye West, "We Don't Care";
19. Wilco, "Handshake Drugs"
1. David Cross, It's Not Funny (Sub Pop) Buy It!0
Lots of unfunny things happened in 2004, and David Cross wrung laughs from a lot of them on It's Not Funny. He even seemed to have a better handle on the mindset of Osama bin Laden than the Bush administration: "If the terrorists hated freedom, then the Netherlands would be fucking dust." Just a few months later, bin Laden released one of his tapes (not on Sub Pop), saying, "Bush has told you that we do not like freedom. Then why didn't we hit Sweden?" Whoa.
2. Eugene Mirman, The Absurd Nightclub Comedy Of Eugene Mirman (Suicide Squeeze) Buy It!0
3. Patton Oswalt, Feelin' Kinda Patton (United Musicians)
4. Scharpling & Wurster, New Hope For The Ape-Eared (Stereolaffs) Buy It!0
Proof that the Alternative Nation didn't disappear, it just grew up: Two beloved luminaries returned successfully. Frank Black made tons of music to diminishing audiences while his Pixies laid dormant, but a huge tide of approval met the band's reunion, and its live shows proved as good as ever. (And sometimes better, certainly due to the cash infusion that replaced bad blood.) A return to the studio, however: not so good. The iTunes-only "Bam Thwok" sounds exactly as tossed-off as its title suggests. Morrissey disappeared a few years after the Pixies, but this year's You Are The Quarry (already reissued with bonus tracks!) still came after seven years of near-silence. More telling than the album—which was solid, but nowhere near his best, either solo or with The Smiths—was Morrissey's live show, complete with '68 Comeback-era Elvis lights, which reintroduced him as a force. And now his fans are all a-twitter about his rumored retirement.
1. Wilco, A Ghost Is Born (Nonesuch) Buy It!0
Wilco's difficult fifth album loses the hurdy-gurdy effects of Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but keeps the restless experimental spirit, with stripped-down instrumentation that makes Jeff Tweedy's shambling structures sound dangerously incomplete. It's not a crowd-pleaser, but Tweedy's haunted rasp and preoccupation with repetition may best capture the exhausted, nerve-wracked pop world of 2004.
2. The Walkmen, Bows + Arrows (Record Collection) Buy It!0
3. The Velvet Teen, Elysium (Slowdance) Buy It!0
Daring to be dramatic, The Velvet Teen works post-adolescent melancholy into mini-symphonies that rival Brian Wilson's lushest fantasies. Wilson's beautifully compromised Smile is probably the real album of the year, but The Velvet Teen's Jeff Buckley fetish and epic self-absorption sounds more in line with the world today.
4. Reigning Sound, Too Much Guitar (In The Red) Buy It!0
After releasing the instantly accessible but largely unnoticed neo-garage gem Time Bomb High School two years ago, the Memphis club veterans in Reigning Sound batter around their tiny audience on the follow-up, which threads R&B hooks through needle-jumping noise. It takes some getting used to, but as a deceptively disciplined howl of fury, the record more than holds its ground.
5. Neko Case, The Tigers Have Spoken(Anti-) Buy It!0
6. RJD2, Since We Last Spoke (Definitive Jux) Buy It!0
A promising Midwestern turntablist makes good with a low-key, visionary record that fuses hip-hop, lounge-pop, indie-rock, and suburban poetics. RJD2 filters retro cool through a modernist's sensibility, without the drag of irony.
7. Elbow, Cast Of Thousands (V2) Buy It!0
8. The Hold Steady, Almost Killed Me (Frenchkiss) Buy It!0
The rock evangelists in The Hold Steady stick to one primary maneuver—bandleader Craig Finn expressing his garish, boyish pop fantasies in a monotone shout—but it's one that bears repeating. Finn inimitably parodies the petulance and mayhem that surrounds cultural saviors, while not-so-secretly hoping he'll become one.
9. Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose (Interscope) Buy It!0
10. Rilo Kiley, More Adventurous (Brute/Beaute) Buy It!0
American Music Club, Animal Collective, Bobby Bare Jr., Jon Brion, By Divine Right, Elvis Costello, The Divine Comedy, The Futureheads, Jesse Harris, Interpol, Iron & Wine, Jim Guthrie, The Killers, Lambchop, Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, The Libertines, Modest Mouse, The Sadies, Ron Sexsmith, Sonic Youth, The Streets, TV On The Radio, Rufus Wainwright, Washington Social Club, Kanye West
Accessibility remains suspect in the indie-rock world, so it's no surprise that two of the biggest fan arguments in 2004 were prompted by records that seemed, respectively, too hard and too soft. The Fiery Furnaces' sophomore album, Blueberry Boat, enchanted some with its interlocking eight-minute suites of surging lyricism and random weirdness, but others deemed it an unlistenable mess, put across by pretentious punks with no chops. The truth, as it often does, lies somewhere between: Blueberry Boat is likeably ambitious, but hard to endure. Meanwhile, Will Oldham's decision to re-record some of his best-loved older songs with veteran Nashville session musicians for Sings Greatest Palace Hits struck many longtime fans as a slick, sick joke. Those naysayers tended to be generally and unduly disrespectful of the populist country music that inspires Oldham, apparently preferring their roots music artificially stunted.
Two years ago, neo-garage and emo looked unstoppable, but recent albums by The Hives and The Get Up Kids (among others) failed to make a commercial impact. The White Stripes aside, neo-garage may end up being a one-hit-wonder kind of genre: Once pop fans get their one hit, they're ready to move on to the next cheap thrill, which in 2004 came from the more danceable and glitzy likes of Franz Ferdinand and The Killers. As for emo, the genre still has a core audience of college-bound high-schoolers, but in an election year, with the nation at war, whiny songs about uncommunicative ex-girlfriends had a harder time breaking through.
1. The Streets, A Grand Don't Come For Free (Vice/Atlantic) Buy It!0
Mixing a two-minutes-into-the-future sound with a novelist's command of character, Mike Skinner's second album takes another funny, unsparing, compassionate dive into the loud, fast world of working-class London youth. Upping the ambition from 2002's Original Pirate Material, it spins soundscapes around the narrative of a young hustler's desperate scramble for money, and maybe even redemption.
2. Modest Mouse, Good News For People Who Love Bad News (Epic) Buy It!0
3. Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose (Interscope) Buy It!0
Sometimes the sweetest comebacks are the least predictable. Having recorded and toured infrequently since the 1996 death of her husband (and having not received much support from country radio when she did venture out), Loretta Lynn teamed with longtime fan Jack White to record some original songs that left the rough edges intact. The result: an emotionally wrenching album that sounded like classic Lynn even though it was like nothing she'd recorded before.
4. Kanye West, The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella) Buy It!0
5. U2, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (Interscope) Buy It!0
6. Brian Wilson, Smile (Nonesuch) Buy It!0
Best viewed not as the completion of The Beach Boys' cripplingly ambitious, never-finished follow-up to Pet Sounds, but as the best bootleg of that album ever made, this new recording of the lost classic could easily have fallen flat. Instead, it stays true both to the sound of the existing recordings and to their wide-eyed, reaching spirit. The original Smile—what it would have sounded like and what impact it would have had—remains the stuff of speculation, but it's wonderful to have this beauty close at hand.
7. Nellie McKay, Get Away From Me (Columbia) Buy It!0
8. The Hives, Tyrannosaurus Hives (Interscope) Buy It!0
9. Devendra Banhart, Niño Rojo (Young God) Buy It!0
In May, Devendra Banhart released Rejoicing In The Hands, a collection of haunted folk music that won him acclaim and brought him to a wider audience than his nonstop touring could. He could have coasted for the rest of the year, but a few months later, he released Niño Rojo, an even stronger selection of songs in which delicately plucked tunes and quavering vocals reach back to an older world to drag a bit of mystery into this one.
10. Wilco, A Ghost Is Born (Nonesuch) Buy It!0
Iron & Wine, Our Endless Numbered Days; Madvillain, Madvillainy; The Roots, The Tipping Point; Ron Sexsmith, Retriever; Rufus Wainwright, Want Two
There are many reasons to watch The OC, a terrific show that only looks like a guilty pleasure, but the soundtrack remains one of the most consistently compelling reasons to tune in. Somewhere, someone in power has decided that the kids today could use a show steering them toward Death Cab For Cutie, The Walkmen, and The Thrills. That person is doing God's work.
In one of the year's most distressing trends, big albums from big artists turned out to be, well, not so big. PJ Harvey, Patti Smith, R.E.M., and Badly Drawn Boy all turned in unspectacular efforts. Björk tried to create something warm and new with the largely a cappella Medulla, but ended up making an album best admired from a distance, like some weird art object. Morrissey made the same dull album he'd been making before he disappeared, and was rewarded with praise simply because the tides of nostalgia had turned his way. Even Tom Waits' latest, Real Gone, lacked that certain element that edges a good album into greatness. Outside of a Pixies show, those looking for excitement had to look toward the new, which might not be such a bad thing in the end.
1. Kanye West, The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella) Buy It!0
In a refreshing bit of synchronicity, this year's most buzzed-about hip-hop album was also its best. After establishing himself as one of rap's most sought-after producers, Kanye West reinvented himself with The College Dropout as not only a rapper, but an underdog. A moving concept album about the importance of pursuing dreams and the folly of higher education, the disc boasts a perfect combination of goofy humor and goosebump-inducing passion.
2. Madvillain, Madvillainy (Stones Throw) Buy It!0
What happens when underground rap's greatest producer (Madlib) teams up with its funniest, most ingenious wordsmith (MF Doom)? The answer: Madvillainy, an instant-classic meeting of the super-brains that feels as fresh on the 50th listen as it does on the first.
3. Ghostface, The Pretty Toney Album (Def Jam) Buy It!0
Just when it seemed like Wu-Tang Clan had reached a collective dead end, Ghostface came through with a knockout solo album that recaptured the excitement and deranged humor of the group's golden age. The Pretty Toney Album's unhinged hyper-soul and surprising cohesiveness helped save a year otherwise clouded by the death of Ol' Dirty Bastard and Method Man's anticlimactic return.
4. The Foreign Exchange, Connected (BBE) Buy It!0
Hip-hop doesn't get prettier or more delicate than The Foreign Exchange's Connected, an album-length collaboration between Little Brother rapper Phonte and European producer Nicolay. Recorded before either party met face to face, Connected makes a fine case for hip-hop internationalism—and ought to propel Nicolay to the top tier of rap producers alongside Little Brother beatsmith 9th Wonder.
5. MF Doom, Mm.. Food? (Rhymesayers) Buy It!0
On his long-awaited official follow-up to 1999's Operation: Doomsday, MF Doom borrows shamelessly from himself, recycling his beat from Vast Aire's "Superfriendz" and reanimating Count Bass D's "Potholderz" from a little-heard compilation. Purists may scoff, but Doom has always been one of pop music's brilliant scavengers, transforming old ideas, sounds, personas, and punchlines into glorious new compositions. And Mm.. Food? is a glorious pop-art explosion that draws from comic-book captions and plastic bubblegum soul.
6. Murs, Murs 3:16—The 9th Edition (Definitive Jux) Buy It!0
7. De La Soul, The Grind Date (Sanctuary) Buy It!0
8. The Roots, The Tipping Point (Geffen) Buy It!0
9. RJD2, Since We Last Spoke (Definitive Jux) Buy It!0
10. J-Zone, A Job Ain't Nuthin' But Work (Fatbeats) Buy It!0
When Jay-Z announced his retirement last year, he apparently meant that he was going to lay off solo projects for a while and concentrate exclusively on ill-conceived collaborative albums. First, he inexplicably reunited with R. Kelly for a sad little album and botched tour, and then he hooked up with Linkin Park for a mash-up boondoggle. Ma$e, meanwhile, ended his retirement after Jesus reportedly told the rapper-turned-minister-turned-rapper that it was high time for him to sample the Welcome Back, Kotter theme song and return to the world of forgettable dance-rap. The Lord does work in mysterious ways.
Hip-hop's irrepressible id, Ol' Dirty Bastard lived his life like it was some sort of gonzo performance-art piece. Onstage and off, he always played rap's deranged court jester, a role that no doubt felt like a straitjacket at times. ODB turned self-destruction into a sublime art form, and while it's not surprising that he died, it's still terribly sad.
In a predictably contentious election year, an unprecedented number of music's biggest stars publicly registered their righteous anger toward George W. Bush. Even the usually nonpartisan Bruce Springsteen spent so much time with John Kerry that the senator could have been mistaken for the stiffest member of the E Street Band. Alas, all the political posturing of P. "Vote Or Die" Diddy and his ilk failed to turn the election the Democrats' way, perhaps in part because the nation's most loyal Ani DiFranco and NOFX fans weren't likely to vote for Bush anyway. The endless parade of celebrities making civic-minded pronouncements—while in some cases admitting that they'd never voted before—seemed to exhaust as much as it inspired.
1. David Mead, Indiana (Nettwerk) Buy It!0
In an off year for the usual critics' favorites, 2004's most consistently warm and winning album belonged to singer-songwriter David Mead, whose songs addressed longing and alienation in wise and heartfelt ways. Mead's gorgeous tenor never gets overshadowed by Indiana's subtly grandiose arrangements, and he falters only once, on a throwaway cover of Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" that marks the disc's only dispensable moment.
2. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, Shake The Sheets (Lookout) Buy It!0
"Me And Mia," the first song on Ted Leo's Shake The Sheets, is so catchy and mind-blowingly inspiring that it takes a little bit of time for the rest of the record to sink in. Once it does, it's virtually impossible to deny, as Leo cements his position as an icon-worthy motivational singer and peerless rock ace.
3. Some By Sea, Get Off The Ground If You're Scared (Kringle)
The year's best and most assured debut came from an unlikely source: the unsigned Seattle band Some By Sea, which emerged fully formed on Get Off The Ground If You're Scared. Lavishly produced with all the best signifiers of winsome indie-pop majesty—cello, piano, smart lyrics, boy-girl harmonies—the album sounds OC-worthy in the best possible way.
4. Dolorean, Violence In The Snowy Fields (Yep Roc) Buy It!0
Dolorean's lyrics veer toward the bleak—"Baby, let's die at the same time" passes for a come-on here—but Violence In The Snowy Fields oozes comfort, with songs gently blanketed in woozy strings, pedal steel, and vocal harmonies that sound almost comically gorgeous.
5. Devendra Banhart, Niño Rojo (Young God) Buy It!0
6. Sahara Hotnights, Kiss & Tell (RCA) Buy It!0
7. A.C. Newman, The Slow Wonder (Matador) Buy It!0
8. Tom McRae, Just Like Blood (Nettwerk) Buy It!0
Tom McRae's Just Like Blood takes about 15 seconds to establish itself as an album of uncommon delicacy, with a guitar line emulating a jack-in-the-box before "A Day Like Today" kicks in, complete with a swooning cello and characteristically fatalistic lyrics. It's far from the feel-good album of 2004, but Just Like Blood conveys uncommon beauty and empathy.
9. Rilo Kiley, More Adventurous (Brute/Beaute) Buy It!0
10. Modest Mouse, Good News For People Who Love Bad News (Epic) Buy It!0
1. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, "Me And Mia";
2. Devendra Banhart, "At The Hop";
3. Iron & Wine, "Naked As We Came";
4. Dolorean, "To Destruction";
5. Some By Sea, "There's A Line In The Sand. Are You Afraid To Cross It?";
6. David Mead, "Ordinary Life";
7. The Killers, "Mr. Brightside";
8. Rilo Kiley, "Portions For Foxes";
9. Minus The Bear, "I'm Totally Not Down With Rob's Alien";
10. The Damnwells, "Kiss Catastrophe";
11. Sondre Lerche, "Stupid Memory";
12. Modest Mouse, "Bury Me With It";
13. Eminem, "Mosh";
14. Clem Snide, "The Ballad Of David Icke";
15. Sahara Hotnights, "The Difference Between Love And Hate";
16. The Walkmen, "The Rat";
17. Beck, "True Love Will Find You In The End";
18. A.C. Newman, "On The Table";
19. Now It's Overhead, "Reverse";
20. Chris Stamey, "14 Shades Of Green"
Some of the 20th century's most vital and historically important music came in response to polarizing political leaders and hot-button issues ranging from war to race relations. Today's most divisive controversies aren't likely going anywhere until at least 2008—it doesn't look like fewer wars are in the offing, does it?—but the music world has spent the last four years struggling to respond with more than a trickle of memorable protest music. If Eminem's "Mosh" (and particularly its excellent video) provides any indication, that may change soon, but 2004 was flush with empty sloganeering and benefit compilations on which Blink-182 rocked the corridors of power with an exclusive "I Miss You" remix. The election showed just how many musicians have politics on their minds; the months and years to come will show how many of them live up to the standards set by their forebears.
It was easy to view 2004 as a down year for music, with few classics everyone could agree on and fewer career bests from established favorites. But January and February 2005 are already looking remarkable: Low returns Jan. 25 with The Great Destroyer, a surprisingly upbeat and frequently remarkable set produced by David Fridmann, while Clem Snide's End Of Love (out Feb. 22) takes on topics like death, religion, and the darker side of love in the unstoppable likes of "Jews For Jesus Blues." Best of all, The Frames' Burn The Maps (out Feb. 8, though it's available as an import) offers an epic, moody, bruising collection of songs about disillusionment, dissolution, and disappointment—all prime fodder for what may well prove to be 2005's best, and certainly most heart-rending, album.