Here are 15 albums you should think about buying if you haven’t already. They are more or less the best of 2004 (in our humble opinions).
1) Sufjan Stevens, Seven Swans
Sufjan (pronounced “soof-yawn”) Stevens is a strange person to try to explain to a non-listener. Found by his parents in a milk crate on their doorstep and wrapped in cellophane, he was named after an Armenian warrior who killed thousands of dragons in order to save a fairy princess. And that’s just according to his official biography. Knowing this might make it all the more amazing that Mr. Stevens has crafted what is certainly one of the best albums of the year. In Seven Swans, not only does he tap into the delicate power of Nick Drake and other tragi-folk heroes, he also manages to do so in a way that is ironically hopeful. Stevens brings honest recollections and reflections on his Christian faith in a way unrealized by most of contemporary Christian music. “Abraham” is a literal biblical singing of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son, Isaac, but it is done in such a way that even the most hard minded secular humanist would have a hart time admitting the lines “Take instead the ram/ until Jesus comes” are anything less than honest and thoughtful proclamations.
2) Interpol, Antics
The quartet of well-dressed darklings from Gotham proved their post-punk staying power and melodic versatility with this astonishing follow-up to their debut, Turn on the Bright Lights. Antics has all the gloom and mopey doom of that urbane first entry, with added moments of positivity and dance-rock wildness thrown in. The experience is mystical, anachronistic, cathartic, and terribly catchy. It’s impossible to avoid singing along to “Next Exit,” “Slow Hands,” “Not Even Jail” or any of the other hook-heavy treats. The precise musicality and poetic (however obscure) lyricism of Antics makes it one of those rare, “Why am I still listening to this three months later?” sort of standouts.
3) Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose
What do you get when you mix the iconic talents of an aging country diva with the untested production abilities of a rising neo-garage-rock superstar? A revelatory sign that country—real country—is making a comeback. The original honky-tonk girl (as vigorous as ever at 70) sings with gusto about standard country fare: Heartbreak, hard liquor, murder, cheating, God, family… Songs which, aided by Jack White’s bluesy sensibilities and Lynn’s no-frills honesty, connect on levels “contemporary” country can only dream about.
4) Sondre Lerche, Two Way Monologue
The latest Scandinavian sensation is a curious one—a 22-year-old Norwegian singer/songwriter by the name of Sondre Lerche, who sounds more like Bachrach than Bjork and seems more at home in a Midwestern bar than a European disco. His music is a curious melding of aged jazz, progressive folk, decadent chamber, smoky lounge, with sips of country and touches of Broadway here and there. A very heady album for the coffee-and-cigarettes crowd (or the coffee-and-something-healthier crowd…anyone, really), Monologue will warm your whimsical hearts this winter season.
5) Gwen Stefani, Love, Angel, Music, Baby
Nothing can stop this platinum ska-pop princess. She ruled with No Doubt, but she reigns supreme as a solo artist. Her debut album is hotter than a So Cal summer and the best 80s dance-pop since … well I don’t even know if the 80s were ever this good. The album is as diverse as it is focused, with call-and-response cheerleading romps (“Hollaback Girl”), odes to Japanese underground fashion (“Harajuku Girls”), and poodle-skirt pop art (“Bubble Pop Electric”). Stefani manages to overshadow her amazing list of collaborators (Dr. Dre, Eve, Neptunes, Andre 3000), working over New Order and various other influences to create an incredibly unique brand of postmodern club couture.
6) The Innocence Mission, Now the Day Is Over
Another candidate for “The Best Band No One’s Ever Heard Of” returns with a collection of lullabies that maintains the visage of being a children’s album while being profoundly more. Easily the most serene and sublimely wonderful album of the year, Now the Day… marries old comfort songs with lead singer Karen Peris’ immaculate and warbling falsetto. The Innocence Mission’s ability to merge a joyful outlook on life with a melancholy method is on full display. One listen to “It is Well” or “What a Wonderful World,” and even the most cynical of hearts will be at least partially persuaded to join the Innocence Mission’s quest for beauty in a heartbreaking world. These songs radiate love and joy, and listeners cannot help but feel anything else.
7) Danger Mouse, The Grey Album
Danger Mouse, a New York City DJ, took one of the best rap/hip-hop albums of 2003 (Jay-Z’s Black Album) with one of the best albums of all time (The Beatles’ White Album) and created one of the most controversial CDs of 2004. Most people heard of it after Apple Records (the copyright holders of the Beatles’ catalogue) sued Danger Mouse for the unauthorized mash-up. What many people didn’t hear is that this album is one of the best hip hop releases in recent memories. The ways that Jay-Z’s tight delivery and melodies mesh with the Beatles’ classics are quite amazing. Danger Mouse made a masterful rap album using 40-year-old material as a backdrop.
8) Wilco, A Ghost is Born
Wilco became the band that was cool to like in 2002. With Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Jeff Tweedy and company were in the CD player of every influential indie music prophet in the country. Now, two years later, they have released a follow-up sure to please fans weaned on Yankee. It is an album that will attract new listeners as well, with its subtle blend of pop complexity, deconstruction, and Neil Young-esque burst of squealing guitars. From the balladry of “Hummingbird” to the searing solo at the end of “At Least That’s What You Said,” this album is fantastically crafted and actually boasts (dare I say it?) better individual songs than “Yankee Hotel …” A minor hiccup aside (the 12-minute electronic droning at the end of “Less Than You Think” is unnecessarily arduous), Ghost is certainly one of the best releases of 2004.
9) The Streets, A Grand Don’t Come for Free
The Streets, AKA Mike Skinner, return with a sophomore album that actually tops the achievement of the award-winning first album (Original Pirate Material). This album has more trip-hop than PlayStation beats, and lyrics have more to do with love and loss than sitting around playing Nintendo and drinking. Skinner’s cockney flow is in top form, perfectly in sync with terrific production values and backing singing. Highlights include “Fit But You Know It,” a spectacular indictment of female narcissism, and “Dry Your Eyes,” a slow-ballad that gives every painful detail in the dissolution of a relationship. Parental Advisory: Realistic language from a native London-er.
10) Iron and Wine, Our Endless Numbered Days
Iron and Wine is really just Sam Beam, strumming an acoustic guitar and singing in a hushed voice that beckons the listener into his personal dreamscape. However, his fantasy world is not a happy one. Reveling in Southern gothic themes of death, burial, and lost love, Beam transforms the traditional acoustic balladry of folk music into a profound experience of life exploration. “Our Endless Numbered Days” turns out to be a hushed wonder, grandiose in its simplicity.
11) Muse, Absolution
The coolest, head-banging rock act of the year has to be Muse, a British band that evokes Radiohead (Bends-era), Prodigy (if they were more melodic and piano-driven), and even Queen with its rock-opera enormity. Absolution is the trio’s power-chord masterpiece, whipping around with hyper-kinetic sonic flair. It is dreamy prog-rock with retro obsessions, tied up in angsty apocalyptic vision. Whether in the psychotic explosion of “Stockholm Syndrome” or the Jeff-Buckley balladry of “Blackout,” Muse invests in their music, and it pays off.
12) Hem, Eveningland
Hem returns to the music scene with Eveningland. Though not quite as cohesive and endearingly stripped down as 2002’s Rabbit Songs, Eveningland nonetheless maintains its own subtle grace that is only truly evident after many listens. From the quiet waltzes of “My Father’s Waltz” and “A-Hunting We Will Go” to the symphonic mastery of “Carry Me Home,” Hem puts forth a consistent effort whose beauty is unparalleled in the realm of popular music.
13) Joseph Arthur, Our Shadows Will Remain
Fans of Elliott Smith and similar tortured-artists will look at prog-folk stylist Joseph Arthur and see the same precarious balance of pain and catharsis. He is a singer/songwriter for no one but himself, and Shadows is his bittersweet postcard from the edge. Arthur’s despair generates some of the best traditional ballads of the year in “Echo Park” and “A Smile That Explodes,” but the album’s holistic musical ingenuity (trip hop and electronic loops on a folk album?) is what makes it standout.
14) Air, Talkie Walkie
The Parisian techno duo that mesmerized us in The Virgin Suicides and brought smart Euro-electronica to ambient-lacking American ears with their four albums (since 1997) returned with a vengeance in 2004. Talkie Walkie is full of smooth, sexy ear candy that takes us from the earth to the moon and the beach to the sky, surfing on a rocket of precise, smoky eloquence. This go-round the French musicians offer vocals to accompany their sonic experimentations, and it works to great effect of addictive songs like “Venus” and “Cherry Blossom Girl.”
15) Mindy Smith, One Moment More
For those who had all but given up on contemporary country music, Mindy Smith might be your savior. A back-to-basics emotionally honesty and me-and-my-guitar simplicity make Smith’s songs stand out from the muck that CMT-superstars put out. A minister’s daughter, Smith injects many elements of faith into her songs, which otherwise drip with typical themes of love, loss and hardship. Her debut album has elicited praise and respect from the likes of Dolly Parton and Alison Krauss, and will likely win her many more fans longing for more organic, heartfelt country music.
[Brett McCracken and Ryan Hamm are roommates and similarly confused college seniors. Being hopelessly in love with good music is one thing they do to avoid thinking about post-collegiate life.]
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