I am going to try and whittle this list down to 10. Amazingly, there was a lot to like in 2004, sound-wise. And while I didn’t have the privilege of hearing everything out there, I can opine about what was best of what I did hear. Now, I will proclaim my favorite LP of the year at the end, but the remaining nine are in no particular order.
- Van Lear Rose – Loretta Lynn This collaboration between country-music legend Loretta Lynn and Jack White of the White Stripes was an unexpected thrill. White produced (and performed on) the album, and Lynn — for the first time in her long career — wrote all the songs. The result: Moody, rocking, passionate songs that cut to the emotional core. One may not have imagined these two artists teaming up, but thank the goddess they did.
- Good News For People Who Love Bad News – Modest Mouse The breakthrough LP for the indie-rockers may rile some of their old fans, and rightfully so. The joy of the Mouse has been the band’s unwillingness to conform to the musical mainstream. But this LP, which sounds strangely down-to-earth, manages to be more accessible than anything the Mouse produced before, yet just as exuberant. Worked for me.
- From A Basement On The Hill – Elliott Smith The troubled artist left this coil in 2004, and the album he left behind is wonderful and heartbreaking all at once. Not surprisingly, the music is simply beautiful, filled with emotion-packed vocals, lush backing harmonies, and rich sonic textures. Smith will be missed, and From A Basement on the Hill gives mourning fans, old and new, a fond farewell.
- The Delivery Man – Elvis Costello On this LP, the real king continues his foray through musical genres — this time, with backing band the Imposers, he visits the world of Southern American roots and gospel music. The songs touch upon a number of themes, including the nature of humankind and anti-war politics. The result is a soulful, clever album that Costello aficionados and appreciators of American roots-rock will enjoy.
- Beautifully Human: Words & Sounds Vol. 2 – Jill Scott Four years after we discovered this amazing vocalist — Who Is Jill Scott, Words & Sounds Vol. 1 still has a frequent place in my CD player — she followed it up with this gem. The wait was certainly worth it: Volume 2, which mixes jazz, soul, and old-school hip-hop breakbeats with the singer’s powerfully emotive voice, is at least as mesmerizing as Scott’s debut. I can’t wait for Volume 3.
- Folker – Paul Westerberg The erstwhile Replacement came back in 2004 with an album that shows him being more open and real than in any of his earlier solo work. Folker is reflective, personal, grown-up mood-pop that will resonate with anyone looking back at choices made in life and that continues Westerberg’s winning ways as a solo artist.
- American Song – Andy Bey Rod Stewart has found a lucrative new gig mining the Great American Songbook, but the Scot could learn a few lessons from jazz vocalist Andy Bey. Anyone can turn American standards into an easy-listening morass. But Bey made classic songs like “Lush Life,” “Satin Doll,” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon” new again. The combination of his amazingly supple voice — which moves easily between three separate ranges — and heart-stoppingly beautiful arrangments of masterfully played instruments gave me one of the most enjoyable listening experiences I had this year.
- Oyaya! – Angelique Kidjo The great Benin-born singer takes us on a great musical journey on Oyaya!, showing listeners African music’s influence on Latin and Caribbean sounds. Taking us through ska, Calypso, meringue, and salsa — among other island genres — Kidjo entrances with swirling grooves, pulsating rhythms, and enthusiastic vocals. This was the best trek I took without having to leave home.
- The Unbroken Circle: The Musical Heritage Of The Carter Family Various Artists You can’t have a complete discussion about country music and its history without talking about the Carter family. This album — released in the year June Carter and her husband Johnny Cash passed away — honors June’s musical family, which included the legendary Mother Maybelle Carter. Honoring the clan is an all-star roster of artists inspired by the Carters, among them, Rosanne Cash (daughter of Johnny, who also appeared on the LP), Willie Nelson, the Del McCoury Band, John Prine, and the great George Jones. John Carter Cash, son of Johnny and June, has produced a stirring tribute to his kinfolk that will help keep their legacy alive.
And now, AF&O’s favorite album of 2004:
American Idiot – Green Day This magnificent collection has been labeled as “punk opera.” That’s as good a description as any, I suppose. This hard-driving song cycle moves beyond punk’s limitations — you’ll find gorgeous melodies, tempo changes, and catchy sonic nods to the Beatles and Led Zeppelin — and, man, it rocks. You’ll also get Billie Joe Armstrong’s more mature take on life and the political landscape circa 2004 (yeah, he’s anti-war and anti-Bush, but you don’t have to be a lefty to dig this LP). American Idiot shows the power trio growing as musicians, artists, and humans. The next Green Day album should be really something. In the meantime, this one deserves all the accolades it receives.
Honorable Mentions: Eminem’s “Mosh”; Richie Havens’ Grace of the Sun; Leo Kottke’s Try and Stop Me; Joss Stone’s Mind, Body, and Soul; Kanye West’s The College Dropout; Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born; Bjork’s Medulla