I don't know about anyone else, but I think 2004 was a bad bad year for music. Looking through all the "new" music I got this year, over 80% of what I consider good came out in 2003. Regardless, there were some decent releases, and a few gems. So without further ado, in no particular order:
- A Ghost Is Born, Wilco. This is certainly not their best album, and it is especially weak when compared to their previous work, but Ghost was most definitely one of the year's best albums. Starting slowly, and relying less on hooks (but more on a soul), this is a complicated, sparse listen. The guitar solo during the bridge of "At Least That's What You Said" is absolutely brilliant, as is the long crawl of "Spiders," and the intense country store chic of "Theologians."
- Futures, Jimmy Eat World. Again, not the best work JEW has released, but there are some sonic masterpieces to be found. In particular the landscape of "Polaris," the nah-nahs of "Night Drive," and the amazing nostalgia of "The World You Know," all remind us that JEW are the masters of end-of-the-party music. It certainly doesn't rock as hard as Clarity or Bleed American, but especially with the bonus disc of demos, Futures is worth getting.
- Antics, Interpol. It would have been impossible to surpass, much less even match, the brilliance of Interpol's debut CD. Nevertheless, the intrepid NYC quartet tried, and they only kind of got it. Starting with a cheap imitation of Afghan Whigs, they go back to their gloomy homage to Joy Division, but only manage to hit about half their intended rock targets. Look for "Evil," "Take You On a Cruise," and "C'Mere" if you want to keep your faith in this group alive.
- Medulla, Bjork. Haunting, beautiful, and alien. It's difficult to describe Bjork's howler-monkey style of singing, but no one could ever dispute her sheer genius, originality, or skill. There are almost no instruments on this album; every sound, every beat, every background wail is the product of a human voice. It's basically a big "F-You" to her shrill critics, and I love her for it.
- Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand. They jumped on Interpol's mellow garage rock bandwagon, and steered it away from the post-punk of the late 80's towards more exciting territory. Another stunning group of musicians from the Glasglow music scene (joining their hyper-creative brethren Belle & Sebastian and Mogwai), Franz Ferdinand rock the house like it was just thrown into Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory with many hits of LSD. Their singles have been great, but it's the rest of the album that truly shines—these are brilliant rockers, and it's obvious to anyone who simply hears the first track, "Jacqueline."
- Good News for People Who Love Bad News, Modest Mouse. A radical departure from their established sound and style, Good News is much more easily digestible and accessible than Mouse's earlier work. The songs are immediately catchy, and the sentiments simple and existential (in keeping with recent pop philosophy). Though certainly not as daring as their older work, Good News is a good time, and still better than most of the crap we got handed this year on the music shelves.
- The Grey Album, DJ Danger Mouse. Remixing The Black Album is common enough to have its own construction kit, but DJ Danger Mouse took things a step further—he took chunks of the Beatles' White Album, cut them into pieces, and gently laid Jay-Z's vocals on top. The result is excellent, and bizarre (such as hearing "Julia" turned into Timbaland-esque syncopation for "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," or stitching "What More Can I Say" over "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"). It is also very illegal (the Beatles' samples were unlicensed), and Danger Mouse was served with a cease-and-desist order, and prevented from selling the CD. It spawned a massive online protest called Grey Tuesday, in which hundreds of websites hosted the album for download.
- Elysium, The Velvet Teen. The first effort by the Velvet Teen was tortured, wailing, and way too long for its mood. Elysium doesn't suffer from that last bit, since it's only seven tracks, but its scope has expanded way beyond anything Judah Nagler and team have done before. Though they have abandoned their almost-peppy guitar-driven sound, the newly piano-driven, string-laden landscapes they lovingly craft spell out disaster and despair like nothing else I've ever heard. If nothing else, this is worth purchasing for the thirteen-minute long epic "Chimera Obscurant," though the entire album sparkles with a mordant brilliance that's difficult to capture in words.
- Wanderlust, Laura Burhenn. Ms. Burhenn is an independent musician living in Washington, D.C. I posted a review of her CD that I wrote back in May. I think I said it well then: "Laura Burhenn is a perfect example of how independent musicians will eventually save the record industry from itself, from the downward spiral of over-marketed throwaway acts and slutty teenagers pandering to lecherous old men. She breaks all the molds of the young, beautiful, aspiring singer, and does so in a way that surpasses many established female songstresses." Yeah, so give this a try.
I'm sure there are others, like U2's latest, but it just came out and I haven't had a chance to listen to it yet. It's compelling, and it's a good bet it'll be one of 2004's best, but it came out so late in the year I would hesitate before considering it a true part of 2004. Regardless, these nine albums give me hope that even in off years, the music industry can produce meaningful listens, though if you pay attention you'll see that most are either on indie labels or recent acquisitions from indie labels.