Year End Review 2004

2004: The List

We are a nation obsessed with lists. We just can’t get enough of them. Lists of best and worst movies, TV shows new and old, miniseries, documentaries, reality shows, broadway shows, cable shows, fashion delights and faux pas, stocks, football polls, power rankings, places to live, careers, schools, sexual positions, most beautiful people, most eligible bachelors, biggest celebrity bitches, most embarrassing moments, on and on and on.

And anytime anything happens these days, we analyze it, debate it, and rank it on a list to determine how significant or unbelievable it was. Otherwise, we’re not sure it mattered. The top 10 greatest sports comebacks of all time, most destructive natural disasters, shocking celebrity court decisions, overlooked pro bowl selections…

You get the idea. We love lists. On many popular websites, you can make your own list of best fantasy football picks, rank some random person’s hotness, or give your top 20 albums that get you in the mood, or make you shake your tailfeather, or cry like a promdate schoolgirl. These days, anyone is apparently qualified to make one. Even me. So here is mine, for this year’s best music, starting at the top, and going on from there.

ALBUM OF THE YEAR:

Green Day – American Idiot

I thought I knew Green Day.

1994: They burst onto the scene as snarling, rawkous, pogo-ing bitches playing some bastardized take on punk. That album, Dookie, was a classic for its in-the-moment relevance and attitude. Since then, they faded off the radar with bullshit ranting about self-deprecation and who cares what else. Crap knockoffs like Good Charlotte and Simple Plan should be paying them royalties for what they started.

Fast forward to 2004: Green Day makes epic, political rock opera. Those last 2 words usually conjure feelings of bloated exercises involving The Who or Bohemian Rhapsody or Meatloaf and other things 1977. Stop right there.

Idiot is none of the above. It’s not the pissy old Green Day and it’s not a pissy old bloated opera. It is a charging, dynamic, thrilling social commentary of smashing rock songs. The only thing opera about it is the messy plot involving Jesus of Suburbia and Whatshername, and the way they layer bits of songs and lyrics together in a stop-start pattern, questioning who you are and if you’re showing up or not. With the title song, plus “Wake Me Up When September Ends” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, it’s Rock Against Boredom and Complacency for the blue and red states of America in 2004. America, meet Green Day. Essential.

Runners Up:

Angela McCluskey – The Things We Do

This Scottish songstress is a true snapshot of her hometown, Glasgow: gritty, sexy, stylish. She channels equal parts Billie Holiday and a more medicated version of Macy Gray in singing about life, death, beauty, darkness, sex, pain, drinking, and dreaming. Listening to it, you get the impression that she had no rules or preconceptions about what a pop album needs to sound like in 2004, but rather just wanted to release the voice that had been growing inside her since she was a little girl. Start to finish, this is an amazing collection of searing songs by a truly eccentric and remarkable singer.

Ray Lamontagne – Trouble

There once was a man from Maine. His name was Ray Lamontagne. He quit making shoes, to go sing the blues. Now he shares his joys and pain.

This former shoe factory worker quit his job, packed up his wife and kids, and unleashed his soul into the microphone. A bit of a throwback to the Cat Stephens and Janis Joplins of the 70’s, this scruffy, beleaguered storyteller chronicles tales of love (“I’ll lay down this bottle of wine, if you just be kind to me”) and the state of the world (“How come I can’t tell the free world from a living hell”). Rarely in this age of glitz and glamour do we get such a straight shot of true emotion.

U2 – How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

If U2 hadn’t made so friggin’ many great albums before this one, this would be big news. Among their best, Bomb pulses with a life and spirit that these aging rock stars shouldn’t even be able to remember. U2 are now fulfilling their ginormous destiny of being the biggest and best, with Bono as over-the-top rock star and activist. While the Edge is ripping it up musically, Bono is looking to save the world from hunger, debt, cancer, death, and whatever else gets in his way – through their epic songs. Carry on, men.

Kanye West – College Dropout

This is that disc that dropped this year that had critics and fans wetting themselves in hysteria. Hip-hop, at its heart, is about songs and lifestyle, not albums – and as a result, complete, full-force, long-lasting hip-hop albums are almost non-existent. This one comes close. After producing some of the biggest stars in the business, Kanye has a party with his boys and boos (Jay-Z, Chaka Khan, Common, Mos Def, Harlem Boys Choir, to name a few) and picks samples like fine wines on the hottest tracks of the year. “All Falls Down” and “Through the Wire” are addictive, but the fact that the explosive “Jesus Walks” made it as a single is the shocker of the year.

Franz Ferdinand – Franz Ferdinand

If FF were candy, they’d be pop rocks. Kapow! Their aim is to make rock music that girls can dance to. Art school haircuts, stripey shirts, and modest goals are not enough to fool us: they bring the party for everyone. So cheeky and clever they can only be Scottish, the music is fun enough to not care about the lyrics, but when you do listen there’s wit and sass about them. They have fantastic passion because they say they do. They play the tease by going to a gay club and dancing with a man. They drink champagne and only work to earn money to go on holiday. You’re never quite sure what they’re going on about, or if they’re playing you. Fabulous.

Badly Drawn Boy – One Plus One is One

Not so good at math, Badly Drawn Boy continues to be England’s poet laureate. Woolen-capped Damon Gough mixes piano, flute, and whatever else he pulls out of the orchestra in Beatlesque arrangements that set the backdrop for Sunday morning brunch in the garden, with fresh cut grass and birds announcing Spring’s arrival. His songs of struggle and love will make you want to help an old lady across the street and buy flowers for your friends.

Junior Boys – Last Exit

Sophisticated Canadians. For real! The minimal and electronic backdrop creates a bouncy and subdued whisper-talk chill out landscape that will calm your nerves and activate your senses. Standout tracks are “Birthday” and “Teach Me How to Fight”.

Ray Charles – Genius Loves Company

Apparently Ray Charles invented soul music. I wasn’t aware until this year, when – after his death – everyone said it was true, so it must be. Along with a high profile movie about his life, this collaborations CD vaulted him into the spotlight. Most of the matchups here are a great fit, especially Bonnie Raitt, Norah Jones, Willie Nelson, and Van Morrisson. Even in the twilight of his life, his strong soul persisted.

Martina Topley Bird – Anything

Martina was the trip in Tricky’s first 2 trip-hop albums in the mid 90’s. It’s no coincidence that after they parted ways (one lovechild in tow), Tricky’s sound and creativity faltered. The real star was this seductively strong yet vulnerable voice, that snakes lazily over the hottest beats since Massive Attack’s Mezzanine. (In England, title is Quixotic)

Gwen Stefani – Love, Angel, Music, Baby

There is something to be said for an album that prompts a strong reaction like “what the hell is this?!”. That is LAMB: glitzy, glamorous, retro-80’s guilty-pleasure pop. Always dressed to the f$cking nines and sparkling like a diamond, No Doubt’s diva goes back in time and recreates a fun, cartoonish soundtrack for the future. There’s no trace of ska here, and after a few listens, you’re reassured that Gwen is the coolest pop icon we know.

Zero 7 – When It Falls

Zero 7’s first album Simple Things was a masterpiece (if you have any interest in easy going jazz-tinged electronica with warm commentary about life and love, get it NOW). The follow-up When It Falls is more lush and floaty (there’s even a song called “Somersault”). When It Falls is a bit lighter on fullness, but anything these guys do deserves heavy rotation.

Norah Jones – Feels Like Home

Norah Jones could sing the 7-day forecast and it would sound wonderful. She just has one of those voices that sounds so good, all the time. Her second album is a bit more varied than the first, which sometimes works well (“What Am I To You?”) and sometimes doesn’t (“Creepin’ In”). The songs this time are more bluesy and acoustic, and less jazz-tinged.

Trashcan Sinatras – Weightlifting

Obscurity knocks again for TCS. After a few stellar albums in the early 90’s these guys disappeared before turning up this year out of nowhere – sounding like nothing had changed. The fantastic melodies and jangly pop chords still disguise the melancholy in a way that makes you wonder why they went away in the first place. In good company with Travis and Keane.

Bjork – Medulla

Medulla is like that museum piece that you’re not sure if you like or not, but the undertaking is clearly ambitious and worthy of your attention. Never one to rest on her creative frostbitten Icelandic laurels, Bjork created an album of howls, yelps, and whispers, with some beatboxing and choirs thrown into what seems like a private party that you’ve snuck into. 20 years into her career, Bjork keeps innovating and making fascinating songs. This bird is crazy. Bravo.

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