2004 Top 10 ListSteve McFarland (2008)
Herein, a music nerd closes a long year with plenty of highs (evidenced below) and plenty of lows (the proliferation of Ashlee Simpson, Yellowcard and continued rise of vapid arena power-punk). This could never be a round up of the ten singularly greatest albums released this year. It strives only to find the ten most holistically exceptional rock records of 2004: exceptional in light of quality and content, exceptional in light of past achievements, and lastly – excuse me while I fly in the face of indie rock law – exceptional in light of success and acclaim. Hey, folks, it’s the world we live in; here’s music that deserves to carry you through it.
10. Mates of State – All Day EP
As an EP (and not an album-proper), All Day has no place on this list. As easily the greatest, most nuanced, and beautifully written work yet from this married San Francisco drums-and-organ duo - already a great band - it's something to talk about.
9. Franz Ferdinand – Franz Ferdinand
Never novel, always energizing, Franz Ferdinand put some sharp wit, insight, and a whole lot of rock back into Rock & Roll in the same year that Hip Hop, for the first time, controlled Billboard's Top 10 Albums list. Everything here is tight, 'Take Me Out's storied pace change only the final touch on one album that lives up to the hype. Hey, maybe that is something novel.
8. Brian Wilson - SMiLE
As a self-professed "teenage symphony to God," SMiLE succeeds uproariously, with a ceaseless orchestral sound drawing from the Beach Boys while never attempting to cast Wilson’s new eight-piece band as the living ghosts of the late Mike Love and Carl Wilson. Perhaps knowing that loss and mental anguish, which pushed the release of SMiLE back 40 some-odd years, adds a lingering hint of despair that seems to coexist simultaneously with his joy. This is not the album that your father has on some dusty old cassette tape, nor should it be. Moving his story through ebbing and flowing “cycles,” Wilson here creates a piece that, while it could never have been revolutionary, has only the slightest of hiccups.
7. Of Montreal – Satanic Panic in the Attic
On Satanic Panic in the Attic, Of Montreal not only grows up a whole lot from previous run-of-the-mill Neo-Psychedelia efforts (a la The Apples in Stereo) but packs increasingly more potent material into the allotted time (forty-three minutes on this disc). Kevin Barnes, working more alone now than ever before, sets the stage with 'Disconnect the Dots,' a stripped down track that itself is a metaphor for the rest of the album: Barnes has dismantled Montreal’s sound only to build it back up again, apart from anyone's previous work and rife with the lyricism and layered composition we expect from a genre - a band – with much energy left.
6. Sondre Lerche – Two Way Monologue
The singer/songwriter ark, helping artists prepare for the inevitable bubblegum pop vs. street rapper sparked apocalypse, is already packed. Dylan and Stevens jostle for room with Crosby, Young, and Mitchell; all their places well established in the annals of history. With Two Way Monologue, Norwegian Sondre Lerche twists and turns his voice and his pen around, working his way into that flood-proof ship. While steadily improving in all regards with each successive effort, it is only with this album that he finally finds both a mature lyrical voice and a complete command of his vocal prowess. Whether belting out one of the year's best pop songs ('Two Way Monologue') or lilting through a slow building ballad ('Track You Down'), Lerche never seems to miss a beat.
5. A.C. Newman – The Slow Wonder
A sort of retro-Power Pop deity, Carl ("A.C.") Newman's presence in a group (Zumpano and The New Pornographers most recently) has become a sort of hallmark of quality. Led by his vocals and taste for soaring guitars and the catchiest of hooks, Newman helped shape 2003's Electric Version from The New Pornographers into one of the best albums of the year. Now out on his own, Newman shows what he is made of as a solo artist: less of the driving rhythms, more chance for calm and consistently beautiful songwriting. He crafts perfect pop gems the likes of which have been scarce in recent years. The best of the genre has come from Newman's projects and with The Slow Wonder, he finds his greatest strengths lie in his most fundamental: flawless vocal hooks and musicianship.
4. Les Savy Fav - Inches
So much more than a singles compilation, Inches represents the preplanned work of a group whose seven years on tour and in the studio has found them throngs of rabid fans and much critical acclaim. This 18-track collection (two from each single) can be seen as encompassing every tendency of the Rhode Island band: from volatile noise to smart dance punk. To that end, the album slowly unravels in reverse chronological order from the tight, danceable 'Hold Onto Your Genre,' moving back in time as the band strips down its sound and songwriting while always maintaining an edge that Harrington's many fanatics will be hard-pressed to replace. This record contains some of the best work from a band, which, though never spot-on on full-lengths, has nonetheless made a tremendous impact on the growing Noise Rock movement and Rock itself.
3. Tilly and the Wall – Wild Like Children
Though they hail from Omaha, NE and feature former members of one of Conor Oberst's first bands (Park Avenue), Tilly & the Wall are nothing but juvenile love and tap dancing. Jamie Williams, professionally trained since childhood, makes up the bulk of the band's percussion section as she taps through most songs on the quintet's debut release - vocalists Neely Jenkins and Kianna Alarid add some well-timed hand claps and foot stomps of their own, but it’s the tunefulness and sincerity the girls display that is most outstanding. With additional vocals from Derek Pressnall (guitar) and Nick White (keyboard), Tilly's songs of love and teenaged rebellion ring with a truthfulness and purity that is never twee, never angsty; simply the earnest cries of youth backed by swooning, rolling melodies and harmonies. Whether chanting, "I want to fuck it up!" as on 'Nights of the Living Dead,' or singing to an old love ('Let it Rain'), Alarid and Pressnall's vocals stand out as a sort of key into a time so honest and blissful that it's likely too cute to be true. Tilly crafts Indie Pop - nay - Rock & Roll as it was meant to be: full of emotion, hooks, and driving choruses. This is what it is all about.
2. The Fiery Furnaces – Blueberry Boat
One website compares the first listen of Blueberry Boat to a first read of Shakespeare: everything just goes skating by, a strangely beautiful assemblage of sounds. It's only with repeated listens that one can crack into what is likely the most lyrically rich album of the year, a piece of concept art dreamed up by brother and sister Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger that runs at a never-bulky seventy-six minutes. In that time, the Brooklyn duo still craft the melodies that first garnered them recognition with 2003’s Gallowsbird Park, but do it in their own time and own manner - just as the duo's songwriting seems something out of the meandering dreams of a child. Their modulated sound hops from one melody to another within songs as the vocals move herky-jerky along their way – and only adds to the captivating whimsy of the album. That, it seems, is Blueberry Boat's strongest suit: that it elicits a sense of childlike wonder as the listener is led through vivid stories of dogs and blueberries, kidnapping and credit cards. An album of children's songs for adults, at once wildly experimental and fundamentally pop, for those apathetic to music and those deeply invested - Blueberry Boat is a sort of puzzle that still holds treasures after dozens of listens.
1. The Arcade Fire - Funeral
There was nothing released in 2004 that could approach the emotional and sonic fervor of Funeral. It makes sense, too, coming from a band whose infancy was shaped both by immense grief (familial deaths) and joy (the marriage of vocalists Régine Chassagne and Win Butler in summer 2003). The Montreal quintet tackles a standard rock theme - adolescence - with startling passion and an entirely unique perspective. Credit goes to the group's insightful songwriting and their crashing violin-soaked sound; but most of all to the passion of Chassagne and Butler. From the opening tale of two love-lost teens seeking a way out, the album arcs in both sound and lyrical content: across abusive relationships and oppressive adults to the true torment faced by Chassagne's homeland of Haiti. Both artists manage to find the perfect delivery - whether a shouted rallying cry or a breathy plea for help. The Arcade Fire have long since run away from the Broken Social Scene comparisons that last year’s self-titled EP garnered. That work was splendid, but it now quivers at the sight of the anthemic passion of this eight-piece’s first full-length. This album will draw in anyone who hears it on that passion and emotional strength alone.
A prediction for next year: Weezer will sell records, may be good; More directed indie pop will proliferate simultaneously with disjointed campfire meanderings; Fiery Furnaces will continue to blaze trails.