The Best CDs of 2004

2004: the year of Nu Wave. And an interesting year, for me, because I’ve always thought the New Wave explosion of 1978-79 was the greatest musical moment of my life, and the “New Wave of the ‘80s” stuff that trailed along in its wake was frequently pretty cool, too.

So when I realized that there was a new generation of bands coming along who’d been listening to New Wave (Elvis Costello, Police, Joe Jackson, Wire), late ‘70s ska (Specials, Selector), technopop (Eurythmics, Human League, Duran Duran), American Punk, Art Pop, and Power Pop (Talking Heads, Devo, Blondie), and Post-Punk (Joy Division, The Cure, Echo & the Bunnymen, The Smiths), I was elated. Sure, there was going to be some wannabe drivel, but every movement produces some genuinely worthy work, as well.

And there was. There was also plenty of good music in other genres, and it being one of the most contentious election years in memory, there were several bands who used their music to launch scathing broadsides at political cynicism, corruption, and abuses of power.

All in all a darned fine year, was 2004, marred only by the fact that I had neither time nor money enough to do it justice.

So, away we go. At the top of the list:

1. Green Day – American Idiot
Put simply: an instant, 5-star classic – not just the best record of the year, the best record of the year by far, and probably the best record of the new millennium. Green Day has been very good for a long time, but on American Idiot they transcend, cranking out a concept album (seriously, a punk opera?) that’s remarkably as engaging musically as it is shrewd and adept politically and culturally. It’s too early to say if Green Day is the greatest punk band ever, but this is arguably the greatest single work in the history of the genre (an argument that only admits one other candidate, The Clash’s landmark London Calling). How they follow this up I have no idea….

2. The Killers – Hot Fuss
The Killers were probably the best of the Nu Wave breakout in 2004. Sure, the Cure and Duran Duran influences are easy enough to see, but the band’s considerable songwriting chops elevate them well above the nostalgia/wannabe acts that will, in the next two or three years, flood the pop music landscape. My guess is that on their next record it will start to become clear that while the music of the ‘80s was a jumping-off point for them, they have no interest at all in being a retro act.

3. Interpol – Antics
Some of Interpol’s detractors seem to think they’re trying to be a Joy Division tribute act, and frankly, I just don’t get it. At least not on this CD. Yeah, they’ve clearly been listening to Post-Punk, but the mood and tonality of Antics is more externally focused and less self-indulgent than JD ever thought about being. Maybe the word I’m after here is “conversational” – Interpol seems to be (despite the one-way nature of recorded music) trying to engage us in a dialogue about our personal worlds, and in spots the tunes end almost expectantly, as if after a two-second break we’ll be allowed to reply with a song of our own. In fact, the single greatest strength of the record is its storytelling, which wanders into some interesting and unexpected places for a band of this type (the lyrics to “Take You on a Cruise” could fairly easily be retooled for a folk band). A very warm, compelling release – not quite as much fun as Hot Fuss, but probably more substantive and thoughtful.

4. Franz Ferdinand – Franz Ferdinand
FF has the early MTV pose down pat, but musically they seem to be reaching a tad further back, into the real New Wave of the late ‘70s, which was more defined by rhythmic space and emptiness than the wall-of-synth fills that characterized the technopop wave of the early ‘80s. Great songwriting – accessible without self-conscious hook-lust, and in this respect I can understand why they have been more popular with the indie-pop segment of the CMJ crowd than have some of their Nu Wave peers.

5. VAST – Nude
Visual Audio Sensory Theater – aka Jon Crosby – has been one of the more overlooked talents in all of popular music in recent years. The debut release was #8 in the Pit’s Best of 1999 review, and most critics think the sophomore effort was even better. Here, Crosby produces what I have jokingly called the best U2 record of the year – it’s hard to overlook the debt VAST’s sound owes to Edge, and in spots his voice sounds a great deal like Bono’s. Still, the reference is just that – a joke. Crosby is an artist with a gift for hearing associations between divergent aural and lyrical elements, and as such brings a vast (if you’ll pardon the pun) array of tools to the task of carving a path through the rough terrain of love and loss. Uniformly wonderful, and simply majestic in spots.

6. Marah – 20,000 Streets Under the Sky
This Philly outfit bills itself as the last rock & roll band. While that’s mostly tongue-in-cheek marketing patter, it tells you something about the state of the union that it even works as a joke. Make no mistake, though – Marah is a rock & roll band. No “alternative,” no “indie,” no adjectives needed at all. While obviously and thoroughly steeped in the legacy of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, it’s also sounds like Marah was paying attention to some of the region’s lesser-worshiped gods – in particular, Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes and Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul. The Jersey Shore sound is topped off by a rich sheen of glam stomp, a la T. Rex and Mott the Hoople. Not a combination I’d necessarily have expected, but it works spectacularly.

7. REM – Around the Sun
After five listens, I decided that the first six or seven songs of AtS would have made one hell of an EP if only they’d had the sense to stop there. But when I revisited the disc a couple months later, the remainder of the songs had somehow gotten better. Deeper? More resonant? I still haven’t quite found the right words to describe why I like the back half of the CD so much more than I did originally, but perhaps it speaks to its importance to the whole of the work. Maybe. At any rate, I now buy the line that preceded the release of the record – it’s the best thing they’ve done since Automatic for the People. And while Around the Sun is no Automatic for the People, it’s still an effort that convinces me REM has something left in the tank. I was beginning to worry….

8. The Faint – Wet From Birth
Every time I listened to this one it got better. There’s an infectious, almost manic energy about the songwriting and playing that reminds me of some of the better moments of late ‘70s Brit ska, and I’ve been told by people who’ve seen them that it translates into a great live show, as well. Also, you just have to love the sense of humor behind dropkickthefaint.com…..

9. A Perfect CircleeMOTIVe
There’s part of me that misses the APC from Mer de Noms, where dark and brooding went hand in hand with power and fury. But on eMOTIVe I think I begin to see the value in the dark and brooding sans power and fury. This collection of covers differs from most in that it’s less about a band paying tribute to its heroes and more about a band pulling together disparate threads to weave into a common message. In this case, the product is a seething tapestry depicting the evils of runaway power and the war this administration wrongfully led us into. The incredibly bleak take on “Imagine” was the song that people focused on, but Howerdel and Keenan also impose their singular tonal vision on “What’s So Funny (‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding),” “When the Levee Breaks,” “Freedom of Choice,” “People Are People” and “What’s Going On,” to name a few tunes, and if you’d never heard any of them before you’d swear they were all songs by the same band. It’s an oppressive and dire perspective, but is oddly at harmony with American Idiot.

10. U2 – How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
[sigh] So much hype, so much hope. Nothing damages a pretty good record quite like being hyped as a great record, which interviews make clear U2 thinks this is. HtDaAB is at its best when it’s up-tempo and blazing (“Vertigo,” “All Because of You,” and “City of Blinding Lights”) and at its worst when it descends into mid/down-tempo hell. It’s as though Bono and Edge keep trying to write another “One,” and as much as I respect the attempt to pay tribute to a dead father, as art “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” just doesn’t get it done. However, as I’ve said before, even bad U2 is better than good most anybody else, and if they can ever fully execute on the idea behind Atomic Bomb they might have another landmark on their hands.

Honorable Mention

The Cure – The Cure
It’s a Cure record. I heard someone suggesting not too long ago that Robert Smith has done his innovating and now seems comfortable settling into the groove he’s developed over the past couple decades. And why not? A lot of other bands seem okay settling into The Cure’s groove….

Jamie Hoover & Bill Lloyd – Paparazzi
Two jangle pop legends team up (along with The Smithereens’ Dennis Diken on skins) to produce a killer collection of retro-pop. If the record were less tuneful and less accomplished it might find its way into some college radio rotations, because it shares the same stripped, naturalist/minimalist production values that are so in vogue amongst the indie-poppers these days. As is, Bill and Jamie know how to actually write songs….

Adam Marsland – You Don’t Know Me
The former Cockeyed Ghost front man puts his name on this release, and like everything else he’s ever done it’s thoughtful, smart, and wonderfully executed. It’s especially enjoyable to hear somebody in the current generation of musicians who gets the brilliance of Todd Rundgren.

Rammstein – Reise Reise
I was expecting the usual goose-stepping Teutonic technostomp, but was pleasantly surprised by the nuance of Reise Reise. (Yeah, I know – I used “nuance” to refer to Rammstein.) “Amerika” is a brutal (yet oddly funny) whack at American culture and politics, and thanks to “Los” I now know what acoustic industrial sounds like.

Rilo Kiley – More Adventurous
Nice songwriting, really appealing vocals – Rilo Kiley is unusually tuneful and accessible by indie pop standards. I didn’t think they were as earth-shattering as some folks did, but Rilo Kiley seems to be perfectly comfortable doing a really good job over established terrain.

The Rosenbergs – Department Store Girl
Splitsville – Incorporated
The Power Pop Daily Double. Smart, solid, no pretensions guitar pop that’s built around these bands’ significant songcrafting ability. In a just world The Rosenbergs would now be basking in the global acclaim and disgusting wealth that attends releasing two records as good as Mission: You and Department Store Girl back to back. And while you wouldn’t mistake Splitsville for The Rosenbergs, they’re mining the same vein, and a lot of the same compliments are due. They write well. They sing well. They play well. They don’t insult your intelligence. Even as I slot these two here in the Honorable Mention section, I feel a little guilty, like maybe if I listened more closely another time or two I’d see why they really belong in the top ten.

Great 2003 Releases I didn’t find until 2k4

The Format – Interventions + Lullabies
They cover a bit of ground stylistically – Nu Wave to indie and then some – but there are a couple spots that really hook me back to The Outfield (“The First Single,” for instance), and while that doesn’t make this a classic, it was darned sure fun to listen to.

The Stills – Logic Will Break Your Heart
Just blew me away. The thing that sets these kids ahead of most of their Post-Punk brethren (Logic) would likely have been #2 on this list had it been released in 2004) is that their songs are just incredibly, beautifully, play-it-again-and-again gorgeous.

The Sounds – Living in America
A lot of people compare Sweden’s Sounds to Blondie, but aside from the fact that the singer is female and blonde I’m not sure why. I hear a lot more in the way of Motels and Missing Persons (a better physical comparison, as well), and like so many other Swedish imports, these folks can write hooks until the cows come home.

stellastarr* – stellastarr*
Fun band, neat songs. Some critics feel like they’re doing little more than rearranging elements culled from influences they share with a lot of other Nu Wave bands, and that they haven’t really found out who they are yet. Fair comments, I think, but if they do discover their own voices, their obvious knack for putting a song together are going to serve them well.

Mogwai – Happy Songs for Happy People
I’m not sure I hear “happy,” exactly, but I do hear positive. Typically rich, expansive – if you liked earlier Mogwai, this will probably resonate for you.

Other Stuff of Some Merit

The Arcade Fire – Funeral
Modest Mouse – Good News for People Who Love Bad News
Of Montreal – Satanic Panic in the Attic
Seraphim Shock – Halloween Sex n’ Vegas
The Rapture – Sister Saviour
TV on the Radio – Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes
VHS or BETA – Night on Fire

Finally

Brian Wilson – Smile
In the end, I just couldn’t treat this ‘60s outtake as a contemporary release. Also, if I had, what I would have said would have gotten me hate mail.

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