As usual my list is composed of the best music I heard this year, and is not limited to those released in 2004; I’m usually a few years behind the curve, so to speak, though my list is coming out a week or so early. (My old lists can be found at the bottom of this page.)
Laura Cantrell‘s Not the Tremblin’ Kind (2000)
This year I revisited / discovered to a lot of alt-folk and country music (not the classic albums — that’s next year’s project): the sublime Daniel Lanois-produced albums Wrecking Ball and Teatro, for starters. A good amount of Gram Parsons, and, as usual, a lot of Gillian Welch. But one of my favorite discoveries this year was Laura Cantrell’s Not the Tremblin’ Kind — a near-perfect mix of joyful melancholy. Though her lovely voice doesn’t have the same… wise quality as Emmylou and Willie above, there’s still something wonderfully appealing about this gem. Laura, where have you been all my life?
Wild Billy Childish and The Blackhands‘ Play Capt. Calypso’s Hoodoo Party / Live in the Netherlands (1994)
Billy Childish, one could argue, has a discography and work ethic that borders on the scarily obsessive, with a dedication to replicating an almost primitivist ethos to lo-fi garage/rockabilly again and again. This twofer CD from 1988 is something of an anomaly, because it doesn’t revolve around 1966, but it’s something out of time. This is Childish’s shambolic Caribbean garage take on calypso — and “Anarchy in the U.K.,” and “I Love Paris,” and “Rum and Coca-Cola” — and it’s an absolutely joyous affair. When rock and roll came to Trinidad, indeed.
Guided By Voices‘ Half Smiles of the Decomposed (2004)
It isn’t just because it’s Guided By Voices’ swan song: “Half Smiles of the Decomposed” is one of their most solid albums since Universal Truths and Cycles and, at least according to these ears, is up there already as one of the top ten GBV-related titles. It’s also retrospective (in the same way “Mule Variations” was, mixing up echoes of their lo-fi glories) and innovative (the excellent “Sleepover Jack” was actually mistaken for an Interpol track by a colleague, not that that’s necessarily a good thing). But it’s a flat-out solid indie rock album — chock-full of pop hooks (see “Girls of Wild Strawberries”), great Gillard guitar work (see “Sons of Apollo”) — from (at least for three hours last November) the greatest rock and roll band in the world.
Jolie Holland‘s Escondida (2004)
Jolie Holland’s Escondida is, again, one of those timeless albums — or so one thinks. It digs into Harry Smith’s anthology for atmosphere and swerves into folk-singer-in-a-coffeeshop delivery. And then something like “I got a couple of food stamps and a caffeine buzz” stops you in your tracks. The result: a stunner of an arch indie-folk album.
N.E.R.D‘s In Search Of… (2002)
I completely slept on this one — an even more egregious omission considering the fact that one of my people, Chad Hugo, is in it. N.E.R.D’s In Search Of… is unlike any hiphop / R&B / rock hybrid you’ve ever heard; like the Childish album above, In Search Of… is simultaneously inflected with fat keyboard sound from ’70s soul and ’90s raunch (as heard in the excellent “Tape You”).
The Streets‘ A Grand Don’t Come for Free (2004)
The Streets’ A Grand Don’t Come For Free isn’t really hiphop, though it uses hiphop beats. Mike Skinner’s shaggy-dog stories — about popping pills, returning a video, getting drunk, fighting with his girlfriend, losing money, meeting women, breaking up — seems to come from a more English tradition: that of the kitchen-sink, working-class, angry-young-man drama, like John Osborne’s “Look Back In Anger.” Consider it an anti-bling song cycle, if you like.
Kanye West‘s The College Dropout (2004)
Kanye West’s album The College Dropout breaks no new ground; it isn’t distinguished by his lyrical delivery or ingenious samples (indeed, the sped-up chipmunky samples are getting kind of old). But there is no denying the brimming, talented vitality at work here. We hear about “assured debuts” all the time, but this one bolted out of the gate like a rocket. Listen to the transcendent “We Don’t Care” and you’ll hear what I mean. Probably my favorite album of 2004.
And some runners-up:
Ghost, Hypnotic Underworld
Not from Japan, but from another planet: Ghost melds prog, metal, psych and folk into one tight maelstrom.
Hot Club Of Cowtown, The Continental Stomp
It’s described as Django Reinhardt meets Bob Wills; whichever way, it’s joyous contemporary Western swing.
Diana Krall, The Girl in the Other Room
Her strongest work since her Nat King Cole tribute, this album sees Krall (helped by her hubby Elvis Costello) blossom successfully into a singer-songwriter-pianist.
Merzbow released maybe over a dozen titles this year. Can I tell them apart? Heck no! But this one, yes: a return to Merzbeat-style beat-noise.
Joanna Newsom, The Milk-Eyed Mender
Cockles and caravels, karate kicks and bean sprouts.
John Zorn, Filmworks XII, XIII and XIV
Caught up on the Filmworks series glut this year: this is gorgeous, vital music, and if it seems a little polite for Zorn — XIV is practically dinner music — they’re nonetheless testaments to Zorn’s astonishing musical genius.
And four that just barely made it:
The Arcade Fire, Funeral
Coil, Black Antlers
Eagles of Death Metal, Peace Love Death Metal
Les Savy Fav, Inches
Belle And Sebastian, “I’m A Cuckoo (Avalanches Remix)”
N*E*R*D, “Tape You”
Bic Runga, “The Be All and End All”
Kanye West, “Through the Wire”
Kanye West, “We Don’t Care”
Emmylou Harris, “Wrecking Ball”
A Certain Ratio, “Do The Du”
Gillian Welch, “Black Star”
Shirley Horn, “Where Do You Start?”
Wilco, “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”
Aimee Mann, “Observatory”
Rilo Kiley, “With Arms Outstretched”
And finally, Disappointment of the Year:
Tom Waits, Real Gone
Don’t get me wrong; I love Tom Waits. But his albums since Bone Machine (including the wonderful Mule Variations) have been stamped with the same Waits template: rattly instrumental here, the two-hanky weeper there, the barfly song here, the hobo song there. It’s almost like the formal equivalent of your run-of-the-mill hiphop album: slow jam, gangsta track, club song, mix and match as you please. This time around the gravel in his voice grates; the overdriven sound rankles; the clank and wheeze wears you out. At least it’s a fantastic Marc Ribot album.