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This is it: the Top-25 Albums of 2004
Friday, December 24, 2004
This is not an attempt to rank the 25 best albums of 2004. Rather, it is an attempt to rank the albums that seem to have made the biggest impact on me, and which I expect to listen to the longest after the year is gone and they’ve all been properly filed. I’m not always right about that (Mark Knopfler’s Sailing to Philadelphia made this list in 2000; I don’t think I’ve played it since.) The main thing is, I’ve stopped trying to determine which albums are “best” and simply try to figure out what the hell I personally happen to like.

Things are starting to get dicey because of the live releases that many bands are making available (see #2.) How do you rank a live show made commercially available, alongside studio records over which the artist has taken 64 tracks and painstakingly labored? Answer: I don’t know. I suspect more and more of the live stuff will start creeping ointo these lists, because I buy and listen to a lot of it. I also get a lot of it for free via my insatiable appetite for that next great elusive bootleg.

After Smile, The rest of the top-10 is a total toss-up; if I did this list tomorrow the order might be entirely different. There’s one version with Sobule, Tan Sleeve, and the Silos ranked 2-4, but that one is based on how much I like the artists personally.

RIYL, of course, stands for "Recommended if you like."

1. Brian Wilson Presents SmiLE: With the exception of this release, it was difficult to array the 25 albums I wanted to acknowledge in any kind of order. But no question, Smile is the record of the year. Thirty-seven years in the making, and while it isn’t the album the Beach Boys would have put out in ’67, it is a magnificent piece of “rock opera” composition, expertly performed by an all-star, all-Wilson-loving band featuring the Wondermints and Jeff Foskett. This one is a timeless classic. Brilliant, timeless material, beautifully rendered. Many of the songs are so familiar in different versions that at first I found it jarring; I missed the audible edits in the original “Heroes and Villains.” Wilson is the lead singer on every song, which was very much not the case with the original Beach Boys. But a few listens gets you over that. As I said, I try to evaluate albums based on whether I’ll be listening in 5 years, and on that scale there is this, then there is everything else that came out this year. RIYL: Pet Sounds, Sergeant Pepper, the Beach Boys, Jeff Foskett, the Wondermints

2. The Allman Brothers, Instant Live, 9-25-04. They put out a proper live album this year (One Way Out) and it is quite good, but these “Instant Live” recordings of live shows—made available immediately after the gig is over, so you can take it home with you—are a revelation. I could just as easily have placed 3 more in my top-25 (Jones Beach; Knoxville with Jack Pearson; the previous night at the Fox), but this may be the best of all the shows they did via Instant Live, so here it is. Among other things this one features the first rendition of “Blue Sky” since Betts left; a spot-on “Les Brers in A Minor;” and an incandescent version of “Dreams” with Derek Trucks taking the lead. Consider this one album a placeholder for the entire Instant Live Allmans series. RIYL: The Allman Brothers. Even if you think without Betts you wouldn’t.

3. Todd Rundgren, Liars. There is a synthetic sound to this record that may be off-putting to some, but I find that it adds to the thematic content—ostensibly about the lies we tell each other and live with, but very clearly, there is a distinct undercurrent of facing mortality throughout, an almost palpable fear with which the artist wrestles. Maybe immortality is the biggest lie we tell ourselves. Todd’s best album in over 20 years, and a 75-minute slab that demands to be listened to in one sitting, the songs flowing one into the other. Some people won’t like this—the fake drums, the dreaded 16th notes—and some fans have said it hasn’t worn well since release. But I still like it. RIYL: Todd Rundgren, Philly soul, computers.

4. The Silos, When the Telephone Rings.
A bunch of my favorite bands made albums this year, and most all of them were very good. This is the best Silos record since the classic Cuba, with Amy Allison on vocals and Mary Rowell on violin back in the fold. Alt.country (whatever that is) of the absolute highest caliber. Several great songs, including the title track, “The Only Love,” and “Dumbest On Parade.” After two albums that deviated from the formula, this one is right back in Walter’s sweet spot. RIYL: The Silos Cuba; Los Lobos, alt.country where quality songwriting trumps barroom bravado.

5. Tan Sleeve, Bad From Both Sides. Steve and Lane, who some might remember from the obscure, lamented 80s archetypal power pop band the Wind, are back together in this delightful and underappreciated (under-marketed?) band. Ok, sure, I went to summer camp with Lane, so maybe I’m less than objective. But this is just redolent of the four Bs—Beach Boys, Big Star, Beatles, Bacharach. Steve’s songs are the more wistful, Lane’s the more biting, but both can do both. Delightful power pop of the highest order. This record will be over before you know it, which is to say, you might just want to hit play and hear it all over again. A much better sign than if you find yourself looking at your watch 5 songs in (as I did with Springsteen's The Rising.) RIYL: Big Star, Beatles, Beach Boys, Later XTC, early Stones.

6. BoDeans, Resolution.
A return to form—hell, a return, period—from the BoDeans, an earnest roots rock combo who haven’t put out an album since 1996. Too long to wait. Essentially a vehicle for Kurt Neimann and Sammy Llanas, the band shines brightest when the one wraps his voice around the other one’s songs. I like the first 4 or 5 songs, and “617.” RIYL: Indigo Girls, E Street Band, U2, Everly Brothers.

7. Chris Stamey, Travels in the South. It sounds like a Chris Stamey record, which is good enough for me. There is a Beach Boys influence which he grudgingly concedes hearing. A great summertime record, light and airy. RIYL: picks #1, 3, or 5 above.

8. Jonathan Rundman, Public Library.
Almost another Silos entry, as Walter Salas-Humara produces, and the Silos are Rundman’s backing band (Drew and Conrad, the rhythm section, but not Walter). But Rundman is a player in his own right. From my Amazon review: “The thing that makes this record so good is the song writing. Rundman's songs are simple and direct, yet full of profound word play; the beauty of the song form is that you can embellish words by their use within the melody. Ideally there is a synergy between the two. On paper the lyrics ‘I'm a librarian’ may seem hopelessly flat; but when Rundman lays into them here, emphasizes them, makes them anthemic, it is a sort of poetry. I almost said a poetry for the ear-- but all poetry is for the ear. And ‘Librarian,’ of course, is one of the album's key tracks.” RIYL: The Silos, Walter Salas-Humara, the great roots rock revival of the mid-80s..

9. Jill Sobule, Underdog Victorious. As a fan it is difficult to be objective—especially knowing all the songs (some in altered versions) before the album is out (and I still can’t believe she left off “Perry Street”…) Sobule’s happiest record ever, with both “Jet Pack” and “Cinnamon Park,” but there are the requisite tear-jerkers as well. Several recurring themes weave in and out and around each other on this album, but one of the strongest is an almost wistful nostalgia for the 70s. The joyous “Cinnamon Park” is set then, as is “Strawberry Gloss,” which is steeped in sweet adolescent pain; The title track is essentially Jill’s own take on “All the Young Dudes;” and “Last Line” is a great piece of song craft about a quintessential co-dependent 70s couple. Her writing continues to improve; live, very few can command a room with just voice and guitar like Jill can. I’m still waiting for a studio album that is as captivating as her live work, but the playful production here makes this one come close. And Artemis gave it a nice push. RIYL: Brains, poignancy, humor, charm.

10. David Grahame, Eric. More power pop. As my wife aptly said, “It sounds like the Beatles if the Beatles were still recording.” The Beatles influence isn’t that overt, but these are wispy, tuneful, gems of songs that sound like they exist out of time. You buy this directly from Grahame, who can probably be Googled via Dog Turner records. RIYL: picks #1, 3, 5, or 7 above.

11. Bjork, Medulla. I wasn’t sure what to do with this one. It is possible that this is a brilliant album and over time becomes the best of the lot. Or it could wear like a novelty and sink from my consciousness without a trace. At first listen it reminds of Todd Rundgren’s 1985 A Capella, because both albums are made with virtually every sound coming from the human voice. I have no context for Bjork—this is the only album of hers I know— but it is haunting and mysterious and other-worldly, and it doesn’t sound like anything else I heard all year (although if I were hipper, that might not be the case.) Full of breathy, oddly-textured vocal arrangements that aren’t quite singing. Hell, most of it isn’t close to singing. RIYL: Warm music that sounds cold (a la Madonna’s Ray of light); checking out some weird shit every once in a while.

12. Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose. Another one for which I have no context. Even though I’m not a White Stripes fan (or detractor either; I’ve never checked them out), no question Jack White’s presence all over this record (producer, guitar, even vocal partner) put it on my radar screen. This is what country music is supposed to sound like, and once did—authentic, from the hills, worldly wise, and a little scary. And for all I know its her worst in years. Shame on me. Anyway, everyone I play this for—13-year-old kids, my mom—can dig it. It’s the first time Lynn wrote everything on the album, and there is a hint of lingering sorrow here, perhaps owing to the death of her husband in 1996 (Think, "I caint, Dew, I caint.”) If Lynn and White have one thing in common, it is that both are totally real, and that shines through here. RIYL: Coal Miner’s Daughter; chicken-fried steak, real country music.

13. Los Lobos, The Ride: Album and tour represent a year-long celebration of 30 years of this great band from East LA. They bring on the guests like it’s the Grammys, and revisit a number of their own old favorites in the process. The companion EP, Ride This, where they cover some of the artists helping out (Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, The Blasters) should be seen as part 2 of a single work. A great record, but like a number of artists on this list, this is a band best served live, which is causing a number of albums to slip a few slots. Mature, adult, multi-cultural rock’n’roll. RIYL: As with all Los Lobos records that are mostly in English, this is RIYL rock’n’roll.

14. Gov’t Mule, Déjà Voodoo. Another case in point. Warren Haynes and Matt Abts, after the series of “Deep End” projects involving rotating bassists and line-ups, have picked up where they left off on Life Before Insanity as a 4-piece, with Andy Hess (bass; Black Crowes) and Danny Louis (keys; long-time Haynes crony) joining as a foursome. The album is an unabashed triumph in that Haynes manages to take the songwriting growth he’s undergone the past few years, and the traditional “whomp” of the Mule, and fuse them together into a logical and seamless whole. This is a long and major work, one you can play loud and get lost in, and the songs will form a good part of the nucleus of their stage show for some time. There’s the rub, though. I take future play into account on these rankings, and I know full well that when I want to hear these songs, I am more apt to go to one of the CD-quality Mule Tracks live concert recordings that I bought and downloaded from the band. I think so far my favorite of these is Halloween, and my favorite moment is from the Nashville show on 10/20/04, where Jack Pearson sits in and joins Warren on the 2-guitar showcase “Sco-Mule” (which you can preview at the Mule Merchandise site.) RIYL: Cream, Vanilla Fudge, the Allman Brothers

15. The Finn Brother, Everyone is Here. Finn albums—by Neil, by Tim, by the duo, or most famously by Crowded House—either grab me right off, or they never do. This one did (whereas the popular Neil Finn outing One Nil did not). It is my personal favorite Finn Brothers-related project since Woodface, which was the one Crowded House album where Tim joined brother Neil’s band. This one has a smooth, flowing melodic feel to it. Still relatively new, I expect it will reward repeated listening, always the hallmark of a good album. RIYL: Woodface.

16. Prince, Musicology. Not the return to form some have called it—Rainbow Children and his solo-piano club release One Night Alone were both better—but a solid album to tour behind in what was basically a year-long celebration of his induction into the rock Hall of Fame, and of the concept of actual musicians playing actual instruments and doing actual live singing. The tour blew away audiences all over the world, although the smaller One Night Alone tour documented on the 2002 live album of the same name was probably more rewarding for the true fan. Here we have Prince channeling his muse through the sound machine that made his biggest hits, resulting in an album that is not packed with hits, but reminds you of ones that are. And you know, I thought Parade was a dreadful let-down when it came out, and now I think it is a stone cold classic. So time will tell. RIYL: Old school Prince. But make sure you have the old school Prince stuff first.

17. Joss Stone, Mind, Body & Soul.
Remarkably, this new Aretha-voice lives inside the head of a 17-year-old British white girl. She could probably win bar bets. The arrangements are old school, Stone’s voice providing just the right combination of soul and grit. This was one of those albums I “bought for my wife.” And then wouldn’t let her keep it in her car. One day in the not-too-distant future this woman is going to make a truly great record. You’ll know it because it will be the one that doesn’t sell. RIYL: Slow jams soul.

18. Ani DiFranco, Educated Guess. After a seven-year stint with a tight band, first a 4-piece, then a 6-piece as she added a horn section, Ani completed the skin-shedding trilogy with, fittingly, 2003’s Evolve. Educated Guess is the beginning of a new phase, a one woman and guitar phase, and not the first time she’s been there. Ordinarily Ani albums rate more highly on my lists, but I found this one to be a disjointed listen. Evolve is growing in my esteem in the almost 2 years since its been out; this one seems stalled. Frankly, I find her political expressions far more effective when they are less overt, when they are the politics of the personal (e.g., “Letter to a John” from Out of Range.) Good folk protest music is about one hungry family, not the president’s economic policy (see Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.) But remember, this IS an Ani album, and that means we’re grading on a steep curve. RIYL: Dennis Kucinich, the environment, poetry, rhythmically challenging folk music.

19. Paul Westerberg, Folker. I’ve been trying for years to appreciate the Replacements and Westerberg’s subsequent solo output. I have been wholly unsuccessful. Until last year’s Dead Man Shake—that one sounded like the Stones playing the blues without rehearsing, and with Ryan Adams fronting. (Yes, I know about the Westerberg/Adams celebrity feud.) That I liked. Folker isn’t exactly more of the same, but maybe now that the last one has opened up my ears this one is hitting the pocket. I love the first song, “Jingle” (“This is my jingle, this is my single, buy it now, buy it now.”) Loose, sloppy in the way critics use “sloppy” when describing the Faces (which is to say, drunk-sounding.) RIYL: The Stones.

20. Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, the Equatorial Stars. Instrumental, ambient, an update on their mid-70s collaboration with newer technology. This is background music for when you want to give your brain something to do; “Here brain, go listen to this while I try to catch some shut-eye.” I listen to it on planes sometimes. Each artist breaks out his usual array of sonic gimmicks, but the trick is they both play wholly devoid of ego and with a full understanding of how to deploy technologies in the service of making music. It’s like you hear them dueling over who’s there least. The result is captivating music that breathes gently with you under a starry sky. RIYL: Naps.

21. Derek Trucks Band, Live at the Georgia Theater. This saw limited release—through iTunes, direct from Sony, and I gather at shows. Oddly, while Trucks is one of the most exciting and incendiary guitarists around today, I put this so low because I’m finding that it isn’t one of the first Derek shows I go to from the past two years when I have a hankering for that sweet tone. This is a fine starting point for the fan interested in hearing a live show without embarking into trader culture, though. I wish it had “Afro-Blue,” “Naima,” or both. RIYL: Duane Allman, Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana.

22. U2, How to Dismantle an Atom Bomb. The first few times through, I was calling this “stuck in an album that you can’t get out of.” Much-lauded, but it just didn’t grab me. While I was never a fan of “ironic” 90s U2, I did miss the Eno/Lanois team here. The buzz is that this is a guitar record and harkens back to their very earliest stuff. Well, it can’t touch Boy, and I’m not even sure it’s as good as the last one, which I liked quite a bit. But un-ironic U2 is good enough for me, and maybe if it had come out earlier I’d have had a chance to live with it more. Still, my lack of particular desire to do so says something, which is why it’s way down here. RIYL: early U2. Say, War.

23. Patti Griffin, Impossible Dream. A present from my brother, and I’m not an easy guy to buy an album for. Graceful, part country, part “Lillith Fair,” a very pretty album that I’m probably underrating. It will probably wear well for years to come. RIYL: the less cloying part of the Lillith Fair spectrum.

24. Wilson Phillips, California. Hard to believe I’m rating this band’s covers album (all familiar 60s and 70s songs about or associated with California) and not k.d. lang’s album of covers of Canadian artists. But while lang’s is a fine, “serious” listen, this one is fun, fun, fun till your daddy takes the T-Bird away. A great summer-in-the-car record. RIYL: old songs you recognize.

25. Hall & Oates, Our Kind of Soul. And speaking of covers albums, here Hall and Oates spend most of the CD covering the songs that inspired them—“Ooh Child” (they actually met at a Five Stairsteps concert), “I’ll Be Around,” “Neither One of Us.” The originals fit in seamlessly, but make no mistake, it is the covers—some done faithfully, some re-interpreted, but all sounding like Hall & Oates—that make this record fun. RIYL: Philly soul; “Betcha By Golly Wow” (even though it isn’t here.)

Also noted: The Indigo Girls album All That We Let In has its stellar moments but I found it to be a let-down after the high of Become You; David Byrne’s Grown Backwards could have cracked the list; Dave Alvin’s Ashgrove is a rockin’ good time; Cloud Eleven’s Terrestrial Ballet is more great sunshine power pop from Rick Gallego, a generous odds-and-sods collection which you’d see above if it had been a new Cloud 11 release; Green Day’s American Idiot drew raves as a punk rock opera, and so I checked it out, and it just sounds like punk rock to me, which I never much cared for; Matthew Sweet’s Living Things is the usual gorgeous Matthew Sweet album, and maybe with time it will emerge a favorite; as I said, I spent some good times with k.d. lang’s Hymns of the Forty-Ninth Parallel; as good as Smile is, that’s how forgettable Brian Wilson’s other solo album, Getting In Over My Head, is; all I can say about Wilco’s Ghost is, I still just do not “get” this band; Vinyl Candy and Cliff Hillis both put out fine power pop sets; Clapton’s Me and Mr. Johnson is a nice blues set; John Fogerty’s Déjà vu All Over Again just didn’t stick to my ribs like he usually does; and Elvis Costello’s The Delivery Man didn’t deliver, save for the Lucinda Williams duet. Oh, and Marianne Pillsbury’s The Wrong Marianne is a sexy, poppy, funny blast, a cross between the Go-Gos and the first Liz Phair.

Labels:


Posted by: --josh-- @ 11:29 AM  


1 Comments:
At 12/25/2004 6:21 PM, Blogger Seth said...   

"I'm not an easy guy to buy an album for"???? Gee, that's the understatement of the year.

And yes, you are under-rating it. Go get her other stuff, you won't be disappointed.


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