Top 50 Albums 2004
By The Staff
20 :: Walkmen
Bows & Arrows
While the album’s legs are really “The Rat” and “Little House of Savages,” the muscles built around them, dirge and mid-tempo alike, are mostly still admirable, and the obvious improvement on their sophomore effort couldn’t be more marked. On “138th Street,” Leithauser wails “Everyone will say you’ve missed your chance / Everyone will say you’ve lost your edge.” The Walkmen seem to know a thing or two about missed chances; but as they prove here, with confidence, there’s no way they’re about to miss theirs. As every reviewer will expound at some point in his career, the sophomore effort of a great new band is often the most pivotal of all. Good for the Walkmen, because with theirs, they have made one of the best albums of the year.
19 :: Junior Boys
The whizzing-past of fast-fading ’80s and late ’70s-inspired thieving acts that couldn’t even last their given 15 minutes has become a bit too stylishly in-your-face; the cologne reeks, the pretty faces loom too large with their posed pouting. In this milieu the subtly glorious, heartfelt gem that is Last Exit shimmers through like an improbable breath of fresh air. Full of real, albeit muted feeling, it is an unabashedly pristine album, one both complex and oftentimes, strikingly minimalist. And that’s the draw: by letting its striking shards of melody and rhythm float and play within expansive space, the Junior Boys have created an album that begs to be explored, full of quiet corners and slowly-emerging, but immense, rewards.
18 :: Chad VanGaalen
(Catch and Release/Flemish Eye)
What exactly is so special about another singer/songwriter recording in his bedroom? First off, there is something intrinsically warm and soulful about VanGaalen’s voice—like his songwriting, landing somewhere between the incredibly sincere timbre of Neil Young, a younger Jeff Buckley (his work with Gary Lucas, mostly) and, at times, even Jim James.It raises these songs to a level rarely reached by fellow bedroom singer/songwriters. And, like the rare opening band that is able to vanquish the layers of odds stacked against them and demand attention from the unsuspecting crowd, this unknown singer/songwriter from the lonesome depths of Calgary, Alberta rarely fails our imagination once he’s nabbed it.
17 :: Animal Collective
A friend prefaced my first listen to this record as “either completely brilliant or drug-induced insanity,” though neither of us were in a position to decide. Within seconds, “Leaf House” had opened the album with an incredible rush, like if the rest of the Beach Boys, Smile/Smiley Smile-era, had decided to join in instead of harshing Brian’s buzz, continuing in the tradition of disregarding musical continuity and releasing something that would make Sgt. Pepper sound like Herman’s Hermits. It rarely reaches those heights again, but Sung Tongs does manage—and this is something that Here Comes the Indian and Campfire Songs in particular hadn’t done for me—to keep me engaged from beginning to end.
16 :: Streets
A Grand Don't Come For Free
Mike Skinner will never be rapper enough to match his stories, and his beats will most likely remain sparse and not entirely original (though there are more interesting rhythmic ideas here than one would expect from the Streets). When he focuses on his stories however, and absolutely embodies the characters—right down to Mike’s frustrations with cellular technology and his broken TV—Skinner shines out as one of the most interesting rappers (and really even musicians) out there. Story rap was often a great thing, and Skinner understands this and fits it to his reality. Anyone who can’t appreciate that is merely missing the point.
15 :: Sonic Youth
That a band so old can arrive in the ’00s so relevant, and produce what is easily one of the best albums of its career two decades after its greatest masterwork, is a hell of an accomplishment. Statistics would indicate that Sonic Youth would be dead by now; instead, they’ve made every incoming act of 2004 sweat, setting an impossibly high bar with an album that is, flat-out, essential. I’ve never been one to root for the old guys, but right now they’re kicking the young guys’ asses, and in the best possible way. How strange and improbable, that after all this time, the only guys who can top Sonic Youth are themselves.
14 :: Iron and Wine
Our Endless Numbered Days
Despite the studio treatment, Beam’s songwriting and voice—still in all its throaty, whispered glory—remain the same. Sounding like death itself awaits him with the impending end of each song, his voice remains unassuming to say the least; then again, an obnoxious, confident tone would sound egregious against a set of gorgeous, lightly finger-picked Nick Drake-ish ballads. But as much as we often wish artists would stick to what they’re good at it, I can’t fault Beam for sticking to what has been such a successful fit for him. If you were a fan of his style on Creek or last year’s excellent Sea and Rhythm EP, you won’t find many surprises, but you will find some of his best songs (“Each Coming Night” and “Sodom South Georgia,” specifically) yet.
13 :: Dungen
Ta Det Lungt
The best justice I can do this record is to say that in its just-enough variation, with each piece coyly easing majesty through a far-left-of-alt-rock take on arrangement (not to mention its somewhat-social agenda), Ta Det Lugnt could easily be twinned with The Bends in tightness of realization and execution. And while it’s impossible for its words to resonate equally with non-Scandinavians, can any of us claim to have understood exactly what Thom said the first time we heard “She lives with a broken man / A cracked polystyrene man / Who just crumbles and burns”? Every part of Ta Det Lugnt that you haven’t been missing, you’ve been hoping for. That’s why it’s foreign in geography only.
12 :: Interpol
Critics and fans have only been able to attach incorrect or conflicting references to Interpol. Joy Division has been the lazy toss of many critics, and an equal number have denied the comparison as one based merely on similarity of haunting atmospheres. But aside from “they’re not Joy Division,” positive and consistent references are fleeting; I’ve heard mentioned the Smiths, Talking Heads, Gang of Four, Fugazi, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Pixies, Wire, and even My Bloody Valentine. So, Interpol either sound like every great band from 1978-2002, or that they just have one thing in common with all these bands: greatness. A debut isn’t enough to vault them among the greats; but a nearly perfect follow-up like Antics just might be.
11 :: Drive-By Truckers
The Dirty South
Never for a second does the listener believe that their three songwriters don’t have first-hand knowledge of their subject matter. Because while Drive-By Truckers happen to be a completely kick-ass rock band, they’re storytellers first and foremost, with a staggering eye for detail that can only be the product of a Southern upbringing and years of hard living on the road. The rare group that would probably encourage you to read the lyric sheet while you listen along, Drive-By Truckers have released The Dirty South, their latest successful foray into celebrating the mythology of the American South while painting a sympathetic portrait of its denizens. Comparing it to the last two Truckers’ records is like arguing over the merits of the first two Godfather movies; either way you win.