Top 50 Albums 2004
By The Staff
10 :: Devendra Banhart
Rejoicing in the Hands / Nino Rojo
Hands: In many ways, Hands is this year’s You Are Free: a powerful albeit slightly monotonous statement from a songwriter entering their prime, finally reaching a level of songwriting that is able to appositely match their vocal strengths.
Rojo: Banhart has kept behind songs with an increased sense of inhibition and humour, an album that doesn’t wander very far but is more welcome to the new than its supposed mother, and as such might not be as mature as her but manages to reach greater, more varied heights as a result.
9 :: Elliott Smith
From a Basement on the Hill
Of course now we have to talk about what Elliott Smith was, which makes From a Basement on the Hill all the more painful. The album is, in short, phenomenal. It certainly doesn’t match the beauty and heartbreak of Either/Or, but it manages to recapture the spirit of that record while properly articulating the orchestration that Elliott had been working with for Figure 8 and XO. Rob Schnaph and Joanna Bolme’s production work is questionable at a few points, and the frequent jumps between lush production and the sparse sound that characterized Elliott’s first three albums make Basement a bit jarring at first, but the songs more than carry the weight.
8 :: Ghost
When I reviewed this album earlier this year, I wrote my review in the form of the most absurdly difficult, overly poetic narrative of a samurai journey that has ever been written. So to put it more concisely: Hypnotic Underworld is a psych-rock album bursting with technical and compositional skill; from the 13 minute live free jazz opening of the album to its end, you get to experience some of the most astounding instrumentation and melodic strength around. Like my review of it, it’s a trying experience, but a supremely satisfying one (perhaps unlike my review). The drumming alone on “Piper” is so obscenely complicated in its fills and cymbal work that it’d be, by itself, worth buying the album; what a treat then, that the rest of the album is equally impressive.
7 :: Joanna Newsom
The Milk-Eyed Mender
The Milk-Eyed Mender is a stunning album, and Joanna Newsom is as fine a talent as the massive genre that “singer/songwriter” has to offer these days. Some will say that she sounds more like an eight year old than a twenty-two year old, but her wonderful way with words and stories is a treasure that will last far far longer than the next dance-punk style summer craze that the hip kids start screeching about. If you like Devendra Banhart or Animal Collective, or have a taste for unique and strange voices (from Jamie Stewart to David Bowie), you simply have to hear this album. If you like the voice, it’s a record you will cherish.
6 :: Frog Eyes
The Folded Palm
Whereas decipering Carey Mercer’s world seemed like too daunting a task on Golden River, Mercer’s voice is now more controlled than his previous explosions; entering Frog Eyes’ manic kingdom seems easier and also more worthwhile. He’ll still go high at times, of course, but his voice feels much more considered as an instrument to be stocked in the band’s already sizable sonic arsenal, as opposed to a take it or leave it challenge from the get go. It works much better and allows the listener to approach Mercer’s fascinatingly dense, absurd and obscure lyrics that roundly critique modern culture. The lyrics, spat in a fevered pitch, feature a stream of conscious easiness that can be lulling or disarming or simply amazing.
5 :: Max Richter
The Blue Notebooks
The Blue Notebooks‘ cover art, a desolate landscape covered by the overhanging of trees and indiscriminant shadows, reflects the album’s dark yet hopeful ambivalence. Standing alongside the likes of Johann Johannssonn and William Basinski, The Blue Notebooks is repetitious like infinite space—changing with each listen while creating its own atmosphere. Listen to “Horizon Variations” and you’ll know there’s a reason why scientists spend their lifetimes trying to understand a black hole.
4 :: Arcade Fire
It’s only been the span of a single year since their independently released EP Arcade Fire, before all of the funerals and weddings, but for those lucky enough to catch the group’s live show in any stage of its continual development, what the band delivers with Funeral shouldn’t be too much of a shock. Far more intense and animate than the soothing and romantic atmospheric folk that had taken up the majority of Arcade Fire, it captures both the incredible energy the band exerts live and Win Butler’s bizarre and eccentric control (his voice a compelling mixture between Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue, Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew and Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst) over his audience, from the largest arrangement to the sparest of acoustic ballads.
3 :: Madvillain
With expectations set so high there will certainly be those who will come away disappointed, and to be honest this isn’t an album that seems destined to be one of the classics of rap. When Madlib and Doom are on they come hard, and with Madvillainy they certainly hit more than they miss. In many ways it seems equivalent to a Guided by Voices album—some absolutely brilliant songs (“America’s Most Blunted,” “Accordion,” and “Figaro” to name just a few) interspersed with some kind of pointless-feeling filler and lesser tracks. Luckily Madvillainy seems to be more Bee Thousand than Do the Collapse; the absolute brilliance of the highs on this album manage to make up for the seeming lack of continuity and the occasional weak track.
2 :: A.C. Newman
The Slow Wonder
(Blue Curtain / Matador)
Avoiding the solo album cliches of excess and introspection that usually plague these kinds of outings, Newman rivals his usual power-pop fare with a good majority of these tracks, though it’s really the left-field additions—the sparse “Better Than Most,” beautifully arranged and structured “Come Crash” and the “Cloud Prayer”/“Town Halo” one-two—that make Slow Wonder more than just a by-the-books reminder of Newman’s writing skill and more a promise of things, of new avenues and styles, to come. Not that he really needs to add to his repertoire to win us over, but hey, he’s got a “supergroup” to keep in top shape for, and if this is any indication of what to expect from the next Pornographers record, his best may very well be still to come.
1 :: Brian Wilson
There are points of contention about Wilson’s voice, and yes, it’s true that it passed its peak many years ago—but with the Wondermints’ simulacrum of the group behind him, even at his worst he sounds invigorated, like the reopening of the SMiLE vaults somehow caused him to lose his latter-day lethargic and monotonal vocal personality. Defying most all fan fears, not to mention several laws of logic and nature, SMiLE has arrived as incredible and ground-breaking a record as any of us could have hoped. Though even its biggest of admirers has to admit that this new recording isn’t quite as gripping or magical as the original sessions, it does come amazingly close—and that’s just as much a testament to the Brian Wilson of today as it is to the Brian Wilson of 1966.