This year, like every year, and like a lot of people, I heard a lot of music—at home, at work, at friends’ homes, in stores, at bars, at restaurants, on planes, on trains, in taxis—everywhere. And it was every kind of music from everywhere in the world from every year; after all, we humans have decades’ worth of music written, recorded, and archived. With what we’ve got stored up so far, a person could listen forever and ever, and never even make a dent in the whole list.
That’s why it’s good to have just one list, a shorter one, to know what’s the best of the best—the stuff you really should be spending your time listening to. So let the records show (uh, so to speak), these are the 10 best albums from 2004, in order.
10. Phoenix, Alphabetical
What happens when everybody’s favorite genre-hopping French guitar outfit releases an album of make-out jams dripping with boy-band-ish four-part vocal harmonies? You get Alphabetical, 2004’s soundtrack to cool-people hookups across the globe; it’s true, this stuff is like Vandross for hipsters. And it’s lovely.
9. Ratatat, Ratatat
It’s mind-blowing electronic-guitar instrumental noodling. It’s equal parts Daft Punk and hip-hop and Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, and it’s astoundingly good. And outside of the beats, it all either really is or just really sounds like it could be emanating from duo Evan Mast and Mike Stroud’s guitars and basses: exciting, howling leads, crisp bass walk-ups, growling builds. As much as some of the songs seem like they’re headed straight over the top and into musical inanity, it all works out to be a restrained and thoughtful, yet provocative, affair.
8. The Elected, Me First
Aching in its simplicity and directness, this beautifully conceived country-ish (banjo!) / electronic-ish (drum machines!) / folk-ish (Guthrie!) record is a pleasure from beginning to end—and “My Baby’s a Dick” is the song bridge of the year, when singer-songwriter Blake Sennett’s hopeful vocals search for an answer as echoing drums wreck behind him—it will stand the hair on your spine up straight every single time you hear it. While Sennett’s other band, Rilo Kiley, received its due share of praise this year, the Elected gets my vote for that particular family’s best kid with this album.
7. Xiu Xiu, Fabulous Muscles
Lovingly fractured, erm, “pop music” from a band who, four years after they first started blowing our minds (and our speaker tweeters to boot), continue to confound most everyone who hears them, except for children, but what do they know? Children, after all, still haven’t learned the only way you’ll get ahead is if you shut off your imagination, because who knows where you could wind up if you let it run away with you? Xiu Xiu knows.
Fabulous Muscles is actually the band’s most melodious release to date, with many of the songs here qualifying as downright gorgeous. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its fair share of unexpected screams and chalkboard-in-a-viper-pit moments, mind you, but for those who love Xiu Xiu, it is saying something.
6. Rhythm of Black Lines, Human Hand, Animal Band
Mind-expanding prog brilliance. This collection of intricate musical journeys truly must be heard to comprehend. As involved as they are catchy, the songs morph so naturally, so imperceptibly from beginning to end, that only after a couple of weeks will you recognize which song is which. And by then you’re singing along, humming every layer of guitar, snapping your fingers to the complex bass, and tapping your toes to the rapid-fire drum fills.
5. Interpol, Antics
This year the boys in ties returned with a sophomore effort owing no debt to that revered post-punk Mancunian group who had the deep-voiced lead singer. You know the one; they wore ties. Anyway, this time around the similarities end there. A lot more sounds and textures are being explored, and the playing often dips heavily into genius; the haunting “Take You on a Cruise” may, in fact, be the finest song of their career thus far.
4. Morrissey, You Are the Quarry
If Morrissey is James Bond—and he could be—then this is Never Say Never Again. After a string of un-successes in his generally impeccable career, Morrissey was ripe for a comeback, and here it is: the most adventurous album he’s ever released, solo or otherwise. All of the bile, all of the venom is back in invectives like “America is not the World” and “I Have Forgiven Jesus.” It seems like the Morrissey of old, but that’s because it’s Morrissey increased, more Morrissey than ever; now his lyrics are more involved, braver, more-self-effacing. And “You Know I Couldn’t Last” is a not-so-gentle reminder that this is all about him, not us—we’re only here to watch and listen… and he wants to know how dare we, his audience, not have purchased his last few records, as he sings, “The teenagers, who love you / They will wake up, yawn, and kill you.”
You have to admit, the man’s got a point.
3. The Arcade Fire, Funeral
The Arcade Fire blasted into the second half of 2004 in a rain of uproarious enthusiasm and joie de vivre. And that’s just the music press talking about the Arcade Fire. In fact, the hype piled onto this group of, what, 28 Canadians with harmoniums and motocross helmets was, unbelievably, worth every word. For any and all, describing what the Arcade Fire sounds like is pretty difficult, though “art-sy Springsteen” seems to do the job pretty well—because it’s all about that kind of energy that really grabs you and pulls you up. Ah yes, it’s that classic rock-and-roll energy, but in a whole new way, and it’s all over this beautifully honed album.
2. Lansing-Dreiden, The Incomplete Triangle
A criminally underappreciated album from a band shrouded in secrecy (and that pretends to be a corporate entity) The Incomplete Triangle is divided into three distinct sections—the first rock, the second ambient pop, and the third electro dance party—and it’s a spectacular exploration of styles that few have ever attempted, much less handily succeeded with. It seems so unbelievable, the breadth of the material here, that you might even entertain their assertion that they’re simply a company that churns out music. After all, how could any normal “band” achieve something like this? And that’s Lansing-Dreiden: not a normal band. Given that, we look forward to seeing their conversion figures from the fourth quarter—we hear they’re nothing short of paradigm-shifting.
Album of the Year: The Secret Machines, Now Here Is Nowhere
Stunning and captivating, the debut album from this New York-based band (though based on their touring schedule this year, we have to imagine they’re subletting their apartments) overflows with terrifying energy. Every sound is defiantly punctuated; every song swells with rhythmic intensity. It’s so awe-inspiring, how as soon as they’ve pulled you sufficiently under, their hold on your attention is so palpable, that the slightest alteration in a drum pattern can convey such pure emotion that it feels like your heart will break in two. Yes, this is music on that kind of a scale.
While this certainly falls somewhere in the realm of rock and roll, it’s like nothing else, ever. “First Wave Intact” is a wall of, no, not noise, but emptiness—as if the band is playing the space between the notes with as much care as the notes themselves. “The Road Leads Where It’s Lead” arcs and pulses with gritty vocals, anchored by pounding, dance-y beats and synth leads. “You Are Chains” is a masterpiece of lyrical arrangement, and who knew anybody did that anymore? Well, they did it, they did it with this album, this year, and they did it better than anyone else.