2004 / Music / Top 10

Soundbytes: Top 10 Albums Of 2004

David Runs Down The Past Year’s Best Releases

Read The Reviews: Kanye West | Tegan And Sara | Franz Ferdinand | TV On The Radio | Devendra Banhart | Candi Staton | The Secret Machines | Dizzee Rascal | Iron And Wine | Green Day

The year 2004 will be remembered as a year of ceaseless warfare.

On every medium, everyone seemed to be an all-out battle. It was a year of occupiers versus insurgents, liberals versus conservatives, government versus the media, and the public playing a dual and often contradictory role of spectator and facilitator.

Most surprising about 2004 was how these conflicts spilled over into the entertainment industry, affecting the content that we receive and the culture that we all participate in.

It was a staged “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl that proved the powder keg event that led the U.S.’s conservative movement — already in the ascendancy — to launch a highly effective offensive in the culture wars and roll back what it considers the excesses of Hollywood, the music industry, and the media in general.

The results? TV and radio executives, fearing stiffer fines and greater governmental scrutiny, have tightened the reins and installed new policies to restrict what makes it to air. Some awards shows broadcast by the major networks were put on a time delay to give censors a chance to bleep anything offensive. Shock jock Howard Stern announced they he was fleeing the confines of commercial radio for the Wild West of satellite radio. Some radio stations have taken to crudely edit songs with even the most mildly risqué lyrics to avoid hassles. Liberal-leaning documentarian Michael Moore had his latest anti-Bush film, “Fahrenheit 911,” rebuffed by distributor Disney out of fear of a backlash.

But beyond dollars and cents and the waffling of the major corporations that run the entertainment industry, the question remains: Did this conflict have an impact on artists? Did it affect what they are creating?

The answer is unclear — at least musically — because 2004 was so unremarkable. (More questions arise: Are artists holding back fearing censorship? Or are they uninspired by the chilly conditions?) With no epic, age-defining albums to dominate the public consciousness, 2004 seemed to have a little something for everyone.

Hip-hop’s hottest producer cut a record where he rapped as much about praising the Lord as he did scoring chicks. Some rock veterans got the makeover treatment this year and released records that were surprisingly strong. And a new batch of indie rockers thrived while flying under the mainstream radar.

Choosing the best of any year is always tough. But it’s really about who stands out and how everything adds up. This year, for example, the songs on The Divine Comedy’s “Absent Friends” featured some of the cleverest and most original lyrics of this or any year, but the highly orchestral, over-the-top music didn’t always compliment each other as well as it could. It was good, but not as strong as some of its rivals.

So, here’s a list of my picks for the best albums of the year, in no particular order:

Kanye West “The College Dropout”

Kanye West spent years molding hits for the likes of Jay-Z, Alicia Keyes, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Ludacris, R. Kelly, and Britney Spears, but he really hit it out of the park for his solo debut.

Photo: Roc-A-Fella Records/Def Jam Records

Photo: Roc-A-Fella Records/Def Jam Records

It seems Hill’s record was a clear inspiration for West. Both records feature plenty of between-songs skits with a school theme and in the case of West, he does recycle some well-known samples that appeared in the Fugees’ albums and Wyclef’s first solo record. Most explicitly, West used an acoustic ditty from Hill’s much-maligned second record as the basis for “All Falls Down,” but is able to flesh it out with a counter melody that brings greater depth than the Hill version.

According to rumor, West has already recorded another album for 2005. Should it prove as equally strong as “The College Dropout” and given West’s prestigious perch in the hip-hop producing pecking order, he can begin to nudge the genre away from the garishness that has prevailed in the music for too long now.

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Tegan And Sara “So Jealous”

For many, hearing naked neediness in a song is akin to nails on a chalk board.

The album, the brainchild of twin sisters Tegan and Sara, is a collection of confessions delivered with unblinking honesty and sweet hooks.

Only now are the album’s cuts bringing to creep on the playlists of the alternative radio stations. Better late than never.

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Franz Ferdinand “Franz Ferdinand”

Looking at how this year has played out, it would be plausible to conclude that Franz Ferdinand is destined to become one-hit wonders. The Scottish quartet had the catchiest rock single of the year with “Take Me Out,” but has yet to have another song follow up on their success.

The band’s music holds true to their formula — abrasive, interlocking guitars butting up against the throbbing basslines — but the group is able to create unique musical moods for each of its creations by making small changes. Coming-of-age song “The Dark Of The Matinee” relies more on the snap of Paul Thomson’s drumming and the musical jousting of the guitars than the bass groove.

The guitars play a critical role in “Cheating On You” as well. The song is an abrupt goodbye to an innocent lover, and the guitars’ frantic, locomotive rhythm, which alludes to a whipping through traffic, give the impression that the narrator thinks he’d better make his departure a quick one.

For “Come On Home,” guitarist Nick McCarthy chimes in with some feisty, Gang of Four-style riffs and singer/guitarist Alex Kapranos tests out his Thom Yorke impersonation for the chorus.

“Franz Ferdinand” is an excellent way to start a career and despite the, the group, more so that some others, have the tools — a desire to dabble in experimentation, love of the groove, and pop smarts — that could propel the band further and sustain a long-term career.

And they seem to want success too. While their contemporaries in the garage-rock movement have often been put off by their growing audience or are too heavily wrapped in their own bluster to enjoy the ride, the members of Franz Ferdinand seemed to relish it. During their recent U.S. tour, the band members were positively giddy onstage, and excited to hear the audience clamor for their sole hit.

Should Franz Ferdinand live up to their promise, they’ll be appreciated for more than just one hit song.

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 TV On The Radio “Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes”

TV On The Radio are perhaps the most unique band to emerge this year.

Lead vocalist Tunde Adebimpe, in particular, is a vocal chameleon that changes masks song by song. On top of the bluesy, rumbling rhythm of “The Wrong Way,” Adebimpe wails just like Jack White of The White Stripes. During album closer, “Wear You Out,” his cool falsetto mimics that of an R&B loverman.

Similar in spirit to Paul Simon’s work with South African vocal groups on “Graceland”, the acapella “Ambulance” is a vocal piece that presents the beauty of the human voice. In this case, TV On The Radio has created that puts a post-modern spin on doo wop music.

Unlike so many, the album garnered good reviews and notices. In fact, it was the winner of 2004’s Shortlist competition, an award established to recognize underground artists in rock and hip-hop. Finally, an award goes to someone who truly deserves it.

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Devendra Banhart “Rejoicing In The Hands”

He has the same Jesus beard, the good looks, and even the acoustic guitar, but Devendra Banhart isn’t a Cat Stevens clone.

Well, there are some strings on “Rejoicing In The Hands.” Case in point is “It’s A Sight To Behold.” Built around Banhart’s circular, minor-key strumming, the song’s tone has a darker feel and carries the same musical/lyrical intensity as folk classic “House Of The Rising Sun.” Those pesky strings appear minimally and miraculously add weight to the a heavy song instead of making it cheesy.

All the songs on “Rejoicing In The Hands” are centered on acoustic guitar and its surprisingly how he makes each of the 16 tracks stand out.

Equally noteworthy is how well Banhart’s vocals and lyrics work together. It’s something of a dichotomy. His voice sounds weary, and yet youthful. His lyrics are a bewildering array of snippets. They are glimpses of a life that’s both surrealistic and yet easily understandable and relatable.

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Candi Staton “Candi Staton”

Candi Staton’s self-titled release is the musical equivalent to a message in a bottle, cast into the sea many years before.

More specifically, the album sounds like a leftover from a bygone era because that’s what it is. The record is a compilation of songs Staton recorded years ago but which never got the attention that rightly deserve. The album was released last May by electronic-friendly label Astralwerks Records and cleverly features a youthful, Afro-ed picture of Staton on the cover. Many buyers couldn’t be blamed if they thought they were picking up a brand, new release by an acolyte of Macy Gray who vastly outshines her mentor.

Regardless of how sneaky the record was marketed, “Candi Staton” should place Staton alongside Solomon Burke and others as who’ve been belatedly recognized as soul masters who went cruelly overlooked in the genre’s heyday. (Poor sales and little public recognition ultimately forced Staton to years of wandering from one label to another and dabbling in disco, gospel and pop. According to her Web site, she’s currently devoted to evangelical music.)

The most obvious culprits are the standards that Staton covers like “That’s How Strong My Love Is” and “Stand By Your Man,” or when she turns “Another Man’s Woman, Another Woman’s Man” into a nearly perfect replica of Sam And Dave’s “Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down.” While definitely enjoyable, by trying to record songs so identifiable with other artists, Staton only succeeds in setting herself up for comparisons.

The record is strongest when Staton’s personality comes out more distinctly on songs that she should’ve made famous. Staton is an earthy belter, more reminiscent of Pickett and Redding than Aretha, and her cool, assertive vocals pair nicely with the funky rhythms on “Do Your Duty” and “Love Chain.”

Moving from song to song, the single unifying aspect is the perseverance and burning purpose that Staton embues each character in her songs. They might be hurt, betrayed, and abused, but they are a survivor. This description can easily be extended to this compilation, which has overcome the passage of time and fickle tastes to reward those willing to rediscover this lost gem.

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The Secret Machines “Now Here Is Nowhere”

Of all the albums released this year, I’ve found “Now Here Is Nowhere” to be the best record to listen while working out.

The sameness is supplied by the perfect metronome thumping of drummer Benjamin Curtis. And there’s also the fact that half of the songs on the record extend beyond the five-minute mark, which gives just enough time for exercising listeners to space out for awhile before returning to something familiar. Best part is you’ve felt like you haven’t missed anything!

The band’s penchant for keeping to what they’re good at shouldn’t scare anyone away less they think the record all sounds the same. Ballads “The Leaves Are Gone” and “Pharaoh’s Daughter” owe an obvious debt to Radiohead, but are surprisingly beautiful respites from the band’s aggressive material. “The Road Leads Where It’s Led” is a heavy-rock single waiting to be released.

“Now Here Is Nowhere” is the group’s major-label debut and only their second outing as a unit, but it bodes well for the band’s musical future. It also ensures that I and thousands of others have something to keep us from backsliding on the treadmill.

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Dizzee Rascal “Boy In Da Corner”

Coming through the same door kicked open by the success of The Streets a couple years ago, Dizzee Rascal is a young rapper who stands out from the hip-hop pack right from the outset because of his Britishiness accent and his use of exotic samples.

In contrast, Rascal keeps everything to a minimum. He uses what sounds like an electrified xylophone on “Sittin’ Here.” The keyboards on “Stop Dat” repeat like an old arcade game. Rascal lyrically jousts with a female companion on “I Luv U” by a swell of clashing, compressed organ thumps. It’s refreshing in its succintness.

While Rascal released another album, “Showtime,” during the fall of 2004, “Boy In Da Corner” remains the superior effort.

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Iron And Wine “Our Endless Numbered Days”

One acoustic guitar record should’ve been enough but this list wouldn’t be true without including “Our Endless Numbered Days.”

Beam makes perfectly clear on this record while he won over Sub Pop label head Jonatham Poneman with his stark and inviting music.

With an EP already on the way for 2005 and tour dates lined up, the new year appears to be as positive as others.

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Green Day “American Idiot”

Green Day is a band that’s proven to be far more talented that they appear to be. And enduring.

Few also would think the band had the creative strength to rebound from an album that sold so many copies, and burned so hot and fast. And yet, Green Day’s career has come through the tough times creatively and commercially since their “Dookie”-heyday. They’ve proven to be more resilient than many of their contemporaries.

Just when the band looked washed up, their career began to pick up again when Armstrong’s wistful folk paen, “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” slowly caught on in the late ’90s. In 2004, the group came on strong once again, this time with “American Idiot,” an entire album that showed that frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and company could musically expand beyond the flailing pop-punk that was always their bread and butter.

The songs on “American Idiot” have all the common touchstones of the past: Armstrong’s Americanized Johnny Rotten whine, the busy, bouncy basslines, and fearsome power chords. But the band’s music more consciously leans on pop forms of the past, which gives some new dynamics that bolster their typical one-dimensional thrashing. Their lyrics too have taken on a new political awareness.

In fact, “American Idiot” very much parallels the development arc of one of Green Day’s key influences, the Kinks. The ’60s rock icons made their name early on with a series of cookie-cutter singles (“You Really Got Me” or “Tired Of Waiting For You”) before branching off into challenging concept records.

“Jesus Of Suburbia” is very much in the mode of classic Motown and doo-wop, albeit with heavy rock chords playing over the top of it. “Extraordinary Girl” mirrors that the classic pop that the Kinks, Beatles, and Stones were creating back in the pre-psychedelic era. “Wake Me Up When September Ends” is an almost power ballad that has all the markings of being a perfect prom night/summertime anthem.

Anthems are a consistent specialty for Green Day. And while the band’s early songs about boredom, masturbation and alienation were symptomatic of their time, the music on “American Idiot” is wiser, more mature, and more engaged to fit in with a generation now adjusting to more adult considerations.

Few would have thought Green Day would again capture a generation’s zeitgeist, nor that they had the talent to couch their anthems in a new and appealing way.

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This year’s honorable mentions, in no particular order, include:

  • The Arcade Fire “Funeral”
  • The Walkmen “Bows And Arrows”
  • The Fiery Furnaces “Blueberry Boat”
  • The Killers “Hot Fuss”
  • The Sleepy Jackson “Lovers”
  • Snow Patrol “Final Straw”
  • Muse “Absolution”
  • The Magnetic Fields “i”
  • The Thermals “F–kin’ A”
  • Ron Sexsmith “Retriever”
  • The Libertines “The Libertines”
  • Ted Leo And The Pharmacists “Shake The Streets”
  • Talib Kweli “The Beautiful Struggle”
  • The Damnwells “Bastards Of The Beat”
  • The Mooney Suzuki “Alive And Amplified”
  • The Delgados “Universal Audio”
  • Tift Merritt “Tambourine”
  • Keane “Hopes & Fears”
  • The Streets “A Grand Don’t Come For Free”
  • The Divine Comedy “Absent Friends”
  • Van Hunt “Van Hunt”
  • A.C. Newman “The Slow Wonder”
  • Wilco “A Ghost Is Born”
  • Joseph Arthur “Our Shadows Will Remain”
  • Loretta Lynn “Van Lear Rose”
  • Social Distortion “Sex, Love And Rock ‘N’ Roll”
  • The National “Cherry Tree”
  • Rilo Kiley “More Adventurous”
  • Drive-By Truckers “The Dirty South”

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2004 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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