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Five Years Later: The Best Albums of 2004!!

Five Years Later: The Best Albums of 2004!!

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Five years allows albums to mature like fine wine or be forgotten like a tasty Happy Meal. We learned this lesson last year with our Best of 2003 feature . When coming up with this feature, the question the Spectrum Culture staff pondered was this: “How well do these albums play NOW!” Not five years ago, but how have they aged in our memories or after repeated viewings. While some of acclaimed albums of ’04 remain strong on our list, some critically-lauded ones didn’t have the staying power. Sung Tongs? Bye. A Grand Don’t Come for Free? Sorry. This list is designed to give new perspective on things five years old. Thank you so much for reading! – David Harris, Editor-in-Chief

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10. Tom Waits

Real Gone

[Anti-]

You’d have to be pretty far gone to suggest that Tom Waits’ most distinguishing feature and powerful instrument is anything but his voice; his inimitable growling pipes can simultaneously scare the neighbors (“Hoist That Rag”), croon tenderly (“Day After Tomorrow”) and produce spastic, otherworldly noises that no human being should ever be able to make (“Metropolitan Glide”).

But it’s Waits’ ability as creator of characters that makes this album such a timeless accomplishment. Packed with personalities cartoonish yet realistic, untouchable yet familiar – Horse Face Ethel, Everett Lee, Yodeling Elaine and a slew of gun-toting preachers, bums on the lam, wino killers and rain-soaked losers appear throughout – these characters are undoubtedly dark and unarguably believable. Whereas most songwriters who delve into such sinister themes as death, disillusion, war and loneliness (“Life’s made of trouble/ Worry, pain and struggle“) grow wearisome about midway through a record, Waits’ deluge of doom never deteriorates into melodrama or excess. As a storyteller, Waits is unbelievably believable; he doesn’t so much present these characters as he embodies them, obliterating that fine line between singer and song, giving the listener the impression that long before Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, Waits was lurking in shadowy corners on the darkest parts of the earth, living a sub-subterranean existence that few of us could possibly imagine.

There’s also enough glitter and hope (“I still believe that there’s gold/ At the end of the world/ And I’ll come home to Illinois/ On the day after tomorrow“) to leave listeners feeling something close to real comfort here. Waits may indeed be just a “sad guest on this dark earth,” but Real Gone still sounds as progressive and deceptively beautiful today as it ever has or ever will. – Marcus David

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9. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus

[Anti-]

Though it has its fans, Nick Cave’s 2001 return from a four year absence, No More Shall We Part was a maudlin, almost painfully intimate collection of music that is tough to listen to. Two years later came Nocturama, arguably the weakest album of his career, making his outstanding 2004 double album, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, a lethal thunderbolt out of the blue. Just when we’d written him off as one more aged punk (with certain lyrical eccentricities), the double-LP was evidence of a Cave re-invigorated by his mature age, marriage, peculiar interests and the world around him.

Abattoir Blues is nine heavy-hitting songs that paint the picture of Cave as cultural outsider, fiercely protective of external forces upon the things he cares most deeply for. He heartbreakingly and hilariously pleads with his unresponsive muse on “There She Goes My Beautiful World,” holds tight to the memories of a fling initiated at a flower show in “Nature Boy” and the poisonous hand of commercialism and war mongering on the title track (“I went to bed and my moral code got jammed/ I woke up this morning with a Frappucino in my hand“).

The Lyre of Orpheus‘ eight songs provide a jazzier, more meditative mood concerning the world Cave and his peers will bequeath to their kids (“O Children”), the polluting desire for fame (“Easy Money”), the effects of rock music on interpersonal relationships (“The Lyre of Orpheus”) and the simple pleasures of love (“Breathless”). Warmly recorded entirely on old, analog equipment, the Bad Seeds sound more than ever here like a band, rather than back-up instrumentation for Cave’s musings.

Five years later, I’m still most moved by “Let the Bells Ring,” Cave’s elegy for Johnny Cash; by turns solemnly mournful and joyfully exultant, Cave mourns not his recent friend’s loss, but the world left behind- a crass place on which the grace of men like Cash was lost. For Cave, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus helped point toward a similar legacy. – Chris Middleman

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8. Madvillain

Madvillainy

[Stones Throw]

In coming together, Madlib and MF Doom have taken elements of their already varied, schizophrenic personalities and fused them to form a unified identity capable of flipping through both sensibilities without restraint. Madvillainy, in this way, is a combined self-portrait of two of hip hop’s most eccentric and creative artists, conceived within the chaotic perspective of a diabolical genius.

Doom’s lyrics are rife with dorky pop culture references and absurd, free associations, the endless comic riffs of a dedicated stoner with a filing cabinet for a brain, a passion for high-end schlock and the fluidity of language. Sometimes a rhyme pattern takes precedent over eloquence and sometimes it exists solely for the purpose of hysterical non sequitur; sometimes the wisecrack is only funny due to the musicality of Doom’s voice itself.

Most of the tracks clock in around two minutes, allowing the pair to mine the depths of their various sonic obsessions. Hanna-Barbera cartoon soundtracks, jazz samples, spy movie orchestrations, Spaghetti Western marches and crunchy boom-bap beats all melt together into lurching, eyes-closed heavy grooves that simply can not be turned off or stopped, resulting in one of the most compulsively listenable and satisfying records of not only 2004, but the entire decade, history of rap, universe, etc. – Andrei Alupului

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7. The Walkmen

Bows and Arrows

[Record Collection]

Few albums continue to sound as evocative as Bows and Arrows. The follow up to the critic-revered though somewhat scattershot Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone, it remains the Walkmen’s most focused, ambitious and successful work. Its songs are so damn good that not even a cameo appearance on ultra-shitty teen melodrama “The O.C.” could ruin “Little House of Savages” and “What’s in It for Me.”

With most tracks centered on the sights, sounds and desperate dramas of the typical metropolitan city, the album’s arrangements complement the lyrics almost flawlessly. “The Rat,” with its searing guitars, precise drumming and alternately menacing and vulnerable vocals, rightly garnered most of the attention in 2004, but in hindsight the record’s other songs are equally strong. The listener can practically smell the booze and feel the rain-soaked streets in the bar-room laments of “138th Street” and “Hang On, Siobhan,” while “No Christmas While I’m Talking” and “New Year’s Eve” almost too convincingly depict the type of disillusionment and boredom many of us feel around the holidays.

Initially saddled with comparisons to U2, the Walkmen have since proven those claims largely absurd. It likely won’t ever escape from the massive shadow that Funeral cast over 2004, but Bows and Arrows remains as relevant and varied as it did upon its initial release. If the “O.C.” couldn’t destroy those songs, nothing likely would. – Eric Dennis

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6. Brian Wilson

Smile

[Nonesuch]

During your first two years of college sometimes news from the outside world trickles in twice as slowly. I didn’t know that Brian Wilson’s Smile was even being completed until I was holding the finished copy in my hand. What the hell, man? Was this the same Smile that was supposed to change all American music forever when Wilson began working on it with the Beach Boys in 1966? The record that was supposed to dwarf all pop music and even classical compositions the world over? Forty minutes that were hyped to shame The Beatles, Aaron Copeland, Louis Armstrong and George Gershwin in one fell swoop?

It didn’t happen. But as far as close calls go this was a pretty good one. Wilson had finally finished writing Smile but his able touring band was tapped to bring it to fruition after over 35 years on the shelf. None of his proposed recording experiments in the ’60s were employed; more or less this is a straight ahead rendering of Wilson’s “young man’s symphony” to god and nature. I’d go as far to say that it is at least well written as anything the Beach Boys put on record in their prime. Though Wilson’s band doesn’t match the dustier records insofar as production and harmonization go, they do as good a job as any band I could imagine after Carl Wilson’s passing. “Surf’s Up” expansive California balladry is truly breathtaking and “Heroes and Villains” serves as a wealthy culmination to a journey started on the post-WWII highways littered with little Hondas and the golden children of the pacific ocean. Despite its lengthy setbacks Smile remains worthy of the romance found in their story. – Neal Fersko

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5. Kanye West

The College Dropout

[Roc-A-Fella]

Somehow, in the midst of 2004’s thuggery and clubbier-than-thou personalities, a respected (but far from universally known) producer from Chicago put out a debut hip-hop record that not only became an instant classic, but introduced the world to a born superstar.

Kanye West’s style wasn’t unheard; he’d already produced hit singles for Jay-Z, Ludacris and Alicia Keys. He wasn’t a particularly technical rapper, either, with most of the guests on his debut delivering trickier lines, writing cleverer rhymes.

No, what makes College Dropout a classic record – one worth praise five years after release – is the songs. West has ’em, and doesn’t make it a secret. From the disillusioned party horns of “We Don’t Care” to the swirling keys of “Last Call,” West uses the production skills at his disposal to reinforce his songwriting. The lanky, laid back bass and guitar of “All Falls Down” bring West’s stories of self-conscious characters, himself included, into a natural perspective. Single “Jesus Walks” dares ask why “They say you can rap about anything/ Except for Jesus/ That means guns, sex, lies, videotape/ But if I talk about God my record won’t get paid?” while “Get Em High” rides a vicious one-note beat to score with girls, trash talk other rappers and other debauchery. “Slow Jamz” features samples from Luther Vandross, vocals from Jamie Foxx and a verse by Twista in addition to a healthy dose of humor and R&B name checking.

Other tracks show a softer side of West that blossomed on later releases – “Family Business” and “Through the Wire” are sentimental, reflective songs that shouldn’t have a place in the rap world of 2004 where the gross vulgarity of Eminem still reigned suprme. They make sense here, surrounded by the personal rhymes and raps and backed by sped-up vinyl pops, crackles and imperfections. Taken as a whole, College Dropout is a fantastic record – and one that shifted the trajectory of hip-hop and pop music for years to come. – Jason Stoff

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4. Franz Ferdinand

Franz Ferdinand

[Domino]

Five years can seem like a long time. Back in the days known as 2004, we hipster scum were still listening to dancefloor-ready, postpunk-influenced bands with polished hair and deep voices instead of the avant-pop, precisely-composed gems of Grizzly Bear and Phoenix. But if we rein back the reverse-nostalgia and take a clearer look at the fascinations of the time, the Glaswegian rock band Franz Ferdinand’s debut record seems more and more like both the apex of its zeitgeist and more simply, a tremendously fun and listenable album.

Famously holding a commitment of “making music to make girls dance,” Franz Ferdinand succeeded in spades. Even five years later, it’s almost ridiculously catchy while still sounding frantic and wholly cohesive. As tongue in cheek in referencing their influences (the German language coda to “Darts of Pleasure” not only nods to their Krautrock beats, but also translates roughly to “My name is Super-Fantastic“) as they are devoted to them, each successive single seems now to propel them further past increasingly frustrating contemporaries, like the Killers, and see them becoming more pop than successors such as the Arctic Monkeys. Even in their darkest moments, like suicide creeper “40′” or the shared misery of “Cheating on You,” Alex Kapranos and company sound like they’re having the time of their lives. The drunken, sordid, grimy time of their lives. Even after the distance of time, Franz Ferdinand and its proudest single, “Take Me Out,” a their joyful, raging ode to not getting laid sounds like few debut albums manage to: effortless, energetic and wholly fun. – Nathan Kamal

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3. TV on the Radio

Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes

[Touch and Go]

Perhaps what’s most startling about TV on the Radio’s incendiary debut is how sparse it is. To think, the band that essentially became the American Radiohead began as a perfectly minimalist pop outfit. This isn’t to say that the ambition wasn’t there from the get-go but Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes is exactly the type of debut that proves the point that a band with no resources but infinite scope is far more able to crank out classics than one with the reverse.

If you doubt that Desperate Youth is a classic, I can’t help you. The opening alone makes the case, built on a menacing bassline, a pummeling beat and an incredible, poisonous opening line: “woke up in a magic nigger movie….” “The Wrong Way” is everything an album needs in an opener, creating a devastatingly powerful tone present throughout the album. As a vocalist, Tunde Adebimpe has nearly no rival, technically and artistically excellent and full of the potency and soul, much like something from a Stax record. Adebimpe has a way of carrying his lines like concealed weapons; unclear on first listen, the bile and venom really emerge after the fact. Adebimpe doesn’t throw out “nigger” for shock, or as punctuation; he wields the term historically, both calling to a past not too long ago and questioning a modern usage that has lost sight of the word’s power.

That “The Wrong Way” isn’t even the best track on the album is miraculous; Desperate Youth has no lost moments, its peaks containing the likes of “Staring at the Sun” and the divine “Ambulance,” evidence of doo-wop’s vitality in an era that’s all but forgotten it. Five years later, it’s easy to claim the band has strayed from their debut with every subsequent release bringing diminishing returns. That’s not exactly the case, though: Desperate Youth Blood Thirsty Babes is a work too novel to happen twice and TV on the Radio is too smart a band to return to the same ground. – Morgan Davis

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2. Modest Mouse

Good News for People Who Love Bad News

[Epic]

First, I’ll complain about the decade we just trudged through; George W. Bush’s presidency helped set off a domino effect of calamity for those most affected, and for those feeling the weakest of the ripples (such as rock musicians), a sense of unending malaise. But for all my griping, I’d like to thank W. for stoking this existential angst, as he inadvertently pushed rock music’s status quo out of the hands of Fred Durst and his like-minded cronies.

So, it was almost refreshing that 2004 brought the platinum-selling Good News For People Who Love Bad News, a work masterminded by damage case Isaac Brock, whom amongst the social woes faced by everyone at the time, was attempting to clear his name of a dubious rape charge and hold Modest Mouse together in the wake of drummer Jeremiah Green’s nervous breakdown. A true indie-egghead guitar hero, Brock was joined by bassist Eric Judy, former Murder City Devil Dann Galucci and erstwhile drummer Benjamin Weikel to hammer out experimental instrumentation into pop-rock songs.

On incredibly worthy hit singles like “The Ocean Breathes Salty” or on album cuts like “Bury Me With It,” Brock paints himself and his audience as “hummingbirds just not willing to move,” mired at the start of the new millennium by the seeming futility of everyday modern life, and joins us in collectively scratching our heads via brain-seizing lyrical twists and turns (“as life gets longer, the awful gets softer/ Well it feels pretty soft to me,” “if God takes life/ he’s an Indian giver,” “the good times are killing me“). Good News‘ finest moment is also its most popular; Brock urges his listeners to “Float On” past the worries we’re caught up in- that even if things get too heavy, good news is sure to be on the way. With such an anthemic track, it was hard not to believe him, regardless of whether he believed it or not. – Chris Middleman

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1. Arcade Fire

Funeral

[Merge]

While three of four new bands were ever-busy mining raw aesthetics born in the late ’70s, Win Butler and Régine Chassagne turned trends of the early ’00s on their heads as the visionary duo behind what is, in every conceivable way, 2004’s finest record. Garage-rockers and dance-punks still dominated the college radio-waves when Arcade Fire submitted Funeral to an indie culture increasingly fractured by the digital availability of all things underground. But the five years since its release have seen unified adoration and remarkably little backlash for the Montreal band’s cherished debut; a feat almost as impressive as the music itself.

Born out of private tragedies surrounding Arcade Fire during its recording, Funeral tackles some of life’s biggest ideas with unmatched emotional intensity. It’s an often-danceable treatise on death and isolation–revelling in the sublime contradiction that this implies. From the subterranean utopia of opener “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” to poignant closer, “In the Backseat,” joy and sorrow are rendered almost indistinguishable, whipped into a loud and beautiful whirlwind of no wave theatrics and chamber-pop melody. With such weighty subject matter, the end of each track seems to find Butler emotionally spent, his desperate croon strained and cracking beneath an avalanche of intensity.

But this emotional exhaustion could just as easily be relief. Funeral feels deeply cathartic from cover to cover, as if Butler and Chassagne took a world of turmoil into their lungs and exhaled all of the tension, fear and even memory that burdens them. The result is an isolated dream-world, richly-imagined and full of life-affirming beauty that is completely overwhelming in the most awesome sense. Funeral is permanently relevant and impossible to imitate. – Brady Baker

[Logos: Jason Stoff]
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