Yes, it's already February 2005 and I still haven't published my summary of 2004. Allow me to explain. In the month of January, I purchased many albums from 2004, and I figured that it wouldn't be fair if I completed my "Top albums of 2004" list without giving them a fair listen. After all, I didn't want to obsolete my list straight away when I discovered that one of my recent purchases was a masterpiece and deserved to be in the top list!
First of all, let's talk a little bit about the year that was 2004. I'll admit that earlier in the year, I was getting a bit worried that 2004 was going to be a bit of a dud year for music. There had been a few disappointing releases earlier in the year, as well as one or two albums which didn't live up to the hype. I was really getting concerned: the last couple of years had been great for music, and I didn't want to see a downhill trend.
Luckily, when I now look back on the year that was 2004, I look back it on as a solid year for music. Not great like the few years preceding it, but there were still many impressive album releases. Let's start with my top 5 albums of the year.
Top 5 Albums of 2004
(1) Machine Translations - Venus Traps Fly
Who would have thought that my favourite album of the year would end up being by the legendary local indie outfit Machine Translations? But no album released in 2004 has moved me as much as this one. This is actually their 6th album, but only the 3rd album they have released which is widely available. Much less experimental than their previous efforts Happy and Bad shapes, this is a band becoming more accessible without sacrificing their originality. The band have subtlely evolved over the years and this is very close to being hailed a masterpiece.
This albums often finds its beauty in its simplicity. Songs like "Bee in a cup" and "Stray dog" have very simple structures and melodies, but they are so beautiful and melodic that you will be humming them after your first listen. There's a few more upbeat tracks in "Simple life" and "Scretch" which make you tap your feet a bit, there's the more epic ballads like "Flown" and "If the water runs dry". But 2 of my favourite songs of the year are smack-bang in the middle: there's the beautiful and breathtaking instrumental "Twilit" and then my favourite track "Not my fall". I challenge you to find a more beautiful song released this year than "Not my fall". Even dodgy lyrics about altar-boys cleaning up someone's mess (!?) doesn't detract from the beauty of this song.
Overall, a fantastic album by a fantastic band. After seeing how the Trannies have grown over the years, I am really looking forward to hearing their next one.
(2) The Polyphonic Spree - Together We're Heavy
The Polyphonic Spree are certainly unique. Looking more like a cult than a band, the 24 members dance arrange stage wearing colourful robes and singing about how glorious the world is. Which is certainly a sigh of relief in today's day and age. Why can't more bands be like this? We all know the world is a fucked up place, do we need to hear it in the music we listen to as well? Music is supposed to be an escape from the troubles of the world.
This album is infinitely better than their debut "The beginning stages of..." for so many reasons. Firstly, their lyrics have really evolved on this one. Rather than repeating the same lyrics over and over again like they did on their debut, they have crafted mini stories into their songs. A lot less repetition! I'll admit, I don't know what a lot of their songs are about, but the music is so uplifting that it doesn't really matter. They could sing about going to the doctor to get hemorrhoids removed and make it sound like it's the best thing that ever happened. As well as the lyrical improvements, this album doesn't have a 36 minute long self-indulgent piece of crap like the first album did with "A long day". Man that song shitted me. Yes, that's right, all the songs on this album are great! All killer, no filler. I can honestly say, that every time I listen to this album, it makes me happy. How many albums can you say that about?
If I had to describe this band to someone, I would describe them as a cross between Flaming Lips and The Brady Bunch. If someone doesn't get frightened away by this description and actually gives this band (and this album) a go, they may have a new favourite band. Easily one of the best albums of the year.
(3) Elliott Smith - From a Basement on the Hill
When I heard that Elliott Smith had died in late 2003 (via an SMS from Matt), I was truly saddened. This was the first time in history when an artist who I was a fan of had died in their prime. I didn't get into Jeff Buckley until after he had died. I was never a huge fan of Nirvana, so Kurt Cobain's suicide didn't trouble me that much. I was only 1 when John Lennon was killed. And I wasn't one of those bandwagon fans who started calling Elliott Smith my favourite artist simply because he had died. He was already one of my favourite artists when he was alive. In my opinion, he never released a less than excellent album in his career. He didn't put a step wrong.
And luckily, this posthumous release of the songs he had recorded shortly before his death doesn't break that trend. There is a truly superb set of songs on this album. One could spend ages analysing the lyrics to these songs to try and find hidden suicide notes. Even some of the song titles ("A fond farewell", "Last hour") can be analysed ad nauseum. And what about the music? Well, this album is probably a good summary of his entire career. Mix some of the tin pan alley pop stylings of Figure 8 and XO, add a sprinkle of Either/or's intimacy, and a pinch of his first two albums' lo-fi melodic beauty.
A fond farewell to [someone who has always felt like] a friend.
(4) Elvis Costello - The Delivery Man
I'll admit, I started to get a bit worried that Elvis Costello was losing it before this album came out. When I was cruel from 2002 really disappointed me. It had some great songs on it (Episode of blonde in particular), but I thought there was way too much filler on the album. I picked up North from 2003, his extremely mellow love letter to Diana Krall. Unfortunately he forgot about the melody on that album, and within a week of purchasing it I returned it for a refund. Elvis' last great album was All this useless beauty and that was from 1996! So he was approaching 8 years without releasing a great album! What had happened to the guy who released a brilliant run of 6 albums from 1977 to 1982? [You may notice I omitted his 1998 collaboration with Burt Bacharch, Painted from memory. While I do really enjoy this album, I consider it a collaboration and hence don't classify it as a proper Elvis album per se.]
Luckily, good ol' Declan redeemed himself with this album. Truly his most brilliant set of songs in years, this album is like the love child of his countrified masterpiece King of America (from 1986) and his unpolished hard rock opus Blood and chocolate (from 1987). The album works excellent on a song level, but also works well as a whole. It was originally intended to be a concept album, but like many albums in history (Sgt Peppers) the concept never reached its full fruition.
And the songs? Well Monkey to man is one of his catchiest songs ever, Country darkness, Either side of the same town and Nothing clings like ivy are some of his most beautiful ballads, and Needle time, Bedlam and The name of this thing is not love are some of his best rockers. Even There's a story in your voice (a crazy duet with Lucinda Williams) works really well.
Most of all, this album has a heart and soul. Elvis was certainly back!
(5) Wilco - A Ghost is Born
After the brilliant Yankee Hotel Foxtrot from 2002, the expectations for this album were very high. Wilco even released it in a streaming format on their website, and while I skimmed across a few tracks, I resisted the temptation to listen to the whole album online.
Initial reviews were very mixed. Matt was the first person I knew who purchased it. While he said there were many brilliant tracks on the album (Hummingbird, Wishful thinking), there were also many moments of self-indulgence which ruined the album. He did an offsite backup of the album, and I'll admit that I certainly agreed with him after listening to the album a few times on MP3. In fact, it was enough to make me temporarily remove the album from my purchasing list.
But eventually I bought the album, justified using my wacky Ebay economics. That is, if I buy many albums at once, and sell some of them on Ebay, and the profit from those sales effectively covers the cost of the albums I purchased for myself, I write off those said albums as freebies. Yes, I never "paid" for them. Hey, it's my finances, I can make up my own rules. But after giving the album several more listens on CD, the self-indulgent stuff started to grow on me. What initially seemed like an overlong track with not much melody in Spiders (Kidsmoke) grew on me for the brilliance it is. The guitar solo at the end of the opening track At least that's what you said started to mesmerize me. And there are some stunningly beautiful tracks on this album: Hell is chrome, Muzzle of bees, the aforementioned Hummingbird and Wishful thinking.
The only misstep on this album is the 12 minute feedback drone at the end of Less than you think. Yes, I actually listened to it once. It's a self-indulgent load of dog's bollocks. Thesedays when I am listening to the album, I'll skip the feedback drone after the first 3 minutes of the song and go straight to the final cut The late greats. While I'm quite a musical purist and don't generally like skipping parts of albums that I don't like, I'm prepared to make an exception for this. I refuse to let Jeff Tweedy's pretensions get in the way of me enjoying what is essentially a fantastic album. So by skipping that section of the album, it takes pride of place in my top 5 albums of 2004.
Now we are going to move on to the albums which didn't make the cut of the top 5, but still deserve a mention as great albums of the year.
Can you think of the last time there was such anticipation for an album release like there was for this one? Actually, I guess when Alien Ant Farm were about to release their 2nd album, the stakes were pretty high. But it's nothing compared to this. This album was literally 37 years in the making.
Anyone who knows a little bit about the history of music knows the story of SMiLE, so I won't go into great detail here, but here's a quick summary. Basically, The Beach Boys released a classic album known as Pet Sounds in 1966, which many people consider to be one of the greatest albums of all time. There was a lot of pressure for the follow-up, and Brian Wilson literally went mad in the process of making it. Then Beatles released Sgt Pepper, and Brian Wilson figured he'd missed the boat, went mad and the rest is history.
Until now that is. Brian finally got off his ass, stopped pressing snooze on his PDA every time the "Finish SMiLE" reminder flashed on the screen, and actually finished SMiLE. None of the other original Beach Boys were involved in the making of them (well at least what's left of them). Instead he got help from backing band The Wondermints.
And the results? Well it's certainly an impressive album, but one can't help but feel that Brian should have left SMiLE where it was, an infamous unfinished album. Often with albums, it's the mythology behind them (yes...sometimes the hype) that makes them. And while the music on SMiLE is absolutely breathtaking and stunning in its composition, unfortunately it still feels like a bit of a cop out. Brian's voice is nowhere near as good as it was in the late 60's (although the music is practically identical), and they remade Good Vibrations -- why? You just shouldn't mess with a classic song like this.
Anyway, this album still deserves an honourable mention because it is still amazing. Maybe if he'd released in in 1967 it would be seen as one of the greatest albums of all time, and deservedly so. But does this kind of music have the same impact in 2004? Not really.
Air - Talkie Walkie
French duo Air have been pioneers of the chillout genre ever since they released their classic debut album Moon Safari in 1998. They released a difficult (and underrated) follow-up 10,000 Hz legend in 2001, and also created the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola's directorial debut The virgin suicides. And here they are with their 3rd album proper.
And the verdict? Well it's nothing groundbreaking, nothing particularly innovative. But it certainly sounds damn good. With Talkie Walkie, Air return to the sound they perfected on Moon safari. Is it as good as that album? Some may say yes, some may say it's better. While I will always consider Moon safari to be a classic album, I still find the chillout genre incredibly redundant (it's great background music, very relaxing, but how many of these sort of albums do you really need?). So why do I consider Moon safari to be a classic album? Well once again it's all about timing. Moon safari was one of the first albums of its kind that I had in my CD collection, and the memories contribute a lot to the enjoyment of music. I'll always remember how I first felt listening to that album, and while Talkie walkie is a beautiful sounding album, it's still in "been there done that" territory for me.
The Arcade Fire - Funeral
Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand
Hype. Isn't that a terrible word? When it comes to music reviews, that word is pure evil. It's the kind of word that can turn you off talented bands. How many bands have come out in the past fews years who have been praised as 'the next big thing', 'saviours of rock', yadda yadda yadda, and they fall flat on their ass. Remembers when the Vines were all set to take over the world? They released a solid debut album, and then with a sophomore slump have fallen flat on their ass.
As much as I hate to admit it, very often I buy into the hype. I have bundled these 2 albums together because I bought both of them after reading overhyped reviews saying how good they were. And while they are both great albums on their own right, that evil H-word has probably destroyed my ability to consider them brilliant albums. When reviews set your expectations so high, even if they do live up to the hype, they will inevitably disappoint.
At the time of writing, Funeral is getting a local release in Australia. I bought in on import (from Ebay) amidst all the hype, and it certainly is an excellent album. It's a huge grower of an album, simultaneously dark and optimistic (a rare combination), with strange vocals (there are actually two vocalists in the band) and dense walls of sound. Overall a great album, only let down by a couple of tracks which don't do it for me, or at least haven't grown on me enough yet to consider it a masterpiece.
Franz Ferdinand is also a great album. This one was way hyped on release, with comparisons to everyone from The Kinks to Pulp. While they probably don't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as those bands, FF have certainly carved a distinct sound for themselves, and this is a very solid debut album of catchy tunes which you can actually dance to! Kind've like a more retro version of The Strokes. There are only a few sub-par tracks on this album in my opinion, which stop it from becoming an absolutely fantastic album. But when this album works, it really works -- Take me out, Matinee and Auf Asche are all classic foot-tapping numbers.
Nick Cave - Abattoir blues / The Lyre of Orpheus
Wow, Nick Cave is certainly an ambitious fellow releasing a double album worth of material at this stage of his career. While this is not one of my absolute favourites for the year, it still deserves an honourable mention because there are lots of great songs on this album.
Actually, I kinda lied in the first paragraph -- apparently this is not a double album, but two single albums that happened to be released at exactly the same time and in the same packaging. Which I guess is a double album, except that each disc sounds pretty different and has a different title. Abattoir blues is the rockier affair, while The Lyre of Orpheus is the mellower chillout stuff and my favourite of the 2 discs. There are a few tracks on Abattoir blues which don't do it for me, although others seem to love them. Hiding all away is one of them, I just find it gets a bit annoying after a while. With Lyre of Orpheus, I find the gospel choir gets a bit too much after a while on some of the tracks. Not that these tracks don't work well on their own, but after a while it all seems a bit overdone. But anyway, there are enough great tracks on both of these discs to warrant an honourable mention, even if the whole doesn't add up to a masterpiece.
Solid but nothing brilliant
Dallas Crane - Dallas Crane
Aussie rockers Dallas Crane have been around on the live circuit for a while now, and this was intended to be their breakthrough album. It's a solid album of good rock tunes, but I guess that's my main gripe with this album -- it's just simple rock music. It's not an envelope pushing affair (oh my, I can't believe I just said that). That's not to say there aren't some absolute classic tracks on this album. Dirty hearts sounds like a lost ACDC number (but less annoying than most ACDC numbers), Open to close is a quirky little pop number with nice Television-esque guitar lines throughout, and Come and go (my personal favourite) is a great toe-tapper singalong.
Eskimo Joe - A song is a city
Since we are discussing Aussie bands, I guess it's time to discuss the latest by Perth outfit Eskimo Joe. After their successful debut with Girl in 2001, The 'Joe have gone for a much more commercial polished sound this time round. Before you get scared and run away, I believe they have done it in a way where they have kept most of their indie credibility intact. I italicised most because there are some parts of the album that feel a bit too polished and commercial. But when that's all said and done, there are some great tunes on this album (Older than you is probably my personal favourite).
Manic Street Preachers - Lifeblood
The Manics releasing a pop album. I never thought I would have seen Manics and pop in the same sentence together, but here I am saying that. Kinda hard to believe that a band who released the tortured dark masterpiece that is The Holy Bible has released a pop album. But I guess stranger things have happened.
Allow me to elaborate: I don't mean pop in a Christina Aguilera kinda way. Nah, James Dean Bradfield is still singing about good stuff, he isn't singing about being a dirrrty girl or having a genie in a bottle. So lyrically, I guess they haven't really changed much. But the music is much more 80's sounding, very synthy, very smooth, very polished. And it all sounds really good, I'm just worried that I will tire of it very easily as it is such a lush sounding album. Only time will tell how this stands in the history of Manics' albums.
The Cure - The Cure
Another veteran band releasing a new album in 2004. Many have praised this album as a real return to form for the band, the best since Disintegration from 1989. While I definitely wouldn't agree with that (the incredibly underrated Wish from 1992 shits all over this), this is a solid album. But I wouldn't call it a great one.
The biggest problem for me is the way it opens. An album generally needs an excellent opening track to hook you in to the album, to give you a reason to put the disc in and press play. There's nothing worse than a bad opening track -- you don't want to play an album knowing that you'll have to get through the opening track before you can start enjoying it. And while Lost isn't a really bad track, it's completely inappropriate for an opening track. Very slow, very little melody, just Robert Smith yabbering on that he "can't find [him]self". Tell us all about this Bobby, just save it for later on in the album. The album definitely gets better on the 2nd half, with a nice run of poppy songs in the vein of Wish era Cure -- when (I don't know what's going) on and Taking off are playing, you can't help but tap your feet along to the music.
Badly Drawn Boy - One Plus One Is One
It would be wrong of me to dis this album due to Damon Gough's apparent lack of basis arithmetic skills. So I won't go down that path. I actually remember my first listen of this album, and I was quite impressed, thinking it was a return to the old sound, the Bewilderbeast days. I couldn't help but bask in the beauty of the gentle strumming of Easy love. And the beauty of Another devil dies made me smile. My hopes were definitely high for subsequent spins.
But over time, the disappointment of this album has started to sink it. Exhibit A: there are clearly two duds on this album. Year of the rat and Holy grail simply don't work. Why, Damon, did you feel the need to include a children's choir on both of these tracks? They just end up sounding tacky and overdone. Ordinarily I could forgive him, but these songs alone take up 13 minutes of a 55 minute album. So they definitely detract from the listening experience (even more so considering that Holy grail is the closing track, the last memory of the album before you eject it). Exhibit B: a lot of the other tracks. Well, none of them are really bad per se, but there are a lot of tracks that are just boring. So boring that I really don't remember a lot of them. And that's not what I want from an album. Name a song from Bewilderbeast and I'll remember some little nuance or moment of genius about it. I can't remember anything about Takes the glory from 1+1=1. And there's your problem right there.
That's not to say there aren't some classic BDB moments on here. The title track is a great Lennon-esque number, the previously mentioned Easy love and Another devil dies have moments of beauty...and...well...that pretty much covers the memorable ones.
Interpol - Antics
This will probably be the most controversial "disappointment" on my list, as I know a few readers of this blog (and many others) are fans of this album. Allow me to set the record straight from the start -- I don't dislike this album, in fact I think it's a fairly decent effort.
I'm a huge fan of Interpol's debut album Turn on the bright lights, and pretty much anything they could have released as a follow up would have disappointed me. But I guess my biggest problem with this album is that the vibe that the first album had seems to have been lost. Almost every track on their debut had that thing, that intangible quality that made the album a classic. While this follow-up has changed the sound quite a bit, it's a lot more polished overall, the vocals seem to have been mixed differently (maybe they didn't use Dobly?), and the lyrics also seem a bit dodgier (although they were never known for their lyrics). And near the end a lot of the tracks sound a bit similar to each other, with the exception of the superb closer A time to be so small which has some amazing guitar lines throughout. Maybe one day my opinion of this album will change, but at the moment I have to put it on my disappointments list.
Tom Waits - Real gone
It hurts me to list this album here, as I am a HUGE Tom Waits fan. But I have to be realistic about it: this album is a disappointment compared to Tom's other work.
His biggest mistake was getting rid of the piano on this album. Even the brilliantly ugly Bone machine had a few piano ballads thrown in to relieve from the percussive attack of the other tracks, but this album doesn't have it. And I must admit I have a bit of a problem with the human beatbox thing. It works on some of the tracks, but it gets a bit annoying after a while. And Top of the hill is a poor choice for an opening track, it's way too inaccessible even by Tom's standards. Sins of my father also goes on way too long for the 3rd track of the album, he should have stopped it after 6 minutes instead of letting it run for over 10 minutes.
That's not to say that there aren't some moments of Tom Waits brilliance on this album. Hoist that rag is classic, bluesy Waits, Don't go into that barn sounds like it should have been on Bone machine (the "Yes sir" section is hilarious), Trampled rose is a beautiful ballad. But as a whole, the album disappoints (especially after the superb Alice).
New discoveries of 2004
These are the new artists/albums I discovered in 2004. If I purchased several albums by the newly discovered artist in 2004, I have included my favourite of the bunch.
Rodriguez - Cold Fact (1970)
My brother bought this CD after Aussie band The Fauves played a cover of Rich folks hoax from this album at one of their gigs. I listened to his CD and shortly after purchased it for myself. And I'm mighty glad I did, because it now takes pride of place in my top 10 favourite albums of all time. If you haven't heard of this guy, or this album, and you enjoy music from that era (including Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, Leonard Cohen, etc) -- get this album! If there's any album that deserves the title of "lost classic", this is the one. Rodriguez has one of the greatest voices I have ever heard -- it might not be technically proficient, but it works so well. There is a timeless quality to this album which is very ironic because lyrically it's very much of its time.
Bonnie "Prince" Billy - I See a Darkness (1999)
I bought this one after seeing it in Pitchfork's Top 100 Albums of the 1990s
poll. And I'm mighty glad I did -- it's a slow burner of an album, taking many listens to fully appreciate, but when it hits you, it REALLY hits you. Bonnie "Prince" Billy is one of Will Oldham's many personas, and he's certainly a very unique singer/songwriter. One of his songs (not on this album) is called You have cum in your hair and your dick is hanging out. You gotta respect a guy who has a name like that for one of his songs. I'll admit this album is an acquired taste (his voice definitely takes a little while to get used to), but there's nothing better than the moment when it all starts clicking together.
Dream Theater - Scenes From a Memory (1999)
Progressive metal is never a genre I thought I would ever have in my CD collection -- but here it is. While some of their other albums can be a bit hit and miss, this is an absolutely sensational album. It's a concept album that tells the story of a murder, and as a whole it works superby. The musicianship throughout draws you on, the lyrics tell the story, and by the time you get to the end of the final track Finally free, this album has literally taken your breath away. The dated sounding vocals of James LaBrie may tragically put some people this marvellous album, but if you approach it with an open mind, you will be justly rewarded.
Guided By Voices - Bee Thousand (1994)
GBV are an institution of their own -- they have an incredibly loyal cult following. Robert Pollard and the boys have been releasing albums since the mid 80's, and while their later albums strayed from their lo-fi roots, this album (and its follow up Alien lanes) shows the band in all of its lo-fi brilliance.
I can understand first-time listeners being incredibly put off by this music the first time they hear it. The production (or lack thereof) is terrible. The album was literally recorded on 4-track in the band's basement. But after several listens, these tunes will get under your skin (in the best possible way). Like all great albums, there is an absolutely timeless nature to this stuff. This album sounds like a lost collection of rarities from the Beatles circa White Album. If that isn't enough to sell this album to you, I don't know what is.
The Streets - Original Pirate Material (2002)
I never thought I would have a CD like this in my collection. It's just not me. This album sounds like Jamie Oliver rapping in his time spent away from the kitchen. I'm not sure if it's the memories of Britpop which make me enjoy this music, but I absolutely love it. Mike Skinner can sure tell a story, the songs are energetic and make you feel happy. And The irony of it all is a masterpiece of modern songwriting. Mike Skinner plays 2 parts in the song: a pothead and a drunk. The whole song has them arguing with each other about who's more of a danger to society. Brilliant, brilliant stuff.
Pavement - Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)
I'd heard a lot about Pavement. Big influence to lots of bands, yadda yadda yadda. For a long time I didn't buy into it, but I eventually gave in and bought this album. While many praise their debut Slanted and enchanted, that album never really did it for me. A bit too lo-fi and rough for my liking.And that's the end of this mammoth blog posting. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. If this blog posting results in one person buying and enjoying an album I have recommended on this page, I will be very satisfied. Thanks for reading!
This album, on the other hand, is a beautiful sloppy mess which kickstarted the slacker genre of the mid-90's. There are some amazing tunes on this album, including Elevate me later, Gold soundz and the brilliant Range life. All played with reckless abandon. A great album from the mid-90's, don't less this one pass you by.