The Best CDs of 2004
We've taken our own sweet time getting around to this, but just to be anal-retentive completists about it, here are our picks for the best CDs of the year that was 2004 ...
15. The Walkmen, Bows + Arrows (Record Collection)
We were wondering whatever happened to Jonathan Fire*Eater, one of the more promising bands to emerge from the late Nineties, only to discover the outfit is alive and well in this latest incarnation. While nothing on the record tops the mesmerizing onslaught of guitar noise in Bows + Arrows' "The Rat," a number of tracks come mighty close.
14. The Deathray Davies, Midnight at the Black Nail Polish Factory (Glurp)
Aside from boasting one of the cleverest band names in indie rock, the Dallas-based Davies combine the infectiousness of power pop with a do-it-yourself garage-group aesthetic. Punctuated by fuzzy guitars and a charming lo-fi production, the record inexplicably came and went without fanfare -- but it's one of the most consistently engaging works of 2004.
13. The Black Keys, Rubber Factory (Fat Possum)
This Akron, Ohio-based duo cranks out the sort of stripped-down, blistering blues rock that conjures up the likes of Jimi Hendrix and early Led Zeppelin without sounding derivative or self-consciously retro. Recorded in an abandoned rubber factory (hence the name -- duh!), Rubber Factory is raggedly glorious and adorned with one masterpiece single, "10 A.M. Automatic."
12. Iron & Wine, Our Endless Numbered Days (SubPop)
A friend refers to this as music for "drawing a warm bath," which, we didn't realize, is a euphemism for suicide. That really puts a damper on our rubber duckie time. Sam Beam, who goes by the stage moniker of Iron & Wine, offers affecting acoustic dirges so intimate you can almost feel his stale breath as he warbles through such delicate downers as "Naked As We Came."
11. Nellie McKay, Get Away from Me (Columbia)
This 22-year-old musical prodigy might resemble Doris Day on the CD cover, but don't be fooled; this animal-loving blonde leaves bite marks (or hickeys, depending on your point of view). An impressive and audacious two-disc debut, Get Away from Me candy-coats its venomous satire in cabaret, light jazz, jump-blues, torch numbers and even rap.
10. Keane, Hopes & Fears (Interscope)
Some music critics compared this British trio to Coldplay, but we find Keane's unabashed theatricality and lead singer Tom Chaplin's jaw-dropping vocals more reminiscent of vintage Queen. Whoever the hell they sound like, Keane can be hit-or-miss, but when the songs hit -- as in "Somewhere Only We Know" and "Bend and Break" -- they defy gravity.
9. Rilo Kiley, More Adventurous (Brute/Beaute)
It doesn't hurt that lead singer Jenny Lewis is college rock's newest sex symbol, but Rilo Kiley proves its mettle through its accessible countrified atmospherics, incisive and smart lyrics and angular melodies. "It's a Hit" is indicative of what these Los Angelenos can turn out when all cylinders are firing.
8. William Shatner, Has Been (Shout! Factory)
From the starkly hypnotic to sheer effervescence, Capt. James T. Kirk takes the microphone for these weird and wonderful spoken-word hybrids -- and, here's the kicker, it's not a joke. Produced by Ben Folds and featuring the likes of Joe Jackson, Henry Rollins and others, this amazing collection eschews easy classification. As Kirk himself would say: This. Is. Excellent.
7. Mission of Burma, ONoffON (Matador)
Old punks don't die, or even fade away, for that matter; this seminal punk band picked up as if it had never left. Boston's Mission of Burma reminded us that punk rock can still be relevant, with such knockout songs as "Wounded World," "The Enthusiast" and "Nicotine Bomb" just as brutal and bold as anything from the group's Eighties output.
6. A.C. Newman, The Slow Wonder (Matador)
The brains behind the New Pornographers showed his considerable chops in this solo outing, a shimmering collection of power-pop goodness. In a perfect world, tracks like "Come Crash" and "Drink to Me, Babe, Then" would have received scads of radio play. As it is, The Slow Wonder can tide over New Pornographers fans until that band's next disc.
5. Brian Wilson, Smile (Nonesuch)
The greatest album never made finally became real this year, as the genius Beach Boy returned to the studio to finish the legendary project he had started and scrapped back when Gomer Pyle was still on TV. The real-life Smile doesn't match its legend -- nothing short of Pet Sounds II would have done that -- but it is a delightfully eclectic and achingly beautiful work that conjures up nostalgia for an alternate universe America that never was.
4. Green Day, American Idiot (Reprise)
Punk rock was always political at heart, so it's only fitting that these standard bearers of the post-punk revival got around to making a protest record. A rock opera of suburban teen angst, American Idiot might not have the observational skills of, say, the Dead Kennedys in their prime, but it is fiery, tough and genuine -- and it's rare to find all three in a single disc. Two 9-minute-plus song suites, "Jesus of Suburbia" and "Homecoming," are the band's greatest works to date.
3. Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand (Domino)
This Glasgow, Scotland-based quartet makes you believe again in the healing power of great singles rock. In this self-titled debut, Franz Ferdinand whips up 11 exquisitely crafted rock songs pulsating with crisp guitars, libidinous energy and ridiculously catchy hooks. Franz Ferdinand is so expert at what it does, in fact, that the record eventually just wears you out.
2. Snow Patrol, Final Straw (Polydor/A&M)
Let's hear it for Scotland. Another band from the land of haggis and golf, Snow Patrol mines the emotionally rich terrain of despondency and dysfunction for truly soaring rock. Marked by swirling melodies, pummeling guitars and the inimitable vocals of Gary Lightbody (a not-so-dour Lou Barlow vibe is going on here), Final Straw is consistently interesting and infectious.
and drum roll, please ...
1. Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose (Interscope)
Who woulda thunk that the White Stripes' Jack White would be an ideal choice to jumpstart the career of the coal miner's daughter? As producer of Van Lear Rose, White helped Lynn fashion a comeback while remaining true to her icon status. The songs have a sexy, rough edge here, from the chug of "Have Mercy" to the locomotive power of "Portland, Oregon," but there is no false note. In short, a masterpiece.