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1. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (Anti-)
Nick Cave’s magnum opus, a thrilling pasticcio of magnanimous rock, pastoral folk, and wicked church music, covers more ground in two discs than most artists can in an entire career. God, cannibals, deception, nature, divine inspiration, slaughterhouses, Johnny Cash, mythology, comfort, love, greed, sorcery, and little redemptions in the face of massive tragedies represent just the half of it. Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus is a sprawling “Song of Myself” manifesto, bubbling with piety, fear, and hope. The Bad Seeds sound like they’re capable of anything; they use Cave’s poetics as kindling to set fire to any stereo willing to risk its mechanical life. This year’s gospel.
   :. original PopMatters review



2. Augie March, Strange Bird (spinART)
Intoxicatingly verbose and imaginative, Augie March’s Strange Bird is aptly named. Summoning musical illusions to legions of UK pop, but sounding like none of them, Australia’s Augie March makes music inside its own snow globe. When shaken, the elements blend rockers like “This Train Will Be Taking No Passengers” with lightheaded abandon; upon settling, ballads like “Little Wonder” are dusted with wintry embellishments. It’s all far too involved for the mainstream—the words tumble from Glenn Richards’ mouth with no repetitive choruses or catch phrases—but those who crave unfettered intelligence and mystery in their pop music need look no further.
   :. original PopMatters review



3. Brian Wilson, SMiLE (Nonesuch)
Initially, the idea of releasing SMiLE‘s 38 years after its conception was cause for concern more than celebration. Not only would the album’s mythological status be eradicated, but Wilson and his current touring band had re-recorded it entirely. Defying this common logic, the new SMiLE actually lives up to the old SMiLE‘s legendary status, ushering in a renaissance to Wilson’s otherwise lackluster late years. The recreation is so spot-on that some sections (like the orchestral outro to “Heroes and Villains”) are hard to differentiate from their 1966 counterparts. SMiLE is that stunning labyrinth of melody and harmony the dedicated have waited for, at once manic and meditative, dissonant and ethereal: a true teenage symphony to God.
   :. original PopMatters review



4. Elliott Smith, From a Basement on the Hill (Anti-)
From a Basement on the Hill presents a rawer Elliott Smith than we had recently become accustomed to; its songs are rough around the edges and frequently devoid of Smith’s impeccable bridges. Still, the final record of Smith’s career is loaded with peerless melodies that guide the lyrics to an emotional resonance lacking pretension. From naked acoustic tracks “A Fond Farewell” and “Memory Lane” to the kitchen-sink absolution of “King’s Crossing” and “Coast to Coast”, From a Basement on the Hill plays like a best-of collection filled with previously unknown songs.
   :. original PopMatters review



5. A.C. Newman, The Slow Wonder (Matador)
The first solo record from the leader of Vancouver, British Columbia’s the New Pornographers opens with the raucous “Miracle Drug” and doesn’t let up for the next 33 blissful minutes. Newman scores with hazy toasters (“Drink to Me, Babe, Then”), ominous invitations (“Come Crash”), spaghetti western standoffs (“The Cloud Prayer”), and cello-riffed potboilers (“The Town Halo”). The Slow Wonder recalls the minutiae of pop’s history, but Newman’s melodic sensibilities are so idiosyncratic that he could be well on his way to creating a singular mythos.
   :. original PopMatters review


6. The Streets, A Grand Don’t Come for Free (Vice)
“Today I have achieved absolutely naught”: so goes the set-up, and ultimately, resolution, of Mike Skinner’s sophomore effort, a front-to-back “concept” album in the conventional sense. The Streets’ debut Original Pirate Material offered a snapshot of Skinner’s neighborhood; A Grand Don’t Come for Free is a fluid, crudely cinematic day in the life of one of the neighborhood’s geezers. Skinner zeroes in on the drama of the mundane, an existence most of us can relate to, charting a day filled with such banalities as an unreturned DVD, some misplaced money, and the perils of cell phone reception. Skinner’s success lies in his ability to create in the moment, allowing the listener to invest emotionally through a palpable presence: pill-popping in the club, cell phone dying mid-conversation, and a tussle with the TV repairman all feel like they’re happening as they’re recounted. Throw in Skinner’s highly unorthodox phrasing (less rap and more like rhyming spoken word), and you’ve got one of 2004’s artistic hallmarks.
   :. original PopMatters review



7. Apostle of Hustle, Folkloric Feel (Arts & Crafts)
From Broken Social Scene’s guitarist Andrew Whiteman comes Folkloric Feel, an ingenious blend of J. Mascis skronk, Cuban swing, and sensuous torch song. Whiteman and Co. careen from style to style, resulting in a perpetual renewal of sound—no two songs are alike. In less capable hands, the album would no doubt be schizophrenic, but producer Dave Newfeld is up to the challenge, reveling in Whiteman’s embrace of adventure. One of the year’s most unexpected and exciting listens and undoubtedly the equal to Broken Social Scene’s lauded You Forgot It in People.
   :. original PopMatters review


8. Animal Collective, Sung Tongs (Fat Cat)
It’s hard to believe that the psych-folkers of Animal Collective hail from New York; it’d be easier to believe that they were not of this earth. How else to explain Sung Tongs’ acid-flashback sing-a-longs, wind-chimed string circles, disorienting vocal harmony assaults, tribal thunder, and all around skewed vision? The record has no direct point of reference or center; it simply revolves around itself, the merry-go-round sonics of “Leaf House”, “Winters Love”, and “We Tigers” echoing off into infinity. If Frank Zappa conducted Brian Wilson, Simon & Garfunkel, and a host of African musicians through a child’s pop symphony, it wouldn’t sound as freaky or blissed-out as Sung Tongs.
   :. original PopMatters review



9. American Music Club, Love Songs for Patriots (Merge)
American Music Club’s triumphant return after a self-imposed exile sounds like it’s been gestating for ten years. Singer/songwriter Mark Eitzel catalogs America’s blind obsession with deception, using allegorical strippers (“Patriot’s Heart”), magicians (“Mantovani the Mind Reader”), and world leaders (“Ladies and Gentlemen”) to demystify false interpretations of reality. The band’s simmering performance is its most electrifying since Mercury‘s “Challenger”; it sounds rejuvenated, if not reborn. But it’s Eitzel that shines brightest: his acerbic black humor and boundless emotional poise flip over the coin of opportunity and self-sufficiency to expose loneliness and dependence.
   :. original PopMatters review


10. Elvis Costello & the Imposters, The Delivery Man (Lost Highway)
If Elvis Costello is the unofficial Dean of Rock and Soul History, the ultimate geek-snob who also happens to be one of its most prolific students, then The Delivery Man is his thesis on the American South. If Blood and Chocolate‘s sessions had attacked King of America‘s songs, the result may have sounded like this: razor-sharp guitars gutting a regional tapestry. Songs like “Either Side of the Same Town” and “Monkey to Man” are as masterful as the soul and blues standards that inspired them, while “Bedlam” and “The Name of This Thing is Not Love” modernize the traditional. Costello sings like he’s on trial for his life, pleading and panting; the Imposters are his sympathetic jury, juicing the argument that The Delivery Man is one of the Dean’s most rewarding records in recent memory.
   :. original PopMatters review



11. The Magnetic Fields, i (Nonesuch)
Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt is pop’s reigning classicist, an enforcer of form, symmetry, and melody. Significantly less ambitious than 1999’s audacious 69 Love Songs, i consists of 14 airtight wonders of self-deprecation, future standards delivered with the wit of Voltaire (or at least Steven Wright). No one writes more subversive songs of love and heartbreak and encases them in varying guises, from stage serenades (“I Die”) to ‘80s synth-pop grinders (“I Thought You Were My Boyfriend”). Best of all is “I Don’t Believe You”, an ingenious use of enunciated punctuation as its prickly kiss-off.
   :. original PopMatters review


12. Tom Waits, Real Gone (Anti-)
When it comes to Tom Waits, weirder is better. Real Gone reclaims the farmland funkmeister thread of Bone Machine, a sloppy stew of cacophonous percussion and Mark Ribot’s Ginzu knife guitar. “Hoist That Rag” and “Make It Rain” groove with weathered authority and knowing futility—eyes rolling into the back of the head, James Brown singing Kurt Weill, real gone funk stuff. Waits is the undisputed heavyweight of surrealist blues.
   :. original PopMatters review



13. Steve Earle, The Revolution Starts…Now (Artemis/E-Squared)
If Thoreau were a 21st Century roots troubadour from San Antonio, his name would be Steve Earle. The Revolution Starts…Now, a quick-and-dirty reaction record to 2004’s political climate, is a veritable rewrite of Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”: “Let every man know what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it” = “The Revolution Starts Now”; “The mass of men serve the State thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies” = “Rich Man’s War”; “A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, not wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men” = “The Seeker”. Like Thoreau or Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Earle believes that within one man lies the strength to sway popular opinion. The revolution may not have assimilated into the public’s bloodstream this year, but as Earle states in “The Seeker”, he’ll keep posing the tough questions.
   :. original PopMatters review


14. PJ Harvey, Uh Huh Her (Island)
Polly Jean Harvey’s sixth proper record is a grower, one with sleepy seeds around its eyes and a crink in its neck. Harvey delivers her lo-fi songs in a half-smirk and half-sneer: “The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth” scolds with tongue-in-cheek, “Who the Fuck?” is hysterical to the point of satire, and “The Letter” revels in its own delicious double-entendres. Uh Huh Her is an inspired sketchpad of song, proving that sometimes the rough-hewn caterpillar is infinitely more fascinating than the fragile butterfly.
   :. original PopMatters review



15. The Roots, The Tipping Point (Geffen)
This year’s hip-hop buzz has focused on Madvillian’s left-field junta, coupled with the misconception of the Roots’ failure to deliver. In the words of Jesus Quintana, “What is this boolshit?! Laughable, man!” The Tipping Point is not only the year’s best hip-hop record (MF Doom put up a good fight, but nobody flows like Black Thought: check the double whammy of “Web” and “Boom”), it’s also the grooviest. No record, not even the DFA Compilation #2, is as vivaciously loose and effortlessly funky.
   :. original PopMatters review


16. Wilco, A Ghost is Born (Nonesuch)
Wilco’s fifth album twists like strands of hair wrapped in a finger, knotting up and tearing loose with a frustrated concentration. Each song runs its own mini-marathon, moving forward with calculated resistance and breaking away during those few crucial meters. “Muzzle of Bees” and “Hell is Chrome” play like whispered riddles, keepers of exclamatory secrets, while “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and “At Least That’s What You Said” are sonic tug-of-wars between silence, monotony, and passion. A Ghost is Born pays off repeatedly in a succession of 90-degree turns, a perpetual reevaluation mid-song.
   :. original PopMatters review



17. Mark Lanegan, Bubblegum (Beggars Banquet)
Bubblegum opens with the soulless clack of a drum machine, thinly shellacked in a glaze of organ and bass. It’s all so naked and uninspired—but then the hotel door slowly opens, the nauseating fluorescent light spills into the room, and Lanegan appears, breath foul and eerily enticing: “Did you call for the night porter?” Bubblegum is a late night blooze record that sounds like molasses snailing its way down a skeleton, full of moments when the liquid clots in odd shapes on the ground. And Lanegan’s ready, as he says, “to janitor the emptiness”.
   :. original PopMatters review


18. Ron Sexsmith, Retriever (Nettwerk)
Ron Sexsmith pens the kinds of songs that Paul McCartney wishes he still could write. Unlike McCartney, Sexsmith uses cliché as a catalyst to plunder profound, yet disarmingly simple, expressions. It’s easy to take advantage of Sexsmith’s presence in the pop world; his songs are so effortlessly perfect that they can sneak by you if close attention isn’t paid. Retriever is the best work yet from Canada’s most competent craftsman.
   :. original PopMatters review



19. The Arcade Fire, Funeral (Merge)
Funeral blurs the line between fantasy and reality, dreams and nightmares, innocence and experience. It’s music made of repressed memories and reimagined futures, executed with the theatrics of Talking Heads and the insistent pulse of Pixies. Among a forest of accordions, strings, and trebly guitars, the Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Régine Chassagne howl and croon through a living diorama of shadowed neighborhoods. But there’s warmth found in the album’s chilly climate: Funeral‘s intrepid heart beats with a post-punk, post-new wave thrust.
   :. original PopMatters review


20. The Kinks, The Village Green Preservation Society (Sanctuary)
We all know how great the Clash’s London Calling is, and we were treated to a superb three-disc reissue this year. But not enough people know about the Kink’s 1968 masterpiece The Village Green Preservation Society, which is, simply put, one of the finest pop records of all time. Ray Davies’ obsession with old-fashioned England didn’t fare well with the progressive ‘60s crowd, and as a result, one of the seminal works of British pop has gone largely overlooked. It spawned no hit singles (although “Picture Book” has recently found new life in a Hewlett Packard commercial); nonetheless, it represents Davies’ most complete and focused vision. Sanctuary’s new reissue tops Essential’s by including not only the stereo and mono versions, but an entire third disc of outtakes, rarities, and alternate mixes. A must have. God save the Kinks!


Other recommended listening: Jens Lekman, When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog (Secretly Canadian); Iron & Wine, Our Endless Numbered Days (Sub Pop); Talking Heads, The Name of This Band is Talking Heads (Sire/Rhino); Jolie Holland, Escondida (Anti-); Jon Brion, I (Heart) Huckabees soundtrack (Milan); Richard Buckner, Dents and Shells (Merge); Tortoise, It’s All Around You (Thrill Jockey); Air, Talkie Walkie (Astralwerks).

Zeth Lundy has been writing for PopMatters since 2004. He is the author of Songs in the Key of Life (Continuum, 2007), and has contributed to the Boston Phoenix, Metro Boston, and The Oxford American. He lives in Boston.


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