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“We will sing pretty songs about love/and we will fight if that’s what it takes/and we won’t back down/no we won’t shut our eyes and go to sleep”
—Tilly and the Wall, “The Ice Storm, Big Gust, and You”


Each year I listen to more music than the year before, each year I find more music to fall in love with, yet each year I find myself more disconnected from the general consensus among critics and fans about which are the most important bands, albums, and trends. For the most part, my 2004 wasn’t about fashion. It wasn’t about hot young things looking “cool” and disaffected, out to get attention. And it wasn’t about the albums that carried with them busloads of hype. Though I enjoyed music of all stripes in 2004, the year for me was mainly about the sheer power that songs can have -– the way a seemingly simple pop song can so successfully tap into our inner-most beings and get at complicated feelings and ideas. 2004 was about musicians who turn away from music industry nonsense and just create, about people who humbly write and sing songs that don’t advertise their greatness yet have the capacity to take a genuine hold on listeners. The musicians represented on the list below do not reject experimentation – they often out-and-out embrace it – but they’re also not self-consciously trying to find a new niche in the marketplace or a gimmick that will make critics’ ears buzz. They’re being themselves, and sharing their hearts and minds with listeners through songs. In this day and age that can still be a subversive act.


No year can be summed up in a paragraph. The releases of 2004 that caught my attention also included solid, often quite inspiring hip-hop albums (from Masta Killa, Talib Kweli, Jean Grae, Nas, Kanye West), raw but intelligent rock ‘n’ roll albums (by Tangiers, The Like Young, Ape House, Schooner, Sonic Youth), pop-rock kaleidoscopes (from Of Montreal, Blanket Music, Son Ambulance), challenging yet sensuous electronic music (Terrestre), top-notch albums from veteran rock eccentrics (Tom Waits, Guided by Voices, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, American Music Club), and genre-hybrids that expanded the boundaries and language of hip-hop (rjd2, Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd, Monk Hughes and the Outer Realm, DJ Rels, Iswhat?) and pop (Architecture in Helsinki, Bjork, Pepito, Mum, Slowly Minute). But the year was ruled by musicians that re-invigorated the conventional pop song through sheer honesty and heart. Most of the musicians on my top 20 list wear their hearts on their sleeves, and that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s the opposite – a beautiful thing, a reason to keep paying attention to music, a reason to stay alive.



1. Jason Anderson, New England (K)
As Wolf Colonel and under his own name, Jason Anderson’s songs have always contained casual but powerful insights into the world and life, plus great melodies –- but here he transcends everything he’s done in the past, and most songwriting period, by slowing down and probing deeply into the pains and joys of life. With help from some talented friends, he gathers up a communal creative spirit and probes the corners of his heart in a beautiful and devastating way. Laidback, tender, but in its own way quite explosive, it’s the perfect soundtrack to heartbreak, to ambivalence, to confusion… in other words, to life.
   :. original PopMatters review


2. Pants Yell!, Songs for Siblings (Asaurus)
Musical short stories played in a carefree way but with a cloud of melancholy overhead. The Boston-based pop trio Pants Yell! has a sound that’s exuberant, with a Jonathan Richman/campire songs sparseness, but also heartfelt and serious. Their songs vividly describe a genuine appreciation for places and moments, but also hurt and sorrow. Songs for Siblings is fun but grounded: child-like creativity wedded to adult heartbreak.


3. Tilly and the Wall, Wild Like Children (Team Love)
The revolution starts here, with gentle songs of love and late-night partying. Tilly and the Wall are romantic rebels with tap shoes and tambourines, singing at the top of their lungs to anyone and everyone about how love and unbridled creativity are going to change this fucked-up world for the better.



4. Mirah, C’mon Miracle (K)
Mirah’s C’mon Miracle is protest music that doesn’t feel like protest music. It isn’t strident, simplistic, or preachy, but rather rooted in real human feeling as well as an impeccable sense for pop melody. These are gorgeous, perfectly written songs that in their musical sensitivity and complexity also contain a caring for humanity and a desire to make the world a more just, peaceful place. Musically the album subtly pulls in strains of folk music from across the globe to meet not only catchy pop melodies and simply strummed guitar but also graceful strings and piano. And Mirah’s voice is more devastatingly perfect than ever—if you’re ever going to believe that a singer can change a mind simply through the force of her voice, now is the time.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop



5. Graves, Yes Yes Okay Okay (Hush)
Low-key and pretty is the way, with the melodic, vaguely rustic bedroom-pop songs on Graves’ second album Yes Yes Okay Okay. Sometimes surreal, sometimes confessional, often joking around, Graves’ music makes you feel like you’re half-asleep but happy about it ... and there’s a friendly, curious jester singing radio hits from a parallel universe into your ear.
   :. original PopMatters review


6. Namelessnumberheadman, Your Voice Repeating (The Record Machine)
On their second full-length, Kansas City’s Namelessnumberheadman further integrate their twin interests in sci-fi electronics and down-home intimate folk ballads until they are one creature, a new style of grounded but future-bound pop. Your Voice Repeating is one of the more invigorating releases of the year in terms of atmosphere and style, but it’s also heartfelt and genuine.



7. Harper Lee, All Things Can Be Mended (Matinee)
Deep, all-consuming sadness is a timeless subject for songs, and one that All Things Can Be Mended captures vividly. This is one of the saddest albums you’ll hear – the basic sentiment is ‘every heart was made to be broken’ – yet it’s also an absolutely exquisite work of pop songwriting, with amazing melodies and a heightened sense of atmosphere. It’s hard to tap into dark feelings in a way that feels this honest and this real, especially within melodies that are perfect enough to be life-affirming in the face of all this bleakness.
   :. original PopMatters review


8. The Mountain Goats, We Shall All Be Healed (4AD)
As enigmatic as John Darnielle’s literary folk-pop songs can be, after listening to them you often feel like you’ve been given a glimpse of the lives of real, often quite tortured people. That’s as true here as ever – The Mountain Goats’ second album for 4AD is their most sonically polished, but that sheen has somehow intensified the emotions and brought a brighter spotlight onto Darnielle’s sense for detail. We Shall All Be Healed is an indelible portait of misfits living in a house full of rats, sharing problems, longings, addictions. It truly gets under your skin, and speaks to truths about the world through small stories and images. It’s a grand songwriting achievement, where each note and word is helping build something remarkable.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop


9. Jonathan Richman, Not So Much to Be Loved As to Love (Vapor)
International in scope and filled with Jonathan Richman’s trademark youthful energy and heart-on-sleeve attitude, Not So Much… is in a place or two more overtly political than his music usually gets. Yet the openness, kindness, and humanistic nature of his music has always been unique and provocative in a time when those qualities aren’t what most people are looking for in rock or pop music. This album captures his vision and joyful personality as vividly and persuasively as ever.


10. Colin Clary and the Magogs, Her Life of Crime (North of January)
Pop musician Colin Clary is in Jonathan Richman’s mold philosophically if not musically. On Her Life of Crime Clary and his band the Magogs take after Brian Wilson, bubblegum and Clary’s indie-pop contemporaries to deliver an album filled with sunny-as-heck melodies that’ll have you imagining your’re dancing on American Bandstand. This album would be infectious and remarkable even if the lyrics were sweet-nothings, but they’re not. Clary puts real emotion into his songs, and we’re so much the better for it. These songs stand in stark contrast to the emotionally reserved or surface-level nature of so much contemporary music of all genres. Who else could write a song with the bold and sincere title “You Drove Me Crazy and Broke My Heart (But I’m Still Glad You Were Born)”?



11. The Elected, Me First (Sub Pop)
With his solo project The Elected, Blake Sennett of Rilo Kiley has shifted his focus from Elliott Smith-ish acoustic ballads to a more complicated mix of folk tunes, electronic beats, and college-radio rock. Yet what comes through on Me First, above any of the genre-melding, is how casually piercing his melodies and lyrics are. He takes detailed stories of pain and betrayal and redemption, and sings them in a delicate but passionate way.
   :. original PopMatters review


12. Corrina Repp, See the Future (Hush)
Corrinna Repp writes thoughtful, introspective pop songs and then sings them with vision and grace. It’s Only the Future is especially sleek and stylish, due to Repp’s collaboration with electronic musician Keith Schreiner. But it’s also filled with raw emotion delivered in concise measures and words. In that way she’s in the tradition of Porter and Gershwin, even as her songs hit home in a very now, very relevant way.


13. Dear Nora, Mountain Rock (Magic Marker)
Mountain Rock finds Dear Nora’s Katy Davidson, who has a perfect grasp on pop melody, heading for the mountains to escape from hard times and scary newspaper headlines. Mountain Rock‘s songs are dreamy yet tuneful explorations of nervous loneliness, but also a testament to the powers of both nature and human creativity.
   :. original PopMatters review



14. Robyn Hitchcock, Spooked (Yep Roc)
Spooked finds Robyn Hitchcock setting his oddball yet often surprisingly touching in a stripped-down country-and-western acoustic setting, to great effect. Spooked is a haunting and stirring creation from one of the sharpest creative minds of our time.
   :. original PopMatters review


15. Aroah, The Last Laugh (Acuarela)
Spanish folk singer Irene Tremblay, aka Aroah, sings sometimes intensely, sometimes gently, about pain and loneliness on songs with names like “Sick in the Body, Sick in the Head” and “The Lonely Drunk.” The Last Laugh has an evocatively dark mood that matches the songs. An assortment of instruments help build a layered atmosphere. Yet what emerges through it all is one strong voice –- a woman singing intimate and potent songs that are likely to echo real-life emotions for listeners.
   :. original PopMatters review


16. The Capstan Shafts, Chick Cigarettes (Asaurus)
As The Capstan Shafts, one-man-band Dean Wells released at least four EPs and one full-length this year. All of them are crazed lo-fi recordings that are filled with perfect pop melodies and gloriously fractured fuzz-rock anthems. As the longest of the releases, Chick Cigarettes is the most complicated puzzle of the bunch. In 30 minutes, Wells runs through 20 pop-rock tunes that are warped and mind-warping but also tender and very very real.


17. Mus, Divina Lluz (Darla)
The Spanish duo Mus sing daydream lullabies that are, even on a purely stylistic level, as beautiful as the most stunning sunset. Yet there’s also deeply sad feelings here, through scenes and stories of absolute grief and hurt. Divina Lluz is a complicated gem of a pop album: pained and pretty at once.


18. The Blow, Poor Aim: Love Songs (States Rights)
The catchiest pop songs of the year aren’t on your MTV. They’re here, on a limited-edition collaborative EP between The Blow –- the distinctive songwriting personality of Khaela Maricich, who has a talent for turning everyday feelings and moments into pop songs –- and electronic eccentric Y.A.C.H.T., who has a taste for psychedelic versions of Timbaland beats. Dance your cares away to songs that’ll imbed themselves into your memory instantly, forever.



19. Pale Horse and Rider, Moody Pike (Darla)
Pale Horse and Rider play old-time country songs for modern times, but this isn’t a stylistic exercise. Their second album Moody Pike is filled with timeless American stories, of lonely people looking for affection, told within equally timeless melodies.
   :. original PopMatters review


20. Devendra Banhart, Nino Rojo (Young God)
Devendra Banhart is one of the few hyped-up musicians this year who actually deserved the attention. Both of his two albums this year – especially Nino Rojo, to me the more successful of the two - were filled with stark, old-fashioned folk-blues songs that doubled as warped, psychedelic mind-trips that had the unshackled creativity of songs written by children and the artistic courage of a musician who doesn’t care how popular his songs get but just wants to create.
   :. original PopMatters review

Dave Heaton has been writing about music on a regular basis since 1993, first for unofficial college-town newspapers and DIY fanzines and now mostly on the Internet. In 2000, the same year he started writing for PopMatters, he founded the online arts magazine ErasingClouds.com, still around but often in flux. He writes music reviews for the print magazine The Big Takeover. He is a music obsessive through and through. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri.


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