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BEST MUSIC OF 2004  91 - 100
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100 FENNESZ
Venice (Touch)
Pay attention to Christian Fennesz. He is at the forefront of music’s future, foiling computer brushstrokes with his undying love of pop. On Venice, he ups the ante, allowing his pieces to ebb and flow, like its namesake’s watery environs. Fennesz is one of the few current digital dilettantes to fix his mouse on mood and emotion. Guitarist Burkhard Stangl’s blues-ish riffing adds extra soul to what is usually a cold computer world. On “Circassian”, (named for Sunni Muslims of non-Arab descent), the guitar rips like an Eno-Fripp collaboration, both synthetic calm and Hendrix pyrotechnics. On “Transit”, former Japan vocalist David Sylvian’s lament hints at Europe’s end days. Fennesz never left the guitar; appropriately, he’s recently returned to using one onstage. Venice is one of the great modern electronic works; refracting deftly embedded melody into a thousand pieces of colorful tone, the guitar’s lines shining like sunlight through cracks in a wall, sharp as diamonds.
      — Chris Toenes :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
99 THE WHILES
Colors of the Year (Anyway)
In this reviewer’s opinion there was no better album in 2004 than Colors of the Year, the debut album from The Whiles, Columbus, Ohio’s best kept secret. Songwriter Joe Peppercorn writes lyrics far beyond his young age, and the rest of this staggeringly talented quintet produce a sound somewhere between the Pernice Brothers and early Belle and Sebastian. Producer Jon Chinn (New Bomb Turks) nestles all of this in a perfect cocoon of echoing drums, beautifully plucked acoustic guitars, and lush organ. They’ve already been named Columbus’s best band by local papers, and it’s only a matter of time before their music is enjoyed by the kind of national audience they so richly deserve. For all those fans left slightly disappointed in Wilco’s latest, this is your album.
      — Mike Beaumont | buy in the PopShop
98 BLONDE REDHEAD
Misery Is a Butterfly (4AD/Beggars Group)
The four-year gap between Blonde Redhead’s last two records has led them through an amazing aesthetic transformation. Misery Is a Butterfly veers way far away from the noisy terror-squalls that made up their fantastic early work and nearly as far from the more refined art-rock of 2000’s Melody for Certain Damaged Lemons. The new record replaces the noise with lush, inviting strings and an eerie harpsichord fascination—very cinematic in scope yet extremely personal and warm. The results are breathtaking. Lead singer Kazu Makino’s icy vocals glide effortlessly through golden anthems like “Elephant Girl”, and the title track nearly drowns itself in melody and grace, as lovely as one imagines this band is capable of sounding. “Equus” is really the only track that hints at the band’s past, a jolting, juiced up drumming bass holler that closes the record on a sweet note. The sound of maturity and evolution, this record has made Blonde Redhead a much more interesting band, capable of even greater things in the future.
      — Andrew Watson :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
97 DESTROYER
Your Blues (Merge)
A teenage symphony to God? 2004 found Destroyer mastermind Dan Bejar looking much closer for inspiration than 1967, replacing the folked-out, destructo-glam rock trappings of 2002’s This Night with a midi-concerto of his most ambitious songwriting to date. Your Blues’ pocket orchestrations combined synthesized strings and horns with Bejar’s own nasal inflections and typically literary meditations, perplexing many fans of his Hunky Dory-ed former days. But what had first sounded like an RPG soundtrack would slowly reveal itself as Destroyer’s most accomplished release to date, a crescendoing culmination of his eight-year career. His proclamation of “Tonight we work hard! We aim large!” seemed appropriate; Bejar’s Blues was the year’s most unexpected triumph.
      — Jon Fischer :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
96 EARTHLING
Humandust (Discograph)
Earthling somehow never made it when ‘Bristol sound’ trip-hop was enjoying massive commercial success in the mid- to late ‘90s. After their impressive debut Radar, EMI refused to release the ‘darker’ follow-up, Humandust. Here it is, seven years later, on the French label Discograph. It is darker: Tim Saul’s immaculate production—last heard on McKay’s astounding 2003 debut—is richer, fuller and far more interesting than most downtempo, then or since. Repeated listens reveal extraordinary depths: the machine-like sounds that glisten at the back of “Miracle Town”, the pizzicato strings and barrel-chested guitar scuffs of “Me & My Sister”. Over it is Mau’s flow—gleefully idiosyncratic, half-sung, half-spoken, thoroughly English. For all the purported darkness of the material, songs like “Saturated”, “Box” and “Coburn” have the intimacy—the wounded but defiant innocence—of Portishead and Massive Attack. Most of all, the winsome nostalgia at the heart of the Bristol sound is now a perfect match for the nostalgia that music from that period now evokes. Brilliant.
      — Robert Wheaton
95 MINUS 5
In Rock (Yep Roc)
There’s only a handful of musicians I’d follow to the ends of the earth, and Scott McCaughey is one of them (see also Newman, Carl, and Tweedy, Jeff). As the driving force behind the Minus 5 (with occasional help from all-star buddies like Tweedy and R.E.M.‘s Peter Buck), McCaughey has spent the last decade releasing fantastic albums full of off-kilter pop nuggets; add In Rock to that list. In Rock has been floating around in various incarnations for a few years—most notably as a merchandise table tour-only LP—but McCaughey had the good sense to record a definitive (“Deluxe Edition remastered”, McCaughey calls it) version of the album, in one day no less. From the instrumental surf opener “Bambi Molester”, to the farfisa-drenched “In a Lonely Coffin” and “Lies of the Living Dead” to just about every other track, this album rocks. Sure, it lacks the gravity of the last Minus 5 album, Down With Wilco, but it’s that lightweight, loosey-goosey vibe that allows In Rock to soar. Where to next, Mr. McCaughey?
      — Stephen Haag :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
94 NINA NASTASIA
Dogs (Touch and Go)
Nina Nastasia creates her own literary world in her songs, replete with beautiful losers, ghosts and measurable tension among friends and lovers. In Dogs, her first record re-released this year, the stories read like short fictions. Spare phrasing paints distinct visual pictures of these ordinary people in desperate situations, in the spirit of Raymond Carver. A tight chamber group accompanies Nastasia’s acoustic guitar, with cello, violin and musical saw setting a smoky, serene mood. Nastasia and this group are not playing folk music, not copping the sound of some great Appalachian songstress. There is only the insular world around the songs’ characters, shot through with snapshots of their adventures; tattoo parlors, easy chairs, and sharing cigarettes behind the gym; “drinking beer out of coke cans”, as in the gripping escape tale of “Nobody Knew Her”. On Dogs, we learn priceless truths like there’s “Too Much in Between” between people, between each of us, and are better for it.
      — Chris Toenes :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
93 THE HONEYDOGS
10,000 Years (United Musicans)
This tour de force futuristic rock opera marries intelligence, melody and vision into what becomes a quantum leap ahead of anything The Honeydogs have ever done before. Trading on harrowing visions not terribly removed from today’s headlines, erstwhile social worker Adam Levy has created a complex musical concept filled with a test-tube savior, an apocalyptic war of ethnic conflicts, genocide, crime, blood lust, etc. But even without the narrative, the songs are beautiful, lush, multi-layered creations that stand proudly on their own. Each song has its own unique sound, and a wide array is covered, from piano-driven Nilsson-like songs to late-era Beatles sounds to the funk of early Traffic (and more). 10,000 Years is a stellar accomplishment, a compelling and thought-provoking saga in song that is all about quality, meaning and important purpose. This passionate achievement should reverberate for years to come.
      — Gary Glauber :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
92 THE ALBUM LEAF
In a Safe Place (Sup Pop)
Jimmy Lavalle’s third full-length release under the moniker The Album Leaf was recorded at Sigur Rós’ Mosfellsbaer studio in Iceland. While the connection has been somewhat overplayed in the press, In a Safe Place does evoke the beauty of the Icelandic landscape, yet it’s Lavalle’s subtle yet gorgeous songs that give the album its aching pull. With the help of Jon Thor Birgisson and members of Múm and Black Heart Procession, In a Safe Place induces an almost meditative state when taken in its entirety. However, the atmospheric soundscapes that Lavalle creates are focused and pop-oriented, never meandering into Windham Hill territory. In a Safe Place is also the first Album Leaf release to include vocals on a few tracks from Lavalle, Birgisson and Pall Jenkins from BHP. This is a brilliantly delicate album that will continue to reward its listeners for years to come.
      — Mark Horan :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
91 STEVE TURNER
Steve Turner & His Bad Ideas (Roslyn)
I feel I can ask no more of this record than it provides. Instead, everything I can do to get more people to hear it is the least I can do. Retro without ripping off, smart without pretension, soul without naivete, Steve Turner’s second solo record was the biggest and best surprise of the year. “I-55” deserves to be canon, and a few other songs come damn close. Miss Holly Golightly and Turner banter back and forth with sly pleasure on “A Beautiful Winter”, channeling star-crossed lovers of yore from all over the history of American music. “I Love the Sound of My Guitar When It Sings” is unabashed in that joy, guaranteeing that you will be too. Barely over a half hour in length, I can put it on at least six times before heading off to work. This language has too few superlatives.
      — Michael Metivier :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
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