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BEST MUSIC OF 2004  11 - 15
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15 BJÖRK
Medulla (Elektra/Asylum)
Björk has always exhibited a penchant for the natural, so in a sense Medulla is a conceptual realization of this theme. She has described the album’s ‘character’ as being “primitive, before civilization”; rightly so, because the main language heard here is Human, the first and universal native tongue recognizable by raw, emotional utterances (sighs to cries). The heart of Medulla is thus communication, on community, albeit a postmodern one where citizens are spread across the globe and connected through the ether(net). Björk casts her net far—drawing upon modernistic choral whoops à la Meredith Monk and vocal gymnastics by an international cast of beatboxers—and draws it tight around her singular vision. The result is intense yet sprite-like; after all, Björk also recognizes the importance of fun with such good company. Such is the case for human behavior in the world of Björk: Is that truly so strange?
      — Dan Nishimoto :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop Medulla is either the best album of the year, or it isn’t really music at all. Björk herself proclaimed traditional instruments to be “passé” and gathered an eclectic mix of beatboxers, gurglers, throat singers, and in the case of Oceania, soprano rollercoaster re-creationists, to further progress the art of the world’s most avant-garde artist. The album itself doesn’t even really have “songs” either. It’s a series of emotional peaks and valleys, where at one point Björk would be singing one of her best “pop” songs in “Who Is It;” but its sandwiched in between two pieces that have no real discernable language or even direction, but manage to entice our most primal emotions. Much like how Kill Bill Vol. 2 brilliantly captured the fear and panic of being buried alive, Medulla is like being submerged completely underwater and being deprived of your senses. It’s chilling, frightening and beautiful.
      — Erik Leijon :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
14 LORETTA LYNN
Van Lear Rose (Interscope)
Truly a record for all seasons, Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose sounds just as good driving towards the water with the windows open on a summer day as it does when the skies are gray and snow is falling. It’s the one to put on when you’re not certain what you want to listen to because it always sounds great. Loretta Lynn sings as if the world attempted to break her and she returned not only triumphant, but with a brighter gleam in her eye. Jack White, in his best role yet, adds all of the atmosphere and attitude, with a surprisingly subtle touch. “Portland Oregon”, the best single of the year, is the aural equivalent of unwittingly biting into a hot pepper—at first you’re only aware of something being different, and then suddenly, you’re on fire. With Loretta belting these out so wondrously, one ponders when mainstream country music executives will catch on to what the world really needs: more, and more, and more of this.
      — Jill LaBrack :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop Loretta Lynn joins forces with blues-punker Jack White in the unlikeliest pairing of the year and the results are stunning—a raw and honest work that surprisingly has garnered some play on conventional country radio. White provides an energetic impulse on the disc, his burning guitar and crystal clear production turning raw and edgy country songs like “Family Tree”—a song in which the singer stands up to her husband’s mistress—and the barroom romp “Portland Oregon” into new country classics. Lynn’s voice on Van Lear Rose offers a connection to the past without giving up anything to that past, a drawl-soaked soprano that floats in on angel’s wings - though, her phrasing and range remind the listener that she is no push over.
      — Hank Kalet :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
13 AC NEWMAN
The Slow Wonder (Matador)
On his first solo album, Carl Newman puts on a songwriting clinic, outclassing anything he’s done previously with the New Pornographers or Zumpano, firing off one concise irresistible gem after another with the pure pop facility of Emmitt Rhodes or Todd Rundgren. It can’t be as easy as Newman makes it sound here: every change, every shift in tempo, every instrumental flourish, whether its cellos or horns or synthetic drums, seems perfectly deployed; each song has its turn to be stuck in your head, snippets of melody ricocheting around with impossible familiarity after only a few listens, like you’ve been listening to the record for years. That’s plausible enough, since there’s nothing about it to date it to any particular rock era. Free of any kind of faddish production gimmicks, it resounds with the kind of hooks that have always made pop music matter, each is a tiny explosion of concentrated pleasure, an instant cure for the nuisances of everyday life.
      — Rob Horning :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop 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.
      — Zeth Lundy :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
12 GREEN DAY
American Idiot (Warner Bros./Reprise)
It’s one thing for a rock band to make a cerebral album with art-rock pretensions and nine-minute pieces (in five movements each) on the fall of the American Dream. It’s another thing entirely for said rock band to do so without forgetting how to let loose and just ROCK. Without sacrificing any of the snot-nosed venom and vitriol that marked the best moments of their earlier albums, Green Day somehow managed to put together one of the most intelligent albums of the year. American Idiot is a definitive statement of an album, an album that could be a comment on society, politics, suicide, or nothing in particular, depending entirely on what the listener wants to hear. Green Day’s going to have a hell of a time trying to top this one, given that accomplishing that feat would be to do what no other band could do this year. Just brilliant.
      — Mike Schiller :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop Several bands and artists who released music in the election year had a common theme: anti-Bush. Some were brash and overt (Ministry’s Houses of the Molé), but Green Day’s was a tad more covert. Instead of killing the king directly, chief songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong focused more on the state of the world, and allowed the listener to connect the dots. Marketed as a “punk-rock opera”, American Idiot wound up oblique in assembling its plot. But what makes this my top album of the year are the songs themselves. Individually, they stand alone as the best work Green Day has released since the boredom of masturbation. The two nine-minute suites (“Jesus of Suburbia” and “Homecoming”), each with five movements, are masterpieces. The title song and “Holiday” are anthemic, while “She’s a Rebel” and “Extraordinary Girl” just rock. Left for dead in a punk/pop world, Green Day instead set the bar higher than most bands dare to achieve.
      — Lou Friedman :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
11 INTERPOL
Antics (Matador)
It’s end of 2004, and still the decade is in search of a music identity. For more than a dozen years music, like much else, has been dominated by technology (in this instance, guided by electronic music), but one thing here finally seems to have taken definable shape: it is indisputably cool, cooler, coolest to be in a real, live, guitar-toting, amp-blowing, godforsaken band once more. There’s no more pretending. It’s threatened over the previous couple of years too (remember The Strokes?), but this year it actually happened. Definitively. Unsurprisingly, much of what’s emerged has imparted a revivalist trend—post-punk preen-ers, new wave pretenders (see: Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, et al), all searching for clues in the pre-electronic waste. And with this, beyond a new, more organic sound template, music suddenly has a face again. Once more it’s important to check-out your swagger while donning the right outfit, to be seen wearing the right haircut (clue: it helps if your fringe obscures your vision). And most remarkably, it seems the blokes scoring groupies actually play music all of a sudden, they don’t just carry crates of the stuff between turntables. Interpol sound more like, and better at, the music of 2004 than any other band. Their debut release, 2002’s Turn on the Bright Lights gave us a taste of Joy Division dressed in modern garb, but 2004’s Antics raised the stakes and emerged as something entirely their own. This was smart, infectious, literate music with a recognizable heritage but a present and future of their own design. It was music that possessed confidence and a distinct attitude, the two cloaked in a discernable style that craved emulation. And that’s what pop and rock was always supposed to be about, right? Confidence bordering on arrogance, a certain stylistic relish, and music capable of flooring you, knocking you on your ass. This then, was Antics—the class of ‘04.
      — John Davidson :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
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