Ten-and-a-Half Albums That Defined My 2004

[28 December 2004]

By Stephen Haag

These aren’t necessarily the 10 most outstanding albums I saw released in 2004, but like I said last year, I’d rather write about the 10 (and a half) albums that provided me with a 2004 soundtrack rather than wax rhapsodic about a great album that didn’t move me. Yes, I know the list leans heavily on alt-country, power pop and garage; sorry, uh, every other genre.

1. 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 merch 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?
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

2. A.C. Newman, The Slow Wonder (Matador)
To earn the title of 2004 King of Power Pop, Carl, er, A.C., Newman had to stand up to both all challengers to the throne (among others: Bill Lloyd, the return of Jonny Polonsky!) and his own near-flawless back catalogue from his days with Zumpano and the New Pornographers. While Lloyd and Polonsky’s were both enjoyable, they were no match for Newman’s The Slow Wonder, an album that may be the sharpest release in Newman’s impressive career. The album is the sound of a man operating at the peak of his power; not a note is wasted. Newman can do no wrong, whether it’s the New Wave colorings of “Secretarial”, the fist-pumping “Battle for Straight Time” or the hardest-rocking cello you’ve ever heard on “The Town Halo”. I could keep going—every track is a winner—but I don’t want to ruin the album’s joys for anyone who hasn’t heard it yet. (But what the hell are those people waiting for?) Every year there’s one album that would make the world (or at least radio) a Better Place: this year, that honor falls to The Slow Wonder.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

3. Eagles of Death Metal, Peace Love Death Metal (Ant Acid Audio)
Folks who checked out the Eagles of Death Metal based solely on the band’s name found exactly two things misleading about it—the band apes neither the country rock of the Eagles nor the rape and pillage ethos of death metal. Fans hoping for either of those sounds walked away disappointed, but anyone looking for a bloozy slice of goofy cock rock found one of the best albums of the year. Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme may be the Eagles’ name draw on Peace Love Death Metal (he plays drums here under the nom de rock Carlo Von Sexron), but the breakout star of the band is Jesse Hughes (a.k.a. J. Devil Huge), whose Keith Richards-gone-garage guitar work matches perfectly with his androgynous vocals. The album is infused with an undeniable tossed-off vibe—it was recorded in three days - but the band is serious about having fun: They have several spirituals praising Satan, forked-tongue firmly in cheek (“Flames Go Higher”, “Kiss the Devil), while their cover of Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle (here, “Stuck in the Metal”) is a spot-on parody/homage. Also, it must be noted, Hughes and Homme set a record for most false stops per song on an album. Call it Dumb Rock by Smart People for Smart People.

4. The Hives, Tyrannosaurus Hives (Interscope)
Thank God the Hives never got the memo that bands don’t swagger and wear matching costumes anymore. Over the course of Tyrannosaurus Hives’ thirty minutes, the five Swedes who make up the Hives prove that they’re funnier, better dressed and just plain cooler than nearly every other band on the planet today. Though they could have churned out Veni, Vidi, Vicious 2 and landed a spot on this list, the Hives expanded their sonic palette and added Krautrock (“Love in Plaster”, “Walk Idiot Walk”) and string flourishes (“Diabolic Scheme”) to their already-impressive garage-rock arsenal. Lead singer Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist’s vocals strut out of the speakers on every track (especially on the urgent opener “Abra Cadaver” and the union anthem “A Little More For a Little You”) and the rest of the band is lockstep right behind him. Bar none, these guys are the kings of neo-garage. Tyrannosaurus Hives, indeed.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

5. Wilco, A Ghost is Born (Nonesuch)
2004 was a watershed year for Wilco, and not always in the best sense of the phrase. It was the year Jeff Tweedy and co released an album that did not build on its predecessor’s template, and the year that the first strains of Wilco Backlash could be heard in the indie rock community (reviews for A Ghost is Born were sometimes underwhelming; Tweedy inexplicably took heat in some quarters of the press for his rehab stint battling migraine-induced painkiller addiction). Pay all that no mind—after all, let’s see any band try to top 2002’s Yankee Hotel FoxtrotA Ghost is Born is another worthy entry in the Wilco discography. AGIB is a little earthier than YHF, as Tweedy gets in touch with his inner Neil Young on the superb jam “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, and for all the talk of the band crafting dissonant, otherwordly rock, A Ghost is Born offers some of the band’s simplest pop songs since 1996’s Being There: “Company in My Back”, “I’m a Wheel” and the beyond-charming “The Late Greats” (where the band weights fame vs. obscurity, and arrives at a funny, indefensible conclusion). Yes, the 15-minute noise experiment “Less Than You Think” is 2004’s most apropos song title, but the other songs are among the best 2004 has to offer. You’ll never find me in the Wilco Backlash Mob.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

6. Sahara Hotnights, Kiss and Tell (RCA)

If my calculations are correct, the 2004 Garage Rock Couple of the Year Award goes to… the Hives’ Pelle Almqvist and Sahara Hotnights’ frontwoman Maria Andersson. The Hives’ Tyrannosaurus Hives is popping up on numerous year-end lists (this one, for instance), and if there was any justice in the world, those same lists would also boast the Hotnights’ Kiss and Tell. After pretending to be the Runaways—and doing a darn good job of it—on 2002’s well-received Jennie Bomb, the ladies of SH flipped the retro rock calendar ahead a few years to the early ‘80s for Kiss and Tell, an album bursting with bright, New Wave-y synths and clean guitar lines from the Asplund sisters, Jennie and Johanna. “Empty Heart” and “The Difference Between Love and Hell” are two of the best examples of 21st century New New Wave, but then the same could be said of “Who Do You Dance For?” and “Hotnight Crash”. Like the Hives, Sahara Hotnights has little interest in changing hearts and minds, but when it comes to releasing fun album, few do it better.
   :. original PopMatters review

7. Wildhearts, Riff After Riff (Gearhead)
Despite my best attempts to rally the masses to their cause in numerous publications, it doesn’t look like 2004 will turn out to be the Year of the Wildhearts. So now, at year’s end, I’m getting annoyed: What more could people who lament the dearth of meat ‘n’ potatoes rock and roll want more than an album called Riff After Riff that actually delivers the goods, fer chrissakes? Huge guitars with Vaudeville gag prop-sized hooks, insanely catchy melodies and an understanding that rock music is supposed to be a little dumb—the Wildhearts are the best band that nobody listens to. Whether it’s the Who-aping “Bang!”, the winking, over-the-top “Action Panzer” or the traveling party “Return to Zero”, the Wildhearts, led by pop genius Ginger, always capital-R Rock. The band has been honing their craft for eleven years now—when their ‘93 debut came out, half of their current rock radio competitors were still in short pants—and while they’ve never released anything less than a fantastic record every time out, Riff After Riff may be the crown jewel in their discography. (But, like my buddy Josh says, picking the best Wildhearts album is like asking a mother to pick which child she loves best.) The calendar is down to its last page, but we can still make 2004 the Year of the Wildhearts. Help me out here, people.

8. Drive-By Truckers, The Dirty South (New West)
Is there another rock band out there that can boast the embarrassment of riches that the Drive-By Truckers possess? They’ve got three soulful guitarists - Jason Isbell, Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood - who double as arguably the three best songwriters active today, in any genre. And as long as we’re talking threes, with The Dirty South, the Drive-By Truckers have dropped their third masterpiece of an album in a row (joining 2001’s Southern Rock Opera and 2003’s Decoration Day).

These guys (and gal—bassist Shonna Tucker) know the people of the South inside and out: their pride and shame and every emotion in between, as tunes like “Puttin’ People on the Moon” (Hood’s narrator struggles to make ends meet, while the government blows money on space exploration) and “Daddy’s Cup” (where Cooley’s race car narrator finds inspiration from his father) evince. And like any good storytellers, the trio tweak familiar stories to learn the other side’s point of view: to wit, Isbell’s “The Day John Henry Died” (“John Henry was a steel-driving bastard but John Henry was a bastard just the same”) and Hood’s re-examination of Sheriff Buford Pusser, “The Buford Stick” (Apparently he beat up a lot of people.) The Dirty South ain’t an easy listen—the band’s characters lead tough lives and die painful deaths—but it’s always a rewarding listen. Three marvelous storytellers/songwriters? Nobody ever said the rock scene was fair. The Drive-By Truckers show no signs of letting up until every Southerners’ tale is told.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

9. Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose (Interscope)
Would I have gotten my grubby mitts on Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose had the White Stripes’ Jack White not produced and played guitar on the record? Well, probably yeah: I’m an avid reader of No Depression and their May/June cover story on Lynn woulda gotten me out to the CD store to pick it up sooner or later, but White’s involvement and his approach to producing are what make Lynn’s thirteen songs on Van Lear Rose so special. With White’s loosey-goosey production, one can hear how much fun Lynn is having in the studio with the young musicians who idolize her (in additional to White, members of Blanche and the Greenhornes form her backing band); she sounds more vital than she has in 30 years. And, in a first, Lynn wrote all the songs on VLR (save White’s “Little Red Shoes”), and they’re all gangbusters: the poignant “Miss Being Mrs.”, “Women’s Prison” and the sweet family history of the title track. And, in an occurrence second only to the Red Sox World Series victory, did anyone think that they’d ever see the 70-year-old Lynn on MTV2, dueting with White on “Portland Oregon”? It’s a good thing Lynn has such a warm, friendly laugh, since she’s having the last one on Nashville. That city/music scene’s ages-old snub of Lynn is indie rock/alt-country’s open embrace.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

10. Camper Van Beethoven, New Roman Times (Vanguard)
Like their fellow ‘80s underground compatriots Mission of Burma did with ONoffON, Camper Van Beethoven picked up almost exactly where they left off (1989’s Key Lime Pie being the last proper CVB album). And, as we enter a new era of politically-charged rock, David Lowery and co have positioned themselves near the front of the pack of those rockers with New Roman Times. I’m always a sucker for a good concept album, and NRT has a great hook: in a near-future America, a young man joins the army following a terrorist attack, becomes disenchanted with the military’s hard-right tactics, goes AWOL, trips on drugs, falls in with an anti-government militia and (eek) becomes a suicide bomber. And while, yes, New Roman Times is darker than Key Lime Pie, the album boasts plenty of catchy tunes: “51-7”, the tongue-in-cheek “Might Makes Right”, “Hippy Chix” and, of course, CVB’s signature, vaguely-ethnic instrumentals, “RNR Uzbekistan” and “The Poppies of Balmorhea” that allow Jonathan Segel and Victor Krummenacher to shine. As much as I loved Cracker throughout the ‘90s (yes, I was that guy), had I known what CVB was still capable of, as evinced by New Roman Times, I would have demanded a reunion sooner. Yes, I wield that power.
   :. original PopMatters review

10.5. Bill Lloyd, Back to Even (New Boss Sounds)
Are you like me? Do you find that for each season of the year, you stumble across an album that ends up being that season’s album? Or are you outside, living life and making new friends? Anyhoo, I was pretty sure I found my Fall ‘04 album when I got Bill Lloyd’s Back to Even... well, I was half-right. The album’s first six tracks are power pop non pareil, and for a while I thought A.C. Newman had competition: the jangly opening title cut (which contains one of the year’s most charming couplets: “From a Dom Perignon to a brown paper sack / It’s good to be back to even / From a Jacqueline Susann to a Jack Kerouac / It’s good to be back to even”), the instrumental “Hindon’t” (ha!), “Dial 9”, which is easily the best song about telephone services since R.E.M.‘s “Star 69”, and my new favorite unrequited love song (see below), “I Got it Bad” among the six. Then comes Side B, about which I can’t even muster the interest to describe. Bill, what happened? I picked up two of Lloyd’s other albums—1987’s Feeling the Elephant and 1999’s Standing on the Shoulders of Giants—and neither of them suffer from the early imbalance and second half lack of memorable tracks that befalls Back to Even. Needless to say, I never found a suitable Fall album. Boy, the life of a freelance rock critic is tough.

* * *

TEN SONGS THAT MADE MY 2004 SOUNDTRACK, IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER

A.C. Newman, “The Town Halo”, The Slow Wonder (Matador)
Picking only one song off this album gives Newman the short shrift, but what’s a boy to do? Vindictive (sneers Newman, “Tell us the story again / Of how you became the town halo!”), yet catchy as hell, songs like this are why power pop will never die. And have you ever heard a more rocking cello? No, you haven’t.

The Wildhearts, “Bang!”, Riff After Riff (Gearhead)
I’ll spare you a rehashing of the diatribe I launched into above while discussing the Wildhearts, and instead simply praise these hard-rocking Brits’ for the best song on one of their best albums. Frontman Ginger pens better choruses than pretty much everybody else, and “Bang!” is no exception: “Bang! / Like a mess I mix up my plan / You fix this sonofabitch / And goddamn / You made me a man!” Of course, the rest of the song kicks ass too, especially the bridge that suspiciously sounds like the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. Caveat auscultator: While listening to this song, your shoulder may fall out of its socket from over-fist-pumping. Consider yourself warned.

Bill Lloyd, “I Got It Bad”, Back to Even (New Boss Sounds)
Ignoring what it says about my love life, I love unrequited love songs. And damned if Bill Lloyd hasn’t penned my new favorite unrequited love song (replacing Walter Clevenger’s “Love Don’t Mean Anything”, if you must know). Yes, all the reviewer clichés about unrequited love songs apply here: overearnest, swooning, aching, etc., but Lloyd, pop craftsman that he is, ties all the clichés into something greater (and janglier) than the sum of their parts. Plus, when Lloyd sighs the line, “Whenever I see you / I got it bad” it never fails to punch me in the solar plexus. Lazy summation alert: I got it bad for “I Got It Bad”.

Wilco, “The Late Greats”, A Ghost is Born (Nonesuch)
Whenever I think of the last two tracks on Wilco’s latest album, A Ghost is Born, I can’t help but think of Jim Carrey’s line in Dumb and Dumber: “Just when I thought you couldn’t do anything dumber, you do something like this… and completely redeem yourself!” Granted, Jeff Tweedy’s not trading in a van for a moped, but as I’ve said numerous times (see above) “Less Than You Think” wins the award for 2004 Most Apropos Title (Not a Good Thing Division), but Ghost‘s closing track, “The Late Greats”, “completely redeems” the fifteen minutes of space junk that precedes it. The song’s a playful condemnation of the hipsters (myself included) who make up much of the band’s fanbase, folks who argue about the merits of songs and bands that most folks have never heard. Tweedy initially decides the “greatest lost track of all time” is “‘The Late Greats’ by Turpentine” and that “the best band to never get signed” was the “K-Cettes starring Butcher’s Blind” (don’t bother looking ‘em up). By song’s end, however, Tweedy ends the silly argument by deciding/realizing “the best song will never get sung”. More importantly, though, “The Late Greats” is warm, friendly and direct, something that Wilco does very well (see YHF‘s “Heavy Metal Drummer”), but doesn’t always do often enough.

Ted Leo, “Me and Mia”, Shake the Sheets (Lookout!)
Saying Ted Leo writes anthemic rock songs is a little bit like saying the grass is green and the sky is blue: Well, duh. Nobody captures the tenor of the times quite like Mr. Leo (2003’s “The High Party” and “Ballad of the Sin Eater” off Hearts of Oak are especially prescient in their worldview). And while this year’s Shake the Sheets boasts its share of politically charged rock (the title track, “Walking to Do”), Leo’s also a master of capturing quieter, internal moments. “Me and Mia”, Shake the Sheets’ opening cut, is a perfect example of such songcraft, and one of Leo’s best songs, to boot. Set to a lean, power trio beat, Leo tells a simple tale of “walking through a life one morning”, reflecting, before the song takes flight with the soaring chorus: “Do you believe in something beautiful? Then get up and be it!” Bar none, Leo is the most passionate man in indie rock today.

The Paybacks, “When I’m Gone”, Harder and Harder (Get Hip)
Among all the outlets I rely on to find exciting new music, none were more valuable this year than Little Steven’s Underground Garage syndicated radio show. So to Mr. van Zandt, I say Thank you for introducing me to my favorite garage song of the year (and there were a lot of choices), Detroit garagesters the Paybacks’ “When I’m Gone”. A hard-charging riff-fest, lead singer Wendy Case tears ass through the song, snarling like (of all people) a still-hungry Rod Stewart: “Take just what you want and leave the rest of me alone / ...And please don’t talk about me when I’m gone!” Danny Methric’s lead guitar has swagger to burn (check the bridge) and your speakers will be blown long before the song’s 2:30 running time is over.

The “duh” songs (songs too great to ignore, but everybody else has already written about them, so I’ll spare you yet another write-up on them):

Modest Mouse, “Float On”, Good News For People Who Love Bad News (Epic)

Franz Ferdinand, “Take Me Out”, Franz Ferdinand (Domino)

Scissor Sisters, “Take Your Mama”, Scissor Sisters (Universal Motown)

The Killers, “Somebody Told Me”, Hot Fuss (Island/Def Jam)

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/best2004-041228-haag/