The Best Music of 2004 #90-81

[17 December 2004]

By PopMatters Staff

BEST MUSIC OF 2004  81 - 90
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90 THE HOLD STEADY
Almost Killed Me (French Kiss)
“All the sniffling indie kids, hold steady.” Any discussion of Almost Killed Me is in constant peril of devolving into an exercise in lyrics-quoting, but that one says everything: The Hold Steady have had four or five beers, and they’re wondering when the fuck the word “indie” stopped being followed by the word “rock”. Those vocals too abrasive for you? Uncomfortable with classic rock guitar fanfare when it’s not an ironic pose? Then forget 2004 ever happened and go cry into your copy of Echoes; the Hold Steady don’t need you. All they need is an amp, some whiskey, and some slightly outdated pop-culture references, and if we can all just set down our egos for a second, they can remind everyone what made independent music so vital (and fun) in the first place.
      — Chris Bailey :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
89 BEASTIE BOYS
To the 5 Boroughs (Capitol)
It took them a while, but with To the 5 Boroughs, the Beastie Boys have finally equaled their best-ever release, Paul’s Boutique. Dropping the live instruments and bigger productions that featured so much on past albums, To the 5 Boroughs finds the Boys going back to their hip-hop roots with a stripped-down sound. Samples and beats abound, but it’s the attention to the vocal performances’ details that make this album such a knockout. Mixing the political with the comedic, this album proves the Beasties are more in touch with the world at large and pop culture than Eminem will ever be. One listen to “Triple Trouble” brings it all into sharp focus. To the 5 Boroughs was well worth the wait and then some. And perhaps in the near future we really will get to “impeach Tex” as MCA highly suggests in the grooves here.
      — Jason Thompson :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
88 NEON THRILLS
Sweet Cactus (Bad Beat)
Although absolute perfection is a statistical impossibility, musically speaking, Neon Thrills approaches the lofty pinnacle with its superb debut album. Everything about this release rates an A+, from the crisp songwriting to the infectious pop musicianship. And it’s all done without gadgets or gimmickry, just a unique combination of sophistication and simplicity that will leave listeners’ collective memory bank filled with sharp, catchy tunes for a very long time. So, as the major label Lilliputians sit around circle-jerking over their latest transparent bands-of-the-moment, the chore of creating lustrous pop gems is left to Neon Thrills, one of the few acts on the scene who knows how to do it right. For those yet to experience musical enlightenment, Sweet Cactus will grant immediate access into maximum pop nirvana. It is a journey that is… neon thrilling…
      — Adam Williams :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
87 STARS
Set Yourself on Fire (Arts & Crafts)
This album won’t be released until early January Stateside, but we are lucky Canucks! This is perhaps the record Jarvis Cocker never recorded but desperately wanted to. Somber yet lush, depressingly beautiful and as catchy as the winter day is dark, this Montreal based group has created a fabulous series of songs such as the title track (including the lyric, “20 years of sleep before we sleep forever”), “Reunion” and “The Big Fight” that bring to mind Pulp if channeled through either Belle & Sebastian or The Delgados. Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan play each side of a relationship gone sour as the music visits new wave, rock and brilliant highbrow pop. “They want you to remember those 15 seconds in your life when you kissed someone and it broke your heart,” the press kit says. It’s sickeningly fantastic!
      — Jason MacNeil | buy in the PopShop
86 RJD2
Since We Last Spoke (Definitive Jux)
Whatever Since We Last Spoke was, it was not a hip-hop record. His second album for NYC juggernaut Definitive Jux, it caught RJD2 finally emerging from beneath the (DJ) shadow of his cutting-and-pasting contemporaries while still expanding upon the classic soul-infused qualities of 2002’s Deadringer. Incorporating everything from crunching guitars to mariachi themes to Múm-esque glitch-beats, the disc was a kaleidoscopic romp through the FM dial. While his worst moments seemed to mimic the lauded Deadringer, RJD2 triumphed in 2004 when simply concocting the unexpected, particularly “Through the Walls”, an off-the-cuff tribute to the Cars (later rerecorded with the man himself: Ric Ocasek.) If past works didn’t earn RJD2 a title as one of underground hip-hop’s best producers, Since We Last Spoke certainly crowned him as its most daring.
      — Jon Fischer :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
85 SAM PHILLIPS
A Boot and a Shoe (Nonesuch)
My great admiration for Sam Phillips is rooted in her eloquent minimalist walks through the most miserable of days. A Boot and a Shoe marks a continuation of the ideas on her Fan Dance album, but it’s obviously more than that. Phillips’ new work, as my brother once favorably put it, sounds old. The instruments sound old, the words seem as if they’re being recited from a diary of a person that lived long, long ago, and perhaps most importantly, Phillips follows a dimly lit trail back to dusty song structures that were either once shelved too high and out of reach or existed only to some song bards that again, lived very long ago. My brother’s right, this record does sound old. And I don’t mind that at all.
      — Dominic Umile | buy in the PopShop
84 GHOST
Hypnotic Underworld (Drag City)
If you can get past the initial title track, 13 drifting minutes of incidental noise and wailing sax about half as interesting (and twice as irritating) as your average set of wind chimes, you’ll discover that this proggish Japanese band can do horror-soundtrack maestros Goblin one better, making instrumental mood pieces as mesmerizing as they are menacing. And when the band introduces vocals, they prove they’ve mastered the spacey, contemplative manner of Pink Floyd’s soundtrack work as well, as on “Holy High” and the stunning “Ganagamanag”. Most tracks on Hypnotic Underworld are mantra-like grooves with instrumentation layered on in slow, deliberate waves. Repetitive? Sure. But it’s also more patient and disciplined than most neo-psychedelic bands, who are too often content to jam indulgently and leave all but the most devout listeners behind. Ghost inevitably sweeps you along, carrying you into the sprawling spaces they evoke, even if it’s only to abandon you there, lost and utterly disoriented.
      — Rob Horning | buy in the PopShop
83 BUDDY MILLER
Universal United House of Prayer (New West)
Universal United House of Prayer is a near-perfect mix of gospel, country and blues, turned hard and edgy by Buddy Miller’s expert guitar playing, a disc that passionately expresses a version of Christianity that is open to the outside world. Unlike the reductive, narrow-minded and intolerant version expressed by right-wing politicos like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, Miller offers an ecstatic, compassionate expression of a real faith that he knows must exist within this imperfect world. Opening with the grinding, keening blues of “Worry Too Much” and its catalogue of dangers and bad news and moving through a majestic version of Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side”, Miller refuses to shy away from the pain or to retreat from the world. In many ways modeled on late ‘60s/early ‘70s soul music recorded by the Staple Singers, Marvin Gaye and Edwin Starr—the kind that mixed faith and humanistic politics—the disc is a testament not only to his faith but to humanity and our ability to reach beyond even the direst circumstances and survive.
      — Hank Kalet :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
82 BERSUIT VERGARABAT
La Argentinidad al Palo (Universal/Polygram)
If an American band made a record as deep, as wide, as pure, and as dirty-minded as this, everyone would be slobbering all over it the way I’m slobbering all over this one. It’s a two-disc set from everyone’s favorite Buenos Aires nine-piece ska/metal/funk collective. It essays every fun kind of music and leaves out the boring ones; it talks sexual politics (“Coger no es amor / Es mucho mejor!”) and melancholy and wistfulness and bluster, sometimes all at the same time, because dammit they’re all the same thing really. Bersuit’s nationalism is open-eyed: the title track lists all the bad stuff about Argentina right along with the good, while frontman Gustavo Cordera exhorts his countrypeople to get “al palo” again… and if you don’t know, you better Google somebody. Sadly, with our new nationalistic bent, all y’all have decided that “rock en español” is dead; excellent choice! More for me!
      — Matt Cibula | buy in the PopShop
81 DJ DANGERMOUSE
The Grey Album
At this point, the actual music on this mashup of Jay-Z’s The Black Album and The Beatles’ White Album has become completely inseparable from the hustle, hype, and hysteria surrounding its release. You know the story. It’s been a familiar one for a while now: Boy makes interesting record, boy gets screwed by record industry. The Grey Album, however, marks a tipping point of sorts. EMI’s absurd overreaction to a little mash-up album by a complete unknown illustrates that the record industry has gone past simple economic self-preservation and slipped into the realm of curly black mustaches and girls tied to railroad tracks. It backfired, of course, and created an audience for an album that otherwise wouldn’t have had one. It doesn’t hurt either that DJ Dangermouse has done an excellent job making what could have been a mere novelty into a seamless hip-hop record. All respect to Kanye West, but the pilfered beats easily best those on The Black Album. And all respect to Sir McCartney, but in 2004, The White Album is best as background music. Let’s face it, “Helter Skelter” was straight-up gangsta to begin with, and this way we don’t have to sit through “Revolution 9”. So, come on, EMI, either love The Grey Album or leave it alone.
      — Chris Bailey :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
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Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/best2004-index-90-81/