1. The Strokes, Room on Fire (RCA)
With the crushing weight of expectation on the Strokes' collective shoulders following the massively praised Is This It, plans were initially made with Radiohead svengali Nigel Godrich to produce their follow-up effort. It appeared the boys were determined to avoid the sophomore slump, and when they fired Nigel Godrich after a few short weeks questions became more pointed as fans and critics wondered alike if the Strokes would ever manage to come close to the perfection of their debut. Reteaming with Is This It producer Gordon Raphael, the Strokes once again recorded a gem -- 11 tracks of rock 'n' roll perfection and a textbook on songwriting and arranging. Naysayers that accuse the band of rehashing their debut aren't listening close enough. Room on Fire reveals influences ranging from the soul of Al Green, the reggae of Bob Marley and the pop urgency of the Cars. Where Is This It was a lonely cry from the ragged streets of New York, Room on Fire found the band with more swagger in their step and a few more hearts pinned to their sleeves.
2. The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow (Sup Pop)
Listening to the Shins is like eating an artichoke for the first time. As you peel back each layer, it's only when you reach the heart that you realize of the majesty of it all. Mining the catalogues of the Beach Boys, the Kinks, and even Patsy Cline, Chutes Too Narrow is a pop confection. Front man James Mercer's lyrics are literate and the melodies are delightfully sophisticated. Each repeated listen (one just isn't enough) uncovers a brand new favorite lyric or a musical moment you had missed before. A shimmering pop masterpiece.
3. The Forms, Icarus (Threespheres)
Coming out of nowhere, the Forms stunned the music world with their epic debut, Icarus. Turning the notions of math rock and emo on their ear, Icarus redefines the last 10 years of indie rock in just under 20 minutes. "Stel", "Sunday", and "Stravinsky" are huge in scope, and executed with panache to spare. There hasn't been a debut this confident, this original, or this complete in years. In case it isn't obvious already, the Forms are the band to look out for in 2004.
4. M. Ward, Transfiguration Of Vincent (Merge)
Ghostly, haunting, and otherworldly, M. Ward's third full length, Transfiguration Of Vincent, is a beautiful excursion into a creaky, beautiful, ramshackle house, with secrets around every corner. Blues, folk, and country influences are all present, as Ward weaves narratives reminiscent of Tom Waits or Will Oldham. The instrumental tracks showcase a guitar virtuoso, with compositional power to spare, but the real highlights are the stories, which feel as worn and familiar as a favorite beat up pair of shoes or a comfy old sweater.
5. Do Make Say Think, Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn (Constellation)
Where labelmates Godspeed You Black Emperor! plods laboriously through predictable post-rock theatrics, Do Make Say Think offers a giddy and downright brilliant alternative. Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn is one of the best and most fun post-rock albums to come along in years. There is never a dull or predictable moment, as Do Make Say Think moves breathlessly from track to track, offering up truly inventive, and at times astonishing, explorations into their jazz-influenced compositions.
6. The Locust, Plague Soundscapes (Anti-)
Spawning legions of dyed-black haired, tattooed followers, the Locust prove on their second full-length that they can be imitated but never duplicated. Ripping through twenty-three tracks in under twenty-one minutes, the Locust offer up a grisly menu of thrash, grind, and metal that is devastatingly harsh, but at times surprisingly catchy. Lyrically obtuse, song titles such as "Can We Get Another Nail in the Coffin of Culture Theft?" and "Priest With the Sexually Transmitted Diseases Get Out of My Bed" hint at a political slant, but that's not really why we're here. The Locust offer some of the best, most complex, hardcore thrash you're likely to hear, and Plague Soundscapes shames the competition while delivering the group's most cohesive effort to date.
7. Deerhoof, Apple O' (Kill Rock Stars)
While vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki gets the most attention for her simplistic, stereotypically Asian lyrics and delivery ("China panda / Bamboo panda / I like panda / Bye bye panda / Panda road" go the lyrics for the aptly titled "Panda Panda Panda"), it is guitarists Chris Cohen and John Dieterich that are the real stars here. Their epic pre-chorus guitars make album opener "Dummy Discards a Heart" a tough act to follow, but somehow Deerhoof pulls it off. Their twitchy, poppy brand of punk rock is immediately engaging, and Apple O' is one of the most chronically strange and interesting releases of the year.
8. Ex Models, Zoo Psychology (Frenchkiss)
A sonic fury that only the likes of New York City could produce, the Ex Models' Zoo Psychology is a ride into the underbelly of this sprawling metropolis. "Pink Noise" is the perfect musical description of the nervous tension before a fistfight, and "Sex Automata" struts with sexual bravado and confidence. There is hardly a moment to pause or to collect your thoughts, as each song careens crazily into the next. By time it's over you're exhausted, barely conscious, and your wallet is missing. Listening to the Ex Models is like having a New Year's Eve party every fucking day -- in your pants.
9. Blood Brothers, Burn Piano Island, Burn (ArtistDirect)
When underground punk rock heroes the Blood Brothers signed with a major and teamed up nu-metal producer Russ Robinson, people were worried. But any fears were immediately laid to rest upon first hearing the album's single, "Ambulance Vs. Ambulance". If anything, major league production and a relaxed recording session tightly focused the collective's vision, creating an album (like Converge's Jane Doe a year earlier) that completely turned the hardcore punk rock scene on its head. Remaining true to the sound they honed on their independent efforts, Burn Piano Island, Burn is defiant, bold, and packed with more dynamite than a goddamn Merrie Melodies cartoon hour. With dual vocalists Jordan Billie and Johnny Whitney always threatening to careen wildly out of control, it's the always inventive drumming of Mark Gajadhar that keeps things tight and moving quickly. Reckless and with a "fuck you" stance, Burn Piano Island, Burn will no doubt be heralded as a classic in years to come.
10. Rufus Wainwright, Want One (Dreamworks)
Only someone with the vision of Rufus Wainwright could get away with releasing an inconsistent full-length and still make the top ten of the year. How is this possible? Well, when Rufus shines (which he does often on Want One) he creates some of the best pop music one is likely to hear. Sweeping and deliciously over the top, Rufus fuses Tin Pan Alley songwriting, classical compositions, and opera scores, often all in the same song. "Oh What a World", "Vicious World", and "Go Or Go Ahead" are the standouts on Want One, and even when Rufus misses, it is endearingly beautiful.
Top 5 Songs
The Dillinger Escape Plan, "Baby's First Coffin"
The Dillinger Escape Plan's debut, Calculating Infinity, was a tech metal masterpiece, but it's coming on four years since it dropped. Touring non-stop and releasing various compilation tracks and EPs (including the brilliant, Mike Patton-fronted Irony Is a Dead Scene), the Dillinger Escape Plan are taking their time in releasing a follow up. With a new singer in tow, they recorded a song for the Kate Beckinsdale Matrix-meets-Dracula flick, Underworld. Picking up where the Patton EP left off, "Baby's First Coffin" is a stunner, mixing their trademark mathematical metal riffing with sweeping atmospherics. Any fears that the Dillinger Escape Plan had run into writer's block have been put to rest with this astonishing track, which ranks among the year's best metal material.
OutKast, "Hey Ya!"
On Andre 3000's first single from his half of OutKast's double CD opus, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, he musically and visually reimagines the Beatles' debut on the Ed Sullivan show. Instead of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, we get multiple Andres playing every instrument, and even doing backup vocals. Oh, and the song? Well, it's deliriously catchy and inventive and has solidified its place in music history as the brilliant lyric, "Shake it like a Polaroid picture!" has already become a piece of the pop culture lexicon.
The Strokes, "Under Control"
I'm not sure what album the cynics were listening to when they glibly accused of the Strokes of rewriting their debut album on Room on Fire. Clearly, they must have skipped over this track, a heavily reggae- and soul-influenced ballad that finds Julian Casablancas giving up the destiny of his love to the fates. A beautiful, shimmering, soulful number, it's the final proof that the Strokes are, indeed, the real deal.
Ludacris, "Stand Up"
The first single from Ludacris's new full length, Chicken And Beer, is hilarious and helluva lotta fun. Where Nelly's radio-friendly hip-hop has become too safe, and too stale, Ludacris is still just dangerous enough to be interesting. Hilariously confident, Ludacris's flow is incredible, and lines like "Watch out for my medallions / My diamonds are reckless / It feels like there's a midget / Hangin' from my necklace" breeze by before you realize just how damn great it is.
The Shins, "Gone For Good"
Just when you thought you'd heard everything the Shins' frontman James Mercer had to offer, he breaks out the lap steel and delivers one of the most heartbreaking tracks on Chutes Too Narrow. Hidden towards the end of the album, this delicate and spare country number is among the album's best, and James Mercer's plaintive, earnest cry has never been more powerful.