The Best Music of 2004: An Assortment of Memorable Moments

Adrien Begrand

by Adrien Begrand - Adrien Begrand trolls through the best musical moments of 2004 and sings the praises of Canada's very own The Arcade Fire.

Album of the Year: The Arcade Fire, Funeral (Merge)
In which, on a frigid evening, young lovers pledge their troth, neighbors dance to the blue strobes of police lights, kids hang from lifeless power lines, their eyes shooting sparks, kettles whistle mournful melodies, a poet high on life (or something else) thinks he's achieved spiritual enlightenment ("We're just a million little gods turning every good thing to rust!"), and a girl watches the countryside blur past her eyes, from the backseat of a car. A brash Canadian band (sorry, collective) with the both ignorance and arrogance to mimic Talking Heads, Bright Eyes, Modest Mouse, Interpol, Pulp, as well as calypso and folk, dare to throw every idea they can think of at the wall. And, for once, miraculously, it all sticks.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Single of the Year: LCD Soundsystem, "Yeah"
What starts off as a fun, but rather ordinary discopunk homage to The Trammps' "Disco Inferno", takes a turn for the weird, as the wheels begin to fall off, the song morphing into a massive, synthetic beast, synths shrieking mercilessly in your ears, cowbells pounded in fits of Farrellian passion, inducing pure, unadulterated, acid house euphoria in the listener for nearly nine and a half minutes. Yeah, indeed. Yeah, yeah yeah, yeahyeah, yeahyeah, yeah.

What Was I Thinking?! The Great 2003 Album I Missed
As many albums as we web critics get to hear, it's still very easy to miss out on lots of notable records, and one 2003 album I missed out on turned out to be an incredible one. Death Cult Armageddon (Nuclear Blast), the symphonic black metal opus from Norway's Dimmu Borgir, is a stunning achievement, a metal epic of the grandest scale, as the sextet create an unholy marriage of dense riffs, satanic lyrics, and lush orchestral scores. This blend of melody and cacophony, or if you will, the sacred and profane (best exemplified by the stunning "Progenies of the Great Apocalypse"), is what makes melodic black metal so intriguing, and with this album, Dimmu Borgir take the sound to a level never before reached by such a band. There's a reason they played the main stage at Ozzfest this past summer, and it wasn't because of the greasepaint and spikes. Easily one of the best metal albums of this decade so far.

Best Re-Release: Black Sabbath, Black Box: The Complete Original Black Sabbath 1970-1978 (Rhino)
After an excruciating, seemingly interminable wait for the early Black Sabbath discography to be properly remastered on CD, it finally happened. And when those distinctive three chords on "Black Sabbath" kicked in, the three chords that spawned thousands of heavy metal bands, sounding more ferocious than ever before, oh my, was it ever worth the wait. Containing the band's eight albums from the Ozzy Osbourne years, repackaged and fully remastered from the original source tapes, Black Box is nothing short of a treasure; highlighted by the band's monumental first six albums, this set shows how Sabbath single-handedly influenced a genre like no other rock band in the last 40 years has done. It's absolutely essential listening for any fan of rock 'n' roll, and could very well be the best box set I have ever seen.

Gwen Stefani, "What You Waiting For? (Jacques Lu Cont's TWD Mix)"
Rarely do we ever see a quality single upstaged so badly by a remix of the same song, but Jacques Lu Cont has done just that. In eight minutes, Lu Cont shows us how drab the actual single is, how it sounds as if it's been constructed solely to be a soundtrack for a slick, high budget video. Stefani's embracing of '80s pop is admirable, but she doesn't go as over the top as she should, and Lu Cont serves up a teaser of What Could Have Been, adding a blatantly retro accompaniment of '80s synths and a great, wall-shaking house beat that doesn't let up for the entire track. With those gorgeous synths behind her quavering voice, Stefani's lyrics evoke pathos instead of cynicism, and thankfully, the omission of the ridiculous line, "Take a chance you stupid ho," adds to the mix's classy feel. This remix is glorious, and obliterates the original.
   :. original PopMatters review

Metric, "Dead Disco" (4 October, 2004, CBC Television)
Far from your usual television performance, the inimitable Emily Haines and her band played the single "Dead Disco", on the Canadian latenight arts program ZeD. During the song's breakdown midway through, Ms. Haines, in an inspired moment of improvisation, launches into a surreal, oddly impassioned demand for all Canadian radio and television programmers to start paying some attention to Canada's exploding indie rock scene, which has thusfar been ignored by the mainstream media, naming such bands as The Dears, Broken Social Scene, The Constantines, and Death From Above 1979. "When will we be ready for something to change?" she asks, imploring, "I want them on the radio... not dead." Canadian music fans hope someone out there was listening. Watch the clip here.

The Sudden Rise of Jason Isbell, Drive-By Trucker
For years, the best Drive-By Truckers songs came from guitarists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, but on The Dirty South, the old guys wind up taking a backseat to the new kid. Third guitarist Jason Isbell had already turned heads with his two excellent contributions to 2003's Decoration Day, but his four compositions on the new album exceeded expectations. The upbeat "The Day John Henry Died" is a potent, Springsteenesque rocker, a clever, modern day re-telling of the great American folk song "John Henry". "Never Gonna Change" is more laid back in a Tom Petty kind of way, its catchy chorus masking Isbell's dark depiction of Southern pride, while "Goddamn Lonely Love" is a Westerbergian tearjerker of a drunken ballad. Topping them all, though, is the jaw-dropping "Danko/Manuel", which has Isbell paying respect to the late members of The Band, while coming to the realization that he's now stuck living the same tough road life his idols went through, and questioning if it's all worth it in the end. "They say Danko would have sounded just like me," he muses, "Is that the man I want to be?"
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Scala Choir, "I Touch Myself"
The MP3 find of the year, unearthed by the great Fluxblog this past May, it's an extraordinary performance, as a choir of 60 Belgian teenaged girls sing an immaculate rendition of The Divinyls' racy classic. The performance is so prim, yet so strangely wanton, it's both disturbing and dizzying, and when the young ladies sing softly, "When I feel down, I want you above me," it could very well be the most moving depiction of adolescent longing ever put on record.

Party Ben, "Boulevard of Broken Songs"
TiM G, "Voodoo Problems"
Go Home Productions, "Jet Lady Joe"

Jay-Z, Linkin Park, and MTV might want to take mash-ups into the mainstream, but the best bootleg mixes are still created by independent producers. Party Ben's "Boulevard of Broken Songs" takes Green Day's ubiquitous "Boulevard of Broken Dreams", throws in Oasis's "Wonderwall", adds a few clever lines by Travis ("What's a wonderwall anyway?"), the end result making the Green Day track much more interesting than it actually is. TiM G trumps the Jay-Z/Linkin Park gimmick by meshing Jay-Z's "99 Problems" with Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)", and it's a perfect fit, Hendrix's classic licks accented by thunderous, multilayered beats. Go Home Productions, however, remains the undisputed king of the mash-up, and on the head-spinning "Jet Lady Joe", he's in peak form, taking Jet's ubiquitous "Are You Gonna Be My Girl?", interrupting it with The Beatles' "Lady Madonna", which segues right into Joe Walsh's "Life's Been Good to Me", with sly samples of Mud and Justified Ancients of Mu Mu thrown in for good measure.

The Resurgence of American Heavy Music
1a. Metal's New Wave

After spending more than a decade underground, traditional heavy metal returned to the mainstream in 2004, making the bloated sounds of nu-metal a distant memory. Instead of the frat boy angst of Limp Bizkit and Papa Roach, kids are opting for the more aggressive, technically proficient metal, and it's being reflected on the album charts, as bands are starting to crack the top 40. Lamb of God's Ashes of the Wake and Mastodon's exceptional Leviathan led the charge this past year, with accessible bands such as Shadows Fall, Killswitch Engage, and Atreyu all releasing strong albums of their own. It's a great time to be a metal fan.

The Resurgence of American Heavy Music
1b. Hardcore Proficiency

As great a year as it was for hard music, The Dillinger Escape Plan's much-anticipated Miss Machine was the one true highlight, as the band's proficient blend of grind, metal, and jazz fusion was bolstered with the addition of singer Greg Puciato's strong vocal melodies, helping take hardcore into uncharted territory. Meanwhile, abrasive trio Pig Destroyer's near-masterpiece Terrifyer combined classic grindcore with the classic thrash sound of Slayer and the psychodrama of Alice Cooper, and hardcore veterans Converge released the very strong, deeply emotional You Fail Me, an album whose more contemplative, melodic approach work surprisingly well, the band's integrity still intact.

Death From Above 1979, "Romantic Rights"
Whether this Canadian bass/drums duo can make this gimmick work for more than one album remains to be seen, but we might as well enjoy it while we can. "Romantic Rights" is one of the best Canadian rock singles in a very long time, a bombastic blast of punk/metal, stripped down to its bare essentials. And I still can't decide whether the bridge, "We could do it, it's right romantically," is sincere, or a deliciously lecherous come-on.
   :. original PopMatters review

Madvillain, "All Caps" (video)
Yeah, comic books have been the inspiration for many music videos in the past, but few have ever looked as cool as this one, as we follow a fun storyline about supervillains MF Doom and Madlib, made to resemble a 1970s-era comic book, as it goes frame by frame, interrupted every so often by mail-order ads for "Sea Chimps" and seed-selling offers. It's enough to make you wish they'd make similar clips for the entire album.

Nightwish, "Wish I Had an Angel" (video)
A metal band playing in a wet, abandoned warehouse + searchlights sweeping past the windows + slow motion headbanging + sinister, seductive camera mugging by all band members + tracking shots of the band through a chain link fence + lots of wind machines + a preening keyboard player - any hint of irony whatsoever = an unintentionally hilarious re-creation of 1985 video cliches that trounces that Bowling For Soup video.

Charlotte Hatherley, "Kim Wilde"
Released three months after Ash's Meltdown album, Ash guitarist Charlotte Hatherley's solo debut Grey Will Fade turned out to be the superior record, thanks in large part to the first single, "Kim Wilde". An insane blend of the over-the-top pop hooks of The New Pornographers and the cheeky indie rock of The Breeders, it's a four minute track bursting with ideas, the sweet-voiced Hatherley pulling every trick out of her arsenal. Everything unfolds so fast, it almost has too many hooks for its own good, but it's a ride you'll want to take again and again.

The Year of the Pixies
Come on, admit it, the return of The Pixies was the coolest thing ever. And did they ever capitalize on their reunion: we had a new, greatly improved best-of compilation, a DVD anthology, a couple of new songs (one, a cute Kim Deal throwaway, the other, a Warren Zevon cover), the weird but oddly fun Frank Black Francis double CD, and even cool limited edition CD recordings of nearly every show on the tour, sold for 25 bucks a pop. And bless their hearts, the first place they decided to tour was the Canadian Prairies. Yeah, we all seemed to buy into it, especially we Gen X-ers, getting all caught up in the nostalgia that we scoffed at the baby boomers for doing 15, 20 years ago. It was great fun during 2004, but in all seriousness, Mr. Thompson, we all got the Pixies fix we'd been craving for a dozen years, and in 2005, the novelty will be long gone, unless you do the unthinkable and record a new album. Please don't become the KISS of college rock.

Lil Jon & the Eastside Boys, "Stop Fuckin Wit Me"
First he sampled "Crazy Train" on Trick Daddy's "Let's Go" in such a brilliantly obvious way, that we were left thinking, "It took this long for someone to realize this was a good idea?" On his latest album, though, crunkmeister Lil Jon had another ace up his sleeve on his hilariously vitriolic track, "Stop Fuckin Wit Me", bringing in the great Rick Rubin to work some metal-fused magic, who uses two classic Slayer riffs (which he originally produced) to underscore the song. Opening with the intro to "Mandatory Suicide", the distinctive riffs from "Raining Blood" are brought in, and do not let up for a second, as Jon leads his goofy shout-along. Most of us thought the marriage of rock and hip-hop met an ugly demise with the likes of late '90s rap metal, but thanks to that little muppet-voiced, pimp cup carryin' dude, the sound has been reborn.
   :. original PopMatters review

Rachel Stevens, "Some Girls"
Annie, "Chewing Gum"

UK producer Richard X, the man behind Sugababes' 2002 single "Freak Like Me", arguably the best single of the decade so far, continued to work his magic in 2004. Former S Club 7 girl Rachel Stevens might have no singing voice to speak of, but did she ever score a slice of pop genius with her single "Some Girls", on which the ever-crafty Richard X brazenly hijacks a contagious German schaffel beat and tarts it up with a killer hook in the chorus that never, ever leaves your head. Meanwhile, on "Chewing Gum", the debut single for Norwegian pop chanteuse Annie, he layers heaps of 80s electropop touches, his sugary-sweet sounds perfectly offsetting Annie's sly innuendo of, "I don't want to settle down/I just want to chew gum."

M.I.A., "Galang", "Sunshowers", "Fire Fire"
Londoner Maya Arulpragasam seems poised to leave as big a mark in 2005 as Dizzee Rascal did a year and a half ago. Her music is a distinctive, vibrant combination of bhangra, hip hop, ragga, UK garage, and even punk rock, with lyrics that range from Dizzee-style depictions of urban life, to more volatile subjects such as her family's war-torn homeland of Sri Lanka. Her single "Galang" (produced by Fat Truckers), is instantly memorable, as she spouts verse after dexterous verse of London slang, before launching into a contagious chanted breakdown. Released this past June, "Sunshowers" is an ebullient summer tune that has M.I.A. reciting whimsical lines, before returning to her reality, graphically describing a murder on the neighborhood streets, while the B-side "Fire Fire" a vivid portrait of her family's life among guerilla warfare. This music is truly unique, the mark of a major talent, and her soon-to-be-released debut album Arular is already one of the most highly anticipated records of 2005.

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