Best of 2004

Andrew Gilstrap

Judging by Andrew Gilstrap's list, 2004 was the year of the singer-songwriter with Patty Griffin, Elliott Smith, and Leonard Cohen producing some of the best records of the year.

1. Patty Griffin, Impossible Dream (ATO)
Only a few seconds into "Florida", Griffin sings a simple "la la la la la la la" and Highway A1A -- with all the promise and uncertainty waiting at its end -- unfurls before your mind's eye. And that's the least of the magic she works on Impossible Dream. As much as I've loved every moment of Impossible Dream since its release, my initial tendency was to view much of the album's first half as inferior to the second half, but time has taught me that songs like "Cold as it Gets", "Standing", and "Kite" build to a measured emotional intensity that masterworks like "Top of the World", "Florida", and "Mother of God" spin into heartbreaking vignettes of incredible power. Impossible Dream finds Griffin at the height of her powers, which is saying something when it comes to an artist of her caliber.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

2. TV on the Radio, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (Touch & Go)
My constant struggle to describe this band's sound always ends with the rather weak "Imagine Peter Gabriel singing over Pretty Hate Machine-era Nine Inch Nails beats." They're obviously more than that, though, cobbling together a blend of post-punk rock, doo wop vocals, electronica, and art-funk. Some folks might know them from their associations with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a link that does nothing to shed light on what TV on the Radio are accomplishing. True, a falsetto-fond vocalist can be a trial in the best of times, but from the saxophone-skronk-laden electric fuzz momentum of "The Wrong Way" to the pulsing beat and swirling vocals of "Staring at the Sun" to the straightforward glower of "Don't Love You", TV on the Radio feel like a band that, at any given time, can launch off in six fascinating directions at once.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

3. Drive-by Truckers, The Dirty South (New West)
The Dirty South is probably the most uneven disc the Truckers have given us since before Southern Rock Opera, but it also finds their three-songwriter core maturing at a rapid clip. Jason Isbell is apparently incapable of writing a bad song, Mike Cooley continues to divine truths from tales of desperation, and Patterson Hood plows ahead with the faith of a true rock n' roll believer. The Dirty South has its share of beauty (most notably in "Danko/Manuel" and "Goddamn Lonely Love"), but its ugly heart resides in the mean-as-hell Southern voices found in songs like "Where the Devil Don't Stay", "The Buford Stick", "Cottonseed", and "The Boys from Alabama", men who made their choices long ago and who won't be eligible for redemption for another six or seven lifetimes.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

4. Elliott Smith, From a Basement on the Hill (Anti-)
It's impossible to hear half of these songs as anything but suicide notes, but when you have lyrics like "I can't prepare for death anymore than I already have" (from "King's Crossing", a song as densely packed with drug references as any ten Lou Reed songs combined), it's hard to hear anything else. From a Basement on the Hill was released after Smith's brutal suicide, after family members and associates culled out the less accessible portions of the work he'd left behind. What's left, lo-fi and rough-edged though some of it may be, is vintage Smith: Beatles-obsessed, prone to stretches of depressed beauty, and teeming with blunt admissions of an addictive personality. It's a fitting sendoff.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

5. Leonard Cohen, Dear Heather (Columbia)
Like a sage descending from the mountaintop (in this case, literally, given his recent years in a Zen monastery), the 70-year-old Cohen proves that his autumn years fit him quite well, and that his inner satyr still has a few springs and summers left. Still possessed of a sepulchral voice that makes every utterance sound like a profound meditation, Cohen continues to plumb the depths of his favorite subjects: the cruel jokes of age, the Mystery of women, romance as a spiritual endeavor, the need for the artist's soul in everyone to rage against the corruptions of the world. Cohen's newfound balance in portraying these things, though, is Dear Heather's greatest strength, and when Cohen's time finally comes to shuffle off his mortal coil, you get the sense that he'll steal a few extra hours playfully discussing everything he's seen and done with an utterly charmed Reaper.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

6. Tom Waits, Real Gone (Anti-)
Waits' blues-mule incarnation hauls some gold out of the hills, as he takes a few small risks with his established persona. You'd think he didn't have any tricks left after more than twenty years, but Waits ends up pulling out mouth percussion, hip-hop scratches, and political lyrics to add new wrinkles to his sound. Credit also goes to the return of Mark Ribot's guitar heroics, which course through half of Real Gone like pure inspiration. Amidst the Cuban rhythms of "Hoist that Rag", Ribot goes off like a man possessed, sounding like he's playing in Earth's last cabaret as the apocalypse rains fire down around him, Waits, and the rest of Real Gone's rag-tag crew.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

7. Todd Snider, East Nashville Skyline (Oh Boy)
Todd Snider's often been touted as John Prine's protege, but some uneven records have made that label a bit hard to see sometimes. With East Nashville Skyline, Snider gets back on track with wry songs of life on the road, battles with depression, and the pitfalls of the troubadour's life. When he quotes Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get it On" as he wraps up "The Ballad of the Kingsmen", you'll think you've died and gone to heaven on the wings of a perfect songwriting moment.

8. Old Crow Medicine Show, O.C.M.S (Nettwerk)
Emerging from beneath the nurturing wings of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, this fresh-faced group plays with an allegiance to old-time sentiment, but they still have the stones to adapt obscure Dylan lyrics into their own song ("Wagon Wheel"). OCMS are still a little derivative, but you can tell they have the chops to grow out of that -- for now, just enjoy the ride.
   :. original PopMatters review

9. Modest Mouse, Good News for People who Love Bad News (Epic)
One day I woke up and realized that a rift in the space/time continuum had occurred -- Modest Mouse were getting heavy airplay -- and I didn't feel like it needed to be fixed. It still seems kind of inconceivable, although this firm believer that nothing will ever top The Lonesome Crowded West has to admit that Good News is a strong record that finds Isaac Brock and company trading in some precious quirks for accessibility, and being better off for it. The Waits-inspired "The Devil's Workday", the banjo-flecked irreverence of "Bukowski", and the ramshackle stomp of "Satin in a Coffin" stack up with anything the band's done.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

10. Tift Merritt, Tambourine (Lost Highway)
Merritt's 2002 debut, Bramble Rose, firmly established her as a fringe-of-Nashville talent to watch, showcasing strong songwriting and an incredible voice. Tambourine proves that Bramble Rose was no fluke, but that it also barely hinted at her stylistic ambition -- and that a soul diva/rocker chick was dying to bust out. Tracks like "Good Hearted Man", "Your Love Made a U Turn", "Tambourine", and "Still Pretending" owe more to Aretha Franklin (and maybe Joan Osborne's recent album of soul covers) than to anyone in country. "Laid a Highway" is a smart death-of-a-smalltown ballad, while Sheryl Crow would kill to write "Stray Paper". It all points to an artist well worth following, especially if she continues to juggle multiple styles with this much ease and success.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

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