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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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