Best of 2004: Top 10 Albums + Top 10 Singles + Top 5 Gigs

The Killers, Hot Fuss (Lizard King)
The debut record from Las Vegas garage punk posse the Killers declares its influences on its sleeve but wears them well. Drawing on the ongoing revival in sharp-edged, guitar-powered pop, the foursome also rummage in the electronica toolbox of the early ’80s, marrying the two schools with surprising aplomb, under the creative eye of producer Jeff Saltzman, and providing results that were a blend of the fresh and familiar. “Mr Brightside” could have been on either of the two Strokes’ collections, “Andy, You’re a Star” is an uncanny early Velvets pastiche, while chunks of lush, plastic synthesiser gave “On Top” and the moodily magnificent “Smile Like You Mean It” a distinctly retro coating. But pin-up vocalist Brandon Flowers was never better showcased than on the stand-out “Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll”, a big, brash and indulgently self-reflective anthem on the pleasures of rock’s unpredictable roulette wheel.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Elvis Costello & the Imposters, Delivery Man (Mercury)
Who’d have thought that the runtish Costello would stagger from the backwaters of pub rock, establish himself as punk’s most articulate and venomous commentator then spend two decades as an ultra-versatile composer shifting from Tin Pan Alley to Nashville, bar ballads to jazz jousts, hob nobbing with lounge supremo Burt Bacharach and finally, last year, becoming Mr Diana Krall and truly an enrolled member of America’s musocracy. Yet on Delivery Man, the bitterness, the exasperation, the sense of torture sounds almost freshly minted, as if the angry, and once young, man has reconvened his old demons in middle age. “Button My Lip” is caustic, bilesome opener — replete with a small fragment of Leonard Bernstein’s “America” which EC was billed for — while “Monkey to Man” is a similarly rumbustuous take on the evolution myth. Yet this is not all punkish pique. “Bedlam” is a bass-heavy slab of stroppy funk and there are still hints of hope in the shadows. The soundscape softens with some wondrous, spectral pedal steel on “Country Darkness” and the joyous duet of “There’s a Story in Your Voice”, with Lucinda Williams, is neither new nor alt, just good-time, old-time, country music.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

The Libertines, The Libertines (Rough Trade)
Libertines by name, libertine by nature, the bruising ego games played out by songwriters Carl Barât and Pete Doherty have become the New Musical Express‘s longest running soap opera. With drugs a jarring sub-text, the tale has been fast and florid embracing burglary, offensive weapons, mystical therapies and Doherty’s own stay in prison after that break-in at his band-mate’s flat. This sustained public display of misbehaviour has not been without its fall-out — literally. Doherty has been sacked, come back, been sacked again. Yet in the midst of the feud, a second album has emerged from this gang of post-punk apostles, whom Alan McGee, one-time Oasis svengali, now oversees and even compares to the Sex Pistols at their best. The record is a spiky, spiteful yet still spirited affair, touching upon, in songs like “Can’t Stand Me Now” and “Narcissist”, the themes and threads that have scarred the group’s recent times. Let’s hope this apparently doomed romance has a happier ending than the one that has befallen too many earlier rock ‘n’ roll renegades.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

The Gang of Four, A Brief History of the Twentieth Century (EMI)
Although the Gang of Four were not quite as political as their counterparts in Communist China, steering that mega-nation into the cul-de-sac of the Cultural Revolution, the band, who played their debut gig in the northern English city of Leeds in 1977 as new battalions of rock ‘n’ roll radicals pointed their threatening spikes at the complacent musical establishment, were certainly driven by issues that went well beyond the normal agendas of the pop forum. Growing up artistically in an environment that saw a fresh wave of Nazis on British streets, the Gang positioned themselves well Left of centre. One critic even ear-marked their style as “neo-Marxist funk”. Certainly their songs — “To Hell with Poverty”, “Capital (It Fails Us Now)” and “I Love a Man in Uniform” — possessed a polemic rarely heard outside party rallies. But their brave lyrical ideas, their strident ideologies, were bound by a furiously taut, insistently tight music that signalled punk’s shift away from ragged and frayed ranting into the more cerebral age of the new wave. Their influence on the latest generation of hip rockers — Franz Ferdinand, Interpol and the Bravery — would be sufficient reason to gather, once more, their best work on one disc, but re-visiting these 20 examples of the group at the height of their powers, underlines that their songs are not just faded snapshots. They continue to live and breathe in their own right. The best compilation of the year.

Hope of the States, The Lost Riots (Sony)
Rock mortality is a reality — the history is littered with the names of young men who flew too close to the flames. But when James Lawrence hanged himself in early 2004, this was a story told in reverse. The guitarist was not the victim of fame’s excesses. He died just as his band Hope of the States were about to release their debut album. Lawrence’s guitar parts had already been laid down so when Lost Riots emerged there was a terrible poignancy to what should have been the group’s most significant achievement to date. And the fact that the set has proved one of the best new British collections of 2004 is perhaps small compensation only. Whether the band now live up their name will be interesting: rock may be back on the minds of US music fans but UK acts tend to get lost in the rush these days. If there’s any justice — even cosmic justice — then this record will be heard and praised. It’s a broad canvas of dark and brooding originals, combining a surprising range of styles: bold washes of guitar, epic folk strings, indie crooning, broken piano shapes. Directed by Sigur Ros producer Ken Thomas, and earning comparisons with Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the record also hints at Nick Cave and Tom Waits — on songs like “Don’t Go to Pieces” and “Black Dollar Bills” — and even Electronic, that fine, one-time Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr vehicle — “Enemies/Friends” and “Nehemiah”, for example. But the best piece, I think, is “Sadness on My Back”, for its potent shifts from fragile keyboards to the full, visceral power of the band. There’s a drama and a sadness clinging to these compositions and the death of Jimmi, to whom the album is dedicated, casts a long shadow over the proceedings.
   :. original PopMatters review

Amy Winehouse, Frank (Island)
Winehouse’s slinky, worldly singing belies her relative lack of chronological experience. She recorded this debut recording as a very late teenager and not only squeezes out a deliciously laconic vocal performance but writes virtually all the tunes, too. And there’s much more to this set than mere adolescent promise. She manages to grapple, and competently, with an impressive range of genres as her delivery slides from jazz-tinged colours to soul shades, sultry R&B to spiky, urban hip-hop, scatting to skitting, providing suggestions of Erykah Badu (“Stronger Than Me”) and Billie Holiday (“(There is) No Greater Love”) not to mention streetwise Jewish princess (“Fuck Me Pumps”) along the way, quite a feat for one so young. The title of the record sums up the contents in many ways. This singer seems more than happy to use her sassy popular songs as a confessional couch — lovers found, lovers lost, brief elation, longer misery — and, unlike blue-eyed soul girl Joss Stone, for instance, who seems to be play-acting her romantic ins-and-outs on her Stax re-treads, Winehouse’s boyfriend/girlfriend rollercoaster has a more convincing ring. New songs, real songs, about lived emotions.

Kanye West, The College Drop Out(Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
While rock provides a few sparing examples of the producer who successfully shifts to the role of performer — Trevor Horn with Yes, Butch Vig with Garbage, come to mind — hip-hop’s revolving chair has allowed a string of players to switch hats, almost at will. The Neptunes and Dr. Dre, among others, have found lives on both sides of the glass and, following in their wake, Chicagoan Kanye West has, arguably, handled this potentially schizoid arrangement best of all. After adding his production skills to two of the most significant recent black records — Jay-Z’s Black Album and The Diary of Alicia Keys — West’s own album pulls off that stunning trick, merging lyrical eloquence with hi-tech wizardry, soulful authenticity with a bewildering array of sonic cut-ups, to forge an album that is both political manifesto and aural playground, content and style in a single platter. From the comedic intro into the awesome “We Don’t Care”, from the military two-step of “Jesus Walks” to the nostalgic doodling of “Slow Jamz”, from the gravelly gospel of “Spaceship” and on to the stunning re-casting of Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire”, West rifles through a treasure chest of African-American expression, past and present, to meld a uniquely contemporary vision — heartfelt and cynical, desperate and hopeful, this artist addresses the paradoxes of the ghetto head on: the need to remain connected to a community but also escape the burden of a painful history.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Interpol, Antics (Matador)
New York’s phoenix-like revival as a rock music city that matters again has not deflected suggestions that the Manhattan comeback is purely a derivative affair — ’70s punk, ’60s garage, English new wave, have been among to reference points attached to the bands emerging onto an international stage. It’s been no different for Interpol, actually Brooklyn-based and around for more than a couple years now, and neither their first long player, Turn on the Bright Lights, in 2002 nor the follow up, Antics, in 2004, has done much to appease those who believe the band have merely been cherry-picking the most seductive sounds of early ’80s, Brit experimentalists. However, if I don’t disagree with the general analysis — there are powerful echoes of Joy Division, among others, in the group’s sound — I can’t feign shock-horror. In a rock ‘n’ roll world where begging, borrowing and stealing has been a fact for decades — from Presley to the Pistols to Puff Daddy — I’d rather celebrate such a worthwhile revival than try to bury it. Ian Curtis and co were one of the most influential of the post-punk acts, cut short by their lead singer’s suicide in 1980. So to hear resonances of that lost band in Interpol’s “Evil”, “Slow Hands” and “A Time to Be So Small” is doubly pleasing: the new songs have that same blend of doomy, driving bass, deep layers of guitar, and bottom-end vocals that characterised the Manchester combo, yet they stand up as anthems for a new century. It’s worth saying also that Interpol’s links to the most highly thought of strains of the UK underground — early EP tracks for both Fierce Panda and Chemikal Underground – mark them as more than mere bandwagon hoppers. In the cultish land of the alternative, this four piece has already banked some credibility capital.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Patti Smith, Trampin’ (Columbia)
The grand dame of American rock ‘n’ roll, the renaissance woman of Bowery bohemia, Patti Smith’s career has been a curious combination of searing white light wonder and years of artistic downtime — semi-retirement as wife and mother and eventually widow in the suburbs of Detroit. But this painter, actor, poet and musician, whose romantic biography alone reads like a history of New York avant art — she cavorted with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, playwright Sam Shepard, poet Jim Carroll and rocker Tom Verlaine as Warhol’s Factory circle was superseded by the Sturm und Drang of CBGBs — is quite simply a creative colossus in her own right, based merely on her extraordinary outpourings in print, on vinyl and on stage between 1971 and 1978. From the verse collection Seventh Heaven to the staggering Springsteen collaboration “Because the Night” on 45, Smith left a permanent imprint on the unruly manuscript of punk. A follower of the Stones, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Arthur Rimbaud and William Burroughs, Smith continues to bring that blend of rock and reading to her latest collection, a definite return to form. Joined by long-time compadres Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty, she touches on the political in “Gandhi”, “Peaceable Kingdom” and the pertinent “Radio Baghdad” but continues to weave her own literature-driven mind-games in “My Blakean Year”. This record may not have the sheer, cathartic thrills of her remarkable debut, Horses, but it retains strains of the enduring Smith persona — an edgy, polemic, messianic and always sensitive visionary.
   :. original PopMatters review

Divine Comedy, Absent Friends (Parlophone)
Neil Hannon, the charming and intelligent frontman of Divine Comedy, is a fine example of quirky and original talent rising out of the morass of pop’s broader mediocrity. Yet it seems as if his brief spell in the warm sunlight of commercial acceptance may be over. For a year or two he enjoyed regular visits to the British singles chart but his albums may not have found sufficient discerning listeners to sustain the backing of a major like EMI. His main problem is that he barely fits a conventional category – his songwriting brings to mind Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields, and contains hints of Noel Coward, suggestions of a British Bacharach, rather too eclectic references to generate a platinum-plated audience, I’m afraid. But if Absent Friends did prove the au revoir to Parlophone — the subsidiary once home to the Beatles, of course, and still enjoying the high profile membership of Radiohead and Coldplay — then this swansong is a worthy one indeed. The CD has many of the touches we’ve come to associate with Ulsterman Hannon — a kind of Irish spin on matters English. The title piece is beautifully crafted — from lyrical references to Jean Seberg, Steve McQueen and Oscar Wilde to a fleeting musical homage to The Big Country — and with that, the model is set. The arrangements – strings, brass, harp, choir — are immaculately made, almost cinematic in style and scope, and there’s a powerful sense that most of these originals could be the springboard for a short story, a short film, at the very least. “Come Home Billy Bird” is one, so’s “The Wreck of the Beautiful” — elegant chamber pop possessing a sophistication that seems well out of step with the more immediate, gut-touching sounds of the present Top 40. Thoughtful, cerebral songs and the instant web download seems almost, I’m afraid, a contradiction in terms. | buy in the PopShop

Top 10 Singles 2004

Basement Jaxx and Lisa Kekaula, “Good Luck” (XL)
A stunning coming together of dancefloor beats and gloriously throaty soul music — the insistent club rhythms of the Brixton-based Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxton underpinning simply the vocal performance of the year by the guesting Bellrays member Lisa Kekaula.

Shapeshifters, “Lola’s Theme” (Positiva)
A driving, jiving slab of old school disco, a humping, jumping block of pop funk, this tune combined a potent and classic R&B riff, a gospel-like vocal battalion and production prowess that gave it an utterly contemporary clout. A classic of today, yesterday and tomorrow.

Keane, “Somewhere Only We Know” (Island)
With guitars safely locked away and the thrilling vocal powers of Tom Chaplin, Keane lithely moved into Chris Martin and Coldplay’s shoes during 2004. A lilting, lasting hymn to youthful romance and a song that could open the odd American door to this unassuming trio.

Estelle, “Free” (V2/J-Did)
An ecstatic work-out by young and rising Londoner provided another splendid example of Anglo-R&B, featuring not only the inter-weaving vocals of Estelle and her fellow front-line singers but also an outstandingly funky accompaniment by her hot young band.

Kanye West, “Jesus Walks” (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
West produced, unquestionably, one of the great albums of the year and a flotilla of red-hot 45s but this audacious effort was perhaps the most extraordinary pieces to hit the UK Top 10. An intense piece of gospel rap, the content was out of step, the style was out of kilter, but Kanye’s cool and composed talkover was just quite compelling.

Eric Prydz, “Call On Me” (Data)
Prydz — was it pronounced “Pridz” or “Priedz”, DJs seemed undecided — is one of the finest new producing talents in the room who also created a blazing re-mix version of the Shapeshifters’ smash. But here, sampling Stevie Winwood’s refrain from his minor hit “Valerie”, he re-energised the song with a sensational fresh working and, aided by one of the more outrageous videos of 2004, crashed the British number one spot twice.

Natasha Bedingfield, “These Words” (BMG)
A glorious example of blue-eyed soul, blonde-cropped hip-hop, proof that mainstream pop can still produce a magic moment or three and a truly memorable chart-topper. “Read some Byron, Shelley and Keats/Recited it over a hip hop beat” is simply the lyrical line of the last twelve months.

Britney Spears, “Toxic” (Jive)
Spears made the last great single of the old century in “Baby One More Time” but this early 2004 effort was almost equally sensational. Sophisticated and sassy, the sweeping, swooping synth strings made it irresistible. With a lyric that rose above the usual standard teen fare, it was also proved to be one of the demon dance tunes of the year.

Sophie Ellis-Bextor, “I Won’t Change You” (Polydor)
Once the frontwoman of briefly touted indie faves Theaudience (CORRECT), Ellis-Bextor’s solo career has quickly produced a clutch of pop highlights. But her work with America’s most under-rated songwriter, ex-New Radical Gregg Alexander, has been the best yet. This tune, with Alexander’s trademark killer hook, was a bright moment in a long winter.

Groove Armada, “I See You Baby” (Jive)
Almost a mere novelty hit — it was a huge track on the back of an arresting TV car ad — the Armada continued their quirky assault with this hip-swinging, ass-shaking bundle of trouble. An unusual blend of salsa shake and club-floor clout, it dominated our small screens then our radios late, summer.

Top 5 Gigs 2004

  • Yo La Tengo and Gorky’s Zygotic Minci, March 6th, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, UK
  • David Byrne and Jim Carter, April 15th, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, UK
  • Joe Zawinul Syndicate and Toolshed, April 30th, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, UK
  • The Finn Brothers, July 13th, The Warfield, San Francisco, US
  • Jan Garbarek, November 24th, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, UK