The Best Music of 2004 #100-91

That favorite rite of passage for all music critics is here again . . . the annual top 10 lists, or in this case top 100. What you have before you is our mammoth list of 100 of the best records of the year as voted on by our entire music staff.

BEST MUSIC OF 2004 91 - 100
forward to 81 - 90 >

Venice (Touch)
Pay attention to Christian Fennesz. He is at the forefront of music's future, foiling computer brushstrokes with his undying love of pop. On Venice, he ups the ante, allowing his pieces to ebb and flow, like its namesake's watery environs. Fennesz is one of the few current digital dilettantes to fix his mouse on mood and emotion. Guitarist Burkhard Stangl's blues-ish riffing adds extra soul to what is usually a cold computer world. On "Circassian", (named for Sunni Muslims of non-Arab descent), the guitar rips like an Eno-Fripp collaboration, both synthetic calm and Hendrix pyrotechnics. On "Transit", former Japan vocalist David Sylvian's lament hints at Europe's end days. Fennesz never left the guitar; appropriately, he's recently returned to using one onstage. Venice is one of the great modern electronic works; refracting deftly embedded melody into a thousand pieces of colorful tone, the guitar's lines shining like sunlight through cracks in a wall, sharp as diamonds.
      — Chris Toenes :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Colors of the Year (Anyway)
In this reviewer's opinion there was no better album in 2004 than Colors of the Year, the debut album from The Whiles, Columbus, Ohio's best kept secret. Songwriter Joe Peppercorn writes lyrics far beyond his young age, and the rest of this staggeringly talented quintet produce a sound somewhere between the Pernice Brothers and early Belle and Sebastian. Producer Jon Chinn (New Bomb Turks) nestles all of this in a perfect cocoon of echoing drums, beautifully plucked acoustic guitars, and lush organ. They've already been named Columbus's best band by local papers, and it's only a matter of time before their music is enjoyed by the kind of national audience they so richly deserve. For all those fans left slightly disappointed in Wilco's latest, this is your album.
      — Mike Beaumont | buy in the PopShop

Misery Is a Butterfly (4AD/Beggars Group)
The four-year gap between Blonde Redhead's last two records has led them through an amazing aesthetic transformation. Misery Is a Butterfly veers way far away from the noisy terror-squalls that made up their fantastic early work and nearly as far from the more refined art-rock of 2000's Melody for Certain Damaged Lemons. The new record replaces the noise with lush, inviting strings and an eerie harpsichord fascination -- very cinematic in scope yet extremely personal and warm. The results are breathtaking. Lead singer Kazu Makino's icy vocals glide effortlessly through golden anthems like "Elephant Girl", and the title track nearly drowns itself in melody and grace, as lovely as one imagines this band is capable of sounding. "Equus" is really the only track that hints at the band's past, a jolting, juiced up drumming bass holler that closes the record on a sweet note. The sound of maturity and evolution, this record has made Blonde Redhead a much more interesting band, capable of even greater things in the future.
      — Andrew Watson :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Your Blues (Merge)
A teenage symphony to God? 2004 found Destroyer mastermind Dan Bejar looking much closer for inspiration than 1967, replacing the folked-out, destructo-glam rock trappings of 2002's This Night with a midi-concerto of his most ambitious songwriting to date. Your Blues' pocket orchestrations combined synthesized strings and horns with Bejar's own nasal inflections and typically literary meditations, perplexing many fans of his Hunky Dory-ed former days. But what had first sounded like an RPG soundtrack would slowly reveal itself as Destroyer's most accomplished release to date, a crescendoing culmination of his eight-year career. His proclamation of "Tonight we work hard! We aim large!" seemed appropriate; Bejar's Blues was the year's most unexpected triumph.
      — Jon Fischer :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Humandust (Discograph)
Earthling somehow never made it when 'Bristol sound' trip-hop was enjoying massive commercial success in the mid- to late '90s. After their impressive debut Radar, EMI refused to release the 'darker' follow-up, Humandust. Here it is, seven years later, on the French label Discograph. It is darker: Tim Saul's immaculate production -- last heard on McKay's astounding 2003 debut -- is richer, fuller and far more interesting than most downtempo, then or since. Repeated listens reveal extraordinary depths: the machine-like sounds that glisten at the back of "Miracle Town", the pizzicato strings and barrel-chested guitar scuffs of "Me & My Sister". Over it is Mau's flow -- gleefully idiosyncratic, half-sung, half-spoken, thoroughly English. For all the purported darkness of the material, songs like "Saturated", "Box" and "Coburn" have the intimacy -- the wounded but defiant innocence -- of Portishead and Massive Attack. Most of all, the winsome nostalgia at the heart of the Bristol sound is now a perfect match for the nostalgia that music from that period now evokes. Brilliant.
      — Robert Wheaton

95 MINUS 5
In Rock (Yep Roc)
There's only a handful of musicians I'd follow to the ends of the earth, and Scott McCaughey is one of them (see also Newman, Carl, and Tweedy, Jeff). As the driving force behind the Minus 5 (with occasional help from all-star buddies like Tweedy and R.E.M.'s Peter Buck), McCaughey has spent the last decade releasing fantastic albums full of off-kilter pop nuggets; add In Rock to that list. In Rock has been floating around in various incarnations for a few years -- most notably as a merchandise table tour-only LP -- but McCaughey had the good sense to record a definitive ("Deluxe Edition remastered", McCaughey calls it) version of the album, in one day no less. From the instrumental surf opener "Bambi Molester", to the farfisa-drenched "In a Lonely Coffin" and "Lies of the Living Dead" to just about every other track, this album rocks. Sure, it lacks the gravity of the last Minus 5 album, Down With Wilco, but it's that lightweight, loosey-goosey vibe that allows In Rock to soar. Where to next, Mr. McCaughey?
      — Stephen Haag :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Dogs (Touch and Go)
Nina Nastasia creates her own literary world in her songs, replete with beautiful losers, ghosts and measurable tension among friends and lovers. In Dogs, her first record re-released this year, the stories read like short fictions. Spare phrasing paints distinct visual pictures of these ordinary people in desperate situations, in the spirit of Raymond Carver. A tight chamber group accompanies Nastasia's acoustic guitar, with cello, violin and musical saw setting a smoky, serene mood. Nastasia and this group are not playing folk music, not copping the sound of some great Appalachian songstress. There is only the insular world around the songs' characters, shot through with snapshots of their adventures; tattoo parlors, easy chairs, and sharing cigarettes behind the gym; "drinking beer out of coke cans", as in the gripping escape tale of "Nobody Knew Her". On Dogs, we learn priceless truths like there's "Too Much in Between" between people, between each of us, and are better for it.
      — Chris Toenes :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

10,000 Years (United Musicans)
This tour de force futuristic rock opera marries intelligence, melody and vision into what becomes a quantum leap ahead of anything The Honeydogs have ever done before. Trading on harrowing visions not terribly removed from today's headlines, erstwhile social worker Adam Levy has created a complex musical concept filled with a test-tube savior, an apocalyptic war of ethnic conflicts, genocide, crime, blood lust, etc. But even without the narrative, the songs are beautiful, lush, multi-layered creations that stand proudly on their own. Each song has its own unique sound, and a wide array is covered, from piano-driven Nilsson-like songs to late-era Beatles sounds to the funk of early Traffic (and more). 10,000 Years is a stellar accomplishment, a compelling and thought-provoking saga in song that is all about quality, meaning and important purpose. This passionate achievement should reverberate for years to come.
      — Gary Glauber :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

In a Safe Place (Sup Pop)
Jimmy Lavalle's third full-length release under the moniker The Album Leaf was recorded at Sigur Rós' Mosfellsbaer studio in Iceland. While the connection has been somewhat overplayed in the press, In a Safe Place does evoke the beauty of the Icelandic landscape, yet it's Lavalle's subtle yet gorgeous songs that give the album its aching pull. With the help of Jon Thor Birgisson and members of Múm and Black Heart Procession, In a Safe Place induces an almost meditative state when taken in its entirety. However, the atmospheric soundscapes that Lavalle creates are focused and pop-oriented, never meandering into Windham Hill territory. In a Safe Place is also the first Album Leaf release to include vocals on a few tracks from Lavalle, Birgisson and Pall Jenkins from BHP. This is a brilliantly delicate album that will continue to reward its listeners for years to come.
      — Mark Horan :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Steve Turner & His Bad Ideas (Roslyn)
I feel I can ask no more of this record than it provides. Instead, everything I can do to get more people to hear it is the least I can do. Retro without ripping off, smart without pretension, soul without naivete, Steve Turner's second solo record was the biggest and best surprise of the year. "I-55" deserves to be canon, and a few other songs come damn close. Miss Holly Golightly and Turner banter back and forth with sly pleasure on "A Beautiful Winter", channeling star-crossed lovers of yore from all over the history of American music. "I Love the Sound of My Guitar When It Sings" is unabashed in that joy, guaranteeing that you will be too. Barely over a half hour in length, I can put it on at least six times before heading off to work. This language has too few superlatives.
      — Michael Metivier :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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