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The Best Music of 2004 #20-16

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 16 - 20
forward to 11 - 15 >

Bows and Arrows (Record Collection)
From the belligerently drunk to the pleasantly inebriated, Bows and Arrows represents intoxication at nearly every recognizable level. Singer Hamilton Leithauser's weathered vocal cords barely serve the purpose sometimes on this magnificent battlefield of personal ailment and affectionate drunkenness. The charged blueprint that poked its head out of the flask on Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone has been expanded and but not so much re-written, so that every track falls sloppily into place, as if its shimmering surface and reluctant undertones are some kind of accident. The accidents on Bows and Arrows are those worth slowing down for and checking out, even if four or five additional accidents are caused in the process.
      � Dominic Umile :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

It's strange to think an entire year has passed since I first heard The Walkmen's Bows and Arrows and stranger still that repeated listens have only served to further entrench in my holiday music lexicon. Sure, I'll always have a soft-spot for Nat and Bing, but they've been all but cast aside Christmas 2005 for a record that speaks to the bitter reality of the holiday (After all, all the best Christmas songs are depressing). Relatives collapsing on spiked 'nog, torrid snowed-in rendezvous; these are the images conjured by lead singer Hamilton Leithauser's elegantly wasted croon. Everyone knows the two-step shudder of "The Rat", but presented here alongside shimmering dirges "Hang on Siobhan" and "No Christmas While I'm Talking", it seems about as grim as "Jingle Bell Rock". So it should be on a Christmas album that "rock" numbers are the exception rather than the rule; stoke the furnace, play the record, and stew in your own post-Christmas malaise... with a cup of cocoa.
      � Eric Seguy :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

From a Basement on the Hill (Anti-)
With this posthumous release, Elliott Smith completes his run as the greatest songwriter of our generation -- Gen X or Y or whatever we're up to. Basement on the Hill is just as strong as Smith's previous albums, perhaps even stronger as he combines XO's full sound with Either/Or's delicacy. "Coast to Coast", "King's Crossing", and "Shooting Star" boast Smith's signature confident rock sensibility, while simultaneously exposing his intense vulnerability and depression. "Pretty (Ugly Before)", "A Passing Feeling", and "A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free" bear striking resemblances to the greatest Lennon/McCartney collaborations, namely pop/tragedies like "Day in the Life". Then along comes "Twilight". Right in the middle of the album, this track's aching simplicity, along with it's anguished string loop, anchor it as the album's most starkly beautiful and affecting song. From a Basement on the Hill may indeed be "A Fond Farewell" to a truly talented individual. Me, I'm intensely grateful for this album, and at the same time extraordinarily angry that this is the last I'll ever get.
      � Christine Klunk :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

It's rare to find an artist whose music scrapes past the superficial moments in life to really connect. Elliott Smith was one of those musicians -- until he died last year. His music displayed an unwavering adherence to honesty, placing a collect call to our innermost fears. From a Basement on the Hill was his last call and the bittersweet "A Fond Farewell" comes off like a pre-recorded apology. On it, his placid lyrics resonate over the gentle, but emotionally troubled rumblings of his acoustic guitar. It sounds like a clinically-depressed version of the Beatles in a world without Xanax. With Smith, misery loves company. When the worlds asleep and you're all alone, this gloomy album is a kindred spirit. There's an inherent sadness in the album that says, "Life is difficult" and when you listen, you take courage from it because you can hear his pain.
      � Pierre Hamilton :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

The Dirty South (New West)
The demise of southern rock coincided with the death of three key members of Lynyrd Skynyrd after their horrific plane crash incident in 1977. Skynyrd was clearly the cream of the crop -- they rocked hard, sang sweetly sad ballads, and espoused intelligent material. Call the Drive-By Truckers Skynyrd's 30-year germination -- this band carries the same core characteristics. The Dirty South pulls no punches, as the three-guitar attack of Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and Jason Isbell lay down ferocious licks and even nastier verbiage about life in Northern Alabama, though Isbell's songs tend to be a bit more conscientious. Hood's words tend to head straight towards the jugular ("Puttin' People on the Moon", "Lookout Mountain"), while Cooley is in-between ("Where the Devil Don't Stay", "Daddy's Cup"). This is honest rock and roll, honestly played and sang. The D-BT knows that what makes a song great is a great storyteller. They qualify.
      � Lou Friedman :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Is there another rock band out there that can boast the embarrassment of riches that the Drive-By Truckers possess? They've got three soulful guitarists -- Jason Isbell, Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood -- who double as arguably the three best songwriters active today, in any genre. And as long as we're talking threes, with The Dirty South, the Drive-By Truckers have dropped their third masterpiece of an album in a row (joining 2001's Southern Rock Opera and 2003's Decoration Day). These guys (and gal -- bassist Shonna Tucker) know the people of the South inside and out: their pride and shame and every emotion in between, as tunes like "Puttin' People on the Moon" (Hood's narrator struggles to make ends meet, while the government blows money on space exploration) and "Daddy's Cup" (where Cooley's race car narrator finds inspiration from his father) evince. And like any good storytellers, the trio tweak familiar stories to learn the other side's point of view: to wit, Isbell's "The Day John Henry Died" ("John Henry was a steel-driving bastard but John Henry was a bastard just the same") and Hood's re-examination of Sheriff Buford Pusser, "The Buford Stick". The Dirty South ain't an easy listen -- the band's characters lead tough lives and die painful deaths -- but it's always a rewarding listen. Three marvelous storytellers/songwriters? Nobody ever said the rock scene was fair. The Drive-By Truckers show no signs of letting up until every Southerners' tale is told.
      � Stephen Haag :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

You Are the Quarry (Sanctuary)
Contrary to popular belief, Morrissey didn't stop making quality music in the 1990s; he just wasn't very hip. In 2004, when the times were right, he and his trusty band responded with one of their strongest sets of tunes and lyrics to date. Besides the snapping singles "Irish Blood, English Heart" and "First of the Gang to Die" were Morrissey's voice and phrasing, which have become so rich and distinguished that he can now truly be called the greatest pop singer since Elvis Presley. You Are the Quarry was appreciated all the more because of the sea of mediocrity against which it swam in the charts. And if Moz wants to bask in the L.A. sun, that's fine as long as he produces albums as bright as this one.
      � John Bergstrom :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

There's enough critical bile directed at Morrissey these days to make the average fan sick, but the bottom line is this: so long as unrequited, bittersweet longing exists, Morrissey and his music will continue to touch listeners. Putting aside the argument over his continued relevance, the controversy surrounding his politics, and the stories about the way he treats his associates, what we're left with is simply another thoroughly enjoyable Morrissey album, filled with sharp lyrics, warm vocals, catchy hooks, and tasteful arrangements. Live and on record, the finest songs here -� "First of the Gang to Die" and "I Have Forgiven Jesus" -� just about hold their own with his best solo work and the Smiths classics we all love.
      � Jordan Kessler :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Sung Tongs (Fat Cat)
Sung Tongs is the sound of what two men who call themselves Avey Tare and Panda Bear hear in their heads, and you don't know whether to be frightened or jealous. Flashing between Syd Barrett and Love (and often within the same song), these neo-psychedelic freak-folkies are at turns keening, careening, and guttural with vocal arrangements straight out of an Ewok campfire celebration. The ecstatic psych-outs of "Leaf House", "Who Could Win a Rabbit", and "We Tigers" are nothing short of revelatory, while "Winters Love" is Pachelbel's Canon in D filtered through a candy-colored acid-flashback haze. There may have been better albums released in 2004, but none were as original or impossibly enjoyable to classify as Sung Tongs.
      � Patrick Brereton :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

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