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The Best Music of 2004 #30-21

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 21 - 30
forward to 16 - 20 >

Now Here is Nowhere (Reprise/Warner Bros.)
"Psychedelic pop" is almost an oxymoron; easy sugar-coated hooks are often sacrificed by musicians deliberately attempting to twang the rubber bands in their listeners' heads, while the extended progressive passages of most psych can leave an audience without drug enhancement feeling cold, bored, or empty. Only a few artists in the history of rock have managed such music successfully, not least of which is the Beatles. Now Here Is Nowhere is an adventurous record thoroughly steeped in Kraut-rock and the collegiate, stoned underground of the '90s, yet its big drum-heavy sound and memorable, sing-along songs could easily fool an entire generation of impressionable young thinkers into not exploring altered states of perception at all. With their debut full-length, the Secret Machines have produced rock's ultimate placebo effect.
      � Richard T. Williams :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

"We're just trying to make music that connects with people, connects with the cosmos, and connects with the gods." So says Secret Machines drummer Josh Garza. Together with brothers Benjamin and Brandon Curtis, he comes pretty close to making good on those words. Alternating between grandiose slabs of space rock and gentle wormhole rides into the ether, Now Here is Nowhere is a firm declaration of its creator's psychedelic ambitions. Nowhere are those ambitions more evident than on the twin nine-minute epics that bookend the album and were co-winners in the competition for the year's best song to get stoned and pass out to. Perhaps even most impressively, for all its baroque qualities, the music is able to retain an admirably sleek and focused feel. When the monolith from 2001 puts on its headphones, it listens to this.
      � David Marchese :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

The Beautiful Struggle (Geffen/Rawkus)
Among the greatest freestylers of our time, Talib Kweli is renowned for his incredible lyrics, his gentle affect, his terrific insight. Is there a smarter rhyme-maker alive? For "Black Girl Pain", with Jean Grae, he details struggles and strengths, lines embedded in a simultaneously lilting and driving rhythm, and a love for his daughter: "My pretty black princess, smell sweet like that incense / That you buy at the bookstore supporting black business /Teach her what black is; the fact is her parents are thorough." The title cut begins, "This is a tear jerker," then reveals that the "revolution is here." And it's trouble: "You try to vote and participate in the government," he raps, "And the motherfuckin' Democrats is actin' like Republicans." He still tells stories ("Broken Glass") and he still brings heat. On "We Got the Beat", he explains how music can do work: "Yo, these soldiers die in petroleum wars / Think they fighting for the holiest cause, / It don't matter if you Muslim, Hebrew, or you a Christian, / Information is the newest religion, is a true way of living." Amen.
      � Cynthia Fuchs :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Real Gone (Anti-)
Tom Waits' latest, Real Gone, quickly confirms all suspicions: the man has become more progressively eccentric and brilliant. Waits, that dark paramour, offers a fine array of slices from the emotional spectrum: the aptly title "Shake It" will surely possess its listener to gyrate with complete abandon, while "Dead and Lovely", a more melodic endeavor, serves as gently haunting admonition. A seeming labyrinth of sonic ground is covered on Real Gone, and yet you never leave the stage of the rustic, smoke-filled cabaret, a stage Waits built for himself -- out of bitter sweetness, versatility of rhythm and voice -- which no one else could ever occupy.
      � Sasha Denisoff :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Hopes & Fears (Interscope)
Say what you will about calculation, overproduction and Coldplay (a comparison that doesn't really hold up), but at the end of the day, Hopes and Fears was instantly hummable and just got better with each listen. Top Chaplin's soaring voice could make your grocery list sound like a lost love letter, but here he had grown-up melodies and his bandmates' pretty piano-and-drums anthems to complement him. Sure, Hopes and Fears was a record that your mom could love just as easily as you could -- but moms are allowed to have good taste sometimes, aren't they?
      � John Bergstrom :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

The phrase "even more mellow than Coldplay" was bandied about willy-nilly when this trio from East Sussex released their debut, and... well, hell, there's no point in arguing about it; they are pretty mellow. Plus, they came from the same indie label as Coldplay (Fierce Panda), and, all right, fine, they do occasionally sound like Chris Martin and company... though lead singer Tom Chaplin also manages a similarity to, of all people, Morten Harket of a-ha. There are even hints of early Radiohead as well. Powered by piano and aided by sparkling production assistance from Andy Green, the melancholy melodies of Hopes and Fears -- particularly "Bend and Break" and "Can't Stop Now" -- are a wonderful contribution to one of the best years of British music in recent memory.
      � Will Harris :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Last Exit (Domino)
Attaining cult status even before its release due to the prodigious buzz and expectation caused the preceding EPs, this sublime album is as good as the band's name is awful, and proves beyond doubt that the wait can be worth it. Quite how they manage to blend louche sexiness, woebegone introspection, a sense of wonder and an openness both edgy and vulnerable into this irresistible whole remains something of a mystery; what's irrefutable is that the music underpinning this unique amalgam of white soul, indie pop and blues is breathtaking, with the depth, polish and off-kilter funk of a dreamier Timbaland wedded to the warm, quietly touching glow of the Pet Shop Boys at their most melodic and subdued. One of the best-produced albums of recent years, and a flawless collection of late night music that's as resonant a backdrop for bedroom tears as it is at home on the dancefloor, or soundtracking twilight driving. Seductive, mesmeric, stunning.
      � Stefan Braidwood :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

25 U2
How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (Interscope)
Dublin may be, as Mike Scott says, a city full of ghosts, but U2 sure isn't one of them. Not that the band didn't give us pause to wonder, even as recently as 2000. However good it was, All That You Can't Leave Behind felt like the result of four seasoned guys who knew how to make just about anything credible. Despite an even clunkier title, this year's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is a different animal altogether, sounding fresher, more inspired, and more honest than any U2 record since 1987's The Joshua Tree. Cigs and tours have taken their toll on Bono's vox, but he can still deliver the emotional goods and manage a few high notes along the way; he uses his falsetto sparingly and to chilling effect. Lead guitarist the Edge, drummer Larry Mullins, and bassist Adam Clayton blaze with a vigor that can only be called youthful while embracing the restraint and the penchant for open spaces that made their early work so incredibly powerful.
      � Michael Mikesell :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Rejoicing in the Hands (Young God)
In the world of fringe music, few artists breakout enough to be written up in everything from Rolling Stone to the dinkiest 'zine in the smallest town, but Devendra Banhart has managed this in just a short time. His second full-length release (and the first of two in 2004), Rejoicing in the Hands finds him once again creating mystical magic that is some bizarre mixture of folk, blues, 1920s-ish silent movie scoring, and modern pop. But to try and put it all into sensible phrasing is simply pointless when it comes to this man's music. It begs to be listened to and experienced, so this is what you must do when playing it. Experiencing this album is like taking a trip through time, only you're not really moving forwards or backwards, but rather going everywhere at once. Devendra is a master of imagery and melody, and anyone who says different just doesn't deserve to be on the excursion.
      � Jason Thompson :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Indie-folk's 23-year-old chieftan has been called everything from "a pure vagabond" and "the most important voice in music today", to a man whose eyes "exude an indeterminable zeal". I can't vouch for Banhart's rapturous person, nor can I call him "the most important voice in music today" -- if only because the myth to which these sketches allude is built on tiny particulars, not grandiosity -- but I will say that Rejoicing in the Hands is the most beautiful, unpredictable amalgam of nonsense and cloaked emotion that I've heard all year.
      � Tim Stelloh :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Our Endless Numbered Days (Sub Pop)
You're never too young to think about dying. Not the glorified crash and burn of the young and the senseless, but death of old age, in your lover's arms. Here are twelve love songs about death and death songs about love, as soft and urgent as a daguerreotype of your great-great-grandfather. The one where he looks just like you. "Passing Afternoon" drops lyrics about the four seasons over a palindrome chord progression that feels as if it could go on forever. "Each Coming Night" disguises doo-wop melody with gently rolling fingerpicking. "Sodom, South Georgia"? I have no idea what that song is doing to me but it won't stop, and I don't want it to. Worryworts thought slightly enhanced production might strip Sam Beam's songs of their mystery and charm. Instead, with Brian Deck at the helm and some extra cash, the songs feel even closer, more intimate, more bittersweet.
      � Michael Metivier :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

At first listen, Our Endless Numbered Days sounds like one of the year's simplest releases. It's basically a guy with a guitar and a banjo, occasionally accompanied by back-up vocals. Yet as simple as the songs sound, they're amazingly beautiful. No one this year has released an album so consistently lovely from start to finish. But this aesthetic doesn't mean that songwriter Sam Beam's lyrics are all about puppies and crushes. He studies slipping faith, death, and loss (and hanging). Rarely has a performer joined elements of the gothic with such warm and inviting music, and the results are more than successful.
      � Justin Cober-Lake :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

This Week (Babygrande)
On which the introspective, dirty-mouthed angel and her lethal sense of humour slaughter the competition with a great album that, whilst not a classic, does contain several timeless tracks and provides a perfect introduction to Jean's world for those yet to encounter the South African wonder woman. Meanwhile, the 9th Wonder collabos surely herald the beginning of the latest in hip-hop's succession of classic MC/producer relationships. If teenage girls aren't entirely responsible for the grim state of commercial hip-hop, this album is still swaggering, inarguable proof that what hip-hop requires is a larger female presence making it rather than funding it. Fuck getting Jesus to walk you to the bank and saying "my ebony" when you're referring to your dick, what radio really needs is this. Oh, and if there's a more acute summation of a "real" artist than "I fall apart/write just to stay/right", you can keep it, bitch.
      � Stefan Braidwood :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Milk Eyed Mender (Drag City)
Joanna Newsom is miraculous surprise. A lyricist without borders, the best harpist indie rock has seen since... uh ...She plays the harp like it's a guitar. She could be Liz Phair if the music wasn't so progressively Appalachian. It's Steve Reich and Supertramp, too, a weird combo for sure, but it works like the connections are obvious. Instead, most people's feathers are ruffled when they first hear her voice, which sounds strangled of its maturity. It's a kind of epic rock music for solo harp and voice, tremulous with the spirituality of the Carter Family, Roscoe Holcomb, or Moroccan slave songs. She turns out to be excellent musical accompaniment to reading Sheila Heti, author of The Middle Stories, a collection of fiction that's style marries ol' timey folktales with modern artfulness and youthful humor. The two women share an ability to charm the pants off you with their words. Newsom is a spectacular lyricist, with a farmyard vocabulary and an English major's love for allusion. I'm far from knowing what my own thesis might be if I were to write a longer essay on her work, but right now I'm sure that I haven't heard anything released this year that lifted my spirits higher or gave me more hope looking forward to the future of music.
      � Lee Henderson :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Joanna Newsom creates foot stomping folk, remarkably, through the hard plucking of a single stand-up harp. Her voice borrows Joni Mitchell's sense of melodic vocal pitch and Janis Joplin's proclivity for unrestrained, dissonant shrieking. Milk Eyed Mender is "psycho folk" at its best, embracing traditional compositional techniques while, at the same time, shattering their very bounds. The striking "Bridges and Balloons" represents the perfection of Newsom's striking formula. She sets her uniquely aggressive harp technique against deeply poetic lyrics, engaging the listener with beautiful tones and delicious imagery. A reverent progeny, Newsom also pays homage to similar folkie Devendra Banhart, with similarly obtuse and amusing subject matter: I Killed my dinner with karate/ Kicked him in the head/ taste the body/ shallow work is the work that I do. Biting, witty, and beautiful. When these psycho folkies finally come into their own, Newsom will take her place as the group's most celebrated innovator.
      � Andrew Phillps :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

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