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The Best Music of 2004 #40-31

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 31 - 40
forward to 21 - 30 >

The Futureheads (Sire)
There are a lot of talented bands out there, but there are precious few intelligent ones. It takes a certain precocious pedigree to be able to mold the craft of riffdom, a keen understanding of dynamics, and lyrics of significance into something resembling a masterpiece. The Futureheads, with their self-titled debut, prove to be of that rare breed. By channeling their smarts into the usually vacuous pop-punk genre, they succeed in redefining its very barriers and sensibilities. Which other band of its ilk incorporates intricate four-part acapella-like harmonies and sing about avant-garde photographers from the 1920s like Man Ray? Hell, not many bands period are capable of aspiring beyond four-chord melodies and woe-is-me-oh-jilted-one topics. If there was a Mensa society based on musical IQ, these genius songsmiths will be up with the Modest Mouse's and Radiohead's of the world. Without hyperbole, they are indeed the future.
      � Kenneth Yu :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Fabulous Muscles (5RC)
Just because Jamie Stewart knows how to write a pop song doesn't mean he has to. He uses the same song structures as mainstream, chart-topping stars, but the way that he fills in the pop format is about as comforting as a half-finished coloring book in a pediatrics ward. His lyrics touch on the familiar themes of love and loss that have long been pop currency, and his performance can seem as over the top as a lip-synching Ashlee Simpson. His messy, distorted backing tracks and frank, confessional lyrics may disqualify him from ever even appearing as even a blip on Billboard, but the songs are, against all odds, hook-driven. Stewart's willingness to let go of all reservations while performing; to mine the long-dead vein of the simultaneously redeeming and catchy chorus; and to indulge in the histrionics and tired, can't-miss tropes reminds us why pop music snared us all the first time around. Pop's spirit has been broken through meticulous over-analysis, just as happened to classical and jazz before it. Songsmiths such as the Matrix have been Adorno's biggest supporters; rapid technological advances in digital production have only made standardization in pop music increasingly easier. Fabulous Muscles is a chance to reclaim pop radio, and I nominate "I Luv the Valley" as the first hit single. After all, with lines such as "my behind is a beehive, there's a buzz in my backside", the song would be perfect for the club.
      � Peter Joseph :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

C'mon Miracle (K)
Mirah's third album C'mon Miracle is protest music that doesn't feel like protest music. It isn't strident, simplistic, or preachy, but rather rooted in real human feeling as well as an impeccable sense for pop melody. These are gorgeous, perfectly written songs that in their musical sensitivity and complexity also contain a caring for humanity and a desire to make the world a more just, peaceful place. Musically the album subtly pulls in strains of folk music from across the globe to meet not only catchy pop melodies and simply strummed guitar but also graceful strings and piano. And Mirah's voice is more devastatingly perfect than ever -- if you're ever going to believe that a singer can change the world simply through the force of her voice, now is the time.
      � Dave Heaton :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

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.
      � Andrew Gilstrap :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Florida (Big Dada)
With Blockhead's Music By Cavelight, this was the standout American instrumental hip-hop of 2004, outclassing even the insurgent '80s supergloss of Rjd2's Since We Last Spoke. Philadelphia producer Diplo eschewed the British downtempo influence in favor of the voluminous snare sounds and organ riffs of DJ Shadow's Entroducing.... The result is bracing: tracks like "Big Lost" are percussive, propulsive, muscular. On "Sarah" he takes a buzzy, reverberated guitar sound and somehow manages to combine it with hazy horn harmonies and winsome piano loops redolent of a T-Bone Walker song. "Into the Sun" features former Tricky muse Martina Topley-Bird, her voice beautifully harmonized with itself, against featherlight drums sounds and a tumultuous accumulation of reversed background noise. The effect is overwhelmingly melancholy. And all of that comes before the anthemic "Summer's Gonna Hurt You", a downtempo classic from the opening squalls of woodwind to the tank-like presence of its bassline.
      � Robert Wheaton :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

35 AIR
Talkie Walkie (Astralwerks)
It didn't take long for Air to gather a loyal following. Their debut album Moon Safari got listeners interested, and their soundtrack work for the Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation sealed the deal. However, never a group to rest on their laurels, Air has delivered their most potent statement with Talkie Walkie. Enlisting the talents of Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich for their third album, Air balance their electronically cold and distant soundscapes with warm, organic instrumentation. "Biological" benefits from a subtly plucked banjo; "Venus" comes to life, rhythmically propelled by piano and handclaps and "Alpha Beta Gaga" is led by a deliriously catchy melody that is whistled and accented by strings. However, the real treat of Talkie Walkie are the duo (Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin) themselves. Stepping out from behind the keyboards, they assume vocal duties as well, bringing warmth and humanity to their calculated pop compositions. What makes Air standout from the rest of the blissed out electronic pack is whipsmart songwriting, coupled with flawless execution that seems nothing short of effortless. A breathy, romantic album, Talkie Walkie improves upon the formula the band first laid out on Moon Safari. Sophisticated, sharp and blessed that certain French je ne sais quoi, Talkie Walkie refuses to merely exist as background music.
      � Kevin Jagernauth :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

It's easy to like Air's latest record, almost as easy as it was to like Moon Safari, their first, and a whole lot easier than liking the oddball that was 10,000 Hz. Legend. From the dark, determined piano chords that drive the opening track, "Venus", to the crashing waves that conclude "Alone in Kyoto", Talkie Walkie is as mood enhancing as any drug; lifting you up in times of desperation("Surfin on a Rocket") and setting you gently back down when you're looking for some quality chill time("Run"). Its true the Frenchies are singing their own songs now, but aside from the occasional misstep ("Universal Traveler") they pull it off rather well. Air has perfected the electricoustic thing and sometimes there's nothing better than hearing a banjo and a Korg synth compete for your attention. C'est une bonne affair!
      � Andrew Watson :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Sonic Nurse (Geffen)
Sonic Youth's Sonic Nurse proves the old adage that times of political uncertainly make for great art. Though Sonic Nurse is more tightly structured than the Youth's early work, the emotion is still raw and sincere. Indeed, the immediacy of the opening guitar notes on "Pattern Recognition" ensures a captive audience. Kim Gordon, always a purveyor of fine cultural commentary, offers her empathetic critique of the price of fame with "Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream" (originally titled "Mariah Carey and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream"), while Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore make direct hits at the government with "Paper Cup Exit" and "Peace Attack", respectively. Sonic Nurse is exemplary of what Sonic Youth has been doing over the past two decades: skillfully honing their craft. It contains the same experimental forays that are so characteristically Sonic Youth without sounding redundant or predictable, resulting in an album that is multi-layered -- in both lyrical and aural scope -- yet accessible.
      � Sasha Denisoff :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Sonic Nurse is an epic work that feels inclusive of everything Sonic Youth has explored over their 20-plus year career. Their discography is a shining example of re-investing rock conventions with non-conformist artistic energy and unconventional methods. This album finds them forging that path with as much passion and creativity as ever, with songs that feel conventionally 'rock' yet at the same time seem out to destroy expectations and boundaries. No song is a straight-out noise attack, yet every song feels fresh and open, with ambiguous notes and broad brushstrokes of sound. And songs like "Unmade Bed", "Dripping Dream", and "Stones" also show a genuine intimacy that's a far cry from the occasional portrait of the artists as ice-cold experimentalists. These are very human songs about people, feelings, and circumstances, even though the lyrics are often abstract and surrealistic. There's a real force to their songs, whether they're speaking out against an unethical war or singing about a feeling too enigmatic to completely pin down.
      � Dave Heaton :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Showtime (XL/Beggars Group)
It was Dizzee's debut album, Boy in da Corner that brough UK garage and grime to the States, but he raised the already-high bar with this second release. Showtime's packed with crazy beats and Dizzee's aggressive rapping, a combination of anger, frustration, humor, and the quotidian. His rhymes are smart and unique (probably because he's got a "lyrical pedigree"), and even his goofiest moments are entertaining. Listening to this disc, especially the incredible lead single "Stand Up Tall" never fails to energize me -- it's the type of album that'll probably be responsible for some bad driving, at least if other people are banging on their steering wheels and reaching for the volume up button.
      � Justin Cober-Lake :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Everybody Loves a Happy Ending (New Door)
Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, with the exception of their haircuts, were about as un-'80s as it came. They didn't try to seduce us (Madonna), didn't try to run over anyone in their path (Gordon Gekko, also Madonna), and they weren't out to save our souls (U2). No, they were just two awkward kids who told us to shout, shout, let it all out. They believed in love power. How quaint. That said, even though they didn't seem to play a timely role, we needed them then, and with the state of music today, we sure as hell need them now. The current musical landscape is not too dissimilar from when Tears for Fears released their last album, 1989's The Seeds of Love (The charts at that time were dominated by names like Martika, Michael Damien, Milli Vanilli, Paula Abdul, and Dino. And "Rico Suave" was just around the corner.) Claiming this to be the McCartney to Seeds of Love's Lennon, the boys from Bath pay homage to Sir Paul's "Hey Jude" (the superb "Who Killed Tangerine"), "I Want You (She's So Heavy") ("The Devil"), and even solo material like "Let 'em In" gets the nod on the beautiful "Secret World". They may not write much of their material together (there is only one song credited to Smith without Orzabal), but there is clearly something about writing songs for each other that makes them far better together than they are apart, which is about as happy an ending as one could ask for.
      � David Medsker :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

It briefly looked as though the first Tears for Fears album in 15 years to feature both Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith wasn't even going to get a happy beginning. Arista went so far as to send out advances before label and band went their separate ways; thankfully, Universal stepped in and saved the day. Everybody Loves a Happy Ending is less jazzy than the duo's last work together, The Seeds of Love, but Beatle-isms still abound, as on the title track and "Call Me Mellow", the latter the pop song of the year, bar none. One suspects Duran Duran reunited as much for the money as the music, but Tears for Fears appear to have done so only to give their career the grand finale it deserves. The tragedy is that after such a brilliant return to form, if this truly marks the band's swan song, I'm not happy; I'm downright pissed!
      � Will Harris :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Ta Det Lugnt (Subliminal)
He may have been born and raised in Sweden, Gustav Ejstes, master of the band Dungen, clearly derives much of his musical inspiration from a steady diet of American and British folk and psychedelia. Yet it is evident on his third full-length Ta Det Lugnt that the 24-year-old songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is not content to merely mimic the sounds and aesthetics of another era. Rather he masters each of the elements, only to transform and expand upon them through innovative composition into something startlingly unique; a buoyant and roving bass line, a glittery Hammond crescendo, plaintive violins precluding a in the pauses before an anxiously compressed drum fill, all held together by a deluge of guitars, some fuzzily distorted, some acoustic and clear as a bell. Unless you are Swedish yourself, or a student of the language, the meanings contained in the carefully layered vocals will remain a mystery. But the name of the record and its title track are translated as the Swedish way to say "take it easy", and those words should be your guide to this record as you sit back and let yourself be overwhelmed by the well-orchestrated aural theatrics that Dungen has to offer.
      � Emily Sogn | buy in the PopShop

I have no idea what Swedish wunderkind Gustav Ejstes is singing about on his third album, Ta Det Lugnt, (though the title translates to "Take It Easy"), but I want to believe it's something of monumental significance, anything to keep pace with the captivating music on this relentless blast of authentic psychedelia. With an astounding attention to detail, Ta Det Lugnt sounds as though Ejstes took the best parts of Jimi Hendrix, early Pink Floyd, and T. Rex, and mixed them up in a blender. The result is an often stunning 53-minute sonic experience that explodes out of your speakers like a fuzz-heavy wall of sound. Revelations abound here, but I'm still blown away by the eight-minute tour de force "Du E För Fin För Mig", which begins with an all-too-brief string section, builds up to an acoustic anthem, finally dissolving into a free-form guitar assault straight out of Electric Ladyland. It's the prototypical Dungen track: catchy, deceptively complex, and always fascinating.
      � Michael Pucci | buy in the PopShop

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