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The Best Music of 2004 #5-1

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 1 - 5
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Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (Anti-)
Nick Cave's magnum opus, a thrilling pasticcio of magnanimous rock, pastoral folk, and wicked church music, covers more ground in two discs than most artists can in an entire career. God, cannibals, deception, nature, divine inspiration, slaughterhouses, Johnny Cash, mythology, comfort, love, greed, sorcery, and little redemptions in the face of massive tragedies represent just the half of it. Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus is a sprawling "Song of Myself" manifesto, bubbling with piety, fear, and hope. The Bad Seeds sound like they're capable of anything; they use Cave's poetics as kindling to set fire to any stereo willing to risk its mechanical life. This year's gospel.
      � Zeth Lundy :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

From the opening thunder of "Get Ready for Love" through the orchestrated hum of "O Children", Nick Cave's double fantasy of divine redemption, mediation and distance never drops for a second the breakneck pace of passion and ambition that propel even the tamest of its tracks. Utilizing the musical magnitude of The Bad Seeds at their best, Cave crafts two distinct album's worth of music combining all that is great from his great band's legacy, and leaving out all the dross. Cave can pine for the fame that eludes us all in the revival-tent rocker "There She Goes, My Beautiful World", can caddishly croon of love in the upturned-lip of "Nature Boy", and can muse even on the ultimate value of his trade in the "The Lyre of Orpheus" (which sounds as if it was perniciously recorded in the Hades of the song's final refrain). Strong while not overbearing, ingenious without wearing genius too conspicuously on its sleeve, completely sincere without a hint of treacle, Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus is intended as a consummate statement of an Artist about His Time, and ultimately winds up being an equally important statement about an artist who has so profoundly found his time.
      � Seth Limmer :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

It is a testament to the breadth of his talent that it took a double album for Nick Cave to finally deliver a statement that encompasses everything that makes him such a necessary artist. It's all here: God, love, and murder. But never before have the elements of his brilliance cohered into such a powerful and unified statement of purpose. Where some of his earlier albums leaned too far in the direction of either heaven or hell, Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus deftly manoeuvres through the battle between the sacred and profane that is at the heart of Cave's work. Helped along by the ceaselessly inventive Bad Seeds, not to mention a full-on gospel choir, Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus is welcome return to form after the lacklustre Nick-by-numbers of Nocturama. Forget album of the year -- it's the defining album of his career.
      � David Marchese :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Franz Ferdinand (Domino)
What was the more pleasant surprise: that a stylish band of Glasgow art students released one of the best rock records of the year, or that fickle American audiences did the unthinkable, and embraced the band? Franz Ferdinand have not only completely revitalized UK rock music, but their debut album, and the growing popularity of it, signals a shift in the taste of many mainstream rock listeners. Could the loutish, turgid tones of Nickelback actually be taken over by a bunch of charismatic, dapper, skinny guys with a knack for clever lyrics and catchy hooks? Judging by the tongue in cheek innuendo of "Michael", the unbridled passion of "The Dark of the Matinee", two ace singles in "Take Me Out" and "This Fire", not to mention one Alex Kapranos, whose lyrical talents echo Pulp's Jarvis Cocker, Franz Ferdinand have achieved the kind of success that fellow post-punks Interpol and The Rapture have failed to do, and might I add, with pure panache.
      � Adrien Begrand :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Alright, let's just get this out of the way: Franz Ferdinand had every advantage from the start. Because of their deliberately retro aesthetic, every tone and beat and vibe was already available to them, allowing the band to be born fully-formed, springing from the head of the great post-punk canon. Fine. They are derivative. They owe their whole shtick to Gang of Four and Wire and the like. And normally that would be enough to make critics take them less seriously. But the joy and wonder of their self-titled debut is that they do it so well, and moreover, they do it with just enough twinkle in their smirk to let you know that they know that they're playing at a style and having fun doing so. And yet, it would all be so much artful irony if it wasn't pulled off so completely. What makes this the album of the year is that you can put it on and listen to the whole thing, start to finish, and it's always consistent, always solid, and always fun, every time you listen to it. From the erotically charged dance-punk of "Michael" to the almost comically adolescent sexuality of "Dark of the Matinee" to the terse desperation of "Take Me Out", every damned song on this disc is as catchy as the next, culminating in the truly sumptuous "40'". Whether or not it's practiced hero-worship or hipster style-mongering, Franz Ferdinand delivers all the post-punk goods with enough talent, hooks, skill and cheeky aplomb that Franz Ferdinand is an undeniable pleasure.
      � Patrick Schabe :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Before his assassination bequeathed the modern era of chemical warfare, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was simply known as "the loneliest man in Vienna." The band who has voluntarily appropriated the Archduke's name knows something about loneliness too. The four pallid Scots who comprise Franz Ferdinand (singer/guitarist Alex Kapranos, guitarist Nick McCarthy, bassist Bob Hardy, and drummer Paul Thomson) wear heels and sing about dancing with Michael yet their pogo-ing rhythms and sharp, slash-and-burn guitar lines are anything but effeminate. They refer to themselves as a pop group-decrying pretentiousness in interviews and boldly cite new wave pinups Duran Duran as an influence -- but their observational working-class vignettes clearly descend from a long line of aloof British art-fops from Damon Albarn to Jarvis Cocker. No doubt Franz Ferdinand's artful sophistication displays a maturity well beyond a typical debut effort, but, most essentially, it does so without dispensing with simple pleasures. For now, they reign supreme in the burgeoning post-punk revival. Must be lonely at the top.
      � Jon Garrett :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

What else can you say? More than 200 shows this year has meant the Glasgow quartet going from the biggest buzz band among critics to a household name, much larger venues and the Mercury Award. It all comes back to the songs -- polished, tight and undeniably infectious. "Take Me Out" still hasn't lost any of its newness despite its heavy rotation. Ditto for "This Fire" (and "This Fffire"), "Michael" and "Matinee". The best band to come around since The Strokes should have a bright future ahead of them as this record seems to just scratch the surface!
      � Jason MacNeil :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Smile (Nonesuch)
"I asked if he knew that he'd inspired a whole new generation of bands (the Elephant 6 Collective specifically). He said 'Who? I only listen to oldies but goodies.'" Snatched from a newspaper interview with Brian Wilson, these words have long adorned the homepage of now defunct label Elephant 6 (former home to such acts as Neutral Milk Hotel and The Olivia Tremor Control). The words haven't changed but this light-hearted juxtaposition now rings with a bitter tone. For years, Wilson's contemporaries have hammered away at his lost dream, seeking to fulfill the promise and potential of Smile. Their guesswork was stunning, their innovations real, and their popularity well earned. But now, the holes have been filled, and with such remarkable skill that their toil seems somehow hollow. Brian Wilson's Smile is the pan-ultimate in psychedelic-pop, a truly stunning teen symphony to God.
      � Andrew Phillips :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

It's not every day that a record with a 38-year incubation period and a notoriety of mythological proportions, riddled with mystery and disappointment, goes even further than the high expectations of dedicated fans and critics alike. Ridiculed by his band mates for departing too far from the Surf n' Sun pop that had won them a place on the pop charts, a stoned and anxiety-ridden Brian Wilson did not have the mental wherewithal to match the ambition of his brilliant project and it was all but buried. But fortunately for Wilson and his fans, the record has never been forgotten, and with the help of musician and collaborator Darian Sahanaja, and the support of his fans, Wilson was finally able to sift through the old tapes and bring his opus to fruition. In the light of day at last, the masterpiece far exceeds even the loftiest of expectations. Wilson's exquisitely layered composition combined with poet Van Dyke Parks' imaginative and highly symbolic lyrics creates a rich musical tapestry dizzying in its scope, evoking fragile innocence, misplaced nostalgia, and stolen moments of pure joy. From the whimsy of "Heroes and Villains" to the ecstatic harmonies of "Good Vibrations", to the gentle melancholy of "Surf's Up", Smile renders an aural vision of America that is at once hallucinatory and startlingly lucid, a work of genius through and through.
      � Emily Sogn :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

I have to admit that a re-recording of a classic "lost" album doesn't seem like the most likely album of the year. But in 2004, I'm happy to take my escapism anywhere that I can get it. And until Outkast comes back with a new release, there's not nearly enough inanity to go around. And yet even Andre 3000 showed up at the conventions. No current musician could, in good conscience, release an album so blissfully oblivious of our country's current bellicose political state. But Wilson has gotten a free pass. Sure, like most rock stars, he dealt with some personal demons in making this record. But Wilson's demons are now decades old. Whereas most artists spent the past year struggling to find artful, original ways to compare our president to a chimpanzee, Wilson has had the rare good fortune of being able to plead ignorance of our current quagmire. In it's own age, Smile might have been a salve for my parents' generation during the Vietnam War. Today, its cheery, baroque arrangements are the only way to get me off the ledge after Crossfire.
      � Peter Joseph :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Funeral (Merge)
Why did so many people flock to the Arcade Fire's album? Why were fileswappers abuzz back in early September? Why did people line up to buy the record, scooping up every single copy Merge Records had printed? Such unprecedented hysteria over an indie rock album goes a lot deeper than people merely trying to look hip. Yeah, the album's production sounds sloppy, songs seem to have codas tacked on almost arbitrarily, but what Funeral has that every notable album from 2004 lacks in comparison is enthusiasm, and every person who loves this album has made the same emotional connection with the music. In direct contrast to the title, Funeral abounds with raw, youthful emotion, whether it's the young lovers' conversation of "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)", the hushed tones of "Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)", or the impassioned trio of "Wake Up", "Haiti", and "Rebellion (Lies)". Created during a period of great loss for all band members, the Arcade Fire choose to focus on life, and this album positively explodes with it.
      � Adrien Begrand :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Why did the Arcade Fire's left-field masterpiece Funeral strike such a chord in 2004? Let us count the ways: First, there's the Canadian sextet's seamless ability to mine the pop playbook of the last 40 years to create a fully-formed, unique sound. Second, there's the potent emotional journey Win Butler and Régine Chassagne take us on, offering something theatrically overblown one moment and something else painfully reflective the next. (There's even the cleverly arranged liner notes, written to resemble an actual funeral program.) But what makes Funeral the singular listening experience of the year is its startlingly unbridled honesty. In these cynical, irony-filled times, that's often viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism, but the Arcade Fire prove that sincerity will always resonate longest, especially when set to a killer soundtrack.
      � Michael Pucci :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Much has been said and written about the Arcade Fire's Funeral, an album which already seems destined for enduring scrutiny and exploration, but in the end it simply seems a ridiculously difficult album to dislike. Above all it is an amazingly cohesive record, linked by pounding dance beats, classical strings, percussive piano, and a lyrical repetition ("lightning bolts", "parents", "eyelids") that probably hints at some important, life-altering conclusion. I can't begin to decide what it is, however -- I'm too busy enjoying the music that surrounds it. I think Funeral is my favorite release of the 2004 simply because it contains my favorite moments of the year -- from the choir chorus and parlor piano interlude of "Wake Up" to the swooning strings of "Crown of Love" to the instant "Rebellion (Lies)" drum-kicks into gear. I can't think of an album I'll more proudly carry with me into 2005.
      � Patrick Brereton :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella)
On The College Dropout, Kanye West presents the most complex and complete vision of the year. Lyrically, he's all over the map, from sex to God to drugs to body-image issues to race to his personal life -- just for starters. But the broad vision wouldn't mean anything if West didn't have the rhymes to cover it. He's satirical and funny, serious and moving, sharp and blunt. The lyrics are great, and West -- already a respected producer -- has the beats to match (even skipping the sped-up soul and dance samples). Check "Jesus Walks", the year's best single, with its intense vocal samples and restrained strings. On just his first solo album, West has produced a masterpiece that's truly one of the best albums of the past five years.
      � Justin Cober-Lake :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

He's got the total package. Smooth flow, check � proving that producers can be performers, too. Intelligent, meaningful lyrics about topics that actually matter, check � thank God someone is addressing everyday people's struggles with challenges like debt and illness. A truly groundbreaking production style, check -- his trademark is, of course, sampling vocals on a 33 at 45. But it goes beyond all that: Kanye has roots. This is Chitown representing to the fullest, in the tradition of Earth, Wind & Fire, Curtis, and Chaka. Only that can explain the magnificence of "Slow Jamz," the all-time greatest hip-hop tribute to classic R&B, and "Jesus Walks," the best hip-hop gospel track since Kirk Franklin met Funkadelic.
      � Jordan Kessler :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Kanye West taught us two things. He reminded us that you didn't have to wax eloquent about sticking some sucka for his drug money or peddle your adventures in crack to be a rapper. On College Dropout, West preached a double-barreled sermon of black conscious/anti-materialism while driving a Benz and wearing enough jewelry to blind Stevie Wonder. He supplied dope politically and socially relevant lyrics and beats for more than 3 million rap addicts. From the sublime self-consciousness of "All Falls Down" to "Get em High's" hypnotic bass line, and all the way to "Slow Jamz" carnal rhythms, West pounded the tribal drum and kept the tunes soulful throughout. No topic was too controversial, not even when he declared his love of Christ on "Jesus Walks". In the end, he was brilliant -- proving that when pseudo-intellectual rap types hustle their product to the masses they can still get rich.
      � Pierre Hamilton :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

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