Music

The Best Music of 2004 #50-41

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 41 - 50
forward to 31 - 40 >

50 TRASHCAN SINATRAS
Weightlifting (spinART)
A record that's sure to crest my top 10 for the decade, Weightlifting showcases all that makes this group great, not least of which is its unconventional conventionality. The band juxtaposes the tried-and-true (melody, harmony, guitars, strings, and piano) against lyrical and musical sensibilities that are not only divorced from contemporary expectations, but are very uniquely the product of these five Scottish, bookish, and musically sophisticated men. From the lilt of the lamenting "Got Carried Away" to the hypnotic refrain of the closing title cut ("You will feel a great weight lifting"), pensiveness and delicacy are the order of the day, even in up-tempo numbers. Every note is unpretentious but careful. These guys understand music's power to impart a state of mind and soul, a way of being. They understand the importance of atmosphere to a song's meaning. And they have the sensitivity to appreciate extreme subtleties of mood and texture, producing a dead-perfect match between music and words.
      — Michael Mikesell :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

49 !!!
Louden Up Now (Touch and Go)
Imagine the never-ending party in heaven. John Belushi would be parading around in his toga using an ancient Mayan pipe he stole from the dean's office as a bong. Scantily clad women would be wrestling in children's inflatable pools filled with KY Jelly. The crusty old dean would try to stop the fun, but would be quickly thwarted by Andrew W.K. and the cast of Jackass, who push the cantankerous dictator down a 10-mile slip'n'slide. NY octet !!!, and their own brand of carefree, danceable rock succeed where a more pretentious band would fail. With great sing-a-long refrains such as "Like I give a fuck!" and "Shit Schiesse Merde!" its near-flawless brainless disco-punk that is suited for only the craziest of parties. If you don't find yourself swinging your hips during the epic "Me and Giuliani down by the Schoolyard", you're probably a nark anyway.
      — Erik Leijon :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

When I first heard NYC chamber-funk octet !!!'s highly-anticipated sophomore album, I'll admit I was puzzled. A seeming 53-minute regurgitation of the infectious quirks of their dance-floor hit "Me and Guiliani Down by the Schoolyard", Louden Up Now initially projected a frustrating illusion of monotonous excess. But between the manic horn bursts, free-funk axe jabs, eurhythmic bass thumps, and vocalist Nic Offer's hyper-masculine, tongue-in-cheek swagger, notions of indulgence and overstatement ultimately gave way to a single, primal urge: to shake my butt faster than you could say "cowbell". While their peers -- so confined within the single format -- emulated Gang of Four, !!! crafted a cohesive album combining the white Africana of the Talking Heads with the cocksure tightness of The Fall. But wasn't 2004 the death knoll for disco-punk? "Like I give a shit?"
      — Jon Fischer :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop


48 WILLIAM SHATNER
Has Been (Shout! Factory)
This is no joke. That's what makes Has Been one of the biggest surprises since Haydn. Shatner's beat poetry take on "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" and "Rocket Man" have become camp comedy classics, to the point that Shatner himself embraced his own legend as a caricature, turning himself into a cottage industry of self-parody. So expectations were high that his reunion with Ben Folds -- following their work together on Folds's Fear of Pop side-project -- would be funny. And it is. What's startling is how incredibly human it is as well. Shatner confronts his own image (both self-image and the image the public holds of him) in such naked honesty that Has Been feels more like a confessional to expunge years of pent up feelings than an album, much less a joke. Taken individually, "I Can't Get Behind That" (his duet with Henry Rollins), or "You'll Have Time", or the Nick Hornby-penned "That's Me Trying", or the brilliant cover of Pulp's "Common People" are all good songs. But when they're wrapped up with brutally honest and personal tracks like "It Hasn't Happened Yet" and "What Have You Done", the sum becomes more than its parts in ways that are captivating. Shatner has indicated that he hoped Has Been would be something of a musical portrait, a way to share his feelings with those he loves or love him. He succeeds, and forces a re-evaluation of the man we think we've known all this time.
      — Patrick Schabe :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Perhaps the most telling indicator of just how surprisingly successful Has Been has, uh, been for William Shatner: Geffen has re-released his other album, the classic debacle The Transformed Man, even after it sold a mere 8,000 copies in the 10-year period of 1991-2001. How is Has Been, where Shatner covers Pulp's "Common People" any different from that 1968 mess where he covers The Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"? This time, he's in on the joke. With plenty of help from the likes of Ben Folds, Joe Jackson, Aimee Mann, Brad Paisley, and, God help us, Henry Rollins, Shatner combines self-deprecating humor with some honest-to-goodness legit poetry. He manages to tread the line separating dead serious and seriously absurd with the skill and wisdom that can only come with age.
      — Mike Schiller :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop


47 EINSTÜRZENDE NEUBAUTEN
Perpetuum Mobile (Mute)
At a period when most of their peers from the first-generation of industrial music are compiling massive retrospective box-sets, Einstürzende Neubauten are producing some of the best music of their career. The initial punk energy which originally inspired them to bang on bits of scrap metal for percussive effect back in the late '70s has subsided into a more sophisticated appreciation for the melodic possibilities of strange percussion. Their songwriting acumen has certainly kept pace with their instrumental prowess, and their ability to conjure moods simultaneously epic and intimate while maintaining a uniquely Teutonic sense of melancholy is simply breathtaking. They are, without a doubt, the greatest German-speaking band in the world today -- their only rivals for the crown being the infinitely mordant Rammstein. Suffice it to say that singer/lead songwriter Blixa Bargeld's decision to step away from his part-time position as lead guitarist for Nick Cave's Bad Seeds has yielded rich profits for his primary group.
      — Tim O'Neil :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

46 THE MOUNTAIN GOATS
We Shall All Be Healed (4AD)
As enigmatic as John Darnielle's literary folk-pop songs can be, after listening to them you often feel like you've been given a glimpse of the lives of real, often quite tortured people. That's as true here as ever -– The Mountain Goats' second album for 4AD is their most sonically polished, but that sheen has somehow intensified the emotions and brought a brighter spotlight onto Darnielle's sense for detail. We Shall All Be Healed is an indelible portrait of misfits living in a house full of rats, sharing problems, longings, addictions. It truly gets under your skin, and speaks to truths about the world through small stories and images. It's a grand songwriting achievement, where each note and word is helping build something remarkable.
      — Dave Heaton :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

45 PJ HARVEY
Uh Huh Her (Island)
"Uh Huh Her" isn't as pugnacious as its cover shot of PJ Harvey seemingly pressing her de-glamorized face against the CD case and into the listener's personal space ("You want a piece of this? Huh?!" Personally speaking, I wouldn't bet against her); it's more so. Allegedly conceived solely on a four-track, the record's highs are as strong as anything Harvey's done in her career -- "Who the Fuck" alone saturates the record in more vitriol than her entire catalog combined. But what's most pleasing about the record is the strange desert beauty about it. Lovelorn song-fragments like "The Pocket Knife" and "The Desperate Kingdom of Love" make their way effusively through the mix like fool's gold, glittering alongside innuendo-laden rants "The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth" and "The Letter". Base beauty, or beauty debased: In PJ Harvey's songs, it's all a sweet-tasting poison, but a poison just the same.
      — Eric Seguy :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

PJ Harvey's latest masterpiece sums up her career in tow, gathering familiar sounds and themes together like lost children and shaping them into an incredibly engaging new record. Early, raw guitar albums like Dry and Rid of Me are represented in the sexual snarl and venom of tracks like "Who the Fuck" and "Cat on a Wall" while "Shame" echoes the clean pop-oriented sound that was prevalent on her last record, Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. Other tracks like "The Slow Drug" and "Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth" recall the slow-burning intensity Harvey experimented with during her Is This Desire period, and "Pocket Knife", with it's thinly-disguised, menacing overtones, sounds as if it was ripped directly off To Bring You My Love. PJ can do no wrong in my opinion, and Uh Huh Her may be her most satisfying record to date -- she remains one of music's brightest and most vital artists.
      — Andrew Watson :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop


44 LIARS
They Were Wrong, So We Drowned (Mute)
If punk is the music where the artists' ambitions often eclipse their capabilities, Liars have become the most punk of all with their second album, a stunning display of expectation defiance with simply no acknowledgment of self- or industry-imposed constraints on their part whatsoever. Most punk bands also know to play within certain accepted stylistic limits, especially to maintain some sort of scene status, but Liars -- who once rode the crest of the Gang of Four-influenced "dance-punk" revolution that never happened -- have moved onto something far more unpredictable and risky with They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, a doom-laden ode to witchcraft that plays like an honest PBS documentary rather than a pretentious gothic horrorshow. Without losing their core essence (a mix of guitars and rudimentary keyboards that often falls into cacophonic repetitive patterns), and by doing exactly what they wanted and what no one remotely expected, Liars have matured from fifteen-minute faddish heroes into a band with an undoubtedly fascinating future.
      — Richard T. Williams :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

Its been quite some time since an album so fiercely divided fans and critics as the Liars' sophomore effort They Were Wrong, So We Drowned. Armed with a new rhythm section, Angus Andrew as his cohorts dumped the white-belted disco punk of their debut for something starker, darker, weirder and truly original. A concept album based around German witch trails, They Were Wrong, So We Drowned is a 10-track odyssey into fear, paranoia and mysticism. Longtime fans felt betrayed by this abrupt change in direction and critics were baffled. By no means is the album an easy listen, however it is an undeniably fascinating and immensely rewarding one. The melodies here are shrouded in primitive percussion, tribal chants, guitar noise and sometimes abandoned completely for something far more inexplicable and ultimately more intriguing. No other album this year was as provocative, mesmerizing or confrontational as They Were Wrong, So We Drowned. An absolute stunner, Liars have succeeded in creating one of the most interesting and intelligent art-rock albums to be released in the new millennium, and the best one of 2004.
      — Kevin Jagernauth :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop


43 ROYCE DA 5'9"
Death is Certain (Koch)
The stories here are as funky, personal, and creative as any you'll hear in a hip-hop album. On his sophomore album, Royce Da 5'9" comes with somber, textured production by DJ Premier, Ty Fyffe, and Carlos Broady, asking questions of the industry that so dogs him ("It's hard to believe, that Columbia couldn't market me / To do numbers like D-12 at least," on "Regardless") and boasting adeptly of his deep knowledge ("And my kitchen is huge, we do dishes wit dudes / Coldest flow of the summer, I see 'em come and they go," on "Throwback"). His rhymes are less clever than thoughtful, more cunning than evident: "Hip Hop" is an extended riff on "rap basketball", all long-limbed metaphors and verbal athleticism. Honest about his worries (his wife prefers Joe Budden, because his images are too "dark"), Royce is at once appealing and strange, walking the ideal edge.
      — Cynthia Fuchs | buy in the PopShop

42 STEVE EARLE
The Revolution Starts... Now (Artemis/E-Squared)
Complete with an Air America advertising campaign, The Revolution Starts... Now was Steve Earle's attempt to sway the election away from Bush. Though W. won another term, Revolution is no less moving. If anything, the album's characters -- caught in dire, absurd circumstances at the hands of the administration -- gain dignity in the face of four more years of reckless "leadership". In "Home to Houston", for instance, a blue-collar truck driver risks his life by taking work in Iraq to support his family back home. Likewise, in "Rich Man's War", Earle details the plight of desperate American kids who join the military to escape poverty, only to find themselves in a foreign land for no clear reason. Protest albums always risk sounding like extremist propaganda, but Earle's songs avoid polemical tirades by capturing genuine feeling. If nothing else, buy this album for "Condi, Condi". After all, it's not every day you hear a reggae song about the next Secretary of State, and darn if it doesn't sound... sexy. Yuck.
      — Michael Franco :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

The Revolution Starts... Now kicks off with a driving guitar and lyrically thumbs its nose at the American power structure. It is Steve Earle's definition of patriotism writ large across 11 songs, moving from simple statement to the stories of the people who are paying the price for official mendacity in George W. Bush's America. There is the trucker facing a difficult road back from a mission in Iraq ("Home to Houston") and the poor around the globe ("Rich Man's War") and the spiritual hymn to his own eternal optimism ("The Seeker"). By turns angry and hopeful -- the title song combines both -- the disc is a simple statement of purpose, a political statement, a reminder that change is within our grasp, that we are the ones who must make it happen.
      — Hank Kalet :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop


41 GHOSTFACE
The Pretty Toney Album (Def Jam)
Ghostface is rap's voice of desperation. Born Dennis Coles, he was raised like a rumble fish on the streets of Staten Island, where an alias like Ghostface Killah isn't just for the stage, it's protection from the law, the gangsters, and Mom. It's a name that withdraws young Dennis Coles from the emotional chaos of growing up poor. You can hear that poverty scarred him, but he's a stronger man for it. He spits lyrics that sound desperate. He might be wailing, but he regrets the fact that he's going to have to kill you with the punch-line of his rhyme. He's not afraid to be seen crying at your funeral either. It's not personal. It's just the hot soul samples and hard beats and the fact that whatever you've seen in your life, Ghost has seen it twice. He's a ghost, he'll be here when you're dust. His collaborations with Raekwon, and the dozens of Wu-Tang Clan gems aside, Ghostface made classic solo albums in an industry that turns its back on anyone who boasts more than two albums before they're shot dead. In 2004, Ghostface Killah is older and better, and after (count 'em) three previous solo records, his fourth record is a masterpiece in a unfailing discography. For the first time in rap history, the skits are actually good (some critics have said that Ghost's skits are better than most rappers songs -- I tend to agree), and they help transition the album between songs as varied as the hardcore "Metal Lungies", and "Biscuits" to the quintessential Ghostface soul tracks "Save Me Dear", and "Be This Way". His new softness on the concrete, the former Iron Man has taken off the mask. Pretty Toney is here, a truly mature artist in the rap game, with words for the wise. Put your nostalgia in a drawer and pretend you didn't have sex while listening to "Cherchez la Ghost" from Supreme Clientele. Turn on the sex with "Tooken Back", blow your MC-face off with the graffiti-soul of "Holla", or the insane classic RZA-produced "Run", and see if you can argue that The Pretty Toney Album is not only the the strongest album in Ghost career, it competes for best rap album of the year.
      — Lee Henderson | buy in the PopShop

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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