- Mastodon: “Blood and Thunder” (Relapse).
- Neurosis: “Burn” (Neurot). – iTunes
- Pig Destroyer: “Terrifyer” (Relapse).
- Isis: “Backlit” (Ipecac).
- Cave In: “Trepanning” (SxSW sampler).
- Blood Brothers: “Love Rhymes with Hideous Car Wreck” (V2). – iTunes
- Old Man Gloom: “Volcano” (Tortuga).
- Loincloth: “Noise International” (Swami). – iTunes
- Zombi: “Cassiopeia” (Relapse).
As a born-again metalhead, I advanced from infancy to toddlerhood this year. For better or worse, that signifies the end of innocuous exploration and the onset of rules and structure. I’m trying to keep my standards simple: no dreadlocks, no mall-goth or whiny metalcore, no acts affiliated with Ozzfest that aren’t named Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, or Slayer. Well, the last condition is pretty sketchy, not to mention already bending, strictly on the strength of last year’s much-improved second stage (Darkest Hour, Lamb of God, Unearth), but to hell with that freak show—the above list corresponds just fine with my meager, formative ideals. If I’m going to embrace aggressive music—and we can just get it right out of the way that, no, the Blood Brothers are not now nor have they ever been “metal”—I want it to be (a) artful and ambitious without being arrogant, and (b) kick-ass without being wanky.
All of these tracks are compositionally adven- turous, most are culled from clever concept albums, and—with the exception of the Blood Brothers and the unsettling Pittsburgh-based instrumental horror- prog duo Zombi—they all Fucking Slay. Many an eye rolled when Mastodon revealed that their second full-length would be based entirely on Moby Dick, but when the simple stutter-step riff of “Blood” is overwhelmed by Brann Dailor’s signature alien drum flurries and the paranoid bark, “I think that someone is trying to kill me!” an instant stoner classic is born. Cave In wisely interpolate the Slayer-informed thrash of Until Your Heart Stops and the Rush-like swing of Jupiter on “Trepanning,” an impressive hybrid comeback that flaunts a wild, mimicking solo bridge and finally justifies their long-standing hype. Guitarist Aaron Turner, the reigning king of glacial brainiac thud, is here twice: with Isis, whose Panopticon is a muscular, gorgeous study of surveillance, and with Old Man Gloom, whose more directly aggro Christmas obsesses about, well, primates. Of course, Turner and Co. owe much to art-metal forebears Neurosis, who returned in all their bizarre Waits-and-Cash-go-psycho glory on the very Neurosis-ly titled Eye of Every Storm.
Tying for first place in the Most Disturbing Lyrics department are grind superstars Pig Destroyer and the ever-deviant Blood Brothers, two outfits inspired by the grotesqueries of sex and love. The former generates an almost oppressive amount of noise via Scott Hull’s tornado drone riffing; the latter evokes the twisted finale to Carrie with a subdued, quite literally autoerotic dirge. All the dirty talk necessitates ending this mix with two esoteric, imaginative instrumentals. Virginia’s Loincloth have thus far only formally surfaced beside the Hot Snakes hipness of this year’s Swami Records sampler, but their math-metal milkshake is so potent that only the cadaverous, Argento-inspired synth of Zombi could generate a sufficient comedown. Dreadlocks not included . . . this year.
- Handel: “Calm thou my soul . . . Convey me to some peaceful shore,” from Alexander Balus, Renee Fleming, soprano (Decca).
- Wagner: “Mild und leise” (Isolde’s Liebstod), from Tristan un Isolde, Deborah Voigt, soprano (Deutsche Grammophon). – iTunes
- Elgar: Violin Concerto, 2nd movement, Hilary Hahn, violin (Deutsche Grammophon). – iTunes
- Gavriil Popov: Symphony No. 1, finale, London Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein, cond. (Telarc).
- Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5, finale, Kirov Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, cond. (Philips). – iTunes
- Osvaldo Golijov: “Lua descolorida,” Dawn Upshaw, soprano, with pianist Gilbert Kalish (Nonesuch). – iTunes
- John Adams: On the Transmigration of Souls, New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel, cond. (Nonesuch). – iTunes
Gathering a Best of 2004 list took 10 minutes; these CDs leapt off my shelf into my arms, demanding more attention. No soprano today, and very few ever, offer a sound quite as creamy and opulent as Renee Fleming’s. This magically serene aria from an obscure oratorio is the most fascinating track on her recent all-Handel disc. Deborah Voigt has recently added the notoriously challenging role of Isolde to her repertory. The arrival of a new Isolde on the planet is always a milestone, and she hits it out of the park. Osvaldo Golijov leads a quiet academic life in Massachusetts, turning out one stunning work after another; as far as I and many other critics are concerned, he can do no wrong. “Lua descolorida” was the lyrical high point of his theatrically multiculti 1999 setting of the St. Mark Passion text; Dawn Upshaw sings it on a glorious disc alongside songs by Debussy, Fauré, and Messiaen.
Hilary Hahn’s Elgar recording is a polished, luscious performance of a deeply heartfelt (and expansive: 50 minutes) work by a composer whose best music, I think, is in his concertos. Gavriil Popov was a slightly older contemporary of Shostakovich—he didn’t have Dmitri’s coping skills, but possibly had just as high a level of genius. The explosive, and often snarky, finale of his Symphony No. 1 (1934) could have been written last Tuesday—the sort of envelope-pushing music the Soviet regime didn’t care to hear from a comrade, which Popov stopped writing when Stalin’s minions began cracking down on “formalism.” He never managed to find a way to satisfy his own sense of integrity, an audience hungry for honesty and substance, and the dictates of the cultural commissars—as Shostakovich did four years later in his Symphony No. 5. It gets a torn-from-the-gut performance by Valery Gergiev, who seems to be on track to record all 15 of Shostakovich’s symphonies, two or three a year.
John Adams’ 9/11 memorial, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for the first anniversary of the tragedy, includes taped voices (reading a list of victims’ names) and choir, collaged together over an orchestra by turns brooding, soothing, and blindingly brilliant. The 25-minute work is not a grieving piece or a tone poem descriptive of the event, but what the composer calls a “memory space.” It invites contemplation rather than dictates an emotional response; it’s far more powerful and universal for it.
- Shoplifting: “Contrapuntal Prancing” (Kill Rock Stars). – iTunes
- Old Time Relijun: “Cold Water” (K). – iTunes
- Crash Normal: “Je Saigne” (S-S).
- Les Georges Leningrad: “Pekin Pekin” (Alien 8). – iTunes
- Antennas Erupt: “Monumental Uurkeling (Stud City)*” (S-S).
- Chromatics: “Monarch” (GSL). – iTunes
- Wolf Eyes: “Village Oblivia” (Sub Pop). – iTunes
- Six Organs of Admittance: “The Manifestation” (Strange Attractors).
- Devendra Banhart: “A Ribbon” (Young God). – iTunes
- Joanna Newsom: “What We Have Known” (Drag City).
- Elliott Smith: “King’s Crossing” (Anti-). – iTunes
- Gris Gris: “Everytime” (Birdman).
- The Arcade Fire: “Rebellion (Lies)” (Merge). – iTunes
It was the Slits who 25 years ago said, “Silence is a rhythm, too,” but this year it was me who spent a lot of time repeating it. For every three-and-a-half minutes’ worth of song in these “songs,” I probably spent 33 listening to nothing but air moving through vents and another 13 letting the sound of droning, crystallized sludge pass for music. Probably due to the fact that noise rock is the new indie rock, I also somehow managed to reclaim the side of me that can’t resist a good Pixies reduction sauce, and I suppose now is as good a time as ever to embrace my inner child. All this shock and awe also made me pretty damn responsive to sad psych/folk songs played loudly on repeat.
But enough about me—let’s talk some more about the Slits. Do we know for sure that the local art-edged politicos in Shoplifting named themselves after our favorite awesomely unschooled late ’70s girl group? Nope, we don’t. The major curveball is that the Slits’ track “Shoplifting” is the least Shoplifting- esque song on 1979’s Cut. But when you find yourself starting a new dance craze based on “Contrapuntal Prancing” (wherein a singsonging “Go go go/Mashed potato/Twist feminist/Pogo anarcho” contrasts with jagged guitars and broken rhythms), you sure as shit want to grab Ari Up’s hand and take her with you. I’m confident Up would also pogo anarcho right through the funk/punk fist pump of Oly’s OTR, the French digital disco drone of Crash Normal, Les Georges Leningrad’s tool-belted electro-clunk, and the free—or maybe just really, really cheap—jazz/psych of Sacramento’s superunknowns (emphasis on the “super”), Antennas Erupt.
To the Chromatics, however, most of us do not exactly dance. It’s more of a metaphysical shimmy— or perhaps, a very convulsive nap. Live, the local duo can appear as a comatose ion; transferred to vinyl, the raw energy of basements and garages feels cinder-blocked and stun-gunned in the most Alan Vega and/or Velvet Underground–approved way. Spazzing and sleeping through Wolf Eyes’ trademarked (though nonetheless much pirated) clamor may elicit a dream about the agitator cycle that swallowed you whole; this, coupled with Six Organs’ trance-inducing, far-out, Far East fingerpicking, might make you imagine that you’re dealing hashish in the only nightclub in Fallujah.
Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom are the modern age’s Dylan and Baez—minus the romantic link, but wholly inclusive of the rambling, purposeful messages and the highly singular aesthetics. (Though Baez’s guitar has nothing on Newsom’s LTR-ish lingo or her harp.) Similarly, Elliott Smith is our generation’s John Lennon, complete with the fact that he was taken too soon. The final two tracks are included as, more or less, postscripts. If the muscle-car strain of garage rock isn’t dead, it’s my dream that bands like the Gris Gris, who sound like Os Mutantes and Spacemen 3 recorded in Roky Erickson’s prison cell, might finally kill it with kindness. And by out- Interpoling Interpol, Montreal “collective” the Arcade Fire might recool the notion that indie rock need not necessarily be cool. There certainly isn’t anything experimental about the Arcade Fire—and they don’t make that claim—but their 12-string electric guitar talks pretty and French Canadian cellos played over sweet gang vocals make me feel good. In this age of faith-based bomb droppings and polarized pantywaisting, all I want is some truth.
- Justus Kohncke: “Timecode” (Kompakt).
- Phonique ft. Die Elfen: “The Red Dress (Tiefschwarz Remix)” (Dessous, Germany).
- M.I.A.: “Galang” (XL). – iTunes
- Ada: “Maps” (Areal).
- Dizzee Rascal: “Stand Up Tall” (XL). – iTunes
- Rex the Dog: “We Live in Daddy’s Car” (Kompakt).
- Pixeltan: “Get Up/Say What” (DFA).
- Superpitcher: “Happiness (Michael Mayer Remix)” (Kompakt).
- Chelonis R. Jones: “One & One” (Get Physical).
- Ricardo Villalobos: “Serpentin” (Perlon).
Pretty much every song here is a dance track of some kind, because the music that made me happiest in this undeniably grim year was the music that made me hit the floor. “Timecode” is tied inextricably to fond memories of my musical pilgrimage to Cologne this summer. At about 6 a.m. at the sweaty, hard-rocking Kompakt 100 Festival, Michael Mayer and Reinhard Voigt—two ace DJs on Cologne’s Kompakt label—air-keyboarded along with Justus Kohncke’s unforgettable riff, an adorable image that will forever be stamped on my brain. And it was in a grotty basement club there that I first heard Ada’s transcendent version of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps.” “What is this? Why do I know this?” I remember wondering to myself. Ada played an instrumental version, so it just sounded like swirly, whooshy synth wash—a gorgeous, radiant, voluptuous sound that echoed through the dark space before the heavy beat kicked in.
The shadowy figure known as Rex the Dog isn’t German, though he records for Kompakt. The London dude/canine has produced some of the most fun and furious electro-house singles of the past year. “We Live in Daddy’s Car,” the B-side of the “Prototype” 12-inch, is one of those sublimely twisted “what-the-fuck?” tunes that beg to be danced to. “Sublimely twisted” also describes Ricardo Villalobos’ “Serpentin”; no other track has better approximated what it feels like to be under the influence of mushrooms.
M.I.A.’s and Dizzee Rascal’s upbeat, funky, and deliciously weird party tunes were on constant rotation after the hellishly depressing election; “Stand Up Tall” is an instruction we could use right now. “It’s the saddest night out in the U.S.A.,” I remember repeating to myself on that wretched night—the chorus of LCD Soundsystem’s “Beat Connection,” which came out last year but resurfaced in 2004 in DFA Compilation #2, a killer box set that, among others, introduced me to Pixeltan’s “Get Up/Say What,” a nine-minute punk-disco monster that makes me—dare I say it—proud to be an American.
- Rilo Kiley: “It’s a Hit” (Brute/Beaute). – iTunes
- Drive-By Truckers: “Puttin’ People on the Moon” (New West). – iTunes
- Eminem: “Mosh” (Shady). – iTunes
- Kanye West: “Jesus Walks” (Roc-a-Fella). – iTunes
- Buddy Miller: “This Old World” (New West). – iTunes
- The Mendoza Line: “It’s a Long Line (But It Moves Quickly)” (Bar/None). – iTunes
- Carolyn Mark and the New Best Friends: “Yanksgiving” (Mint).
- Jon Langford: “The Country Is Young” (Bloodshot). – iTunes
- Todd Snider: “Incarcerated” (New West). – iTunes
- The Fever: “Grey Ghost” (Kemado).
- Britney Spears: “Toxic” (Jive). – iTunes
- Rogers Sisters: “Fantasies Are Nice” (Troubleman Unlimited).
- Gary Allan: “Nothing on But the Radio” (MCA Nashville). – iTunes
- Big & Rich: “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” (Warner Bros. Nashville). – iTunes
- Scissor Sisters: “Take Your Mama” (Universal). – iTunes
- Modest Mouse: “Float On” (Epic). – iTunes
- The Ponys: “Let’s Kill Ourselves” (In the Red). – iTunes
- Travis Morrison: “The Word Cop” (Barsuk). – iTunes
- The Thermals: “God and Country” (Sub Pop). – iTunes
- Alan Jackson: “Remember When” (Arista Nashville). – iTunes
- Mavis Staples: “Hard Times Come No More” (American Roots Publishing). – iTunes
Emigrate? You’re shitting me, right? American culture is, as always, an unholy mess, a contradictory swirl of violence and righteousness, lust and piety, hypocrisy and hilarity. But it’s my mess, and sometimes you gotta own up to all the busted shells when you’re gobbling your omelet. You think Unitarians and Episcopalians came up with rock and roll? Nah, only scary-ass fundamentalists—radical loons tossed out of sensible places like Europe—were possessed by carnal desires so unbridled that a whole new culture industry needed to be devised to channel these energies into acceptable commercial outlets.
“The Old Weird America,” Greil Marcus calls our half-forgotten ancestry—an apt phrase if the new America were somehow less weird. Big & Rich’s gay-gay-a-thousand-times-GAY “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” rocks a heartland that Scissor Sisters’ tastefully Elton John–y “Take Your Mama” can only conceptualize about. From Rilo Kiley’s confused, self-implicating protest number to Modest Mouse’s “Float On,” ambitious bohos once more goosed their friends’ latent puritanism, determined to graduate from indie rock to a higher stage of ambivalence. And even if you don’t think “Jesus Walks” is the answer to all of a hip-hop fan’s moral quandaries, it’s at least one of the right questions.
As always, America’s commitment to tastelessness is our greatest strength and our more ludicrous weakness, since sanctimony often puffs itself up into a tastelessness that threatens to smother us all. So who better to sum up our national contradictions than Britney “Trust and support the president” Spears? Britney unquestioningly flaunts our national paradoxes of sexuality, and if she makes the erotics of repression sound stupid, she also makes that whole shebang sound hot. No wonder I’m addicted to an America that I know is toxic. I dig Air and Daft Punk, Dizzee Rascal and the Streets, Youssou N’Dour and Rokia Traore. But as X said back when another reactionary chief exec reigned, we’re having more fun in the new world.
- DJ/rupture ft. Sister Nancy: “Little More Oil” (Tigerbeat6). – iTunes
- Predator: “Mad Sick” (South Rakkas Crew).
- Soundmurderer & SK-1: “Search & Destroy” (Rewind).
- 0=0: “Soul Hunter Testifies” (white label).
- Equinox: “Acid Rain (Breakage Remix)” (Inperspective).
- Lethal B: “FWD Riddim” (Lethal Bizzle).
- Ruff Sqwad: “Raw 2 Tha Core” (white label).
- M.I.A.: “Galang” (XL). – iTunes
- J-Kwon: “Tipsy” (So So Def). – iTunes
- Young Buck: “Let Me In” (Interscope). – iTunes
- Lil Scrappy: “No Problem” (BME/Kings of Crunk). – iTunes
- Mobb Deep: “Got It Twisted” (Jive). – iTunes
- Dizzee Rascal: “Respect” (XL). – iTunes
- Wasteland: “Sandalwood” (Transparent).
The question of what I like has coalesced in recent years into a network of artists, styles, DJs, and labels. I struggled for a while to come up with a clever moniker; my feeble best effort was “weird beat music.” It’s the fallout of rap, dancehall, and jungle, the children of cone-melting bass pressure and high-impact beats and breaks. Sometimes these artists are meeting only in the mix, and sometimes only in my head. (I doubt anyone is playing Lil Scrappy and Equinox in the same set, but I’d be ecstatic if they did.) On the one hand, this sort of eclecticism is healthy— pluralism, miscegenation, multiculturalism, you know. On the other, some of this music can never fully be “mine,” owing to the usual thorns of class, race, and location. (Only jungle can boast the utopian realization of a worldwide, mixed-race, mixed-sex sound.) And while I’d like to think a new fusion is here in the music of M.I.A. and DJ/rupture, it’s still largely a one-way conversation among hipsters like myself.
This year’s biggest surprise was jungle’s quiet rebirth, first stirred with 2003’s ragga-jungle revival. But while tracks like Soundmurderer’s “Search & Destroy” are great fun, it can feel a bit like the post-rave version of the Strokes. What really got me open in 2004 were the records and producers that finally took off from where the genre seemed to grind to a halt back around 1998. There’s nothing retro about the music of the Inperspective label or the endless, enmeshing grooves of 0=0’s “Soul Hunter Testifies”—maybe the most complex “dance” record I’ve ever heard.
As jungle flickered back to life, U.K. grime went so deep underground it barely registered as a rumor on these shores. On the cusp of a mainstream breakthrough in the U.K. that never quite seems to break, grime tracks like Lethal B’s “FWD Riddim” and Ruff Sqwad’s “Raw 2 Tha Core” brought the pain with flailing ax-murderer beats and colonic-administering bass. (“FWD” gets the boys so rowdy that it was banned in some London clubs.) Dancehall seemed marginally less exciting this year, with only the year-old “Coolie Dance” riddim impacting the charts, but that’s fine considering that 2003 may have been its Best Year Ever. Predator’s take on the “Red Alert” riddim is Looney Tunes acid house connecting a loop between Kingston and London. Hip-hop continues to dictate pop fashion from the top of Billboard mountain, and purposely pop rap was routinely trounced in the charts by some of the most coal-black sounds the genre has ever produced. The best rap this year was dominated by stomping, smeared kick drums (“Let Me In,” “Tipsy”) or spectral, minor key horror-flick melodies (“No Problem”). It can all get a little oppressive in the sonic dark-ness stakes, but who really wants summery anthems in one of the bleakest years this country has known? Call it resistance through bass.
- Von Freeman: “Never Fear Jazz Is Here” (Premonition).
- Bobby Watson & Horizon: “Lemoncello” (Palmetto).
- Ben Allison & Medicine Wheel: “Green Al” (Palmetto). – iTunes
- Chris Potter Quartet: “Boogie Stop Shuffle” (Sunnyside). – iTunes
- The Bad Plus: “Layin’ a Strip for the Higher-Self State Line” (Columbia). – iTunes
- Dave Douglas: “Mountains from the Train” (Bluebird/BMG). – iTunes
- World Saxophone Quartet: “The Wind Cries Mary” (Justin Time). – iTunes
- The Vandermark Five: “Gyllene” (Atavistic).
- Donald Harrison: “My Funny Valentine” (Nagel Heyer).
- Marilyn Crispell Trio: “Cosmology 2” (ECM).
- Charles Lloyd/Billy Higgins: “Bis” (ECM).
- Uri Caine Trio: “BuchWack” (Winter & Winter).
Early this year, Dave Douglas and a small group comprised of some of the most imposing pregeriatric jazz musicians around made a melodic, adventurous, and accessible album called Strange Liberation for BMG/RCA’s Bluebird imprint. In January it sounded like the jazz album of the year; in December it still does. To reward Douglas’ excellence, Bluebird sent the trumpeter packing, thus giving ever-cranky jazz fans another opportunity to grouse about corporate philistines and the public’s ignorance.
To which I say: Get over it, losers! Life on the cultural margins is fun, and you know it. You love the sense of superiority, the bonhomie of insiderdom, the artistic freedom that accompanies commercial irrelevance. Douglas, who recently issued a thorny chamber outing for Chicago’s excellent Premonition Records, should fare all right on indies. Thanks in part to the majors’ declining interest in non-easy-listening jazz, the 21st century has been a great era for independent jazz labels, as this mix’s selections from boutique outfits like Premonition, Palmetto, Sunnyside, Atavistic, Winter & Winter, Nagel Heyer, and old standby ECM show.
This year, I generally favored jazz records featuring players blowing their asses off to jazz records involving computers or otherwise suggestive of “new directions.” Our 2004 survey begins with Chicago’s octogenarian tenor titan Von Freeman, whose “Never Fear Jazz Is Here” (corny title, meaty music) wisely balances insolence and elegance. Fellow Chicago native Chris Potter’s full-bodied tone, frightening technique, and unpredictable ad-lib acumen make him the best under-40 sax player around these days. His extended live take on Mingus’ “Boogie Stop Shuffle,” which also finds Kevin Hays grooving on Rhodes and swinging on acoustic piano, earns each of its 19 minutes and manages to sound authoritative yet not cocky. Lest cocky authority figures feel slighted, I also included pianist Uri Caine’s to hell-with-the-chief “BushWack.”
Some funky-pretty soul-jazz from Bobby Watson and Ben Allison helps balance Freeman, Potter, and Caine’s hard-fast swinging; so does some sad, slow stuff suitable for late-night bouts of lovesickness and Weltschmerz. Granted, Craig Harris’ recitation of “The Wind Cries Mary” evokes Steve Allen’s parodies of rock lyrics more than a decent poetry slam, but stick around for Harris and the World Saxophone Quartet’s swooningly gorgeous reading of the Hendrix melody. Ken Vandermark’s “Gyllene” seems to cry for Mary’s whole damn family, while Donald Harrison and Ron Carter’s “My Funny Valentine” mines the well-traveled standard for all its passion and cruelty. And even a beleaguered pacifist leftist such as I knows that the world isn’t all sorrow and horror, which brings us to a fun 2/4 boogie from the Bad Plus and a playful bossa nova from the late drummer Billy Higgins, who’s heard playing guitar and singing charmingly off-key nonsense.
- The Hold Steady: “Positive Jam” (Frenchkiss). – iTunes
- United State of Electronica: “IT IS ON!” (Mannheim).
- Burnt Sugar: “Funky Rich Medina” (Trugroid).
- Black Leotard Front: “Casual Friday” (DFA).
- Fiona Apple: “Extraordinary Machine” (MP3).
- Van Hunt: “Dust” (Virgin). – iTunes
- The Walkmen: “The Rat” (Record Collection). – iTunes
- Portobella: “Covered in Punk” (Island, U.K.).
- Usher ft. Lil Jon & Ludacris: “Yeah!” (LaFace). – iTunes
- Kanye West: “We Don’t Care” (Roc-a-Fella). – iTunes
- Brandy ft. Kanye West: “Talk About Our Love” (Atlantic). – iTunes
- Mya ft. Chingy: “Fallin’ (Zone 4 Remix)” (Interscope).
- M.I.A.: “Galang” (XL). – iTunes
- So So Def ft. Ludacris: “Freestyle” (mixtape).
- Pastor Troy: “Ridin’ Big” (Universal). – iTunes
- Gretchen Wilson: “Redneck Woman” (Epic). – iTunes
- Big & Rich: “Kick My Ass” (Warner Bros. Nashville). – iTunes
It’s been said that each pop year of the ’00s has been more or less interchangeable, with no new dominant paradigms presenting themselves—no rent in the fabric, no major movements, just steady-state whatever it is that’s happening. Though the first three years of the decade sound a lot more fertile to me than the last two, it’s a valid point. In a time of merciless overproduction, finding a lot of good songs from a given year doesn’t make the year’s good-music ratio higher. It just means you paid attention. Put yourself in the line of fire and you will get strafed.
Which is what I spent 2004 doing, or trying to. Having acquired a G4 last Christmas, in February I started an iTunes 2004 songs folder that eventually ballooned to the metastasized version of the above track list—three MP3 CD-Rs of 2004 songs plus one of reissued material—that’s findable on the SW Web site, www.seattleweekly.com. This version, at 79:39, is merely the tip.
Looking it over, it’s pretty obvious that certain things have shifted in my own tastes—namely, I’ve gotten a lot more classicist. There are two country songs here—two more than I’d have considered for such a shortlist even a year ago—and only two “dance” songs, by Seattle party-timers United State of Electronica (whose self-released, self-titled debut was my album of the year) and the DFA-produced Black Leotard Front, which is fewer than I’d have expected. More striking is how R&B my selection is. That’s R&B, not hip-hop—the three singer-rapper collaborations feel more like the former even when the latter is what makes them tick.
Fiona Apple’s sly, starkly orchestrated, still officially unissued “Extraordinary Machine” is the best thing she’s ever done; Portobella’s “Covered in Punk” is the year’s best piece of non-“Toxic” teenpop. But that’s not the only reason those songs are here. Just as the music story of 1999–2000 was not a record or artist but Napster, and last year belonged to the iPod, the story in 2004 was audio blogs of which Matthew Perpetua’s Fluxblog, from whence “Machine” and “Covered” came (and, full disclosure, for which I’ve guest-blogged), is the granddaddy. Even for someone who receives music all the time, they’ve become a daily habit. When you’re dealing with merciless overproduction, you need all the help you can get.
- Dungen: “Panda” (Subliminal Sounds).
- The Hold Steady: “Barfruit Blues” (Frenchkiss). – iTunes
- The Killers: “Somebody Told Me” (Island). – iTunes
- Annie: “Heartbeat” (679).
- Franz Ferdinand: “Take Me Out (Daft Punk Remix)” (Sony).
- Lloyd Banks: “On Fire” (G Unit/Interscope). – iTunes
- Kanye West: “We Don’t Care” (Roc-a-Fella). – iTunes
- Ghostface: “Beat the Clock” (Def Jam). – iTunes
- MF Doom: “Hoe Cakes” (Rhymesayers).
- Devin the Dude: “What?” (Rap-a-Lot).
- M.I.A.: “Sun Shower” (XL). – iTunes
- Felix Da Housecat: “Nina” (Rykodisc). – iTunes
- Sonic Youth: “Unmade Bed” (Geffen). – iTunes
- Wiley: “Pies” (XL). – iTunes
- Liquid Liquid: “Bellhead” (DFA).
- Dizzee Rascal: “Stand Up Tall” (XL). – iTunes
- Jason Forrest: “InkhU.K.” (Sonig).
- Prodigy: “Girls” (Maverick). – iTunes
- No Doubt vs. Shapeshifters: “Hella Good (Go Home Productions Mix)” (MP3).
- RJD2 ft. Ric Ocasek: “Through the Walls (Remix)” (Definitive Jux). – iTunes
Pop 2004 is like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil: Just because it’s the future doesn’t mean that there won’t still be old contraptions lying around, jury-rigged into modern functionality. That’s the only thing keeping rock interesting: Dungen’s seamlessly reconstructed, monstrous edifice of psych sounds even less likely to originate from a time after ’71 than it does to emanate from a single musician; the Hold Steady would’ve been called heavy metal mere months before Van Halen cut their first demo; the Killers, like many, pretend Magazine were big fans of Anita Ward, only did it better than any N.Y.C. cabal foolish enough to ditch the DFA. The big guitar anthem came from Franz Ferdinand—supremely punchable in photos and press blurbs, surprisingly resonant minus the hype. A razor-width’s distance from dance-punk perfection with “Take Me Out,” Daft Punk’s EQ-tweak damn near overshot it—the thing roars like Iggy Pop’s 1997 Raw Power remix. And nobody makes better old-sounding music than actual old people, be it Sonic Youth releasing one of their three best albums ever in year 23 of their existence or speed-funk legends Liquid Liquid picking up right where they left off two decades back with help from the DFA.
As usual, hip-hop has taken up the burden of the future. But the most striking aspects of crunk and grime sonically are how in love they are with certain flashes of the past—Samurai Suzuki booty bass, melodies that sound halfway nicked from Castlevania and Metroid, E’d up sirens and whistles that escaped DEA-raided rave tents and re-emerged southward—U.S. or London, take your pick.
Being big fans of organ licks (har har), G Unit made a smash out of the best Hammond riff since everyone and their grandma bled the “Champ” break dry, while Kanye West and Ghostface and Doom win pop acclaim, hardcore awe, and indie worship, respectively, by . . . sampling old R&B records. (And, right, killing it on the mike.) And in dance music, methods of homage to the Testarossa Decade keep expanding: omnipotent Nordic superpop, post-house Depeche Mode tributes, old-school electro Bambaast. I still don’t know how some of this managed to get all tangled up; a hip-hop producer from Ohio cranks out megaton-power-pop that sounds like the Cars (even more so when he gets Ric Ocasek to sing on the remix); I’m still wondering what possessed him. If America’s bringing back the economy of the ’70s and the jingoism of the ’80s, pop might as well bring back those decades’ antidotes.
- Devendra Banhart: “This Beard is for Siobhàn” (Young God). – iTunes
- The Loves: “She’ll Break Your Heart” (Track & Field).
- Dungen: “Ta det Lugnt” (Subliminal Sounds).
- Noise Quean Ant: “Untitled Two” (self-released).
- No Doctors: “Campaign” (Go Johnny Go).
- The Ex: “Prism Song” (Touch & Go). – iTunes
- !!!: “Pardon My Freedom” (Touch & Go). – iTunes
- 1-Speed Bike: “Fair Warning” (Constellation).
- The Stunning: “Triumph Over Vaudeville” (MP3).
- The Futureheads: “Hounds of Love” (Sire). – iTunes
- Pixies: “Bam Thwock” (iTunes). – iTunes
- The Hold Steady: “You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came to Dance With)” (eMusic). – iTunes
- Spaghetti Western: “Ernestine’s Waltz” (Adonis).
This mix is structured like a travelogue for the year I finally grad-uated from college, packed my belongings, and moved across the country for the first time, far away from comfortable Minneapolis to cushy if unfamiliar Seattle. Devendra Banhart’s barefoot burlesque “This Beard Is for Siobhàn” is a reminder of many quiet late-night drives between St. Paul’s creaky Midway and the gilded sparkle of Minneapolis; like the album it appears on, “Beard” feels like intimate pillow talk about everything and nothing, while “She’ll Break Your Heart” is the lonely morning after, a wake-up call to a note on the pillow. Bookish Scot-poppers the Loves notate the margins of Phil Spector’s Back to Mono like freshman Shakespeare.
Norway’s Dungen may air out their sneakers half a world from Minneapolis tinker trio Noise Quean Ant, but both groups share a knack for instrumental grooves slipped like crumpled paper beneath Kraut rock’s more perceptive doors. No Doctors’ harebrained “Campaign” aggressively propels sax into drum, pulled apart by hiccupping polemics, like James Chance sucking speed at Wayne Kramer’s basement kegger. Political misgivings drown in Doctors’ bonfire of feedback, but echo with surround-sound clarity between the Ex and !!!, the former spewing anticapitalist rhetoric about everyday objects like tele- vision and bar soap, the latter giggling anti-Bush propaganda with frat boy one-liners like, “You can tell the president to suck my fuckin’ dick.”
1-Speed Bike neither stump for nor throw parties. Their remix of Hanged-Up’s “Blue Monday” treatise carries the frigid bass of New Order’s original and their labelmates’ bedroom disco cover, while Minneapolis’ the Stunning (who recently changed their name to STNNNG) evoke frenetic spoken delivery like Mark E. Smith crooning The American Song-Poem Anthology. Newbies the Futureheads play speedy first to arrive, last to leave party-punk: their Kate Bush cover, which ups the BPM and falls back into goofy four-part harmony like the crack of a dirty joke.
“Bam Thwok” satisfies both a sweet tooth for nostalgia and need for newness, if that’s possible—it’s the Groundhog Day of pop music. And since I hit the snooze button on the group’s now-legendary Minneapolis reunion opener, it’s the only souvenir I have. I can still smell the sweat from the Hold Steady’s summer First Avenue gig—and favoring its ratty tom-tom drumming over the breakout New Yorkers’ PBR-stained power-riffs, I’ve included this nonalbum track. Finally, Spaghetti Western—the last Twin Cities group in the mix—concoct a winding road of strings and samplers: a Lynchian detour into the abyss, and a reminder of all those late-night drives I’ll miss so much.
- Robert Henke: “Signal to Noise I” (ICM). – iTunes
- Max Eastley and David Toop: “Three Sand Voices” (Bip Hop). – iTunes
- Paul Wirkus: “Physikerin” (Quecksilber).
- Oren Ambarchi: “Remedios the Beauty” (Touch).
- Jonathan Coleclough: “Casino” (Idea).
- si-ut.db and Full Swing +/ vs. Stephan Mathieu und Douglas Benford: “Don’t Ask” (Bip Hop).
- Mem: excerpt from It Was a Very Good Year (Alluvial).
- Autodigest: excerpt from A Compressed History of Everything Ever Recorded, Vol. 2: Ubiquitous Eternal Live (Ash International).
Nothing in this bisque of mostly drones and textured goo sets my cortex aflame. Only Lady Saw’s “Striptease” and Lansing-Dreiden’s “A Sectioned Beam” generated sufficient heat for that this year (along with The Age of Sinatra, David Ohle’s brutally hilarious second novel). Experimentica serves a function altogether different from the wrongheaded pap (just kidding!) I usually cover, helping to keep my synaptic apparatus cool and efficient when I’m not writing about music or thinking about money. Plus, I got a lot of experimental promos this year. Ha!
Rules for inclusion were one-fold: All entries had to be mush-mixable to the extent that they could hang together for as long as I chose without train wrecks. Also, I avoided vinyl—too sensitive to peripheral vibrations that might have tainted the chowder—as well as the prolific big-frog likes of Sunn O))) and the Hafler Trio. In this bumper-crop annum for field recordings, I included only “Casino” and Ubiquitous Eternal Live—both very much documents of distinctly human activities—although Robert Henke’s “Signal to Noise I” sounds as though it might have been created by the very forces of nature themselves. Easily my favorite drone disc of the millenium so far, the Monolake co-founder’s magnum opus provides a conceptual touchstone for much of the mix. Less techno turncoat than inveterate wanderer, the developer of Ableton Live—a powerful music-making software program—forgoes his usual M.O. on the track (and album). “Signal” finds him spinning beatless silk purses with a notoriously user-unfriendly piece of hardware—the Yamaha SY77—a clunky sow’s ear of an early-’90s synth that’s as easy to program as America’s defense budget.
Stephan Mathieu and Douglas Benford propel their zeros and ones into the skies of Steve Reich’s youth, while ex-jazzbo Paul Wirkus lures glitchcraft out of IDM’s playground and ensconces it in a ruined amusement park haunted by android ghosts. The robot courtesans on “Three Soft Voices” live, but their circuit boards are damp; they don’t know whether to leave or just play a few rounds of blackjack while the Wet-Vac crew cleans up. Like David Toop and Max Eastley, Oren Ambarchi uses a phantasmagorical array of acoustic and electric instruments (including his bread-and-butter guitar) to create music that sounds computer- generated. Clearly, the notorious improviser has been listening to fellow Australians the Necks; his tribute to surrealist goddess Remedios Varo has a distinctly drive-by flair. Jonathan Coleclough’s gambling docudrama turns chatter to usable lumens. Mem’s Johnny One-Chord act comes off like an indoor aurora borealis. And closing applause-fest Ubiquitous reaffirms the impossibility of real-time encores in a recorded situation. Ladies and gentlemen, Rod Smith has left the building.
- The Pipettes: “It Hurts 2 C U Dance So Well” (MP3).
- Black Leotard Front: “Casual Friday (edit)” (DFA).
- Belle & Sebastian: “I’m a Cuckoo (. . . by the Avalanches)” (Rough Trade).
- The Thermals: “End to Begin” (Sub Pop). – iTunes
- Arthur Russell: “Arm Around You” (Audika). – iTunes
- Ami Yoshida: “Tiger Thrush 16” (Improvised Music from Japan).
- The Ex: “Listen to the Painters” (Touch & Go). – iTunes
- A.C. Newman: “Miracle Drug” (Matador). – iTunes
- Madvillain: “Figaro” (Stones Throw). – iTunes
- IQU: “The 9th Line” (Sonic Boom). – iTunes
- The Mountain Goats: “Dance Music (Peel Session)” (MP3).
- Elvis Costello & the Imposters: “There’s a Story in Your Voice” (Lost Highway). – iTunes
- Deerhoof: “Milk Man” (5 Rue Christine). – iTunes
- Diplo: “Favela on Blast (excerpt)” (Hollertronix.com).
- Nanobot: “Start/Stop” (Ta-Da). – iTunes
- The Fiery Furnaces: “Chris Michaels” (Rough Trade). – iTunes
- Sharon Jones with the Dap-Kings: “Genuine” (Dap-Tone).
- Plan B for the Type A’s: “Toxic” (MP3).
- Soulwax: “NY Excuse” (Play It Again Sam).
- The Evaporators: “Half-Empty Halls” (Mint). – iTunes
Year-end lists are an excuse to question what’s up with my own taste as much as what’s up with the state of music. The first and most obvious question I’m asking myself about my 2004 mix is: Do I not like popular music, or what? And the answer is that this was the first year I can remember where the radio totally failed me, or I failed it—where mainstream hip-hop production didn’t make some kind of genius leap, where nobody got famous for lip-synching something I was happy to have stuck in my head, where no band I already loved got wholly absorbed by mass culture (Franz Ferdinand came close, though). The fact that I’m way more into Plan B’s girlypunk cover of “Toxic” than Britney’s 2003 original is some kind of red flag.
Question two: Are my ears open to new things? Pipettes/Black Leotard Front are a fantabulous one-two, but they’re two of only five artists here whose stuff I hadn’t been exposed to in one way or another before this year. Five others first recorded more than 10 years ago; Arthur Russell has been dead for more than 10 years; and if we’d been permitted to put reissues on these lists, a couple of newcomers might’ve gotten bumped. Verdict: Yes, but I need to be careful about my taste ossifying.
Question three: What am I a sucker for, and what am I not hearing? Well, I sure do love that indie rock (as if that means anything stylistic any more). I seem to need lyrics to put something into my top rank. I’m pretty weak on new hip-hop—see question one (although the sui generis Madvillain and the enthusiastic Brazilians of Diplo’s mix CD were two of my year’s happiest surprises)—and actively clueless on country and a lot of dance music. And I’m not sure what it means that 13 out of 20 songs have mixed-gender performers, but it does jump out at me.
Question four: What did I love but not include, and why? That one’s easy. LCD Soundsystem, because the Soulwax song is basically them anyway. Boredoms, because the two songs they released this year are 23 and 20 minutes long. Stereolab, because the best song on their album was a 2003 single.
Question five: What is the ghost presence here? That’s easy, too: The late British DJ John Peel, the greatest nonmusician in the history of the music I love and sort of my idol, in part because he was totally open-eared right up to the end of his life. His voice is heard just for a moment at the beginning of the Mountain Goats song (it was recorded for his radio show), and the song (and the year) would be incomplete without it. A lot of musicians I know believed that, no matter what other successes they had, getting played on Peel’s show meant they’d done something really worthwhile. I hope he would’ve liked this mix.