Well, looking back, 2004 was a pretty big year in music for me, from old favorites coming out with something new, to me branching out and trying something new to me. Here are some mentionable moments in no particular order.
John Frusciante – Shadows Collide with People: Upon hearing John F’s solo material, it’s pretty obvious to me that a big part of the hit formula for the Red Hot Chili Peppers the past decade or so as been his input. John has a way with a chord progression and a melody, and of all his albums (which are all worth checking out) this is where the rock, the pop and the soul mesh the finest. Tenderness, rage, regret and self-deprecation are just some of the lyrical and emotional traits found here…and then there are the solos.
Magnetic Fields – i: After the megalithic release of 69 Love Songs, it was only natural for Stephin Merritt and Co to scale things down; but this was only in song output, not in quality. The theme of “i” is the letter “i,” as all song titles start with this letter and most are in the first person. Per usual, the prevailing topic is relationships – good, bad and indifferent – and Merritt’s wit has never been sharper, his melodies more lovely or the instrumentation so satisfying; from baroque pop to synth dance, most all the bases are covered in the lo-fi pixie dust of the Magnetic Fields. It’s still their best effort to date.
Morrissey – You are the Quarry: Traditionally I’m not a Moz solo fan, though a couple of albums in the early 90s were (begrudging) favorites. That changed with the release of “comeback” single Irish Heart, English Blood, which I thought was catchy, muscular and worth picking up. I enjoyed the b-sides so much that I purchased the album too. At best, You are the Quarry is a return to form, hearkening the more straightforward “rockin’” of his heyday outings like Your Arsenal or Vauxhaul and I. At worst, there’s a bit of indulgence here, and pompous ego self-stroking, as if the world has been salivating for Moz’s return, and he’s finally condescending himself to do so. As I’ve said before, skip buttons are easy to press.
Regina Spektor – Soviet Kitsch: When I got into Regina’s breakthrough, Begin to Hope, it was only natural to go back and see what she had done before. Basically, Soviet Kitsch is a slightly less polished, more “punk” version of the same. The songs, most all simply her and her piano, are melodic, emotive, quirky and so brutally realistic, that you can easily laugh and then cry within the same three minutes. This is everything that’s great about Begin to Hope only much, much better.
Tears for Fears – Everybody Loves a Happy Ending: Proof that promotion pays off, my wife and I caught them on Letterman one night and bought the album the next day. The best thing about Everybody Loves a Happy Ending is great songwriting, crisp production and a conviction that TfF hadn’t had since Big Chair (not that it’s anything like that album). The worst is that it’s very busy, and sometimes that’s distracting, but in the best moments it only proves that big ambition can still produce great music.
Chris Isaak – Christmas: Eventually every singer/songwriter has to do an XXXmas album. Or so it seems. I really wish Chris Isaak hadn’t. His scatted, word-changing rendition of Rudolf just pisses me off, and it’s about the best thing on there.
Leonard Cohen – Dear Heather: A collection of, mostly, smooth jazz numbers, Cohen spends a lot of time reflecting on his life of love, friends and circumstances, with his nearly sonic I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-bass baritone pushing its way through tender nostalgia, sometimes nothing more than a faint breath while collaborators Anjani Thomas and Sharon Robinson carry the melody. A bit adult contemporary cheese at times, there’s still a lot of heart and the plain speak of Cohen’s earlier work, though without as much of the ironic imagery. It’s a fine latter day offering, one for sultry evenings with a good glass of your favorite bubbly.
Tom Waits – Real Gone: I’ve tried to convince myself in the past that I have to like, even love, every album by my favorite artists. Lately I’m not really buying that, and here is a case in point. While Real Gone’s approach is super great with the human beat box and all, and for that it gets full marks, there are really only a handful of good songs to go with the interesting production…most of which (Day After Tomorrow) don’t even use it. Ah well…
Brian Wilson – Smile: The scattered and various bootleg versions of this are so much better. Not worth the wait. I hated it and want my money back. There, I said it.
REM – Around the Sun: I figured this album would be the next logical step from Reveal, which is a wonderful effort in REM’s post Bill Berry world. Overall, it is. Unfortunately it didn’t work. Basically, the electro-drug had worn off, and while it’s a pleasant listen, Around the Sun is ultimately boring and forgettable.
Interpol – Antics: Another “sophomore slump” by critics’ pen that really isn’t one at all. If anything it’s a mature step forward as the band coalesced and solidified the raw power of the debut into something that is lethal. Evil alone will take your breath away.
PJ Harvey – Uh Huh Her: The follow up to the indie pop of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, this album scales things down to the barest essentials, often nothing more than a guitar, a beat and Polly’s voice. But instead of feeling like sketches or demos, all these songs are full, powerful and quite fulfilling in their minimalist approach. Polly is, as always, in strong voice and her characters are earthy, dark and starkly realistic.
Arcade Fire – Funeral: Like most alt-bands of the past decade, these guys hit hard when they make a connection, and fall far from the mark when they don’t. With Funeral, usually it’s the former, and these songs strike at a level that holds on strong, deep and personal, as the telling and forbidding title suggests. Tunnels is pretty much worth the price of the album, but there are plenty of other gems scattered throughout (until the girl takes lead…ugh). Meanwhile, the lo-fi production makes the power of this album less like a bomb blast and more like a slow wave gradually taking you down – in a good way.
Walkmen – Bows & Arrows: I can’t say I’m overly immersed in this album, but I will say that the Walkmen are about the best live band out there these days, especially for under an Andrew Jackson, and this is the one that pretty much put them on the radar. The Rat is the long-standing hit, and it rocks in a way that no other song has before or since…but then again that’s how these guys roll with every one of their tunes. Get this one first as a foundation, and then jump ahead to You and I. You’ll thank me later.