I’ve heard approximately 100 new albums this year, many of them for Splendid, many of them crap. I had to put my illustrious rock critic career aside as I started to feel burnt out and, worse yet, jaded. No more subpar CD-Rs! No more self-indulgent indie-rock near-misses! No more mind-numbing mediocrity! (well…)

Fortunately, as I scan this list, I can’t deny that I’ve heard a lot of worthy new music this year. If you look at my top three albums, you could assume (to paraphrase an earlier album from the guys at # 2) that quiet really was the new loud in 2004. Of course, one can’t possibly sum up a full year of buying, burning, borrowing, downloading and reviewing CDs in search of that next one to fall in love with in seven words or less. Sometimes, I think that search makes a life packed with disappointments, setbacks, random annoyances and right-wing victories a little easier to take.


20. FRANZ FERDINAND Franz Ferdinand
Refreshing and exciting when it came out nearly a year ago. Now, is it too much of a good thing or just a fabulous guilty pleasure? I wouldn’t mind not hearing half of these songs ever again but the other half are still way more tolerable than 95% of anything you’ll hear on commercial radio at the moment, including their biggest hit, the cheeky, danceable, unstoppable “Take Me Out”.

19. BEBEL GILBERTO Bebel Gilberto
No radical stylistic departures from her last album, Tanto Tempo (2000)—Gilberto’s wise enough not to mess with such a scintillating template. What keeps it from placeholder status? She sounds more assured than ever. Her voice, tunes (both originals and covers) and arrangements all soothe and occasionally astonish, so why isn’t she a household name like Norah Jones?

18. MORRISSEY You Are The Quarry
Back from the dead at last—you always knew he’d eventually attempt a grandiose comeback, but who ever expected it to be so smashingly angry, defiant and (intentionally) hilarious? The titles alone (“I Have Forgiven Jesus”, “The World Is Full of Crashing Bores”) earn this a B; bon mots such as “I like you / because you’re not right in the head” and “it’s just more lock-jawed pop stars / thicker than pig shit” and the sharp hooks that go along with them firmly propel it onto the A list.

17. NEKO CASE The Tigers Have Spoken
Eons away from her cameos with power-poppers The New Pornographers, this siren’s solo work is often too long on atmosphere and attitude and skimpy on the actual songs, so this ‘tween proper albums live set is a revelation. Rapidly running through an eclectic queue of originals and covers (Loretta Lynn you’d expect, but The Shangri-La’s?), it proves the old axiom that you never really know an artist’s worth until you’ve seen (or in this case, heard) her live.

16. TV ON THE RADIO Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes
After last year’s bold, original Young Liars EP, this surprise Shortlist winner feels like a comedown at times. Still, it’s full of crackling, scattered brilliance, melding doo-wop, hip-hop, new wave and stone cold funk—not that you’d recognize any of these designations (apart from the pure a capella doo-wop of the genius “Ambulance”). More like mutations, really, and they make this in all likelihood transitional work worth coming back to.

15. PJ HARVEY Uh Huh Her
Harvey’s got the blues again, and not necessarily the 12-bar kind, either. Adhering to her polished, radio-friendly album followed by a weird, fucked-up album trajectory, this record’s dark, insular pull put off some fans of 2000’s Stories From The City, Stories From the Sea while delighting those who thought that record was a tad too safe. I don’t think it’s necessarily stronger for being more daring, but I suspect that years from now, it’ll age as well as her last fucked-up record, the beguiling Is This Desire (1998).

14. TEGAN AND SARA So Jealous
A gargantuan leap forward for this formerly folkie Canadian lesbian twin sister daring duo. But forget such labels; you could say they buffed up their songs with louder guitars, new wave keyboards and a lot more raucous energy, but you’d be more accurate to note that they buffed up the actual songs. Practically all of ‘em brim with an overload of big, juicy hooks that either pierce upon impact (“Walking With a Ghost”, “Speak Slow”) or gradually ingrain themselves to you in dazzling succession.

13. THE FUTUREHEADS The Futureheads
Can you feel the universe shifting away from the angst-ridden, no-fun “complaint rock” (to borrow a line from Clueless) of Radiohead and Coldplay and towards more bands like this gleefully deranged quartet? Yes, they may have listened to All Mod Cons or Black Sea one too many times, but when did you last hear a debut from a band of young Brits emit so much breathtaking, unadulterated spazzy joy—not to mention one containing a cover as cool as their version of Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love”?

Surely a lesser record than those that came before, my initial disappointment with this comparatively workmanlike effort dissipated as soon as I realized how durable these songs proved. It may lack a track as flat-out stunning as “Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?” or “Timorous Me”, but you can tell it was crafted for the ages, regardless of how the November elections would turn out. Which is why the key lyric, “I’m worried for my tired country” sounds as impassioned and vital as ever.

11. LORETTA LYNN Van Lear Rose
I felt like such a poseur purchasing this without much knowledge of Ms. Lynn’s essential and vast back catalogue, but I didn’t let that keep me from simply enjoying it, despite the hype. More than just a logical extension of (or conclusion to?) her classic work, Lynn really pushes herself to transcend genre and legend while also remaining true to herself. With amicable help from admirer Jack White (who’s not as much of a poseur as many people think), she leaves us with something both newfangled and timeless.

Although it suffers from “all the really great songs are on the first volume” syndrome, this continues to chart Wainwright’s evolution from precocious prodigy to iconic, otherworldly diva. Often more delicate and stranger than its predecessor, it could be his own twisted version of a Leonard Cohen album. Somehow, it didn’t even occur to me how outlandish and flamboyant a few of these songs were at first (like “Crumb By Crumb”, a wistful, laid-back yet vaguely sinister shuffle). Perhaps, Wainwright’s greatest achievement here is how successfully he entices his listeners to want to see the world through his lenses.

9. JUNIOR BOYS Last Exit
Wonderfully out of time, like a long-lost cassette tape recently discovered in a secret capsule with no record or trace of when it was planted. Falling somewhere between classic synth-pop (particularly Yaz and New Order) and contemporary hip-hop (beat-wise, anyway), these unassuming Canadians must have spent days and weeks in their makeshift bedroom studio, crafting minimalist mini-epics packed with both seductive mating calls and urgent, muted cries for help. Try not to feel moved when the penultimate track, “Teach Me How To Fight” threatens to surface through all the ice.

Speaking of bedroom musicians, Stephin Merritt has the good sense not to even try to top 69 Love Songs (1999) on this long-awaited one disc follow-up. With an increasingly acoustic tableau and an even archer concept in hand (all the titles begin with the letter “I”, and all are sung by Merritt himself), he’s come up with a slight but rewarding gem of an album. Focusing on the usual quirks (operettas, bad boyfriends, and evil twins) with the usual dry wit, his talent seems so persistent and effortless that the cumulative effect of his obsessions and emotions (best heard on the closing “It’s Only Time”) is quite staggering.

7. PAUL BRILL New Pagan Love Song
In retrospect, I overrated this guy’s last album, Sisters (2003). A fine, eclectic, far-reaching set, it now feels like a mere warm-up to this one (which I hope I’m not underrating). Usually, it’s not too promising when a primarily guitar-based musician fiddles around with electronics (see Neil Young and Bob Mould), but Brill folds them supply into his progressively more difficult-to-categorize blend of alt-country, coffeehouse folk and Beatles-esque pop—to the point where they service the songs without overpowering them. David Gray attempted a similar fusion a few years back, but it really pales in comparison to this, excelling Brill into the upper echelon of unsung contemporary singer/songwriters.

6. BJORK Medulla
A bigger Bjork fan than I once considered how in the world she could possibly surpass Vespertine (2001). While I had trouble warming up to that introverted, subdued album, I understood what he meant. Well, this excursion into uncharted sonic waters flies right by it while providing more fuel for the fire for those who can’t stand her voice (or that infamous swan outfit). I find it weird, but engagingly so. To get the full impact of Medulla’s accomplishment, listen to it on a sense-surround stereo system, or better yet, headphones, where you can hear, feel, and virtually touch all of the carefully constructed layers. Plus, “Triumph of a Heart” and “Who Is It” prove she hasn’t lost her sometimes hidden knack for catchy, arresting melodies.

5. A.C. NEWMAN The Slow Wonder
Nothing here but infectious, smart little pop songs. Upon contact, you’ll fight the urge to smash your radio because you know you’ll never find them there. Using his band The New Pornographers as a high standard, you wouldn’t expect anything less from Newman, but this solo debut graciously lives up to its title. A tad cozier and more economical than his previous work, it suggests potential for canonical greatness right on the first listen and realizes it by at least the fifth. And I love how it alternately resembles the soundtrack of a vintage Scooby-Doo cartoon and an endearingly bratty cast recording of a long-lost counterculture rock opera.

4. NELLIE McKAY Get Away From Me
No one bought this album except rock critics, the friends they enthusiastically played it to, and those lucky enough to see her perform live. Precocious, ambitious and possibly imbalanced, this talented twenty-year-old might’ve found a wider audience (or secured at least one Grammy nomination, geez) had she toned down this album’s ADD sequencing (from the Blossom Dearie-like “Manhattan Avenue” to “Sari”, which earns her that Doris Day-meets-Eminem tag, in one full swoop) or cut down its unyielding two disc, eighteen track length. As with Ani DiFranco, however, I’m guessing compromise wouldn't wear well on her. The debut of the year, possibly the decade.

3. SAM PHILLIPS A Boot and A Shoe
One of the truly superb live performances I’ve seen, this veteran chanteuse (much tinier in person than I expected!) appeared at the perfectly intimate Paradise Lounge last June. Simultaneously warm and spooky, humble and commanding, fragile and fiery, she had no trouble proving that axiom I mentioned earlier regarding Neko Case. Phillips was promoting her strongest, most complete album since Martinis and Bikinis (1994). Much in the same vein as Fan Dance (2001), only, as one track puts it, more “open (to) the world”, it’s all smoky, sultry cabaret bliss. Deliberately understated and quiet, its slightest, most unexpected, intermittent shifts in tone possess a gorgeous, rare, surging power.

2. KINGS OF CONVENIENCE Riot On an Empty Street
After a three-year layoff and an interim remix album, these two lovable, soft-spoken Norwegians finally return. From the very first nylon-stringed guitar of “Homesick” through the plaintive, inconclusive strums of “The Build-Up”, it was like they never left. Some dismiss these guys as Simon and Garfunkel imitators. While no one can deny the influence, do you think an S&G reunion album of new material would ever sound so pure, sparse, unaffected and devoid of ego or self-importance? Every song flickers with the glow of a fading, autumnal sun, but they’re so much more than just pretty pictures; they’re equal parts gleeful abandon and pensive hesitation. It’s a combination that rarely fails to intrigue.

Taking a break from his fascinating, absurd plans to record one album for every state in the union (he’s already done Michigan (see below)), Stevens released an unassuming collection of songs that didn’t fit into that project. Most of them are centered on themes of love and faith and the primary instrument here is the banjo. It’s the only new thing I’ve heard this year that I would call, without any reservations, a masterpiece. At this point, I cannot say what the definitive key is to this album's worth. It could be arrangements that transform from simple, unadorned beauty to ringing, multi-tiered intensity or lyrics with multiple, ever-shifting inferences or Steven’s fragile, haunting tenor or his absolute refusal to mimic or borrow from anyone else. Even though I wrote an enthusiastic review of it days after my first listen, I’m still piecing Seven Swans together, and I remain rapt in awe on every attempt.

(in alphabetical order):

BOBBY BARE JR. From The End of Your Leash
DELAYS Faded Seaside Glamour
FEY RAY I Wanna Be New and Perfect


K.D. LANG Hymns of the 49th Parallel
MEKONS Punk Rock
S PRCSS Taste Like Daughter
JILL SOBULE Underdog Victorious
THE STREETS A Grand Don’t Come For Free
SUNSHINE FIX Green Imagination
SALLY TIMMS In The World of Him
TAMAS WELLS A Mark on the Pane


TOMPAULIN Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt
Direct your disposable income towards anything you can find by this alternately sweet and acerbic, nearly cinematic UK outfit. I have to thank Splendid for giving me this singles collection to review back in March, otherwise I would’ve never heard of them, either. Precious little would make me happier than if their forthcoming album Into The Black was to get a stateside release next year.

Released in 2003, but first heard by me this year:

THE SHINS Chutes Too Narrow
DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE Transatlanticism
SUFJAN STEVENS Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State
CALEXICO Feast of Wire


Belle and Sebastian’s “Your Cover’s Blown” on my Top 40 Tracks of 2004? Mouths began salivating as soon as NME called this the indie-rock equivalent to “Bohemian Rhapsody”. I personally did a 180 when I first heard what I can aptly describe as the band’s first disco song… with a mid-section that abruptly shifts into something resembling “Paint It, Black”. One of my co-workers simply called it “lame”. But, long after the initial shock wore off, I think it’s silly and shallow and moving and magnificent all at once. Here's to more of that in '05.