Sunday, January 16, 2005

My Favorites of 2004

Well now that another new year is upon us and because I love lists, I thought that I'd do a little write-up of my favorite records of last year. Keep in mind that none of these are in any real order except for my #1 pick. Well, without any further adieu, here it is:

1) The Trashcan Sinatras-Weightlifiting
It's not often that a band who's been around for 15 + years makes their best, most cohesive record so late into their career or that an 8-year wait (their last full-length before this one was 1996's underrated and criminally unavailable A Happy Pocket) produces such wonderful results, but this is precisely the case here. The production is stunning (this is seriously one of the best-sounding records I've ever heard) and the vocals are terrific also. Songs on intense heartbreak and personal drama abound here, with the highlights being the stunning "Got Carried Away", "What Women Do to Men", "Usually" and "Leave Me Alone". Of course, focusing on those brilliant songs means that the charms of the Smiths-like "Freetime", the appropriately titled opener "Welcome Back" or the short but stunningly beautiful "A Coda" may be lost, but this is a record that reveals more and more with every spin. It's a classic that I think I'll be spinning years from now from one of the best and most overlooked bands on the planet. If I can get just one person reading this to buy one of their records or to go see them live, I think I've done my job here.

2) The Blue Nile-High
Take what I said about the 8-year hiatus of the Trashcan Sinatras and apply it here as well (The Blue Nile's last full-length was 1996's similarly underrated though comparatively weaker Peace at Last). Unlike the situation of the Trashcans, it doesn't feel as if Paul Buchanan had these songs in the can for years, but rather that they just came out of some place deep in his soul and that's the resounding feeling that I've gotten from listening to High extensively since its release last September. Although High has a lot of similarities to their 1st album A Walk Across the Rooftops in terms of its structure, ultimately the songs here are more consistent, catchier and more memorable, while the lyrics are more direct and heartbreaking. Just listen to "She Saw the World", "The Days of Our Lives", "I Would Never" and my favorite "Soul Boy" and if they don't make you feel something, then I advise you to check your heartbeat. Furthermore, Buchanan's Peter Gabriel-like vocals have been subdued in favor of a more Springsteen-sounding approach. Don't let that scare you off, however. If anything, it's similar to Springsteen's haunting 1981 album Nebraska, but with catchier songs and minimalist, art-rock backing.

3) Franz Ferdinand-Franz Ferdinand
The Scottish invasion continues (see my #1 and #2 picks along with Sons and Daughters, The Delgados, the horribly named but sometimes quite enjoyable Dogs Die in Hot Cars and of course Belle and Sebastian, who didn't release a record last year but produced one of 2003's finest and their best in years in Dear Catastrophe Waitress). Forget all the hype. Forget the fact that "Take Me Out" has been heard almost as often as Modest Mouse's similarly great "Float On" and forget the fact that this record actually made a dent on the pop charts and on MTV and that the last time they played here in New York, they easily sold out 2 nights at Roseland within a month of each other. Plain and simple, Franz Ferdinand, both live and on this amazing debut album, do something that very few other '00s new wave/post-punk revivalist bands have done and that's that they made an album that's as good or almost as good as their influences and when you take a band that borrows liberally from Aztec Camera (their more twee-like moments like the beginning of "Jacqueline"), Gang of Four ("40 Ft."), The Fall ("Shopping for Blood", which is on their good but just getting warmed up debut ep Darts of Pleasure and on a just-released special edition of the album), Talking Heads, Devo (their mechanical-like stage moves) and early XTC ("Michael" and "This Fire"), that's no small achievement. Plain and simple, for all of the Strokes comparisons, Franz Ferdinand not only sound nothing like that overrated band (except for the first minute and 30 seconds of "Take Me Out"), but they blow them away, too! In fact, for start to finish ass-kicking, instantly accessible and catchy and dance-able songs, you can't go wrong with this terrific album. Let's hope that album #2 can follow it.

4) Rilo Kiley-More Adventurous
If there's a more lovelorn record with lyrics written from a female perspective that came out last year, then I haven't heard it. Plain and simple, Jenny Lewis writes some of the best relationship lyrics out there right now. In particular, I recommend "Portions for Foxes" (one of the catchiest songs of the year), "A Man/Me/Then Jim", the title track and "Does He Love You?" It also doesn't hurt that the band plays a great mix of power-pop (sometimes not that dissimilar to something in the Stiff Records catalog circa 1981 like Rachel Sweet or Carlene Carter's early '80s records) and alt-country and on one song, they fool around with electronic beats ("Accidental Deth", named in honor of Jimmy Tamborello's Dntl project). Despite all the variations in sound and the fact that its best songs sometimes threaten to dwarf the rest of the album, More Adventurous is a coherent listen from start to finish.

5) Interpol-Antics
If it wasn't for the disproportionate amount of hype given to their 1st album, 2002's Turn on the Bright Lights, I think that this record would be better regarded. While it doesn't have any immediate killers like "NYC", "PDA" or "Obstacle 1" (or for that matter, "Roland" and "Say Hello to the Angels") aside from the excellent single "Slow Hands", this album is ultimately more rewarding because the songwriting is more consistent and the mood is more consistent as well. While on Turn on the Bright Lights, there was a disconnect between its far superior, terrific upbeat rockers like the ones I mentioned above (except for the excellent ballad "NYC") and their slower, inferior, more boring material, on Antics they maintain a high level of quality throughout. The highlights are the slinky "Evil", the sleazy "Take You on a Cruise" and "C'mere", the aforementioned "Slow Hands" and the opener "Next Exit", which more than one reviewer has said bears more than a passing resemblance to something from the Afghan Whigs' 1993 classic Gentlemen. So what does the rest of it actually sound like? Well, for starters, they sound NOTHING like Joy Division aside from Paul Banks' vocal resemblance to Ian Curtis. Then again, as I've always argued, he sounds more like an indie-rock (Jonathan Richman, David Byrne or even Gordon Gano) version of Curtis and musically, Interpol takes cues from many of the finest British bands of the early '80s (early The Psychedelic Furs, early Cure, 1st album Chameleons and The Sound) and early '90s (there are hints of My Bloody Valentine-esque shoegazer rock on both of their albums). Furthermore, there's a definite Cars influence as well, but their real secret is their incredible rhythm section (especially drummer Samuel Fogarino, who once was offered a slot in Marilyn Manson but refused to legally change his name; no shit). Much like Franz Ferdinand, they swing like fucking whales and it shows and it raises them from the post-post punk rubble to its forefront.

6) The Fiery Furnaces-Blueberry Boat
Having loved their debut Gallowsbird's Bark, I eagerly awaited the follow-up (released a mere 10 months after their debut) and at first, I was disappointed. Many of the songs are over 8 minutes long and they even segue from one part to a completely different one without any resolution. Nevertheless, I knew instinctively that like Radiohead's Hail to the Thief, this was one that I just plainly wouldn't get after only a few listens. So, thus, I kept listening and the payoff was quite rewarding. Between July and September, I spinned this more than anything else. Quite simply, it's the boldest and most audacious rock record released since the days of Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. Spiritually, think of the anything-goes experimentation of Trout Mask Replica and the innocence and wonder of Brian Wilson's Smile and you'll come close to the spirit of this recording. Thus, I think I'll spinning this one every now and then in years to come still trying to make sense of it all and figuring out all the parts because as much asI listened to this, I haven't even come close.

7) Modest Mouse-Good News for People Who Love Bad News
Along with The Fiery Furnaces, this was my record of the summer. Being unfamiliar with Modest Mouse prior to this record, I was able to approach it without any expectations or reference points and I think I like it that much more for that reason. It also doesn't hurt that the songs and arrangements are astounding. The production is accessible without being too slick and while Isaac Brock displays a Talking Heads ("Float On") and Tom Waits ("Bukowski", "Satin in a Coffin") fetish on parts of this album, the creativity (as opposed to imitation) and unbridled optimism (though many of the songs deal with death and have references to coffins and what not) of this record make it stand out from the heaps of other bands recently under the spell of Talking Heads.

8) The Futureheads- The Futureheads
I'll make it really simple here. If you like The Jam, XTC circa Drums and Wires and The Vapors' 1st album New Clear Days (you know, the one with "Turning Japanese" on it), you'll love this album and you must hear it! This album rips and roars from the start with songs with "Le Garage", "Robot", "Decent Days and Nights" and "First Day" all coming in at around 2 minutes, kicking your ass swiftly and intensely. Imagine all of the bands I listed above with British Invasion style harmonies and vocal arrangements from all 4 members (their distinctive addition to this style). On "Danger of the Water", the fury of the rest of the album gives way to a pure vocal exercise that reminds me of Wire as sung by a barber-shop quartet. Strange but fantastic. Also, I like that on songs like "Decent Days and Nights" and especially "First Day" (about a person's 1st day on the job), they try to convey something and they don't just say nothing but "I have a cool record collection" as so many of these types of bands do. Oh and they're fantasic live, too.

9) The Dears- No Cities Left
Yes I know that this came out in Canada in 2003, but I didn't hear it then, so I'm putting it on here (and SpinArt released it last year, so there you go). Finally, Montreal's Dears make a record that's a worthy accompaniment to their incredible live show. For all of the Morrissey and Smiths comparisons, this record really sounds more like the Smiths/Moz inspired bands of the first wave of Brit-pop (mid '90s) like Gene or Suede, so if that's your thing, I highly recommend this record. The first half definitely outweighs the second half here, though all of it is good. Highlights include "Lost in the Plot", "We Can Have It", "The Second Part" and the excellently-titled "Expect the Worst Cuz She's a Tourist".

10) Brian Wilson-Smile
To be honest, my expectations were quite low. I thought that Wilson's attempt to finally finish Smile after 37 years on the shelf would be at worst misguided and at best worthy of praise for the effort alone. After all, having watched concerts in recent years on TV, Wilson's voice was a shadow of its former self, sounding wrecked and his recent solo albums haven't exactly been classics. That was before I heard it. From the first note on, you're put into his magical word and for 40 plus minutes, you don't come out of it. This album is definitely meant to be listened to from start to finish, though of course you can isolate the best moments such as the superb "Heroes and Villains", "Wonderful", underrated "Child is Father to the Man" and of course the new version of "Good Vibrations". I should also note that the concert at Carnegie Hall was superb. During the 1st set and the encore, Wilson and his superb backing band The Wondermints played songs from his Beach Boys days and his solo career and for the main set, they played all of Smile in its entirety. It was truly breathtaking and triumphant to see Brian in such fine form and enjoying himself so much.

Honorable Mentions:

The Arcade Fire-Funeral
Mission of Burma-OnOffOn
Morrissey-You are the Quarry
The Descendents-Cool to Be You
Last Burning Embers-Lessons in Redemption
Wilco-A Ghost is Born
Elvis Costello and the Imposters-The Delivery Man
The Church-Forget Yourself
Regina Spektor-Soviet Kitsch (the best female singer-songwriter record that I've heard in ages; I'll put it on my list again for 2005 since it comes out officially in March though it's available digitally now; this one, along with Morrissey and Mission of Burma, almost made my top 10)
Nellie McKay-Get Away from Me
The Secret Machines-Now Here is Nowhere
William Shatner-Has Been (for the excellent version of "Common People" along with the great rant with Henry Rollins "I Can't Get Behind That" and the dark but hysterical "You'll Have Time")
The Joe Jackson Band-Afterlife
Graham Parker-Your Country
PJ Harvey-Uh Huh Her

Singles and eps:
Bloc Party-Bloc Party ep
Longwave-Life of the Party ep
The Fiery Furnaces-Tropical Ice-Land CD single/Single Again CD single
Franz Ferdinand-Take Me Out
Mission of Burma- Four Hands ep
Trashcan Sinatras-Weightlifting ep

These are records that I didn't listen to enough for consideration here, but I liked when I heard them, so I'll mention them:
The Hives-Tyrannosaurus Hives
The Delays-Faded Seaside Glamour
Visqueen-Sunset on Dateland (just bought this last week; I like it so far after a few listens, but so far it hasn't grabbed me like 2003's fantastic King Me; great title, though)
Motorhead-Inferno (yes, Motorhead; do I stutter? They're only one of the greatest metal bands ever, but hopefully I don't have to tell you that)
The Cure-The Cure
Air-Talkie Walkie
Bad Religion-The Empire Strikes First
Neko Case-The Tigers Have Spoken
Robyn Hitchcock-Spooked
The Delgados-Universal Audio
Dogs Die in Hot Cars-Please Describe Yourself (I'll have to listen to this more; I can't get past the excellent "Godhopping")
Green Day-American Idiot
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists-Shake the Sheets
The Walkmen-Bows and Arrows ("The Rat" is excellent)

Disappointments (this category is reserved for records by artists that I generally like or have liked in the past whose recent efforts didn't make that much of an impression on me):
Rufus Wainwright-Want Two (though the DVD of Live at the Fillmore is superb and worth the purchase alone for that)
Ruth Ruth-Right About Now
Ben Folds-Super D (ep)

Well that's it for now. I know that was quite a mouthful. I'll be back later with some favorite movies from last year and reviews of Mission of Burma and The Dears, who were both excellent the last few days.


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