The Pernice Brothers didn't release anything this year. The Wilco album had only a few choice tracks. Mark Sandman (of Morphine) is still dead. Yeah, so 2004 wasn't the best year music-wise. There were some highlights, though:
TV on the Radio: Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes (Touch and Go). Considering all the praise heaped upon Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes over the past few months, you'd be forgiven for suspecting that Touch and Go's PR staff — comprised of giggly, comely 19-year-old girls with pouty lips and long eyelashes — was making house calls to every red-blooded American male music critic out there. But even if that were the case (and my doorbell hasn't rung yet), this Brooklyn trio's debut full-length would stand on its own as one of the year's best albums. TV on the Radio immerses itself in the kind of seductive darkness that Massive Attack did back in the mid-'90s, pairing fuzzed-out basslines with Tunde Adebimpe's soulful, yet lyrically detached vocals.
AC Newman: The Slow Wonder (Matador). If the New Pornographers had put out even a mediocre album this year, I'd probably still have listed them among the top 10. Thankfully, lead singer/principal songwriter Carl "AC" Newman did the job for them, by crafting one of the smartest, most friendly pop albums of the year. Though it lacks some of the arena-rock vibe the Pornographers so blissfully marinated in, The Slow Wonder should be judged by its own merits, of which there are plenty. Part ode to The Partridge Family, part rehash of old Paul McCartney songs, this disc blasts more "bah-bah-bahs" and summertime fun than should legally be allowed.
Scissor Sisters: Scissor Sisters (Universal). For a while, this was one of the guiltiest of my guilty-pleasure CDs; I don't know, maybe it still should be. Come on — a disco-fied version of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb"? Had I heard the concept before hearing the song, I might have never put the disc in the player. Call it a bad case of music snobbery, but as we say in 'bama, that just ain't right. The Scissor Sisters' debut CD is packed with still more atypical twists and turns, shifting from a straight-up party vibe ("Music is the Victim," "Comfortably Numb") to sentimental, piano-led anthems ("Take Your Mama Out"), to one very un-party song ("Return to Oz"). This disc will no doubt sound as dated as old Village People albums by this time next year, but that's no excuse to not enjoy the party while it lasts.
Tom Waits: Real Gone (Anti-). Old Snagglethroat returns to show all the young shits how it's done. Satan could not conjure a darker voice than the one this man has cultivated, the product of many years' worth of high rollin' and hard livin'. Seems like with every album Waits puts out, the ante is upped just a little bit — he just turned 55 a couple weeks ago, so by every indication, he should start sucking any day now. You know, because there's nothing sadder than an old rocker who thinks he's still relevant. Real Gone, with its impeccable trash-percussion, avant-garde guitar riffs (courtesy of Marc Ribot) and Waits' songs about, well, the creepy old man he's come to embody, is a late-career keeper. It just has to make you wonder — how much more does Waits have in him?
Iron & Wine: Our Endless Numbered Days (Sub Pop). I saw Iron & Wine play at a club in Tallahassee last year. No one seemed to notice the Crypt Keeper-looking (yet surprisingly affable) frontman Sam Beam as he ran through a series of delicate, melancholy folk melodies. His vocals carried some sense of purpose — a kind of meaning that is hard to find among most other indie rockers whose lyrics don't even make sense to themselves. Our Endless Numbered Days, which varies only slightly from Iron & Wine's equally gorgeous debut The Creek Drank the Cradle in terms of instrumentation (read: they added drums and recorded on something more high-tech than an answering machine), is nothing short of a masterpiece. If this one is reissued next year, look for it to be on my Top 10 then, as well.
Blonde Redhead: Misery is a Butterfly (4AD). To call Misery is a Butterfly Gothic might bring to mind obnoxious drama club kids running around in black eyeliner and fake vampire fangs. In an ideal world, this would be considered a turning point for that style; its dark, somber lyrics and utterly creepy vocals (courtesy of Kazu Makino and Amedeo Pace) are remarkable, and still infinitely more accessible than anything else they've done to date.
Arcade Fire: Funeral (Merge). Often, the best acts come from the humblest of locales. Oklahoma lays claim to the Flaming Lips. Idaho's got Built to Spill. Arcade Fire (not to be confused with the pensive, Tampa-based punk group Arcade Inferno) hails from the chilly climes of Montreal, where the scene hasn't become so formulated as to create that city's particular "sound." Funeral, which came out just a year after the band formed, is filled with quirky, symphonic sounds that reflect the freshness of this group. "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" is itself a masterpiece, with intricately woven keys and guitar fills hauntingly reminiscent of Television's Marquee Moon.
Carrier: Carrier (Hideaway). This disc arrived in a package from a PR guy in Colorado, without even a jewel case or any details. Considering the number of CDs that arrive in my mailbox every week (most of which are so terrible I wouldn't even use them to set my beer bottle on), I usually don't go hunting for details about any group or record label that (a) I haven't heard of, and (b) doesn't have their proverbial shit together, press-wise. Thankfully, I took a chance on Flaming Lips acolytes Carrier, and the results have been as follows: I listened to the disc two or three times a day for the first couple weeks; then I stacked it among my other CDs, hoping its goodness would infiltrate all the mediocre stuff in my collection; then, I decided to make it one of my 10 favorite discs of the year.
Jolie Holland: Escondida (Anti-). This former member of the Be Good Tanyas debuted her nerdy, rootsy style on last year's Catalpa. This follow-up proves it wasn't a fluke, and that she can still deliver some of the most enchanting, thoughtful songs I've heard in a while (or at least all year). Cherry-picking her favorite parts of old ragtime tunes and Billie Holiday jazz melodies, Holland has built her own little house full of banjo-inflected folk jams. Escondida, which is the female equivalent of Andrew Bird's gorgeous 2003 release Weather Systems, is sexy and earnest, while retaining Holland's distinct brand of Southern-ness.
Rufus Wainwright: Want Two (Geffen). Wainwright is an accomplished craftsman who, thanks in no small part to his musician parents, grew up with an instrument constantly in hand. Now a grownup, he pens lush, orchestral melodies while maintaining his passion for intelligent lyrics. "Gay Messiah" and "The Art Teacher" are standouts, as is the closing track "Old Whore's Diet." More complex than Brian Wilson, more personal than Randy Newman and more homoerotic than Jeff Buckley, Wainwright has crafted a niche that has established him as one of the most deserving songwriters currently working.
TOO GOOD NOT TO MENTION: The Secret Machines: Now Here is Nowhere. Led Zeppelin fucking rules. I'm not being ironic, either. Secret Machines sound like Zep. Therefore, they rule. Ben Kweller: On My Way. Brilliant ego-pop by a kid with more talent than anybody his age. American Music Club: Love Songs for Patriots. A dark-sky gem from Mark Eitzel and co., 10 years after their last (and not-quite-so-good) effort.