Posted by: Dave on January 20, 2005 at 10:21 pm

Dave Powers
(As posted on, January 2005)

It was a good year for both the music business and fans of good music. After a couple years of decline, CD sales in the U.S. actually increased. The recent sales slump was often blamed on illegal downloading – and that factored in – but more importantly, very few mass-marketed releases were worth buying. That changed some in 2004. Mainstream radio took some chances and expanded its playlists. As a result, more quality artists and albums reached more people.

Once again, over 2,000 studio albums with new and original music were released this year. I got to hear (at least part of) about 600 of them. As usual I focused mostly on mainstream rock, indie-rock, hip hop, metal, pop, electronica, r&b, and alternative country. Here are my picks for the 20 most complete, ambitious and well-executed albums of 2004:

1. Kanye West The College Dropouticon (Roc-A-Fella) – One of hip hop’s best producers branched out this year to become its best all-around artist. No one can claim that he’s a great MC, but he more than makes up for that with wit, honesty and attitude. In a sense, he’s the rap equivalent of Bob Dylan – limited vocal ability, but engaging, inspiring and often amusing lyrics as he tackles topics like religion, education and the lack of expectations and opportunities for black males. Unlike Dylan – whose music was often secondary to his lyrical poetry – master-producer Kanye challenges hip hop conventions with
liberal use of the violin, mixing gospel and march, and his now
signature sped-up r&b vocals. Despite Kanye’s association with Jay-Z and the Roc-A-Fella family, it’s a marvel that an album this boldly ambitious could reach such a large audience.
The College Dropout is a near flawless classic and a much-needed jolt for mainstream hip hop.
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2. Franz Ferdinand Franz Ferdinandicon (Domino) – This was the year early ‘80s, new wave/post-punk revival bands broke out with pop success, and Scotland’s Franz Ferdinand were the best. Frontman Alex Kapranos’ suave and sophisticated swagger grabs you first. Then their arty, bouncy guitar rock makes you want to dance, while the repetitious hooks and riffs lodge into your brain immediately. These aren’t candy-coated party jams, though. These are seedy, lusty and despondently heartbroken love songs. Sure the sound is indebted to several bands from 20-25 years ago, but the fact is this retro-minded
album also sounds modern – thanks to the production – and has no weak links.
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3. My Chemical Romance Three Cheers for Sweet Revengeicon (Reprise) – AFI made 2003’s best album with their goth punk meets arena metal. My Chemical Romance arrives this year with comparably complex, sing-along ghoul rock, but rawer and more ragged. Their death fascination and tortured, dark lyrics might feel gimmicky if they weren’t so imaginative and unsettling, and if Gerard Way didn’t will them into your memory with every lung-threatening wail. Unfortunately the album starts off with its worst track – softer and whinier doesn’t become them – but it frantically soars from there and rarely looks back. With AFI, and now My Chemical Romance, the bar has been raised high for those who like a heavy dose of melody with their adrenalized angst.
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4. K-os Joyful Rebellionicon (Astralwerks) – On your first listen of Joyful Rebellion you might think K-os is either completely unfocused or a showoff. How can one guy rap, sing and blend/alternate between old school hip hop, reggae, r&b, swing and Spanish guitar? And that’s just the first half of the album. Later on he shows he can do a folky meditation and reflective Chili-Pepper-esque rock, too. Not only does he use mostly live instrumentation – a rarity for hip hop – with nearly every one of these hybrid-genre tracks K-os establishes himself as a deft chameleon.
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5. The Arcade Fire Funeralicon (Merge) – Unlike the title’s implication, Funeral is a grand beginning for the Arcade Fire. The band and album were created at a time of great joy and pain: leaders Win Butler and Regine Chassagne got married, while several of the group’s members lost family. The result is an exploration of exuberant romanticism, hardening hearts, faded passion and familial relationships. A good chunk of it is framed in the context of the neighborhood, where birth, maturation, the passage of time and death occur. The whole spirited catharsis could seem a little overbearing if they didn’t make such an elegant and powerful sound with a mini rock
orchestra both gliding and pounding its way through it all. The array of forces guiding the Arcade Fire coalesces into a moving opening statement.
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6. Blonde Redhead Misery Is a Butterflyicon (4AD/Beggars Group) Misery Is A Butterfly is a sublime statement from a veteran band in its prime. Despite alternating between Kazu Makino’s wan female vocals and Amedeo Pace’s sheepish male vocals from one track to the next, it maintains a consistently creepy and majestic mood. Each song introduces a different, irregular rhythm that confoundingly keeps the pulse moving forward while being colored by an ever-changing palette of strings, synths and organs. Even when the vibe gets heavier and more electric, it still feels like a seamless journey. This improbable head trip goes down smoother with each listen and becomes increasingly addictive.
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7. Rob Sonic Telicatessenicon (Definitive Jux) – Like Kool Keith and Dan the Automator’s Dr. Octagon project, Telicatessen comes from another planet. Rob Sonic’s rhymes aren’t as whacked out as Kool Keith’s, but his clever, free association wordplay is plenty obtuse. And his synth-injected hip hop beats navigate similar regions of outer space. All the cosmic aspiration seems to come from the claustrophobia of living in New York City, a recurring theme. One otherworldly groove after another, Telicatessen stays on course.
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8. PJ Harvey Uh Huh Her icon (Island) – With each new album, PJ Harvey is determined to reinvent her wheel. Once again, she succeeds. After her slickest and most immediate album, Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (2000), Uh Huh Her returns to the sparse guitar sounds of her first two albums – some raucous, some pensive. She also uses a mouth organ, vibraphone and piano to introduce some new textures. It’s a mishmash of many styles she’s tried over the years, yet it’s a fresh plate of entrancing ideas. Her bitter, love-torn heart soldiers on to make more glorious art.
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9. Prince Musicologyicon (NPG/Columbia) – Prince decided to lift his self-imposed commercial exile this year. He’s never stopped making music, but for the last five years he’s kept it underground and relatively inaccessible to the masses. Seeing several artists imitate and pay homage to him lately and getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame might have motivated him to reclaim his throne. So he blessed us with a stellar tour and a solid Prince album. There are few
surprises here, but no real retreads either. It’s everything you’d want from him – the funkiest funk, perfect pop, baby-making crooning, and a multi-sectioned ballad. It’s refreshing to hear one of music’s most uniquely talented musicians do what he does best.
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10. The Killers Hot Fussicon (Island) – Those who only know the big single “Somebody Told Me” may dismiss these Vegas boys as Duran Duran revivalists. And there’s plenty more synth-driven, early 80s, romantic pop/rock on here to support that indictment. After a few listens, though, you’ll find this more guitar-oriented update quite deserving. Plus, touches like a soulful choir on “All the Things That I’ ve Done” and the marching riff on “Andy, You’re A Star” keep you guessing. It’s tough to resist such a well-crafted parade of hits.
Buy CD

5 Responses to “Top 20 Albums of 2004 (Part 1)”

  1. Jane Hautin Says:

    I was a bit disappointed that you did not include the reissue of “The Name of This Band is Talking Heads.” This record was never off my turntable during my college years, and I was heartbroken when it finally crumbled into dust and all I had left was a chewed-up cassette. Truly a travesty that it was out of print for over twenty years . . . one of the greatest live albums ever, and the additional tracks on the reissue kick ass. It’s not just for geezers, either. My 14 year old can’t get through a week without playing this.

  2. Dave Says:

    No doubt a worthy album, Jane. But I don’t include reissues on my year-end lists. There are so many new albums that come out every year that I have to draw the line somewhere.

    Talking Heads are great, though. As are Tom-Tom Club.

  3. Jakob Says:

    This is exactly what I expected to find out after reading the title Top 20 Albums of 2004 (Part 1). Thanks for informative article

  4. Dave Says:

    I’m glad you found the column useful, Jakob. Here’s a link to the directory of comparable articles from every year this decade on New Music Nation:

  5. New Music Nation » Blog Archive » Top 100 Albums of the ’00s Says:

    […] 1. At the Drive-In Relationship of Command (Grand Royal) 2. Kanye West The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella) 3. Sleater-Kinney One Beat (Kill Rock Stars) 4. Bright Eyes Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (Saddle Creek) 5. Dead Prez Let’s Get Free (Relativity) 6. AFI Sing the Sorrow (Dreamworks) 7. Eminem The Marshall Mathers LP (Aftermath/Interscope) 8. Stephen Malkmus Face the Truth (Matador) 9. Bright Eyes I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (Saddle Creek) 10. The New Pornographers Electric Version (Matador) […]

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