Ah My My, What an Elation
The 2004 Year-End Top 10 List

People always ask me what kind of music I listen to.

I kind of find that an odd question anyway, assuming as it does that music can be typed and boxed and labeled, but that’s an old argument and I won’t start it up again. My usual answer is non-committal and all-encompassing: “What kind of music? Well, everything.” This reply has served me well for many years, and I suppose it’s accurate, considering the question – I have not, as far as I know, banished an entire genre or style from my CD collection. (Not even ska, believe it or not. I have some of that – a little Sublime, some Less Than Jake, a Supertones record. And I love the Clash, the band that first married reggae and dub beats to punk rhythms.)

Lately, though, I’ve given it some thought, and here’s why. There’s a radio station in my area whose slogan is “We Play Everything,” and at first I chuckled at that notion. No radio station plays everything, I scoffed, unless by “everything” they mean “these three dozen songs selected from very strict format guidelines.” But then I listened to it, and I was blown away. It’s not unusual for this station to play Styx, Snoop Dogg and Velvet Revolver, all in a row. It is, without a doubt, the most inclusive radio station I have ever heard. And it led me to an interesting conclusion.

I don’t listen to everything.

In fact, I hate most of what this station plays, just like I disregard 90 percent of the songs I hear on a daily basis. If you’ll permit me a moment of hypocritical categorization, the dominant styles of music these days leave me cold. I have never been a rap fan, try as I might, because I’m too addicted to melodies. I can’t get into the angst-ridden three-chord rage-rock or the “sensitive” three-chord rage-ballads that pose as “modern rock.” Similarly, I detest the minimalist clangings of the new garage rockers. When it comes to modern radio and sales charts, I am a man without a country.

If anything, this year’s Top 10 List should firmly cement my status as a fuddy-duddy traditionalist. Unlike most reviewers this year, I did not hear the future in records by Franz Ferdinand, Modest Mouse or the Black Eyed Peas. Oh, I heard all those records, and liked them, but they didn’t strike me as particularly innovative the way they struck half the pundits on the ‘net. No, in a year full of so-called breakthroughs, I’m awarding the top prizes to some old-school musicians, making old-school wonderment at the top of their game. Two of the top five artists have been around for more than 20 years, and the numero uno man has been at it for more than 40.

And you know what? I think this is the best, most consistently rewarding Top 10 List I have done since I started this column. How is this for solid: there isn’t a single song on any of the top five albums that I’m not in love with. Not one bad song. This year was so great that even the honorable mentions would make a fine Top 10 List by themselves. This was the year that melody struck back, and ambition fueled some expansive dreams. 2004 was almost an embarrassment of riches, and my list has as its bottom rung an album by perhaps the best songwriter of my generation, and as its apex one of the four or five finest pieces of pop music I have ever heard.

It’s a great list. Seriously.

And with its focus on melody-rich, old-time songcraft, it is the list that best represents me and my particular taste. Often, there are only a few undeniably good albums in a certain year, and even though they don’t push my buttons as much as they could, they end up on the list. But there were so many good records this year that I ended up getting to pick my subjective favorites. The result is a rarity – these are, I think, the 17 best albums I heard this year, but they are also the ones I love most, for all the silly and inexplicable reasons I find myself loving music.

I didn’t have any of the usual problems coming up with the list this year, either. The rules are still deceptively simple – only new studio albums of original material are considered, which means no EPs, no reissues, no box sets of previously unreleased outtakes, and no live albums. Seems easy enough, but for two years running those rules have excluded my favorite albums of the year. Not this time – this was the year the full-length album statement made its comeback. Whether this is its last gasp or its renaissance, I don’t know, but I’m grateful for this year’s crop.

If you want proof, just look at one of the fall season’s biggest splashes – Green Day’s American Idiot. This thing has sold through the roof and ended up on a bunch of Top 10 Lists (but not this one), and at the moment it sports two big radio singles. It’s also an old-fashioned rock opera, a concept album with a plotline that requires every song to make its point. If even perennial singles band Green Day is taking its cues from Tommy, then maybe we’re on an upswing after all.

Either way, it’s cause for celebration. We love the album here at tm3am, and 2004 was a great albums year. Here, then, are the 17 best, all of which I would recommend without hesitation.

Honorable mentions first. As you may have read last week, Mike Roe and Mark Harmon delivered a superb electro-guitar-pop feast called Fun With Sound. If you’ve been reading my column long enough, you’ve see Roe’s name crop up in half a dozen of these installments. If you’ve never tried his work, this is a good one to start with. Sweet, sad songs with dynamic production and some of the best guitar playing you will hear from anyone anywhere.

Icelandic visionary Bjork made another dizzying left turn with Medulla, an album constructed almost entirely from human voices. It’s a brilliantly written burst of ear candy, with some fascinating guests (Rahzel, Mike Patton). It is a bit too short, and a bit too dissonant at times, but it’s overall another bizarre, yet somehow perfectly right-sounding record from one of our finest experimenters.

Bjork didn’t invent the sampled-voice album, and in fact some of the best tricks on Medulla are copied from Todd Rundgren’s amazing A Cappella record from 1985. Rundgren has always been one to try new ideas, and he was among the first musicians to offer his work through an online subscription service. This year, though, he roared back to the physical world with Liars, a 74-minute masterpiece of electro-soul and carefully considered rage. It is as sweet and tuneful, and as socially conscious and unerringly accurate, as any of his best work, and for a guy who has been making records since the ‘60s, that’s saying something.

I didn’t get around to reviewing it, but Tom Waits’ Real Gone is another powerhouse from the gravel-voiced eccentric. He dives right into the world of mouth-percussion here, constructing rickety bulkheads of popping, jagged sound and then setting them on fire. The molten lava of “Hoist That Rag” is undeniable, but perhaps the finest moments here are the tender ones, like the closing letter home, “Day After Tomorrow.” In a different year, this would have been in the top five, easy.

The Polyphonic Spree finally proved their concept this year with a dizzying full-length called Together We’re Heavy. When the Spree’s more than 20 members kick in full blast here, they earn the album’s title. A lot of pundits have tried to describe this thing using terms like “progressive sunshine pop,” but I think it’s better than that. It’s the sound of a painter (mastermind Tim DeLaughter) ripping up his tiny canvas and aiming higher. You can just hear DeLaughter being told he has the whole roof of the Sistine Chapel to work with, and him saying, “All right. Let’s fill this sucker.”

The Fiery Furnaces dreamed bigger this year, too. In the wake of their slipshod blues debut, they knuckled down and made Blueberry Boat, a 78-minute prog-pop-blues-whatever excursion that ranks as perhaps the most initially off-putting chunk of genius I heard this year. Boat is absolutely fearless in its eccentricity, leaping from 10-minute garage-prog workouts like “Quay Cur” to piano-pounding blues-rockers like “Straight Street” to sad, pretty pieces like “Spaniolated.” It’s daunting, and I guarantee you the first three times you hear it, it will make no sense to you at all. But stick with it, because it’s truly a work of lo-fi art.

And now we come to number 11, or 10-and-a-half, or whatever infinitesimal fraction you’d like, because this one almost made the list. If not for my enduring affection for the number 10 artist, it would have, and I nearly came down to flipping a coin anyway, so good is this album. It’s the self-titled disc by the Autumns, a mix of guitars and atmospheres so delightfully constructed that it plays like one extraordinary song. It’s an absolute triumph of oceanic tones and Matt Kelly’s astonishing, cloud-reaching voice, and it draws you in early and never stops surprising you. It’s as beautiful a work as anything they’ve done.

The list! The list is life!

#10. Elliott Smith, From a Basement on the Hill.

I still can’t quite type the phrase “Elliott Smith’s final album” without feeling a little chill. It’s no secret that I consider the late Smith perhaps the finest songwriter of my generation – he shares the honor with Jeff Buckley, another who died too young. And even the sting of Smith’s apparent suicide doesn’t taint Basement for me. This is a hell of a record, at least until the final third, when it crashes down to earth. It is raw and ragged in places, which many say is what Smith wanted, but it finds the balance between his indie-rock lo-fi days on Kill Rock Stars and his huge George Martin-style studio records on Dreamworks. Only near the end does it begin to feel like the unfinished project that it is, but even those songs have the punch of the sad and final about them. Smith will never finish this album. It is imperfectly perfect just as it is.

#9. They Might Be Giants, The Spine.

I will only accept hate mail on this one from people who have heard this record in its entirety. They Might Be Giants have always struggled with their perceived identity as a novelty act, despite being one of the best guitar-pop bands around, and despite being led by Johns Linnell and Flansburgh, songwriters who manage to come up with hook after hook, year after year. There are 16 songs squeezed into The Spine’s 35 minutes, and none are less than wonderfully melodic. It’s also the most economical ass-kicker the Johns have produced in many years – there isn’t a wasted second, and if it were any longer, it would lose focus. From now on, if anyone asks why I listen to TMBG, I’m giving them a copy of this.

#8. Spymob, Sitting Around Keeping Score.

I really dislike N.E.R.D. for cribbing from the Prince songbook and passing it off as originality. But I love their backing band, a group that on their off days goes by the name Spymob. And I really love their second album, a mix of perfect pop and jazzy keyboards crafted with wit and charm. These guys take the Fountains of Wayne spot this year with winking winners like “I Still Live at Home” and “2040,” and they draw from the grand tradition of piano-fueled power pop that informed Jellyfish and Human Radio, two of my favorite acts. This is a superb record, and if not for the band that landed squarely at number two on this list, Spymob would be a shoo-in for discovery of the year.

#7. Tears for Fears, Everybody Loves a Happy Ending.

This year, everybody loved a good reunion, and none was more artistically successful than this one. Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith hadn’t made an album together since 1989, but this one picks right up where they left off, Beatles influences and all. The whole thing is wonderfully ‘60s, with the opening title track sounding like the second side of Abbey Road smashed into four minutes. There’s nary a tuneless minute here, and the album is the most relentlessly upbeat one the duo has made. Just dig the harmonies and sweet, sweet chorus of “Secret World.” Not only is this the best reunion record of the year, but it’s the most welcome, as far as I’m concerned.

#6. Rufus Wainwright, Want Two.

Well, it finally happened – pomp-pop supergenius Rufus Wainwright finally wrote a song I don’t like. “Old Whore’s Diet,” the nine-minute conclusion of this, the second half of his third album, is tired and repetitive and too mediocre for Wainwright’s fantastic voice. But the eleven songs that precede it on Want Two are just as lovely and tricky as anything else he’s written, and the production here is just as full and vibrant (without being overblown) as it was on Want One. This is the sadder, more operatic half of the project, and as such it contains some weepy stunners like “This Love Affair” and “Memphis Skyline,” as well as the ultimate camp ditty, “Gay Messiah.” It’s overall a wonderful album, just like its predecessor, if only slightly less so. And Wainwright remains the North American songwriter most worth watching.

#5. Muse, Absolution.

Was a time when this widescreen firecracker was a sure bet for the top three. Muse is often written off as a louder Radiohead, but while they share the blueprint, Matt Bellamy and his crew take it to stratospheric heights Thom Yorke and his haven’t even aimed for in years. Absolution is a concept record about insecurity and wonder, and its sound strains against the confines of any system you play it on. It’s huge. Every song is lovingly sculpted, and every sound is crafted and labored over, from the jackhammer guitars of “Stockholm Syndrome” to the gorgeous atmospheres of “Falling Away With You.” Still, the most arresting and wondrous element here is Bellamy’s voice, unrestrained by gravity and humanity, flying and swooping and spinning all about this album. Yes, it’s huge, but sounds this big need an endless sky to play in, and Absolution takes all the space it needs.

#4. U2, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

I, for one, never lost faith. I took every one of U2’s ‘90s albums in stride, no matter how awful they were, and held out hope for a return to greatness. And here is my reward – the first U2 album since 1987 that I truly, desperately love. Bono found his voice, Edge found his amp, and the foursome found some terrific songs on their 11th record. I can’t even adequately describe the joy of hearing an old-time circular guitar tune like “Miracle Drug” or a perfect singalong like “City of Blinding Lights” or a rocker that truly rocks like “All Because of You” from this band again. Cancel the funeral – U2 is alive and kicking, and after a decade in the gutter, they’re reaching for the stars again.

#3. Marillion, Marbles.

This fantastic voyage had a lock on the number one spot for months, and I’m still surprised that not one, but two albums blew it out of the water. That’s because it seems unsinkable – it is the best album ever by one of my favorite bands, and it takes you on a 100-minute trip of head-spinning and heart-rending proportions. Much has been written about the way Marbles was marketed and sold – its recording, mixing, packaging and promotion were all paid for by fan pre-orders, and they ended up with a pair of top 20 singles, stunning the British music industry. But all that would mean nothing if the album weren’t incredible, and it is. From the creepy wonderama of “The Invisible Man” to the pop perfection of “You’re Gone” to the smooth blues of “Angelina” to the blissful playout of “Neverland,” everything here clicks. And then there is “Ocean Cloud,” an 18-minute trip all to itself, which I still consider my favorite song of the year. Through it all, Marillion do what they do best – head music for the soul. This is tricky, complex, literate stuff that somehow cuts through its own pedigree and hits your emotional center. It is, in short, beautiful, and the band deserves all its success. Viva la revolution!

#2. Keane, Hopes and Fears.

So how did this comparatively small and slight album best Marillion’s magnum opus? I’m still not sure. I voted with my heart on this one, and Keane’s debut album simply shone more light into the corners of my year. Marbles is a draining experience, in the most positive of senses, whereas Hopes and Fears is compact and thrilling. It makes you want to press play again the second it stops. That this is the band’s first stab at an album is simply mindboggling, and it sets the bar insanely high for their follow-up. These are 11 of the catchiest and most well-written songs you will find anywhere, delivered with no guitars, but with Tim Rice-Oxley’s gorgeous piano work and Tom Chaplin’s strong, clear, outstanding voice. Keane is the discovery of the year, bar none, and perhaps the culmination of Britpop’s recent journey. From the perfect opening trilogy to the deep and dreamy “Bedshaped,” from first note to last, Hopes and Fears is a treasure.

Which takes us to the best of the best, and when your top five is as impressive as this one, the only thing that can round it out is one of the greatest records ever made. Hyperbole? Perhaps, but nothing flipped my particular switch this year like this one did:

#1. Brian Wilson, SMiLE.

It took Wilson 38 years to finish his teenage symphony to God, and it will probably take another 38 years for pop music to catch up with it. Wilson started SMiLE as the Beach Boys’ follow-up to Pet Sounds, but the sessions were abandoned after the other Boys (and their label) heaped disdain on the material. They called it silly, and goony, and odd, and it is. It’s also unmistakably, unbelievably brilliant, and its completion firmly cements Wilson as perhaps the greatest pop songwriter and composer America has ever produced. No one, before or since, has ever attempted, much less pulled off, a suite of pop songs quite this intricate and joyful. SMiLE is the infinite possibility of music, grinning at you and inviting you in.

If you couldn’t tell, I love this record.

It’s not just that SMiLE’s completion is redemptive for Wilson, although that plays into my love a little bit. Wilson overcame a debilitating fear of this music, and his own mental breakdown, to finally put it all together, and that act of courage alone deserved the huge standing ovation he received at the piece’s premiere. But it’s not just that. Even shorn of its lengthy history and presented fresh, the work of a new band, SMiLE would stand as a masterpiece, and would be atop this list. The music is just that good. This is full-color pop music, the kind that makes everything else seem slow-motion by comparison. It sounds not so much timeless as completely out of time.

It’s not just the composition, it’s the arrangement, the recording, the performance, everything. SMiLE utilizes an array of instruments the Polyphonic Spree would kill for, and still the most amazing thing about it, sonically, is the vocals. They’re inhumanly dense and sweet, and if I didn’t know that the Wilson band (known as the Wondermints in their off hours) can play and sing this stuff live, I’d think it impossible. Instrumentally, SMiLE throws a million ideas a second at you, especially in its goony final third, and the phenomenal vocal arrangements keep pace.

SMiLE is three suites, and while the Americana-inspired first and the absurdly complex third will make your head swirl about, the deeply emotional second suite is the heart of the album. It concludes with “Surf’s Up,” Wilson’s greatest melodic triumph. Given all of pop music from which to choose, I would probably name the ascending chorus melody of this song as my favorite moment. If Wilson had written nothing but “God Only Knows” and this, he would still be in my songwriters’ pantheon.

I do have some concerns about the relative newness of this record. Most of it was written in 1966, even though these recordings are new. It concludes with “Good Vibrations,” which no one would ever mistake for a new song. Almost all of it has appeared in one form or another across numerous Beach Boys releases – there’s even an album called Surf’s Up. How to justify naming an album of 38-year-old songs as the best new release of 2004?

It’s a valid question. I spent a lot of time this year talking about the album-length piece, though, and SMiLE is the perfect expression of my point. Before Wilson sat down with Van Dyke Parks last year and made the final compositional stitches, SMiLE did not exist. The album is much more than the sum of its songs, and I would argue that this new recording is its first appearance. The album is all about context, and hearing “Good Vibrations” as the final act of SMiLE is like hearing “A Day in the Life” at the end of Sgt. Pepper. Wilson intended SMiLE to run in this order when he first conceived it, and the intervening years and scraps from the original sessions don’t prevent this from being a whole new thing, contextually speaking.

Whether this is a rationalization or not, you’ll have to judge for yourself. I can only say that this is easily, far and away, the best thing I heard this year (or last year, or the year before that, etc.), and I couldn’t conceive of this list without Wilson at its head. The biggest reason is almost embarrassing, really – SMiLE is pure joy, pure love, pure possibility, and I haven’t heard anything this open-hearted in so long. Musicians these days spend far too much time defining themselves by what they are not, boxing themselves in and building walls. Wilson’s music is anything and everything, welcoming and warm, joyous and bright. SMiLE is a gift we don’t deserve, and I, for one, am grateful for it.

And that’s it. Thanks for plowing through it. I’m edging close to 4,000 words, which may be a new record. Next week, I’m off for Christmas break, but Year Five starts on January 5, 2005. Should be easy to remember. Thanks for reading Year Four, and have a very merry.

See you in line Tuesday morning… and to all a good night.