Don’t Pass Me By, Don’t Make Me Cry
Three Albums That Got Away in 2004

Like many people my age, I swore I would never get old. And now that it’s happening, I’m constantly surprised. The number of questions I ask myself these days that can honestly be answered with “because I’m old” is staggering.

I’m trying not to let my advancing age render me obsolete, especially in the world of new music, about which I care deeply. I vowed many years ago never to turn into an old person, one who has his old favorites from when he was a kid, and lets new stuff pass him by. “I don’t know what the kids are into these days, leave me and Tony Bennett alone.” You know, those people.

But I’m finding that my favorite bands from high school (the Cure, the Choir, the Alarm) all still hold positions in my pantheon, and new acts have to be absolutely amazing (Ben Folds, Rufus Wainwright) to join them. My favorite album of 2004 is technically 38 years old, and this year more than any other in recent memory, the top 10 lists of my fellow critics were stuffed with names I’d never heard, attached to albums I’d never sampled. I’ve lost touch, somehow.

So here I am at the beginning of a new year, once again catching up with all the new records I missed. I know enough about myself to know which ones I will not like at all, just from descriptions and reviews, but I usually find a few I want to hear, and during the course of the year, I usually pick up a few more. This year, I’ve found three that passed me by – and admittedly, I’d heard of all three before seeing them in critics’ lists, so I think I did pretty well. I owned eight of Pitchfork’s top 50 of the year before reading the list, including two of the top 10, which for me is a really good average. (I had three of 2003’s top 50.)

This is usually an exercise in depression for me, as I try to figure out just why certain discs get so much acclaim. But this year was apparently so good for all kinds of music that even the scrappy indie and rap records I have chosen made me varying shades of happy. Not SMiLE happy, by any stretch of the imagination – none of these three are in any danger of bumping any of the records off my top 10 list, or even the honorable mentions. But happy nonetheless.

Let’s start with the Walkmen. Their second album is called Bows and Arrows, and I hated it upon first listen. The songs are simple and noisy, the production is intentionally muddy, and lead throat Hamilton Leithauser has no business being a professional singer, so out of tune and sloppy are his caterwauls. The first few times through, this album is a total mess, and not worthy of release, never mind your 10 to 15 bucks.

But give it time, and the record stops sounding so prickly and lets you in. After a while I stopped bitching that “The Rat” is so dirt-simple and let it take me, and it worked. Same goes for the oddly atmospheric “No Christmas While I’m Talking” and the at-first dismissible piano ballad “Hang On, Siobhan.” Given some time and an open mind, I even stopped thinking of Liethauser as ridiculously untalented and started admiring his emotional delivery and raw power.

I would bet that the Walkmen are a pretty impressive live band, in fact, and that Bows and Arrows is an attempt at capturing that live sound on record. It’s incredibly messy – the guitars and organs bleed into each other, and the drums sound like they were recorded from five miles away – but after some time with it, those qualities become attributes. The blatant Dylan-ness of “New Year’s Eve” is a speed bump, but the band recovers amazingly well with the anthemic “Thinking of a Dream I Had,” and the concluding title track is probably the closest this band will come to an epic track.

Do not expect brilliance or anything resembling polish from the Walkmen, and you’ll be all right. Let it wash over you, and try not to think about it. This is a band that thrives on an emotional wave, and if you let yourself be carried by it, then Bows and Arrows will work for you. If not, you’ll probably be turned off by the thick, noisy mud and the deranged special ed student yelling atop it. Just warning you.

Mike Skinner fares quite a bit better, but to be fair, he doesn’t try to sing. Skinner is the sole member of the Streets, the celebrated British rap outfit, and his second album is called A Grand Don’t Come for Free. I avoided Skinner’s debut, Original Pirate Material, for reasons I can’t recall. It may have something to do with the fact that any given rap album has to work 30 times harder than any given pop album to grab my attention.

Well, Skinner works hard, and he deserves all his accolades. A Grand Don’t Come for Free is ambitious in ways that rap rarely tries to be – it’s a full-fledged concept record, a day in the life of a ne’er-do-well, full of clubs and drugs and missing money and cell phones and cheating hearts. It has a cast of characters, and sets them in orbit about each other masterfully. Skinner’s alter ego (and who knows how autobiographical this record is) starts his day by losing a thousand bucks and meeting a girl, and by record’s end he’s found the one and lost the other.

Skinner tells the tale in British slang, which I only know from British comics and Guy Ritchie movies, but he carries you along despite some confusing terms. “Fit,” for example, means “very good looking,” apparently, but the context of “Fit But You Know It” clears that right up. Skinner wanders all over this record, almost in a stream of consciousness, delineating his character and his relationships through a harsh inner monologue, and it’s captivating, especially in his thick accent, incongruous for those of us used to American rap.

The first half is less successful than the second, with “Not Addicted” and “Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way” as low points. But “Blinded By the Lights” points the way to the superb second half – it’s terrifically produced, deep and groovy. The record takes off with the single, “Fit But You Know It,” which gallops along on a cool guitar riff, and from there it’s dramatic and powerful to the end. The plot comes to a head with “What is He Thinking,” leading to the half-ballad “Dry Your Eyes” and the huge “Empty Cans.” The story even has two endings, separated by a rewinding sound.

It’s a little depressing that once again, the Brits have co-opted an American art form and done it better than the majority of Americans, but here it is. A Grand Don’t Come for Free is the most imaginative and well-made rap record I’ve heard in ages. The secret, I think, is that the story is so ordinary. Most American rap is about escalating violent reputations, and hence is just over the top with tales of guns and pimps. A Grand Don’t Come for Free is just about a regular guy, so oblivious to his own life that it dissipates before his eyes. It’s almost not deserving of a full rock opera-style album, and that’s why it works – it’s a collection of moments, small and sweet and oddly moving.

And speaking of oddly moving, there is the Arcade Fire. My third pick comes straight from Pitchfork – I almost always buy their number one record of the year, and while I’m often disappointed, this time I’m grateful. I may not have tried the Arcade Fire without those crotchety indie snobs up Chicago way, so I owe them a thank you.

The Arcade Fire is a five (sometimes six) member collective, and they’ve called their first album Funeral, which should tell you about the emotional content. It was written in the wake of several deaths, mostly of band family members, and the whole thing has an undercurrent of hopeful sadness, of working through real pain and depression. The record is also a well-written indie symphony, covered in strings and xylophones and pianos and (of course) loud, lovely guitars. Everything is balanced, yet sounds fittingly ramshackle – it’s an album for the college kids and the Brian Wilson fans.

I think that when people describe Modest Mouse as expansive and grand, the Arcade Fire’s sound is what they mean, and what they wish they were hearing from Brock and his group. Funeral opens with a five-part suite, four parts of which share the name “Neighborhood.” The second part is the ultimate Modest Mouse song, floating on lovely vocals and accordions and a killer melody. A quick break into “Une Annee Sans Lumiere” and we’re off into the second half of “Neighborhood,” and it’s just as propulsive and powerful as the first. The record carries you with such force that you barely realize that it’s half over.

The second half is highlighted by “Rebellion (Lies),” a true powerhouse of a song that captures the anthemic explosion of U2 without the bombast. The album ends on a graceful note with “In the Backseat,” about stepping forward and learning how to drive, metaphorically speaking. The song is lovely, with an extended coda that lingers just long enough. The Arcade Fire is a band worth watching, and Funeral is an album worth hearing, one that combines the textures of pure pop with the energy and punch of alt-rock to come up with something that grabs you at the start and doesn’t let go. Rarely has an album about death sounded this alive.

Or, to put it more personally, rarely has an album about death made me feel so young.

Next week, maybe Ani, maybe a double dose of Bright Eyes.

See you in line Tuesday morning.