MUSIC: 2004 IN REVIEW
Music is important to me. I rarely write without listening to music, and I'm very particular about what I listen to depending on what I'm writing. The music often opens up a space in which I can write, and the type of space created is very important.
My musical tastes span a vast spectrum--from pop to power pop, from rock to alternative. I.e., pretty narrow. But, within that narrow slice of the musical pie, here are my choices for the best releases of the year (really, the top 3 are interchangeable)...
(Note: Most of these descriptions came from my VanderWorld Report. To sign up for this monthly e-newsletter, go to my website and click on the link at the bottom left on the home page.)
#1 - THE FEATURES - Exhibit A
Until earlier this week, I thought Franz Ferdinand was going to be my top pick of the year, but then The Features came along, and they do everything FF does, but they add some additional sneer, flair, swagger, and range. A stunning, stunning high-energy CD, which, in 12 songs and just over 30 minutes, manages to invoke everyone from The Kinks to the Strokes to the Violent Femmes to XTC while being totally original. This one will be on my CD player for weeks and weeks.
#2 - FRANZ FERDINAND - Franz Ferdinand - What a great CD!!!! Go out and buy this immediately. It's like everything you ever loved about the Buzzcocks mixed with everything you ever loved about every intelligent post-punk band of the last 15 years. This stuff is amazing, and danceable, too.
#3 - ROBBERS IN THE HIGH STREET - Fine Lines - Sounds almost like the band Spoon, down to the lead singer's voice (sometimes). Very strange, in that sense, but just gorgeous stuff. Sounds like a lost Spoon CD--brilliant. Also a little like White Stripes and The Strokes, if those two bands didn't suck. I can't say it's derivative because it's too good. I'm still listening to this six-song CD months and months after I first got it. If this had been a full CD of music, it might have been #1.
#4 - NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS, Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus double CD - This is one of Cave's best efforts. The lyrics are wonderful, the contrast between the choir-backed "Abattoir Blues" CD and the quieter "Lyre of Orpheus" CD creates a nice balance, and the music is Cave's best in awhile. After a few listens to their last CD, Nocturama, which seemed like it was just marking time, I wound up selling it back in to our local CD store. This one, by contrast, is a classic. If I don't have it rated higher, it may be that I'd taking Cave for granted, just a bit.
#5 - DIVISION OF LAURA LEE - Das Not Compute / Black City (an earlier release) - These two CDs have an aura of menace like the best Radiohead songs, with a heavier sound to them - a rock band with a definite ethereal side, but with that side subservient to the guitars. A nice guitar hero sneer and snarl to the lead singer's delivery, too. Basically, if Radiohead had gone punk instead of experimental, they would have sounded like Division of Laura Lee.
#6 - GREEN DAY - American Idiot - I don't think this is quite the masterpiece some have claimed it is, but it's damn close. Green Day has made an excellent concept CD that's also very good musically, marred by just a couple of filler songs. The best songs on this CD are among the very best of the year.
#7 - TOM WAITS - Real Gone - After a few CDs that either tread water or were so out there that they became an acquired taste, Waits has come up with a companion piece to his brilliant Bone Machine
#8 - THE DRESDEN DOLLS - The Dresden Dolls - This CD has piano--sometimes wild piano cutting across the lovely lyrical talents of Amanda Palmer, with drums as accompaniment. It's a bit like some kind of Tom Waits carnival music with a bit of Ben Folds Five thrown in and a definite music hall atmosphere, and a kind of Violent Femmes vibe in some of the vocals. Very hard to describe, but refreshing. This one sounds better on the stereo than on the headphones.
#9 - WILCO, A Ghost Is Born. I finally got around to listening to this one, and I like it a lot better than Yankee Foxtrot Hotel. To me, Yankee Foxtrot Hotel was like Radiohead's Kid A, only the country version: so experimental or minimalistic that it disappeared up its own arse half the time. (I realize this is probably not a popular opinion.) A Ghost Is Born pulls back from that just a bit, which may also be an unpopular opinion, since several reviewers think Ghost goes much farther than Foxtrot--too far, in fact. But I love it. It has a kind of faded and beautiful quality to it.
#10 - THE KILLERS - Hot Fuss. A big hot fuss has been made of the fact that The Killers sound a bit like a modern version of Duran Duran, as if this were a negative thing. Pop music becomes new by recycling itself through slightly different environmental factors, and that's the case with The Killers. Lovely, forceful glam-Duran Duran rock-pop. With the real Duran Duran (always one of my favorite bands) on life-support, it's nice to have the tradition carried forward.
DOGS DIE IN HOT CARS, Please Describe Yourself. Lovely, carefully constructed pop-rock songs with an XTC flair. A little bit of ska influence and some clever guitar work, too.
ELECTRELANE - The Power Out - I don't even know how to describe this alternatively loud/quiet band that a friend calls "naive rock," in a positive way. All I know is that the harmonies on some of the songs are exquisite and that it creeps in under your skin without you realizing it. I fully expected to sell this back into our CD store, but after three or four listens, I was hooked.
THE HIVES - Tyrannosaurus Hives - Another superlative release from The Hives, providing a punk/post-punk clinic on song styles and pulse-pounding fun. This one could easily have made my top 10...in a different mood, on a different day.
RASPUTINA - (frustration plantation) - What to call this? Goth? Southern Gothic? Insane mix of rock and electronic/experimental? Whatever it is, I love it. They've created some kind of Gothic sub-category that's entirely their own. I plan on checking out their earlier CDs as well.
SECRET MACHINES - Now Here Is Nowhere - Someone at our local CD store calls Secret Machines "a poor man's Can," but I like them a little bit more than that, even if they do sound a bit too mechanical sometimes. There's a bit of Pink Floyd in them, and the songs grow on you. Nice, big sound.
THE THRILLS, Let's Bottle Bohemia - The second CD from The Thrills is a vast improvement over their first, which I wound up selling back to our local used CD store. There's a more empathetic quality to the music this time. It's still somewhat laid back, but in a nice Wilco kind of way. Despite many reviewers calling this CD disappointing compared to the first, I think that over time, this CD will grow in stature.
TUESDAY - War All the Time - An aggressive emo band that has for me the same qualities as Nirvana, although in a totally different context. But you definitely can discern melodies and it feels like music that, unplugged, would be just as beautiful in that context as it is deadly plugged in. A lovely slow piece, "This Song Brought to You by a Falling Bomb," breaks up the aural assault. Songs like "Division Street" are future classics. This one would have been top 3, if not for the fact it was released in 2003.
Reissues of the Year--Personal Favorites
THE DREAM SYNDICATE - The Complete Live at Raji's / Ghost Stories + 8 - I still remember the chill that went up my spine when I first heard, rescued from a bargain bin, The Dream Syndicate's second album, Medicine Show. Those guitars! That literal slow burn on "Burn" and "Merritville." Stunning work. Live at Raji's and Ghost Stories have always been close second favorites for me to Medicine Show, and now Ryko has re-released both with extra tracks. Highly recommended.
THE VIRGIN PRUNES, The Moon Looked Down and Laughed (reissue) - I remember buying the cassette of this release for 99 cents in a discard bin at Record Bar years and years ago. I wasn't expecting much, and was thrilled to discover what I can only describe as neo-electronic tribal Gothic Art Wave New Wave era music, with a front man who sounds like a brother to Johnny Rotten. It's insane and highly listenable, and it's now available along with all of the Virgin Prunes' work on reissues from Mute US. I like them a lot better than the broody, moody Bauhaus, who I can admire but who aren't particularly easy on the ears much of the time. The Prunes' If I Die, I Die is also highly recommended.
IN FLAMES - Soundtrack to Your Escape - This Danish prog metal (as my friend Dan Read correctly identifies them) is metal with a dash of the electronic and some melodic bits that you might not expect--added to a dense wall of sound. I love this CD, and it's great to listen to in the car.
RHAPSODY - I don't think it even matters which CD you pick up. Imagine if Dungeons & Dragons fanatics had formed a band and then proceeded to do rock-metal with keyboards and extremely pompous lyrics, but delivered with such seriousness that they actually begin to seem to have a bit of gravitas. My crazy stepdaughter Erin--crazy in terms of her eclectic musical tastes--introduced me to these insane purveyors of sugar-coated heroic metal-stuff. Their website is a hoot, too.
Coolest Discovery (courtesy of my stepdaughter, Erin):
PLEASURE FOREVER - Decadent rock-alt pseudo-goth band with two CDs of their peculiar blend of early Rolling Stones bravado and absinthe-drenched Baudelaire-as-rock-star joyful angst.
Most Disappointing Release:
ROBYN HITCHCOCK - Spooked - No one has been a bigger supporter or fan of Robyn Hitchcock than me. I've incorporated paraphrases of his lyrics into stories, written a story based on one of his songs, and purchased all of his limited CD releases and tribute books/CDs about him. I love this guy. But for the last few years, except for his reunion with The Soft Boys, Hitchcock has forgotten how to write a decent pop song. I don't mind the folk songs, but does he have to feed us such an unrelenting diet of them??!?! So what does he do to follow up on the piss-poor Luxor CD? He teams up with some guest musicians...and produces yet another undistinguished folk CD. Listening to Hitchcock these days is like grinding a rock against another rock for hours: the sound is pretty consistently the same, except possibly to a geologist.
Most Overrated Releases:
MODEST MOUSE - Good News For People Who Love Bad News - Ripping off Nick Cave on the second part of this CD and engaging in herky-jerky crappo emo-alt-pop in the first half, Modest Mouse has my vote for most overrated band of 2004. Just 'cause all the young dudes are humming this stuff on the way to work and in their little tuna fish can cubicles doesn't mean it's good.
U2 - How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb - Well, you don't dismantle a bomb by recording one, that's for sure. Or by writing a bunch of middle-of-the-road boring songs, that's for sure. This CD is being called a return to form by rock's elder statesmen. It's nothing of the kind. I can't remember being more bored by a release in recent memory. Anyone remember The Joshua Tree? That was a great CD.