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WCP's Music Top Ten
2004-12-22 11:55
by Will Carroll

It's year-end, so it's time to look back and do Top Ten lists. Why? I'm not sure. Who started this tradition? Why just ten? Ten Commandments? Ten fingers? Who knows, we just follow the crowd. Music discussions at WCP get pretty crazy, so sit back and enjoy the show. What follows is Will and Scott's discussion of this year's best ...

Will: I'm no music critic, but I know what I like. I have what I can describe only as eclectic tastes, leaving room for pretty much anything that catches my ear. 2004 was a big year for music in my head, mostly because 2003's holiday season put an iPod in my pocket. It's barely more than half-full now, but it's pushed me away from the radio. Add in XM's effect on my listening habits and I no longer have to listen to Clear Channel's idea of what I like. I can't recommend these two things highly enough.

Scott: So I'm putting together my list of Top 10 music releases of 2004 when I realize, this could be the worst list I've ever compiled.  There is not one release this year that I feel will merit even much of a glance 10 years from now.  After so many great releases the past couple of years, 2004 was a time for a music breather.  Only my Top 2 2004 selections would have made the Top 10 in any other year this decade.  The proliferation of teenage idols, emo-aners, and Linkin Park wannabes seem to have taken its toll this year, but the following selections are all worth checking out.

Will: It wasn't a strong year, to be sure, but it's the year where looking a bit harder was really rewarded. There's plenty of eclectic releases in various styles and it's all more accessible because of iTunes and other legal (and illegal) electronic media. What I'm waiting for is the iPod equivalent of a mix tape - when someone figures that out, they'll be on to something.

Since Will and Scott only have three albums on their lists in common, let's go Casey Kasem style after the jump ...
Will's #10. Rubber Factory - The Black Keys
Hidden in the hype of the equally great White Stripes, the Black Keys have made two-man neo-blues their own. It's much closer to Chicago blues than Jack and Meg's rockier take. Their third album, Rubber Factory shows a more expansive sound, a bit more inclusive songwriting, and deserved more airplay. "10 A.M. Automatic" is one of those songs that would sound so great playing out of a convertible or maybe one of those new retro Mustangs.

Scott's #10. 10. Antics- Interpol; The Libertines- The Libertines; Tyrannosaurus Hives- The Hives
I listed these 3 together, as they all put out sophomore releases this year and while none of them lived up to their debuts, they all put out interesting stuff.  Interpol uses its Joy Division-influences to create a driving atmosphere, which sounds like it was made in a sweaty club in NYC.  The Libertines are the latest of The Clash sound-likes (see Rancid, etc.), but they don't try to hide from it, considering the CD's producer is Mick Jones.  With the drug demons that frontman Pete Doherty suffers from, this might be the last release for the Libertines.  From their crazy matching outfits to their over the top live performances, The Hives are the most energetic bunch of garage rocking Swedes you will ever see.  I believe all 3 groups have had quality releases in 2004, but if this is your initial experience with these bands, go with their debuts, first.  

Will's #9. Lonely Runs Both Ways - Alison Krauss and Union Station
It takes several listens for all the subtlety of a AKUS album to sink in, but this effort is as good as anything they've ever done. That's saying a lot. Krauss' spare but emotive voice is in perfect form and the band is as amazing as ever. There's more gothic flavor underneath some of the songs as the group takes bluegrass places it may never have been before. If you haven't given AKUS a listen because you think bluegrass isn't for you, give this a listen. If you haven't been converted by the time "Gravity" fades out, there's not much hope left for you.

Scott's #9. 9. Afterglow- Sarah McLachlan
Her first new effort in 7 years has all the majestic music and sensual voice that you've come to expect from the founder of Lilith Fair.  While there isn't a great single on the level of Possession, Building a Mystery, or Adia, Afterglow is the most consistent from start to finish of her career.  The beauty of her music has often masked the darkness of her lyrics, which has kept her from the critical claim some of her peers have received more of.  

Will's #8. The Revolution Starts ... Now - Steve Earle
Let's look past the obvious politics of the album and stick to the music. Earle is one of few people following the path Hank Williams blazed. Funny, since his 1986 album "Guitar Town" was the first volley of the neo-traditionalist movement. Populist sentiments, working man stories, and even some laughs fill this album, making it reminiscent of a twangier Springsteen. "Home To Houston" is bloodcurdling, drawing the listener deeper and deeper. This album deserves a real listen.

Scott's #8. Shake the Sheets- Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
Hard to classify Leo's music, but if I was forced I would say it's power-pop with a punk edge.  Smart lyrics, infectious guitar licks, Ted Leo has that Elvis Costello/Nick Lowe/Graham Parker late 70's/early 80's sound that I can not get enough of.  (Check out his last 2 releases, Hearts of Oak and Tyranny of Distance also.)

Will's #7. Musicology - Prince
My admiration for Prince is certainly no secret. This album, his return to the spotlight, is a worthy successor to his purple legacy. Twenty years since "Purple Rain," Prince is back to making music and leading a band. The songs are stronger for being selected. Between his contentious exit from Warner to "Musicology", Prince had a tendency to err on the side of quantity. There's no filler on this album, but plenty for the new jack soulsters like Usher to try and bite on their next album.

Scott's #7. Van Hunt- Van Hunt
While Usher dominated the radio, this was R&B's best release of this year.  While a lot of people rejoiced in Prince's Musicology, the best Prince album was done by Van Hunt. Like the purple one, he plays all the instruments and he got a thing for Sly Stone, but Van Hunt's debut has ballads like "What Can I Say" that Prince hasn't produced in more than a decade.  

Will's #6. Absolution - Muse
I have to thank Scott for turning me onto this one with a post right here. Muse is the smartest of the Radiohead-Coldplay descendants flooding the market. This album has paranoid undertones yet still manages to rock out. The video for "Time Is Running Out" recalls "Dr. Strangelove" in all the right ways. The world may often feel like it's ending, but there's time to rock out on the war room table for a few minutes a day. It's escapist rock that doesn't quite let you turn your brain off.

Scott's #6. Chariot Stripped- Gavin DeGraw
Ok, I'm cheating a little here, as the original of this disc was released in 2003, but the stripped version, which contains a bonus disc of acoustic versions came out in July of this year, so I'm going with it. (I told you 2004 was lacking.)  While other male singer-songwriter's have burst onto the scene (John Mayer and Jason Mraz) DeGraw is the best of the bunch.  DeGraw has echoes of a young Billy Joel, with Chariot being his "The Stranger."  

Will's #5. In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth:3 - Coheed and Cambria
This is a real love or hate album. The lead vocals come in differently than anything I've heard and take some getting used to. The music sounds at first listen like a harder emo band, one of the dime a dozen post-punk bands whining their way through an album, but it's deeper and stronger due to pristine production. The lyrics are pure science fiction, a story most won't follow about deicide, the potential destruction of the earth, serial killers, and forbidden love. There's a comic book if you really want to keep up. Somehow, it works, making CoCa the most potent descendent of Rush around.

Scott's #5. You are the Quarry- Morrissey
I should mention first that I'm not a huge fan of The Smiths and feel they are a bit overrated. (Meat might be murder, but a Hardee's Monster burger sure tastes yummy.) I don't know if he's been inspired by his new found Mexican male worshipful fans, but whatever it is, he has put out a great release. Dramatic, with pointed lyrics, plus a killer backup band, you don't have to be a Morrissey-manic to love "You are the Quarry".

Will's #4. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb - U2
Classic U2. From the driving power of "Vertigo" to the last echo of Edge's guitar in "Yahweh," there's no mistaking this album for anything other than a U2 album. It's too serious, often preachy, echoes the last album a bit too much at times, yet still manages to stay in your head, which is probably nodding to the beat. No, it's not their best album and no, it doesn't break any new ground, but it does exactly what it sets out to do. This album simply rocks.

Scott's #4. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb - U2
The world's greatest band, U2 has figured out there's no shame in doing what you are best at.  I will be doing a more lengthy review of this release and career retrospective of the group, so be on the lookout for that.  

Will's #3. College Dropout - Kanye West
West stays truer to hip-hop than Outkast did last year with "Speakerboxx/The Love Below", but his first solo outing didn't try to reach quite as far. Instead, he uses the genre to turn itself inside out. It's an unrelenting yet subtle attack on the culture of consumerism, anti-education, and non-support. "All Falls Down" is lyrically brilliant and builds off - of all things - an acoustic Lauryn Hill groove. "Through The Wire," recorded just after West's near-deadly car wreck, is nearly a gimmick song. He's rapping with his jaw wired shut and his trademark soul-on-speed sample dominates. Instead of gimmick, it comes off as life-affirming. What other artist could end his first hit with "wear your seatbelt" and not get laughed at? West picks up the mantle Jay-Z dropped in 2004.

Scott's #3. Snow Patrol - Snow Patrol
They have been lumped in with the Coldplay's and Travis' (not too bad company), but they really are too diverse to fit that description.  "How to be Dead" sounds like  something Molly Ringwald would have been walking to after her heart was broken in some John Hughes film.  "Spitting Games" is a great new wave ballad and "Wow" is what Ned's Atomic Bin always hoped it could produce.  

Will's #2. American Idiot - Green Day
Green Day making a concept album? Sure, it's a long way from "Dookie" but the unexpected is often the best music. An epic that's been described as both a political statement and the education of a punk, it has a bit too much filler to be truly great as rock opera. Still, the two tentpoles of the album, "Jesus of Suburbia" and "Homecoming" rank with the best "punk" (whatever that means now) music. Green Day has always followed in the footsteps of Bad Religion and The Clash. Finally, they're worth mentioning in the same breath.

Scott's #2. Absolution - Muse
If Radiohead were focused on just rocking out, they would be Muse. While under the radar screen in the US, Muse sells out stadiums in Europe as people have gotten the word that the band has a sonic sound on the level of Queen.  Listening to lead singer Matt Bellamy makes you realize how close Thom Yorke and Rufus Wainwright sound-alike. It's pretty remarkable when a band can go from baroque style ballads to the band kicking so hard that you can visualize dancers grinding on their stripper's pole to it.  Have you ever wondered what "The Bends" would have sounded like in 2004? Look no farther.  

Will's #1. Smile - Brian Wilson
It's 35 years late and still ahead of its time. The "teenage symphony to God" dazzles the ears and really deserves a focused, full listen. It's beyond the point where it needs singles and while there might have been a couple in 1968, it's more a single piece than even "Pet Sounds." There's an element of might have been while listening, but it's no retro sounding record. As a fully realized vision, "Smile" holds up even under the hype in the way nothing like it ever has. Usually waiting for something so long - "The Basement Tapes" or "The Black Album" come to mind - make the expectations too high. This is masterpiece, an album that will live another 35 years or longer.

Scott's #1. American Idiot - Green Day
Hey, I'm as shocked as you.  I don't how these guys have done it as nothing in their past work would've hinted that they could make such a great work as this one.  I have seen reviewers mention that Green Day has followed the concept album route of Pink Floyd or The Beatles, but to me this has a style more like "The Who Sells Out".  Beginning with the title blast, which takes a direct shot at how many Americans follow a "redneck agenda" in life, American Idiot tells a story, while at the same time, providing a sound that all rock engineers should study.  Sure, American Idiot isn't traditional punk music, but what Green Day has accomplished trumps most of the genre as they've brought musicianship to the party while still keeping their edge.

Will's Honorable Mentions:
Hot Fuss - The Killers (The best Duran Duran album in years.)
Tambourine - Tift Merritt (Like Maria McKee came back. If Merritt isn't the next Faith Hill, there's no justice in the world.)
Futures - Jimmy Eat World (A great second album. #3 will make the big list, no doubt.)
A Ghost Is Born - Wilco (Not the best Wilco, but better than almost anything else.)
Abbatoir Blues - Nick Cave (Always interesting, Cave is best when black. Everything Tom Waits album should have been. Someday, I'll get the dream album I have made - Metallica playing the songs of Nick and Tom.)
Best 1991-2004 - Seal (I hate putting greatest hits packages on best of lists, but Seal is underrated. This package reminds us of what a unique talent he is.)

Scott's Honorable Mentions:
Best single of the year was Franz Ferdinand's Take Me Out.  Some other great singles were part of their excellent debut.  
The best pop album of the year was by the Scissor Sisters.  Compared to Elton John at his most over the top, I think more of a disco Leo Sayer, but whatever you hear, realize that these guys could make the world's biggest homophobe want to prance.  
Best cover album is A Perfect Circle's "Emotive".  Maynard James Keenan brings a different, softer side to what he's done with this band and Tool, but it really works, especially on the beautiful version of "Imagine".
Best live album is Joe Jackson's Live:Afterlife.  Jackson is one of the most underrated performers in music history and after touring for over 25 years, Jackson reunites with his original band, for the first time in 23 years.
Biggest surprise of 2004 to me was JC Chasez's "Schizophrenic."  While Justin Timberlake received lots of credit for his 2003 solo release, it was another N-Sync alum that made a really great debut. Raunchy, edgy, this is the second best Prince album of 2004. Yes, I know that sounds like blasphemy, but check it out, before you judge me on this.   
The top Country artists of 2004, were Mindy Smith, Tift Merritt, and the always great Kasey Chambers.
The best reissue of 2004 was Brian Wilson' "Smile". I know that it was recorded over the past year, but since the songs were written in 1966, I have a hard time putting it on this year's Best of list.  Whatever category you think it should be under, pick up "Smile" to hear how great a pop masterpiece can be.

No, there's no Clay Aiken or Lindsay Lohan on this list. If you honestly expected they would be, may we humbly suggest looking elsewhere for your bloggy entertainment fix? We'd love to hear your favorites and suggestions for things I missed in comments.

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