Friday, December 31, 2004

2004: A Year of New & Used Music

2004: A Year of New & Used Music
by Pete Burakowski


This has been an excellent year for my stereo, but a painful one for my pocketbook, as I went on many a music-buying spree. Luckily, I have several generous and thoughtful gift-giving friends who know my tastes in music very well; otherwise, it would be living under a bridge for me…and I just can’t do that again. Anyway, the following is my list of the top 20 CDs to come into my possession in the last year. Only a handful of the following discs were released in 2004, but most are no more than three years old. Hope you find something you like.

20. The Bens, The Bens: The 4-song EP collaboration of two of my generation’s better indie-rock songwriters (Ben Folds and Ben Kweller) and the good-intentioned, but historically bland, Ben Lee. Even though “Stop!” is sup-par writing for Kweller, the Folds-penned “Bruised” is piano pop at its best, overflowing with ironically happy background vocals.

19. The Black Eyed Peas, elephunk: When the bass line from “let’s get retarded”/“let’s get it started” would get rolling, the club was sure to be jumping, and I was certainly no exception- what an infectious tune. The Latin textures of “hey mama” and the deep grooves of tracks like “the boogie that be” help make up for crap like “the apl song”. My mom likes these guys because they do back-flips in their live performances.

18. Sun Kil Moon, Ghosts of the Great Highway: Damn, if Mark Kozelek’s vocals on “Carry Me Ohio” don’t make you ache with sorrow, you deserve to be punched. Sadness rarely sounds so beautiful.

17. Belle & Sebastian, The Boy With the Arab Strap: Imagine the most well-balanced album you can think of, except with the volume turned down very low, and you’ll get an idea of what Arab Strap is about. From the mellow opener, “It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career,” to the lively title track, this is an album to embrace. Many thanks to Chris for hipping me to this band. Also worth listening to is If You’re Feeling Sinister.

16. Andrew Bird, Weather Systems: Since the beginning of December, I’ve been doing some work for Righteous Babe Records, the home of Andrew Bird. A former member of swing band Squirrel Nut Zippers, Bird combines Rufus Wainwright-esque vocals and compositional skills, Nick Drake moods, pizzicato strings, and whistling that’s straight out of The Good, Bad, and the Ugly.

15. Ray LaMontagne, Trouble: Producer Ethan Johns creates simple textures that allow LaMontagne’s soulful Van Morrison/David Gray-inspired vocals to have their well-deserved spotlight. See my full review of Trouble here.

14. Nellie McKay, Get Away From Me: Girish first introduced me to this very talented young lady (she was only 19 when she put this CD out). She put on a tremendously entertaining (but poorly promoted- what’s WITH promoters in Buffalo?!) show at UB and she was great to talk with afterwards. Read Girish’s review here.

13. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: 2004 was a big one for me and alt.country and, appropriately, Wilco. I know that I’m way-late in discovering this disc, but I’m very glad that I did. It’s a perfectly conceived album- experimental, expanding, diverse, chock-full of clever lyrics, and…CATCHY, something that is too often lacking in songs in their genre. If you really want to appreciate this CD, grab a copy of its accompanying documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, which I am still holding hostage from Mikey D.

12. Death Cab for Cutie, Transatlanticism: Thank god for the OC. Not only did it place 90210-quality babes back on the small screen, but it also has become a champion of bands that usually float just below the radio waves, such as Death Cab. Ben Gibbard’s voice could break into a whine, but instead it serves as the vessel for some wonderfully hook-filled melody lines. Fantastic production, from the programmed “Title and Registration” (which hints at the Postal Service, Gibbard’s successful side-project) to the stomp/clap/stomp/clap claps of “The Sound of Settling.”

11. Nada Surf, Let Go: The opening track, “Blizzard of ’77,” with its strong, confident acoustic guitar, is so pregnant with energy that you want it to explode into a full rock jam. But it doesn’t. Instead, it ends with longing and heartache on the line, “I miss you more than I knew,” and this is why this album is so sweet- Nada Surf will find resolution, but on their own terms.

10. Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand: Another Glasgow entry on my list (next to Belle & Sebastian). Of the new wave of New Wave rockers, these lads are the most entertaining. The very danceable, very fashionable, and downright fun “Take Me Out” was one of the best rock singles of the summer.

9. Rufus Wainwright, Poses: Thanks, Mikey D for introducing me to Rufus a couple of years ago and Danielle for giving me this disc. Poppy, a touch less operatic than some of his most recent stuff, and very witty. Highlights include the appropriately Mediterranean “Greek Song” and Rufus’ cover of his father Loudon’s “One Man Guy.”

8. Old 97’s, Fight Songs: In order to get me prepped for the 97’s’ rocking show at the newly reopened Tralf, Girish gave me a copy of this disc. Rhett Miller does a fantastic job of weaving Beatles-worthy catch lines into rolling shuffle rhythms. Few bands could fit a word like “Oppenheimer” into a pop-rock song, but the Old 97’s do, and they do it well.

7. The Bad Plus, Give: This trio rolled into the Albright-Knox last winter and gave one of the most rocking and rock-influenced jazz performances I’ve ever seen. Tight, passionate, and refreshing. The Bad Plus attracts non-traditional jazz fans with covers of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” and the Pixies’ “Velouria,” but holds its listeners with original compositions like the Latin- themed “Cheney Piñata” (great title) and the train-chugging tempo of “Layin’ A Strip for the Higher-Self State Line.”

6. Fountains of Wayne, Fountains of Wayne and Utopia Parkway: After falling in love with the brilliance of Welcome Interstate Managers, I decided (wisely) to pick up the FoW back-catalogue. This is a band that has a deep understanding of the dreams, frustrations, and daily thought processes of normal people, which they manage to relay through some of the most sparklingly bouncy modern rock. My favorite Fountains song topics include: the scuzzy biker who has the woman of your dreams (“Leave the Biker”) and the aggravation of driving a busload of old women to an outlet mall (“The Valley Malls”).

5. Andrew Bird, The Mysterious Production of Eggs: One of the perks of being of an employee at Righteous Babe is getting my mitts on albums months before their release, as is the case with Mysterious, which will hit the stores in February. Here, Bird retains everything that I liked about Weather Systems, but he and co-producer David Boucher convey a more genuine emotion than before. “Sovay,” with its lazy Rhodes and vibes, brushes, and whispery vocals, is the perfect mellow song.

4. The New Pornographers, Electric Version: The Vancouver indie-supergroup’s follow-up to Mass Romantic. A.C. Newman does an excellent job leading the band through this catchy, rocking disc, but the real star is Neko Case, with her enormous, full voice, which she delivers with the bold confidence and presence of Stevie Nicks on “All for Swinging You Around” and “July Jones.”

3. The Shins, Oh, Inverted World: Nick put “One by One All Day” on a mix CD and I was sold on this band. “New Slang” is absolutely touching with its unadorned vocals and loping accompaniment of acoustic guitar, light bass, and tambourine. They followed up with Chutes Too Narrow, a solid, but less-inspired album.

2. The Avalanches, Since I Left You: First released in 2001, Modular decided to re-release Since I Left You in the States this past spring. Under the direction of DJ Dexter, the Avalanches blend some mighty-fine disco-dancing grooves and create one of the most intriguingly odd tunes in “Frontier Psychiatrist.” See my full review here.

1. Kings of Convenience, Riot on an Empty Street: I’m so glad that I discovered this album in time for fall- the Simon & Garfunkel harmonies that these Norwegians mix with bossa and dance rhythms were a perfect match. My naturally autumnal heart remains somewhere within the soft, sublime piano line of “Misread.” See my full review here.

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