Only Survey That Matters, 2004
of us who live for music
of us who live for music can't let go of last year's calendar without
trying to make sense of last year's songs.
have it: downloads and iPods are giving CDs a run for their
Fortunately, this is the era of singular songs
instant, downloadable, iPodable songs.
In other words, great albums are rare as ever and
the people clearly don't want to be spending $10 or $20 for a CD
loaded with filler.
Yet last month's annual Village
Voice survey of music critics displayed the results of 793 writers
casting votes for roughly 2,000 different albums, all released in
Two thousand albums from just last year!
Even those of us who live for music can't do justice
to those kinds of numbers five or six new albums each and
Still, it seems logical that many of those 2,000 albums
must have at least some significant reason to be. So we listen.
And read. And ask each other questions. And listen some more. Then
we share the information so we can hear what we've missed.
For me, no album from 2004 stood tall above the rest.
But there were certainly some very good ones (the runaway winner
of the Village Voice poll, Kanye West's The College Dropout,
is decent but history will say it lacked staying power). Oddly and
overall, Canada caught an inordinate amount of my attention last
year: four of the 12 items listed below are either from, or have
a vital link to, our dear neighbors to the north.
In the end, though, the only way of getting to the
good is by listening to a whole lotta bad. Because if we don't rescue
the worthy songs, they'll all but vanish as years go by. We'll increasingly
be left listening to whatever dreck some mid-level Clear Channel
execs and their focus groups decide to cram into our ears.
Thus, for all those reasons and others previously
described in this space, every March is when I cough up my list:
Mouse: Good News For People Who Love Bad News
Good News For People Who Love Bad News,
Modest Mouse. This Seattle-area band produced one of the year's
biggest buzzes and this time the buzz was right: Good News For
People Who Love Bad News is a strong, solid, diverse disc filled
with spiky guitars, snarky singing and satisfying songs. Military
marches, unvarnished rock and gorgeous ballads comingle to create
a kaleidoscope of sounds on a sprawling disc that truly lives up
to the hype. Longtime fans are said to be disappointed by the surprising
amount of mainstream acceptance isn't that always the way?
We humans are funny like that. But regardless of all else, Modest
Mouse's Good News comes across as the worthy signature sound
Funeral, The Arcade Fire. The Arcade
Fire's debut starts my personal parade of Canadians. It may be an
acquired taste, but it's well worth the time. The album's smoldering
intensity sets itself off from the norm by way of quirky instrumentation
(accordions, strings, harp, xylophone) and fevered vocals from husband
and wife. The songs are said to come from a series of personal tragedies
among band members' families; that seems a likely place to find
higher art. Meanwhile, the band's live show has a growing reputation
for sheer, artful wildness (no Portland stop on a recently completed
tour, but the Gorge this summer).
Harmer: All Of Our Names
All Of Our Names, Sarah Harmer. Good
singing, good playing, good melody, good words that's the
mysterious formula, but the lines can be blurry between bad and
good. Sarah Harmer, another Canadian, seems to own a winning formula
without sounding formulaic ("When you find yourself a new enemy
/ Can you take me down off the hook you've been hanging me on?"
begins one. "We took it all without taking it away," goes
another, "we shook it, it didn't blow up in our face / this
life's abundancy came clear"). This quietly confident album,
Harmer's third, is said to have been recorded with band in her living
room which must be quite the place to be.
& the Sweet Hereafter: Oh,
Oh, My Girl, Jesse Sykes & the Sweet
Hereafter. Another Seattle-area band enjoying a snowballing
reputation, Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter recently passed
through Portland as an opening act for über-kid Conor Oberst's
Bright Eyes tour. Oh, My Girl, the band's second album, packs
an understated emotional punch that lands somewhere between cautious
whisper and troubled sigh. But Sykes's spectral singing doesn't
back away from angst-inducing subject matter as it meshes with the
twangy slow-motion guitars that give the band its lonesome sound.
"You Are Not Gotten Here" is the apex, but there's not
a bad song overall. Some may call it alt-country, but no matter
the handle, there's no denying its potent, muted power.
Up All Night
Let It Die
Up All Night, Razorlight
and Let it Die, Feist. These two 2004 albums only
crossed my path in recent weeks, so both may be byproducts of mere
infatuation. That said, Razorlight is a band of hard-rocking British
blokes who've come up with a diverse set of guitar-based hook-filled
songs that rally around that certain kind of confidence-bordering-on-cockiness
that real rock 'n' roll is meant to represent. Leslie Feist's
Let It Die might not yet be available in U.S. stores (it
came out last summer in her native Canada), but I know I've listened
endlessly since bumping into it by accident in January. Feist has
opened for the Ramones, been roommates with Peaches, recorded with
Broken Social Scene and does nifty Bee Gees and Blossom Dearie covers.
That only begins to tell the story of this amazingly distinctive
singing songwriter. If you care for the pure pleasures of pop music,
don't miss Let It Die (online
as an import). Here's hoping I like it so much that by next
March I find myself writing about its triumphant stateside release.
Convenience: Riot On An Empty Street
Know How, Kings Of Convenience.
Kings Of Convenience are frequently referred to as the Norwegian
Simon and Garfunkel, which may be true of their singing but
certainly doesn't fit their songs. In fact and for the most part,
Riot On An Empty Street, the duo's fourth CD, is a pleasant
but pedestrian collection of mild-mannered pop.
The disc, however, comes to life during a pair of songs with the
aforementioned Leslie Feist: "The Build Up" and especially
"Know How," a mid-tempo guitar shuffle that works its
way into the subconscious by holding back Feist's distinctive voice
until the song's blissful piano-driven back half. "What is
there to know?" she sings repeatedly in harmony with the boyish
Norwegians, "this is what it is."
Costello & the Imposters: The Delivery Man
Monkey To Man, Elvis Costello &
the Imposters. Elvis Costello's 21st studio album, The Delivery
Man, is mostly unremarkable with the exception of "Monkey
To Man," a song that carries the mid-'70s wallop of the full-blown
Attractions. A 50-something Costello finds an endless array of clever
couplets and biting barbs ("Every time man struggles and fails
/ He makes up some kinda fairy tails" and "After all of
the misery he has caused / He denies he's descended from the dinosaurs"
and "It's been this way since the world began / When the vicious
creature took the jump from monkey to man"). Which go a long
way toward erasing any suspicion that Elvis is becoming Mr. Diana
Krall. In fact, it shows welcome evidence of a saucy, vibrant pulse.
"Highlights," Van Hunt. Actually,
Van Hunt's entire self-titled debut is a soulful trip down memory
lane roughly half of the dozen songs are especially strong
and provide homage to four decades of R&B. But "Highlights,"
buried in the album's midsection, is the disc in microcosm: a cool,
sexy dance number that skewers a fame-seeking ex with humorous aplomb
("Only thing you've ever wanted to be was a movie star / Only
role you've wanted to play is the person you are, are, are").
Critics have been talking up Get Lifted, the recent debut
of Kanye West's soul-singing protégé, John Legend.
Don't believe the hype. Van Hunt is better.
All Nite (Don't Stop), Janet Jackson.
Say what you will about those Jackson kids but don't forget: When
Joe and Katherine's little darlings get it right they really
get it right and the fam has been at it for more than 40
years. Sure, Janet talks dirty and her silly, over-publicized malfunction
played a part in delivering us four more years of George W. But
it's also worth noting that she did a biting Condi Rice impersonation
on Saturday Night Live a short while later. And it was her music
performance on that very show where the nightclub slam of "All
Nite (Don't Stop)" woke me from a doze on the couch. Let's
give Janet her due: Damita Jo may be a dud, but "All
Nite (Don't Stop)" is a tour de force.
Allyson: Wild For You
Help Me, Karrin Allyson and
Still Crazy After All These Years, Brad Mehldau.
Like so many jazzers throughout history, Karrin Allyson and Brad
Mehldau have often raided the pop songbook for a significant proportion
of material. Although the strategy can easily be viewed as taking
the easy way out, when done right it can also represent a teachable
moment in the allure and accessibilty of jazz. Allyson has a crystal-clear
voice, a well-earned reputation for top-shelf recordings and an
ear for picking the right songs. Although her latest, Wild For
You, is a hit-and-miss exercise in mining pop's mainstream '70s,
the high point, her turned-on-its-ear take of Joni Mitchell's "Help
Me," combines the thrill of reinvention with the comfort of
home. Mehldau's piano-trio interpretations are slightly more cryptic,
but he has nonetheless honed the ability to recast pop in a way
that stands on its own alongside the original in this case,
a loving take on Paul Simon's wistful "Still Crazy After All
These Years." The straightforward beauty of Mehldau's piano
makes the words nearly as vivid as if Rhymin' Simon himself was
doing the singing.
And there you have it: a thumbnail sketch of last
year. As usual and mostly for my own listening pleasure, I put together
six discs of favorites about
125 songs from 2004 for posterity's sake. The thought
of worthy songs vanishing is painful. And, ultimately, our own opinion
on which songs are worthy is the only survey that matters.
Meanwhile, as I write, we're nearly 20 percent into
2005 and I've listened to maybe 50 or 60 of the year's new albums.
That's a pace around 350.
I'm already way behind.