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The Only Survey That Matters, 2004
Those of us who live for music
by Mark Anderson

hose 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.

The songs have it: downloads and iPods are giving CDs a run for their money.

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 2004.

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 every day.

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:

Favorite albums

Modest 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 of 2004.

The Arcade Fire: Funeral

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).

Sarah 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.

Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter: Oh,
My Girl

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.

Razorlight: Up All Night
Feist: 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.

Favorite songs

Kings Of 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."

Elvis 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.

Van Hunt: Van Hunt

"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.

Janet Jackson: Damita Jo

“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.

Karrin Allyson: Wild For You
Brad Mehldau: Anything Goes

“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.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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