erasing clouds

End of ’04 Best of Blowout

by paul jaissle

2004 was, for me, an emotionally taxing year. Punctuated at both ends by some devastating family events, it’s a year I would soon like to be done with. Even if there were a number of records that got me giddy, there weren’t any that really stood out totally: it was a year of good records, but not many great ones. But how often do you hear a really great album these days anyway? In any case, here were the records that got me through the year:

1. planesmistakenforstars, Up In Them Guts (No Idea)

Good lord. I have (and love) all of planes’ other records, but I was totally unprepared for this disc. You know how great Black Flag were? They demanded instant respect due to their endless touring and the relenting aggression of their music. So too do planesmistakenforstars: in five years, these guys will be as respected as the mighty Flag. And this is the record that will cement their place in the annals of hardcore history: the production is clear without sounding slick, and the best songs are slow-burning without forsaking intensity. Just listen to the first two tracks: you can hear all the sweat, blood and fury when the moody intro track ‘To All Mothers’ gives way to the burning build up of ‘Belly Full of Hell’ which suddenly shatters with lines ‘It crept to me like a cancer in my sleep. It gnawed the meat right from these bones.’ Once that songs kicks in, it is all slashing guitars and strained voices. The songs here hit you like a boot to the chest, and make you want to jump out of the window of your moving car. Planes pull no punches here and have a great album to show for it. Will anyone notice? These guys deserve so much more recognition than they have gotten so far. This disc is more intense than anything whatever hardcore or screamo band whose t-shirts are being sold at Hot Topic for $18.99 could ever do. Black t-shirts and star tattoos do not make great records: planesmistakenforstars do.

2. Elliott Smith, From a Basement on the Hill (Anti)

What was with all the mediocre reviews I read for this disc when it came out? Did I miss something, cause to these ears, this is the most moving, touching record I heard all year. Was it the amount of experimentation on this disc that had people confused? That only proves what a loss it was when Smith died. It proves he was more than the sad troubadour he was always pinned as. Here was a guy who loved music and loved making it. Even under all the distortion of ‘Coast to Coast,’ Smith still couldn’t shake the Beatles from his system. And it’s hard to imagine any fan of his not choking up a bit upon hearing ‘A Fond Farewell.’ One thing that always popped up in the reviews I read was how this was not one of Smith’s best albums. That’s simply because those other songs have been with us to discover and share. Here, the songs aren’t classics…yet. I had always loved Elliott’s work, but it never hit me how much until I heard this album. To me, this is the final proof that we indeed had a genius in our midst, it was just up to us to recognize it.

3. Iron and Wine, Our Endless Numbered Days (Sub Pop)

While the first Iron and Wine disc sounded more like the long-lost field recordings of some forgotten Appalachian folk hero, the second disc from Samuel Beam offers a much more polished affair. But rather than the production over-shadowing the tunes, here it only helps them shine. Gone is the four-track haze of the first album, replaced here by a crisp, fresh sound that still manages to feel timeless. Unassuming upon first listen, this disc definitely gets uder your skin after a few spins as Beam weaves tales such as ‘Sodom, South Georgia’ and ‘Free Until They Cut Me Down’ with a sort of effortlessness that borders on brilliance.

4. Robert Pollard, Fiction Man (Recordhead) and Guided By Voices, Half-Smiles of the Decomposed (Matador)

Yeah, I feel kind of lame listing two records in the same spot, but I really couldn’t decide which one of the discs deserved the nod since they really represent two sides of the same coin. When Pollard announced that he was disbanding the long-standing Guided By Voices, many questioned what the ever prolific frontman would do. Fiction Man is the answer. Where his other solo discs usually sounded like GbV outtakes, this new album is really a reassurance that, even though he is hanging up the mic twirling and scissor kicks, Pollard still has a long way to go before he stops making music. GbV producer Todd Tobias provides that music, while Bob culled the lyrics from EAT, his collection of poetry. The result is his most solid solo outing yet: balanced nicely with both proggy, experimental tunes (‘I Expect A Kill,’ ‘Trial of Affliction and Light Sleeping’) and more gentle songs such as ‘Conspiracy of Owls,’ which ranks as one of Pollard’s best tunes ever. Half-Smiles certainly lives up to its place as the final Guided By Voices album, although it takes a few listens. Mellow and reflective in a way most previous albums weren’t, Half-Smiles comes across as the perfect way for Pollard to retire the band: it contains both the angular guitar attack that the last line-up of the group specialized in as well as a number of acoustic songs that eventually become your favorites. ‘Everybody Thinks I’m A Raincloud (When I’m Not Looking)’ and ‘Girls of Wild Strawberries’ sound like classics while ‘A Second Spurt of Growth’ and ‘Sleep Over Jack’ grow and blossom over time once they have been planted in your mind. Finally, ‘Huffman Prairie Flying Field’ serves perfectly as the last song on the last Guided By Voices album: instantly hummable, a soaring chorus, and wonderfully poignant lyrics, the song makes you remember why you fell in love with this retired school teacher and his drinking buddies in the first place.

5. Sufjan Stevens, Seven Swans (Sounds Familyre)

After earning tons of praise for Greetings From Michigan, Stevens offered a much sparer record with Seven Swans: trading in Michigan’s lush production for simple banjo-centered arrangements that let the song’s messages wash over the listener. Here Stevens writes about Jesus with a refreshing mixture of reverence and reflection. Rather than forcing his own beliefs on the audience, Stevens is dealing with his own questions about faith with such passion and conviction, it’s hard to not believe in a higher power. Not a “Christian” album, Seven Swans is the beautiful results of a man questioning and celebrating his love and commitment, be it for God or loved ones.

6. Eagles of Death Metal, Peace Love Death Metal (AntAcidAudio)

Sounding nothing like the Eagles nor being a death metal outfit, the Eagles of Death Metal simply sentence you, the listener, to “death by sexy.” Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Josh Homme and highschool pal Jessie “the devil” Hughes deliver a fuzzy two-man approximation of the Stones and T Rex. Boogie-woogie, shake that ass, drink, do drugs, fight and fuck: the Eagles make you want to do it all with nothing more than two guitars, drums and some creepy cop moustaches. From the ridiculous (‘Miss Alissa’) to the ridiculously catchy (‘Speaking in Tongues’) to their rocked-out cover of Stealer’s Wheel’s ‘Stuck in the Middle With You,’ this disc rocks you like a motherfucker. Death by sexy indeed.

7. Polyphonic Spree, Together We’re Heavy (Hollywood)

I’m sure most people want to write this group off as a gimmick or some sort of bizarre cult. The truth is, even if one or both of those statements are true, that doesn’t change the fact that they have constructed a great record. Managing to sound both innocent and epic, the Polyphonic Spree out-bliss their first record with sparkling production and flawless songwriting. If Brian Wilson had written the music for a tent revival, it might have come close to the psychedelic pop ecstasy that the Spree have concocted here: it makes the perfect soundtrack for those rare days when the sun shines a certain way and there’s a bounce in your step. It even sounds great on days when you need some sort of joy to raise you out of crushing depression.

8. Destroyer, Your Blues (Merge)

I’m really not sure what it was about this record that made me play it endlessly once I got it. Honestly, the first few listens were kind of perplexing. But once the sparse synth arrangements and overly Dan Bejar’s dramatic delivery clicked, I was hooked. Bejar’s stream-of-consciousness songwriting works perfectly when joined by disjointed keyboards and odd synth sounds. And his flowing, surreal lyrics are given a level of importance due to his highschool drama class delivery: songs about notorious lightning and revenge-seeking actors never sounded so compelling. It’s hard to explain the appeal of this disc in words, but something about it both refreshingly new and amazingly timeless. A breath of fresh air from a truly unique songwriter.

9. Paul Westerberg, Folker (Vagrant)

The latest album from Westerberg was, once again, recorded in his basement all by himself. And, like his last few efforts, it has an unmistakable charm. From the catchy jingle, well, ‘Jingle’ to the emotional ode to his late father ‘My Dad,’ Westerberg is once again in peak form as a songwriter. His producer skills need a few tweaks, however, as the production is rough and raw to a fault and the album drags a bit in the middle. But we should never expect perfection from Westerberg: it just wouldn’t suit him. Regardless of those minor details, Folker is another example of why Westerberg is revered as a songwriter and that he shows no signs of slowing down. The fact that he can still pull off jangly pop like ‘Lookin’ Up In Heaven’ or the shambling rocker ‘Gun Shy’ is why Westerberg should stay in the basement, cranking out albums like this with such proficiency.

10. The Icicles, A Hundred Patterns (Microindie)

The Icicles are Grand Rapids, Michigan’s best kept secret. The Icicles play fun, sunny music that sounds like sugar. The Icicles wear matching outfits when they play. The Icicles hand out Pixie Srix when they play. The Icicles, however, do not sound gimmicky or forced: they obviously love what they do and it shows. Their release party for this album was held at a roller skating rink. This album is the perfect soundtrack for roller skating. Do yourself a favor and get your hands on a copy of this disc, ‘cause honestly, how many albums that came out this year featured completely un-ironic pop songs about snowmen or catching a bat in your kitchen? Just one that I know of…

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