erasing clouds

Ten Best Albums of 2004

by john wenzel

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

Like comfort food that gives you wicked indigestion, From a Basement on the Hill is bursting with witty, downcast lyrics, elegant melodies and enough invective to poison a Ukranian presidential candidate. More ragged and desperate than his last couple, but overflowing with subtle craft and impassioned performances, From a Basement on the Hill is far from perfect – especially since some of the best songs may have been left off by his clueless estate – but for fans of Mr. Smith, it’s pretty damn close.

2. Interpol, Antics (Matador)

All the eye shadow in the world can’t obscure Paul Banks’ keen perspective on relationships and the inevitable bullshit drama they engender, or his supernatural gift for subtly brilliant melodies and Ethel Merman-caliber vibrato. If Interpol broke up tomorrow, they’d still be one of the best bands of this decade, and Antics would be their finest hour.

3. The Arcade Fire, Funeral (Merge)

Another glorious gift from the frozen north (Montreal, if yr nasty), this straight-faced septet charmed anyone within earshot with their darkly theatrical tales of familial loss, childhood memories and neighborhood strife. Deceptively simple and far from groundbreaking, but oh-so-addictive. Remember the last time you felt so depressed that it eventually made you happy? The Arcade Fire does.

4. Modest Mouse, Good News for People Who Love Bad News (Epic)

2004 was the year of Modest Mouse. These indie stalwarts finally hit the big time, appearing on Saturday Night Live, curating the L.A. version of All Tomorrow’s Parties, and most importantly, releasing the most solid yet radio-friendly album of their career. Seriously though folks, remember that mini-van ad with the Moon and Antarctica song? They followed it with this.

5. Kid Dakota, The West Is the Future (Chairkickers)

Minnesota’s Darren Jackson took his dark, meditative songs in an entirely new and decidedly more mature direction with The West Is the Future. Slick production, faultless performances and huge clouds of delectable melodic dread make this as disturbing as it is accomplished. Bonus points for getting all three members of Low to guest.

6. The Caribbean, William of Orange EP (Home Tapes/Tomlab)

Saying that the geographically-scattered chaps in the Caribbean explored fresh territory on William of Orange would be redundant. With each new release these experimental-minded pop avatars inflate the boundaries of intelligent, ramshackle music equally suited for impassioned kitchen-dancing, gentle duct-tape handcuff chewing, and late-night atom splitting.

7. John Vanderslice, Cellar Door (Barsuk)

San Francisco’s master-of-all-trades, jack-of-none had another outrageously successful year. Constant touring honed his already ass-tight songs and Cellar Door made good on the promise of his last couple releases. Get out and see him live if emotional, visceral (and most importantly, pristinely-produced) indie rock is your thing.

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

As much as I want to shave – then slap – this whispering Floridian film instructor, Sam Beam writes some of the finest gloomy love songs this side of Nick Drake’s corpse (which, it must be admitted, he humped liberally while making Our Endless Numbered Days). At least he put the pipe down long enough to hear how crappy his four-track sounded and discover an actual recording studio.

9. The Heartless Bastards, 5-song demo (self-released)

Wildly talented Dayton, Ohio songwriter and former Shesus bassist Erika Wennerstom dropped this modest little bomb in our mailbox early in the year. Now that Guided By Voices is retired and Swearing at Motorists is permanently on the road, the Gem City has a new queen, and her name is Rawk-Your-Fucking-Balls-Off. Seriously, folks, watch for the Bastards’ new full-length on Fat Possum in 2005, 'cause you're going to be hearing a lot more from them soon.

10. TV on the Radio, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes (Touch and Go)

Murky as a stagnant pond and churning like dishwasher full of liquid lead, TV on the Radio’s full-length debut signaled an exciting (if maddeningly inconsistent) new direction in self-conscious art rock, marrying soulful vocals with warm, decaying synths and poetic lyrics. And these Brooklyn fellas put on one of the best live shows I’ve seen.

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