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My Favorite Music of 2004 [version]

by dave heaton

I enjoy sharing with people my favorites of the year, but I also think the world of critics is too list-focused, and begins the 'best of' talk way too early. I'm also finding it increasingly impossible to just pick 10 albums and stick with them. In December I wrote a top 20 list for Pop Matters.com. Titled "Pretty Songs About Love" after a Tilly and the Wall song, the list was sort-of streamlined towards one (still-wide-ranging) style of music: call it genuinely emotional, honest, and creative pop and rock music. When I went to make a top 10 list for Sponic, I switched it up a bit to throw in a couple hip-hop albums that didn't make the other list. Now when I started this list I wasn't sure where to begin, so I ended up starting with the Sponic list but modifying it a bit further.

The genesis of my list might not interest you, but at least consider the notion that anyone who can claim to know definitively his or her favorite albums of the year simply didn't listen to enough music that year. In other words...I first brainstormed a list by easily jotting down 100 albums that I flat-out loved, and even that list of 100 was leaving some things out. I toyed with the idea of just putting the whole 100 here, but that seems like overkill. So instead, please accept this list of 10, but also keep in mind my feeling that there's more great music being made in any one moment than any of us will ever hear, or can even comprehend. Anyone who thinks today's music is boring just needs to look around more...

1. Jason Anderson, New England (K)

As Wolf Colonel and under his own name, Jason Anderson's songs have always contained casual insights into the world and life, plus great melodies but here he transcends everything he's done in the past, and most songwriting period, by slowing down and probing deeply into the pains and joys of life. With help from some talented friend, he gathers up a communal creative spirit and probes the corners of his heart in a beautiful and devastating way. Laidback, tender, but in its own way quite explosive, it's the perfect soundtrack to heartbreak, to ambivalence, to confusion...in other words, to everyone's lives.

2. Tilly and the Wall, Wild Like Children (Team Love)

The revolution starts here, with gentle songs of love and late-night partying. Tilly and the Wall are romantic rebels with tap shoes and tambourines, singing at the top of their lungs to anyone and everyone about how love and unbridled creativity are going to change this fucked-up world.

3. Monk Hughes and the Outer Realm, Tribute to Brother Weldon (Stones Throw)

Outside of catching up with old Miles Davis and John Coltrane albums, my favorite jazz listening experience this year was this one, wherein hip-hop producer Madlib created an imaginary jazz group for the purposes of celebrating the life and work of one of his jazz heroes, Weldon Irvine. In the process he makes a sprawling, free-wheeling jazz-funk-soul hybrid that's adventurous and lovely.

4. Pants Yell!, Songs for Siblings (Asaurus)

Musical short stories played in a carefree way but with a cloud of melancholy overhead. The Boston-based pop trio Pants Yell! has a sound that's exuberant, with a Jonathan Richman/campfire songs sparseness, but also heartfelt and serious. Their Songs for Siblings is fun but grounded, child-like creativity wedded to adult heartbreak.

5. Graves, Yes Yes Okay Okay (Hush)

Low-key and pretty is the way, with the melodic, vaguely rustic bedroom-pop songs on Graves' second album Yes Yes Okay Okay. Sometimes surreal, sometimes confessional, often joking around, Graves' music makes you feel like you're half-asleep but happy about it, with a friendly jester humming alternate-reality radio hits into your ear.

6. Namelessnumberheadman, Your Voice Repeating (The Record Machine)

On their second full-length, Kansas City's Namelessnumberheadman further integrate their twin interests in sci-fi electronics and down-home intimate folk ballads until they are one creature, a new style of grounded but future-bound pop. Your Voice Repeating is one of the more invigorating releases of the year in terms of atmosphere and style, but it's also heartfelt and genuine.

7. Mirah, C'mon Miracle (K)

Mirah's C'mon Miracle is protest music that doesn't feel like protest music. It isn't strident, simplistic, or preachy, but rather rooted in real human feeling as well as an impeccable sense for pop melody. These are gorgeous, perfectly written songs that in their musical sensitivity and complexity also contain a caring for humanity and a desire to make the world a more just, peaceful place. Musically the album subtly pulls in strains of folk music from across the globe to meet not only catchy pop melodies and simply strummed guitar but also graceful strings and piano. And Mirah's voice is more devastatingly perfect than ever - if you're ever going to believe that a singer can change a mind simply through the force of her voice, now is the time.

8. Masta Killa, No Said Date (Nature Sounds)

11 years and countless Clan-member albums after Enter the Wu-Tang, Masta Killa finally releases his first solo album, and it's dynamite - for my money easily the best hip-hop album of the year. No Said Date both hearkens back to the gritty feeling of early Wu-Tang and updates it, making it sound fresher than ever. Masta Killa stands with the GZA and Inspectah Deck as the Wu-Tang Clan's purest MCs, the ones that get right down to business and blow you away with their sheer skill and effortless style.

9. Harper Lee, All Things Can Be Mended (Matinee)

Deep, all-consuming sadness is a timeless subject for songs, and one that All Things Can Be Mended captures vividly. This is one of the saddest albums you'll hear the basic sentiment is 'every heart was made to be broken' yet it's also an absolutely exquisite work of pop songwriting, with amazing melodies and a heightened sense of atmosphere. It's hard to tap into dark feelings in a way that feels this honest and this real, especially within melodies that are perfect enough to be life-affirming.

10. Rjd2, Since We Last Spoke (Definitive Jux)

Rjd2's Deadringer was a juggernaut of a funk-soul-hiphop album, one that felt both futuristic and old-school. Since We Last Spoke starts from the same point but then explodes in numerous directions. It's a complicated sprawl, one that brings rock into the mix while diving even deeper into soul. Since We Last Spoke might not sound like hip-hop to the person on the street, but Rj isn't abandoning hip-hop, he's expanding it.


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