Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Hudson’s Best of 2004

If it’s the end of the year, you know it’s time for me to present another one of those silly lists. Why do I waste hours and days lying out all of my albums and attempt to decide which ones are great and which ones are just okay? Why do I bother my friend Scott Ehrisman for artwork for the soundtrack of this list?
The answer is simple, and is the reason I’ve been writing, ranting, and arguing about music for all of my life. I just want to turn people on to stuff they otherwise would probably never hear. Let’s face facts, since it’s obvious that radio and MTV will never turn away from the likes of Usher, Beyonce, and Nickleback, it’s a priority for music nerds such as myself to spread the word about music that lurks just below the surface.
That’s not to say that there is no worthy commercial rock. This list features plenty of acts that rose above the moss and actually sold a few copies outside the snobbish indie rock stores. Does that mean I’m finally mellowing with age? No, it simply means that one of the great stories of 2004 is the fact that the public finally rejected some of the cookie cutter studio “stars” that the labels pushed down our throats and instead created buzzes for real artists that believe that music is more than a marketing plan.
So here’s my list of the albums that were rarely far from my stereo in the past twelve months. That’s really the only criteria for inclusion. I don’t care how many copies were sold, or conversely how overhyped they were. For some people, this list is way too esoteric; for others it will certainly too poppy. Many will complain it’s too noisy; others will say it lacks an edge. And everybody will whine about the inclusion of Courtney Love. I could care less; it’s my list and I’m sticking to it.
1. Paul Westerberg, Folker." Ok, so it’s become a cliché for a Westerberg release to top a Hudson list. Deal with it. What’s the ultimate test for an album? How often it’s taken out of it’s sleeve and shoved in the CD player, and no album received more airplay in the Hudson jeep than this one.
I’ve always said that one can find out anything they want about me from Westerberg’s lyrics, and the songs on Folker are no exception. It’s also one of those rare releases where the best songs are towards the end of the album. Every tune (except for one) in the second half is a stunner, particularly the Beatles-esque “As Far As I Know”, and the anti-singer/songwriter rants “Folk Star” and “How Can You Like Him?”
2. Green Day, American Idiot. A punk rock concept album? What the hell? Ok, there’s really not much of a storyline…but this album comes out blazing and doesn’t let up except for a well-positioned ballad or two. Fifteen years into their career, and Green Day continues to prove that they’re the best pop-punk band of all time. What sets them apart from the horrific Good Charlottes of the world is their acknowledgement of all facets of rock ‘n’ roll, from the Kinks and Beatles through Mott the Hoople and David Bowie and even snippets of Motley Crue and Queen. Loud, bombastic, and catchy as hell.
3. Wilco, A Ghost is Born. Following up the artistic genius of 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would have been an impossible task, so Jeff Tweedy was wise to not even try. A Ghost is Born is very similar to YHF in it’s use of experimental sound collages, yet it’s much more stripped down than it’s predecessor. Most of the tracks were recorded live in the studio, and Tweedy played the majority of feedback-enhanced guitar leads. The overall tone is much more laid back, particularly on tunes such as “Hummingbird” and “Handshake Drugs”.
4. Modest Mouse, Good News For People Who Love Bad News. Modest Mouse is quite possibly the Flaming Lips of 2004 - a formerly aloof, experimental band finds a semi-serious groove and releases the surprise pop hit of the year. The lyrics may be simpler and the tone may be tamer, but this album is still way too quirky to be called a sellout.
5. Morrissey, You Are the Quarry. In a year that saw nearly every “alternative” artist of the 80’s return with surprisingly strong albums and tours, Morrissey shocked even his most ardent fans with THE solo album of his career. Thankfully no longer singing about his adolescent personal problems with a faux-rockabilly backing, Morrissey updated his sound and took on the world with songs such as “Irish Blood, English Heart” and “America Is Not the World”. Most importantly, his sense of humor, which was always evident on even the most morose Smiths songs, has never been more on display.
6. Social Distortion, Sex, Love, and Rock ‘n’ Roll. Another great comeback story. It’s been over eight years since we last heard new material from one of the most underrated bands of the 80’s and 90’s. Is this album worth the wait? Hell, yeah. In fact, it may be the album of their career. Mike Ness has always been the sort of songwriter who lives what he sings, and that’s never been more apparent than on this album.
7. Courtney Love, America’s Sweetheart. Drug addict, media whore, exhibitionist, flower child, stalker, tabloid star, feminist. These are some of the nicer terms that describe the former Mrs. Kurt Cobain, and all of them are true. I don’t care about these labels; all I care about is the music, and America’s Sweetheart features the most raucous pop-candy of the year. Forget about the Access Hollywood baggage and give this album a chance.
8. Elliott Smith, From a Basement On the Hill. In the months preceding his apparently self-inflicted stabbing, Smith was putting together what he described as his homage to the Beatles’ White Album. Over thirty tracks were recorded for a planned double album, but his surviving family cut out some of the more harrowing material in favor of a fifteen track release that actually works as a sampler of his entire career. There’s sparse acoustic tracks that are reminiscent of his early releases, along with a number of more complex, layered studio creations that reflect his later major label albums. It all adds up to a stunning album that should have been the crowning moment for one of this era’s great singer/songwriters.
9. Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose. Jack White has always been a fan of this country legend, but who could have predicted that they could possibly collaborate? White brought a few of his musician friends down to Lynn’s Tennessee home, and the end result is the first album of Loretta’s career where she wrote every tune. Although as unlikely a partnership as Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin, White ended up being as perfect of a complement to Lynn’s spunky honky-tonk sound as Rubin was to Cash’s sparse style.
10. Steve Earle, The Revolution Starts Now. Thanks to a heated presidential campaign, the record stores were bulging with political diatribes. Most of these releases were forgettable as the message was more important to the artist than the music or performance. Earle’s album worked the best simply because he remembered to bring his sense of humor. He fantasized about vacationing with Condeleeza Rice, he shouted obscenities at the FCC, and, most importantly, he reminded us how it’s the common folks who are most affected by the decisions made in Washington.
11. Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand. Amazon.com has a one sentence review that says it best - “Franz Ferdinand is an unrelentingly smart, fluffy, and fun debut”. I won’t even attempt to improve on that statement.
12. Jesse Malin, The Heat. Many D-Generation fans were disappointed with Malin’s transformation into a Ryan Adams clone on his debut record. Well, his second album continues in the singer/songwriter tradition, but it’s a much more exciting album that’s more reminiscent of early Springsteen and latter-era Replacements.
13. Nick Cave, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus. Cave has always been one of the more unpredictable artists of our generation. One never knows if his albums are going to be full-on epic rockers, murder ballads, or gothic epics. This two disc set features a little of everything, with Abattoir Blues containing most of the more upbeat material and The Lyre of Orpheus it’s more mournful companion.
14. Ambulance LTD, LP. 2004 saw a lot of new bands making new sounds out of old 80’s influences, and few did it as well as this post-punk New York act. Much of their sounds owes a lot to the Velvet Underground, as well as the Feelies, Pixies, and even Galaxie 500. None of these influences would matter if the songs weren’t top-notch, and this album is chock full of memorable tunes.
15. Camper Van Beethoven, New Roman Times. Generally, it’s probably not wise for a reformed band’s first album in 15 years to be a concept album. Then again, there’s few bands like Camper Van Beethoven. Like Green Day’s album, there’s not much of a real storyline - something about an alternative-reality version of America with a solder of the Christian Republican Army of Texas telling his story of invading California. It’s a goofy concept, but Camper has always been a goofy band, and this album revisits all of the band’s past glories, from Russian folk songs to disco(?!?) to Americana to garage rock.
16. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Shake the Sheets. Ted Leo could quite possibly be the American version of Joe Strummer, albeit 25 years later. Like Strummer, Leo is a melodic politico-punker whose passion for life is evident in every song. He may sound like early Joe Jackson, but with a bit of the Buzzcocks and Ian MacKaye mixed in.
17. Luna, Rendezvous. This band has always been one of the better disciples of the Velvet Underground and Television, and their (allegedly) last album is possibly their best to date. Like all of their releases, this album is highlighted by the whispery vocals of Dean Wareham meshed with Wareham and Sean Eden’s searing yet low-key guitar riffs.
18. R.E.M., Around the Sun.
19. U2, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.
It’s pretty easy to dismiss R.E.M. and U2. While arguably the most important bands of the 80’s and early 90’s, their albums no longer rattle the music industry as they once did. Sure, U2 still moves millions of every release, but that’s due more to the band’s relentless self-promotion than any artistic achievement. Yet both of these albums are surprisingly strong - they may not be a modern day Murmur or War (and R.E.M. is definitely overdue for a true rock album) but they both prove that both bands still have plenty to say.
20. Drive-By Truckers, The Dirty South. Most bands are lucky to have one strong songwriter. This great Southern rock group has three that are not only equal in strength but exponentially more brilliant together. Musically, they’re equally diverse, combining the bar-band Americana of the Bottle Rockets with a (thankfully) more condensed version of the Allmans and early Skynyrd, along with a touch of The Band.
21. Elvis Costello & the Imposters, The Delivery Man. How many strong albums can one man record in one lifetime? For Costello’s first album for Lost Highway Records, Costello brought his band to Nashville (along with Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris) and bashed out an album in less than a week. The result is an exploration of American roots music that is one part Almost Blue, one part My Aim Is True, and a whole lot of King of America.
22. Interpol, Antics. This New York band’s first album was one of the most refreshing debuts in recent years…and probably an impossible album to top. Antics certainly follows the template of that album, and their influences are still clearly the dark sounds of bands such as Joy Division and Bauhaus. While there’s plenty of strong material on this album, overall it’s not as stellar as their debut.
23. The Good Life, Album of the Year. As leader of Cursive, Tim Kasher is a modern-day, Midwestern version of Robert Smith, full of bruised, over-the-top emoting. As one review noted, The Good Life “has always detailed Kasher’s lonely nights”. Less ranting and more confessional, and accompanied primarily by acoustic guitars and keyboards, Album of the Year documents a full year of romantic confessions and heartbreak.
24. PJ Harvey, Uh Huh Her. Although Polly Jean Harvey’s more polished efforts have been incredibly strong albums, she’s always been at her best when she’s not happy. Luckily for her fans (but obviously not for her personal life), she’s been done wrong by a man once again. Like her earlier revenge albums, Harvey growls primal diatribes accompanied by snarling blues-punk riffs. There’s a bit of filler sprinkled throughout the album, but the album’s best moments stand up strong next to any of her previous releases.
25. American Music Club, Love Songs For Patriots. Between 1983 and 1994, American Music Club were one of the country’s most underrated bands. Over seven albums, they combined rock, blues, folk, jazz and country into a sound that was sort of an American version of Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds. After a decade-long hiatus, the band is back with an album that stands up proudly with its predecessors. Frontman Mark Eitzel’s songwriting still effortlessly captures the underbelly of the American dream Why this band isn’t more well known remains a mystery.
Best Single: Modest Mouse, “Float On”. In a year dominated by lip-synching teen pop, posturing r&b (not so) bad boys , and disposable hip-hop featuring little more than a constantly repeated catch phrase, it was more than refreshing to hear this quirky, anthemia alt-rock tune on commercial radio, MTV, and even as background music for professional sports highlight reels.
Best Single From an Otherwise So-so Album: The Killers, “Somebody Told Me”. This Las Vegas band’s debut album, Hot Fuss, is an okay blend of postpunk guitars and cheesy synthesizers. Over the course of eleven songs, however, their one-dimensional sound gets a little old. “Somebody Told Me”, with it’s throbbing bass, frantic vocals, and the already-mentioned synths, ranks just below “Float On” as the catchiest alt-rock tune of the year.
Best Song Utilized in Commercial: The Kinks, Picture Book. Village Green Preservation Society, which was justt reissued as a three CD set, is quite possibly the crown jewel of the Kinks extensive catalog. “Picture Book”, currently utilized in a camera commercial, is one of the reasons why that album is so successful. Three minutes of pure power pop that has been the basis for what seems like a million songs since it’s release in 1967.
Best Reissue: Pavement, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Arguably Pavement’s greatest album has now been expanded to a two disc set with the obligatory b-sides, radio sessions, and a ton of demos that stand up well with the officially released versions.
Best Box Set (Unreleased Material): Nirvana, With the Lights Out. Sure, it’s not the great lost treasures that we’ve been promised. The sound is rough at times (particularly on the first disc), and few of the rumored hundreds of Cobain solo demos are present (saved for a future box?), but these three CD’s and one DVD effectively tell the story of this groundbreaking band - from their very first show to their last recording session.
Best Box Set (Compilation): The Cure, Join the Dots (B-sides & Rarities 1978-2001). Like most of the 80’s British alternative acts, the Cure released a ton of material on singles and EP’s that never made it onto any albums. This four disc set compiles a good percentage of these tracks, with many more promised for upcoming reissues of their catalog.
Best Local Recording: Violet, All Things Possible. Ok, so there wasn’t a lot of local material to choose from this year. Even in years with more competition this album would probably compete for the top spot. Recording in Dave Scarbrough’s living room allowed the band to take their time and put together what is easily the most satisfying album in the band’s career.
Best Tribute Album: Por Vida, A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo. Most tribute albums are a bore - a couple of passable covers mixed in with pseudo-celebrities butchering songs they have no business recording. Not so on this trbute to legendary singer/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo, who is suffering from hepatitis C. Almost everybody from the alt-country genre is represented, including Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Jayhawks, and Son Volt, along with a few surprisingly urgent veterans such as Ian MacLagan, Lenny Kaye, and Ian Hunter. With few exceptions, the results at least equal Escovedo’s original.
Best Limited Edition Release: Jay Farrar, Live EP. Releasing special edition EP’s and full length albums to independent record stores is one of the few positive steps made by the record industry in the past few months. By including not only songs from his solo career but tunes that date back to Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt, Farrar’s five track EP is actually more representative of his career than the full-length live album that was released a few months earlier.
Best Concert: Paul Westerberg, Pantages Theatre, Minneapolis 11/5/04 and 11/6/04. For his first full-band concerts in almost a decade, Westerberg put together setlists that reflected his entire career. Classic ‘mats albums such as Tim and Pleased to Meet Me were as represented in the setlist as recent albums such as Folker and Stereo/Mono. What was most exciting about these two hour shows was how well the new material stood up next to the old warhorses. Now if we could only get him to use a band on his next album.
Best Reunion: The Pixies. In a year chock full of reunion albums and tours, the Pixies were easily the biggest surprise. After all, didn’t leader Frank Black despise bassist Kim Deal? Ten years after their acrimonious split, Black and Company patched together their relationships and hit the road. While they only released two new songs, they did sign a revolutionary deal with Disclive that provided fans with soundboard copies of their shows within a half hour after their conclusion. None of this would matter if they weren’t able to recapture the passion and intensity of their early days…and quite happily, they did. Their two hour show in St. Paul featured almost every song one could wish for, including rare covers of the Jesus and Mary Chain, Neil Young, and the theme from Eraserhead.
Other Noteworthy 2004 Releases: The Walkmen, Bows and Arrows, Earlimart, Treble and Tremble; The Fall, The Real New Fall LP; Arcade Fire, Funeral; The Sadies, Favourite Colours; The Libertines; Patti Smith, Trampin’; Ben Kweller, On My Way; The Elected, Me First; Aimee Mann, Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse; Grant-Lee Phillips, Virginia Creeper; Pete Yorn, Live From New Jersey; Rilo Kiley, More Adventurous; Mission of Burma; Brian Wilson, Smile; Giant Sand, All Over the Map; Ron Sexsmith, Receiver; Joseph Arthur, Our Shadows Will Remain; Tom Waits, Real Gone; Chuck Prophet, Age Or Miracles; Old 97’s, Rip It Up; Neko Case, The Tigers Have Spoken; The Hives, Tyrannosaurus Hives; Descendents, Cool to Be You; Stiff Little Fingers; Guitar and Drums; Guided By Voices; Half Smiles of the Decomposed; Flogging Molly, Within a Mile of Home; Jason Ringenberg, Empire Builders; The Cure; Richmond Fontaine, Post to Wire; Dogs Die in Hot Cars; Please Describe Yourself; Robyn Hitchcock, Spooked; The Church, Forget Yourself; The Black Keys, Rubber Factory; The Ike Reilly Assassination, Sparkle in the Finish; Mendoza Line, Fortune; Rev. Horton Heat, Revival; Razorlight, Up All Night; Sonic Youth, Nurse; Richard Buckner, Dents and Shells; The Thrills, Let’s Bottle Bohemia; Preston School of Industry, Monsoon; Tommy Stinson, Village Gorilla Head; TV On the Radio; Nancy Sinatra; Devandra Banhart, Rejoicing in the Hands; The Soviettes, LP II; Lloyd Cole, Music in a Foreign Language; Sondre Lerche, Two Way Monologue; Beastie Boys, To the 5 Boroughs; Marah, 20,000 Streets Under the Sky; The Roots, The Tipping Point; Toots & the Maytals, True Love; Bad Religion, The Empire Strikes First; Prince, Musicology.
Other Noteworthy Reissues & Compilations: The Velvet Underground, Live at Max’s Kansas City; The Very Best of the Mekons; The Saints, All Times Through Paradise; Faces, Five Guys Walk Into a Bar; Bob Dylan, Live 1964; The Cure, 3 Imaginary Boys; Left of the Dial; Dispatches From the 80’s Underground; Talking Heads, The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads; Matador at 15; The Clash, London Calling; X, Make the Music Go Band!