Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The In League With Paton Albums of the Year 2004

Wot, no Streets? No Keane? No Razor-shite? Whilst this may have been a successful year for British pop music commercially, it was pretty depressing artistically. It troubles me a little that my top albums mostly seem to be American or Canadian. Here are my favourites from an excellent year at the margins. Inevitably, outside the top 30 or so, the order becomes pretty arbitrary.

80) Br. Danielson – Brother Is To Son

A solo venture from the leader of the extraordinary Danielson Familie collective, ‘Brother Is To Son’ is a bizarre journey through skewed folk, high pitched vocals, committed Christianity and other such unfashionable themes. It’s a quirky, peculiar and oddly endearing record.

79) Cass McCombs – A

With the support of Will Oldham, McCombs’ droll, droney songwriting received justified attention at the start of the year, before being slightly overlooked by the year’s end. This is an occasionally bitter, blackly comic (‘I Went To The Hospital’, ‘Aids in Africa’) collection, basically recorded with some appealing reverb-heavy guitar tones. McCombs’ voice is a little shaky and vulnerable, but powerful when necessary.

78) Electrelane – The Power Out

Perhaps this wasn’t a significant step forward for the Brighton band in terms of style and sound, but it did demonstrate an increased grasp of melody, and saw the band translate their ideas with greater confidence. They are now working successfully within their obvious musical limitations (although Verity Susman’s mumbling, slightly tuneless voice still sometimes grates). With some pretty moments combining effectively with more punchy, aggressive songwriting, ‘The Power Out’ was another step for Electrelane towards realising their considerable potential.

77) Devendra Banhart – Rejoicing in the Hands of the Golden Empress

More skewed folk, this time from the distinctive wandering gypsy. It sounded slightly mannered at times, and my critique from earlier in the year gives some indication of why I felt this album had been slightly overrated. There’s certainly no need for the proclamations of Banhart as a true original and revolutionary spirit. Still, the songwriting is excellent, and the sound appropriately intimate.

76) Lambchop – Aw C’Mon/No You C’Mon

Not as consistently strong as ‘Nixon’ or ‘Is A Woman’, and sometimes tending towards a middle of the road blandness, these two albums were difficult to get through, but contained some lovely tender moments. There’s still more wit and wisdom in Kurt Wagner’s oblique lyrics for an entire lifetime, even if this time around he insisted on obscuring them with deliberately hushed vocals and vocal contortions.

75) John Legend – Get Lifted

This is a remarkably refreshing album. Whilst Kanye West’s production gives this a modern, hip-hop sheen (and one that sounds considerably more interesting than West's own music), John Legend’s vocals are deeply routed in the classic gospel-soul tradition. This veered away from generic beats and vocals R&B production in favour of a more seductive sound, with elaborate vocal harmonies and classy arrangements combining studio production techniques with more traditional instrumentation.

74) Badly Drawn Boy – One Plus One Is One

Harshly criticised in some quarters, perhaps by virtue of being easily his most whimsical collection to date. Whilst some of the lyrics felt either a bit twee or a bit forced, musically this was delectable, with intelligent deployment of flute and strings. There are times when you feel Damon Gough could sound a little more enervated (the live rendition of ‘Four Leaf Closer’ is so much more rousing than the more muted and plodding take included here), but there’s no denying his feeling for the music.

73) Beastie Boys – To The 5 Boroughs

Not perhaps the best Beasties album – it’s a little patchy in places, but there was something rather endearing and refreshing about this steadfast return to the old skool. It’s their first self-produced album, and whilst on first listen it may seem to lack the cutting-edge techniques of Mario Caldato or The Dust Brothers, its stark, minimalist backdrop reaps rewards after repeated plays. Most impressively, it is a defiant, moving tribute to that great and suffering American city, iced with deftly humorous wordplay.

72) Ramon Valle Trio – No Escape

This is an exceptionally good Latin jazz album – simultaneously energising both the trio format and the frequently tired and clichéd Latin genre. Valle’s piano playing can be crisp and precise, but can also be more abstract and elusive. There is a great depth and variety of feeling on display here, and the band react to each other intelligently.

71) Air – Talkie Walkie

Relaxed almost to the point of not being there, this felt like a deliberate retreat from the more excessive, deeply humorous side of Air revealed on the sadly underrated ’10,000 Hz Legend’ album. This was perhaps an attempt to remake ‘Moon Safari’, although it was at its best when it drifted into slightly more dynamic territory. It’s undeniably very pleasant – and Air simply do this kind of music with more wit and intelligence than anyone else.

70) Modest Mouse – Good News For People Who Love Bad News

An unlikely but pleasing commercial success, this featured one of the best pop singles of the year in the form of ‘Float On’. The rest of the album was similarly angular and quirky, but with a great sense of unity and vision and some wonderful yelping vocals.

69) Sun Kil Moon – Ghosts of the Great Highway

Mark Kozelek does it yet again. His last record was a collection of acoustic AC/DC covers, which was a rare covers album with a genuine vision. His latest work is strongly influenced by Neil Young and crazy horse, with lengthy expressive guitar solos and pounding backbeats. The songs are as ruminative and absorbing as ever, and ‘Ghosts of the Great Highway’ has a Springsteen-esque vision of a tragic but compassionate America.

68) Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Sings Greatest Palace Music

Well this certainly confounded a lot of people. It’s easy to see why as Will Oldham’s reputation now rests firmly on a journalistic preconception of him as the prince of alt. Country darkness. This was always likely to prove an unwarranted assumption – especially given Oldham’s knowledge of music history and his passion for confusing even his most ardent admirers. So, with the assistance of producer Mark Nevers, he revisited his back catalogue and added all manner of Nashville chintz – steel guitars, slide guitars, brass and strings. Some of the songs work spectacularly well – the dark, almost blasphemous ‘Riding’ assumes a gospel fervour, and many of the shuffly rhythms provide effectively dusty backing.

67) AC Newman – The Slow Wonder

A pop delight from the chief New Pornographers songwriter – full of catchy hooks and neatly executed guitar lines. It’s a crisp, engaging collection, not a million miles from Guided By Voices, but with considerably less intellectual perversity.

66) Andrew Bird – Weather Systems

Technically perhaps one from last year, but as it only received a proper UK release in February, it would seem criminal not to include it. This is a marvellously arranged album, written and recorded quickly and featuring Bird’s warm and effusive vocal traits, and unusual violin playing.

65) Sonic Youth – Nurse

Well, if you’re a fan, you probably know exactly what this sounds like before you’ve heard it. Luckily, it sounds great, with plenty of inventive guitar duelling, and like ‘Murray Street’ and ‘A Thousand Leaves’ before it, favouring memorable and daring composition over abstract or impressionistic sound collage.

64) Abram Wilson – Jazz Warrior

The Dune jazz label is going from strength to strength at the moment, delivering some of the finest and most inventive British jazz in years. Last year’s debut from Soweto Kinch has now established itself as a key benchmark, and it is to these heights that Abram Wilson’s collection aspires. Arguably, it doesn’t quite achieve this, simply because the music doesn’t perhaps swing with quite the fiery intensity of Kinch’s best work. It is, however, extraordinarily fresh, with an understanding of hip-hop, soul and pop as well as the occasionally narrow minded jazz scene. These genres collide with peculiar subtlessness, dignity and effectiveness on this gem of an album.

63) Squarepusher – Ultravisitor

Despite all the emphasis on jazz improv and musical experimentation, Tom Jenkins’ new album was actually a great deal more cohesive than expected. ‘Go Plastic’ and ‘Do You Know Squarepusher?’, intermittently brilliant though they were, felt like ready made homes for a couple of outstanding singles and nothing else. ‘Ultravisitor’, however has a coherence and questing enthusiasm rare in most dance releases.

62) Khonnor – Handwriting

A debut album of considerable promise, and one of the most convincing and palatable melding of electronics with traditional songwriting forms of recent years. Khonnor is only 17, and already blessed with a considerable talent for crafting unique sounds. Added to this is a gift for subtle, implied melody, and the results are entrancing.

61) The Bad Plus – Give

Almost too cool for school, The Bad Plus proved to be the jazz piano trio it was OK for indie and rock fans to like. They even supported The Pixies for a few dates on their North American tour – a pairing that must have been quite fascinating. They combine quirky pop cover versions (excellent versions of tunes by Black Sabbath and Aphex Twin are included here) with some restlessly shifting compositions of their own. If they are sometimes guilty of overplaying, they are at their best when they effortlessly hit a groove that is deeply indebted to acoustic jazz traditions, but incorporates the drive of the rock music they clearly appreciate. Great cover art too.

60) Magnetic Fields – I

Another concept following the considerable riches of ‘69 Love Songs’, this new project from Stevin Merritt saw him writing a collection of love songs all beginning with ‘I’ and all heavy with his trademark irony. The first half of the album is outstanding, and contains some of Merritt’s best songs – where the wry humour is only undercut by the nagging sense that these songs are simultaneously genuinely affecting. It descends into rather naff lounge bar parody towards the end – which is a shame, because had it been a short mini album, ‘I’ may well have been the best pop release of the year.

59) Brooks – Red Tape

Released on Matthew Herbert’s label, this excellent album simply gets better with every listen, its driving rhythms and catchy extrapolation of disco forms providing one of the most interesting club albums of the year. This album contained a diverse array of weird and intriguing sounds, as well as some cleverly textured production work. An extraordinary take on PJ Harvey’s ‘Man Size’ may well be the cover version of the year.

58) Franz Ferdinand – Franz Ferdinand

Impossible to resist (or indeed to avoid), this was the classic indie dancefloor collection of 2004. It was witty, intelligent, defiantly arty and it’s unarguably refreshing that a band of this nature can sell over a million records. No doubt it has left them wondering where to go next and we will have to hope that they don’t rest on their laurels when they are clearly capable of a better album next time. All the key influences are in place – Talking Heads, Gang Of Four et al but what really sticks in the mind is the quality of the writing - which is outstanding.

57) Clouddead – Ten

It seems bizarre that this will stand as Clouddead’s only proper album (their debut release was a compilation of their first few singles), and as their various splinter projects assume importance of their own, its worth remembering that it’s as a collective that they were most effective. The dense stream of consciousness wordplay has proved influential as well as striking, and the cinematic quality of the music adds to the strangely intoxicating atmosphere. This is hip-hop far removed from current trends or naïve boasting. It’s original and exciting stuff.

56) The Libertines – The Libertines

Their continuing soap opera consumed more column inches than any other band this year, and with appearances on Newsnight and stories in the national press, The Libertines appear to have become as much an outlet for cultural voyeurs as they are a great pop band. Much as I hate to admit it, they are a great pop band. There’s something uniquely exciting and refreshing about the sparring between Pete Doherty and Carl Barat, adding both a dangerous intensity and an endearing playfulness to their distinctively British pop songwriting. Plus the ragged guitar duelling sounds great, and the rhythm section is appropriately relentless.

55) Laura Veirs – Carbon Glacier

This is delightfully atmospheric and, given its title, appropriately icy. Veirs’ voice eschews technical quality in favour of a striking and slightly harsh delivery, and when this is set against her plucked acoustic guitars and shimmering electric effects, the results are remarkably hypnotic. The writing is elegiac, reflective and literate too.

54) Alice Coltrane – Translinear Light

Whilst it doesn’t offer any major surprises, ‘Translinear Light’ is still a deeply spiritual and moving collection, including both some fiery free playing and some deeply calming gospel-inspired work. At the very least, it’s great to have as significant and talented a musician and composer as Coltrane back in the public domain, hopefully finally stepping out of her late husband’s critical shadow and earning her dues as an innovator in her own right.

53) Califone – Heron King Blues

This is far more weird and warped a take on the blues than the bludgeoning clang of The White Stripes, and ‘Heron King Blues’ is among the most challenging albums of the year. It occupies its own dreamlike state and, particularly in the earlier tracks, with their gamelan-esque percussion sounds, is deeply compelling.

52) The Broken Family Band – Jesus Songs

A mini album to quench our thirst while we wait for the imminent ‘Welcome Home, Loser’ album, ‘Jesus Songs’ was far more than just an adequate stop-gap. It was a brief but consistently thrilling collection of pop songs dispensing razor sharp wit and considerable wisdom in equal measure. Steve Adams’ claim that BFB are as much a punk band as a country band is now beginning to make more sense, as the band’s vision crystallises further with each successive release. They are fast becoming a national treasure, at least for those in the know.

51) The Shins – Chutes Too Narrow

This collection of pure pop gems is effortlessly thrilling. The twisting and shifting melodies feel both comfortingly familiar but also slightly quirky and endearing. Only the rather verbose lyrics slightly over-egg the pudding, but with tunes this good and with a crisp and enervating production, they can be forgiven.

50) The Earlies – These Were The Earlies

One of the very best debuts of the year, this transatlantic group conjured magic with their extravagant arrangements and diverse array of sounds and influences. This is almost overburdened with ideas and it’s remarkable that it ends up sounding fresh and invigorating rather than contrived and confused.

49) Aberfeldy – Young Forever

Even if I had wanted to, I couldn’t escape this band this year, as they seemed to be the support act for almost every gig I went to! There was something charming and deeply unfashionable about their twee indie quest to move beyond merely unrequited love, and the combination of Riley Brigg’s whimsical lyrics and vulnerable vocal with the chirpy female backing vocals made for a winning combination. This may have been a big year for acoustic guitar-based music, but with broken old keyboards and even (oh yes!) glockenspiels added to the mix, Aberfeldy stood out from the crowd.

48) Micah P Hinson – The Gospel Of Progress

With The Earlies as his backing band, vagrant troubadour Hinson crafted a more expansive sound than many of his folk songwriter contemporaries. That the songs sounded lovelorn, emotive, even occasionally aggressive added to this album’s considerable power.

47) Sam Phillips – A Boot And A Shoe

Not the Sun records founder, but rather Mrs. T-Bone Burnett, with a stylish and classy album demonstrating considerable talent. The production is understated but also nuanced, giving full focus to her rich and elegantly expressive vocals. This sounds like a late evening record – something to enjoy on a veranda somewhere in the American backwoods.

46) The Fiery Furnaces – Blueberry Boat

One of those records you either fell in love with, or hated with a passion, ‘Blueberry Boat’ was overlong, self-indulgent and overwhelming, but only in the best possible way. ‘Blueberry Boat’ was an extraordinary suite of audacious songwriting, most of which eschewed any attempt to impose structure or order. Instead, each song worked as a mini kitchen sink epic, many telling elaborate and highly entertaining fairytales along the way. Musically, it veered from Brill building pop to classic rock influences betraying their love for The Who. As entertaining as it was epic, ‘Blueberry Boat’ had massive reserves of chutzpah and intelligence.

45) Destroyer – Your Blues

This project from erstwhile New Pornographer Dan Bejar was a far cry from that band’s crunchy power pop. Incorporating elements of folk song, sea shanties and sci-fi synth strings, ‘Your Blues’ had a distinct and unfashionable sound all of its own. With a clutch of slightly odd but totally enchanting songs at its core, ‘Your Blues’ was one of 2004’s more mysterious offerings.

44) Apostle of Hustle – Folkloric Feel

This album from Andrew Whiting, guitarist in Toronto’s amorphous collective Broken Social Scene, shared that band’s reluctance to pin down to one distinct sound, instead veering through Cuban folk music, Slint-esque post rock, and radical guitar textures. With the help of various other members of Broken Social Scene and the unmistakable studio work of producer Dave Neufeld, ‘Folkloric Feel’ made for an impressive and engaging listen.

43) Prince – Musicology

Prince’s best and most accessible album in years featured some audacious and quality pop songwriting, as well as his grooviest performances in some years. He seems to be completely ageless, having as much energy now as he had in his youth, even though some of the aggressive sexuality has inevitably been tempted by his newfound role as a Jehovah’s witness. A chart-worthy collection retro-nostalgia and sugar-coated funk, ‘Musicology’ may not be his most original or audacious collection, but it sounded like Prince was ready to engage with his audience again.

42) David Byrne – Grown Backwards

It seems to have been criminally overlooked as ‘just another David Byrne album’ but, if anything, ‘Grown Backwards’ combined Byrne’s disparate interests with greater cohesion than his previous works. It also presented an intriguing outlook, with ironic and perceptive commentary on the new American imperialism. This was an album acutely engaged with the contemporary world, but also inclined to revisit older forms, such as the surprisingly successful rendition of two arias (where Byrne’s voice melds deliciously with that of Rufus Wainwright). The arrangements were characteristically ornate, the mood largely hushed and restrained. Delicate, mature and delightful.

41) Jolie Holland – Escondida

‘Escondida’ was another diamond in a year that has simply been wonderful for distinctive female voices. Holland has tints of jazz phrasing, and the music is a much more mellifluous, artistic and atmospheric melding of country and jazz than that of the anaemic Norah Jones. If only that many people had bought this lush record, with its moments of keening romanticism and dignified wisdom, the charts would be a less anodyne, much more thrilling domain.

40) Leonard Cohen – Dear Heather

Some people have argued that ‘Dear Heather’ represented a move towards simplicity and directness, a bit like Dylan’s rejection of dense poetry on ‘Nashville Skyline’ and ‘New Morning’. The lyrics are certainly mercilessly concise but, to my mind, ‘Dear Heather’ is one of Leonard Cohen’s more impenetrable albums. It is often playful, but the hints of finality and mortality are never far away and it is this that makes it an ultimately moving creation. Musically, he remains tied to the basic (and frequently cheesy) synth arrangements of Leanne Ungar and Sharon Robinson, and he relies even more heavily on cooing female harmonies this time around, his own voice decaying to a soft and resigned whisper. At its best, ‘Dear Heather’ is staggeringly beautiful, and ‘Nightingale’, ‘The Faith’ and the mournful setting of Byron’s ‘Go No More-A-Roving’ are among his best ever recordings.

39) Loretta Lynn - Van Lear Rose

'Van Lear Rose' saw Loretta Lynn return with her first entirely self-penned collection, whilst the production duties carried out by Jack White leant this album an indie credibility not usually associated with Nashville country legends. Mercifully, it was also a cracking record. Much as I like to hate the hype machine that surrounds the White Stripes, Jack White clearly has a thorough feel for the music, and the raw, classic sound that he creates gives ample space for the songs to breathe. Lynn's voice is remarkably rich for someone seventy years old, and her songwriting is frequently marvellous, full of semi-autobiographical narrative and moments of stark, imposing honesty. If it sometimes falls into slightly hokey country conventions, this can be forgiven as the moments when Lynn and band rock out are full of tension and danger.

38) Neko Case – The Tigers Have Spoken

This bafflingly underrated live album struck me as one of the most charming releases of the year, with a full bodied sound that rode on the crest of a wave of glamorous musical history. Case’s voice sounded thrillingly alive, and the band could be both contemplative and invigorated where necessary. Its selection of cover versions showed that the art of interpretation remains healthy in modern country music, and the originals were no less impressive or engaging. A real treat.

37) Steve Earle – The Revolution Starts Now

I dearly wish I could say that this had been the key record of the American election campaign, but sadly its righteous and polemical fury failed to ignite the American electorate. These songs are not aiming for subtlety – some of them are cannonballs to the very heart of the American problem. They are also deeply patriotic and proud – proving that the two need not be mutually exclusive, and swiftly undermining Bush’s McCarthyite dichotomising rhetoric. ‘TRSN’ is a savage but dignified and intelligent swipe at the dominant global superpower.

36) The Hidden Cameras – Mississauga Goddamn

Another collection of extremely infectious pop songs concealing some wonderfully subversive lyrics, the self-professed ‘gay folk church’ band stepped up a gear here. The best moments are the most reflective, with Joel Gibb elucidating adolescence superbly and, one would assume, accurately on ‘Music Is My Boyfriend’, and bemoaning the small-mindedness of his hometown in the wonderful title track (which was sterling despite its resemblance to Atomic Kitten’s ‘Whole Again’).

35) Morrissey – You Are The Quarry

Morrissey’s ‘comeback’ is probably the most flawed album in my top 30, but somehow this only adds to its appeal. There is a real sense of grandiloquence to ‘You Are The Quarry’, as its production alternates between crisp and lavish. It contains some of Morrissey’s most biting lyrical content, as well as some more predictable rants about judges and record company bosses. His voice is also noticeably improved, eschewing some of its more uncomfortable and unorthodox quirks in favour of a rich, authoritative croon. He remains a peerless personality – and, finally, ‘You Are The Quarry’ has seen him elevated from cult hero to enormodome-filling megastar.

34) DJ/Rupture – Special Gunpowder

‘Special Gunpowder’ feels like a truly global record, incorporating dancehall reggae, South American rhythms, western funk and traditional African sounds. It’s a brilliant concoction – full of energy and invention, and many of the tracks here are command the listener’s attention as well as dominating the dancefloor.

33) Interpol – Antics

Whilst this perhaps suffers a little from over familiarity following the all-conquering ‘Turn On The Bright Lights’, it is an effective extension of that record’s powerful formula. If anything, it’s more accessible, placing more emphasis on vocal phrasing, melody and rhythmic drive, where its predecessor preferred to emphasise atmosphere and texture. For some this might be a compromise, but there’s more than enough dark gothic fantasy for most ears, and it makes for a more immediate, crisper listen than its acclaimed predecessor.

32) Panda Bear – Young Prayer

This arguably works more as a modern composition than a conventional pop album, and it remains one of the most strangely beguiling releases of the year. There are no discernible lyrics, but plenty of feeling is conveyed through the delicately strummed, arrhythmic guitar patterns and the mumbled vocal noises. It moves into more ritualistic territory with handclap patterns and repeated piano chords, creating a powerful and affecting contrast. What could be very po-faced indeed ends up a touching elegy for Panda Bear’s recently departed father.

31) Feist – Let It Die

Like the debut album of her band (Broken Social Scene), Leslie Feist’s album is a compelling mesh of diverse styles and sounds. Unlike the band, however, this is a lot less indie and a great deal more pop, encompassing a cinematic swirl and sublime melodic touch to go with the elements of folk, chanson, disco and philly soul that can be found elsewhere. Feist’s voice has some of the jazz tilt of Jolie Holland or Erin McKeown, and her own songs are elemental and deceptively sweet. The best moments here are the interpretations though – including a more elaborate and delightfully touching rendition of Ron Sexsmith’s ‘Secret Heart’ and a shamelessly groovy take on The Bee Gees composition ‘Inside and Out’. The combination of Feist’s expressive vocals with the production trickery and sense of fun of Chilly Gonzales makes for a magical combination.

30) American Music Club – Love Songs For Patriots

Whilst the Pixies reunion may have garnered rather more in the way of column inches, the return of American Music Club actually produced some fruitful new material. In fact, that’s an understatement, as ‘Love Songs For Patriots’ is certainly their least impenetrable and possibly their very best album to date. Mark Eitzel’s trademark miserabilism is still intact, but it is complemented both by a powerful state of the union address and a hopeful look to the future and faith in the redemptive power of love. There’s plenty of wit and wisdom here, and the whole album sounds fantastic, with some dynamic group playing and inventive studio work.

29) Sufjan Stevens – Seven Swans

Stevens’ first UK release was less ornate than his ‘Michigan’ project, with a more consistent stripped back sound with lyrics rich in fearful Christian imagery with a veangeful God and the consistent presence of temptation. All these songs made a great deal more sense in the context of Stevens’ live show, where his laid back, self-effacing narrative linked them more closely with the Michigan project and added a more personal dimension to this collection, where many of the songs seem to be gleefully extemporised from small personal experiences. There’s still plenty of softly delivered melodic grace, and nifty banjo plucking – and it’s clear that Stevens is a major songwriting talent.

28) The Memory Band – The Memory Band

This unclassifiable record draws deep into the well of English folk traditions, whilst also demonstrating a talent for electronic production and a clear knowledge and understanding of other forms – including jazz. It’s more than just another ‘folktronica’ or ‘pastoral electronica’ record though – it has a great ear for unusual combinations of ideas, and also maintains a sprightly charm throughout.

27) MF Doom – Mmm…Food

Amazingly, this was one of three MF Doom releases in 2004 (one of the other two is significantly higher up this list). It doesn’t seem that he was spreading himself too thinly though, as this solo project is almost as striking as his collaborative work. He uses samples to build a compelling character portrait of his alter ego, where he inhabits a comic book world of heroes and villains. His raps are full of wit and brio, and the atmospheric sound is as engaging as the relentless wordplay.

26) Hot Chip – Coming On Strong

Hot Chip’s lo-fi bedroom electronica has been described in some quarters as ‘gameboy soul’. Whilst this was clearly meant as a compliment, it’s also slightly misleading, as there is much more to Hot Chip than mere bleeping and crooning. Their philosophy often involves throwing everything but the kitchen sink into each track, and whilst the tone of their home recordings is more muted than their more energetic live performances, the singular results they manage to draw from diverse influences is refreshingly inventive. Alexis Taylor has an adept way with lilting, affecting melodies that make for a neat contrast with Joe Goddard’s hip-hop inspired beats and effects. There’s also a distinctive sense of humour at work here, one that shows a healthy sense of fun and self-mockery. They are intelligent enough to pre-empt any white-boy funk jibes with the wit and effrontery of tracks like ‘Playboy’ and ‘Keep Fallin’. They are prolific writers too (some of their best tracks were left off this collection), so I doubt we will have to wait long for an even better album.

25) Colin Towns Mask Orchestra – Orpheus Suite

Colin Towns is an admirable big band composer in the Duke Ellington mould, and ‘The Orpheus Suite’, composed for the Royal National Ballet, may be his most spectacular work yet. There are elements of Bernstein and West Side Story in this climactic and hectic work, but there are also moments of considerable lyrical beauty. It’s all about arrangement rather than improvisation – but Towns is such a brilliant arranger that he manages to make much of this sound spontaneous and divinely inspired.

24) Tom Waits – Real Gone

‘Real Gone’ has continued to grow on me following Tom Waits’ extraordinary return to live performance in London. It’s a gnarly, grizzly record, full of minimalist, primal blues and rootsy balladeering. There’s no piano to soften the harshness this time, and it possibly seems foreboding due to its excessive 70+ minutes of running time. Nevertheless, there’s some impressive work here, not least in Waits’ still shocking ability to transform the entire tone and timbre of his voice to suit his musical environment. It’s also great to here him reunited with Marc Ribot, a dazzlingly brilliant guitarist who remains as sensitive as he is explosive.

23) Polar Bear – Dim Lit

Utilising roughly the same band as the Acoustic Ladyland project (replacing pianist Tom Cawley with saxophonist Mark Lockheart), Polar Bear provided space for the audacious compositions of drummer Seb Rochford. With no real harmonic foundation (the band lack a pianist or guitarist), it’s intriguing to hear how successfully the band works here, with some wonderfully inventive work from Rochford and bass player Tom Herbert combining with the instinctively tight saxophone duelling of Lockheart and Pete Wareham. Wareham mostly restrains his Coltrane-esque tendencies here, making the short bursts of free playing all the more striking. Instead, this is more focussed on rhythm and harmony, with some careful deployment of drum programming and electronic influences to pepper the sound. It’s a distinctive, highly engaging treatment of the traditional jazz quartet, rich in both ideas and feeling.

22) Dani Siciliano – Likes

Whilst it would be wrong to classify Dani Siciliano as a jazz singer, she carries with her some of the elegance of expression and inventiveness of phrasing of a Billie Holliday or an Ella Fitzgerald. When coupled with the innovative sample-based production of her husband and partner-in-sound Matthew Herbert, the results are superb. Some have dismissed this as a Matthew Herbert album in all but name, but this would not only undermine Siciliano’s classy vocal skills, as evidenced in a superb reinterpretation of Nirvana’s ‘Come As You Are’, but also her songwriting. Most of these songs were demoed by Siciliano alone, before being furnished at Herbert’s studio. His production techniques certainly predominate the album, but there is clearly enough substance in these elegant and seductive songs to begin with. The combination of the two is ceaselessly inventive, and rewarding, from the luscious and lengthy ‘Same’ to the stark and minimalist ‘Walk The Line’.

21) Elvis Costello and the Imposters – The Delivery Man

Although Costello arguably relented slightly on the concept (the final version of ‘The Delivery Man’ was more like a conventional collection of songs than a song cycle), ‘The Delivery Man’ was still a powerful and characteristically tempestuous document. Many of the songs had a savage bite to them, and even the apparently sweet ballads carried Costello’s distinctive breed of poisoned malice. His voice sounded rougher than on the treacly ‘North’, and, as ever, he seemed to inhabit his material with a convincing commitment.

20) Joanna Newsom – The Milk Eyed Mendor

Definitely the kookiest album of the year by a country mile, but one that leaves a lasting impression, and becomes more palatable with each listen. Newson’s voice is initially grating – a crushing and uncompromising squawk. Yet it also allows for considerable depth of expression and conveys the delicate idealism and fanciful innocence of her lyrics with admirable clarity. Even more striking is her harp playing. Not only is it great to hear such a rarely deployed instrument in the context of pop songwriting, it’s even better to hear it played so deftly, with a staggering variety of techniques and approaches.

19) TV On The Radio – Desperate Youths, Bloodthirsty Babes

Could this wonderful record be the start of a doo-wop revival? Part of me hopes so, especially as one of the most impressive tracks here is entirely accapella. Elsewhere, there is some skronky saxophone, heavy layers of distored guitar and stuttering drum maching patterns to add to the freakish mix. Most bands who through so many ideas at the wall would end up sounding confused, but TV On The Radio combine their disparate influences into a coherent sound which has a warped logic of its own. Deliciously inventive, challenging and enjoyable, this album triumphed despite its somewhat clunky title.

18) Acoustic Ladyland – Camouflage

In a brilliant year for British jazz, the Acoustic Ladyland provided one of the most energetic and inspired collections of the year. The tracks here all take their inspiration from Hendrix, but using a small band acoustic jazz set up. The collective playing veers from the fiery to the reflective, and the band is also capable of setting up the tightest of grooves, testament to their enduring love of Hendrix’s bluesy rock music. There’s no sense of pointless nostalgia here – nor any of the rock bluster that undermines many of Hendrix’s legion of imitators. ‘Camouflage’ is one of the more forward thinking jazz albums of the year, pushing the quartet format into new and exciting directions.

17) Iron and Wine – Our Endless Numbered Days

This soft, deeply hushed collection had a rustic feel that made it sound as old as the hills. The songwriting also benefited from an allusive poetry that gave the songs a certain timelessness as well. The muted tones of Sam Beam’s vocals betrayed the influence of the late Elliott Smith, but the southern gothic imagery was entirely Beam’s own, and seemed highly appropriate from a man who otherwise makes his living as a photographer. ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’ was a richly rewarding analysis of death and decay which sounded like the lost soundtrack to a William Faulkner novel - unsettling, evocative and strangely moving.

16) Fennesz – Venice

Continuing his journey away from uncompromising glitchcore towards something much warmer and more ingratiating, Christian Fennesz followed up the marvellous ‘Endless Summer’ with another sublime and rapturous statement, somehow managing to humanise the often rather academic pursuit of laptop improvisation. The result was a densely layered, swirling sound that was as moving as it was powerfully hypnotic. Fennesz’s subtle methods of implying melody within his heavily textured sounds continue to mark him out as a crucial figure in electronic music.

15) Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – The Doldrums/Vital Pink

Easily the least technically adept album that I’ve enjoyed in 2004, ‘The Doldrums’ is all over the place – with out-of-tune vocals, clashing harmonies and all manner of unusual sound effects gaining more prominence than conventional instrumentation. Nevertheless, it all works surprisingly well, and is characterised by an ambitious and sensuous sensurround pop sensibility. It’s an original and endearing collection, where the finished result is much more than the sum of its rather cranky parts.

14) Arthur Russell – Calling Out Of Context

In which legendary producer Arthur Russell does a Tupac Shakur and releases a new collection long after his premature death. Remarkably, his sound has dated well, and has been well worth revisiting in 2004. His vocals here sound distant and unfamiliar, lingering on meandering, uncertain melodies whilst the music is both elegantly floating and incessantly rhythmic. The sound also has some of the aquatic quality of Miles Davis’ electric/fusion period.

13) Elliott Smith – From The Basement On A Hill

In light of his tragic suicide, this is a deeply moving collection – but it’s not simply a miserabilist document. It’s also perceptive, incisive and emotionally overwhelming – the brilliant final statement of a genuinely gifted songwriter. There’s a lingering sense here that Elliott was still only just beginning to explore new forms and ideas, and ‘From A Basement…’ is easily the most diverse collection in the Elliott Smith canon. It’s probably not as audacious as the album he wanted to release, but it is even more impressive than I had expected it to be.

12) Adem – Homesongs

Fridge bassist Adem Ilhan produced the surprise gem of the year with an album of stark and intimate folk songs that effortlessly welded the traditional and the strikingly modern. Some of these songs sounded so forthright and personal that it was almost voyeuristic to listen to them, whilst elsewhere the predominating mood was shamelessly sentimental. Adem’s vocals sounded rough at the edges, but ultimately warm and convincing, and the music featured all manner of unusual instruments to create a somewhat alien timbre.

11) Mark Lanegan Band – Bubblegum

Anyone expecting a heavy rock set from Lanegan following his recent moonlighting with Queens of The Stone Age may well be confounded by this set, which seems to owe a heavy debt to classic blues artists such as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, as well as the dark cabaret of Tom Waits. It’s an impressive set, muddy in the best possible way, and captivating from start to finish. Lanegan’s bourbon soaked voice has never sounded more grimly compelling, and the songs rank among his most concise and consistent. Most impressive is the way he gets elaborate results from rudimentary structures and approaches.

10) Bjork – Medulla

I moaned a bit that this wasn’t as good as ‘Vespertine’ but, then again, what is? ‘Medulla’ was still technically audacious and powerful stuff, even if it lacked some of the fearlessly intimate emotion of its predecessor. It wasn’t quite the all-vocal album it promised to be, but ‘Medulla’ still found Bjork expanding her vocal range and using voices in a range of percussive, harmonic and melodic settings. Her songs remain wildly unpredictable, with her melodies employing uncompromising intervals that are always made to sound just right. The collaborative approach also reaped rewards – Mike Patton’s contributions are effective, and the combination of the voices of Bjork and Robert Wyatt is unsurprisingly beautiful. ‘Medulla’ arguably served as an extension of the choral philosophy that underpinned ‘Verspertine’ – although the end result was something different. ‘Medulla’ is more intoxicating than emotive, and just like any Bjork album, it remains impossible to ignore.

9) Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus

In a year of excess, Nick Cave produced the most consistently engaging double album. That it came after two albums of occasionally brilliant but more often either unconvincing or muted material made it all the more surprising and satisfying. If the two were made to compete against each other, ‘Abattoir Blues’ would probably have the edge. It favours Cave’s more unrestrained material and, even though the departure of Blixa Bargeld might have left a substantial hole, The Bad Seeds sound as explosive and degenerate as ever. The addition of the London Community Gospel Choir is also far from trite, giving the material a genuinely soulful edge. Cave also seems to have rediscovered his sense of humour and, where his lyrics have tended towards pomposity or self-parody of late, most of the words here seem both intelligent and intentionally hilarious. Some of the more reflective moments on ‘The Lyre Of Orpheus’ also have a spiritual quality which is engaging and stirring – and this is easily Cave’s best set of material since ‘The Boatman’s Call’.

8) Brian Wilson – Smile

I know I’ve made myself vulnerable to cries from purists for not making this the album of the year. Yet, let’s be honest – ‘Smile’ should have been the best album of 1967, and not the best album of 2004. Even in it’s near-seamlessly merged, supposedly final state, it feels more like an artefact than something truly new, and I would be bowing to established critical norms if I said this was the best album of the year. Nevertheless, it does stand up remarkably well, and it’s easy to see just how influential much of this music has been in the intervening period. If its surrealist, playful mood sometimes seems silly, at its best, ‘Smile’ is as powerfully moving a demonstration of Wilson’s fragile mindset as anything currently available, particularly in its preoccupation with the primacy of childhood. Re-recordings of ‘Good Vibrations’, ‘Surf’s Up’ , ‘Cabinessence’ et al seem superfluous at best (Wilson’s band remain slavishly faithful to the original arrangements), but the utter joy here is hearing this music together as a complete vision, and for this reason it is admirable that Wilson didn’t just attempt a savage editing job with the existing bootleg material.

7) Madvillain – Madvillainy

Whilst the world fawned over Kanye West’s rather uninspired sped-up soul samples, those in the know went straight for this magnificent collaboration between MF Doom (the masked, ‘many-fingered villain’ and one of the most irresistible characters in hip-hop) and producer extraordinaire Madlib. With its mercilessly concise tracks and razor-sharp wit and invention, this was a rare hip-hop album entirely devoid of filler. It’s old film and cartoon samples also gave it a vibrant, cinematic edge that distanced it from tired rap clichés.

6) Jason Molina – The Pyramid Electric Co.

Following two brilliant albums with Songs:Ohia last year, Jason Molina eschewed the band set-up altogether for this intimate collection. ‘The Pyramid Electric Co.’ is anything but polite, however, and many of these selections are every bit as intense and confrontational as the Neil Young inspired blues of the complementary ‘Magnolia Electric Co.’ album. The songs are unbelievably raw, and delivered with a gutsy passion and commitment that takes Molina further away from his initial debt to mentor Will Oldham. The only problem was just how hard to find this record was, released only on limited edition vinyl. It therefore seems like a lost treasure, ignored by consumers and critics alike. For those that missed out, Molina will be back with his band (now confusingly dubbed ‘The Magnolia Electric Co.’ after the album) with both a live album and a new Steve Albini-produced studio set in 2005.

5) Animal Collective – Sung Tongs

‘Sung Tongs’ could perhaps best be described as an endearing mess. It’s certainly ragged and jam-packed with so many ideas that it seems permanently on the brink of collapse. Yet it is also the most cohesive and impressive statement yet from Avey Tare and Panda Bear, erring towards their more controlled, melodic side rather than the slightly frustrating feedback constructions of their first two albums. ‘Sung Tongs’ incorporates the harmonic joy of Brian Wilson, the pastoral psychedelia of Syd Barrett and even some of the off-kilter rhythmic stutters of Timbaland or The Neptunes. Overall, it’s an engrossing, if sometimes confusing, distillation of chaotic impulses.

4) El-P – High Water

‘High Water’ has managed to attain the lofty position of being both my favourite jazz and my favourite hip-hop album of the year. From that, you’ll probably have guessed that it’s a tidy combination of the two genres (some snobs might claim that they are mutually exclusive – but they could do worse than give this powerful, atmospheric record a listen). It’s El-P’s combination to the ongoing Blue Series Continuum project, and it features contributions from well-known avant-garde jazzers Matthew Shipp and William Parker. What could have been somewhat extreme actually turns out to be surprisingly accessible, albeit dense and unpredictable. It works because the compositions and beats are structured intelligently, allowing the musicians plenty of free space to contribute their own ideas. It therefore seems like a true meeting of minds, rather than an imposition of one sound over another. The mood is heavy and foreboding throughout, echoing El-P’s work with Cannibal Ox on ‘The Cold Vein’ (an album which truly defines the word ‘urban’ with all its gritty, dank paranoia). ‘High Water’ is simmering with threatening tension and makes for an enveloping, claustrophobic listen.

3) Sufjan Stevens – Greetings From Michigan – The Great Lake State

I’ve debated at length whether or not this record is eligible for this year’s list, especially as I included it amongst the ones that got away for 2003. Given that this list also includes The Shins (released Stateside in 2003) and also that last year’s winner, Broken Social Scene’s ‘You Forgot It In People’ was released in some territories in 2002, it would seem churlish and unfair to leave this wonderful gem by the wayside simply because it was first released last year (it was given a UK release with two bonus tracks this year). Apparently, the first in a long term step to produce an album for all the US states (I’m not going to bet on Stevens managing to complete this), ‘Michigan’ was an honest and powerful document of Stevens’ home state, including some affecting social commentary along the way. Stevens plays a whole range of instruments, including whistles, reed and wind instruments alongside his trusty banjo and guitar and his voice is a delicate rustle and whisper, although capable of assuming a more powerful mode where necessary. Like Badly Drawn Boy or Elliott Smith, he is capable of adorning his charming melodies with unusually lavish and ornate arrangements, which add to his individual appeal as something of a maverick songwriter, although its clear from his stripped-down live shows that these songs are more than strong enough to survive without the orchestrations.

2) The Arcade Fire – Funeral

I can assure you that I don’t usually hear voices in my head – but all the way through compiling this list, I have felt an urging to put this album at the very top of the list. I have only restrained myself on the basis that it’s one of my most recent acquisitions and I’m still finding it hard to remove it from my CD player. It’s a brilliant album, with an unfashionable romanticism and affecting analysis of grief and departure. It also seems to neatly capture the youthful fantasy of escape, not just in its fascinating lyrical narrative, but also in the widescreen rapture of the music. ‘Funeral’ has such a range of influences that it ends up sounding fresh and invigorating, coupling a relentless rhythmic drive with melodic extravagance. Awesome packaging as well, which is a bonus in the download age. It’s going to get a full UK release on Rough Trade in February, and I can only hope it follows The Libertines and Franz Ferdinand in becoming an unqualified success.

1) Wilco – A Ghost Is Born

Bafflingly released to somewhat mixed reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, to my mind, ‘A Ghost Is Born’ is Wilco’s best record to date and therefore something very special indeed. Either denounced as more ‘conventional’ that its predecessor ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ (hardly an experimental record, beyond its occasional use of radio static and feedback), or condemned for its more audience-baiting tactics, ‘A Ghost Is Born’ seemed unfortunately snared in a false dichotomy. The joy of Wilco lies not in their tendency to pioneer, or in their faithful devotion to classic songwriting formulae, but rather in their seamless and elegant combination of the two. ‘A Ghost Is Born’ is the most fruitful step on this journey so far, incorporating vivid, squawking guitar solos that lack indulgence because they appear seemingly out of nowhere, explosions of pent-up energy and frustration. There is also plenty of subtle guitar picking and ghostly piano chords to counterbalance this – and the result is a work that seems unified and coherent. It’s also their most poetic album to date, weaving a tapestry of richly evocative imagery that adds to the hypnotic quality of the music. Whether it be the explosive dynamics of the Neu-esque ‘Spiders’, the delicately moving ‘Hummingbird’ or the mysterious, quietly menacing ‘Hell Is Chrome’, this is the most compelling album of 2004.

Honourable Mentions

…or albums that may have made this list had I managed to actually managed to hear them in their entirety…

The Crimea – Tragedy Rocks
Frankie Machine
Adrian Roye – Welcome To One Man Town – excluded on the basis that I contribute to it – but it’s a brilliant record in spite of this! Check out for more information!
The Unicorns – Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?
Ella Guru – The First Album
Solex – The Laughing Stock of Indie Rock – definitely best title of the year!
Beans – Shock City Maverick
Tomasz Stanko Quartet – Suspended Night
Polly Paulusma – Scissors In My Pocket
Blonde Redhead – Misery Is A Butterfly
Guided By Voices – Half Smiles Of The Decomposed
Mike Ladd – Nostalgialator
Vijay Iher and Mike Ladd – In What Language?
PJ Harvey – Uh Huh Her
Blood Brothers – Crimes
Tim Garland – Change Of Season
Tim Berne’s Big Satan – Souls Saved Here
Charlotte Hatherley - Grey Will Fade

Log back on to In League With Paton over the next couple of weeks for lists of the best singles and films of 2004! Also, some brand new reviews for 2005 are in the pipeline – including the new albums by Mercury Rev, Lou Barlow, Bloc Party and Patrick Wolf!


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