2004 was a strong year for music. A stronger year than has been seen in some time. Coming off last year’s smash albums by Outkast and The White Stripes the artists in the industry seemed energized and enthusiastic. Many made massive strides towards indulgence and many just refined their craft.
A whole slew found it necessary to record double albums and a few wowed us with their excellence. In particular, mxdwn’s Top 5 Albums of 2004 tell 2 distinct stories. One depicts the dual nature of hip-hop and the other the dual nature of alternative music. This duality resides entirely in each artist´s approach. One hip-hop artist is of a more mainstream variety while the other is more underground. The same can be said of the alternative artists.
Furthermore, what makes each album successful is not being lost to their approach. Our number 3 album has elements of mainstream hip-hop but is clearly built from an underground mindset. On the other hand, our number 2 album is predominantly mainstream indie rock but has solid grounding in the tenets of underground alternative music. What this means is that popular-culture and counter-culture music are learning from each other. The usually dissimilar notions of proper musical construction are this year, benefiting from keeping an open mind. Instead of pulling apart, for a change, these differences are pulling together and the results are contained here. Nominated and voted on by our entire staff The Top 5 Albums of 2004.
This may not be a record that has reinvented the wheel or paved bold new musical roads, but it’s just goddamn good. Kind of akin to the moment when the most beautiful person ever enters the room and you find yourself powerless, unable to do anything except pay attention. Not in an intense, frustrating way, though. More like pristine elegance. This record is so beautiful it practically hurts. When it Falls is a masterful mix of jazzy pacing, downtempo rhythms and electronic tone color. The record’s BPM never quite makes it to a club pulse, yet is solid enough to keep heads bobbing and feet moving.
Principal members Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker take every song from minimal melody through seamless transitions into uplifting orchestral crescendos. The simplest ideas become colossal in stature after a mere three or four minutes. In “Home” Tina Dico contributes to this process with a siren-like delivery of the ending line, “Won’t you take me home / Cause lately I’ve been losing on my own.”
Like previous work from Zero 7, When it Falls makes use of several top-tier vocalists on most of the tracks. Along with Dico, Sophie Barker, Sia Furler and Mozez all sing on several tracks of their own. The singers help lend focus to the record and all maintain a breathy delivery that is both alluring and downright pretty. All this makes for an irresistible mix of poise and soul.
Book of Horizons is an album so well thought out, it begs the question, “Can an artist go too far?” Mr. Bungle alumnus Trey Spruance has steered this project from what was once only a side project into the uncharted musical territory. Few musicians in the last thirty years have been this brave and bold in realizing a vision. Secret Chiefs 3’s last album Book M was so good it stands as a true five star album. Spruance boiled metal, electronica, jazz, folk and middle eastern styles together in such a stunning way that it defied the conventional nomenclatures of world music, alternative or progressive rock.
In a shocking twist, apparently determined to work even harder, he has fractured this genre-medley of a band into seven different “identities.” That’s right – seven. I’m not making this up. Each has their own name and visual branding. For example, Ishraqiyun’s songs (“The 3” and “The 4 (Great Ishraqi Sun)”) are fast paced Middle Eastern romps using just a smidge of distorted guitars appearing only in the final bars. UR is a surf orchestra that dabbles in electronics. The Holy Vehm is ear-shredding death metal with shrill screams. In a span of only two songs Book of Horizons goes from a stunning cinematic symphony in “Book T: Exodus” to the never ending drumroll blast beat of “Hypostasis of the Archons.”
This disparity may sound jarring, but it’s not. The music is unmistakably all a part of the same audacious vision. A precisely orchestrated journey through counter culture musical styles. Each song blends without notice into the next. Even in spite of songs like band identity Traditionalists’ “The Indestructible Drop” and “The Exile” which are stark experiments in noise and sound design. Once the folk pianos of the identity FORMS’ album closer “Welcome to the Theatron Animatronique” conclude, the opus takes on a pivotal sense of completion. No closing credits though. It may sound intimidating on the surface but Trey Spruance is onto something.
A few years in music building a strong reputation as a couple of the strongest producers around has yielded one of the most impressive arrays of collaborators ever. Handsome Boy Modeling School, brainchild of Prince Paul and Dan the Automator, bring innovation and acumen in underground hip-hop to a new pinnacle with their latest offering White People.
Under the guise of the monikers Chest Rockwell and Nathaniel Merriweather, The Prince and The Automator guide a record label’s worth of talent into excellence. The album comes out swinging with De La Soul and Starchild Excalibur playfully bouncing along with the dusty horns of “If It Wasn’t For You.” In a surprising turn, they next take Mike Patton simultaneously back to his roots and deeper into his future on “Are You Down With It,” dropping rhymes and reinventing pop hooks. Momentum continues to build with the combined talents of Del The Funky Homosapien, Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand and Barrington Levy jamming on the downbeat reggae of “The Worlds Gone Mad.” Here, Del’s superb lyrical flow captivates, while Levy’s voice burns through the beat and Kapranos puts in just enough pitch to balance the The Funky Homosapien’s laid-back delivery.
It would be sinful not to mention Cat Power’s star-making performance on the jazz/trip-hop crawl of “I’ve Been Thinking.” Cat Power purrs with sultry confidence “Diamonds, candy pills / one million dollar bills / You can try / but you can’t buy me / You can slide, slide, slippity slide / You can hip hop, ain’t no stop / I’ll never be / on my knees.” She absolutely owns the song.
It’s not all quiet cool or vintage funk either. “Rock and Roll (Could Never Hip Hop Like This) Part 2” morphs from deft rhymes into what could be easily mistaken for a Linkin Park song from Chester Bennington and Mike Shinoda. Later, in “The Hours,” Chino Moreno of the Deftones yells wildly over guitar crunch and a sample from Secret Chiefs 3’s “Blaze of the Grail.” Yet, on “Breakdown,” Jack Johnson also drops in his own relaxing cool delivery. By the record’s end, as implausible as it may sound, The Mars Volta make an appearance in the same fantastic tune as AG and the RZA. That’s what makes this record work: Dan the Automator and Prince Paul’s fearless determination to reinvent.
Let this herald the full mainstream arrival of indie rock. Modest Mouse’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News surely marks the strongest moment for the genre thus far. Indie rock has existed in various forms over many years, and in many incarnations from late-60’s garage all the way through late 80’s college alternative. It’s a hard genre to define, with such a rich tapestry of work to draw from over so many years, but consider the evidence as follows.
Isaac Brock’s unique take on rock is not massively jarring or shockingly experimental. It is slightly peculiar. Brock’s voice is a frail high pitch and wobbles just barely in key. In any other person’s hands, with any other band, something about it might resonate too shrill. But, in his hands, an enticing mix of Thom York’s fragility and Tom Waits’ spirit is what springs forth. Furthermore, the less polished edges of the voice ensure that it never overpowers the rest of the music. It grabs attention, yes, but ultimately allows for the solid craftsmanship of the instrumentation to not go unnoticed.
Most songs are carried by Eric Judy’s basslines. On “One Chance” Judy keeps the pace with a simple sliding pentatonic that is both warm and beautiful. He makes the beat walk briskly on “Bukowski” against simplistic clean guitar, and through uptempo higher tones, helps add weight to the fury of “Dance Hall.” Helping round out the rhythm, new member Benjamin Weikel’s drumming concentrates on punctuating the action with a thin old-tyme pop in an ego-less manner. While all through the proceedings Brock and Dann Gallucci’s guitars trade barbs of clean guitar skank and effect modulated noise. As a package, the band’s sound is poppy enough to be accessible without sounding remotely watered down.
Lyrically the album runs a wide gamut. In “Bukowski,” Brock muses with confusion “If God takes life he’s an indian giver / So tell me now why, you’ll tell me never /Who would want to be / Who would want to be such a control freak?” Songs like “The Devil’s Work Day” portray confidence in isolation, “Well, let’s take this potted plant to the woods and set it free / I’m gonna tell the owners just how nice that was of me / I could buy myself a reason / I could sell myself a job / I could hang myself on treason / For I am my own damn god!” Other times, such as “One Chance,” it’s downright endearing, “We have one chance / One chance… to get everything right / My friends, my habbits, my family / They mean so much to me /I just don’t think that it’s right / I’ve seen so many ships sailing / Just heading back out again / And go off sinkin’.”
The lyrics are a precision insight into this man’s mind, detailing the angst, sorrow and sincerity with which he approaches life. This, combined with the strong composition and quirky delivery, exemplify the fascination with the indie rock genre. Away from image-based stereotypes with tight t-shirts and bad haircuts some musicians make quality art, grappling full-on with the conundrum of balancing unique style, pure structure and audacious honesty. Oh yeah, “Satin In A Coffin” rocks, too.
Perhaps without even knowing it, Kanye West has crafted a marvelous mixture of underground and mainstream hip-hop. For years Kanye made a name for himself producing tracks for various artists such as Jay-Z and Talib Kweli. After paying his dues he poured all of his energy into seeing College Dropout completed and released. Much of this transitional stage is chronicled in the long speech on the album closer “Last Call.” The story may be of a young, talented producer dying to break into the public eye, but as it all unfolds a great breadth of diversity can be found.
Kanye unloads years’ worth of ideas and emotional baggage on a bevy of topics. Songs such as “All Falls Down” expound on cultural values with a striking line like “It seems we living the American Dream / But the people highest up got the lowest self-esteem / The prettiest people do the ugliest things / For the road to the riches and the diamond rings.” “Jesus Walks” becomes Kanye’s personal ode to faith in times of despair while the Twista/Jamie Foxx collaboration “Slow Jams” cherishes the romantic charms of vintage soul and R&B classics gone by. On the other end of the spectrum there’s much humor in the rousing electro-thump of “The New Workout Plan” extolling West’s vision of how a woman can keep a man. Common and Talib Kweli even manage to lighten up a bit on “Get Em High” as Kanye details trying to score with a girl from the Internet.
Two songs in particular become inspirational heavyweights: “Never Let Me Down” and “Through the Wire.” The former with the rousing line, “When it comes to being true / At least true to me / One thing I found, one thing I found / I know you’ll never let me down” and the latter with all rhymes recorded in spite of Kanye’s jaw being wired shut. Lines llike “But I’m a champion / So I turned tragedy to triumph / Make music that’s fire / Spit my soul through the wire,” become utterly irresistible. It’s a story of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Multiple times throughout the record Kanye makes references to leaving college to pursue his rap career, reveling in the joy it brings him. One of the strongest tracks on the album “School Spirit” swings with ragtime piano while Kanye unleashes on the college education that brought him no happiness. With an upbeat tempo and a catchy chorus it’s enjoyable for both its lyrical complexity and sheer danceability.
In the end, it’s Kanye’s production talent that helps bring this album home with such precision. Each song is punctuated by exactly the backdrop that it needs, whether spine-tingling gospel, dirt-gritty bass drops or 70’s-era soul guitar. Shortcomings are camouflaged. His most prevalent trick, vocal samples sped up and conformed to the beat, is abundant but damn if it doesn’t always work. Several tunes make use of it without ever sounding cheesy or redundant.
And it’s all fun or intriguing. The lyrics grab and make you think, laugh and remember; the music is as much dance-club big-beat as it is experimental undergroundâ€šÃ„Ã®a real measure of an artist and a fitting candidate for Album of the Year. Spirit, enthusiasm, vision, honesty, humor, intellect and determination. When records like College Dropout are in the top 40, for the music industry, it truly is a good year.