Neko Case, The Tigers Have Spoken (Anti-). There's no better female singer working today in the realms of country, rock, blues or pop music--all of which are in evidence here. Pure and powerful, Case's voice is capable of invoking sorrow, happiness, desire, compassion, indignation and the joy of an artist performing to her potential and reaching beyond.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus (Anti-). With these two amazing albums--packaged and released together--Cave has reached the peak (so far) of his career. A gospel choir supports Cave and his superb cabaret-rock group, from the opening blast of "Get Ready for Love" through 17 more baroque tracks of sexual need, twisted faith, tender mercies and impending apocalypse.
Dolorean, Violence in the Snowy Fields (Yep Roc). Al James leads this alt-country act from Portland, Ore., with his low-key vocals and a gentle depth of emotion. His tunes offer as much in the way of Byrds-meets-Beatles harmonies, soulful piano grooves, stinging guitar interjections and stark folk settings as they do in God-fearing lyrics.
Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand (Sony/Epic). These Scottish new-wave revivalists may have flirted with overexposure, but such a stunning debut album deserved the attention. Edgy, danceable, smart and well beyond the reach of other lesser acts cashing in on retro modern-rock sounds.
P.J. Harvey, Uh Huh Her (Island). Harvey, who also plays most of the instruments here, wails, "Your lips taste of poison" on the opening track from her latest screed. Clearly she has departed from the relatively carefree love songs of her last CD. Righteous anger boils over in one brilliant cut after another.
Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose (Interscope). The queen of country meets the prince of garage rock--and it works like you wouldn't believe. Jack White produces a hardcore honky-tonk masterpiece, keeping his mitts off Lynn's successful formula of rich traditionalism and kick-ass attitude while spurring her on to write a baker's dozen of excellent original tunes.
David Murray and the Gwo-Ka Masters, featuring Pharoah Sanders, Gwotet (Justine Time). It's impossible to overstate the pleasure produced by this meeting of two of the best tenor saxophonists alive. Murray fires up his Afro-pop big band for some supremely funky workouts, and the hard-bop and free-jazz legend Sanders drops in for some sizzling cutting sessions.
Secret Chiefs 3, Book of Horizons (Web of Mimicry). This all-star avant-rock group fills its fourth album with haunting movie-soundtrack music, thrash-jazz, surf-metal and Middle Eastern hoedowns. Multi-instrumentalist leader Trey Spruance is more focused than ever as he and his cohorts tread the line between earnestness and sarcasm.
Dani Siciliano, Likes ... (Studio K7). The voice of the acid-house band Herbert, this English chanteuse has made a terrific debut. Aided by impresario Matthew Herbert, Siciliano performs a musical cornucopia of '60s lounge music, jazz vocals, pop perkiness, rich soul and elements of punk, hip-hop and avant-garde noise.
TV on the Radio, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (Touch and Go). There's no denying this Brooklyn trio's inventive, genre-busting blend of art-rock, R&B, trip-hop and spacey atmospherics. The doo-wop fan in me loves those quasi-a cappella harmonies. Intriguing and inspired.
2. Wilco, A Ghost Is Born (Nonesuch). Smoother and a little bit stranger than Wilco's last album, A Ghost Is Born is to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot like Chicago is to Manhattan: cleaner, friendlier and less crowded.
3. Brian Wilson, SMiLE (Nonesuch). I was disappointed by SMiLE, but that's kind of inevitable when you finally hear a record that was so enigmatic, it was on it's way to becoming mythical. SMiLE is, however, weird and whimsical and classic; it's a record I'm sure I'll be playing for my children someday, to convince them that if Brian Wilson loves his vegetables, they should, too.
4. The Helio Sequence, Love and Distance (Sub Pop). The Helio Sequence is what happens when you mix '70s rock with sequencers and synthesizers. The harmonica alone on this record is like buttah.
5. Bjork, Medúlla (Elektra). If I had to make a list of the most innovating and groundbreaking contemporary releases, Medúlla would be No. 1; each song uses human vocal effects in ingenious and awesome orchestrations.
6. U2, How to Build an Atomic Bomb (Interscope). OK, so I'm a sucker for plain-old rock music, especially plain-old U2 rock music.
7. Magnetic Fields, i (Nonesuch). This would be No. 2 on the innovation list. Stephin Merritt is simply a brilliant songwriter; he can take a concept and make an intellectual pop record out of it that sounds like a good poem--so truthful, profound and precise it sends shivers down the spine.
8. Modest Mouse, Good News for People Who Love Bad News (Epic). Ya'll can take your Franz Ferdinand and Killers and hip knock-off bands and leave me with Modest Mouse. They were making their guitars sound like banshees and their drumbeats thump like an adrenaline rush before it was cool.
9. Morrissey, You Are the Quarry (Sanctuary). Morrissey manages to retain his style without it becoming stale, and he has a knack for writing lyrics that twinge while he sings them with his signature croon. "America Is Not the World" pretty much sums up the general sentiment many people seem to have these days toward our fair and pleasant land, delivered not with a bang, but a whimper.
10. Joseph Arthur, Our Shadows Will Remain (Vector). I'm always wary of putting records I just got on this list; I'm afraid that I'm in the honeymoon stage and will regret placing the record on such a high pedestal six months from now. But I doubt this will happen with Our Shadows Will Remain. Arthur is not your standard solo, male, singer-songwriter; Our Shadows Will Remain is a surprisingly catchy and intricate mixture of melodies, instrumentations and artful production.
2. The Streets, A Grand Don't Come for Free (Vice/Atlantic). It only becomes apparent that A Grand Don't Come for Free has a cohesive, album-length narrative after several listens, and by then, one has decided one likes the album, or else why keep listening to it? This functions as a reward of sorts, because on subsequent listens, the merits of this album further reveal themselves in the small details of the overall story and references to previous songs. The payoff is great, and in its own mundane way, life-affirming.
3. Pinback, Summer in Abaddon (Touch and Go). If you were aware that Abaddon is, in this usage, a fancy way of saying "hell," then it comes as no surprise that Pinback's third full album is replete with the melancholia attendant with that hell feeling. Best record to feel sorry for yourself to since The Queen Is Dead.
4. Eminem, Encore (Aftermath). Eminem's fourth long player sucks for a variety of reasons--it's a tired and juvenile scatological exercise that actually makes him seem like he's aging backwards, just like Jonathan Winters on Mork and Mindy. He goes after easy and familiar targets--Michael Jackson? Come on, that's like shooting a child-molesting fish in a Neverland barrel, Em!--but what's most telling about this record is that despite its severe flaws, it still rates as one of 2004's best, which speaks more to Eminem's towering skills than it does to the overall quality of 2004 releases. Even when he seems bored, Encore is still a fascinating listen.
5. Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand (Domino). Here at Top 10 HQ, we have a scientifically advanced formula to ensure the overall quality of The List. This formula includes a "hype penalty," ensuring that buzz doesn't drown out an album's relative merits. Despite an off-the-charts "Hype Quotient," the self-titled debut by these Scottish rockers still found its way onto The List. Great hooks, great choruses, great disco-based backbeat. Great.
6. TV on the Radio, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (Touch and Go). A powerful refutation of any "rock is dead" claptrap, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes came out of nearly nowhere to fill a void you didn't know existed--the black psychedelic rock gap. Sure, there's Lenny Kravitz, but he's no Arthur Lee. Finally, a fitting heir to Jimi.
7. Madvillain, Madvillainy (Stones Throw). It's been interesting to see this determinedly off-kilter record receive overwhelming and well-deserved acclaim. Biters will be mining Madvillainy for ideas for years to come. And who can blame them? It's got such a surfeit of imagination, there's plenty to go around.
8. The Comas, Conductor (Yep Roc). Best record to take drugs to since Hairway to Steven.
9. Ratatat, Ratatat (XL). This all-instrumental record defies the axiom that all-instrumental records get boring very quickly. Ad execs for the Hummer H2 agree (note the ad that features "Seventeen Years").
10. Sonic Youth, Sonic Nurse (Geffen). An amazing late-career return to relevance for our sonic elders, Sonic Nurse is the first non-boring record from this seminal band since 1992. Granted, it sounds like an early Sonic Youth record, and is therefore sort of a regression, but who cares? It's a regression into something awesome, baby.
Honorable Mention: The Ex, Turn (Touch and Go); Scissor Sisters, Scissor Sisters (Universal); Chin Up Chin Up, We Should Have Never Lived Like We Were Skyscrapers (Flameshovel).
2. The Arcade Fire, Funeral (Merge). It's like the Talking Heads formed a few days ago and asked Mercury Rev to collaborate on an album of dramatic chamber-pop, and they had the best drugs ever--the kind that enable people to write and perform songs so smart and groovy and beautiful that they make you, oh jaded one, believe that music can still be truly inspiring, can still really mean something.
3. The Decemberists, The Tain EP (Acuarela). Just when you've written The Decemberists off as the indie-rock equivalent of a Dick Van Dyke musical with a nautical theme, they blow your little mind. The Tain comprises a single, 18 1/2-minute song in five movements that veers back and forth between creepy, nearly a cappella sections and dramatic prog-rock bombast, while telling an unsettling story involving possible incest that's based on Celtic mythology. Someone's been listening to a li'l King Crimson, eh?
4. The Fall-Outs, Summertime (Estrus). Every town had a band like this in the mid-'80s, and I've never quite gotten over it. Jolty, jaunty post-punk guitar-pop--that's all it is, really. Well, with a bit of Beach Boys, British Invasion and '60s garage punk in there, too. But it's just so damn good!
5. Neko Case, The Tigers Have Spoken (Anti-). This is a live album to tide us over until Case's new studio album is released in the spring, but it's hardly a mere stopgap. Expertly backed by The Sadies and joined by a few other special guests, Case lends her golden pipes to originals (some previously unreleased), well-chosen covers and a pair of traditionals that provide ample proof that she's got one of the finest voices in music today.
6. The Knockout Pills, 1 + 1 = ATE (Estrus). I've said it before, but I swear to Jebus these guys are the best punk(ish) band on the planet right now. If they didn't live in Tucson, I'd follow 'em around the country.
7. The Zutons , Who Killed the Zutons (Epic). If you only know "Pressure Point" from those Levi's commercials in which the dog chases the hot girl up the tree in order to steal the pants--literally!--off her, well, you might be inclined to dismiss these guys as the British Jet. They're not. They love their Beefheart almost as much as they do their Kinks, and then there's that soulful Detroit rock element, too. Oh, and horns. Lotsa horns.
8. Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand (Domino; re-released by Sony). Punky dance music with angular guitars is so inescapable these days that it's become annoying and tiresome, but no one does it better than these four Scottish lads.
9. Kanye West, The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella). West is annoyingly full of himself, but he's got the goods to back it up. Eschewing rap clichés about bitches and bling, West instead intelligently bemoans the harsh realities of being a black American. When was the last time you heard a hip-hop album that you could listen to all the way through?
10. (tie) The Mountain Goats, We Shall All Be Healed (4AD). John Darnielle is one of the most unpredictable and literate songwriters around, and We Shall All Be Healed places his songs in a lush musical landscape that comes largely from John Vanderslice's production. The songs are by turns sardonic, sad, funny and emotional, but they're always intense and convincing.
Ambulance LTD, LP (TVT). While it doesn't quite measure up to their incredible live performance opening for the French Kicks at Solar Culture in May, the debut full-length from this NYC quartet contains a little something for everyone, from the shady swagger of "Primitive (The Way I Treat You)" to the harmony-laden guitar pop of "Sugar Pill," the acoustic, jaunty, countryish "Anecdote" to instrumental shoegazer opener "Yoga Means Union."