It’s that time again, when the media become choked with retrospectives and lists commemorating the best, worst, and otherwise extreme of the passing year. I’ve decided to take advantage of the saturated market and pen my own, that of a Top Ten Albums list.
It’s difficult for me to decide upon the best CDs of this year, especially because some of the albums I’ve listened to the most this year weren’t from this year at all. In fact, they ranged from just last year (Rufus Wainwright’s Want One) to 1993 (Jellyfish’s Spilt Milk) to the 70s (Raphael Orozco/RPO playing Rachmaninov’s works for piano). Still, based on the albums that did come out this year, which paled in comparison with 2003, which was the promised land of new releases, I’ll try and elucidate the best.
We’ll get the hard part out of the way first. The best album of 2004 was:
- Pain of Salvation – Be. This is a controversial issue. PoS started out the year with a spectacular “unplugged” release, and Be had been hyped since early 2004, haven’t been performed live in Sweden. However, many people were unhappy with Be‘s eventual release. Certainly, I didn’t like it as much as Remedy Lane or Perfect Element I. Still, after listening to it enough, it grew on me, as their other works had (see ffanatic’s review for an in-depth analysis). It’s not particularly coherent, stylistically, ranging from dirge-like soul singing, typical PoS progressive rock, spoken tracks, and folk. Part of the problem, I think, is that Daniel’s choice of topic (a god) is as great as his sociological or environmental topics before, but requires significantly more bombast, which may or may not have been a good idea. Still, Pain of Salvation delivers enough trademark hooks, deep lyricism, and old-fashioned musicianship to cement their album as my pick for the best of 2004.
- Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus. Cave’s been around for a while, and while I enjoy some of his albums, I don’t like others. It isn’t really his fault: he simply likes to play with song styles from album to album. This time around, though, he’s provided listeners with a double album, heavy on the blues, gospel, and rock’n’roll influences. Songs like “Get Ready for Love” are the kind of thing you turn up really loud when you drive, pound your steering wheel, and instantly become a backup singer for. Or maybe that’s just me. In any case, AB/LO walks the fine line between Cave’s quiter, more introspective albums (No More Shall We Part) and his more raucous works that have sprinkled his career in less liberal doses.
- Rufus Wainwright – Want Two. To be fair, I much preferred Want One, but this album has grown on me as well. It’s quieter and darker than its predecessor, beginning with the chantlike “Agnus Dei” and ending with an 8 minute foot-tapper called “Old Whore’s Diet.” Wainwright does for pop what Michael Jackson did in the late 80s and early 90s: he makes it fun, interesting, varied, and imbues it with some depth. The album comes with a DVD of a great live performance
- Sleepytime Gorilla Museum – Of Natural History. Right. Take parts of Mr. Bungle (especially California), a dash of progressive wankery, a pinch of death metal, and some of the oddest, most cerebral lyrics I’ve ever heard. This sophomore manages to be even stranger and even catchier than their previous album, Grand Opening and Closing.
- Magyar Posse – Kings of Time. I had to work for this one: no one had it, and I finally had to order it from a small independent record shop in San Francisco. Magyar Posse are a Finnish postrock band. Kings of Time is entirely instrumental, essentially Variations on a Theme, as all seven untitled tracks play with a core melodic theme in different ways. It’s pure genius, really, if you can find it.
- Dillinger Escape Plan – Miss Machine. I’m not a huge fan of hardcore, or even of DEP’s earlier works, but their EP with Mike Patton doing vocal duties got me hooked. I had somewhat expected this album to be a letdown, since they have a new vocalist, but surprisingly enough, the album is catchy all the way through. The same blistering music and insane polyrhythm we’ve grown to love, but there’s been some growth: they incorporate not simply the same chugga chug-chugga playing as always, but differently styled passages as well. The new vocalist, scary-looking though he is, does a hell of a job with his range. At some points he even sounds like Trent Reznor.
- Isis – Panopticon. The world is split into two types of music: those who can appreciate the sort of music played by Isis and Neurosis, and those who can’t. I listen to postrock regularly, so Isis isn’t much more than a twist of the volume knob. Playing soulcrushingly-heavy, wandering music, Isis is a marriage of progressive ideas to dub, purposefully enigmatic and avant-garde. Not casual listening.
- Pineapple Thief – 12 Stories Down. In grand traditon of bands with silly names, Pineapple Thief rocks. They remind me of an organic Radiohead, except without pigeonholing themselves into the sort of modern-prog obtuseness that the latter has fallen prey to. I just received this album (complete with bonus disc), so my including it in a Top Ten list is a daring move, but I’ve already listened to it many times over, and it’s every bit as addictive as the last album.
- Aeon Spoke – Above the Buried City. Believe it or not, former Florida death metallers from Cynic are the masterminds behind this mellow soft rock band. I’ve been listening to songs from the EPs, most of which make an appearance on the new album (minus my favorite, “Sand & Foam”). Melancholic, soothing, and marvellously catchy.
- Arsis – A Celebration of Guilt. Some people swear by the Willowtip label. I’m not a huge fan, but this release by Arsis really grabbed me by the seat of the pants. The sound hearkens back to Heartwork-era Carcass, but louder and harder. The riffing is tight, the drumming is sharp, and it’s one of the few out & out metal albums I’ve really liked this year.
And that’s it, my top ten. There were others that only barely missed the list. Here’s a brief listing: