2004: The Recap

By shane


Well, here it is, almost February, and I'm coming in pretty damn late with my year-end picks. Sorry. My dog ate it, I swear. Well, okay, maybe not. Maybe it's got more to do with my wild and crazy year, I dunno. For those who don't know, I'm actually writing a weekly humor column now for the major newspaper in my town, so that's been eating up a good chunk of my time. Add to that the fact that I got a new computer for Christmas, so the past few weeks have been spent transferring files and de-bugging, so yeah. It's late. Sorry.

2004 was one hell of a year for music, though, wasn't it? There are a lot of people I've talked to who have expressed their displeasure... well, at least their boredom... with the past year in music. Me, I was in heaven for a surplus of reasons. In fact, here are 25 of those reasons now.

#25 - THE HIDDEN CAMERAS - Mississauga Goddam

Alright, so I know a couple people right away who are gonna see this and either want to kick my ass or thank me profusely for finally acknowledging the Hidden Cameras in a year-end wrap-up. You see, last year, I went to great extremes to voice just exactly why I would ABSOLUTELY NEVER put the last Hidden Cameras record into my year-end picks... and it's mostly because, well, they kinda gross me out. The band honestly made me mad. Here's an artist with an unbelievable ability to craft memorable pop hooks out of thin air... and then they go and fuck it all up with lyrics about peeing on people. A whole lot of lyrics about peeing on people, in fact. And here I go again, I've just sat here for like a minute trying to figure out the best way to word this without accidentally offending anyone. Screw it, let's just put it out there. Yes, Hidden Cameras frontman Joel Gibb is gay... and yes, he writes VERY explicit lyrics about sexuality. That's not why I have issues with the band. My issues instead stem from the fact that these overtly explicit lyrics seem to be for shock value and little more, and it's my STRONG feeling that it detracts from the beauty of the music. But maybe that's the yin/yang behind the band -- to take lyrics that would make Dionysis blush and put them in front of some of the most gorgeous indiepop music ever committed to tape. And if you're dead-set that that's the essence of the band... then you simply have to take it as it is and see if you can appreciate it as you would a piece of art. Truth be told, I LOVE the Hidden Cameras when they're not singing about "fingering foreign dirty holes in the dark" and describing golden showers as a "warm, wet yellow breeze." I'll never give them full credit for their sexual overtones, because I think they're just as intentionally shocking and faux as a Marilyn Manson song, artistic statement or no. If that's their art, I guess I'm not a fan, but to each their own. But what I won't take away is my love for a great pop song, and dammit if they're not the best pop band out there right now. The tracks on "Mississauga" are unbelievably catchy and stick in your brain like glue... which is only a good thing until you start singing "I want another enema" while wandering the halls at work. It's definitely NOT the kind of stuff you put on a mix CD to impress your macho friends with, but it's still great music regardless.

#24 - THE SUNSHINE FIX - Green Imagination

I feel like I'm about to go into a diabetic coma... because the Sunshine Fix have just dosed me with so much sugary sweet indiepop that I might not make it. There's really little I can add about this record that I haven't already said about the Sunshine Fix in past reviews. Bill Doss was once better known as the poppy one from Olivia Tremor Control... and now, unhindered by the creative artsiness of Will Cullen-Hart (now brooding in the Circulatory System,) Doss can let his pop sensibilities run wild. "Green Imagination" does little more than expand on the rest of their catalogue -- it's just many, many more 3 minute pop gems -- fairly innocuous and disposable, yet certain to bring a smile and a spring in your step. It's just a shame that the tracks aren't a little more meaty... but it's hard to ask for that without getting down to the nitty-gritty, which is actually to say that it's just a shame that the Olivia Tremor Control stopped making new music a few years back. But, with the news this week that the band is to reunite for ATP this year, maybe the thought of new material isn't as impossible as we once thought, eh?

#23 - THE BEAUTIFUL SOUTH - Golddiggas, Headnodders & Pholk Songs

I remember when the alterna-kids I hung out with in college all listened to the Beautiful South right alongside their Depeche Mode and Cure albums. Someplace along the way it all got twisted... and I'm pretty sure it was the moment when you were playing your Beautiful South record in the car and your mom went, "Wow, this is really good. Who is this?" In that moment, the Beautiful South became decidedly NOT cool anymore. And yes, there's also truth in the fact that, as their career has progressed, the band's music has seemed to get more and more adult-contemporary in both feel and airplay. None of this changes the fact that the band remains fantastic. Three lead singers who deal in rather subversive lyrics that continually mock and assault pop culture, while continually getting radio airplay on easy listening stations. You've really got to admire that. But this one's a new wrinkle... for this, their umpteenth album, the band pulls out an ALL COVERS agenda, picking and choosing some of their favorite and most influential tracks to give a Beautiful South patented makeover. Wow, are the results fun. Some of the Beautiful South's greatest moments have been as male/female duets ("You Keep it All In," "A Little Time," etc.) Ergo, the record starts off in perfect duet fashion with a cover of the mighty Newton-John/Travolta match-up, "You're the One That I Want." Oh, but it doesn't stop there. They turn ELO's "Living Thing" into an organic strum-along... turn Lush's "Ciao!" into an easy-listening epic, then do the impossible and make your parents sing along to a Ramones song, with a mid-tempo, laid back version of "Blitzkrieg Bop" that would even bring a smile to ol' Joey's face. It's the double edged wonder of the band -- by taking these and other songs and simplifying them down to the Beautiful South's AM Gold sound, they're giving a hearty fuck-you to the industry while at the same time taking the piss out of their own schmaltzy, white-boy selves. And it really DOES work. Here's hoping Heaton & Co. can keep this up for years to come.

#22 - DRIVER OF THE YEAR - Statik

It's a shame that bands like Weezer earned the tag "geek rock" years ago... because that title should really go to a band like Driver of the Year. I mean, there's rock... and then there's ROCK. You listen and know right away that they grew up on a diet of pure rock fury. I bet their dads listened to Boston and Foghat and Led Zeppelin. I bet the band themselves spent their youth listening to Sabbath and Dio. DOTY frontman Jason Parris is the quintessential geek -- a hardcore music fan who finds equal love for Stereolab and the Stooges. The result is a keyboard playing frontman known for throwing up the devil horns in front of his thick-rimmed glasses -- a guy who yells for beer before launching a Moog-fueled assault on an unsuspecting audience. "Statik" is DOTY's first full-length album, and it shines with the tunes that have made Driver a Midwest live favorite... complete with a balls-out cover of Eno's "King's Lead Hat" to close out the record.

#21 - ELLIOTT SMITH - From a Basement on the Hill

Elliott Smith is dead and that sucks. What sucks even more is that it's impossible to listen to this record without that thought going through your head a million times. The spectre of death does nasty things to an album. It's hard to listen to the recordings of a talented artist taken from us too young without forever listening through that very filter. Personally, I'd just like to listen to the record and go, "Wow, what a nice song" without thinking, "Wow, he's dead. What a nice song even though he's dead." It's why listening to Nirvana now is a totally different experience than listening to "In Utero" when it came out. Death immediately adds a sense of reverence to a record, while at the same time adding a bit of hollowness, in the knowing that SOMETHING must have been horribly, horribly wrong while these songs were being written and recorded. But it's better to have something tainted by that tragedy than to have nothing at all except for the tragedy. The truth is that there will be no more new Elliott Smith records, and that these tracks were the last he committed to tape prior to his suicide. Are they in any way, shape, or form in the condition that Elliott wanted the public to hear? We simply won't know. Some of the cuts are left exactly as Elliott had them; others were worked on and fleshed out by backing tracks after his death. The record, as with most posthumous releases, is rife with controversy -- Smith originally worked with a number of various producers on the early incarnations of the tracks, but Smith's family chose Rob Schnapf to complete the final mixes for the album. Schnapf was Smith's long-time producer, but the two parted prior to this album. Friends and colleagues claim that Smith wanted a rougher, sparse sound to the album, yet Schnapf layered many of the tracks along the lines of Smith's past works. This led to Elliott's other producers and friends to take out newspaper ads telling the public that the finished version of the record was NOT as Elliott wished and to buy it with caution, while the family maintains that working with Schapf was the logical thing to do. Regardless of cat-fighting, we're left with an album that's definitely patchy, but the patches likely have a lot more to do with the nature of finishing a posthumous record than with Smith's craft itself. But the good bits of the record are GREAT bits. While it's true that there are definite foreshadows to Elliott's suicide, the record on the whole is a fairly upbeat affair, making the most of Smith's 60's pastiche and knack for brilliant acoustipop hooks. The crime here isn't how his last album was handled; the crime is that it's the LAST album.

#20 - KOALA - Do Not Be Afraid

Well, like Liz has said on more than one occasion, it's tough to be impartial on this one. Koala are friends of ours, and members of the Excellent mailing list, and fantastic human beings. Among their first material were two tracks donated to our two mp3 projects, "Intertwined" and "Flirt." We love and adore the band. That said, FUCK partiality. Should I NOT mention one of the year's best albums just because they're people who hang out in our camp? Hells no. "Do Not Be Afraid" is the album we've been praying that Koala could put together. This is the era where all critically acclaimed music must be dark, somber, and depressing. I've never understood this. Look at the most critically-revered artists around right now -- Radiohead, Interpol, The Arcade Fire... party music this ain't, eh. Koala make music that's jubilant, music that's fun -- and that's something that's welcome in my CD rack. Whether it's the Slade-infused glam of "Feels Like You're Falling in Love Again" to the Glitter-ized "Mna Mna," this isn't music you need to think to. It's the music to the party you should be throwing next weekend.

#19 - FRANZ FERDINAND - Franz Ferdinand

In lieu of me having anything original to say about Franz Ferdinand, just re-direct yourselves to any other 2004 year-end review that's been published... because odds are, Franz Ferd will be topping that list. 2004 was definitely the year for these guys, eh? They're more than a band, they're a full-on machine. With NME letting us know exactly what Alex has been having for breakfast every day, let alone every step they make as a band, the Franz phenomenon was unavoidable this year. Not bad for a band that on the surface could be dismissed as the "British Strokes." At least that's what I thought the first time I heard 'em. The similarities are there... the lo-fi production, the garage rock sound, the muted guitars... but that's only on the surface. It wasn't until I gave the album a full listen that I realized that Franz Ferdinand are a bit different than their New York contemporaries... whereas The Strokes ape their sound off NYC bands of yester-year, Franz Ferdinand take equal cues from New Wave, Wire, and dare I say it, Britpop... to evolve their sound beyond the 1-2-3-4 garage-rock-by-numbers that's been assaulting our airwaves for the past couple of years. Franz Ferdinand are decidedly NOT from New York City... it's garage rock with a UK swagger. And, while I may have already heard "Take Me Out" so many times this year that the notes are permanently etched in a random alley of my cortex, you can't deny that it's an impressive beast of an album.

#18 - ULYSSES - Ulysses

Wow. This one was a bit of a shock. The Apples in Stereo, while founding the Elephant 6 movement and being at the epicenter of indie cool a decade ago, have always been a rather surprisingly private band. Last year, though, something big happened. That something has barely been mentioned by the band members themselves, but likely revolves around the break-up of the marriage of Apples frontman Robert Schneider and drummer Hilarie Sidney. While we're now being told that a new Apples album is on the horizon (yay!), 2004 saw the once solid bond of Schneider and Sidney separate into two side projects. Sidney became a member of the High Water Marks, while Schneider retreated to the Ulysses project. Whether it's a one-off project or not is uncertain, but with Ulysses, one thing is definitely clear: this was Schneider's opportunity to rather publically and musically exorcise some demons. While the Apples' lyrical matter bounced all over the charts, their music was, on the whole, 100% sugar pop (but in the novel, exciting indie way.) Ulysses sees Schneider still entrenched in his pop roots, but spitting lyrical venom. With tracks that certainly MUST be directed to Sidney, Schneider belts out choruses like, "She don't wanna stick it out" with what truly sounds like uncompromised anger. The urgency of the album is bolstered by its ultra lo-fi approach. The record was mostly fleshed out in one-takes, with an open-air microphone capturing the entire band all at once. This allows for little to no overdubs, and Schneider's voice (never particularly stellar even on Apples records) is at times off-key, scratchy, and hoarse. But it works. I've been a huge fan of the Apples in Stereo and all those Elephant 6 bands for years now, but if there's one criticism available for them, it's that, in all their studio trickery and effects, occasionally the honesty of the song is lost to their positioning as neo-psychedelic gurus. Stripped of all the fancy bits, Ulysses is halting in its bruteness. It makes me love Schneider and all his projects all the more.

#17 - A IS JUMP - My Ice-Fingered Ghost

Last year, Future Appletree Records were my biggest success story of the year. A tiny label out of Iowa that somehow managed to release 4 of the best albums of 2003... so the only real surprise about 2004 is that the highest-ranked FAT release of the year is from their NEWEST signing, A is Jump out of Cedar Falls, IA. Produced by Graeme Gibson (Califone, Joan of Arc,) "My Ice-Fingered Ghost" showcases a group that's at perfect harmony with their many influences. Imagine if Guided By Voices had grown up on a steady diet of Eno and Wire and you'll be close. I'd call it "avant-garde art-pop" if you're looking for labels, but this is the kind of band that's beyond that sort of stuff. The vocals have the lyrical presence and angst of Morrissey, while the music sounds like Midwestern rock magically tweaked by Kevin Shields and Colin Newman simultaneously. A refreshingly bright record, and the start of a fantastic career.

#16 - EMMA - Free Me

Ah, yes, the first sign that I've gone completely mental this year. Yes, kids, there's a Spice Girl in my Top 20. I remember when our Liz came back from Europe ablaze over this record, and I was like, "Errrrrrrrrrrr...." Then I had the misfortune of hearing it... and suddenly realized I'm in the exact same camp. First off, understand that this is a bit of a campy record - I won't remotely deny it. It was pre-planned, written, produced, and plotted to fill a certain niche. That niche is for Baby Spice to make the best swingin' 60's rehash this side of Astrid Gilberto. Sure, she's employing the same crafty songwriters (hi, Cathy Dennis!) who adorn many a craptastic Top 40 record, but this time they're working within the genre of the slinky, Austin Powers, groove-a-go-go mentality of songcrafting. The end result is a charming record, full of pop hooks and nostalgia everywhere. A little fake? Oh heck yeah. But, against my better judgment, one of the most cohesive CD's of the year, and one of the most played in my Discman, that's for damn sure.

#15 - KASABIAN - Kasabian

Now THIS I was not expecting. It's gotten to the point where once I see somebody on the cover of NME, I know I'm bound to hate 'em. Let's not fault the NME here, either, it's their job to sell papers, that's what they do... and right now selling papers equals putting up garage-rock posterboys and continuing to tout this faux New York gee-aren't-the-Velvet-Underground-sure-neato scene. You guys know I'm no huge fan of that stuff... and I'm no huge fan of NME's posterboys of 2004... Franz Ferdinand and Kasabian being the exceptions. The rest (yes, I'm talking to you, Razorlight) are usually fun little lo-fi garage bands who might have a good hook or two but, on the whole, will be as disposable to the world in ten years as Menswear and Shed Seven are now. So when NME started spewing on and on about Kasabian as the next big thing, a warning flag went off in my brain before I'd even heard a lick of music. A month or two later, I finally heard a couple tracks... and within 5 minutes, was jumping up and down in my car, calling my friends and going, "Have you HEARD this band yet?" It seems like, right now, there are two schools to be in if you're an indie band... you're either (a) making polite pop songs with vintage equipment and stellarly lo-fi production, or (b) taking a guitar and riffing over a dance beat provided by a ten year old drum machine. Kasabian have attempted to do both... write stellar pop songs to be recorded over a cheeky out-of-date drum loop. But the thing with Kasabian is that their version of the end product comes out sounding like the bastard son of Shaun Ryder and Richard Ashcroft. Imagine Ashcroft singing for a slightly updated sounding Happy Mondays, and you've got Kasabian. EASILY the most surprisingly good record of the year, and the best one to crank in the car if you feel like a little road-dancin'...

#14 - OF MONTREAL - Satanic Panic in the Attic

Really, is there anything else that needs to be said about this band? I'm pretty sure I've shoved them down your throats quite enough by now, but is it MY fault that every year they put out one of my favorite albums? But this proved to be no ordinary Of Montreal record, as quite a bit of change has been going on down Athens way of late. The sidebar may SAY Of Montreal, but in reality, this record is a Kevin Barnes solo album. Gone for good is Andy Gonzales (to a nursing career and the occasional Marshmallow Coast album,) and also bye-bye is bassist and Elephant 6 studio guru Derek Almstead, who's devoting most of his time to Will Cullen-Hart's new Circulatory System record due early this year. Dottie and Jamie are still around as part of the touring Of Montreal, though they're both conspicuously absent from most of the record itself. This leaves frontman Kevin Barnes, who crafted "Satanic Panic" using multi-tracks and drum loops... oh, and getting married in the middle of writing the record to boot. The result is an album that, without the actual band dynamic, DOES get a bit patchy at spots... but still showcases Kev's fantastic approach to music-making. Chord structures that you think are heading one way, then resolve themselves in a totally different direction. Pop music that echoes The Beatles, The Kinks, and Os Mutantes simultaneously, while adding an electronic and dare I say even DANCEABLE element that's never really entered into the band's radar before. Barnes is the world's biggest kid (but in a good, non-Michael-Jackson-y kind of way,) and I can't even remotely wait until the band's NEXT album, especially since Mr. & Mrs. Barnes are presently expecting (and wouldn't Kevin make the world's BEST dad? The bedtime stories alone would defy description...) So in a world where everything's gone lo-fi and lo-tech, it's still good to have the occasional surrealist out there pushing the boundaries... but in their usual, spendidly balanced way (in Of Montreal's world, a touching love song can segue into a fun romp about necrophelia... or a UK tour diary set to music... or just a cacophony of "da da da da"'s.) I'm happy these guys can push through life changes and still keep surprising and exciting me at every turn. Of Montreal, you remain my favorite band still making music by a mile and a half.

#13 - GRAHAM COXON - Happiness in Magazines

He's back... and Christ, is it about time. I still curse the day when Graham Coxon discovered American music. It spelt the end of one of my favorite bands of all time. Sure, you can argue that Blur didn't even have an impact in the US until after their Americanized self-titled fifth album came out... but for me it was a serious step downhill. Blur were/are one of the greatest chameleons in rock history, able to flawlessly change their sound to match the musical style of the moment. But from "Blur" on, they kind of lost the plot. Sure, it's okay to get experimental and lo-fi, but if you're gonna try it, make sure you've got the tunes to back up your transition. Sometime along this voyage of band self-discovery, Blur lost the tunes. And when that happened, Graham finally bolted to a solo career. As the apparant musical mastermind behind the band, I was on a clockwatch for Graham's first solo record... only to hear it and be so pissed I almost threw it away. Here was a guy behind some of the greatest songs of my college years turning around and, well, basically taking the piss out of everything he'd ever put out prior. If Graham needed to exorcise some punk rock demons, well sure, I suppose he's allowed. But not three albums worth... and more to the point, punk rawk and lo-fi aside, I don't remember reading where the proper way for an artist to rebel is to suddenly forget how to write good songs. I mean, it was like Graham's musical output went from London social to New York garage, but all the hooks and talent got thrown overboard somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. Finally, with this record, he's got his shit together. What made it happen? Well, for one, ol' Steve Street stopped by to produce. But for two, I just think Graham's growing up. My personal take on the record is that he finally came to realize that shedding the weight of Blur doesn't have to mean shedding his uncanny ability to craft a fun hook. This is the album I'd been wanting Blur to make for about a decade. Good on him.

#12 - MEISTER - I Met the Music

Well, it was common sense that this record would make my list. With cameos from members of not one but BOTH of my favorite bands of all time (Ride and the Boo Radleys,) this record couldn't NOT suck... And now, I can rest in the knowledge that I now know the precise answer to what would happen if the frontman of a Japanese shoegazer band decided to track down all of his idols and get them to participate on a record. The end result is a fantastic but fairly forgettable album -- you're not gonna be singing these tunes in the shower -- but you ARE going to be pleasantly surprised by how coherent it all plays together. The list of guest musicians and vocalists -- Mark Gardener, Sice, Manda Rin, Loz Colbert, Idha Ovelius, Gary from Reef... combined with 80's stalwarts Howard Jones and Nick Beggs -- makes for the most interesting collage of people to guest on a record in FOREVER. Miraculously, it all comes together in kind of a blissed-out mainstreamy way. It's like shoegaze lite with half the calories of a My Bloody Valentine record.

#11 - TRASHCAN SINATRAS - Weightlifting

Hmm. Did I include this for sentimental reasons? Yeah, let's be honest, I probably did. The Trash Can Sinatras are responsible for one of the greatest records of all time (their debut, "Cake.") Catch me on the right day and I'll tell you that it's THE greatest album of all time, I really will. They followed it up with a patchy but still good second album, and then an even patchier and not quite as good third album. "Weightlifting" is the sound of a band back on focus. It's miles better than their last record, but it's nowhere near "Cake." But can anything honestly be as good as that record? The mere fact that they've come back from yet another 5 year hiatus through the wilderness to deliver the goods is meritable enough for inclusion in this poll. Is it one of the best records of the year? Possibly that's up for debate. But is it one of the most-played records out of these 25 I've listed here? You bet it is. God bless 'em, and let's get 'em back to the States for another round of gigs pronto.

#10 - HAR MAR SUPERSTAR - The Handler

So every year, along comes a record that SHOULD for all intents and purposes be a novelty album. Har Mar is definitely a novelty - a chubby white guy who strips down to his tidy whities at every show, all for you to point and laugh and throw up the devil signs. What's NOT focused on with Har Mar Superstar is his music, which is astonishingly consistent and top-notch. It's hard to fathom that this guy who sounds like a cross between Jay Kay and Stevie Wonder looks more like Ron Jeremy than Ron Isley, but that's all part of the schtick that gets Har Mar onto talk shows and concert tours. Forget the novelty, throw it aside or just laugh and forget about it, and pay attention to the music. It's geniunely good. There's a cover of "Alone Again, Naturally" on the record that puts the original to shame. Add to that the Jackson 5 bubbling of "DUI," and the brilliant Northern State cameo, and you've got a record that's the ultimate party album for New Year's at Nerdville. I thought I'd be embarassed to put this album in my year-end picks, but screw it. I really, really admire the white-boy soul of this record.

#9 - JAMIE CULLUM - Twentysomething

This proves it, gang. In the words of the legendary Danny Glover, I am, without doubt, too old for this shit. Do you guys even know who Jamie Cullum is? Probably not, since you probably don't visit the Jazz/Easy Listening section at your World's Most Lamest Chain Record Store. Jamie Cullum is pretty much the UK's version of Harry Connick, Jr. He's a precocious kid, completely and totally full of himself, who does jazzed out interpretations of current and standard tunes in the manner that might likely make your grandma crack a smile. That said... he's good. Really good. So good I'm forced against my better judgment to put him inside my Top 25. It definitely borders on the best-produced album of the year, but when you're dealing with music that sounds like this, it damn well better be well-produced, because that's the entire lure of this new jazz stuff. It's the kind of music that stereo salespeople use to demo their new products to wannabe-hip 40-somethings who want a really cool home theatre (I can hear it now: "The imaging that you get out of these speakers, Mr. Brown, it's just so vivid!") But truth be told, it might be my most-listened-to record of the whole year. There's some hints of coolness tucked away in there - a cover of Radiohead's "High and Dry" and a brilliant cover of Pharrell's "Frontin'" - but for the most part it's another kid who was probably the star pupil in his junior high band and was enterprising enough to take his talent to the next level. But damn it if it isn't some of the most enjoyable music of the year. I hate myself for liking this record, I really do. But it's THAT good. Tune in next year when I'll apparantly be telling you all that Johnny Mathis is the greatest unsung hero of our age.

#8 - THEBROTHERKITE - Thebrotherkite

I mentioned earlier that I hate change. It's true. There's nothing more jarring to me than an artist who drastically changes their sound from album to album, especially when its done just to keep up with current trends. Sure, people adapt and grow up, and sure, in the case of musicians, that can often mean a re-think to their band's sound. But at the same time, don't you feel cheated just a little bit? How many times in your life have you heard a band say in interviews that they've found their sound, that their new record is the most exciting thing that's ever happened to them? Then, two years later, the band re-emerges with a completely different sound... proving that, earlier in their career, the artist was either (a) lying, or (b) was completely wrong when they assured us all that they'd "found their sound." My natural instict when this happens is simply to flee -- usually into the arms of 1991 shoegazer music. The bands may have changed by now, but when I put on those classic discs ("Loveless"... "Nowhere"... "Giant Steps," etc.,) suddenly I'm teleported to a time when music was perfect and I really WAS a golden god. Thebrotherkite are stuck in that time, and you know what, I'm quite alright with that. The band, like many of their Clairerecords counterparts, are doing their damnedest to revive the shoegazing genre, complete with all the bells, whistles, and distortion pedals as their 90's idols. There's really no new sonic ground to be broken here... but sometimes it's nice to bask in the fuzz and realize that the feeling I get listen to tripped-out shoegazer rock is the feeling by which I use to judge every piece of music that's ever entered my CD player since those hallowed days of yore. I can't give 'em any credit for originality (the band is equal parts Ride, Catherine Wheel, and Swervedriver,) but I WILL give them credit for being exactly what I needed at times this year. Here's to MANY more fantastic Claire titles to come.

#7 - LORETTA LYNN - Van Lear Rose

Oh, if the me of ten years ago could see this now. Hell, if the me of last year could see this now. Words cannot express to you, one and all, exactly how much I HATE country music. I don't care if it's artsy fringe country bands that the hipster kids have decided to embrace... I still hate it. As far as I'm concerned, you can take 'em all. From Garth Brooks to Hank Williams to Lucinda Williams, toss 'em and burn 'em. That's why it pains me SOOO much to put a freakin' Loretta Lynn record into my Top 10 this year. Come on, this is friggin' Loretta Lynn, after all. So much fantastic music came out this year and here I sit, listening to the Coal Miner's Daughter. But man, does this record rock the house. The critical world is ablaze over this record for one and only one reason -- Jack White of the White Stripes, who produced and even wrote a few of the tunes on "Van Lear." Sometimes I have to stop, shake, and tell myself that I'm listening to a 70 year old woman. Yeah, her voice is still twangy and a bit age-weary, but somehow Jack got the woman to belt out these tunes like she was taking the stage at a honkytonk for the very first time. All the while, the music's grimy and unrelenting. If all country music came across this good, I'd be doin' the Boot Scootin Boogie every night.

#6 - TEARS FOR FEARS - Everybody Loves a Happy Ending

Wow. Talk about a comeback. Okay, here's my quick take on Tears for Fears. "Songs From the Big Chair"? Loved it as a kid. Love it now. But, that said, I was not among the fans of "Sowing the Seeds of Love" onwards. Why? I don't know, really. I guess I expected the songwriting to evolve into more of the darker terrain of "Big Chair," rather than grow as ornate and Beatles-esque as it did. And that's not slighting the band, really -- it just wasn't what I expected, and, as anyone who knows me can testify, I tend to react to change rather piss-poorly as a rule. One thing, though, that I could NEVER rip on Tears for Fears about, though, was the band's sheer gutsiness. It's one thing to be cocky like Oasis, and swagger about saying that your band's the greatest thing the world has ever seen. Tears for Fears, rather, used to convey that mentality NOT in press, but in their music. Oasis might be the look, feel, and press quotes of cockiness; Tears for Fears was and is the sound of cockiness. There's always been an element to their music that basically just says, "Don't fuck with us." Whether it's tearing through a barnstormer like "Head Over Heels" or whether it's layering the production thick as mud on this new record, this really is the sound of a band attaining greatness. That's why this album was such a guessing game when it was announced it was coming out. Orzabel and Smith, together again, but with one hell of a long time since their last stellar moments. And the fact that they pulled it off is almost better than the product itself. A lot of bands reunite for one last shot at fame, at power, at success, and, let's face it, money. You can tell this record was more a labor of love than a labor of necessity. Once again, they've taken to the studio to create a complex beast of a record that runs from inspired psychededia to occasional twinges of folk rock. The fact that this album came out to fairly little fanfare or promotion is the biggest atrocity of the year. These guys deserve more.

#5 - KANYE WEST - The College Dropout

Far and away the best hip hop album of the year, if for no other reason than it's freakin' accessible to the masses while still being great. That's my problem with hip hop these days. It all falls under one of three camps. (1) The mainstream stuff: Nelly, P. Diddy, Usher, Snoop Dogg, etc. The stuff you hear on the radio or at the clubs. Some fantastic beats, some breathtaking production, but at the end of the day, most of it's just as disposable as a Jessica Simpson record. (2) The thug stuff. Bands you're never gonna hear on the radio. Stuff that's made pretty much to be the soundtrack of a driveby, or at least a 14-year-old suburban white kid's fucked up fantasies of drivebys. And then (3) The critically revered stuff. This is where you put hip hop that the critics like - from Jurassic 5 to Kool Keith to Talib Kweli, Mos Def, and let's even include the Brits like Dizzee Rascal in here, too. Artists that have been labeled with the "cutting edge" tag. You're not gonna hear 'em on the radio, and their entire fanbase is mostly white kids trying to get down with their inner urban selves. Most of this stuff, I'll admit it, I friggin' hate. When I want to hear hip-hop, I want a killer hook, and honestly, there's few hooks in this music. It's challenging, thought-provoking, ground-breaking, etc. But are there really any good SONGS hiding out in there? I dont care how revolutionary something is, if I can't hold the hook to it in my head on the way to work, it's all but worthless to me. And then along comes Kanye West to tear up all those pre-conceptions. Here's a guy who comes from my neck of the woods and becomes one of the hottest producers in hip-hop and a master to the mainstream artists of Roc-A-Fella. We've known for years than Kanye can make beats and hooks, but little did we know the guy had something to say as well. The lyrics on "College Dropout" speak across racial and class divides, and gives us a picture of what it's like just to be Joe Average trying to get by. Not a pimp, not a playa, not a thug, not a banger. Just a dude. And it connected with everyone. Songs about religion, about working a crap job, about hope for tomorrow. All with the enthusiasm of a guy who should by all rights be waaay past the enthusiastic stage. Kudos.

#4 - BRIAN WILSON - Smile

Ahh... the part of our story where a teenage symphony to God is finally completed by an addled old man. It's part sadness, part redemption, part summation. What to make of "Smile" then? Well, first off, there's no denying that the album represents some of the greatest songwriting this planet has ever known. Sadly, it should have known about it in 1968 and not now, but that's old muddied news. My personal theory is that "Smile" was aborted for a couple reasons: One being Brian's well-documented descent into drug-aided mental instability... the other being the fact that the Beach Boys friggin' HATED this record (other than Brian, of course.) While the Beach Boys sessions were famously scrapped, three quarters of said sessions were also famously snuck out of the studio in order to allow some of the biggest music dorks you've ever met to sit and argue ad infinitum over exactly what bootleg bits and pieces went with what, and how to re-create the album as closely to Brian's original vision (then only documented on scraps of studio paper and such.) There was actually a pretty well-done website a few years back that devoted itself to compiling the ultimate Smile bootleg. Surprisingly, they actually pulled it off fairly well. When listening to that bootleg and then switching over to this year's finished product, I was really surprised how close they got the bootleg... it's not perfect -- some songs never made it past the Beach Boys sessions with any vocals, etc., etc. Now we have the holy grail. This prized piece of musical history can now be bought for like 11 bucks at your nearest Best Buy. And, as expected, it's stellar. The final pieces are in place, and ol' Van Dyke Parks even swung 'round to make sure the lyrics were correct. My only problem with "Smile," though, is a big one. And I wouldn't have even known about it if I hadn't been channel-flipping one day and land on Showtime. I ended up catching an hour-long documentary on the making of the 2004 version of "Smile." I wish I hadn't. The documentary reveals a side to the "Smile" story I didn't want to know about. It really makes it look like "Smile" had a whole lot more to do with Brian's backing band than with Brian himself. The whole hour showed clips of Wilson -- looking far more addled than his recent concert tours would suggest -- taking orders from his young bandleader, who, it turns out, put all of the original "Smile" sessions into his laptop and pretty much orchestrated this whole thing. At one point, the band members are seen meeting in a room going over how to put the album together and doing vocal rehearsal... then the camera pans over to Brian, dazed and confused in the corner, obviously not comprehending what's going on around him, looking very visibly like he wants to leave the room. That made me sad. I don't want Brian's masterpiece in the hands of some young kid guiding WIlson around the record... but that's what it looks like happened. His band and his family pressured him into finishing the record, but he doesn't look like he did much of anything other than re-record the vocals himself. It's all a bit sad, really. Nothing should compromise the end result -- because it's a REALLY good record whose completion has been a life-long fantasy of mine -- but seeing that documentary really tainted the experience for me.

#3 - THE KILLERS - Hot Fuss

So while the rest of the indie world was hard at work trying to dry hump their Velvet Underground collection, along come a group -- from Las Vegas, no less -- who instead took their coolness cues from Duran Duran... and ended up churning out the most confident debut album of the year... and if they usher in a whole new scene of 80's stealing bands, I'd actually be fairly happy for a change. The Killers do walk a bit of a fine line, though - without their flair for New Romantic frivolity, The Killers would be just another melodramatic Britpop band (except for the bit about them hailing from Vegas a decade after Britpop's last gasps.) But, truly, there's worryingly little to separate The Killers from a failed band like Marion, except for one simple fact -- The Killers are better at ape-ing the things that made those bands work (style, pinache, anthemic choruses,) and NOT the things that made them fail (bloated senses of self-importance, oh-woe-is-me lyrics, etc.) "Mr. Brightside" really was THE summer song as indie kids across the country came out of their cages and did just fine, all despite the Killers' lack of lo-fi garage rock. I mean, this is a band that actually employs a gospel choir on the record -- you'd think true indie idealists would have headed for the hills by the first "I've got soul but I'm not a soldier." Instead, The Killers pulled off the ultimate hat trick -- mainsteam success -- just by staying who they were. They became poster children for MTV and "The O.C." without pandering to them -- and that's exactly the model of success used by the New Romantic bands of the 80's. Throw in some of the most memorable hooks of the year, and you've got yourself a shiner of a record and maybe even a band with a shot at extended credibility and future success.

#2 - THE LIBERTINES - The Libertines

And we come to my biggest struggle of the year. My brain's held quite a few inner dialogues about the Libs. Argument A goes a little like this: The Libertines make fantastic music as well as fantastic headlines, which easily explains their ascension to the throne of NME cool. Barat and Doherty wear their hearts on their sleeves in both interviews AND in their song lyrics. Sure, Pete's got his demons, but the fact that they addressed their problems on a record vs. in a courtroom makes it all the more engaging and genuine. That's Argument A. Argument B is that the Libertines are taking advantage of you. It's no secret that Kurt Cobain made heroin cool in some kind of tragic, tortured, romantically morose sort of way. It's also no secret that controversy sells papers and builds critical acclaim all at once. We sadly learned it from Cobain... we learned it from Richey Manic... we learned it from Elliott Smith... hell, we learned it from Charlie Parker. Tortured souls are captivating, and what's more captivating than Pete Doherty admitting in print that yeah, he's got a drug habit, but that basically he's -- gasp -- okay with it?! Somewhere a kid in the suburbs right now is going, "Yeah, Pete, FUCK the man!" Let's face it, buying and obsessing on the music of an outspoken drug addict is a GREAT way to Rage Against the Parents and exemplify the way that you, too, are a tortured, angst-ridden soul that your mom needs to think very carefully about before putting that 11 p.m. curfew into place. NME, meanwhile, recognizes this fact, and that's why a holographic Doherty shows up on the front of the "Cool List" issue. "C'mon, kids, it's cool to live on the edge!" That edge sells papers, and that edge sells CD's. Doherty and Barat have to know it as well, which is why "Can't Stand Me Now" shows up as Track 1 on the CD. The song basically becomes a punk rock Sonny & Cher, with the two chirping back and forth about how much they love/hate each other and whether it is/isn't the fault of Doherty's e'er-expanding drug habit. I mean, if this were a pop song, we'd all go slack-jawed at it's badness. That's Aegument B. The truth to the Libertines I think lies in a bit of a sticky wicket between those two conclusions. It's idiotic to call Doherty the new cool or to show up at a Babyshambles gig just to find out what the crazy little junkie bugger's gonna do next. It's sad to try to glamorize a person's descent like this, it really is. But at the same time, the album really IS pretty damn good. Mick Jones' production work makes the Libs music come across as strangely self-assured and hopelessly vulnerable at the same time. The tracks are like post-punk candy whose soaring melodies are steadied by the spare-every-expense production value and the fact that the lot of them sing like wounded drunks. And, no matter what your take on a track like "Can't Stand Me Now" is, the fact that it makes me want to debate myself at such lengths is testament to the power of the song itself. The Libertines end up being the most talked-about band of the year by the UK press, and they really DO deserve it. The album is the poetic sound of a band's dying gasp at survival and brotherhood -- and whether they've set themselves up for it all is really, at heart, pretty irrelevant. I simply wish 'em the best, and hope that the whole thing isn't an overtly calculated sham or a situation that'll end in pointless tragedy. Thanks for making the year interesting, lads, but I'm sorry that the situation presented itself in the first place.

#1 - THE POLYPHONIC SPREE - Together We're Heavy

Who really knows what to say about the Spree. I could say that you either love 'em or you hate 'em... but frankly I think it's more like you either "get" them or you don't. For as fantastic of a concept as the band is, they've inherently set themselves up for quite a fall. I mean, a 28 piece band is awesome in concept, but novelty in longetivity. A group that defines itself as such should come onto the scene like a cultural apocalypse, put out one record that puts everything else to shame, then basically disappear up their own arse and leave the mess to pretentious music critics to clean up. Longetivity is not an option for a band like the Polyphonic Spree -- and if it were, it would take one hell of a mountain to climb to reach any level of mass acceptance while the indie kids are busy calling them "played out" and dismissing them as a one-trick pony. But here's how the Spree are different: Their first album, while epic in concept, really was kind of a let-down. You can't deny that the group are one powerful force on the live stage -- I've never met a person who went to a Spree show and left going, "Wow, they sure sucked." This is a band with the magical ability to captivate a crowd of even the most cynical indie kids and have everybody grinning by the first five minutes. But when it came time to deliver their debut album, they kinda shrinked away from the monumental task at hand and presented us instead last year with "The Beginning Stages Of...," which, though not lacking in good, hummable material, was at its core a poorly-produced record with a bit too much filler for comfort, especially for those of us who'd become entranced by the band's live set and knew exactly what they were capable of. The first album's flaws weren't the band's fault, though; the thing was never recorded for public release -- it was to serve as a demo to land them a little exposure. But when the logistics fell into place and it was time for the group to put out a record, they opted to just go ahead and make the demo tape public. But we fans of the Spree knew better. We'd heard the songs live that didn't make the first record. While they were capturing headlines and the hearts of the music press, we all kind of sat back and went, "They ain't seen NOTHIN' yet." And with that, "Together We're Heavy" came out earlier this year to less acclaim, less fanfare, and murmured disgruntlings from fans and critics alike. But the thing is, it's a great album. It's not just great, it's THE best record of the year hands-down, no-contest, bar-none. Yes, they were dippy clothes. Yes, at face value, they look like a hippie cult who partook of the brown acid a little too much. And yes, at face value, their songs are kind of like "Up With People" but happier. But that's not giving the band credit; that's not actually diving into the record and realizing the power within. The Spree are not a happy band. There's some seriously cynical shit lurking under the surface of this record, gang. Take the anthemic "2000 Places" for instance. With a repetitive strain of "You've gotta be good/you've gotta be strong/You've gotta be 2000 places at once," the song is as much a hymn to being a workhorse as it is an honest reflection of the claustrophobic side of life, of the burdens placed upon us and the simple struggle to... hell, just get by. The record is positive, sure, but not in a "life is sure neato" kind of way, but more of a reassurance that it's okay to struggle, it's okay to find joy where you can, and basically to just keep on keepin' on. THIS is the record we knew they could make. From here, let's be honest -- it's likely to get sketchy for the band, but for now, just soak in the wonder and let's worry about tomorrow tomorrow. I just read the new issue of Entertainment Weekly where they gave the nod to this album as one of the year's WORST and called them unearnest and phony. I don't get where they're coming from one bit. I think ol' Tim Delaughter is just as earnest as the next guy, a guy who survived the tragic demise of his last band and the death of his guitar player, and finally made up his mind that you don't have to be all lo-fi and painstakingly serious and morose to make a musical classic. THIS is the album of the year... for those who get it. There are definitely some who think 28 folks on stage in robes is a bit much. It's not a bit much, it's a LOT much, and frankly, that's a good thing. If you "get" the Spree, you'll know where I'm at, and you'll find that this album reaffirms your life as much as it does mine. If not, well gosh, that's just too bad and please don't let me stop you from getting back to whatever New York lo-fi, Velvet Underground-obsessive hipsters who constitute your band-of-the-week. Yes, the Spree are probably gonna end up a flash in the pan. But man, what a flash.