Artvoice's Top 20 Albums of 2004

Artvoice | January 4, 2005
How will 2004 be remembered in the annals of popular music? The Artvoice music staff will always remember it as the year that Brian Wilson issued his lost masterpiece SMiLE, some 37 years after it was originally scheduled. It was also the year that many of us started to go iPod crazy. There were disappointments from artists we always have high hopes for who turned in mediocre albums, including Steve Earle, Badly Drawn Boy and Guided By Voices. While it may have not have been the best year for some of our usual “stand-bys,” 2004 graced us with releases from new contenders for the prize like angular Scot guitar-poppists Franz Ferdinand and the unapologetically arty rockers Arcade Fire. In addition, 2004 was certainly a watershed year for local releases. There was a plethora of WNY-based outfits who put out fine records, and a couple are included on our list.

—Donny Kutzbach, Artvoice Music Editor

American Music Club

Love Songs For Patriots


When American Music Club disintegrated in 1995, chief songwriter and vocalist Mark Eitzel seemed to wander aimlessly through a series of solo records, of which only 1996’s 60 Watt Silver Lining ranked alongside the work of his previous band. Regrouping with his old cohorts on the new Love Songs For Patriots reinforces how much Eitzel truly needs this band. “Ladies And Gentlemen” displays how integral guitarist Vudi and bassist Dan Pearson are to Eitzel’s songwriting, while “Horseshoe Wreath in Bloom” is one of those great AMC country songs that stands alongside such classics as “Gary’s Song” and “Crabwalk.” Best of all, however, is the album’s centerpiece, “Patriot’s Heart,” a harrowing off-time meditation on a male stripper and his embodiment of the American dream. Love Songs For Patriots may not eclipse the 1993 masterpiece Mercury, but it sits comfortably amongst Everclear and Engine and that’s a good thing. It is good to have them back; there is truly no one like them.

—tracy marrow

The Arcade Fire



So…a concept album about death by five David Byrne disciples from Montreal, with song titles like “Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)”? Rightfully, the Arcade Fire’s full-length debut should be a pompous bore. Instead, it’s an unabashed triumph. Inspired by a succession of personal tragedies, Funeral grieves, but never wallows. Win Butler’s ragged Everyman howl propels the anthemic “Rebellion (Lies)” and “Neighborhood” song cycle (the two tracks helmed by wife Régine Chassagne are more remote, but still compelling). And should the swelling crescendo of “Wake Up” or the elegant “Une Année Sans Lumière” fail to give you goosebumps, dear reader, consult your physician for a pulse check, stat.

—jennifer behrens

Barrel Harbor

Songs Of Illness And Bad Luck

(Advent Blues)

Hank Williams, Tom Waits, and The Birthday Party are among the influences that haunt the dark narratives and tastefully understated musicianship on Barrel Harbor’s debut. Bits of traditional country, classic rock, and punk all surface as singer and songwriter Bill Nehill faces truths most people choose to ignore and stares them down. His lyrics put a human face on characters most of us would dismiss as crazy. He digs deeply into their thoughts and feelings, and on tracks like “Ditch Song” and “The Outside World” he reveals a vulnerability and hope that are easy to empathize with.

—matt barber

The Bigger Lovers

This Affair Never Happened…And Here Are Eleven Songs About It

(Yep Roc)

The Bigger Lovers extend the legacies of pop bands from The Beach Boys to The Buzzcocks, The Ramones to The Romantics and back without sounding trivial. This Affair Never Happened… is charged with erratic emotions. It touches all the raw nerves left from every break-up you ever went through, but the infinitely inviting melodies and sweet harmonies counterbalance the melancholy and vitriol. On “Hollywood” Bret Tobias sings, “It’s hard to sleep when the shit is ankle deep, but I still dream.” That kind of wit and resilience gets people through tough times and keeps this disc from being eleven depressing dirges.

—matt barber

Roger Bryan and The Old Sweethearts

In Regards to Your Affairs

(Harvest Sum)

When Roger Bryan’s solo debut was released this past summer it left most of the mouths of Buffalo’s rock cognoscenti open and watery. It wasn’t Bryan’s prodigious guitar talents that came as a shock (he’d already proved those with his work with Last Conservative and others) but rather the depth and maturity of his songwriting. Bryan’s songs of heartbreak and yearning were well matched by Mark Nosowicz’s tastefully atmospheric production. Regards... sounds like a lost workbook from Jeff Tweedy’s closet (and some would argue is a better Wilco album than A Ghost Is Born). Bryan’s first outing marks the emergence of a major talent and songwriting force not only on the local scene but also on the national front (provided it reaches the ears that need to hear it).

—mark norris

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus


A lot of critics have hailed brood-master extraordinaire Nick Cave’s thirteenth (and fourteenth technically) studio album to be an exciting “return to form.” That’s a lot of nonsense, because if people were really listening they would realize that Cave never abandoned his true form in the first place. Hardcore fans may debate the musical re-directions of 2001’s No More Shall We Part and last year’s Nocturama but they simply represented a continuation of the path that Cave has followed since leaving The Birthday Party twenty years ago. Pushing 50, Cave still has the romance, bile-spitting anger and ability to turn a phrase of a man half his age. Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus is staggering in its lyrical depth and scope and could well fill listeners with a few years worth of considered listening. However, it’s unlikely that Cave’s going to give us that much time to digest his latest masterpiece before creating his next one.

—mark norris

The Concretes

The Concretes


Imagine, if you will, Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval fronting Calexico and you’ll be able to conjure up something appropriating the mellow and melodic sounds created by this Swedish multi-piece group. Full of lush string and horn arrangements and the mournful vocal phrasings and lyrics of Victoria Bergsman, The Concretes didn’t get as much attention as other Swede bands in 2004 but they certainly deserved it. Referencing 1960s sounding orchestral-pop and The Velvet Underground’s quieter moments. Someone needs to get this band to record a film score immediately.

—mark norris

Dios Malos

(formerly Dios)


(Star Time)

Hawthorne, California gave the world The Beach Boys and now it has given us Dios Malos. These young men have taken all the right cues from their hometown’s famed “Boys,” utilizing the same wonderful widescreen panoramas imbued with sunshine-sweetened harmonies, melancholy predilections and a sugary psychedelic bend. Even a forced name change (at the cease and desist behest of metal midget Ronnie James Dio) couldn’t slow Dios, er, Dios Malos down this year. Their self-titled debut is a warm ray of pastiche pop with irrepressible melody.

—donny kutzbach

Franz Ferdinand

Franz Ferdinand

(Epic Records)

The debut full-length from this Scottish quartet is anchored by the radio-friendly, new-wave thump of “Take Me Out,” easily the most infectious rock single of 2004. The rest of the album never strays from its simple, pleasing formula, combining meaty classic rock riffs with wispy Cure keyboards and vocals that shamelessly ape David Byrne and Ric Ocasek. Unlike fellow nostalgia junkies The Strokes (whose hair styles are totally cuter), Franz Ferdinand writes songs with rich musical layers, choosing modern-day production over retro fuzz. The influences are just as obvious, but the end result has legs—it’s both poppy and compelling. If these guys end up falling in line with their contemporaries and never do anything worthwhile again, Franz Ferdinand alone is a rock legacy they can be proud of.

—joe sweeney

Jolie Holland



It begins with “Sascha,” an ode to a long-distance lover which could almost pass for a Billie Holiday B-side. Jolie Holland’s voice does remarkably resemble Lady Day played at half-speed, but this promising young San Francisco singer-songwriter is no copycat poseur. Escondida reveals a serious student of Americana, effortlessly tackling jazz (the manic apex “Mad Tom of Bedlam”), blues (the sultry “Old Fashioned Morphine”), gospel (the simply gorgeous “Amen”), classic country (the ambling “Goodbye California”), and traditional folk (the mournful closer “Faded Coat of Blue”). VH-1 viewers who don’t mind the occasional F-bomb: meet your new Norah, now 99 percent less boring.

—jennifer behrens

Ill Lit

I Need You


The song “Spring Chicken” is a good example of the diversity I Need You encompasses. It opens with a soulful bass line and breathy samples before D. Ahearn’s smooth southern vocals take over. “There’s feeling entitled and there’s being denied, and there’s a tiny January in your hot August night,” he sings a slight drawl. Seconds later, electric guitar and new wavey keyboards crash down in torrents, and the chorus soars high above the chaos. That’s just one song out of ten that blend country, folk, electronic, and noisy rock music with poetic lyrics, pretty melodies, and devastating emotional honesty.

—matt barber

Mark Lanegan


(Beggar’s Banquet)

Here’s a bleary-eyed trip of unwieldy rock, broken blues and wee hour desperation that offers a keyhole-peek into a world of love, addiction, torture and salvation (not necessarily in that patented order). Lanegan’s haggard voice is fit for this brand of storytelling and he offers a lot to glint through that little crack in the door. “Hit The City” is massive and scary with pounding guitar, garage primitive-whining organ and Lanegan dueting with Polly Jean Harvey about “the promised land and dark descent.” The plaintive, beautiful ballad “Strange Religion” is almost it’s polar opposite. Bubblegum is 2004’s haunting, late night masterpiece.

—donny kutzbach

Mos Def

The New Danger

(Geffen Records)

Forget “Peace on Earth.” This year’s most appropriate holiday meditation comes courtesy of Mos Def: “Fuck you. PAY ME!” The rapper/singer/producer/poet screams this line repeatedly in the song “War,” one of the many passionate outcries on his latest album The New Danger. This record pushes the limits of what we know as hip-hop, tapping into bayou blues, L.A. thrash, Motown grooves and rap attitudes. Its unchecked ambition has turned off many fans of his classic debut Black On Both Sides, because it doesn’t have the meticulously produced gems that made its predecessor a perfect listen. But what The New Danger lacks in focus is more than made up for with emotion. It’s angrier, sadder, braver and more outrageous, featuring heavy helpings of both rapping and singing. Mos is backed by a rock band at some points, bare drum machines in others, reaching a high point with “Modern Marvel,” a nine-minute Marvin Gaye tribute song that asks the question, “When he said ‘Mercy Mercy’ did he really know/That decades later we’d still be killing folk?” One thing is fairly certain —if Marvin were still alive, he’d be a Mos Def fan.

—joe sweeney

The Ponys

Laced With Romance

(In the Red)

Most of the press that you’ll read about Chicago quartet The Ponys will very intentionally avoid making reference to the band Television. But just because something is the most obvious comparison available doesn’t necessarily make it the worst. Indeed, the vocals from Ponys frontman Jered (no last names for these folks) immediately bear more than a passing semblance to that of Television warbler Tom Verlaine (and a little bit of Richard Hell thrown in for good measure). Similarly, the songwriter’s lyrical focus on emotional alienation and clipped vocal delivery ensure that the instant-assessment is compounded even more. Adding the band’s guitar heavy sound (alternately punchy, then delicate and then searing) and buzzing organ into the mix proves these kids owe heavy debts to both the school of NYC rock circa 1976 and a plethora of suburban garages circa 1966. But surely, these kids ain’t no one-trick ponys (Oh brother!).

—mark norris

Elliott Smith

From A Basement On A Hill


The posthumous final album from the lauded singer/songwriter was still being completed at the time of Smith’s untimely death. Its unrefined quality can be viewed as either the direction he wanted it to go in or as what was left to work with in its unfinished state. Either way, it’s an outsider’s record of pain, addiction, self-loathing and perceived personal failure: all themes Smith had regularly charted throughout his career. As Smith had virtually trademarked, Basement’s songs are plied by bright minor key touches and soaring piano melodies. The grandiose orch-pop of “King’s Crossing” sits kindly alongside the tiny tin pan allley-ing of “Memory Lane.” It’s a “final” record, but leave the record’s potential death clues and such hollow rock mythologizing to fan blogs and Rolling Stone. Take Basement simply as it is: a downbeat classic from one of the most important artists of the last decade.

—donny kutzbach

Two Cow Garage

The Wall Against Our Back


This Columbus, Ohio trio’s sophomore album turns up all the right knobs and just might have flicked the defibrillator switch to recharge the heart of the alt-country movement. Blazing guitars, crashing cymbals and small town angst haven’t coalesced this right in a long time. The songs ring true with themes of hard times growing up and the open road that lies ahead with Springsteen’s grace while managing to eschew gravitas and cliche. The Wall... has the right brew of punk, jangly country and that little sprinkle of Southern rock to push Two Cow Garage to the front of the pack.

—donny kutzbach




Usher is the heir apparent to the r&b/soul/pop crown tainted by both Michael Jackson and R Kelly. By tainted, I’m not judging those fellas’ alleged sexual misdeeds. I’m speaking on their inability to make lean and muscular records with a tip to old school aesthetics while standing on the cutting edge. Usher’s does it. It doesn’t hurt to have the single of the year, “Yeah!,” boosted by Lil Jon’s booming production/hollering as well as Ludicris’ bravado. You can call Confessions a guilty pleasure. You can call it pop chart fare. I’m just calling it as I see it: one the coolest, funkiest and best records of 2004.

—donny kutzbach

Tom Waits

Real Gone


At this point in his career, any new release from Tom Waits’ pen comes as a major cause for celebration. Luckily, Real Gone proves that all the praise heaped on Waits’ new efforts is not just empty glad-handing. Waits is enough of a musical icon that he could easily keep his songwriting in a patented Waits-ian style (gravelly-glue vocals and plenty of clang/bang) and please his fans and critics. With Real Gone, Waits has abandoned his trademark piano playing and focused on including beats and samples to his songs. The result is striking and sounds almost as much of a stylistic change as Swordfishtrombones did from One From the Heart. Waits closes the recording with “The Day After Tomorrow” the best (and most understated) protest song written on the war in Iraq so far.

—mark norris


A Ghost Is Born


Jeff Tweedy and his band have managed to pull off an invariable and genius tightrope act balancing abstract sound shapes with sliced poetics for a magnificent pop blur. From the Krautrock groove of “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” the hushed beauty of “Wishful Thinking,” “Hummingbird’s” bouncy piano jaunt and the reckless rock abandon of “I’m A Wheel,” A Ghost Is Born offers a wildly and widely textured rock palate. The way Tweedy has crafted Ghost’s cast of characters, from the paranoid insects (“Company In My Back”), obscure mystery bands (“The Late Greats”) to the Devil himself (“Hell Is Chrome”), is positively Dylan-worthy.

—donny kutzbach

Brian Wilson


(Nonesuch Records)

For over 30 years, The Beach Boys unreleased 1967 opus Smile was the Holy Grail of “lost albums.” The follow-up to Wilson’s transcendent paean to adolescence, Pet Sounds, Smile was supposed to be the Beach Boys’ version of Sgt. Pepper. Unfortunately, Brian went bats, took too many drugs and spent the better part of the next ten years in bed. His current touring band, featuring members of The Wondermints, encouraged Wilson to revisit his long abandoned masterwork with a few modern updates. The results are stunning and suggest that not only was Smile the great work that everyone believed it to be but also that Wilson’s still has some of that old magic in him. Well, they say that Brian is back (again) ... maybe this time it’s true.

—mark norris


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