I think I’ll always look back on 2004 as one of the richest musical years– certainly of this decade. With spectacular new releases, from veterans and rookies alike, and from innumerable different genres and pop idioms, the year was practically a deluge of truly landmark recordings, and I dare say that no other year will play as prominent a role in my Best of the Decade list. Or, for that matter, my all-time desert island list.
It was a year of towering twin peaks: Standing high above everything else and defining the year’s creative vibrancy were Nick Cave‘s two-disc Bad Seeds opus, Abattoir Blues and the Lyre of Orpheus, and Sam Phillips‘ spare, devastating break-up chronicle, A Boot and a Shoe. These two albums are masterpieces of very different kinds, and in my mind they are essentially tied for Album of the Year honors, although, for its sheer scope and audacity, I usually choose Cave’s album as the year’s “official” champion. And indeed, with all of his Seeds in tow and his poetic gift at the peak of its powers, Cave created a sprawling album of astonishing spiritual fervor; you’d have to go back to The Joshua Tree for another rock album of such burning, gospel-fueled passion. Smaller in scale but equally exploratory and profound was Phillips‘ album, a tightly-constructed gem that used a romantic break-up to address issues of suffering, providence, and grace. The impact of both of these albums on my own life– and my listening habits– is, to be quite honest, immeasurable.
But if those were the standouts, they were hardly the year’s only memorable albums. Going into 2004, the album I was most primed to hear was the new, long-delayed offering from U2. Of course this album turned out to be How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and, to be frank, it’s one of my least favorite of their albums; that said, given what a profound blessing this band’s music has been in my life, that hardly means I didn’t like it. I’ve wavered a bit in just how much I like it, finding all of the songs to be good but the production and the cohesion of the album to be lacking; these days I consider it to be a slight disappointment, but the songs still mean a lot to me, so my attitude toward the album is primarily one of great fondness. But I’m the first to admit that, in 2004, Bono and the boys were out-U2ed by a band that can legitimately claim to be the heirs to the U2 throne– Arcade Fire, that rarest of bands that deserves every hyped-up word that’s been written about them. Their debut, Funeral, is a brave and stunningly assured work of catharsis and rich feeling, brimming with a youthful poetry, at once weary and romantic, that could only come from rock and roll.
Tom Waits released his edgiest, hippest, and altogether strangest album in 2004 (which is saying a lot, given Waits’ astonishingly weird career). Real Gone is a nasty little rock record that finds inspiration in everything from hip-hop to parlor folk. It’s Waits’ most daring experiment, pushing the aesthetics of Rain Dogs and Bone Machine to their breaking point. It’s also a profound reflection on history and sin, and in many ways it’s my most cherished Tom Waits album.
Another veteran singer/songwriter who topped himself in 2004 was the great Buddy Miller, whose Universal United House of Prayer was the year’s best gospel album, as well as one of its most profound– and compassionate– political statements. Released during a time of war, Miller‘s album sidestepped polemics in favor of spiritual songs bemoaning man’s depravity and begging for God’s grace. He preached peace through love and faith, and the songs– drawn from mountain music but filtered through rock and roll– matched the lyrics in their fervor and urgency.
Ron Sexsmith released one of the decade’s finest pure pop albums in Retriever, an album of grace and elegance that drew from a number of singer/songwriter traditions but came to be something far more, an incredible showcase of melody matched with lyrics brimming with beauty, sincerity, and truth. Sexsmith wrote about love as something rooted not in carnality, but in divinity; fittingly, his hooks were positively heavenly.
American roots music– everything from country to gospel– was rich and vibrant in 2004. In addition to the Buddy Miller album, of course, there was the Jack White-produced comeback album by Loretta Lynn, an album overflowing with energy, personality, humor, and storytelling virtuosity. Meanwhile, Ben Harper collaborated with the Blind Boys of Alabama for an irresistible gospel concoction– with rock underpinnings, of course– called There Will Be a Light. And Patty Griffin‘s Impossible Dream is a record of rich, devastating, and utterly mesmerizing sadness.
And speaking of rock, 2004 gave us formative recordings from some of the decade’s most promising and exciting bands, most notably The Black Keys‘ breakthrough album, Rubber Factory, and the fully-formed debut from The Hold Steady, Almost Killed Me. And then there was the Green Day album: American Idiot is a blockbuster and a modern-day classic, and for good reason; its mixture of political fire, rock and roll mayhem, and pop craftmanship make it one of the most ambitious mainstream rock albums of the decade, as well as one of the best.
Singer-songwriters were in fine form in 2004, too, particularly in indie music: Iron & Wine‘s Our Endless Numbered Days was a hushed, spooky reflection on death and fidelity, while Sufjan Stevens‘ Seven Swans was a hushed, spooky reflection on death and faith. Both are, in my opinion, the best albums yet made by the two respective artists.
And the beat goes on. AC Newman‘s The Slow Wonder is a pop gem. TV on the Radio‘s Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes revealed a band with a fully-formed voice that was entirely their own. Devendra Banhart‘s Rejoicing in the Hands is a riveting update on the old, weird Americana. And on and on.
That was 2004 for me. What were your favorites from that year?
I’m going to engage in a bit of speculation here and say this: That I’m pretty sure Green Day knows that they aren’t exactly hip– or at least, that what they’re doing isn’t exactly hip. Who else, in 2009, makes a full-blown rock opera– twice in a row? Who else, in the age of Obama, writes vicious, no-prisoners protest rock? And who else wears their love of classic rock on their sleeves quite so audaciously– both the cool stuff and the not-so-cool stuff alike? To boot: They do all this while also ensuring that their albums become blockbusters, in an age when “albums” don’t really sell all that well.
See, here’s the secret about Green Day: As celebrated as they are in some circles for their deadpan irony and their impish humor, their greatest weapon, at least in recent years, has been their sincerity. Ernest in an era where ernest doesn’t fly, either in the mainstream or with the hipsters, Green Day lets it all hang out on big, album-length Statements that they really and truly believe in. Like U2 before them, they’re often accused of taking themselves too seriously, but the only thing they take seriously is their music.
That’s why some love ‘em and some hate ‘em. This much, however, is no longer up for debate: Green Day is a band like no other. As has been well-documented in recent years, they began as a slacker-punk act– a novelty band born out of a flash-in-the-pan movement, destined to be one-hit wonders– but they’ve not only outlasted all their peers, but they’ve gone on to play with a fire and an ambition that is simply unparalleled in mainstream rock.
But all that’s been said before. So here’s why I love Green Day: Because as much as they apparently love rock operas, political protest records, and classic rock, their albums are, nevertheless, Green Day albums first and foremost. They make personal music, and they do it the only way they know how: By being themselves. And their new one, 21st Century Breakdown, is a very fine Green Day album. In fact, it may well be their very best.
Yes, it’s another rock opera, and yes, it’s still very political, and yes, it once again owes a heavy debt to The Who. So on first blush, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was American Idiot II. But listen again. This isn’t so much a sequel as a reboot– an album that refines what worked about the last record, pushes it to a new extreme, and fleshes it out with more ambition and creative vigor than ever before.
The first two tracks lay the album’s DNA on the table, and reveal both the potential hazards, but also how Green Day makes it work. “Song of the Century” is a brief, sing-songy prologue– an introduction to the fact that this record has a clear narrative trajectory. But where the story was sometimes obtrusive on American Idiot, here it proves to be a valuable framework for Billie Joe Armstrong to organize his thoughts. It doesn’t fetter him– it liberates him. Next, the title song is a full-on, multi-part suite that pays winking homage to at least half a dozen classic rock staples: John Lennon, Queen, Mott the Hoople, Springsteen, and more. But the song’s craftsmanship is not just clever, it’s brilliant: Green Day proudly declares their love of classic rock even while staking their own place within it, all the while keeping things rooted in quick, punchy punk, so as to keep things from getting bogged down in pomp and circumstance.
And while there’s plenty of pomp here– that’s part of the point; this is a bold update of classic, protest-rock tropes– there’s also a lot of fire; Green Day can still write punkish barn-burners like the best of ‘em, they can write sweeping riffs destined to fill arenas, they can cheekily play with flamenco sketches and gypsy guitar, and they can write stately ballads that demonstrate just how little they care about conforming to anyone else’s standards of what punk should be. For the most part, they left their raucous garage rock tendencies with last year’s Foxboro Hot Tubs project, so yes, Breakdown is very polished, but that’s what it’s supposed to be: Polished, mainstream rock.
Billie Joe Armstrong still writes entirely in slogans, of course, for which some people will deride him, but would it still be a Green Day album otherwise? Thing is, he expresses himself remarkably clearly through those slogans, and the story he tells both is and isn’t about America. It’s a story about a particularly modern malaise, a disillusionment that steams from a loss of trust in the government, religion, and the values of generations past. He juggles a pair of characters who represent two different perspectives– the brash yet apathetic Christian and the politically-minded but increasingly cynical Gloria– but the genius is that these characters are really just the two voices in his own head, and this music is nothing if not an attempt to sort through his own fears and concerns. It’s music written for the masses, but distinctly personal in its expression.
Which goes back to their earnestness. Irony may sell better, but Green Day is having none of it; everything about this music– from the classic rock adoration to the flair for grandiosity to the cultural concerns and the wrestling with demons– screams that this is the work of Green Day, with everything acting as a conduit for their expression, not a a way to hide themselves or mask their feelings. They pour everything– their interests and obsessions, their fears and their values– into this music, and then they just let it rip. Which is why they’re a band like no other, and why these albums strike a nerve: They represent something more raw than punk and more cantankerous than rock– something honest and articulate, emotional and true.
Call them protest albums, even political albums if you absolutely must. Call them recordings that just so happen to shine a light on the state of the union, circa the early 21st century. Call them musical monuments to where we’ve been as a nation, and where we’re headed. Or just call them souvenirs from the worst eight-year detour ever. Whatever you call them, what follows are ten albums that have kept us sane, kept us awake, kept us vigilant, and kept us hopeful through the long, winding years of the Iraq War era. The Hurst Review recommends keeping the TV muted and these record spinning while election results pour in on Tuesday night.
In no implied order other than alphabetical:
Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
Wim Butler and his Large Band come thundering through the night with an album that sounds for all the world like some kind of gothic horror movie—only in this story, the monsters are nationalism gone amok, religion tainted by consumerism, the name of Christ misappropriated. This isn’t cynical, and it isn’t skeptical, either– this is an appeal, a plea for the preservation of religious faith from a group of true believers. A sad dirge for a nation that’s married the worst aspects of its politics and its zealotry, this album came out– not so coincidentally– during the same year as Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic film There Will Be Blood, which explored many of the same themes.
Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint – The River in Reverse
Costello is no stranger to withering cynicism and caustic anger, and Toussaint has written his fair share of politically-charged songs over the years, too. Here the two men stitch together seven of Toussaint’s most beloved songs and six brand new compositions, and the result is nothing short of miraculous. It’s one thing to make a celebration of American music and culture, a mournful elegy for the fallen New Orleans, or an eloquent album of political protest in the wake of the mismanaged Katrina response; what Toussaint and Costello have done here, however, is to accomplish all three feats, resulting in an album that laments what we’ve lost and celebrates what we have left, all infused with burning, righteous anger.
The Decemberists – The Crane Wife
The Decemberists like to dress up in 18th-century costume and write about events from hundreds of years ago, but with this album, they reveal a sly, devastating knack for tackling current events. The album’s title is taken from a Japanese folk story about love and greed and corruption– themes that inform the whole album– and it’s as riveting and as troubling a war-time album as one could ask for, even though it doesn’t really make direct reference to current world events. Instead, it works its magic through stories, parables and allegories, a darkly seductive and terrifying cycle of history and violence that shows us where we are by looking back to where we’ve been.
Green Day – American Idiot
Green Day‘s definitive statement thus far, American Idiot was one of the first and most successful albums to rail against the divisive politics and misappropriation of religious and patriotic zeal that characterized the better part of the Bush years. It sheer anger masks how complex and artful the album really is– there are liberal borrowings from The Who and the Kinks, fused with sharp pop hooks, punk grit, and rock and roll attitude, and Billie Joe’s lyrics comprise a bona fide rock opera about fear and alienation in the modern world.
Joe Henry – Civilians
The master delivers the continuation of something he started on Tiny Voices. That album was all about jaded, self-deceiving lovers, living with the wild and dangerous love of the Divine all around them, but usually settling for something far less. On that album, truth was traded for comfort, real hope for something quick and easy, and God’s grace was something so totally foreign to us that the characters seldom seemed to know it when they saw it-and when they realized what it was, they hit the ground running in the complete opposite direction. It was an album about dangerous lovers in perilous times, looking into the abyss of their own making and seeking solace in the darkness. Here, the camera pans back. The scale is larger, the characters smaller in the frame, but it’s really more of the same story. Henry’s wayward lovers– as sightless as ever– become a metaphor for a nation, an entire people gone astray. A rich, harrowing, and hopeful tapestry of song and story.
Buddy Miller – Universal United House of Prayer
One of many records here that’s culled from a number of sources, Miller’s wartime dispatch stitches together a Bob Dylan cover, some old gospel standards, frontporch country earnestness, rock and roll zeal, and an unashamedly spiritual, Christ-haunted center for an album that goes beyond sloganeering and polemics, gazing without fear into the heart of darkness and offering hope through unity, through music, and through prayers for better times.
The Roots – Game Theory
Who else but The Roots could make a hip-hop album so dark, it feels like it was left on the burner a bit too long, turning black and charred with anger and frustration. An album about race, about Katrina, about poverty, about division, this is rap’s defining voice of rage and disenchantment in the early 21st century– a Fear of a Black Planet for a new generation, though it’s actually more focused and eloquent than even that classic record.
Bruce Springsteen – We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
Upon the release of this album, a collection of old folk tunes, one critic, evidently distressed by The Boss’ lack of topical songs, questioned whether Bruce realized that his nation was at war. Maybe he should have listened closer; aside from the two silly little narratives that bookend the album, these songs all sound as pointed now as they surely did when they were first penned, touching on universal themes of war, poverty, corruption, and hard times with an eloquence and raw grit that transcend generations. There’s really no need for heavy-handed polemics and sledgehammer sloganeering, Bruce seems to be saying; his declaration that “all foreign wars, I do proclaim/live only on blood and a mother’s pain” stings with more pathos than anything you’ll hear on the nightly news, a political rally, or a Neil Young album.
TV on the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain
This art rock opus is a gift of conscience and conviction, a megaphone wake-up call for a culture asleep at the wheel, and a reminder that the wickedness of the human heart is great—and love greater still. The album is political but not polemic, personal but without platitudes, a lament for a world in which truth itself is under siege but love emboldens us to fight another day. TVotR has always been rather metaphysical, and never more so than here, where their fractured poetry and impressionistic lyrics show us without telling what the wages of war can be– not so much on the battlefield as in the human heart.
Tom Waits – Real Gone
When Waits warns us “Don’t Go Into That Barn,” he doesn’t have to provide us any further information. We know good and well what happened in that barn– or at least, we know that it was something awful, and that the ghosts of our fathers’ sins rattle through the night even now, haunting us still. That’s what this album is about– the crimes of past generations and the specters of the less savory aspects of our history, reminding us that they’re far from gone and taunting us as we repeat the same old mistakes. This is an album about the painful lessons of history, both personal and political, and its spooky admonitions couldn’t be more vital during a time of war and uncertainty.
Garage rock has always been considered to be rather low culture– even by rock and roll standards– and, given some of its more common tropes, like its primal three-chord structures and its messy, lo-fi production aesthetic, it doesn’t immediately strike one as an art form that’s built to last. And yet, it’s those very characteristics– its primitive energy, its straight-to-the-gut simplicity, its contagious energy– that make it so enduring. Garage rock is alive and well in 2008, even as other, more complex or sophisticated styles of music fall into obscurity.
But of course, it’s also a genre that attracts its fair share of poseurs and gimmicks. There’s a lot more to keeping garage rock alive and kicking than simply recording your songs on old-fashioned, analog studio technology; the White Stripes can get away with it because they’ve got the songs to back it up, and indeed, that’s exactly what’s required– garage rock songs live or die not just by the primitivism of the sound, but also on the strength of their hooks.
I’ve heard two excellent platters of wonderfully rowdy, ramshackle garage rock glory this year, both of which revitalize the familiar form but also do it one better by not settling for mere revivalism, but, through humor, heart, and excellent songwriting, manage to be fully alive and in the moment. One is from an artist who’s just starting to gain some fame in the U.S.; the other is from a veteran band retreating from their success in the U.S.; and both are air guitar-worthy good times.
King Khan & His Shrines– The Supreme Genius of…
King Khan doesn’t take himself very seriously, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Reviews of his albums tend to focus on his persona– one is almost inclined to call it schtick– as a sex-obsessed Lothario, a tongue-in-cheek soul man, a swaggering and over-the-top rock and roll frontman. And certainly, that persona makes him a gripping and consistently entertaining ringleader for the musical circus that is the Shrines, but what it doesn’t take into account is that, beneath his gleefully demented sense of humor, he’s a heck of a good songwriter.
That’s on evidence throughout The Supreme Genius of King Khan & His Shrines, which isn’t really a greatest-hits album so much as a crash course on the band’s work, an introduction to American audiences, a chronicle of how he got here and why we should care. Every one of the songs on this album could easily pass for a lost relic from the garage rock era, with just a bit of Family Stone soul added on for good measure. Khan leads his massive twelve-piece band through barn-burning rock and roll stompers and a few soulful ballads, all of which are played with grit and vitality and just the right amount of sloppiness, perfectly complimented by the bare-bones production, which compresses the tinny organ, the blaring horns, and the ragged guitar into a deliriously appealing cacophony of sound and attitude.
But as great as the band is, this is Khan’s show. It’s not surprising that critics focus so much on his persona, as he brings a quirky sense of humor to these songs that ranges from a slightly weird to perverse to downright uncomfortable. And honestly, it’s a little much at times– his song about wishing to be a girl, for example, comes across as rather creepy– but elsewhere, as on the bluesy opener “Torture,” his off-the-cuff sentiments and irreverent approach to love and relationships is charming, in a goofy sort of way.
Foxboro Hot Tubs– Stop, Drop and Roll!!
When Green Day recorded a song with U2 a couple years back, it was a significant moment. Not only did it herald that the mainstream music scene had finally come to accept the punk trio on their own terms– apart from the fluke hit “Good Riddance,” their work never received as much acclaim as it deserved– but also that, with the American Idiot record, Green Day had become a serious band– even an Important one, releasing what is arguably the most major statement about American culture and politics yet released in the 2000s.
Of course Green Day will never take themselves seriously enough or write poetically enough to make anything as artful and meaningful as the best U2 albums, but it must be said that, in at least one regard, Billie Joe has done Bono one better. When U2 became the biggest and most important band in the world with The Joshua Tree, they promptly followed it up by sinking under their own pretensions on the uneven and sometimes obnoxious Rattle & Hum. For Green Day, however, the success of American Idiot has essentially had the opposite effect– rather than being crushed under their newfound importance, the band has shrugged it off by recording an album under a new name, Foxboro Hot Tubs, that is as straightforward and frivolous as American Idiot was ambitious and meaningful.
And with their old name they’ve thrown off any pretensions that could have possibly come with their new success; this is a back-to-basics record in the best sense of the term, a lean, concise set that finds the trio hammering out wonderfully raw and edgy garage rock tunes that are high on energy and attitude. Of course, they’ve captured the sound of 1960s garage rock remarkably well– the album was recorded on analog technology, of course, and it’s a surprisingly raw, messy recording– but that wouldn’t mean anything if the songs weren’t great, which they most assuredly are. If American Idiot was high on concept, the songs here are all about delivering straight-ahead rock and roll; and so, the lyrics are more about momentum and sound than actual meaning, meant to provide sing-along choruses and power the big hooks.
And oh, what hooks they are! Green Day has never written a song as catchy as the first single, “Mother Mary,” and the rest of the songs aren’t too far behind. It doesn’t hurt that they all rush by in a flash, only slowing down or trying different textures once or twice, which makes the album feel like a taut, lean and focused batch of rock singles that hit hard and don’t dwindle any longer than they need to.
Of course, American Idiot was a masterpiece by just about any standards, an exhilarating and challenging record that blended the rage and indignation of punk with strong pop songcraft and rock and roll attitude. This album doesn’t even attempt to be so ambitious, but, in its own way, it’s almost as remarkable of an achievement; it’s every bit as enjoyable and memorable as that last album, and, as far as pure rock and roll energy, this is the most fun party Green Day has ever thrown.