Landmarks: The Year 2004
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?