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Top 10 Albums, Singles, & Videos of 2004

It’s a rare, special thing when a band creates an album that speaks for an entire generation.

Top 10 Albums, Singles, & Videos of 2004


ALBUMS


Top 10 Albums, Singles, & Videos of 2004

1. Green Day, American Idiot

It’s a rare, special thing when a band creates an album that speaks for an entire generation; it’s even more rare when a band manages to do it twice. Ten years ago Green Day brought punk rock to the pop masses, selling over ten million copies of their major label debut and becoming spokespeople for a generation of proud, self-professed “slackers.” Their influence is more widely felt than any other band from the ‘90s (sorry, Nirvana). But who woulda thunk that the slackers of yesteryear would also define a whole new generation of disenfranchised, world-weary youth with yet another punk rock masterpiece? There are those who will tell you that punk rock is dead—after all, when Avril and Ashlee start making Pink look hardcore you know the revolution is over. But I can’t think of anything more punk than writing and recording a rock opera in 2004. American Idiot is hands-down the most daring record of the year—and it comes complete with a bleeding heart.


2. The Cardigans, Long Gone Before Daylight

I first heard The Cardigans’s “You’re the Storm” on Christmas Eve 2002. The track had just been mixed and an engineer friend of mine played it as inspiration for a project we were working on. The lyrics alone were enough to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. A small group of us sat and listened as the b-section burst into the song’s more authentic hook, Nina Persson’s vocals stacked and sweetened to the nth degree and backed by a gale of storm-like keyboard swirls. The track would eventually be released as the second single from the Cardigans’s Long Gone Before Daylight, a record that, to my surprise, lives up to everything I heard in the studio that day.


3. Carina Round, The Disconnection

Imagine if Patti Smith and Robert Plant hooked up at a key party and conceived a little baby girl. Now imagine if PJ Harvey and Jeff Buckley adopted that little girl and raised her on jazz, trip-hop, blues, and classic rock. The second album by that child might sound a little something like Carina Round’s The Disconnection. This might seem like a recipe for a derivative disaster. But Round never directly references her predecessors; she’s like a living musical gene pool, her voice summoning the complete history of rock but never to the point of distraction, and Disconnection is like the musical map that ensures that she (and we) never get off track. Disconnection is the kind of striking rock document that only comes once in a great while. This is music for exorcisms and scorned lovers.


4. Brandy, Afrodisiac

For an R&B album inspired by such a disparate array of sources (from samples of Iron Maiden, Hans Zimmer, Janis Ian, and, most notably, Coldplay), the influence of Brandy’s Afrodisiac seems to be coming full-circle. “There’s so much going on, you can’t hear them with your conscious; you have to hear her voice with your subconscious,” John Frusciante said of the album’s vocal arrangements in a recent issue of Filter Magazine, “Noise in a pop context is such a beautiful thing to see.” Afrodisiac is a devastating yet confident break-up album (“Nothing’s picture perfect/Looks can be deceiving,” Brandy sings on the opening track, perhaps hinting at the now-public knowledge that her first marriage was a sham). The singer suffered another break-up—this time with her record label—shortly after the release of Afrodisiac, which doesn’t bode well for the shelf-life of this extraordinarily personal, often heart-wrenching R&B record.


5. The Killers, Hot Fuss

Preceding the return of Duran Duran by several months, The Killers are the latest group to jump on the rock revivalist bandwagon, with a debut record that’s as superficial, glitzy, and decadent as their hometown of Las Vegas. The U.K. press dubbed them the Next Big Thing and, perhaps reflexively, many U.S. music critics have turned up their noses. But there’s something transcendent, if not completely paradoxical, about U.S. writers denouncing U.K. critics who have championed an American band that sounds a hell of a lot like a Brit act in the first place, though I’m not quite sure what. Hot Fuss is just plain good.


6. The Streets, A Grand Don’t Come for Free

Digital advances and inflated CD prices begat file-sharing and, in turn, file-sharing begat the return of the concept album. Less grand in scope than, say, American Idiot, a patently American concept album by fellow loafers Green Day, The Streets’s romantic comedy, err, tragedy A Grand Don’t Come for Free is just as universal despite (or, perhaps, because) of its personal hyper-specificity. Mike Skinner’s candid, often intimate narratives are both exclusive and inclusive—he struggles with the loss of things (money, love, cellphone reception), a fundamental tenet of the human experience. His homespun beats and samples are cinematic and layered; his hooks are inventive and surprisingly memorable. American hip-hop is rarely this consistently engaging or forward-thinking.


7. Madvillain, Madvillainy

Like DJ Shadow and the Beastie Boys before him (and, more recently, The Avalanches), Madvillain’s Madlib elevates sampling to an art form. As Slant critic Eric Henderson poignantly describes in his review of the album: Madvillainy “makes you want to raid your own collection of vinyl, dropping the needle randomly in a vain attempt to remove the context of the surrounding song.” The album might be packaged as a comic book-style melee between beatsmith Madlib and MC MF Doom, but this undie-rap match-up is anything but bloody. Madlib’s bassy backbeats and old school soul samples are matched flawlessly with Doom’s scratchy-throated rhymes and it’s this synthesis that makes them players rather than foes. This pairing is further proof that hip-hop’s real superheroes are hiding underground.


8. Magnet, On Your Side

It takes most artists years to compose and record an album as seamless as Magnet’s debut. So it should come as no surprise that On Your Side isn’t actually Magnet’s debut at all, but his third release (he issued an album with his band Libido in 1998 as well as a self-produced 2001 solo release under his real name). For an artist as influenced by the dusty Western soundscapes of Ennio Morricone as he is by the stellar electronica of Air, Magnet manages to knit a surprisingly cohesive sonic tapestry out of strings, brass, acoustic guitar, tinkling toy piano sounds, and electronic flourishes.


9. Blondie, The Curse of Blondie

No, the rock-rap hybrid “Shakedown” isn’t the worst song Blondie ever recorded, but let’s just pretend The Curse of Blondie starts with the second track, “Good Boys,” anyway. The rhymes actually flow and it’s a post-disco romp what would make Giorgio Moroder proud. There’s a mythology that runs through Curse’s veins like venom: Debbie Harry is a “witch” on “Shakedown”; she’s a siren on “Undone”; and she’s intoxicated by a yellow-flowered weed on “Golden Rod.” The dub-wise “Background Melody” tells the story of a legendary band’s whose music has been the background music to our lives, while the serpentine “Songs Of Love” and the Lizard King-worthy “Desire Brings Me Back” would make both Jim Morrison and Patti Smith proud. But the album isn’t just a nostalgia trip; after 25 years, these aging rock icons are still pissing off punks with their disco shoes.


10. Jem, Finally Woken

Not to be confused with Jem of the Holograms (the alter ego of Jerrica Benton, the daughter of the man who invented Synergy, a super-computer that confronts Jerrica after her father dies and convinces her to take on the guise of a holographic pop star), the Wales-born Jem Griffiths is best known for co-writing Madonna’s “Nothing Fails.” Jem’s solo debut, Finally Woken, is a similar mix of silky pop-friendly hooks, cinematic string samples, and sturdy hip-hop beats, all held together with a smoky, coffee-bar vocal that falls somewhere in between Dido’s lukewarm-with-lemon warble and Beth Orton’s richly seasoned alto.


SINGLES


Top 10 Albums, Singles, & Videos of 2004

1. Gwen Stefani, “What You Waiting For?”

For her solo debut, the prettiest member of No Doubt set out to make the kind of record she grew up listening to in Anaheim, California in the mid-1980s: catchy, soulless, synth-driven dance-pop a la Debbie Deb and Lisa Lisa. Short of changing her name to Gwenie Gwen and teasing her hair, the couture-happy Gwen Stefani succeeded in creating the year’s guiltiest retro pleasure (emphasis on retro and pleasure) with Love. Angel. Music. Baby. and its lead single, the Linda Perry-penned, Nellee Hooper-produced “What You Waiting For?” With its tick-tock pre-chorus, driving club beat, and mesh of electric guitars, the song is topped only by its designer mess of a video (directed by Francis Lawrence). Style trumps substance on L.A.M.B. (she swings from a giant anchor in the Harajuku-Girl-meets-Pirates of the Caribbean clip for “Rich Girl”), which puts both the guilt and the pleasure in Stefani’s self-professed guilty pleasure record.


2. Jay-Z, “99 Problems”

Inspired by Bruce Davidson’s rich and striking black-and-white photography of New York’s inner city, director Mark Romanek made his first foray into hip-hop videomaking with Jay-Z’s so-called swan song. The pair shot the video for the single “99 Problems” in and around the Marcy Houses projects where Jay grew up in Brooklyn, capturing both real-life street squabbles and a fictional storyline that ends with the literal and figurative death of Jay-Z the artist (but don’t hold your breath). The clip features the Alpha Phi Alpha Steppers and cameos by a pimped-out Rick Rubin (who produced the track) and Vincent Gallo (who may or may not be the hitman who ultimately takes Jay down). Not only is “99 Problems” the best video of the year, it might just be the best hip-hop video ever.


3. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Maps”

Yeah Yeah Yeahs will tell you themselves: “Maps,” their hit modern rock ballad, was a fluke. Karen O’s distinctive warble and desperate pleas (“Wait! They don’t love you like I love you”) are reminiscent of Chrissie Hynde, while the song’s crisp guitar solos recall the Pretenders’ heyday. The video for “Maps,” with its bright primary colors and simple but stunning art direction, stands in stark contrast to Karen’s typically crazed beer-spittin’ onstage grandstanding (save for one brief moment when it seems as if she might strangle herself with her mic cord). It’s the year’s greatest video performance in one of the year’s best videos for one of the year’s best singles.


4. Incubus, “Megalomaniac”

Incubus is mum on who the song’s actually about, but just one look at the video for “Megalomaniac” (which ranks among director Flora Sigismondi’s best work) and it’s pretty damn clear. Amidst Nazi-esque imagery, books titled Heroes Don’t Ask Why and Ye Holy Buy Bull, signs that read “Operation Freedom Control” and “Jesus Saves,” and a poverty-stricken family drinking oil from a can, a white politician spits vitriol from a gas pump podium before turning into an American Eagle and plucking out the eyes of the people standing before him. Soon, of course, dissent arrives in the form of piranhas (the people) devouring the big bad bird.


5. Kylie Minogue, “Slow”

It only took one listen to realize that Kylie Minogue’s “Slow,” the first single from her album Body Language, would hardly make a blip on the U.S. pop-culture radar. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t one of the hottest tracks of the year. The song’s accompanying video finds Kylie lying poolside in a one-piece, surrounded by an array of tanned Adonises and bathing beauties, the camera panning out to reveal her speedo- and bikini-clad buddies writhing on their colorful towels like little plastic pieces in a kaleidoscope. The clip isn’t as geometrically groundbreaking as it could have been in the hands of, say, Michel Gondry, but it’s fitting for such a slinky, minimalist romp like “Slow.” For added pleasure, check out the Chemical Brothers’s remix.


6. Vanessa Carlton, “White Houses”

It should have been hard for Vanessa Carlton to trump her first single “A Thousand Miles,” but “White Houses,” the lead single from the singer’s sophomore effort Harmonium, is the kind of song that truly cements a career. Amidst a driving beat, piano recital keys, and lush strings, the song tells the story of five girls living together in what is presumably a dance school dormitory or summer camp. The girls play spin the bottle, make out with boys, tell secrets, betray each other, and then reluctantly move on with their lives. The song is poignant, bloody, fleeting, and beautiful, much like adolescence, while the simple but elegant video allows Carlton to showcase her years of professional dance training.


7. Eminem, “Mosh”

Sure, the sight of Eminem reading an upside down copy of My Pet Goat might be a bit much, and an army of black hooded sweatshirts following the rapper to Capital Hill like a bunch of clones only bolsters the notion that Marshall Mathers is an egomaniac, but to compare Em’s “Mosh” to P. Diddy’s insipid “Vote Now or Die” campaign, as Armond White did a recent New York Press article, is about as stupid as thinking “Mosh” could have won John Kerry the election. Anyone who knows someone whose tour of duty has been extended at least once, or anyone who has a family member who served in the first Gulf War and is afraid of being called back to the military because it would leave their wife and kids to fend for themselves, can relate to the image of a marine receiving a notice of reassignment. Yet Em’s polemic is less about the war in Iraq and more about the unfought battles on our own soil. Yes, I’m just a part of what some like to call “the narcissistic, racist left media.” But where’s Public Enemy now, Armond? Oh, that’s right, kissing up Brigitte Neilson on VH1 and making vague, spineless anti-war tracks with Moby.


8. Maroon 5, “This Love”

The video for Maroon 5’s hit “This Love” was temporarily and inexplicably banished to late-night MTV following Janet’s Nipplegate. Sure, it’s a bit racy but you can see more skin every week on The OC or Desperate Housewives. Much of the clip’s real success can be attributed to the styling and art direction (the bright orange and red backdrops and sweatshirts, and all those pink-flowered South American trumpet trees). And, in the end, the song is just damn catchy. (Lead singer Adam Levine gets bonus points for knowing all the lyrics to Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance”—yes, I watch too much VH1.)


9. Kanye West, “All Falls Down”

Capitalism is both the black man’s salvation as well as his slavemaster on Kanye West’s “All Falls Down,” featuring Syleena Johnson singing a hook written by Lauryn Hill. The video is a bit less complicated, at least from a thematic standpoint—Kanye bids farewell to his girlfriend as she catches a flight at LAX. Technically, though, the clip is as complex as its wordsmith’s lyrics, told from the perspective of Kanye, whose reflection we see in restroom mirrors and car windows. Save for a slightly cheesy x-ray sequence at the metal detector, “All Falls Down” is understated and touching, and it ends with Kanye’s “eyes” filling with tears as he watches his girlfriend’s plane fly overhead through the sunroof of his limousine.


10. Usher, “Yeah!”

Crunk died the day it was born unto the pop masses. I’ve been whistling that damn incessantly oscillating hook from the ubiquitous “Yeah!” for almost a year now. Confessions ain’t no Thriller, but Usher might be the closest thing we’ve got to a new Michael. He sings, he dances…hell, he writes a little too. He’s got a blockbuster album with a string of hit singles attached, including a superstar duet with Alicia Keys. Now if only he’d eat some of that humble pie Tyra Banks is constantly servin’ up on UPN.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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