My favorite 25 albums released in 2004.

25. Tinariwen- Amassakoul: The nomadic Tuaregs of the Sahara Desert have earned the right to sing the blues, and that's exactly what they do here.  You don't need to understand the lyrics to get caught up in the hypnotic rhythms or to appreciate the guitar work on this album.  Not flashy, this music cuts right to the gut the way good electric blues should. It's not merely a coincidence that Tinariwen and Robert Plant shared the same stage during the Festival in the Desert- it's a tribute to the common roots their music shares.
24.  Dizzee Rascal- Boy In Da Corner: My list, my rules- this was released in the UK in 2003, but not available in the U.S. until 2004, when I first heard it (the import price was ridiculous). So I deem it worthy for this year's award, even though it won the coveted Mercury Prize in the UK last year. This is rap at its most basic- voice, beats and electronic bleeps- but it's also quite futuristic.  Dizzee's voice is unique- and you can even understand a word or two beneath the thick accent- and the overall effect is fresh and unique.  They call this style grime in the UK- Dizzee is its first star, and he may make his mark stateside in 2005 when his third album (this was his first) gets released. Bonus points for sampling Billy Squire.
23. !!!- Louden Up Now: You pronounce the name of this band by repeating a percussive sound three times- the default is "chk chk chk", but I prefer the Three Stooges inspired "nyuk nyuk nyuk".  They belong to the recent cluster dance-punk bands, and lean more towards the dance than the punk side, though they certainly salute both flags. The percussion sets them apart from others who follow the same road, as it helps build a rock solid foundation for both the funky grooves and political lyrics (which are more angry and foul-mouthed than they are insightful). Talking Heads are an obvious reference point, and I wouldn't be surprised if they heard The Clash's "Radio Clash" once or twice. 
22. Sleep Station- After The War: Concept albums are hard to pull off, which make this album by Sleep Station even more of a triumph.  A concept album about World War II that's full of catchy, poppy songs that stand on their own- it's really hard to imagine.  Sleep Station pull it off, sounding like a lost Power Pop supergroup- Badfinger was the first band I thought off, but you'll find many post-Beatles pop references here. It's a like a movie on CD- Sleep Station have created a minor masterpiece and show promise of great things to come.
21.Radio 4- Stealing Of A Nation: Another NYC Funk-Punk combo, Stealing Of A Nation should have been the dance music at the Inauguration of anyone other than ol' W. It stands instead as the urgent cry of the blue states, angry with what's going on around them. What !!! accomplishes with percussion and cursing, Radio 4 ups the ante with solid melodies and more intelligent lyrics. Midnight Oil comes to mind on many tracks, and to me, this is the political album of the year, not the Green Day album that's garnered all the headlines. Sure, Radio 4 were never Top 40 darlings so it's less surprising to find them on a soapbox, but this album is far superior in my little red book.
20. The Secret Machines- Now Here Is Nowhere: Is there anyone really doing anything new in rock music, is it all just new combinations of elements that have been around for years? It's most likely the latter, and in that case, The Secret Machines do an excellent job in selecting the pieces to use. Led Zeppelin's rhythm section, Krautrock's grooves, Pink Floyd's spacey atmospherics and arena rock hooks all come to play here in a mix that makes many things old sound new again. In an alternate universe, this is the rock you hear blaring out of the largest stadiums.
19. K-Os- Joyful Rebellion: You'll find this album classified under rap, which there is certainly plenty of here, but Toronto's (!) K-Os blends acoustic guitar folk, reggae, R & B, rock, alternative and hip-hop into a unique mix. If this album has a major flaw, it's that K-Os changes styles so quickly that Joyful Rebellion often sounds like a compilation album than the work of one artist. But the fact that all of these styles ultimately work is a tribute K-Os's unique skills and make him an artist to watch in the future.  This is one of those albums where your favorite song on it could change depending on your mood at the time- a rare feat.
18. Menomena- I Am The Fun Blame Monster!: On paper, this sounds like an album to avoid- the title is an anagram for The First Menomena Album, the package is a flip book that shows the anagram taking place along with the band members playing, and it's on a tiny, tiny label.  Hundreds of albums like this get released each year, only to riddle dollar bins at the used record shop. But in the one in a hundred chance that it works, you have a real gem on your hands. This here is the Hope Diamond. Menomena is a band of three multi-instrumentalists from Portland, OR who know that you can be experimental but still have an ear for melody.  Piano and drums compete and compliment each other on many songs, and there are moments when you think you're in a David Lynch movie. Bonus Points: Their website looks like the all-too-common badly executed AOL member site in one of the most dead-on website parodies I've ever seen.
17. Ed Harcourt- Strangers: For what it's worth, Ed Harcourt, a British singer-songwriter, has had all three of his albums land in the Timmys.  Not sure that this means anything other than I'm partial to his brand of intelligent pop music.  Ed takes 60s and 70s influences and updates them, never afraid to mess with the formula a little as long as the tune remains strong.  Perhaps this is what John Mayer would sound like if he didn't suck...
16. Brian Wilson- Smile: Much has been written about the history of this album, so I will be brief. One-upped by the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, the Beatles create Sgt. Pepper's.  Brian Wilson attempted an answer in the form of Smile- but essentially went crazy in the process.  The album was never released, those some of its songs did see the light of day, only adding to the mystery.  Some 37 years later, Smile is finally released.  Mind you, it's all newly-recorded versions by a much more lucid Wilson with help from many friends, but it works.  Decades after being written, this is still unique, inventive and creative music.  You've most likely heard some of the best songs- "Good Vibrations", "Heroes And Villains", possibly "Surf's Up"- but it's worth hearing Wilson's original vision.
15. The Coral- Magic and Medicine: There's plenty of 60s influenced bands out there, but if you look at the less-often imitated style of psychedelic pop, The Coral not only outshine all contemporaries, but stand up with most of the original practitioners of this style.  Sometimes capturing the spirit of The Doors and other times sounding like something off the Nuggets compilations, The Coral makes new music in a style that was established years ago. Hey, if bluegrass bands can do it...
14. Wilco- A Ghost Is Born: Darn Wilco. Every time they release a CD, I think, "This one isn't going to be as good, so I won't have to buy the next one when it comes out, and it'll free up a place in the Timmys for an up-and-coming act."  But once again, Wilco raises the bar by expanding their sound yet remaining highly melodic and listenable.  They get a little "out there" on this album, but not enough that I want to not listen.  If they keep challenging themselves, Wilco will surely have a home in the Timmys- and without reservation.
13. Dizzee Rascal: Hey, wasn't he at #24 on this list? That's right- both Dizzee's debut and his second album were released stateside in 2004.  Both are really good, but Showtime shows Dizzee has grown both musically and lyrically. An artist to watch- if there's room in the hearts of America for a British rapper, Dizzee will be it.
12. Interpol- Antics: Interpol's first album was all stylish and gloomy updates of Joy Division- and while Antics doesn't stray far from that formula, the fellas sound even a little upbeat at times, adding some really catchy melodies to the equation.  I'd say they've avoided the "sophomore slump" and show great promise for album number three.
11. The Futureheads- The Futureheads: So many 80s bands have been paid homage to in the sound of 21st Century bands, surely XTC would be one of them. This is the sound of The Futureheads.  Their major influence is clearly early XTC, and their jumpy, frantic songs whip right along, providing a nice New Wave sound for today. Nice Kate Bush cover (Hounds Of Love), too.
10. A Girl Called Eddy- A Girl Called Eddy: New Jersey-based Erin Moran (not the one who starred in "Joannie Loves Chachi") is A Girl Called Eddy, and she's heard more than a few songs by A Girl Named Dusty (Springfield) and A Guy Named Burt (Bacharach).  This is full-blown late-60's AM Radio pop, with vocals that will remind you of Aimee Mann. An album that's easy to listen to without being easy listening.
9. Ted Leo And The Pharmacists- Shake The Sheets: Winner of the first place prize in the 2003 Timmys, Leo is back with another album, and it's a real barnburner.  It's solid from start to finish but less inventive than last year's Hearts of Oak.  The sound is tightened rather than expanded, focusing on the guitar/bass/drums power trio sound.  What The Jam would sound like if they were from the U.S., which is a very, very good thing.
8. Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds- Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus: Double CDs of original material are always dicey propositions- couldn't the artist just release a really, really good single CD instead?  I happily report that the answer with this release is no, both discs are needed.  Cave and company refine their sound to make really tight rock music that's gothic in the literary sense, as opposed to the "gothic" music that the kids in black at the mall listen to,  Nick tackles subjects like God, death and love like his life depends on it, and the backing vocals give many of these songs a gospel flavor- although it's hard to tell if they are singing in church or at the gates of hell. Powerful stuff, theatric without being too over the top, but it gets very, very close to crossing the line.
7. The Earlies- These Were The Earlies: This album begins all Pet Sounds-ish, but then quickly shifts to Flaming Lips-style spaced-out rock, complete with far-away vocals- and continues to stomp back and forth between these styles, combining them whenever they can.  The Earlies use every instrument they can get their hands on to create tunes which blend mid-60s  Beach Boys' orchestral pop, late 90s Flaming Lips controlled weirdness and Lemon Jelly or Moby's blissed-out electronica.  Perfect music for watching clouds (real or imaginary) float by.
  6. The Concretes- The Concretes: Sweden has added another female-led pop band to its list of exports, but unlike ABBA, Ace of Base or Roxette, The Concretes have a little bit of an edge to them.  This is pure pop music, but in a Mazzy Star meets Jesus and Mary Chain sense rather than in a Top 40 way.  "Say Something New" leads off their self-titled debut in very much the same way "Just Like Honey" did for the Jesus and Mary Chain.  Not a bad start for an album- or a career.
5. The Arcade Fire- Funeral: This album topped a lot of best of lists I saw, and I totally understand this- especially considering these lists shied away from anything on a major label.  This husband and wife led septet creates a unique blend of familiar sounds, taking post-punk riffs and blending them with pianos, accordions, etc.  The music is both melancholy and uplifting, often in the same song. Influences appear in pieces- a New Order drum pattern here, a Talking Heads bassline or piano from a saloon in Western there- but come together in a truly original way. An amazing record in its ambition, and it hits the mark almost all the time.
4. TV On The Radio- Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes: I saw this album described somewhere as the ultimate New York City album, which is fitting.  This band combines many elements of NYC's musical past, from doo wop, free jazz horns, post punk art school rock, New York Dolls glam and Sonic Youth's guitars. And it all works, making this a surprising and inventive debut album. Not for everyone, but the adventurous listener may find much to enjoy here.
3. The Killers- Hot Fuss: I was in a record store three different times and heard this album being played at different points- I know this as each time I asked "Who is this", and the third time the clerk (thankfully different clerks each time) told me it was The Killers, I bit the bullet and bought the album. I say bit the bullet as a lot of times a catchy release on a major label that sounds good in the store winds up collecting dust after a few listens.  I do not regret this purchase at all, as this album still gets a lot of plays, and I think this will continue for quite sometime.  I own hundreds of albums more original than Hot Fuss, but few of them pull you in the way this one does. There's an overwhelming New Wave influence here, but the references are more mainstream than most 80's influenced bands- I hear The Cure, INXS and OMD among others, but The Killers add a much stronger rock sound to the mix. This could be the soundtrack to a long lost John Hughes movie, and I wouldn't be surprised if the next Killers album gets plugged on the front of the Target flyer in the Sunday paper- this guys could very well get big...
2. Dogs Die In Hot Cars- Please Describe Yourself: If you can, put aside the disturbing (yet true) name of this band.  It gives no indication of the catchy late 80s British pop style of this album. A member of The Futureheads commented that "we should do a concert with Dogs Die In Hot Cars- we could come out first and play early XTC, then they can come out and play late XTC."  He ain't foolin'- I think the singer sounds so much like XTC's Andy's Partridge that he could fool Andy's wife. Fans of late Madness, Dexy's Midnight Runners and the more commercial work of Elvis Costello should remember this band's name- as odd as it may be.
1. Franz Ferdinand- Franz Ferdinand: Before I heard a note by Franz Ferdinand, I read an article about them in a British music mag hyping them as "the next big thing."  In that article, one of the band's members said their goal was to "make music girls will want to dance to."  From that humble goal comes a very successful debut album, and the success is both financial and critical.  Franz Ferdinand is yet another in the crop of New Wave revivalists, but they pay attention to the groove of their songs the way few of their peers do. This album is only 11 songs long, and many of those songs could be a single.  "Take Me Out" could very well be the single I will remember 2004 by, and that song propelled this CD to near gold album status in the U.S.  I'm not saying this album will change the face of alternative music the way Nirvana's Nevermind did, but remember, Nevermind was Nirvana's second album.  A solid debut from start to finish, and you could dance to it if you were so inclined...

Honorable mentions- check the blog.

Note: I've used the images of album covers on this site so that if anyone reads this and is inspired to buy these albums, they know what they look like. Anyone from these record labels who would like me to add copyright information or remove any of these images, let me know. Thanks.

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