Thursday, January 06, 2005

That Was the Year That Was

Like most folks, I tend to put off unpleasant tasks, which is why the promised list of what I liked in 2004 — along with general comments about the year in music — has been so slow coming.

Simply put, while I found much that was admirable in last year’s cavalcade of pop, it was admiration in a detached, cerebral sense. To grab a critical fave at random, I found it really hard to get chuffed about Brian Wilson’s long-lost Smile album. Some of that is, of course, taste; unlike Wilson, I never dug the Hi-Los or Four Freshmen, preferring the more boppish Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, and so those vaunted close harmonies Wilson dotes on have always struck me as being a tad soulless. And, to be honest, it’s not like I’ve spent the last 38 years wishing the original Smile had been released as intended. Still, listening to Wilson’s loving exhumation of that lost moment moved me not at all, and reading those it did move seemed a bit like listening to people enthuse over high school reunions — however much you might appreciate their feelings, it’s hard to share a sense of connection.

As such, I found myself at year’s end with a distressingly large stack of CDs I wanted to love but couldn’t. Among them: Bjork’s Medulla (smart and inventive, but not enough to overcome its chilly solipsism); Stars’ Set Yourself on Fire (title to the contrary, it seemed oddly lacking in heat, however beautiful the sound was); U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (is the world really so desperate for Big Rock that even mediocrity gets raves?); and Usher’s Confessions (a couple good singles, sure, but is being shallow and horny really the stuff of autobiography?).

Having said that, the obvious question that follows is: Well, what makes your favourites so great? Basically, what earned these discs their place had mostly to do with time spent in CD players. These are the albums I turned to for fun, for solace, for a burst of joy and for the simple pleasures of sound. There are 20 here, mostly because 10 wasn’t quite enough (and 20 seemed a good place to stop), and the rankings are less a value judgment than a vague reckoning of the intensity of my affection for this music. At this point in time, anyway — my sense of 2004 could be quite different in six months, but who’ll care then?

1. Youssou N’Dour Egypt (Nonesuch)
Perhaps the greatest singer on the planet, and certainly the best in pop. But the pleasures here have less to do with the lustre of his voice than with the ease with which he makes the pan-Arabic vocal tradition his own. Lush, heartbreaking, panoramic, gorgeous.

2. k.d. lang Hymns of the 49th Parallel (Nonesuch)
A covers album of songs most singers wouldn’t think to cover, this is a wonderful piece of chamber pop, deftly straddling both the rock tradition lang started in, and the croonerish sophistipop she aspires to. She sounds great, naturally, but her real victory is in making the songs sound like they’re hers — no easy feat.

3. Utada Exodus (Def Jam)
Having suggested in print four years ago that this J-POP wunderkind could really make a mark in the North American market, I must admit to having been pre-disposed to liking this. But not even the ambition of her last Japanese studio album, Deep River, prepared me for the ambitious reach exhibited in the dance pop on offer here. Great beats, a distinctive vocal approach and a surprisingly vivid narrative — who would have thought club music would have room for troubadours?

4. Eddi Reader Sings the Songs of Robert Burns (Compass)
An album almost no one heard, and more’s the pity. Reader, who some may recall from her days with Fairground Attraction, cut several delightful-but-overlooked solo albums in the ’90s, and is by no means a folkie purist. But that’s precisely why these old Scots classics work — she makes the wit, the melancholy and the sass within seem as contemporary as an iPod. And her band ain’t bad, either.

5. K-OS Joyful Rebellion (Astralwerks)
Much as I admire the lyrical perspective — thoughtful, honest, courageous, it’s closer to the hip-hop core than any contemporary b-boy stance — what slays me is the way K-OS’ music recaptures the scavenger glee of the great rap DJs. Doesn’t hurt that he can sing, either.

6. Puffy Ami Yumi Hi Hi Puffy Amy Yumi (Epic)
A better best-of than Illustrated History, and proof that they rock bi-linguallly. Now if only Canadian TV would pick up the cartoon show that inspired this collection!

7. Scissor Sisters Scissor Sisters (Universal)
Campy, sure, and very much second-hand (although how much rock these days isn’t?), but delivered with enough glee to make those points moot. And who would have thought intentionally cheesy synths could ever sound cool again?

8. Kanyé West The College Dropout (Roc-a-Fella)
It shouldn’t be a shock that hip-hop is so multi-dimensional, but apparently it is. (And those who were amazed that somebody who could be down with Jay-Z would also be down with Jesus really need to pay more attention to the world around them.) Still, it’s nice to find a producer whose solo project is not only as good as his for-hire work, but frequently better. Neptunes, take note.

9. Keren Ann Not Going Anywhere (Manhattan)
Hardly an album I expected to adore, given its murmuring vocals and Nick Drake moodiness, yet within three plays I was smitten. Quietly smitten, but still. Great songs, but it’s the secondary hooks that keep reeling me back.

10. Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains The Big Eye in the Sky (Prawn Song)
Despite its jam band bona fides, what makes this Les Claypool project shine is how well the playing fits the writing (which relies more on hook than gimmick), and how well the disparate parts fit together. Special kudos to synth wiz Bernie Worrell.

11. Isis Panopticon (Ipecac)
Slow, dark and epic. But where most SD&E metal tends to evoke Black Sabbath and John Williams, Isis is redolent of the Cure and Olivier Messaien. A welcome change.

12. Chris Potter Lift (Sunnyside)
I’ve enjoyed saxophonist Potter previously in a variety of settings, from Dave Holland albums to live with Steely Dan. But the lean, swinging hard bop of this live session eclipses all that — and I love when Kevin Hays weighs in on “7.5” with a ring-modulated Rhodes solo that sounds like the world’s loudest cell phone.

13. Junior Boys Last Exit (Domino)
Using club consciousness to winnow out all that was great about ’80s synth pop — and managing not to sound retro, to boot! What’s not to like?

14. Branford Marsalis Eternal (Marsalis Music)
Given the brilliance of his cameos with Sting and other pop stars, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Marsalis knows his way around a melody. But what makes this ballad collection so compelling is the way he evokes the passion of Coltrane’s ballad work without playing off the well-worn bits of Coltrane’s vocabulary.

15. Lamb of God Ashes of the Wake (Epic)
It’s like System of a Down without the art rock excess, or Korn without the funk fixation. And smarter than 99% of all the guitar albums I heard last year.

16. Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic Messaien: Éclairs sur l’au-delà… (EMI Classics)
If it were only a matter of getting to bask in a previously unheard Messaien masterwork, I’d be happy as a pig in muck. But hearing the wonders Rattles pulls from the Berliners — the transparency of the woodwinds, the bell-like purity of the brass — makes this treat feel like real revelation. Please, sir … more?

17. Keith Jarrett The Out of Towners (ECM)
Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette have been making exquisite albums for so long superlatives barely apply anymore. But DeJohnette, in particular, shines so brightly on this set that it was hard to pry it from the CD player. Besides, I’m a sucker for songs like “You’ve Changed,” which positively glows here.

18. Slipknot Volume 3: The Subliminal Verses (Roadrunner)
With Rick Rubin behind the boards, they finally achieve a studio sound as scary as their onstage look. More to the point, they finally justify all that extra percussion, making me wish more heavy bands made the beat as important as the crunch.

19. Auf der Maur Auf der Maur (Capitol)
Why this wasn’t a bigger hit (critical or popular) I’ll never know — the writing and play beat the pants off Queens of the Stone Age or Probot. Great live show, too.

20. Evgeny Kissin Schubert: Piano Sonata in B-flat, Four Songs; Lizt: Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (RCA Red Seal)
I’d listened to the B-flat sonata many times, but never really heard it before — the rich landscape, the almost picaresque narrative. Kissin evokes the drama and passion of romantic era virtuosity without resorting to flash or corn, delivering both depth and dazzle. If chamber music had rock stars, he’d definitely be one.

Why this wasn’t a bigger hit (critical or popular) I’ll never know lack of strong vocal presence, probably. It's interesting and commanding except for the sideperson singing.
"Interesting and commanding" yet "lacking a strong vocal presence?" Not a convincing argument, and the comment about her being a sideman is quite snide if not outright indicative. I'd say the mix wasn't exactly favorable to making Auf der Maur into a vocals project--if anything, I'd say the production is much more flattering to the arrangements than the singer. And I'm also fairly certain that was intentional.

There has always been a notably prejudice among critics towards sidemen, so in that context I really wasn't surprised to see this album disappear.
Didn't think I would ever see Keith Jarrett and Slipknot on the same list, sequentially even. Thoughtful list - but do think you might want to re-listen to Bjork. Tremendous CD, startling depth and breadth of ideas. Imperfect, but something new ( given your comment about whats new in (rock) music).
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