Throughout 2004, the music
industry continued to bemoan a sorry state of affairs that it claims is
caused by the proliferation of people downloading -- "stealing" is the term
many executives prefer -- singles and albums that they used to buy in the
In fact, according to Rolling Stone magazine and the industry trades,
sales of recorded music rose about 7 percent during the first half of 2004.
And while that number slipped during the third and fourth quarters to
average out to a "mere" 2 percent -- an annual increase that many businesses
would envy -- that can be blamed on the fact that major labels released
fewer albums and placed unrealistic expectations on a handful of superstar
acts, among them U2, Eminem, Destiny's Child and (sad but true) Clay Aiken.
From the perspective of the pop desk here at the Sun-Times, the music
industry has never been healthier, economically or artistically. No single
revolutionary sound or movement galvanized the scene in 2004, but there were
countless inspiring trends bubbling under, including the humor and honesty
of Kanye West's lyrics making inroads against the endless violent, sexist
bragging of many gangsta rappers; the encouraging chart success of inventive
bands such as Modest Mouse, Chicago's Wilco and Scotland's Franz Ferdinand
(who reminded us that great dance music can be made without synthesizers),
and the passionate attack on political apathy mounted by a diverse array of
inspired artists, from Green Day to Steve Earle.
As the year progressed, the "Top 10" list that I keep on my computer's
desktop grew and grew, as it always does, until I had to winnow down the
roster below -- presented in alphabetical order, since my No. 1 pick may
change from day to day if not hour to hour. It topped out at 75 albums I
can't live without.
What's more, I'm sure there was plenty of great music I missed. And the
certainty that those indispensable sounds are out there -- to buy or to
download -- is what keeps music fans listening, no matter what the corporate
TOP 10 ROCK ALBUMS OF 2004
1. Steve Earle, "The Revolution Starts Now" (Artemis): In a year
where political passions ran high, the Texas-bred singer-songwriter pulled
no punches, releasing his most controversial, combative and pugnacious album
ever -- and one of his hardest-rocking and most tuneful.
2. Franz Ferdinand, "Franz Ferdinand" (Domino/Epic): A high
energy, extremely melodic and relentlessly propulsive debut that proves that
dance music doesn't have to lack brains, heart or organic, old-fashioned
guitar, bass and drums.
3. Green Day, "American Idiot" (Warner Music Group): The snotty
pop-punks who gave us "Dookie" have grown up and pulled off the surprising
feat of releasing a rock opera that doesn't collapse under its own weight,
delivering instead a relentlessly tuneful, angry and energetic critique of a
generation's political apathy and its sad results.
4. Mark Lanegan Band, "Bubblegum" (Beggars Banquet): The sixth and
best solo album from the former leader of the Screaming Trees was notable in
part for its impressive roster of guests -- Polly Jean Harvey, Izzy Stradlin,
Greg Dulli and several Queens of the Stone Age among them -- but it earns
its spot on this list for the strength of the songwriting and the enduring
power of a voice that has always been tied with Kurt Cobain's as the best
that Seattle rock ever produced.
5. The Polyphonic Spree, "Together We're Heavy" (Hollywood): The
25-member Dallas-based mini-orchestra is unjustly dismissed by some critics
as a novelty act, but beyond deserving props for the sheer ambition of
realizing his brand of orchestral pop, bandleader Tim DeLaughter deserves
praise for writing a collection of irresistibly catchy and giddily
optimistic songs that are even stronger than those on the band's debut.
6. The Roots, "The Tipping Point" (Geffen): The Philadelphia
collective's fifth studio album is a summation of everything the best live
band in hip-hop has done to date, drawing on old-school rap, jazz and R&B
grooves while emphasizing the very modern notion that "messages and
behaviors spread just like viruses."
7. Jill Scott, "Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds, Vol. 2"
(Hidden Beach): Sexy but never vulgar, poetic but never pretentious, Scott
topped the impressive accomplishment of her first disc and secured her
reputation as one of the smartest and most complex neo-soul/natural R&B
artists, as well as the movement's most extraordinary singer.
8. The Secret Machines, "Now Here Is Nowhere" (Reprise): Rare
among many modern psychedelic rock bands, this New
York-via-Chicago-via-Texas trio combines a love of otherworldly explorations
with a hard-grooving intensity to achieve the sort of powerful but trippy
sound that hasn't been heard since mid-period Pink Floyd or early Hawkwind.
9. Kayne West, "College Dropout" (Roc-A-Fella): On his debut
album, the Chicago producer proves that he is even more adept behind the
mike than he is at the recording console, crafting a collection of hits as
memorable for their indelible grooves and melodies as they are for the humor
and the humanism of their Everyman-made-good lyrics.
10. Wilco, "A Ghost Is Born" (Nonesuch): The fifth studio album by
the Chicago's alt-country-turned-art-rock heroes isn't quite the equal of
2002's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" -- I can't forgive the annoying indulgence of
the 15-minute experiment "Less Than You Think" (a good argument for burning
your own alternate version) -- but it is nonetheless an incredibly strong,
compelling, emotional and brutally honest effort representing the peak of
cutting-edge rock circa 2004.
THE NEXT 65 (in alphabetical
11. Air, Talkie Walkie (Astralwerks)
12. The Arcade Fire, Funeral (Merge)
13. The Beta Band, Heroes to Zeros (EMI)
14. Blanche, If We Can’t Trust the Doctors… (V2)
15. Brandy, Afrodisiac (Atlantic)
16. Burning Brides, Leave No Ashes (V2)
17. John Cale, Hobosapiens (Or Music)
18. Califone, King Heron Blues (Thrill Jockey)
19. The Coral, Magic and Medicine (Columbia)
20. Elvis Costello, The Delivery Man (Lost Highway)
21. Graham Coxon, Happiness in Magazines (Transcopic)
22. The Decemberists, Her Majesty (Kill Rock Stars)
23. Dizzee Rascal, Showtime (Beggars Group)
24. DJ Danger Mouse, The Grey Album (Internet bootleg)
25. DJ Shadow, In Tune & On Time (Geffen Records)
26. Hilary Duff, Hilary Duff (Hollywood)
27. Everlast, White Trash Beautiful (Island/Def Jam)
28. John Fogerty, Déjà vu All Over Again (Geffen)
29. The Get Up Kids, Guilt Show (Vagrant)
30. Al Green, I Can’t Stop (Blue Note)
31. Gibby Haynes & His Problem, Gibby Haynes & His Problem (Surfdog)
32. Robyn Hitchcock, Spooked (Yep Roc)
33. Incubus, A Crow Left of the Murder (Epic)
34. Jon Langford, All the Fame of Lofty Deeds (Bloodshot)
35. Local H, Whatever Happened to P.J. Soles? (Studio E)
36. Los Lobos, The Ride (Hollywood)
37. Courtney Love, America’s Sweetheart (Virgin)
38. Marillion, Marbles (Intact)
39. Massive Attack, Danny the Dog (EMI)
40. Mary Lou Lord, Baby Blue (Rubric)
41. The Mekons, Punk Rock (Quarterstick)
42. Ministry, Houses of the Molé (Sanctuary)
43. Mission of Burma, ONoffON (Matador)
44. Modest Mouse, Good News for People Who Love Bad News (Epic)
45. N.E.R.D., Fly or Die (Virgin)
46. Ode, On My Way to Learn (www.odeband.com)
47. Pelican, Australasia (Hyrdra Head)
48. PJ Harvey, Uh Huh Her (Island)
49. Prince, Musicology (Columbia)
50. Poster Children, No More Songs About
Sleep and Fire (Hidden Agenda)
51. Probot, Probot (Southern Lord)
52. R.E.M., Around the Sun (Warner Bros.)
53. Rocket from the Tombs, Rocket Redux (Smog Veil)
54. Rush, Feedback EP (Atlantic)
55. Scissor Sisters,
Scissor Sisters (Universal)
56. The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, I Bet You Say That to All the Boys
57. Ashlee Simpson, Autobiography (Geffen)
58. Nancy Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra (Santuary)
59. David Singer & the Sweet Science, Stars Burn Out (The Little
Blue Dog Alone)
60. Jill Sobule, Underdog
61. Sons and Daughters, Love
the Cup (Domino)
62. Chris Stamey, Travels in the South (Yep Roc)
63. Mavis Staples, Have A Little Faith (Alligator)
64. Sally Timms, In the World of Him (Touch & Go)
65. The Walkmen, Bows and Arrows (Record Collection)
OF THE YEAR
Accuse me of "homerism" twice over if you will -- South Side native Kanye
West currently lives in my old hometown of Hoboken, N.J. -- but I would have
loved and enthusiastically applauded his debut album if he hailed from
Beyond the undeniably compelling beats, the unforgettable melodies, and
the appealing flow of West's raps -- which, if not extraordinary
technically, gain immeasurably from the cocky attitude and sly smirk
inherent in his delivery -- there's the courage and vision of an artist
unafraid to talk about the role of God in his life (an extremely unusual
move in hip-hop), to laugh at himself even as he assures us he's better than
just about everyone and to voice eloquently the real-life experiences of
young African-Americans who work at the Gap instead of brandishing gats, and
who try to work up the guts to date rather than living in a lurid fantasy
world of pimps and 'hos.
The Grammys are notorious for missing groundbreaking artists until years
or even decades after the fact, but West well deserves his nearly
unprecedented 10 nominations, announced earlier this month. At long last, he
turned the spotlight on Chicago's chronically ignored rap scene, and he's
not done yet, with production credits on new albums by Common and Do or Die
due in 2005, not to mention his own sophomore effort.
Not bad for a kid from Chicago, Hoboken or anywhere else.
THE BEST LIVE MUSIC
My top 10 concerts of 2004 (in chronological order):
1. Kanye West, Feb. 11, House of Blues: A day after the release of
his debut album, the soon-to-be-superstar former South Sider celebrated with
two sold-out shows that proved he's as great onstage as he is in the studio,
delivering all of "The College Dropout" with deft backing from R&B
keyboardist John Legend, "hip-hop violinist" Miri Ben Ari and special guest
Common, who turned out to pass the symbolic torch.
2. Wilco, June 12, Vic Theatre: A few weeks after emerging from a
stint in rehab to battle an addiction to painkillers, Jeff Tweedy led his
retooled band -- the fieriest version of Wilco ever -- through a mesmerizing
set that highlighted and often bettered the recorded versions of the wildly
inventive new material from "A Ghost Is Born."
3. Prince, June 25, Allstate Arena: This greatest-hits show was an
unusual move by an artist dedicated to moving forward instead of looking
back, but after three decades as an R&B innovator, Prince was entitled to
make the case for his place in the pantheon. And while the band grooved
hard, partying like it was 1999, it was the mid-evening solo acoustic set
that stole the show.
4. Annie Lennox, July 18, Tweeter Center: In stark contrast to the
night's headliner Sting, who called this jaunt "The Sex and Music" tour, the
always sexy, ever eccentric Lennox was a searing presence from the moment
she stepped onstage through the end of a sultry and passionate set.
5. The Hives, July 26, Metro: Some music simply has to be
experienced live, and the manic energy that the Swedish garage-rock quintet
delivered onstage this evening put to shame the sounds on its third album,
which was anemic in comparison. But then, almost anything would be.
6. Hilary Duff, July 30, Allstate Arena: While the marketing
assault was indeed obnoxious, this teen queen surprised me with an
ultra-high-energy, ridiculously melodic, no-pandering 17-song set that
everyone in attendance enjoyed, from the screaming 15-year-old kids to their
7. Ozzfest, Aug. 21, Tweeter Center: This was Ozzfest's year to
visit the old school, and the head-banging has never been as intense as it
was through the mainstage progression of black-metal cult heroes Dimmu
Borgir, death-metal giants Slayer, those lovable old biker-metal legends
Judas Priest and the granddaddies of 'em all, the mighty Black Sabbath, with
Ozzy looking healthier than he has since the early '70s.
8. Jill Scott, Sept. 24, Congress Theatre: The joy that the
always-beaming Scott draws from performing is palpable, and there wasn't a
soul in the venue left unmoved by her hard-charging nine-piece band, her
messages of self-reliance and positivity or her soulful, sexy singing.
9. Steve Earle, Oct. 16, Vic Theatre: Bookending his set with
different versions of the undeniable anthem "The Revolution Starts Now" and
throwing in a cover of the Beatles' "Revolution" for good measure, Earle
underscored that his vision of a leftist, humanist America can't be
dismissed as mere idealism or a quaintly outdated notion left over from the
10. The Musical Box, Oct. 22, Vic Theatre: The Canadian cover
band's performance of the Genesis classic "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway"
was a guilty pleasure for this former teenage prog-rock geek, to be certain.
But the show was nevertheless more ambitious theatrically and more
impressive musically than any other concert I saw this year.
BACK TO 2004