In what could have been a calendar year bloated with shlock-rock and garbled idol-pop, we were lucky enough to receive albums that cemented indie-rock’s manifest destiny, underground rap classics that tunneled their way to daylight and, in a long-awaited treat, Brian Wilson’s SMiLE, an album unhinged in time, finally made it’s way to our stereos. People who adore “The O.C.” found challenging, off-center rock. Smiths loyalists saw the return of the king. Tightly wound college kids started dancing to some rakish Scotts. Two modern American icons, The Beastie Boys and Green Day, didn’t just age; they matured. Bjork and Kanye West became lightning rods for both love and hate; you heard them once and you were galvanized. God, death, madness, dancing and the human voice all made their presence known in every corner of 2004. Visit michigandaily.com for the rest of the music staff’s 2004 picks.
1 The Walkmen Bows and Arrows
A hugely reverberating album, Bows and Arrows bounces off subway windows and wheel wells with the force of U2’s spiraling guitar attack and the rhythmic drive of so many ’80s post-punk bands. Hamilton Leithauser scrapes his voice across and chalkboard and winds up angry/confused/hopeful, waiting for anything that’ll take him away from here.
2 Madvillain Madvillainy
Hip hop, too often recognized for its harsh and visceral nature, rarely feels as soft and transcendent as this album. Madlib clips frayed shards of your consciousness. MF Doom peeks through the cracks, discarding his many masks long enough to get goofy, sad and hilariously confused.
3 Brian Wilson SMiLE
Go west, old crackpot psycho. Brian Wilson takes a break from lounging scarily around swimming pools to fantasize, after a 30-year hiatus, about a mythic, candy-cane America. His blend of surreal and serene ignited such holy wanderlust that daddy didn’t just take the T-Bird away, he drove it straight into a midlife crisis.
4 The Black Keys Rubber Factory
“The Lengths,” the country-blues epic that splits this album like dried snakeskin, is the type of transcendent ash that their prior albums were missing. It should also put to rest any lingering doubts about the blues duo’s authenticity, as if there was something inauthentic about growing up in the permanent gray of Ohio and recording your album amidst the fumes of an old production plant.
5 The Streets A Grand Don’t Come for Free
No matter how badly Skinner wants us to believe he’s a stoned-batty slacker — “I should just sit on my couch like I know how” — the grand ambition of A Grand proves it’s bollocks time and again. His production, a synthesis of bratty guitars and RAM-powered soul, allows his stilted rhymes to hit with the force of a far less subtle MC. We’re all better off for his ambition, whether he admits it or not.
6 Bjork Medulla
Bjork’s arcane vocals-only concept gave this album a schtick, but it was Bjork’s total embrace of Rahzel’s gruff production that allowed her to weld the digital choir together with her snaking melodies. Medulla is another chapter in Bjork’s fantastic fiction.
7 Ghostface The Pretty Toney Album
Has anyone ever pined so hard for mainstream acceptance, failed so miserably and still come out with such irresistible art? Bathed in buckets of soul, stoned out of his mind and drunk on his own ridiculous flow, Ghostface eats your underground ethos for breakfast.
8 Califone Heron King Blues
A bunch of aging, skinny white boys from Chicago get nutty with Afro-funk freakouts, jamming on a bed of white noise and emptying ma’s pan cabinets for their deviant percussion. Like Brian Jones’s Rolling Stones on Sly Stone and a slow morphine drip.
9 Interpol Antics
Annoyingly enough, everything still sounds easy for Interpol. Their effortless second album, however, seeps a humility that their debut lacked, reducing their sound to rock‘n’roll’s charming holy trinity: guitar/bass/drums. Few bands can take such basic ingredients and sound so huge, so dark.
10 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Abbatoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus
Cave’s been toiling in arty gothic angst for years, but remarkably, this double album is fresher and brighter than anything he’s ever released. Imbued with a sense of humor and clarity that his prior material severely lacked, Cave sounds mature, intelligent and surprisingly well balanced. Scary.
1 Brian Wilson SMiLE
Wilson’s late-’60s genius is once again on display on an album that ranks right up there with Pet Sounds. SMiLE’s densely layered arrangements are as interesting and complex as its creator.
2 Kanye West The College Dropout
You can question his street cred, but not his greatness. Kanye’s debut offers a refreshing respite from the thug posturing and antagonism that have come to dominate hip hop.
3 Modest Mouse Good News for People Who Love Bad News
With their best record to date, Modest Mouse have finally gained the recognition they’ve deserved for years. Good News makes schizophrenic guitar rock and meditations on death fun for everyone.
4 Mountain Goats We Shall All Be Healed
Austere, stripped-down arrangements and John Darnielle’s byzantine lyrics make We Shall All Be Healed one of the year’s simplest and most beautiful pleasures.
5 The Libertines The Libertines
The Libertines are a throwback in every sense of the word. Both their sound and their backstory harken back to rock’s days of excess. Enjoy them while you still can; Pete Doherty could self-destruct at any minute.
6 Luna Rendezvous
After more than a decade of flying below the mainstream radar, one of America’s best-kept secrets called it quits — but not before releasing one more classic indie-pop record. Farewell, friends.
7 Eminem Encore
Sure, it sounds like he’s snoozing his way through half the album, but Eminem can make a better album in his sleep than 95 percent of the MCs out there. The man simply can’t make a bad record.
8 Green Day American Idiot
Idiot is about as overblown and pretentious as punk rock can get. Nevermind the absurdity inherent in the idea of the concept; Green Day are still at the top of their game, and their classic sound is unbeatable.
9 The Streets A Grand Don’t Come for Free
Just like Green Day, Mike Skinner took the concept route this time ’round. Just like Green Day, I couldn’t care less about the concept. Skinner’s clever laptop production and quick wit drive the record.
10 Beastie Boys To the 5 Boroughs
They weren’t able to prevent Dubya’s re-election, but that shouldn’t take away from their achievements. Even in their 40s, the B-Boys sound fresh and full of the youthful vigor that put them on the map two decades ago.
1 A.C. Newman The Slow Wonder
The Slow Wonder contains some of the decade’s best songwriting. Emotional yet reserved lyrics, impulsive rhythms arranged more intricately than lace and a dash of redheaded charm make Newman Canada’s future poet laureate.
2 Brian Wilson SMiLE
Forget context, history and the fact that you’ve been hearing “God Only Knows” on oldies radio for years. In any era, SMiLE is unsurpassed in its harmonic beauty and conceptual vitality.
3 Decemberists The Tain
The fact that this album is an 18-minute interpretation of Irish folklore speaks to the Decemberists’ ability to rock your socks off as well as soothe you to sleep. The Tain is more than a between-album tidbit for fans — it’s a sign of things to come from one of the most talented bands out there.
4 Destroyer Your Blues
Dan Bejar went out on a limb to release Your Blues under his counterintuitive Destroyer moniker: It’s a series of synthesized dramatic tableaux featuring “It’s Gonna Take an Airplane,” one of the catchiest songs this year.
5 Loretta Lynn Van Lear Rose
Loretta Lynn needed a comeback. Jack White needed to work on a project without eye candy/dead weight drummer Meg. The end result? Lynn reminds us how kickass she is and White makes up (a little) for Elephant.
6 Fiery Furnaces Blueberry Boat
The only reason that the Fiery Furnaces’ just-released EP isn’t on this list instead of Blueberry Boat is because, well, it just came out. I laud Blueberry Boat as a destination, not a starting point; begin with EP and Gallowsbird Bark and work your way up.
7 Deerhoof Milk Man
Milk Man — alternately danceable, hummable and difficult to listen to— sounds a bit like Tommy meets “The Pied Piper”; they overturn a fruitstand. Also, they’re aliens from another dimension.