Winnipeg Sun’s top CDs of 2004
The Sun’s Darryl Sterdan picks the best 75 albums of the year
Well, it’s that time again — time to look back at all the music of the past year. Despite our best efforts, we weren’t able to listen to every album that came out in 2004. But we did manage to get through more than 1,000. Here are the ones we’ll still be listening to next year. And the ones you might want to seek out at those Boxing Day sales.
20,000 STREETS UNDER THE SKY
YEP ROC / OUTSIDE
The boys are back in town. Singer-guitarists Dave and Serge Bielanko return to the streets of their beloved Philadelphia on this fourth album — and it’s a homecoming bash not to be missed. Like their 2000 masterpiece Kids in Philly, 20,000 Streets Under the Sky raises a Friday-night toast to the street-poet romance and wide-eyed exuberance of early Springsteen. And as usual, the eclectic Bielanko brothers can’t resist spiking the punch with Philly soul, girl-group pop, Van Morrison troubadourism, Layla’s instrumental grandeur, The Faces’ scrappy folk-rock, Motown melodies, tenement-stoop doo-wop, plucky banjos, punky guitars, R&B grooves and even jump-rope rhymes. Equally intoxicating, though, are the tales told over this heady homebrew — sad sagas of doomed love, cokehead trannies, drug-dealing pizzerias, gunshot children and undercover busts gone bad. So much for the City of Brotherly Love. But don’t take this disc for some pity party. Even when the Bielankos are standing in the gutter, they’re gazing at the stars, searching for the lost chord that will open the gates to the promised land. As they guide us through the backstreets and back alleys of their stomping grounds, spinning everyday moments of quiet perseverance into life-affirming epics of valiant struggle, it’s impossible not to fall under their seductive spell — and find your faith in rock renewed in the process.
2. Green Day
REPRISE / WARNER
These days, everyone has their own definition of punk. Who’s right? Who knows? But here’s what we do know: In an era when music is disposable, the album is becoming an antiquated curio and pop culture is under assault from the right, Billie Joe Armstrong and Green Day have unveiled the most unlikely work of their career — a full-blown rock opera with nine-minute songs, a narrative arc, classic rock influences from Mott to Meat Loaf, and a political message worn boldly on its sleeve. And if that sort of individuality, originality and defiance isn’t punk, maybe it’s time to redefine the concept.
3. The Streets
A GRAND DON’T COME FOR FREE
LOCKED ON / WARNER
Even rap stars have bad days. And on this stellar sophomore set, Mike Skinner is having one from hell: He’s got an overdue video, his cell phone has died, his TV is on the fritz, he’s breaking up with his girlfriend — and worst of all, he suspects a mate of swiping L1,000. Over the stumbling garage grooves and stark keyboards that are his trademark, we follow Skinner from his bedsit to the bar and back. And as his mundane misadventures become a life-changing journey, this disc emerges as one of the most creative, personal and fully realized records of the year — and another smashing success for Mike.
4. Beastie Boys
TO THE 5 BOROUGHS
CAPITOL / EMI
“We’re gonna party for the right to fight,” says Mike D. on the sixth album from New York’s Beastie Boys — and we couldn’t sum up their musical evolution and current state of mind any tidier than that. With this long-awaited comeback disc, the Beasties turn back the clock and kick it old-school, toning down their smartalec antics and sonic silliness in favour of basic beats, simple samples and plenty of pointedly political rhymes. But even if it’s a political album, at least it’s a political party album. And we’ll fight for our right to that any day.
5. Steve Earle
THE REVOLUTION STARTS … NOW
E-SQUARED / SONY
When Steve Earle says Now, he means N-O-W, now!, damnit. The idealistic and irascible roots-rock rabble-rouser has never sounded more urgent than on his latest politically charged manifesto. Picking up where he left off on 2002’s Jerusalem, Earle interweaves his activist rhetoric with moving narratives, setting stories of individual heroism and sacrifice against a backdrop of political hypocrisy and economic exploitation. That is, when he isn’t pitching woo to Condoleeza Rice on the reggaefied serenade of seduction Condi, Condi. Hey, even revolutionaries need a laugh.
6. Elvis Costello & The Imposters
THE DELIVERY MAN
LOST HIGHWAY / UNIVERSAL
Last year, he went North to croon piano ballads for his sweetie. This year, the unpredictable Costello makes another left turn, plugging in his axe and making a beeline for the Deep South (literally and musically). Recorded in the Mississippi Delta, Mr. E’s 21st set is a narrative concept disc of romantic betrayal and Biblical overtones, set against a backdrop of rawboned juke joint blues, tearstained country waltzes, twangy honky-tonk, sweet Memphis soul, funky R&B and even bluegrass. Damned if it doesn’t deliver the goods.
7. Modest Mouse
GOOD NEWS FOR PEOPLE WHO LOVE BAD NEWS
EPIC / SONY
Washington indie-rockers Modest Mouse finally broke through to the mainstream with this weird, wonderful jewel of a sixth album. Donning a banjo and cranking up the grooves, yawping singer-guitarist Isaac Brock and his mighty Mouse recall the disjointed white-boy funk of Talking Heads, the retro-swing of Squirrel Nut Zippers, the gothic Americana of Dock Boggs and even the distorted psychobilly of The Cramps. Good news for people who love great music.
8. Ted Leo & the Pharmacists
SHAKE THE SHEETS
Continuing to single-handedly raise the indie-rock bar, New Jersey singer-guitarist Leo fuses power trio guitar-rock, pop, punk, ska, soul and reggae into a dynamic hybrid. With his clanging guitar and high-register vocals, Leo sounds like the love child of Joe Jackson, Mick Jones and Paul Weller, with a dash of Dexy’s on the side. Even better, he’s a songwriter who can namedrop Joe Strummer, soundcheck Smoky Robinson and bash Bush — all to a groove and a chorus that’ll stick in your head for days.
9. TV on the Radio
DESPERATE YOUTH, BLOOD THIRSTY BABES
TOUCH & GO
If you think you’ve heard everything, you haven’t heard this. One of the most exciting and adventurous bands to emerge this year, Brooklyn’s TV on the Radio cross musical styles, generation gaps, cultural boundaries and racial lines with equal ease. The supple and mellifluous vocals are rooted in soul, gospel, blues and doo-wop. The noisy, fuzzy soundscapes recall everything from Sonic Youth and Suicide to No Wave and Brian Eno. Combine them with poetically political lyrics and what emerges is a mesmerizing hybrid that dares to be different and refuses to be ignored.
10. Loretta Lynn
VAN LEAR ROSE
INTERSCOPE / UNIVERSAL
Call it The Blue Kentucky Girl meets the White Stripe. Country legend Lynn pairs up with singer-guitarist Jack White on her first major disc in 15 years. And as Rick Rubin did for Johnny Cash, the young rocker helps a beloved country icon produce a career-revitalizing work. Loretta delivers the simple melodies and sassy lyrics. Jack sets them to immediate, earthy cuts that hew closer to rustic, ragged alt-country than Nashville syrup. Call it a match made in heaven.
11. Elliott Smith
FROM A BASEMENT ON THE HILL
ANTI / EPITAPH OCT 22
A year after he died from a pair of supposedly self-inflicted knife wounds to the chest, singer-songwriter Smith bequeathed us the sweetest, saddest gift possible: The transfixing From a Basement on the Hill, a haunting last will and testament of soaring beauty born of the depths of his bottomless despair.
12. Tom Waits
ANTI- / EPITAPH
Human beatboxing? Turntable scratching? No piano? This is a Tom Waits CD? You better believe it, mac. And it’s a monster. The aptly titled Real Gone finds the locomotive-breath genius welding hip-hop tools to his home-built thingamajig of rusted car parts, old bones and broken dreams.
13. The Hives
POLYDOR / UNIVERSAL
With this garage-rocking sequel to their breakthrough Veni Vidi Vicious, Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist and The Hives prove they understand the Golden Rule of successful followups: They made the same album over again — only better.
14. Drive-By Truckers
THE DIRTY SOUTH
NEW WEST / RED
“We ain’t never gonna change,” vows DBT singer-guitarist Patterson Hood. As long as Hood and his good ole boys keep writing gritty southern rockers like these two-fisted tales of killer tornadoes, moonshiners and Buford Pusser, that’s just fine by us.
STEAMHAMMER / FUSION III
These Norwegian riffmeisters deliver the sonic equivalent of a dirty needle of adrenaline straight in the eyeball with this 36-minute pelvic thrust of sleazy sex, illegal drugs and unhinged rawk. Featuring the revolutionary anthem of the year: Here Come the Pigs.
16. Neil Young
SANCTUARY / EMI
For years, people have accused Neil Young of living in a world of his own. With the ambitious and theatrical concept album Greendale — an environmentally themed allegorical narrative set in a fictional coastal community — the shape-shifting singer-guitarist makes it official.
17. The Libertines
ROUGH TRADE / EMI
Punchups, breakups, break-ins and breakdowns. Rehab, reformation, relapse and resurrection. It would be impossible for London’s Libertines to write songs half as riveting as the endless slo-mo car wreck of their career. But damned if these trouble-plagued post-punks don’t give it their best shot.
‘TIL THE LIVING END
The reunited Seattle speed-punk sleazeballs embrace their metal roots on this seventh studio salvo, hotwiring classic rock licks and song titles into 15 grenades of turbocharged power-chord mayhem that are truly a blast from the past.
19. The Walkmen
BOWS & ARROWS
RECORD COLLECTION / WARNER
The choppy guitars, walkie-talkie vocals and angular retro grooves share common ground with The Strokes, but edgy, propulsive cuts like The Rat and keyboard dirges like No Christmas While I’m Talking confirm The Walkmen are their own men– and uncommonly good.
HOW TO DISMANTLE AN ATOMIC BOMB
ISLAND / UNIVERSAL
Sticking to the game plan that worked so well on All That You Can’t Leave Behind, Bono and the boys crank up the guitars, belt out the chorus and wave the giant white flag at the back of the stadium. Not their best, but even second-string U2 is a cut above most of the rest.
21. The Von Bondies
PAWN SHOPPE HEART
SIRE / WARNER
Jason Stollsteimer got more ink for being Jack White’s punching bag. But anybody who can pen garage-punk fuzzbombs like C’Mon C’Mon and Broken Man can’t be beat.
AFTERMATH / UNIVERSAL
For his fourth CD, Marshall Mathers delivers more of the sex, scatology, silliness, satire and shock you’d expect, along with something you don’t: Serious political content in the anti-Dubya Mosh. Looks like the real Slim Shady has finally stood up — and taken a stand.
YOU ARE THE QUARRY
SANCTUARY / EMI
The velvet-voiced Pope of Mope returns with a vengeance, lobbing poisonous lyrical barbs at Jesus, love, his fans and humanity in general — and taking the award for lyrical couplet of the year: “America, your head’s too big / Because America, your belly’s too big.”
24. The Icarus Line
V2 / BMG
These L.A. post-punk provocateurs weld the primal guitar-rock nihilism of The Stooges to the feedback-worshipping art-punk of Sonic Youth — with dashes of Black Flag’s complex intensity and Suicide’s bleak synthcore tossed in for the hell of it. Be very afraid.
WITH THE LIGHTS OUT
GEFFEN / UNIVERSAL
OK, maybe it’s not technically new material. But with three CDs and one DVD of unreleased tracks from Kurt Cobain and co., it’s undeniably one of the most significant releases of the year.
Winnipeg Sun’s top CDs of 2004