Tom’s Top 5’s: Albums of 2004

2004 was a full decade ago. Weird, huh?

As I reflect on the last decade in music, I’m moved to an observation about my own tastes. Musically speaking, there are few things I find more frustrating than when everybody loves an album/band/song, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. Not because I’m upset that others have different tastes from me – it’s more like, I only wished I could share their enthusiasm.

Case in point: Arcade Fire’s 2004 debut Funeral. When Funeral was first released–to universal acclaim–I was just properly discovering the world of classic rock, too busy listening to Led Zeppelin IV, Who’s Next, and Dark Side of the Moon for the first time to pay it much mind. When I did listen to it once, perfunctorily, I was none too impressed. About six years later, the music world was once again buzzing about Arcade Fire’s then-new album, The Suburbs (I passed over Neon Bible, apart from noticing it on the shelves at Borders back before the chain closed). I gave it a similarly cursory listen and remember penning a half-irritated, half-disappointed rant about my inability to get into what so many found so brilliant.

What particularly galled was that, by rights, I should’ve loved Funeral. It’s big, it’s emotional, it’s string-laden, it’s literate, it’s conceptual. If you had described it to me without mentioning names, my reaction would likely have been, “Wow, that sounds amazing!” and I’d have wanted to check it out immediately. And yet, six years on, I still couldn’t hear what everybody else was hearing!

It took last year’s Reflektor (which I quite liked) to get me to revisit Funeral with a little more focused attention in the past couple of months. And listening to it even as I write, I think I’m finally starting to get it. I’m not prepared to rank it among the Greatest Albums of All Time, or the Greatest Debut Albums of All Time; hell, I’m not prepared to rank it in my Top 5 Albums of 2004. Not yet anyway. But we’re getting there.

I don’t know that there’s a grand point to telling you all of this. Mostly it’s just gratifying to know that, a decade on, my musical horizons are still expanding rather than contracting.

5. WHEN I SAID I WANTED TO BE YOUR DOG (Jens Lekman)

When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog

Jens Lekman doesn’t sound quite like anyone I’ve ever heard, dressing up gorgeous melodies and plaintive, often-funny story-songs with off-the-wall samples, Dexys Midnight Runners horns, and goofy steel drums. But he has that same mix of Morrissey’s vulnerable melancholy and Ray Davies’ wry observational humor that marks out Stuart Murdoch, so my guess is that if you like Belle & Sebastian, you’ll love this Swedish indie pop genius too.

4. ABSENT FRIENDS (The Divine Comedy)

Absent Friends

Absent Friends splits the difference between the large-scale Casanova and the stripped-down Regeneration: even the sparer songs are lushly arranged, but there’s a tastefulness to the bigger songs that had sometimes been lacking on earlier Divine Comedy records. Perhaps it’s because Neil Hannon has largely shed his upper-crust playboy persona in favor of a little more real intimacy.

3. SHANGRI-LA (Mark Knopfler)

Shangri-La

Gone are the days of “Money for Nothing,” here are the days of “Song for Sonny Liston” – subtler, lower-key, but still riveting. Whether he’s eulogizing the King of Rock & Roll, chronicling the rise of the Golden Arches, or reminding us that, yes, love is still “All That Matters,” Knopfler continues to turn in mature, thoughtful, tremendously affecting blues- and folk-rock as the electric guitar’s reigning king of understatement.

2. LIFT (Sister Hazel)

Lift (Sister Hazel)

Lift didn’t have a hit like “All for You” or “Change Your Mind,” and so languished in the lower reaches of the Top 200. Which is a crying shame: “Green (Welcome to the World)” is at least catchy as their more famous singles; “In the Moment” might just top “Cirelene” as the prettiest song the band ever wrote; and “World Inside My Head” more than measures up to “Champagne High.” But so it goes in the fickle world of pop music.

1. SMiLE (Brian Wilson)

SMiLE

Is it kosher to put this at the head of a Top 5 Albums of 2004 list? The vast majority of the material was the better part of 40 years old at time of release, even if the performances were all new. But the classic Smile sessions had never made it into a form anything like what Brian Wilson originally envisioned, and there’s some new segments here too. Whether SMiLE 2004 is a reasonable approximation of that vision is perhaps debatable. What’s not debatable for me is that it’s absolutely mind-boggling. It’s one of rock’s great tragedies that this wasn’t released in 1967; but even if it took 37 years for Brian to finalize his teenage symphony to God (which is truly the only description that does it justice), the wait was worth it.

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One Response to Tom’s Top 5’s: Albums of 2004

  1. stephen1001 says:

    Great preamble – and I’m about at the same timelines with appreciating Arcade Fire. I definitely like Funeral more than I did at one point, I still haven’t fully warmed up to his voice (the female singer is terrific though).

    That’s good to hear about Sister Hazel, I’ve only heard the hits so it’s nice to learn there’s much more to the group.

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