2004: THE WRAP
I wrote this for the Village Voice
, in the hopes that they'll excerpt comments for their annual Pazz and Jop
music poll issue -- so if you notice that some of it's shamelessly plagiarized from a year's worth of old blog posts (including my recent top ten lists), well, that's purely intentional. Cheers!
For a lot of folks, 2004 will be remembered as the year indie rock went mainstream. Five years ago, I was listening to Modest Mouse
and Death Cab for Cutie
with scrawny tight-shirted dudes in smoky off-campus basements; in the post-OC
-ification of America, these bands are now being played by Ambercrombie-fitted jocks in perpetually sunny high-school hallways. It's not a bad thing: rock radio is better than it has been in a few years, and DCFC's bigger, more produced sound (on 2003's Transatlanticism
) bodes for an interesting future. Modest Mouse, on the other hand, has surely made its most boring record (I can't stand those Tom Waits rip-offs), though I'd be a fool to say I disliked the shaky, Mary-Kate-and-Ashley-approved
Everyone claims that Franz Ferdinand
and the Killers
are also benefiting from this indie-goes-mainstream trend, but I just can't imagine either of their stylish disco-inflected records as all that indie in the first place.
Truth is, I probably listened to less indie rock in 2004 than in any year since high school, mostly preferring pop and dance pleasures. Of the rock acts that did capture my attention, one was an old favorite: Sonic Youth
did absolutely nothing new on Sonic Nurse
, except perfect the loose guitar-army jams they've preferred since "The Diamond Sea," managing to sound both spirited and effortless.
Another, harpist Joanna Newsom
, appealed to indie rockers but drew her inspiration from Dust Bowl-era folksingers and classical West African harp techniques. I saw her open for Will Oldham right before the hype swelled and was mesmerized by her intricate finger work and unique vocal delivery. Like a child, she murmurs one moment and shouts the next; her voice doesn't have much depth, but when it spills out, it's unabashedly generous and heartfelt. There's something quite precious about all this, of course, and I haven't even mentioned lyrics like "a thimblesworth of milky moon" or song titles like "Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie." But the sort of precocious literariness Newsom puts on display in The Milk-Eyed Mender
seems less a bid for cleverness and more an honest evocation of an interior world.
Newsom got lumped into the sub-genre of New American Folk, along with fellow California hippie poet Devendra Banhart
, though his surreal lyrics and David Sedaris-as-Billie Holliday vocal style seemed somewhat forced and his two albums too fragmented. More interesting along similar lines was Animal Collective
, whose Sung Tongs
featured faux-naive campfire songs fractured and splayed by psychedelic multi-tracking. That album's weird studio-rigged pastoralism and occasional Beach Boys harmonies called to mind a druggier version of Brian Wilson's Smile
, whose original charms were subverted by actually, finally putting the record together. I don't agree that the project was doomed from the start (some critics act like the 1966-67 recordings were infallible, the opium-induced dream in Coleridge's "Kublai Khan," where the 2004 version is the end of the poem, the more measured, faltering attempt to recapture what is gone). But for whatever reason, by streamlining the demos' absurd randomness, nu-Smile
began to resemble nothing so much as a whimsical American musical revue. (And anyway, when I was in the mood for a convoluted pop narrative full of bizarre historical references, I turned to the Fiery Furnaces' Blueberry Boat
The new Wilco
was frustrating, and ultimately I decided I liked the panic attacks (in the form of Crazy Horse-style freak-out guitar solos) better than the migraines (slow, dull murmuring silences). I finally came around on the Arcade Fire,
after months of resistance, but I still think it's way overrated.
One of the trends that really got me going in 2004 was a resurgence of 1980s electro sounds, from the drippy synths on "Drop It Like It's Hot" (in which Snoop Dogg
drawls over the sound of rising steam and Pharrell
tongue-pops the beat like a Medulla
outtake -- surely one of the strangest number ones in recent memory?) to Jacques LuCont's
remix of Gwen Stefani's
"What You Waiting For" (which trades the original's bratty cheerleader bop for an eight-minute-long wave of New Order electro-melancholy). Felix Da Housecat
and Cut Copy
both produced compelling full-lengths that trafficked in nostalgia for Nagel prints
and leg-warmers, though the former was a stylized study of L.A. coke-and-neon glitz (perfect for the next Grand Theft Auto
soundtrack!) and the latter wore its heart on its sleeve (and was the more consistent of the two records).
Also digging into the VH-1 crates were the Scissor Sisters
, who mined Elton John, glam, and disco for a fun but ultimately superficial listen. (Although don't tell that to John Cameron Mitchell, who I hear already has them lined up to score Hedwig 2: The Inch Gets Angrier
.) For me, the French band Phoenix
was more satisfying in its retro pleasures: Alphabetical
wed soft rock (late-era Steely Dan, Stevie Nicks-led Fleetwood Mac) to crisp hip-hop-inflected beats, reaching a high point on the playfully upbeat "Everything is Everything." Both Phoenix and their compatriots in Air
delivered the kind of easy, friendly groove you might hear at a hip neighborhood boutique, but where Alphabetical
was punchy and charismatic, Talkie Walkie
was downright soporific.
The success of bands like Phoenix and the Scissor Sisters may have had something to do with the "indie rockers like to dance now" meme that first surfaced after "Hey Ya!" and "Crazy in Love" united all the world's people in 2003. For at least some people, though, the path to enlightenment was paved by smooth-voiced Norwegian folkie Erlend Øye
, whose marvelous entry into the DJ Kicks
series brought Kompakt-label microhouse (Justus Köhncke, Jürgen Paape
) to the attention of Kings of Convenience fans. (And thankfully so: Øye's band's album was a snoozer, with the exception of the lovely "Misread" and the thrilling bossanova "I'd Rather Dance With You.") Others waded through the hype on blogs and online message boards to find Junior Boys
, whose Last Exit
was hands down my favorite record of 2004. Though vocalist Jeremy Greenspan is a pudgy, trucker-hat-donning white guy from Ontario, on record his gently desperate sighs mixed gorgeously with stark electro beats and trickling synths, leading critics to describe the record as Hall and Oates-meets-Timbaland.
Tim Mosley himself was noticeably absent from the scene in 2004, but commercial hip-hop still thrived. Likely Pazz & Jop victor Kanye West
scored with four singles from The College Dropout
, a smart, relaxed album that held up despite a few too many muddled skits. Of West's biggest hits, I liked "Slow Jamz" -- the funny paean to quiet-storm vocalists -- better than the furrowed-brow gospel march "Jesus Walks." Part of it had to do with a guest spot from speed-rapper Twista
, who emerged as my favorite MC of the year. On "Overnight Celebrity" Twista borrowed West's sped-up soul sample gimmick to reflect on his own sudden fame. And though I've always been somewhat indifferent to crunk, Trick Daddy's
"Let's Go" artfully mixed Twista's sharply enunciated flow with Lil Jon's
trademark guttural shouts and a persistent Ozzy Osbourne sample. Apart from being roasted on Chappelle's Show
, Lil Jon's shining moment of the year was breathing life into Usher's
career on "Yeah!", an interesting marriage between crunk and soul but one that ultimately felt limp to me. Still, it beat Usher's follow-up singles, "Burn" and "Confessions Pt. 2," which I couldn't tell the difference between.
My three favorite R&B songs of the year were Christina Milian's
sexy "Dip It Low," Nina Sky's
non-chalant Latin boombox groove "Move Ya Body," and Janet Jackson's
criminally underplayed "All Nite (Don't Stop)."
I can't understand 80 percent of what either M.I.A.
(in "Galang") or Dizzee Rascal
(in "Stand Up Tall") are saying over the standard-issue grime elements in both songs -- distorted rattling beats and low, squelching Nintendo keyboards -- but I don't care, since it's such cheerful nonsense they're shouting. Dizzee's yelping pronunciation of "Chinese suits" wins me over; ditto M.I.A.'s sleek British-via-Sri Lanka accent on her skip-rope sing-along: "Ya ya yay! Ya ya hey! Whoa-oh-ay-oh!"
got married (twice!) and still put out the best single of the year ("Toxic"), a sugar rush in which her usual fembot persona gets breathy and light-headed amidst swooping Bernard Herrmann strings and 007 stuttering guitar. Jessica Simpson
bragged about going bottomless on the infectious "With You," while her sister Ashlee
cutely mimicked Suzanne Vega on "Pieces on Me" before giving into the Matrix. At year's end, the pop singer with the most promise was Annie
, whose import-only debut, Anniemal
, was crammed with hooks, including the bittersweet "Heartbeat."
In the badass-old-ladies comeback sweepstakes, 64-year-old Nancy Sinatra's
record was better than 70-year-old Loretta Lynn's
. The fact that critics largely preferred the one produced by future rock legend/treasurer of authenticity Jack White to the one that credits at least fifteen songwriters on its sleeve might be chalked up to the scourge of "rockism" than Kelefa Sanneh alerted
us all to in the New York Times
. The attitude that Sanneh described has been around since the early 1980s at the very least, but his impassioned defense of Christina Aguilera sparked a fun if sometimes tiresome debate among music scribes toward the end of the year. (I wonder if Sanneh's apoplectic readers calmed down when they saw that his year-end top ten
included such hipster humanities-grad faves as Joanna Newsom, Modest Mouse, and the Arcade Fire.)
Lastly, the digital revolution continued on its merry way in 2004. I've been using iTunes for a while, but I recently bought an iPod so I could listen to music at work, and now the only time I have reason to touch actual CDs after I buy them is when I put on music next to my bed while I'm falling asleep (or sometimes in the shower). I've never even seen a physical copy of one of my favorite records of the year: United State of Electronica
put the entirety of its D.I.Y. disco debut on its website to download for free. Since most of my CDs end of strewn across my living room anyway, this trend is more than all right with me.