Daniel Levin Becker doesn't want to hear about it."> Daniel Levin Becker doesn't want to hear about it.">
The Good Times Are Killing Me by Daniel Levin Becker
Personally speaking, 2004 was a big year. In June, the word that was my downfall at the regional level of the 1997 spelling bee ("vandaval") was used in round eight of the national finals, spelled differently, but later that month someone paid me handsomely to walk around Washington Square Park in a bunny suit for a couple hours, which pretty much evened things out. I've also spent the latter months of the year living in the socialist paradise of France, where people tend to be too preoccupied with wearing scarves and not cleaning up after their dogs to worry about frivolities like the Red Sox or Ashlee Simpson (I never really liked either of them anyway, so tant mieux) (Eds note: Daniel’s frivolities consist of whoever’s on The OC this week.)
Societally speaking, 2004 was a mediocre year. Bush got reelected (he did, right?), while I got heinously misquoted in a French newspaper as saying that I didn't much care whether he or Kerry won. Good men continued to drop like flies – music lost R. Charles and R. James (qualify "good") and J. Peel and ODB, whose death was way more of a blow than Arafat's, although admittedly less promising for the prospect of peace in the Middle East; the deaths of Brando, Reeve, Cartier-Bresson, Reagan, and Spalding Gray (whose death was particularly creepy) robbed various refined arts of valuable players, while the field of postmodern theory reeled from the twin losses of Jacques Derrida and Rodney Dangerfield. Rumor also has it that the Rock 'n Roll McDonalds in Chicago has been converted into a parking complex of some kind, which just adds insult to injury; at least Wesley Willis wasn't around to see it happen.
Musically speaking, meanwhile, I'm inclined to say that 2004 was an unspectacular year. Of course someone says that every year, and is then proven to be a total jackass by the forces of hindsight, but little comes to mind that I'm terribly eager to talk about. The records I liked were mostly not the records I expected to like (and are also disproportionately skewed toward bands whose names start with the letter I, for some reason), whereas many of the ones I expected to totally rock me turned out to do no such thing. Blame it on the tyranny of expectation or the half-myth of the sophomore slump or vague seismic shifts in my own personal preferences, but I doubt that I will look back on this year as a particularly revelatory one. Still, there was plenty of good music to be listened to and discussed, and accordingly I will wax alphabetical on some of the records I listened to a lot this year.
Dolorean – Not Exotic; Violence in the Snowy Fields (Yep Roc)
Not Exotic came out at the very end of 2003, but it's well worth the exception; Violence in the Snowy Fields is very good too, but only worth mentioning as part of the package. Something about Al James's songs is subtly but completely heartbreaking, be it the tragic lyrics and arcane poetic phrasings or the tasteful whispers of accompaniment that barely flesh them out. Not Exotic, though thoroughly monochromatic on the surface, is almost as musically compelling as it is depressing; Violence plays up and diversifies the folk-country vibe (one track seriously sounds like Bacharach), and also has "The Righteous Shall Destroy The Precious," the best song on either album. From time to time James echoes the earliest solo work of Elliott Smith; the comparison is metaphorical at best, but there's a common affect, slightly rural and gently bleak, that links these albums and Smith's first two. James barely matches the brutality of Smith's sadness, but when he tiptoes around lines like "I believe in second chances / For everyone but you" it's plenty disarming too.
Elliott Smith – From a Basement on the Hill (Anti-)
I mean, obviously.
Interpol – Antics (Matador)
Turn on the Bright Lights was good, but this is somehow great. I'm aware that canonical opinion has it the other way around, but whereas their debut refracted the sum of its influences in a novel way, Antics just sounds a lot better. Most other flagship acts of the increasingly predictable (I know, we were all saying that in 2001) New York scenester aesthetic play songs that sound easy to play too, but the simplicity here sounds neither remedial nor especially deliberate; it's just a handful of darkly catchy songs that don't need to be ornate or complex to get the point across. And for those of us wondering what the lovechild of Ian Curtis and Michael Stipe would sing like, Antics offers a pretty good idea.
Iron & Wine – Our Endless Numbered Days (Sub Pop)
Without the grainy Faulknerian quality that lent The Creek Drank the Cradle its rustic charm, one was no doubt compelled to wonder if there was more to Sam Beam than the incredibly low fidelity and the huge beard. There was. The clean recording here robs a shade of that studied ambience from the songs, but clarity suits them remarkably well and makes them easier listening; as for the songs themselves, more soft-spoken Appalachian narrators and finger-picked intricacy, and some added instrumentation (just to prove Beam only looks like a hermit, I guess). Best 45-minute lullaby since Sleep's Jerusalem.
Isis – Panopticon (Ipecac)
So this was by all accounts the year I discovered how satisfying heavy-as-fuck can be. (Pelican, I'm sorry I ever ignored you. 5ive, those aren't real words you're using.) I was afraid of Panopticon for a while, since as a rule I'm uneducated and faintly disdainful when it comes to anything metal-related, but once I realized that I'd been listening to it more than anything else (while walking around France, no less) I decided to go ahead and embrace it. I could still do without the growling, but, as far as intense and expressive instrumentals go, Mono only wish their last album had been this good.
Lali Puna – Faking The Books (Morr)
I have nothing in particular to say about this album. I just liked it a lot.
Sparta – Porcelain (Geffen)
It's not that I didn't like At The Drive-In toward the end, in their huge afro-having and Grand Royal-bankrupting phase, or even that I didn't like the first Sparta record (way more than that Mars Volta neo-prog bullshit, anyway), it's just that I didn't think this one would stick around anywhere near as long as it did. I listened to it nearly incessantly over the summer, and it rocked me consistently; it's fierce, tight, and by turns catchy and militantly emotional. (Emotional, mind you; if you write it off as emo, you're an idiot.) It's cheesy too, and overwrought (Eds. Note: Wait, are we too late to write this off as emo?), and you get the impression that Jim Ward is a little more earnest than anyone you'd want to hang out with, but its sonic punch works incredibly well.
Taking Back Sunday – Where You Want To Be (Victory)
Best emo album and the worst album cover of the year, although to be fair the new Jimmy Eat World joint was better than expected. I would be lying if I left this off the list (and, if it helps, I was technically still a teenager when it came out). When done right, emo is thoroughly ridiculous – pedantically sentimental and self-congratulatorily self-effacing, but also urgent, tuneful, and above all hard-rocking – and this album is all of those things. Also, nobody raps on this one, which is a welcome change from their first record.
Vast Aire – Look Mom, No Hands (Chocolate Industries)
Kanye West – College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella)
The two best hip-hop albums I can think of offhand, although for this year that doesn't say terribly much. Both are quite good but short of fantastic; Kanye's one-move production (78 rpm soul? bring it!) can get tedious after a while, as can his all-consuming narcissism, but he's fresh enough; he's got a good flow and a better wit, such that even his tendency to rhyme words with the same words is charming, and it's nice to see someone finally representing Chicago on the big scale. (And let's not forget that he had his jaw rewired. That's keeping it real.) Vast, meanwhile, is more or less up to his old tricks, which is to say sounding like a middle-aged and possibly asthmatic man (when he's actually in his early twenties) and spinning deceptively simple rhymes which tend to revolve around threats of really weird bodily harm. The production isn't as arresting as it was on the Can Ox album, but it's good, and occasionally awesome, in the case of "Da Superfriendz," the spectacularly odd collaboration with MF Doom (the only more ubiquitous player than Vast or Kanye in hip-hop this year).
Still, if the re-releases of Ready To Die and Illmatic (1994 is the new 2004) are any indication, it was an especially slow year for hip-hop. Jay-Z's Black Album had its share of excellent moments, come to think of it, but got drowned out in the overhyped Grey Album phenom (far be it from me to criticize things that are cooler in theory than in practice, but anything that can be attributed responsibility for the Jay-Zeezer Black and Blue Album disaster should be taken out back and shot). The production on the new Beastie Boys album was decent and Clouddead's mostly lackluster Ten yielded "Dead Dogs Two," probably the best thing to come from their poetry-teacher-manqué steez yet; Eyedea & Abilities' E&A was good and the new Eminem and Nas records had their respective moments. Otherwise, what gave? 2004 saw America the most receptive it's been in years for the kind of grassroots political urgency that hip-hop can credibly summon, and nobody seemed to step up to the plate.
If Not Exotic is the forgotten favorite album of 2003, however, Dâlek's Absence (Ipecac) is the preemptive best album of 2005, and its uncanny combination of political agitation, abrasive noise and perplexingly fresh beats suggests a brighter hope for next year. To be fair, noise-hop may be a little left of center here, but it's good to know there's something exciting going on all the same.
I can think of a handful of records which I thought were good but not entirely deserving of the kindness posterity is fittin' to lavish upon them: Madvillain's Madvillainy, for one, the Secret Machines' Now Here Is Nowhere, and (I tried, I swear) the Fiery Furnaces' Blueberry Boat. Also, just to be thorough, I wish to point out that Andrew Bird is just as weird and classically talented as Joanna Newsom and doesn't sound like he swallowed a cat, and that, while the Arcade Fire's Funeral is pretty great, nobody should be allowed to like "Crown of Love" without admitting that Bright Eyes' "False Advertising" is the exact same song and was, by all rights, released two years earlier.
By the same token, for all the insidious populist implications of Modest Mouse's Good News For People Who Love Bad News and Wilco's A Ghost Is Born, both deserve props for demonstrating amply that bands who are well-known and/or on a major label can still make really good records. I know, I thought that was intuitive too, but the year was filled with more sky-is-falling indie badge rhetoric than I knew what to do with. Sure, Franz Ferdinand are obnoxious for some inscrutable reason (for my money, it's because too many bands have alliterative names these days), and nobody likes seeing scads of patrician kids fill their personal quote fields with "and we'll all float on, all right," but can't we just be happy that Creed broke up and get on with our gleefully nerdish lives?
Finally, a few scatterbrained honorable mentions, mostly musical: 65 Days of Static, The Fall of Math; Christian Kleine, Real Ghosts; Local H, Whatever Happened to P.J. Soles? (yeah, I kind of forgot they existed, too); The One A.M. Radio, A Name Writ In Water; Trans Am, Liberation. 90 Day Men, "Night Birds"; The Killers, "Mr. Brightside"; Mono, "Halcyon (Beautiful Days)"; Squarepusher, "Iambic 9 Poetry"; Statistics, "Mr. Nathan"; Sufjan Stevens, "Sister"; TV on the Radio "Dreams." Also, the re-release of both Nina Nastasia's Dogs and Jawbreaker's Dear You was nice. So was the re-release of the self-titled Asobi Seksu album, but really only insofar as everyone can now enjoy "Sooner" despite/for its eerie similarity to My Bloody Valentine's "Soon." I seem to have forgotten most of the visual media I've seen this year, but I do remember thoroughly enjoying Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, Anchorman, Spiderman 2, and nearly every one of Dave Chappelle's wholesome generalizations about black people (zing, Prince and Lil Jon), and I distinctly recall grimacing when Natalie Portman told the dude in Garden State that the Shins would change his life. As for the television debut of Method & Red, I know I was wrong to expect more, but its suckiness was still downright dazzling.
Well, there's always 2005. And that's one statement that won't be proven wrong later on. Probably.
By Daniel Levin Becker