Mix Suggestion: The Best of 2004
Since I got such a positive response to last year's best of 2003 mix, here's another one. But for 2004 this time. Submit yours, why doncha? It's easy: favorite songs from 2004, all attractively arranged on one CD. You can handle it. It's better if you write comments about the songs individually, like I did. Do that. And give the mix a name, so that it doesn't have to go through life as the Dave Pelzer of mix CDs.
"There's Tuppence on Me Thruppence!"
1. A.C. Newman: "Miracle Drug" (2:19) The best album opener of the year, and therefore the only possible option to open this compilation. Newman slightly puts the brakes on the head-spinning 20-hooks-in-one extravaganzas that mark his work with the New Pornographers, instead unleashing a straightforward power-pop classic that's nothing less than a paragon of rock efficiency. In just over two minutes, Newman casually and good-naturedly swipes the "reincarnation of rock" crown from beneath the noses of all those disdainful, humorless, overrated "garage-band" hacks that everyone else is fawning over. From The Slow Wonder.
2. Of Montreal: "Lysergic Bliss" (4:04) A newly-wed Kevin Barnes sings an infectious ode to the life-altering joys of true love, whose tight, precise indie-quirk-pop arrangement (the ode, not the love) manages to find room for a multitracked a capella breakdown, a swooning flute outro, and a hilariously gratuitous rhythm change from the tune's lightweight shuffling to a jerky 4/4 beat that lasts for only one measure. Due to the fact that Barnes mostly recorded this album himself without his bandmates, the taut "Lysergic Bliss" might come as a shock to fans used to Of Montreal's free-spirited psychedelic interplay, but you'd have to be pretty hard-hearted not to give yourself over to its disciplined weirdness. From Satanic Panic in the Attic.
3. Mouse on Mars: "Spaceship" (4:58) With sputtering, clattering percussion loops, a huge bassline that whirls about like an unmanned firehose, and vocals from Niobe that are cut up and reassembled in the same entertainingly creepy fashion as Madeleine Stowe's voicemail message at the end of 12 Monkeys, "Spaceship" is the most danceable (and trippy) electro-sci-fi track I've ever heard. Though Mouse on Mars's sudden conversion from a mostly instrumental cartoon-IDM outfit into an idiosyncratic-yet-accessible parody of Basement Jaxx-style house music was one of the year's biggest musical surprises, songs like this made it one of the year's most pleasant ones as well. From Radical Connector.
4. Magnetic Fields: "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend" (4:24) One of the most trenchant and sour relationship post-mortems Stephin Merritt has ever penned, this tune also happens to be one of his catchiest. With an insistent rhythm section and a pleading piano line to keep things as sad as possible, Merritt's accusatory melody glistens the way only fresh bile can. As the icing on the cake, the bridge in which he moans, "I wanted you to know, I walked around a lot, wishing you were here to keep me from sleeping with anyone who might want me... or even not/Some guys have a beer and they'll do anything" is so naked in both its attempt to make an ex-lover jealous and its self-loathing that it not only cuts to the bone, but it hacks the limb clean off. From the otherwise disappointing i.
5. Joanna Newsom: "The Book of Right-On" (4:29) I'll admit that I haven't yet heard the entire album from which this song is culled, but lots of people seem to think this is the best song from it, and I'd be surprised if the actual case were otherwise. "The Book of Right-On" doesn't consist of much more than a slinky, thumpy bass, an expressively understated acoustic guitar, and Newsom's singing, but she actually manages to make the combination seem novel in a year that's been full of indie-folk savants. It takes a minute to get used to Newsom's weird, pinched voice, but it's certainly self-assured, not to mention addictive in the song's befuddling beauty. From Milk-Eyed Mender.
6. Air: "Alpha Beta Gaga" (4:39) It's difficult to think of many great songs whose main draw is the sound of someone whistling. I can think of "Generals & Majors" by XTC and "Mother's Milk" by the Meat Puppets and that's about it (though I know I'm missing some obvious ones). Well, this is another one. When you add in the violin doubling the whistling hook and the contrapuntal banjo, this loping instrumental may forsake some of Air's usual electropop suaveness, but it's replaced with unpretentious, memorable charm. I think it was used in a Starburst commercial, actually. From Talkie Walkie.
7. Camper Van Beethoven: "Might Makes Right" (2:46) After a 15-year hiatus, CVB's pre-apocalyptic-but-post-Bush concept album about a thoroughly splintered America finds the band as razor-sharp and musically interesting as ever. This ska-based weirdo-folk song not only manages to come up with the year's most indelible chorus, but by filtering it through the point of view of a soldier disillusioned by his duties ("Might makes right/They say that God is on our side/I don't believe them"), the song achieves a truly chilling juxtaposition of catchy sloganeering and unsentimental acknowledgement of the human cost of a selfish, xenophobic war... Sound familiar? From New Roman Times.
8. The Northern State (feat. Har Mar Superstar): "Summer Never Ends" (3:38) This is the great, breezy, old-school-styled hip-hop celebration of the summer months that DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince wanted "Summertime" to be. With Har Mar Superstar singing the soulful refrain and the State girls nonchalantly rapping about the unfettered joys of the season- to say nothing of fun lyrics like "Don't let the feeling fade/We gotta take it higher than my bangs from eighth grade"- it's the rare song that can make you feel the vibe of joyfully cruising down the street from party to party with your friends, windows down, and feeling strangely free... even if you're listening to it while driving alone down a slush-filled Ann Arbor street to return $18 worth of empty beer bottles to Meijer. From All City.
9. The Other Leading Brand: "Desk Drawer" (3:34) Of all the gifts possessed by electronic genius Mike DeFabio, one of the coolest is his ability to make music that's funny in such a subtle, genre-tweaking way that it's impossible to explain to someone who hasn't heard it, or even to someone who has heard it but doesn't quite get it. The quintessential example may be this fantastic little ambient-IDM track, whose anchor is a boppy little keyboard line that could've come from one of To Rococo Rot's happier moments, but all the background percussion consists of the sampled and programmed sounds of items from Mike's desk drawer. Scissors, a protractor, tearing paper, the sounds of a Tic Tac or something being dropped and bouncing a little, etc. are all expertly arranged in a way that's designed to offend electronica purists by simultaneously goofing on their artistry and beating them at their own game by being such a solid composition. And those are the best kind of tricks. From Milkshake x Infinity, which happens to be the best album of the year.
10. They Might Be Giants: "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" (1:38) The best thing They Might Be Giants released this year was definitely not on their horrid album The Spine, but was rather this cool little recording of what was apparently one of William Henry Harrison's presidential campaign jingles. I don't know how faithful they are to the melody of the original, but it's kind of ominous in its own way, from John Flansburgh's detached singing to the sick-sounding horn samples. (And what the hell is with the line "With them will be little Van, Van/Van is a used-up man"?) Though it may well have been a cornball novelty song at the time, TMBG presents it as a bizarre statement of determination that may well be some sort of comment on the ever-more bizarre pageant of presidential politics. Either way, it's as addictive and darkly comic as any of their best work. From the Future Soundtrack of America compilation distributed by MoveOn.org.
11. The Fall: "Portugal" (3:37) Kind of like the bratty kid brother of Sloan's "Penpals," this is a churning, midtempo indie-rocker with delicious harmony "doo doo doo" vocals and a great, chanted refrain... except in The Fall's case, rather than making lyrics out of cute fan letters, we are treated to the recitation of a series of angry correspondence between frontman Mark E. Smith and a promoter over an agreement gone bad. So in addition to being a catchy stomper of a tune, you get hilarious interplay like the promoter remarking, "Words fail me at how offensive a human being you are," which is shortly followed by Mark's accusation that the promoter's crew passed the time by hurling snotballs, to which the rest of the band joyfully shouts, "Snotballs!" in full-on pub style. I don't know about you, but this kind of piss-take absurdity is always welcome in my stereo. From The Real New Fall LP.
12. Sufjan Stevens: "The Dress Looks Nice on You" (2:32) ...And at the other end of the spectrum, the brittle sincerity of this song is enough to make you cry. Surrounding his vulnerable voice with snowflakes of repeated acoustic guitar and banjo lines, Stevens barely breaks a whisper as he sings, "I can see a lot of life in you/I can see a lot of bright in you/And I think that dress looks nice on you/I can see a lot of life in you." Like most of his songs, this one nails a feeling of crushing disillusionment and regret without being at all whiny, specific, or even explicitly sad. It's all there in the music, though: dreams deferred, innocence lost, all those poetic cliches made effective because they're shown and not told. From Seven Swans.
13. Andrea Maxand: "Cassie's Song" (3:56) One of America's best undiscovered indie-rock talents, Maxand should've landed on best-of-2004 lists nationwide if only on the strength of this song. Nothing less than an expert construction of hooks and dynamics, "Cassie's Song" opens with an instantly gripping pairing of Maxand's soaring vocals and ringing guitar, plunges into a more aggressive couple minutes (with her voice run through an effective bullhorn effect) and then eases up for a gentle, snarky bridge before hitting the accelerator again. Nothing earth-shatteringly inventive, but it's all assembled with a lot more care than most artists would take. Great, supple work from Death Cab for Cutie's rhythm section, too. From Where the Words Go.
14. David Byrne: "The Man Who Loved Beer" (2:40) 2004 wasn't a great year for either David Byrne or Lambchop, whose releases (Grown Backwards and the simultaneous release of Aw Cmon and No You Cmon, respectively) were frustratingly uneven, but this cover of a song from Lambchop's great 1996 album How I Quit Smoking encapsulates the best of both artists' talents. Byrne maintains the open-aired grace of the original, even as he substitutes a sweeping string arrangement for Lambchop's humble Nashville sound and his own distinctive lilt for Kurt Wagner's charming mutter-singing. When Byrne coos the line "And the violent man has come down on everyone" like the ending to a lullaby, it becomes evident what a truly perfect match of source material and performer this interpretation really is. From Grown Backwards.
15. Mike Doughty: "Laundrytown" (1:40) This swaying acoustic gem is an outtake from Doughty's 1996 Skittish sesssions, and the only possible reason I can think of that it might have been left off the original album is because its arrangement, though minimal (apart from the guitar and Doughty's unique nasal rasp, there's an unintrusive bass and the sounds of a pick running tunelessly across some strings to serve as percussion- you can think of it as a New York subway chanty), still sounds fuller than anything else from that record. So maybe he thought it would've seemed out-of-place. Or maybe because including it would've meant that Skittish had too many heart-stoppingly beautiful songs, of which this would've been a particularly bright highlight on an album that's basically nothing but neon-yellow brilliance. As it stands, it's a bonus track from the new two-disc set containing Skittish and Rockity Roll.
16. TV on the Radio: "Don't Love You" (5:31) A dark, hypnotic kiss-off, "Don't Love You" plays out with a sublime mood of gritted-teeth restraint that never quite allows you a good glimpse of the bitter passion lying beneath, but makes it perfectly clear anyhow. Even if Tunde Adebimpe didn't get his point across in his understated melody, the minor-key swarm of the music- droning organs, pizzicato guitar stuttering, and one gigantic, looped bass drum thump that runs throughout- would give you the hint. From Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, whose title really irritates me because bloodthirsty is one word, dammit.
17. McLusky: "Forget About Him I'm Mint" (1:46) McLusky's admittedly clever mixture of noise-rock, black humor, and strangely precise sloppiness generally doesn't click with me personally (though I'd still recommend it more highly than, say, the Liars' undercooked aggro), but I've got nothing but love for this marching postpunk anthem. The whole song is one giant, vaguely Middle Eastern-influenced hook, spruced up with some inspired trumpet/guitar cooperation, hilarious backing vocal exclamation points, and memorably silly lyrics like "Everywhere I go I want to travel by X-Wing/Thorazine given in your food will stop the headaches." From The Difference Between Me and You is That I'm Not on Fire.
18. Robyn Hitchcock: "We're Gonna Live in the Trees" (3:24) With help from Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, and NRBQ's Joey Spampinato (evident not only in the backing vocals, but in the thumpy bluegrass bassline and the amusing one-note slide guitar in the background), Hitchcock sounds like he's having more fun than he has in years as he belts out this simple-though-typically-crooked folk-pop number about... humans transmogrifying into birds or something? Maybe? Well, it's a big pile of homespun joy, at any rate. From Spooked.
19. Frank Black : "Nimrod's Son" (3:01) Andy Diagram and Keith Moline (the Two Pale Boys) assist Frank Black in transforming what was once an okay Pixies song (from the overrated Come On Pilgrim EP) into a spooky dirge whose tuba-and-trumpet backing, deliberately overblown synth breaks, and overuse of echo effects underscore the bizarre car-crash-and-incest lyrics in the most wonderfully trippy way. (Not "trippy" psychedelic, but more like "trippy" Brian Dewan-goes-to-New Orleans.) Screw the Pixies reunion; this was the most genuinely enjoyable nostalgic surprise of the year. From disc two of Frank Black Francis.
20. The Go! Team: "The Power is On" (3:13) My initial reaction upon hearing this song was wondering whether someone had gone and made a recording of some high school cheerleader competition and then pulled a Moby and built a song around it. This does not appear to be the actual case, but that's the effect, and it's really invigorating. Particularly when the '70s-cop-show horns kick in. It occurs to me that if you're the sort who actually exercises, this would be a good exercise song. From Thunder Lightning Strike.
21. Comas: "Moonrainbow" (3:15) When I picked up this Comas album, it struck me that it's been awhile since I've heard such a thoroughly great Britpop band (even though they're from Chapel Hill). No gimmicks or pretentiousness or tiresome pilfering from Radiohead, just the sort of great, glam-rock-without-the-glamour melodic instincts of the Boo Radleys or a less arrogant Spacehog. "Moonrainbow" is the most instantly lovable of the bunch, with an ebullient arrangement, the best boy/girl interplay since the last album by Stars and a vocal line that does that sad-sounding downward-sliding trick that never fails to thrill me. From Conductor.
22. Kasey Chambers: "Pony" (4:42) I'm embarrassed to admit that I don't know who sings that song "You Give Me Fever" (which may not be the actual title, but you know the one I mean). At any rate, this country-styled reworking of that song is less outright theft than a smirky retooling- kind of like how Ween's "Falling Out" borrows elements from "Secret Agent Man," or, um, how Ween's "I Saw Gener Crying in His Sleep" borrows elements from Melanie's "Brand New Key." Underappreciated Aussie country star Chambers takes the teasing sexiness of that song and adds her own, additionally sexy twist, by ironically singing it through the eyes of an ingenue who wants nothing more from life than to be a Wild West hausfrau. What initially seems like a step backward for feminism reveals itself as a really clever parody when you realize that the narrator lusts after an old-fashioned life that never existed in the first place. Heh. From Wayward Angel.
23. Devendra Banhart: "Autumn's Child" (2:40) For all the buzz Banhart received this year, his burnout-folkie-as-Billie Holiday act can get really wearisome over the course of an entire album. Luckily, he was kind enough to gift us with this facedown-moper of a song that's so simple and gorgeous in its unhappiness that it sounds like Mark Linkous singing for Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and it totally makes up for his album's many twee missteps. A few simple, sad piano chords, an even simpler, sadder vocal line... one incredibly hopeless nugget of beauty. From Rejoicing in the Hands.
SUBMIT YOUR OWN MIX
"Well...At Least There Wasn't Another Album By The Rapture This Year"
by Norville Barnes
1. Annie - "Chewing Gum" (3:56) Considering I wasn't using it, I let Annie smash the last remaining bits of my heterosexuality into a thousand tiny pieces. Proving that pop music doesn't have to be made by frail white college kids to have individuality and longevity, Annie fucking demolishes the bland tunes emitting from the likes of hacks like Kylie Minogue and Hikaro Utada. It's joyously filthy and dizzingly creative. Now if only she could make an entire album of this...
2. The Hidden Cameras - "Doot Doot Ploot" (2:47) What was I saying about my alleged heterosexuality? The Hidden Cameras hit their melodic peak here, ascending to the highest level of indie-pop music. The chorus is an anthemic rallying cry that bridges the absurd and the homoerotic. They've perfected their craft here, as this orgy of angelic vocals and jangling guitars is good enough for any party of gentlemen callers.
3. Automato - "Focus" (4:22) Taking a large cue from the playbook of Def Jux and El-P, Automato elevate the sound of underground hip-hop to a rarely heard level of creativity. The song is dense, with Eastern samples and heavy basslines adding to the dramatic tension. The band plays with a desperate paranoia and verges on violent. This is the hip-hop version of Television, a dynamic and powerful band that reflects the urban mood of their age. Not bad for a bunch of white college kids.
4. IQU - "Under the Cherry Blossom" (6:47) A hynpnotic, electronic, drugged-out blissfest. I'm not even sure what to call this. It's a gorgeous beast that slowly mutates and pulls in new sounds, and it stays fascinating for nearly 7 minutes. IQU are one of the most criminally overlooked bands of their era.
5. Castle Oldchair - "Swallowing Stars" (3:49) I'll wade through piles of One AM Radios and Von Bondies if it means I'll get to another little indie gem like this one. Castle Oldchair ride in on a spot of songwriting excellence to devise one of the most clever and delightful songs of the year. It's melancholy while still remaining fun, and absorbs vague influences of psychedelic and country music. Sadly, another case of a band filling up one gold song with disposable filler on their albums proper.
6. R. Stevie Moore - "Subjectivity" (2:35) Moore has released thousands upon thousands of songs, enough to make Zappa look like Jeff Mangum. So I was surprised to find his new album "Conscientious Objector" was actually quite good. The standout track was this little piece of noise-pop heaven, 2.5 minutes that make Moore look like a production genius. He has more energy in this one song than most artists half his age have in their entire oeuvres. Why do the Walkmen fucking bother?
7. DJ Zeph - "Floorwax" (3:12) A masterpiece that more than slightly echoes former glories by Grandmaster Flash and Super Rockin' Mr. Magic, but is still able to resonate with a modern sensibility. Zeph actually progress from the claptrap of mainstream hip-hop by turning to nostalgia for his inspiration. The best dance song of 2004, hands down. DJ Zeph is here to show the DFA crew how it's done.
8. Guided By Voices - "Sleep Over Jack" (3:04) It's a Guided By Voices song. A really fucking good one.
9. Nick Cave - "There She Goes Again" (5:17) Ha! "Nocturama" may have been a brutal "fuck you" to Nick Cave fans all across the globe, but now he wants us to love him again like we did in 91. And the motherfucker did it. He made the second best album of his career and included "There She Goes Again", a masterpiece that stands shoulder to shoulder with songs like "The Mercy Seat" and "The Good Son". It teems with a Southern revivalist ferocity and blurs the line between Satanic energy and Christian gospel music. Nick Cave wants to tear our faces off again. Thank god.
10. The Go! Team - "Bottle Rocket" (3:42) The most amazing aspect of this song is its ability to induce catharsis while remaining so very danceable and so very fun. It sounds like the soundtrack to the greatest epic Hollywood never made. The whole thing is like a belated tribute to the 70s, taking its influences from urban soul, Ennio Morricone scores, and children's cartoons. The harmonica solo that serves as the centerpiece invokes a powerful sense of widescreen contemplation, rivaling Nick Cave's "Lucy" in terms of emotional force. Suck it, Jugdish.
11. Joanna Newsom - "Peach, Plum, Pear" (3:34) I wish Joanna Newsom was the voice of today's generation, I really do. Christ, I fuckin' love this bitch. Her voice is like the holy lovechild of Tim Buckley's pained woeful howl and Lil from "Rugrats", a noise that combines Jeff Mangum's brash tunelessness and the sheer emotional force of Chuck D. This is the finest song off her debut album, one that masks its frail interior in its defiant noise, creating a song that alternates between beauty and abrasiveness. If she ever records her version of "Lorca", I'll die of joy.
12. Karjalan Sissit - "Avioero" (5:56) Imagine Adolf Hitler fronting Throbbing Gristle. You'll think I'm exaggerating, but then you will see that you are wrong.
13. Camper Van Beethoven - "That Gum You Like Is Back In Style" (4:58) Fucking righteous, dude. Who would've thought Camper Van Beethoven would release an album in 2004 and it'd pick up at the exact same quality level from where they left off? Granted, most of the confrontational weirdness is gone, but the band proves to mature remarkably, replacing their former excess with a subtle and intelligent form of pop-songwriting. No, this isn't anything radically new from a band that used to thrive itself on being the most original kids on the block, but it'll do. Trés bon.
14. Stone Breath - "Listen, Listen (Agape Mix)" (8:39) Stone Breath harken back to the folk-psych days of the seventies, fusing together traditional Western folk music with an Indian drone. The song is a masterpiece of hypnosis. Few psychedelic bands of the Noughties can churn out a song as darkly stunning as this. It makes me want to go into the woods and swallow as many mushrooms as I could possibly fit into my stomach.
15. Patti Smith - "Radio Baghdad" (12:19) When I met Mrs. Smith in a New Orleans used bookstore this past summer, instead of bothering her with my awkward attempts at fangirl smalltalk, I should've complimented her on penning such a ferocious and powerful song at her late age. She's lost her amusing wordplay, but she's gained a newfound ability to convert noise into dramatic intensity. The lyrics aren't going to cause Dick Cheney to switch to pacifism, but at least they aren't an embarrasing shame like most protest songs. Like Nick Cave, Patti Smith joins the small percentage of artists who are able to conjure up the ferocity of their youth while also being able to apply for their AARP cards.
16. Jens Lekman - "You Are The Light" (3:23) An absolutely perfect pop song, up there with the likes of the La's "There She Goes". Lekman has an excellent croon going on here, and he creates a perfect fit with the elegant swing of the music. The boisterous horns behind the chorus are euphoric. The perfect tune to sing along with in a large group of drunk people. Because the world doesn't have enough of those.
SUBMIT YOUR MIX
Some of these you might not like, if you can't handle excessive screaming. Also, you may have heard a couple of these.
1. Clair De Lune - "Life On Remote"
2. Misery Signals - "The Year Summer Ended In June"
3. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - "Nature Boy"
4. These Arms Are Snakes - "Angela's Secret"
5. Isis - "In Fiction"
6. Converge - "In Her Shadow"
7. Q And Not U - "Collect The Diamonds"
8. Planes Mistaken For Stars - "Dancing On The Face Of The Panther"
9. Fear Before The March Of Flames - "The State Of Texas Vs. Fear Before"
10. Mastodon - "Naked Burn"
11. The Blood Brothers - "Love Rhymes With Hideous Car Wreck"
12. Circle Takes The Square - "Non-Objective Portrait Of Karma"
13. Black Eyes- "False Positive"
14. Mission Of Burma - "Falling"
15. Codeseven - "Alt. Wave"
SUBMIT YOUR OWN MIX
by Jon Walter
A real short list because a lot of my potential choices have already been said....
1. Franz Ferdinand - "Jacqueline"
2. The Fiery Furnaces - "Straight Street"
3. Madvillain - "All Caps"
4. Wilco - "Company In My Back"
5. Brian Wilson - "Roll Plymouth Rock"
6. Interpol - "Narc"
7. The Other Leading Brand - "Conditional Positive Regard"
8. Guided By Voices - "Girls Of Wild Strawberries"
9. !!! - "Hello? Is This Thing On?"
10. A.C. Newman - "The Cloud Prayer"
SUBMIT YOUR OWN MIX
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