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Top Releases of 2004

This month our CD Review Editor Jesse Jarnow polled our staff regarding their favorite releases of 2004. Next month, we’ll offer up our favorite live shows of the year and present your views as well.


Now that I sometimes refer to myself as a critic, the prospect of a year-end top 10 list is daunting. Perhaps those other writers out there have such a grasp on what's happening that they have an easy time racking up ten moments from the year which mean something to them, and perhaps even making a case why they should mean more to you than other stuff. But it ain't me, I ain't no fortunate one. So, instead, here are four CDs (with a few cuts singled out) which happened to be from 2004 and one new phenomenon, all of which yielded some positive musical moments.

A Ghost Is Born – Wilco: "Company In My Back," "I’m A Wheel." Still managing to Matter in the wake of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco delivered the goods primarily by depicting rides to nowhere, in the endless Kraut groove of "Spiders" and the Rolling-Stones-for-the-unassertive "Handshake Drugs," before giving us 12 minutes of nowhere itself on "Less Than You Think."

It’s All Around You – Tortoise: "The Lithium Stiffs," "Crest." Another Chicago band, perhaps proceeding past their moment while Wilco luxuriates in theirs, these guys have always created landscapes, but not always ones I cared to visit. This pairing, however, is scenic, old-fashioned perhaps, but a lovely edifice regardless.

Anchor Drops – Umphrey’s McGee: "Wife Soup," "The Pequod." A jazzy climax and an escape to acoustic sea views it may or may not be about much, but it matters little. Good clean fun.

Undermind – Phish: "Army of One," "Access Me." Has any band so great ever gotten dismissed as often for not being better? Even by themselves? And even by this writer, who was not entirely unhappy when they hung it up this summer? But let it be said that they kept trying right to the end, exemplified by these two cuts which put Trey in the passenger seat and take on techno trappings and "sincere" balladry.

a plethora of BitTorrents: Strictly speaking, this began earlier, and it may not be over anytime soon, though with Sharing The Groove dead and buried and legal obstacles gathering, don’t take it for granted. I can’t say that the possibility of getting new music every day, in exchange for no commitment other than a few hours of computer power, was an unmixed blessing, but that didn’t stop me from yielding to the urge many times. And let the RIAA note that, at least for this consumer, the temptation was less to dodge shelling out the hard-earned for new stuff than to search for, and find, new angles on the great bodies of work from artists whose kids I helped put through college a decade or two ago.


Rendezvous- Luna: Okay, admittedly a sentimental choice, if this Indeed the final go-round. When all is said and done I’ll probably return to Penthouse more often but this is still a fitting way to go. While we’re at, it’s time for a Dean Wareham career retrospective so check out a related pick from the 2004 DVD realm, Galaxie 500’s aptly titled Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste 1987 1991

Live at Georgia Theater- Derek Trucks Band: The quintet’s expansive world soul takes tops honors for most collective spins in my car this year.

Stage- Keller Williams: Runner-up in vehicular rotation (and not just for the perverse pleasure of rolling through Main Street with my windows down blaring "Gate Crashers Suck")

Live in Tokyo- Brad Mehldau: My current snow-time obsession. What to say of a solo piano album that moves from Nick Drake to the Gershwin Brothers to that nineteen minute take on Radiohead’s "Paranoid Android."

After Midnight: Kean College- Jerry Garcia Band: Ozzie Ahlers drops in some space-age tones and Jerry is well, Jerry at his emotive best.


Live 1964 – Bob Dylan: One for the detractors and for the rest of us as well.

Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings Of Miles Davis: 1963-1964-Miles Davis: Sure this is something of a transitional band from one epic quintet to another but that is the majesty of the set. Arkansas Traveler: The latest installment in Shocked’s ongoing effort to reclaim and reissue her life’s work.


Bane – Joey Arkenstat: Mike Gordon’s alter-ego turns in the chill out album of the year. And Mike plays shofar.

Stampede – Critters Buggin: Hands down, it’s the best record the Critters have ever done. Eyvind Kang’s arrangements are sublime.

Friends Seen and Unseen – Charlie Hunter Trio: Every Charlie album is better than the last. John Ellis really shines here as a composer, contributing standout tracks like "Moore’s Alphabet."

self-titled – Mylab: This one didn’t leave my stereo for a long time. Seattle keyboard mastermind Wayne Horvitz assembled friends like Skerik, Bill Frisell and Reggie Watts for this stunning debut.

Undermind – Phish: Phish’s best studio album came too late. Instead of breaking up, they should’ve become a studio band, like the Beatles.


Notes from the Underground – Medeski, Martin, and Wood: I can’t believe the previously unreleased "Can’t Get What You Want" has been in the can all this time. What other gems haven’t they put out?

Guest – Critters Buggin: Great debut from a great band. "Critters Theme" is great.


Our Endless Numbered Days – Iron and Wine: Full of laments, dirges, meditations, and love songs played so as not to wake the baby, the album seems tailor-made to freeze you in your tracks, and sit you into the comfiest chair in the room with your ghosts.

Book of Silk – Tin Hat Trio: Sounding at once like the lost music of the late 1800s and the pending music of the mid-millennium, each vibration is treated as an intrusion into silence.


Hole of Burning Alms – Papa M: Music unfolds in Dave Pajo's hands, exploring and shaking out its
wrinkles a stitch at a time. This record spans his career, collecting
primarily instrumental singles and scattered bits from his many varied
side projects, but his patience and respect for silence that bind the set.

Convict Pool EP – Calexico: The Arizona collective whose burnished horns, shuffling drums and clap tracks were born for this. On the
title track in which Joey Burns and John Convertino prove that a
gut-string guitar, a kit, and a fistful of mallets are more than enough.


Van Lear Rose – Loretta Lynn: I thought Jack White of the White Stripes working with country legend Lynn was some sort of stunt collaboration until I heard the album’s first single. The album’s mix of Rolling Stones Exile-era rock and pure country works.

A Ghost is Born – Wilco: Despite the horrid 10-minute indulgence of high-pitched noise at the end of "Less Than You Think," Ghost works better than the group’s previous album, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," because the songs have a greater focus.

SMiLE – Brian Wilson: Wilson crawled from the wreckage of his own mental demons in order to finally put this together nearly three decades after the first sounds were put to tape. That’s an achievement by itself.


All Good Things – Jerry Garcia: Wading through All Good Things, one discovers the breadth of Garcia’s musical interests — from avant-garde experimentalism to country and folk, R&B and gospel.

Grace (Legacy Edition) – Jeff Buckley: Buckley’s debut album maintains its greatness a decade later. The sound’s improved and the bonus material actually enhances the original work.

Trilogy – Rob Wasserman: The idea of solo bass, then duo and trio collaborations could be shackled by the musical experiment’s limitations, but Wasserman’s creative ways and lots of inspired company (Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Neil Young, Lou Reed, Stephane Grappelli, Branford Marsalis, Elvis Costello, Rickie Lee Jones and many more) make Solos, Duets, and Trios a worthy listen.

Five Guys Walk Into A Bar – The Faces: A pricey but worthwhile piece of evidence that displays why Rod Stewart mattered. It’s the sheer joy of bluesy, boozy rock n’ roll that predates the excursions of the Replacements and the Black Crowes.

The Grateful Dead Movie – The Grateful Dead: Yes, the photography isn’t always as perfect as recent GD filmed concerts but with hallucinatory animation, behind-the-scenes segments and onstage footage, you get a well-rounded representation of the Experience circa 1974 that young and old heads should appreciate.


The College Dropout – Kanye West: Playing both producer and MC, Kanye West brings a desperately needed social conscience to Roc-a-Fella records to go along with Jigga & Co.‘s hip-hop egotism.

Vessel – Modern Groove Syndicate: More sophisticated than their first release, Vessel presents a band that is branching out while staying true to their jazz and funk roots.

The Dirty South – Drive-By Truckers: This is not AtL crunk or Nawlins cash money, this is the music of the real, red-clay dusted, steam-bath heat, fingers-to-the-bone dirty south, brought back to life by three true Alabama sons and one daughter and an adopted South Carolina cousin. Long live rock.

Shake the Sheets – Ted Leo and the Pharmacists: Bashing all the apathetic liberal whiners just as much as he does Bush & Co., he asks in the opener, "Me and Mia," "Do you believe in something beautiful? Then get up and be it!"

A Ghost Is Born – Wilco:. From the rusted out second half of "At Least That’s What You Said" to the nostalgic irony of "The Late Greats"" and everywhere in between, Wilco have piled yet another work of auditory art onto their growing collection, and Jeff Tweedy is cementing his place at the right hand of Brian Wilson in the heavenly host of pop-masters.

Honorable Mentions:

Music For Life – The Motet

Good News For People Who Love Bad News – Modest Mouse

All This Everything – Perpetual Groove


A Ghost Is Born – Wilco: An album which draws all the broken elements of rock – improvisation, intelligent writing, progressive virtuosity, deft production – that we were beginning to think were irreconcilable into one powerful synthesis.

End of the World Party (just in case) – Medeski, Martin, and Wood: A blistering collection of grooves borne out of the synthesis of the cut and paste consciousness of Dust Brother John King and the loose, organic energy of an improvisational juggernaut. Its marriage of simplicity and sophistication that would make George Martin scream with delight..or whatever George Martin would do when he was pleased.

Deja Voodoo – Gov’t Mule: An album that reaches deeply into the primordial elements of Classic Rock and maintains it’s own singular indentity.

SMiLE – Brian Wilson: Maintaining the sense of sonic texture and complexity that made Pet Sounds a work of art and veiled in a sense of joy tempered by the darkness from which it was borne, Wilson delivers a collection of "pocket symphonies" that stand up to his talent.


Live 1964 – Bob Dylan: A portrait of our most important lyricist in the chaotic heart of his Demagogue youth. Dylan delivers songs like "To Ramona" and "A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall" with the clarity, intensity, cagey irreverence, humor and grace that formed the beauty of his songs.


Live at Bonnaroo – Warren Haynes: As this simple, stripped down set proves, Haynes works best on his own, mixing the soulful ballads ("Patchwork Quilt") and curious covers (Radiohead’s "Lucky"). A husky take on U2’s "One" particularly haunting.

Grown Backwards – David Byrne: Now into his 50s, however Byrne has slowed his speed, buffing up choice cuts like "Glass, Concrete, and Stone" with strings and elegant percussion.

A Ghost is Born – Wilco: With the help of Jim O’Rourke’s artful production, Wilco unintentionally emerge as viable heirs to Phish’s open-eared following in the process with a cohesive and surprisingly eclectic collection.

Stage – Keller Williams: While the "Stage Left" disc captures Williams in a more relaxed setting, it’s the organic-trance of the "Stage Right" that cements Williams’ reputation as a one-man "jamband."

Undermind – Phish: Despite crafting their most adult-sounding album since Billy Breathes, Phish aren’t afraid to unleash their inner child, whether it’s Mike Gordon’s stream of consciousness "Access Me" or the a capella oddity "Grind."


August 27, 1972 – New Riders of the Purple Sage: throughout this excellent lost gem, a new generation of jammmers will discover the sound, and perhaps more importantly, the feel of the space-country pioneers.

Beyond Description – Grateful Dead: While 1980s production and unnecessary studio gloss mar much of the group’s latter day output, the deep gems built into Beyond Description are, simply put, some of the best American songs ever produced.

Best of the Talking Heads – Talking Heads: Moving from punks with an art edge to artists disguised as big band entertainers, the Talking Heads influenced everyone from Dave Schools to Moby (both of whom contribute to this disc’s extensive liner notes).

After Midnight – Jerry Garcia Band: A seamless mix of gospel, proto-trance, and the Beatles’ "Eleanor Rigby," the title track is one of the best Garcia jams ever documented outside the Dead and the heart and soul of this 1980s live set.

The Complete Capitol Recordings, v. 1 – The Beatles: In an era defined by iPod shuffles and mistagged MP3, experiencing the Beatles’ mop-top recordings in their original mono mixes and American packaging is perhaps the most unexpected time capsule.


self-titled – Los Lonely Boys: Songs that are partly sung in Spanish highlight this incredible offering by three young men who have paid their dues playing their music in dusty bars throughout this country.

Soul Sessions – Joss Stone: This blonde teenager from England is clearly well ahead of her time as she performs like a singer who’s been on the road for thirty years.

Breathe – The Leaves: Darkness dissolves into light, despair fades into hope and all is well in a series of musical arrangements that successfully compliments The Leaves’ debut.

The Heroines – Tony Joe White: In every cut, the clean, honest sound that Mr. White established over 40 years ago comes to the forefront. Nothing fancy, just top-notch performances all around.

SMiLE – Brian Wilson: The harmonies are crisp, the musicianship is spectacular and Brian and friends have never sounded better. A true rock symphony that ranks among the best ever.


The Capitol Albums, v. 1 – The Beatles: Each album is presented in Stereo and Mono. In some cases, the mono versions sound better than the stereo while in some cases the stereo sounds better than the mono, but that’s half the fun of listening and comparing the tracks.

Acoustic – John Lennon: The recently released album of acoustic version of his tunes is a masterpiece in that it strips Lennon to the core and gives the listener an understanding of how brilliant he was. The beauty of the album is in its simplicity. It’s you and Lennon.

Queen on Fire: Live at the Bowl – Queen: All the hits are here, but the unique mutual affection between the group and their fans come to the forefront in this offering.

The Best of Spirit – Spirit: Listening to Spirit today and understanding that their music was held in the same high esteem as groups like Cream and Pink Floyd, one realizes how far ahead of their time they really were.


A Ghost Is Born – Wilco: With the abstractions of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in their bones, Wilco’s woozy luminescence blankets Tweedy’s heartache with comforting magnificence.

SMiLE – Brian Wilson: Teenage symphonies to God aside, Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks’ vivid American psychedelia, rendered in full panoramic glory, is still a revelation.

The Tain EP – The Decemberists: The Decemberists’ ambitious five-part, 18-minute single-track interpretation of the Irish folk cycle would be bloody preposterous if it didn’t rock so hard and haunt so deeply.

We Shall All Be Healed – The Mountain Goats: On his anthology of short character studies about the native habits of Oregon speed freaks, lyricist John Darnielle trades lyrical precision for LP-carrying charisma.

Fight Back! – Icy Demons: With few verses and fewer choruses, Icy Demons stretch cinematic exotica and dreamy jazz electronics over a strangely formed alien skeleton.


Live 1964 – Bob Dylan: An amazing solo performance by a legendary performer at the most fertile moment of his career presented in stunning stereo fidelity. Hard to go wrong.

various shows – Soul Coughing. Blazing, revelatory double-disc archival recordings of Manhattan’s swinginest avant-garde/hip-hop/jungle/beatnik quartet.

This Is Reggae Music – various artists: Four discs worth of perfect Jamaican singles, streching from mento and rocksteady to the roots reggae’s mid-‘70s peak.

Another Green World – Brian Eno: Gorgeous, shimmering, flawless, dream-like, etc. Perfect any year.

Black Foliage: Animation Music, vol. 1 – The Olivia Tremor Control: Sure, the modern psychdelic classic was only out of print for five years, but not enough people heard it then either.


Nomad – Lotus

All This Everything – Perpetual Groove

Cupcakes. And Radishes. – Leslie Halpert

Rhythm Oil – Barbara Cue

The Dirty South – Drive-By Truckers


Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain – Pavement

Deluxe Edition – The Codetalkers featuring Col. Bruce Hampton

Bug – Dinosaur Jr.

With the Lights Out – Nirvana

London Calling (Legacy Edition) – The Clash


You Are the Quarry – Morrisey: It’s ironic how the quintessentially melancholy songs of the Moz bring us such pleasure. You Are the Quarry only brings you down is when you have to take it out of your CD player to listen to something else.

Merlefest Live! The Best of 2003 – various artists: A condensed version of the 2003 festival comes to life with some of its all-star participants: Donna the Buffalo, Emmylou Harris, Bella Fleck and the Flecktones, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and more.

America’s Sweetheart – Courtney Love: Love’s voice is raspier with age, though she still manages to sound sweet and innocent on radio friendly singles that proves Love doesn’t need the backing of a band to shine.

A Crow Left of the Murder – Incubus: The hard-hitting sound of "Megalomaniac" doesn’t play throughout much of the rest of the album, but Brandon Boyd makes up with it with his lyrics, continuing to create controversy with attacks at politics and the media.


London Calling (Legacy Edition) – The Clash: Twenty-five years and a reissue later, London Calling has the potential to fall on another set of impressionable young musicians.


Stage – Keller Williams: Sure studio albums can be blessings, but this album proves my theory that live soundboard recordings should replace studio albums. If you can’t perform live, I don’t want to be tricked by an extravagant studio album only to be disappointed in person. Nothing disappointing here.

Anchor Drops – Umphrey’s McGee: This is one of those albums that make seeing the band’s live show a necessity. Talk about quality from start to finish, your music collection is only incomplete without the hard leaning Anchor Drops in it.

The Big Eyeball In The Sky – Col. Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains: Another Claypool side project? The general of all bassists continues his habit of teaming with diverse musicians, banding together sometimes-clashing styles that always seem to work out.

From the Roots – Horace ANdy with Sly and Robbie and Mad Professor: This is a true gift from a list of reggae’s most influential craftsmen. Horace Andy’s plush voice hasn’t faded over time, Sly and Robbie continue to be the best reggae drum and bass team an artist can buy and with Mad Professor behind the board, echo chambers are plentiful.

Blue Cathedral – Comets on Fire: A band basically ignored in 2004, their Blue Cathedral sounds like Hendrix’s Experience, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd would have together.


Beyond Description – the Grateful Dead: Anyone with the albums already is going to end up pawning something to afford the new box set for the bonus tracks on each disc.

Creation Rebel – Burning Spear: This collection of Burning Spear’s seminal recordings has the original album’s track listing interspersed with rarer tracks only previously available on wax.

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