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Livewire's Top 10

Concertlivewire's Top Ten Albums of 2004


By Tony Bonyata

Sure Eminem and seemingly dozens of other hack rap artists whose names begin with Lil' still ruled the charts in 2004, but there were also a few more positive things to celebrate in music last year. You didn't hear any boy bands out there, now did you? Even more important was the rise of independently produced rock music.
Newly formed indie bands, as well as others that have been slogging away for years in relative obscurity, could be found entering the mainstream through a host of different outlets other than MTV and commercial radio. Not only have television shows such as Fox Network"s The OC been championing indie artists, but major corporations, such as Volkswagen, Hewlett Packard and Saturn realize that cool, hip music attracts the younger demographic they're after (Call it a sell-out if you like, but if the music's great and it's getting the exposure it deserves, then I say, "all the better"). Both satellite and online radio stations have also been exposing these new artists to a much broader audience.
Being an "indie advocate" myself, it's probably no shock that some of my favorite albums from 2004 were from indie artists (and even though a couple of them did sign on with major labels, those labels at least had the foresight not to interfere with the artist's original vision.) But along with this newer breed of musician, there are also a couple of surprises from artists both young and old that made the list as well. Here goes...
Patti Smith10) Patti Smith - Trampin'(Columbia)
She may not be at the top of the local high school kids' iPod playlists, but that doesn't mean that Patti Smith is any less vital than when she helped usher in the first wave of punk rock back in 1974. Its been thirty years since the release of her first single "Hey Joe / "[expletive] Factory," but her influence and impact still reverberates throughout the undercurrent of rock music to this day. On her latest album Trampin' Smith backs up this longstanding credibility with a solid collection of songs that stands proudly next to her iconoclastic back catalog.
Joined by one of the strongest bands of her career - including longtime guitarist, writer and punk legend in his own right, Lenny Kaye - Smith mixes frail and gentler numbers side-by-side with songs with enough power to lay a city the size of Tokyo to waste with gargantuan guitar riffs and Zeppelin-esque thunder-rhythms, while also delivering enough rock 'n' roll chutzpah to give any of today's garage rockers a run for their money.
With tracks such as the piano-driven ballad "Trampin'," the blues-based rocker "Jubilee" and most notably the near epic "Gandhi," which slowly climaxes into an impassioned fever-pitch from both the singer's guttural moans and the bands' dangerous attack on the arrangement, Patti Smith proves to still be - after all these years - the undeniable High Priestess of Cool.
Pleasure Club 9) Pleasure Club - The Fugitive Kind (Brash Records)
Two of the bandmembers may call New Orleans home, but you're not likely to find any jazz, blues or street funk second-lining through Pleasure Club's sophomore album The Fugitive Kind. Instead what this gritty rock quartet has offered up is a delicious platter filled with scuzzed-up guitars, gargantuan glam riffs, raunchy bump-and-grind rhythms and crazed vocals from New Orleanian James Hall.
From the dirty guitar-line that crawls from the gutter and howls and slashes over Hall's blood-curdling pleas on the opening track "Hey! Hey! Hey!" to a dead-nuts update of Mott The Hoople's swaggering glam bravado on "Streetwalkers Anthem" and "Cops and Criminals" these guys have somehow managed to tap into the pure excitement of true rock 'n' roll. Even when they throw in a cheesy '80s beat over an angular rhythm guitar that is more than reminiscent of INXS, or when they sound like Iggy Pop learning how to Mariachi on the song "On Holy Land," these guys make it all sound interesting and fresh.
Cold Mountain8) Cold Mountain - Music from the Miramax Motion Picture (DMZ / Columbia)
With the same producer culling together the rural sounds of 19th century America for the soundtrack to Cold Mountain (the movie adaptation of Charles Frazier"s best-selling novel) one might, at first, mistake this collection of blues, gospel, folk and country numbers as a follow-up to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? movie soundtrack. But the music that producer T Bone Burnett has amassed here is, in fact, a much different, darker (but no less engaging) animal altogether.
Whereas the music for O Brother was more a celebration of life, the songs displayed here instead walk a similar path of sorrow, loss and hope that ran through the war between The States in the latter part of the 1800s.
With The White Stripes" Jack White showcasing his affection for early American folk music on five of the nineteen tracks, the young guitarist has set aside his love for minimalist garage rock in exchange for minimalist roots music. And it proves to be every bit as commanding. From his soulful country readings of the traditional numbers "Wayfaring Stranger" and "Great High Mountain," both augmented with banjo, fiddle and mandolin, to his earthy delivery on a bluesy cover of The Mississippi Sheiks' 1930 Okeh hit "Sittin" On Top Of The World," White displays a true understanding of this age old music that, thankfully, is being resurrected many generations later.
A bleak, beautiful soundtrack that proves to be both moving and magical kinfolk to it"s more celebratory big-screen brethren O Brother.
The Polyphonic Spree7) The Polyphonic Spree - Together We"re Heavy (Good Records)
Continuing the shiny, happy vibe explored on their debut album The Beginning Stages...The Polyphonic Spree have produced yet another sunny, larger-than-life collection of, as leader Tim DeLaughter (formerly of Tripping Daisy) describes it, "choral symphonic pop."
On their second full-length release Together We're Heavy DeLaughter along with his touring 24-member band - consisting of standard rock instrumentation as well as the more unconventional ten-piece choir, trombone, flute, trumpet, French horn and other assorted oddities better suited for the New York Philharmonic than that of a Dallas rock band - exude the same blindingly bright, warm rays of light as our own life sustaining star does.
Successfully giving off a strong aura of peace and love without having to put flowers in their hair, while also incorporating elements of Pink Floyd, The Flaming Lips, David Bowie, The Beach Boys and The Beatles without ever aping any of them, The Polyphonic Spree are a breath of fresh air unlike anything else in music today.
Tom Waits 6) Tom Waits - Real Gone (Anti-)
Tom Waits has done it again. On his latest disc Real Gone, the singer / songwriter has produced yet another challenging effort that moves beyond what he's explored before, as he delves into the dark depths of the human soul - both lyrically and musically. He does this not only through tales of murder, death and redemption set to sinister sonnets and gutbucket blues stripped to the bone, but also with a production that is so raw, organic and volatile that it seems almost unfathomable that any of these sixteen songs could have possibly been created in more than just one take. And it's this spontaneous combustion that fuels this creative, creaky, creepy jalopy known as Tom Waits.
Waits may claim that he can "turn a Rolls Royce into a chicken coup," but this wonderfully rough-hewn effort (crowded with characters such as Skinny Bones Jones, Knocky Parker, Bowlegged Sal, along with Waits himself traversing from locales such as Memphis, Vicksburg, Liverpool, Rockford and Sheboygan) proves just the opposite.
Modest Mouse5) Modest Mouse - Good News For People Who Love Bad News (Epic Records)
Indie rock stalwarts finally make good. Not that Modest Mouse hasn"t been producing interesting, thought-provoking albums before, it"s just that it seems that all the planets were properly aligned last year for the arrival of their rather hard-to-classify album Good News for People Who Love Bad News.
From the two indelible hits, "Float On" and "Ocean Breathes Salty" to the spastic "Dance Hall" and the twisted folk of "Bukowski" their influences are as diverse as they are chaotic. At times they exude the quirkiness of Talking Heads, and at others the fiery punk attitude of The Pixies, as well as the brilliant, unique modern rock approach of Pavement. And the best part is they somehow manage to come off extremely hip, while just barely skirting being lumped in with both Emo and jam bands.
Interpol4) Interpol - Antics (Matador Records)
NYC hipsters avoid the dreaded sophomore slump with Antics, the follow-up to their debut hit album Turn Out the Bright Lights. While Interpol continues in a similar fashion as on their previous effort - with angular art-house guitars, jittery rhythms, seductive bass-lines and cold, detached vocals - the songs here are also filled with more color, texture and, dare I say, even more emotion. Lonely and lovely stuff for sure.
Loretta Lynn3) Loretta Lynn - Van Lear Rose (Interscope Records)
At 70-years old, country music legend Loretta Lynn sounds as if she's just getting started. That's because on her latest album Van Lear Rose she mixes old school Kentucky country music with some of the invigorating sensibilities of early rock 'n' roll without ever sounding nostalgic, trite or forced.
Not unlike Johnny Cash, who had producer Rick Rubin pull the raw, sinning saint still brooding from within for his brilliant American Recording albums, Grande Ole Opry superstar Loretta Lynn has also found the perfect producer. Jack White, from the rock band The White Stripes, has given the coal miner's daughter the perfect palette for her rich compositions and heartfelt vocals.
On Van Lear Rose White didn't influence Lynn as much as merely pull the greatness that was hiding just below the surface. With an album filled with soulful country numbers ("Family Tree," "Miss Being Mrs." and "Van Lear Rose"), dust-kicking rockers that reek of the nicotine-stained pegboard walls of Sun Studios in the late '50s ("Have Mercy" and "Mrs. Leroy Brown") and a playful country number that sums up her life in under four minutes ("Story Of My Life"), Lynn and White have produced one of the most compelling comeback albums from any country musician.
Despite a rough life, filled with loss, hardships and remorse, Van Lear Rose showcases the tough spirit and giant heart that took a young country girl from Butcher Hollow, Kentucky and made her a worldwide superstar.
Franz Ferdinand 2) Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand (Sony)
Who"da thunk that playful pop filled with herky-jerky guitars, spastic singing, and quirky pop arrangements could sound so darn fresh. But the Scottish band Franz Ferdinand manages to deliver a peppy, poppy collection of disco-punk songs all with a nod and a wink. Whether on the dance-floor or in the moshpit, tracks such as the catchy "This Fire," the irresistible "Take Me Out" and the angular pop gem "Tell Her Tonight" are guaranteed to make you break out into a sweat.
The Arcade Fire 1) The Arcade Fire - Funeral (Merge Records)
Can indie rock be grandiose, theatrical and majestic while still retaining a sense of cool? When it's bands like Neutral Milk Honey, The Decemberists and now The Arcade Fire it sure can. That's because these acts successfully incorporate Art back into underground rock without any pomp or pretensions.
The guiding influence behind Funeral the debut album from the Montreal-based band The Arcade Fire, was due, in part, to the many personal losses surrounding bandmembers throughout the last year.
While the narrative of this conceptual album may have been influenced by the morose, the spirit that hovers above many these grand songs are instead uplifting, thought provoking and, quite often, even consoling. The opening track "Neighborhood # 1 (Tunnels)," unfolds with a haunting piano-line peering from behind Win's aching vocals, while the closing number "In the Backseat," which (with Regine's frail-turned-fanatical vocals and the maudlin strings and bittersweet melody) is eerily reminiscent to early Sugarcubes. And it's during these more reflective moments that we're reminded, only after it's gone, just how precious love and life is.
But more than a soliloquy of the deceased, the music that unfolds is more often uplifting, joyous and beating with life. Songs such as "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)" with its celebratory accordion dancing around Win's nervous David Byrne-like vocal delivery, along with the proud majesty that parades through the hopeful number "Wake Up," showcase the theatrical power and presence of this engaging new act.

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