By: Eric Greenwood
01. The Walkmen
Bow + Arrows
Their roots may be in line with traditional post-punk architecture, but The Walkmen rarely stray from a distant, graying out of noise. Hamilton Leithauser's scruffy voice cracks and crackles even when he's singing delicately, while the music sounds like a dream you can barely remember. It's the most affecting and devastatingly beautiful record of the year.
Whether or not Carlos D. has a thingy on his wee from sleeping with sycophantic fangirls is irrelevant. Interpol's second album is a densely melodic and intensely rich collection of potential singles that casually and confidently sidesteps the mountain of anticipation that followed 2002's Turn on the Bright Lights.
03. Franz Ferdinand
Franz Ferdinand's acerbic wit and wry sarcasm poked through the commercial barrier by way of angular post-punk songs filled with equal parts melody and panache. The confident, sexually charged swagger that runs through every track is impossibly entertaining, if somewhat overplayed.
04. The Futureheads
More in line with The Jam and XTC than the omnipresent Gang of Four reference (despite the fact that Gang of Four's Andy Gill produced the record), The Futureheads are a tightly wound mass of hooks, call and response, almost doo-wop-inspired vocals, and jagged rhythms. This album is utterly infectious.
05. Modest Mouse
Good News for People Who Love Bad News
A commercial breakthrough for Modest Mouse sounds like an oxymoron. This is truly one of the weirdest bands ever to have a radio hit, but "Float On" is undeniably catchy in its off-kilter optimism. The rest of the record mulls Isaac Brock's typically disturbing themes of death, and life after death, and death after life after death.
06. Junior Boys
Seemingly amorphous songs weave in and out of one another without much distinction, but the stuttered beats, icy slick keyboards, and oversexed, breathy vocals encapsulate retro-synth-pop perfection.
07. The Magnetic Fields
This follow-up to the massive 69 Love Songs seems so insignificant by comparison, but i is another classic, if slightly overlooked, collection of hopeless, lovelorn pop by indie-rock's cleverest lyricist, Stephin Merritt.
08. The Streets
A Grand Don't Come For Free
With ape-simple beats and an everyman's swagger, Mike Skinner takes minimalism to an extreme with his follow-up to 2002's Original Pirate Material. Skinner is affably self-deprecating, whether he's revealing embarrassing shortcomings or wearing his heart on his sleeve. His honesty mixed with his urban British vernacular produces a unique flow that he uses to mine everything form everyday mundanity to heartbreak all with a naïve, boyish charm.
09. Brian Wilson
Brian Wilson unearthed the legendary Beach Boys' Smile sessions from near obscurity and decided to re-record the entire album note for note, while tying up the long dead musical ends. The result may be somewhat anticlimactic after a 35-year mystery, but Wilson's obsessive perfectionism and angelic voice produces his greatest work next to Pet Sounds.
10. Death From Above 1979
You're A Woman, I'm A Machine
This bombastic Canadian duo slays with its wild, over-driven bass riffs, anxious, layered vocals and spitfire drums. Toning down the noise of its debut, Death From Above 1979 opens itself up to a larger audience with enough hooks to match the punch, and it's all over way before you can tire of the limited tonal palate.
11. Tom Waits
A Tom Waits record is expectedly difficult on the first encounter. His vocals ticks are not exactly naturally pleasing to the human ear. It takes a while to adjust to his frequency. But once you're tuned in, a Tom Waits record is like the soundtrack to a bizarre carnival freak show. This one is rougher than most, trading keyboards for more organic sounds, which opens the music up to a more heart-rending level. Waits is as strange and affecting as he's been since The Black Rider. He's the exception to the devolution rule.
12. Mission Of Burma
Lending credibility to the perpetually malignant idea of rock and roll reunions, Mission of Burma, re-emerged in 2002 as vital as it had been in its heyday. The band played to jam-packed clubs and broke yet another taboo by forcing the dreaded "new material" on nostalgic audiences. Ironically, the "new material" sounded every bit as earnest and indignant as Mission of Burma's pivotal Vs.-era, so when the band put it to tape, the crowds followed.
13. Xiu Xiu
[5 Rue Christine]
Jamie Stewart is a fruitcake. His vocals are just as creepy as his lyrics, and his band's lo-fi electronic pop doesn't make things any easier to swallow. In fact, the music is almost as disconcerting as Stewart's manic, self-hating rants. As the band's third album, Fabulous Muscles does reveal a tiny step towards accessibility, but don't expect to hum along. As much as it makes my skin crawl, I can't help but want more.
14. Loretta Lynn
Van Lear Rose
It's too easy to scoff at this as some sort of vanity project for Jack White, even though it kind of is. Regardless, of how over-exposed you think White may or may not be, Van Lear Rose is a stunning return for Loretta Lynn. White's appreciation of Lynn is genuine and he knows intuitively how to bring about her strengths. The album is by turns rugged and simple and aching and intimate, as Lynn belts from the heart, having written every song herself. The songs range from personal heartache to gospel to old-fashioned country-rock and White dresses the background of every setting like only a true fan could.
15. The Arcade Fire
Brimming with ideas and oozing with talent, this Montreal sextet actually executes what it sets out to do from the moment the album begins. Few bands could maintain this level of intensity and emotional depth without imploding, but The Arcade Fire is relentless in its dramatic fury. Talking Heads meet orchestral pop.
16. PJ Harvey
Uh Huh Her
Even a timid PJ Harvey album has a way of crawling under your skin. The album seems like an overreaction to the sleekness of 2000's Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea with its rough-hewn production and confessional tone and on-purpose-ugly cover photo. It may be familiar if somewhat sour terrain, but Harvey's voice is confrontational and engaging even in a whisper. Don't know about that seagulls track, though.
17. Sonic Youth
A surprisingly strong, late-career effort, Sonic Nurse is more consistent and packs more melodic punch than any release from this band in a decade, which, given some of the tripe that the band has shat out over the years, isn't saying too much (NYC Ghosts & Flowers, here's looking at you). It may lack the jubilant spirit of Goo as well as the rushed intensity of Daydream Nation, but Sonic Nurse unfurls its subtle spell with interlocking guitars, muted feedback, and a consistently dour yet poignant atmosphere.
18. Bloc Party
Bloc Party EP
Post-Gang of Four quirk-punk was bewilderingly ubiquitous in 2004, but Bloc Party mined the territory with such fervor that it overcame its nebulous political yammerings and made fans of even the most ardent elitists. Here's to hoping the full-length matches this EP.
Despite the constant barrage of the "R" word (Radiohead, duh) in every bit of press it receives, Muse finally broke back into the U.S. charts with its hyper-kinetic brand of metal-tinged doom-fantasy rock. Matt Bellamy's voice is always desperately trying to convey some sort of cryptic apocalypse in a blended vibrato falsetto, and it's a lot to stomach in one sitting. But the intensity and stellar musicianship behind such energetic and passionate rock is refreshing in small doses.
20. TV on the Radio
Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes
[Touch and Go]
Not nearly as daring or immediate as its Young Liars EP, TV on the Radio channels the spirit of Peter Gabriel through a soulful funnel, layered synthetics, and shoegazer guitar work with fleeting jazz bits. The experimental leanings may sacrifice art for cohesion in an album format, but TV on the Radio proves itself to be a vital force on this impressive debut.