2004: Jason's Music To Write Home About

by Jason Warburg

Two thousand and four was a year when you had to really pay attention to find the best music. Most of the stuff coming out of the major labels was eminently forgettable, with a handful of bright shiny exceptions. In one of those soul-numbing developments that seem to characterize the modern music scene, bands as good as Semisonic, Fastball and the Jayhawks found themselves on hiatus or playing clubs again, even as every belly-button-baring Britney wannabe and her sister got herself an album or two on the Target racks (please, God, tell me there aren't any more Simpson sisters... please?). To find the good stuff, you had to dig deeper -- or be fortunate enough to have independent artists sending you a weekly supply of terrific new music. Without further adieu, here is one writer's take on the ten most notable musical footnotes to 2004, in no particular order:


Indie Of The Year

Mark McKay -- Shimmer

If you like any of the following artists -- Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, Wilco, the Jayhawks, the BoDeans, etc. -- you need to go buy this album right now. No kidding, folks. This is quite simply the most lovingly crafted, consistently engrossing batch of literate-minded roots-rock I heard this year, full of epic storytelling about everyday lives, imagination-stirring images and a dash of mystery, all sung in a voice full of ragged majesty.

Honorable Mention: Arms Of Kismet -- Eponymous (sly, unique & altogether wonderful)

Rookie Of The Year

Maria Mena -- White Turns Blue

Seventeen-year-old Maria Mena shocked the hell out of me with this startlingly self-assured, occasionally precious but engagingly honest variation on teen power-pop. Avril Lavigne, Hilary Duff and the rest of the musical Mouseketeers only wish they could write songs with this much emotional heft and complexity.

Comeback Of The Year

BoDeans -- Resolution

Musical co-conspirators Sam Llanas and Kurt Neumann, a.k.a. BoDeans, returned in 2004 after an eight-year hiatus, and the results were nothing less than brilliant. Anthemic rockers brush up against nuanced, resonant story-songs; Neumann and Llanas wrap their perfectly matched voices around one another; Neumann plays the most expansive, buoyant guitar of his career; and -- in a just universe -- Llanas's "617" vies for song of the year.

Best Breakup Afterglow

Ben Folds -- Speed Graphic/Sunny 16/Super D
Hotel Lights -- Hotel Lights
International Orange -- Spoon Box

The breakup of the Ben Folds Five about four years back is only a tragedy if you missed these discs. Folds himself issued three typically brilliant and melodic solo EPs over the past 18 months, while BFF drummer Darren Jessee's new band Hotel Lights issued an album's worth of wistful, gorgeous Americana, and BFF bassist Robert Sledge teamed with fellow singer-songwriters Django Haskins and Snuzz to form the vastly entertaining International Orange.

Greatest Greatest Hits

Counting Crows -- Films About Ghosts

In a year awash in greatest hits collections (think those labels don't see the end of their distribution monopoly coming?), this one stands above the crowd. A collection of almost all the best songs by one of the very best bands of the last 12 years. 'Nuff said.

Best Reason To Get The Blues

Keb' Mo' -- Keep It Simple

Yet another terrific, soothing album of modern blues from its contemporary master, Keb' Mo'. Enough uplifting music to turn a foggy winter day to bright sunshine in your mind.

Superlative Short Subjects

Buva -- Daydream EP
Evan & Jaron -- Half Dozen
Bryan Master -- Incommunicado
Spiraling -- Challenging Stage

Some of my favorite listening experiences this year came courtesy of independently produced and distributed EPs. You can pick up any one of these for less than eight bucks from the artist's Web site, and every one of them is terrific in its own unique way.

Most Disappointing Performance By A First-Ballot Rock And Roll Hall Of Famer

U2 -- How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb

Should be retitled How To Fool Millions Of U2 Fans Into Buying Another Mediocre Album. After months upon months of hype about what an amazing return to form this was going to be -- a really enticing thought for folks like me who still bow down before the greatness of The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby -- I expected better than underproduced retreads of 2000's tepid All That You Can't Leave Behind. And kicking off the promo campaign with "Vertigo" is classic bait-and-switch marketing -- there isn't another song on this disc that comes close to its energy and fire.

Best Album I Finally Caught Up To This Year

Ian Hunter -- Rant

One of England's best -- and most criminally underappreciated -- singer-songwriters returned in 2001 with one of the best albums of his 40-year career. Why it took me three years to catch up with this disc full of brilliant barroom rock and roll is inexplicable. Shame on me for neglecting it; shame on you if you make the same mistake.

Best Album I Borrowed From My Kids This Year

Green Day -- American Idiot

Quite possibly the album of the year and I don't even own it. Without a doubt the most aggressively potent and viscerally satisfying politico-musical manifesto of 2004. In spite of the magical Buddy Holly-Johnny Rotten mind-meld that Billie Joe Armstrong and company pull off here, forget about trying to stick this one in the punk-pop ghetto; this rare beast -- an artistically successful concept album -- is rock and roll at its best: brash, melodic and thoroughly entertaining.

Honorable Mention: Maroon 5 -- Songs About Jane (if "She Will Be Loved" doesn't make you a little bit misty, you have no heart)

Grace Under Pressure / Album Of The Year Award

Jimmy Eat World -- Futures

There are few things harder for a young band to do than follow up their breakthrough album. Nine times out of ten they end up either repeating themselves or trying much too hard not to. Three years after they broke through with the brilliant Bleed American, Jimmy Eat World returned this fall with an album that turns out to be every inch its equal, a big-hearted batch of hooky, earnest, inspiring guitar rock that I haven't been able to get out of my CD changer for weeks and weeks.


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