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A Retrospective Top 20: Best Albums Of 2004


What a decade it’s been. 2004 was my first year in the so-called Real World; jobs, car payments, instability everywhere. Things weren’t all happy and seemingly upbeat like the mid 90s. After eight months in Seattle, I found myself unemployed and decided it was time for more education. I moved to the greater Portland area and began prep to enter a Masters in Business Administration program, taking night classes at WSU Vancouver and making a frequent trip out to Pullman, where I’d soon attend graduate school. The overall instability and open-your-eyes wake-up calls of 2004 seemed to extend beyond me. Two of the most honest and disturbing albums I’ve ever heard were released this year – another strong one in music overall.

Here are my favorite albums of 2004. Leave a comment if you have a favorite I didn’t include here, and feel free to let us all know why it would have made your list.

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20. Blueberry Boat by The Fiery Furnaces
From one that can tolerate some pretty out-there music, The Fiery Furnaces have always been a hard pill for me to swallow. Their harmonies are sometimes a bit too crazy, or their abruptness catches me off guard in the wrong way. EP, for me, was a bit more accessible with songs like “Single Again” and “Here Comes The Summer”, but there are some excellent tracks here as well, like “Blueberry Boat” and “My Dog Was Lost But Now He’s Found”, despite their sometimes 90 degree turns.

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19. Bright Like Neon Love by Cut Copy
Like many, I wasn’t familiar with Cut Copy when this album was released, nor was I in the years that followed. It wasn’t until In Ghost Colours was released in 2008 that this album came into view. “Time Stands Still” and “Saturday” are the album toppers here, and they channel the 80s electro-synth-pop and a Pet Shop Boys sound that’s become so popular today.

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18. On Vacation by The Robot Ate Me
Odd that Anacortes is a hot spot for some of the best truly underground music around. On Vacation by The Robot Ate Me is one of the most disturbing albums I’ve ever encountered. With subject matter on holocausts and mass genocide, and backed by sampled music from the 1920s and 1930s, this double disc is more than capable of creeping you out. Songs like “The Genocide Ball”, “Crispy Christian Tea Time”, and “Oh No! Oh My! (1994)” reminisce on old children’s tunes, a dance number your grandparents may have listened to, or the feel-good tunes of a long-forgotten yesteryear. Hearing that last number, “Oh No! Oh My! (1994)”, recounts the largest failure of the Clinton Administration – the refusal to do anything during the genocide in Rwanda. On Vacation is a masterpiece with shock value that will have you tapping your toes and singing along while you cry for humanity’s lost soul. It’s a portrayal of the civilized world at its worst – a political plea for us all to open our eyes and take a renewed look at the world in which we live. And it works.

The Robot Ate Me: On Vacation (Pt. 2) [mp3]

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17. Smile by Brian Wilson
The infamous Smile; the album that should have followed The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds decades earlier (Brian Wilson began work on Smile in 1966). Smile is a far cry from Pet Sounds , but Brian Wilson does his best in capturing the sound of that day, minus his then decaying mental state and the internal strife of his band. That Wilson resurrected the legendary lost Beach Boys album and finished it nearly forty years after initiation is astonishing, and listening to “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes And Villians” and even “Roll Plymouth Rock” – I for one am glad he did.

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16. In A Safe Place by The Album Leaf
In A Safe Place was my introduction to The Album Leaf, and it remains a favorite by Jimmy LaValle. Recorded with a few members of Sigur Rós in their studios, the album is a captivating instrumental dream. When vocals are added in tracks like “On Your Way”, the songs come full-circle for a truly affecting presence.

The Album Leaf: On Your Way [mp3]

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15. Our Endless Numbered Days by Iron & Wine
I tend to like Iron & Wine when their folk takes on a pop edge, as it did here on Our Endless Numbered Days. There’s more melody; a fuller overall sound. From the slide guitar in “On Your Wings” to the pure beauty that is “Love & Some Verses”, this is Sam Beam’s strongest album yet, with possible exception to his collaboration with Calexico for In The Reins. Some of the EPs and singles come close but they just don’t hold the overall power of this album.

Iron & Wine: Naked As We Came [mp3]

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14. Wild Like Children by Tilly & The Wall
Boy do I love multiple vocals and the hand-claps, knee-slaps, and foot-stomps (and even the tap-dancing!) in “Fell Down The Stairs”, and how they made a zombie-themed angsty teen-romance pop song with “Nights Of The Living Dead”. And the piano/percussion masterpiece “You And I Misbehaving” and “Reckless” and the list goes on! Wild Like Children by Tilly & The Wall is an album that will absolutely have you singing at the top of your lungs, clapping along, and slapping your knees in delight. The songs are indubitably catchy, and it’s hard to not get caught up in their glorious pop power.

Tilly & The Wall: Fell Down The Stairs [mp3]

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13. Fabulous Muscles by Xiu Xiu
Like On Vacation, Xiu Xiu‘s Fabulous Muscles is among the most disturbing of albums I’ve ever heard. Definitely in the top five. But it’s also one of the more accessible pieces of work by front-man Jamie Stewart. Songs like “I Luv The Valley OH!” and “Clowne Towne” are almost radio-friendly (we’re talking late-night college radio-friendly here). Yet songs like “Fabulous Muscles” and “Support Our Troops OH! (Black Angels OH!)” are almost painful to hear, not because of Stewart’s sometimes abrupt shrieks but because of their lyrical content about the tragedies of rape and war.

Xiu Xiu: Clowne Towne [mp3]

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12. Grab That Gun by The Organ
Channeling an 80s jangle sound, but swept away in the darker side of that era, this girl-group is fit for comparisons to The Smiths/Morrissey, The Cure, and Joy Division. Fronted by Katie Sketch’s powerful deep vocals, and backed by clever guitar and synth hooks, The Organ‘s short-lived existence is one that saddens by all who lay ears on their songs. Why did this band call it quits after just one album – an album that is so unbelievably good? In Hornby’s High Fidelity, Barry asks if it’s better to burn out or fade away. Had The Organ given us a disappointing second album, I doubt Grab That Gun would hold the power it does today. Now you know my answer to that question.

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11. Riot On An Empty Street by Kings Of Convenience
Not nearly as powerful as Quiet Is The New Loud, Riot On An Empty Street is still a more than worthy album. It differed from its predecessor slightly in that it the songs contain a hint more production, and the harmonies are a bit more refined. Many songs are just as good as that earlier album, like “Homesick” and “Misread”, and when they harmonize with female vocals on closing track “The Build Up”, pure bliss is experienced. Kings of Convenience are among the best folk-pop musicians in the world, and it shows in virtually every song they write.

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10. Good News For People Who Love Bad News by Modest Mouse
Let’s face it: when “Float On” came out, it remained on many of our playlists for some time. Even after that excellent video hit MTV and was subsequently overplayed by mainstream radio. While some of their earlier tracks (“Dramamine”, “Cowboy Dan”, “Dark Center Of The Universe”) will always maintain a higher level of greatness in our minds than most songs on Good News For People Who Love Bad News, Modest Mouse was still able to capture some of their early greatness despite major label treatment for this album. It was good back then, and it remains good to this day.

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9. A Grand Don’t Come For Free by The Streets
Some of the best concept albums have plots that span the album’s entirety. A Grand Don’t Come For Free absolutely fits that statement, and The Streets‘ hip hop sensibilities fronted by that immense British white-guy accent make it even better. “It Was Supposed To Be So Easy” properly conveys the stress of losing a grand, while “Blinded By The Lights” plants the listener in the protagonist’s mindset as the drugs take hold and club lights begin flashing. “Fit But You Know It” is the perfect wacko post-break-up, looking-for-a-rebound track. And “Dry Your Eyes” makes you want to weep like it was your heart that she broke.

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8. Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes by TV On The Radio
God “Staring At The Sun” was a great song. TV On The Radio has always been able to create an entirely dark song, conjuring mystic beasts of old, without being overly doom-oriented. They’ve proven it over and over again with tracks like “Wolf Like Me” and “Halfway Home”. And “Staring At The Sun” follows suit; sure, they may not be about such creatures but there’s something incarnate about these songs, a possession that isn’t entirely positive. TV On The Radio’s ability to create unique music further enhances their greatness.

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7. Summer In Abbadon by Pinback
This is easily one of Pinback‘s greatest works, as a whole and singularly. This band has mastered the staccato rhythm – that pointed, edgy, angst-filled riff – and it shines brightest on Summer In Abbadon. Their smooth rock vocals heighten that punch in the guitar, as does the consistency in percussion. I never truly loved this band until I heard “Syracuse”, even after fully enjoying some of their earlier work.

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6. Your Blues by Destroyer
My love of Dan Bejar’s Destoryer project didn’t really take hold until one night when my friend Andy (yes, I have quite a few that bear the name, including my girlfriend) made a mix-tape for his friend Katrina. We were at this ancient tiny turquoise one-bedroom in Belltown (Seattle’s downtown neighborhood). It was her place and she was having a party. I didn’t know anyone but her, Cassie and Andy, and I just sat around and drank red wine, which is what I tend to do in such situations, and which I am doing now. “Notorious Lightning” came on, and from there I was hooked. Those synth patterns were and are perfect, and when Bejar jumps in front of them yelling And someone’s gone too far before someone goes freeeeeeeeeee as a trumpet mimics his vocal pattern… it’s totally freakin’ breathtaking. Oh yeah, and the rest of the album is pretty decent too.

Destroyer: It’s Gonna Take An Airplane [mp3]

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5. Bows + Arrows by The Walkmen
For the time, Bows + Arrows by The Walkmen was about as good as it got. Those excessive unceasing percussive rhythms provided by Matt Barrick, namely in “The Rat” but also in “Little House Of Savages” as well as elsewhere on Bows + Arrows, were damn near perfect. Then there was that smokey haze of a vocal tenor provided Hamilton Leithauser was too, and the drone-ridden noisy guitars made it all the better. The lyrics When I used to go out I would know everyone I saw / Now I go out alone if I go out at all from the bridge in “The Rat” described perfectly my transition from college to the real world, and would eventually describe the same from grad school to my so called Real World Season 2.

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4. Set Yourself On Fire by Stars
What I like about doing these Retrospective thingies is that it allows me to include the “sleeper albums”; those that didn’t catch on right away. For me, Stars have always been such a band. I’ll give the album a listen, and be entirely disappointed. It’ll sit on the shelf for a month, three months, half a year, sometimes more. Then I’ll pick it up again and it’ll blow my f*ing mind. Set Yourself On Fire took a very long time to enter this realm, probably not doing so until nearly 2006. But man, whenever I hear that intro sample in the opening track, or that wild solo in “He Lied About Death”, or the beautiful arrangements in “Celebration Guns”, I come a hair closer to dying a happy man.

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3. Sung Tongs by Animal Collective
Each time I listen to Sung Tongs, I shuffle between “Leaf House” and “Who Could Win A Rabbit?” a few times before continuing. The tracks are just that good. Every time; never fails. Aside from the super strong introduction, Sung Tongs was really the introduction to Animal Collective for many of us who now consider the band among our favorites. And while it wasn’t really the first to enter this experimental electronic folk arena, I would absolutely credit AC with inspiring the current movement of artists that fit this realm, of which there are plenty.

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2. Satanic Panic In The Attic by Of Montreal
Psychedelic pop never sounded so dreamy as it did on Satanic Panic In The Attic. Of Montreal has always been a bit out there with their concepts – after all, they did release an entire album in which each song had “Dustin Hoffman” in the title. Satanic Panic, in my opinion, was the beginning of the Of Montreal heyday in which some of their best music was made. As a whole this kicked off a trio of genius psych pop. It’s hard to find a collection as strong, before or since.

Of Montreal: Disconnect The Dots [mp3]

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1. Funeral by Arcade Fire
Any other year between 2000 and 2009, I would say it would have been near impossible to beat Funeral (with exception to 2000 thanks to Kid A). But 2004 was packed with so many great albums. Still, Arcade Fire reigns supreme. Funeral is a brilliant album, and this band will have a very hard time topping it. The tracklist was superb, from the “Neighborhood” tracks to “Rebellion”. No weak points, whatsoever.

Arcade Fire: Rebellion (Lies) [mp3]

2 thoughts on “A Retrospective Top 20: Best Albums Of 2004”

  1. AWW!
    It’s the soundtrack to the beginning of MY life! This is so strange!
    I graduated in `03, and I don’t think I could have made it through everything I did without it.

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