Critics are nothing if not suppositories for new music, for better or worse. There were worse (see the 2004 albums by Prince and A Perfect Circle), but this being the feel-good time of year when we look back and wonder how good we Americans really are, the CityBeat music geeks hand-picked their personal favorites of the year so that you know what to buy when you return that Ashlee Simpson CD that Santa carelessly stuffed in your stocking.
Demon-riddled genius Brian Wilson found the strength to share with the world what he most accurately called a "teenage symphony to God." From the '60s Gregorian chant of "Our Prayer" to Van Dyke Parks' Rorschach-inspired lyricism to the orgiastic release of the stupendous "Good Vibrations," it's a must for even the most aloof fan of pop music.
The Arcade Fire
This seven-piece from Montreal makes cabaret-rock that swirls its way into your subconscious. Funeral is their debut, made as friends and family dropped off to join that great big hockey rink in the sky. So to say the album is a bit melancholy is a slight understatement. But underneath is a crack where light seeps in.
Guided By Voices
Half Smiles of the Decomposed
This album provides more goose bumps than half-expressions as Bob Pollard lets go of his stadium-rock dreams with yet another batch of melancholy rockers. The most appropriate final album since Abbey Road.
The Grey Album
Who knew that Jay-Z could rap so well with the Beatles? The "illegal" album of the year.
From Hell to Baton Rouge
Two words: electric dulcimers. Throw in guitar, banjo and plaintive vocals for a sound that buzzes like summer flies and hums like high-tension power lines through a post-modern Appalachia. This could be the soundtrack for a Deliverance remake-if it were filmed at night.
The Cooper Temple Clause
Kick up the Fire and Let the Flames Break Loose
The best rock music punches through the speakers and penetrates your cold, black soul with more venomous verve than a junkie at the methadone clinic. That's what The Cooper Temple Clause do, and I triple-dog-dare you to stop them.
A Ghost is Born
Call it the solid-state yin to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's digital yang, a rumination on a bygone band member or Codeine-hazed hard rock. By any criterion, A Ghost is Born is as fluid and provocative as the band that made it. Wilco add a fresh layer of cement to their legacy as alt-adult giants.
Audit in Progress
From the first speaker-rattling detonation of "Braintrust," the Hot Snakes' third long-player is a natural elixir for the poisons of mass-appeal rock-schlock. How can you not like an album that says everything it needs to in 33 minutes and leaves you gasping for air?
Sheeit, man, I don't even like hip-hop. Don't do rap. Can't stand the R&B them kids is poppin' these days. But if Kanye West wants to flood these ears with any more of his bombastic musical carnage, my life will be better for it. This is deeply affected storytelling set to the most creative beats, loops and vocal harmonizing of 2004-maybe the last decade.
From a Basement on the Hill
Smith's final hour proved to be his most ambitious. Without a single overdub, the posthumous From a Basement on The Hill shows the dour beautician tackling bigger arrangements, louder guitars and more complex songwriting. Recorded right before his apparent suicide, it says a lot about where his creative well sprung.
The first words that the son of God loosed at Large Professor's cookout were "Street's disciple...." Although the double-disc lacks the drum machine swamis (Premier, Pete Rock, Professor), the production was handled mostly by one Salaam Remi, whose digital drums hit just as hard as their vinyl counterparts. Oh yeah, Nas is the illest.
Van Lear Rose
In a year marked by amazing debuts (Killers, TV on the Radio), Loretta Lynn duels with fellow fogey Brian Wilson for Comeback Artist of the Year. Jack White gets an assist, but it's Lynn's homespun, heartaching country soul that makes this the best y'all-thing since Rick Rubin resuscitated Johnny Cash.