The Critics' Top 19 Pop Albums of 2004
by Jeff Lewis

This started with what I thought was a good idea:  Compile a list of critics’ favorite albums of 2004, giving equal weight to amateur and professional reviewers.  I scoured the web and found a Best of 2004 bounty.  Rolling Stone, Time Magazine, USA Today and some guy named Cody all got their say, along with over forty other online lists.

Originally, I planned to look at just a handful of sites, but I lack self control when it comes to this sort of thing.  What should have been a quick project spiraled out of hand and took more time than I’m willing to admit, even to myself.  The biggest problem was that, while I’d initially planned to stick to Top 10 lists, I let some Top 25’s worm their way into my computations, then some Top 40’s, a few Top 60’s and, alas, Top 100’s.  My spreadsheet became cumbersome, with numbers everywhere; point totals reached the thousands.  Normalizing Cody’s Top 20 list with Large Hearted Boy’s Top 24 and All Music Guide’s Top 100 is not difficult, but it isn’t the standard way to spend New Year’s Day, either.

From the start, I planned to provide a little synopsis of the critics’ reviews of each album, but this was a nearly impossible task because music critics—professional and amateur alike—are a cryptic lot, especially if you can’t discern the difference between neo-folk, neo-psych and neo-garage.  For me it was particularly tough to wade through the reviews because I’ve lost touch with popular music—thus my inspiration to compile this list.  As far as I recall, I didn’t even listen to enough albums this year to fill out a Top 10 list.  For what it’s worth, here are my Top 6:

6.  Badly Drawn Boy, One Plus One is One – I bought this for my wife.  She liked it, but only enough to listen to it twice before we misplaced it.

5.  Handsome Boy Modeling School, White People – The first Handsome Boy album, So…How’s Your Girl, is one of my favorite hip hop albums of recent years, but this album failed to make a full rotation at a recent dinner party that I attended.  I accidentally left it at the party, so I haven’t been able to give it a second listen.  Losing albums seems to be my major failing as a music critic.

4.  Mos Def, The New Danger – I was really looking forward to hearing “Close Edge,” the song Mos Def performed freestyle on Chappelle’s Show.  Alas, this album suffered the exact same fate as White People.

3.  k d lang, Songs of the 49th Parallel – I bought this because a) my wife likes k d lang and now so do I, b) I like Canada, c) I was going to write a music review of this album for Babblog, but after further consideration I concluded that the first draft of my review lacked zest.  Here it is in a nutshell:  the album is plenty pretty.

2.  The Finn Brothers, Everyone is Here – A friend bought this for my wife; she really likes it and hasn’t lost it.  The album is nice.

1.  Norah Jones, Feels Like Home – I bought this for my wife.  It’s nice, particularly the duet with Dolly Parton.

As you can see, my credentials as a music reviewer are dubious, which is why I’ve canvassed the experts—Rolling Stone, Cody, et al.  Here are their collective Best Albums of 2004, with my two cents thrown in:

19.  The Fiery Furnace, Blueberry Boat (984 points) – After reading a few reviews on this album and listening to a few excerpts, I don’t have the foggiest notion what it is about.  I know that it features siblings, Matt and Eleanor Friedberger, and some songs make references to pirates and blueberries, but that’s it.

18.  Devendra Banhart, Rejoicing in the Hands (1036) – This is a neo-folk album with gleefully naïve lyrics.  Once critic likens him to Dylan.

17.  TV on the Radio, Desperate Youths, Bloodthirsty Babes (1052) – Described as “wild, unpredictable and strangely hypnotic.”  It sounds like the type of music my friend Jeff W. used to listen to when he’d sit on his bed and stare at the wall.  After the completion of this sort of album, he’d emerge from his room—smoke trailing—and say to nobody in particular, “That blew my mind.”  Incidentally, Jeff W. once co-wrote a song with the lyric, “It’s like blood on the sun!”

16.  Dizzee Rascal, Showtime (1075) – With the exception of Kanye West, the critics in the Best of 2004 music polls tend to prefer British hip hop to the current American output.  One reviewer was so fired up by the album that he announced to all:  “IM PROUD TO BE BRITTISH!!” [sic]  Another critic named Fimoculous weighed in with, “There’s something about Dizzee Rascal that reminds me of playing Tetris.  Must.  Fit.  Blocks.  In.  Holes.”  Fimoculous ranked it #6, so he must like Tetris.  I do not.  I fear the Tetris dreams and waking up in a cold sweat with little blocks floating before my eyes.

15.  Interpol, Antics (1111) – Compared to Joy Division and Duran Duran.

14.  Madvillain, Madvillainy (1147) – Hip hop aimed at people who prefer the Three Feet High and Rising vein of violence-free rap; this is heavy on the intergalactic funk.  Three critics thought this was the best album of the year.

13.  Sufjan Steven, Seven Swans (1159) – Twelve pretty songs about heartbreak.  Contains Christianity, subtle gay themes and banjos.  Reminds some reviewers of a man named Dylan.

12.  U2, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (1191) – U2’s eleventh album.  Enough said.

11.  Elliot Smith, from a basement on the hill (1409) – A sad posthumous album, described as “pretty as a smog sunset and as cracked as the Liberty Bell.”

10.  Wilco, A Ghost is Born (1451) – The critics that loved this album praised it with a mixture of seemingly incompatible terms like “foggy,” “brilliance,” “immensely frustrating” and “satisfying.”  Peter Gammons, the Hall of Fame Major League Baseball journalist who’s strayed into the music critic business, raves about this album.  (By the way, last year Gammons released a compilation of music that he thinks is “cool.”)

9.  Joanna Newsome, Milk-Eyed Mender (1485) – This is the album that Pippi Longstockings would have released if she’d grown up in Northern California and played the harp.  Perhaps not coincidentally, Newsome is playing a couple of upcoming shows at San Francisco’s Swedish American Hall.

8.  Modest Mouse, Good News for People Who Love Bad News (1527) – The critics have surprisingly little to say about this album.  In fact, this album did exceedingly well in polls by critics who preferred not to write little blurbs about each album on their list.  Those that did describe it tended to complain that some of the songs on the album got too much airplay.

7.  Brian Wilson, Smile (1535) – This truck load of pretty melodies played well with the critics who were around when Wilson started this album over thirty years ago.

6.  Green Day, American Idiot (1549) – This album inspired many of the critics to use the term “punk opera.”

5.  The Streets, A Grand Don’t Come for Free (1589) – British hip hop/garage about lower middle class life in England, delivered in an accent the Americans don’t hear very often.  One critic compares this album to the poetry of Homer, presumably because devotees to The Streets relate the lyrics to a myriad of troubles in their own lives.  If you are looking for an album that will take you a long while to decipher, this is the one for 2004.

4.  Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose (1670) – Jack White produced this album, which helps to account for its high placement on this list.  I venture that this album will please both fans of Jack White and Loretta Lynn.

3.  Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand (1727) – One reviewer describes this as “guitar heavy post-pop.”  A handy tip for the aspiring critic:  If you can’t think of a good descriptive term for something, just pick a term and throw a “post-” or “neo-” in front of it.  Handy tip #2:  If you’re trying to describe a term that already has a “post-” in it, it is perfectly reasonable to add another.  You should stop at two “post-”’s, however.  Anything more than two is plain silly.  Handy tip for the aspiring critic #3:  You can escape from nearly any argument with the phrase, “That’s just too post- post-.”  Combine it with a roll of the eyes.

2.  The Arcade Fire, Funeral (2177) – As you can see from the point total, there was a significant gap between the top two choices and the rest of the field, although it’s possible that their high ranking is a result of an inordinate number of Canadians in my survey, as The Arcade Fire hails from Montreal.  I like the New Yorker’s description of the album best:  “…reminiscent of Echo and the Bunnymen, if they had been popular during the Depression.”  I have no idea what this means, but it’s a good line; if you are an Echo and the Bunnymen fan who’s read some Steinbeck, maybe you can explain it to me.

1.  Kanye West, The College Dropout (2246) – This was the American hip hop album that the rock critics loved; five out of the 40-odd lists that I read rated it as the top album of the year.  Many Grammys likely to follow.

I’d also like to mention that one reviewer ranked Dio’s Master of the Moon as the 92nd best album of 2004.  I haven’t heard it, but I can assure you that if you purchase 92 albums released in 2004, one of them should be Master of the Moon.

Here are a few more notable Best of 2004 lists:

Prefix Magazine
Pitchfork Media
The Onion
Stereo Gum
Tiny Mix Tapes
Geek Ent

Copyright © 2005 by Jeff Lewis