Sam Phillips…..A Boot and a Shoe
This year, there were three albums so great I had to listen to them every week from the day I purchased them. I felt compelled to study them, take them apart, and put them together again. The lyrics felt as though they were written directly to me, addressing both my personal troubles and the troubles dominating the headlines. The music was unpredictable, surprising, and intense, sometimes as quiet as whispers, other times as furious as storms.
But when it came down to this ridiculous pursuit of listing… I had to choose the one that won not just my head but my heart as well.
A Boot and a Shoe joins 1986′s The Turning and 1996′s Martinis and Bikinis as one of Phillips’ true masterworks. It’s more raw, personal, stripped-down, and soul-searching than anything she’s recorded since The Turning, plumbing the depths of the heartbreak she endured during the long slow separation from longtime husband T-Bone Burnett … who remains, amazingly enough, her producer, even for this album.
Musically minimalistic and yet melodically gorgeous, A Boot and a Shoe marks another “turning” for Phillips … a turning from an era of collaboration to a new future where she looks likely to become more confident, more courageous, less cocky (and that’s a good thing), and more independent. Her lyrics have never been more poetic, her humor never sharper, and her voice has lost that blunt, sarcastic edge to reveal a new vulnerability and openness.
In a year of conflict, Phillips is a still small voice of contemplation, confession, and hope.
If I Could Write
One Day Late
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds…..Abattoir Blues
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds….The Lyre of Orpheus
If this was classified as a double-album, I would probably have chosen it as my #1 of the year. But Cave insists these are two separate records, and I can’t say that either one of them, standing alone, is as strong for me as Sam Phillips’ album. Moreover, they don’t speak to my heart and my personal experience the way A Boot and a Shoe does.
But as far as a landmark accomplishment, these records stand as the most impressive artistic advance all year. They’re both masterpieces, the two towering peaks of his career, and that’s quite a surprise, coming as late in his repertoire as they do.
Where Shoe feels like a heartfelt letter, Cave’s work has the complexity and scope of a great poem by William Blake. Abattoir Blues and The Lyre of Orpheus are two terrible twins, works of frightening and awe-inspiring gospel-rock music that faces the wickedness of humanity without flinching, and clings to the thread of hope that “the mystery of the Word” will prove true, and God will deliver on His promises. Nature becomes the vehicle of His voice, whispering of beauty and design in a world where we are spreading chaos as fast as we can.
There She Goes, My Beautiful World
Let the Bells Ring
U2…..How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
Don’t be surprised if you hear these playing on Classic Rock stations even though the songs are brand new. Atomic Bomb is packed with irresistible pop songs disguised as ferocious, macho, swaggering rock and roll anthems.
While it’s not nearly as exciting as U2′s 1990s forays into new territory–a courageous and experimental period that alienated fans who wanted U2 to be predictable and redundant–this album seems calculated to lure back the fans that have bailed over the last decade. It sounds like Edge is saying, “No, please, don’t go, we can still turn out those great guitar-driven hits like we did with Achtung Baby and The Joshua Tree!”
And yet, while they may be resting on their laurels, and they may not be breaking any new ground here, this is still fantastic rock and roll, with several tracks that can stand alongside the best of Achtung Baby. Furthermore, these songs wrestle with God more than any collection they’ve ever released. And Bono seems to be getting younger, his voice getting stronger. Where All That You Can’t Leave Behind felt half-finished, filling in the corners with B-sides, Atomic Bomb is an album of solid, radio-ready, “instant classics” with only a couple of stumbles along the way. It may be predictable. It may be old-fashioned. But it’s still better than almost anything on rock-n-roll radio this year.
And sized up against the latest album from rock’s other Superband of the 80s and 90s–R.E.M.’s Around the Sun–there’s just no contest. Where R.E.M. sounds like they’ve given up and checked into an assisted-living facility, their creativity on life support, U2 sounds ready to storm the stage for another decade of astonishing live shows.
A Man and a Woman
Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own
Crumbs from Your Table
All Because of You
Equal in power as a rock album, and arguably superior to U2′s Dismantle as a work of art (if not quite as wide-ranging in style), The Arcade Fire’s Funeral is a gorgeous, complex work of deep sadness woven through with threads of furious hope. This is the most astonishing debut by a rock band in ages, echoing the better qualities of bands like The Cure, Talking Heads, Modest Mouse, and Radiohead. And their lyrics are pure poetry. Just when the world needed to know that we haven’t seen the last of the Great Rock Bands, Arcade Fire comes to show us that we don’t have to settle for Coldplay.
Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
Neighborhood #2 (Laïka)
Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
Patty Griffin…..Impossible Dream
Patty Griffin reaches a career peak with this collection of songs that ache with the wounds of love gone wrong. It’s on the level of Emmylou Harris’s finest work, and thus it makes complete sense that Harris, Lisa Germano, Buddy Miller, and Julie Miller are able to participate on the album without ever threatening to upstage this star in her shining hour. This is clearly one of 2004′s greatest musical highlights … but proceed with caution, because it’s also the heaviest dose of heartbreak you’re likely to hear in any year.
Top of the World
Mother of God
From my previous review: “Each track on Retriever is a minor masterpiece of pop that bursts like a camera flash and leaves little glowing spots all over your brain. The songs are short enough never to wear out their welcome, deceptively simple at first and then packed with unexpected key changes and delightful turns of phrase, poised between sentimental diary entries and poetry. Sexsmith sings them with the same effortless grace that he’s known for, each plaintive performance as clear and tart as a good glass of gewürztraminer. He sings without ego, sounding sincere and humble and reflective, the kind of talent that usually slips by unnoticed because it lacks anything indulgent. His greatest strength is melody, putting him in good company with Rufus Wainwright, Ed Harcourt (who plays piano on the album), Chris Martin of Coldplay, and, his ballads can stand alongside any of Elvis Costello’s.”
Whatever It Takes
From Now On
Buddy Miller…..Universal United House of Prayer
Buddy’s closest thing to a rock and roll record is still laced with southern-fried Nashville twang. Backed up by the fiery gospel soul of Ann and Regina McCrary, with the help of his wife Julie, Emmylou Harris, and Jim Lauderdale, he delivers an energy and war-year passion that’ll burn down any house he plays in. It’s also an unapologetic gospel album that will break your heart and then put it back together again. Opening with Mark Heard’s anthem “Worry Too Much,” soaring with the soul-shaking “Shelter Me,” climbing higher with a superlative 9-minute delivery of Bob Dylan’s “With God On Our Side,” and concluding with the grin inducing gospel fireworks of “Fall on the Rock” (try not to chuckle at the audacity of the refrain), this is Buddy’s strongest album yet.
With God On Our Side
Worry Too Much
Over the Rhine…..Changes Come
On Changes Come, Over the Rhine sounds like a band playing their last concert, pouring every last ounce of energy and passion into making these songs as brilliant as they can be. The result is a performance so intense, soulful, soaring, and astonishing that it will make everyone hope this is actually not the end, but the beginning.
In the summer of 2003, I saw Over the Rhine at Cornerstone take the stage in the company of multi-instrumentalist Paul Moak, bass player Rick Plant, and drummer Will Sayles. I’ve seen Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist several times with different Over the Rhine combos, but what happened there felt like defying gravity. They became something new, ferocious, and beautiful on that Fourth of July, while the fireworks exploded outside the tent. This recording, thank goodness, captures the energy of that performance at an unlisted stop along the tour soon after.
The set list for the album is, of course, shorter than the real show, but their selections are perfect. Highlights: Well, where do I start? The whole album is a highlight. This has immediately become, for me, the essential Over the Rhine album. It’s the one in which Karin’s voice reaches new heights, and the band pushes the songs into spacious new territory. It’s the peak of the band’s career as a live band, and we can only hope it’s a sign of things to come.
The World Can Wait
When I Go
Wilco…..A Ghost is Born
Tom Waits…..Real Gone
Click here for full review of Wilco’s album.
Click here for a review of Tom Waits’ album.
Both of these albums show artists courageously breaking new ground, concerned about vision and passion when, with their popularity, they could have just thrown out something derivative and earned applause.
A Ghost is Born is a sorely misunderstood release, one that rewards only those listeners patient enough to wrestle with it. Wilco turns in another unpredictable, courageous album of personal revelations, cryptic language, Scripture references, and beautiful poetry. Full of noise, distortion, and feedback, it occasionally congeals into piercing beauty that makes all of the hard work worthwhile.
Muzzle of Bees
Tom Waits’ latest is not one of his greatest, but it’s certainly one of the most original and memorable. It’s a fierce nightmare at the end of the world, with wreckage that’s been hammered into instruments for a cacophonous, arresting, and sometimes hilarious sound. If you thought Bone Machine was edgy, wait’ll you hear this.
Hoist that Rag
Sins of the Father
Dead and Lovely
Stop and Get Me on the Ride Up
Ben Harper & the Blind Boys of Alabama….There Will Be a Light
Need to have your spirits lifted? Here’s the trick. This recording of Ben Harper crooning and soloing in the company of the brilliant Blind Boys is casual but frequently inspired. You know how Bono talks about those moments in the studio when “God walked through the room”? This is one of those sessions when God walked in and stuck around. Harper’s humble enough to give the Boys plenty of room to work their magic, and his restrained use of simmering lap steel guitar give it a rock and roll edge, especially during the smokin’ anthem “Wicked Man.” There’s not much to the record in the way of production or special effects—the guys pretty much walk in, sit down, and sing their hearts out. You’ll be moved, delighted, and satisfied after spending some time with them. This one’s unlikely to leave my “heavy rotation” list anytime in the near future.
Well Well Well
Take My Hand
Sufjan Stevens…..Seven Swans
Mysterious. Spooky. The distillation of one man’s prayers and stories into psalms. There’s a glow of revelation here, something glimmering in the poetry that will bring you back for more.
Franz Ferdinand…..Franz Ferdinand
R O C K
A N D
R O L L ! !
Fierce, glorious gospel by a bunch of white folks, but sung with soul and fury.
Ryan Adams…..Love is Hell
A double-album extraordinaire, showing off his phenomenal versatility as a stylist and songwriter. But man, these are the lyrics of one discouraged sunnuvagun. It lives up to its title.
Iron and Wine…..Our Endless Numbered Days
More spooky Scripture-laced stuff in the vein of Sufjan Stevens but with a decidedly more morbid bent.
Loretta Lynn…..Van Lear Rose
The most impressive comeback album since Emmylou Harris’s 1996 Wrecking Ball. Jack White re-introduces us to Loretta Lynn’s formidable talents, producing and packaging her sound in a fashion that is nothing sort of an ultimatum to today’s shallow, saccharine country music.
Stephen Merritt’s gloriously glum compositions are enough to make a creative person want to throw themselves off a bridge. And, in fact, Merritt himself usually sounds like he wants to throw himself off a bridge. But there’s so much wit and insight in his lyrics that they make pudding out of the pain. If you liked his soundtrack songs for Pieces of April, you’ll probably love i too. Evil Twin is a hoot and a holler.
P.J. Harvey…..Uh Huh Her
Since I turned in my review, where I was skeptical and disappointed, I’ve found that I can’t get some of these songs out of my head. Sometimes you’ve got to admit the anger you’ve got stored up inside, and Harvey finds just the right tone, as if she’s admitting her own adolescent selfishness even as she unleashes tantrum after tantrum. And there are memorably reflective moments as well. A difficult, caustic, potentially offensive record. But I can’t lie … I get a lot out of it.
The Innocence Mission…..Now the Day is Over
Don and Karen Peris bless us with a fleeting collection of small wonders–classic songs of beauty, hope, and grace styled as lullabies and performed by Karen, her voice as shimmering and beautiful as ever. And the proceeds go to a good cause. What a perfect Christmas gift!
Elbow…..Cast of Thousands
Leonard Cohen…..Dear Heather
It’s not nearly as rich and cohesive as last year’s Ten New Songs. But it’s a memorably strange and bumpy ride. Cohen delivers some memorable poetry, and “There for You” is one of the year’s best songs.
Elvis Costello…..The Delivery Man
The Delivery Man is Costello’s most raucous and energetic work since Brutal Youth, and the songs are some of his most complex compositions. The musicianship is excellent, and the lyrics are intriguing. Sadly, it offers only pieces of what was supposed to be a larger song cycle with recurring characters and a cohesive narrative. That original vision lies here in pieces, but there are enough clues to keep a patient listener busy following the themes and assembling what pieces of the puzzle they can.
Imagine this: Daniel Lanois shows up and offers to give you an impromptu an impromptu concert in your living room. He plays a bunch of his best songs, most of them in surprising new, low-key arrangements, and then invites in Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris to back him up on a number.
That’s what Rockets sounds like.
Modest Mouse…..Good News for People Who Love Bad News
Because no matter how sick I am of hearing “Float On,” I can never bring myself to stop nodding and singing along. There are several other songs I grew to appreciate as well. I have a feeling one of these days it’s all going to “click” and I’ll become a ranting raving fan.
A few other titles that I played frequently…
Joseph Arthur….Our Shadows Will Remain
Kate Rusby…..Underneath the Stars
Sarah Harmer…..All of Our Names
Snow Patrol…..Final Straw
Pedro the Lion…..Achilles Heel