I didn't set out to listen to a new album a day this year. It just kinda snuck up on me. Around March I realized I was reviewing at least 20 albums a month and listening to more beyond that. Once cognizant of this loopy situation, I set about keeping the pace up. Oh sure, some days I didn't listen to anything but I'd more than make up for it by listening to a half dozen new things on weekends. For me, music is a bountiful gift with the power to expand our lives in a myriad of ways, and I never tire of hearing what's out there.

Initially, I approached this column with a mind to also list the worst things I heard in 2004 - bitch about the bands that received more praise than they deserved and the sorry state of mainstream commercial music, etc. But I decided against the idea because the world already has more than enough negativity to go around. Instead, I took a page from Prince's book and tried to offer you a giant size Plus Sign, a mega-dose of positivity for a shared passion. If you're a JamBase reader, then it's likely you have the bug as bad as we do.

This is the stuff that lit up my world and inspired me to write my own small hymns of joy and praise. Kick off your shoes, find those big padded headphones, and shake-dance around the living room. Here are 25 reasons to be glad you have ears...

(Some have been reviewed in earlier installments, others you may be meeting for the first time)

Assembly Of Dust: The Honest Hour (Hybrid)
My initial impression was "This is pretty good," but during the hard month of December, I found myself turning again and again to this carefully crafted live disc. There's sweetness here but it's tempered with an earthy wisdom. Every song is beautifully constructed, each chorus and verse right where it needs to be, and all played with the professional flair of '70s Paul Simon combined with the electric country kick of The Band. It might take some time to hear it, but what Reid Genauer (ex-Strangefolk) and his combo have wrought is great homespun music.

Califone: King Heron Blues (Thrill Jockey)
Beck's Mutations snuggling with a doped up Prince as The Incredible String Band drops by and plucks ether daisies. This is the cruising altitude kick of really good mushrooms as you sit barefoot by the sea. Califone are sexy like that quiet bookstore clerk who comes in one day with a new outfit and a decent haircut, and suddenly, all is revealed in a halo flash. As much as I dug Red Red Meat, who's ashes birthed this phoenix, Califone is a deeper experience, relentlessly redefining the edge they are out on minute by minute.

Neal Casal: Return In Kind (Fargo)
It's rare when someone can make another's song his own, but Casal does this for an entire album. He turns his silvery tongue to Johnny Thunders, Ronnie Lane, Michael Hurley, Royal Trux, and more, and the result is a chance to hear their songs as if they were brand new. Sparse, spot-on arrangements and a deep sense of intimacy pervade all ten tracks. Taking time away from his own strong songwriting lets us drink in his tuneful explication of his roots while we await his new solo album and the sophomore effort from Hazy Malaze in early 2005.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (Mute)
The man who once put out an LP called Your Funeral...My Trial joins up with the London Community Gospel Choir and mines complex paths to belief on this double record manifesto for the redemptive power of love. From the Gideon's trumpet blast of an opener "Get Ready For Love" to the end, this disc is the Bad Seeds' finest hour. Led by rock's Kierkegaard, they play with overwhelming gusto and imagination on this collection of junkyard hymns. This confirms Cave's place in the pantheon of great songwriters that includes Bob Dylan and Tom Waits and anyone else who has helped us see the secret world hiding behind the veil.

Comets On Fire: Blue Cathedral (Sub Pop)
The most visceral sonic stew to hit town this year is just the thing to recharge the overused expression "psychedelic." From the very start, this feels like wet fire is pouring through your skull, leaving cave paintings behind your eyelids. It gibbers at us in echoplexed tongues, a madman's glossolalia sucker punching its way past our defenses, wild eyes peering at you from beneath dense fur, a pure, richly organic thing ready to pounce. Blue Cathedral is an experience as dazzling and original as Pink Floyd in their time.

Bobby Conn and the Glass Gypsies: The Homeland (Thrill Jockey)
Many critics touted the Scissor Sisters as the glam-slam-thank-you-ma'am glitter pop revival of the year but they're wrong. Bobby Conn has it all over the Sisters with his subtle politics and whip-smart lyrics. These are pop nuggets worthy of 10CC in their fighting prime, glistening shakers moved along by electric piano, flying-V guitar antics, and vocals that rock and weep like a sloppier Robin Zander (Cheap Trick). As Conn sings, it's all "a perfect excuse to take off your clothes" that never scrimps on humor or messy passion.

Drive-By Truckers: The Dirty South (New West)
Arguably the best Southern rock band since Skynyrd, the Truckers condense real life into songs that ache like early '70s American cinema – gritty, dangerous, pushed to the edge, and ultimately humanizing. Working with dynamite producer David Barbe, every cut is perfectly executed, dappled with pedal steel and feedback, oozing pride in their Southern roots but also all-too-aware of the ugly stuff hiding in barns and back roads. The best new friend to blue collar folks since Bon Scott shuffled off this mortal coil, DTB sing us through bad days by reminding us there's something more than blood and hard times.

Dave Gleason's Wasted Days: Midnight, California (Well Worn)
Hands down the best straight country-rock record of the year. Gleason has one of those voices that idles up to you and buys you a round. The playing is tight and tough, the songs singable and spectacular. What the Wasted Days do was once the standard for country music, when the industry let people like Michael Nesmith, Guy Clark, and Merle Haggard onto the airwaves, and the dusty trail ride could end at a Pacific Ocean sunset.

Josephine Foster and the Supposed: All The Leaves Are Gone (Locust)
Haunting like a good fairytale, electric like the Isle of Wight, finger-picked, luxurious, and not a little affecting, all of these broad strokes apply to Josephine Foster and her band the Supposed. This debut dropped out of the clouds, a piece of no-time bardic sky given to us to ponder. Singing like the child of Polly Jean Harvey and Sandy Denny, Foster (who also plays in Born Heller) leads her rogues down rock-strewn trails and moss-covered inlands. Outside of the alchemists in Tinariwen, Brian Goodman is the most hypnotic new guitarist to boggle my mind in 2004. It's all a bit of an adventure, but a great one to be sure.

GFE: Bigger Than It Really Is (Big Dirty)
In my opinion, GFE is THE hip-hop crew to watch. Combining tightly attuned musicianship with the lyrical daring-do of Paul's Boutique Beastie Boys tempered by something smoother, more viscously funky. This pick extends to include all three fantastic solo albums from the GFE stable this year, namely Foulmouth Jerk's Skrilla Warfare, Agent 23's Breakin' Cages, and especially Adam Strange's The Cause And Effect Of Pop Culture Vol. 1, which is simply one of the most satisfying hip-hop records in years. Consistently on point, GFE delivers the goods both live and in the studio, reminding us time after time of why we fell for the boom-bap in the first place.

Doug Hilsinger with Caroleen Beatty: Brian Eno's Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy (DBK Works)
A song-for-song recreation of Eno's landmark 1974 cult album isn't the most obvious choice for cover canonization, but Hilsinger and Beatty shine a bright guitar-licious light on the pop possibilities in Brian's originals. A labor of love that comes with Eno's stamp of approval, this set honors their source AND reveals deliriously fresh tributaries guaranteed to tickle several fancies. It'll make you dance like a dolphin on a bright oceanic afternoon. Yes, it will make you that happy.

Robyn Hitchcock: Spooked (Yep Roc)
This is definitely Hitchcock's most thoroughly satisfying album in a decade, but it's also a contender for his all-time best. Backed by folk royalty Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (who also produced), Robyn navigates heavy emotional and poetic territory worthy of mid-70s Bob Dylan (who, incidentally, is here in the form of a glorious cover of "Tryin' To Get To Heaven"). The surreal and the heartfelt clutch one another's hand in this song cycle. It is a marriage that Syd Barrett, Tim Buckley, and scores of others attempted, but rarely has it been so successfully joined.

Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey: Walking With Giants (Hyena)
Mesmerizing labyrinths written in fragrant air. This is jazz's future distilled to a trio capable of both the sacred and profane. Besides their stellar playing - a thing infused with huge heart - they are also visionary composers. It is a lethal combination. JFJO create a palpable sense of space, the music Nature itself might make if she played piano, bass and drums. Like a beautiful, complex poem, their work unfolds year by year, and this eloquent verse is one of their finest yet.

Maplewood: self-titled (Tee Pee)
With a whisper of corduroy thighs and artfully shaggy hair, Maplewood lights a joint and passes it to us. Using the same raw ingredients as Bread, America, and other radio stalwarts, they make music that's a true homage and not just another wink-wink-nudge-nudge post modern exercise. This is the kind of album one puts on first thing in the morning or after the working day has kicked their ass. Warm as Carole King, inviting as Sister Golden Hair waiting for you in her cotton hippie blouse, a cold beer dripping moistly between her long, suntanned fingers, Maplewood are comfort food devoid of snickering irony and brainy premeditation. In short, a peaceful easy feeling waiting to happen.

Buddy Miller: Universal United House Of Prayer (New West)
Now fully out from under Emmylou Harris's shadow, her former bandleader has made a gospel record infused with roadhouse dirt. This is a work of unabashed spirituality that never insults our intelligence. Singing for all of us who worry too much and long for shelter from the storms in our lives, Miller achieves something rare – an honest testament to faith that understands that every "Amen" and "Hallelujah" only matters if you know why you're saying it.

MOFRO: Lochloosa (Swampland)
Florida's MOFRO are Little Feat's sleazy cousin fronted by a melanin-challenged Otis Redding. This sophomore effort finds them refining their mix of juke joint blues, Stax-Volt soul, and Stones firebrand chug. That they also write moving odes to nature and family pride just adds a layer one doesn't see coming. Lochloosa is deep down nourishing, lip smacking as home cookin', yet funky enough to feel like a night on the town. These jook-jumpin' archangels dish up Muscle Shoals soul food that's thick and loose and too smart for its own good.

Moore Brothers: Now Is The Time For Love (Plain Recordings)
Without hyperbole, I think it's fair to call Thom and Greg Moore the Simon & Garfunkel of the new millennium. Rarely do two voices and a single guitar provide such stirring, exhilarating kicks. Using a whisper where others tend to scream, the Brothers wring all the fine details from everyday drama. Their stories sound like our stories, and suddenly, we find ourselves singing quiet anthems that rival the best work of Nick Drake and Paul McCartney. Like love, this sneaks up on you, bypassing your defenses and making you laugh even though your day sucked. That, my friends, is a tremendous gift and one the Brothers Moore possess in abundance.

Richmond Fontaine: Post To Wire (El Cortez)
Richmond Fontaine excels at giving an insightful shimmer to daily life. Their songs are small worlds - short stories about seemingly unimportant afternoons that eventually reveal themselves as the quiet turning points of a life. As good as their earlier work has been, Post To Wire beats it all to hell. Full of folks "half ruined and almost gone," the album still shows us how they lift their heads from the pillow every morning. Working similar terrain as the over-praised Wilco, RF shows more bald creativity, achingly loaded verses, and plain and simply better songs. It's actually pretty rare for a band to get everything so right, but Post To Wire succeeds in nearly every respect.

Chris Robinson and the New Earth Mud: This Magnificent Distance (Vector)
Rich Robinson: Paper (Keyhole Records)
When the Black Crowes split in 2001, it was unclear what the musical fallout would be. What we've seen is the best work either Robinson brother has produced since 1996's Three Snakes And One Charm. While Chris explores tie-dyed California country pop with intuitive grace, Rich's solo debut shows that Jimmy Page's collaboration with the Crowes had as much to do with Rich's rock muscle as it did with Chris's ability to be a Plant surrogate. Both records remind us what a marvelously lush beast rock used to be just a few decades back, but in entirely different ways. These solo explorations show two distinct artists, whose creative fires have been stoked anew. Perhaps rumors of a 2005 reunion for the Crowes may come to fruition, but in the meantime, we have these two righteous slabs to explore. I hope they both keep exploring their solitary tributaries even if the Black ones do reemerge. My hunch is that there's still gold and silver waiting to be found within these new spaces.

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum: Of Natural History (Web of Mimicry)
There's always one album each year that puts a good scare into me. In 2003, it was another set of primates, the Hairy Apes BMX's Beautiful Seizure, which melded disparate genres into a spoon-lickin' goodly dark mash. In 2004, my rapidly beating heart belongs to Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. Combining Krautrock drone and country gospel, shredding metal and carnival capering, SGM show the same willful (yet inspired) eclecticism as the Sun City Girls and Camper Van Beethoven. Like Faith No More's stunning Angel Dust, this is the perfect soundtrack for a crumbling Western culture - marvelously harnessed aggression and an everlasting Gobstopper's depth of flavor. Back talking machines, xylophone poetry, impassioned songbirds, and heavy atmosphere that'd make Ronnie James Dio smile, it's all here in this bent archaeology exhibit. This is one for those who aren't afraid to be challenged. When so little music these days pushes us outside our safety zones it's refreshing to find a group that brazenly shuns comfort and just dives off the high board without checking to see if the pool is full.

Subtle: A New White (Lex)
We hear talk of the machine age rising around us, and one scary/exciting aspect that's always titillated our sci-fi imaginations is the merger of meat and machine, wetware, cyber sensuality - subtly pumping overheated blood into wires and metal, breathing full the lungs of great electronic organs, giving opposable thumbs to the inanimate. With the Texas Instrument math calculator beatnik poetry of Dose One (Anticon, cLOUDEAD) out front, the boys in white compose soundtracks to the shaky ground and falling skies the modern person contends with outside their door. For anyone who's spent a little too long standing in the electronica or hip-hop sections wondering "What's Next?" there is Subtle - future forward feet fleeing the scene, crimson streaked streamers in their hands as they chatter out a new Morse Code for things too hard to say outright.

Sunburned Hand Of The Man: Rare Wood (Spirit of Orr)
Science fiction movies once had a wonderful allegorical swampiness. In them it was always the fringe dwellers that made it through the apocalypse-du-jour, bringing with them gloriously misunderstood scraps of the world that was. Think Beneath The Planet of the Apes, Logan's Run, A Boy And His Dog. Using the spectral substance of dissipated electronic conversations, duct-taped folk forms, and medicine-masked drum flurries, Sunburned Hand sounds like they are broadcasting from one of those remote, flotsam-and-jetsam riddled havens one finds in these films. Ever trying to capture the moment, the now, SHOTM shake the human family tree and continually come up with new, fiercely original music. You might pick up on strains of Can, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, John Fahey, Tortoise, and others who've also wandered off into the wilderness. For what it's worth, this is one of my favorite bands today, and Rare Wood is the ideal way to find out why. The Hand are magicians and explorers, and with each step beyond the city limits, they prove their vision is fine and full.

Tinariwen: Amassakoul (World Village)
Tinariwen hails from the southern Sahara and plays a trance-like music with blue fringes a la Captain Beefheart, Ali Farka Toure, and the Numbers Band (15 60 75). Like Armenia's Djivan Gasparian, they can be chill and distant, full of space and hard sand winds. Their name means "empty places," and they've created a new style of music known as Tishoumaren, or music of the ishumar, which means "unemployed." There are great wells of sadness and a wandering melancholy to Tinariwen. They also happen to play some of the most exciting guitar these ears have heard in years. Taking a cue from roots reggae, there's a hashish flow to their six-string playing, but there's nothing but surface comparisons to anything else. In a year with so much to grieve, Amassakoul faces down sadness and gives voice to survivors everywhere.

Velvet Crush: Stereo Blues (Action Musik)
If I were the Sultan, this is what pop music on radios everywhere would sound like. Ric Menck and Paul Chastain have produced a sparkling gem that does their influences proud. This could stand up next to the best work by the Byrds, Hollies, Cheap Trick, and anyone else who believes that the world shines brightest in three-to-five minute bursts. A series of uneasy, challenging years led to these songs, and that kind of real living infuses them with body, character, and maybe even a sprinkling of understanding about the ol' human condition. In 20 years of making music together, I think this is their finest hour. Radio is poorer for not realizing that too.

And just a few more things before we can rest...

Funniest Damn Thing In 2004:
Patton Oswalt's Feelin' Kinda Patton (United Musicians) is the sort of standup comedy album we haven't heard in years. It's the sort of thing you quote too much, AND it's still funny. Oswalt works a deft combination of situational humor and caustic social critique that gets down to the real funny stuff in the human condition. His routines are brilliant short-hand for the modern age, and his delivery is perfect - awkward enough to be real and practiced enough to be pro. That he turns his own sharp eye on himself first makes it that much easier to chuckle at our own foibles. Like all good jesters, his observations are ultimately humanizing. That should be valued above gold and rubies, kids...

Best Musician From the '60s Still Delivering The Word In 2004:
Richie Havens has this one locked down. Besides giving us another sparkling studio release this year (Grace Of The Sun (Stormy Forest)), he's been actively touring for better than a year. Maybe he recognizes that we need his messages of adult understanding and peace now more than ever. What will blow your mind is how bloody good he sounds, how funny and real he is, how rich and meaningful his stories and music are RIGHT NOW. He's far from some relic of another era. He's the archetypal peaceful warrior who swears at all the right targets. Richie is a beautiful human with the power to make us more beautiful if we allow him into our hearts and minds. (Check out my 2003 interview with Richie for more details on his wonderfulness).

Best anthologies:

  • Cosa Nostra: Squeeze It Tight – Mexican Hot Funky Grooves 1971/72 (Vampisoul)
  • Terry Reid: Super Lungs – The Complete Studio Recordings 1966-1969 (EMI)
  • Caetano Veloso: Antoligia 1967-2003 (Universal Argentina)
  • Various artists: Gather In The Mushrooms: The British Acid Folk Underground 1968-1974 (Castle)
  • Various Artists: Old Enough To Know Better – 15 Years of Merge Records (Merge)

    Reissues of the year:

  • Clash: London Calling - 25th Anniversary Edition (Columbia Legacy)
  • Extradition: Hush (Vicious Sloth)
  • Pavement: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (Matador)
  • Rockin' Horse: Yes It Is (Rev-Ola)
  • Talking Heads: The Name Of This Band Is... (Warner Sire/Rhino)

    2005 is going to be a major year for...
    Five bands bristling with talent, driven by a profound calling to deliver music bursting with heart, smarts, and passion. The feeling in my bones is that the next record from each of these bands will be a stunner. Combined with their serious live prowess, they need only a decent-sized break or two to put them across to much bigger audiences. Smart festival organizers and listeners interested in hearing something real should take note of the following...

    Drunk Horse
    Best new hard rock band to find me this year. They've got the power and the glory, but they also join us in snickering at some of rock's goofy conventions. One could easily imagine finding the members of AC/DC and Black Sabbath in the audience at one of their shows. And they'd be having as good a time as you.

    Explosions In The Sky
    After their contributions to the perfect score to Friday Night Lights, the world may be waking up to this shimmering, affecting instrumental combo from Texas. Using just guitars and drums, they sneak up on you - a church bell chiming distantly on some orbiting body, the sound of crying muffled by ducts and distance, emotion rendered into a solid without the aid of language. Undeniably intense, it also stirs the senses into a keen awareness of the world, laying bare the beauty around us through an accumulation of well-placed notes.

    New Monsoon
    It's been too long since San Francisco had a new major player in the crazy-changing-setlist-American-Musical-calliope sweepstakes. The seven-headed monster that is New Monsoon plays with the pummeling drive of early Santana but joined to songs of undisguised beauty. Each member could be a superstar in another band, but by sticking together, they are on their way to a truly holy sound. It's happening right now at every show - something big is unfurling, a bright sail to carry us across to the other shore. Get on board now and enjoy the salty Bay spray sooner rather than later.

    The New Up (formerly Sunfire Pleasure)
    All the oddly funky charm of great Pavement, but possessing a wet lip sensuality that's pretty bloody intoxicating, The New Up channel the bustling ghosts of the Talking Heads, '80s Sioxsie and the Banshees, and something green and damp like a freshly plowed field. There's a good-drug-nostril-flare kick to their self-titled debut that hints at great things just ahead. Trust me, if you met them in a nightclub, you'd let them take you home for the night.

    Kelly Stoltz
    There are a lot of singer-songwriters out there, but most of them just aren't as good as Kelly Stoltz. Not only are his songs memorable, but he has a gliding mastery of different textures that makes each track on his amazing Antique Glow an ever-changing mood. Rather than feeling schizophrenic, it reminds us of Brian Eno's early pioneering mojo or Todd Rundgren at his least self-indulgent. Stoltz is sweet with plenty of sour - air guitar and candlelight and hard won smiles. The European release of Glow recently netted him a spot on Mojo Magazine's Top 40. The buzz is building, and for once, it's deserved.

    Dennis Cook
    JamBase | California
    Go See Live Music!

  • [Published on: 2/1/05]

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