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Lee Templeton's Fave Recordings Of 2004

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Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Neal Block's Top Ten Of 2004

1. The Hold Steady, Almost Killed Me (Frenchkiss): Carefully excising the best parts of his previous band, Lifter Puller — the proselytizing vocal delivery, the incisive observations about young people dedicating the majority of their time and money to liquor and substance abuse — Craig Finn's new band rockets right from the AM dial into the vein of contemporary rock music and highlights all that it's lacking. Snarled-lipped chords, wordplay worthy of Dorothy Parker, a tight, explosive rhythm section, all wrapped around stories and characters colorful enough to seem penned from real experience (and they probably are). Live, the Hold Steady are ferociously charismatic; on record, they're bringing the best of long-dormant classic rock tropes to new, vibrant life.

2. Wilco, A Ghost Is Born (Nonesuch): Wilco's tender, brutal treatise about death is the first time the band has sounded completely comfortable with itself. Free of Jay Bennett's pop-oriented influence, Jeff Tweedy's music is more akin to the elliptical lyrics he writes. The album, unlike Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, never sounds like it's trying too hard. It takes from Wilco's previous albums at the same time as it completely diverges from anything they've done before. Challenging, engaging, and beautiful.

3. Bonnie Prince Billy, Sings Greatest Palace Music (Drag City): Bonnie Billy, covering his former self, employs Music City specialists to put a country-Western sheen to some of his most lasting songs. The fresh arrangements confirm the timelessness of Palace's best work; quite often, the new versions sound better than the originals.

4. Destroyer, Your Blues (Merge): A synthetic/acoustic minor-key symphony from solitary Destroyer Dan Bejar. Each of his albums is different and usually better than the one before, and "Your Blues," with its bagpipe solos, Elvis references, and high-school drama-club sense of theatricality is no exception. The surprise here is the album's considerable emotional strengths — they're never hidden behind Bejar's liberal use of cleverness or intellect.

5. Water School, Break Up With Water School (self-released — www.waterschoolband.com): A clean, powerful debut from this Baltimore band led by two singers who couldn't have more disparate voices (which they use to great harmonic effect). Taking cues equally from Randy Newman, Rivers Cuomo and Brian Wilson, Water School carefully construct pop songs replete with memorable melodies, accomplished guitar playing, and a small, effective amount of country color.

6. The Mountain Goats, We Shall All Be Healed (4AD): John Darnielle's first foray into semi-autobiographical territory sounds pretty much like his fictional songs — detailed, well-drawn, humorous, and wise. This loose collection of stories about a group of meth addicts finds Darnielle returning to a real recording studio for a second time (after last year's Tallahassee), and sounding more comfortable with the results.

7. Brian Wilson, Smile (Nonesuch): Though his voice isn't as resonant as it was in 1968, and though the harmonies of Dennis, Carl, Mike and Al are noticeably absent, and though the version of "Good Vibrations" isn't the 15-minute extravaganza from my bootleg, and though there should be more crunching on "Vegetables," and though part of Brian Wilson's mystery is now pretty much extinguished, it's still Smile for chrissakes. Who am I to complain?

8. Fiery Furnaces, Blueberry Boat (Rough Trade/ Sanctuary): Matthew Friedberger's very big, very long, very erratic and very good album crams around 40 or 50 songs into its 13 tracks. Like a child with ADHD, Blueberry Boat, abruptly shifts from melody to melody, rarely pausing for breath. The result is a big jumble that is surprisingly consistent at maintaining its identity. Friedberger wisely lets his sister Eleanor sing most of the songs.

9. Shearwater, Winged Life (Misra): The two principal members of Okkervil River have used their band Shearwater for years as a depository for songs that weren't quite strong enough to make the cut for Okkervil records. This time, the band has established a quiet vision for itself, fleshing out acoustic tunes into full songs with thoughtful arrangements. Soon enough, they'll have to start a third project for all the songs that aren't good enough for their Shearwater albums.

10. Modest Mouse, Good News for People Who Love Bad News (Epic): So the NFL plays "Float On" during their broadcasts — Isaac Brock has been hawking his music for years. Ain't no thang. The Mighty Mouse return from a tension-fraught four-year hiatus with an album that's not nearly as aggro as you'd think a tension-fraught four-year hiatus would produce. While not revolutionary, the album still stands as one of their best.

The InsiderOne Daily Report appears on occasion.



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