The best and the West

December 26, 2004


Throughout 2004, the music industry continued to bemoan a sorry state of affairs that it claims is caused by the proliferation of people downloading -- "stealing" is the term many executives prefer -- singles and albums that they used to buy in the stores.

In fact, according to Rolling Stone magazine and the industry trades, sales of recorded music rose about 7 percent during the first half of 2004. And while that number slipped during the third and fourth quarters to average out to a "mere" 2 percent -- an annual increase that many businesses would envy -- that can be blamed on the fact that major labels released fewer albums and placed unrealistic expectations on a handful of superstar acts, among them U2, Eminem, Destiny's Child and (sad but true) Clay Aiken.

From the perspective of the pop desk here at the Sun-Times, the music industry has never been healthier, economically or artistically. No single revolutionary sound or movement galvanized the scene in 2004, but there were countless inspiring trends bubbling under, including the humor and honesty of Kanye West's lyrics making inroads against the endless violent, sexist bragging of many gangsta rappers; the encouraging chart success of inventive bands such as Modest Mouse, Chicago's Wilco and Scotland's Franz Ferdinand (who reminded us that great dance music can be made without synthesizers), and the passionate attack on political apathy mounted by a diverse array of inspired artists, from Green Day to Steve Earle.

As the year progressed, the "Top 10" list that I keep on my computer's desktop grew and grew, as it always does, until I had to winnow down the roster below -- presented in alphabetical order, since my No. 1 pick may change from day to day if not hour to hour. It topped out at 75 albums I can't live without.

What's more, I'm sure there was plenty of great music I missed. And the certainty that those indispensable sounds are out there -- to buy or to download -- is what keeps music fans listening, no matter what the corporate executives say.


1. Steve Earle, "The Revolution Starts Now" (Artemis): In a year where political passions ran high, the Texas-bred singer-songwriter pulled no punches, releasing his most controversial, combative and pugnacious album ever -- and one of his hardest-rocking and most tuneful.

2. Franz Ferdinand, "Franz Ferdinand" (Domino/Epic): A high energy, extremely melodic and relentlessly propulsive debut that proves that dance music doesn't have to lack brains, heart or organic, old-fashioned guitar, bass and drums.

3. Green Day, "American Idiot" (Warner Music Group): The snotty pop-punks who gave us "Dookie" have grown up and pulled off the surprising feat of releasing a rock opera that doesn't collapse under its own weight, delivering instead a relentlessly tuneful, angry and energetic critique of a generation's political apathy and its sad results.

4. Mark Lanegan Band, "Bubblegum" (Beggars Banquet): The sixth and best solo album from the former leader of the Screaming Trees was notable in part for its impressive roster of guests -- Polly Jean Harvey, Izzy Stradlin, Greg Dulli and several Queens of the Stone Age among them -- but it earns its spot on this list for the strength of the songwriting and the enduring power of a voice that has always been tied with Kurt Cobain's as the best that Seattle rock ever produced.

5. The Polyphonic Spree, "Together We're Heavy" (Hollywood): The 25-member Dallas-based mini-orchestra is unjustly dismissed by some critics as a novelty act, but beyond deserving props for the sheer ambition of realizing his brand of orchestral pop, bandleader Tim DeLaughter deserves praise for writing a collection of irresistibly catchy and giddily optimistic songs that are even stronger than those on the band's debut.

6. The Roots, "The Tipping Point" (Geffen): The Philadelphia collective's fifth studio album is a summation of everything the best live band in hip-hop has done to date, drawing on old-school rap, jazz and R&B grooves while emphasizing the very modern notion that "messages and behaviors spread just like viruses."

7. Jill Scott, "Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds, Vol. 2" (Hidden Beach): Sexy but never vulgar, poetic but never pretentious, Scott topped the impressive accomplishment of her first disc and secured her reputation as one of the smartest and most complex neo-soul/natural R&B artists, as well as the movement's most extraordinary singer.

8. The Secret Machines, "Now Here Is Nowhere" (Reprise): Rare among many modern psychedelic rock bands, this New York-via-Chicago-via-Texas trio combines a love of otherworldly explorations with a hard-grooving intensity to achieve the sort of powerful but trippy sound that hasn't been heard since mid-period Pink Floyd or early Hawkwind.

9. Kayne West, "College Dropout" (Roc-A-Fella): On his debut album, the Chicago producer proves that he is even more adept behind the mike than he is at the recording console, crafting a collection of hits as memorable for their indelible grooves and melodies as they are for the humor and the humanism of their Everyman-made-good lyrics.

10. Wilco, "A Ghost Is Born" (Nonesuch): The fifth studio album by the Chicago's alt-country-turned-art-rock heroes isn't quite the equal of 2002's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" -- I can't forgive the annoying indulgence of the 15-minute experiment "Less Than You Think" (a good argument for burning your own alternate version) -- but it is nonetheless an incredibly strong, compelling, emotional and brutally honest effort representing the peak of cutting-edge rock circa 2004.

THE NEXT 65 (in alphabetical order)

11. Air, Talkie Walkie (Astralwerks)

12. The Arcade Fire, Funeral (Merge)

13. The Beta Band, Heroes to Zeros (EMI)

14. Blanche, If We Can’t Trust the Doctors… (V2)

15. Brandy, Afrodisiac (Atlantic)

16. Burning Brides, Leave No Ashes (V2)

17. John Cale, Hobosapiens (Or Music)

18. Califone, King Heron Blues (Thrill Jockey)

19. The Coral, Magic and Medicine (Columbia)

20. Elvis Costello, The Delivery Man (Lost Highway)

21. Graham Coxon, Happiness in Magazines (Transcopic)

22. The Decemberists, Her Majesty (Kill Rock Stars)

23. Dizzee Rascal, Showtime (Beggars Group)

24. DJ Danger Mouse, The Grey Album (Internet bootleg)

25. DJ Shadow, In Tune & On Time (Geffen Records)

26. Hilary Duff, Hilary Duff (Hollywood)

27. Everlast, White Trash Beautiful (Island/Def Jam)

28. John Fogerty, Déjà vu All Over Again (Geffen)

29. The Get Up Kids, Guilt Show (Vagrant)

30. Al Green, I Can’t Stop (Blue Note)

31. Gibby Haynes & His Problem, Gibby Haynes & His Problem (Surfdog)

32. Robyn Hitchcock, Spooked (Yep Roc)

33. Incubus, A Crow Left of the Murder (Epic)

34. Jon Langford, All the Fame of Lofty Deeds (Bloodshot)

35. Local H, Whatever Happened to P.J. Soles? (Studio E)

36. Los Lobos, The Ride (Hollywood)

37. Courtney Love, America’s Sweetheart (Virgin)

38. Marillion, Marbles (Intact)

39. Massive Attack, Danny the Dog (EMI)

40. Mary Lou Lord, Baby Blue (Rubric)

41. The Mekons, Punk Rock (Quarterstick)

42. Ministry, Houses of the Molé (Sanctuary)

43. Mission of Burma, ONoffON (Matador)

44. Modest Mouse, Good News for People Who Love Bad News (Epic)

45. N.E.R.D., Fly or Die (Virgin)

46. Ode, On My Way to Learn (

47. Pelican, Australasia (Hyrdra Head)

48. PJ Harvey, Uh Huh Her (Island)

49. Prince, Musicology (Columbia)

50. Poster Children, No More Songs About Sleep and Fire (Hidden Agenda)

51. Probot, Probot (Southern Lord)

52. R.E.M., Around the Sun (Warner Bros.)

53. Rocket from the Tombs, Rocket Redux (Smog Veil)

54. Rush, Feedback EP (Atlantic)

55. Scissor Sisters, Scissor Sisters (Universal)

56. The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, I Bet You Say That to All the Boys (www.

57. Ashlee Simpson, Autobiography (Geffen)

58. Nancy Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra (Santuary)

59. David Singer & the Sweet Science, Stars Burn Out (The Little Blue Dog Alone)

60. Jill Sobule, Underdog Victorious (Artemis)

61. Sons and Daughters, Love the Cup (Domino)

62. Chris Stamey, Travels in the South (Yep Roc)

63. Mavis Staples, Have A Little Faith (Alligator)

64. Sally Timms, In the World of Him (Touch & Go)

65. The Walkmen, Bows and Arrows (Record Collection)


Accuse me of "homerism" twice over if you will -- South Side native Kanye West currently lives in my old hometown of Hoboken, N.J. -- but I would have loved and enthusiastically applauded his debut album if he hailed from Azerbaijan.

Beyond the undeniably compelling beats, the unforgettable melodies, and the appealing flow of West's raps -- which, if not extraordinary technically, gain immeasurably from the cocky attitude and sly smirk inherent in his delivery -- there's the courage and vision of an artist unafraid to talk about the role of God in his life (an extremely unusual move in hip-hop), to laugh at himself even as he assures us he's better than just about everyone and to voice eloquently the real-life experiences of young African-Americans who work at the Gap instead of brandishing gats, and who try to work up the guts to date rather than living in a lurid fantasy world of pimps and 'hos.

The Grammys are notorious for missing groundbreaking artists until years or even decades after the fact, but West well deserves his nearly unprecedented 10 nominations, announced earlier this month. At long last, he turned the spotlight on Chicago's chronically ignored rap scene, and he's not done yet, with production credits on new albums by Common and Do or Die due in 2005, not to mention his own sophomore effort.

Not bad for a kid from Chicago, Hoboken or anywhere else.


My top 10 concerts of 2004 (in chronological order):

1. Kanye West, Feb. 11, House of Blues: A day after the release of his debut album, the soon-to-be-superstar former South Sider celebrated with two sold-out shows that proved he's as great onstage as he is in the studio, delivering all of "The College Dropout" with deft backing from R&B keyboardist John Legend, "hip-hop violinist" Miri Ben Ari and special guest Common, who turned out to pass the symbolic torch.

2. Wilco, June 12, Vic Theatre: A few weeks after emerging from a stint in rehab to battle an addiction to painkillers, Jeff Tweedy led his retooled band -- the fieriest version of Wilco ever -- through a mesmerizing set that highlighted and often bettered the recorded versions of the wildly inventive new material from "A Ghost Is Born."

3. Prince, June 25, Allstate Arena: This greatest-hits show was an unusual move by an artist dedicated to moving forward instead of looking back, but after three decades as an R&B innovator, Prince was entitled to make the case for his place in the pantheon. And while the band grooved hard, partying like it was 1999, it was the mid-evening solo acoustic set that stole the show.

4. Annie Lennox, July 18, Tweeter Center: In stark contrast to the night's headliner Sting, who called this jaunt "The Sex and Music" tour, the always sexy, ever eccentric Lennox was a searing presence from the moment she stepped onstage through the end of a sultry and passionate set.

5. The Hives, July 26, Metro: Some music simply has to be experienced live, and the manic energy that the Swedish garage-rock quintet delivered onstage this evening put to shame the sounds on its third album, which was anemic in comparison. But then, almost anything would be.

6. Hilary Duff, July 30, Allstate Arena: While the marketing assault was indeed obnoxious, this teen queen surprised me with an ultra-high-energy, ridiculously melodic, no-pandering 17-song set that everyone in attendance enjoyed, from the screaming 15-year-old kids to their 50-year-old parents.

7. Ozzfest, Aug. 21, Tweeter Center: This was Ozzfest's year to visit the old school, and the head-banging has never been as intense as it was through the mainstage progression of black-metal cult heroes Dimmu Borgir, death-metal giants Slayer, those lovable old biker-metal legends Judas Priest and the granddaddies of 'em all, the mighty Black Sabbath, with Ozzy looking healthier than he has since the early '70s.

8. Jill Scott, Sept. 24, Congress Theatre: The joy that the always-beaming Scott draws from performing is palpable, and there wasn't a soul in the venue left unmoved by her hard-charging nine-piece band, her messages of self-reliance and positivity or her soulful, sexy singing.

9. Steve Earle, Oct. 16, Vic Theatre: Bookending his set with different versions of the undeniable anthem "The Revolution Starts Now" and throwing in a cover of the Beatles' "Revolution" for good measure, Earle underscored that his vision of a leftist, humanist America can't be dismissed as mere idealism or a quaintly outdated notion left over from the '60s.

10. The Musical Box, Oct. 22, Vic Theatre: The Canadian cover band's performance of the Genesis classic "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" was a guilty pleasure for this former teenage prog-rock geek, to be certain. But the show was nevertheless more ambitious theatrically and more impressive musically than any other concert I saw this year.

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