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2004: The Year in Rock

By William B. Higgins and Chris A. Kukstis, Crimson Staff Writerss

CHRIS: It’s December now, and it’s a fitting time to look back on the musical accomplishments of the past year. It was a year that seemed to see it all, but don’t they say that every year? We had a great Brit-rap concept album, an Appalachian hick songwriter cutting a tribute album to his own band, the most drugged-out campfire songs you’ve ever heard, and the long-awaited mainstream success of Modest Mouse. This is all on top of new full-lengths of varying quality from such rock warhorses as Sonic Youth, the Beastie Boys, R.E.M. and U2.

How could we generally characterize this year? I’d think of it as the triumph of the new: not one of these established artists were able to claim much relevance, and follow-up efforts by great hopes like Interpol and the Hives went the way of the Strokes’ sophomore release—good, but not carrying through on the promise of their breakthroughs. A couple of specific moments clinched this year for me. One was in early March, when some friends dragged me off to hear this band Franz Ferdinand at a full house at TT the Bear’s. That was the last time that band will be playing a venue so small for a long time, and though before this I had heard more of the formidable buzz than of the band itself, at the show the three Scots seemed nothing but incredulous at the audience’s thrilled reaction to their music. In months to come, their fame would explode, with appeal not only in the underground, but also as far-reaching as MTV, where their video for “Take Me Out” could be seen alongside Modest Mouse’s “Float On.” The other moment came when I returned to school from the summer, and suddenly, everyone I knew was humming “New Slang” and “Caring is Creepy” from the Shins’ 2001 record Oh, Inverted World, a favorite record of mine for a long time. Had they finally gotten it, after months and months of me expounding on this album’s greatness? Had I finally gotten through to them? Alas, no, I discovered: the hit film Garden State had prominently featured the two indie tracks, and it seemed that Natalie Portman ’03 had more power of musical persuasion than myself. In many ways, this year continued the recent trend of acclaimed rock music replacing the Linkin Parks and Korns of the world in the mainstream, and while some may shirk to see their beloved Modest Mouse on MTV, I’ll take it over *NSync any day.

BILL: It has been a strange and good year for pop music. I think your talk about the “triumph of the new” is right on the money, Chris. In the past year, independent music has resonated with a larger and more diverse audience than ever before, due primarily to a dramatic increase in exposure. Past vehicles for indie dissemination—obscure music rags, for instance, but above all the unconquerable mixtape—have yielded to the power of the internet. Indie is no longer the realm of the snob and the obsessive. Eager kids with access to a computer can tap into the scene on their own with the assistance of websites like pitchforkmedia.com, which sift through the releases of obscure labels and make it all far more digestible.

I think 2004 should also go down as the year of the unlikely comeback. Artists well past their expiration dates reemerged to add chapters to their biographies. In a possible precursor to the apocalypse, a happy and productive Brian Wilson finally finished and released SMiLE, sending shockwaves through critical circles and introducing a new generation to the greatness of the late great sound of ’60s pop. Loretta Lynn’s decision to pair up with Detroiter Jack White spawned the confident, immensely listenable Van Lear Rose, a simple country album without any of the polish—a record replete with first takes, proudly flaunting its loose threads, winning on grit and charisma. The extreme optimist might hope that the commercial success these two legends found by committing themselves to old-fashioned, long-forgotten things—like, say, personality and good songwriting—will inspire record labels to demand higher artistic standards in their other acts. And lest we forget, 2004 also had lots of great rap albums. Madvillain, the brainchild of emcee MF Doom and producer Madlib, broke out of the underground with a relentlessly unique Lo-Fi collaboration. The absurdly gifted young producer Kanye West picked up the microphone and silenced his doubters, proving himself a witty and charming new voice. Eminem returned from a two-year break with—well—something completely different, a record that sometimes seemed unfocused, but always remained interesting. And Lil Jon took the logical next step in his march toward world domination with the release of Crunk Juice, honing the method that brought you the year’s biggest hit, Usher’s “Yeah!.” Yes, everybody had a good year. Except Ashlee Simpson, Phil Spector and Michael Jackson.

CHRIS: This is all true, but isn’t there something lamentable in the diminishing role of the mixtape? For years that had not only been the vehicle of indie dissemination, but also of subtle crushing. But if I were to make you a mixtape of 2004, Bill, these are the albums I would draw from. Note: this would not imply that I had a crush on you. I think you have striking good looks (especially when your hair is longer and you’ve got your glasses on), but it ends there.

It worries me though that in your run-down of the year’s great rap albums, you overlook one of the best: A Grand Don’t Come For Free by the Streets. Mike Skinner dropped what was probably the only successful second album this year, and did it with incredible panache. A narrative chronicling a day in Skinner’s life after he loses the titular thousand pounds, the album follows emotional peaks and valleys, including the counterpoint of the jubilant “Could Well Be In” and the wrenching British hit “Dry Your Eyes.”

A Grand... was not the only fantastic concept album to emerge from 2004, but joined an album released by brother-sister duo the Fiery Furnaces, Blueberry Boat, in this distinction. Blueberry Boat was a kaleidoscopic thrill ride across a fantasy psychedelic world, reminiscent of the sadly-missed Elephant 6 collective. The next album from the Furnaces will surely be one of the next year’s most anticipated follow-ups.

One of the strangest releases this year came from guilt-drenched indie wunderkind Will Oldham, a man noted for his reluctance to pin down one poetic persona in his career. April saw the release of Bonnie “Prince” Billy Performs Greatest Palace Music, on which Oldham as B“P”B covered his own alternative persona as one of the Palace Brothers. The album was a sine qua non for any of Oldham’s fervent and widespread followers and showed just how potent and productive a force schizophrenia can be on rock music.

But the cream of the crop this year came from a band veiled in secrecy, a band that shuns playing already-released material in their frenetic live shows, a band whose members include an Avery Tare and a Panda Bear. The group is the Animal Collective, whose early 2004 release Sung Tongs redefined how a pop song could sound. With no coherent structures or discernible lyrics, the band still managed to put together an album that is constantly catchy and never boring, with instrumentation that proves an experimental album doesn’t have to be difficult to take.

Honorable mentions go to Franz Ferdinand, the Arcade Fire and the Kings of Convenience, wrapping up a year in rock that may go down to some as the year indie broke, but to others just another solid year in underground music.

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