My Top 10 Albums of 2004

My Top 10 Albums of 2004

What a year, am I right? A lot to be disappointed by—Shrek 2, Bush getting reelected (Howard Dean was ROBBED!), Livestrong bracelets, Justin Timberlake ruining Janet Jackson's career, the ongoing Iraq War, Gwen Stefani's "Harajuku Girls"—but also some good things! Can't decide on my favorite movie of the year yet—it's a five-way tie between Collateral, Mean Girls, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Before Sunset, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou—but I'm a little more decisive when it comes to music. Here's a prediction: you might like "Mr. Brightside" now, but you're gonna hate it in 20 years! Anyway, here are my albums of the year.

Honorable Mentions:

My Chemical Romance - Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge

John Legend - Get Lifted

Drive By Truckers - The Dirty South

MF DOOM - Mm.. Food

Mastodon - Leviathan

#10 Dungen - Ta Det Lugnt

Ok, I'll drop the shtick now. I wasn't nearly this eloquent at age 13, and I probably only knew two or three of these artists at the time.

The first time I heard Tame Impala, I was shocked at how similar they sounded to these Swedish psych-rockers. Of course, Kevin Parker has dramatically flipped the script from his acid-fried early days, but Ta Det Lugnt feels like the blueprint for what he was doing on 2010's Innerspeaker. Like TI, Dungen is largely a one-man studio project, with Gustav Ejstes handling the songwriting, vocals, and bulk of the instrumentation (including shit that Parker's never attempted like flute, fiddle, and zither). This album is an absolute masterclass in poppy-yet-exploratory psych rock, adept at both the sunny and scary sides of '60s sounds, and also nodding to that era's proggy descendants. I have to confess—I first listened to this because of a glowing Brandon Stosuy Pitchfork review, and haven't ventured much outside of it and into the rest of Dungen's discography (I only have so much bandwidth for pysch), but I did catch them at Levitation Fest in Austin a few years back and they crushed it.

#9 Circle Takes the Square - As The Roots Undo

One of the best screamo albums of all time, full stop. You can feel the ambition dripping from this Georgia four-piece in every note of their startling debut, taking cues from post-rock grandeur but sparing no intensity. Like similarly heady-sounding skramz albums by bands like Orchid, La Dispute, and City of Caterpillar, I feel like As The Roots Undo is distinctly about something, but I'm not sure what. What does stick with me are the reprisals of riffs and lyrics, especially between the epic pair of tracks "Interview at the Ruins" and "A Crater to Cough In"— just some masterful composition by these then-kids. Like many bands of their ilk, they broke up quickly, released a middling follow-up years later, and seem destined to periodically reunite for tours with debut-album-heavy setlists.

#8 Kanye West - The College Dropout

It's a milquetoast thing to say in 2024, but it's hard to overstate how weird this album sounded to me upon first listen sometime in 2006. All of the horns, choirs, strings, and samples were not what I expected to hear on a rap album—even as a fan of Outkast, Lupe Fiasco, and other maximalist acts, I truly didn't know what to make of it. That changed quickly. I was more enamored with Late Registration from day one, but despite College Dropout never getting higher than #3 or #4 on my ~Kanye Albums Ranking~ (everybody has one, no one should ever talk about them in public), it's still close to perfect. It's got some stuff I either detest or simply never want to hear again in my life like "Jesus Walks," "The New Workout Plan," and J. Ivy's verse on "Never Let Me Down," but the highs make it a classic. The best of those highs:

-The way Ye pronounces insecure on "All Falls Down"

-The 6/8 time signature on "Spaceship"

-Jay Z's closing verse on "Never Let Me Down" ("Everybody wanna be Hov and Hov still alive" still makes the hair on the back of neck stand up every time)

-"Family Business," enough said

-Ye having the "Last Call" beat in his pack pocket for years, never giving it to Jay, and then using it for a passive-aggressive tale of his come-up

#7 Cam'ron - Purple Haze

College Dropout is a self-important statement album; Purple Haze is all about un-self-conscious fly shit. The other big Roc-A-Fella album of 2004 also features a Kanye song ("Down and Out") that goes toe-to-toe with anything on his own album, as well as another track that he produced ("Dip-Set Forever") that might have an even better beat. On the previous year's collaborative Diplomatic Immunity, Cam proved that he was at the top of his wildly entertaining game, and this was the victory lap. Purple Haze is way too long, but unlike College Dropout, where every try-hard blemish has an outsized impact on the album's quality, it's easy to shrug off the clunkers here and rejoice in the overall product.

#6 TV on the Radio - Desperate Youths, Bloodthirsty Babes

TV on the Radio: extremely acclaimed band. Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes: surprisingly under-appreciated album. If people ride for TVOTR, it's always Return to Cookie Mountain or Dear Science at #1, never their ugly ducking of a debut. Don't get me wrong—all three albums are incredible, but Desperate Youths... has always scratched an itch for me in a way that no other music I've ever heard has. It's such a weird strain of NYC art rock that incorporates doo-wop, electronics, some incredible fuzz pedal usage, and lest we forget, two of the all-time best voices in indie rock history. It feels more rough and unfinished than the band's subsequent albums, but it's that spark of creativity that does it for me.

#5 Isis - Panopticon

A few weeks ago I spun Isis' 2002 album Oceanic—their definitive masterwork, by both my and every other critic's assertion—and found myself helpless to combat the "they don't make them like this anymore" sentiment that I usually try to avoid. It isn't just that post-metal was having a moment in the early 2000s and has since faded in popularity—Isis was always the most revolutionary band in the genre. Panopticon might not be a game-changer like its predecessor, but it's still the band at their peak, churning out expansive riffs and creative grooves across longform compositions that unfold patiently without ever stagnating. As usual, former frontman Aaron Turner has a million other projects going on, but a hypothetical Isis reunion would be a dream show for me.

#4 The Album Leaf - In a Safe Place

These next three albums are all ones that I've loved since early high school, their sentimental value inextricable from any assessments of quality. The Album Leaf is producer/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Jimmy LaValle plus whoever else he invites to the studio; on In A Safe Place, those guests include three members of Sigur Ros. The result is a calming but also incredibly emotionally moving blend of post-rock, IDM, and ambient that all feels of a piece, but is also surprisingly song-based. The Fender Rhodes keyboard had been around for decades prior, having something of a moment in the '70s thanks to jazz fusion, Stevie Wonder, Billy Preston, and others, but for me, this is the definitive Fender Rhodes album. In LaValle's hands, it sounds simultaneously warm and frosty, an indelible tone that guides these songs while accompanied by strings, guitar, and both live and electronic percussion. In A Safe Place never fails to extract some wistfulness from me, just as it did for Marissa Cooper in The O.C., and if you've never followed her example and sat by the ocean late at night and listened to "Eastern Glow," I advise you to change that.

#3 Stars - Set Yourself on Fire

Yeah, so I was a total sap as a teenager, what of it? Stars' opus is a capital-M messy album, 13 dispatches from "head over heels" to "I want to rip my ex's fucking head off" and everywhere in between. It's just as responsible as Weezer (if not more so) for whatever toxic traits I had as an adolescent boy. But man, Torquill Campbell and Amy Millan were cooking here. The chamber-pop opener "Your Ex-Lover is Dead," a staple of twee-ass mid-2000s mix CDs, is the obvious entry point, but it's not indicative of the overall album, which veers wildly between synth-pop ("Set Yourself on Fire," "The First Five Times"), jangly shoegaze ("Ageless Beauty"), and that anthemic strain of indie rock that was sweeping Canada at the time ("One More Night," "Soft Revolution"). Above all, the common thread is theatricality, a trait that I don't often find myself drawn to, but Stars sell it without being too treacly.

#2 Rilo Kiley - More Adventurous

Last summer the good dudes at the Run Into The Ground podcast invited me on and asked me to pick an album to talk about. With my first choice (Bloc Party's Silent Alarm, probably my #1 album of 2005) already covered in a past episode, I instead opted for another staple of my youth: Rilo Kiley's third album. Listen to the episode if you want my full take on the album, but here are four things from my notes that I couldn't shut up about therein:

-I found this CD at the Anacortes Public Library and recognized it from my classmate Alec's t-shirt

-Blake Sennett's guitar riffs rarely repeat, and his linear-minded playing drives these songs forward into some very interesting places

-Mike Mogis is the god of multi-instrumentalist sidemen/producers

-I love the way More Adventurous feels like a mid-'70s Laurel Canyon album—it's country-tinged, lush, and largely focused on torrid romantic relationships

#1 Madvillain - Madvillainy

Yeah yeah, I know, white "music nerd" guy loves Madvillainy. That's about as novel as a Gen X'er picking Paul's Boutique as the #1 hip hop album of all time. But shit, I still listen to this all the time, and despite my abundant, well-documented love for most other DOOM projects (see: Mm.. Food's placement in the honorable mentions section above, a past newsletter on a Viktor Vaughn song, and my Operation: Doomsday anniversary essay from a few years back), it remains my favorite album of his. One of DOOM's main strengths was his insularity, but working in close quarters with similarly a closed-off Madlib brought out some lightning-in-a-bottle magic from both guys. Equal parts engaging and weird, Madvillainy is a lauded classic for a reason. If you want a crazy insightful deep-dive on the album that also mirrors some of its fantastical oddness, check out Will Hagle's recent 33 & 1/3rd book on it. I devoured it.

BOI (Best of Inbox) #13

New to 2024: I'm going to choose one "track of the week" from this crop, and that'll appear at the bottom of this list.

Celebration Guns - "None More Time With Feeling"

Genre: twinkle daddy emo // RIYL: CSTVT, Dads

Really Rad Records just put out a sick four-way split bearing the incredible title The Ultimate Emo Album (I think my parents have a compilation CD called Ultimate Christmas, lol), and in an Inbox Infinity first, I've chosen to feature not one, but two songs from that EP. Forgive me—the inbox is still relatively dry, and besides, those songs are by two different bands. The first comes from Arizona's Celebration Guns, who coincidentally share a name with a song from the Stars album in the above 2004 list. If you love fourth wave emo, you'll dig this: it's catchy, propulsive, and to-the-point.

Discovery Zone - "Mall of Luv"

Genre: poppy retrowave // RIYL: '80s detritus, vaporwave, chintzy sounds

Discovery Zone is the solo project of the Berlin-based musician JJ Weihl who, despite having a clear, vaporwave-style desire to dredge up forgotten or maligned aesthetics from the past, works in a much more song-oriented pop context. "Mall of Luv" marries goofy pan flute synth pads, gloriously suave sax, and very fun drum programming. Quantum Web is out 3/8.

Flight Mode - "Hyperventilate"

Genre: emo-tinged alt-rock// RIYL: Jimmy Eat World, Fountains of Wayne

A band named Flight Mode name-dropping Alpha Centauri? This I gotta hear. The Norwegian band began their career with an EP apiece in 2021 and '22, and next month, they'll package those with a new one, the whole shebang being released by the newly rebooted venerable emo/punk label Tiny Engines. Unlike its title, "Hyperventilate" is a pretty laid-back blend of emo, alt rock, and power pop, bringing to mind the late '90s more than anything. The Three Times is out 2/2.

The Lemon Twigs - "My Golden Years"

Genre: sunny power-pop // RIYL: Beach Boys, Big Star, Mo Troper

I'm not a power pop aficionado by any means (if you want to read someone who is, check Mo Troper's Talkhouse tour de force from a few years back), but to me, the clincher between the sea of middling, harmony-obsessed jangle junkies and the rare gems of sugar-rush genius is a knack for melodic turns. If the band transitions from verse to chorus and my sweet spot isn't tingling, the music's not doing its job. I feel like "My Golden Years" would be a ho-hum track if it didn't do that, but there's at least six moments in this song that trigger my power pop pleasure center.

No Terror in the Bang - "Lulled By The Waves"

Genre: progressive metal // RIYL: Gojira, Samael

It's fitting that this song has the word "lulled" in the title, because through its first 90 seconds, it tricks you into thinking you're listening to a goth-y version of a Bjork song. When "Lulled By The Waves" explodes in its second half, this French band deftly blend that synth work with brutal riffs and fluidly syncopated drumming. It's quite a ride. HEAL is out 1/12.

Swiss Army Wife - "What Nietzsche Wanted"

Genre: it's emo again! // RIYL: Glocca Morra, Snowing

Usually I try to keep the weekly BOI fairly eclectic, but in the doldrums of early January, I've stumbled into an extremely emo-heavy edition. This is the second offering from the aforementioned Ultimate Emo Album, and like the Celebration Guns song, it also hearkens back the genre's early 2010s revival. Though it also shares some of that twinkly DNA, this is more in line with the shoutier bands from that era. It also helps that the band name is a pun and the song references a famous philosopher ("Y'all Boots Hats (Die Angry)" anyone?).

Track of the Week

Casey - "Puncture Wounds To Heaven"

Genre: guess what? it's kind of emo again, but a little proggier and post-hardcore-er // RIYL: Thursday, latter-day Touché Amoré

Yeah, this one blew me away. Casey is a Welsh band that apparently released one album in 2016 then basically disappeared off the face of the Earth but now, according to the press release, have broken their "self-imposed exile from the music industry" and are returning with a new album. "Puncture Wounds To Heaven" is an astonishing feat of songwriting—I don't think it ever repeats itself, but it remains catchy as hell throughout. It starts off shoegaze-y, pirouettes its way through movements undefinable as verses or choruses, then caps off with a ragged coda. How To Disappear is out 1/12.

All Inbox Infinity picks are available in playlist form via Apple Music and Spotify.

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Jamie Larson