For music lovers, 2004 offered an odd parallel: As our country's future grew darker and darker, music — both popular and underground — became increasingly inspired, making for what ultimately turned out to be a great year for the stuff, one of the best I can remember.
The last 12 months saw Bush and the GOP continuing to roll back progressive causes and steamrolling the Dems out of office. That kind of sucked. But there's nothing like a tidal wave of conservatism to motivate musicians to get off their asses. Sadly, the year also showed us how little a difference such musicians could make. Everyone from Springsteen to P. Diddy to Fat Mike got involved in trying to motivate the left to vote, and in the end it did squat.
But as the world burned, the tables turned, at least on mainstream music. Look at the score card: In an age of “moral values” Britney, Justin, and Christina got all libidinous, paving the way for newbie pop tarts like Lindsay Lohan, who's already bursting out of her blouse. Perhaps the Top 40 dwellers will finally stop being polite and start getting real. Toward that end, Ashlee Simpson was outed as the talentless hack she is, and her big sister's new record completely tanked, proving that the two have more business embarrassing themselves on reality TV than on radio and CD. The Limp Bizkits and Nicklebacks of the world disappeared this year, too, a change best symbolized by the dissolution in 2004 of — thank you, Lord! — Creed.
Meanwhile, Nirvana managed to top the charts again, the Pixies performed for half the industrialized world on their sold-out reunion tour, Green Day produced its best, most relevant album of its career, and indie stalwarts Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie finally got their due. And speaking of indie love: Record labels Sub Pop, Merge, and Matador all had their sweetest year in probably a decade; Pitchfork asserted itself as the most reliable music news and criticism source in the country; iTunes and its clones made the way we get our music more democratic; the major labels again announced huge layoffs and big losses; satellite radio stepped up its game in a big way, meaning that in a few years Clear Channel may not have artists, DJs, and listeners to push around anymore — it's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life, for me (and you).
What else, what else … Kanye West sold millions of records and scored 10 Grammy nominations for, among other things, rapping, “We're all self-conscious/ I'm just the first to admit it,” in essence critiquing the hip hop community's obsession with bling as nothing more than a shallow pose — 'bout time. Usher got crunk; Lil' John got a sense of humor when he made fun of himself on Chappelle's Show; Jay-Z delivered one of the best swan songs of all time with The Black Album, then went on to become CEO of Def Jam — not a bad man to have in charge over there. Even P. Diddy took a break from flaunting his cash when he challenged his fans to “Vote or Die.” And then there was The Grey Album, Danger Mouse's bootleg heard 'round the world, a rallying cry to underground producers desperate for their big break: If you can't beat 'em, mash 'em.
(Why do I feel like I'm writing “We Didn't Start the Fire 2” right now?)
Now on to the local scene — whadda year! Despite a slumping economy, new and improved venues popped up all over the place: the Independent, 12 Galaxies, the Rickshaw Stop, the Mile High Club in Oakland. The Hotel Utah faced permanent eviction but ultimately won out and is doing great shows again. Café Du Nord is booking its finest acts ever. Best of all is that there are actually enough bands in this town to fill those venues, night after night after night.
As for those bands, this was the year that San Francisco's freak-folk movement, led by Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, and Jolie Holland, gained national recognition; the year that Rogue Wave and Comets on Fire were two of Sub Pop's hottest releases; the year the Lovemakers signed to Interscope; the year that Quannum Projects re-established the Bay Area as one of hip hop's most vibrant ports of call. I don't want to get too excited about all this, but shit, this is exciting.
Of course, there's a lot missing from my brief summary of 2004, which is why we've invited some of our best and brightest to share their side of the story. What follows are six genre-spanning top 10s that should give you a sense of all that we have to be thankful for in these dark, dark times of ours. To start things off, here's mine:
1) The Arcade Fire, Funeral (Merge). Yes, it is that good.
2) Ada, Blondie (Kompakt). Minimal techno made with maximum love. Makes you feel like you're sitting on a beach in Maui, and it's snowing.
3) Iron & Wine, Our Endless Numbered Days (Sub Pop). Tender folk with dizzying lyrics. Sam Beam sings to his love: “One of us will/ Die inside these arms.”
4) CocoRosie, La Maison de Mon Reve (Merge). The Casady sisters take creaky folk back to the future and end up with a mangled, beautiful creation, as modern as it is antiquated.
5) Green Day, American Idiot (Reprise). Just when you thought you could count Green Day out, it delivers one of the catchiest, most poignant protest records in decades.
6) Interpol, Antics (Matador). Franz Ferdinand has sex appeal, but Interpol has something more lasting: talent. The band may be pretentious, but it sure can write great songs.
7) Colleen, Everyone Alive Wants Answers (Leaf Label). This brilliant collage of sampled glitch is the sound the nerves in your brain make when you fall in love.
8) Joanna Newsom, The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City). She plays the harp and sings words like “dirigible,” and yet was embraced around the world this year. Why? Because she is a genius.
9) The Velvet Teen, Elysium (Slowdance). Elegant, sophisticated, cathartic — this band quietly made one of the year's best indie rock records, without using a single guitar.
10) Tie: TV on the Radio, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (Touch and Go); Devendra Banhart, Rejoicing in the Hands (Young God); Danger Mouse, The Grey Album (N/A); Luna, Rendezvous (Jetset); M83, Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts (Mute); Matthew Dear, Backstroke (Ghostly Int'l); Grails, The Burden of Hope (Neurot); Patton Oswalt, Feelin' Kinda Patton (United Musicians); Rogue Wave, Out of the Shadow (Sub Pop).