The Uncontestable Official and True List of the Top 20 Records of 2004

Posted by Al Barger on December 29, 2004 08:49 PM

Only three of the top 20 songs of 2004 were any kind of radio hits. I attribute this to audience ignorance of music. At this point, I suspect that most pop music consumers wouldn't know a real song if it came up and bit them in the butt.

Flibbeldy-fleu! In my day, even most of the crappy songs on the radio had at least some modicum of melody and other songcraft.

Actually, such things still exist. Modest Mouse and Maroon5 definitely indicate that there are younguns coming up competent to write a song. A late career artistic rebirth for Loretta Lynn also helps.

Obviously Elvis is carrying a lot of weight here. You know what though, he's just that good. I could try to socially promote some other people to appear more democratic, but song for song The Delivery Man has a good percentage of the best new songs published this year. I say let the big dog eat.

Here it is then, the uncontestable official and true list of the top 20 best records of 2004:

1 - "What If We All Stopped Paying Taxes?" Sharon Jones
It doesn't get much better than this.

Imagine a hot, young, angry Nina Simone fronting the most badass Stax/Volt lineup ever, making perfectly conceived funky soul. Imagine Nina articulating a strong, slammin' melody to put across a strong, flaming mad political protest.

For starters, this has a great lyric. I have somewhat mixed feelings about the political sentiments expressed here, but they're interesting and very well expressed and filled out. She's suggesting tax rebellion to protest the Iraq war.

Whatever your politics though, this band kicks ass. The horn charts alone are worth the price of admission. Every one of the numerous instruments has a strong, unique presence. It's an impressive sound. I loved the Beatles' "Taxman," but you can actually dance to this song.

The video on the Daptone website is a must see. This is just sharp. DIG THE LIVE VIDEO.recorded 8-27-2004.  She introduces the song with a beautifully performed anti-Bush rant.  I also note from this performance that besides being an outstanding singer with a commanding stage presence, Ms Jones is also a full grown and properly seasoned hunk o' woman.  She could make me write bad checks or vote for John Kerry.  Honey, I'm scared of you.

2 - "Heroes and Villains" Brian Wilson
It was somewhat tricky calculating where Smile fits into the 2004 mix. It is certainly a new set of recordings issued for the first time this year, but it's mostly based on songs that have been released in pieces as Beach Boys songs many years ago.

I figured that the best bet would be to regard many of the songs as covers of Beach Boys songs. The general rule of covers being that they must be either substantially better or at least significantly different than the original, or be discounted. It would not be a particularly interesting artistic statement for someone in 2004 to make a note-for-note re-recording of "Satisfaction."

On Smile, "Surf's Up" and "Good Vibrations" are classic songs, but these recordings aren't that much different than the standard Beach Boys versions. It's good to hear them now in something approximating the original context that Brian had imagined for them, but the songs themselves are about the same.

"Heroes and Villains" has long been my favorite Beach Boys song, though, and sadly underappreciated. So perhaps I'm easily persuaded to give this recording favor.

However, this song has substantial new musical thoughts that make this arguably the definitive recording of the song. Note particularly the new bridge around 2:20 that takes place in a Western cantina out of some Gene Autry tv western, which really adds a new dimension to the old song. He also has a spiffy new coda in the last minute.

This song now even more so than before unfolds like the cleverest and most charming piece of involved boyish origami ever created. This makes for a perfectly ornate piece of gently soulful pop that will appeal still many years from now. It's pure beauty

3 - "Float On" Modest Mouse
It seems like there's usually one exceptional benediction song a year, from "Forever Young" to "Don't Worry, Be Happy" to "Makes You Feel That Way."

This year, Modest Mouse delivered a particularly well realized and sharp blessing, assuring us that everything will work out ok and we'll all float on.

The band got a real interesting stylistic marriage between the Talking Heads and U2, two great tastes that turn out to taste great together. From U2, they get those sharp guitar lines that the Edge would be proud to claim.

The singer and the melody are distinctly David Byrne takes. Those certain sharp anxious jumps in the melody, the whole singing style definitely has Talking Heads all over it.

Indeed, the whole sentiment and emotional content of the song might be compared to "Don't Worry About the Government." However, "Float On" is a much sharper, more memorable song.

4 - "Either Side of the Same Town" Elvis Costello
This might be a good Elvis song for irregular or mainstream fans. I love all the quirky Elvis neuroses and peculiar twists of style, but this song is a fairly straightforward power ballad of lost love. This, kids, is a melody. The more often you listen to the song, the more compelling it becomes. I'd really LOVE to hear Sinead O'Connor take a swing at this. It could be the big follow-up to "Nothing Compares to You."

5 - "Portland Oregon" Loretta Lynn
The Van Lear Rose album comes credited to Loretta Lynn. That's probably more a case of deference to her reputation, cause by rights this record should obviously be crediting producer and performer Jack White as at least a full partner.

He's got Loretta going places she ain't never been, and he proves capable of taking her there. Besides just youthful vitality, Jack White adds a certain ambition for artistic experimentation. Yet his expressions of that are generally made in earthy blues or countryish idioms.

Here he's making some hot blues guitar. The whole first minute is like a separate catchy little jazz blues thing in its own right.

Whatever else it was, though, it became an unmistakably country song at 100 seconds in, when Loretta comes in explaining her barroom exploits, seducing poor Jack, and drinking slo gin fizz by the pitcher.

6 - "The Name of This Thing Is Not Love" Elvis Costello
This is a technically polite waltz, but it swings really hard and it's just loaded with compelling dark drama. "There’s a bruise on her arm/ And some blood on the floor/ But the name of this thing is not love" He's got this dark night of the soul which ambiguously seems to end with a body in the wild rushing river. This is some scary cold stuff.

7 - "America, F*&^ Yeah" Team America Soundtrack
The key to understanding the whole Team America film is to understand that this determinedly over the top theme song is essentially sincere. They wrote a pumping rock song just like a big Jerry Bruckheimer action film. It's self-consciously juvenile (the terrorists can "lick my butt") and jingoistic. It acknowledges these serious faults both in America and in Jerry Bruckheimer movies, but this song celebrates both sincerely, in a very catchy and memorable manner.

8 - "There's a Story in Your Voice" Elvis Costello
Elvis and Lucinda Williams come crashing into town like the world's most hard living cowpunks ever to make that hard swinging Western sound. Funny, but neither one seems to regret this ill fated barroom romance. It ROCKS, right through to Ms Williams climactic yee-haw in the last seconds. The joy is compulsive.

9 - "Women's Prison" Loretta Lynn
Here's a nicely psychotic little death row tale. The sentiments would be much more likely a Johnny Cash thing, and Loretta is surprisingly effective as the condemned prisoner having visitations from her dead mother.

The basic song is probably not quite up with the "Folsom Prison Blues," but Jack White has some exceptionally good guitar to complete this song in the last minute far beyond anything from classic era Cash.

10 - "I'm So Ronery" Team America Soundtrack
Being presented as the sad lament of the self-pitying North Korean dictator sung in an extreme "Asian" accent that rewrites the very title, the song is totally set up as comedy. Yet it has such a memorable and honestly compelling sad melody that it still comes out a beautifully sad song, even having to jump over the comedy hurdles to get there. This is just a superior piece of songcraft.

11 - "Button My Lip" Elvis Costello
Elvis has rarely constructed underlying instrumental grooves nearly as good as this or "Bedlam" from the same album. Both of them have much more supple and involved grooves that will thus give longer lasting flavor than perhaps even some of his classic catchy but more hamhanded grooves such as "Pump It Up."

What really sets off the whole combination of tune and groove is the what might be called jazzy arrays of dissonance that Steve Nieve is setting off in the keyboards as the track progresses. Steve Nieve is BAD.

12 - "Family Tree" Loretta Lynn
This sad fiddle driven broken home lament has a particularly interestingly bitter and malicious lyric. "No, I didn't come to fight/ If he was a better man, I might" Nonetheless, she's brought their children to meet the woman who's burning down their family tree.

This is one of the most straightforward country recordings on this Van Lear album, one of the things closest stylistically to her classic hits.

However, it's a thousand miles different in meaning and intent from "You Ain't Woman Enough." It sounds more obviously "country" than some of the other Van Lear Rose songs (ie it's acoustic), but it sounds neither stylistically nor emotionally like Loretta's classic fightin' woman songs. It's a whole new sound for her.

13 - "The Delivery Man" Elvis Costello
I'll start by saying that this is just the kind of Elvis song that might seem insular to casual fans. In just the kind of cleverness that might infuriate the less patient, he had some half-developed storyline for this album, especially this track- which he purposely cut short and scrapped.

Except that it leaves this song in particular as having a half told story which we never quite get filled in on. On the other hand, you could try to call that a dramatically useful "mystery" as per the "Ode to Billy Joe."

Purely as a stand alone song, though, this has a very compelling melody and tone. He's managed to compose an epic rock waltz that can't be denied. Given the Southern gothic tone, you might think of this as some kind of advanced response to The Band.

14 - "This Love" Maroon 5
I can't say that this song is at all stylistically innovative, but this is a real honest to G-d competently written pop song, with hooks and everything. There's not much of that on the radio these days.

15 - "This Land Is Your Land" Sharon Jones
For starters, unlike Woody Guthrie, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have de facto written a whole new original melody to the well known lyrics. Plus, they've included the most interesting part about "private property" which is usually not performed.

Beyond that, this arrangement is so fully and perfectly realized as to boggle the imagination. The horn charts alone are to die for.

Anyway, they turn this hoary old chestnut into a hard swinging piece of precision southern soul. Stax/Volt ain't got nothing on these Dap-Kings.

16 - "Bedlam" Elvis Costello
This has a pretty catchy tune, but it's mostly just an overpowering groove. Those bass and drums are worthy of prime Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts. On top of which it has some highly entertaining if disjointed lyrics, some of which seem to be a bit of mockery of the Iraq adventure. I particularly enjoyed the stand alone opening couplet, "I've got this phosphoresent portrait of gentle Jesus meek and mild/ I've got this harlot that I'm stuck with, carrying another man's child." And then they can't get a room at the inn.  It's tough being Elvis.

17 - "Mrs O'Leary's Cow" Brian Wilson
In his principle and laudatory approach, Brian Wilson has focused his efforts by funneling them into commercial radio pop music standards. This commercial discipline was very useful in keeping this art-boy honest.

In another aspect, Brian is the artiste, and willing to get all weird. Thus, this instrumental representing the fire theme. It starts out all vaudeville and cutesy with the penny whistles. Then once the fire takes over, it gets considerably heavier, maybe even a little creepy if you're a sensitive soul. It's real neat.

18 - "Monkey to Man" Elvis Costello
Although it was his featured track played both on Letterman and Conan, this is probably not the favorite of the Elvis hardcore. The misanthropy might be perceived as too easy or formulaic- to the extent that such a thing could ever be said of Elvis. This would probably be the same people who thought that "The Other Side of Summer" was a bit too obvious an approach to the Beach Boys for someone of Elvis' stature. I'd probably be one of them.

Nonetheless, this is a sharp rock song. If it's "formula" Elvis, it got to be one by working- and by not being run into the ground. The live performance of this song on his show caused Letterman to declare that Elvis was "single handedly saving rock and roll."

19 - "Musicology" Prince
This is not the most meaningful and compelling Prince record ever, but it is pretty catchy- and an actual pop radio hit as well. This recipe for funk is no "Dance to the Music," but you can come in a notch or two beneath that classic and still have an outstanding record like this.

20 - "Little Red Shoes" Loretta Lynn
I hesitate to put this on a list of best songs in that it's not really properly a song. It's more one of those spoken country recitatives, like "Teddy Bear" or "Jeannie's Afraid of the Dark."

Indeed, this features a sickly child, too. In this case though, it's Loretta herself, telling a story about being a sickly youth sent home from the hospital to die. Somehow, though, this utterly lacks the maudlin nature of these other records. Also, while she's telling a simple and straightforward story, it seems weirder every time I hear it.

In defense of this record as music, you could look at Jack White's backing track as an instrumental in its own right, a considerably more interesting musical construct than I've ever heard in one of these country recitations.




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