The Best Records of 2004 

From "indie rock" to mix tapes to y'alternative country.

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TED LEO/PHARMACISTS
Shake the Sheets
Ken Burns should make a ten-episode documentary about "Little Dawn": the Punk Guitar God riff, the melody cribbed from "The Way You Do the Things You Do," the thirty-story-buildings-packed-with-amplifiers-aflame chorus, and the final three minutes, wherein Ted moans It's alright it's alright it's alright over and over, the only thing you need or want a rock star to tell you, especially now. King him, Queen him, Knight him. (Lookout!)

AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB
Love Songs for Patriots
Only Mark Eitzel -- poet laureate, sad sack, meltdown time bomb -- could sequence the gorgeous dew-eyed optimism of "Another Morning" and the ranting decrepit-male-stripper-as-metaphor-for-America dirge of "Patriot's Heart" back-to-back and knock both outta the park, opposite-field home runs, if not opposite universes. Further proof Matador's entire back catalogue -- and mild depression -- should be mandatory possessions. (Merge)

THE HIVES
Tyrannosaurus Hives
I know what you think of this band, and I don't care. Behold the world's most arrogant Jazzercise instructors, ludicrously self-absorbed but shockingly invigorating. This breathless half-hour of power's best song, "Dead Quote Olympics," is a derivative garage-punk tune that derides rival garage-punkers for being derivative. The word for this is "genius." If you jogged to this record every morning for a month, you'd lose 150 pounds. (Epitaph)

VARIOUS
The CD that came free with The Believer's Music Issue
The Walkmen's "The Rat" for arena-rock grandiosity. TV on the Radio's "Dreams" for nervous, devastated funk. Death Cab for Cutie's "Title and Registration" for the vibraphone solo. The Constantines for Tom Petty, the Gossip for Aretha Franklin, the Mountain Goats for Neutral Milk Hotel. That and a Dodge Durango's worth of breathy, despondent singer-songwriter dudes add up to a favorable prognosis for Literary Rockers nationwide. God bless the mix CD. (The Believer)

TALKING HEADS
The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads

PAVEMENT
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
Ah, the blatantly cheating reissue double-entry. But who among us is writing brilliant robo-funk pop tunes fetishizing architecture like the Heads, or emulating Pavement's habit of making utterly nonsensical lyrics and ramshackle, barely-not-falling-apart grunge laundry piles glisten like the rough surrounding the diamond? Forsake not the Gold Soundz and the Psycho Killers: Both belong in the Pixies' league, in our hearts if not on our stages. Yet. (Rhino, Matador)

A.C. NEWMAN
The Slow Wonder
Effortless, effervescent melody. Continuous sonic inventiveness. Weird, weirdly evocative lyrics. Multiple projects, multiple guises. A certain prolific nature, a certain cult appeal. Anyone else think Carl Newman is Guided by Voices' Bob Pollard minus the Budweiser IV and goofy-ass onstage high-kicks? Anyone think he's often better? Anyone know how to react when the redheaded stepchild grows up and starts joyfully beating you? (Matador)

THE SECRET MACHINES
Now Here Is Nowhere
Drums, so far as capital-R Rock is concerned, are designed to make one noise: WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP. No record this year WHUMPS with more aplomb, the kick-drum pounding like the footsteps of lumbering, Corona-drunk giants as the tunes blossom into sprawling, panoramic alt-rock vistas as breathtaking as the clear night sky in (insert red state here). Like your heartbeat at the senior prom, powering melodies as catchy as your senior prom's theme. (Warner Bros.)

BLOOD BROTHERS
Crimes
This record is violently unpleasant -- spastic, migraine-inducing, terrifying, and lyrically macabre to a Saw-like degree, the dueling vocalist Brothers screaming in unbelievably high-pitched shrieks, like miniature teenage girls drowning in your bowl of Cheerios. But an old BB song title says it all: "Every Breath Is a Bomb," and the morbidly thrilling napalm highlights here prove hardcore has a future, and the world, sadly, does not. (V2)

CAKE
Pressure Chief
This is Cake's worst album, in that everything's great, but three or four songs are just-sorta-okay, skippable at worst. This is also Cake's fifth album. Cal Ripkin Jr. has nothing on the endurance and ingenuity of this band's run, powered by the wittiest, craftiest, and most outlandishly unique band sound This Un-American Life has to offer. Furthermore, that Bread cover ("Guitar Man") is glorious, and frontman John McRea's interview technique is stellar. MTV.com headline: "Cake Singer Not So Excited About Touring, Admits His Band Is Irrelevant." Wrong, but oh-so-right. (Sony)

ERIC K. ARNOLD

AMP FIDDLER
Waltz of a Ghetto Fly
This album spent a lot of time in my CD player in 2004, and with good reason: It pulses, throbs, and moves like few other releases this year. There aren't many artists whose music sounds as good in your living room as it does in the clubs, but Amp is definitely one of them. Mr. Fiddler didn't just sit on a roof, he tore that mutha off with hypnotic neo-funk grooves like "Superficial," "Soul Divine," and "I Believe in You." (Genuine)

ANTIBALAS
Who Is This America?

Antibalas' third album just barely edged out Wale Oyejide's One Day ... Everything Changed and Chief Xcel's Fela mix CD in the contemporary Afrobeat category. Who Is This America? not only kept the genre's momentum going, but made strong social and political statements, most notably on "Indictment," which tried and convicted the Bush administration's cabinet. Even so, the polyrhythmic grooves were ubiquitous and universal enough to make even Republicans dance to the music. (Ropeadope)

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